Why We Love Old Cameras
by Graham Law, President, Seawood Photo
In this first installment of the Classic Camera Corner, I thought it fitting to discuss why we love old cameras, why they are still viable tools despite technological advances in digital photography, and what to expect from this blog in the future.
I don’t know when I first became interested in classic cameras; I’m not nostalgic about photography in my youth, and most of the cameras I will discuss here were manufactured well before I was born.
In my work I use the latest high-end digital cameras and strobe equipment, then edit my images in Photoshop just like 98% of the other pro photographers nowadays. I really do love the new stuff, but when I pick up a Rolleiflex 2.8F, or a Leica M3, I know I have a real camera in my hands! Anyone who appreciates fine machinery and workmanship inevitably likes old cameras. It’s a fascinating to see how they progressed from simple bellows cameras with basic shutters at the turn of the (last) century to the engineering marvels produced in the 1960’s.
With a few exceptions, cameras built after the 1970’s hold little appeal to me. Although new electronics allowed shutters and light meters to be more accurate, and added features like exposure modes, TTL flash, etc, made for faster, easier shooting, the cameras just weren’t in the same league.
Mass production, cheap plastic parts and a more disposable attitude created changes in the industry. Smaller, independent camera companies with a long history of quality such as Zeiss, Voightlander, etc. could no longer compete with cheap labor costs in Japan. The heyday of the classic, hand-built camera was over.
On a more positive note, there are millions of great Classic Cameras out there in closets and attics just waiting for you to put them to use! There are many great reasons to use them, including:
- They are fun! Some are so simple to use… you just aim and shoot! Others, like my LeCoultre Compass, are so complicated to operate that I have to re-learn the controls every time I pick it up. Figuring them out is half the fun.
- Results may vary. Older, non-coated lenses give images a very different look than modern optics. Soft focus, lower contrast images can give you a look that is difficult to imitate with your EOS 5D. On the other hand, some older lenses are on par with today’s best. Sometimes newer isn’t always better!
- They are inexpensive. Except for rare collectible cameras, you don’t have to spend much to buy a precision made classic. Most of the hundreds of cameras in the Seawood Museum I purchased for under $20.00 at yard sales and flea markets. $200 will buy you a old camera that would have cost your grandfather four months salary when new. With so many people dumping their film cameras for digital, there have never been so many available, and that has resulted in record-low prices.
- They interface with modern technology. Why not scan your film and digitally manipulate images shot with classics? Just because the camera was made in 1938 doesn’t mean you have to have to set up your own darkroom. Unless you want to!
- Cameras are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. It’s also fun to see how bad some of them were! I have a simple Agfa Billy Record 6×9 camera that takes incredible images. Probably cost $20 when new. By comparison, I also have a high-end Voightlander Bessa II that has a great reputation but produces mediocre results.
In future articles I intend to write about how to use certain classic cameras. I will be showing by example, with photos of them and taken with them. I am not going to use a collimator or resolution charts; if you like tech specs and lens graphs there are lots of other sites dedicated to such. This will be a simple hands-on approach with a description of my experiences with the cameras and the resulting images. I will also be ranting about interesting camera histories and techniques.
Keep ‘em shooting!