Our carried-over topic is the relationship between the greatness of a camera and the quality of the photographs produced by that camera. In his essay, Lane attributes to the Leica M-series line of cameras near-magical powers to produce great photographs. At a gut level, I don’t buy that. I think that the M-series Leicas are only appropriate for a certain breed of photographer making a certain kind of picture. I further believe that, even for those photographers making that sort of picture, that results of equal quality could be achieved with other cameras. Let me work through my logic and see if you agree.
Today I’m going to assume that art photography works like this: the photographer has a vision of the world that is consistent with the laws of optics, and the camera assists in capturing that vision. In a subsequent post I’ll consider a more complex model.
Horses for courses
Except for pure appreciation of well-designed and exquisitely-manufactured machinery, cameras are not great in some abstract sense. From a utilitarian perspective, cameras exist simply to produce images. From the same perspective, great cameras allow photographers to realize something virtually identical to their vision with as little distraction as possible. Viewed in this light, a camera can’t do anything positive for the artist’s vision, it can just impede it. The best camera is the one that interferes the least. An ideal camera would be small, light, and cheap; would work well in extremes of heat, cold, dampness, vibration, and dust; would operate intuitively, rapidly, and silently; would offer a bright, accurate viewfinder that worked equally well with all lenses; would offer flexible perspective and plane-of-focus control; would accept sharp, fast lenses that allow rapid changes of focal length over a large range; would focus on close subjects as well as far ones; would accept large pieces of film or other light sensors, and on and on.
You can see the internal conflict here. Big pieces of film mean big cameras and big lenses. Fast lenses are heavy. Big fast lenses are exceedingly heavy. Really fast lenses aren’t very sharp, at least wide open. Camera movements add weight and complexity of operation, and slow things down. The ability to rapidly create a sequence of exposures adds acoustic noise. There is nothing close to an ideal camera. In designing and building an actual camera, there are many tradeoffs that must be made, so many that there are no cameras that excel in making all kinds of photographs. Thus, the first step in picking a camera is choosing the kind of photograph that you want, which will dictate what things are and aren’t important. If results are the criterion, the quality of a camera boils down to its suitability to the task at hand.
There might not be one right camera, but there sure can be a wrong camera
As I said, I am suspicious of the contention that, for a given type of photography, there’s only one camera that will do the job well. However, I enthusiastically support the position that picking the wrong camera can doom a photographic project. I have made several poor camera choices. One in particular stands out. In the eighties I decided that I wanted to do some 4×5 landscape photography. I had owned a Speed Graphic in the 50s, and remembered that I found the limited movements constraining. Sinar had just introduced a camera they called the F, which they advertised as being aimed at field, as opposed to studio, photography. It was a monorail camera like their studio cameras, but it had greatly simplified front and rear standards, was fairly lightweight, and was, for a Sinar, attractively priced. I bought the camera and the field case.
After a week or so, it began to dawn on me that maybe it wasn’t such a smart purchase. My big problem with the camera was how long it took to set it up.
In order to put the camera in the case, the bellows had to be removed from the standards. I’d find something that looked like it might be a photograph, set up the tripod, open up the camera case, and grab the monorail and mount it on the tripod. Then I’d twist the standards so they were pointed in roughly the right direction and mount first the bellows and then the lens. I’d find the cable release (this was before I had the idea to buy a lot of cable releases and attach them permanently to the lenses) and screw it into the lens. I’d then zero out all the movements, which slipped when the camera was handled. I’d open the shutter and the diaphragm, grab the dark cloth, and take a look at my subject. Finding that the light had changed or the clouds would have moved and the photograph had disappeared, I’d say a few four-letter words and take everything down.
I figured that I would get faster as time went by, and I actually did, but after a year of fighting the camera I realized that I was never going to be able to set it up rapidly. I sold it and bought a metal folding 4×5, which gave me great results. For me, the Sinar F was a bad choice, bad enough that I got poor pictures or no pictures in many of my favorite photographic situations. Although the Sinar F was the wrong camera for someone with my purposes and my working style, it might have been an excellent selection for someone else, say, a photographer who had a Sinar P in his studio and wanted to do interior architectural photography and thus needed extreme movements.
About the same time I bought the Sinar for landscapes, I decided that I wanted higher print quality in the street photography project that I had been doing in parallel using a Nikon S2. I bought a Plaubel Makina 6×7, and found it to be highly satisfactory for my purposes. While it was visually more imposing than a 35mm RF camera, it folded fairly flat and didn’t take up much room in my travel bag. The built-in light meter meant one less thing to carry. The between-the-lens leaf shutter was quieter than the Nikon’s focal-plane shutter. The larger negative was a big step up in quality. I used the camera contentedly for several years. Then my street photography started to change. I became more interested in motion blur, which meant I needed a tripod, or at least something to use to brace the camera against walls and posts. I also became more concerned with the positional relationship between objects in the foreground and the background. When I started working that way, my pictures didn’t come out quite the way I’d envisioned them. It took me a couple of months, but I finally figured out why: the slight parallax between the finder and the lens meant that I was composing the picture from a slightly difference angle than the image on the negative, and that difference was enough to throw off my composition. I switched to a medium-format single lens reflex, and that solved the problem.
