A Lifetime of Cameras

Rolleiflex 2.8E

What is the best camera I have ever used?

Given the effectiveness of affiliate links and the gear reviews that they inspire, there is an impression that photographers tend to stick to one brand of camera their entire lives. This may not be true. A dig through some dusty boxes in my mother's barn revealed some of my old cameras. Through thirty years of photography, it appears that there was no fixed favourite brand or manufacturer. Needs - and budget - dictated the equipment; Minolta, Praktica, Olympus, Rollei & Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Canon, and Fujifilm. Each chosen for a reason that was most important at that time.

As each camera brought back vivid memories, they set me thinking about the path they had joined me on through life. Some were good, some were excellent, and one highly rated cameras was darn-right abysmal.

 

My First Camera

THIS is the one! My 1980 Minolta Weathermatic A.

Fun. That's the first thing that came to mind when I grasped my first camera, long lost in storage. It was the Minolta Weathermatic A. Ignore what anyone might say about 110 size film; it's too small, too grainy, too amateur. That would be to ignore its popularity at the time. The Photographer's Rule No.1: The best camera is one you have with you. Which is not to forget the innovation the 110 format spawned.

The Minolta Weathermatic was a hugely fun camera. And with it, I took photos everywhere. What more could a spoiled western kid growing up in the early '80's ask for, except perhaps Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science)? Click! I took the Weathermatic to the French Alps in the winter, and to the beach during long summer holidays. Best of all, it worked underwater. What's not to like? Bright yellow, holiday memories, and photos of fish? Fabulous. Now I loved photography. Thank you, that clever man at Minolta who dreamed of a waterproof camera for all.

 

Learning the Basics

By the time I was fifteen I really loved taking photos. So I asked for a camera for Christmas. I was very lucky. My parents gave me a Praktica BCX with 50mm f1.8 lens. It worked reliably. It was easy to use. It had aperture priority and a manual mode. It even came with a forty second maximum exposure time. I learned everything I could about photography with this camera.

Praktica BCX

Since I worked during the school holidays it didn't take long before I bought some lenses from a friend. A Tamron 70-210mm zoom lens with an Adaptall-2 mount and a Tamron x2 converter. I made as much use of it as I could. The school magazine needed sports photos, and I spent long summer evenings wandering the countryside looking for the perfect sunset.

The x2 converter came into its own for a photograph of the sun which went into an exhibition. I learned to develop Ilford's reknown FP4 (.pdf) and HP5 film in a Paterson tank. My scarce funds stretched further after I got a bulk film loader and 30m of FP4 via Ilford's discount for schools. Dank afternoons covering rugby matches demanded a fast shutter, possible at 1600 ASA (now ISO) with HP5 push processed with Microphen. Evenings and weekends were spent making prints in the school darkrooms with my friend Robert Simpson who went on to be photographic assistant to Patrick Lichfield at Lichfield Studios. Within a couple of years the school magazine was filled with our photos. It was an encouraging sign. I put together my first exhibition. I won the Wallace Heaton Prize for Meritorious Photography.

I have no photographs of my Olympus cameras. This photo, and the Olympus OM1 it features, belong to Alex Luyckz. Used with permission.

The Olympus OM1 and Olympus OM2n were the cult cameras of the time. National Geographic featured advertisements for Yoshihisa Maitani's genius design. Someone had taken an OM1 up Everest (check out the North Col. Opens in new window.). Lord Lichfield was using them professionally. Did I buy one an OM when I was still at school or after I had left to work? I can't remember. But I must have traded the BCX like a boy changing girlfriend. It was painful but the OM2n was stronger. I think the OM1 came later as a "backup camera." My memories are mostly of the OM2n which I used around London for a few years. With some Cokin filters and lens hoods, the Tamron zoom, and a tiny Olympus 50mm all of my camera kit fitted inside an WW2 gas-mask bag.

Rollei B 35, a bit battered after 5000 miles under my saddle.

At about the same time I was doing a lot of cycling and rock climbing. Another waterproof camera was called for, and I remember distantly an Olympus 35AF. The old thing is, I have little memory of using it and there are no negatives in my archive from that camera. My guess is they were of climbing trips in the Lake District, Scotland, and France. Over the long term, photographs and negatives, like digital files, are hard to keep safe.

