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Smaller Cameras

I need a smaller camera.

When I was eighteen years old and poor, working for $3.25 at the local mall, I walked into Metzger’s, a camera store in Akron, Ohio. It was a very large store in a very large building—they served all of the big corporate accounts. I was a regular there, that odd kid with the long hair from the poor side of town who was into photography. I bought my film there, I bought my darkroom stuff there, I bought everything there.

One day I walked in and the guy I usually talked with—unlike most camera stores all the employees here came across as in-crowd partiers, lots of drinking, lots of coke, so we made an unusual combination—said he had something to show me. Now, he was salesman but he knew there was no way I could afford what he was about to share.

Out from behind the counter comes a Halliburton Zero case and inside a Hasselblad body, lenses, three backs (serial numbers all matching), and then with it came more lenses, another body, extension tubes, fixed lens shades, bellows lens shade, masks for the bellow lens shade, close-up filters, metering prism, sports finder, a Polaroid back, slide-on selenium light meter, a clip-on neck strap, a clip-on wrist strap…

Over thirty-five years later I don’t even have to close my eyes and I can see it all, see each piece of the kit, I can admire the sheen of the light on the paint, the texture of the body, I can hear the kla-klunk of the light baffles, I can feel the resistance of the pre-release button as I press up on it.

I got a loan to buy it.

The surprising part wasn’t that I bought it. The surprising part was that someone at a bank gave me a loan.

I can feel the weight of it, too. That was a heavy camera in those days, even heavier today. I carried it around my neck and I carried a tripod, a made-in-Italy Bogen 3035 with a 3047 three-way head. I remember the tripod as well as I do the Hasselblad.

I didn’t have a car—the punishing payments on the camera loan put any car out of reach—so I tromped all over the Kenmore part of Akron with my burnt orange Tenba bag and the Hasselblad around my neck, switching the heavy tripod from my left hand to right and back again to ease the weight as I walked.

It was a heavy camera and a heavier tripod. Setting up a shot took forever, sometimes twenty minutes. I would see something to shoot, I would get the camera atop the Bogen, I would look through through the viewfinder, I would consider small improvements in camera position, I would judge exposure, focus and depth of field. I would ponder if I really even wanted this shot in the first place, was it really worth the effort and was I really going to print this one and if I did print it would it be any good.

And thus, because of that heavy camera I learned the craft of photography.

I absorbed everything I could. I poured over my Ansel Adams technical books, a read and reread the two Michael Langford volumes. The camera when I was using it just melted away. It was my favorite camera ever, though it wouldn’t suit me anymore.

Just now I’m packing for a trip across country, five weeks on the road. It’s not a photography trip and though I have an idea or two for real work I intend to pack light.

And so I did.

All three camera systems and the tripod together weigh significantly less than my nineteen pound cat. I love them less, too.

I packed a Sony RX10iv, an all around travel camera with a sharp zoom going from 24mm to 600mm. That’s wide on one end and bird photography on the other. That’s the black case. The soft blue case on the right holds my Fuji XT3 and four lenses, a 16mm, a 23mm, a 35mm and a 50mm. A high-quality still and amazing video option. My iPhone is taking the photo, and it will serve for constant-carry camera, travel shots I can easily share camera, and magic computational handheld night photography camera. The bright blue waterproof case holds accessories for serious iPhone work. IPhone holders for table-top or tripod use, a Rode microphone with fuzzy cover, a handle, a selfie stick (don’t laugh—I just bought this with a specific project in mind) and a mirror case (another project). The tripod is a carbon fiber Peak Design Travel Tripod, less than three pounds and amazing in all ways.

Not just three cameras but three camera systems. You could comfortably carry it all at the same time if you wanted to.

But I don’t love any of them.

The Sony is sort of ugly. The menus are ugly. There are so many options, all of them offering the possibility of interactions with other menu options, it’s impossible to know what settings are optimal and even more impossible to quickly change to a new set of optimal settings as you subject mater changes. It gets in the way constantly, making you fight it sometimes when you most need its speed and automation.

The Fuji I like, with its real dials and rings, but it too does so much that I many times feel that I’m sort of riding the camera versus becoming part of the camera. I’m always monitoring what it is doing, like I would a smart but inexperienced child doing adult work for the first time.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and that is my iPhone. I really don’t know what is going on any more. I mean, I sort of know, and maybe know more than most people based on my experience with photography, and I can read about the technologies in the camera and in the various apps. But the whole point of knowing, from a photographer’s point of view, is to be able to predict what the camera will do if you do this or you do that.

And more and more I can predict what it will do less and less. It is magic and I am part participant in its show and part audience, watching its wizardry with little boy slack-jawed wonder.

I control it less, I understand it less. The older I get the older I feel. All my cameras are small in the way the TARDIS is small, small but so big and so full of marvelous technology and mysteries on the inside. I leave the cameras on automatic too often.

I need a smaller camera. Just so I can go back to making photographs again.

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