I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now. I never expected it to be this complicated and challenge my way of thinking about photography as much as it did. Such a simple concept with no expensive gear and no planning needed, yet doing an alphabet challenge with a disposable camera has changed the way I think about my photography.
What could be easier than picking up a cheap, disposable camera and taking a photo for each letter of the alphabet? Well, as it turns out, not doing that very thing is much easier. The plan was to buy a film camera that has 27 exposures and challenge myself to take one photo that represents the letter “A”, another photo for “B”, one photo for “C” and so on and so on. Buying the camera was the easiest part. They were so cheap I even bought two just in case, which turns out was a good thing, but we’ll get to that.
As soon as I walked out of the store I started having problems. Questions started rolling through my head. Should I be literal? Should I shoot an apple for “A”, a bird for “B”, a cat for “C”? Should I be conceptual? Should I shoot awkward for “A”, bad for “B”, consumerism for “C”? Do I have to start with the letter “A”? Do I keep them all in landscape orientation? How do I choose what to shoot for certain letters? If I photograph the Sun for “S” I won’t be able to do shadow, or skin, or sorrow, or anything else starting with “S”. What is going to be my first photo? Do I have to shoot in order? Does it matter?
Suddenly everything was a potential photo. I was seeing everything for its alphabetic potential. Cars were “C” for Car, or “A” for Automobile, or “T” for Transport. Buildings were “B” for Buildings, or “A” for Architecture, or “F” for Facade. For hours I was wandering around Sydney, repeatedly holding the viewfinder up to my eye with my finger teetering on the shutter, my jaw clenching, and nothing. I had gone from shooting in digital where any photo I took I could instantly review and delete and recapture if necessary, to having only 27 exposures where as soon as I took a single photo it would make that particular letter complete and no longer able to be photographed. 26 letters, one shot for each. I couldn’t bring myself to take a single photo. Something had to give.
I was on a Sydney Harbour ferry coming into Circular Quay and already on the short ride from Kirribilli I had attempted to press the shutter numerous times. I was fed up. So I made myself a deal. This camera I would use to just take photos of random things I liked and I’ll use my secondary camera for the challenge. No more pressure to capture the alphabet! I was free! So I took an abstract (kind of) shot of the side of a cruise ship in the harbour. And that was it. “A” is for “Abstract”. The gate was open and I was underway.
The same questions kept running through my head but I was able to take photos when it just felt right. I captured “K” for “Keep Out” right after my first shot but it took nearly 3 weeks in total to take my last photo, “E” for “Espy” in Melbourne. So I didn’t shoot in order either but that didn’t bother me. I thought it was noteworthy but could not find any meaning in the fact that my last 4 letters were “E-N-V-Y”. What surprised me is that the most common letter in the English language was the last letter I photographed. The letter “N” was a special decision of what to shoot. You’ll have to check out the full list to see what it was.
As well as some of the challenges I’ve already outlined, I had other things to think about too. I knew the film was ISO400, and the instructions indicated that I should not shoot anything closer than 1m due to the set focus. The aperture was small and I had no idea of what the shutter speed was, but also assumed it was quite fast. Searching the internet did not give any more information other than what was already on the camera. It had a flash for low light but I avoided shooting in low light to keep the quality of the shots as high as I could. Shooting fine-art landscape photography has trained me to shoot wide and protect my highlights. I had no idea how this camera would handle shadows and highlights and the field of view looked something around a normal 50mm on a full frame. I had no idea how accurate the viewfinder was either. Turns out it doesn’t show you when your finger is in front of the lens! I thought I made a conscious effort to avoid this! My finger makes an appearance in at least 4 images.
The camera went with me wherever I went. Just like it is possible to pocket dial with your phone, turns out it’s possible to pocket photograph too. This may have happened a few times so I had the second camera as a backup. I made sure I didn’t reshoot any letters or shots I thought I might have messed up, but I needed the second camera for the last 4 letters. For some letters I got a dictionary out for ideas. Walking around the streets produces very little options for “X”. The dictionary gave me the idea to shoot Yachts for “Y”.
All these unknowns and restrictions really took me out of my comfort zone with photography. I bet there are film shooters out there that are laughing at my feeble attempts at taking unreviewable photos, but that’s the whole point of this challenge. I put so many restrictions on how and what I could shoot that it forced me to think about what is important in my photography. The quality of the images are just terrible as you can see but the journey of taking them is priceless. In the end I didn’t just shoot literal meanings or only conceptually. I photographed what felt important to me at the time and made a real effort to make the single shot I had count. I didn’t first take a photo with my phone or DSLR to see what it could look like. I clicked the shutter and accepted that that was all I was going to get for that particular letter.
In setting myself this challenge I didn’t expect to take it this seriously and put as much thought into it as I did. It has been a great learning experience for me and I’d recommend for anyone else to try this example or something similar. You might be in a creative rut, you may still be learning and want some basic experience in shooting film. Maybe you just feel like shaking things up a bit and challenging the style of photography you’ve become comfortable with. This low-tech, mentally and technically challenging, restrictive project gave me lots to think about when it comes to what is important in my photography. Why not challenge what you think is important in photography too?
Abstract – The first image I took and then assigned it to the letter “A”. Starting this challenge was harder than I thought it would be and I needed to just get on with it.
Birds – Pelicans are massive birds. Normally when I think about birds I think of little creatures about the size of a pigeon or smaller. Being up close to a group of pelicans and thinking of them as birds was a strange thought at the time. Those beaks are huge!
