The other day I unearthed my old film camera: an early 1980s Olympus OM2n complete with its Zuiko 50mm 1.4 lens, nestled in its original leather case. Like some mystical key from a virtual world, it unlocked a cache of memories. This was, after all, the gadget that ignited my passion for photography; the tool that introduced my teenage self to the nuances of a camera; the camera that accompanied a younger me to cosmopolitan cities, idyllic beaches and off-beaten tracks. The OM2n was part of a line of sleek, beautifully engineered 35mm SLR film cameras with an innovative through the lens metering system, more compact than its Nikon and Canon cousins and every bit as capable — and it was a joy to use. This was the camera that legitimised my preoccupations with photography.
35mm SLR cameras have been around in some form or other since 1936, when the German made Kine Exacta made its first appearance. The era of modern SLR film cameras was ushered in by the release of two Japanese classics in 1959: the Nikon F and the Canonflex. By the early 1970s the SLR camera had evolved to an extent that technology, form and function converged to produce a number of cameras that are now rightly considered classics: the Nikon F2 and Canon F-1 in 1971, the Olympus OM-1 in 1972 and the Minolta XK in 1973. Throughout the 1970s cameras seemed to reach a point of perfection in their capabilities and features, their ease of use and ergonomics. They were a joy to use and photography professionals loved them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve threaded film through the spools of a camera, adjusted its film speed dial or pressed its shutter. I’d abandoned my OM2n sometime during the 1990s — initially for its younger sibling, an Olympus μ[mju] with pocketable designer charms, then a series of fun Casio and Sony digital pocket cameras and various camera equipped cellphones and smartphones. Digital SLR camera systems meanwhile became more powerful, weapon-like and professional — and, despite the sublime photographs they could take, completely lost my interest; with more primitive tools, photography for me became simpler: immediate, fun, less precious. But it also became somewhat less than photography and I became a somewhat less passionate photographer.
And there the story would end, except for a convergence of my own geeky passion for iPhones and photography apps and the growth of Instagram. As I began shooting, processing and publishing photos to Instagram, my photographic passions awakened and I found myself checking out the wares at local camera stores — I even bought a Canon G9 in a small step attempt to return to a manually adjustable camera and the art of photography.
I quite liked that small brick of a camera, but it wasn’t until Fujifilm released its now iconic X100 that I began to lust after a camera again.
Not ready to commit to a single fixed focal lens model, I instead picked up a Fujifilm X-10, a little gem of a camera with a small, fast zoom lens and lots of dials and buttons to tweak. That camera connected to some part of me that remembered the joy of photography and I found that I was taking it everywhere with me, shooting more and more and looking to create photographs that were more than snapshots. Sometime during all this it seems that the fixed square retro postage stamp format of Instagram wasn’t enough for me any more and I diversified my online photo publishing channels — most of which I’ve since abandoned in an effort to prioritize the making of images over the maintenance of online accounts. Sometime during all this Fujifilm also released the eye-catching X-E1 compact system camera, a photographic object of beauty which had few of the flaws of the earlier X-series cameras and had a heft and dimensions that recalled the OM2. Fitted with its kit zoom, it was a little bulky for my liking, but that didn’t stop me from taking it out day after day, so wonderful was it to use. I loved shooting with this camera, which had finally captured the spirit of my Olympus and injected it with some of today’s finest photographic technology. Now my X-E1 is usually paired with a 27mm pancake lens, its weight is reduced and — despite it not having an optical viewfinder — it feels a lot more like the classic rangefinders from which it borrows its design ethos and the classic SLR cameras that seem to have inspired its photographic capabilities.
Here I am celebrating the brilliance of imaging devices that are modern reworkings of vintage cameras, but it’s likely that technological advances will see camera designs continue to mutate as their capabilities and interfaces evolve. Even now, companies like Sony and Lytro are making innovative use of touchscreen technology and camera body design as they expand cameras’ capabilities. Phone cameras will surely continue in their growing sophistication to more ably replicate the quality of high-end cameras. No doubt, cameras capabilities will continue to improve and amaze, but I wonder as camera design evolves just how much joy will be left in the process of taking photos?