Matt's Gear

Our Home Page

I get emails asking me what I think of Canon EOS1Ds or Nikon D70s or specific lenses. Frankly, I have no idea. I have used a limited selection of gear over the years and haven't avidly read photo magazines with all their heavy breathing over the newest equipment in about 20 years. I know, use and really like the Nikon FE/FM3A cameras, the Mamiya 6 and, to a lesser extent, the Contax G1/G2 cameras and a couple of other point and shoots. Here's this equipment and what I think of it:
 

Mamiya 6, 50mm and 75mm lenses This is more or less the crown jewel of my gear. I bought the M6 new with the 50 and 75mm lenses in 1992 and, after settling down with the operating procedures, grew to use it as my primary camera for the next 6 or 7 years. I already owned a 2 1/4 camera, a Rolleicord with a 75mm lens, so one might wonder why I'd need a Mamiya with a 75. Well, it came down to a couple of things: 1) I wanted a light meter so I wouldn't have to always carry my Sekonic L28C2 with me; and 2) I wanted a flash shoe since I take so many of my pictures indoors. On the Rolleicord, with no flash shoe, you have to mount this big bracket, put the flash on, hook up a PC cord, check that it's on X sync and not M, and then when you do bounce flash you get a facefull of flash. That's no good! Your subject is supposed to see spots, not the photographer!

On a day-to-day basis, the Mamiya 6 is a great camera. (Ken Rockwell loves it; he calls it the world's most perfect camera system and, within limitations, I don't think I'd dispute this). I wish everybody would use them because they do wonders for the detail in prints. Also, if everybody used them processing would get a lot cheaper. This isn't going to happen. There aren't a lot of controls on this puppy; there's the shutter speed dial, with AE and AEL represented by a square and a circle so that I had to Sharpie in an "L" to remember which was the lock (on later M6s, they labelled this AE and AEL, so it's less confusing), there's the f/stop, the focus, and a self-timer switch. There's nothing whizzy about all this, but the lenses are terrific, as good as it gets in medium format, and the camera is a joy to use. There is a certain procedural precedence for doing things like, say, changing a lens, where you have to close this curtain right in front of the film to keep from exposing it, and then remember to reopen it once the other lens is on so you can shoot again. There are interlocks for this stuff, so you can find yourself trying three times to take a picture before you actually do it. Once you've used it for a while, this isn't a problem any more, but be prepared to look like an idiot when you first use the camera.

Mamiya, in my humble but correct opinion, never quite got it right. The M6 is beautifully executed but a 6X7 negative would have been nice. I asked at the time I bought the camera (March 1992) if a 6X7 version was in the cards and was assured that it was not. Lying scum. They came out with the Mamiya 7 in 1995 or so and stupidly made it not collapse, one of the enticing features of the M6. This makes the M7 much bulkier than the M6. Then the lenses are non-interchangeable between the cameras. So you can get the delightfully compact M6 and live with the square negative or the ideal format M7 and live with the bulky camera. I wish they'd have put a little more thought into this up front.

I'm not the only one who likes the M6 and wonders if the M7 was brought out in a cost-cutting move to eliminate the all-metal, collapsing M6. This is Frank Van Wiper in the Washington Post (in July, 2000), talking about the possibility of Leica doing a medium format camera:

Still, Leica has built its reputation on its rangefinder cameras: their superb workmanship, incredible optics and whisper-quiet shutters. In that vein, might it not be possible that Leica might go the route trod by Mamiya with its well-received 6x6cm and 6x7cm rangefinder cameras?

Here I have to weigh in with my own bias. As a longtime Hasselblad user, I would be hard put to think of anything I'd want to change in terms of workmanship, design or lens quality, and therefore might be reluctant to change systems if Leica came out with a Hassy clone. On the other hand, though I was tickled when the Mamiya 6 debuted and have been delighted with its optics, I was not happy when Mamiya abruptly stopped production of this square-format gem in favor of the allegedly more popular 6x7cm version.

