Shooting With Classics
For The Subjective Approach
This is about putting some of the fun, mystery, and control back into image making. Do you ever feel that something is interfering in the process of making a photograph? That somehow you are not in control of it? Some of that feeling has to do with the almost total camera automation that has taken over photography. You look through the finder, see an expression or decide on composition and that's where your relation to the image stops.
You press the shutter and the camera takes over some of the most important aspects of photography. Cameras, despite algorithms and programs that encompass a wide range of image making, can't think. Automation--exposure, focusing, and motor driven film advance--definitely has its place. There are times when you need automation. It frees you to shoot quickly when the subject is constantly changing or when something important happens. But you fall into the trap of total dependence on a robot. Automation is great, but it can also create images that look like everybody else's.
Auto SLRs let you go manual--but that's a switch most photographers never touch. It's just too tempting to rely on the camera to make the image. But it really is the photographer who makes the picture. By always shooting automatically you give up the tools that make a difference--aperture, shutter speed, and in many cases, focus. Photography becomes an objective business. It's the subjective approach, the personal involvement with all the aspects of image-making, that makes your pictures different.
The solution? Turn the clock back. Making images with classic cameras can return you to the discipline and sense of creativity that you need to make good photographs--images that reflect your way of seeing and that are different from everyone else's. Go-ing back in time restores a missing dimension that you'll keep when you return to shooting with your automatic focusing and exposure SLRs. You will find that second guessing the camera based on your image concept produces better photos. It also teaches you how to use image controls on your auto camera that you may have never touched; it certainly reawakens the mystery and joy of making images.
Making (as opposed to taking) photographs with cameras that lack modern refinements slows the process down--and forces you to think. That doesn't mean you can't shoot quickly when the situation demands it, but it does take developing familiarity with the camera.
Don't get me wrong. I still use auto SLRs for a lot of my image-making. I return to classic cameras that require focusing as well as setting shutter and aperture manually when I find myself getting bored with automation or when I have the need to be personally involved with the process. When I go back to my auto SLRs I remember that cameras can't think and to use automation as a tool.
Over the years I've managed to acquire a few classic cameras and some that are not so classic but definitely good image-makers. If you look in the display window or behind the counter in many camera stores you'll see old but usable rangefinders and SLRs. If you decide to buy, check the lens for fungus and work the shutter at all its speeds. Unless you get really lucky the shutter speeds will be something less than accurate. Actually, mechanical shutters always left something to be desired in the way of accuracy. You can either learn to compensate or have the shutter adjusted. A camera technician can supply you with the actual speed for each setting. Also open the back and check the shutter material. Time can do some terrible things to a cloth shutter. I have cameras that are more than 40 years old and the cloth is still in good shape. You should also inspect the bellows on folding cameras for light leaks. Shining a flashlight on the inside of the bellows should reveal them. Bellows can be replaced--but it won't be cheap so check before you buy.
Shoot at least one roll to make sure that everything is working properly and get a money back guarantee.
Check the mail order ads in Shutterbug since they often list classic and old cameras.
One of my favorite cameras is the Canon G-III QL. You can make a strong case for it being the antecedent of today's point-and-shoot cameras.
It was ahead of its time with a quick load system. You simply drop in the film and extend the leader. When you close the back a platen drops over the leader and working the film advance lever completes the loading operation. Not quite as fast as today's auto loading--but fast enough. It has a semiautomatic exposure system, too. You set the aperture dial to A, select a shutter speed and the camera does the rest. I prefer taking a reading and setting the aperture manually, making whatever exposure modifications I think will produce the best image.
The G-III QL is small enough to fit into a pocket and its lens--a 40mm f/1.7--is fast enough for available light shooting. There's also a dedicated flash that works with an aperture control system on the lens but I never use it since I shoot primarily with available light. It's a good camera for relaxed shooting around town in black and white and color. The 1/500 sec top speed is fast enough to stop a lot of action and the 40mm focal length is great for scenics so it's also my skiing camera.
In the early 1950s newspapers were already starting the trend away from the 4x5 Speed Graphic and toward the twin lens reflex. I was sports editor of a small daily newspaper and since I also had to shoot pictures for the section I acquired a Rolleiflex. Minolta and Yashica TLRs were also popular in newsrooms and cost considerably less than a Rolleiflex.
I acquired a second Rollei that is a bit newer but not by much--and use them both for scenics or landscapes--one loaded with color and the other black and white. Old Rolleis are still available for as little as $90. But I have a hunch that they may be hard to find. And if you do find one it's liable to be a basket case. Generally prices for used TLR Rolleis range from $750 to $1500.
If you've never used a twin lens camera it doesn't take long to get used to the relatively low angle of view. It's a different way of seeing. It's great for kids and the twin lens used to be the standby of child photographers. My 1950 Rollei converts to eye-level viewing, eliminating the focusing screen and lens. Great for sports action where the focus is usually at infinity.