After several years of productive use of the SLR, the pictures began to develop an architectural quality, and I decided that I wanted to gain control of the perspective. I started using a 6×9 monorail view camera with a 6×8 roll film back. The camera was not much bigger than the medium-format SLR. It had a reflex ground glass viewer that meant that I didn’t have to get under a dark cloth in public places, and also meant that I could use a shorter, lighter tripod than I would have needed to get the camera to eye level. A 47mm lens on a 6×8 negative gave me about the same angle of view I’d had with a 40mm lens on a 6×6. I’d already started using a tripod for all these pictures anyway, so the view camera didn’t slow me down much. Unlike the Sinar F, I could stick the camera in my bag all set up, with even the lens in place.
After a few years of using the view camera, my vision changed again, in the direction of grittier, less “pretty” images. I started working in low light with a 35mm SLR, a 15mm lens, and very fast film. The golf-ball-sized grain worked with the new kind of images.
You can see that as my work changed direction, a camera that had previously been perfectly satisfactory had to go. I can now write about how the work changed and how the camera had to do the same, but at the time it wasn’t obvious what was happening. I gradually came to realize that something was wrong; I was doing pretty close to what I had been doing, but it wasn’t working for me anymore. I had to figure out what I had changed. Once I did so, in each case it became obvious that I needed new equipment. Each of the changes was necessary to correct what had become a fundamental equipment defect; in no case did I change cameras within a category.
It’s not critical to understanding how my work changed, but you can see much of the extended series at http://www.kasson.com/Blackstone/AloneInACrowd.pdf. Since I had moved away from straight street photography by the time I started the work in this catalog, only two of the images were captured with the Makina.
First, pick the right class of camera, but even that’s highly personal
An axiom in investing is that the first and most important decision you can make is asset allocation. Doing a good job with that makes picking the individual investments less important while it makes the job easier. Picking a camera has some similarities. The most important decision is selecting the category of camera for the job. For film cameras, common categories are 4×5 view and rangefinder, 8×10 view, medium-format SLR, medium format rangefinder, 35mm SLR, 35mm rangefinder. There are other, rarer categories: banquet camera, 5×7 view and rangefinder, 4×5 SLR, medium format TLR, subminiature. Digital cameras span a broad range as well. After the photographer selects a category, picking the right make and model is much simpler.
Picking the camera type is a decision with few hard-and-fast rules. You probably don’t want to do f/64-style black-and-white landscapes with a 35mm camera, although some have made it work. A view camera is not usually the best tool for sports photography, but many mid-20th-century and at least one recent photographer (David Burnett, at the Athens Olympics with a Speed Graphic) have produced impressive work that way. Doing informal available-light portraits with an 8×10 would frustrate most people, but Sally Mann and Nicholas Nixon both have gotten incredible results with a big view camera. Most people would select a single-lens reflex for macro work, but some have done such work with a rangefinder camera, or even, using a shifting camera mount, with a twin-lens reflex.
Photographers have a wide variety of working styles, and as a result value different qualities in a camera. Thus the neat categories of photograph – landscapes, studio portraits, street photography, etc. – don’t imply particular categories of camera – view camera, medium-format SLR, 35mm RF, etc. – in order to make great photographs.
Picking a camera within a class
Once you’ve settled on a class, picking a camera may be easy. If you’ve decided you want a new 4×5 rangefinder camera, there’s only one possibility, Linhof Master Technika classic. If you want a new 35mm rangefinder camera, you can buy either the Leica M7 or MP. However, if you want a new 35mm or medium-format SLR, or a digital SLR with near-35mm-size or near-medium-format-size sensors, you have wide array of choices. If you have a clear purpose in mind, there will almost always be some difference between the choices within a class that is important to you, so much so that it drives the decision. There may be a particular lens that suits your purposes. You may wear eyeglasses and want a finder that makes it easy to see the whole frame with your glasses on. You might want a certain set of markings and just the right amount of grain on the ground glass. Maybe you need to flip the mirror up manually before every picture, and it’s easy to do that in one camera that you’re considering. Practicality may be the dominant factor in the decision. Compatibility with lenses you already own may be important to you. Price may be an overriding concern.
