Tag Archives: camera choice

Camera Shock

Camera Shock

I am trying to stay principled about my photography, I really do, but more often than not I feel overtaken by reality or some other realisation catching up. To counterbalance my previous insights about keeping things interesting here is another aspect well worth noting.

When we are younger and finances are tight, there is quite naturally a limitation about changing things around in your photo world. A new camera, a bigger camera, multiple cameras, these things are a financial impossibility and we had to save for a long time to purchase that one single camera we wanted. That also made us think thoroughly whether it would be the right move and a lasting choice. Nowadays with slightly more money at disposal (subject to wife approval of course) and also rapidly declining prices of classic film cameras and used digital cameras, it is a lot easier and tempting to jump at a piece of new equipment on impulse.

If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.

Nobuyoshi Araki

While it may give us new creative impetus as I have written in the past, I have recently also noticed a very negative effect which will make me a lot more cautious in the future: Camera Shock. When I get interested in a new piece of equipment, a new technique, a new subject matter perhaps it disrupts my previous work to a great degree.

Now, this is not always bad, but imagine you have been in a good creative groove for a while, followed by a slight natural slump when you could argue the real work is starting. At that point, when things get a little sticky, it is tempting to divert your attention to something new. It is the path of least resistance. The problem is that New will absorb your energies for a time to come as you will immerse yourself with the new and naturally interesting, with the consequence to loose track of what you have been working on previously, before it had a chance to become your best.

As photographers the search of the most suitable piece of equipment will never be separable from the medium of photography itself, but unless we are fully aware of the implications and carefully manage ourselves consciously it may do more harm than good and hold us back in our overall development.

Obviously all this is easier said than done, but perhaps our ability to maintain the required discipline is an indicator of how serious we really are about our photography, whether we see it as our mission to produce imagery to show to the world, or whether we are simply entertaining ourselves.

The C Feature

This camera probably has 'it'.
This camera probably has 'it'.

If you had asked me about the importance of my camera’s appearance ten years ago, I would have probably laughed at you. As we know, most photographers are technically-minded people; they have to be. The camera is our primary tool to work the technical medium of photography and generally speaking people need tools to work well, and not look good.

In the past all I cared for were functionality and features. And more features. And if a camera with ‘better’ functionality came along, well, it seemed time to think about upgrading. And that was even before the age of digital and its unprecedented accelerated pace of technological evolution.

Nowadays when looking at a camera I always look for the C Feature first: does it have a sufficient amount of on-board charm for me to bother trying to commence a productive relationship with it? Is it possible to add or enhance that feature, perhaps with a nice case or strap?

Just how did I get to the stage where this aspect was worthy any consideration by me? Perhaps I am getting older (inevitably a viable explanation for many odd preferences) and consequently less interested in the rational characteristics of such things. But more importantly over time I have finally realized that, like almost everything in life, photography is a mind game: if you kept your mind in the right frame as it were, the good photographic ones should follow not too far behind.

The first time I became conscious of this was when starting out with street photography several years ago and after a while switching to a Leica camera. I remember walking out of the shop thinking “What have I done? So much money spent on a camera without any features!” But soon after everything would suddenly be different. Me and this machine seemed to get on well, very well. Obviously, this is just a trick of the mind as the Leica does the same (in fact, probably a lot less!) than most 35mm cameras would do, and exactly the same what your Nikon, Canon etc. does for you. Nonetheless I felt different about taking photos with it and, in my view, produced better work than before. What usually happens next is that you try convincing others to make the same choice as you did. Attempting this would ignore the important distinction that this was only the right choice for yourself and only at that point in time. It is likely to be totally different for others (or for myself at an earlier or later stage) so we should not bother evangelizing, although I am as guilty as anyone.

Digital camera prints in ten minutes - not from this camera, surely!
Digital camera prints in ten minutes - not from this camera, surely!

Many readers of Japan Exposures are enjoying John Sypal’s Tokyo Camera Style, also accessible via our front page (or look to the right in the sidebar), where you can see several examples of cameras that Tokyo photographers have chosen to go out and take pictures with. It is a fascinating sight and probably unique in the world. Where else would you see such camera diversity “in the wild”? What catches your eye, however, are that very often these are cameras with personality – yes, there is such a thing. Because why, if not for The C Feature, would you chose something older or different from the current mainstream? A cynic would say that that fine cameras have been demoted to mere fashion accessories, but I would disagree. The visual appeal of the many classic cameras is undeniable, just ask a camera collector, or even better, the advertising agency that created the above advertisement for camera store chain Kitamura, advertising digital printing, ironically.

