Until fairly recently I regarded cameras primarily as tools, largely purchased for their utility and functionality. This isn’t to say I didn’t get a lot of pleasure out of poring over specs before acquisition, or “playing” with the new instrument when it arrived. Indeed, there is a distinct tactile pleasure to be gained from handling many cameras, and I’m certainly not immune to it. And there are some cameras that are simply good to look at!
Even so, my rational self told me that a camera was a means to an end and its purpose was to enable me to take better pictures. I didn’t fool myself completely – I knew that sometimes I simply wanted the “latest and greatest” even though its ability to enhance my artistic expression was no improvement on my previous gear. But a camera was to be used to take photographs, not to decorate my den.
During the last year or so I found myself wistfully contemplating some of the cameras I used to own. What were they really like? How would they function today? Do they even exist any more?
I set out to answer these questions, and after many hours on the Internet and eBay, came to the conclusion that the best way to do so was by acquiring the cameras themselves. Not the actual copies that I once owned, of course, but examples of the same make or model.
In a word (or two) I resolved to become a camera collector. Not a collector of any particular make or genre, not a collector for investment purposes, but a collector of what was once mine.
I have owned cameras for nearly sixty years since my father gave me one when I was five. Unfortunately, the mists of time have obscured my memory of just what that camera and its immediate successors were – and those mists don’t lift until my twelfth year, when I won a school photo competition. The camera I used for that first heady success has stuck in my mind.
It was a used Ilford Craftsman, a pseudo twin lens reflex where the upper lens was actually a “brilliant” viewfinder. It had just two f stops, f9 and f18, and two speeds – 1/25 th and 1/75 th of a second. It took nice clear 6 by 6 cm pictures as long as you worked within its limitations.
After several foiled attempts to get one on eBay, where one example sold for roughly ten times what it cost new, I managed to find a fairly decent specimen. Opening the package when it arrived from England took me back 50 years almost instantly! It is in working order and I’m sure I shall run a film through it soon. (The picture below is courtesy of Adrian Gotts in the UK as I wrote this piece before my specimen arrived.)
Swifter success greeted my next search – a Bilora Radix, which I found at a decent price in a store in England after some intense Googling. It’s weird little camera, first made in Germany in 1947. It takes sixteen 24 by 24 mm square pictures on 35 mm film. It has a single shutter speed of 1/60 th of a second and a 38 mm f5.6 Biloxar Anastigmat lens. As you can see, my example is pretty beat up cosmetically, but the lens is clean and it still works. Actually, it’s built like a tank.
This camera is very important to me in three ways. First, it was my first 35 mm camera, which I as a teenager I regarded as a major milestone. Second, I still have many negatives I took with it – and some of them are pretty good. Third, and most momentous, it was the camera I used to expose my first ever colour film.
You must understand that buying a colour slide film in England in the 1950’s was a significant expense for a high school student. Black and white you developed yourself at minimal cost, but colour had to go to a lab. I recall the cost was included with the film at the time of purchase. But every shot was very carefully contemplated before the button was pressed – probably like someone shooting 8 by 10 film today.
Amazingly, I still have one photo of those first 16. It was taken on Agfachrome, probably ASA (sic) 50 film in 1960 and is shown below. (I was – and still am – a steam enthusiast.)
In those days I was also becoming very interested in bird photography. Not very easy with a 38 mm lens, so I purchased an army surplus long focus lens and proceeded to dismantle the (fixed!) Biloxar so I could use the “new” glass. I don’t recall how well it went, but I know I ended up junking the camera some months later….and I have no bird photos from those days!
Ironically, I then left 35mm for a while and went back to medium format. While attending university I did a number of commercial photographic assignments ranging from architectural shots for a book all the way to a little fashion photography and weddings. For these tasks, in that era, only one camera would suffice – a Rolleiflex.
My first Rollei was a 1950 Automat with a Tessar lens. After a couple of my bills had been paid, I traded it for a 1956 model with the Xenar lens. It was a wonderful camera, probably 6 or 7 years old when I got it, and still functioning beautifully a couple of years later when I had to give it up – but that comes later.
Of all the cameras I’ve owned, the Rollei has got to be one of the most satisfying to hold and use. It is not just a camera – it’s a work of art.
(In those days I also used an unidentified full-plate camera from Victorian times. It took real glass plates about 4 by 6 inches. It was a good learning experience but not one I feel very nostalgic about and I won’t be trying to replace it today.)
For my collection, I decided to go with the Rollei model I always wanted back in 1965 but could not afford – the Rolleiflex 2.8F, one of the last of the “vintage” Rolleis. I found one on eBay, supposedly mint (yeah, right!) being auctioned by a lady in Texas. I won the auction at what I thought was likely too high a price and waited to see what I’d really bought.
The photo below may tell the story. This camera looks like it just came off the production line – and I swear the case looks absolutely brand new. I have run several films through the camera and it is sweet!
