How many damn cameras do you need?

How many can you actually use?

Maybe one for quality and perhaps one that’s small and easy to carry (but that’s what your phone is for, right?).

So why do film photographers in general end up with more cameras than they can shoot? I can go through my own reasons, or justifications. OK, confessions. Think of me as the witness for the defence.

It happened over a long period. I bought my first proper camera, a 35mm SLR, from new. Even though it wasn’t the latest model – it was something like a year old and not the one that was in all the adverts. But it was a better camera than the latest one and had been reduced in price. Over time I experimented with various Soviet offerings, messing-up and then fixing the shutter in a Zorki and fighting to focus a Lubitel. At some point I saw a well-used Yashica TLR in a camera shop (remember them?) and dumped the Russian pretender for a practical Oriental.

I tried, used and re-sold all sorts of things in those easy years when cameras were still being made and nobody wanted old ones. Some filled a particular niche and are still with me. My first ever SLR has new light seals and is still working well. The Yashica TLR still comes out to play when I’m feeling medium formatty. My little pocket camera I bought from new to replace a slightly lesser model that I killed by accident. This too is still with me.

Somewhere along the line I found a ‘proper’ Pentax SLR, second-hand in a shop near Hartlepool. Oddly, it’s been less reliable than the old Ricoh. Not that it doesn’t work, but it has suffered the common fault of the MX with the viewfinder readout of shutter speed slipping out of sync. Somewhere else along the line I picked up a big handful of focussing screens for it in a camera shop junk bin. So I can’t sell the MX because it would cost more to get the viewfinder readout fixed than it would probably sell for.

So that’s two SLRs, a TLR and a compact. Enough for anyone, right?

I wish it were so. There’s a Russian rangefinder, just because I like using rangefinders. There’s a K-mount SLR that came with a lens I wanted. It’s a lightweight bit of friable plastic, but it can hold the film in place behind a sexy lens so it’s sat on the reserve bench.

And then the madness was upon me. Not the madness that tries to recreate my youth by buying all the cameras I couldn’t afford when I was young. Not really. But sometimes I will read about a particular type of camera or I’m after something to do a particular job. If you don’t chase fashion you can usually find an example of what you are after for the cost of a beer or less. So that excuses my underwater cameras. And the little Canon digital that can be hacked about with the CHDK tools to do timelapse. And the weird Ricoh bridge camera that I got for 99p for the cheap shots challenge. And the old Pentax unmetered screw-mount SLR that I got to use with a few M42 lenses that were knocking about in the cupboard (but especially the 50mm f1.2 Tomioka that was on some broken old camera in a charity shop for £1).

Then there are the ones that people gave me (“It’s been in a damp box in my garage for ten years…”).

So basically, I’ve spent very little money but thrown nothing away. Most of it is worth about what I paid for it. So I’m no collector, hoarding every model of minty Minolta or tweak of Leica. I’ve basically got a bunch of stuff that accumulated over the years because I fancied having a go with it.

I have genuinely sold stuff off that I wasn’t using, although looking at the pile that’s left you wouldn’t think so. Three, maybe four folding roll-film cameras went to better homes. Some lenses I didn’t like. There’s a little Canon compact digital plus underwater housing that ought to go and an Agfa rangefinder with an IR filter fitted behind the lens. But on the whole, I have lots of cameras because I just fancied having a go with different things. There was no strategy to it, just curiosity. So, what’s in the pile?

  • 35mm SLR. ✔️
  • 35mm rangefinder. ✔️
  • 35mm compact. ✔️
  • Half-frame compact. ✔️
  • Medium format TLR. ✔️
  • Medium format SLR. ✔️
  • Medium format folder. ✔️
  • 35mm underwater. ✔️
  • Digital SLR. ✔️
  • Digital compact. ✔️
  • Digital underwater. ✔️
  • Weird stuff. ✔️✔️✔️

And if you think that just means one example of each…

shelf

Do I use them? Yes. Not all the time, but often enough to want to keep them around. The least used are the medium format ones. Having only 12 or 16 frames makes me feel I should use them for special occasions. I could sell some of the less-loved and less-used items but most of them are worth less than the postage would be. Mostly because I bought kit that was cheap but working and then used it rather than coddled it. So it has, er, patina. Or in some cases, rust. I don’t really care. I know there was a big discussion on the Sunny 16 podcast about the evils of hoarding working cameras in a time of decline, but I’ve spent in total less than the cost of a nice Leica and lens. Probably less than the cost of a ropy Leica and a fungoid lens. Definitely less than the cost of a fashionable 35mm compact. So I plan to use this stuff until it dies or I hate it. If it dies I probably won’t bother to replace it. If I grow to dislike something, it can go to Fleabay or a charity shop as I see fit. And one day I will learn which is the most reliable camera, Darwin will rule and the creationists will be wondering why new film cameras don’t just appear in the shops. (It could be something to do with us tasting the fruits of Apple)

