Informed curiosity about old cameras

Even though I’ve been actively shrinking my camera collection through Operation Thin the Herd, I still like trying new-to-me old cameras to see what kind of images they make.

I especially love it when I discover a sleeper, a camera that makes images far better than you’d expect. Such was the case with the Argus Argoflex Forty I tried recently (review here). I even enjoy the process when a camera disappoints me, as the Kodak Retinette II did (review here). In the wide world of old-camera sports that’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

After a dozen years of reviewing old cameras, however, I feel like I’m running out of new ground to cover. It’s not that I’m running out of cameras to try, but that I’m running out of genuinely new experiences with them.

I prejudge all sorts of cameras now. I can tell a lot about what they’re like to use just by looking at them. Thanks to all my old-camera experience I know what I like and don’t like.

Let’s use that Retinette II as an example. It has a tiny viewfinder. My first experience with one of those was my Kodak Retina Ia, early in my camera-reviewing days (here). I learned right away that its tiny viewfinder was unpleasant to use. I generally pass by cameras with such viewfinders unless there’s something else about it that’s incredibly compelling, or unless the camera is donated to my collection, as the Retinette II was.

Kodak Retinette II
Who at Kodak could possibly have thought that a viewfinder this small was a good idea?

In my early days, uninformed curiosity drove most of my buying decisions. It was more of an adventure then, and I enjoyed building experience with each new camera I tried. I had a lot to learn and made rookie mistakes, which often led to unsatisfying images. Happily, I’ve learned a great deal and have built good skill.

Kodak Monitor Six-20
This fussy old folder has a gem of a lens.

I still have a few cameras to put through Operation Thin the Herd. At the front of the line is my Kodak Monitor Six-20 (review here), a lovely World War II-era folding camera. Mine has a crackerjack 101mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special lens. But it is also fussy to use, and something’s wrong with the linkage from the shutter button on the body to the shutter itself. I’m not sure whether it will survive the culling.

Several other cameras have been donated to my collection that I have not shot yet. A longtime collector sent me a giant box of goodies three years ago now, which is where the Retinette II and the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model F (review here) came from. He also sent me a couple Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes, a Tower Flash 120, a Toyoca 35-S, and a thoroughly delightful Graflex Miniature Speed Graphic. And my sister in law gave me the Kodak Retina Reflex III that had been her father’s; it appears to be in good working order. I look forward to trying them all.

I’m not sure what cameras I’ll be buying to try going forward. I could move into high-end gear, which I’m sure I’d go gaga over, but I’m still averse to laying out that kind of money. I’ve enjoyed shooting old box cameras; maybe I could specialize in them for a while. There are a few specific SLRs I’d like to try, such as the Canon F-1 and the Minolta XD-11.

But mostly, I just want to shoot the cameras I’ve kept and really enjoy. My Yashica-12 has gotten a lot of exercise as I’ve been learning how to develop black-and-white film, and I’ve loved having it in my hands so often. I left my backup (battered, brassed) Olympus OM-1 body in my desk drawer at work most of the summer and made a bunch of wonderful images with it. This is where I am now as a camera collector and photographer, and it’s a very nice place to be.

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.


25 responses to “Informed curiosity about old cameras”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    You could spend the rest of your life exploring the quirks of old roll film folding cameras, and when you shoot them, you have a negative or positive that is worth messing with! Even twin lenses have many more models than I ever thought!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve always found folding cameras to be fascinating. I have enough repair skills now that I can handle most common troubles with them, too — I can patch pinhole leaks in bellows, and I can do some lens disassembly to clean out haze, and I know the Ronsonol trick to get a sticky shutter working again if only temporarily. Who knows, maybe that’s the direction I’ll go as I continue to try new-to-me old cameras.

  2. Marc Beebe Avatar

    There were many folders made with body shutter releases and they all had a tendency to fail as the pivots would bind or loosen and the linkages would bend. On the whole it wasn’t a good idea. The Kodak Monitor was not a top-seller, perhaps because of this. As such it is one collectors seek.
    As you know I have hundreds of old camera stories, but my memory needs prodding such as articles like yours or actually holding one of the oldies before I can recall the experience. I recently got a look at a neighbour’s small but interesting collection, which includes an early Exacta with the Biotar lens. Made me regret giving up mine. Again.
    Oh well, history is in the past as they say.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      See, there are just so many more cameras to try! I’d love to try an Exacta one day.

      On the Monitor, I think there’s a cable socket. I may just shoot it using a cable.

  3. Victor Villaseñor Avatar
    Victor Villaseñor

    Do it… get an XD11 in working order, they are a joy to use.

    Those folder cameras are intriguing, everybody here loves the Graflex, but its way too cumbersome for me to consider, plus roll film is yet another format to buy into.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oooooooo pretty!! I think I still have an MD 50/1.7 around here somewhere, which means I have to buy only the body. Definitely on my list.

