2nd Tier Superstars: The Setup

I announced 2nd Tier Superstars (2TS for short) last Sunday. It’s a new column about those cameras that aren’t talked about endlessly in forums, photography shows, and on blog posts as being the very best cameras for film photography.

X10S3359
Some Choices, Perhaps?

Second Tier Superstars is, instead, about those that are often neglected. Cameras that are less desirable than others, either because they do not carry the cachet of having been a professional’s choice, or because they don’t have the bells and whistles one expects after having become accustomed to modern digital SLRs and mirrorless wonders. This column seeks to make sense of a world of options. It is an opinionated review, and will in the end present you with exactly one choice. One camera, one lens. There are so many possibilities in this world of film photography that I feel there needs to be a place where you can come and where you don’t have to think about every little detail for a change. A place that picks a camera for you that you’ll be happy with, and that you can grow with.

This will not be a weekly, maybe not even a monthly column. It will come out whenever I have gathered enough information, both in the specs and in the handling department, to be able to be of some help regarding a camera. Better a few good choices than many random ones. My criteria for which cameras are included here are not set in stone, but they fall along certain guidelines:

  1. Must be less than €50, with lens and functioning. Make that roughly $50, £50 or equivalent where you are. For a camera and one useful lens, before shipping or import taxes. The point is not to lock in a hard upper limit. This would be impossible anyway, considering used prices depend so much on where you buy something, from whom, and in what condition. The point is to give you a rough idea of what you can get for €50. For some, this is chump change, for others a substantial amount of money. But for anyone, it is a reasonable amount to be spending for a working camera with a working lens that will serve you well.
  2. Will not be the top model of the line. If you can get a Nikon F2 or a Minolta XK or an EOS 1n in good condition with a lens for fifty Euros or less, count yourself lucky. Most people won’t have access to deals like that so easily. And this column is about the second tier anyway. About those cameras that informed, discriminating amateurs would have bought, and that professional photographers might have used as a backup, or as a camera for specific needs.
  3. Should be a system camera. That is, a camera that will allow you to change lenses, buy a second body, and buy accessories such as remotes, releases, dedicated filters or flashes to round out your kit. So you’re not stuck in a dead end and have to decide all over again what’s right for you when your needs change.
  4. Should be easy to find. Admittedly, this is a tricky one. Maybe your part of the world is awash in one camera brand and not another, maybe you can go to flea market and see only Canons but have your heart set to Yashicas. But eBay and the like have made buying cameras even from the other end of the world possible. It will surely add to your budget to have it shipped from Ukraine to Australia or vice versa, but it won’t quadruple it. (This is also why my magic number is €50 rather than €100; even if you pay another €50 in shipping, you’ll still have a working machine for a hundred Euros).
  5. Should work right out of the box. This disqualifies many wonderful cameras that are just too old to not typically need repairs or a good cleaning. You want to jump into film photography, not spend your days searching for someone who can repair the paperweight from 1957 that you just acquired. It may make sense to have even your well-working newer camera overhauled (CLA’d – for clean, lubricate, adjust, is the term) down the road. But right now, you just want to create some images!

So that’s the setup. These are the general criteria I will be following when assessing the future superstars. Stay tuned for episode 1, which will publish this Sunday, January 31, 2016!

New Column Announcement: 2nd Tier Superstars

Photography has never only been about the end product, whether it’s an Instagram post, a slide projected on a screen, or a print. It’s always also been an art form dependent on technology, process, and gear.

Assume you’re about to get into film photography for real. Maybe you’ve exclusively shot with an iPhone so far. Maybe you have a DSLR, a digital point-and-shoot, or a mirrorless camera. Or maybe you’ve dabbled in Lomography and would like to see what “regular” analog photography is like (provided there is in fact a difference, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). Maybe you don’t have money to burn, or even if you do, you’re not inclined to. Where do you start?

What to buy? Decisions, decisions!
What to buy? Decisions, decisions!

It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of reviews and if recommendations, of opinions what’s great and what’s crap, and what you must absolutely have. IctusOculi is here to help. Next week, we will inaugurate a column about the Second Tier Superstars of Film. Each installment will put forward, for your consideration, an affordable camera that – with just a bit of talent and technique – will allow for professional results at a reasonable price.

How do I know? Am I a professional? Why, no. But that’s exactly the point: you don’t have to be a professional using professional grade gear in order to make great pictures. All you need is a good eye, a decent camera, and a decent lens. And some film, because we’re keeping this column analog for now. I’m orienting myself somewhere below the €50 mark for how much the whole combination should cost to begin with. Sure, if grandma Alice gives you her Leica for free, snap it up, say thanks in the nicest way possible, and be forever thankful. But if you’re not that lucky, you may want some advice.

We begin with something that many who are into digital photography already may be looking for. We’ll pick a Nikon autofocus SLR that works with modern lenses, feels solid, is reliable, as well as easy and fun to use. And less than €50 with a lens. Are you curious?

P.S.: Suggestions welcome for contenders!

Review on 35mmc – Minolta Hi-Matic AF-2

Another review of mine is up on Hamish Gill’s amazing 35mm compact shooter site, the no-nonsensically titled 35mmc.com. The star: a $9.99 Hi-Matic camera.

Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements
Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements

When the Night Falls by the Water

Not too much to say here. A series of images taken at Cologne’s Rheinauhafen at the end of summer.

