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Return to Film – Cameras

I wrote an article about my change back to using film and film cameras in February of this year; which I published here in September (Return to Film) and even though it is only three months later, the journey has continued and my views and experiences have evolved to a point where I can look back at the very recent past and question many aspects of film photography.

I truly believe that if I had started this journey in my teens; when film was part of everyones life; then it would have taken me a couple of decades to experience what I have done in less than one year. I guess that this is a factor of modern life as the rate of change continues to accelerate in all areas of our lives.

So what has prompted me to write a part two so soon after the first post?

Well, the post gets consistently more hits than anything else I have ever written on any blog or micro-blog site. It actually accounts for around 30% of all hits on this blog. So perhaps instead of writing articles that are more diatribe than anything, I should stick to writing about film and cameras as this seems to be what people want to read.

I also have polarised my views about film and cameras over this time – and think that this is perhaps a little relevant to anyone else starting out on this journey than my last article.

So let’s talk about cameras.

When I started using film again I became very quickly obsessed with getting more cameras and different films to try out as much as I could in as short a time as possible. At the time, I am sure that many people suggested to use just one camera for a 6 month period and learn from this one option and use the camera as my constant.

Looking back, I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt, that this is the best advice I could have taken and if asked for advice today; then it is exactly what I would say to anyone.

If I could travel back in time to Feb and start the journey again – would I take this advice this time – not a chance!

This isn’t just because I am pig headed but because my 6 months of collecting and learning from what can only be described as a collection of other peoples trash has been a fun experience. It hasn’t been an expensive process, as I have stayed away from the Leica and Hassleblad standard of cameras and gone for the mass market cameras from the 70’s to the modern plastic copies.

Today, as I look at the cameras I have accumulated, I now understand the similarities and differences between them and also I understand which ones I will never use again.

So the ones I will never use again (and will gift on to anyone that wants them) include;

The Spinner from Lomography. Not only does it take bad photographs with any film below 800ISO and great light conditions – but it puts the photographer in the picture too with a pointy finger.

The Spinner is the camera that you will use as a joke with your friends; it’s a novelty camera for capturing that moment before puberty kicks in and so I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from it.

I did expect it to take ok pictures from an exposure and colour perspective – but this seems to be less important than the idea of the camera itself.

Most but not all Plastic Cameras. Now this isn’t a knock Lomography rant – as I have the Lomo Lubitel 166+ to thank for getting me back to film. This particular point is aimed at plastic cameras that have jumped on the Holga bandwagon and are over priced and generally deliver a poor image.

I love some plastic cameras and rate the Holga and the Lubitel as two of my favourite cameras.

These two are from the early days with the Lubitel (as I have to admit it hasn’t been one I have used for a few months).

For the Holga, I should have some new images coming up in the next week or so as I am currently travelling with it in Sri Lanka.

The plastic cameras that I would steer people away from include the Superheadz Wide Little Angel – as this isn’t really wide at all and is not a great camera. I would also say not to waste money on the super expensive LC-A+ Wide Angle Lens, as this just distorts everything and if you like this distortion, then just go all the way and get yourself a fish eye instead.

Don’t bother with the hard to find TolNe – as this is poorly made and is a fraction of the camera that is the Holga whilst being more expensive.

If fact, if you want to go basic – just buy the Holga and forget the rest as overpriced tat.

Having said I don’t mind Lomography, there is one aspect that I don’t like about the movement. The basic premise you always hear from them is that any image is a valid Lomo image (as long as you only use one of their cameras that is).

However, bad photographs are just bad photographs and not suddenly “great Lomo images”.

For a fraction of the plastic price you can buy a 1970’s SLR or rangefinder of Point and Shoot for a give away price that is going to be more versatile for you, last longer and give you more fun than the plastic alternative.

The Fuji Natura Classic. Sold as having a “special” mode for taking shots in poor lighting conditions when combined with a film over 800 ISO – it is in fact an overpriced point and shoot that like all cameras gives better results using a faster film in poor lighting. There isn’t anything special going on here – the camera just has some internal changes to the speed and apperature in poor lighting. If you have an LC-A or LC-A+ then you just need to change the film speed on the camera (i.e. push or pull) and you will get the same if not better results.

Having said all of the above; I would say that all the above cameras do have merits – if only to teach you a lesson in what not to buy in the future or what you are looking to achieve. It seems many people are happy to have a basic little plastic camera as they use a DSLR for anything serious anyway. It can just be a bit of fun if that is what you are looking for.

There are two basic plastic/paper cameras that I would rate and suggest to anyone wanting to learn about photography and they are the Gakkenflex kit camera and any Pinhole camera made from scratch.

The Gakkenflex I have came in a Japanese magazine and is a bit like a model you do as a child but without the glue. Mine took me about an hour to build and afterwards you have a basic TLR that takes 35mm film and have learnt some basics about camera construction.

The Pinhole I made was also a Japanese kit by Suzuki using paper and a pre-made pin hole that is about an f120.

Winding on the film for the right amount was a bit of an issue as you can see from the pictures below – but I have had great fun trying everything from 1 second to 40 minute exposures. It is a shame I live in Hong Kong where the light pollution is so bad as it would be perfect to leave outside overnight to capture the trails of the stars at night.

Having gone through the bad choices I have made in Cameras – now here is the part about cameras that people don’t tell you up front.

No camera can do everything for you – ever.

If like most people you take a range of pictures from Portraits to Landscapes, to Street – then you need different cameras for this. Some people will tell you that you just need a range of lenses and one body, but I personally disagree.