Consumerism – These are the stairs in the Apple store on George St in Sydney. They look fantastic! I don’t have any Apple products but I’m still amazed by the stores and the amount of people that are always in there. I’ve never seen a quiet Apple store.
Dragon – A Water Dragon basking in the sun on the rocks near Manly. How can I not take the opportunity to have a Dragon on my list?
Espy – A popular pub in St Kilda, Melbourne. Home to a rich history of live music, bikies, hipsters and so much more. I’ve seen friends play in bands here and even sat down for a quiet breakfast. The last photo I took.
Falls – Belmore Falls in NSW. A beautiful location to explore and also my only portrait orientation photograph.
Gallery – A shot from inside Ken Duncan’s photography gallery. Seeing great Australian photographers succeed in business and seeing their amazing work printed and up on a wall is very inspiring. Eventually I’ll open my own gallery.
Horsehead – I’ve been here a couple of times now and still love shooting here. It really looks like a horse’s head. Being alone on the beach here at night staring up at the stars was a very calming experience.
Instameet – Our Project RAWcast Instameet in Sydney had about 200 people attending. It wasn’t long before the weather turned and the rain put a damper on the evening. Even still, I met a lot of people and it was great to see so many like minded photographers turn up to just enjoy photography. Instagram has changed photography in its own way and Instameets are one of the positives.
Jetty – Jetty’s are a big draw card for landscape photographers. They probably draw more people in when they collapse and look all old and rustic. This one is a long jetty in Long Jetty.
Keep Out – On a boat? Seeking refuge? Trying to come to Australia? You’ll pretty much be sent to prison. I’m lucky I’ll probably never have to flee a hostile situation and ask Australia for help. But I can’t imagine a better country to be born in. Lucky me I guess.
Lighthouse – It was just a nice Lighthouse. I wanted to take a photo of it…Like Life, some meanings are meaningless until you assign meaning to it. Know what I mean?
Manly – A gorgeous day on a popular Sydney beach. I guess I thought this image with the poles would look better. At least my finger isn’t in the shot.
N(othing) – No photo. None. Nothing. I wanted to remind myself that sometimes it’s important to put the camera down and enjoy the moment. I don’t need a photo of everything and not everything needs to be photographed.
Ocean – The world’s oceans are a strange thing. While the Pacific Ocean is virtually a whole hemisphere of water on its own, and life is shaped by the oceans, there really isn’t all that much water. On our scale the oceans are vast, seemingly endless bodies of water. But, if the world was the size of a globe, the oceans could be absorbed completely with a single paper towel. It’s hard not to feel small and insignificant when looking at an endless horizon.
Path – Sometimes it’s not easy sticking to the path set out for you. I find it hard to follow the path. Not because it’s a difficult one, but because the idea of having a path set out before me seems so boring I feel anxious at the thought of just going along with it. Life and society follow a pattern that is easily recognisable and may appear obviously justifiable. But is that all we are? Finding a balance between fitting in with the society I need and carving my own path that feels enough like my own making is a constant struggle. It’s ingrained in my bones to never become content and complacent. This is life and it needs to be lived.
Quarry – Bombo Quarry. A strange place of chaotic, ferocious waves and rock stacks that almost look man made. Watching the power of the waves crash is hypnotic and invigorating.
Rest – The mind needs rest as much as the body. Constant worries and thoughts wear you down over time. Sometimes this happens so gradually you don’t realise how long you’ve been stressed out for until your life has nearly fallen apart. Finding even a short time everyday to rest and calm your mind and body is enough to face any hardship thrown at you later.
Shadows – Shadows play a huge part in our perceptions of depth and direction. Their shapes can tell us what an object is or mislead us completely. They are synonymous with hidden evils and unknown threats. And sometimes they just make beautiful chaotic patterns on buildings.
Telephone Box – Are these still a thing? Do they get used enough to justify their upkeep? At the time of taking this photo I still had “O” to cross off the list and had a difficult time deciding between “obsolete” or “telephone box”. The irony of using a disposable camera to capture something I thought of as obsolete is not lost on me.
Under – I find walking under Sydney Harbour Bridge as being the best way to comprehend just how huge this bridge is.
Venus – If ever you’re in St Kilda, keep an eye out for a scale model of the Solar System. Starting not too far from Luna Park with the giant 1.3m ball that is the Sun, then continuing all the way past Princes Pier to Pluto. Pluto was still a planet at the time of its installment. From Sun to Pluto is 5.9km, while the Sun to Venus is just 108m. Every metre is 1,000,000km in this scale.
Work – seeing a person hanging from the side of a building is not something you see everyday. Unless of course that’s what you do for work. What people do for work is weird sometimes. I use to cut up people’s internal organs and stain them with dyes to look at under a microscope. Now I take pretty pictures of sunsets.
X – X. You try finding a way to photograph something that represents “X” without an X-Ray or Xylophone handy!
Yachts – Not as obvious as I thought it would be but trust me there are Yachts in this photo. Maybe an alternative for this shot could be “Yelling”, which is what I did when I saw my finger in the photo and the non straight horizon.
Z – Zzz. This is my bed. This is where I catch some z’s. This is where I want to be after shooting all my ABC’s.
About the Author
Kieran Stone is an Australian photographer and a half of the fantastic duo at Project RAWcast. You can follow their photography podcast on their website and YouTube channel, and keep up to date with their activities on their Facebook page.