If I could only have one camera which one would it be?

Because of the Arctic front that's barreled into Austin
my "Happy Place", the WHAC pool closed today 
at three in the afternoon and won't open again until
Monday, December 26th. That's okay, it's windy and cold
and I think I'd rather take a nap than try getting from
the pool to the locker rooms with a 40 mph wind
and something like a one degree wind chill/factor.

Instead I'm in the office watching the weather and thinking about cameras...

I'm sure there is some psychological term which means that whatever you just bought is the object within a category that you'd say you like best. By that logic, and with the headline of this post, you might guess that I'm going to go on and on (again) about what a wonderful camera the Leica Q2 is. After all, it's the most recent addition to the ever fluctuating collection of photo gear here at the VSL world headquarters. 

But...no. While I really like shooting with the Q2 and find the files it squirts out to be wonderful examples of current camera art and science the camera doesn't even crack my top five of cameras that I came to adore during my prolonged tenure as a buyer of endless cameras. It's disqualified right from the start by its 28mm lens. That doesn't mean I've suddenly cooled to the Q2; I've always been aware of this sticking point with the camera. The truth is that this is the perfect second or third camera for a serious photographer. An adjunct rather than a final destination. But that's just from my point of view. 

If you personally sync up with the 28mm focal length and it's the way you see the world then I can imagine someone using a Q or Q2 as their only camera. Maybe I'll achieve enlightenment some day and embrace total camera minimalism --- but not today. 

If I were to limit myself to one camera it would have to be a bit more flexible. I'd want to be able to change lenses from something wide to something in the short telephoto range even though I suspect I'd end up sticking to something closer to the 50mm AOV. So, for me, in my current state of mind, the "one" camera would have to be one with interchangeable lenses.

Since my career has spanned both digital and film days (plenty of both!) the next issue would be whether or not my favorite "one" camera would be from one camp or the other. I like many of the digital cameras I've shot with over the years and some really stand out as being wonderful but with the caveat that they were wonderful at a specific point in the timeline and their wonderfulness was only in the context of how much digital had improved over most film solutions. 

I loved the ethos of the digital Kodaks and at one point owned not one but two DCS 760 C cameras (C= for color; they also made a monochrome version which, sadly, I never owned...) and got a lot of use from them. They were quite good for their time but usable only within pretty strict limitations. You really wanted to use them at ISO 80 or, at a stretch, ISO 100 but nothing above that. If you used them in this way, in good light, you could get really wonderful, rich images. Go to that dreaded ISO 400 and you were in Seurat territory. Then there was the battery grief. Figure 80 shots between changes. And figure that if you were cavalier and left the battery in the camera overnight it would go from fully charged to on its last legs by the time you got up for your first cup of coffee. It was also not a camera that lent itself to street photography or vacation photography as it tipped the scales at something like 5 pounds when fully configured. A bit more to port around; especially if you had an equally stout lens on it. 

Finally, I learned at swim meets, you couldn't use them at ambient temperatures exceeding about 102°. If you did you'd get random swaths of noise in the frames. Unpredictable but unpleasant. 

No, from the DCS 760s all the up to present day Leica SL2s each of the digital cameras represents to me some sort of compromise which pushes me to choose my favorite camera of all time from the rich pool of film cameras. I'll never get used to having to charge or change batteries a couple times a day. Maybe that's more a reflection of my gluttonous manner of photographing than anything else... 

If we stumble into the film era I'm betting that most of my family and friends would immediately assume that the Hasselblad 500CM would be the obvious choice for my one and only camera. After all I did make most of my money in the "old" days shooting with a couple of those bodies and three or four lenses. I routinely worked with a 50mm, an 80mm and a 150-180mm lens for just about every project I booked. And did so for well over a decade. I really felt right at home when I finally added a 100mm f3.5 Planar to the mix. That lens was the just right for almost anything lens. 

But nope. It was a great camera for working in the studio or hustling on location with an assistant in tow and time to set up and (try to) perfect every shot. But it was slow and cumbersome to shoot with. I hated using those cameras with 90° prism finders but following action with a reversed image waist level finder was also quite a chore. The weight of the system, along with the bevy of interchangeable backs one needed in order to shoot quickly was daunting. And in the end, if personal work was involved, I generally defaulted to one of the M series rangefinder cameras we always seemed to have hanging around. 35mm film was so much easier.