I Reviewed the Minolta Riva Mini

It’s my favorite little point and shoot camera, so of course when Hamish Gill of 35mmc.com asked, I jumped at the chance to review it.

You can read my post on Hamish’s site, the amazing one stop shop for everything 35mm compact cameras, here.

My favorite point and shoot
My favorite point and shoot

The Act of Cleaning

Cleaning is how we take ownership of things.

I noticed this when I received a beaten up Nikon F801 camera, won on eBay (or “that auction site” as it is so often referred to when people want to avoid brands; making clear that our internet auction needs are pretty much monotheistic) for €11,05 plus shipping. This worked out, all in all to €15,45 and even though the camera’s condition was untested and it was dusty and grimy, I considered it a good deal. The F801 was a semi professional camera when released in 1988, and probably cost more than I’d ever consider spending on a digital SLR these days. The camera was packaged with an extra back, the MF-21 multi function control back, to enable you to print dates and aperture and shutter speed on film, to time photos at intervals, or to “trigger trap” wildlife walking into focus. This seemed to me like a less sophisticated version of a police speed camera. Who knows how many cool wildlife shots that we commend the intrepid photographer for were taken with methods like this, on a tripod abandoned in the woods, just waiting for something, anything to walk into frame.

NikonF801_2
All Clean…

But I digress. The act of cleaning is the act of making one’s own. After unpacking and unwrapping the camera body, I first rubbed it off with a paper towel, getting most of the obvious dust. Then I put a cup of water, a cup of benzene, a small air dust blower, a used old soft tooth brush and q-tips on the table. The table was layered with more paper towels. I took of the camera strap. I rubbed the camera with paper towels and some water until it already looked much better. Its battle scars from a long life of use and a long life of neglect in a cupboard or closet somewhere became more visible than they had been. Little screws holding the machine together had small flecks of rust on their heads. I used q-tips dipped in water to clean these, and to clean the crevices and hard to reach places that the paper towel had not cleaned. I rubbed it off once again with a paper towel. Next, I dipped a q-tip in benzene and took to cleaning the less sensitive parts of the camera. The lens mount’s metal became shiny again, and the autofocusing screw appeared to be turning quicker and more freely after the operation. I blew out the mirror box with the dust blower, and unhooked the little latch that held the view screen to blow dust and dirt off it as well. This worked better than initially expected (I had half feared I would need to uninstall and rinse the whole thing), and only a few tiny flecks remained. The tooth brush was dipped in water, too, to get into even tinier crevices, into the rim around the control wheel. Then I dipped it in benzene as well and cleaned what had not responded to the water.I unscrewed the battery compartment and rubbed the contacts with another naphta-dipped q-tip. They did not look dirty to me, but there was no harm in giving them some extra cleaning. Maybe there was corrosion on them that I simply could not see. I put new batteries in the camera, and it started right up, though it remained wonky: the first shot after not using it for a few hours wouldn’t complete its cycle and the mirror would stay up until I pressed the shutter button again. I replaced the batteries with rechargeables and hoped this would fix it, but it did not. At this point, I do not know what will fix this, if anything will that isn’t prohibitively expensive for such a cheap camera. I added new batteries – 2 lithium CR2025s – to the data back, and it came to life also. Thankfully, it had been designed with foresight, and setting 2015 on the almost thirty year old piece of kit was not a problem. I cleaned the strap with some water and the toothbrush, and then disinfected it. I reattached it to the camera body, added a period 35–70 kit zoom lens, and pointed the camera at the window.

NikonF801_2
…From Top to Bottom

It did fire, at least it did the second, third, fourth, and fifth times. I put in a test film. How will I deal with the shutter problem? This morning I used up all the exposures on the test roll, took it out and proceeded to fire the shutter on high, 3 or so frames per second, for something between 5 and 10 minutes. Maybe this will fix it. Maybe it won’t. Then I will try something else.

Because the act of cleaning had made this my camera now, mine to own, to shoot, but also to maintain and fix. The act of buying it did not make it so, especially not since there was a long interval between clicking “bid” and being informed I’d won the auction and receiving the actual item and unpacking it and looking at it and holding it in my hand. It felt good in my hand. All it needed was a good cleaning.

Almost There – A Review of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL

Why oh why, you may think, is a blog dedicated to photography reviewing bags now? And not even photo bags? What has the world come to?

Simple: I have always liked bags, but I’ve never been a photo bag person. I think they’re generally meh-looking (too technical, too boring, too black nylon), and since I don’t do this professionally, I don’t want to be “that guy” who goes everywhere with at least two camera bodies and half a dozen lenses. So, for the most part, I don’t use photo bags. Instead, I stuff my camera du jour in whatever bag I’m using, and hope for the best. Will this remain so forever? Who knows; I’ve found more occasions where a dedicated photo bag may be desirable lately. Whether that is going to translate into me getting (and possibly reviewing) one is still up in the air.

This review came about because I saw something super interesting on Kickstarter a few months back: an everyday commuter messenger bag that could be transformed (hey, I’m a child of the 80s, I like that stuff) into a backpack. A weekender that functioned like an old-timey valise and still had an extra laptop compartment. Why not? So, a Kickstarter campaign, a few months, and a deduction from my credit card later, I had the thing in hand. And because I liked it well enough to test out all its idiosyncrasies, I ended up writing a review. Maybe there’s someone here who will find it useful.


