I Would Like a Real Camera for my Birthday

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).
Olympus OM1 for Jacks' 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

My First, and Last Leica

A long time ago, when giants walked the earth, giants like Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, David Douglas Duncan (he is still here) Picasso and many others who influenced me, I bought my first Leica Camera. It was a M2, I also bought a M3 soon after and they became my “working” cameras for miniature format – the “feel” and the “silence” was beautiful.

Time trickled away – stuff got lost, broken and sold – I drifted into digital quicksand and my darkroom lights went out.

Now I am starting over again, but prices and values (not the same thing) have gone weird. I always worked with “large format”, which, in the past, for me was 4″x5″ and occasionally 10″x8″ – but now 5″X7″ is small for me and I am working mostly with 10″x12″ (inches) – but small cameras have a fascination, I don’t use them now to make a living, so can load a few frames and choose exposure and development more selectively.

But I could not justify the cost of a Leica M series – until last week.

I saw a MDa on ebay (two actually) at a very low price – made a crazy very low bid – and was lucky – it has a broken rewind button (so if anyone has parts please let me know, but this is no problem, it works fine.


The MDa is a lab camera – no rangefinder or viewfinder, basically it is the iconic M4 (one of the best cameras ever made). But as I only want a workhorse which is accurate and reliable, and as I only ever take four or five exposures which are usually thought through for a long time, I can use any viewfinder – then I thought about the Leica Visoflex and, low and behold, one appeared on ebay for under 50 euro – so I can (with a 5 euro adapter) put my selection of screw mounted lenses (Nikkor, Leica, Contax, Canon etc) – on my Leica Md body and have a SLR – I can also adapt this for a lot of the old 19th century lenses I have including some Peztvals.

So now I am back in the Leica fold (a little) – but I still love my Nikon SP.


I have expanded our home and business, VillaRoquette, to offer a wide range of photographic services and workshops – my laboratories and darkroom is used by teachers and experts to give courses and workshops to students who can stay in our accommodation.

The next two day courses are in January and February for Collodion wet-plate photography and run by John Brewer – students can stay with us for as long as they like and make full use of the darkroom and facilities – I also teach traditional black and white photography and darkroom practice.

Students or guests can use my equipment and work with a large selection of classic cameras and lenses covering over 150 years of photography (I have one 1861 lens in daily use)

Next Collodion Workshop, January 2015

Getting to write this blog has been difficult after the fantastic wet-plate workshop we had in VillaRoquette last month. The reason is I cannot get out o the darkroom or away from the camera long enough to write anything.

Johns’ teaching was inspirational, to the point that I am totally trying to make a plate I like – the are so many variables and to get everything into an “automatic” mode so I can concentrate on the subject takes practice and time.

But I am getting there – working on new collodion plates every day, I am now getting consistent results and taking into account the shifts in humidity, temperature, the phase of the moon, what colour my socks are and jut about everything else which kicks my images into touch.

Now I hope from tomorrow to be showing some work I can begin to think is worth looking at. I would post some today, but the varnish is drying and I have to get the right black paint for the glass.

We have scheduled workshops for January24/25th and for 28Feb/March1st 2015 – the price, including tuition, accommodation, meals and materials is £475. This is for a double room, so your partner can come and stay too for the same price (not including tuition and meals though, but includes breakfasts for the second person). You can come erlier andstay as long as you like after the course, our normal VillaRoquette rates apply.

Barbara Heide made a short video of the workshop for us