I’ve got to stop hanging around over at DPR. Not only is it a time sink, I keep getting ideas for posts to write here. Yesterday, a guy was asking one of the “what lens should I buy for xyz?” questions that are the stock in trade of camera forums. In the discussion, he rejected a suggestion on the grounds that the lens wouldn’t look good on his camera.
My first reaction was amusement. Cameras and lenses are tools, right? They’re not supposed to be means of self-expression in an of themselves; that comes from the work that you create with the tools. But then I got to thinking. How much of my own camera choices have been determined by how nice they looked? I looked at my own history.
Before I run through this, I want to make it clear that I’m going to examine looks alone. Fine craftsmanship is a tradition in cameras as it is in watches. Using a precise, well-designed camera is a pleasure in its own right, and a well designed and well constructed camera can make a photographic project easier and more successful, just like a well balanced, precise, and durable hammer can enhance a construction project.
The other caveat here may go without saying, but I’ want to be explicit: we all know in whose eye beauty lies; and the ensuing assessments of camera pulchritude are mine and mine alone.
My first interchangeable lens camera was an Argus C3. It was an ugly black brick of a camera, but that didn’t keep me from buying it. It was also built with large tolerances, and the whole usage experience was rough, That bothered me some, but the camera’s redeeming grace was that it was cheap. I never thought much about how ugly it was until today. When it came time to trade up, I bought a well-used Nikon S2. The S2 was a pretty camera, but, to my mind, nowhere near the prettiest around. In the world of interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras, I’d have to give that honor to the III series, screw mount Leicas, which I didn’t want for operational reasons, or maybe the M3, which I couldn’t afford. I still have the S2, even though I haven’t used it in years. I keep it because it reminds me of all the good times I had using it, not because it is a thing of beauty.
There was another camera around when I bought the S2 that I do remember thinking was beautiful, a Japanese fixed-lens 35mm rangefinder called the Aires III. I never seriously considered buying it because I wanted interchangeable lenses.
In the late 50s and early 60’s the fashion in camera design veered from the gorgeous chrome and black leather look to all-black with white engraved markings. In the looks department, that was a definite step backwards, turning jewel-like instruments into utilitarian lumps. It didn’t bother me.
My first SLR was a Nikon F with the FTn finder. Without that finder, the F wasn’t a bad-looking camera, but with it, it was ugly as sin. The huge, angular, asymmetric lump dominated the camera. My wife went to the camera store where I did business, and the sales fold told her that I’d been lusting after an FTn for months, so she spent what was for her a huge amount of money (even though they cut here a great deal) on the camera and gave it to me for my birthday. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a camera more. But I loved it for what it did, not for how it looked.
To make aesthetic matters even worse, Nikon offered a big black lump of a motor drive that attached to the bottom of the camera. I never bought one of those, but I used one for auto racing photography for years, never giving a thought to how unappealing it looked. I do admit to not liking how much it weighed, though.
I’ve owned two folding 4×5 press cameras. The Speed Graphic was ugly and basic. The Linhof Master Technika was attractive and full of bells and whistles. I bought the Graphic when I was a struggling student. I acquired the Linhof as a successful middle-aged adult. I was equally pleased with each purchase.
When I decided to do medium format street photography in the 80s, I bought a Plaubel Makina 67 with the 80mm Nikkor. It looked like a camera from a Walt Disney cartoon. Big, black, with the lens extended out awkwardly on a bellows (it was a folding camera, which made it great for travel), it didn’t look so much ugly as silly. For my purposes, it was perfect, except that people would occasionally laugh and point, spoiling the image.
When I decided to work with 2 1/4 square negatives, there were two obvious choices: the voluptuous Rolleiflex TLR and the form-follows-function Hasselblad. I bought the Hassy, and never even seriously considered the Rollei.
For studio work in the 90s, I could have bought the sexy, sleek, Sinar P system, but I went for the dull, black, looks-take-a-backseat-to-how-it-works Arca Swiss 8×10/4×5 setup.
Perhaps the ugliest camera I ever bought was the Betterlight Super 6K scanning back, an industrial-looking arrangement of nondescript boxes and cables that only a mad scientist would consider visually appealing. I used it a lot, and still do from time to time. I do admit to using it with the beautiful Ebony 4×5, though. When used with that titanium and exotic wood camera, the Super 6K manages to suck all the elegance out of the combination. Doesn’t bother me.
I could run through all the DSLRs I’ve owned, but I’m beginning to see a pattern. Call me a Philistine, but, while I appreciate beauty in camera construction, it plays no part in my purchase decisions.