I received my Venque Briefpack Utility XL as part of the Kickstarter delivery. First impressions matter, and this one was good: the Briefpack seems well put together, is very stylish in an unobtrusive fashion, and the fabric, metal clasps and leather accents all appear to be of such a quality that you never need worry about whether the bag will hold up to the rigors of a busy commuting life.

Venque front
The front of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL
The “XL” in the name of this pack is deserved. It’s big, almost like a small valise, yet it’s not unwieldy. Its size (given by Venque as 19″ x 15″ x 6.5″, roughly 48 x 38 x 17 cm) is significantly below typical airline carry-on restrictions. I immediately got the impression that the size of the bag was arrived at after a lot of deliberation. It serves me well on trips to the office without seeming ludicrously large even if I’m only bringing my laptop, a book and some papers. It can easily hold a change of clothes for the day (think gym or biking to work). It was also perfectly adequate in size when I brought it as my main bag on a recent two-week vacation. A trip with just carry on baggage, thank you very much every single European premium airline for not distinguishing yourself anymore from Ryanair by much anymore. I digress.

Venque open
A lot fits in here
It easily fits almost a week’s worth of t-shirts, and underwear, as well as an extra pair of pants, one or two extra shirts, a sweater, and a small ziploc bag of toiletries. The elastic straps in the compartment, held together by a solid looking half-metal half-plastic locking clasp, do a good job of keeping all your clothes organized. The clasp is another point where you feel like someone was paying attention. It uses plastic for the inner part, and metal for the outer one, and this seems to have been considered well in terms of quality vs. price point. The gist is that you’re truly packing a suitcase here, not stuffing clothes willy-nilly in a messenger bag.

The four inside compartments (three smaller ones on the top of the bag’s flap, and one larger one on the bottom) are also quite handy. For my trip, I used the upper compartment for additional toiletries, a small container of painkillers, and photo equipment: a small flash, some filters, cleaning cloth, etc.

The bag’s front pockets – two large and one small one on top of the right hand main pocket – are ideally sized for phones, keys, notebooks, a small camera, or glasses. I don’t always wear glasses, but I encounter situations often enough where they become necessary and thus typically keep a pair of regular glasses plus a pair of sunglasses in their cases in the left pocket with the leather flap, while my keys live in the small exterior pocket on the right, and a point-and-shoot camera, my wallet, and whatever else seems useful that day live in the larger front pocket on the right.

Venque Laptop Compartment
Laptop compartment
The back compartment easily holds my Macbook 13″, and has room to spare. It’s rated for 15″ laptops, and you should have no problem fitting one in. The padding is exemplary. I often cram my bags full, and then end up with laptop screens pressed too tightly onto keyboards. This, however, was never a problem with the Utility XL. Very nicely done, Venque. There are three holders for pens in this compartment as well, and three open compartments for phones, business cards, or possbly a cell phone, or a small notebook. There is also a zipper in the back that lets you store away power bricks, cables, and the like toward the middle of the bag. I found this to be a better solution to storing such things than putting them in a front pocket. Alternatively, this is also a good spot for valuables, such as a passport and travel documents if you’re in a place where you’re worried they might be stolen.

The Utility XL works well for most things, but maybe because it’s such a jack-of-all-trades, you don’t get everything you possibly could get in a commuter messenger bag or backpack proper. The large size and the lack of a water bottle sleeve, for example, grow out of the fact that the XL is so versatile. You can’t go smaller and still carry all that stuff, and by attaching a bottle holder you’d either lose a handle, or have a water bottle dangling precariously on the underside of the bag when in backpack mode. I’m completely fine with these tradeoffs.

There are some other things that I find somewhat confounding, though. Basically, it comes down to straps and zippers.

Venque Backpack
The Venque in backpack mode, with those long long straps
The Venque’s straps in backpack mode are of good quality and comfortably padded, but they are simply too long. They can be adjusted, but I never could get them tight enough so the bag was flush with my back. Biking especially was unnerving, the XL kept dangling about. This is also a problem when you’re walking for more than just a few minutes, as in airport terminals or through cities. I.e., pretty much whenever you’d prefer backpack mode over shoulder carry mode. Granted, this is a question of how tall you are, and of your body shape. But as a male of 180cm / 5’11” with a slim, athletic build and size medium for most shirts, it doesn’t feel like I should be out of the ordinary for Briefpack XL buyers. This issue could be solved either by shortening the straps (something that could be done aftermarket by a third party if desired) or by offering a cross-body strap of the type found on hiking backpacks. This would pull the contoured backpack straps towards the middle of the chest and thus make the bag sit closer to your back.

Venque in backpack mode - sideways
Backpack mode – sideways
The supplied strap for carrying the XL messenger bag style is also comfortably padded. The padding covers most of the strap, but the “one size kinda fits all” approach also meets its match here. If you want to carry the bag not directly at your side, but slightly askew – which I’ve found is the most natural way to carry most messenger bags – the padded part pretty much covers all of your chest, but doesn’t reach all the way across your shoulder. A strap with an adjustable foam pad would have been preferable here. If you want to, it’s easy enough to attach pretty much any strap with a clasp, though you might be compromising the XL’s sleek aesthetics.

Venque in backpack mode - top
Backpack mode – top
Lastly, the zippers are a bit of a mixed bag. There are three kinds: small internal zippers (I had no problems with these), small external zippers in the back, and larger zippers for all the various pockets.