If you have an M6, note that the frame lines are pretty conservative; a lot of my pictures ended up being farther away than I thought they would be, so I've learned to crowd the frame lines a bit. In the meantime, the Mamiya site isn't too bad, although they did purge the Users Forum of many dissenting opinions or observations about some of the minor defects of the Mamiya 6, like the fact that the serial numbers fall off the lenses or that it's really really easy to rip out the cable release socket (don't ask how I know this!). They also post PDF files of the User's Manuals (like this one for the Mamiya 6) though not of the handy pocket guide with my favorite little guy showing things to avoid with your expensive, serious new M6:
 

Keep it Dry! Don't Drop It! Keep it Warm! But Not TOO Warm!
Rolleicord Vb, 75mm lens
Who Needs a Stupid Light Meter Anyway?
Who Needs a Stupid Light Meter Anyway? The Rolleicord doesn't have a built-in meter, but then, who needs one? The back of the camera has this table on it so you can set the exposure yourself under a variety of conditions. It's redolent of the good life; skiing in the Alps, boating along the seaside, statues in courtyards, clandestine meetings in the woods, glass-covered European train stations. It looks like a trailer for The Bourne Identity. Anyway, you look up the Exposure Value (EV) off the table based on the film speed, cloudiness and time of day, set it on the EV scale linked to the f/stop and shutter speed, and shoot away. Bon Voyage! scanned directly from back of my Rolleicord Vb

I bought the Rolleicord for $125 used in 1975 while a freshman in college. The Vb is a circa 1960-62 model, so has coated lenses etc. I'd always liked the Yashica Mat 124G they used to carry at the now-defunct Richman Gordman department store in Des Moines. It's odd, now, to think of a regular store carrying a 6X6 camera, but they did. Maybe that's why they're defunct. Anyway, the Rollei proved useful. I did a lot of black and white work with it, we shot house pictures in college, I used it on trips. I rarely did color work since 6X6 slides aren't that useful (for me) and the standard color print at the time was a 3 1/2 inch square thing, often with a border. This was a tragic waste of the big image area of the negatives. Over the years I got a nice filter set, a tripod quick release and a panorama head for the Rollei. During the few years either side of college graduation, when we used to shoot weddings, the Rollei was a real trooper in the wedding shot department. The camera has always been a bit tricky to load (the Mamiya 6 is a breeze) and the shutter got sticky in the slow speeds at one time, but I don't know that I've ever blown an assignment due to Rolleicord technical problems. And being all-mechanical, when the shutter did get sticky, Dahms and I just took the camera apart and oiled it with some aviation instrument oil. Horrors! Well, it worked for four more years with no problem and then I sent it off for a proper cleaning.

These days the Rollei gets used just a little. It demands a higher-contrast film than the Mamiya because the lenses aren't quite as crispy a contrast as the M6's. One thing I have noticed about the 'cord, and which a friend of mine separately commented on, is how nice pictures of people look taken with it. In my opinion, this happens for two reasons: 1) the waist-level viewing means that you are shooting from a flattering position, giving people a lot of stature (since I tower over most people, I generally kneel to take their photos anyway when using a eye-level camera) and 2) there aren't many waist-level cameras around these days, so people don't think of it as a camera in the sense they do when you lift something up to your eye. Anyway, I'll probably keep the 'cord for old times' sake and to train my kids on when they learn photography.

One thing I am playing around with on the Rollei is retro-flash photos. I was given this terrific book called "Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era" which is all newspaper photos from two of the Saint Paul papers from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. Now these are from the 4X5 inch negative Speed Graphics, but the 2 1/4" square Rollei and a bulb flash is not that different a look. So, load 'er up with Tri-X, put my Leica bulb flash on the handle, stick in some M-3s and I'm ready to be Weegee. All I need is a fedora with a Press pass in it and a cigar!

