Confessions of a Used Camera Addict (Part 1)

This blog post is in two parts. If you have a bit more cash to burn and want to know more about some of the best analogue camera equipment out there in the used markets, you might want to skip to the second part of this post. However, if you’re kinda broke and want to get into shooting film cameras on the cheap, or find a particular thrill in old unfashionable cameras which may or may not work, then keep reading…

Prices quoted are in the currency used for payment.
1000 Chinese RMB was worth about 145 USD in 2008, and now about 160 USD in 2014.
6000 RMB is about 1000 USD or thereabouts.

More detailed information on all cameras can be found at the excellent site Camerapedia.

Speculating on technological specifications of semi-mythical future Canon or Nikon releases is considered relatively normal behaviour among photographers, for both the professional and hobbyist alike. What is even more surprising is that many photographers also find the time and means to also juggle this obsession with a trip to the used camera market (or eBay) to satisfy that more primal hunter/gatherer instinct. In some ways this mentality is not unlike some genres of photography itself: exploring for, discovering and gathering that rare lens or limited edition camera body much as we often explore and discover when discovering and gathering images.

As it has turned out so far in the digital era, similar to the continued and flourishing niche of music being released on vinyl, images produced on film via old analogue camera technology has survived the digital onslaught for now, even if it’s also no longer the mainstream. Why exactly ? Some enthusiasts of film would say the need not to waste film makes you think more about each shot, others bemoan the “spray’n’pray” process of shooting with digital cameras compared to the “slower” method of shooting with film. Others will describe the flatness of digital imagery and the sterile look of digital images straight from a camera compared to a scan using good quality film; perhaps important when producing timeless photographic “art objects” rather than disposable imagery. Others will point to the anticipation of getting film scans back from the developing lab, or the thrill at seeing negatives come alive in the darkroom. All are completely valid arguments, though mixed into all the genuine advantages of shooting on film there’s also a large amount of vintage object fetishisation of anything old-fashioned & analogue, not to mention the luxury status of brands such as Leica, Hasselblad, Rolleiflex. On one hand the collectability of old cameras and the reverse-consumerist trend for anything vintage/analogue has probably been what has kept Fuji’s film manufacturing division in production in the face of a collapse in the consumer film camera market. On the other hand it has also inflated the price of many classic cameras out of reach of people who would actually want to go out and engage with the world photographically using their classic camera rather than display it on their coffee table or sling it over their shoulder as a kind of hipster jewellery. Anyway, countless blog posts and comment threads, often vicious and tribalistic, have been devoted to this film vs digital debate. Google them. I won’t elaborate on it any further. In fact, its probably one of the most redundant debates of all time. Both film and digital are great, depending on which tool is better for the tool you need.

Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR, produced from 1974-1979

I had grown up in the film era, taking my first photos as a teenager in the 1990s with my dad’s excellent Olympus OM-1 SLR camera, which he had bought in the late 1970s. That camera met an unfortunate end in 2001 or 2002, being among the items in the boot of my rock-climbing pal’s sporty-looking Ford (?) when it was stolen in my hometown of Kirkcaldy and driven 35 miles to Dundee before being set on fire. The moral of that story is… a) always unpack the boot of the car following a climbing trip, and b) don’t put nice alloy wheels on a car in small-town Scotland unless you have a garage. A classic tale of a classic equipment in the hands of a youngster who didn’t appreciate it, never learned to use it properly and basically knew very little about photography. And yet, I still remember how it felt, how well designed and ergonomic it was, the satisfying click of the shutter…

Canon EOS 500N SLR, produced from 1996-2000, acquired in 2003

After the Olympus OM-1 I received an end-of-stock Canon EOS500N SLR camera (with kit lenses) as a present from my dad before I left Scotland and went travelling in 2003, and until 2006 it used to document travels as a young adult in Australia, Asia, and China. By 2006 however DLSR cameras had come down in price, and I splashed out what was then a month’s English Teaching salary on the most basic entry-level DSLR of the time, the Canon Digital Rebel 400, and I didn’t look back. With digital, I could experiment and see the results immediately, which ignited and was able to feed an obsession for producing images and got me up that initial learning curve in a way film had never been able to. So I really began as a digital guy in 2006, uploading to Flickr and coating my photos in excessive saturation and contrast in an attempt to make them look more like “art”.

