My Favorite Camera is Not My Best Camera, Nor is it My Favorite Camera

My Favorite Camera is Not My Best Camera, Nor is it My Favorite Camera

1500 844 Craig Sinclair

I remember the little Italian-made camera my father gave me when I was seven or eight years old. I didn’t know it was Italian at the time. I’m not sure I even knew what “Italy” was. But the camera I remember. It was mostly silver and black, and had a shoelace for a camera strap, and the film was a paper-backed roll and had to be loaded carefully or it would unroll itself and be ruined, and film was expensive. Or at least my father instilled that particular fear into me at an early point of my photographic adventure. My father did the film loading and unloading. What I did with the camera in between these two events was up to me. 

The camera, I know now because I still have the thing, was a Bencini Comet S that fed on 127 film. Because nostalgia is a powerful drug, I’ve recently asked TheInternet™ if it would care to share with me a source for 127 film. TheInternet™ laughed at me. It would appear Amazon’s singular failing is that it’s not a source for film that hasn’t been made in twenty-three years. That doesn’t lessen my disappointment in Amazon. I pay for a Prime membership, I expect better. 

Maybe it’s best that I can’t easily get film for this camera. Maybe the memory of it is better than the reality. I still have (somewhere, I think, in a shoe box) prints captured by the Comet. There’s a picture of my Uncle’s Golden Retriever wearing a cowboy hat, and of my cousin as a toddler, and there was even a great photograph taken of whales or dolphins flying through the air at SeaWorld in Florida, a common destination for my family during the spring breaks of my youth. At least I think these were the photographs I took. I can’t find them either. 

One of the few photos that I could find that I made with the Bencini. I was ten years old. As a kid raised in a small, one employer town in midwestern Ontario, I had never seen a pink flamingo, so when on vacation in Florida I was amazed by a real life pink flamingo. And thus documented the event.

Photographs are memories, or representations thereof. They transport us through time and space to remind us of the good times, of how skinny we were, of where we spent a few days in March of 1980. In this case, the missing photographs themselves are a memory. They’ve become a memory of a memory, reinforced by the memory of a moment spent staring at small, glossy, black-and-white squares containing images slightly blurry because, well, the Comet S has a stiff focus ring that was hard for a young kid to deal with, assuming he even remembered that “focusing” was a thing. 

Another feature of the Bencini Comet S was the film advance dial; a knurled aluminum knob standing proud on the right side of the body that you turned (if you remembered) between exposures, just far enough so that the number printed on the film’s paper backing identifying the next frame was visible through the little red portholes in the back of the camera body. The shutter was always live, and double or triple exposures were common. And there was no indication of shutter speed. 1/60th of a second? Maybe. That’s about as good a guess as any.

Truth be told, it was a shit camera. There was no ISO setting, no shutter speed control, no light meter, or aperture adjustments. There was only a poor excuse for a focus ring, and no focusing mechanisms in the viewfinder to let you know you’d done a good job of focusing. You just hoped the scale on the focus ring was relatively correct, and that you could judge distances with some semblance of accuracy. The viewfinder was nothing but a vague rectangular-ish hole on the front of the camera fed by the smallest of circular eyepieces on the back, with a suggestion of framing that amounted to “best guess.” 

Yeah, it was a shit camera but it’s where I started. And I still have it, for better or for worse.

What the Comet did do successfully, was foster an interest in photography that eventually led to my father letting me use his prized Pentax Spotmatic, and that experience with the Spotmatic lead to a level of brand loyalty and sense of devotion that I didn’t fully comprehend the first time I spent my own hard-earned cash on a camera. That was a 35mm Pentax SF10, which was fancy because it moved the film by itself with electric motors, could autofocus with the right lens, and would rewind the film automatically when it was done; all technological marvels in my experience.

