Monday, August 24, 2015

The Greatest Camera Ever Made

Ha! knew that would get you reading!!
The sound of false-teeth smashing against phones and tablets and monitors is really incredibly loud . . . you've just spilled coffee all over your nice new slacks . . . there's toast crumbs splattered all over the front of the Guardian . . .
Why Sheephouse?
Why are you doing this to us? We're all comfortable and stuff! We don't have to think about anything any more!!
Why? you ask.
Well, because I have declared something which, though contentious (and obviously one man's meat is another man's septic boil, so YUMV as they say in modern parlance) I believe to be true.
Maybe I should call this, The Greatest 35mm Ever Made instead, because of my fondness for the Rolleiflex T (and coincidentally my good chum Bruce's fondness for the Rolleiflex in general [he's got 3] - no collusion, honest missus - he was supposed to synchonise this post with mine [a double-whammy as it were] so if the link doesn't take you to his page about Rolleis, blame him) . . . however that title doesn't nearly grab you by the doo-dads as much, so . . . Camera it is!

***

Regular F'ers will know that I am in the midst of a love affair with the Leica M2 - and why not - he's a lovely old man who has had a hard working life and is enjoying his retirement with some excellent day trips and TLC, cup-cakes, tea, and a nice comfy armchair in the evening. He's even sent you a postcard or two y'know, unless the pooch has eaten them again! 
There's nothing at all like the handling of the M2 - it is quick, intuitive and simple; no high-fangled gizmos or unecessary dangly bits; no meter, just a film advance and shutter speed dial, frame preview and self-timer. Marry up a lens and you have focus and f-stop too, and that's it. 
It's as easy as anything to take photographs with, and as near to as close to being an extension of your brain, eye and fingers (and thumb) as you could wish.
Like I said he's a lovely old man and still very nimble for his age.
However, recently, feeling guilty (because I hadn't used them for a while) I hauled out my wee collection of Nikons: the Nikon F, the Nikon F2 and the Nikon F3 (I also have an original Nikomat FTn, but he's excluded from this . . though he's still working very well) and had a wee marvel at them.
I am very lucky to own these - the F and F2 (and the Nikomat, though that was from an Uncle) were gifts to me from my friend Canadian Bob, and had belonged to his Parents-In-Law, Len & Joyce Holmes, who had bought them new and had used them extensively in wildlife and plant photography right up till they went digital - so that tallied approximately 35 years of good service
They gifted them to me in the knowledge that I would continue to use them, and in my hands I have - a lot, and only put them aside after buying the Leica, because as great as the Nikons are, they are a trifle heavy to lug around all day whilst on holiday . . .
(The F3 I bought myself from Ffordes because I intended running colour film through it and I felt the meter would be more accurate (which it is) . . it was cheap, and serviced and is also a superb camera.)
But anyway, back to the Canadian connection - in the same box as the F's, was an extensive collection of pre-Ai Nikkors too! here comes the list:
35mm f2
50mm f1.4
105mm f2.5
300mm f4.5
500mm f8
80-200mm zoom
You have no idea of the weight of that box, but it was really heavy and vastly exciting to open - the ghosts of the olde photogs who haunt Chateau Sheephouse were gathered thickly around the table as I cleared away all the polystyrene and air-bags . . .

The Canadian Box Of Joy.
Left To Right: F2 With 50mm f1.4, 500mm f8, 105mm f2.5, 80-200mm Zoom, 300mm f4.5, F with 35mm f2.
Can You Imagine Getting A Box With This Lot in?


The lenses were all in lovely condition with no problems with the glass, and in the case of the 500mm, I would say almost unused.
Over the years I have tried all of them out, and for my purposes, the ones I am most warmly attached to are the 50mm f1.4 S.C and the 35mm f2 'O'.
People talk about Leitz bokeh and detail, and then others will chime in with certain Pentax lenses and the odd Zuiko, but let me say here and now, the olde pre-Ai Nikkors really have something, and although the prices are starting to creep up (gone are the days a few years back when you could pick a pre-Ai up for as cheap as £30) they are still, for such high quality lenses, almost as cheap as chimps these days (not that chimps are cheap . . you try dealing with their food requirements, entertainment and potty training . . )
In short, these redoubtable, bomb-proof, pieces of Brass, Aluminium, Black Lacquer and solidity are really wonderful lenses.
Marry the 50mm f1.4 up with the nice and bright viewfinder of the original F and you have a standard lens dream-team. The 1.4 is lovely and soft where it needs to be and hellish sharp in the central region - in other words it does what it needs to do - concentrates the eye on the subject matter and gives things a thoroughly natural look, and that's as technical as a Sheephouse lens test is going to get! To put it bluntly, it makes photographs - ones you can be proud of.
Here's a few (not great, but I like them) pics I made with it


Gordon


Suzi


Alec Turnips


Joanna
See what I mean about the lovely out of focus bits? I think the lens gives things a wonderfully naturalistic look.

