May 14, 2020
For the past decade, my weekly rhythm has been dictated by a self-imposed project to use all the film cameras I’ve been accumulating since childhood. It started off with the intention to use a different camera each week for a year, thus, on 1 January 2010, ‘52 cameras in 52 weeks’ began.
At the time, I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to keep it up for a whole year, but as the weeks went by, and my camera collection slowly grew, it took on a life of its own. My fate was sealed when it came to week 53. I’d got into the habit of loading up a new camera each Friday, shooting a film at the weekend, then developing it and uploading the results to Flickr, so I simply carried on as usual. Having got this far, there seemed little alternative but to go for the full decade.
Although I already had plenty of cameras, in 2011 and 2012, I developed a bit of an eBay habit, perhaps buying 50 or so over four years. I also regularly trawled charity shops and car boot sales, and was able to use cameras from my dad’s collection. The vast majority of my cameras cost less than £10, many were only a couple of quid, a handful cost over £50, and only two were more than £100.
It’s all very well having all these cameras, but finding subjects to photograph was a challenge at times. Whenever I went on holiday, or on a day trip, I would be sure to take that week’s camera with me, but of necessity, most of my photos were taken in and around Sheffield where I live. Some subjects were used over and over, a tree in my local park has been photographed by around 200 different cameras, and the iconic Grade II-listed Park Hill estate features regularly, along with other well-known local landmarks and events.
The creative element
As well as an interest in old cameras, I also have a degree in fine art, and I like to think that the creative element is as important as the technical aspects of the project. To this end, I’m planning to put together an exhibition consisting of 52 photos, with the 52 cameras that they were taken with also on display. The selection of images and cameras intends to show a range of interesting photographs and a diverse range of cameras.
Wherever possible, I have taken a mirror self-portrait to show each camera in use. For reasons that escape me, I started wearing a different hat for these portraits, and so I was also scanning the charity shops and boot sales for hats!
One thing I’m commonly asked when people see a film camera is, ‘Can you still get film for that?’ With digital cameras having been commonplace for 20 years, and smartphone cameras being ubiquitous, I suppose it’s not surprising that non-camera enthusiasts might assume that film is no longer made.
There has never been a problem getting hold of 35mm or 120 rollfilm. Until recently, you could get 35mm film in Poundland, and I got through many rolls of its Agfa Vista colour negative stock. Initially, I used the minilab at my local supermarket to get the films developed; they charged £1 to put them through the machine, then I took them home and scanned the negatives. Once that closed, I ordered a C41-processing kit. I found I could squeeze 50 or more films out of a kit sold to process just 12 films, so my costs were very low, particularly as I often transferred a part-used film into the following week’s camera, saving both time and money, and reducing the number of shots I had to take with each one.
Moving away from 35mm and 120 can pose more of a challenge. The once-common 127 film is now scarce, while 126, disc film and APS are no longer made. Pocket Instamatic film, commonly known as 110, is still in production, fuelled mainly by the Lomography-branded novelty cameras.
It’s usually possible to find a way of getting a film into an obsolete format camera, even if you might lose some of the image size of the original. Much of the film I use
is expired, some bought online, and some generously donated by photographers who have gone digital. Image quality tends to suffer as the film gets older, and colour film in particular loses sensitivity with age. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to get images from colour film from the early 1970s, and black & white film from 1944!
Despite having more than 500 cameras, I wouldn’t describe myself as a serious collector. Most of my cameras were chance finds rather than specific models I’d been searching for, and many are in pretty poor state. While it’s nice to have a pristine camera, my main concern is that I can get at least one reasonable image from it, so if there are bits that don’t work, I adapt my shooting strategy to take this into account. There were a number of near misses, but I’ve never had a complete failure, and sometimes unexpected faults such as light leaks or overlapping exposures can add to the appeal of the photo.
The first camera I owned was part of the ‘Secret Sam’ spy outfit, which was a Christmas present in the late 1960s. It was extremely basic, but still works. Jumble sales were common in the 1960s and ’70s, and were a source of many cameras. It was at secondary school that my interest in photography really took off, and it was nurtured by the very active school photographic society, where I rose to the rank of darkroom manager.
My first serious camera was a secondhand Praktica Nova SLR, which was followed by a Russian Lubitel TLR, and then a brand new Sigma Mark 1. Work and family responsibilities followed, and my take-everywhere camera was the delightful little Pentax Auto 110. For most of the 1980s and ’90s, I mainly used photography for family holidays, and to document my art projects. Coming across a 1932 Contax 1a rangefinder camera in a junk shop for £2 kickstarted the next phase of my collecting, though most were for display rather than use, and I even had a little museum in the attic of our first family house.
Paradoxically, it was getting my first digital camera in 1999 that reignited my interest in photography and spurred me on to using my film cameras again. I even started acquiring new ones to use, rather than to display. The first of these was a Russian Horizon 202 swing-lens panoramic camera, followed by a Voigtländer Bessa L with the 15mm Heliar lens. After getting back into the habit of using film, and taking film cameras on holiday with me, I settled on the plan to use a different one each week. First up was a Zenit B, the budget Soviet-era camera that was the gateway drug for many budding photographers. By way of contrast, I ended the decade with the Zeiss Ikon Contarex Special, arguably one of the more sophisticated mechanical SLRs of the 20th century, and certainly one of the more expensive.
After ten years, I am relaxing the pace, but will continue to use ‘new’ cameras as and when I find them. In addition, I’ve decided to revisit all the cameras I ever had for use rather than display, using one each month in chronological order.
Swingers and spinners
These cameras all make panoramic images by swinging the lens around a slit at the film plane. The FT-2 is named after Fedor Tokarev, Stalin’s weapon designer, who designed the prototype of this camera. The Horizon 202 is a later Russian panoramic camera, while the Spinner 360 is Lomography’s re-invention of the 1982 Globuscope. The Horsley Green rotational camera is a hand-built British model, which sadly I found to be heavy and unwieldy. Being made largely out of plastic, the Horizon 202 is quite light, and frequently accompanies me on trips abroad. Pictured above is the MACBA building in Barcelona.
Many of my cameras cost me a pound; after all, it’s an easy number for a vendor at a bootsale, or in a charity shop. Most of my one-pound wonders are worth precisely that, but a handful were very good buys. An early example was my Voigtländer Perkeo 127 camera from 1932, which I bought in the late 1980s from a local camera shop that was having a clear-out. This was long before digital came along and I actually took it with me on holiday a couple of times. They’re quite scarce, and you’d have to pay in excess of £100 to get your hands on one now.
Less scarce, but even more costly, is the Olympus Mju-II. Should I decide to sell it, my £1 could give me a return of around £150. At the other end of the scale, I’m quite fond of the simple faux-panoramic cameras, such as the Vivitar PN2011, and the pared-down SupaSnaps Flicker, which takes 110 film, but isn’t even big enough to fit the whole cartridge in the camera.
Clockwise from top left: Voigtländer Perkeo, Vivitar PN2011, Olympus mju II, SupaSnaps Flicker
There are plenty of novelty cameras about. Often, they were tied in with advertising a product, or a spin-off from a movie. Generally, it was the appearance of the camera that provided the novelty, such as being made to resemble a football or an aeroplane, but at the extreme end they actually impose an image on your photo, like a Ninja Turtle, or a member of a boy band!
The eyes have it
Pinhole photography aside, all cameras need at least one lens. Stereo cameras need two lenses, but it doesn’t stop there. My collection ranges up from three- and four-lens novelty cameras, via the four-lens lenticular stereo Nimslo, the eight-lens Rensha Cardia, the Pop 9 with nine, all the way up to the Kalimar Action Shot 16, which is a camera I actually use quite a lot, for making fragmented Cubist-inspired panoramas.
My mum had one of those
At the risk of stating the obvious, common cameras occur commonly, so low-end models such as Kodak Box Brownies from the 1950s, Kodak 127 models from the 1960s, Instamatics from the ’70s and higher-spec cameras such as the Olympus Trip 35 not only turn up frequently, but when people see them, they remember a parent or grandparent using one for family photos. David Bailey fronted the ad campaign for the Olympus Trip, and 10 million were sold worldwide. I took mine on a trip to Coventry.
The Italian connection
I’ve got a particular fondness for the Italian Bencini range. Based in Milan, Bencini made simple but stylish budget cameras in 120 and 127 film formats. A particular speciality of theirs was to squeeze as many exposures out of a roll of film as possible, with the camera names reflecting this. So the Koroll 24 takes 24 exposures on a 120 film, where the usual maximum would be 16. This of course is at the expense of a smaller negative, but they must have been popular, because they were very common, so common in fact that I had no qualms about modifying one of mine to allow me to make overlapping blender images.