Yet for cycle touring I had a smaller camera that fit in a tiny bag tied underneath my saddle. There was only one to choose, the impressively engineered Rollei B 35.

I can remember wanting the sharper Rollei 35 S with f2.8 Sonnar lens. My budget didn't run that far. Given the  knocks and bruises along the way, a less expensive B 35 was probably the right choice. Why wreck an expensive camera? And the quality of the B 35's lens was absolutely sufficient. In bright Alpine sunlight, and stopped down somewhere between f8 and f16, the photographs the tiny Rollei took were more than sufficient for holiday snaps. Most of which I still have, piles of prints of cycling the length of the French Alps and the Pyrenees, and of one arduous ride to Madrid, Spain, sleeping outside all the way.

 

The World's Best Camera

If you asked me, "What is the best camera you have ever used?" the answer comes readily to mind, the Rolleiflex TLR 2.8E.

Rolleiflex 2.8E
1957 Rolleiflex 2.8E. One of the world's best film cameras.

There's a reason the Rolleiflex was the most popular press camera in the immediate post-war period. Light in weight, mechanically reliable, and armed with a sharp and fast Zeiss 2.8 lens the Rolleiflex is easy to carry, simple to use, and it produces fantastic results. It uses medium format 120 size film.

While I had grown up with 35mm film, I had grown dissatisfied with its relatively relatively low resolution and graininess compared to the smooth tones I could see in photographs I admired taken on medium and large format film. What I wanted was a medium format camera.

I can't remember where I got the Rolleiflex 2.8E Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) from in those days before eBay and online shopping. What I do remember is sending it for a Clean, Lubricate, and Adjust (CLA) with one of London's few remaining TLR specialists. The camera served me faithfully from then on.

Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 in 120. Source: Fujifilm

At last I had a camera that could get the best out of my favourite film, Fuji Acros. In the 1980's its combination of broad exposure latitude and smooth chromogenic grain was ground-breaking. Printed on "hard" paper, the results were sensational.

I would, nonetheless, highly recommend one update to the classic Rolleiflex. One doesn't need the built-in light meter. But in my opinion, ease of use is of paramount importance. Fit a handmade focusing screen made by Bill Maxwell and your Rolleiflex will feel like a modern camera. It transforms the image. If I remember correctly, measured with a Sekonic spot-meter the Maxwell screen was at least two stops brighter than the standard Rolleiflex ground glass, and four stops brighter in the corners! A brilliant image is so much easier to focus. I fell in love with the Rolleiflex's simplicity, light weight, and that gorgeous focusing screen.

Bill Maxwell's Rolleiflex focusing screen is a worthy update to a classic camera.

There was more to be done with such a great camera. I joined The Camera Club, founded in London in 1885, where I learned to use studio lights. Evening classes with a model soon got me up to speed. Followed by hiring the studio to play with side-light, top light, balanced light, fill-in light, barn-doors, softboxes, light modifiers, et al..

The Rolleiflex was perfect, though with a long sync cord to control the strobes that soon got too hot to touch. That phrase, "painting with light" began to make sense. My photography started to progress. I hired some models and took some photos I am still proud of today (scans to follow when I can find them!).

 

This seascape was taken in Greece on my Rolleiflex in 2001. The snap was taken in 2003 on a Canon Powershot S45.

Disaster!

What a fool I was! Despite the obvious brilliance of the Rolleiflex, the siren noise of marketing drew me in. I bought a Hasselblad 503 CXi. It was the worst camera I have ever used.

Please note, the following is my personal recollection. Plenty of others will disagree.

In my opinion the classic 500 series Hasselblad fails in totality when it comes to ergonomics. It is a square box. Build around 120 format film, it lacks all the ergonomic convenience I want from a camera. It is unnatural to hold. And it doesn't fit into anything. Particularly once a huge lens is attached to the front. Remember Rule 1? One must have a camera to take a picture. The Hasselblad was the last camera I would want to carry anywhere. Perhaps it is for the car-born photographer? Of course, it is designed for studio use where on a tripod or, if you must, handheld. But it is SO uncomfortable.

Hasselblad 500CXi on one of the few occasions the film didn't break in the cassette in cold conditions. Mind you, that was only in the park.

Furthermore, the design of the film magazine carries, in my opinion, all of the panache of a Medieval torture rack.

