In Praise of the Serious Small Camera

It is a long-standing truism of photography that the camera that takes the best photos is the one you have with you, or if you prefer the negative version, the best camera in the world takes lousy photos when it’s on your shelf at home. That the idea of carrying a camera for most people these days means their cellphone only serves to reinforce the point. But for the photographer who rejects the ubiquitous cellphone in favor of a real camera (yes, yes, I know, cellphone cameras are increasingly capable, blah blah blah…stabbing at a touchscreen to record an image on a miniscule sensor so it can be viewed on a small overly bright screen is not my idea of photography), the problem remains. The real question then is not simply size, but the ratio of capability to camera size. The prize we are after then is the small yet highly capable camera (I will confine my discussion here to film cameras, though the same could be had regarding digital; I’m just not well-versed enough in the current selection of digital compacts to offer anything useful). Some aspects of this are easily quantified – size, weight, shutter speed range, maximum aperture – and some are not – lens character, ergonomics, ease of use, and value of automation.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Physical size matters a lot, though we could bicker and argue endlessly over what qualifies as “small” (I will use my definition, because, well, I’m the one doing the writing here). While there are plenty of small film cameras, most are compact point-and-shoots with limited capabilities. Lightweight plastic bodies, simple lenses (usually of moderately wide angle), and a lack of confusing controls made them popular and cheap. Fine for what they are, but if that’s all you’re after in terms of quality, you might as well use your phone with some filter to make your shots look old and less technically good. The much smaller subgroup we’re after is of considerably higher build quality, with better lenses and at least some control returned to the operator (usually).

Weight and size are related, but not directly. Some small cameras are quite heavy for their size (I’m looking at you, Rollei 35…), while some larger ones are surprisingly light. What qualifies as “heavy” is again subjective, but as with size this is largely dependent on your individual priorities. I tend to stick cameras in coat pockets, so anything that fits easily is “small” and anything that doesn’t try to drag the coat off me or tear a hole in the pocket is “light.”

Camera capabilities, in technical terms, are pretty similar across the board, especially when talking about compact cameras. Shutters can be small and fast, so there’s really no difference there between large and small. It’s very difficult to cram fast glass into tiny packages, so maximum apertures are usually limited to maybe f/2.8 or so. Focal lengths tend toward the wide end, with anything from 28mm up to around 40mm give or take being most common, ranging up to 50mm in cameras that have some sort of collapsible arrangement.

How much control over these the camera offers the user is an important consideration. Some people like fully manual controls, while others prefer some level of automation (aperture priority seems the standard method of implementation here). On balance there are probably more options in the semi-automated column than the fully manual one.

At this point it’s clear that there are a lot of cameras that fit these categories. Pick any of them and you can have a serious, controllable camera that you can carry everywhere. The question now becomes even more personal and subjective as the unquantifiables and intangibles must be taken into account. How easy is it to use effectively? How does the lens render? How well does the automation work?

It’s impossible to say what’s right here, except in the general sense that a camera that doesn’t fit your hand well, or is clumsy to use, or has some other quirk you don’t like isn’t what you’re after. Carrying a camera that’s a compromise is pointless – why carry it if you hesitate to use it because of its failings or limitations, or simply because you don’t full trust it to produce what you want in your photos? To fulfill our requirements, the serious compact has to check all the boxes.

It might seem like this is an unnecessarily long-winded discussion of a simple topic, but I don’t think so. Picking up a camera for the express purpose of going out for a day of shooting, or for a specific purpose, is one thing; you know what you’ll be dealing with, at least to a point, and you can select your equipment with those conditions in mind. But an everyday camera has to be far more flexible, able to handle everything your day might throw at it, and do so easily enough that you don’t think twice about pulling it out. It has to be instinctive to use. And it has to produce photos that are up to the same standard as your other cameras; if it doesn’t, you won’t use it.

That last point is too often overlooked in the gear-obsessed melee that is the internet, this site included. In the end, the only thing that matters in photography are the photographs. Nobody looking at your work cares what equipment you used, the only exception being the gear-obsessed photographers, who are missing the point entirely. Photography is about photographs, not cameras. As in any craft, it can be a pleasure to work with high quality tools well-suited for their purpose, but they are always the means, not the end.

That said, to carry and use a film camera every day is not for everyone, but I suspect a lot of people try and fail because they don’t spend enough time thinking about their equipment. It’s easy to think that a general purpose camera should be easy to choose, or that any old thing will be just fine, but this is wrong. Sure, you can take this approach, but the chances of being satisfied with the photos you make goes way down (unless your standards are really low, in which case you probably haven’t read this far). Choose wisely and both your inclination to pull the camera out and the quality of your work with it should increase markedly.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, my choices are usually either my Rollei 35 or my Leica IIIc with the 50/3.5 Elmar. Either of these is every bit the serious camera, yet compact enough that they can disappear in some corner of my daily wardrobe, waiting unobtrusively for their next opportunity.