In the meantime I’m going to keep playing with my toys, selling the ones I am bored with and occasionally buying a new one when I get the curious itch. Too many damn cameras? Probably; but I enjoy photography and that to me means all aspects of it. And I have the beautiful freedom of not relying on my photography to make a living. If I did my kit would be selected for reliability first and then functionality. But I am free to play.

Weeeeeeee! 😁

PAS or PoS?

There’s a lot of interest in “premium compacts” – little 35mm point-and-shoots with good lenses. A lot has already been said, and I think we can all agree that there is a strong follower of fashion thing going on.

But, sharp lens or not, there is a real risk that the electronics on a twenty or thirty year old camera could expire. We all know this.

Broke
In this case the electronics are fine – the lens focus motor has jammed. I need a bigger hammer…

Perhaps more to the point though is what one of these cameras can do. My own view is that if your wee gadget if fully automatic, then what you’ve got is a snapper. It can be great fun, and very creative, to use a camera with no controls at all. Being automatic makes it more likely that you will get recognisable results. But as we know, sharpness alone is overrated. And do you want to pay big money for something that has a limited life expectancy? And by big money, some of these things go for £1000+. Well, obviously the answer is yes if the name on the lens or camera matters that much to you. Say though that you like the idea of a competent point-and-shoot and it would be nice to have a few more controls than on/off. What is a photographer to do?

You could take a look at the Pentax Espio range (or IQZoom, which is the same thing). They brought out a wide range of cameras that played all the options. The nice thing though is that they added some useful settings like multiple exposure and a B shutter speed. They are also surprising well regarded. You can also get some of them for less than the cost of a coffee. Equally, there are loads of other makes and models that are better than you would give them credit for, and that cost less than a Contax.

So if you have a sudden hankering to be a celebrity clone or street-fighting snapper, here’s a strategy:

1. Find the cheapest point-and-shoot you can. Jumble sales, car boot sales, charity shops, friends and family. Pay no more than £5 – ideally £1 or less. Tip – if it’s a zoom model and the lens is partly out (not fully retracted), the camera is dead.

2. Clean the lens, blow-out the film gate. Find a manual. Load it with film and have a go.

3. Look at the results. Think about the experience. If you hate compact cameras in general, give it back to a charity shop to sell-on. If you hate this particular camera, do the same but go looking for its replacement. What does this one not do that a better camera should? That’s what you are looking for.

This way you can either get off the treadmill at small expense, or work your way intelligently towards something that is right for you.

4. If the camera dies, recycle it properly. We may need those rare elements.

Want to find out where to even begin? Go and surf Canny Cameras.

What’s my name?

If you haven’t done it yet, you will. Your camera, lovingly loaded with 100ISO colour print film, turns out to be 400ISO black and white when you finish the roll and open it. Or not loaded at all. Or you load and shoot the same roll of film twice.

Back before the last ice age, I worked as a chemist. Not the dispensing kind – I was the model for Beaker. I worked in a quality control lab within a manufacturing business, so we were processing multiple large batches of samples every day. One soon learned to label everything. My favourite tool was an ancient fat propelling pencil that took a wax insert that would write on glassware but was water soluble so it was easy to clean off.

The habit carried-over when I switched to working in IT. I did some big office moves and became a label fundamentalist.

Speaking of habits, my grandad used to say that a habit was a good servant but a bad master. He also used to iron his socks, so make of that what you will.

Labelling is a good habit though. But I can’t really write on my cameras and hope to wash it off afterwards. So I use tape.

Taped
Yes, my grandad used to buy socks in boxes…

I tried using the paper-based masking tape, but this stuff resists being written on and falls off when you are not looking. So I use electrical tape. My dad was an electrician, so I was brought up on fluff-covered rolls of gooey black PVC tape. That stuff is the opposite of useful for labelling. What I found in my local hardware shop is white electrical tape, which is perfect. The glue doesn’t smear and the tape releases cleanly without leaving a sticky patch. I can write on it with a marker or ballpoint.