If you have ever trekked for miles in sub-zero conditions, as I have, and set up a camera and tripod upon a perfect hoare frost, you will know how valuable every frame can be. Imagine, if you will, pressing the shutter on an ideal image and then winding on the film. At which point you find, if you are lucky, that the tortuous film path and low temperature has caused celloid film to snap. If you are unlucky, you don't find out until you get home before unloading the film magazine.

The Hasselblad 500 is not the school of excellent industrial design. It is a design of the designer's convenience. Square format film; why not make a square box? Film on a roll; why not run it around rollers? Wrong, and wrong. A camera needs to be held, and film needs to lead a gentle life guided along an unstressed film path to be set absolutely flat on the film plate.

Coming from the Rolleiflex the advantages of the 'Blad, inter-changeable lenses and a through the lens view, were outweighed by its disadvantages of low portability, poor ergonomics, and unreliable film path in cold weather. For my style of photography, the Rolleiflex 2.8 will always be faster, lighter, better. I sold the Hasslebad (sic).

 

The long wait for digital

It is easy to forget the in-between years when digital cameras didn't quite offer the resolution to make an A4 print, and yet the death-knell of progress was sounding for film. I remember a job photographing Chinese art for an exhibition. It must have been in the very early 2000's. I can remember thinking, and costing, the difference between doing the job on film and shooting it digitally. The client chose film. It was the last commercial work I did using a medium format film camera.

During the same period for casual photography I used a 3.8 megapixel Canon Powershot S45 in 2003,  upgraded later to the 7.1m megapixel Canon Powershot S70. These cameras were almost small enough to slip into a pocket. They had the reassurance of metal bodies, manual over-ride, and the ability to record RAW files. They were the cameras one used in situations where these days a cellphone would do. The S45 wasn't good enough for an A4 print but the S70 was just about there. Both were good cameras for travel though not waterproof, which I would have preferred.

Canon Rebel, 2006, sold to make way for the Canon 5D

It must have been 2004 when I bought the Canon Rebel EOS 300D. I remember I wanted to photograph the Tour de France in the summer and the Canon was the obvious choice. Just 6.3 million megapixels but the first digital camera under $1000. Looking at the camera's box in the photo here, I must have bought the kit though I don't remember using that lens. I did get an underwhelming Canon EL 20mm lens and a glamorous white Canon L series 70-210mm zoom. That's when I discovered that I don't get on well with zoom lenses. I mean, what's the point? Just walk a bit further to compose the photograph. 

Sadly many of the backups I made of those cycling photographs have been lost to corrupted media, broken hard drives, and obsolete hardware. There's a lesson there. That said, I don't remember using the 300D for any professional jobs. Instead, as my life changed and I moved to Asia, I used it for travel photography in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, and Thailand. But it never satisfied me. Perhaps it was the file sizes were just a bit too small to make the prints I wanted. By this time, A3 and larger prints were my preference which one can make from medium format film. Proudly I took the Rolleiflex loaded with Fujifilm Acros to China too.

The author with the Rolleiflex 2.8E, Han Village, north China, 2005.

It was quite a few years later that found a digital camera I really liked. Enter the 2005 Canon 5D which was launch at a price of $3299. This was the first digital SLR that used a sensor approximately the same size as a 35mm negative, and which cost less than $6000. Nikon didn't launch their own full-frame SLR, the D700, until 2008.

By this time, my photography had graduated to portraiture and the Canon offered beautiful skin tones. With twelve million megapixels it had sufficient resolution to make large prints, each of those pixels was spaced in a way that allowed for excellent low noise image quality. I love the Canon 5D.

Canon 5D.© Charles Lanteigne, CC BY-SA 3.0

But I was still making mistakes. While in Bangkok I bought the camera and later a fancy Canon EF 16-35mm zoom. It was expensive, bulky, fashionable. A huge mistake, at least for my style of photography. And I had forgotten Rule 1 ~ The best camera is the one you have with you. Big and bulky doesn't cut it. To compound the error I still had the Canon EF 70-200mm zoom and an EF 100mm Macro. I did quite like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens until it broke. The build quality of these plastic lenses isn't impressive.

Conclusion? I just don't get on with zooms. Or large, heavy lenses. Why not walk forward or backward a few paces? I sold them all.

