Confessions of a Used Camera Addict (Part 2)
Between 2007 and 2009 I shot with seven different film cameras. I introduced myself to compact rangefinders, medium format TLRs, medium format SLRs, swing-lens panoramics, and shot various formats from 35mm, panoramic, 6×6, 6×4.5 etc. Another way to describe it might be as an unfocused period of a photographer searching for an identity through trial and error. I’m fine with that. More on those cameras on Part 1 of this blog post.
It may not have been that way though. If I hadn’t been broke due to working in China and studying an Masters I might have skipped all the cheap cameras and jumped straight into buying the best Rolliflex, or Leica, or Mamiya 6/7 I could find, avoiding 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 way that different cameras force you to see in different ways (more on that below) and 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 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 used 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 took custody of them after me enjoyed a similar experience and produced many memorable photos.
The experience of using different cameras and formats also forced me to confront the limitations of the shooting approach I become accustomed to on an SLR. When using a large “studio workhorse” medium format or a swing-lens panoramic it just isn’t possible to shoot in the same way. You need to consider not only different compositional rules, but also different subject matter, looking less for the decisive moment and more about the decisive detail. When I owned a Mamiya 645 that was best used on a tripod, I took to exploring the streets of Shanghai without a camera for a while, identifying a shot, then going back later with the camera. That’s pretty much what photographers mean when they say “medium format slows you down”. This process of looking for photographs without a camera is definitely a learning exercise I’d recommend to anyone. I’m glad I went through that phase and developed whatever added awareness of scene and surroundings that I may have gained during that time. Would I want to shoot that way forever though ? Some photographers do, but for me when I began a new job travelling to other cities I wanted something more portable, I began to realise that I was the kind of photographer who needed “thrown-in-the-bag” portability. Unless photographers go out photographing in groups, nobody can ever know how many potential images they pass by without seeing. You can only ever judge yourself on the images you do make. In my case my best shots from that time period weren’t produced while I was intent on finding images, in fact I produced many rolls worth of thoroughly mediocre images this way. I was trying too hard. More often the best shots came when I had stopped thinking about photography altogether, but suddenly I would walk into a scene or see a detail which literally stopped me in my tracks, drew my mind back from wherever it was and into photo-mode. The axiom “the best camera for the job is the one you have with you” is one that applies to me.
If you want to talk of portable “carry-everywhere” medium format, there are two main types of camera. There’s the old 6×6 folder cameras such as the Agfa Isolette or Mamiya Six (not to be confused with the Mamiya 6). These cameras were good in their day, with some fine optics, but they’re old. They were first made in the late 1930s, and then later versions produced in the 40s and 50s. For a camera, that’s old. Age brings with it several potential problems: fungus in the inside of the lens, rust in moving parts, and an additional problem unique to folding cameras where a fairly fragile lens “folds out” from the casing, deterioration of the leather bellows, which causes light to leak in. New bellows can be fitted, and fungus and rust can be cleaned to some extent. But clearly you take a risk with such old cameras. I’ve tended to see them in the camera markets or on eBay either in mint condition, very collectable, and therefore very expensive, or else in poor condition and cheap.
Fuji GA645zi f4.5-6.9/55-90mm lens, produced 1998
The other option is to look at a medium format rangefinder. Medium format rangefinders are something of a class of their own in cameras and have a definite cult following. A key company driving the development of the Medium Format rangefinder market was Fuji/Fujifilm (similarities to the current digital era with Fujjfilm’s “niche” X-series). They produced the Fujica 690GL in 1969 with the intention of making a “medium format Leica” with top notch optics but 35mm ease of use. This series was added to series in the 1970s and 80s, adding 6×8 versions too.In the 1980s and 1990s Fuji released a series of eight different fixed lens 6×4.5 medium format rangefinders with great sharp contrasty optics, all with confusingly similar names according to their levels of automation and width of lens. The final Fuji rangefinder was the GA645zi, released in 1998. While all the other 645 rangefinders had fixed lenses, the GA645zi came with an f4.5-6.9/55-90mm zoom lens every bit as sharp and contrasty as the its predecessors, plus autofocus and autoexposure. The Fuji Ga645zi is THE most compact, portable, easy to use medium format camera multiple-focal-length camera system ever made, really a medium-format point’n’shoot. I’d been through the process of “slowing down” with unreliable Soviet cameras, fiddly to operate TLRs, studio workhorses, and now I wanted to go back to something simple, to take the “process” out of my photography. So I bought the Fuji GA645zi. And it turned out to be a great camera. For three years this camera and accompanied me on all my journeys around China. If I had space, I’d sometimes bring the Horizon 202 as well, for something different, but the Fuji was pretty much all I needed in a camera. I even liked the fact that the viewfinder was in portrait orientation rather than landscape, which is a common concern of people who are considering buying the Fuji 645s. It lead me to shoot more images in portrait mode, lending more variety to my photos. And then one day in 2012 I sold it.