So what changed ? Well in Autumn of 2007 I lost that DSLR. I took it to a bar to photograph some live music or something, left it in a restaurant or taxi somewhere, and never saw it again. I couldn’t afford to replace the DSLR, but I felt compelled to keep shooting, somehow, and dusted off the Canon EOS500N again. I now found that shooting on film (good film at least) really did produce a different aesthetic; the tones produced by the type of film, but most of all the tonal range in the shadows and highlights. I hadn’t noticed any of that before, and nor had I noticed that the Canon EOS500N was an ugly, plasticy-feeling camera, with slow auto-focus and slow, noisy film-advance. I resolved to shoot film again, but hopefully not with the EOS500N. Examples of 500N photos here.

Olympus XA, 35mm film, f2.8/28mm fixed lens, produced 1979-1982 (?)
bought in 2008 for 35 USD

In 2008 I began studying an MA in Photojournalism and I needed to spend my savings practically on a replacement DSLR rather than a 35mm film camera. Enter the tiny lightweight Olympus XA, first released in 1979, the year of my birth, and snapped up from eBay for the modest sum of 35 USD. For a few years it became my throw-in-the-bag pocket travel camera of choice. It’s made of plastic, but feels robust and well-designed, though perhaps a little too small for some people’s hands. The 2.8/28mm fixed lens is really sharp, but it doesn’t render colour tones accurately and produces vignetting. For some people these lens properties might be a desirable feature: a cheaper but similar alternative to shooting with a Lomo LC-A. In terms of using the XA for candid shooting, I mostly found it quite fiddly. While it has auto exposure metering and aperture priority mode to speed up the shooting process, the rangefinder focusing is via a small dial, which is fine in broad daylight if you can pre-focus at f11, but not ideal at other times. The small lightweight nature of the XA also makes it difficult to hold steady at longer shutter speeds. I do still have this camera, but the celebrated sensitivity of the camera’s leaf shutter has meant that it’s also been easy to break. In recent years I’ve used the XA more often as an exposure meter than as a camera. Will I fix the shutter ? Its probably cheaper just to buy another XA. Will I buy another though ? I doubt it. Bottom line: the XA’s cult status is justified, and if you find one for 35 USD its a bargain. Examples of XA photos here.

Holga MF 6×6, first produced in 1982, many re-releases in a variety of colours
bought in 2008 for 300 RMB new

Shoot medium format, you won’t regret it… Medium format is where it’s at… You want to get yourself a medium format… medium format negatives are so detailed… So say many people.

Ok, I thought. I’ll try medium format. Only problem – I’m broke. Well, luckily there is this amazing little 300 RMB camera made in Hong Kong for the Chinese market called the Holga. It’s looks like a toy, it feels like a toy, and for many people it is a toy, but hmm… that little plastic lens lens can really produce some nice images, and Holga images have won prizes in photojournalism & art photography. Photos are inevitably sharp in the middle and blurred at the edges. Colours are almost accurate in the middle, but go dark and vignetted at the edges. That’s what the Holga lens does, making it a favourite of lo-fi photographers interested in cross-processing and double-exposing with expired-film. Many of the software filters on smartphone apps like Instagram are inspired by the Holga look. Such a distinctive aesthetic has its problems for certain types of photography because subject matter can get buried beneath that strong aesthetic. It’s like adding a load of chilli to every meal you cook. Spicy food can be good, but too much of it will mask all the other flavours, so it might be difficult to achieve any kind of personal vision if shooting Holga photos (though perhaps not impossible ?). Another problem with the Holga is its extreme simplicity – you only get two aperture settings and three shutter speeds. The final problem with using a Holga is that it is so cheaply made that it falls apart very easily. I needed to tape the back of the camera on mine to hold it together, and eventually some spring sprung off into the earth and the shutter wouldn’t fire. I still have it somewhere, but never bothered fixing it. Maybe I should. Holgas are fun. Examples of Holga photos here.

Seagull 4A f3.5/75mm, 120 film, 6×6, produced from 1950s – present
bought in 2008 for 450 RMB

I realised after one weekend of using the Holga that it was fun but had its limitations in terms of aesthetics and reliability. I needed something almost as cheap but more reliable, and fortunately I was living in China, home of the Seagull (Haiou) range of TLR cameras which date from the 1950s. A friend called me from Beijing’s Wukesong camera market asking if I wanted them to bring one back to Dalian. Sure.