So then you might assume that something classic like a Leica M4 rangefinder mated with a 50mm Summicron lens would be the absolute sweet spot and, if I had never tasted the dynamic range, detail and squareness of the medium format cameras I probably would have agreed with you but.....there it is. One aspect of the narrowing process is admitting that few systems or their pricey lenses have come close to matching the superb image quality of the best medium format cameras. Especially for anyone in love with classic black and white photography. And most especially for the folks who souped their own film and printed their own double-weight fiber prints in their own thoroughly customized darkroom. So, sadly, in my mind the Leica was a nice adjunct for the MF cameras but not really an "only." 

No, the camera I miss when I look at prints hanging on the walls of my house and my office is, with no equivocation or hesitation, is the Mamiya 6 camera that came onto the market in 1994  or 1995. It was a remarkably perfect camera and the five big prints hanging in our kitchen, dining room and living room all came from images taken with that camera on black and white film. From a Russian model on the Spanish Steps in Rome to a sculpture in a hidden garden, to a couple casually chatting at a cafĂ©, all of them were printed by me in my own darkroom and we've left them hanging on the walls, professionally framed, for over 25 years because nothing ever surmounted the beauty and technical prowess that camera system and its three lenses offered. 

The black and white photographs are "noise-free" and the dynamic range as shown in the prints is little short of amazing considering that here we are nearly a quarter of a century later trying to get back to parity with the superior aesthetic (B&W) looks we could achieve back then. Nothing burns out. Nothing blocks up. The detail is seemingly endless.... And all done with a camera that was small and light, had a collapsible lens mount that made the camera the perfect tool for travel. And the three lenses that were made for it are all still state of the art. They included a 50mm, a 75mm and a 150mm. 

The camera was a rangefinder focusing camera that shot in a square format and could take 12 images on a roll of 120 film or 24 images on a roll of 220 film. The bright line finder was great although the framelines for the 150mm focal length were small. You got used to them quickly if you used the camera every day. 

I shot mostly with the 75mm lens but the 50mm followed close behind. 

In 1995 my friend Paul and I traveled to Rome to test out two different Mamiya medium format rangefinder systems. Tons of free film supplied, happily, by Kodak's marketing department.  I have always been partial to square images so I took the Mamiya 6. I actually took two bodies and kept the 50mm on one and the 75mm on the other. The 150mm stayed in the camera bag except when its use was obviously required. 

Paul traveled with the Mamiya 7 system which was philosophically the same but took a different set of slightly longer lenses to hit the same angles of view as the 6, but across a bigger 6x7cm frame. The only other difference between the cameras was that the Mamiya 7 did not collapse to quite as small a profile as the 6. 

We banged through about 200 rolls of film a piece in a little over a week, flew back to Austin, printed for a month in our respective darkrooms, and then had a joint show of large prints at our favorite new, modern Italian restaurant. No wicker basketed candles or pasta drowned in tomato sauce there. Bright white walls, high ceilings and a large following amongst the advertising and marketing crowd in the city at the time. It was some the best marketing we ever did. My work was all about the people I saw in Rome and Paul's work was an integration of architecture and design. 

The Mamiya 6 cameras I owned were a casualty of the emergence of digital. We didn't always want to change horses but the writing was clearly smeared all over the walls. The future for commercial photographers was plainly with digital cameras. And that hasn't changed. 

Back in the days of wholesale conversion to digital we'd recently suffered from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the economy was cratering and clients were loudly demanding digital imaging. I couldn't see a way around using the sale of the Mamiya system to finance my way to the next step. Had I been a wealthy trust fund photographer I probably would have stuck the Mamiya stuff in a closet for a later reunion. Sadly, it wasn't a choice I could make. 

I've had the opportunity to buy the same cameras again more recently but I know myself too well. The era of spending days and weeks at a time in the darkroom is long over for me. So is the process of buying film and paying for it to be developed. Not something I want to mess with. Not something I can wisely commit time to.

But in my mind digital is almost there. Not quite to the level in black and white that I enjoyed with the 6. But it's enough for now and getting better with each successive generation. Or maybe that's just the nostalgia talking. Maybe I was just a better printer back then. Maybe there was someitng magic and inspiring about spending quality time under a sodium vapor safelight. Alone in a darkroom on the other side of town.

Whatever. All I know is that when I wake up in the middle of the night and think about which camera made me the happiest ever I know it was the Mamiya 6, along with all the incredible images it gave me from 1995 all the way out to 2002. Can't believe that was twenty years ago. Man, time got a jet pack.
I can't imagine how thrilling it would be if Mamiya resurrected the 6 in a digital format. Full sized 6x6cm sensor. Same fabulous lenses. I'd rather have that than a car....

And that's what I think about as I watch the wind try to tear the covers off the plants. And I watch the temperature drop minute by minute while B. bakes cookies and the sun is still shining....