When Interchangeable Lenses don’t…

Everyone knows the benefits of interchangeable lenses. Anyone who has been in the photography game for a while has probably used at least one or two interchangeable lens cameras, and some (Your Humble Filmosaur included) have vast colonies of lenses that seem to multiply all on their own, migrating and attaching themselves, lamprey-like, to any camera body they can find.

The voraciousness of lenses for camera bodies is strictly limited, however, by the fact that each can accommodate one, and only one, lens (unless you’re doing it very creatively wrong). Once a lens has attached itself, the camera is safe from further predation. Perhaps it is as a result of this natural limitation that some cameras and lenses seem to form a symbiotic relationship, rarely if ever separating from each other. This unnecessary pair-bonding is little-understood by the scientific community, but we can at least offer a theory.

Some cameras and lenses just seem to go together. They achieve a kind of mutually-beneficial balance that makes each seem to perform beyond its own individual potential. This phenomenon is sometimes seen among the fixed-lens subspecies, as might be expected, but it remains surprising when it manifests itself in the more complex realm of interchangeable lens cameras. When it does, something magical happens…(cue slow motion close-up)

OK, enough channeling David Attenborough. The point of all this is to say that some cameras and lenses just work together. In my collection there are three combinations that seem to remain more or less permanently attached because they just work.

First up is perhaps the most classic of all, a Leica IIIc with a 50/3.5 collapsible Elmar and a SBOOI viewfinder. It’s small, handy, and extremely capable. I shot my whole trip to Germany last year with this camera alone. It fits in a coat pocket. It’s discrete. With zone focusing and reasonably consistent light, it’s as fast to use in the street as any point-and-shoot. If I had to live with one camera and lens, there’s a very strong likelihood that this would be it.

Closely related is a relatively new combination, a Leica IIIa (which originally came to me with a Summar attached, as described here) with a Nikkor 28/3.5 and matching viewfinder. Everything that I said about the IIIc/Elmar combo applies here as well. I’m less acclimated to the 28mm focal length, but I’m finding it is a nice compliment to 50mm in a two camera travel kit.

Finally, my venerable Canon P, after much experimentation, seems to have settled down with a Canon 35/1.8. It may seem a bit odd, given my 50mm inclinations, but I shot more in 35mm last year than I had before – mostly due to my dalliance with my Hexar AF – and I’m more at ease with it as a result. The P’s viewfinder is 1:1, rare for the 35mm focal length, which makes it easier to use in the street. The package balances well.

These three might as well be fixed lens cameras at this point. Some rigs just work, and if something works, why mess with it?

Meet the Cameras: Minox 35ML and Olympus XA2

Anyone who is still a card-carrying member of the self-flagellatory brotherhood of film photographers will know that cameras have a way of appearing in your life unbidden, or at least unexpectedly. Cameras you definitely don’t need are a big part of this. Friends and family are often the source of these, but sometimes it’s simply a function of a bargain too ridiculous to pass up.

Thus we have here two cameras that Your Humble Filmosaur most assuredly did not need, one a gift – part of an online camera exchange of sorts – and the other obtained for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, albeit in wholly unknown condition. Both tiny, both built of glorious 1980s plastic, both with 35mm lenses, both lacking rangefinders, both with automatic (or at least semi-automatic) exposure…comparison was inevitable.

First the Olympus. It’s an XA2, meaning scale focus, a four element/three group lens, and a maximum ISO of 800, and lacking some of the features of the rangefinder-equipped XA. Astute readers may recall that a close relative, a much rarer 28mm-lensed XA4, once graced these pages; it’s been gone for a while now. If I wasn’t compelled to keep that camera around, why should I think this one will be any different? I have no idea.

All the XAs are the same size – minuscule – and use the same basic sliding clamshell design to protect the vital bits. Focusing is via a vertical slider to the right of the lens, offering three zones marked by detents. The small but relatively bright viewfinder features a single LED that warns of long exposure time. Film ISO across a range of 25 to 800 is set with a lever under the lens. The hypersensitive, zero-travel shutter release is toward the center of the top plate. The back hinges on the left in the conventional manner, released by lifting the rewind knob. Winding on is accomplished with a thumb wheel on the back right corner. It’s a very well-thought-out package, characteristic of the best of Japanese 1980s industrial design. They are considered generally quite reliable. Huge numbers were made, and they remain popular today.

The unit-focusing D.Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 Tessar-type lens is quite sharp, some say sharper than the six-element f/2.8 XA lens – I don’t really care. It’s more than adequately sharp, which is really all that matters to me. It’s an unusual reversed-retrofocal type that makes it extraordinarily compact, but as a trade-off it vignettes to some degree at almost all apertures. Out-of-focus areas, which are few and far between in normal use, are unremarkable and inoffensive. Exposure (which is program-only) was seemingly accurate on my example (unlike my XA4, which was about two stops off and needed some fiddling with the ISO selector to get things where they needed to be), though I only ran B&W negative film through mine, so the film’s latitude may have covered up some sins. The lack of a backlight compensation option was noted in a couple of instances.

