An introduction to the types of cameras you may come across

Manchester Day Parade 01
Part of the Manchester Day Parade, May 2012: gloriously captured with a 1980s 35mm film camera.

In our first part, we gave you a primer on how to return to analogue photography. We detailed where to purchase film, cameras and accessories. For our second part, we shall give you an overview of the types of cameras you may opt for.

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Compact Cameras

For absolute beginners, the compact film camera is the easiest one to start off. Your local charity shop is most likely to have a 1990s compact film camera of some description, often supporting the 135/35mm film format (sometimes APS, Advanced Photo System). The upside of purchasing a compact camera manufactured from the 1980s onwards is the joy of having motorised film winding and an automatic flash. Batteries for such cameras are often available from your local superstore, chemist or discount shop.

If you’re looking at a pre-1979 compact camera, there’s every chance that you may need to buy a separate flash, or wind your film manually. Some compact cameras might take different film formats to 35mm, like 110, 120 or 126. For availability’s sake, in terms of film and processing services, I recommend starting off with a 35mm compact camera. If you wish to use other formats like 120 or 110, expect to pay a little more for developing and processing, as well as for your films.

Some compact cameras may have additional controls or super zoom lenses. Older ones may include manual controls for exposure and light.

Non Standard Compacts

For the purpose of this section, I have referred to 35mm compact cameras as ‘standard compact cameras’. Within this part, I refer to those which take film other than 35mm.

For ease of use, any camera using the 110 and 126 Instamatic formats is easier than that of the 35mm counterparts. The only bugbear, of course is the availability of film, especially as 126 film has been discontinued for several years. With a 110 camera, loading film is a cinch: just open the camera’s gate, push the cartridge, shut the gate, then wind the film on till the backing paper says ‘1’. When you’ve done, a hatched box will show on the backing paper window and your film’s ready for processing.

110 film surpassed 126 in terms of popularity when Kodak launched it as their ‘Pocket Instamatic’ format in 1972. In your local charity shop, or the deepest recesses of your humble abode, there’s every chance you’ll find a rather thin camera somewhere with a built-in flash and space for two AA batteries.

Before 110, the 126 format was popular in the 1960s. Unlike 35mm, most variants of 120/220 and 110 formats, there is no portrait and landscape orientation (126 only has square images). Sometimes, the odd 126 camera may appear in your local charity shop, but I would keep hold of your cash till somebody (please Lomography, pretty please…!) reintroduces 126 film.

Also popular in the 1960s was the budget priced medium format compact camera. Given 120 film’s wide availability, it was a more serviceable and clearer alternative to the smaller 127 format. Examples of which included the Kodak Cresta, the Diana, and – in more recent times – Lomography’s Diana+, and the Holga 120CFN.

Recommended Compact Film Cameras

  • Acceptable in the 1980s: If you’re looking for a decent compact camera with motorised controls, you can’t go far wrong with any of models from the 1980s onwards. The Olympus XA2 – XA4, Olympus AM-100 and Canon MC are worthy examples of that ilk;
  • Smaller, yet also acceptable in the 1980s – and the 1970s too: any 110 film camera, for example the Kodak Pocket Instamatic;
  • Quick, Dirty and Simple; I don’t care too much about image quality: the Holga 120CFN, Diana+ and Kodak Cresta are fun little cameras with minimal controls and cheap lenses, making for soft images, some vignetting and, possibly, the odd light leak here and there;
  • Quick, Dirty and Simple, though I do want sharp images: the Olympus Trip will suit you right with its Zuiko lens and Selenium light sensor around the lens;
  • 1950s Chic: I’m a fan of the Kodak Retinette for its control, but I do recommend revising the Sunny 16 rule or purchasing a light meter for its earlier and more budget priced models. Once you’ve mastered them, the images you have taken through its Schneider lens will compare well with digital.

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Single Lens Reflex film cameras

If you wish to take more control of your analogue photography, there is a good secondhand market for SLRs. As well as scope for increased creativity, you are also buying into an eco-system of proprietary lens mounts and other peripherals. Before taking that step, consider the following:

  • Filters: neutral density, special effects;
  • Lens Mount: opt for a well supported lens mount;
  • Accessories: external flash, suitable baggage;
  • Types of Lenses: telephoto, zoom, prime, wide angle, pancake, fisheye.

Before buying a secondhand SLR, take into account the overall price of your kit. Unlike compact cameras, SLR kits in charity shops are often the exception rather than the rule, so secondhand camera shops may be a better option. On purchase, there’s every chance that your camera and its lens may have been reconditioned and serviced.

An SLR may be sold as a complete kit, with the camera itself, bag, strap and a standard kit lens (often 50mm, as that is akin to normal eyesight’s focal length). Sometimes, they may sold as ‘body only’, which is the camera itself minus lens or lenses. If you wish to take pictures of portraits, a 50mm kit lens may be suitable. For flowers, insects and nature, anything between 120 – 400mm depending on the subject matter. Landscapes, a good wide angle lens between 16 – 50mm should suffice.

With SLR cameras, the picture you are composing through the lens will appear exactly the same after processing. Therefore, if you were photographing a subject fairly close by, the image will be within the picture rather than part of the picture (no family members’ heads cut off on the wedding pictures!). This is one advantage which SLRs have over their compact counterparts (this quirk with compact cameras, owing to the position of the viewfinder is known as ‘parallax error’).

