Brian Tomkins

An Introduction

Born? Yes. In the South of England, way back in the dark ages.  I became passionately involved in photography at the age of thirteen. My first darkroom was put together by the time I was fourteen and the next four years were spent crouched under the stairs. I only ever wanted to be a photographer so when I left school I signed on in the RAF for nine years in order that I could become one.

Brian Tompkins

Brian Tompkins

This was so long ago that the only ground camera used in the R.A.F. was the M.P.P. Mk 7, a huge, rather clumsy 5”x4” technical camera.  This beast was used for everything; from photographing the inside of an aircraft engine, to a portrait of Prince Phillip for the officers’ mess.

The outfit consisted of the camera, a 90mm wide angle and a 150mm normal lens, 4 double dark slides, a Weston Mk111 exposure meter, a flash gun that took flash bulbs as big as the household variety, and a dark cloth.  All loaded into a wooden box with an enormous carrying strap which could have doubled as a sea chest.  You could always recognise a photographer even without a camera, he walked with an acute list to Port.  Oh, and a great huge affair of a wooden tripod, which was about three feet long folded and was  equipped with the most lethal set of spikes imaginable.  So, weighed down with this lot, off I would go to carry out some sort of photographic assignment knowing that I had enough film for six photographs. If I didn’t come back with six usable negatives ‘chief’ would have me taken outside and shot.  Working like this did two things. It kept you fit and it made you very selective and careful every time you released the shutter.  The former of these hasn’t remained with me, but the enforced discipline of the latter has.

The 5”x4” was our ‘smaller’ format, for aerial work we used 5.5”x5.5” or 10.5”x10.5” cameras and they were roll film!! 100 exposures at a time. These cameras were mainly used for photo reconnaissance or recording bomb drops.  However we were often called upon to carry out air to air/ air to ground photography with a handheld versions of the 5.5”x5.5” cameras. These cameras were known as the F24.  They had three shutter speeds but to change them you had to physically take the entire roller blind assembly out of the camera and replace it with another.  The lenses were long focal length, which meant the 36” lens was just that, 36 inches long, plus the camera and a 100 exposure magazine.  All aimed through a peep sight and a pair of crossed wires.  The magazines were supplied with a handle for cranking the film on, the usual method of operation was to pinch one of the spare aircrew who would kneel down beside you and frantically crank the film round.  As at this time we were flying Shackletons there was always plenty of helping hands.

Another version was the K20. This had the advantage of an optical viewfinder and a labour saving device, lever wind.  These cameras had originally been made for the American Airforce but we had waited until they had thrown them away and rescued them from the skip.  Likewise our enlarger. Negs were usually viewed as negs by the photographic interpreters or contact printed.  But we did have an enormous 10.5”x10.5” enlarger, and believe it or not, it still had a brass plaque with Luftwaffen- Eigentum (Property of the German Air force) engraved on it.    Then we had the F97 which was a night camera and synchronized the exposures with flares on parachutes both of which were Infra-Red, trouble is it never worked and was a joke.  Oh happy days.

After leaving the RAF I would have liked to have pursued a career in photography but having acquired a wife and son during my RAF service I had to earn some money and as many have found out this meant that photography as a way of earning a living was out.  Somehow I found myself in the construction industry and as I didn’t know the first thing about it my employers kept promoting me.  Although hardly fun it did mean that I had spare cash to enjoy my photography.  During the seventies I got heavily into Leica, an addiction which in fact has never left me. Eventually this involvement led to me meeting a publisher and I wrote, edited and translated a few books for him, all of which involved Leica. At this time I was also heavily involved in camera clubs, both as an active member and a visiting judge.  I gained the distinction of Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and immediately gave up.  I lectured at the local art college and became tutor and examiner for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Medal Award scheme.  Then suddenly, like the revelation on the road to Damascus, I realised that I just wasn’t enjoying it. The Leica Pocket Book was selling extremely well, two re-prints in the first three months, second edition within six, but when the publisher asked me to prepare the third edition I just couldn’t be bothered.  Anyway the tax man was chasing me.  I just packed it all in and resigned from the clubs and stopped judging.  It might seem an odd thing to give up like that but I did have a reason. If you are heavily into the photographic world of exhibitions and competitions you, as an individual, lose some of the control.  You tend to always have in the back of your mind what a judge might think of your picture.  You end up taking photographs to please other people and for me that ruined the pleasure of me being in control.   The only thing was I still kept taking my snaps, but now for a strictly limited audience…me.

This state of events lasted for nearly twenty years. Then I decided to go digital and bought a computer.  WOW, the floodgates opened.  The learning curve wasn’t a curve at all, it was a vertical cliff.  But I persevered and eventually some of it started to drop into place and make sense. But apart from photography something else happened.  I discovered forums and web sites where I could get help with computer technology and the complications of digital photography.  People asked questions and I realised that the expertise I had acquired over the years meant I could also start helping others.  Here was a means of communicating that negated all boundaries of time and distance.  I could be talking to someone half a world away as if they were sitting in the next room.  Not only could we exchange ideas and information but we could instantly transmit pictures. This has brought back my interest in photography.  Yes I miss the smell of Hypo and the tactile pleasure of handling a roll of film but that’s a small price to pay.  I also miss my film cameras, I still have a large collection but they sit forlorn and accusingly on the shelves in the study.   So yes digital photography has a different appeal to analogue, one is not better than the other, it just means that we have a choice which way to go to achieve our object.  In fact many photographers are now using both and choosing the best tool for a particular job.

So when Wilf, who I must have known for more than thirty years, asked me if I would like to make a contribution to this site, I jumped at it.  I intend every month or so to write a short article which I hope will be of interest to some. Nothing too technical, that isn’t my style and in fact that sort of thing is adequately covered elsewhere. So these articles will be more like a fireside chat over a pint and hopefully some will draw up a chair and make themselves comfortable.


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