It’s strange – the finest electronic engineers Japan has to offer create evermore brilliant hitech wondercameras that would utterly blow the mind of a photographer 50 years ago and we’re still not happy. New features are hyped to heavily that we expect that spending an awful lot of dosh on the greatest camera gear will, by some magic process that barely involves us, produce award-winning images.
Not only that, many of us photographers complain that cameras have become too complex, too plasticky, too much like our sadly semi-disposable computers and not the simple, elegantly engineered tools we used when we first picked up a camera, which may have been a simple film compact or a basic manual SLR.
Of course, someone somewhere is always going to fall in love with retro and vintage and analogue photography is making a minor comeback among the ill-defined youth subculture North Americans call ‘hipster’, but which can be seen across much of the Western world.
Hipster culture includes fetishisation of not so much the best bits of vintage and retro but the worst, presumably in some kind of ironic celebration. Thus, 100 years of bicycle developments are eschewed in favour of minimalist fixed-gear bikes without so much as a freewheel let alone breaks. While indie-chic horn-rimmed glasses and shades are cherished, even better are oversized plasticky 80s shades that were never great then but are, ironically at least, good now. High street fashion chains have appropriated the faux-vintage ironic t-shirt so hipsters have moved on to mawkish nature and pet design t-shirts, which were once sold in the back pages of Sunday supplements. It’s anti-fashion. It’s fashion. Both. Together. Seamlessly.
Photography has also been targeted by the so-bad-its-good brigade. Weapons of choice are the Holga and Lomo ranges of plastic devices, often dubbed ‘toy cameras’ but originally intended for poorer parts of the world as much as kids. Canny marketers have created a buzz around the products, which now appear in quirky gift shops and branches of Urban Outfitters. The toy camera typically has a fixed aperture and no metering so anticipating exposure becomes important. Holga cameras use proper medium format 120 film while most Lomos use 35mm. Fisheye lens cameras are also available. Toy cameras are loved for their flaws – plastic lenses are far form sharp, light leaks frequent, controls quirky.
To be fair, Holgas were always a popular bit of freaky fun for photographers long before the skinny-jeaned got their hands on them but for minimalist photographic thrills there are plenty of brilliant options on the second hand market for little or no more than the £50 a Lomo camera costs from an ubercool stockist.
There are some great old cameras around at varying price points and while some are getting collectable, and therefore more expensive, it’s still possible to bag a Canon F1, Nikon FM2 for not too much money. One of my favourite low-tech cameras are the Olympus OM range. These groundbreaking cameras debuted back in the 70s and were successful through to the 1980s when they started to be displaced by higher-tech autofocus cameras. The OM1 was released in 1972 and was the lightest full-SLR market on the market and known for their durability by some photojournalists and travel photographers. Due to their simplicity lower-tech film cameras continue to keep on working even in extreme cold.
The original OM1 camera is completely mechanical. If you want to use the built-in light meter you need batteries, and it’s no longer possible to obtain the lead-acid batteries the cameras uses, although if you Google the issue you’ll find many fudges and fixes to use more modern batteries that are widely available.
For the best balance of manual fun with automatic ‘Aperture priority’ exposure, the OM2 is for me the sweet spot of the range. You can find a nice, fully-functional example on eBay for £50-80.
If the idea of fiddling with film and having to wait for your pictures to be developed in an old-skool way is a real turn-off but you still feel the need to slim down, digital photographic minimalism, even retro-ism, is certainly possible. Now that Digital SLR cameras have become like computers – soon declared old and out of date – there are plenty of bargains to pick-up. In reality, an 8 megapixel camera or even 6 megapixel camera is plenty for most uses and 2004-era bodies like the Canon 20D, now a ‘modern classic’ good for pretty good ISO800 shooting. Combined with a prime lens of 30mm or 50mm focal lengths and a wide maximum aperture and you have a great old-school feel with digital flexibility.
A 20D or 30D and the ‘plastic fantastic’ Canon 50mm f1.8 is one of my favourite combinations for leisure, out and about use. It’s lightweight. It looks inconspicuous. The wide aperture allows creative shallow depth of field effects and the images are sharp, so if you create a masterpiece by serendipity the quality is there.