IN PRAISE OF SMALL CAMERAS
It was the first camera that I bought as an eager teenage photographer.
I bought it from a local camera shop’s used cupboard. My little Pax M2, built sometime in the late 1950’s or early 60’s, came with a brown leather case and a simple strap. I loved the size and weight and the rangefinder focusing. I loved the retro look and the quiet shutter that made me feel just a bit more like a fly-on-the-wall photojournalist. The lens quality, however, left a bit to be desired.
Since then I’ve owned and used four more small, quiet cameras and loved them despite their foibles and idiosyncrasies.
Canon G-III QL
Next came a Canon G-III QL, which arrived in my camera bag in the late 1970’s when I was a young news shooter with The Windsor Star. I covered it in black book-binding tape, trying to make it look more discreet. Again, the lens wasn’t very sharp, but it was quiet and easy to use. Tucked under the front seat of my car, it came in handy more than once when I came upon spot news when my regular gear was at home.
I saved my pennies and a few years later I bought a used Leica M4-2 with a 90mm lens and soon added a 35mm and a 21mm. The lenses, made in Germany, were incredibly sharp. The rangefinder focus was a treat to use and I learned how to zone focus when shooting fast-moving news pictures. My pictures were always sharp even in poor light. I finally felt like a real photojournalist. My heroes always used Leicas. My Leica and an older Leica M2 were simple beautiful cameras. Many years later I toured the Leica factory in Wetzlar, Germany. It was like visiting a sacred place.
And then came the digital revolution. The Calgary Herald supplied huge, noisy digital beasts designed for news and sports. I longed for a quiet compact that would take my Leica lenses. But that was the way it was riding the bleeding edge of new technology.
My dreams came true when Epson, a company known for printers and scanners created the R-D1. It had some cool features – you cocked the shutter with a retro thumb wind just like you were advancing film back in the day – and the black and white files look just like Tri-X. Beautiful. At 6 megapixels the files were a bit small, but did manage to make some nice pictures for the paper.
I bought it used from a friend in Vancouver – a globe-trotting photojournalist who often works for international aid agencies, who bought it from a well-known wire service photographer who has done lots of international work, so it had a good pedigree.
I remember photographing a woman who reacted badly to the noise of the shutter and the light from a flash. I opened her curtains a crack and used the R-D1 to make a nice portrait with my fast 35mm nearly wide open. I was allowed back stage while Cirque du Soleil artists practiced. My quiet Epson was the perfect camera to capture intimate moments as they stretched and exercised, talked and taped tender joints.
The camera is unique, nearly rare, but significant enough to be featured in an “Unsung Cameras of Yesteryear” episode on TCS TV. TCS TV is a great YouTube channel brought to you by the folks at The Camera Store in Calgary. You can see the feature, hosted by Chris Niccolls and produced by Jordan Drake at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIOk6kmYOWc
My current compact? The retro-styled Fuji X100S. Beautiful colour, a silent shutter, light and compact, fast to use, good auto-focus and nice low light performance. It isn’t my old film Leica, it isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it has become my go-to camera when travelling light and shooting on the street. And it sure is fun to use.