In my quest to find the perfect camera and lens, I’ve been overlooking something obvious.
That is, our moods and feelings are not a static flat line free of undulation, but a rather more mountainous territory, with peaks and valleys, whims, rushes and tides.
After close to five years of shooting film, I thought I’d found the ideal set up.
A Contax 139 Quartz SLR paired with my favourite M42 lenses – a Super-Takumar 55/1.8 plus the mighty Zeiss triumvirate of Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8 and Sonnar 135/3.5.
And indeed it remains a near perfect set up for me.
But only when I want to shoot film.
With an SLR.
Where I manually focus the lens.
And manually stop down the lens before shooting.
Overall, this is my preferred way to make photographs, but I cannot deny there are others.
Hence, the need to cater for, if not an endless kaleidoscope of moods, then at least a modest rainbow.
In writing this I’m hoping to figure out these different modes my brain (/heart /soul) has, and how the combinations and modes of my cameras and lenses fit. Or don’t.
Let’s start with the most manual set up of all, and work up to the most automated.
1. 35mm film, manual focus, manual metering, manual load and wind on, all mechanical.
In my arsenal – Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F, M42 mount.
This is arguably the epitome of film photography, the pure essence.
No batteries, no electronics, no metering. Just metal, glass and your own judgement.
Shooting like this reminds of the raw wonder and sheer sorcery of photography, and gives the most rewarding end result – simply because I know every decision and adjustment was purely down to my own judgement.
Alternatives – Kiev-2A with Jupiter-8 50/2 lens, Voigtlander Vito B with Color-Skopar 50/2.8 lens.
The Kiev takes the experience even further into the past – my example, plus the Jupiter-8 lens, dates from 1956. When I shoot with this I know it’s little different to how its original Ukranian owner shot with it over six decades ago. Which is pretty incredible.
The Voigtlander – also from the late 50s – is a little more compact but not so much you can conveniently pocket it, so it really offers little over the Kiev or Spotmatic, aside from its own character and feel.
2. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, manual load and wind on, manual stop down, semi-electronic camera.
In my arsenal – Contax 139 Quartz, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount, plus M42 adapter.
The aforementioned Contax 139 is the pinnacle of the some 50+ 35mm SLRs I’ve used.
Everything just feels right, and it oozes class and quality.
I originally came to the 139 in searching for an Av camera to use M42 lenses on, when I didn’t want to use the all manual Spotmatic. After experimenting (extensively!) with Pentax K mount cameras (I’ve owned at least one K2, KX, KM, K1000, ME, ME Super, MV, Super-A, P30, MZ-5N and about a dozen others), I also debated using a Minolta X-300 or X-700, because of their fantastic viewfinders.
But something was missing, and after trying the Contax, it all came together. That indescribable lacking was no more.
With the M42 > C/Y adapter I use Av mode.
This means, in practice, this happens – I open the lens wide to get maximum light in the viewfinder (VF), compose and focus, then stop down the lens until the image looks right in terms of depth of field, quickly check my shutter speed isn’t too slow, then shoot.
The advantage of stopping down manually is you see exactly what the lens sees, and can fine tune the depth of field.
With open aperture metering, you have to press the depth of field preview button/lever (if the camera has one), which can be awkward if you then want to adjust the aperture further.
Some time ago I decided my M42 lenses were my favourite lenses (a major reason in selling my Pentax K cameras and lenses – I was only really ever using M42 lenses on the K mount bodies, and the Contax 139 does a better job of this than any Pentax), so my small collection of these M42s are what I use with the Contax.
Alternatives – Er, my other Contax 139 Quartz.
3. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, manual load and wind on, auto stop down, semi-electronic camera.
In my arsenal – Contax 139 Quartz, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount.
As above, but here using C/Y lenses, which gives the following additional automation.
First, they’re open aperture metering, so the lens is always wide open, whatever aperture it’s set to, meaning maximum light into the VF for focusing.
Added to this, the aperture is displayed in the VF, along with the shutter speed the camera will choose, so you are fully informed before making a shot.