A Dutch guy named Ferdi Stutterheim has a Rollei site which discusses some of the history of the Rolleis and a bunch of good links and some nice photos. It's worth looking at if you have an interest. If you are deeply interested in some of the wierder accessories Rollei made for the Rolleiflex and Rolleicord, and you have some spare time, you might want to take a look at my 4.6 Megabyte PDF file of the The Practical Accessories which I scanned in and converted to a PDF myself. It reveals the mysteries of the Rolleipol, Rolleinar, Rolleimeter and, my favorite, the plate film back. I actually own a few of these nifty accessories (though, sadly, not the plate film back). The booklet isn't in pristine condition, but the scans are quite readable.
 

Nikon FE The Nikon FE has been a workhorse camera. I owned two of them for many years and am now back to one. The FE is pretty much what you need in an SLR; compact, rugged, dependable, hot shoe (no laughing matter when your prior cameras were a shoeless Nikkormat FS and a Nikon F2 with the over-the-rewind-knob flash adapter), aperture-preferred automatic, useful viewfinder display, works without a battery (sort of). I don't think people thought of the FE as a pro camera, but plenty of pros used them, especially newspaper guys who think of their cameras as consumables. Of course they've long since moved on to something else and now FEs live on in amateur hands. It's a great body and I'd recommend them (or the FE2 or the manual FM or FM2 or FM2n or the final iteration, the FM3A (see below), all cousins of the FE) to anybody.
 
Nikon FM3A After 21 years of use on the chrome FE I bought used, and having spent precisely $0 on servicing it, the FE gave me problems. We were in San Francisco on vacation and when I got the end of a roll of film, I couldn't open the camera. Darn! I had along on this trip a Contax G1 for a kite aerial photography rig, so just switched to that. Once back from vacation, I was delighted to see that Nikon still makes a manual focus camera along the lines of the FE; it's the Nikon FM3A. I bought a black one in October 2003.

I really like the FM3A, which is essentially an updated FE, despite the FM name. They should have called it the FE3. It has a newer hybrid mechanical shutter which goes from 1 to 1/4000th with a 1/250th X-sync (vs. the FE's electronic shutter ranging from 8 seconds to 1/1000th with a 1/125th X-sync), a different switch for the automatic exposure lock, a film window so you can see what you have in there, DX-film speed setting and dedicated TTL flash capability with a one-button exposure compensation for fill-flash use with the Nikon flash units. These are all nice updates, especially, and this is going to sound daft, the film window. What a great innovation! The shutter is a hybrid electronically-controlled mechanical, which means it is infinitely variable across all the speeds on automatic but also works on all the set speeds even without batteries (the FE would only work on B and 1/90th with a dead battery). This is kind of nice, although dead-batteries have never been a real problem for me in any camera in 30 years of taking photos (one mildy humorous side-note in photography is all the fretting people do about battery-operated cameras in cold climates. You'd think most photographers spent their spare time at the South Pole or trekking the tundra. I actually live in a cold climate and usually I give up and go back inside well before the camera battery gives me problems!) Compared to the FE, you do lose the ability to manually set 2, 4 and 8 seconds (and also a battery check, dropped long ago on the FE2), but on automatic the FM3A will still do long exposures. I never missed 1/2000th and 1/4000th of a second, so those aren't big deals to me, although they do have interesting implications when thinking about narrow depth of field in bright conditions. I of course bought the Nikon E screen with the camera body and immediately switched out the K screen it comes with.

I still love these Nikons. I got my FE fixed, so now I'm back to two bodies, and they are virtually interchangeable in the way they operate. I always thought the FE was the camera everybody needs; the FE2 was a worthy updating, though I never felt the need to get one, and the FM3A is as well. I would buy the FM3A now only because any FEs you find are going to pretty ancient. I admire Nikon for continuing to make the FM3A and am happy I can still buy a brand new manual-focus 35mm body in 2005 and it's a delight to have a new, tight, crisp body in these waning days of film. I am back to using my Nikons as my primary 35mm cameras after a flirtation with the Contax G cameras.  

Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 A great lens. It has Nikons Close Range Correction floating elements, is pretty compact (until you put on the big honkin' lens hood anyway) and gives a dramatically wide angle point of view. It's not hard to get people in pictures with this lens who don't think the lens can see that wide. And using my favourite bounce flash technique, it makes a darn useful lens indoors--any room looks like a palace! With the acquisition of the Contax G2 I may eventually get the Zeiss 21mm and sell my Nikkor 20, but until then this will be a mainstay. Of course, a big advantage of the Nikon 20 is that it leaves the hot shoe open for flash units. The Zeiss 21 for the Contax uses a separate finder which sits in the flash shoe because apparently Contax figures no flash will cover that field of view. They are sadly mistaken (see Vivitar 283, below).
 
Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 My most-used lens. This lens has to be tied for the dullest in the Nikkor lineup (along with the straight 35mm f/2.8 and 135 f/3.5), but it's a workhorse. On the whole, I'd prefer the f/2.8 version but never saw fit to part with the needed money to pick up 2/3rds of a stop. The unambitious specs on this lens means it's not a challenge to make sharp and Nikon did a good job on it. This is the lens that is generally on the camera for walk-arounds.
 
Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Perspective Control My least-used lens. The PC lenses are pre-set, meaning you have to manually stop down the aperture, which of course makes the viewfinder dark, so I rarely use the lens unless I'm actually shifting it. Also, the lens is physically quite long and, with the shift mechanism, I've always thought of it as comparatively delicate, so I rarely use it on the camera for fear of whacking it against something. It is somewhat useful at parties, where you're going to shoot at f/2.8 anyway so the pre-set thing doesn't bother you, and the moderate wide angle is nice, but I don't go to that many parties and the 28 serves me fine when I do. The shift thing is cool and I got it to photograph cathedrals in England. Sure enough, it works, and now I have all these nice vertical shots of big churches. Now what? You can do panoramas with it, shifting all the way left, then all the way right, and having two pictures which, with a bit o' trimming, would abut perfectly. According to Nikon, this would give you a horizontal field of view of a 24mm lens. But I already own a 20. It is a very sharp lens, though. I eventually sold it in 1999 as part of my flirtation with Contax G gear, and I shipped it off with a real pang of regret, though not before shooting a bunch of comparison pictures so you can see what this lens can do.
 
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 This lens would come in pretty close in the Most Boring rankings. Lots and lots of Nikons got sold with 50 f/1.8s on them back before they decided to provide low-contrast, slow 35-70 zooms as normal lenses. As a result, you can buy 50 f/1.8s dirt cheap, which is what I did, and get yourself a highly-corrected, fast, sharp lens. I actually use the lens quite a lot. It is the fastest lens I own and so can come in handy if I'm bounce-flashing in borderline conditions. If all you've ever owned are slow zooms, the ease of focus of an f/1.8 lens will astound you (though not quite as much as the 50 f/1.4 or 55 f/1.2, like my brother-in-law owns). It's a small lens, it's fast and it's sharp. Everyone should own one.
 
Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 Micro The 55 Micro (anyone but Nikon would call it a Macro) is a darn nice lens too. It is cool because it will focus continuously from infinity down to half life size. It does this by getting real long. It's another sharp lens, though more than a stop slower and physically somewhat larger than the regular 50mm. It's also a lens which is more prone to mechanical issues; the long focusing helical means it can be subject to wear more than the regular 50mm's, the big changes in volume mean it's more likely to suck in dust, and my particular lens developed a sticky aperture at one point. It's been in for service twice, once for the aperture and once to adjust the focus drag. None of my other Nikkors have ever required service. I eventually sold the 55mm to fund the flirtation with the Contax G gear.
 
Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 Once back in the 1970s Modern Photography did a shoot to show the potential for sharpness from 35mm. They shot a whole bunch of Kodachrome slides off a tripod down in a canyon in Utah somewhere using the Nikkor 105 since they considered it as sharp as lens as you could get. You could buy one of the original slides to see what was possible. I didn't buy a slide, but I do like the 105. The length is nice, the speed is fast enough for my ubiquitous bounce flashing, and mine's an AIS lens with the built-in hood (the old ones had a separate hood which reversed on the lens for storage). The 105 and 28 together make the minimum system for a lightweight trip. Also, the length is one I'm very used to, having used the pretty good Fujinon 100 f/2.8 EBC lens for several years before getting Nikon stuff. You will find that 105 isn't much of a telephoto if you're photographing wildlife.
 
Nikkor 200mm f/4 One of the advantages of the wholesale move to autofocus and then digital has been the better availability of good used manual focus Nikon lenses. I bought a 200 f/4 is absolutely mint like-new condition for $119 in 2004. It is nice to have some more reach than the 105 gives and it's a compact lens for its length. Keep your eyes open and you might run into some good deals.
 
Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 ED-IF I actually no longer have this lens. It is a lens I loved in theory but didn't actually use much in practice, especially once I got the Mamiya 6. The ED was for the Extra Low Dispersion glass, which made the lens sharp and contrasty even wide open. The IF was for Internal Focus, which had the practical benefit of keeping the lens small, compact, close focusing and of unchanging length and the emotional benefit of a seductive feel to the focus. The lens would stand perfectly in one compartment of my Original Domke bag, making it unusually portable for a lens of this power, but basically I hardly ever took it along. It occupies a funny middle-ground; the serious nature photographers find 300 a bit short and go for longer, faster and way more expensive glass (400 f/3.5s, 600 f/4s) or for the f/2.8 300s. The Mamiya with its two lenses took up all the spare room in the Domke bag (which was heavy enough) and with the exception of a couple of trips in 1986/87, I rarely carried the lens along. I have to say that one thing this lens is good for is airshows; it and the 20mm (for pictures on the ramp) make a great combo. However, despite this appeal, I sold it to fund part of the purchase of my Contax G2 stuff.
 
Lenses I Never Owned Nikon has made loads of lenses over the years. I never owned these, but always though they'd be interesting: A) 105mm f/2.8 Micro lens, with all the benefits of my straight 105 plus close focusing with more working distance than the 55. If I were doing it over, I'd own the 50 f/1.8 normal and the 105 f/2.8 Micro; B) 200 f/4 Micro, about the size of the 300 I did own, but with a tripod collar and real close focusing; C) 50-135 f/3.5 zoom, which I notice was used for lots of the pictures in John Shaw's Landscape Photography. In fact, if I were starting from scratch, I might be real tempted to get a 24 f/2.8, 50-135 f/3.5 and 200 f/4 Micro as my setup. The first two lenses by themselves would cover a lot of ground for you.
 
Vivitar 283 This is the flash everybody needs. It was introduced in late 1975, I got my first one in February 1976 and it has been a trooper ever since. The unit has an ASA 100 Guide Number of 120, four automatic ranges and does bounce flash. This is something that people seem to have forgotten about and I am going to add a bounce flash section to the site one of these days (I have posted a page about using the 283 called A Day in the Life of a 283 where I used the flash on my Mamiya 6 to photograph a wedding). The main reason people don't do it is because the flash has to be so big. The 283 is about the minimum useful size and power to function well in this role, and it functions brilliantly. Since I take so many shots indoors, good lighting is important and the 283, bounced, delivers very natural-looking, unobtrusive lighting. Close up, it's flash duration gets down in the 1/30,000th of a second range, fast enough to stop a breaking lightbulb using a sound trigger. Bounced off a white ceiling, it's powerful enough to fill a room with light and shoot with a 20mm. I have even taken a few shots with the flash bounced off the back wall shooting with a borrowed Nikkor 16 f/2.8 full frame fisheye. Really old 283s had pretty high voltage across the hot shoe and could potentially damage fancy electronic cameras, but new ones, which can be had for about $70 at B&H, run 6 volts and don't present a threat. It's pretty weird that they're still made after 30 years but that shows how useful these things are. You can get similar dedicated flashes for fancy cameras, like the Canon 540EZ or the Contax TLA 360, but the automation you pick up will run you $400+ and you'll get no more, and perhaps a bit less, output than the boring old 283.