Owing to the multiplicity of makes and models, there are also different types of lens mounts. Therefore, a lens designed for an Olympus OM-1 wouldn’t fit on a Pentax K1000. Before adding new lenses, please take note of the lens type your camera uses. If it’s a Pentax K1000 or a Zenit TTL, it is likely to use the M42 mount. Therefore, if you have an Olympus OM-1 and a Pentax K1000, that’s two lots of lens mounts to consider if you wish to add new lenses (ouch!).

Medium Format SLRs

Considerably more expensive and covering a wider eco-system of accessories are medium format film SLRs. Though used by some professional photographer today, they also come with a range of viewfinders and backs. Whereas a 35mm SLR allows you to load film by opening its gate, some medium format SLRs come with separate backs for films: one would cover the 220 format (like 120, though double the exposures owing to lack of backing paper); another would allow instant photography using Polaroid film.

Generally, they are bulkier than 35mm counterparts, and a better option if you’ve got a hefty tripod (I cannot imagine seeing anyone other than Geoff Capes using a Mamiya 645 for street photography!). Images can be composed at waist level through a waist level finder.

Recommended SLR Film Cameras:

  • Olympus OM-1: lightweight 35mm SLR yet well supported with a range of aftermarket lenses and focusing screens available. Also the one-time favoured camera of Observer photographer Jane Bown and Sir Chris Bonnington;
  • Pentax K1000: highly recommended for affordability, availability and immense range of lens using the M42 mount. For budget analogue SLR photography, M42 mount lenses tend to command low prices: the format was also supported by Praktica, Pentacon, Chinon, Sigma and Zenit, with a great many available from fisheye to telephoto;
  • Mamiya 645: if you wish to splash the cash, though cannot afford a Hasselblad, Mamiya’s range of medium format SLRs is a more affordable option. The Bronica ETRS is a similarly good alternative;
  • Pentax 645: it looks like a 35mm SLR but it’s a medium format one, with a quaint wooden grip handle. One for the Lotto win, unless you prefer the Hasselblad.

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Twin Lens Reflex Film Cameras

Again, like their heavy medium format counterparts, most TLRs opt for waist level viewfinders and 120 film. Some were manufactured for the 127 and 35mm film formats. A twin lens reflex camera uses a top lens for displaying the image on its waist level viewfinder.

The most famous examples are the Rolleiflex and Rolleicord cameras. TLRs gained popularity between the mid 1930s and the 1960s before being usurped by SLRs. As well as the premium priced Rollei models, Mamiya and Yashica released models which were priced more realistically for amateurs. Further down the scale, there’s the Lubitel 166 and Seagull. The latter is an all plastic one compatible with 35mm film.

Whereas a great many TLRs have fixed lenses, the Mamiya C330 is an exception to this rule. It has a zoom mode using bellows and interchangeable lenses (a telephoto twin lens is also available). An eye level viewfinder is also available in addition to the standard waist level finder. If weight is a major factor, the Yashica MAT-124G is a worthy purchase, and suitable for travel.

Though advertised as toy cameras, the Lubitel 166+ and Blackbird Fly offer an affordable entry point into the world of Twin Lens Reflex photography. Both models are readily available as new items.

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Rangefinder Cameras

Before the SLR became popular, it was the rangefinder camera which offered us the nearest thing to through-the-lens image composition. We owe the popularity of the rangefinder camera to a certain Oskar Barnack. It is also thanks to him as to why 35mm became our most popular film format.

In 1932, Oskar Barnack’s Leitz Cameras created the Leica ii, which had a built-in rangefinder. This was succeeded by the Leica iii, which featured a set of screw mount interchangeable lenses [LTM/M39]. They were succeeded by the bayonet mount M series, so called after the German word for ‘rangefinder’.

A rangefinder camera comprises of a standard viewfinder and a further window or two for determining the depth of field of your image. One (or two) window(s) would have another version of the view from your viewfinder. The photographer lines both of them up till he or she finds the image they hope to take in focus. Ghosting will appear on the final image if the rangefinder windows aren’t lined up properly. This is often determined by defining the focus on the lens, from 1m to infinity.

The most famous rangefinder models are manufactured by Leica. As traditional engineering methods and craftspersonship is involved in building each camera, a Leica – secondhand or new – always commands a hefty price tag (expect to pay any amount £500 or above for the body and lenses). Though a Leica may be out of the league of most budgets, Yashica’s Minister III, Olympus’ XA and any of the Russian Leica copies are more affordable alternatives.

If you’re on a budget, the Russian Leica copies may be worthy of inspection. Early FED rangefinders are based on the screw mount Leicas, whereas later models are akin to a Spam can in aesthetics. Another manufacturer, Zorki, too turned to Oskar Barnack for inspiration. Both FEDs and Zorkis also come with their own range of lenses, also using the LTM screw mount.

Compared with SLRs, rangefinder cameras are a more portable option for travelling with, or for street photography. On busy streets, they are less conspicuous, but a joy to handle.

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Next Time…

Here ends the theory, time to go out and take some pictures. In our next part, we shall focus on the joys of loading film and taking your first picture.

S.V., 20 February 2013.

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