(And yes, I know I've (mostly) chopped the top of their heads off, so stop moaning about it . . it was a deliberate bit of artistic artifice OK? In the spirit of the greatest drinking toast ever "Take The Lid Off Your Id!" I thought I would signify that whilst you might be posing for a photograph, it is always better to let your ego and super-ego go elsewhere, allowing the id to have its day in the sun, OK? 
Everyone (do they really Sheephouse?) knose that  the ego and super-ego are what let you down when they get involved in photographs . . that half-shut eye, the gawky mouth, the snotty nose, the dribbles . . the egos, whilst trying to make sure that you look conformed for your pose, will often result in conflict, so you end up with a shit picture of yourself . . oh the pressures of conformity
My tip for a good portrait, if you are a victim and you haven't had a drink (everyone knose that a drink frees the inner you) - briefly close your eyes, centre your person comfortably in your head, feel the world under your feet, relax, open your eyes and look straight at the camera (or failing that, just PShop the fecker).
These portraits are (I think) lovely and natural . . the real nature of my victims is on display, they are free of controlling nature, hence my chopping of their heads . . 
Of course, this could all be total bollocks - it is up to you to decide.)

But back to the lenses - here's a couple more now - these were made with the venerable 35mm f2 'O' - it's a lens that has a cult following and actually it isn't hard to see why - I've had an enormous amount of pleasure using this lens - and it too has a very natural look to it.


Circus Poster In A Window



June 23rd


See what I mean - it's a great lens and not only that, can focus to just under 1 foot (0.3 meters).
But anyway, I am deviating again - it's easy to see that the pre-Ai's are fantastic and after all, a camera system is really ONLY AS GOOD AS ITS LENSES, so where does that leave us?
Ah yes, The F! 
It's a weighty camera if you aren't used to such things, solid like a brick or a tool should be, but its weight belies its finesse, because, unsurprisingly it's a picture-making machine that's as easy and as natural to use as the Leica M.
OK, well, that one over there, go on, pick him up - he won't mind - now, whilst you've got this heavy old beast up to your eye, ponder a minute. 
Yes that is 100% of what will appear on the film that you're looking at. 
Let me repeat that:
100%
Not 94%, or 97% but a full-on 100%.
I have no idea why so few SLR manufacturers ever managed to produce a 100% viewfinder, but Nikon got it right from the start - OK, strike One, the F wins.
Now turn that wonderfully awkward shutter dial back to 1 second and gently squeeze the shutter release. That lovely, deep, throaty whirr, is a sound to quicken the pulse isn't it.
I don't think Len ever had this (his original F) serviced, but at 1 second it is still accurate after 40 years of use.
The mirror moves up with a solid, but non-jarring thwok, and comes down again with the same movement. There is little vibration, unlike some SLRs I've used that go clackety-clack-THWAK!
OK, I will admit it isn't quite like using a Leica, whose buttery-smooth film advance is un-matched; on the F it is a bit 'harsher', but not harsh. There is obviously more movement from it because it has a mirror, so it requires concentration when you get down to lower speeds, though lock the mirror up (the worst operational aspect of the F) and the actual shutter is equally as quiet as the M2.
The shutter release has a deeper action to it than the M2, in that it requires a bit more effort to depress it, but glue it to your eye (or get a Nikon soft release) and get in the thick of the action and I am damn sure you'd never even notice.
The weight of the camera, isn't anyway near as sylph-like as a Leica M - if you were a swordsman, it would be like comparing a sabre to an épée, in that whilst they are both heavy duty, workmanlike items, the épée is more easily wielded. 
I know all this sounds like total shite, but I have fenced, and it is just my weighing of things.

