Which Camera is Best for You?

Copyright 1992, Tom R. Halfhill


There are many different types of cameras to choose from, both new and used. From left: a 35mm autofocus SLR; a 6x4.5cm medium-format SLR with zoom lens, motor drive, eye-level viewfinder, automatic exposure, and interchangeable film back; an inexpensive 6x6cm twin-lens reflex with built-in light meter; and an interchangeable-lens 35mm rangefinder camera.

If you've been a shutterbug for awhile, you've probably heard the old saying, "It's not the camera that counts—it's the photographer." In other words, it doesn't really matter what kind of camera you own, as long as you know how to use it.

Hogwash! Actually, your choice of camera can make a big difference in your photography—maybe even the crucial difference. If you feel as if your photography has reached a dead end, maybe it's time you stopped blaming yourself and started blaming your camera!

Does that sound like sacrilege? Isn't it true that a great photographer doesn't necessarily need a great camera to make great photographs? Haven't hundreds of great photographs been made with poor, sometimes even crude, cameras?

Yes, yes, yes. But I'm not talking about whether Nikons are better than Canons are better than Minoltas. I'm talking about whether the type of camera you've chosen is the best one for the kind of photography you want to do.

Years ago, camera stores were filled with cameras of many different formats, and photographers agonized over which one to buy. That's not true anymore. Although the shelves in your local camera shop may look as crowded as ever, the selection is actually much narrower. Nowadays, the choice for most people pretty much comes down to a 35mm camera—either a point-and-shoot or an autofocus SLR. Most hobbyists choose a 35mm SLR because that's what everybody else has and it's familiar. But it may not be the right camera for you.

For example, have you ever considered using a 35mm rangefinder camera? Or a medium-format SLR? Or a medium-format TLR? Or a 4x5 view camera? Or a subminiature? Or a Polaroid?

Yes, some of those alternatives are quite expensive. But there are ways of getting around that problem, especially if you're willing to take a chance on a used camera. Shutterbug  is packed with advertisements for good used cameras, and other likely sources are regional swap meets and the classified ads in your local newspaper. First, however, you must decide if another type of camera might really make a difference in your photography.

Great photographers are sometimes portrayed as being very casual about the cameras they use, as if it hardly matters. But make no mistake—it matters to them very much. They don't select a camera randomly or without considerable forethought.

Can you imagine Ansel Adams creating his sweeping vistas of Yosemite with a Minox subminiature? Or Henri Cartier-Bresson capturing his "decisive moments" by lugging around an 8x10 view camera on a heavy tripod?

Those may be extreme examples, but it's nevertheless true that famous photographers choose their cameras only after thinking very carefully about their artistic goals. For instance, in the 1950s, early in her career, Diane Arbus used a 35mm Leica rangefinder camera for her personal work. There was nothing unusual about this because the Leica was the leading 35mm camera in those days. But in the 1960s, when many other photographers were adopting the newly popular 35mm SLRs, Arbus bucked the trend and switched to a 6x6cm twin-lens reflex. She craved more detail in her confrontational images and was drawn to the simplicity of the square format. She continued using these cameras for all of her most famous work until her death in the 1970s. Indeed, the square format, direct flash, and simplistic style are the trademark elements which make her photographs so distinctive and powerful.

Decisive-moment street photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander all used 35mm rangefinder cameras for much of their work. Coincidence?

Richard Avedon usually relies on medium-format and 4x5 view cameras for his studio portraiture. But when he produced his impressive "American West" series a few years ago, he carried a bulky 8x10 view camera into the field and posed his subjects in front of portable backdrops. Why would he choose such a clumsy setup when so many easier alternatives are available?

Choosing a format is not simply a matter of image quality, either. Sure, bigger cameras produce bigger negatives, and bigger negatives make it easier to produce bigger prints. But that's not the only reason for switching formats. When Nickolas Nixon used an 8x10 view camera for his portraits of AIDS victims, the finished photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York not as mural-sized blow-ups, but as 8x10 contact prints—definitely on the small size for a photo exhibition. If Nixon's only goal were sharp, grainless 8x10 prints, he could have ditched the huge view camera and gotten by with a medium-format camera or even a 35mm SLR loaded with fine-grain film.

Clearly, the most accomplished photographers take their choice of camera very seriously. If you want to make commercial or artistic progress, you have to start thinking that way, too.

