Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Agfa Clack

Suburban banalia

I began Operation Thin the Herd with my Agfa Clack because it was handy. I’d just moved into my new house and my cameras were all still in boxes. The Clack had been on display in my home office and so got packed into a box of office stuff. It was unpacked early because I needed my home office set up pretty much first thing.

Agfa Clack

While unpacking it I remembered very well how pleasant it was to shoot and what lovely results it returned. I’d always shot black-and-white film in it before, slower stuff like Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros and Ilford Pan-F Plus 50. So this time I spooled in some color film, Kodak Ektar 100. I blew through the whole roll in 20 minutes without ever taking more than ten steps from my new house.

Suburban banalia

These colors are a little washed out, rather than showing Ektar’s signature vibrance. Perhaps I needed to shoot on a cloudy day. Or maybe I’ll just stick with black-and-white film in the Clack from now on. Here, take a look at how Pan-F 50 performed on an earlier shoot.

Crew Carwash

I now live in typical modern suburbia. My previous neighborhood of 1950s-60s brick ranch homes was typical suburbia for its time. But in my old neighborhood, owners had placed their individual touches on their properties over the years. Here, the HOA makes sure every home always looks just like every other. Property values, don’t you know. Stultifying sameness.

Suburban banalia

And what is it about modern home design that makes giant exterior walls of vinyl, punctuated only by random tiny windows, seem like a good idea?

Suburban banalia

Oh, and our home overlooks beautiful and scenic I-65. See the big green sign there through the brush? This is suburban living at its best, folks. The retention ponds do nothing to blunt the relentless traffic noise. Fortunately, I stopped noticing it after just a couple weeks. One positive: this unblocked westerly view has shown us some spectacular sunsets.

Suburban banalia

But back to the Clack. It was just as much of a joy to use as ever. It’s a glorified box camera, but it’s so much easier to carry and use than a boxy box. It’s small and light. It’s easy to frame subjects in the bright viewfinder. It offers a few easy settings: apertures for cloudy and bright days plus a built-in closeup lens and a yellow filter. The only downers: the lens is soft in the corners and there’s some pincushion distortion.

Suburban banalia

But as soon as I finished this roll my mind started thinking of other eight-photograph monographs the Clack and I could make. Imagining a future with a camera: is there any better sign that it should stay?

Verdict: Keep.

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Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Choosing the cameras I’ll keep

Kodak Monitor Six-20I’ve lost count of how many cameras I own, but it must be more than 100.

When I thought of myself as a camera collector, that wasn’t a problem. I envisioned displaying them in glass-fronted barrister bookcases all over my home. I was going to be that strange old man who lived alone with all those cameras.

Canon AE-1 ProgramI never bought the bookcases. And I got married. But most importantly, I now consider myself a photographer far more than a collector. As such, I own far more cameras than I can possibly use.

I don’t even like using some of the cameras I own. Something about each one attracted me enough to buy it. But as I put film through many of them, the romance ended. I didn’t enjoy using them, or I didn’t like the images I got from them, or both.

Olympus XA

And I’ve gained so much experience as a photographer that cameras I enjoyed when I shot them many years ago might not please me now.

What’s the point of continuing to own cameras I won’t use?

And so it begins: Operation Thin the Herd, in which I systematically work my way to owning just the cameras I enjoy and will use again and again.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKFor each camera I own, I will first hold it in my hands. Does holding it make me want to shoot it? If not, I will give it away or sell it.

Otherwise, I will immediately put a roll of film into it and start shooting it.

If shooting it, or seeing the resulting images, makes me feel joy, I will keep it. Otherwise, I will give it away or sell it. Then I’ll repeat the process on the next camera in my collection.

Rollei A110When I’ve done this with all of my cameras, I will review those that survived. If they number more than I can reasonably store, the difficult work begins: evaluating which of them I believe I will realistically use at least once every 12 to 18 months. Those that don’t clear that bar, I will reluctantly give away or sell.

There will be exceptions.

Pentax KMSeveral cameras have been given to me as special gifts or have sentimental value. They will remain.

I own more than one of a few cameras. If one of them brings joy in use, I’ll keep only one.

I am likely to keep an SLR body for every major lens mount, so that when I find an interesting lens I will be able to try it.

Ansco B2 SpeedexAnd a select few cameras might stay just because they’re iconic or marvels of engineering. (I’m looking at you, Polaroid SX-70!)

This does not mean this blog is taking a hiatus on camera reviews. I own several cameras I’ve yet to shoot and will find time to work them in. And I will continue to buy and try old cameras. I’ll just keep only the ones that bring me joy.

Kodak Pony 135The one thing I haven’t decided yet is how to give away or sell the unwanted cameras. eBay is an obvious option. But I’ve sold cameras there before and don’t enjoy how much time and effort it takes, especially for what little money most of my cameras bring. If you have ideas, let me know.

I will blog about every camera I shoot during Operation Thin the Herd. I’ve already evaluated the first camera, a medium-format box camera; that post is written and that camera is a keeper. Film is in the second camera now, a well-regarded compact rangefinder. 12 frames in, it’s not bringing me joy. It’s days are likely numbered.

I’ll be at this for a good long while — two or three years, I’m sure. So keep coming back to see Operation Thin the Herd’s progress.

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Film Photography

Fortunately, my first book remains available

I had so hoped to have self-published my second book by now. I have a couple ideas percolating in the back of my head. I’ve even written content for one of them, which I’ve shared here in several posts.

But life has been unexpectedly challenging and I haven’t been able to make these projects a priority. Maybe in 2018.

Fortunately, my first book remains available.