      As for the Graflex, I’m very curious about shooting it but there’s so much to learn. It may be some time before I get to it.

  4. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    The one thing I enjoy about photography as a hobby is how it allows growth and exploration into a lot of different areas. 46 years in and I am never bored.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think I’m just at a crossroads as I get close to wrapping Operation Thin the Herd, and am feeling unsure. I trust I’ll figure out which direction I want to go next, as I think I’m going to find what you found: there’s always something new to try or learn in photography.

  5. eppaar Avatar

    Almost all prewar cameras from Argus to Leica had that tiny viewfinder. The only exceptions that I know of were the Contax II & III that were also the first to combine the rangefinder and viewfinder in one window. I have never been able to discover why this was the practice or why it ended after World War II. Was the some technical breakthrough?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s hard for me to guess, obviously, but I can’t imagine that developing a larger viewfinder was difficult for technical reasons. Someone else pointed out to me that people used these cameras differently in the prewar days, as 35mm was considered a miniature format, and it might have made a big viewfinder far less important.

  6. Mike Connealy Avatar

    The thing I have found most interesting with my NM Film Photography Group is the great diversity among the members in their approaches to photography. In my own case a lot of the enjoyment comes from an effort to appreciate and duplicate the experience of past generations of photographers.
    If you go directly from shooting a more modern camera to using one from decades in the past the older one can seem very awkward to use, often requiring manual film advance and shutter cocking, for instance. I think it is important for that reason to give yourself enough time with an old camera to become accustomed to its operation so that the contrast with modern equipment becomes less important.
    Often, that means slowing everything down a bit, and that also can have its advantages in regard to results. One thought that keeps me going in this process is the fact that even in photography’s earliest stages there was marvelous work being done with equipment that may now seem very antiquated.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A couple weeks ago when I posted about the film camera I often recommend to a new film shooter, I chose the Nikon N65 and its ilk because it is a far less jarring transition. I remember feeling quite alienated the first time I shot a camera that offered no exposure or focusing help, plus had manual shutter cocking. Some people can jump right into the deep end of the pool and be fine, but I sure can’t and I suspect most people are like me in this way.

      But if you build up to it, by choosing successively more primitive cameras, you can build quite a base of knowledge and skill.

  7. Dan James Avatar

    Though I haven’t tried anything like the range of cameras you have Jim, I have owned and used probably a couple of hundred now, and at least as many lenses. I came to a similar place in that you find your favourite types of camera, and within those types there isn’t massive variation. Especially if you’re not a pro or a pixel peeper. I have largely reverted to trying to use the few I’ve enjoyed best and have kept, more often, to go deeper into the experience if you like, rather than keep going broader with trying more and more different cameras.

    I think for me it’s more challenging to find deeper experiences with the same gear, and easier to just buy something new to have, on the surface, a new experience, but in fact it becomes almost that same old experience of getting to know an unfamiliar camera, fumbling around for a bit, before making some decent images with it, then moving on to another new one. It gets more tiresome than exciting after a while, and feels like a way of avoiding the challenge of mastering the gear you have inside out, For me, anyway.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah. I’ve shot the Pentax ME enough to know that the ME Super and the MV are essentially the same camera. Why shoot them? Actually I might if I find one for a bargain price somewhere. But I’m not going looking for one.

      I like new experiences so will keep going with new to me old cameras.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Yeh I think Pentax made about ten variations of the original ME, right up to the Super A which is 90% the same to use.

        I wonder if the trick is to find new experiences with the same favourite cameras, ie making the experience new, rather than the camera?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Yes. I think this winter I want to experiment with available-light still lifes inside my home. That’s a way I’ve not significantly used any of my cameras before. I might find I like my ME a lot less than some other SLR in that context.

          1. Dan James Avatar

            And you’ll probably also find the lens is more important than the camera. Bring out the f/1.4s!

  8. Sam Avatar

    Jim I can relate to your sentiments. Sometimes just by looking at a camera I can pretty much guess what it might do but at the same time I long for those sleepers!! 😎👍🏻

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s so sweet when you find a sleeper though!

  9. dionyb Avatar

    Season’s greetings to you and yours. If you are still interested in shooting an XD-11 I happen to have one that needs some exercising.Let me know if you’re interested. Regards.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      First of all, how did I not know you have a blog? I’ve added it to my feed reader.

      Second, is this an offer to lend or an offer to sell? Either way, my interest is piqued. I’ve got eight or nine cameras in the to-shoot queue so I’m not in a hurry, however.

      1. dionyb Avatar

        Thank you for the add. Consider it a loan and if you like the camera and can’t bear to part with it, hahaha, then yours to keep. No charge. Let me know when you’re ready for it and I’ll send it on its way.

        1. Victor Villaseñor Avatar
          Victor Villaseñor

          Do et Jim!

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          That’s a hard offer to refuse! Can I reach out to you using the email address you gave in submitting the comment?

          1. dionyb Avatar

            Yes at your convenience.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: