the best camera (or, working for it)

The best camera is the one you have with you.

I don't know who said that first - searching for a proper source is tough because it's been appropriated by countless blogs, photographers, and even electronics manufacturers. But I think we all get the point - photography is about the photograph, not the gear. Pining for the next great piece of equipment is fruitless and wastes the energy you could be putting into the the next great piece of imagery.

There's another, oft-stated meaning behind this post's leading aphorism: regardless of how many and what sort of cameras you own, the best isn't always measured absolutely by lens quality or megapixels or film/sensor format. You take the picture in front of you with the camera on your person and be grateful for having seen it at all. I'd combine these two meanings and say that if you want to take pictures you need simply have some form of camera - pinhole, digital point-and-shoot, or medium format - and have it with you as often as possible.

That's all fine and dandy. I do happen to have a lot of cameras. Most of them were given to me, and some I've purchased. I only use a handful of them these days, but my clear favorite is a bulky and heavy Mamiya medium format camera. This thing weighs around 6 pounds with lens and metered prism attached, and I only get 10 shots per roll of 120-format film. I have two interchangeable backs, but this still makes for frequent film changing and a lot of weight to carry over my shoulder when in use. Now it's easy for me to consider the capabilities of this camera and judge it my best camera. But due to its bulk I don't often take it with me unless I have plans to use it. I was willing to lug it around Ireland because I intended to use it for vacation photos, for example.

I don't just throw this beast in the car with me, however, when I head to the coffee shop. And I don't take it with me to the office. And I don't take it with me on any casual outings. Why? Because it's cumbersome and inconvenient. And I sweat too easily as it is without carrying this thing everywhere.

But I think this needs to change because my real problem ends up being that I don't take any other camera with me since the Mamiya is the one I really want to use. So this morning, for the millionth time, I saw a glorious photo opportunity...

...only I missed it because I didn't have a camera with me at all. A combination of my laziness and stubbornness left me undone. If I'd taken any of my cameras with me I could have made the photograph I saw in my head. But I really saw that photograph in a 6x7 landscape format with all the detail of medium format film.

So here's the thing: I already know that I love photography - taking pictures, processing them, sharing them with people. I'm faced with some choices, though: either get over my desire to use the Mamiya over my other cameras, or get over my feelings of inconvenience toward hauling around a huge camera. And the more I think about it, I'm pretty sure I'm going to choose the latter. It doesn't mean I'll never shoot 35mm again, but if I can make this work, I'll probably shoot it less than I already do (for now).

Because isn't it worth my sweat and tiredness to get the images I'm after? Isn't it worth the inconvenience of dealing with short rolls of film? Isn't it worth the more-often-than-not possibility that I'll carry around a heavy bag full of gear and come home without having opened it? I'm not suggesting that everybody needs to use their bulkiest kit when they're out and about. I'm just saying that, for me, I'm trying to get past my excuses for not taking the pictures I want to take. I'm not a working photographer, but that doesn't mean I can't work for my photographs.

EDIT: For those asking, "What about your phone's camera?" I'll say this - about a year ago I accidentally dropped my un-cased iPhone 4 on to asphalt. I was lucky that the phone didn't shatter, but the camera lens was scratched beyond use, unfortunately. So yeah, I do always have THAT camera, but unless I want all my shots to look like I smeared Vaseline on the lens (I don't), the phone stays in my pocket.

Creatives, Subject 5: The Artist

Cassandra Loomis is an artist for Trader Joe's in the DC Metro area.

With a BFA in Communication Arts and Design (illustration focus) from VCU, Cassandra can be found essentially art directing the visuals in a number of Trader Joe's locations. Whether it's a mural of a local scene, the design of an end cap, or George Washington doing a hula dance, there is always a wide variety of tasks at hand. Additionally, Cassandra continues to take commissions for murals and paintings (including an NFL football player!) as well.

Portra 160NC
Graflex Speed Graphic

Sunday Supper


This past Monday evening I was fortunate enough to participate in a practice run for the upcoming Sunday Supper series, organized by The Marinara himself, Matt Sadler. I was on hand to take promotional photographs, but my wife and I were also sharing in the event and the delicious food that came with it. This practice session, and the first official event in the series, focus on chef Carlos Silva of Bistro 27 in downtown Richmond. Matt is selling tickets for the meal on March 27th at 7 PM.

Now I'm biased because I was working for/with Matt on this practice run, but I did still eat the food, and it was delicious. The experience of sharing a meal with the chef in this intimate setting was fantastic, and the conversation built up by the end of the evening added to the convivial nature of the event.