This is less “hands-on” than using the Contax 139 with M42 lenses, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want.
Most of the time I shoot at f/5.6, give or take a stop, so having to keep opening up then stopping down with the M42 lenses (and having to either take my eye away to look down and see what aperture I’m at, or to remember the number of clicks of the aperture ring to get to the required aperture) can sometimes be tiresome.
Plus with this method I can use the excellent C/Y lenses I have like the Yashica ML 50/1.4 and 50/1.7, and the Carl Zeiss Planar 50/1.7.
Alternatives – Again, my other Contax 139 Quartz.
4. 35mm film, manual focus, aperture priority (Av) mode, auto load and wind on, auto stop down, semi-electronic camera.
In my arsenal – Contax 167MT, Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount.
The 167MT is just fierce, there’s no better word. Except maybe brutal.
And yet it’s beautiful and elegant and at least as well made as the 139 Quartz. In fact it’s probably the best built SLR I’ve ever had.
The main difference in using the 167MT over the 139 Quartz is the automation of the film transport. But although this the only real difference in how the cameras operate, the 167 feels far more like a ruthless photographic machine, ravenous for dozens for films a day.
Aside from its eagerness and efficiency, it also offers some very handy features like a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000s, a wide ISO range (ISO6-6400) and exposure bracketing.
Another subtle difference with the 167MT is the VF, as I’ve fitted a pure matte screen with no central prism. Looking through this camera’s VF provides an immersive bliss as yet unrivalled in my photographic experience. Which makes it quite probably my favourite VF in any camera I’ve ever used.
Alternatives – Canon EOS 300V.
The EOS is in some ways a viable alternative to both the Contax 139 Quartz and 167MT. With simple adapters I can use M42 and C/Y lenses, though on the EOS I have to stop down manually with both types.
The 300V offers Aperture Priority and the metering is excellent.
The main advantage over both Contax bodies is the sheer compactness and light weight of the Canon.
Despite its plasticness, you can’t help smiling when it’s in your hands. Everything about it is very easy and intuitive to use. With good reason – the 2002 released 300V was one of the last EOS film bodies Canon made, after dozens of models over the previous 15 years fine tuned their approach to the ultimate 35mm consumer SLR.
The VF isn’t amazing, especially compared with the Contax cameras, but it’s very usable. And the Canon’s plus points overall make it well worth having.
That sums up the film options I have, without getting into film compacts, which is a whole other world.
More similar are digital bodies that can use the same interchangeable vintage lenses, so let’s take a look at those.
5. Digital, manual focus via Live View screen, aperture priority (Av) mode.
In my arsenal – Sony NEX 3N.
The NEX is an incredible camera. As much as I adore film and the tactile luxury of the Contax three (two 139s and the 167), the little Sony is undeniably a remarkable photography device.
The wide range of adapters available, plus the two key features of its tiltable Live View screen and focus peaking, make it formidable.
Not to mention its very capable sensor.
I’ve had half a dozen adapters for the NEX, and it’s allowed me great freedom to test and explore different lenses and lens mounts before committing precious film to them.
But the Sony has risen above being just an electronic sandbox, to being a genuinely enjoyable photograph making machine in its own right.
(Strangely I still hesitate to call it a camera. Device or machine sounds more apt.)
There are lenses I now preferring shooting on the NEX than on a film camera, just because they seem to make more sense ergonomically, and perform better.
The Sonnar 135/3.5 comes to mind, in fact any 135mm seems a natural fit with tiny NEX, where the lens body becomes almost the entire surface contact area of the camera.
Alternatives – Sony α350 DLSR.
The α350 also has a tiltable Live View screen, and is as easily adaptable to M42 lenses.
With its more than adequate optical VF and great handling, it makes the experience of using vintage lenses much closer to that of their original 35mm film bodies than the NEX.
The Alpha is unquestionably in my eyes a “proper” camera.
But the Sony DSLR can only shoot on Manual mode, which is a little more fiddly. And it doesn’t have the focus peaking of the NEX, which on the whole is very accurate and far easier on the eyes than using a VF.
