Mechanical Simplicity

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I’ve owned a handful of both film and digital cameras over the years. The two film cameras I still own that I’ve used the most are a Canonet QL-17 GIII and a Nikon S3.

Often called a poor man’s Leica, the Canonet is quite simple. It has a quiet leaf shutter and this version has a fast 40mm f1.7 fixed lens. You can use the surprisingly accurate meter (requires a battery) and shoot in shutter priority, or shoot manual. The focus throw is short and has an easy to use tab. I really like this camera and it has never let me down.

The Nikon S3 is fully mechanical (no meter), accepts a variety of lenses and is a noticeable step up in build quality over the Canonet. The S3 I have is a very early version. Serial numbers started at 6300000 and mine is 6300041. It has a quiet cloth shutter and a wonderful precision mechanical feel overall. The film advance is weighty and smooth. The focus throw is long, favoring accuracy over speed. The full size finder has fixed frame lines at 35, 50 and 105 and I have lenses for each.

Unlike the relentless upgrade cycle with digital cameras, the only functional upgrades these cameras have is the film. That means, my relationship with the camera itself stays strong and using them is a familiar, almost second nature exercise.

I hadn’t shot with either camera much at all for nearly two years. In the late summer of last year, I lost interest in my dslr, purchased several rolls of film and put the Canonet and Nikon back to use. I quickly realized how much I had missed using these cameras. What I really enjoyed was their mechanical simplicity. Aperture, shutter speed and focus. That’s it. No worrying about focus mode, metering mode, VR, ISO, RAW, focus point, bracketing, etc.

The simplicity has helped me enjoy the act of photographing much more again and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. When I used to shoot only film, I was envious of my friends with digital cameras that gave them incredible amounts of adjustability and customization and immediate access to their images. Having spent a few years shooting digitally myself, I have a new appreciation for simplicity in my photography.

Digital won’t go away though. While my dslr continues to sit and gather dust, I did buy a new digital camera late last year. I believe that I can find simplicity it it too if I remember to not let the complexity get in my way. Time will tell.

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* originally published on Medium, January 2016

Update two years later: While I’ve certainly used the “new” digital camera I bought back then (Fuji X100T), I’ve continued to use and enjoy these two film cameras as well as a Mamiya 645m kit that I was lucky enough to be given by a friend. I’m also taking time to let some rolls sit before developing them. I’ll get that going soon enough.

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