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Buying Camera Equipment and What I’ve Learned Along the Way_Part II

Monk, Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Equipment: Hasselblad 500CM camera and Hasselblad 150mm f4 Sonnar lens with Kodak Professional Ektacolor Gold 160 film

Continuing on from yesterdays article I returned to study in 1989 to a degree level photography course. The previous 2 years study at the private college was not recognized so I had to begin again at year 1. I needed another camera so I purchased a 60’s vintage Rollei SL66 camera with an 80mm standard and, I think 150mm portrait lens. This was a medium format camera, producing 12 _6x6cm images on a roll of 120 film. The newer versions of the camera, 70’s onwards, were superb. Unfortunately mine was a dog and caused me some grief.

That year I also purchased a 4”x5” large format camera. Rather than the large, heavy and cumbersome monorail version, favored by studio photographers, this was a flat field camera that folded flat. It was lightweight and ease to carry. A beautiful thing all word and brass that I purchased with a secondhand wide-angle lens. It’s the sort of camera where you load a single sheet of 4”x5” film into the camera, composing the image on a similarly sized ground glass screen with a large cloth (ideally black on the inside and white, to reflect the hot sun, on the outside) wrapped around to cut back reflections on the ground glass screen.

Not being terribly competent with the camera I took it on my second overseas trip. Sadly, after arriving in Ladakh following a torrid journey through Kashmir and over the Himalayas, with numerous adventures along the way, the lens packed it in. Unable to have it repaired, I had to carry the whole kit around for the remainder of the 10-week trip. I did make several usable images, a few of which I may still have. I remember, in particular, some shots of a young Korean Buddhist nun I photographed on a rooftop in Leh, Ladakh. It was a romantic notion to be using that type of camera, much like the great early travel photographers such as Samuel Bourne, in India and the middle East, or Timothy O’Sullivan in America. The fact was neither me or the equipment was up to the task.

In 1990 I returned to another 6×6 medium format camera. I wanted a brand new Rollei SL66 kit but, being almost impossible to buy through the Australian agents at that time, I upgraded to a new Hasselblad 500CM. The blad was a good camera, though a little clunky with one or two really weird foibles that had remained with the camera since the original model several decades early. Once again I bought an 80m and 150mm lens. My old boss, John Noyes, was now National Sales Manager at the Australian distributor for Hasselblad cameras. That made the purchase of this expensive new kit somewhat easier. In case you’re wondering he’s retired and those days are long gone.

Duck Point, Wilsons Promontory. Euipment Details: Leica M7 camera with Fuji Velvia 100F film

So, during my first 20 years in the industry I’d had a few cameras, but things really started to hot up in 1998 when I started to develop a fascination for Leica cameras. It started with my purchase of a Leica M6 camera, which I named Lucy Leica. After a time I gave Lucy the flick and moved onto a Leica M7 camera, which offered more sophisticated flash metering, and then to a Leica MP camera with a retro design harkening back to the classic 1954 Leica M3 camera. These are all rangefinder, film-based cameras. During the same period I also bought new Leica R6.2 and Leica R8 SLR cameras.

Sunset Dreaming, Nelson. Canera Equipment: Leica R8 camera and Leica Summicron 90mm f2 lens with Kodak Ektachrome 100 Extra Color film

But as well as a rangefinder and 35mm SLR camera I also upgraded my blad camera with the purchase of a new Hasselblad 503CW, a much improved camera with a far superior pentaprism compared to the one on the 500CM, that vignetted like crazy. I added to the 2 blad lenses I already owned with an excellent 50mm Distagon, roughly similar to a 35mm focal length on a 35mm or full frame DSLR camera.

After a couple of years I added a new Hasselblad 903swc camera with a fixed 38mm Biogon lens. With no mirror box assembly or pentaprism viewing and composition was usually achieved with a detachable optical viewfinder. It was literally a lens (one of the best every made) with a film back attached. As the shutter speed and aperture were controlled from the lens barrel, the camera body was really just the middle bit that connected the lens and the film back. The lens could be focused at a minimum distance of 0.3 meter and was capable of producing a huge Depth of Field (DOF), from 66cm to infinity at f22. A little clunky to wind on it was, nevertheless, very light (with no mirror, meter or pentaprism) and great fun to use. I’d often shoot, hand held, at 1/8 second.

