I’ve shot a different camera every couple of days for the past five years. This comes with a unique set of delights and disappointments, surprises and frustrations (for every Contax T there’s a Kodak VR35; spoiler – the Kodak is not so good). The position I’ve put myself in as the founder of an editorial site discussing cameras and the owner of an online camera shop is one that I think few photo geeks get to enjoy, and it’s given me a perspective that I think could be valuable to our readers.
Don’t read that last paragraph as some sort of self-congratulatory back pat. It exists only to illustrate the fact that I’ve used more cameras than most photo geeks and I’ve got stuff to say about them. Here are five lessons I’ve learned during my time running CP and F Stop Cameras.
One – Find the Camera that Works for You, and Stick with it
This is the most important thing I’ve learned in my years of shooting, and it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve accepted who I am as a photo geek (I can’t call myself a photographer).
I’ve owned every hype camera you can think of; the Hasselblad X-Pan, Leica’s MP, the Mjus and the T3, the Plaubels and everything else. I knew that I was supposed to love these cameras, but I didn’t, and I kept bouncing from one machine to another because my images with them were never as good as those that I was seeing from other photographers. I was trying to shoe-horn myself into the cameras that other people said were the best.
The result is that I spent years shooting uncomfortable cameras and getting unhappy results, and it remained this way until I admitted to myself, “Okay. I’m not a Leica guy. I’m not a rangefinder guy. I’m not a medium format guy. I like compact, aperture-priority, SLR cameras.”
Once I accepted that it’s okay not to shoot the hippest cameras, I found one or two that were perfect for me. I shot them a lot and learned their systems, and shooting became both second nature and enjoyable again. I dare say that finding my ideal camera and sticking to it also made me a better shooter (closer to being able to call myself a photographer).
Two – Electronic Cameras aren’t Garbage
There’s this notion that gets bandied about on the internet regarding electronic cameras. Specifically that they’re ticking time-bombs waiting to explode. The “wisdom” says that not only are they intrinsically inferior to mechanical cameras, but they’re also impossible to repair when they do inevitably break. These are spurious claims propagated by a shadow-council of influencers working hand-in-hand with the Film Camera Resale Industrial Complex, also known as “Big Camera.”
Before I go any further I should probably remove my tinfoil hat.
Conspiracy theories aside, I do think the idea of electronic inferiority gained a lot of ground during a period of time when electronic cameras were selling for virtually no money, and it was in a lot of used gear retailers’ best interest to shift as many all-mechanical (and expensive) collector cameras as possible, even though the cheaper electronic cameras were far more capable photo-making machines.
Yes, it’s true that cheap, consumer-level electronic cameras break down eventually. But electronic cameras of high quality don’t do so with any greater regularity than a mechanical camera. People send their Leicas in for a CLA every few years (whether they need it or not), yet I’ve got a thirty-eight-year-old electronic Minolta that’s working as well as the day it rolled off the line without any maintenance whatsoever.
The widespread opinion that electronic cameras are impossible to repair is also questionable. I once decided to test the myth for truth and contacted eight camera repair shops throughout the USA, one in Asia, and one in Europe, to ask if they could repair a non-functional Minolta CLE. Every single shop replied that they could. When I pressed one shop in particular about their confidence, the reply came back that no matter what is wrong with the camera, they have “every expectation of success.”
The takeaway here is that you shouldn’t be afraid to buy an electronic camera if that’s the camera that you want to buy. Find one that’s in good condition and it will work.
Three – Spend Your Money Wisely, Ignore the Hype
Work is hard. Every dollar, or euro, or yen, or beaver pelt (if you’re still bartering), comes only through sacrifice. Every minute you spend working to earn that cash is a minute less that you can spend doing something else. Don’t waste that time and effort (that’s good life advice, generally). When it comes to cameras, specifically, don’t be silly with your money.
As of this writing, Contax T2 and T3 prices are astronomical, and the Olympus Mju series cameras are similarly outrageous. For the price of a Contax T2 you can buy a Leica M6 or an M2 with a lens, or a flight to (and hotel room on) the other side of the world. And if the absurdity of that fact doesn’t strike you, you need to read more of our articles.
I’ve bought a lot of cameras, and sometimes I’ve spent silly money on a camera that Instagram tells me is “the best” only to realize I’d made a mistake. Don’t be like me.
Four – Put the Camera Down
It’s easy to get carried away in any hobby. You’re bitten by the photography bug and before you know it you’re shooting every day. Problem is, you’re shooting the same subjects in the same places and making lots of virtually identical images. We’ve all seen it. The Flickr accounts full of flowers. The sunsets. The bokeh. Oh god, the bokeh.
If you find yourself stagnating as a photographer or if you feel a sense of dread when you leave the house holding a camera, leave the camera behind. Forget the fear of missing a photo. You won’t. And if you do, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, sometimes missing a photo can lead to amazing things, as Yoshihisa Maitani discovered when he went to a public bath and left his Leica at home (this indirectly lead to some of the best Olympus cameras ever designed).
There have been plenty of times when I’ve stared at a camera that needs reviewing or a lens that needs sample shots, and decided, “to Hell with it.” Spend some time with your family and friends (or alone, if you’re an introvert like me), and just leave the camera behind. Recharge, refocus, and you’ll be a better photographer with fresh eyes when you’re ready to shoot again.
Five – Film Cameras are Still Undervalued, and Worth Every Penny
In the past five years we’ve seen the average price of most film cameras climb. Some people say this is a bubble, an overvaluation of cameras that aren’t worth what people are paying. In a few specific cases this opinion is true, but generally speaking, this is incorrect. Film cameras today are not over-valued, they were undervalued for thirty years (we should never have been able to buy a Nikon F3 for $40, but for a while there, we could). What we’re seeing now is a market correction driven by a realization of the true value of these machines.
Classic cameras are amazing and they have always been amazing. They’re mechanical masterpieces of design and engineering, equal parts art and science. They’re analogous in many ways to other lifestyle products; no one needs a camera, but they can accentuate the lives of their owners in ways both practical and stylistic. They do an exceptional task and they look fantastic doing it, and it’s my opinion that everyone should own a film camera in the same way that everyone should own a watch (an opinion for which I happily caught some flak).
The fact is this – you can still buy a historically important, professional-grade film camera with a professional-grade lens today for under $300. You can buy the same dive camera used by Jacques Cousteau and hundreds of Nat Geo photographers for the same low price. You can buy the camera and lens with which Steve McCurry shot his Afghan Girl portrait for about $200. You can buy the camera that NASA sent to the moon during the Apollo missions for $500, and even the newest Leica film camera isn’t too expensive (when we realize its an investment that will last literally a lifetime).
Any of these cameras will make the best images you’ve ever made. Any of these cameras will look incredible, feel delightful in the hand, and last long enough that you can pass it on to your kids (or grand-kids). All of this should cost more, but happily, it doesn’t. If you’re a collector or a shooter, now is still a fantastic time to buy.