Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal Camera Ratings

I think I own enough cameras now to rank them in order of preference. In fact, I should include cameras which I have owned and sold in order to buy another that I think I'd like better, only to discover I was wrong. I also have some cameras that I'll probably never use, but should at least try them out. I'm also beginning to think I talk about cameras too much and not enough about the reason they exist. Everyone says "it's not about the camera". Yet, all the top bloggers, like Rockwell, Johnson and Huff - they all certainly talk a lot more about cameras, especially new expensive ones, than they do about photography. The most balanced of these three is Mike Johnson, who periodically admits to a camera obsession that's destroying his life, and submits wonderful photographic book reviews, and some great articles on technique.

Anyway, enough 'bout that weak moment - sorry, I know you'd all rather read about my cameras wouldn't you? So here goes:

My Number One - far and away is the Rolleiflex. It's got all the right stuff. Amazingly precise build quality - a true example of industrial art if there ever was one. This camera is still being manufactured, which gives my 1953 model a true collector value. A superior to digital Medium film format, a viewfinder that's exceptionally bright, accurate, at waist level and the same size as the film frame. The Leaf Shutter is almost silent, and the lens is amazing. When you see a picture of this camera, it looks rather big and cumbersome, but it's actually quite small and light - easy to carry around the neck, and perfectly balanced. Two things that people might not like about this type of camera is that it only gets off 12 shots per roll, only has the one lens (45mm equiv.) and the viewfinder image is reversed left to right. I find all of these things to be an advantage, however. These all take us back to "true photography", where every shot counts, you have to compose by moving yourself around, and you have to take your time composing the picture. For street shooting, it's ideal - nobody even knows you took a picture. because the camera is down at your belly, and the shutter is very quiet.

My second favourite might surprise you. It's the Pentax Zoom 90. This camera really surprised me, actually. From the outside it has nothing going for it whatsoever - just one of those 1990's black plastic pocket zooms with motorized film advance. I paid $6.00 for this at the Salvation Army. But when I got it home, I discovered that it's not all plastic, and it has a superb lens design that delivers superb pictures. The viewfinder is big and bright, and zooms with the lens. The zoom range is 38-90mm (about a 2.5X in today's words) - which is just enough to be helpful, but still requires that you be close to your subject, as it should be. It's got a built-in flash and Macro mode, as well as some hidden "menu' features, like interval shooting (for time-lapse), multi-exposure, double self-timer, 2 fps drive mode, and normally fully automatic, it has shutter priority semi-manual shooting. It's like all you really need, and nothing more. For street shooting, it's very non-threatening, just because of the not-to-be-taken-seriously way it looks.

Third favourite is my DSLR - Canon EOS 7D - the world's best APS-C sensor camera, according to Mr. Rockwell at least. This is a professional grade DSLR, with an amazing viewfinder and a professional, as opposed to consumer feature set, which means no face detection, night-scene, etc. You've got to be good to use this camera, with it's complex exposure and focus set-ups - you can actually store up to three custom set-ups  which is helpful for set and forget shooting. I'm still weak for digital convenience and instant gratification, and in spite of it's rather bulky size, especially with a big lens attached, I still don't see any new cameras coming to market that I'd want to replace this with. I enjoy using it with my collection of M42 screw-mount manual focus lenses, some of which are quite small. If I want to use a smaller camera, I go with film. Incidentally, I've had three previous Canon DSLR's that "got away" - an EOS 1000D which I gave to my wife, an EOS 400D which I sold to buy an EOS 40D, and in actual fact, I think I liked the EOS 40D the best - even better than my present 7D. It was easier to use, and I think gave me better looking pictures. The biggest improvement offered by the 7D is it's amazingly good viewfinder.

Fourth down is still a dark horse. I haven't gotten through a roll of film with it yet, so I cannot ultimately rate it, but if it works out, my FED 5 will end up in fourth place. I love what the "registration distance" of these cameras does for picture quality, and I love the rangefinder method of focusing. I also love the feel of this camera, but not it's looks. I'm rating it according to a previously similar "Russian Leica" I owned - the Zorki-4 (sold the complete kit so I could buy my first DSLR - the EOS 1000D). If it puts out image quality as good, then I'll be very happy. Let's say for now that I'm rating the FED 5 / Zorki-4 in fourth place

Fifth is a little camera I've talked about a lot - the Trip-35. I love these so much that I'm wondering myself why I didn't rate it in #1. It's got an amazing lens, exceptionally bright viewfinder, a very good and rather unique image quality, and accomplishes fully automatic exposure without batteries. What's not to like? Well, it's still a manual focus lens, and you have to rely on "zone focusing", which should be called "guess-gosh focussing" - there is no focussing aid. To make this a truly usable shooter, it would be a good idea to equip it with a separate hot-shoe mounted rangefinder unit like this one, to give you the idea. But in general, I guess I'm more into the Russian Leica Cult than I am the Trip-35 Cult.

In sixth place are my Pentax Spotmatics. I've got two - one of them has a failing shutter that still works at 1/250 and under, and with the other, the light meter doesn't work. Now to some people, these, along with the newer but similar Pentax K1000 were the best SLR's ever made. Back in the day, if you weren't a "Nikon Man" then you were sure to be a "Pentax Man". Why didn't I rate these higher? Well, to be honest, it's because they're SLR's. I don't like SLR image quality - the Pentax Zoom-90 has noticeably better IQ, that is, unless you need to use Portrait or Telephoto lenses - it is here that SLR's begin to shine and become useful. But for normal 50mm and under shooting, I believe that SLR's had more to do with beginner's discouragement than any other kind of camera. In the 70's and early 80's SLR's were heavily marketed as "the best", and indeed they were, in the sense of offering great camera system choices. But it seems that nobody in Marketing, and few among the buying public really bothered to look at the resulting photographs critically, and people like me, who for years used only a 50mm lens on my Spotmatic, were disappointed enough that rolls of film began accumulating in our sock drawers. But when you put lenses on that are 85mm and up- well, the SLR image quality becomes very exciting - they're exceptionally good for telephoto work - nothing can beat the SLR design if you shoot with long lenses. I seldom shoot long, and when I do, I prefer to use my Canon, but sometimes with a Pentax M42 (ie -Spotmatic) lens, of which I have plenty. It's kind of nice to have this complete system overlap between my Pentax SLR and Canon DSLR.

Finally, there is my Samsung Galaxy SII Android Smartphone. I use it quite often, and it certainly has it's uses, and image quality is remarkably good. I'm looking forward to the next generation of Smartphone cameras for the improvements they promise are coming, but for now, well it's just in last place. I have also owned five other Digital compacts (I still have one of them), but none of them are really worth rating - the picture quality is so dead, I like my Android Smartphone camera better. But for serious work, if I have to go compact, give me film any day.

So that's it. I do have a few other really really cheap film cameras from the Salvation Army that I haven't even tried out yet so I can't rate them. So much more to blog about this year coming!

Oh, and by the way - my new years resolution was that I wouldn't buy any more cameras - I never said anything about lenses... the FED 5 opens a whole new door of the Leica Threadmount (LTM, M39) world.


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