On Cameras

This blog update features a column I wrote for our local photography club newsletter.  Thought my readers here might enjoy it…

You can view the original, with formatting intact here.


Dear Readers,

Oh my, has another month passed already? Time for my monthly ball and chain, er…column. As usual, I’m going to ramble a bit this month. Hope you don’t mind. Again, it’s what I’ve been musing on recently.

I hope you had some chances to get out and enjoy some photography this last month, either making or viewing photographs.

Although we are the “Hilo Photography Club”, our name is probably at odds with what many similar clubs call themselves all across the U.S. Most of them are “XYZ Camera Club” (where XYZ is the city, region or what have you). You can say “what’s in a name?”, but to me it speaks a bit about where our priorities are on the scale between camera enthusiasts and photography enthusiasts. If you don’t know the difference, my guess is that you are one of former rather than the latter. There is nothing wrong with loving cameras, computers, etc. Some people like that part so much they spend more time thinking about the gear than photography. Since we are a photography club, I like to think that most of us appreciate photography more than gear, and that’s the sense I get in our meetings these days. On the other hand, equipment does matter, despite what some might say. All artists and craftsmen appreciate good tools. We appreciate a camera that doesn’t get in the way between us our photography, but rather facilitates it and helps us achieve our vision. And there was a time when cameras were things of beauty. But I speak of a time long ago…

Technology has always played a huge role in photography, as the basis of the cameras and imaging. From daguerreotypes to glass plates, to film holders (but still in view cameras), to roll film, to the 35mm mechanical SLRs of the 50s, 60s and 70s, to the microprocessor-based autofocus/autoexposure wonder SLRs of the 80s and 90s to the myriad of digital cameras of the last 10 years. The tech gets increasingly sophisticated. And that is a doubled-edged sword. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it hinders. It’s up to you to decide where the sweet spot is. If you are a large format film-loving view camera photographer you’re probably happy with the camera tech of the 1940s. Some think photography was never better than with a 60s era mechanical Leica 35mm SLR. Maybe you love running a few rolls of film through a 80’s era Nikon F4. Maybe you like digital and are excited about the latest cameras. Me? I like digital photography a lot. But I hate the cameras.

If you follow any photography news on the internet or world at large you are probably aware that the giant photography trade show Photokina has just wrapped up in Cologne, Germany. This huge event, which happens every two years at the same location, is where a lot of new camera industry products are announced and previewed. Most of the buzz is around the latest digital cameras, whether the format is large, medium or small, as you might expect. What’s interesting to me is that despite the advanced tech, there is a noticeably increasing trend toward old school when it comes to form factor. The large wunderplastik SLR form factor of the 80s and 90s that morphed into the digital cameras of the first decade of 2000 is still around, but there is an increasing emphasis on returning to the smaller cameras and even high quality mechanical feel of the 70s era cameras. And people are snapping them up.

I put forth for your consideration:

The Olympus EP-1 (June 2009):
Olympus EP-1

The Leica X-1 (Sept 2009):

Leica X1

and just last month, announced at Photokina…The Fujifilm X-100:

Fujifilm X100

For I (and many others it seems) this is an extremely welcome trend. Even though I shoot exclusively digital these days, I still hang on to one of my first beloved cameras, a 70s era Pentax MX. Small, discrete, metal, and tough as nails, it was (and still is) a thing of beauty. The direct control of important camera functions via sturdy dedicated metal knobs meant no fumbling through complex software menus via flimsy plastic buttons. It’s diminutive size and weight meant I could carry it almost anywhere, and I did. It tough metal construction meant that it could take a knock or two (and it did). Yes, I loved the 70’s era small 35mm SLRs. Those were the days: Nikon FM, Canon AE-1, Olympus OM-2…

This new breed of cameras manages to combine a level of amazing digital photography quality in a package that is decidedly more ergonomically friendly and beautiful to behold as an object in itself. I’ve always loved photography, and the advancement of digital technology into cameras was one that I appreciated and embraced. But the trend toward huge plastic camera bodies was the end of my love affair with cameras themselves. I started disliking cameras in the 80s, moving on to disgust through the 90s, and finally resignation in the 2000s. Now my hopes are stirred like someone raking a stick through the cold ashes of a near dead fire. Maybe, just maybe, I can have a love affair with a camera again too.

Till next time,
Eric Jeschke

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