I had dinner Saturday night with my cousin Robyn who’s visiting Cape Town from Melbourne. Although she surprisingly finds herself a public servant, she’s a fantastically skilled visual artist who draws great masses out of nude human bodies, or swirling abstracts of detailed octopus tentacles.
I also remember that she was a wonderful photographer. I remember that mostly because Robyn took the very first pics of me that appear on my Facebook feed. She took them on September 11, 2001 – a memorable date to be photographed in an airport.
So I asked her if she still took photographs. She was a little puzzled. Not just phone pics, I clarified (I know full well people take magical pics on their phones but – mostly – they’re used for snapshots that all look pretty much the same). She dug into her small handbag at the table and pulled out her dedicated camera – the beautiful little Olympus Pen-F. And I felt like we were both riding the same secret current.
This year, after over fifteen years of looking for ever more versatile cameras with the highest possible image quality, I finally got something that had been knocking at the door for that entire time: size counts. And small is beautiful.
My father got me a Pentax K1000 when I was twelve years old. But the bug didn’t bite. I never loved that famous bare-bones camera. But in 1993, the year I finished high-school, my dad had moved from Pentax to Nikon for its far more capable autofocus cameras for his wildlife photographic passion (it was an N8008 if you’re curious). And so that was the year I inherited his Pentax MXs.
Practically the MX is little different to the K1000 except in one regard: it’s tiny. It’s one of the smallest mechanical 35mm cameras ever made (along with the Olympus OM1). This was a camera I could carry anywhere in one hand. So that’s exactly what I did. That camera went all around the world with me as the photography germ infected me.
And as the fever reached its peak the MX seemed to have many deficiencies. The lenses were not as sharp as they might be. The maximum shutter speed not ideal for all cases. The flash system was very primitive. I ordered a Nikon F100 used from B&H. I got an 80-200 f2.8 zoom. Impressed by the wizardry and razor sharp images, I then became dissatisfied with the limitations of the 35mm format. I got a Yashica D TLR. Then the interchangeable lens Mamiya C330 and C220 TLRs. Then, the grand-daddy, a Pentax 6×7 SLR with lenses ranging from an ultra-wide 45mm to a telephoto 400mm. But something new began to happen.
My father and I were traipsing through a local public forest with a bunch of tripods, big Nikon SLRs and the Yashica TLR, and some forest officials stopped us and told us we needed a permit. I told them that we certainly did not need a permit for non-commercial photography on public land. It took a bit of an argument and I was furious about this ignorance.
Then, having taken a couple of pictures of a weird tunnel that ran from the nurses home at Karl Bremer hospital where I worked, and the hospital itself, I decided to reshoot some of those images with the Mamiya C330. It didn’t take long for someone to call the hospital administrator who – in full institutional dudgeon – told me that any photography needed to be cleared with the hospital administration. Apart from what this said about the culture of covering up deficiencies in South African public hospitals at the time rather than fixing them, it was also absurd given that, even then, everyone had cameras on their cell-phones that could convey any information I was capable of capturing on film.
Somehow I’d got the message without actually understanding it. My initial love of photography began to wane. I’d achieved the technical competence I’d been striving for – and so had tens of thousands of others in the digital age. It became hard to see why the pictures that I’d lugged all that gear to photograph actually mattered. I mostly limited myself to shooting wildlife images on trips into the bushveld and then I’d usually shoot video anyway – intrigued by the new ability to get 35mm cine-like footage.
Youtube channel, theartofphotography’s, video essay, “No one cares about your photography,” blew a little fresh air over the embers. I began to see that it was pointless striving for universal images of well-known subjects. The trick was to photograph things that were of local and individual interest (in my interpretation). I took my dad’s near-obsolete Nikon D200 this year and put a 1970s prime 105mm f2.5 lens on it and began to enjoy taking pictures – although they were mostly on major outings and holidays. Often I’d look at the bulk of this camera/lens combination and decide I’d rather not lug it down to the coffee shop.
Then Aparna said that she was looking for a new camera to replace her compact Canon S90 for taking continuity pictures on film sets. There was nothing wrong with the Canon, but she wished she could get something with Bluetooth and wifi for easy transfer to her hard-working iPad. And, if she was going to get a new camera, she reckoned she might enjoy something a little more versatile. I began to look for the right camera.
