Should You Do a 365 Photo Project?

It’s the beginning of the year, so naturally, people have tons of New Year’s resolutions. I chose not to make one. In my latest piece for Fstoppers, I I talk about why a 365-day photo project in particular may not be the best resolution to make.

2nd Tier Superstars, Episode 1: Nikon AF

In this inaugural entry for Second Tier Superstars (check out this post to see what the concept is all about), we’ll be taking a look at some autofocus Nikon SLRs from the late 80s and early 90s.

Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration
(Mostly) Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration

Nikon Autofocus SLRs

Nikon is behind many of the world’s most iconic cameras, and images. A preferred professional’s choice since at least the 1970s, their machines have been there and back again numerous times. They’re also the only manufacturer that kept some semblance of compatibility between the cameras and lenses they made from the all mechanical manual focus era to the digital autofocus SLRs of today. While identifying whether a Nikon lens will work with a specific camera isn’t always straightforward, there’s enough overlap to share a fair amount of lenses between your DSLR and a manual focus Nikon from thirty or forty years ago.

So, what kind of Nikon should you buy? Essentially, there’s two camps here. The one says to get something old school, like an F2, F3, FM2, or the like. Something that has dials and wheels and may even be all mechanical, meaning that when you run out of batteries in the jungles of an unnamed exotic locale, or when all things electronic have long died because of the cold in Antarctica, it will keep ticking. The other is more interested in keeping the usability much the same as with the digital camera they already own, and may even want to use some of their expensive lenses of the newest generation with the old film camera they bring for fun. They will suggest an F100 to you, an F5, or, if you have the money to still buy a film camera in current production, an F6.

Camp 1 definitely has its merits. I’ve had electronics on old cameras fail while far from home, and without a backup camera that means you’ll either scramble to have the one you have with you repaired or replaced, or you go back to snapping pictures on your iPhone. But electronics have become pretty reliable, and the older, mechanical cameras also will likely need some attention by a camera shop before you can use them with impunity. And Camp 2 is right in many ways as well. If you want full compatibility and no compromises and you have the dough, go for it! But here, we’re interested in more modest machines.

The Top Tier

If we’re stepping down a bit, it may be helpful to ask what the top tier of comparable cameras is. For Nikon autofocus, your options essentially are, in chronologically ascending order: F4, F5, F100, F6. The single digit F cameras for Nikon were always the cameras they wanted to sell to professionals. They were state of the art, rugged, heavy, and very very good. The F100 snuck into this listing because it is still relatively expensive at around €200 upwards, and because in technological terms, it sits somewhere between the very specialized F5 and the currently still made and expensive F6.

Second Tier Options

So what are your options just below? Again, chronologically: The F801, F801s, F90, F90x, F80. Below that are many more cameras to consider that are not bad either, such as the F501, F401, F601, F70, etc. But the five listed above are a good representation of what you may be considering if you’re serious about taking pictures on film. Each and every one of these cameras will let you take great pictures. Each has their quirks, and each has their advantages.

My recommendation comes at the intersection of handling and feel of the little machine, capabilities, and reliability. Again, this will be very subjective, but it will be based on careful weighing of all these factors. You may come to a different conclusion, but maybe I can still offer a little help with this write-up.

If you’re thinking about Nikon AF cameras, and handling and feel is important to you, you’ll undoubtedly hear about the F501. It was Nikon’s first camera with integrated autofocus (after an abortive detour with the F3AF, which made the lenses do the autofocusing). It sold millions, and it is a good camera even today. It sits between the two generations of cameras. It has a lot going for it. You can switch out the viewfinder. It takes easy to get AAA or AA batteries. It has automatic film wind. And it doesn’t feel like a plastic piece of junk, it’s still well made. But it also lacks features, like a depth of field preview button (these let you see what in your final image will be sharp and what will not), and it is getting long in the tooth, so it’s not all that reliable anymore. I have one that I had to clean thoroughly before it woke from its decades-long sleep, and it still constantly underexposes two stops. If you have a working one lying around somewhere, though, there’s no need to get rid of it.

