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I have always considered my latest camera to be my ‘coolest gadget’, well maybe along with the Brompton folding bike I’ve now had for nearly 10 years. Unlike the Brompton, I get through rather more cameras.
I’ve always been a keen camera owner, probably more so than is justified by my abilities as a photographer.
My very first was a Kodak Brownie 44a, not a box camera, despite the name, but still a roll film camera. I distinctly remember its proudly worn Design Centre Award sticker and, luxury of luxuries, two exposure settings; one for bright light and one for very bright light!
These were the days when you always placed your subjects facing the sun, and woe betides you if the sun wasn’t out. It used 127 roll film with 12 exposures per roll and punished you with double exposures if you didn’t get into the routine of winding on the moment you took a picture. You were also treated to blank prints if you wound on once more for good measure.
Its major limitation to my mind was the fact that whichever way up you tipped it, it took square photos.
Even at the age of 11, I was keen to start exploring portrait and landscape formats, and I think this is what tipped me in the direction of 35 mm photography, a furrow that guided me all the way through to the digital era.
FLEDGLING GADGET MAN IS BORN c1963
So off to Boots I went, with my birthday money gripped in hand, and paid about £7-19s-6d for a Beirette which was exclusive to Boots in the UK. Nevertheless, it was made by Woldemar Beier in Dresden in the then DDR. I still have it, partly out of sentimental attachment and partly because it refuses to die, even 48 years on its shutter is practically silent when fired. This was to be the first of a few East German cameras that came my way mainly for reasons of cost.
Compared to the Brownie, this was sophistication beyond measure. It had lever wind and you couldn’t fire it twice by accident. It had 3 (yes, 3!) shutter speeds and a full range of aperture settings. It also differed in so much as it could be focussed rather than rely on bright weather. I still smile today when a camera is described as ‘focus-free’ – no it doesn’t have auto-focus, it just doesn’t focus.
Of course, being a nascent nerd even then, a camera that needed all of its parameters to be set by the user was prime territory for some extra gadgets. I bought a Hanimex light meter to take care of exposure settings and a Boots Rangefinder, rather like a miniature version of those used by WW2 tank commanders. It’s difficult these days to view Boots as a centre of excellence in reasonably-priced camera gadgets (and home brewing for that matter). How times change.
After a few years, and several copies of Amateur Photographer, I’d started to hear about these ‘SLR’ jobs, not even knowing that it stood for single lens reflex, but they sounded like a jolly good idea. I mean, you looked through the ‘taking lens’, so there was no more chopping Aunty Aida’s head off – what you saw was what you got, including whether it was in focus or not. Another attraction to me at that time was the ability to fit other lenses, preferably the more phallic, the better, and I remember getting a 400 mm telephoto lens with an optic the size of a minor beer barrel to fit my first SLR, a Practika Nova 1, yet again, East German.
As a hobby, I was by now also into doing my own developing and printing, sharing the expense with my brother. Some of my results with this combo of camera and darkroom actually won me
Pictures of What are the coolest gadgets you own?
Where it all began.
some amateur prizes, and in fact this period remains the one and only time I’ve entered a photo competition.
WORK, THE CURSE OF THE SNAPPING CLASSES c 1968
Approaching 18 and the dreaded world of work, the other dreaded word ‘upgrade’ started to infiltrate my consciousness. Around about this time, Japanese giants such as Nikon, Canon and Pentax were knocking out some splendidly desirable SLRs, many of them still around and working, or at least collectable thanks to their build-quality. Unfortunately, they were all way out of my league, and I remember seeing the Nikon F1 used with gay abandon by David Hemmings in ‘Blow Up’, thinking that one day I’d have one of those (camera that is, not naked romps on a studio floor – oh I don’t know though…).
However, back on Planet Reality, the best I could muster was the cash for another Practika, this time the Super TL. This was essentially the same as its predecessor with the addition of this new-fangled ‘through the lens metering’, which was all that the Nova lacked really. Bye, bye to dragging a Weston Master V light meter from round my neck (actually I’ve still got the meter, and it still works!)
WHERE IT ALL GOES GOES A BIT ‘PETE TONG’ – ELECTRONICS AND PARENTHOOD ARRIVE c 1978
Up to this point, every one of these cameras was capable of being fired after the film was advanced, merely by spring pressure. Yes, the Super TL needed a battery but only for the light meter; it wasn’t crippled by a dead battery.