Finally, a real medium format camera that I could stick on a tripod and take into the streets and have people take me seriously. It’s an important point. Part of the portraiture craft is being able to play the role of the photographer, and part of playing the role means looking the part, and part of looking the part means having a “proper” camera. The Seagull cameras are clearly influenced in its design by other TLR cameras of the era, and are apparently still in production. Their lenses are capable enough, without being amazingly sharp or distinctive. The main quirk from my Seagull came from an intermittent light leak which swooshed its way across some of the photos. Again, for people who might be tempted to bash up their cameras specifically to create a light leak, doing it with a 400 RMB camera is vastly preferable to tampering with the rubber light seals on a 15,000 RMB mint condition Rolliflex. This model I had was also an early one, from the 1950s or early 60s, and with any cameras of this age which has been well used you’re going to find some wear and tear and unreliability; rust, fungus, moving parts not moving as smoothly as they should. In fact my Seagull struggled to complete one roll of film without the film advance or shutter release jamming, forcing me to open up the back to avoid films being chewed up. Either way, shots get lost. It just wasn’t a reliable camera I could take on a documentary project where I may only have one chance at getting the shot. I sold it after about a month. Would I recommend a Seagull… If you don’t have a TLR and find one for this price which works ok, then why not. However, as China has become more wealthy in recent years, the price of Seagull cameras has also increased, with perhaps Chinese patriotism influencing its popularity more than the quality of the camera ? Examples of Seagull-4A photos here.

Kiev-60 MF 6×6, produced from 1982 to 2000s (?)
bought in 2008 for 1000 RMB including Zeiss Jena 2.8/80mm lens

I’d first shot with the heavy tank-like Soviet-made KIEV-60 in 2007, running a roll through one that a friend owned. I found another in the Dashatou camera market in Guangzhou in October 2008 when I was looking for an inexpensive 6×6 camera to replace the Seagull-4A for shooting the portraits in the TRADE WINDS project, and it was a toss-up between this or a Mamiya 645. The Kiev made better images, partly because it came with the Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar f2.8/80mm lens. The Zeiss “Jena” lenses were first made in the 1950s in the former East Germany for the Pentacon mount (which the Kiev-60 uses) and are known for generally better optics and quality control than the Arsat lenses made at the Kiev factory in Ukraine where the Kiev body was made. Like many Soviet made cameras the Kiev is fully manual, and designed to operate in harsh subzero conditions and be repairable out in the field. Unfortunately it is known to suffer an achilles heel in terms of the film advance mechanism, with spacing between images being a little random, leading sometimes to overlapping shots, and mine was no exception. Occasionally the mirror also wouldn’t move, leading to blank frames. The Kiev-60 did get me safely through the TRADE WINDS project, and with some beautiful images, but a look at my contact sheets would tell you it was an often frustrating experience. That said, I do have a soft spot for the Kiev. It may be bulky and unergonomic, but it has a certain character both in operation and the images it makes that is all of its own. The viewfinder ground-class was also as bright and clear to focus with as any TLR I’ve used. For people who like taking cameras apart and tuning them from time to time, the Kiev is probably a lot of fun. I later sold it to a guy in Beijing’s Wukesong camera market who has a whole bunch of Kievs, Pentacons and other Soviet cameras in various states of repair. It’s a shop I usually browse whenever I visit Wukesong, even if I have no intention of going back to using ex-Soviet cameras… Examples of Kiev-60 photos here.

Horizon 202 35mm film, swing-lens panoramic f2.8/28mm, produced late 1980s – 2000s
bought in 2009 for 1200 RMB

Another Soviet camera purchased from Guangzhou’s Dashatou market, this one being an actual Soviet one stamped with USSR as opposed to later models stamped with “Russia”. The lens is similar to that in the LOMO camera I believe; sharp, contrasty and colourful, but without the vignetting. The design makes it looks a little plasticy like a children’s toy, a design direction which seems to have been amplified in some of the more re-releases of the Horizon which are sold via the Lomography shops. Appearances can be deceptive though. It’s actually a robust camera capable of producing fine professional-quality images. Although any swing-lens camera will distort the perspective, making horizontal lines appear curved unless they are exactly half-way up the frame. It also auto-focuses at around 3 metres to infinity- and there’s no manual focus, so close-up objects and people will always be out of focus. Photographers who are willing to experiment a little with compositions will gradually find the kind of scenes that a swing-lens panoramic lends itself to and ones it doesn’t. Personally I’ve found it really good for environmental portraits, especially in open situations where you want to covey a sense of space.

