For all our frequent talk of ‘hidden gems’ and little restaurants ‘tucked away’ down manky alleyways, I can guarantee that you’ve walked past The Real Camera Co. – one of the oldest independent shops in the Northern Quarter, standing on the corner of Lever Street and Dale Street for the past 20-odd years.
You’ll probably have made no notice to the place, for who needs a film camera nowadays when you’ve got an iPhone?
Well, let me tell you – a LOT of people it seems, as the shop and its dedicated team of camera experts and enthusiasts are currently riding an explosion in popularity of the more traditional way of taking photos.
“Over the last five years” Manager Chris Hayton began, “we’ve started to see a big increase in enthusiastic young photographers coming in, as street photography has become increasingly fashionable.”
You seemingly can’t scroll for more than a few minutes on Instagram before you find someone’s pictures taken using a traditional 35mm camera, part of a re-emergence of traditional ‘point and shoot’ cameras that were once the staple of most households in the 80s and 90s before the digital camera came along.
And it seems that The Real Camera Co. is perfectly placed to cater for these new customers, not only with their extensive selection of cameras, film and equipment but also insofar that they’re right in the heart of Manchester’s most creative district – the Northern Quarter.
From the Corn Exchange to the NQ
Chris explains though that the company itself had humble beginnings right on the other side of town, in the Corn Exchange in the 90s, which was actually a kind of Victorian-style market at the time, filled with all manner of independent stalls and shops.
The man who owned it was Nobby Clarke, one of the UK’s foremost theatre photographers who has worked with a who’s who of publications, performers and directors, from The Guardian to Rik Mayall and Billy Connolly.
Nobby then moved the shop into the long-forgotten but much-loved Coliseum Shopping Centre on Church Street, which you’ve probably never heard of but was actually a sort of ‘poor man’s Afflecks’ back in the 90s.
It was six floors of small independent shops selling everything from records, video games, goth clothing, sci-fi merchandise & literally anything under the sun you could think of. It even had a metal Roman Coliseum outside above the door. Sadly that closed down and is now a bar (On the Hush) and a supermarket (Tesco).
It was here that Nobby retired from the retail business and let a go-getting young BBC photographer take over – Jeremy (Jem) Kime – who moved the shop over to Lever Street where it has remained ever since. Originally just a small front-facing unit next to a record store, The Real Camera Co. now incorporates the large corner unit too – wrapping around onto Dale Street.
Times are Changing…
By this point, around 2001, the Northern Quarter was a completely different place than it is today, and looking back now, it’s no wonder that the unit was so inexpensive.
“When I first started coming into the shop you’d need directions to find it… the Northern Quarter was very, very quiet.
“Most of the coffee shops and bars weren’t here at all, and apart from us there was just Fred Aldous and I think, possibly Copacabana was there then, too.”
“We’ve been here through some hugely significant change though, it was quite rundown, a bit rough, but we’ve seen it slowly change with coffee shops and bars coming in, and that started pulling in a younger audience for us too. And now it’s lovely, a really nice part of Manchester, but you don’t need me to tell you that!”
And as the area has changed, so too has the clientele popping into the camera shop, where once it was frequented mostly by “collectors of an older generation with a big interest in Rolleiflex and classic vintage camera equipment, to students looking for darkroom equipment and inexpensive SLRs for courses.”
In recent years though, with a surge in popularity of street photography, more and more young photographers have come in, many of whom have “read some stuff online, seen bits on YouTube and thought that that’s kind of what I’m looking for in my photography.”
Most recently, Chris tells me that they’ve seen more and more people coming in looking to try traditional photography after seeing “a lot of stuff on Instagram, and wanting to go get those cameras.”
“It was really peculiar to us at first, because we started to see people who were buying things for different reasons. They weren’t photography enthusiasts buying cameras that, you know, they’ve always aspired to own, or people on a university course or anything like that.
“It’s become extremely, I don’t really wanna use the word fashionable, but these cameras have become the thing to be seen with and be seen shooting with. And the nice side of that is that we’ve got a great selection of some really good point and shoot cameras.”
Film Cameras & Instagram
As the popularity of 35mm point and shoot film cameras has increased, Chris has seen more and more traditional film enthusiasts born, who have started on the simpler hardware and then progressed into the more advanced cameras.
“It’s actually fantastic, really impressive. People are making nice content because they’re being forced to photograph relevant stuff – current fashions and trends of the day. It’ll be an actual document of time, which goes back to the photojournalism stuff that I used to like when I was at university – really it’s just done in a different way.”
“We’ve helped countless people in terms of getting started; professional photographers who shoot with film, and they’ve started out on the very basics – it’s nice to see that process really.
“And a big part of that is because of the impact of Instagram, and image-based social media. Even the filters on there are based on a ‘filmic look‘ – and so there’s definitely a need and a want out there for that sort of look.”
What’s On Offer?
So, The Real Camera Co. are still in the heart of the Northern Quarter after 21 years and they still offer an unmatched selection of not just traditional film but also digital cameras in the city, as well as most format films (35mm, 120, colour slide, black and white), darkroom equipment and professional lighting.
They also offer a range of repair and maintenance services, conducted both on-site by their extremely knowledgable staff and off-site by specialised technicians across the breadth of the UK. Oh, and if you’re wondering what their oldest camera on sale is – they’ve actually got a folding bellows camera from around 1900.
For film processing, Chris recommends that people get in touch with a very impressive new name in Manchester – Come Through Lab based in Ancoats – a slick, independent and extremely impressive operation that’ll process and develop any film you can get your hands on.
Finally, if you’re looking to get started in film photography and all of the trials and tribulations of threading a little sliver of plastic through a coil and hoping for the best, Chris recommends that you pop on in and have a chat with any of the staff who are always more than happy to get you started.
He recommends that if you’re looking to learn the basics, then the camera to go for is the Pentax K1000 – which is fully automated and will give you a fantastic image every time.
The Real Camera Co., 7 Dale St, Manchester M1 1JA