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.

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

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

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.

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…