If you are working within a popular photographic genre, and your working style is typical, you will probably find that there are several cameras that suit you just fine. Then use must use second-order differences to help you choose. You might want the camera your friends use so you can borrow lenses or so you’ll have someone to go to for advice. You may want a camera that’s stocked locally. You might want a camera that’s part of a prestigious line so that your ego can bask in the reflected glory.
If photographer’s preferences and styles influence the class of camera they pick for a project, they influence the selection of the particular camera even more. Part of picking a camera for a job is inertia; photographers don’t want to spend the money on purchasing new equipment, or spend the time and experience the discomfort of learning how to use new gear when using the old equipment is second nature. Thus, the first choice for a new project is often the camera that served well in an old project.
The decision is usually fairly easy for me. If it’s not for you, you can take comfort in Eugene Kleiner’s observation that the harder it is to make a decision, the less it matters what you pick.
What if you pick almost the right camera?
We’ve seen that the wrong camera can make a project a lot harder, and maybe even doom it. What’s the effect of a smaller error? Let’s try a couple of thought experiments.
Let’s say you are doing some relatively unspecialized project, say, film-based, moderately-wide-angle, black-and-white street photography in the Winogrand tradition. Let’s further say that your first choice is a new Leica MP with the Elmarit 28mm f/2.8 lens. Now I tell you that you can’t use that camera; or any M-series Leica. What’s your second choice, and how will using your second choice influence the resultant pictures?
One way to go would be to get a used Nikon SP (try to get one of the ones from the 2005 re-production run, if you’re feeling flush) with a modern Cosina Voigtlander 28mmf/3.5 lens. You’re giving up two-thirds of a stop, but you can’t use wide openings when you’re zone focusing , so there won’t be much difference in handling or lens performance. The Cosina won’t be quite as sharp as the Leica lens, but will be sharper and more contrasty than a vintage Nikkor lens or the Leica lenses that Garry used to such advantage. The finder won’t be quite as bright as the Leica finder, but it will be bright enough to see what you’re doing, and you will be able to see the 28mm lines while wearing glasses. Will your pictures be different with the two setups? Not in any significant way.
Another alternative would be the Contax G2 with the Zeiss Biogen 28mm f/2.8. You’d get a 4 fps motor drive, automatic exposure, and autofocus, which would change your pictures: now you could use the lens wide open in fast-moving situations where the Nikon or the Leica would be too slow. The noisier camera would attract unwanted attention in some situations where the MP or SP would go unnoticed.
As an aside, considering the way that Winogrand went through film, if you wanted to emulate his prolificacy as well as his style, you would probably be better off going digital with an M8 and the 21mm Elmarit (you need a shorter focal length than 28mm to compensate for the difference between the M8’s sensor and a 35mm frame).
Lane talks a lot about Cartier-Bresson and his love for his Leicas. What if you had the chutzpah to attempt street photography in the footsteps of the great man? Your first choice would probably be a Leica M7 or MP with a 50 mm lens – the f/1.4 if you were mostly interested in working in dim light, the f/2.8 if you wanted something very compact, or the f/2.0 for a compromise. Now I tell you that you can’t have that equipment. Your second choice could be the Nikon SP, but if you’re not going wide, the S3 might suit you just as well. Like the SP, you can buy a modern S3, the S3 2000, which was produced in black and chrome a few years ago and is sadly no longer in production. You can also get a modern 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. Both the Nikon and Leica lenses are far superior to the lenses that Henri used. Except for superior finder brightness in the Leicas and the option of focusing with your right index finger in the Nikons, the cameras are quite similar.
Cartier-Bresson used Leica cameras for more than twenty years before the M3 was invented. Lane talks about his love for Leicas in general, not in specifics. I think this blurs differences among the various generations of Leicas. A Leica II or III (pick any model), with their separate range- and view-finders and their knurled winging knobs, delivers a picture-taking experience that’s quite different from a M3. Indeed, the M3 has more in common with the Nikon S2, S3, and SP than it does with the earlier Leicas.
You can see where I’m going with this. I think almost all the great pictures taken with a Rolleiflex could have been made with a Mamiya TLR or a Minolta Autocord; most of them could have been made with a Yashicamat. If bellows extension and movement range were not a factor, a Speed or Crown Graphic could do an adequate job of reproducing great Linhof Technika images.
It’s always nice to be able to employ the best instrument for the job. In photography, that’s a great lens on a great camera. There are visual and tactile pleasures in owning and operating a superbly-designed, painstakingly-constructed device. But the photographic equipment business is sufficiently competitive that, given a photographic assignment, there is more than one camera that will do the job.
Consider all the wonderful photographs made with lenses that would be considered junk were they produced today. Think about the great photojournalism done with a 4×5. In their effect on the results, the photographer is far more important than the camera. For all except those looking for a magic feather, there is comfort in that thought.