Smashing Lighting! Smashing Lighting!: One of the lesser discussed uses of the 283 is stopping action. Up close on the yellow range the flash duration can be as short as 1/30,000th of a second, enough to stop fast action if you have the timing down. Fujica ST-801, 50mm f/1.8 lens, B, f/2.8, Agfachrome 50

 
Contax G2 I value compact size and uncompromising performance, and became enamored of the Contax G2 camera. I bought one in May 1999 along with the 28mm f/2.8 and 45mm f/2.0 lenses. I subsequently picked up the Zeiss 90mm f/2.8 for the G2 and a close-out on a dedicated TLA 20 flash, which is sort of useful for fill-flash. Then one day I was in Des Moines and stopped by at Christian "Bless You My Son" Cameras (it's actually located in an old church, too, but the name comes from Dick Christian, the owner) and they had the Billingham Hadley bag for $49 new. The reason it was so cheap is that it was defaced with a Bronica nametag. Dick had bought them on close-out from Bronica and was asking a third of what B&H wants. I got one and immediately chopped off the Bronica name and it works great, inconspicuously carrying the G2, 28, 45, 90, TLA 20 flash, light meter, sunglasses, and (drumroll please) Vivitar 283.

I generally like the camera but it has it quirks. It is generally referred to as a rangefinder, but it's not. It's an autofocus, and unlike the autofocus SLRs or real rangefinders (e.g., Leicas, Mamiya 6s), there's no confirmation to see if stuff is in focus other than an easy-to-ignore scale denominated in meters along the bottom. In other words, you get to guess the distance (just like my old Paxette!) and see if the camera agrees. Thus, oddly enough, I blow the focus more with this autofocus camera than with any other camera I've used since my scale-focusing Paxette. I used to amuse myself by getting on the Contax G mailing list and watching the half of the participants who have Leica-envy aggravating the half that doesn't, the Zeiss-worship about the superiority of the Carl Zeiss lenses, forgetting that these are made by Yashica, and debates about how many millimeters there are in a meter (100, says one participant, citing his metric tape measure which is thus marked). In the end, I regarded the G2 as a really nice point and shoot.

Despite its reputation, the camera is not all that small or light. The body itself is a pretty dense unit and the top deck of the G2 is higher than all but the peak of my FE/FM3A prisms. (to be fair, the Contaxes have motors built in them; put the Nikon MD-12 motor on the FE/FM3A and it gets LOTS bigger than the Contax G2). The lenses are smaller and lighter, though, so a 3-lens system (28/45/90) in a shoulder bag is lighter than the similar system in the Nikons (28/50/105). Of course, if you have the Contax 21mm lens, you need a separate viewfinder for it which occupies the flash shoe, making flash with the 21mm more of a challenge than it is on the Nikons with the 20mm. Another irritation, and this sounds nit-picky, is that these cameras aren't very comfortable carried over your shoulder. I often walk around with a camera and one lens, usually over my right shoulder. On the G1 and G2, there is a protruding structure which allows for built-in diopter adjustment on the viewfinder. Handy though this may be, it pokes me in the side all the time in the way the flat-backed FE/FM3A/Mamiya 6 don't. I find this uncomfortable. For lengthy reasons I won't go into I decided to try using the Contax from a kite, but weight matters in Kite Aerial Photography (KAP), and the G2 body is over 500 grams, so I bought a used G1 body which weighs a mere 420 grams and is a lot cheaper should one of the periodic kite mishaps occur (KAP requires a certain cheerful insouciance towards one's equipment). The G1 is pleasantly smaller, but I don't like the controls as much. With the very sharp little 28mm on it it does make a great kite camera though I ended up buying a bigger kite to lift it.

