Skip to main content

New Cameras

My odyssey in film photography these past short 8 years has taught me a few things about my preferences for cameras. Affordability has always been a factor. I also have a distinct prejudice in favor of medium format.

This stems from first my brother’s involvement where he left a distinctly favorable impression on medium format despite having shot 35mm and large format competently as well. He passed away well before the digital era.

I also decided that I wanted to avoid 35mm despite the obvious advantages in terms of cost, size and weight. I reasoned the advantages of film over digital was being quickly overtaken and medium format would remain relevant for a while longer. As I write this however it seems the technical advantages of film have been mostly if not completely over-run by advances in digital technology and cost. Never-the-less there are some attendant benefits to shooting film; among are not economy, simplicity, nor instant gratification.

So my first film camera that got me started was a Nikon F that I inherited from my Grandfather. Now you who are paying attention will say 'what happened to medium format?' Hang on we’ll get to that. A holiday in South Africa and my wife and son were traveling with DLSRs with big lenses. I had a little digital camera being convinced this was the future in terms of convenience. Indeed I got lots of mileage out of it in terms of snapshots and maybe a few notable photos.

So rather than spend a bunch of money to duplicate the equipment my wife and son had I dusted off the old Nikon F which I hadn’t used since my university days. My grandfather had 50mm and 200mm prime lenses which were perfect. It is a Photonic F but the meter was not working. I got an old selenium cell meter from my father’s wife. I then went to a photo store and bought the few old rolls of slide film they had stored in a freezer. I was all set.

In Africa, to some frustration for my wife and son, I set about learning to photograph completely manually. Load the film, select the lens, meter the scene compose, set the exposure, snap the photo.

Some fun in being slow and deliberate. On return I sent the film to Jessops in Bath and they were already struggling as a photo business at that time (2009). They sent it away and 2 weeks later the slides came back. Yes I know 2 weeks. They really did not know how to deal with this and I just did what I used to do many years before.

The results were mixed. It turned out, I learned much later, the 200mm lens aperture was stuck and so exposures were hit or miss with this lens. The meter was inaccurate as well as selenium cells fatigue with age. I was shooting slide film that is never forgiving. The few good photos below. 

Nikon Slide Photos

In retrospect it is a wonder I got any photos at all. Photoshop rescued some but most importantly I began to become interested in film photography. 2009 in my recollection, was during the full insurgence of digital and film had not yet become retro.

I began to look on eBay for suitable cameras knowing nothing except a few things I remembered my brother saying. I took the plunge with a Mamiya 645 1000s. No film backs it had a pentaprism eyepiece and 80mm lens. I quickly found a waist level finder. All this was based on remembered comments from my brother. (Mamiya was a reasonably priced camera and waist level finders were cool. He had a Hasselblad.)

I took this out around Bath and the Southwest of England with a cheap lightweight tripod. I got a few good results. 

Pultney Bridge at night (Fuji Velvia 100)

Pultney Bridge at night (Fuji Velvia 100)
Light on the Avon (Fuji Velvia)

Pultney Bridge daytime (Fuji Velvia)

More importantly I slowed down and considered my photography. I bought a couple of books and studied composition and exposure. I was enjoying myself. I quickly began to love Velvia 100 for the color and and ease of scanning. I learned to send my film off to Peak Imaging where they have always done a top quality job for me.

I acquired more lenses 45mm then 35mm then 150mm. I sold the body and bought a 645 Pro with film backs. I learned a few preferences 1)medium format I liked 2) waist-level finders enhanced my experience and improved my compositions. 
Mamiya 645 Pro

Next foray was to experience Twin Lens Reflex cameras. A Yashica MAT-124G was my choice based mostly on economy.  I really enjoyed this camera; simple and light weight I took a lot of photos with it. 
Yashica Mat 124G

I also tried a Mamiya C220 lured by the interchangeable lenses. It had 65mm lenses so did a good job on landscapes. A great camera but heavy and not so fun to use as the MAT-124G. I never did buy any lenses for it.

Mamiya C220

Next an old Rolleicord not wanting to spend as much as a Rolleiflex. Disappointing in that it wasn’t as easy use as the Yashica. I ended up years later (last summer) buying a Rolleiflex 2.8f for about £1200 from a shop CLA’d. Lovely piece of equipment, clearly top quality in terms of build and feel. Heavier and bulkier than the MAT-124 but not oppressively so. (Such is the over-engineering of the Rollei that it is the only medium format camera I know of that does not use the arrows on the backing paper to line up when loading the film. The Rollei makes you pass the backing paper between two rollers and senses the change in thickness when the edge of the film goes by. Amazing and confusing at first.) The lens does produce noticeably better photos but for sheer fun for the buck I would have to award the MAT-124G the top prize in my experience. Alas the C220 will be sold as will the MAT-124G after I fix the meter screen.

Rolleiflex 2.8f

I am rationalizing my cameras now. I do this for fun and have a limited budget. I have established medium format as the preference. Waist-level finders. The Mamiya 645 Pro is my multiple lens camera and flexible with backs as well. Lenses are now 35mm, 45mm, 80mm f1.9, 150mm and a 55-110mm zoom. This gives me lots of flexibility with prime lenses and film choices.

