What kind of tools do I use and why? (Part two)

I am now heading home after a productive workshop in Guatemala, where the mix of cameras the students had in the class struck me as interesting. The discussion we had around camera choices is something that I thought would interest other photographers. (This is the second of two entries on the topic of what kind of tools I use.)

Three students had Nikons and three had Canons, which was not a surprise. The two big camera makers often are represented equally (or nearly equally) in most of my classes. What was a surprise was that two of the eight students were using Olympus cameras. That wide ranging mix of cameras prompted me to tell the class the (long) story of all the cameras I have used over the years.

Up front, let me say that I have no strong feelings for or against Canon or Nikon. Today, I use Olympus cameras, for the simple reason that they solve the problem for me better than any other camera brand can. Again, they solve the problem for me better. That is how I now evaluate cameras. How I got to this understanding took many years (and a fair amount of money spent in camera stores.)

My first camera was actually a pretty serious 35mm SLR film camera, a Canon F-1. A family friend who won the gold medal in the 440 high hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 introduced me to buying cameras directly from Japan, by mail. Though I was in high school, I wanted what I thought was a “serious” camera so in 1972 I bought the top of the Canon line, the F-1. That camera served me well through high school, where I learned most of what I know about the craft of film photography.

In order to learn the artistic side of photography, I studied the history of photography in college. As I studied the work of various master photographers, I frequently imitated their styles. One month I was captivated by the work of Edward Weston, so I photographed landscapes and nudes. Another month I was taken by and practicing the street photography of Robert Frank. Later, I experimented with the square format as I worked my way through the phase of working like Harry Calahan.

Throughout that entire process, from 1975 to 1979, I used a wide variety of cameras, including my Canon F-1, various Leica rangefinders, Mamiya twin lens medium format cameras and a 4 x 5 inch field camera. I also experimented with Polaroid film, non-silver process and triptychs. Somewhere in there I also owned a Yashica-mat, which was another twin lens medium format camera. I even briefly owned a set of Olympus film cameras, (OM-1s and OM-2s,) after my original cameras (mostly the surviving Canons) were stolen in a burglary.

By 1983, I was working for newspapers, first as a freelancer and later as a staff photographer. At that point in time, Canon was NOT the major player they are today. In fact Nikon was notably dominant. By the mid 1980’s was using Nikons full time. Partly because I am a bit of a gear-head, I would usually hanker for the latest and greatest body or lens….

Sometimes I really needed to move up, such as when I could finally afford the classic newspaper photographer’s lens, the 80-200 f/2.8. The focal length that lens covers is important but the really important thing was the constant aperture. To this day, I still encounter frustrated photographers who erroneously expose photos because their lenses have variable rather than fixed maximum apertures.

That particular lens was both big and heavy, but it solved the problem. Though I was NOT a great sports photographer, I remember buying my first 300mm f/2.8 telephoto. Big, heavy and expensive, but it solved the problem.

Another problem that I did not even appreciate I had, was solved when I bought my first Nikon F-4 body. You need to know that the top of the line Canon and Nikon film cameras had removable penta-prisms for many years. The manufacturers did that so you could put different types of viewfinders or focusing screens on their pro model cameras.

Because I was too cheap to buy their angle finders, I had become quite used to taking the prism off my old Canon F-1 (as well as my Nikon F-2 and F-3s) in order to use the camera at unusual angles. Most of the time this meant using a wide angle with the camera low on the ground, in order to get a “dog’s eye view.”

Keep in mind that the Nikon F-4 was the first professional camera with auto-focus. The first time I slid the prism off the Nikon F-4 and experimented with a low angle picture, I was left speechless. In the upper right hand corner, outside the ground class, but still visible, there were three lights, designed to tell the photographer looking through the viewfinder when the image was in fact, in focus.. There was an arrow on the right pointing to the left, an arrow on the left pointing to the right and between those two there was a circle. As I twisted the lens barrel to focus the image, the arrows pointed the direction to turn and the dot told me when the image was in focus.

Hallelujah! I had become used to guess-timating my focus (or figuring the distance by focusing in advance, looking through the viewfinder with the prism on the camera.) Now the camera actually told me which way to turn and when I was in focus. That was amazing, a problem truly solved.