In early March 2005, Kyocera, who makes Yashica and Contax cameras, announced they were discontinuing camera production. They had ceased production of film cameras (which means the last G2 had rolled off the production line) and would stop digital camera production as well. If this is it, it would be a sad day, as the Contax/Zeiss name has been around for 70 years. There was some discussion about Sony buying the brand since they use some Zeiss lenses and the status of the digital G body and the digital Contax medium format gear is up in the air. I'm sure there'll be further news as time goes on, but it looks a bit bleak at the moment if you want a new G2.

One thing I've tried with the Contaxes is Lightning Photography using a lightning trigger. You can read about this on my Adventures in Lightning Photography page which includes a picture of the G2 with a 45mm lens on it.
 

Sekonic L308B Remember compact size and uncompromising performance? I really like this light meter. Remember how I got the Mamiya 6 in part because I wouldn't have to carry a light meter? Well, I kind of missed it. My days with the Rolleicord and then the Nikkormat FS using my old selenium-celled Sekonic L28C2 incident meter left me sold on the value of incident metering. However, selenium cells aren't very sensitive at low light levels and cannot meter flash at all and one day I got a cute little L308B. It's a great light meter. It does incident or reflected reading, has a silicon cell, will do flash metering with or without a PC cord, and is tiny. It also makes a dandy $250 AA battery tester. Once out in Idaho my friend Dave Dahms and I compared meters. He has some larger and bulkier Sekonic, and we stood side by side and took a flash reading. The two meters were 1/10th of an f/stop apart. That's ok by me. The small size does compel you to forego some of the more esoteric features of the more expensive L408 and L508 Sekonics, but it's way cheaper (though not cheap) and makes the ideal everyday meter.
 
Olympus XA Compact size and uncompromising performance? The XA doesn't quite make it. It's a good little camera, but has enough light falloff in the corners to be bothersome on slides (though not noticeable on prints, and I've never understood this). This seems to vary from sample to sample since I have a cousin who used an XA for years taking slides all over the world and it worked fine until she dropped it in a puddle. It is very tiny and if you want to be really nerdy, it fits perfectly in an old Hewlett-Packard calculator case with either the A11 flash or a spare roll of film and you can wear it on your belt! Handily, it uses the same battery as the Nikon FE, FM3A and Mamiya 6. I just don't use it a lot, and it mostly rides around in my truck ready to photograph accidents, plane crashes, stranger abductions or nudie beaches, you never know what you'll run across. These days if I were after a sharp small camera, I'd look hard at the magnesium Ricoh GR1 although admittedly I've never seen or used one, and have recently heard that it has been discontinued. Darn.
 
Yashica T4 This is a nice compact camera, with a Zeiss 35mm f/3.5 lens and autofocus. Let's see, Karla has one, one my sisters has one, my Dad has one, my mother-in-law has one, my buddy Holmes has one. It's something of a cult camera, quite cheap and pretty decent. If you need a toss-in-the-briefcase camera, this point and shoot will serve you well with the caveat of course that the flash bags, but that's true of all these little buggers. I have shot slides with it and it does not have objectionable light falloff in the corners. The newer ones, like my sister and Dad own and called a T4 Super, I think, have little waist-level finders on them which is kind of cool. Because the camera is so cheap (around $150)(ok, it's only cheap relative to other cameras I own), I consider it expendable if need be and it's what comes whitewater rafting, canoeing, etc. It gets dunked, we'll get another. The small size and good lens have made this one of the standard cameras for kite photography (taking pictures from, not of, kites). As I update this in early 2005, this camera has been discontinued (and parent company Kyocera is discontinuing all film camera production), but people are moving in droves to digital point'n'shoots, which brings me to the...
 