Plus although it is pretty compact, light and ergonomic, it’s vastly larger than the NEX too. Oh and there’s no adapter for C/Y lenses either.
6. Digital, manual focus via VF or Live View screen, Manual exposure (M) mode.
In my arsenal -Sony α350 DLSR.
I bought the Alpha to try and fill the shortfalls of the NEX, primarily that the latter doesn’t have a viewfinder, and doesn’t really feel like its even a camera, especially compared with my 35mm film favourites.
The 350 is very usable with M42 lenses, via a simple adapter. Plus the sensor is very capable and I like the character of the images it produces.
But where the Sony Alpha has surprised me is with AF lenses, something I never even planned to try.
Which brings us to our final mood/mode.
7. Digital, Auto Focus (VF or Live View screen), Av, Tv, P or Auto modes.
In my arsenal -Sony α350 DLSR.
To give some background, Sony took on the photographic arm of Konica Minolta in the mid 2000s, inheriting Minolta AF mount first released in 1985 with pioneering SLR cameras like the original Dynax/Maxxum 7000.
Very wisely, Sony decided to keep Minolta’s AF mount, along with their formidable array of lenses, and build their first SLRs and lenses from them. In some cases not even touching the optics, but simply rebranding the outer casing.
Which means for Sony Alpha owners, aside from the expensive modern Sony lenses (as I said, some of them are simply rebranded Minoltas anyway), there exist some 20 years’ worth of Minolta AF vintage lenses to enjoy.
I’ve picked up two – the Minolta 35-70mm f/4 Macro, affectionately known as the “Baby Beercan”, plus the 50/2.8 Macro which focuses down to 1:1 ratio, closer than any SLR lens I’ve ever had.
Both work with all the modes you could wish for on the Sony, plus the camera can switch between manual and auto focus, allowing precision focusing, especially up close.
Using the Sony Alpha with the Minolta lenses has been a revelation, not least of all in the final photograph.
Which brings us to the end of this exploration of how mood dictates mode, and vice versa.
Although it seems I enjoy quite a range of shooting styles and equipment, I’ve observed a number of underlying commonalities.
- The tactile and sensory pleasure of using these cameras and lenses.
I have stated a number of times that even if you forget to load film (or your SD/MF card!) the experience of using the camera is exactly the same, and to be enjoyed as much as possible. As much as I value and appreciate the rest of my life, wandering the countryside with these cameras is the most joyous escape for me.
- The quest for beauty.
Like the title and tagline of this site alludes to, I’m searching for beautiful things to capture and share with the world, to remind us all that such breath taking sights still exist. These cameras are simply the ones that allow me to do that most effectively, and hopefully most engagingly for others.
- A functional uniqueness.
On a more logical, functional level, the range of my equipment is now actually pretty limited. All of these cameras support interchangeable lenses, and each body can be used with lenses of at least two different mounts.
I could reduce my lenses down further to maybe three in M42 mount, and a couple each in C/Y and Minolta/Sony AF mount, based on unique qualities. It’s important to me that’s there very little redundancy or duplication – each lens and body offers something special, and where I do have more than one lens in the same focal length say, it offers something different to its direct rivals.
This adventure is of course ongoing, but I do feel my overall arsenal is more compact and honed than any time since I started film photography nearly five years ago.
As a result I’m seeking different cameras and lenses less than in years too, and instead trying to better enjoy and master what I already have.
What’s also been interesting in writing this – aside from how I’ve fine tuned my favourites – is how much digital has come to feature in my photography now.
By having that connection with the wonderful vintage lenses (my newest lens I think is the Minolta 50/2.8 Macro, circa 1985, and the oldest probably one of the M42 Takumars from the late 60s) I’ve been able to enjoy and embrace the (mega) pixels far more than if I’d have just picked up a NEX or Alpha with a modern kit zoom lens.
How do your different moods influence which cameras and lenses you like to shoot?
Have you found (or do you think you ever will find) one camera/lens that suits your needs whatever you’re feeling?
Let us know in the comments below.
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