Five Cameras Used by Famous Photographers

leica m2 famous photographers (1 of 1)

It’s no secret that we love our gear here at Casual Photophile. A quick glance through the archives is enough to illustrate our undying love for classic cameras, but while our addiction to the tools of the trade is incurable we’re ever aware that cameras are only incidental to the creation of a great photograph. It’s the mind of the photographer that really creates the photograph; cameras are only a tool in the process.

But every now and then the stars align to pair certain human beings with their perfect tool. History is full of these serendipitous unions between man and machine; Jimi Hendrix revolutionized guitar playing with the Fender Stratocaster, Ayrton Senna conquered Formula One with the McLaren MP4/4, and Marty McFly defied time and space with the DeLorean. It’s no different in photography, a field in which the tool is so closely married to the work produced, and there’s no shortage of fruitful pairings between legendary photographers and their machines.

To pay homage to these cameras and their photographers, we’ve decided to compile a list. Here are five amazing cameras and the photographers that used them to make some of the most famous photographs in history.

[All image sources linked through images]

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Leica M3 / Henri Cartier-Bresson

We’ll start this list off with the most famous camera of them all, Leica’s M3, the chosen tool of the French master and pioneer of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The camera and the man have become nearly synonymous in the sixty-odd years since they’d have first met. When one thinks of Leica, one inevitably conjures visions of the immaculately composed photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and when we pick up an M3 we can immediately see the way the master saw.

Cartier-Bresson famously referred to the Leica M3 paired with a 50mm lens as an extension of his eye. As pretentious and full of you-know-what as that may sound today, Henri actually has a point. Rangefinder cameras show the shooter the entire scene as the eye would normally see it, bright and in-focus. SLRs by comparison only focus on a particular subject and blur out whatever isn’t in focus. Though we can use the handy depth-of-field preview lever found on many SLRs to achieve a similar effect, it unfortunately results in a greatly dimmed viewfinder which could create a problem composing in low light situations- not ideal.

SPAIN. Andalucia. Seville. 1933.

Cartier-Bresson took advantage of this characteristic of the M3 to great effect. You can see the meticulous craft of his compositions as subjects big, small, near, and far are positioned perfectly across the entire frame, all the way up to the very edge of the image in some cases. While these compositions are certainly possible on an SLR, they present themselves more obviously in a rangefinder camera, and can be more easily executed using one.

Will having a Leica M3 make you into a regular Henri Cartier-Bresson? Of course not. But if you absolutely love rangefinder-style shooting, there’s scarcely a camera that can beat the M3. Get one here.

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Nikon FM2 / Steve McCurry

Everybody knows that one National Geographic photo. You know, the one with the eyes. Yeah, that one. The photo that would firmly ensconce McCurry at the forefront of photography was taken with a Nikon FM2. But wait, isn’t the FM2 an amateur body? Why would a professional, let alone one of National Geographic‘s most accomplished shooters use an amateur body? The answer is this- the FM2 punches far above its weight.

Though the FM2 was marketed to capitalize on the lucrative advanced enthusiast market of the 1980s, it also served double duty as a light mechanical backup body for many pro photographers. And in spite of its amateur origins, the FM2 shares the self-same ruggedness and reliability of Nikon’s legendary F-series of cameras. As a result, many photojournalists who didn’t need the excessive modularity or wanted to avoid the hefty bulk of the F-series picked the FM2 as a simple, no-nonsense, bare-bones photographic tool.

Steve McCurry happens to belong to such a camp, and just as Henri Cartier-Bresson took advantage of the Leica M3’s rangefinder format, Steve McCurry took advantage of the FM2’s SLR format. His documentary-style portraiture lends itself well to the specific abilities of SLRs, and the harsh environs of globetrotting photojournalism almost certainly called for the rugged reliability of a Nikon.

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The specific camera, lens, and film used to make his most famous portrait, Afghan Girl, is the Nikon FM2 paired with the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIs (read our review here), exposing on the sorely missed Kodachrome 64. The ability to see exactly what we’re getting with an SLR makes critical framing easier, and because the viewfinder magnification changes along with the lens’s focal length, it makes framing the odd focal length of Nikon’s 105mm much faster than on a frameline-restricted rangefinder.

So here we have a camera ready for anything, a legendary lens, a classic film emulsion, and a master photographer. It was a perfect storm of photographer and gear, and it resulted in the 20th century’s Mona Lisa. Get your own FM2 here.