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Spot the Difference. Nikon F801s and F601.

I won’t address all the autofocus film cameras Nikon has ever made, there’s just not the space here (and I haven’t used every single one). One camera I want to address, however, because it is so similar to the F801s, is the F601. The F601 is the first Nikon SLR I ever bought. I bought it used, and it works fine. But it shouldn’t be your first choice. For one thing, it takes an odd battery. That’s ok when you have the battery, and some extra ones as backup, but it’s not a great out of the box experience. If you don’t mind the weird battery, keep reading, I have another camera choice for you later on. The F601 also has an odd firmware bug that throws up an error (the display reads “fEE” in that case) that’s usually an indication you are trying to use the camera in program mode and that you haven’t set the lens to the correct, highest aperture. Except the F601 sometimes will do this even when you have set the lens correctly. I tried it with several lenses, and I ended up missing shots because it randomly thought it couldn’t use them. There’s one more thing: the film door. It breaks. You don’t want that. I could be mistaken, but I think you don’t want that.

The Winner Takes It All

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Spot the Difference, Redux. Nikon F801s and F801.

So, which camera should you get? To my mind, the Nikon F801s. In the second tier, the F801 and F801s are very similar, but the F801 has slower and less reliable autofocus, and lacks spot metering. This mode is great for portraits (you switch the camera to spot metering, focus and meter for the face, and the most important thing in your picture will be perfectly exposed every time) so that makes the F801 less useful. The F90 and F90x are nice upgrades to the F801 series in terms of autofocus. They can also be used with big battery grips which will enable faster shooting, balance bigger lenses, and totally make you look like a badass. If that’s a necessity or not, I leave up to you. So why do I not recommend the F90 and F90x? It’s because they don’t reliably meet criterion number five.

In the 90s, Nikon and other camera and lens manufacturers experimented with new, or just different plastics that twenty years later turn out to have an annoying side effect: they disintegrate. You will have trouble finding an f90(x) with its film door perfectly pristine. The rubbery covering is very likely to be gummy, sticky, or flaky. In some rare cases, this annoyed the original owner enough so they got some isopropyl alcohol and removed the excess goo in a very messy process. If you come across such a “cleaned” F90, by all means, buy it. It has what the F801s has, plus the extra advantages described above. But since most of us are either buying online, or don’t have tons of time to ascertain how sticky the camera is, I can’t recommend these cameras here.

This column is about getting a camera that has a good chance of working after you got it and put some batteries in it, and then start taking pictures. If you’re the crafty type, you may enjoy refurbishing cameras. In that case you’ll have a great, cheap camera in the F90 series. But for those of us who just want to go out and shoot, it’s not the best choice.

Glass is Forever

If you see an F801s at a reasonable price point with a lens, go for it. Just make sure you buy a Nikon lens, and not a third party one. Not that those are always bad, but they sometimes have compatibility issues, and once again, we’re trying to buy something that will work out of the box here. If the camera you have set your sights on has any standard zoom, or a 50mm lens, you should be fine for a start. However, many better quality cameras are likely to be sold without a lens, or “body only”. That won’t do you much good. What now? There are literally hundreds of choices at all price points.

Your first lens should be standard zoom, a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF or similar. Don’t pay too much attention to comments on the internet about how such a standard zoom isn’t any good. All the pictures in the gallery above were taken with this lens and the F801s. You’re starting out, and for many people, this was their only lens and it did just fine. These lenses are useful, small, cheap, and they have very pleasing bokeh (the out of focus areas of the image, or what a lot of people mean when they say an image looks “professional.”) Branch out with primes (lenses that don’t zoom), such as Nikon’s still produced and fully compatible 50/f1.8 AF-D, or a 70–200/f4.5–5.6 AF if you like to take portraits and pictures of things that are a bit farther away. After that, the sky’s the limit.

Since we chose the F801s, you will be able to use all of Nikon’s newer lenses on it, as long as they cover the full frame (Nikon lists those as “FX” lenses). Some (the “G” series) will not work in all modes because they lack a ring for selecting aperture, but you will still be able to use them in shutter and program automatic modes. Some (the “AF-I” and “AF-S” models) will not autofocus on the F801s, but you can still manually focus them, as you would on an old school Nikon.