Golden Rock, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, Myamnar. Camera Equipment: Hasselblad 503ci camera with Hasselblad 150mm f4 Sonnar lens with Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film.

During the same period of time I purchased the Hasselblad X-Pan (35mm panoramic) camera that I replaced with the Hasselblad X-PAN II camera a few years later. I employed the standard 45mm as well as the beautiful 30mm wide-angle lens with considerable satisfaction in the production of a pretty substantial body of panoramic landscapes. I made the most of those cameras, though I wish I could have held onto the X-PAN II and the 30mm lens longer.

Once I entered the Leica and Hasselblad end of the market the expenditure grew dramatically and, despite only ever owning each item for a few years and selling them in truly excellent condition, I lost a considerable amount of money in the process. Some people will tell you that these items hold their value. That may be true, but only over time. It’s like buying a new car, its worth a lot less the moment you drive it out of the showroom compared to what it was before you purchased it. I had bought right into the Leica mystique and had made the mistake of thinking that each newer model must be better than the previous one. In some cases that was true, but the so-called improvements ended up being of no value to me.

When you buy something as special as a Leica M-series camera you become very attuned to its individual characteristics. You also become quite annoyed when the camera doesn’t quite feel the way it should. Both the M6 and MP I bought with a black finish, while for the M7 I opted for the classic chrome. Of the three I much preferred the black paint finish on the M6. It felt good against my face and hands and aged very well. I loved the fact that, after a fair bit of use, the paint started to wear away and reveal bits of the solid brass body underneath. In retrospect I should have hung onto that M6. There was no need to replace it with either of the other tow models. I should have saved myself a lot of money or, alternatively, put the money into more lenses. I’ve learned a lot about myself, after the fact, which I wish I’d known before hand. I guess that’s the value of hindsight.

The point is that while at one stage I had 5 different cameras, as well as 2 handheld light meters, I could easily have managed with just 3. I should have held onto the Leica M6 Rangefinder and made a decision as to whether to keep the 503ci Hasselblad or purchase the Leica R8 SLR. Either way the Hasselblad X-PAN II was a great panoramic camera. In fact I found it very difficult to use more than 2 cameras at any one time. They are all so specialized that they require a particular way of seeing and a certain philosophical approach when handling. The M6 is designed for hand-held photography while both blads are best used on a tripod. Using more than one system at one time was, frankly, more than enough for my little brain to manage.

While I made some great photographs and greatly appreciated the advantages in composition and greater resolution offered by the larger film size of the medium format Hasselblad system, I don’t think I’d want to use such a heavy and cumbersome camera again. If put to the sword over it I would now have chosen either of the 2 Leica systems, particularly with travel photography in mind, my favorite cameras being the Leica M6 and the Leica R8. Though the Hasselblad X-PAN II would still be great for panoramic landscape photography back home.

Time and Tide, Port Campbell National Park, Victoria, Australia. Camera Equipment: Hasselblad X-PAN II camera and Hasselblad X-PAN 30mm f5.6 lens with Fuji Velvia 100F film.

If the sword was particularly sharp, and I really could only have a single camera, I would probably choose the Leica M6. Not because it’s better, but because it suits me, its compact and as a strong as a tank. The lenses are amazing and, when working in close to the subject, it’s a wonderful system. Which is why I’m interested in the new Leica M9, a full frame digital rangefinder camera.

If you’re the type that likes to hide in the shadows and snap people unawares you’d need a different camera, as the most powerful M series lens is 135mm.