For those of you new to this blog, in April I self-published a book of photographs I’ve taken with my Pentax ME SLR. I bought it on eBay for a mere $16, showing that even the humblest SLR can produce great images.

Click here to see a preview. Click my book’s cover below to buy one on — a paper copy you can hold in your hands for $14.99, or a PDF for $7.99. If you like the photographs I share here every day, I think you’ll enjoy my book.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

How to be Internet famous in film photography

Yashica MG-1

When I collected cameras in the 1970s and 1980s, I bought gear only as I found it at garage sales and in junk stores. Information about what I had just bought was extremely hard to come by. When I restarted collecting film cameras in 2006, the Internet had transformed the hobby. Not only could I buy cameras online, but I could research them there as well.

Yet even in the early 2000s few people wrote about old cameras. My searches kept leading me to the same names, the online titans of camera collecting: Karen NakamuraMike ElekMatt DentonRick OlesonSylvain Halgand.

If they could do it, I reasoned, so could I, and so I started writing camera reviews on this blog. I’ve been deeply pleased that online searches for this gear have brought thousands of visitors here. Many of my reviews are among the top five results on Google. Here are the ten most-viewed camera reviews of all time on Down the Road:

  1. Yashica MG-1
  2. Minolta Hi-Matic 7
  3. Kodak Pony 135
  4. Kodak Duaflex II
  5. Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80
  6. Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK
  7. Canon Canonet QL17 G-III
  8. Canon AF35 ML (Super Sure Shot)
  9. Kodak Junior Six-16, Series II
  10. Yashica-D

Am I now one of those names budding collectors keep coming across? “Oh, it’s that Jim Grey guy again.” I sure hope so!

But in the last couple years or so a lot of people have started writing online about the old film cameras they collect and shoot. I share all of the reviews and experience reports that I find in my Saturday Recommended Reading posts, and it seems like the number just keeps growing.

Was there ever a surer sign that this hobby, once odd and lonely, has caught on?

But it’s got to be challenging now for anyone to become one of the well-known film-camera collectors or film photographers. I’m sure that most of the new crop of writers don’t care at all about becoming Internet famous in the hobby. I didn’t when I started reviewing film cameras here. It was a nice bonus that searches started sending me lots of visitors.

Yet the growing number of reviews available online makes it challenging for any one reviewer to keep rising to the top of search. It’s reduced the number of views I get for common cameras like the Pentax K1000, because so many people have written about them now. I keep seeing it in my stats: 2015 was the high-water mark for the cameras everybody wants to try.


Yet my reviews of off-the-beaten-path cameras like that Yashica MG-1 keep getting more views every year.


I really admire Casual Photophile, the film-photography site run by James Tocchio. It is everything I wish my blog could be: interesting gear, fine photographs, sparkling writing. But don’t let the “casual” in the site’s title mislead you: James is very intentional about his site’s vision and execution. He carefully selects top-flight photographers and writers as contributors, is willing to spend serious coin on cameras that will interest a wide audience, writes crisp analysis of film-photography news, and spends considerable effort promoting each new post. His efforts have made Casual Photophile popular and respected in our community.

I’m envious of his success, but I’m not so ambitious. I recognize the irony in that statement — I spend up to ten hours a week writing this blog. But I’m not willing to give up writing about personal topics and esoterica like old road alignments to focus this blog entirely on photography. I remain too frugal to be buying Leicas or Hasselblads. I usually can’t pause the rest of my life quickly enough to write timely commentary on industry developments. And I have neither the time nor the stomach for the social media efforts necessary to build this audience further.

If that sounds like you, find film gear few others have reviewed, and review them. Internet search will reward you. The audience will come.

Or just shoot the cameras you want, write about them as you will, and enjoy the hobby. Internet fame might not find you, but at least you’ll have a lot of fun.

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This is the first photo I took that I thought was any good.

It was 1982 and I was about 15. I’d collected cameras for eight years but had not put film through most of them. Film was expensive! But I finally decided to go for it, and bought a roll of Kodacolor II in 620 for my Kodak Duaflex II. That’s a 1950s box camera dressed up to look like a TLR with a hooded waist-level viewfinder. I had a nice time photographing things around my childhood home.

When the prints came back from the processor, I could see that these were the finest photographs I’d ever made. That was a low bar to clear in those days — I had no skills. But everything was reasonably well composed, well exposed, and in good focus. Win!

And then I came to this print. Seeing it was a watershed moment: the first time an image I had made really pleased me. I gasped when I saw it: I did that? I did that! It’s actually sort of good!

This moment stayed with me over the decades, even through the crazy busy years with my own young family when my cameras necessarily stayed in boxes in my closet. And then my first marriage ended, and seeking to recover from that pain and loss I eagerly sought something to do that would bring me pleasure and joy. Is it any surprise that I turned to film and cameras? And so it began.

This isn’t the whole photograph, by the way. The Duaflex shoots square photos. This is a quick rescan I made on my Wolverine film digitizer. That little machine is meant to handle 110, 126, and 127 negatives natively. But 120/620 negatives fit; the machine just can’t “see” the whole frame. So I lined it up to the image’s most interesting part and pressed the button. And then I cropped it again, in Photoshop, to 4×6. And so I get to enjoy it anew. It still makes me happy.

You can see the whole photo in my review of the Duaflex II camera here.


Film Photography

How to catch the film photography bug



Tyson United Methodist Church, Versailles, IN

Inside Tyson United Methodist Church
Pentax Spotmatic F, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar
Konica Chrome Centuria 200 (x 12-2003)

This is probably my favorite photo from inside the Art Deco church in little Versailles, Indiana. More photos to come.

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Film Photography, Preservation

single frame: Inside Tyson United Methodist Church