So go ahead! Get a ticket or two while you still can. Let's make this first event a smash hit so Matt can organize more of them in the future.

Creatives, Subject 4: The Hand Crafter


Phil Barbato makes fantastical plush creatures, prints, paintings, cartoons, and whatever else his mind impels his hands to create.

Having studied fine art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Phil had spent a number of years working as a web designer here in Richmond before deciding to make hand crafting his vocation. Whether it's drawing a bear a day for a year on his iPhone, a wall of small paintings, or hundreds of hand-sewn monsters, bears, robots and sea creatures, Phil's work is unified by a playful aesthetic, reminding me that even serious art can be silly and light-hearted.

Oh, and buy his stuff, 'cuz it's pretty awesome.

Portra 160NC
Graflex Speed Graphic

P.S. I promise I didn't ask the last three subjects in a row to dress with any formality. Purely their choice, but I like how it worked out. I think I'll go for more casual shots on the next few, though.

Creatives, Subject 3: The Web Slinger


Ross Catrow is a web designer/developer and co-owner of PharrOut, a Richmond-based design shop.

There was no major for web design at Virginia Tech while Ross attended, so he chose math in an effort to keep himself interested. It also afforded him more time to watch his beloved Hokies football. Tired of working for other people after college, Ross and his friend, Scott Pharr, started their business so they could be their own bosses. Out of this environment, Ross created RVANews - a publication of broad scope that covers news, events, and editorial content in and around the Richmond area. Ross maintains the website in addition to contributing a portion of its written content.

Leica Mmm...

leica m3 with lenses

I wasn't really looking to get a Leica any time in the near future. I've always admired them and thought, "Someday I'll get a used one." But then I saw a listing in, of all places, Craigslist. A listing with a price that seemed too good to be true. So I met the seller today and examined the camera. Everything seems to be working just fine. So I pulled the trigger and picked it up.

It's a 1956 Leica M3, double-stroke film advance converted to single-stroke. It came with a Leica screw-mount adapter and these two lenses:
1. A Voigtlander Heliar 15mm with accessory viewfinder. This lens is multicoated and has a reputation for being incredibly rectilinear. We'll see...
2. The seller threw this in extra - a Leica Elmar 90mm f/4. The aperture is stuck mostly open which is why he included it extra, but I'm betting I can figure out how to fix it. If not, the Heliar and the M3 were still a great deal (if my roll of film turns out okay).

So I have a roll of Tri-X in this puppy right now, and I plan to start shooting tomorrow. If it all works out, I hope to have some shots up next weekend. And then I start saving for a 50mm Summicron :-)

Creatives, Subject 2: The Graphic Artist

ansel olson

Ansel Olson makes environmental graphics through Ansel Olson Design and puts his camera to work for Ansel Olson Photography.

Photography has been a thread running through Olson's life and career. While he holds degrees in Interior Design (BFA) and Graphic Design (MFA), he has created an additional business for his work behind the camera that highlights not only the output of skilled architects, but Ansel's own love of the created space. His primary line of work, through Ansel Olson Design, involves a broad range of signage, wayfinding, and brand/identity work projects around Richmond and far beyond.

His professional and personal work have been an inspiration to this photographer.

Ektar 100
Graflex Speed Graphic

Creatives, Subject 1: The Chef


I've started a personal photo project celebrating people whose daily work revolves around their own creative output. All of them will involve my Speed Graphic large format camera. Here's the first shot, taken with Kodak Ektar 100.

Tim Bereika is the executive chef at Secco Wine Bar.

Once a graphic designer for a national advertising agency, Tim has turned a mixture of classes (both domestic and abroad) and a variety of commercial kitchen experiences into an extensive culinary toolbox. Blending his skills as a designer and cook, he produces some of the most creative food in Richmond, VA.

experimenting with front rise 1: carriage house

carriage house at Maymont

The "front standard" - or the flat plate with the lens on it on my Speed Graphic - can shift upward by about 1.5 inches. It's how you get pictures of buildings without converging lines. That's one of the movements available on tilt/shift lenses. In this case, I used a level to make sure the camera was pointed straight ahead. At first, the top of the building was cut off. By shifting the front standard upward, I was able to include the top of the building without affecting the perspective. Most of the vertical lines are parallel in this shot (where the building is plumb, of course), but the effect is less pronounced with a lens like mine that isn't really wide angle. For a better non-Photoshopped examples of this effect, check this awesome shot from Ansel Olson on Flickr.