The two small external zippers, under which are hidden the backpack straps when not in use, as well as a loop that lets you attach the XL to a larger piece of luggage in order to easily wheel everything through an airport or train station, don’t need to take much abuse. Still, they feel a little too rough for a product that otherwise appears premium in every way. On my XL, both zippers have an unfortunate tendency to open slightly just from rubbing up against my body when I am carrying the bag on my shoulder. In addition, one of them looks like it is permanently pulled apart a bit, and there is a noticeable “hump” you can feel whenever you open or close it. They will probably hold up just fine, but you will be reminded of the fact that they could be better quality every time you use them. Clearly, your mileage will vary on how much importance you attach to this.

The external zippers are well-dimensioned and they stay closed when you want them to. The zippers on the front pockets are a bit badly placed, but otherwise function well. The ones on the larger compartments, however, initially opened and closed a bit too roughly. One-handed opening of a compartment while wearing the bag wasn’t as smooth as I would have expected. Here’s hoping this will continue to improve with use.

The offending zipper
The offending zipper
So what’s the verdict? On the one hand, the XL is very versatile, sturdy, and good-looking. If you’ve been searching for the one bag that does it all, that’s good for a day at the office, a weekend away or a one-week trip even, if you’re packing light, this is the best design at this price point I’ve come across. Other makers, such as Swiss company Qwstion, may have comparable offerings (like their similar-looking Weekender, Overnighter or 3 Day Travel Bag), but you’ll either easily pay in excess of $100 more for the most expensive one from that line-up than you would for the XL, or you forego the XL’s size. On the other hand, if a bag that is touted as being both a backpack and a messenger bag is lacking in either of these modes, you may just be better off with a dedicated bag in your preferred style. Venque’s own Milano, Hamptons and Amsterdam models may be a better bet for many who already own dedicated weekenders, duffels, or other short term travel bags.

In terms of functionality, fit, and finish, the Venque is almost there. It’s almost the bag you want, but not yet quite. Maybe the production run after the Kickstarter deliveries will have solved some of these niggling problems. I hope so. The XL is already pretty close to what it could be.

The back of the bag
The back doesn’t look too bad either
Want the TL;DR?

This is essentially a three-out-of-five star bag that’s really closer to 3.5 stars, and with a few improvements could be even better. While I don’t love it unconditionally, I like it and will continue to use it.

There Is No Versus

They took our Kodachrome away but we soldiered on. That we, film photographers, has had to see their medium of choice sink from a given of modern life to a specialist niche in no time flat. Where I live, I’m lucky to be in close walking distance of two drugstores that sell and process film, and two specialized photo shops that do the same. But most of us aren’t that lucky. It’s hard to shoot film in a digital world, at least when it comes to selection and availability.

Digital picture of analog camera. Two worlds collide.
Digital picture of analog camera. Two worlds collide.

A recent article on the photography website PetaPixel reminded me of the glee with which sometimes this “victory” of digital photography is lorded over the dying breed of picture makers who rely on arcane chemical processes instead of CMOS sensors. That article, ably penned by Randall Armor (ably except for a paragraph in which he tries to refute an argument by not responding to it on account of how ridiculous it supposedly is – that just rubs my academic self the wrong way) makes salient points here, gets ranty there, and ends, perhaps surprisingly, on a conciliatory note. Armor did not start the argument, to be fair. Neither did Sam Cornwell, arguing in favor of film photography, who came up with the list of reasons that Armor sets himself the task to refute point by point.

But by following the list format of pros and cons that seems to be the only way now people are told to make sense of the world, I think they both utterly miss the point. This is not a “fight” anymore that one format or the other wins by being inherently better at something objectively measurable. The medium, in some aspects, really is the message here. The fact that technology has enabled us to do certain things, and that for various reasons people seem to like those things, leads to an expectation that they will be provided.

Excuse my crypticness. What I mean, and let’s use the example of news photography here because it’s one of the starkest contrasts between the two “ages” of photography, is that technology has enabled us to take many more pictures for less money and then spread them more easily faster. In-focus, split-second, high-megapixel pictures or it didn’t happen. Sure, you could buy a Nikon F5 – twenty years ago the dream of many a freelancer, certainly – today and try to compete with the people who take digital pictures on their digital big guns with high ISO values, but you’d be at a clear disadvantage. You get 36 images to a roll and have to develop them. They get thousands to an SD card and can beam each one wirelessly to their newsrooms with no extra effort. And that newsroom expects more pictures than it used to. To put in their online slideshows, to select that one perfect moment in a series of twenty shots that look almost the same. To provide content for a content-hungry world. That game has clearly changed, and so have many others.

But does that matter one bit to the people in those bubbles where film is a viable option? The aspiring artist, the working portrait photographer who lovingly fondles their Hasselblad, or the newly minted Holga shooter? There is no versus here. No one goes home with a trophy after winning the film vs. digital debate. Armor’s article tries to defeat film photography by dragging it into a competition where the attributes that digital excels at dominate. If the question then is “is it better?,” the answer has to be “no.” But why is that even the right question to ask? What makes a technology “better” at being the thing you happen to like?

The only answer ever necessary on either side of the debate is precisely “because I like it.” The pursuit of happiness isn’t conditional. It is not something that can only be enjoyed by those who have convincing answers to questions that some panel of expert judges deems important to pose. So you’re into photography. Great. Artistic expression in any medium doesn’t need justification. It’s not like you’re doing anyone a disservice by performing brain surgery with IKEA cutlery here. No lives are lost when you choose one method or the other. There are certain things film is not good at, but then don’t use it for those things. Or maybe use it exactly for those things to challenge yourself. To have fun. To make art. To earn a living. To express yourself as a person. Stop making lists and make more pictures instead. Stop dividing the world in two. Just chill.

