Five Lessons I’ve Learned in Five Years of Shooting a Different Camera Every Week

Five Lessons I’ve Learned in Five Years of Shooting a Different Camera Every Week

2400 1350 James Tocchio

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.


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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
25 comments
  • Hey James. Is it possible to provide a tab/bookmark on this site with a link to current camera repair resources?
    This seems to be the #1 question for peeps out there who need help with their gear. (it would also drive more traffic to casualphotophile)

    Best regards
    Huss

  • Merlin Marquardt July 8, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    Great lessons. Great truths. Great article.

  • James, I think it’s a myth you’re perpetuating that Leica cameras will need a CLA every few years. The truth is that Leica owners send them in for preventative maintenance every few years, when in fact they are perfect just as they are. If it ain’t broke, fix it until it is.

    • You’re entirely right. Some Leica owners are certainly a bit over-zealous with the maintenance, for sure.

  • Totally agree with you. As long as camera fits you then that is the best camera for you. But don’t fight over what is better than others because as I read before, each cameras always have strengths and weaknesses.

  • Brilliant article. I’m going to steal the idea for a similar post as I near the end of my Operation Thin the Herd and reduce my collection to the cameras I’ll actually use regularly.

    I do disagree about the Kodak VR35 cameras. I owned two examples of the K40 — one when new in the 80s, another bought used at Goodwill — and both performed far, far above their station.

    https://blog.jimgrey.net/2011/10/24/kodak-vr35-k40/

      • I actually like the VR35 cameras, but they’re hard to compare to a Contax T. Then again, I’ve wanted to do a shootout for a long time that pits the lowliest Kodak against a Mju II and a T3… Interesting?

        • vintagefilmhacker July 17, 2018 at 1:40 pm

          A couple of years ago, having just become enchanted with a gleaming Kodak Retina with an Ektar lens, I thought I’d do some sort of shootout with a far more recent Ektar lens camera – the VR35 K14. Doing little in the way of research, I had a predetermined bias that “some 1980’s Kodak point and shoot with few controls and a lens that ‘probably stole’ the lens branding” would fail miserably to the true classic Nagel designed Kodak product. Wrong.

          The VR35 totally owned the competition, and shut me up promptly.

          I’m not certain it would beat a Contax T3, but if I can find it, I may have to do some head to head competition with a Yashica T2 (similarly revered) and a more mid-grade model like the Ricoh FF-90.

  • Thank you for another great article. But I want to share that my experience of repairing older, electronic camera’s is different.
    I was told, for instance, that the broken AF of my Contax G1 was beyond repair. Likewise for my Contax RTS2’s shutter issue. Likewise for my Konica Hexar RF’s eye-piece issue.

    This makes me shy away from non-super mainstream analogue camera’s that are still serviceable (like my Leica M4-2 still is). A manual focus mechanical camera can always be repaired!

  • I’d agree! This is a great perspective.

    My journey into film has seen me trying a large handful of vaunted cameras, and learning that most of them don’t let me shoot the way I want to shoot. These cameras produce wonderful, beautiful results for other people–but they’re not letting me take the pictures I want to take, so they’re not great cameras for me.

    I wonder if one reason some of us act this way (and I’m certain I am not the only person who does act this way) is a scarcity mindset: The “best” cameras from the film era are increasing in price at a rate that is downright scary, and this makes me feel as if I need to buy every interesting camera immediately before it becomes prohibitively expensive. It’s difficult to calm down the GAS when it feels like your options are disappearing fast.

    I combat this feeling by reminding myself that I have great cameras that work well for me, and my goal is to take pictures, not collect cameras. That is, I will always feel like there’s some better tool around the corner, but eBay won’t make me a better photographer (unless I’m using it to shop for photobooks).

  • Tobias Weisserth (@polarapfel) July 9, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    As a long time owner of a CLE and various other high priced Japanese electronic cameras from that era, I do have to disagree with your assessment about servicing and maintaining them (as they’re being used excessively).

    My CLE has needed repairs twice. Just after I bought it (from Bellamy Hunt no less btw.), the main electronic board failed. At the time, I was living in Hamburg, Germany. Minolta used to have a large presence there when they still existed and based on that, former Minolta employees were running a servicing company to repair Minolta (and other) cameras, sitting on a pile of original spare parts from Minolta. (Also, btw. as you’re probably still wondering, Bellamy was super cool about the faulty CLE and essentially gifted me a Konica Hexar AF.) That repair uncovered that the camera already did have a repair performed on the board which resulted in the board’s failure. Lesson: the electronic boards in the CLE can fail, they do need repairs, they need spare parts and someone who knows how to put it together. Fortunately, that shop in Hamburg checked all the boxes. This comes at a price though. These kind of repairs are not cheap in relation to the camera’s value.

    A while later, the flash socket went dead. The flash wouldn’t fire anymore. The same flash unit worked flawlessly on other cameras. The camera works fine otherwise. I wanted to get it fixed at that same shop. The shop went out of business. I checked online. Numerous camera user forums were full of posts by people who still had cameras at that shop with the shop going dark on them, not returning the cameras. Good they didn’t have my CLE yet… Lesson: Trusting a small store with a camera that’s hard to replace is risky.