Accessorize and Expand

Once you have your lens needs covered and if you have money left over, buy another lens, or buy a backup body (having one for normal or wide lenses and one for tele, for example, is a great “set” to own). Maybe buy another F801s as a backup, a program back MF-21, or a Nikon SB-24 flash to go with it. Or a remote cable; the F801s takes an early proprietary Nikon type.

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Flash and Program Back. Well worth it.

The program back can be switched out for the normal back door of the F801s without any tools and in a matter of seconds, and it lets you do tons of useful, fun, not useful, and downright weird things with exposure. If you miss those red numbers in the bottom of the frame that showed you when exactly a picture was taken in the 90s, you can do that here with the program back. You can also program long exposures, time lapses, and even a “trigger trap” that will let you focus the camera in a specific spot and have it triggered when something moves there. If you like taking pictures of animals, such as birds in a nest, or want to set up your camera unsupervised in the woods somewhere to catch a bear stealing honey, this is kind of great. It’s probably useful for many other things as well. I’m thinking of setting it up with my F801s and a telephoto lens to catch planes coming in for landing at the airport.

Since the F801s does not have a built-in flash, you may want to get one. The SB-24 is a great choice because it’s versatile, powerful, and relatively cheap. It works with the F801s in a fully automatic mode that won’t have you worrying if you set it up correctly.

If you still don’t know what to do with your money, you seem to have so much of it that you probably didn’t need to start looking for a camera in the second tier. If you still ended up with an F801s, don’t feel like you ended up with second best just because it’s second tier. I’m not in the investment portfolio advice business, but maybe you want to grab dinner with that money, or maybe you want to buy some more film. Yes, that’s it: buy film!

The Hidden Gem

The “hidden gem” is a category I didn’t envision when thinking up this column, but it somehow forced itself on me. It’s what I call a camera that almost fits into the second tier, but not quite because of some criteria, some odd quirk that many people don’t like, or has just been plain forgotten about for no discernible reason. But it’s not strictly a third-tier camera either. It’s the one that got away, the one that finished fourth in the Olympics. For this installment, the hidden gem is the Nikon F601M.

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Hiding. The F601M is easily told apart from its almost identical sister because it has no flash.

The F601M is disqualified from this lineup because, pure and simple, it is not an autofocus camera. It’s great, however, because it is not an autofocus camera but still works like one. Since Nikon’s manual focus lenses (from the AI generation onward) are all compatible to some degree with this generation of cameras, you may have picked some up. You may have grabbed a Series E 50/f1.8 at a flea market somewhere, or been given a couple of old zooms or a wide angle or portrait lens.

The F601M is essentially an F601 with the autofocus and the built-in flash taken out. Instead of autofocus it has a nice, bright viewfinder with a split prism focusing field in the middle. Line up its two halves on the point you want sharpest in your image, and you’re done. It’s easy focusing for situations in which the autofocus fails, or in which you don’t want to use it for other considerations.

That said, there are three downsides to the F601M that may put you off it. For one thing, it does not have a depth of field preview button. And it takes an odd, hard to find lithium battery instead of something more common like the AA batteries the F801 and F801s need to work. And lastly, like the F601, it has a reputation for losing film door hinges. This can be repaired, but that repair will cost you more than the camera, so I wouldn’t buy one on which the door isn’t guaranteed to be ok. Nikon realized at some point that the door hinges on this series were a bit subpar. When the cameras were sent in for repair, new, solid hinges were installed instead. If you get one with this repair already done, you don’t need to worry about the door ever again. If you can live with these limitations, it makes a great companion to the F801s.

That’s it for episode 1. I hope you got something out of it. If you have suggestions for future superstars I should take a hard look at, put them in the comments, or throw them at me on Twitter, @ictusoculi.

TL;DR: Buy an F801s (a.k.a. N8008s) with a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF lens.

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.

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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!

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

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.

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…