If you want to love a camera, use it. Intimate familiarity and appreciation for results are what bond us to cameras, and only long practice—use—accomplishes that trick. You can still hate a camera you've used a lot (example: the Kodak Instamatic 105 I took on my seventh grade trip to Gettysburg, Penn.—no amount of use would have let me feel a twinge of love for that device), but that just affirms that the shopping choice does indeed have some importance. But good shopping is at most maybe a third of what's needed to love a camera. The other two thirds come from getting to know it and using it a lot. Start with a camera you basically like and think is good in some way; then learn its ins and outs, and practice with it, overcoming your uncertainties about how it works and what it does; then use it assiduously over a long period of time for work that you care about, learning its strengths and also how to cope with its weaknesses—that's how a camera becomes a favorite tool.
As a longtime camera reviewer I've used a large number of cameras over the years. There are negatives and positives to that. Partly it leads to "gadfly syndrome"—dilettantism—skipping around, never alighting in one place for too long, replacing even equipment you're perfectly happy with. A sad and sorry fate for a photographer (although I understand that some photographers work sufficiently this way, owning a great many cameras and never even trying to settle on one. I don't understand them. But they're out there). Another thing it leads to is "the Keppler effect"—described by the late, great Burt Keppler of Popular Photography and Modern Photography magazines—whereby you start to remember outstanding features of many cameras and wish you could have them all on one camera. (Example: the SD card bay on the GF1 was perfect, but on my newer NEX-6 it's fiddley and annoying. As a reviewer, the tendency is to react by thinking, hey, this problem was already solved. Why couldn't they just keep doing that?) And finally, of course, it also gives you a broad base for comparisons and wide familiarity with what's been available. This last attribute is, of course, the positive one.
As a reviewer you wear your "reviewer's hat," by which I mean you have to stay objective. You're trying to be honest with your reader about your own reactions and impressions, true, but you also have to learn to subjugate your own idiosyncratic subjective affinities and bear your readers' interests uppermost in mind.
Taking that hat off and setting it aside, here's a brief list of some of my favorite cameras over the years.
Zeiss Ikon Super Contaflex B: Owned by my Dad, stolen from me. This was the camera that first got me infatuated with cameras-as-objects—Zeiss cameras stood at the pinnacle of Germany's reputation as the makers of the world's best cameras (Leicas were the utilitarian second fiddle; Zeiss was preeminent). I loved the near-silent, well-oiled "snick" sound of the leaf shutter. Lovely. I have one today, inherited from my grandfather, but I haven't taken a picture with one since I was 14.
Contax 139Q: After dropping out of Dartmouth (long story) I did a semester at the University of Maryland, largely because I'd become obsessed with photography and wanted to take a course in optics (it was worth it—great class, with a great professor who was a very skilled showman. He could enrapture a whole lecture hall. I'd take that class again today). On the way home from College Park I'd stop at Industrial Photo to shop and socialize. I befriended a guy named Ray, who moonlighted at Industrial to support his passion for raising pot-bellied pigs on his Maryland farm. This was way post-1972; Zeiss had stopped making cameras but had entered into a cooperative agreement to make lenses for Kyocera, which owned Yashica, creating a new luxus marque called "Contax," a former Zeiss model name. I bought my lens first, a 50mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss Planar. The 139Q was my "axe" throughout my three years in photography school, although I exchanged the 50mm for 35mm and 85mm ƒ/2.8's. I miss it still. (I sold it when I joined a photo studio with three Nikon-shooting photographers. Had to go along with the program, as we essentially pooled our equipment, or at least our lenses.)
Wista 45DXII: I admired the Wista in the Zone VI catalog when it was the first of the ill-fated "Zone VI View Cameras." I bought a Wista-branded one from a guy in upstate New York who called his cottage business "Fields and Views." We communicated by letter, which dates that! In the '80s, the Japanese Wistas were what Chinese Shen-Haos and Chamonixes are now: a practical choice for a budget-conscious wooden 4x5 field camera. The old ones were much better made than the ones of the same design you can buy new now. Mine had a real leather bellows and was made of Japanese rosewood, and it impressed everyone who saw it, photographer and non-photographer alike. I did a big project with it in the summer of 1987 on a faculty grant—I resolved to drive down every road in the four counties of Michigan's "Tip o' the Mitt" region, and learned many invaluable photographic lessons, primarily that I am not a large format photographer*. The Wista was a great teaching tool, too—hundreds of my students had their first look at a groundglass behind that Wista.
Exakta 66 Model II: A primitive camera that I loved well. I wrote about this just the other day, so I won't repeat myself.
Leica M6: My son's mother and I had a running joke: she wanted good hair, and I wanted a Leica. (I thought her hair was fine, but she didn't like it.) Before we broke up, I bit the bullet and actually bought an M6. Leica had weathered the Japanese takeover of the camera industry better than Zeiss did; although it switched belatedly to SLRs, the redoubtable Walter Mandler had the old M4 tooling shipped to "Leica Siberia" (Midland, Canada) and the M4-2 was born, later the M4-P. The M6 was a masterstroke, an M4-P with an uncoupled light meter added to it. The German-made M4 was the best-made Leica, but the M6, the company's post-1950s best-seller, was the best Leica. For a time I "wore" my M6 "like a shirt, putting it on in the morning and taking it off at night," per David Vestal—and loved it greatly and was proud to own it. You never forget your first Leica. I sold the Leica because of a quality control problem I couldn't bear...the paint or coating on the aperture blades chipped off as the aperture was used, leaving a deposit of tiny black flakes in the middle of the lens. I didn't want to deal with either replacing the lens or having it disassembled and cleaned. Primary lesson from the Leica experience, same as with the view camera: rangefinders aren't for me. Cameras that let you look through the lens work best for me. (Knowing that has not stopped me from buying other rangefinders or other view cameras, but that's because I'm foolish, not because I'm ignorant—big difference.)