Unfortunately I seem to be having a problem of light-dark banding in my Horizon in recent rolls. Apparently this isn’t a light leak, it’s actually due to dirt in the swing-lens mechanism causing the lens to swing at a variable speed, leading to some parts becoming more exposed than others. Hopefully I can get this fixed. If not, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another, even at triple the price. It’s that good a camera, and seeing scenes in a wide 120 degree panoramic field of vision has become an indispensable part of my photographic explorations. Possible 35mm alternatives to the Horizon 202 include the German-made Noblex, or the Japanese Widelux. The Noblex has a 136 degree angle of view, and is reputed to have better optics and more reliable mechanics than either the Horizon or the Widelux, but it’s also much more expensive. The Hasselblad Xpan is another panoramic option, though it isn’t a swing lens and only has a field of view of 76 degrees. There are also some medium format swing-lens panoramic cameras made by Noblex, plus the Chinese company Widepan. I might consider those. I might even one day splash out some serious cash and look at a 6×17 or 6×24 panoramic format camera. None of those larger cameras would have the throw-in-the-bag versatility of the Horizon 202 though…
Examples of Horizon 202 photos here.

Mamiya 645, MF 6×4.5, produced from 1975 to 1987
body-only bought in 2009 for 1000 RMB

I picked this up in Shanghai’s Luban Road camera market. Although I’d opted to buy the Kiev-60 the previous year instead of a Mamiya 645, that was mainly because of the Kiev’s Zeiss Jena lens. The early Mamiya kenses aren’t particularly amazing, certainly not comparable to the top of the range optics the company was producing by the 1990s. The Mamiya was though a more comfortable better designed camera though, smaller, able to sit in the palm of your hand, and also the 645 format, which I seem to click with. I seem to find it easy to compose in 645, slightly wider than 35mm, but not square like 6×6. I was told by others that shooting 6×4.5 was pointless when I could shoot 6×8 and get negatives which were twice as large, and maybe that’s a valid point, but you can’t find 6×8 cameras for 1000 RMB. The main reason though for buying the Mamiya 645 was that I could use my two Zeiss Jena lenses with the Mamiya plus a small adapter. This combination yielded images equally good as the Kiev’s, if not better, and without the Kiev’s unpredictability, but it wasn’t without frustrations of its own. If using the Jena lenses, the ground-glass viewfinder was very dark at small apertures, so I would need to compose the shot with a wide-open aperture, then adjust after. The Mamiya also had also considerable mirror bounce, and thus image shake. It came with a mirror lock-up function, but this also meant an extra step before taking the photo. Basically, it meant I could produce sharp hand-held images in bright daylight when my settings were f11 and 1/250th second, but at f2.8 and 1/30th second, I needed to compose on a tripod. This is not a failure of the camera, so much as the nature of it – it was designed to be a studio workhorse. Did I really want to be carrying a studio workhorse plus tripod around Shanghai in stifling heat and humidity exploring for photos ? Instead I took to exploring without a camera for a while, going back to specific sites to shoot. This process of looking for photographs without a camera is definitely a learning exercise I’d recommend to anyone. However, when I began a new job travelling to other cities I wanted something easier. I wanted a medium format camera system I could throw in a bag for that spare couple of hours here and there, and I wanted it now. I generated part of the cash by selling the Mamiya 645 back to the same store I bought it from. Owners of used camera shops are all used camera addicts too. They understand. Examples of Mamiya 645 photos here.

In total I shot with seven different film cameras from 2007 to 2009. If I hadn’t been broke a the time due to working in China and studying an Masters I might have gone straight out and bought the best Rolliflex, or Leica, or Mamiya 6/7 I could find, and thus avoided the whole experience of using less desirable and arguably less effective cameras. Had I done that would I have missed out ? Yes, I think so. Aside from the question of whether anyone is able to properly appreciate superior technology until they’ve spent time getting the best out of inferior technology, I also found that using these cameras was not just about the images I made, it was also on some level about connecting with the history of photography. The intrinsic nature of photography is that it is a medium rooted in the past. Every photo contains its own history, and every used camera too. This little journey lead me back to research and discover cameras and brands I may never have known about had I remained on the Canon/Nikon digital path, yet cameras and brands that were pivotal in pushing camera technology and camera culture to the point its at today. Though not all the cameras I describe here were flagship products for their company or country, some were. It was a pleasure to have been the owner of them, even if I later sold most of them. I hope whoever takes custody of them after me enjoys a similar experience and produces many memorable photos.

One Comment

  1. ...

    I still have an OM1 – with lenses – next time you’re home perhaps…

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