My son Jacks’ birthday is on Sunday and he has asked me for a camera. He wants a camera which takes film, to take Black and White photographs which he will have to learn to print in the darkrooms.
For the last two years I have been building my darkrooms and labs here in Villa Roquette, so that we can offer photographic workshops and encourage other teachers and professors to come and have workshops here for “alternative photographic processes“.
I have also been “collecting” a big selection of classic equipment for students to borrow. Most of the items we need have not been made for many years some of the cameras I use are over 120 years old, some much older, although some of the best are from the 1930s to 1970s.
To be sure of getting good equipment I have, of course, bought far too much stuff, so Jack has been helping me to catalogue and sell it on ebay. This seems to has given him an appreciation of the magic we are working with, so he asked for camera.
So, what do I give him?
He is learning from scratch, he will need to make mistakes to learn. So taking and developing each film one at a time makes sense, he can then see the results of light reading, exposure and development of the negative. But this really means sheet film, so do I suggest the smallest I have, the 6×9 cm Mamiya with a sheet film back – or the 5×4 inch Speed Graphic?
Or perhaps a roll film camera – the Rolliflex 6x6cm?
The larger cameras I have are mostly for wet-plate collodion, although they can use film (or glass plates), I have them up to 10×12 inch, but this is not really practical for carrying around everywhere.
Small is beautiful, 35mm roll film is cheap(ish) (if you load it yourself), but you lose the ability to expose develop each frame as you wish (I teach Zone System photography) and shooting 36 frames at the same exposure rating and then having to develop them all the same defeats the object of the Zone System and makes learning difficult and slow (and expensive). But with 35mm film, the selection of cameras and lenses at low prices is (still) excellent.
So 35mm it is, but with the caveat that each roll has only ten exposures on, so it is for ONE visualised image and exposure and development is for that only.
OK – a 35mm film camera, so what format? The usual is 24mmx36mm, but there is also half-frame 18X24mm and square 24x24mm – I thought keep to 24×36, this gives a more latitude for composition while he is practising.
So what type of camera? Rangefinder, SLR or simple viewfinder? – With or without light meter? – Fixed or changeable lenses?
I decided, for now, a SLR system – they are better value for money as there are so many for sale still and he will need to understand different focal lengths of lenses, good rangefinders with interchangeable lenses are costly and generally more “fragile”, unless they are like my Nikon SP.
So which camera? I decided very quickly on this – the Olympus OM1 (without a battery ). So no light meter (OK I have put a battery in it and will recalibrate the meter although for now he needs to set it at 320 asa for Fomapan 100, but I will not tell him, yet). I really don’t like cameras which are battery dependant the OM1 only uses the battery only for the lightmeter. I have checked, calibrated and cleaned his camera and changed all light seals, cushions etc and I have several spare working OM1 cameras.
This means an accurate light meter – he will need a spot-meter (Zone System again), but for now incident readings with a good, rebuilt and re-calibrated Weston 5 will teach him a lot (no battery). I will encourage him to “assess” the light (sunny 16 and all that) , but light meters are there to remind us not to be so sure of ourselves.
Which lenses? All Zuiko of course. To start, the 50mm 1.8 (standard), the 135mm 3.5, and the 28mm 2.8, hopefully he will then keep the 135mm in his camera bag, except for some tripod portrait work – why not one zoom lens – because he has feet and zooms are too slow, heavy and not as good as prime lenses. I have a 55mm 1.2 for him and a fast 24mm for him later (next birthday).
Other stuff? – A good tripod is essential, so are lens hoods – filters I will give him as he learns what they do.
OK – this is my opinion, but now I can start to teach him how to expose and develop a negative, which can used to make a print which can then show people what he was “seeing” and “feeling”.
I could just as easily set him up with a Canon, Nikon, Minolta or several other camera systems from what I have in stock and all of which I respect and like. I surprised myself when I chose Olympus in preference to Nikon as I used Nikon all my professional working life as my miniature camera system. The Nikkormat, for example, would be a great starting (and lifetime) camera, but it is heavy.
His birthday tomorrow and I hope to help him develop his first exposure.
So come to Villa Roquette – stay a while – go to the sea – sample the wine and spend some time with me in the darkroom