Camera Snobbery

posted 4/18/03

If you've had the misfortune to visit, or any of the newsgroups, you've likely come across that wonderful breed, the camera snob. He (almost always a man) is a proud owner of a cult camera, such as a Leica or a Hasselblad, and will tell you so at every possible opportunity. Generally insecure, they try to take comfort that they own the best (or at least most expensive) equipment, and feel it's important to let others know this often. They're trying to hide behind snobbery and expensive equipment to disguise the fact that they're often piss-poor photographers, and, if they can't impress you with their photography, they'll try to impress you with their equipment. These sad souls have lost sight of what photography is about:


Camera snobbery is a means, not an end. Quality photographs (or slides, or transparencies) should be the end goal; what equipment you use to reach it is irrelevant. By and large, the skills of the photographer are vastly more important than the "quality" of the camera. You do not need a $2000 Hasselblad to take good photographs, but you will never take good photographs, with any camera, if you are not a good photographer.
Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, in their book "Quality in Photography", talk of a "quality threshold" for camera equipment. Basically, if the lens focusses correctly, has no severe optical flaws, the body holds the lens the correct distance from the film (and holds the film flat), and the shutter works correctly and reliably, you can take quality photographs with it. Once you discount point-and-shoot cameras, both 35mm and digital, most cameras are above the "quality threshold". If the camera and lens are reasonably good, and the photographer is reasonably skilled, good photographs are possible.
I photograph for four stock libraries, shooting both 35mm and medium format. The libraries, being happy with the quality of my work, don't ask what sort of equipment I use, and I, not wanting to shock them, don't volunteer that information, because it's not important. For what it's worth, though, I use the following equipment:

  • Canon A-1 (formerly a very similar AE-1): My primary 35mm camera in warm weather (it doesn't like the cold), this 20-year-old classic accounts for about 60% of all the slides I take. Fully manual except for the metering, no camera snob would touch one of these today, and they are widely panned as worthless and difficult to use. It's bollocks, of course. Price: around 1/5th that of a basic, "modern" amateur SLR.One of many, many photos taken with my AE-1.

  • Zenit EM : A soviet screwmount SLR from the mid-1970's, my backup camera in warm weather and my primary camera in the winter or bad weather. Again, Leicaphiles will tell you that russian cameras and lenses are awful, but, oddly, they seem to take wonderful photographs. I have a Helios-44 50/2 and a cheap Soligor 35/2.8 for this camera, both of which are widely considered "paperweights", as well as 28/2.8 and 135/2.5 Vivitars, but, hey, I've got slides on file with libraries shot with at least two of them them. It's the results that count, not how you get them. Cost: about three rolls of 35mm film. Check out this storm sewer photograph taken with the Zenit.

  • Yashica Penta J : Basic, all-manual SLR, accepts M42 Pentax screwmount lenses, just like the Zenit. Used as a second body so I can shoot two different film types or speeds interchangably. Many would consider the Yashica as a far better camera than the Zenit, though the Zenit seems built better. The Penta's only advantage is a slightly nicer focussing screen. Usually wears a 50/2 Auto-Yashinon, which is a very underrated lens. Cost: about four rolls of 35mm film.

  • Kiev-60 : My primary medium-format cameras, these take 12 6x6cm images on 120 film. I have two. People like to mock the Kiev, saying it's an awful, ugly, heavy, unreliable camera and that, again, russian and ukrainian lenses are worthless. They're heavy, sure, but they take great pictures, with either the 80mm Volna or 300mm Tair lenses that I own. Cost: about 1/20th that of an abused Hasselblad.

  • There are a couple other cameras that I use, mainly for snapshots at family gatherings. Most notable among these are a Mir rangefinder from the Soviet Union (which is a Zorki variant, itself a Leica copy) and a couple of folding Zeiss-Ikon Nettars from the 1930's and 1950's. All take quite good photographs, the Mir especially. (Nettars are somewhat prone to flare, if you're not careful, but see this photo.) I've shot slides for my agency with the Mir, and probably would more often if using other lenses than it's 50/2 Industar weren't so inconvenient. (It's not really an issue, though, because it's a great lens.)
    There are also a couple of (cheap) flashguns, a couple of flashbulb reflectors, an old Weston Master 2 meter, a $10, second-hand Slik tripod, and a couple of army-surplus cases for carrying it all around.
    So, for about the price of a heavily used Nikon F, or a similar condition Bronica ETR with a single lens, I've got 35mm cameras with 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 58mm, 70mm, 135mm, and 200mm (plus a 2x teleconverter and extension tubes), including a macro lens, 6x6cm medium-format cameras with 75mm, 80mm, and 300mm lenses, and a 6x9cm medium-format camera with a 135mm lens, all of which work well and take great photographs. I'm happy with the results, my agencies are happy with the results, and camera snobs hate me. What more could I ask for?


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