“The Camera Doesn’t Matter”: Contingencies of a Platitude

The Camera Doesn’t Matter.”

It’s one of those quotes that just won’t go away. It’s recited everywhere, whenever anyone wants to make the point that it’s the artist, and not the brush. Ok. We get it. Those who can’t measurebate. Those who can, well, they just go out and do. Take pictures that is.

Lido, Venice, Italy. Taken with Nikon S10 digital point-and-shoot camera.
Lido, Venice, Italy. Taken with Nikon S10 digital point-and-shoot camera.

You can hear that sentiment repeated over and over again, echoing through the ages. But, much like any other piece of eminently quotable drivel, from the insidious to the inspirational, it doesn’t become truer the morer. In fact, it hugely oversimplifies and denigrates the choice of tools for particular jobs. “Give a child a hammer,” the saying goes, “and the world becomes a nail.” Variations on this “law of the hammer” or “law of the instrument” are to be found all over the place, and the idea relates to analytical concepts from a wide range of academic disciplines, from psychology to economy. (Sidebar: Elsewhere, names like Habermas, Maslow, and Twain get thrown in for good measure. It’s not surprising that they may have had the insight, but it seems improbable that either came up with this idea first.)

Plane landing at National Airport, Washington, DC. Taken with iPhone 4 camera.
Plane landing at National Airport, Washington, DC. Taken with iPhone 4 camera.

“The camera doesn’t matter” is a variation on this, but flips it on its head: if you have a hammer, you can tackle any problem. It’s the un-ironicizing of a purposely ironic idea, if you will. The quote is catchy, no doubt, and it comes with the cachet of being attributed to and having been repeated by many influential voices in photography. The always divisive Ken Rockwell pontificates on it, and Chase Jarvis, yet another internet photography community mainstay, shot a whole photo book with his iPhone. He says that the best camera is the one you have with you. They’re not alone, and certainly not altogether incorrect.

The problem with the “camera doesn’t matter” statement is not the intent in its most benign reading. That is, the sentiment that you can go out there with what you have – iPhone, Rolleiflex, dad’s old point and shoot, sister’s first “serious” SLR from the 1990s – and get something out of it. An image, a learning experience, and hopefully some enjoyment. The problem begins when the sentence is interpreted to mean that equipment never matters.

While buying a high-end DSLR and some showstopping lenses and then ending up with the same uninspired shots with cut off heads that you took with that old APS pocket camera is a major source of frustration among newly minted photographers, it’s not the only valid frustration they have. Not being able to get the kinds of pictures that you wanted because you don’t have the camera you need for them is a close second.

So here’s my take: The camera does matter.

Navy Yard, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta SR-T 100x camera, 35–70 f3.5 MD zoom lens, Agfa APX 100 film.
Navy Yard, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta SR-T 100x camera, 35–70 f3.5 MD zoom lens, Agfa APX 100 film.

Luckily, this view has gained some popularity during the last couple of years. Sure, there is value to downsizing your gear ambitions. Fstoppers’ David Geffin wrote an article in 2013 on the evils of “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” and why one doesn’t need thousands of dollars worth of stuff to make a good photo. But in the same article he also talked about creative ways to deal with the insufficiencies of certain types of equipment, that, when overcome, will make for a better picture. That’s all nice and good, but what if your ambition is not to spend hours in photoshop (the program itself a not inconsiderable expense) but to simply set up your shot and have the outcome you want, as an exposed frame on film or an in-camera JPEG? No, a professional camera won’t make you a professional. And neither will a cheap crappy one take the experience and vision away from a great photographer. But there are several ways in which equipment influences your ability to take pictures, and they fall broadly in two categories: technical – and I include both artistic vision and the benefits of certain techniques or processes of achieving it in this category, and cultural – which has implications both at the end of taking a photo, and at that of selling images in a marketplace.

From a technical point of view, you sometimes need a certain type of technology to make a certain type of image. Night time shots require flashes, or fast lenses and/or high ISO sensors or film. Telezooms, high burst rates and fast autofocus may be he only way to get once-in-a-lifetime shots of sports events. Portraits, to most people’s eyes, will look more pleasing when there’s pleasant bokeh in the background, and when you use a portrait lens.

Barberini Faun, Glyptothek Museum, Munich, Germany. Taken with Fuji S5600/5200 digital bridge camera.
Barberini Faun, Glyptothek Museum, Munich, Germany. Taken with Fuji S5600/5200 digital bridge camera.

If your artistic vision is wholly based on making polaroid transfers, low-fi Lomo type shots, or wall-wide panoramas of the Arctic, you just may require an instrument that is actually capable of providing the material – and at least in the latter case, one that is able to withstand the environment. Depending on who you are and what your ideas or needs are, that might not be the same camera I’d pick for any of these. But only some cameras are capable of certain types of pictures. Great artists and capable professionals know how to work around insufficiencies in their tools, but only to a certain extent. You may be able to fix many things with gaffer’s tape, but it is only the best possible solution for some of them.