Another example of problem solving involves carrying a second camera body when I work. Using two camera bodies makes it MUCH faster to switch between wide-angles and telephotos. Carrying two bodies also provides a back up in case something “goes wrong” with one body. Like many pros, my main body was usually the top of the line, such as the Nikon F-4. My back up body was almost always NOT the top of the line. I used Nikon FMs and FM2s as my main back up bodies. They were much less expensive and weighed less. They solved the problem of giving me easy access to the other lens in a hurry.

The Nikon set-up served me well and took me through two of my biggest projects, on the pesticide poisoning of California farm-workers and the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

By the mid 1990s I was traveling more and more and needing longer lenses less and less. In 1996 I encountered the Contax rangefinder cameras. Rangefinders do not have the mirror at the heart of the SLR cameras (Single Lens Reflex.) Rangefinders show the scene to be photographed through a viewfinder that is aligned with the les but does not see through the lens. The most famous rangefinder cameras are Leicas. Contax cameras, like the Leicas, have great lenses. The Contax cameras, unlike the Leicas have auto-focus. The addition of auto-focus made the Contax cameras a perfect fit for me. I was getting older and my eyes were not as good as they used to be, so another problem was being solved.

The Contax cameras are lighter, smaller, less obtrusive and exceptionally good in low light. Also, they do not look like serious cameras, so people reacted to me differently. The longest lens available on the Contax was 90mm, but by then, I was happy to give up the long telephotos for a camera system that solved so many other problems that I had been facing.

I sold all my Nikons and was thrilled with my Contax G-2 cameras, happily making color slides for publication and stock photography. I would probably have continued with them indefinitely, except that digital photography was coming, reshaping the commercial photography business.

Since everything I do is for stock or publication, I had to go digital. Shooting film and scanning it at my expense would have been too expensive and Contax lenses are not usable on any digital cameras, so I looked around the growing digital camera landscape. I settled on Olympus cameras, which for me was an easy decision.

Unlike most photographers, at the time I owned neither Canon nor Nikon lenses. These so called “legacy” lenses are what determine which camera brands most photographers chose when moving from film to digital. That makes perfect sense. I had no legacy lenses, so I looked around and chose Olympus. Again, I was looking at their cameras as ways o solve my problems.

In all the traveling I do, especially in the developing world, dust is always an issue. At the time, only Olympus had the self-cleaning sensors in their camera bodies. Also, since I was buying an entire system from scratch, I needed to keep my costs down. If you compare the same kind of Olympus lens to the similar Canon or Nikon lens, the Olympus lenses are cheaper.

Canon and Nikon have higher production costs in making their digital lenses work with their older film cameras. Though Olympus did alienate their existing film camera users by making a new (incompatible) lens mount, their production costs are lower because their lenses are smaller, as they only work on their digital cameras. Plus, since the Olympus digital chip is smaller so their lenses cost less since it is easier to make them project an image on a smaller sensor. The Olympus cameras are smaller than the comparable Nikon or Canon and now I do have longer lens capability, which I did not have with the Contax cameras. I could go on but I will not.

I will say that I am aware that I am the odd-man out, being a professional using something other than Canon or Nikon. No, Olympus does not have a camera with a full frame sensor and I doubt they will. Yes, other cameras may have what can be argued are “better” bodies, sensors and lenses for certain situations. Still if I was starting from scratch, with no legacy lenses, I would still buy Olympus cameras because they solve my problem better than any other cameras. I told the students in my class the same thing, that a given camera solves a problem, nothing more.

2 responses to “What kind of tools do I use and why? (Part two)”

  1. David: Your part one on seeing photography as a “problem to be solved” was a helpful insight for me as I work on a variation of your third problem, my planning photos for exhibits. It is obvious, but it had not clicked in the same way.

    Also thanks for your experience with the pogo in Guatemala. One question I have is how do you get the image to the pogo printer? Do you have to move the card, use a camera cable?

    Lowell Fewster

  2. Happy to help with the project planning.

    The Pogo uses a really simple USB cable that plugs into the camera and then into the printer and away you go.

    I recorded video of the Pogo in use in Guatemala and I will be posting a podcast on The Wells Point showing that process in the months ahead.

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