There’s really nothing to dislike about the XA2. It performs its designed function admirably. It’s easy to carry anywhere. The photos look good. Notice the lack of superlatives – while the XA cameras remain as the effective realization of a brilliant design, that design was one aimed clearly at a broad consumer market and a price point. Photographers with access to better cameras and lenses might have had one as a backup, but for best results they would stick with their high-end gear. Once you’ve seen what truly great lenses can produce, or felt the tactile pleasures of a piece of machine art in camera form, the merely good becomes harder to properly appreciate.

Many of the same things can be said about the Minox, but the two are different enough to make comparison worthwhile. The Minox 35 line began in 1974, predating the XA series by four years (the XA2 debuted in 1980). Both went through design changes, but where the XAs simply evolved some slightly different models (scale focus versus rangefinder, aperture priority versus program, slightly different lens design, DX coding, that sort of thing) the Minox evolved constantly over close to 30 years, eventually developing two distinct body styles and adding features along the way in a bewildering array of subtypes (distinguished by different colored shutter buttons, of all things). The lens changed names and added a built-in skylight filter, but remained a 35mm f/2.8 throughout production.

The Minox that ended up in my hands is a 35ML, emerging in 1985 as the first of the branch of the Minox 35 family to use the revised body style, and the recipient of a number of improvements over the earlier versions. This makes this little comparison less than perfect, as I’m comparing the feature-limited XA2 with the feature-rich 35ML. I didn’t acquire the cameras specifically to compare them; if I had I would have sought out a closer match. Such is life – deal with it.

Where the Olympus sliding clamshell opens with ease, the Minox’s folding door requires pushing the release button, then folding and locking the door in position, an action which requires two hands and more pressure than you might expect. The lens extends as the door opens, revealing two distinct differences to the XA2: measured focusing and aperture control. Two narrow rings on the lens body allow front-cell focusing down to 0.9m and the selection of apertures between 2.8 and 16, as well as Program mode; the latter was new to the 35ML. Also worth noting is that the battery compartment, immediately adjacent to the front viewfinder window, takes a commonly available PX28 battery, unlike earlier versions that require a now hard-to-find PX27.

The raised shutter button feels more traditional than the XAs, and includes the provision for use of a standard cable release. The back must be removed to load the film, similar to the Rollei 35. Winding on is via a short lever in the usual location that requires a double stroke to advance the film and cock the shutter. The top plate has several unlabeled buttons and switches on the central hump. These comprise a battery test button, a backlight compensation switch, and a self-timer switch. There is also a proper hotshoe with a cover. ISO is set on the bottom of the camera with a dial that offers 1/3-stop increments between 25 and 1600. It’s worth noting the slow shutter speeds are restricted at high ISO settings, limiting the utility of the camera in low light situations.

The viewfinder on the 35ML reveals yet another difference: exposure information via LEDs; previous versions made do with a needle. Shutter speed is indicated across the top edge of the finder window, as long as it’s between 1/30 and 1/500; above or below these speeds you simply see an over- or under-exposure indication. Program mode gets its own LED, offering no further information. A half-press of the shutter button triggers these LEDs, and allows the user to lock the exposure, then reframe if necessary. This is a major advance over the XA series and previous Minox 35 variants.

The lens, a Color Minotar 35mm f/2.8, is a conventional front-focusing Tessar-type, with aperture control by a ring on the barrel. Aperture is a two-blade affair with a diamond-shaped hole. Performance is quite good, perhaps not quite a sharp as the XA2’s, but without the omnipresent vignetting. There is one odd behavioral characteristic to note: when in Program mode, the aperture is locked fully open, and instead the aperture is controlled by regulating the opening of the three-bladed shutter. I haven’t been able to locate a chart indicating how the Program mode exposures are calculated, nor have I had the camera long enough to experiment with it, but from cursory examination it seems as if it prefers open apertures over slow shutter speeds.

The differences between these two cameras reveal design philosophies that immediately remind me of the differences seen in cars from their respective countries of origin, particularly clear as they were in the 1980s. The Japanese Olympus is designed to do a job, and it does it very well, very unobtrusively, and without demanding undue attention from its user. In doing so, it is utilitarian and seeks to be nothing more. Its users, knowing what they have purchased, should find nothing about which to complain. Perfection through sufficiency. It’s very zen.

The Minox, hailing from West Germany, is in an unrelenting arms race. Higher performance and more features must be developed constantly or the risk of being overrun by competitors will become too great. If this means that certain sacrifices like greater servicing requirements, a certain lack of reliability, and higher costs are part of the deal, so be it. Its owners will value it for its performance, reveling in the fact that they have chosen the very best tool for the job, and accepting (or perhaps rationalizing) the costs and limitations as the price of such performance. Simple adequacy is for peasants.