As my photography has evolved, it’s gradually become apparent to me what I value most about it as a pursuit, as well as what I best appreciate in the cameras I use.
Whilst I’m still growing and learning, I’m far more knowledgable now about the “magic formula” I need to enjoy film photography as much as possible.
Three precious things come to mind –
1. A beautiful viewfinder.
For me the essential joy of photography is being able to see a tiny snapshot of the world, in a specific moment, and for that moment it be the entire world.
When I’m focused on a single composition through the viewfinder (VF), as I squeeze the shutter button (and for a second or so after), my entire relationship and connection with the world is simply what’s captured in that little rectangle.
It’s meditative, spiritual and visceral all at once, and one of the greatest experiences of life.
So, it follows that for these vital moments, one has a viewfinder that heightens the experience to the full.
Pretty much all of the SLRs I use have very good viewfinders. The combination that is king of the mountain is my Minolta X-700 paired with my Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens.
The huge front surface of the glass allows a great amount of light into the also huge viewfinder of the X-700 and the result is wonderful, and often literally breathtaking.
Recently I got an AutoFocus (AF) Minolta Dynax 7000i, which has a surprisingly great VF too. Not as vast as the X-700, but not that far off, and the view I get with my latest lens, a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7, is very enjoyable. I’m become quite attached too, to how the lens snaps into focus, and the VF view changes accordingly.
Presently, I can’t see myself returning to compacts or rangefinders any time soon, because the VF experience of an SLR is just too intoxicatingly joyful.
2. How a camera feels.
This is a far more subjective one, and has a few component parts. It begins when you pick up a camera, before you even raise it to your eye. How your hand moulds around the camera’s body, the texture and temperature of the materials, the width, the weight, the girth.
This has to combine with the lens the camera has attached. Staying with SLRs, the lens you use can make quite a difference to the overall feel and balance and pleasure of a camera.
As one hand is almost constantly around the lens, that tactile experience is very important.
Again for me, Minolta come to mind, with both the aforementioned X-700 and 7000i. The latter especially is very well shaped for my hands and has a reassuring weight. With a zoom lens it can feel a bit too much, but with the little 50/1.7 AF it feels far more compact and balanced.
All of my Pentax cameras feel great, well balanced and bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I prefer the weight and size of the older Spotmatic F or K2, and others the compact lightness of the little MG is just what I’m craving.
Bottom line is if a camera doesn’t feel good in my hands, even if it’s the most capable and expensive lens/body in the world, I’m not going to enjoy it much.
Which brings us to…
3. The photographs.
I have commented in the past that even the few times I’ve shot a roll of film only to find the film hasn’t wound on and I’ve shot 24 or 36 blanks, I’ve not enjoyed the experience any the less. And those 24/36 shots I took, I still captured with my eyes, mind and memory, even if they weren’t recorded on film.
Elements 1 and 2 above are the most crucial, and 3 is the chocolate sauce on top.
I’ve learnt, via a series of revelations, not least of all realising that when you put a len-less SLR on B mode, open the back, press the shutter release button and look through, there’s nothing but fresh air, that cameras are really just boxes.
In other words, and at the moment of exposure, it’s the lens only that dictates the characteristics of how the light lands on the film.
Then there’s film of course. Again via endless experiments, I’ve found the films I enjoy most – the super cheap, readily available and surprisingly capable AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, the rich and colourful Ferrania Solaris 200 and, my most recent discovery, the fantastic FujiFilm Superia 100, which even ten years expired produces a beautiful balance of sharpness and grain.
Two out of three isn’t bad, and a camera with a wonderful viewfinder and lens will give a rewarding experience out in the field. But combined with poor film it’ll disappoint in the final image.
So to have the optimum experience of the delight that is film photography, I need all three elements – a camera with an excellent viewfinder, and that feels wonderful to hold, plus a lens and film that I know will give pleasing results.
What are the three most precious things for you in the magic formula for rewarding film photography?