A journey of cameras

I’m not interested in keeping up with camera gear nor am I interested in ‘retail therapy’ but over the years I have acquired several camera systems for one reason or another. Recently I found myself reflecting on the reasons for buying each one. The progression tells a story – one towards increasing simplicity of technology and increasing pictorialism of outcome.

I have heard some photographers say that what matters to them is the final result – the means to the end (i.e. the camera) does not interest them. I’m not sure I completely believe someone who says this. It is implausible to me that an artisan is disinterested in his or her tools.

My experience is that my cameras are important in shaping how I feel when taking photographs. How I feel has an effect on the photographs that I take. Looking through the frame lines of a Leica rangefinder with one eye whilst simultaneously taking in a wider perspective with the other gives a particular way of seeing the world that is difficult to replicate when using a digital view finder. For me the digital screen (sic: viewfinder) gets in the way of my relationship to my subject.

Of course photography is not about the gear, but the gear is important because it can teach you something.

What follows is a list of cameras that I have known and how they have contributed to my photography.

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 picture of Lichfield Cathedral in England was taken in c.1961 with my Box Brownie. It’s nice to see the lack of street furniture and street signs back in those days.

I remember well my first assignment: a horse racing training stables.

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 half way up the Aguille de Sialouze in the French Maritime Alps.

Canon 5D Mark 1

My slide 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. I ended up selling the system.

I don’t have any photographs that I kept. That tells a story. A very good camera but not one that I could feel an attachment to.

Voigtlander Bessa R2

2011 saw my slow return to film. I liked the idea 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.

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. I asked my father for one but he said he could not afford it (later he bought me an OM1) – so I saved up my pocket money and traveled into London’s Trafalgar Square’s south side which at the time had a second-hand Leica shop. I think I had saved about £60 which was a fortune for me. I got a shock when the shop owner said that the price of an M3 body was £200! 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 color images. I still have it – the only working digital kit I still own.

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

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 was another stepping stone towards giving up with digital cameras and their obsolescence.

The picture was taken in Padova, Italy.

Leica M-A

This jump to a fully mechanical film rangefinder without an exposure meter was the decisive break from digital. I could have used my Bessa with Leica lenses but I had always wanted a Leica film camera from my teenage years. Expensive, but I just went for it.

I really like its solidity and engineering. 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 goes with me coupled to the tiny 28mm Elmar as a travel camera.

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

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 last year 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.

Olympus Trip

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

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.

The picture is of an abandoned slate mill in North Wales I took last Winter.

zero 2000

Mamiya Six Automat Folder

My latest purchase. The 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 will likely become 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.

This is the first photograph I have taken with it – a forest scene near to my home.

I ask myself, which camera would I keep if I could only have one. That’s tough to answer as they do different jobs. I think it would be my Leica M-A for its portability and quality. I am looking forward to using my Mamiya folder though.