Now, assuming that the symbiosis of you and your equipment is technically capable to create the images you desire – or have been commissioned to provide – all is still not equal. The cultural factor comes in many guises. Much like any market, the one for photography is not quite as rational as the followers of Gary Becker would have you believe. People don’t have all the information, and they don’t shop around only for what is actually the best deal (be that the cheapest possible option, the most prestigious one, etc.). They want what they want for sometimes spurious reasons.

Munich Sunset. Taken with Fuji disposable camera.
Munich Sunset. Taken with Fuji disposable camera.

Photographers have ways of influencing what these are. Both as a group, and individually. But here’s the rub: If clients have been made believe (maybe by seeing the results of similar projects and attributing them to cameras more than vision or talent, or by other photographers who have to justify their multi-thousand-dollar purchase of that high-powered Nikon or digital back) they desperately need upwards of 30 Megapixels of resolution to print a billboard, even when 4 used to do nicely in the late 90s, they will seek out photographers that can provide that. If you are just starting out with a camera that may be able to deliver the goods but does not look the part, then good luck to you competing with those who have ones that do. The tools are part of your image as a professional or serious amateur. They tell part of the story that prospective clients will need to hear in order to hire you. Owning a Hasselblad has never hurt anyone’s case for being considered a pro.

New York Second
New York Second. Taken with Fuji X100S digital compact camera.

The reason why no one can agree on the needs, musts and don’ts here becomes obvious once we look at the discussion from this point of view: cultural implications are not exactly the same anywhere, and markets keep on evolving constantly under our feet. Being a fashion photographer in New York in the 1980s is not the same as being one there today – or in 1960, or 1940. It is also not the same as being a wedding photographer in Tokyo at any date in time, or the person who takes passport pictures in Kuala Lumpur. A recent episode of the Lonely Photographers podcast centered around the discussion of whether film is dead or not. Both photographers who talked about the matter serve a roughly equivalent marketplace in about the same cultural space. Predictably, the discussion went nowhere. Both liked the look and feel of film to some extent, but both contended that the realities of their businesses made it impractical for them to use it. The conclusion they reached was to ask others who might have heard the show to tell them about their experiences. It was pretty much the only thing they could do.

H-Street Festival, Washington, DC. Taken with Rollei 35 camera and Kodak BW 400 CN film.
H-Street Festival, Washington, DC. Taken with Rollei 35T camera and Kodak BW 400 CN film.

But the cultural context is by no means limited to who you sell your pictures to, if indeed you do. It is just as important when you take them. If you take pictures of people, this is most clearly visible. While generalizations always fall short of reality, it is nonetheless true that many people react differently to different cameras. Here a “big gun” SLR is often a mixed blessing. The same thing that makes it a perfect professional tool in some settings, such as a studio or photo shoot with hired models, can induce paranoia when you’re walking around town trying to get candid street shots. This is why many street photographers sing the praises of Leicas, mirrorless cameras, and point-and-shoots. (Your personality will also matter here. Chuck Jines walks around Chicago armed with pocket-sized prints of his work and conspicuous Nikons, and he pulls it off). Old-timey TLRs, as a rule, though just as conspicuous, will raise interest rather than suspicion. Smartphone snapshots of anyone and everything have become so common that hardly anyone notices you taking one anymore, now matter how conspicuous. Places that have signs up with crossed-out cameras have begun realizing that they cannot control the sheer mass of people snapping selfies in front of the exhibition. I recently took an instagram shot inside one such museum, and it was promptly favorited by the museum’s official account.

Painted Church, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta X-700, 28mm 2.8 MD lens, Agfa Precisa 100 CT film.
Painted Church, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta X-700, 28mm 2.8 MD lens, Agfa Precisa 100 CT film.

What is the takeaway, if any, of all of this? By saying that the camera does, in fact, matter, I’m not saying that it is always quite as much the deciding factor as many are led – or lead themselves to – believe. Many perfectly acceptable options are cheap, and much expensive gear will give you benefits in extreme situations, but not much beyond that. Do you really care how some piece of machinery rates in an arbitrary test put together according to criteria possibly irrelevant to you, and written by people whse motives and point of view is always at least a bit questionable? Or do you just want to take some pictures? What matters is whether you get the results you want. Are you being honest to yourself about what you can achieve with what you have? There’s a saying that you should “beware the shooter with one gun” because they will surely know how to use it. While you’re unlikely to fall into a timehole and land in the Old West anytime soon, it’s still good advice. Know the tools you have and use them to their full capabilities before you feel jumpy about upgrading. But don’t be held back by some obscure belief that at the nexus of vision and technology, one of the above does not matter. Getting a new camera because you need it to do something the old one can’t (even if that thing is just “look professional”) is perfectly fine. So is doing it if you don’t, but just would like to have it, given you can afford it. But they are both very different things, and it makes little sense to confuse them. If you do, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Now excuse me, I’m going to head out there and take a polaroid portrait, some night time images with a fast prime lens, a picture of that bird that’s nesting in the yard, and a few instagram images of my lunch to be posted ASAP. And no, I won’t be using the same camera for all of them. I suppose I could, but the pictures would be very different than the ones I intend to take.


Note: The images in this post were taken with various cameras, and are of all kinds of subjects. My aim is to provide some “as is” samples of pictures that were taken with the tool I had handy at the moment. You can judge for yourself whether the camera was up to the job.

An Analogue Mode of Seeing

Digital
Digital…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the decade (or by now, decades, I guess) old debate of analogue vs. digital when it comes to photography.