PIE 2009PIE 2009

Suppose that charm is composed of appearance and behaviour. If it looks good and you enjoy dealing with it, you’re in business. Most mainstream cameras of the last ten years or so, never mind if digital or not, are a far cry from the true characters of the past. When your primary creative tool has the charm level of an unpaid electricity bill, perhaps you will be open to the discovery that there is something out there that is more enjoyable to operate than your streamlined automata. Perhaps it is not the love of film that keeps film alive, but the cameras that need it are still receiving attention and use. Contemporary camera designers and engineers have yet to create anything close to those charm bombs of the past. And many photographers are longing for it, how else would you explain the strong desire to use manual focus Leica M mount lenses on a digital body like the Lumix G1 or the attention paid to a potential digital Olympus Pen?

“Having secured a light-tight camera and suitable lens, there is no more important quality than ease in mechanical working. The adjustments ought to be so simple that an operator may be able to bring it from his satchel and get it in order for making an exposure without a conscious thought. Each worker will have his own idea as to which style of camera comes nearest to perfection in this respect, and having made his choice he should study to become so intimate with it that it will become a second nature with his hands to prepare the camera while his mind and eyes are fully occupied with the subject before him.”

J. Craig Annan, as quoted by Stieglitz in The Hand Camera — Its Present Importance, The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1897.

More of “Keeping Things Interesting”

Double Contax

I am not sure if I am drifting off somewhere I should not be, whether I am exploring or just wasting my time. Well, anyway, I think time spent taking pictures is always a good time.

We went on a little trip to the Japanese seaside this weekend. Since I have accumulated a good handful of Contax G Lenses for our Contax G to Leica M conversions I thought why not give the native G system a try and bought one G1 body… and another G1 body. I realised that I am having so much fun shooting with it and since normally the cost of multiple bodies is prohibitive (but with the G system no longer) so I thought I’d try something different and loaded one body with black and white film, the other with colour, added a 28 and 45 lens and off we go with both.

I have not been a big fan of mixing black and white and colour in my mind, but the nice thing about playing is not being serious enough to set yourself any tough limitations… and it was hardly confusing at all. Since I have a distinct physical object to reach for with each film choice, this way of working is not making things complicated at all. Quite the contrary, it makes you look at the scene and reach for the thick or thin brush, depending on how you want to capture it. I don’t think I have taken the same scene with black and white and colour. For each its own.

As for the G1 — no, a Leica it isn’t, but a very portable and highly usable picture taking machine with excellent optics. And affordable at that. Let’s play!

About the choice of lenses

Q: Do you find that you are putting less in the frame now, with the new lens?

GW: I don’t really know; I just take pictures, and they look almost the same to me. I really don’t know how to answer that question. The only real difference is, with a 28, racking it out as far as it’ll go, let’s say in terms of a face, there’s a lot less space, with a 35mm, left. It’s an interesting little difference. The minute you back up a little, then it becomes a question of how far you’ve got to back up. So with a 35 you’re probably going to back up more, usually. Or you’ll do things without feet… I really don’t want to look at contact sheets that are going to look the same as a 28. Even if I could do that with a 35, by changing the distance or whatever. It’s all about not being bored.

Q: Again, just to keep the problems interesting…

GW: Yeah. And the only way you can do that is finding out how much you can get away with, you know? It’s true.

“An interview with Garry Winogrand” (By Charles Hagen, published in Afterimage, Dec. 1977)

One of the things that I like about Garry Winogrand and makes me revisit him again and again are his plain and simple truths. No attempts to promote photography into the realms of philosophy and studied intellectuals, just plain observations accessible to anyone who can spare a few thoughts on the matter. A lot of people would disagree, of course, but I find this is rather suitable to certain types of photography and in a way to the mass-appeal of photography itself.

Before I bought my new lens I was struggling with the idea whether or not I should add another variable element to my way of working. I had a set of lenses for my Canon, and just sold most of them. More lenses, more choices… less simplicity, greater confusion and loss of focus on the task at hand. Then I realised that my considerations towards lens choice were not based on the right assumptions. A few days later I came across the above quote and it all made sense to me again.

In the past I based my choice of lens on something external – the subject. For example, the kind of subject, its size would dictate what equipment I would need to capture it. I started to really dislike changing lenses while facing a situation. It felt like an inappropriate burden, chasing after something, although I am not sure what. Standing there and trying to accommodate what is in front of the lens while juggling focal lengths does not seem the right thing to do. Unless you are a professional on an assignment of course, but that is a completely different set of deliverables compared to the amateur or artist.

So he is right: it is just about keeping things interesting, for yourself. It is a mind game after all, and this is just one of the cheap tricks. So what I do now is to pick a lens that I feel like working with for the day or so and let me work the situations I encounter with that setup. This is completely different, and surprisingly liberating.