Lyon on an Olympus 35RC

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On a cold, grey, autumnal afternoon in 2012 when I was living in Toulouse, France, I had a light-bulb moment that led me to become a translator. Conveniently, this decision was also a way to get me back to France ASAP after having to return home to Melbourne, Australia.

Two years later I moved to Lyon, in the eastern part of France, to study translation. Lyon is France’s second-largest city but is regularly lauded for being France’s gastronomic capital. Historically, its cuisine is based on hearty meat dishes (those with an aversion to offal, beware) that are served in the bouchons lyonnais, the city’s traditional eateries. There are many reasons why Lyon is a wonderful city in which to live, its relative calm in comparison with Paris being principle among them. It also, interestingly, has two rivers that run through it, the Rhône and the Saône, which effectively divide the city into its distinct neighbourhoods.

 

It was in Lyon that I bought my first film camera, an Olympus 35RC, and developed a keen interest in analogue photography.

The 35RC was produced throughout the 1970s and is hailed as one of the smallest 35mm rangefinders to boast both automatic and manual exposure control. Want to control both the shutter speed and aperture yourself? No problem. Prefer to let the camera work things out? In that case, select a shutter speed and the 35 RC will automatically select the appropriate aperture based on lighting conditions.

It’s a great little camera for a few reasons: it feels solid and comes with great glass, a 42mm f2.8 lens that is ultra sharp, it fits into any large pocket (although I have been known to cram it in my jeans), and it is very discreet (the leaf shutter is very quiet), making it ideal for the street.

I love my little 35RC, and I chanced upon a great example, but like anything it has its limitations. For starters, while the viewfinder is clear and bright, the focusing squares in the centre of the viewfinder are small and sometimes hard to discern. While I have largely overcome this minor problem with time, it does make the camera more difficult to use in low-light situations and those where you’ve got to be quick. Another inherent problem is tied to parallax, given that what you’re seeing in the viewfinder is not what the lens is seeing. Again, this is another problem that can be solved with practice but it’s nevertheless something to note for those starting out with this camera.

 

Limitations aside, it has my vote for street photography because I can simply hold the little thing in the back of one hand and no one is any the wiser… it beats an SLR in this respect every time.

For my occasional wanderings around Lyon, I load the 35RC with either Kodak Portra 400, Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X that I buy online. Being relatively new to film photography, I sometimes lament the relative dearth of film stocks these days but then remind myself that we’re all very lucky to still have high-quality, reliable brands that push out great films in this mostly digital age.

The only initial difficulty I have when heading out to make photos in Lyon is choosing where to go. (That is, if I go out at all. Sometimes I content myself with snapping my French housemates at home.)

To begin, Vieux Lyon is the oldest neighbourhood of the city. A Unesco world heritage listed site, it lies on the banks of the Saône and extends up the Fourvière hill, on top of which sits the ostentatious Byzantine-style Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière.

Cross the river and you find yourself on the Presqu’île, the peninsula situated between the two rivers that extends to the confluence in the south and climbs to the bohemian Croix-Rousse neighbourhood in the north. The Presqu’île is considered the heart of the city and is home to Lyon’s two largest public squares, Place Bellecour and Place des Terreaux, the latter stretching out in front of the wonderfully ornate Town Hall.

As you make your way across the Rhône, you will no doubt catch a glimpse of the city’s two skyscrapers in the distance, located in the Part-Dieu business district. Far from being Lyon’s prettiest area, Part-Dieu does boast some pretty impressive brutalist architecture (if that’s your thing).

Once over the Rhône, the animated Guillotière neighbourhood is well worth a look. Comprising immigrant populations from places such as the Maghreb (North Africa), sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, China, Vietnam and, more recently, Eastern Europe, here you will find interesting restaurants and a vie de quartier like nowhere else in Lyon.

Lyon is certainly worth visiting if you like food, French culture, Roman history or just going out with friends. It’s a friendly city to explore that won’t break the budget either, unlike the capital. I have fallen in love with it, and it’s where I have fallen in love, too. Luckily, with my little 35RC, I’ve captured it all on film.

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