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Wednesday, November 14

Gear - no substitute for ideas

Sometimes as photographers we obsess about all the wrong things. When I have loads of great photo ideas or projects in mind, I scarcely give a second thought to equipment: I'll pick up anything that will get the job done. The camera is largely unimportant. These are the creative spells that come and go but seldom stay too long.

My longest period like this saw me totting an old Mamiya Press Standard around for a few years with 90mm and 65mm lenses (equivalent to 40mm and 28mm in 35mm terms). It was about the least glamorous gear I could lay my hands on but it was effective, if heavy! I was shooting almost exclusively on Ilford HP5+ developed in dilute Perceptol. The 6x9 negatives were lovely.

I thought about this just the other day because I'm definitely not in a creative phase at the moment. I know this because I've started obsessing about gear - always a bad sign. Instead of looking at great photographs on the internet, I find myself scouring camera websites, wondering what it would be like to sell X and Y and buy Z instead.

Auction Fever

On Friday, I found myself driving around 30 miles to take a look at a local auction that had quite a few camera lots in it. It was just a viewing day but a couple of items were of interest. One was a lovely Nikon F Photomic FTN and 55mm f3.5 Micro Nikkor and the other a 1937 Contax II with 50mm f2.8 collapsible Tessar.

The Nikon looked beautiful but the Contax had seen better days. The shutter wasn't working, the viewfinder was filthy and the rangefinder spot was nowhere to be seen. The Tessar was also crud-encrusted although it looked like the dirt was on the outside elements and would clean off. A bit knackered, then, but still, it was a 1937 Contax!

There were a few other cameras/lenses in each lot. I did some sums and figured out what I could pay that would allow me to keep the Nikon and/or Contax for free and make up my outlay by selling the other bits and pieces. I wasn't able to go along to the actual auction on Saturday so I left a couple of bids - £110 for the Nikon lot and £76 for the Contax. They might sound quite low but the auctioneer's fees and VAT on the fees added about 25% to each.

There's a guy in the US called Henry Scherer who has a fine reputation for tearing down, cleaning, lubricating and reassembling Contax cameras. It looks like he does a marvellous job but by the time you add postage to and from the States, it works out very expensive. Instead, I spoke to a UK camera repairer who has lots of experience with Contax cameras to get a rough idea of what it might cost to get the Contax ticking over smoothly again. His advice? Don't touch it with a barge pole! This didn't fill me with confidence, especially since the auction result was, by this time, out of my hands.

He explained, "They're very old now and it can be difficult keeping them in good order without spending an awful lot of money in the process. Unless they are completely stripped down and rebuilt, you can do more harm than good just trying to get by with a running repair.

"It's a bit like taking your Mercedes to the garage to get a headlight bulb replaced and the fuel tank falls off for no apparent reason!"

Well, it turned out that the Nikon went for £120 and the Contax for £78 - and good luck to whoever bought that one*! I'm jealous of the bidder who picked up the Nikon, though, as you don't find too many 1967/68 cameras in that condition. Of course, the point about all this auction stuff is that I need another camera like a hole in the head.

Regular readers will remember that I'm going to be selling off a lot of cameras and lenses in order to simplify things a little and clear up some space in my darkroom - so why would I consider buying more? But I'm in a gear phase and not a creative phase! If I wasn't struggling for inspiration then I wouldn't bother wasting a few hours chasing stuff like this.

Are we all the same?

And I'm not alone, am I? I'll bet many of you are the same. Less than two years ago, Michael Johnston was explaining to his huge readership why he had decided to buy a Chamonix whole plate camera, his "single use device". Just over a week ago, he had to tell everyone that it wasn't, after all, the camera for him. He said, "Large format is amenable to some personalities and skill sets, but I am not one of the lucky ones. (In fact, I might be selling all of my cameras)." Mike sounds like he's long since run out of ideas and is trying to find inspiration in a change of gear.

He added, "I've enjoyed owning this, albeit more in theory than in practice." And that hits the nail right on the head. At heart, many of us are photographic fantasists, deriving great enjoyment from picturing ourselves walking the streets of Manhattan with a Fuji X100 or wandering around the Ile de la Cite with an M3 and 50mm Summicron. If our photographic hero did something similar, so much the better. Many of us, when we buy a camera or a lens, are buying the idea of using it in a certain way. As often as not, the reality falls far short of this dream - and that's when we start looking to buy into a new dream through a new camera.

As an antidote, I dug out an old Minolta XG2 - about as glamorous in 35mm terms as the the Mamiya Press is in the medium format world and a camera that cost me the huge sum of £5 - 35mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.4 MD lenses and have used nothing but this wee outfit for the last few days. I'm going to restrict myself to it until I lose interest in gear and get back to thinking about making photographs. It might take a couple of weeks or a couple of months but cold turkey is the best cure. I've got it sitting in a Domke bag and that's what I'll sling over my shoulder whenever I get the urge to take some pictures.

*Having toyed with both a Leica M3 and Contax II in recent months, I can categorically say that the Contax isn't in the same league as its great German rival when it comes to fondle-ability. I've heard it said that the Contax is the better-engineered camera of the two. Certainly, it's far more complicated than the younger M3 (they're separated by about twenty years) but it just doesn't feel as well-finished nor as smooth. Given the choice between a Contax and a Leica, I'd take the Leica every time. I still don't like rangefinders but, that aside, Leicas are sublime.


Unknown said...

I think that we fall to the trap that owning XYZ bit of gear is a concrete, objective accomplishment. Throw in the addiction of trying to find that unreasonably good deal at auction or an estate sale, and it is very easy to loose focus.

Bokeh said...

Totally agree with you, Bruce. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is often symptomatic of a lack of inspiration.

My suggestion is quite similar to yours. But before going out, I take the time to select my body, my lenses and my FILTERS. Same with films and their speed.

Al Denholm said...

I agree with all the above sentiments,it really is a very dangerous trap,but too be fare is compounded even further by these glossy photography magazines that are full of adverts trying to sell people dreams.

I learnt pretty quickly after discovering that I have taken good photographs with cheap equipment and some equally bad photo's with more expensive gear,this put a lot of things into perspective.

If i dare quote Ansel Adams here "there is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept" or words to that effect :)

Best regards,


I stopped reading glossy photography magazines years ago. It's websites selling people dreams that are my downfall...

Al Denholm said...

I don't buy Glossy mags either Bruce,people hand me them to read,i flick through them and think,oh that's nice,then up to the local charity shops with them