So here are my handful of cameras that get used all of the time and the reasons why;

Some cameras can blend nicely across a couple of photographic areas – for example I have a Voightlander Bessa L with a 15mm Heliar Lens that is amazing for architecture but is also fantastic to capture fast moving street images. The camera doesn’t have a built in view finder and so uses a separate view finder that matches the 15mm lens. It also isn’t a rangefinder so you have to guess distances but with the Heliar lens the DOF is so wide that even using the smallest stop of f4.5, you will get a focal range of 1m to infinity and f16 gives you everything from 0.3m to infinity – which is the full range of the lens.

This isn’t a camera for portraiture and isn’t very good for indoor scenes for instance; as the separate view finder sits where the flash gun would sit. To be honest, with 110 degrees of view on the lens I have never put a flash on this camera and only use it in the day or at night on a tripod with a B setting. The camera is from the 90’s and can be easily found on ebay as people tend to shy away from a camera without a built in view finder. Voightlander also still do a range of Heliar lenses from 12mm to 35mm that will give you varying width to your shot should you want something different on the body but personally 15mm for me is wide enough to keep bending at the side of the shot in check.

For Portraits I have a clear winner and it is the Hassleblad copy the Kiev 88 which is often called the Hasslebladski.

This is a 6×6 camera that uses the same lenses as my Kiev 60 and so I have a 2.8/80 and a 3.5/65 for this camera from Mir and Volna respectively.

There is a lot of bad press about the Kiev MF cameras – and yes, if I was a professional I would not be using Kiev as they are a little temperamental and tend to have their own way about frame spacing when they please.

Where they win for me is simple;

– they are cheap ($300 will buy you a Kiev 88 with metering prism, WLF and lens from a buyer with a reputation to keep on ebay).

– The Mir and the Volna lens have great DOF control and give a dream quality to the image that I don’t see in many cameras.

I am still learning about portraiture and know at this point I tend to get a little too in peoples faces – but below are a couple of the highlights for me from the most amazing MF camera I have used.

The thing that I find so amazing about this camera is that neither of these pictures have been manipulated in anyway at all. This is how the images came out through use of film/filters/natural light and good old fashioned luck.

The downside of this camera is the weight. It isn’t a camera that you travel easily with and it also takes time to set up correctly for use. The positive side is that the only battery in the camera is for the TTL meter in the prism – which can be swapped for the WLF and a separate meter for a much lighter option – and also of course means that the camera will always work even if your battery dies.

For lightweight MF photography using a fixed lens camera and super wide 6×9 negatives I have a Fuji GW690II. This takes 8 images on a 120 film and is fantastic for capturing big scenes. There is something about the lens that makes the images bright and have an almost painted look to them.

This is a massive camera to look at but remarkably light with the fixed lens and a thin but very strong body.

I choose to travel happily with this camera over the Kiev 88 or Kiev 60. It is simple in it’s rangefinder construction and reliable and getting slide film developed gives you a 6×9 negative that you could use on it’s own because they are so big.

And finally to my last choice of a camera I can use every day in many situations – the Mamiya MSX1000 from 1972.

This is a 35mm SLR; not as famous as cameras like the Nikon FM2 or Olympus OM2 and maybe not as good as these cameras – but for US$ 40 from ebay I bought this Mamiya, a Yashica TL Electro and Rollei B35 plus a spare 135mm prime lens for the Mamiya – and so the choice as to what 35mm SLR I would use was made for me.

As the name suggests it has a maximum speed of 1/1000th and uses a prime 55mm lens that stops down to 1.8. It has a TTL needle meter that matches my hand held meter for accuracy and is so reliable that it was the camera I took into the theatre at the birth of my son earlier this year.

I generally only use a 55mm prime lens on this camera and although I know at some point I am going to change this in for a FM2 for the faster speeds and the Nikkor super fast lens, but at this point I can not find a way to fault it and the way it operates at all.

Here are a range of different picture types that for me, make this my favourite camera for more occasions than any of the others listed above.

Having just rescanned this post I realise that I should have stopped writting and adding pictures a long time ago – so here is the simple summary of views that I have after this year;

– Don’t assume that your journey back to film is going to end with only one camera.

– Use thrift shops, junk shops, friends, relatives and ebay to find old forgotten treasures rather than committing too much money too soon on the camera you think is going to give you everything you want and need – as it probably won’t.

– Read other peoples blogs and discussion groups on sites like Flickr to find answers.

– Try as many options in cameras as you can – some will be a waste of time, but you won’t actually know that until you have tried.

– Keep an open mind about cameras and photography and remember what I have written is about my experience and not anyone else’s and so this isn’t the answer that you will find in your journey.

– Take a camera with you everywhere you go and then use it.

– Don’t take pictures indiscriminately but think about what you are doing and what you would like to achieve before you press the shutter.

– Keep reading this blog as even if it is going to tell you nothing new about photography – it will at least give you someone to laugh at or with.

The Next Return To Film is going to be about Processing Black & White Film. And should appear on or around Christmas of this year.

Posted by simon on November 16, 2010
6 Comments Post a comment
  1. 11/17/2010

    simon, as always, a pleasure to read your blog entries. i learn a lot from your perspective, and i like your engineer’s approach to analogue photography.

    • 11/18/2010

      thanks for the comments and glad that these articles are useful to people

  2. 11/28/2010

    hello I was luck to come cross your topic in digg
    your topic is superb
    I obtain a lot in your topic really thanks very much
    btw the theme of you blog is really exceptional

  3. 12/17/2011

    Wowza was kinda shocked to see the size of the Fuji mf that mother is bigger than an f5 and I wouldn’t call them small all the same I think I’ll still try one at some point great post btw look forward to the next cheers

    • 12/22/2011

      Pierre, Bigger but lighter I think and less complex with fully manual functions only.


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