Enquiring of the seller, I found that it had belonged to her late husband, a meticulous German architect who really looked after it. It is presently the highlight of my collection.
I sold my 1956 Rollei in anticipation of emigration from England to Canada in 1965; with a wife and a brand-new daughter, the cash was more important.
For a short time I also had a well-used Periflex. Built by Corfield, it was one of Britain’s answers to the Leica, and it took Leica screw mount lenses. I managed to find one in Germany; for some reason there seem to be more examples of these cameras available there than in their native England. This one was made, I believe, in 1959. It’s very robustly constructed and works beautifully. The Lumax 50mm f1.9 lens focuses to less than two feet and is so deeply recessed you really don’t need a lens shade.
The Periflex owes its uniqueness to its focusing system; although it looks like a rangefinder, it actually has a tiny periscope that is lowered into the area behind the lens. You use this to focus and then it swings out of the way to take the shot. In some ways this was a 35mm predecessor of the SLR. I shot the record cover below with it in 1965.
I remember very well the first camera I bought in Canada in 1966 (once I got a job and paid the rent) – a Yashica J5.
The Yashica was the first new camera I ever owned, and the first for which I owned more than one lens. It had the Yashinon f1.4 standard lens, which was also the fastest lens I had ever used. This camera gave me yeoman service – it traveled Canada with me from Nova Scotia to the Yukon and I still have many great Kodachromes from it. Eventually it started over-exposing due to a shutter curtain problem, and I moved onwards and upwards.
Screw mount Yashicas are pretty easy to find and very cheap on eBay. I got one for just five dollars that had a mint body but a malfunctioning shutter. I found another with great innards but poor cosmetics. I moved the top and bottom plates from one to the other and with a few other tweaks I now have a very clean, functioning camera.
Collecting from a base of nostalgia doesn’t mean you can only acquire cameras you used to own – you can acquire those you yearned for but couldn’t afford. The ad below comes from the British Journal of Photography Annual 1964. Man, did I lust after that Canon 7!
So, over 40 years later I decided it was time to slake my thirst. These cameras are highly collectable and thus very expensive. An article on the camera in a recent issue of Shutterbug magazine hasn’t helped – prices rose after it was published, to roughly 150% of what the columnist thought you’d have to pay!
I got the body at a pretty good price on eBay and then found a dealer in Calgary who was prepared to sell me the lens alone. Yes, I know the lens is not a great performer by today’s standards, but it is the fastest production lens ever made for a still consumer camera and it sure looks and feels impressive.
For everyday photography with the camera (B&W film) I’ve also acquired the Canon 50mm f1.4 and the 35mm f2 – each of these lenses used to challenge Leica for sharpness.
The last camera in my collection – for now anyway – is a Canon AE1, which I first acquired in 1976 when it initially went on sale. It was one of the most successful cameras Canon ever launched and it’s easy to find quite presentable specimens on eBay. Mine came from a lady in Ohio who claimed the only marks on it were her fingerprints. She was right.
This was my first electronic camera – indeed the first camera anywhere controlled by a CPU. It is also partly the reason I use Canon cameras for some of my work today.
The background to this is a lesson in customer service from which many companies might learn. My original AE1 broke down after a few months, so I took it back to Canon Canada to have it fixed under warranty. The technician took a look at the camera while I waited at the service desk. After a few minutes he disappeared, to return a moment later with a brand new, boxed AE1 which he handed to me with an apology for the breakdown. No nonsense, no discussion – just a new camera.
I wonder if he realized he was probably creating a customer for life?
For the moment these seven cameras complete my nostalgia collection. The cameras that succeeded them all have a place in my heart, but most of them are still pretty current and don’t evoke much of a sense of the past.
I had a Mamiya 645 – but I’m using its grandchild, the AFD II, today. (What a contrast – going from a glorified box camera with two speeds and two f-stops all the way to an autofocus electronic camera with a 39 megapixel digital back!)
I’ve had a Practica, a Canon F1, a brace of Leica R4s, a Hasselblad 2000FC and some Rollei 6008 gear. They were (and are) great tools– but none of them bring a lump to my throat.
The only exception might be a Leica M6, which I wish I had kept – it got traded when I went back to medium format for the second time. I think I might have to indulge that growing nostalgia by getting an M8….some day when my wife isn’t watching. (Buying an expensive camera as a tool is easily justified – buying a camera just to have it is a tougher sell. ButofcourseI would use it.)
It is possible that an example of my first digital camera, the Canon 1D, might find a place in my collection in another decade or two – now there’s optimism for you!
In the meantime, I get a great kick out of looking up at my sentimental collection of old cameras on the shelf above my desk – and an even greater kick out of reliving the past by running a roll of film through them.
After all, cameras are tools and should be used….
Bill is a retired corporate executive who has been photographing for (well!) over 50 years. Some of his work may be seen athere.Bill has written several other articles on this site –Using a Canon 1D in New Zealandand a review of theCanon 24-105 EF IS lens.