Konica-Minolta Dimage G500 I like taking photos from kites. One issue with this is that you end up with a lot of crappy photos for every one that comes out well. With film, this can get kind of expensive since you have to pay to process all those crappy photos and you get double prints besides to really hammer home how crappy they are. Digital cameras are the ideal thing for this sort of photography because there is no incremental cost to take a crappy photo. In early 2004, I bought a small Minolta G500 digital (as of this update, in early 2005, it's been discontinued and replaced by the 6-megapixel G600). I built a rig for this camera and have played with it now for about a year.

It's a decent camera, within the limitations of being a point and shoot. The Minoltas are quirky in that they take both SD cards and Memory sticks, so I have one of each in the camera. With images around 2 Meg, I can get 110+ photos on my two 128-Meg memory cards. You can take a whole bunch of rotten photos with that and just delete delete delete the ones that are bad.

The camera has its irritations. It has a worse autofocus delay than the Contaxes, so timing a shot precisely can be problematic. As with all small cameras, the flash produces lots of redeye. There is significant barrel distortion at the wide angle setting, noticeable when you take photos with lots of parallel lines.

On the plus side, it is tiny, Olympus XA-sized. Taking utility photos and posting them to the web is extremely simple. You can learn from some mistakes instantly. It does cheesy little videos. Like all digital cameras, it records time, date and exposure data for every photo. It's easy to take the memory card over to Target and have 4X6 prints done for under 30 cents each in under half an hour. It fits easily in the briefcase or in coat pockets. I have a whole pile of photos on the Kite Aerieal Photography pages taken with the G500 documenting the building of a KAP rig for the camera. It's ideal for this kind of thing.

 
What to Use? People are always saying that you give Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson a disposable camera and he'll out-shoot the rest of us schmucks. Well, up to a point. Equipment will not make you a good photographer (as you can plainly see from this site), but there is a difference in the images from good equipment and bad. After all, Ansel shot 8X10 negatives and Cartier-Bresson used Leicas. Although my pictures aren't important in any global sense, they are of people I love and places I like and mean a lot to me and I want them to be technically good. With the Nikons, Mamiya and Contax gear, there is no question that the equipment is up to snuff. Any failings then become my fault. (Hmmm, maybe I should buy some Petris!) At this point, every camera book will tell you to assess your needs and type of photography blah blah blah. I still find the Mamiya and Nikon gear makes me happiest for pictures I care about, and use them the most.

The Mamiya remains the "camera of record" for the family pictures, first and last day of school pictures, etc. Medium format really spoils you, but at a large cost in terms of equipment prices, weight, operating speed, processing and scanning cost. You can do wonderful slides but by the time you get done buying the projector and cameras it'll probably cost you $10,000. If you don't mind that the $18 a scan probably wouldn't bother you either. It bothers me. I may set the darkroom back up after all these years, and try shooting black and white on the M6. It is a satistfying camera to use and slows me down enough that I get a higher ratio of good photos from it than from the Nikons or Contaxes.

The digital camera, my Minolta G500, has turned out to be really useful for what I think of as "utility photos", especially those you want to post to the web. I used it to shoot all the photos of building my KAP rig where I would never have scanned the same number of prints or slides. The cheesy little videos have worked out well for some things as well. You can get very nice prints from the camera at the local department stores. When you are documenting a project or process, selling on eBay, or just need some quick and easy photos the G500 works well. I don't consider the lens quality critically good enough for serious work and, like any small camera (film or digital), people get red eyes like they're posessed when you use the flash, but it is sure a handy little unit for some aspects of what I do.

Somewhere in here the price, performance and convenience curves all come together and you have to settle on something. You also need to decide how to balance the living a life/photographing a life blend so as not to miss what's going on while trying to take pictures of it. Whatever it is, take lots of pictures, because your friends and your children grow and change rapidly, and the photos you take will help you remember the fun you've had.
 


e mail us