There’s much to be said for each side. And I agree with both of them. One is faster, more economical. The other more permanent and deliberative. And whoever wants to discount one or the other as a whole is arguing from personal incredulity, from a limited horizon, an inability to see what uses a world population numbering in the billions could find for literally any technology ever developed.

Analogue
…or analogue. In the end, it’s all about actually getting the shot.

I love the analogue world, and I love the digital world. I grew up during what is now recognized as the digital revolution. But for a while the old and the new way of doing things existed side by side. Pictures of me as a child were, by necessity, all on film. The first digital picture of me was taken at a trade fair in my home town of Ulm, Germany sometime during the late 1980s. I have long forgotten which forward-thinking company had set up a booth with their then high tech instruments to take pictures of willing attendees. But I remember that my parents sat, one after the other, both me and my brother on the little chair the photographers had set up, and had our pictures taken.

Today these pictures exist only as a faded black and white needle prints of low resolution, hanging on the wall of a staircase at our parents’ house. In what presages a huge problem of today’s digital world, long time archiving of images and documents, the only reason the images still exist is because they were printed out. No one in the 1980s would have thought to offer digital media of raw image data as the end product of a photo session.

Digital
Digital…

My first cameras were 35mm point and shoots. Most of the slides and negatives I took with them during the ’90s still exist in boxes somewhere. Ready to be rediscovered. Analogue has an edge on digital here. In a hundred years, barring flood or fire, they will still be there. But while archiving is always on my mind (I’m a historian, it comes with the territory), the main thing I’ve been thinking about lately, is the problem of scarcity in photography. It’s way of approaching the taking of pictures, and it’s a different but related issue to the archival one.

Analogue
…or analogue. More a matter of taste than anything else.

With film, the number of pictures one can take at a time is limited. 1 for sheet film. Typically between 9 and 36 with various types of roll film. I’d wager the most you can get out of a regular 35mm film cartridge and still achieve acceptable picture quality is around 75 half frame shots. But half frame is not a typical format. For most people the magic number is between 12 and 36 frames before you need to pause and reload. That’s between 12 and 36 pictures before you need to decide to spend time, money, and effort reloading your camera and taking additional pictures. Compare that to a 32GB SD card, an average size these days, which depending on resolution and quality will easily hold up to a couple of thousand pictures. It’s no contest.

Yet, I don’t come away with more keepers when I go out with my digital camera, compared to an analogue one. Digital is like commercial fishing with a net. Analogue is standing in a creek with a fishing rod. Analogue teaches you to get it right, and to move on with your life if you didn’t. Much like pen on paper, what’s written cannot easily be erased. Like most things in the world, that can be a good thing, but also a limitation.

Garry Winogrand, who used to take hundreds of shots in one outing, constantly reloading his Leica with yet another roll of 36 exposure film, has been called the “first digital photographer.” That’s not wrong, when you look at his approach, which used to be atypical, and now has become commonplace because of digital technology, the great enabler. His standing allowed him a way of working inaccessible to those who did not have the name, or the money.

I recently read an article about a photographer who revealed the process behind a stunning portrait he had taken. He had set his camera to take the maximum of consecutive shots per second, picked it up, pointed it at his subject, and let fly. He ended up with more than a hundred similar pictures, and one that was worth keeping. He took it, and cropped and post-processed it to his liking. I was dumbfounded. That was not what I had come to regard as photography. That was shooting some video and then choosing and cropping out a freeze frame.

But I caught myself. I should not discount the image because of the way it was created. Instead, I should acknowledge that someone had found a way of working that let them produce stunning imagery. Why should I care how they did it? As with every technology or technique, as the field matures you need to do something different to distinguish yourself. That might include getting better at whatever that field defines as craftsmanship. Or it might mean redefining what is needed in order to be where you want to be.

We can bemoan that working photographers today do not even know the basics anymore. But it certainly doesn’t help that many of these complaints have an air of ageism – towards young people, in this case – and sexism: an old guard of very technically well versed male photographers needing to reassure themselves that young people, and young women especially, can’t be good photographers just because they produce good images, as long as they don’t understand the arcana of the techno-priesthood. Because reasons. But who gets do define what the basics are 175 years after photography first came into the world? Who after all, are we to judge today’s farmers for not being able to plough a field with a team of oxen anymore?

Myself, I’ve made peace with the inadequacies of each approach, digital or film. I don’t raise my eyebrows anymore when pros and amateurs alike clock in at 500+ photos per day. I’m no purist when it comes to using filters before an image goes into Photoshop, getting exposures right in camera, or getting shots spirit level straight. Turns out, you can fix things in post. Whether you choose to or not is nobody’s business but your own. But when it comes to my way of seeing, I’m still much more of an analogue photographer. I remember the first time I finished a film, the 12 exposure roll that came with a red Konica Pop Super I was given for my ninth birthday, and was shocked to realize that I’d blown the opportunity to take any more photos. I remember how carefully I then planned how many shots I had for any given period of time, be it a trip, vacation, or other event. I also recall that, when I first entered the digital age, I would shoot with no abandon, capturing dozens of frames of the same thing, and somehow never being quite inspired while doing it. Whereas, when I picked up a film camera again two years or so ago, it became part of who I was, and of how I saw things. When shooting digital pictures, I now usually leave the huge memory cards at home. Instead, I’ll go out with two or three 1GB cards. At the highest picture quality setting, that’s 27 exposures in my Fuji X100s.