    I’ve been using the CLE as is for some more years since then. It’s showing its age (and lack of quality):

    The battery compartment door is a thin piece of plastic, that’s only held in place by a plastic knob. Age and use reduce the friction of that knob and it’s super easy to lose the battery compartment door without noticing. As the camera does not operate without the closed electrical circuit the door enables, losing that tiny plastic piece renders your CLE useless until you find a replacement. I’ve put tape on it to prevent it from sliding out. This is a design flaw. The part should not be plastic, it should have a proper locking mechanism. Take any Minolta SLR from that era and the two battery cells go stacked into a compartment that’s part of the base place and a metal cap gets screwed into that compartment to close the loop. That’s good, time-proven design. The CLE’s design is crappy, cheap plastic crap by comparison.

    Another quality issue: The round, black metal cover plate on top of the film advance lever is not screwed to the camera, it’s glued. Yes, glued. You read that correctly. I noticed when I took my CLE out of the bag and saw the piece was missing. I was lucky as it came off in the bag, so I found the piece. I took a close look at how it’s supposed to come together and I noticed it’s just glued in place. Crappy design quality. The glue was never meant to last that long. After almost 40 years, the glue just gave in.

    When buying (or owning) a CLE, you have to be aware of these shortcomings. Also, keep in mind, that most estimates as for how many CLEs were ever produced and sold are around 34,000 cameras. That’s a VERY small number. By now, I wouldn’t be too confident that a shop will be able to find a working replacement part. Also, keep in mind, the CLE is based on the parts system of Minolta’s XG line of entry level SLRs, not any of their professional, more durable SLR lines at the time.

    If you like rangefinders, do yourself a favor and just buy that M6 or M7 (if you need a meter) or an M2 or M3 (if you can do without the meter). Wisdom has it that poor people always end up paying twice or more for the things they really want. Don’t take the CLE as a poor man’s short cut to a Leica – it’s not. The build quality is simply not comparable. You’ll end up paying more – just go straight to what you actually want.

  • Fantastic, James. One of your best.

  • I totally agree with your perspective. I have been shooting a different camera every week for 3 years and some of my favourites cost $3. I am getting to the point where I just want to pick my favourite and stick with it…but I still have a collection to get through. My current favourite is a Konica FS-1, not a big name at all.

  • Excellent write up James, I especially liked the third lesson very much.

    I must say this that, I bought an OM-1 from fstopcameras.com last year and it turned out to be the camera I always tend to pick up because it fits my requirements in most of the cases. It cured my urge to buy new cameras to try out and sell it later.
    Thank you for the wonderful camera and I have captured some of the good moments with it

  • As usual, wonderfully written James. Think of it this way. You’re the hardest working photography blogger out there today…and we appreciate it very much!

  • Thank you for your most interesting piece and thank you also to Tobias for your very readable response, I found both articles very thought~provoking. I have a resistance to electronic battery dependent bodies. I use Leica M3s, a Nikon F2 Photomic, Canon F1n, Leicaflex SL and a pair of Nikon F3 bodies and a few lenses for it. I take this latter outfit with me when following the WRC stages in Europe and Scandinavia. I have one body equipped with the standard finder and the spare body has the waist level finder, mainly as a top body cap to protect the screen. The WLF is very light as it’s just little squares of thin metal riveted together. The F3 is the electronic body you can rely on. I have for the past 14 years. Having said that, I really like my pair of Leicaflex SL bodies and the six lenses I’ve bought for them.

  • Kenneth Lundgren July 13, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    My OM-4 lightmeter is not reliable, the spring for film advance in my OM-2 is broken and my Plustek 8200 scanner is broken to. I am in the crossroad to invest in a future analog system.. or sell me to the digital devil.

    It is hard to find someone to fix my cameras and a new scanner will cost about 350 euro. Thinking about Nikon FM2 + lenses and a new scanner. Developing film it is a relaxing time for me like asmr, all in my mind and fingers, very confidence to do that now, mostly Portra and C-41.

  • I too tried many cameras and have found a medium format Voigtlander Bessa Rangefinder works for me 90% of the time. When the normal lens on the Bessa isn’t wide enough or long enough I use a Konica Auto TC or a Nikon N80.

  • Very useful article for many!

    After using perhaps 100+ film cameras and maybe twice that many lenses from 2012-17, my main lesson for myself is go back to the basics and ask why you make photographs at all. I found that once I’d got to the heart of this, I’ve settled on a small handful of cameras that I love for different reasons (Ricoh GRD III, Ricoh GX100, Pentax Q, Sony Cybershot DSC-L1, Olympus C4040, yes they’re all digital compacts) and that give me both the experience and results I seek. Once you figure out your needs, it becomes so much easier to find the camera(s) that will best meet them.

  • Great article. I especially appreciate the reassurance regarding electronic cameras.

  • Negative Ƒotograƒie (@negative_foto) February 9, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    A most enjoyable read, thanks

  • Hi,
    The part that spoke to me the most is “Four – Put the Camera Down”
    I dont consider myself a photographer, nor a collector. But I dont consider myself a photography hobbyist. I have multiple
    digital cameras ive used over the past couple of years, I loved going out, just walking and snapping shots (My thing is landscapes)
    However about a year ago I found myself without any inspiration, actually hating going to take photos since I usually came back mad
    that nothing came out great. I actually didn’t go out taking photos ONCE in the last 10 months. However over the past couple of weeks,
    it changed. I took out my ol Yashica FR (Wedding gift from mom to dad about 30+ ish years ago) and left the whole digital gear bag at
    home. Left with nothing but the camera and 1 lens. After one year hiatus, the flame came back and reignited the love of photography.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio