Why oh why can’t there just be a perfect camera? Why must every camera have at least few annoying little quirks?
I’m a big believer in the idea, that a camera should not get in the way of photography. I practise using my cameras in the back yard, because I wan’t them to become a second nature. I’ve noticed that John Free stresses the importance of practising and knowing your camera, so you’ll be ready when the subject emerges, because ideally the camera should fire almost sub-consciously without having to think too much. The skill should be embedded in the brain so well that you don’t have to think about the camera controls while you’re concentrating on the subject. Much like driving a car. When you have enough milage (practise) you don’t have to think about the controls anymore and you can just drive around.
You know when you haven’t practised enough when you “fumble and mumble” (another John Free expression) with the camera and are not able to take the shot at the instance you wanted. The reaction time between the picture making decision and actually pressing the shutter should be as short as possible — like a fraction of a second. During that time, you’ll have to operate the camera though. Typically you need to at least compose, focus and set the exposure etc. That’s when the fumbling and mumblings occurs, due to the lack of practise.
Is there a perfect camera?
Some cameras seem to provide a more fumble-free experience than others. I have not discovered a completely perfect camera yet though. There’s always something that tends to bug me. Something that every now and then tends to come between me and the picture taking. Especially digital cameras, that are so saturated with functions, features, buttons, menus and dials. You know the feeling when you accidentally hit a button and have to spend the next fifteen seconds to figure out what you did and how to set the camera back like it was?
One of the reasons I like film photography is because I like old cameras, that doesn’t have any so called features. There are just the quintessential settings and not much else. But even that does’t guarantee a perfect shooting experience necessarily, because there is always at least one quirk or a weird engineering decision that rubs me the wrong way. I can live with a one or two quirks, but if the camera has more than three annoying features, it’ll become a pain in the ass or at least a risky gear choice for serious work. So far I’ve had only few cameras that have come close being perfect.
Leica M6 is 99% perfect, but what causes me to fumble and mumble with it, and causing delay and distraction sometimes, is the rangefinder flare. It is caused by a strong light coming from the left, which renders a horrible flare on the focusing patch. Some times I simply cannot focus when that happens and it drives me nuts. I have a bad love/hate relationship with rangefinder focusing as it is and the flaring just makes it worse. Otherwise I could not be happier with a such a simple and bullet proof camera.
As I’ve mentioned about million times before, I’ve been a fan of Olympus OM-1 for a long time. When I need a break from rangefinders, I usually grab my Olympus. It is (also) a nearly perfect camera, but of course there has to be something annoying. First of all, it sometimes jams and does not fire, if the film lever hasn’t been wound enough. It might feel like it’s been wound enough, but for some reason, at least on my camera, at one time out of twenty, it’ll need an additional little push from the film advance lever, or else the shutter wont go off. Very good way to miss a shot. That might be just from the old age of the camera, but there’s a design feature as well, that I’m not too happy about; the light meter needle isn’t back lit or illuminated in any way and the black needle disappears completely if the background happens to be dark as well. When I need a break from that, I’ll return to the Leica M6, that features a perfect and very simple light meter indication, that basically doesn’t take your attention away at all from the subject. You can basically check the metering just with the corner of your eye, without actually “reading” a meter needle.
I recently acquired an Olympus OM-4 as well, and ironically it doesn’t seem to have any usability annoyances at all, even though it is much more complicated camera than the OM-1 or the M6. But I’m still new to the camera and I’m sure the more I’ll get to know it, the quirks will reveal themselves. So far though I’ve been able to shoot with it very intuitively and almost completely forgetting that I’m even holding a camera. Being able to get into that mode really conserves your creative potential, that can be channeled into more important things than trying to remember which button you’re supposed to press or how the focusing works. All that needs to be hammered to the brain before entering the battle field. If you compare photography to a boxing match or whatever… no one goes to the match without practising. I know some don’t believe photography involves practicing as such, but believe me, doing it at home is hugely beneficial. Just getting the camera controls to your muscle memory will increase your speed and competence a lot. That brings us back to the cameras. They are an important link in this chain. Bad cameras get in the way.
The endless loop
Getting annoyed with the current cameras usually causes me to want new ones. Every now and then I stumble upon a model that seems like a perfect choice. But every time I swap a camera, hoping it to be a perfect match, I’ll realise that even though it has some particular feature done right, that bugged me about the previous camera, there’s something else wrong. Olympus OM-1 and Leicas are practically the only cameras that I’ve kept and not planning swap — ever. I have a very good feeling about the Olympus OM-4 as well, as it also seems close to perfect. The same can’t be said about all cameras. I can’t even remember just how many Canons I’ve owned for a brief moment before swapping them for something else. For some reason I don’t get along with Canons too well, even though I know them to be excellent cameras. That just goes to show you that it’s not about having the most expensive gear, but the ones that fit you.