***

Another Sheephouse aside:
My sister had a long-term relationship (and two daughters) with the rock photographer David Warner Ellis (just Google Image him . . you'll find a lot of stuff coming up under Redferns and Getty Images . . that's him). You've maybe never heard of him,  but, if you like music (especially from the 1970's) you will have seen a lot of his photographs, that is a certainty.
David was a fine photographer and owned one camera for his professional work . . . through his heyday of the 1970's and onwards to his death in the early 2000's - an F Photomic FTN.
Photography was his life and his livelihood, and the camera served beyond the call of duty. And the thing is it still works, and though it could do with a bit of TLC and some new mirror foam, other than that it was fine last time I met it. I don't think it was ever serviced either, just used, hard, and relied on as a professional tool
I find that remarkable - how many cameras can you say that about?

***

Well that was the question I asked myself, and, thinking about it a lot, what with David's use and Len's use and the countless professionals and amateurs who used them and still use them, and you know what? the more I thought about it, the more I inspected my own FTN.
I weighed it in my hands, felt its chunky solidity; I disassembled it and put it back together again; I loaded it with TMX 400 and shot real, live photographs with it;  I hefted it, carried it, balanced it, and felt that what I had in my hands (like a Leica M) transcended just mere mechanics - it had that zen feel you get from remarkable tools.
I thought about it and researched it and read about it (looking at Vietnam veterans tales of it being dropped from helicopters, shot at, blown up, soaked and burned, whilst becoming the stuff of legend).
I looked at old newsreel footage where every press photographer seems to be using an F.
I realised that sometimes things become invisible, simply because they are commonplace and with the F that was the case . . . and for a reason.


Battlescars.
Don McCullin's F.
Build Quality Entirely Evident.

Was there anyone back in the day that hadn't  used one?
Was there anything this camera hadn't photographed?
I looked at the accessories.
I looked at the most complete lens system ever devised for a camera system (from the start of manufacturing!) and I discovered that the lenses had the reputation of having some of the best coatings ever coated; that the machining on them was superlative, that they used (the then new) synthetic lubricants and adhesives, and that compared to Leitz lenses of the same period, were more likely to be in fine nick (and a good deal more reasonable to buy). 
And from all this I came to a conclusion:
(Roll the drums, bring on the parade) 

The Nikon F is the greatest camera ever made. 

I know.
It does sound like I am being disloyal to my Leica, but I am not really.
What can you say about a Leica that hasn't been said? It's an icon, and I still feel there is nothing like one . . . 
However, in terms of sheer bombproofness and ultimate reliability, I genuinely feel that the Nikon F has the edge.


This is my F



 ***

But what about the F2 Sheepy? I hear you ask.
Well, there is a place for that too, and many regard that as the ultimate SLR, however, owning both (and initially only using the F2 because of the crutch that it had of a working and reliable meter [more of the meter on the F in a minute]) and after replacing the few seals I had to replace on both and taking both out for dawdles and wanders, I came to the conclusion that the F is the better balanced and better handling camera (strangely Len agreed with me on this too).
Obviously this will vary with user, but to my hands, I like the blockier body of the F.
I like the fact that it isn't so easy to lock the mirror up (best not to even go there) and you have to turn a collar to get the thing to rewind.
I like the lower centre of gravity you get from the FTN head compared to the AS head I have on the F2 - it's almost intangible, but it does affect the way the camera handles.
I like the completely removable camera back and the (supposed) awkwardness of loading (till you get used to it).
I love that I get 100%
And I love the feel of its rugged mechanics.
In short I love its character
And unusually for an SLR, it has that in spades.
It's weird isn't it - most SLR's are fairly characterless don't you think?
I once owned a Pentax MX and it was lovely, yet totally anonymous - my OM 10 was a bit like that too, though I loved it.
On the other hand, the F is an aging Japanese gentleman, who is wirey, opinionated and a bit curmudgeonly, but despite his gnarly appearance is still fit and nimble. 
Compare that to the bloated grandchildren from numerous manufacturers that clog ebay selling for a mere handful of money compared to their once over-priced selves.
What you get with the F is build build build
To me, it is an iconoclastic camera - a genuine, hands-down, brilliant piece of engineering.
Even with the achilles heel of its meter (which, with a lot of them no longer operating, is still easy to deal with if you use the likes of a Northern European Sunny 11, and yes I know you can still get the plain prisms, but I see no reason to pay the massively over-priced prices that are being demanded for them - this being said I'd love to try one, but are they really worth the £200+ premium?) I still think a non-working meter FTN would be the way to go and let's put it this way, it's exactly the same as using a non-metered Leica . . simple - let the films latitude deal with things. 
Do a Gibson!
Sunny weather, Tri-X at EI 320, 1/125th at f16 in Northern Europe - piece of cake. 
Of course you can do this with any camera, and especially a Leica, however, the cost of a nice F is nowhere near the cost of a Leica and it may well be a lot more non-reliant on regular servicing
I also feel that you would be likely to feel less precious about it, given that what you are holding will still probably be around when all that is left is ashes and dust, scorpions and radiation.
Ivor Mantale did an excellent article on the F years back, and in it, he said he had asked a dealer whether the F was a collectable camera, or just an old camera . . . well it is both, AND it is also a reliable tool for the modern photographer. Get one serviced by the likes of Sover Wong and you have something that will outlast your eyes.
And so my rant and rave comes to an end friends - I know you're aghast and are saying "What about?", but have pity on an old man - sometimes you just have to speak out.
There is so much shite spouted about cameras on the net, most of it by people who like the idea of photography and immerse themselves fanboy-like in it, buying the most expensive things they can, without actually making any photographs.
With so few film cameras still being made younger photographers wishing to sample the delights with which we older photographers were brought up (and came to take for granted) couldn't really do any better than investing in a nice clean old F, even with a non-working meter . . .
Really - trust me.
Feel the heft. 
Feel the quality. 
Feel the legend (and it is one).
Feel the all-round essence of something that is as close to mechanical perfection as you can get, and then go out and make photographs. 
Lots and lots and lots of them.