Social Cameras
The downside to the Mamiya 645 setup is the social context. If I am traveling with my wife or we are walking with friends it is not the most social setup. Constant changes of lenses and film backs slows everyone else down. It is bad enough with metering and shutter, aperture and focus. I have a smaller setup that fits in a sling bag meant for a 35mm camera with 2 lenses and a couple of film backs. 

The next most social camera would be the Rolleiflex. Fixed lens and film reduces choices. The freedom this simplicity gives has its own satisfaction. 

The ultimate in social cameras is the Yashica Electro 35. An electronic shutter, built-in meter 35mm rangefinder, it is as close as I have to point and shoot. Focus with the rangefinder, use the meter to set the aperture and snap. The camera opens and closes the shutter exactly as long as it needs to. It is in fact an ‘analog’ shutter as the shutter speed is continuously variable from 4 seconds to 1/250th of a second. The exposures are accurate and the leaf shutter is quiet.
Yashica Electro 35

35mm Blues
The 35mm has another drawback for me aside from the smaller negative. Film today only comes in 36 exposure rolls. This is way too many for me to shoot on a day out. I shoot 8-15 on my medium form at camera and this works well for me. I can shoot during the day and develop that evening if I am doing black and white. With 36 the film hangs around in the camera waiting for the next time I pick it up and then much later I have finished to roll and am ready to develop it. Also 36 exposures is a lot to print in the darkroom. I solved this by loading my own 35mm cartridges. Now I load 12 exposures on a roll with considerable waste but it suits my shooting style. I also have an Olympus OM1 from my dad which I still regard as the best 35mm film camera going (or gone). Simple and unbelievably small and lightweight. And of course I still have my grandfather’s Nikon F and I got the meter fixed. Great iconic camera. Still not my goto format.

Unsocial Cameras On the other end of the scale from the Electro is my accidental purchase. An MPP MK III 4x5 large format camera. Accidental as I low bid it on a whim and won it unexpectedly. I got some dark slide film holders and have used the camera infrequently.
It is a solitary camera to use. It takes a very long time to setup and take a photo. It is heavy and requires a tripod. Not something to be rushed. Alone with enough time it can be sheer joy. The level of focus and engagement required can be for me almost meditative. Not quite like fly fishing but close. I have shot almost exclusively black and white and only recently have shot 2 color negatives on slightly expired Porta 400 film. Until last year I was stuck with scanned negatives though now I have a 4x5 enlarger so can complete the printing process as well.

MPP Colour

So what next? What new cameras? First I wanted to take a new another look at rangefinders and of course medium format. Would I take to range finders or not? I like to explore and experience different cameras.  I narrowed my search to the Fuji GW690 with a 90mm f3.5 fixed lens and a Fuji GSW690 with a 65mm f5.6 lens. Both rangefinders that take 6x9cm negatives. I opted for the wide angle having fallen in love with wide angle with the 35mm on my Mamiya 645. This I am still waiting for delivery of. This is a very social camera and complements my Rolleiflex in this regard. Wider angle with only exposure and focus to set. No lens or film back changing.

Fuji GSW 690

This lead me to my next not quite accidental purchase. While researching the above Fuji I was reminded of that rare category of panorama camera. Some use rotating lenses which are interesting, others just very long strips of film. The rotating lens cameras are akin to a stitching digital photos and as a result have curved horizontal lines which I have always disliked. 

There is the unique Hasselblad Xpan which is a wide format 35mm camera. Over £2000 and full of electronics I steer away from it. Complex digital electronics will be difficult to get repaired and it is 35mm. No doubt a great camera though. 

In the medium format camp are cameras in the range of 6x12 to 6x24 with 6x17 being very popular. At 6x17 a roughly 3:1 aspect ratio and 4 photos per roll of 120 film (8 for 220 film only available in Japan). Horsman and Linhoff are the top of the range and very expensive. There are Chinese makes without lenses which are more affordable (Dayi, Goersi, and Fotoman). I considered these carefully. Finally Fuji made some in the 1980s and 1990s. The G617 fixed lens 105mm f8 and the newer GX617 with replaceable lenses at 90mm, 105mm, 180mm and 300mm. The GX617 is much more expensive and I don’t see myself spending more on additional lenses. The body is more that £500 and the lenses seem to be north of £800. 
Fuji G617

While pondering this I found on eBay a G617 for sale in the UK. It seemed in good shape and included the custom case and most importantly the neutral density center filter that reduces vignetting at the edges and corners of the scene. At £1250 starting I reasoned it was a pretty good deal and placed a bid fully expecting to be out bid. I was not and being the only bidder now find myself the owner of another sort of accidentally camera. 105mm on this film is very close to the 35mm of my Mamiya 645. The film is of course 3x longer. 
I am really looking forward to learning how to use this beast. The aspect ratio will be a real challenge to exploit. I am pretty sure this is not a social camera. I would guess slightly more social that the MPP MKIII 4x5 camera. No film-backs or lens changes. Almost certainly a tripod required though in good daylight is said to be able to be hand held. Heavy though at about 6lbs it is twice as heavy as the Fuji GSW690.
First Fuji 617 photo

That brings me to some rational range of cameras to suit me for different types of photography and social situations when photographing. No doubt after this rationalizing of my collection I will find a way to rationalize another purchase. :)