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Graflex Speed Graphic / Weegee

If Henri Cartier-Bresson and Steve McCurry depicted the intrinsic beauty of the world, then Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) captured the squalid ugliness of it. Weegee was the original crime-scene nightcrawler, but was scarcely the gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal type. Instead, he was a stout, cigar-puffing, flashbulb-armed, 1940’s, New York City press photographer. Imagine Danny DeVito in L.A. Confidential and you’ve pretty clearly got the idea.

Weegee’s window into the seedy world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was through the viewfinder of an enormous 4 x 5 Graflex Speed Graphic. The Speed Graphic was standard issue to press photographers of the era because of its use of extremely high-resolution 4 x 5 negatives, which were necessary to compensate for the primitive newspaper printing technology of the ’40s.

The enormous negative also offered a curious advantage to Weegee’s time-sensitive freelance photography- instant printing. Weegee was famously known for arriving at the scene of a crime before police. This allowed him to capture crime scenes at their juiciest, and by employing a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car, Weegee was often able to develope his negatives and make contact-prints before police had even finished cordoning off the crime scene. The enormous 4 x 5 negative eliminated the need for an enlarger, and therefore he could sell ready-made prints to any newspaper willing to pay.

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Weegee and his Speed Graphic set a standard for press and freelance photography and established a style that still lives in every flash-illuminated urban portrait. And though it’s bulky and impractical today, the Speed Graphic will forever be the symbol of the press photographer and the nightcrawlers who used them. Join their ranks with your own Graflex.

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Rolleiflex TLR / Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier

Photography eventually evolved from the bulky 4 x 5 press camera to the more portable medium format TLR. The most famous of these cameras is the German Art Deco masterpiece, the Rolleiflex. The square format of the 6×6 TLR combined with the beautiful lenses commissioned by Rollei for the Rolleiflex 3.5 and 2.8 made for a portraitist’s dream machine. One photographer who took advantage of this penchant for portraits was Diane Arbus, a photographer who documented the lives of the social outcasts of the 1950s and 1960s.

Diane Arbus often preferred the Rolleiflex Wide variant of the Rolleiflex, equipped with a 55mm f/4 Zeiss lens in order to magnify the sense of unease so prevalent in her portraits. Her usage of the Rollei Wide along with the normal-lensed Rolleiflexes helped reveal the plights of the underprivileged and marginalized through the expressions of their faces, expressions weathered by lifetimes of struggle and survival.

Although well-suited for portraiture, Rolleiflexes also exceled in the art of street photography. Enter Vivian Maier, a nanny-turned-street-photographer active throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Maier never set out to become a professional; she didn’t even go as far as publishing her photographs during her lifetime. But with the now famous rediscovery of her portfolio, we find a photographer obsessed with the documentation of her life and her environment all facilitated by Maier’s trusty Rolleiflex.

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The Rolleiflex made perfect sense for a photographer like Vivian Maier. Its low profile and whisper-quiet operation meshed perfectly with Vivian’s reported desire to remain incognito, resulting in photos which often found subjects bemused and intrigued but always in their natural state. The result was a collection of candid street scenes and portraits executed with earnest charm and a real compassion for the subject, a perfect expression of both Vivian Maier’s vision and the unique charm of a Rolleiflex TLR.

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Minolta SRT-101 / W. Eugene Smith and Annie Leibovitz

Finally, we have a camera of humble birth, the Minolta SRT-101. These cameras are a dime-a-dozen these days, and are considered unspectacular to many, which may lead to doubt about its ability to produce world-class images. But if we asked a seasoned professional, say, somebody like Annie Leibovitz or W. Eugene Smith, we’d get a decidedly different take.

The Minolta SRT-101 happens to be the camera that made world-renowned portraitist Annie Leibovitz fall in love with photography. According to her book At Work, she bought the SRT-101 while in Japan as her first “serious camera” and took it up the face of Mount Fuji for its first assignment. The rest, as they say, is history. And though she doesn’t use the SRT-101 today, it sparked a love of photography that’s resulted in some of the greatest portraits of the 20th and 21st centuries. But does this mean that the SRT-101 is just a gateway to bigger and better things? Not necessarily.

We’ve long held that Minolta doesn’t get the amount of respect it deserves, and nowhere is that more evident than in master photographer W. Eugene Smith’s landmark work on Minamata disease. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen took it upon themselves to give a voice to the mercury-poisoned community of Minamata, Japan, and what resulted was one of the most powerful collections of photographs ever made. The photographs in this essay are stark, striking, and devastatingly beautiful, and one would assume that only a perfectionist with some kind of super-camera could have taken them. But as super as the SRT is, Smith was that and more.