Unfortunately, most budding photographers do the obvious and buy a 35mm SLR. Not that there's anything wrong with 35mm SLRs. Today's 35mm SLRs are the most versatile cameras ever made, and with the right lenses and accessories they can help you tackle virtually any subject you can see. For general-purpose, all-round photography, you can't beat a good 35mm SLR.

As you begin to refine your photography and develop a personal style, however, you may discover that your 35mm SLR is starting to become a confining compromise. You may begin to wonder if perhaps another kind of camera might do the job better. But which kind?

Since most people these days don't even consider other types of cameras, it may help to examine some of the alternatives and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes a knowledgeable photographer will deliberately pick a camera which seems exactly opposite the obvious choice. When Avedon and Nixon chose 8x10 view cameras for their location portraiture, maybe they actually wanted a clumsy camera that would slow them down and force them to think more carefully. All we can be sure of is that their choice wasn't haphazard.

35mm Rangefinders

Originally the most popular kind of 35mm cameras, rangefinders began disappearing when 35mm SLRs gained ascendancy in the 1960s. Until then, rangefinder cameras were much easier to use, especially when taking pictures of moving subjects, or any subject in dim light. Rangefinder focusing is very fast and accurate, and optical viewfinders are wonderfully bright. Early SLRs, by comparison, typically were hampered by murky viewfinders and manual lens diaphragms. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the equation changed as SLRs gained such features as eye-level pentaprisms, brighter groundglasses, instant-return mirrors, instant-reopening diaphragms, through-the-lens exposure meters, and full-aperture metering. By the 1970s, the only company still manufacturing 35mm rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses was the same company which virtually created the 35mm format in the 1920s—Leitz.

Leica rangefinder cameras continue to survive in the 1990s because they offer an important alternative to the now-ubiquitous 35mm SLRs. True, modern autofocus cameras overcome one of the final drawbacks of SLRs by making it possible for anyone to take sharp photographs under almost any conditions. But some people still prefer the direct view of an old-fashioned optical viewfinder.

The reasons for this are hard to explain. Some Leica devotees say it's easier to anticipate action because the viewfinder usually shows a larger field than the lens in use. (The viewfinder magnification remains constant, no matter which lens is mounted, and the field of each lens is indicated by a floating bright-line frame.) Others prefer the fact that everything they see in the viewfinder appears in-focus at all times; with an SLR, foregrounds and backgrounds generally appear blurred, because you're looking through the lens at its maximum aperture. Still others maintain that optical viewfinders encourage faster composition while SLRs encourage more careful composition.

Whatever the reason, rangefinder cameras are particularly suited for quick grab-shooting. That helps explain why they remain popular with so many street photographers and photojournalists.

A related advantage of rangefinder cameras is that they're extremely quiet. The loud clunk of an instant-return mirror flopping up and down is hard to miss unless there's a fair amount of background noise. The only sound you'll hear from a rangefinder camera is the soft click of its shutter, which is why some judges have been known to insist on Leicas for courtroom photography.

Then, too, virtually all modern 35mm SLRs have motorized film advance, and the screeching whir of a motor drive—especially when rewinding—can be embarrassing or even disruptive at church weddings and other events. Although you can attach a motor drive to some 35mm rangefinder cameras, it's getting almost impossible to buy a 35mm SLR without one.

Indeed, it's possible to argue that motor drives have changed the very nature of 35mm photography. Originally, 35mm cameras were designed to be unobtrusive "candid cameras," and this was their main selling point for decades. Lately, this concept seems to have gotten lost somewhere. Now it's almost impossible to take pictures without sounding like a walking press conference. Camera manufacturers are just beginning to address this problem with quieter motors on such models as the Nikon F4S, Canon Elan, and Konica Hexar.

Incidentally, rangefinder cameras are also well-suited for infrared photography, because your view isn't dimmed (or blacked out entirely) by the special filters required.

Despite their advantages, rangefinder cameras suffer from some problems too, or else they wouldn't have been crowded off the market by SLRs. For one thing, if your photography requires exact, careful composition, you don't want a rangefinder camera. An optical viewfinder doesn't show you exactly what the lens sees, and even the automatic parallax correction of a Leica isn't as accurate as a good SLR viewfinder. (Although many SLR viewfinders aren't as accurate as they should be.) Parallax error is especially a problem at close range.