Instead, there was an alternative. Encouraged by the enthusiasts on the (Warning! The following link can have a terrible effect on a curious mind!) Fredmiranda forum, I built up a set of Carl Zeiss C/Y mount prime lenses. This was back in the days when lens mounts to put a Contax/Yashica lens on a Canon body were considered a niche interest or the bastard spawn of the devil himself. I had a Zeiss 28mm, a 35mm, and a perfect 80mm. Come to think of it, the 80mm was hard to focus manually. But nail the focus and it was stellar.

Focus is a good thing. Not just for brain surgeons but for photographers who want the client to pay. That's where modern technology counts. Modern autofocus system will provide perfect eye focus in a fraction of a second, and then track the subject. It is an extraordinarily effective technology. But with a wide-angle lens, depth of focus is huge. One can zone focus with ease.

To the Zeiss collection I added a jewel-like Olympus 24mm f2.8 that made up for the deficiencies of my Canon EF 20mm. Did I mention the Olympus was tiny? The Olympus lens is not much larger than a Leica M mount lens. Which made for a very portable package.

Which lens did I use the most? The Carl Zeiss Distagon f2.8 28mm. With a lens hood. Why does no one show lens hoods anymore?

Carl Zeiss Distagon 2,8/28 T* Source: Phil Preeve

 

The Rangefinder Format

In order of importance I have always considered the camera to be much lower than the lens. But with digital there was the colour science to consider. There was no question the skin tones the Canon 5D produced straight from camera were excellent. The way the one inch sensor and the software rendered colour was very pleasing.

Yet a job came up that foiled the Canon's design. Shooting textiles for a client the sensor & software had a tendancy to moiré at the precise frequently of warp and weft that I needed to photograph. There was no getting around it. I tried different approaches. The moire kept intruding. To photograph textiles successfully would require a different digital sensor.

My first attempt was the Fuji X-E1. I wanted to try the X-Trans sensor which I reasoned wouldn't create moiré at the same frequency as the Canon. It wasn't a good camera. Slow, unresponsive, I couldn't gel with it. Yet, the mirrorless rangefinder style held such promise. The overall package was much smaller and lighter than my Canon 5D. Travelling frequently by air a camera that would not only manage textile photography but would fit in a small shoulder bag would be ideal. Before long, Fuji launched the X-E2 which was okay, but when the version 4 firmware came out, the upgrade transformed the camera. It is superb.

Fujifilm X-E2 Source: DPReview.com

It astonishes me to think I have used the Fujifilm X-E2 for so many professional tasks; textile, fashion, general commercial, portrait and even ballet photography. It has never let me down. The only weakness is that it isn't weather-proof. In Asia, one must take care during the wet season. And doing long photography sessions in studio, after three hours the grip starts to hurt. A grip frame, or a larger camera with a bigger grip would be better in that situation.

Yet with a pair of the original X series Fuji lenses, the compact Fujinon XF 18mm f2, who's flaws can mostly be corrected in software, and the versatile, excellent Fujinon XF 60mm f2.4 R Macro, the camera has managed every project. Both lenses desperately need a service now.

There is something great about the rangefinder camera design. They are small, unobtrusive, and one can use both eyes to track the subject. With practise, one can instinctively track an object as it comes into view, ready to press the shutter at precisely the right moment. This is very hard to do when restricted to a viewfinder only SLR. And, for the right-eye dominant, there is space for a high nose bridge which makes the camera more comfortable to use. Even better, the Fuji solves the traditional Leica problem of parallax error though the use of a digital viewfinder. One sees what the camera sees. The result is a camera that is very portable, with great ergonomics. A perfect picture taking machine.

 

Present & Future

As the 2014 X-E2 wears out, the obvious choice would be to get a Fujifilm X-Pro2, a professional quality rangefinder style camera. My first impression wasn't great. Travelling a great deal, its larger size and weight compared to the X-E2 and lack of built in flash - I use fill-in flash frequently - gave the nod to the X-E2. Now that camera is ageing, an X-Pro2 appeals a great deal. The weather-sealing, solid durability, and unique optical-electronic viewfinder design (EVF, OVF, and ERF) would be very useful.

Fujifilm X-Pro3. The rear sub-screen can be set to display ISO & other camera settings.