I sold it for two main reasons. First issue was the speed of the lens. At the wide 55mm end, f4.5 is ok, if not spectacular. At the 90mm end though f6.9 is pretty slow and sluggish. With 100asa film in the camera, I took a couple of indoor photos, one with sunlight from a skylight lighting a room from above, and another a portrait of a waitress beside a window with a bright sunny day outside. Neither came out sharp. I was shooting at 1/30th second or so. The portrait I might have got sharp if I had shot at the f4.5/55mm end of the lens’ range, but 55mm on a medium format camera is wide-angle, so people’s faces distort slightly and you’ll have to stand a little too close to the subject for them to be comfortable. I could also have shot with 400asa film, but the rest of the roll was outdoor on a bright sunny day, so I wanted 100asa really. The other issue with the camera was the focusing. The autofocus was pretty good, impressively good, but sometimes it did miss the intended target e.g if the subject was off centre in the foreground. At such times it’s nice to switch to manual focus, but manual focus on the GA645zi is not particularly easy to use, requiring button pressing to negotiate menus on an LCD screen on the back of the camera. Neither of these issues change the fact that, for what it is, its a wonderful camera which I would recommend to anyone. All camera and lens designs must make compromises somewhere, be it in quality, size, weight, price, aesthetics, ease of use etc. There’s no perfect camera. Photos here.
After shooting with the Fuji GA645zi for two and a half years, I may have felt it was time to go back to a camera which slowed me down a bit more. Or maybe I just wanted to buy a new camera, I can’t recall exactly. I try to tell myself that I wouldn’t buy simply a new camera for the sake of accumulating yet another camera, it’s about freshening things up too. If you keep shooting with the same camera over and over, there’s a possibility you might begin to feel like you’re taking the same photos over and over. You find yourself losing the motivation to go out and shoot. Getting to know a new camera is usually a good way to kick-start yourself back into motivation, like changing jobs or cities. So I spotted this late 1970s Fujica GSW690 fully-manual rangefinder with a f5.6/65mm fixed lens and in order to justify purchasing it, I sold my Fuji GA645zi. I’m not sure it was the best decision, but it was a decision. The Fuji GSW690 is a bulky camera, not a point’n’shoot by any means. It produced some great images though, sharp, crisp, nice tones. I’ve no complaints about image quality, and yes, those 6×9 negatives are huge when seen through an enlarger, like looking at a postcard. It’s a really decent camera, though for some reason I didn’t really use it that much as I thought I might, I didn’t “bond” with it somehow. I perhaps should’ve known the bulkiness and the fact I needed to use an exposure meter would frustrate me a little. If I’m being picky, the rangefinder patch was also rather small and faint. But really, the real reason I didn’t shoot with the GSW690 much is that not long after I bought it, I happened to stumble upon a Mamiya 6. I kept hold of it for a while, thinking I would want the variety of shooting 6×9, but mostly I didn’t. The GSW690 is a fine camera, but it’s not a Mamiya 6. Photos here.