Despite this, I forged on chasing the ‘upgrade trail’ through my first electronic Canon, an AT-1, not their most successful model as it did little that the Practika didn’t AND it was totally dependant on a battery. However given a willing market in the shape of a brother-in-law who was after a ‘decent camera’, I upgraded yet again. The choices weren’t so clear cut this time. Olympus were trying to woo me with their splendid OM-1 model, which to this day astounds all who pick one up in just how dinky yet precision and sturdy it is. Like the Nikon F1, this became another of my ‘one day…’ pipe dreams Affordable or not, Canon pipped the Olympus to my post by introducing the AE-1, which interested me by being the first affordable ‘shutter-priority’ automatic on the market. It was also cheaper, though not much.
I guess I’d have carried on using it until it died if it wasn’t for the Canon A-1 – what a class-act name that was! This had both shutter and aperture priority modes and obliged by being a sexy semi-pro black. At least with electronic cameras, I didn’t form any attachment to them, and I always did my best to sell on what I had before spending yet more money.
SOMETHING SNAPS c 1990
I don’t know why, but a year or two down the line, I decided to declutter myself of a large camera gadget bag stuffed with lenses, and bought myself an Olympus IS-2000, a totally self-contained zoom SLR of very futuristic appearance. Fortunately, the Canon A-1 fetched a good price, and not much money changed hands.
If I recall, I gave the IS-2000 to my daughter one year when I was too skint to buy her something new for her birthday.
Around this time, and we’re now up to just before the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that!), I was retiring (very) early from full time employment and filled my ‘SLR-drought’ with a brace of Canons, or rather two Canon bodies and lenses to fit either. Why two? Well, one of them was a Canon EOS 500n and the other was its APS film equivalent. Remember APS? It was going to revolutionise photography just like the Minidisk was going to with hi-fi. We’re now so much into the modern era, that I wrote opinions of them when they were new here on Ciao!
AND THEN THE WORLD TURNS UPSIDE DOWN AND IT’S ALL GONE DIGITAL c 2001
Thanks to the new-found e-Bay, my brace of Canons were soon dealt with and I got the feedback to prove it!
Of course, between my wife and I, we were never without a camera as such. We had a dinky little Canon IXUS, at the time in APS format but beautifully built. I had roughly pencilled into the back of my mind “When digital cameras pass 3 megapixels and they have large memory chips, I’ll get one”.
They did, and I did, my first venture into turning picture into ones and zeroes came with a 3.4 mp Casio, which immediately annoyed me by having no real zoom, only a digital one, and are we fooled by those any more? Only in mobile phones, it would seem.
Naturally, this didn’t last long before being sold on at half price, only to be succeeded by a Nikon 5700 Coolpix, which was excellent and some of my best ‘recent’ photos were taken with it, just going to prove that 5.0 mega-pixels are plenty unless you want posters. It was of metal construction with a fine and useful zoom, and only let down but ‘shutter lag’, i.e. its inability to fire exactly when you wanted it to, ruling out action shots. Impressed by the build-quality, I decided to stick with Nikon, and bought my first SLR of the digital era, a D70. This is still going strong in my daughter’s hands, which in itself is a tribute to its rugged build.
Bringing us up to where we are now, I’ve now owned a Nikon D90 for nearly two years (is it that long already?), but at least I’ve been able to economise by sticking with the same brand of interchangeable lenses.
THEN BNIBBLES GOES RETRO
In the interim years, I’ve actually started a camera collection; not from the myriad cameras I’ve owned (well, except for the 1960 Beirette), but by obtaining them when the notion strikes.
I have a pristine condition pair of folding bellows cameras, both British-built Ensigns, but of differing vintages, one pre-war, and the other from around 1959, complete with original bill from Gamages of Holborn. Both are capable of excellent pictures thanks to the negatives nearly being the size of modest postcards!
However, I do have three ‘prides and joys’ one of which is the original 35mm Beirette, which doesn’t have a mark on it, nearly 50 years later.