After that, it’s time for a roll change.

Spiritual Home Camera

Gear Acquisition Syndrome – “GAS” or “gas” – is one of the most insidious things about photography. Admit it, you *know* you don’t need more than one camera. But if you’re like me (and if you came here by googling “GAS,” while I can’t speak for any other similarities, at least when it comes to buying cameras, we seem to be in the ballpark), you still can’t resist acquiring several. And then several more. Because they were cheap. Because they looked cute, or cool, or interesting. Because they have emotional or historical cachet. It’s why I still am longing for a full set of A. Schacht lenses: they were made in Ulm, Germany, the city I was born in, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years. It’s why I’m only barely controling my trigger finger when it hovers over a “Buy It Now” for a Leica M6 in good condition.

SR-T 100x during a lunch break on
SR-T 100x. Spiritual home camera contender. And food.

There’s inspiration to be had by the greats, no doubt. Who, if they’re into photography, hasn’t wanted to duplicate the wanderings of Henri Cartier Bresson or Garry Winogrand with their iconic rangefinder cameras, or wished for a Crown Speed Graphic because Weegee used one? Who could resist the temptation of a large format field camera or a medium format Hasselblad? After all, those were the preferred tools of quasi-god of landscape imagery, Ansel Adams?

I confess, when I read that William Eugene Smith’s famous Miramata documentary series was shot on black Minolta SR-T 101’s, I went straight to eBay to look if I could score one. Despite the fact that I already own a silver colored SR-T 100x, a close cousin. And after seeing, hidden in the back of Luigi Ghirri’s book “Kodachrome,” that he had used a Canon AT1, I googled that model immediately.

Is there something wrong with me? I am very much aware of the fact that more gear frequently only means more things that can break, or get lost. It doesn’t usually mean better pictures. Sure, if you’re a professional, you might really need an 800mm telephoto lens, or a fisheye, or a zoom that’s image stabilized and goes to f2.8 throughout the range. You might live or die by fast autofocus and high ISOs. But then again, “professional” is one hell of a sliding scale of a term, as evidenced by so many opinions out there in the wilds of the web of what constitutes a pro, and what the things are that professionals need or don’t need. Who are we counting? People shooting iPhone pictures to accompany blog posts for which they’re getting paid, if only a pittance? In the strictest sense of the word, we should. Do we count visual artists? Even those who purposely use “vintage” equipment? Small town newspaper shooters, just starting out, provided that species still exists? Wedding photographers who have shot exactly one wedding, or three hundred, or anything in between?

When it comes to the definition of what a professional photographer is, people usually have an idea in their mind that they then present to others, and they make claims based on that idea. They spent years being a sports photographer, and thus proclaim that no professional would ever buy anything but an SLR because of course, we need crazy reliable autofocus and still image frame rates that would but a Super 8 motion picture to shame. And of course, if that image that’ll show up as a maximum 6×4 cm rectangle on a newspaper page or at 150dpi online via the AP isn’t sharp corner to corner, you’re never going to work in this town again. Or they insist that shooting film for weddings is passé, and impossible in this day and age, because you need to be able to give your clients turnaround times that rival that of Smart car. Because, else.

The simple truth is, whether you’re professional, amateur, or somewhere in between, your needs will not be the same as anyone else’s. Sure fashion photographers all work exclusively on medium format. Except those who don’t. Sure, you need at least two reflectors and three speedlight flashes with you at any given time. Unless that’s not your style, and you’ve never even owned a flash.

After getting serious about photography again a year or so ago, it took me about a week to buy my first analog camera, and about six months to decide that what I needed for my style of shooting was a digital Fuji X100s, because all over the internet people loved it for its compactness, image quality, and style. But if I’m honest, this camera – the one I spent by far the most money on – only left me wanting for the thing that it pretends to be but isn’t, a 35mm film Leica.

Maybe if I get that Leica, I’ll finally be content, and will only spend money on film and more of their exorbitantly expensive lenses. But it’s also possible that I’ll soon set it aside and reach for one of my much cheaper SLRs again. Because the camera that’s “you,” much like your personal style, your way of speaking, walking and what you like to eat and watch on TV, is something that happens to you, something that’s not a result but a process. My girlfriend has none of my problems. I gave her a Minolta X300s last year, bought used with a 50mm f1.7 lens from a small camera store in town. When we go out on a photo walk, I stand before my shelf of candidates like a deer in the headlights and eventually decide on something that will likely make me wish I’d brought something else instead later in the day. She grabs her Minolta. She grabs her camera. Because that’s what it is. There’s no contender.

Fed 2 camera
Another camera I didn’t need. Bought because it was… green.

Unlike her, I haven’t found my spiritual home camera yet. (I also credit her with coining that term, by the way). The closest I can come is probably my aforementioned SR-T 100x. The first SLR I ever bought in my life, in the summer of 2013 at a thrift store/antique shop near Munich’s Rotkreuplatz. The money I paid for it was less than what it cost to have it CLA’d, and less also than the leather strap I bought to carry it. The list of things it doesn’t do is longer than the list of things it does. But there’s something right about it. Maybe I keep recalling the words of the seasoned camera repairman that I brought it to for adjustment not long after acquiring it: “Good camera. Very reliable. Good lens. Very sharp.” And really, is there anything else you ever need to know about your camera?

Then again, if there’s ever a black 101 in reach…