This camera was later stolen in Vancouver, containing the last roll of film I’d shot driving across Canada with a woman I thought I loved for the second time. We eventually broke up a second time, and I still wonder what happened to that roll of film with the carefully-posed and timer-delayed portraits we made standing in front of the “Welcome to BC” roadside sign. Undoubtedly it was thrown away. Even permanent memories are fleeting.

I eventually bought a slightly better Pentax SF1, second hand, and carried it around for a long time despite limited use. Digital was a new thing, but a powerful thing, and I was keen to invest. 

My dorky tech-loving younger brother had bought one of the first “real” accessible digital cameras, an Olympus C-3030, and through some quirk of bad pixels and underpaid employees in the Olympus warranty department, not to mention some critical comments about Olympus on internet forums, my brother ended up with two replacement cameras in exchange for the one he sent back to Olympus. So I bought one from him. 

It was a terrible camera that retailed for the better part of a grand and a half in the year 2000. Three megapixel images, 32-96mm focal length equivalent, 1/800 of a second max shutter speed. It was the most amazing digital photo technology available, and total junk at the same time. 

It was this camera that had me thinking I didn’t know how to take photographs anymore. The images it made were appalling at best, and often blurry. I think it had one very slow auto-focus point, though that might be optimistic. It had one thing going for it though, it didn’t use film. As my father had told me, film was expensive and easy to ruin. 

When it was time to replace the Olympus with a more capable digital camera I re-embraced my Pentax loyalty and walked into the camera store demanding a camera with one of the worst names ever, an *ist D. The salesperson quickly talked me out of that camera. He told me to buy a Nikon D70, and so I did. I’ve been shooting Nikon ever since. 

Armed with a functional digital camera I fancied myself a rock concert photographer and took photographs for a local music paper. The photos were alright, and photo passes to some of my favourite alternative shows didn’t hurt either. 

The photos of rock bands still happen to this day, sometimes, when I get the energy to fight people half my age or less to see a band I still care about enough to stay up late. I wear ear plugs now, and have a fancier full frame digital camera, and some decent lenses to make the “work” easier. And through it all there have been a dozen or more side cameras. 

Tricky Woo at Broken City

There was the quest for a pocketable point-and-shoot that knows what to do with “blue” (which is somewhat important, because; sky), the long term loan of a Leica M3 which ended a few years ago, and garage sale Yashicas, a “new in box” Rolleiflex a friend’s Uncle left to him upon his death that I should have bought but instead borrowed until he sold it to a good friend for a stupidly little amount of money. There’s a medium format Mamiya I innocently bought for next to nothing because the owner had had a stroke and he thought the light meter was busted when all it really needed was a battery. 

And I’ve found myself going nearly full circle. 

Copies of my father’s Pentax Spotmatic litter my apartment. I’ve had near a dozen pass through my hands over the last few years. They regularly show up on Craigslist for less than $100, these beautiful and well-made Japanese stars of photography sporting fast Super Takumar lenses (how could anything with “super” in the name be bad?) and I would buy them and give them away to friends who were interested in trying film photography. 

I still have three Spotmatics, but I can’t give any of these three away. One of the three used to belong to my father. The light meter in it died, along with a couple of others I collected along the way and I sent the bunch of them to be fixed by the noble and near legendary Eric Hendrickson. Problem is, when I sent my father’s camera in with the others there was a drop of paint on the back of the body that matched the colour of the kitchen of the house we lived in in 1976. When I got the trio of cameras back with fully functional light meters, Eric had also cleaned them all, including removing the paint spot. Now I’m not sure which one is the one that belonged to my father. Nostalgia, as mentioned, is a powerful drug. 

This is a photo taken before I was born. It’s of my father and his camera that I still use.

Going back to taking photographs with the Bencini Comet S might have fully closed my photographic circle, but the soulfulness of shooting and developing my own 35mm black-and-white film in a camera that may or may not have been my father’s is close enough. This I’ve learned. 