Mamiya 6 with 4/50, 3.5/75, 4.5/150 lenses, produced 1989-1995
As I mentioned above, I stumbled across a Mamiya 6. It was perhaps only the second I’d seen in several years of browsing camera malls in China. Mamiya 7s seem easier to come by, but the 6 is rare. Even rarer is to find a full set of lenses. This one came with just the f3.5/75mm lens, not really enough, but ok to get started. It took me another year to find a copy of the f4/50mm and f4.5/150mm lenses, buying them in Hong Kong. My copy isn’t in perfect condition, with a small scratch on the film advance lever which would no doubt affect the resale value, though as far as I’m concerned this isn’t a camera I will ever want to sell. Mind you, I thought that before about the Fuji GA645zi and it got sold. Ergonomically when you pick up a Mamiya 6 it just feels right. The design is near perfect, the weight, the solidity, the ease of using it, the way the lenses retract back into the camera body. It’s a really nice camera, with a lot of thought gone into it, designed to be the best camera of its kind, and with lenses which are among the sharpest of any ever made. And so they should be. At about 13,000 RMB used for the body plus three lenses, its the most expensive film camera system I’ve owned by quite some margin. Is it worth it ? Difficult question. In terms of image quality alone, no I wouldn’t say so, you can get more or less equally good images for much cheaper, but in terms of being a portable 6×6 medium format system with interchangable lenses, it’s pretty much the only one out there. Yes, the Mamiya C330 TLR shoots 6×6 with interchangable lenses, but it’s bulky, not exactly portable. The Bronica RF645 is another excellently designed portable medium format rangefinder camera system with top quality interchangable lenses, but its 6×4.5, and in any case you’ll pay almost as much, assuming you are fortunate enough to even find one of those Bronicas. There’s the Fuji rangefinders which I’ve already discussed, which are almost as good optically as the Mamiya 6, but they’re 6×4.5, 6×8, or 6×9, and also fixed lenses. Which leaves you with the Mamiya 7 system, whose negatives you can crop to 6×6…? Photos here.
Much as the Mamiya 6 is a great camera system, I don’t want to shoot square photos all the time, which was why I kept hold of the Fujica GSW690, just for variety. As time went on, I actually found myself regretting selling the Fuji GA645zi, but mindful of that camera’s limitations, I looked instead for one of the earlier models with an f4 lens. I found a GS645s with an f4/60mm lens AND manual focus. As one of the earlier members of the Fuji 645 family, the styling of the camera is what might be described now as retro-futuristic, very 1980s, very of its era. I think it’s pretty cool. Size-wise it’s even smaller and lighter than the Fuji GA645zi. Optics-wise the lens appears to be just as good if not better, and the colours are slightly more accurate. The used price of the GS645s is half the cost of the FujiGA645zi, but I think I prefer it. I’ve got nothing bad to say about it. Some people seem to say the “crash-bar” on the front is there to protect a slightly fragile lens. Maybe, but so far what I’ve found that crash-bar most useful for for is wedging my mobile phone beneath, balancing the camera steady for shooting a one-second night exposure without a tripod. I’m back in the Fuji 645 family, and already the GS645s’ slightly faster lens has probably got me a couple of photos I wouldn’t have got with the FujiGA645zi. What more could I want ? Photos here.
Konica Hexar AF, f2/35mm lens, compact 35mm rangefinder, produced 1993
What more could I want…? Well, no more medium format cameras now, but I was unable to walk past this little 35mm Konica Hexar AF when I was in Hong Kong in summer 2013. I only went into the camera shop to buy some 120 film, but the Hexar was just there, sitting alongside several other classic 35mm autofocus compact rangefinders produced in the 1990s like the Contax G1 & G2 and the Ricoh GR-1 etc. I figured something like this would replace the Olympus XA as a travel camera which I could actually fit in a pocket. The Hexar AF is known for the quality of its fast and sharp f2/35mm fixed lens, and generally being a well-made piece of precision equipment, and so it has proved in use. Why did I not buy the Contax G1 or G2 ? Well, price mainly. I hear the Contax G2 is easier to focus manually than the Hexar AF is, but I don’t really have any complaints about the autofocus. I haven’t put that many rolls through it yet, maybe ten or so, but it seems I’ve picked up yet another great used camera. Photos here.