I guess in a small way, I’m another of these balding middle-aged men, who, having been released from a mortgage and putting kids through college, go out and buy themselves that ‘super bike’ that they’d lusted after in their youth. Nothing so dangerous with me, but remember those two SLRs I promised myself? Well, I’ve got them now!
Firstly the Nikon F I bought quite a while back, and for quite a sum of money. I enjoy stripping it down to its system components so that there’s barely any camera left, a little like the way the Soviet Army used to blindfold their men and make them strip down an AK-47 and get it together again. Once it’s back together again, it does work, and has produced some excellent shots, well up to today’s standard.
Secondly, and most recently, i.e. this week (!), I’ve come by an Olympus OM-1. Well, not strictly true. A friend gave me a non-working OM-10 with lenses – that’s the folly of anything electronic, once it packs up, it’s had it – and I decided to put the lenses to work by buying an OM-1 body from e-Bay for £40.
What a bargain. OK, it’s black finish is a bit ‘brassed’ around the edges but it still fires in that subdued silky way made famous by Olympus and it’s still quite the smallest 35mm SLR I’ve handled. To understand why, you need to know that Olympus had come straight from making miniature and ‘half-frame 35mm*’ cameras so they knew a thing or two about keeping size down when they entered the full-frame 35 mm market.
(*Cameras that could take 72 shots on a roll of 35 mm film, the default format being portrait).
There’s one snag, and it’s not film availability (yet). It’s getting batteries to run their light meters. Neither camera is battery dependant per se, but the banning of mercury cells across the western world and beyond has made it difficult up to now to finds suitable replacements. With a bit of digging, I unearthed the ‘Weincell’ battery, with the same voltage and discharge profile as the mercury cell, and lasting a year from when you tear off the tab – they are air-actuated. I’m really looking forward to giving the Olympus a test drive.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
1. Well, in my case, don’t keep upgrading cameras - especially in the electronic era!
I hate to think of all the money that’s trickled through my fingers like sand, but heh, I don’t smoke. There used to be an old rule of thumb that the second hand price was negotiable around half the new price. Not so with electronics. Firstly, you’ve got the risk that it won’t work, and is therefore not fit for sale, and secondly, it’ll have been superseded with something boasting twice as many mega-pixels and probably at a lower price.
2. This one’s for the manufacturers not me. Look at the size of the Olympus OM-1 and weep.
Even my old Nikon F ‘tank’ is smaller than my Nikon D90. I fail to see in this day and age how it is that you can’t yet get a dinky SLR, without cheating and making a camera that has interchangeable lenses and is called ‘SLR-quality’ but doesn’t actually have a bright optical viewfinder, just a back LCD screen that you hold at arm’s length. Surely if you stripped out the space saved by not having two film compartments, you could make a digital OM-1, but it seems even Olympus don’t even want to give it a try. Pity, it would have been a crowd-puller.
WHAT’S THE ATTRACTION?
I think my love of these precision gadgets mirrors what I tend to think about watches.
Yes, we all know that a £5 quartz watch is heaps more accurate than even the best clockwork timepiece, and I’ve got one of those that sets itself to the Rugby atomic clock by radio, but you can’t beat the feel of a clockwork watch when it comes to build-quality.
They don’t even have to have cost a lot. I’ve a £25 Seiko self-winder that only needs adjusting about one minute every two weeks. Just don’t get me started on watches……..
OTHER CAMERAS NOT FEATURED
In amongst this journey of folly and expense, several other cameras have passed through our joint hands as camera owners.
A Canonet QL 17, a very nicely-made rangefinder 35mm, which I gave to my daughter’s boyfriend for a photography course he was attending – she then promptly broke up with him, so my chances of ever seeing it again are somewhat slim.
A Canon MC – Micro-compact motor-driven auto-focussing 35mm pocket camera, which turned in sterling results having accompanied us on numerous holidays where lugging a lot of kit around wasn’t an option. This fell to the ‘uneconomic repair’ bug once a fault developed.
A Canon IXUS 400 digital – likewise, this little gem did squadron service for many years until also falling prey to the dreaded ‘uneconomic repair’.
I seem to recall a Russian-made compact camera in there too somewhere but I can’t remember too much about it. I think it was called Lumo (Lomo, thanks Silverback!), which is no sillier than Lumix! The plastic smelled of coal!