Why not a Fujifilm X-Pro3? I tried one a couple of times. Shooting with it was instinctive. It seems I rarely "chimp" - look at the rear screen to check the last image - since I hardly noticed what to others is an insurmountable barrier, the inaccessible rear screen. In that regard, the X-Pro3 was ideal and to my mind an example of Fujifilm's excellence in camera design. The company genuinely appears to be driven by camera enthusiasts who really understand ergonomics, and risk-taking. More evidence? The X-Pro3 comes in two different shades of black, one painted, and one surface hardened titanium, as well as a "natural" bright titanium finish. How many companies would take such a risk?

Nonetheless, from my perspective not so  ideal is the price, that titanium finish, and the less sophisticated viewfinder compared to the previous model. A used X-Pro2 is about half the price of a new X-Pro3. There's a tiny, almost imperceptible difference in image quality. The X-Pro3's titanium finish appears to be of superficial benefit only. And in that regard it fails, too. It attracts fingerprints, and saves little weight (3g, I heard.) Lastly, the X-Pro2 enjoys a viewfinder that adapts to the lens fitted in a similar way to the Leica M3 rangefinder.

With the HMVF, you can use OVF in the rangefinder style to see the optical image. You can also set it to EVF like a modern mirrorless cameras to see the 100% coverage of field of view. On top of it, you can also simulataneously view the two modes and change the magnification of the optical image depending on the focal length in OVF.

The X-Pro2’s "Hybrid Multi Viewfinder" demonstrates Fujifilm's willingness to try new engineering ideas.

© Fujifilm

What does it the Hybrid viewfinder look like? A photo speaks one thousand words, as they say...

An illustration of the X-Pro2's unique Hybrid Multi Viewfinder. Notice the insert focusing aid, bottom-right. This provides the ability to preview the electronic image while using the optical viewfinder. © Fujifilm

 

Paired with an XF 18mm, an X-Pro2 makes an ideal package. Crucially the later model X-Pro3's viewfinder doesn't adapt - one can't change the magnification of the optical image -- so a wide-angle lens just make everything look further away. Perhaps it was a cost-saving measure but for a premium camera I feel that was one cut too many. I note the irony of complaining about the price and at the same time arguing that the camera should have a more expensive feature. But it is a "flag ship" product and as such Fujifilm would be justified putting in their best engineering. If that makes a future Fujifilm X-Pro series camera expensive compared to others, that's justified.

 

What do I use today?

As of June 2021 I am without a camera! I left my faithful X-E2 in Java. I didn't want to take it sailing across an ocean, and in any case, several of its control buttons are beginning to wear out. Once I get to Thailand there will be time to pick up a mint, used Fujifilm camera at a very good price. Unfortunately, there are very few X-Pro2's on the used market.

In the meantime, sitting in one of those dusty boxes at my mother's house, I found a 1975 Leicaflex SL2 I bought years ago. It doesn't have a lens. Yet with a Leica Elmarit-R Macro 60mm and loaded with Fujifilm Acros, for portraiture I know there's very little to touch it. It really needs to have an outing.

 

Leicaflex SL2. One of the world's best mechanical 35mm SLR cameras. Photo courtesy of FogDog Photography.

 

 

Honourable Mentions

Why don't I use Nikon? I tried. Over time I have owned a Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2, Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2 (again!). For reasons I am unsure of, I didn't like any of them. Bought and traded. Technically they are very sound cameras. Reliable. Well designed. Versatile. I just didn't bond with them.

What else have I used? The Fujifilm 9cm x 6cm comes to mind. I hired one for the weekend many years ago and lugged it around the North Yorkshire moors. Did I get some exceptional photos? Yes and no. I need to scan the results. Looking at the transparencies now, more than a decade later, some are okay. Did I like it? Yes. Despite being huge, cumbersome, heavy, it is still a wonderful landscape camera. I am just very poor at landscape photography. The Fujifilm camera would reward some practise.

Fujifilm GFX100 - One large helping of megapixely goodness.

 

Anything else? I did briefly try the Leica M10 and the Q1. Heavy. Not bad. Not ideal, either. So many of the modern Leicas are derivatives of other cameras such as the Panasonic S1R. Of course, the Leica glass is most definitely something special. Leica lenses offer some of the best flare control, micro-contrast, and optical perfection of any manufacturer.

Talking of excellence, handling the 100MP Fujifilm digital medium format cameras is something else. Can't say I want one but the technical quality is impressive. I suppose I am more drawn towards specialised cameras designed for particular purposes. I would love to try a Leica Monochrome of any model. That would be spectacular.

And I would love the Rolleiflex back.