A friend gave me a Zeiss Ikon Ikonta folding camera that sat on a closet shelf until one day I needed to shoot 6x9mm (21/4x31/4) for an assignment involving my Minolta Dimge Super scanner. What it doesn't have may be more important for good image-making than what it has. No meter, rangefinder, or lens interchangeability but it does have a frame finder. It's a camera that figuratively (and perhaps literally), makes you stop and think. You shoot four images on a 120 roll of film and it makes you think about every exposure. I use it primarily mounted on a light tripod for landscapes and scenics. Since there is no rangefinder you need to think carefully about setting the footage scale and depth of field. You also need to cock the Compur shutter before every exposure. There's also a sort of double exposure prevention. The shutter won't work unless you turn the film advance control. A ruby window on the camera back shows the frame number but it is not easy to read in low light.
Is it worth the trouble? For me the answer is obviously yes. The 105mm-f/3.5 Tessar lens is sharp over the entire image area which adds up to easy cropping that overcomes to some degree the lack of lens interchangeability. It's also a camera that Eugene Smith is said to have used.
Being left handed my Exakta is another classic camera favorite that I like to use on occasion. The film advance is on the top of the left side of the camera. The preset shutter release is on the front left. Presets came before automatic aperture stop down and the quick return mirror. You set the lens aperture and then operate a lever under the lens barrel that opens the Carl Zeiss 58mm f/2 lens to maximum aperture for focusing. Press the shutter release and the lens closes down and the mirror moves up out of the way for the exposure. You cock the film advance lever to return the mirror to viewing position. The split image rangefinder is big by today's standards, making it easy to use. The Exakta is one of the first SLRs to reach the US and it is probably the clunkiest SLR ever made. But it sort of puts you in touch with what photographers had to put up with and why the rangefinder camera held on until the SLRs went through some important changes. Japanese manufacturers pooled their research, each attacking different areas--quick return mirror, shutter material, auto diaphragm, metering and other improvements that needed to be made if the SLR was to reach its potential. They laid the groundwork for the modern automated SLR.
My ancient Contax III rangefinder (1950s I would guess) is my back-up camera when I travel. My Contax III has a built-in non-coupled selenium cell exposure meter. Selenium cells worked differently than modern exposure meters. Light striking its baffled surface generates electrical current that operates the meter mechanism. They require larger baffles for acceptable low-light sensitivity, making them impractical for 35mm. But the Contax III is fun to use. Mine has shutter speeds up to 1/1250 sec and its 50mm Sonnar f/1.5 is impressively sharp. Sonnar is one of the legendary lens names. Nikon modeled its S-Series rangefinder cameras on the Contax III design. They were the first to reach the US. In fact, Nikon S-Series rangefinder lenses for the Contax III have virtually the same interchangeable mounts.
The Contax III is relatively small and attracts little attention when I use it for street photography. It's not heavy but it has a healthy, solid feel that lends itself to handheld, slow shutter speed shooting. You turn the coupled focus wheel at the top, right side of the camera to adjust the superimposed rangefinder. And if you've never used a superimposed rangefinder it may make you wonder why it was ever abandoned. It's fast, accurate, and easy to use. Actually, it won't work for SLRs since it requires a second window on the front of the camera. The rangefinder has limited lens interchangeability but photographers made up for it with mobility.
The great thing about selenium cell meters is that they never seem to wear out. When I really want to turn the clock back I use my 1956 Weston meter with the Rolleis and the Contax III.
The Contax III has also been an important influence in the way I shoot. I took it along as a back-up camera on a recent trip to the Middle East and I found myself using it more than my SLRs. It is quieter, lighter, and is easier to handle. I am planning to switch over much of my photography to rangefinder cameras--albeit it a bit more modern--along with the Contax III.
My Practica is a pre-automation SLR with a bright spot in the middle of its ground glass focusing screen and quick return mirror. It was made in the German Democratic Republic and imported under various proprietary names. It has an auto diaphragm and a thread mount, similar to the one on early Pentax SLRs, with literally hundreds of lenses available from a variety of manufacturers. It also had a built-in non-coupled selenium cell meter. The meter leaves something to be desired, making you depend on your own experience with light to set the exposure. As usual with this approach you can expect to make errors--with exposures that are way off the mark. But it's part of the process of getting back to basics. After a while the mistakes are fewer and the results a lot more satisfying. You begin to use the meter as an aid rather than depending on it to make the image. No one said using classic cameras is easy.
Okay, if you decide to turn back the clock there are all sorts of places where you can find old cameras. You're reading one of the best sources right now. Shutterbug is filled with classic cameras, in both the display and classified ads.
Shooting with older cameras brings you back in touch with what image-making is all about. They reintroduce you to the controls and the kind of personal approach that make your images different.