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Even though he was an unceasing perfectionist in his craft, due to his constant financial troubles Smith was known for using whatever camera happened to be lying around. In light of this, the Minolta Camera Company threw their support behind the financially troubled photographer while he was working to document the Minamata story. In exchange for TV ad appearances, Minolta gave Smith funding along with some cameras and lenses, the SRT-101 being among them. Smith then took the SRT-101 and coupled it with the Minolta 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens (our review here) to capture the distorted world of Minamata, a community destroyed as much by mercury poisoning as by corporate greed. The resulting photo essay (which was sadly Smith’s last) has since become a landmark work for both photography and environmental activism, and is still celebrated and admired to this day. See what he saw, through your own Minolta SRT.

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But the fact that these photographers used these cameras is secondary to the sheer quality of their entire bodies of work. The incredible consistency across many decades of the medium is a testament to the talent behind the gear. These master artists accomplished exactly what they strived to accomplish; they made us focus on the message rather than the medium.

And really, that’s the moral of the story here. Of course it’s important to choose the right tool for the job, and indeed all of the photographers on our list did this beautifully. But even if you don’t have your dream camera, use whichever one you have to its absolute fullest and focus on your craft. Who knows, maybe someday you and your camera will carry each other to the dizzying artistic heights we’ve touched upon here. Hey, we can all dream, can’t we?

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  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    July 12, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Dear James,
    it always makes me smile reading some articles like that (don´t get me wrong)
    because there is always something mystics sprayed around it……haha
    Just belive me if H.C.B. would have had the choice between the Leica III with only a 50mm lens
    he nearly could afford and a cheap digital camera incl. vario lens what do you think would he pick ?
    Most of thie “famous” photographers were also very bad printers so I really think they would have been
    verry grateful for get rid of that for using a tool like photoshop (don´t kill me now)……..haha

    We all love our old Nikons, Canons, Minoltas and Hasselblads but remember these photographers
    had to “work” with what was avaiable and were not free to choose like we are for our own fun.

    • Reply
      July 12, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      You’re right, of course! This is more an exercise to highlight cameras for people to hunt out. Someone who is a massive Annie fan might just feel something if they’re able to get their hands on her first favorite camera. 🙂 Just another small way to enjoy this hobby.

      • Reply
        Randle P. McMurphy
        July 13, 2016 at 9:53 am

        You make me smile again James,
        we take pictures to catch moments and while doing it we
        also remember the joy we have using our equipment…….

    • Reply
      Rico Michel
      July 15, 2016 at 4:03 am

      My 2¢ but I reckon HCB would still be shooting a film Leica today (M6, M7…). Or maybe a Sony A7R II, but I bet he wouldn’t like the EVF even though it’s pretty spectacular.

      Also just being nitpicky but his photo above was shot in the thirties, so with a Leica III, not an M. I read somewhere Mr. Bresson got the very first Leica (the I), nobody at the time knew what Leica was — let alone 35mm photography 😉

  • Reply
    Ed Worthington
    July 12, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Great article as usual James, a name or two I wasn’t expecting to see here as well.

    • Reply
      July 12, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Josh penned this one, my friend, so thanks go to him! But I’m glad you liked it anyway. I’m sure we’ll revisit this- there are too many amazing photogs.

  • Reply
    Rico Michel
    July 16, 2016 at 2:51 am

    “Hey you know, I’m a war photographer so I use a Nikon FM because it’s entirely mechanical and won’t run out of batteries.” *proceeds to bolting on an MD-12*

    OK people I was only trying to make a funny photographer joke. I’m not saying the FM isn’t a great choice (but why not a F2 though 😉 )

    Cool article!

    • Reply
      July 17, 2016 at 1:27 am

      Sharp eyes. 😉

  • Reply
    August 6, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    Diane Arbus- she used most of the time Mamiya’s C220 / C330, as far as I know.

  • Reply
    September 8, 2016 at 1:44 am

    Diane Arbus shot 35mm for her first couple of years, then went to the Rolleiflex as she got bolder. Almost all of her celebrated images are with the Rollei.
    Although the Mamiyas are nice, and I did love mine, (except for the TLR parallax), Maier and Arbus used Rolleis. 🙂

    • Reply
      Brett Rogers
      September 22, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      That is simply not historically accurate. Arbus did indeed shoot with Rolleiflexes, but later used Mamiya TLRs. I write this as Rolleiflex owner and confirmed fan of the brand, but this should never get in the way of facts. Don’t take my word for it, though—there is enough information out there on the web and in various books about her to confirm my comments.

  • Reply
    October 15, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Sorry guys but I believe Diane Arbus was a lover of the Mamiya C220/330.

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