So what I do is label every camera that is loaded with the film it contains. When a film is taken out of a camera, the label moves to the film container. If I’m developing it myself, the label then moves to the lid of the tank. If I remove a film part-shot, the label will show how many frames I’ve used.

I am delighted to say that I have not fupped a single duck since I started doing this. But, as I learned in IT, make something idiot-proof and the idiot gets upgraded. I may not mistake my films any more, but I have moved on to greater things and discovered many new and interesting ways to fail.

Go me!

Hoods ‘n the boyz

Lens hoods – a good thing all round. There are those clever petal-shaped ones, square or rectangular ones to match the film format, the odd but sexy Leica ones with the cut-aways plus various rubber offerings. But what if you need one for a particular lens, perhaps only for a short time? How about making one?

Hoods

We’re not talking 3d printing here. With a bit of calculation and the kind of drawing set you had at school, you can make a custom lens hood from black paper.

What you are going to make is a frustum, a cone with the top cut off. The narrow end of the frustum will fit over the front of your lens. The angle of the sides will match the angle of view of your lens. The depth of the hood will be what you want to make it, limited only by the size of your sheet of paper. There are some calculations involved, but I did this once in a spreadsheet so I only need to enter the key measurements to make a new hood.

The first key measurement is the diameter of the front of your lens. The lens hood will need to be a sliding fit over the lens. This measurement is not the filter thread size – measure the actual diameter of the lens.

Next is how deep you want the hood to be. This is handy if you are making a hood for a special situation, like using a long lens in strong side or frontal light.

Lastly, the difficult measurement: the lens’ angle of view. This can be difficult because it’s not just a function of the lens focal length: it’s the relationship between the focal length and the size of the film or sensor. This is why a 50mm lens is considered standard on 35mm film, but a 6×6 negative on 120 film uses a 75mm or 80mm lens.

What could be a right chore is made simple by looking-up your lens and film/sensor combination in previously published data. The BJP had a great article plus graphs in the 116th edition in 1976, but I bet you didn’t keep yours… There is also a useful calculator here.
I’ve got a 55mm lens for a 35mm camera. Looking-up the angle of view from the calculator I’ve linked above, the diagonal angle for a 35mm frame is 43 degrees. I use the diagonal angle because anything less than this is likely to vignette the corners. So this means my lens hood should be a cone with an angle of 43 degrees. I fancy making the lens hood 50mm deep – for no other reason than it feels like a useful compromise between no use and too big.

The last key measurement is the diameter of the lens; in this case 57mm.

So I want to do the trigonometry to calculate a frustum with a 57mm wide hole at the top, the sides sloping at an included angle of 43 degrees and with a vertical height of 50mm. The first time I did this I did all the calculations myself. Then I discovered a dedicated website with the sole intention of providing the calculations needed to effectively open-up a frustum and lay it out as a shape that can be drawn on paper. The formulae look difficult, but it’s simple to put them in a spreadsheet. If you provide cells to put the specific values into – lens diameter, angle of view, depth of hood – the same spreadsheet will give the drawing measurements for any hood that takes your fancy.

I made the calculations for my hood and got three key measurements: two radii needed to draw the pie-slice on the paper and an angle of arc for which I need to draw the curves. In the case of my special lens hood, I need to draw two arcs with radii 78 and 132mm and to draw the arcs with a sweep of 132 degrees.
Here’s a picture.

Hood 1

I used plain black art card. For the pictures I marked it out using a white pen, but for normal use I would use a pencil. I marked a tab at the end of the arc to give myself an overlap that I could hold down with tape. If I was going to use this hood a lot, I would use the tab and a slot to let me disassemble the hood when I wasn’t using it (or I would hold it together with masking tape, which peels off). I also left some extra material on the inside of the smaller radius. This is cut into a number of tabs that will go over the lens and hold the hood in position, particularly if you put a bit of tape on them.

Hood 2

It’s easy to find a protractor, but a large set of compasses is more difficult. I use a bit of card with holes for the tip of the pencil and a pin to pivot on.

Hood 3

Cut out and fitted it works just fine.

Hood 4

This is an excellent way to make a hood for short-term use or for a lens that you would not otherwise be able to fit. Unstick the masking tape and the hood can be stored flat.

There you go – something useful for a change in place of the usual grumbling.
If anyone wants to use my spreadsheet rather than do your own calculations, drop me a comment and I will post it somewhere accessible.