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Saturday, November 9

What price winders in the digital age?

What a beast!

When writing an earlier post about my OM1/Winder outfit, I was reminded of my old pal Ken and the big motordrive he had almost permanently attached to his Nikon F2SB and had to chuckle. It wasn't just huge but bloody noisy as well! I remember one occasion when we were in the middle of a guided tour of Dunvegan Castle on Skye. Ken reached the end of his film in a large-ceilinged room that did a good impression of an echo chamber. So loudly were noises amplified that other visitors were talking to each other in whispers.

All of a sudden, the F2 launched into motorised rewind mode, cranking Ken's film back into the cassette at a frightening pace. The effect would not have been much different if someone had started cutting tourists in half with a Vickers machine gun. I can still remember Ken standing there wearing his best non-plussed face as the F2 vibrated his ligaments from the bone. Our tour group of about 15 people burst into hysterical laughter.

Understandably, no-one bothered to whisper for the rest of the tour. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ken never tackled any subjects that needed a motor drive but there's no denying it was an impressive piece of machinery - more Brunel than Jobs though. Thinking back, probably the best use he made of it - although Ken might take issue with this - was photographing my golf swing at 5fps.

I thought I'd write this post after getting an email asking why I would want to bolt a big, heavy winder to the dainty OM1. Nobody seems to bother with winders/motordrives at all now and yet the function they performed then hasn't changed. I still love them. Although I've sold off lots of gear in the past few months, I still have a few cameras with bolt-on winders as opposed to the built-in winders on my Contax 137MD/MA SLRs. As Andy Nutter (Morris 1800) hinted at in a comment to the earlier post I wrote about Ken, there was something very sexy about motor drives and winders during the film era. 

So why the OM1 and winder? Firstly, the outfit will be so much more fun to use than the camera on its own and we should never underestimate that side of photography. Number two, the shutter release is so smooooth. There's nothing in the way from the moment you start to depress it until the shutter trips. Just one continuous movement. If you're shooting at a slowish shutter speed that's likely going to be a bit marginal then putting the winder into continuous mode and taking three photos in quick succession will often give you a sharp keeper when a tripod isn't available. There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be able to hold the camera still at slower speeds with the winder than without. There's one more reason that might only affect a small percentage of photos and that's when winding on manually with the camera on a tripod. Sometimes, especially when bracketing, the act of winding on can shift the camera just enough to change the framing. With a winder, that's not a problem.

I don't think I'd bother with the winder if I were going walkabout in a city on holiday as it might attract too much attention but for handheld shooting in the countryside or along the coast, it's brilliant. Thirdly, the winder also improves the general handling of the OM1.

I wouldn't use a winder with every camera, though. Take the Pentax MX. It's so small it really could do with a winder but the MX winder is...crap! Maybe it's the one I have but it sounds like and has all the strength of a 60-a-day smoker breathing his terminal breath. Even with fresh batteries, it gives the impression of being barely capable of advancing the film. I'm just waiting for it to expire with a tiny puff of smoke squirting out of the battery compartment. The ME winder for the ME Super is much better but still not a patch on the sprightly Olympus unit. The Yashica FR1 winder I have, essentially the same unit as the one for the Contax RTS, feels and sounds like the Olympus Winder II. 

When it comes to efficiency, noise levels and responsiveness, it's difficult to beat the built-in winders that some SLRs have. The Contax winders are great, being zippy and quiet. I also have a Konica FS1 that was the first 35mm SLR with a built-in winder and it has the best shutter release I've ever squeezed. Absolutely sublime.

Digital "winders" just don't cut it. For a start, they're not transporting anything! You don't get any physical sensation. They should be called "shutter cockers". I've got my D700 sitting on the desk in front of me and, having just rattled off a few frames, there's no excitement at all. Weird! So SLR winders aren't an anachronism in the digital age at all. It's the digital age that's out of step!


Jan Moren said...

I mostly use medium format, so bolt-on winders aren't really on my screen. I do like auto-winding cameras, but I don't feel a need to add it to the manual cameras I have.

Paul Glover said...

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the motor drive on my Canon F1. I always feel like it is just too big and heavy, but I feel like it improves the handling a good deal. When I think too much about it, I conclude I'd rather use the camera without it but when I just *use* the camera with it, I don't notice the weight or size and I love the handling.

Plus a 5 fps winder running at full chat just sounds like it means business!

marty said...

Hi Bruce.
Since a kid, back in the seventies, while the seed of photography was germinating in myself I also started to develop that soft spot for the related equipment, those shiny all metal SLRs with a bag full of such a quantity of different lenses and bits... I became aware of motor drives when my Dad brought home his new Canon AV-1. I remember him letting me look through the viewfinder and explaining me all those gears and numbers and levers... At a point, looking at the bottom plate, I noticed a big screw and something I couldn't identify back then at the sides of the tripod socket. I inquired my Dad about those and he explained they were for the motor drive, to wind automatically the film. I asked if he was going to get one someday and he said we wouldn't need one for the kind of photographs that were of our interest. The curiosity and fascination remained, though, along with his words... I always dismissed the idea of getting a motor drive because of the thought of it being rather overkill to my kind of pictures but came over the time to your same considerations about motor drives. I eventually got a T-90, with its built in winder and all the bells and whistles, but the itch for a real bolt-on MA drive for my A-1 never left me... It's comfortable to know I'm not alone to appreciate the tactile feeling and sound of good old equipment (even if it's machine gun like : -)))) )

Cheers, M.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I've never used or even held a winder, and I've often wondered what it would be like, but landscapes fortunately move slowly enough for me to cope ';0)
I did however sort of know Mike Cooper:

He was a commensurate professional and never used one, preferring to trust in his eye, his reactions and his trusty Pentaxes.
It was quite something to see him in action - he'd often be on the wrong side of barriers photographing, or else at that 'just so' spot on a bend waiting to leap out of the way!
You'd never get away with it these days.

John Carter said...

Over in the US we called photographers that used winders, firehose photographers. I guess we thought of them like showing off. I do have two Pentax cameras with built in winders but never have used them as a winder. Your collection is very esoteric, contact the SFMOMA and bring your collect here. I'll drive you around.


Like the "firehouse photographer" monicker! Can't say I'm guilty of showing off though as where I take photographs there are never any people around!

Thanks for offering to act as guide, John. If I ever get over to San Francisco I'll take you up on that. Sounds great.

Anonymous said...

My favorite camera is the Pentax MX. I have two , one in Chrome and one in Black and both in mint condition. Both have the winder attached and they work great. There must be something wrong with the one you had because mine have always worked smoothly and with plenty of power. I love these cameras so much that I sold my Leica M6 and a .85 Chrome MP because I prefer using these much more. Plus the Pentax lenses are great and a fraction of the cost of Leica lenses. The MX is so small that the winder really does improve the handling,especially with longer lenses.


Two winders is a bit greedy. Send me one and I'll give you my opinion. :) Seriously, though, I'd be happy to know that my winder is defective. I totally agree that the handling of the MX and winder is just about as perfect as it gets.

morris1800 said...

Hi Bruce my medium format Rollei 6002 drives the film the film at modest 2 frames a second but as you might expect I have never used it on 120 film!(not intentionally anyway). With motor running and 6x6 mirror flapping around ear protectors would be advisable.