Rangefinder cameras are also limited to a smaller selection of lenses. The range is 21mm to 135mm on a Leica, but you'll need an auxiliary viewfinder for the 21mm and perhaps the 28mm. Macro photography is out of the question without clumsy accessories that turn the rangefinder camera into a crude SLR; ditto for any photography requiring a telephoto longer than 135mm (such as nature and sports). Generally, rangefinder cameras work best with lenses from 35mm to 90mm.

Another major obstacle is cost. If you want to buy new, your only choice is the Leica, and these all-metal cameras are painstakingly assembled in Germany by highly skilled (and highly paid) technicians. A brand-new Leica outfit can easily cost as much as a new car.

You can save a great deal of money by shopping for used Leica equipment, as several recent articles in Shutterbug  have pointed out. Also, don't overlook the many fixed-lens rangefinder cameras sold over the years. These models typically come with lenses ranging from 35mm to 50mm, which for some purposes might be all you need. Cartier-Bresson reportedly took virtually all of his famous photos with a 50mm lens, and Winogrand was supposedly partial to the 35mm.

Medium-Format SLRs

Like 35mm rangefinders, medium-format cameras used to be much more popular than they are now, too. Dealers once sold a bewildering variety of "rollfilm" cameras in various formats, both for amateurs and professionals. In the 1950s and 1960s, these cameras also fell victim to the rise of the 35mm SLR, as well as to Kodak's Instamatics. Compared to years past, only a handful of medium-format cameras remain on the market, and they're largely aimed at professionals and serious amateurs.

Yet medium-format cameras have been enjoying a small resurgence in recent years. It's hard to tell whether this resurgence is due mostly to photographers moving downward from 4x5 view cameras or upward from 35mm. In any case, it's partly because some of today's models incorporate features pioneered on 35mm cameras: bright, eye-level viewfinders; instant-return mirrors; instant reopening diaphragms; motor drives; a wider selection of interchangeable lenses; and, in some cases, automatic exposure. Thanks to these improvements, some medium-format SLRs are almost as easy to handle as 35mm SLRs.

Only one basic size of rollfilm has survived to the present day: 120. It's called "rollfilm" because the film is wound on a plastic spool and protected by a thick paper backing. (35mm film is also wound on a plastic spool, but is sealed inside a metal or plastic cassette.) In the darkroom, the paper backing is stripped off before processing.

Extra-long rolls known as 220 rollfilm are also available, but 220 film is basically the same as 120. To make room for extra film on the spool, 220 rollfilm has a paper leader and trailer, but no continuous backing. Many rollfilm cameras let you use both 120 and 220, either by changing film backs or by adjusting the camera's pressure plate to compensate for the difference in film thickness.

The confusing thing about medium format is that there's no standard format. Although all medium-format cameras use the same film and produce images with the same standard width (about 2-1/4 inches or 6 centimeters), the length of the image varies. The so-called 645 format produces images on film which measure 6cm by 4.5cm—very close to the proportions of 8x10 and 16x20 print paper. Thus, you can enlarge these negatives to popular print sizes with little or no cropping.

The 6x7-centimeter format offers the same advantage, plus a negative which is more than 50 percent larger than 6x4.5cm. The third popular rollfilm format is 6x6cm (2-1/4-inch square). There are also a few 6x8cm and 6x9cm cameras, plus some special panoramic cameras which take even longer pictures, but otherwise the dominant rollfilm sizes are 6x4.5, 6x6, and 6x7. Because the length of the image varies according to the format, you might get anywhere from 8 to 15 shots on a roll of 120 film, depending on the camera. With 220 film, you get twice as many shots per roll.

Medium-format SLRs are a good alternative for those who want a bigger negative while retaining the advantages of a hand-held camera. Among the quickest-handling medium-format SLRs are the Pentax, Mamiya, and Bronica 645 models. They offer a wide range of interchangeable lenses and accessories. If you don't want to sacrifice the feel of a 35mm, the 645 format is a good choice.

By far the most renowned medium-format SLR is the Swedish-made Hasselblad. In terms of both construction and lens quality, the Hasselblad ranks as one of the top camera systems in the world. Naturally, this quality comes at a price. Also, the Hasselblad's waist-level viewfinder (with the image reversed left to right) is not as fast as the eye-level finders typically found on 645 cameras. But the Hasselblad was not designed for casual grab-shooting; it's at home in the hands of a patient photographer who strives for careful composition. And it's equally suitable for photography in the studio or in the field.

