Warning: what follows is an unashamed post about gear. Yes, Ming is writing a gear-centric post. There will be no photography in this article beyond the obligatory camera p***.
Imagine, for a moment, this is an automotive blog. In fact, the precise segment that comes to mind is Richard Hammond’s recent series in Top Gear on driving the classics; every month we see him wrestling his boyhood poster fantasies with a silly grin on his face. After re-reading that sentence, I realize that sounded very, very wrong. I can’t claim to be anywhere near as popular as Hammond or the rest of the Top Gear trio, nor does my enthusiasm for photography extend that far so far back as for me to have boyhood fantasies about it, but I do distinctly remember lusting after a lot of (then) out of reach gear in the early days of my obsession. I admit that one of the high points of this job has been having the opportunity to fulfill those desires. I may never get the opportunity to drive a BMW 3.0 CSL, let alone a 250 GTO SWB or a Bugatti Veyron Supersport, but a 903 SWC is still feasibly within reach…
What follows today’s article is a little mini-series; I wouldn’t really call them reviews, because the context is very different and they’re not really that relevant as current products.
The main reason anything becomes a classic is because it stands above its peers in some way or another – the best, the fastest, the largest, the weirdest, the most expensive, the least production – take your pick or combination thereof. And it’s combination of properties – almost always in conjunction with price – that causes us to obsess and fetishize over said product. In the camera world, there are a number of cameras that can arguably be called classics; fewer that can be called legends. If these were cars, the former category would include the Citroen 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle and co; the latter would remain the lofty realm of the likes of the Ferrari 250 GTO, Bugatti Atlantique etc. I’m going to cover a bit of both here – partially because I have a limited budget, partially because I’ve picked a very biased, eclectic collection that works for me, but might not mean anything for another photographer.
Most of these cameras are things I approach with trepidation and a slight bit of nervousness; I’m forced to reach for something to wipe my hands on lest the acid of my sweat starts affecting the finish of the object in a way that causes it to depreciate alarmingly. They’re intimidating in the sense that you wonder if your compositional skills are up to the task of doing the camera justice; there’s really nothing helping or hindering you in the photographic process. They are pure in the same way a rear-wheel drive, manual-gearbox, double-wishbone suspension, non-power assisted steering car is; the kind of thing that produces “The Tingle” that James May experiences when driving something particularly exciting. In short: you really need to know what you’re doing. A lot of them don’t even have meters – autofocus? Pah. Even though these cameras may not be that expensive on an absolute scale, compared to say a modern pro-DSLR, Leica or medium format digital back, the kind of hesitation they precipitate is one of awe rather than ‘oh crap, if I drop this it’s going to be expensive…’
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not so jaded or successful that I can afford to treat a Noctilux 0.95 or H5D with disdain, but ultimately those are tools: they are still in production, and designed to do a job. If they break, they’re replaceable – if costly. What we’re talking about here are cameras for which only a fixed number still exist, fewer still in the kind of condition that make you really handle them with a good amount of care, knowing that it’s not a simple matter to mend a broken one. Much like classic cars, once the original spares are all used up, it’s down to the skill and ingenuity of individual restorers to bring them back to life. Again like old cars – most of these cameras are thoroughly impractical as daily shooters for a huge variety of reasons; all of them are based around a film-based workflow, most are ergonomic disasters by today’s standards, and all require a healthy dose of masochism to operate. Only one of them has anything resembling custom functions. I don’t care: we have plastic fantastic DSLRs to make our lives easy. (I believe they call these quirks ‘character’ and ‘charm’.)
The cameras which will feature in this mini-series will probably be familiar to you all; they were flagships and poster-children and the pin-ups of the photographic world at one point or another – even if that might have been the better part of half a century ago. I don’t have a Nikon F, the first professional SLR system camera – but I do have an F2, and what is perhaps the epitome of the F2s – the Titan. It’s also the most manual of the F2s – the standard matching prism is unmetered, and though there’s a battery compartment in the base – to power optional metered heads and accessories – the camera portion is fully mechanical and requires no power to operate. Next up is the classic Hasselblad V: I’ve owned a 500C/M, a 501C, and the 501CM; I’m going to write about the last of these, because this particular camera is special to me for various reasons beyond being the last descendant of the cameras that went to the moon. Branching off this tree, we have the Hasselblad 903 SWC; this camera is built around a lens design so legendary – the Zeiss 38/4.5 Biogon – that barring coatings, the optical formula remained unchanged for well over 50 years. It’s the camera equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle or the Morris Oxford for longevity, but obviously isn’t the same workhorse for the masses that the car was. Perhaps the Porsche 911 is a better analogy. The optical formula was changed for the final camera in the line, the 905 SWC, due to the earlier design requiring glass that contained lead-arsenic. We’ll look at a couple of modern classics – the Leica M6, the Nikon F6, perhaps the last of the great Nikon film cameras, and something for the people: the Olympus Mju II. I’d add the Ricoh GR1v to this series, but I’ve already reviewed it here – along with the Contax T3, here. Finally, I’m going to finish with a lens: the Nikon AI-S 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor.
Yes, this lineup is by no means comprehensive or complete – there are some conspicuously absent candidates like a Rolleiflex of some description; the Canon AE-1; the Leica MP – preferably the Hammertone or Titanium versions; a Polaroid SX-70; an Olympus OM-4 Ti; a Kodak Box Brownie; a Barnack Leica; the Pentax 67II; something exotic and fast with a pellicle mirror, like a Nikon F High Speed; large format cameras of any sort, and finally, a Minox. This is because I either can’t get access or afford to buy them, or they simply don’t interest me; in the case of large format I’m clueless, and for the Minox – I have a IIIs, a C and even the developing tank – but alas no film to shoot them with, nor even an empty cartridge to allow me to splice a 35mm roll into.
Not that I’m about to advocate vintage cameras as a good investment – though looking at recent auction prices for some Leicas might make you question that statement – it’s worth remembering that so long as you a) buy it at a fair price, and b) don’t diminish the value by breaking it after forgetting some little release catch and forcing a lever the wrong way – it’s not as expensive to experiment as you might think. Unlike other hobbies, like say, drinking, what you spend isn’t consumed; you’ll get back what you put in when it’s time to move on to the next camera on your bucket list. I don’t see them as investments, but I certainly don’t think I’m spending wantonly. Darkroom costs are quite another matter, however…
In any case, I highly encourage you to come back and join the party over the coming week or so: even if you have no affinity for the cameras, you can certainly appreciate the craftsmanship and the images. Who knows, you might even get hooked yourself…
The best place to find vintage gear is on the secondary market in Japan – send an email to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter; he can source to spec and budget. I get a good chunk of my stuff from him and can’t recommend him highly enough. Send him an email and tell him Ming sent you!
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