TTFN. This month is pink pill month - just remember to tell your carer that.






10 comments:

  1. Ts ts.. within minutes of posting this, used F prices are already on the rise Sheephouse!

    Beautiful portraits. A very nice rendering indeed.

    By the way, shouldn't it be a 105mm f2.5?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Omar - yeah I know - you do wonder about posting things like this, whether people will be going all headless chicken and buying everything they can!
    And thanks for the typo-correction - it's corrected!

    With regard to the portraits - they won't win any awards but I really like them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with the reliability of the F. Leicas are very serviceable and repairable but only because they need to be. The F just keeps on working almost regardless of what you do to it. Omar's right about prices going up when people praise cameras on line. That's why I keep quiet about the Rolleiflex Old Standard. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Tuff as a Brick Sheephouse Bruce . .
    And yes the old standard - I'll have a go on one someday.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had a black F. I had chrome one with the plain prism. If you can get a prism, you won't regret it. Sadly, I sold them both to buy an F3, which I have kept. It's a fine camera but it's not quite the F. At the other end of the Nikon scale, the EM was a lovely camera too. After the F3, Nikons seemed to change. No doubt they were more professional.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree David - the F3 is a very fine camera and I am very fond of mine, but it rally doesn't have the heft of a plain old F. Your comment about the prism intrigues me, but they're so expensive and often found in a de-silvered state . . surely the time is right for retrofit F prisms at a reasonable price - cant be that difficult to manufacture . .

    ReplyDelete
  7. I always thought that the Photomic head was a bit top-heavy, although it dd look impressive and I did like having on-camera metering. It's always hard to re-capture the nostalgia of yesteryear. I didn't know they were expensive now. They were the cheaper alternative when I got mine. Perhaps if I'd kept it...
    But you always think you're moving forwards at the time, don't you?

    I've just had a thought: perhaps it was the way the head made the camera sit on the chest. Not at all like a twin-lens reflex. No names no problem on eBay. Or perhaps it just sat under my eyebrow more comfortably. All a long time ago. Can you imagine? I'd be writing this by hand, because only girls could type. And then the cleft stick to Scotland.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ah yes, the pilgrimage up North - I remember some incredible journeys made on the 350 miles to our wee cottage! But that is moving away from the point.
    The Photomic head actually has quite a low centre of gravity so the camera is (although heavy) really very handle-able - having not tried the prism, I can't comment on it.

    I taught myself to type back in the heady days of winging a job with the Department Of Transport, using a keyboard that was programmed by punched cards . . .

    ReplyDelete
  9. You're right.
    Heres an extract from Greys of Westminster's site:

    Nikon F eyelevel prism finder, black
    Incredibly rare to find in such condition. Boxed with original packaging. MINT £1000.00
    Nikon F eyelevel prism finder, black
    NEW/BOXED CONDITION rectangular eyepiece version (2nd version of this earliest type). MINT £1250.00

    Crikey!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Oh yes if I were of oriental bent I'd have that factory unit up and running now!
    Crazy isn't it really . . .

    ReplyDelete

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