The point is that this would not be an easy decision to make, as each of these 5 cameras were, in their own way, magnificent. It’s simply a matter of matching the camera to a specific task. Having only 1 camera does introduce limitations that, ultimately, you have to understand and accept. And managing 1 camera system is so much easier than 5. You end up limiting the kind of photography you do to the kind of camera system you own. The M6 Leica is not designed with sports photography in mind. So, it makes sense to correctly identify the area in which you expect to be working, whether for fun or profit, and purchase the camera best suited to that area of endeavor. If you’re convinced you want to be a generalist and do all sorts of photography than, in today’s digital world, a DSLR is your best option.

Imagine what I would have saved if my list of cameras purchased during that time was reduced from 5 down to 3, or even to a single camera. Whatever it is you could more than double that figure with the addition of lenses for those extra cameras.

And, what really hurt was when I finally went digital, in September 2005, I changed brands and took up with my old friend, Canon. The change of brand required a new set of lenses. With the advent of digital the secondhand market for film-based cameras dropped dramatically and I lost a lot of money, particularly considering the age, relative use and condition the equipment was in. But I was done with film and couldn’t justify the cash required for an entire new digital system. So I sold off my film based cameras and moved on. Frankly I was glad to be rid of all that gear. I hope that carrying camera equipment will never be as heavy or as difficult as it was back then.

The purchase of my Canon 5D body with a Canon 24mm f1.4, Canon 85mm f1.2 and Canon 180mm f3.5 Macro lens covered most of the photographic situations I encountered over the following years. The lenses were excellent quality but, when I replaced the 5D with the new Canon 5D Mark II 3 years later, I decided to reduce the kit. The 180mm Macro was replaced with the much smaller and considerable lighter 100mm f2.8 Macro, and the 85mm f1.2 was replaced with a 24-105mm f4 IS lens, which I use for almost everything these days. If I don’t go back to Leica I’II probably buy the Canon 85mm f1.8 lens, cheaper and significantly lighter than the f1.2 version. I also have two Canon 580EX II flashguns (strobes).

Sheoak Falls, Great Ocean Road, Australia. Camera Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens.

The conclusion, best understood after the fact, is I’d have been a lot happier travelling the world with a smaller and lighter camera bag and not having to battle with thinking through different camera systems and formats (e.g. square, rectangular and panoramic framing as well as different kinds of exposure metering systems) at the same time. And, of course, the current restrictions associated with airplane carry-on baggage further justify my decision.

Do you know I could probably have had a deposit on a house, or have taken a trip to Antarctica or an African Safari (which, while expensive, are still on my list) if I’d not purchased all this gear? Being single certainly made the decision to purchase all this gear easier. Not that marriage would have saved me any money.

Regular readers who have followed by reports on photography with the new Apple 3Gs iPhone will now understand while I was very happy to stick with my mobile phone for as long as I did. I’m well and truly cured of the need to buy camera equipment. I love photography and want to have the best gear I can afford. But I now try to buy with the intention of using the gear as regularly as my schedule allows which, to someone who comes from a film background, means by the time I sell the camera I’ve paid for it compared to what a film-based camera would have cost me, with the same amount of use, for film and processing. Making money from commercial assignments also offsets the cost as do the tax advantages associated with depreciation.

And then, of course, there’s the happiness scale. I love making photographs and the more I make the happier I am and the more able I am to contribute to the world in a meaningful way through my teaching activities and through this blog.

So, thanks for your patience. If you’ve got to the end of this article you deserve a medal. I began writing these 2 articles following on from requests form readers who wanted to know what camera equipment I’ve owned over the years. While it’s hard to be certain about dates and the like, I think I’ve reported the details relatively accurately. Hopefully the lessons I’ve outlined will be of help to you on your own photography journey.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

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4 Responses

  1. Your photos are very impressive!

  2. Ha! Found you. 🙂 I was in your class last night. Thank you for an inspiring introduction into Photography. Looking forward to many more of those.

    Love the photos you have on this post, especially the Golden Rock. Very interesting composition! 🙂

  3. Hi Shelvia,

    Thanks for your comments which are very much appreciated.

    All the best,

    Glenn

  4. Hi, these photos are amazing.. Can you please tell us what was the aperture, shutter speed, Iso and time when u took the duck point and the port campbell?

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