Oh, and I’ve also learned that there’s no such thing as a bad photograph. Some photographs are better than others, for sure, but that photo I took of my Uncle’s dog wearing a cowboy hat was the best photograph ever taken, even though it was blurry and badly exposed, and may not even exist anymore. 

Craig Sinclair

Craig Sinclair was born in Ontario and is a University of Toronto School of Architecture graduate living in Vancouver for the second time. His photography explores the underlying narratives existing in found contexts. There is beauty in the ordinary, a concept he explores by taking a photograph every day; an exercise he began in 2007 and continues to this day.

All stories by:Craig Sinclair
17 comments
  • I did have a Bencini Koroll 24, which I bought and never used but I did polish it up and sold it on the Bay. It was probably the most basic camera I’ve ever bought but it did look on a shelf, luckily I never wasted any film on it.

  • Maco-direct in Germany and Paul O’Sullivan at MS Hobbies in London both stock new 127 film. Blue Murano make colour negative 127 in Japan and have outlets in both the USA and Canada. I use 127 in my Rollei Grey Baby. It’s 4cm x 4cm negatives make a good halfway house between medium format 6 x 6 and 35mm.

    • Many thanks to everyone who linked to sources of 127 film. That helps the community. And I’ll be picking some up for sure. I’ve got a beautiful Zeiss Kolibri that needs shooting!

    • It’s good to know, as you and others have pointed out, that you can still track down 127 film with some effort. When I last looked (admittedly some time ago) it was more difficult. The recent resurgence of film may have made it easier to find? Back then I found someone who was cutting down 120 film to work in a 127 camera but it was expensive and I’m in Canada so I had to consider the import and brokerage charges which would have more than tripled the cost. The Japanese ReraPan at FPP is a relatively new offering, coming to market in 2014, the last time I earnestly looked for 127 film was before this, and then a cursory look on Amazon when writing this story. Thanks for the link.

  • This is a nice article–enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing. When I became interested in photography in the early 1970s, my Dad let me use his Kodak Retina IIc rangefinder–a camera he hauled all over Germany while in the service. When he married my Mom, settled down and had us kids, that Retina and my Dad’s favorite Kodachrome film recorded all our family memories.

    I still have my Dad’s camera. It’s in great shape but the shutter sometimes sticks at the slowest speeds. I’m sending it in for a CLA because…it deserves it.

  • Wonderful article.

  • Great article!.

    Italy is known for its artists, sculptors, Milano glass and, of course, Ferrari and PininFarina. Then there’s Bencini. In an era of bakelite and cardboard basic cameras Bencini went down the design route with their Comet series of cameras that first saw the light of day in 1948. Very basic they indeed are, but with their moulded aluminium bodies they brought an element of Italian flair to an otherwise dour market in basic camera design at the time.

    If ever there was a case of design over function, Bencini had it in spades. Get one of these cheaply and spend time polishing it up and you’ll have a great display piece. And if you wish to take this to its conclusion, get the wonderful Comet III. Still a very basic camera, but who but an Italian could conjure such an over-the-top design? The III sells for a lot more, but just look at it and you’ll see why.

  • You can load 35mm into many 127 cameras for full full frame negatives, exposure over the sprocket holes.

  • For those into the italian cameras, think about Ducati. The motorbike maker lost its way in the 1950’s in the camera manufacturing.Interresting piece of history now.

  • I still have my first camera also. It was obtained in 1960 at the age of seven. I had sold enough Christmas cards to win a prize. This was a common thing back then. Most of the time the prize you pick is long gone by the time you are eight. I happen to pick an Imperial Debonair that used 620 film. I used it for our cross country move in June 1966 and up to 1968 when a Kodak 127 camera came into my hands. That camera I don’t have but they took pictures of my first car in 1969. That I still have.

