I’ve updated my review of the terrific Agfa Clack, a box camera for 120 film. It delivers lovely results! Read the review here.
I’ve updated my post of tips for buying vintage film cameras on eBay. Check it out here.
You know how it can be buying a camera you can’t touch or test. There are so many pitfalls. I’ve experienced them all, and my hope is that by sharing what I’ve learned, you can avoid them. So do have a look, here.
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.
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.
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.
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The first time I wrote about old film cameras on this blog was about a month after I started it, in 2007. You can read that post here.
It’s remarkable how much has changed in film photography since then.
In 2007, as film stocks kept being discontinued we worried that falling demand for film would kill the business. All of our great film gear would become paperweights and doorstops.
By the mid-2010s, the Great Analog Resurgence had breathed new life into film photography. Demand for film has slowly increased. It will never return to former heights, but it is enough to keep emulsions flowing from the factories. A few new films have been introduced, and a couple discontinued films have come back.
In 2007, only a handful of people wrote about their gear online. Some wrote full-on reviews, some wrote usage impressions, and some just listed specifications. I was grateful to all of them as they helped me figure out which cameras I might like to try, and to figure out whether to click Buy It Now on a camera that tickled my fancy.
I started writing about my old cameras here because I wanted to be as helpful to the world as these “OG” film-camera reviewers had been to me. I kept using their sites as I researched my own reviews. And then many of my reviews began to lead search results. I felt satisfied — and guilty, as my reviews began to outrank those of the good people whose shoulders on which I stood.
Since then, dozens of others have started film-photography blogs where they write about their gear. Many of them even do video reviews on YouTube! The Internet is awash in good information about even the most obscure cameras. So much so that many of my former highly ranked posts have fallen in the rankings. It’s personally disappointing, but I suppose what goes around comes around. What we all get in return is a thriving film-photography community.
I want to salute the people whose sites helped me so much when I began researching old cameras in my blog’s early days. Many of their sites are still up, although most of them are not still maintained. Many of them have the same design as when they started 15, 20, 25 years ago; a few appear to be straight HTML! I’m listing these sites in rough order of how often I visited them.
Photoethnography — Collecting and Using Classic Cameras: Karen Nakamura is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley who has used film cameras in her work documenting cultures. She built a large collection and wrote good reviews of her gear, offering usage and repair tips. For years, every time I was interested in a camera, my Googling led me straight to Karen’s pages. I took it as a sign that I had good taste in cameras.
Matt’s Classic Cameras: Matt Denton shares impressions of his classic cameras with usage and repair tips. I modeled my early camera reviews after his site.
Photography and Vintage Film Cameras: Mike Connealy likes to find out what kind of images a simple old camera can make. He took this site down a few years ago but offered it to anyone who might like to host it. Fellow collector Mike Eckman resurrected it at his site. Mike Connealy is still active, and blogs about film cameras and photography here.
Random Camera Blog: Mark O’Brien has blogged about film cameras and photography since 2004. His blog is still active and regularly updated.
Collection Appareils: Even though it’s mostly in French, Sylvain Hagland’s site remains a key source of good information about classic cameras. Google Translate will put it into English for you in a jif.
CameraQuest’s Classic Camera Profiles: Stephen Gandy is a Voigtlander distributor who has written extensively about classic Voigtlander, Nikon, and Leica cameras, especially rangefinders but also SLRs.
Photography in Malaysia: Don’t let the site’s name fool you, Leo Foo has extensively documented several key classic 35mm SLRs.
Camera Manual Library: Mike Butkus has collected camera manuals for a very long time, and has scanned them and uploaded them to this site. It’s hundreds of manuals, to be sure. When you Google a camera name plus “manual,” the first result is almost certain to be Mike Butkus’s site. He’s done an enormous service to all us collectors and photographers.
Rick Oleson: Rick’s site is still hosted at Tripod, one of the original free hosting sites from back in the day. He offers usage and repair tips on a number of cameras, plus essays on how to make the most of your old gear.
Ken Rockwell: While Ken primarily focuses on new gear, he has reviewed several film cameras. They’re blended in with everything else so you have to hunt around to find them.
The Brownie Camera Page: Online since 1994, the Web’s earliest days, Chuck Baker’s site catalogs Brownie cameras and Kodak history, and gives useful information about how to clean up and use these old cameras.
Yashica Guy: Joe Marcel Wolff catalogs Yashica rangefinder cameras and offers usage and repair tips. He also makes and sells an adaptor that lets you use common batteries in these cameras.
Mamiya 35mm Cameras: Ron Herron collects Mamiya 35mm cameras and writes about them here.
Alfred’s Camera Page: Alfred Klomp shares information about his collection, including usage and repair tips. It hasn’t been updated since 2006 — it was already on ice the first time I visited it!
Roland and Caroline Givan’s Cameras: Roland and Caroline are fans of Agfa cameras, but they also enjoy Russian and half-frame cameras. They document their collection here.
TLR cameras: Barry Toogood documents his TLR collection.
Manual Cameras: N. Maekawa shares his impressions of using several all-manual film cameras.
Guide to Classic Cameras: Specifications and photos of dozens of classic film cameras.
Camera Collecting and Restoration: Dan Mitchell’s site of usage and repair info about many classic cameras.
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