My history of photography, in ten cameras
1 – The Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic
Before I was old enough to go to school – I was about four – I used to play all day with my mum’s ‘Quality Street’ chocolate-box of buttons, arranging them on the floor by size and shape and colour, and with anything else of hers which I could find, including her Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic camera… which I think William Fagan knows well.
This was a little collapsible ‘bellows’ roll-film camera, which you pulled out to point and focus. But its special capability was the tiny trap door – and stylus – on the back, which let you write a caption to any photo after you’d taken it, and then your handwritten message would appear in white along the bottom of the picture.
Autographic film wasn’t still available in 1951 when I was playing with her camera, but my mum had an album of her photos, with clear handwritten captions along the bottom, such as “Whassamarrer?” on a photo of her looking grumpy on a beach.
I delighted in playing with that Autographic, and, when I got a bit older, I took a few photos with it myself, using then-easily-available plain Kodak 127 roll film (still available today, from places like Nik & Trick, who roll their own from 120 stock, I believe).
2 – The Kodak Brownie 127
When my mum and I went on holidays to North Wales – sometimes with my father and brother – we’d sit on the beach and I absolutely l-o-n-g-e-d- for one of those wonderful curved Bakelite Brownies which other people nonchalantly slung round their neck for snapping pictures in the sun!
I think I must have mentioned one of these Brownie 127 cameras now and again, because I was given a more modern, two-tone plastic Brownie 44a for my thirteenth birthday. I tried to look pleased and grateful, and took a few photos with it at school camp in Borrowdale, in the Lake District, but what I still yearned for was that beautiful, curved black Bakelite Brownie!
The village shop at Rosthwaite, the next hamlet towards Keswick, had a 127-film slot machine on the wall outside, so you popped in one shilling and sixpence, and out dropped – very hot, in the Whitsun sun – a roll of black-and-white 127 Ilford film “For Faces and Places”. It was like the yellow Kodak film dispenser on the back wall inside Ivor and Elaine’s Red Dot Cameras in London.
3 – The Polaroid Peel-Apart
Many years later, when my Beloved and I began travelling – to Paris, and a bit further afield, around ’74 – I wanted to take pictures, but didn’t want to mess with all the developing and printing which I’d learned twenty years before. I wanted photos straight away, like Edwin Land’s daughter wanted, when – at three years old – she’d said to her dad “Why can’t I see the picture now?”1
So I bought a Polaroid peel-apart ‘Square Shooter’ from Dixons – which had become Britain’s ubiquitous High Street photo shop – and I took it everywhere. The Polaroid’s little built-in light meter on the front, next to the lens, was the most efficient light meter on any camera , until the Olympus OM-2 (see below) of 1976, because it measured the light during the exposure – that’s while the shutter was open – and then closed the shutter when enough light had reached the film. No other cameras did that.
But I became fed up with all the pictures “looking the same” after a while . They were all, of course, taken with the same lens. So I went to my local specialist camera shop, in Fife Road, Kingston, and bought some extra clip-on lenses for the Square Shooter: a close-up lens, an add- on telephoto lens, and so forth. But they still didn’t satisfy that itch.
…and so I bought…
4 – The Praktica LB2
This was an affordable, East German, £40 Single Lens Reflex. It had a rather noisy, clangy mechanical shutter, but it took interchangeable lenses It came with a 50mm ‘Tessar’ lens on the front, which I soon found to be sharper than any of the other additional lenses which I bought for it – a wide-angle 28mm lens and a telephoto zoom. The beauty of the Praktica was that you looked through the lens which was going to take the picture and if things were in-focus in the viewfinder, then that was exactly what you were going to get on the film.
Instead of having to make allowances for a separate, offset, glass viewfinder seeing something approximating to what the camera’s lens saw, when using an SLR you were seeing EXACTLY what the lens would put on the film.
But the camera-plus-lens was large, rather noisy, and you had to make an effort to take it with you, whereas it would have been nice to use a smaller, ‘pocket’-sized version which you could keep with you all the time.
…so I began to warm to the small, pocketable camera which my Beloved used…
5 – The Rollei 35
This was tiny! Some versions had a sharp ‘Tessar’-design (four-element) lens like my Praktica, and the more expensive version had a wider aperture ‘Sonnar’ lens. This is her camera:
Unlike an SLR – which shows exactly in the viewfinder when you’ve got accurate focus – the little Rollei needs guesswork to estimate the distance at which to focus, but if you’re familiar with guessing distances, that’s no problem. And its slightly-wide, 40mm lens has a little more depth-of-field than a 50mm, so it covers up some focusing inaccuracies!
The Rollei shutter’s an almost silent centre-opening ‘leaf shutter’ within the lens, and the whole camera is utterly unobtrusive and almost unnoticeable. The lens retracts into the body, like early Leica lenses, and to make things as small as possible, the film rewind knob, frame counter and the flash accessory shoe, are on the underside.
It made a handy, carry-always alternative to the larger, noisier, and rather obtrusive Praktica. No interchangeable lenses, though.
But then, in 1976, a new automatic-exposure version of the marvellous 1972 ‘miniature’ all-mechanical Olympus OM-1 SLR arrived…
6 – The Olympus OM-2
Mr Maitani’s design of the brilliantly groundbreaking Olympus OM-1 had reduced the size of the standard SLR by about a third, and the weight as well, and the OM-1 had a brighter, easier-to-use viewfinder than any other SLR. The camera looked especially wonderful, as he’d taken off the flat, rather dominant top-mounted flash/accessory shoe (which had remained the same since Oskar Barnack first put it on a Leica in 1925) and Maitani made that flash-shoe a screw-on option, instead. This shrank the apparent height of the OM-1, giving the camera a beautifully uncluttered, simple, minimal A-shaped top-plate.
The OM-1’s successor – this 1976 OM-2 – was the same size and shape (but without the OM-1’s small mirror-lock-up lever on the right side of the camera) and it took all the same small, sharp, contrasty lenses, and had the same range of shutter speeds, BUT it also offered AUTOMATIC shutter speeds: you set the lens’ aperture, and the camera – apart from focusing – did the rest, to paraphrase George Eastman’s slogan for his original Kodak box cameras!
So if you were shooting somewhere dark, and the camera estimated, say, a five-second exposure, but someone fired a flashgun, or lit a match or a candle while the shutter was open, the OM-2 would recompute the correct exposure on-the-fly, taking into account the change of light reaching the film. This was perfection – and was infallible!
You could still use it as a manual camera if you wanted. But why bother, when the camera itself always got it right?
The huge range of interchangeable lenses meant that you could shoot anything anywhere, anytime, from 8mm fisheye in the gloom to 1000mm super telephoto at the races. This was the apotheosis of photography, and the benchmark against which to measure all other 35mm SLR cameras.
Other companies went for automation of course: Canon with the AE-1 (but they did it the other way round; you chose the shutter speed and the camera chose the aperture) and Leitz/Leica, with the cumbersome SLRs which they had started making, or having made for them by Minolta (although it took a quarter of a century before Leitz/Leica offered automatic exposure in a rangefinder with the 2002 M7).
Pentax shrank their own cameras to the size of the OM-1 and OM-2, creating their little ME (electronic) and MX (mechanical) mini SLRs.
Slowly, very slowly, after a further twenty years, the world moved towards a new breed of so- called ‘digital’ camera, each with a light-sensitive Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) in place of the traditional roll of photo-chemical plastic film.
And the world was moving on from manual focus to fast and accurate autofocus film SLRs.
7 – The Canon EOS 300D
…also known in Japan as the ‘Kiss’ and in the United States as the ‘Digital Rebel’. This was the first sub-£1000 / $1000 APS-sized-sensor digital SLR ‘for everyone’.
I bought one, for rather less than the usual going rate, as it had just been superseded by the newer 350D, and so the price -–at Chiswick Cameras in west London – had dropped by several score pounds. I put the difference towards a massive Canon 28-300mm cast-iron zoom lens (see the photo) as my Beloved and I were going to visit friends in South Africa, and there was the chance that we might go to a safari park, and the 28-300 became the equivalent of a 45-480mm lens on Canon’s smaller-than-‘full-frame’ APS-sized sensor. Just right for hunting lion!
Click on images to view full size
The 300D was a wonderful all-round autofocus digital camera. It had only those 6 megapixels, but that was more than enough to showcase the magnificent lenses, and to bring digital into the mainstream.
I used that, and several other small digital ‘pocket’ cameras, ‘till an enormous revolution rocked the world – and certainly the world of video, as well as stills..
8 – The Canon 5D Mark II
Canon and Nikon had moved towards expensive-to-make ‘full-frame’ sensors in their ‘professional’ line of SLRs. But in 2008, an amazing event happened: Canon’s video engineers had looked at the ‘full-frame’ sensor – the same size as a frame of 35mm stills film – to go inside their new 5D Mark II camera, and said “we could make that deliver 30-frames-per-second ‘Full Hi-Definition’ 1920×1080 video, not just stills”.
(Nikon’s 2008 APS-sized D90 SLR already offered ‘highish-def’ 1280×720 pixel video shooting.)
The Canon 5DMkII, with its bigger ‘full-frame’ sensor, offered movies with shallower depth of field – a more ‘cinematic’ look – than even cinema film itself. And the high-ISO capability of the 5DMkII meant that movie makers could shoot in lower light than traditional film-makers ever dreamt of.
(Going back to Oskar Barnack’s idea, in 1912, for a small, pocketable camera using 35mm cinema film, Barnack chose a frame size TWICE as large as a movie frame because his film moved horizontally through the prototype ‘Leica’, instead of the vertical film movement of movie cameras. This meant that ‘full-frame’, or ‘double-frame’, stills cameras used a lens with one-and-a-half times greater focal length than cinema cameras for a similar view. And so, with a longer focal length, they give shallower depth of field than comparable movie- camera lenses at the same aperture)
And talking of dreaming, a stills photographer in New York, Vincent Laforet, borrowed a couple of 5DMkIIs from Canon and shot, over one weekend, a three-minute low-light movie, including a night-time helicopter ride over NYC, calling it “Reverie”, and up-loaded it to the internet.