Sony F-707: My second digital camera was from an era I still mourn, the hyper-creative crucible years of digital, before cameramakers went right back to the past, building 35mm SLR replicas and point-and-shoots, duplicating the early 1990s status quo except in digital instead of film. The F-707 seemed "imported from the future" in a way that even current digital cameras don't—those were interesting times to live through for camera aficionados. (Current times are very interesting too, don't get me wrong.) I started doing some good work with that camera even though the sensor was very crude by today's standards. I especially liked the silent shutter option and the futuristic IR mode that literally let you photograph in pitch darkness. The camera provided its own invisible-to-the-eye IR illumination. Very cool.
Konica-Minolta 7D: Minolta's first ventures into SLR-dom included the flagship 6-megapixel (once considered the "holy grail" needed for digital to equal film) 7D. Minolta's engineers did a superlative job with color rendition—the 7D had the best color of any contemporary DSLR and the files from this camera still look good for me today, as long as the relatively low dynamic range isn't showing up. In fact, one of my resolutions for 2014 (I sure hope Ctein will be doing at least a little custom printing this year) is to create a polished portfolio of the best of my work with the 7D. I have a few really beautiful pictures I took with that camera. Whether there are enough of them to fill out a 20–30 print portfolio I don't know, but it's worth a look.
Why no more recent camera? Well, see the first paragraph! I spend most of my time working on The Online Photographer and its ancilliary projects. It makes money, and photographing, for me, never really has**. I'm going to add a photographing project to my 2014 plans—ever hopeful—but then, I've done that before and nothing has really come of it.
One thing's for sure: I'm looking forward to the next camera I'll love! Because that will mean I'll be doing with it what it was meant to do.
*Although I continue to love view cameras and admire the accomplishments of large format photographers.
**I have three pictures that have earned above $10,000 in sales, and in my best year as a pro, in the '80s, I billed just short of $80,000 and kept about 3/5ths of that. The best job I ever had paid $3,000 for five days' work. All of which is not too bad. But those are the high points, consistency being a different matter altogether.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Pak-Ming Wan: "'Owned by my Dad, stolen from me.' Canon AE-1, in black with a 50mm ƒ/1.4 Canon SSC lens. I used it for a bit every now and then when I was nine years old or so and my Dad loved it so much, he couldn't bear me using it, so bought me a compact 35mm camera. Later when I returned to the Canon when I yearned for an SLR, he didn't hesitate to buy me another camera (again!).
"When I think back on it, he must have saved up plenty to buy it, because he was rather poor at the time. To let me use it when I was nine or 10 would have been very brave. I still have very many lucid memories of my Dad teaching me how to use that AE-1 and me peering through the viewfinder wondering how amazing it was to focus on the world at ƒ/1.4. And the sound! How I loved the sound of that shutter, the mirror blackout, and winding on the next frame. I would always sneak a couple of frames with no film in it, silent in complete rapture of the mechanics of it all.
"How I miss that Canon and my Dad! I'm seeing him in two weeks, so I'll need to dig out that Canon!"
Marcelo Guarini: "My all-time favorite and loved camera has been my German chrome Leica M4 with the 50mm ƒ/2 Summicron. Originally, my father bought the camera new for himself in 1964, but he seldom used it. He gave it to me when I finished my undergraduate studies and I keep using it today when I have the opportunity, despite the advantages of digital cameras. I also had and loved an Olympus OM-1 and an OM-2n that were stolen from my apartment when I was doing grad studies in Tucson. When I had the money, I replaced them with a couple of OM4Ti's, one champagne for shooting in daylight and one black for shooting at night (I remember reading this joke from you Mike, I guess it was in Darkroom Techniques a long time ago [Camera & Darkroom, but yeah, that was me —Ed.]. I got very attached and used them until 2004, when I got my first digital camera, an Olympus E-1. Then came various digitals, but I never felt emotional about any of them, until the end of 2012 when I got an Oly OM-D E-M5. I like this one very much; it is my main camera now, and do not think I'll switch soon despite the Camera of the Year.
"During almost 45 years of photography I had a number of other cameras not so gratifying to me: a Leica M6, a couple of Nikons, a Hasselblad 503CW, a 4x5 Sinar, a Nagaoka, and also the 'ill-fated' Zone VI View Camera, which I returned after four or five days because it leaked light from the four sides. I still have an 8x10 1940s-something Ansco with three G-Clarons and a 450mm Fujinon C that I use once in a while.
"Using the Leica M4 gives me more pleasure than any of the other cameras I have and I had. Holding and manipulating this camera gives that special pleasure you get when you have an extremely refined instrument in your hand. I guess a musician feels the same when holding a Stradivarius."
Mike replies: Very apropos. It truly is.