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.