    My first pictures that I ever developed, circa spring 1967 in Jr. high Graphic Arts class, were from this camera. I had gone to Catholic schools but had to go to a public Jr. High and needed to pick a elective. I chose Graphic Arts because there was a dark room and those who finished all their projects got to go there and use it. Only two of us made it and things went from there especially after my SRT-101 purchase in 1972. I have not used the Imperial since 1967 and have to say I won’t since the focus one could say is soft, very soft. I’m now 65 and continue to shoot and develop only I am using one of my other 200 cameras It’s a pleasant sickness…

  • 127 film, you say? That turns on the Mental Wayback machine.

    My first serious rollfilm camera was a Yashica 44, a full featured 127 TLR finished in “Baby Rollei Grey.” (I found out about the Baby Rollei many years later.) This camera introduced me to focusing on a subject, learning the “right is left left is right, and overhead shots are upside down” of waist-level life. Rolls of Verichrome Pan ran through the camera, producing a wide variety of small, square prints of people and events of the past week. Then one day, the bolt in side the focusing knob broke off, leaving very little to reattach. The camera was put aside, and a Leica IIIa + 50mm f/1.5-9 Taylor Hobson Xenon took it’s place. The pre-World War II uncoated Xenon produced soft, fuzzy images until it was replaced by a tack sharp 1950’s collapsible 50mm f/3.5 Elmar.

    Flash forward to Summer of 1970. I was on a study+travel tour of Japan with a student group, and there was a free time break from temple and museum visits. A family’s 127 camera had run out of film, and there was none to be had in Tokyo. As a college age fellow sporting a Nikkormat FTn, I was cast as “someone who knows about cameras.” Entrusted with their high school-aged daughter, we took the subway for a tour of camera shops. I figured that they were used to a simple camera, so I steered her to a 126 Instamatic-type, zone focusing camera that took AG-1 flashbulbs. It did bother me that I hadn’t gotten them a “sales tax break” that required a passport, but the daughter took to the camera and used it regularly. I wonder what happened to this never-officially-imported-into-the-U.S. 126 camera and if they were pleased with their results.

  • Film Photography Project in Noo Joisey sells 127 film, spooled and ready to go. They offer many interesting 35mm emulsions and also 110 film plus sheet film. As a bonus, the folks that own the place are certified nut cases. Check it out!

  • Great article. I started out with a 50 cent thrift store find a Minolta srt101 when I was 10ish. it was great except because I was terrible at guessing exposure I had lots of bad rolls back then. the next camera I bought was nikon f3 that I bought from bhphotovideo that was new old stock in 2005. I used that camera through college with a 28mm f3.5 ai converted lens and a 50mm f1.8 e. In college I was issued a canon Eos 1v and two lenses a 35mm f1.4 and 20-200 f2.8 for the school news paper. (I was the last class to use an all film work flow) the next semester they took my beloved Eos 1v and replaced it with a canon 20d. complete crap compared. luckily the school still had a fully functional darkroom and black and white and color chemistry, so instead I secretly used my f3 for the assignments I had more time for. Like you said nostalgia is a strong drug. my f3 has since stopped working and I can’t seem to let it go. its a nice paper weight now. I would like to get it fixed but its not the most cost effective thing to do. I have replaced it with a nikon f2a and still use those two beat up nikkor lenses. I grew up during the digital age and thank goodness I was always to poor to afford a digital camera. long story short my f3 and my Minolta srt101 are my favorite cameras. they have recorded most of my favorite life experiences and have been with my through the good and bad. I will never sell them.

  • That was a delightful read.
    Yes, I still have my first camera that my father gave me and yes I still have my Pentax Spotmatic 1000. I no longer stay up late under any circumstances. *LOL*

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Craig Sinclair

Craig Sinclair was born in Ontario and is a University of Toronto School of Architecture graduate living in Vancouver for the second time. His photography explores the underlying narratives existing in found contexts. There is beauty in the ordinary, a concept he explores by taking a photograph every day; an exercise he began in 2007 and continues to this day.

All stories by:Craig Sinclair