on photography

A journey of cameras

I’ve never thought of myself as being a victim of ‘gear acquisition syndrome’ but looking at the number of cameras that I have, perhaps I am …

I have always justified owning several cameras by arguing that each is specific to a photographic need and, whereas there is some truth to this, it’s not the whole story. I just really like cameras. I have early memories of when my father taught me how to use his Contessa in the Rio de Janeiro of the early 1960s. Recently I found myself reflecting on the reasons for buying each camera that I have owned.

The progression tells the story of a journey into photography, from film to digital and back to film then to an uneasy truce between film and digital that still continues to this day.

Some photographers would say that a camera is just a tool. They do a job and that’s all you need from them. Yes, a camera is a tool, but not ‘just’ a tool. This is to do disservice to what a tool can be. Of course, the functional aspect of a tool is primary. What defines a tool is the service it affords.

But there is more afoot here because doing a job well involves more than completing a task effectively. Good tools give feedback, and therefore the tactile relationship between a tool and its user deserves due consideration.

Consider a screwdriver that fits a screw head perfectly but one with an uncomfortable handle. It does a job really well, but at the end of a long day it leaves a blister in the heel of the palm. And so it is with cameras. A camera has to be as simple as possible for the job in hand, a joy to use. Controls are accessed through touch rather than sight. Haptic design, an understanding of the camera through touch, is important. An important question before buying a camera is: ‘will it be a joy to use?’

What follows is a chronological list of cameras that I have known and mostly still own, and how they have contributed to my photography.

Early Days and film

Kodak Box Brownie

This was my eighth birthday present. My father was a good photographer – I got my passion for photography at a very young age from him and I was thrilled when he bought this camera for me. I remember him telling me always to look to the back of a scene to make sure that it did not spoil the photograph.

I loved it and took it everywhere. It was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I saw in the morning. I still have some of the photographs that I took with it. The picture of the camera is off the internet, as alas I no longer have it. The photograph is of Lichfield Cathedral in England taken in c.1962 with my Box Brownie. It’s nice to see the lack of street furniture and street signs back in those days.

Kodak Brownie (stock picture)
Lichfield Catherdral, Kodak Brownie, c 1962 Tony Cearns

Olympus OM1

This was my first ‘serious’ camera which my Dad gave me in 1978 and so holds a special place in my collection. The OM-1 is a mechanical SLR with centre-weighted TTL metering. At the time it was touted as the smallest and quietest SLR on the market. It had a bright viewfinder. I used it with a standard Zuiko 50mm 1.8 lens and a Zuiko 35-70mm zoom f3.5/4.5 lens. I still have the system but have not used it in many years. Recently I have been thinking to have it serviced. The battery chamber may need changing as the old batteries are no longer made.

I used the camera on my mountaineering and wilderness trips in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly with slide film. I remember carrying it attached to a tripod on a 10 day walk from one coast of England to the other and on another winter walk from north to south Wales. It has a lot of memories for me.

This picture of a climbing partner was taken about halfway up the Aguille de Sialouze in the French Maritime Alps in the early 1980s.

Olympus OM1
Auguille de Sialouze, French Maritime Alps, Olympus OM1, © Tony Cearns

First steps into digital

Canon 5D Mark 1

My first sortie into digital in about 2007! I remember this was expensive, being a full frame DSLR with several lenses: 50mm 1.4, 70-200mm f2.8L IS USM and a wide-angle lens (but I can’t remember which). It was a good functional system, but to be honest I didn’t really enjoy using it. It was heavy and attracted a lot of attention when I used it for street photography. I ended up selling the system.

I don’t have any photographs that I kept. That tells a story. A very good camera in its day but not one that I could feel an attachment to. It was not a joy to use.

Back to film

Voigtlander Bessa R2

2011 saw my renewed interest in film. I liked the simplicity of a rangefinder and settled on an olive-green Voigtlander Bessa R2 with a set of Voigtlander lenses which I found in Hong Kong for a good price. I still use the Bessa but sold the lenses once I decided to use a Leica rangefinder with Leica lenses. The Bessa has an M mount so I can attach my Leica lenses to it.

At the time the camera was dubbed the ‘poor man’s Leica’, but I never saw it that way. It has one advantage over the Leica: it weighs less. It was a good price for a simple easy-to-use rangefinder. The picture is of my kids after a graduation day in London. It’s a camera I really like.

Voigtlander Bessa R2 with Leica Summilux
Picture of my kids after graduation, Bessa R2

Staying with Digital

Leica M9-P

When I was 15 years old I wanted a Leica M3. I wanted to take photographs like Henri Cartier-Bresson and had designs on being a war photographer. My father and I used to look at a Cartier-Bresson book together. I asked my father for an M3 but he said he could not afford it – so I saved up my pocket money and travelled into London’s Trafalgar Square’s south side. At the time there was a second-hand Leica shop there. I think I had saved about £50 which was a fortune for me. I got a shock when the shop owner said that the price of an M3 body was £150! So, I went home empty-handed and forgot all about Leicas.

Ah – the power of branding! It is very hard not to like a Leica rangefinder. So after an OK career, in 2011 I bought a Leica M9-P with the standard 50mm Summilux 1.2 lens. It was wonderful, particularly with colour images. I still have it. It has served well, although today it is a little slow in dim conditions and a little heavy in the hand.