That one online video revolutionised film-making or, more accurately, ‘movie’-making.
Movie-makers could, for the first time, now use a simple, standard, off-the-shelf consumer-grade stills camera to shoot professional-grade cinema and TV, with shallower DOF and far cheaper lenses – rather than using multi-thousand-dollar professional cinema equipment. This was, for those of us immersed in film and video besides stills, a stupendous development!
9 – The Olympus E-M1
‘Full-frame’ SLR lenses were, and are, big, and my Canon 28-300mm lens was – and is – extremely heavy. The shrinking of ‘Four-thirds’ size cameras down to ‘micro-four-thirds’ – by removing the up-and-down flipping internal viewfinder mirror, and adding an electronic finder – meant that a new breed of lenses could be built, sitting closer to a camera’s sensor, with the entire size and weight of the lenses being reduced.
Panasonic’s GF1 was the breakthrough versatile little m4/3 camera, and more followed, till Olympus surprised the world in 2012 with its mini-SLR-like, stabilised-sensor m4/3 E-M5! That was a brilliant little gem of an all-purpose, carry anywhere, miniature interchangeable-lens camera – just as the early film-camera Leicas had been, eighty-plus years before. We shouldn’t forget that, back in the twenties and thirties, 35mm photography was called “miniature photography” and rather looked down upon by the big-format pros.
A year later, came the E-M5’s successor, the (supposedly) aimed-at-professionals E-M1. I rushed to a pre-sales demo at Camera World, in a Soho back street, and put in my order then and there.
The E-M1 focused fast (having smaller-than-SLR, lighter pieces of glass to move), it shot fast, had wildly customisable controls, and could adjust the ‘heel’ of the exposure curve, and the ‘shoulder’ (like professional video cameras could) to simulate the extended response of film, to keep details in shadows as well as in highlights. Its controls were just where my fingers wanted them, and a huge range of terrific, small lenses let you shoot anything anywhere – just like the OM-2.
That sensor stabilisation, though, was the ultimate selling point. (Oh, and there was ‘Keystone Correction’ to adjust – inside the camera – any leaning verticals when pointing it upwards. And it also had >stabilised video, and a choice of ‘pro’-grade constant-aperture, wide-aperture lenses, as well as a completely silent ‘electronic shutter’ mode.)
10 – The Sony RX100 Mark VI
My Beloved gave me an original Sony RX100 – when it first came out – for Christmas, or was it for my birthday? “I’d read that it’s the best,” she said. I’d read about it, too. But how could it be “better” than an E-M1?
The RX100 was small, pocketable, with a truly excellent sharp and flare-free short zoom lens. But it couldn’t zoom as far as the E-M1 could.
But then the RX100 Mark II came out a year later, with a different sensor, and 40% better low-light sensitivity.
The Mark III came the next year, with a slightly shorter, but wider, zoom, and with a wide f/1.8 maximum aperture – even better for indoor photos. Now it had a built-in pop-up electronic finder, and much improved video shooting, besides a built-in Neutral Density filter for using maximum aperture or slow shutter speeds on sunny days.
The Mark IV followed, with a new slo-mo video capability. And that was followed the next year by the Mark V: faster (now with phase-detection) focusing, more focus points, same 10-element (nine of them aspherical) low-light lens.
The Mark VI then came two years later, with a simpler-to-shut pop-up finder, and now with a 24-200mm (equivalent) zoom lens. That was – and is – the equal of the brilliant Olympus 12-100mm (24-200mm equivalent) E-M1 lens. So now the RX100 Mark VI is pretty much like an E-M1. But it just slips into your pocket!
(The latest Mark VII has a couple of extra video features, such as a microphone socket, and unrestricted video duration, but nothing which makes me want to swap my Mark VI for a Mark VII.)
This camera, the RX100 MkVI, isn’t much bigger than two matchboxes stuck together, with 30-1/32000 sec auto-exposure shutter speeds, an almost-silent shutter, a retracting 24-200mm (equivalent) lens, it shoots 24 frames per second stills (as if anyone ever needs that) with instant focusing, a twenty megapixel low-light sensor, and it shoots ‘Full HD’ and 4k (almost cinema quality) video, including (at lower definition) 1000 fps super slow-motion.
And, like that Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic, you can just slip it in your pocket – but with no need to wait a week for the film to be developed!
These are wonderful times we’ve been living in! With hi-ISO cameras for shooting handheld by moonlight; memory cards holding thousands of photos; and thousands of photo websites, showing millions of creative pictures!
Would dear George Eastman ever’ve thunk it?!
P.S: I’ve used and owned many more than these ten cameras, and I’d have liked to include, say, some of the Sony A7 series, but these ten, above, are those which have been the highlights, for me, anyway, of my own photography journey. Your mileage may vary.
What are the ten best cameras you’ve owned – or lusted after – in your own photographic journey?
- ..as described in the wonderful book by Christopher Bonanos,’INSTANT: The Story of Polaroid’. ↩