A lot of cameras were too bulky to consider for her needs – she has to carry a lot of gear. Just switching from paper to the script-E continuity ipad app had reduced her load by about 8kgs at the end of a project, and she’d been lightening the load ever since. But a lot of small cameras were bulky or lacked some key feature. The Olympus Pen-F looked amazing but had no viewfinder. The Fujifilm X100F was a bit chunky and lacked interchangeable lenses. Somehow I’d missed the Fujifilm XE line.
When the XE3 came out, and I spotted it, I realised it was perfect. It had a large APSC sensor – the same size, but far more sophisticated, as the one in the big Nikon D200. It had a high-quality electronic viewfinder. And it took interchangeable lenses, many of which were much, much more compact than SLR lenses. Most of all, it was tiny. Not just smaller than the Nikon D200 or the Nikon F100. But smaller than my Pentax MX even – and without the central hump for the reflex system prism. It was so perfect, I realised I wanted one myself.
Since I had no cash for an XE3, and because I didn’t need the Bluetooth and wifi, I grabbed the first generation XE1 for R1,500 – or about US$100. Even five years old, the image quality is in another league from the D200, especially when it comes to getting clean images in poor light. And Fujifilm, with its long history of making films with delicious colour palettes, had made jpegs so pretty that many people weren’t bothering to shoot RAW files and post-process them. What I’d discovered was a digital camera as simple to carry and shoot as my Pentax MX.
But the penny only truly dropped when I was discussing it with my friend Mike – an XE2 shooter for some time – when he talked about the unobtrusiveness of the camera. He told me that, working as a tech journalist in the early ’90s, when he carried a very expensive, very professional Leica camera, no one questioned him about his photographs. And so here it is: people see big cameras as professional no matter how ludicrous it seems to me.
I’d grown up in a household with SLR cameras and knew from an early age the difference between a professional camera, like a Nikon F3, and an amateur camera like a Pentax K1000. What I didn’t understand is that others saw no difference at all. Carrying a big black SLR – no matter how cheap – makes you a ‘professional,’ while carrying a professional Leica worth $7,000 makes you a snap-shooter to the person on the street.
So, while a beefy camera like a Nikon D850 gives you some powerful tools to get great photographs, it’s very appearance means that there are many situations in which people want to stop you. And many photographers understand that the laws around photography and what people think they are – including the police – are often completely at odds. A small camera that the photographically illiterate can’t tell from a tourist’s compact camera can ghost past these self-appointed gate-keepers while sacrificing almost nothing in terms of image quality or versatility. But wait there’s, as the cliché goes, more.
A big camera also asks to be left at home. Just the suggestion that it’s going to be a pain to lug around and conceal from bandits and fit on the table or on your bike can influence you to just leave it behind. “I’m exhausted. I just want to enjoy a drink on Las Ramblas without worrying about the Barcelona pick-pocket community.” So you leave it in the hotel room and have to photograph the fight between a scooter driver and a silver painted human statue with the best camera you have to hand – your phone.
But a small camera, with small prime lenses that encourage creative composition instead of just zooming, is trivial to carry. In fact, I’m shooting the second roll of film in my old MX in years – shooting with 28mm, 50mm, and 105mm primes. And with its enormous viewfinder and simple manual controls, it’s the greatest pleasure imaginable. This effort to bring a big SLR out is what Robyn told me pushed her from SLRs. First she got one then a replacement Pen-F that she had on her that night because, with it’s tiny form and pancake lens, was easy to leave in her bag. I’m still going to take the Pentax 6×7 with the howitzer-like 400mm f4 to the Kruger National Park in a week. But then I know I’ll have a car to lug it all about. And leopards can’t tell a monorail camera from a Minox.
A quick note on this blog: This has been a learning year for me. I’ve conceived a lot of topics and started a lot of posts and then decided I don’t have anything clear to say on the subject and abandoned them. This coming year I’ll have much more to contribute. So if, for some reason, you’ve actually missed seeing new posts here, next year will be a good year.