The picture was taken in Berlin at the East Side Gallery.

Leica M9 with 50mm Summilux
East Side Gallery, Berlin; M9-P

Ricoh GR

I bought this camera specifically for street photography. It is small therefore discreet, works well at high ISOs and has a very helpful optional zone-focusing system. At the time it really was the ideal street camera. The only trouble was that it acquired a fault after 18 months – the lens would not retract back into the camera housing.

I googled the problem and read that the issues could not be fixed. I still have the camera as I can’t believe this can be so. But the experience has left me not being well disposed to Ricoh gear. Also, I did not find the controls intuitively simple to operate.

The picture was taken in Padova, Italy.

Ricoh GR
Padua, Italy. Ricoh GR

Film only phase

Leica M-A (Film)

One of the cameras of my boyhood dreams. It’s not an M3, of course, but as close as you can get in a new camera. Perhaps it’s better!

I really like its simplicity, solidity and engineering. It feels nice in the hand and it comes up fast to the eye. I use it with the 50mm 1.2 Summilux, a 35mm Summicron, a 28mm Elmar and an old 35mm Elmarit. Most of the time it comes with me coupled to the tiny 28mm Elmar as a travel camera.

The picture is of Tuaillon’s Amazon in Berlin was taken with it. It was printed by Andrew Sanderson using his paper negative technique during a workshop at his darkroom. I subsequently found out on a recent trip to Berlin that this picture can no longer be taken as the background against the museum wall is now taken up by catering outlets.

Leica M-A (film) wuth 35mm Elmar
Tuaillon’s Amazon, Berlin, Leica MA with 35mm lens, ©Tony Cearns, printed by Andrew Sanderson from a paper negative

Hasselblad 503

My move into medium format film work. Beautiful engineering, very solid, wonderful lenses. I use the 80mm Zeiss Planar, the 50mm Zeiss Distagon and the 120mm Zeiss Makro-Planar.

I mainly use it for assignments: landscape, portrait and still-life. Most of my photographs taken in North Dakota were with the Hassie.

The picture is of an abandoned jacket in an abandoned North Dakota farm. It was lith printed and toned. This camera has taught me the most about composing.

Hasselblad 503cw
Abandoned Jacket, North Dakota; Hasselbld 503cw, 80mm Planar, Lith printed © Tony Cearns

Olympus Trip

In my opinion the Trip is a good film street camera, although it has limitations in dim conditions. Its zone focusing makes it a point-and-shoot camera, so it is very fast to use and small enough to pocket. I love it.

Olympus Trip 35
Park in Berlin, Olympus Trip 35, © Tony Cearns

Zero 6×6 Pinhole

I just love pinhole. This Zero 6×6 is very nice to use and comes with a helpful lens filter thread and a shutter cable attachment.

I took a picture of an abandoned slate mill in North Wales with it using Ilford FP4 film.

Abandoned slate mill, North Wales, Zero 6×6, FP4; © Tony Cearns

Mamiya Six Automat Folder

This camera was made in about 1956. I wanted a portable medium format rangefinder and this fitted the bill perfectly.

What I particularly like is the Zuiko lens, the fact that the film is held very flat by a plate, the fast rangefinder focus wheel and the automatic shutter cocking with each film advance. It’s a brilliant design and has become one of my walk-about camera.

I was lucky to find one in great condition – it just needed a tweek to the rangefinder and a CLA. The leather case looks good and it came with the original box and marketing literature, a lens hood and a filter – all the way from Japan.

Mamiya-6 Automat
Hereford Cathedral, Mamiya-6 Automat © Tony Cearns

RSS 6 x 12 Pinhole

RSS 6×12 Pinhole camera

I love the results of this camera. A littly fiddly to load with film but OK once you get the hang of it.

My philosophy room, Rss 6×12; pinhole, Ilford FP4; © Tony Cearns

Walker large format 5 x 7

A big statement to my commitment to film and a new departure into large format. It’s a wonderful camera, light for its size and robust in its construction. It has opened my eyes to a new way of working. I have only recently started with it, so plenty to do this summer.

Walker Large Format 7×5
From paper negative, Walker 7×5.

A more selective use of Digital

Fujifilm x100v

Street photography continues to be important to me, although in recent years I have spent most of my time on landscape and documentary work. I have done quite a bit of street work with my film cameras (primarily Leica M-A and Olympus Trip 35), I realised that I was missing lots of opportunties in certain situations. Sometimes you need a fast autofocus camera.

Fujifilm x100v © Tony Cearns

The Fujifilm x100v is, I think, an exceptional digital camera for street work. It’s small, unobtrusive, fast and, importantly, intuitive to use.

Final Words

It has been a long journey. Each camera has taught me much. Some have fallen by the wayside but most are still going strongly. Each fills a niche and each gives me a different perspective on the world. Film and digital now co-exist.

2 Comments

  1. Anand Baranwal

    Hai, nice information, for oldies who have used and loved with their passion and experience. Keep it on I loved to see such beautiful Article. Dr Anand Baranwal

    • Sidewayseye

      Thank you Anand . I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

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