The Hasselblad's square format (6x6cm, or 2-1/4-inch square) is sometimes criticized by those who prefer the more standard rectangular shape. True, most photographs end up rectangular. But the square format has been put to very good use by some photographers, including Diane Arbus and Fritz Henle. Also, a square format leaves you the option of cropping the picture either vertically or horizontally after the film is processed, a feature often appreciated by art directors wrestling with magazine layouts.

Medium-format SLRs are a good choice for close-up photography. With macro lenses and extension tubes, you can move as close as you want without parallax, and the bigger film yields higher quality than you'd get with a 35mm SLR.

Another advantage offered by some medium-format SLRs is interchangeable film backs. If you frequently shoot two or more different kinds of film—say, color and black-and-white—you can switch back and forth in mid-roll merely by changing backs. The backs typically cost less and are easier to carry than multiple 35mm camera bodies.

On balance, medium-format SLRs are the best middle ground between the familiar convenience of a 35mm SLR and the supreme quality of a view camera.

Medium-Format TLRs

Like 35mm rangefinders, twin-lens reflex cameras are almost extinct. From the 1930s to the 1960s, they were extremely popular among professionals and advanced amateurs, but then were rudely pushed aside by SLRs—both the 35mm upstarts and their medium-format cousins. Today, with the exception of a few oddballs from China and the former Soviet Union, the only TLRs available new are the Rolleiflex 2.8GX and the Mamiya C330.

Still, you shouldn't count these workhorses out. A vast number of good TLRs are available on the used market at prices much below the cost of a new medium-format SLR. For as little as $100, you might find a used Yashica Mat 124G; for a little more, you can buy a used Rolleicord, a Mamiya, or even a Rolleiflex (the first and best of the breed). TLRs, then, are a good way to enter the world of medium format without busting your checkbook.

Because they don't have motor drives or instant-return mirrors, TLRs are as quiet as 35mm rangefinders. The top lens on a TLR provides the image you see in the waist-level viewfinder, and the bottom lens takes the picture. Of course, this introduces some parallax error at close working distances, so some TLRs compensate with parallax-adjusting viewfinders. Many photographers actually prefer TLRs over SLRs when shooting with flash because they can observe the effect in the finder—there's no momentary blackout during exposure.

Although eye-level prisms are available for some TLRs, they're generally not as bright as SLR viewfinders. TLRs are primarily waist-level (actually chest-level) cameras, and the finder image is always reversed left to right. Frankly, this takes some getting used to, and it makes TLRs a poor choice for those who must follow action.

On the other hand, some photographers prefer waist-level viewfinders over eye-level finders, especially for portraiture. There's a theory that subjects feel more at ease when photographed with a waist-level camera because the relationship is less confrontational. With an eye-level camera, the photographer must stare right between the subject's eyes, as if aiming a gun. With a waist-level camera, eye contact between the photographer and the subject is broken during the crucial moment of exposure. (Actually, of course, you're still looking at the subject in the finder, but all the subject sees is the top of your head.) It's interesting to note that nearly all of the most famous portraits taken by Diane Arbus were done with a waist-level TLR; although her subjects are usually staring straight into the lens, they rarely appear nervous or embarrassed.

TLRs take square-format pictures, and many can accommodate both 120 and 220 film. The only TLR with interchangeable lenses is the Mamiya, and the selection has been shrinking in recent years as more photographers opt for medium-format SLRs. You can still find many lenses on the used market, though.

Medium-Format Rangefinders

These cameras were fast becoming as scarce as honest politicians until Mamiya shook up the market two years ago with the Mamiya 6. This 6x6cm (2-1/4-inch square) interchangeable-lens rangefinder camera strongly resembles an overgrown Leica M6—and the resemblance is no accident. The designer of the Mamiya 6 is reportedly a longtime admirer of the Leica. And almost every magazine advertisement I've seen for the Mamiya 6 mentions Leica in one way or another.

The similarities are unmistakable. Both cameras have very bright eye-level optical viewfinders with superimposed rangefinders. When you mount a lens, a floating bright-line frame automatically appears in the finder to indicate the field of view. As you focus, this frame automatically moves to correct for parallax. The built-in exposure metering and top-mounted film-advance lever allow very fast operation, and the shutter is whisper-quiet.

Still, there are important differences. The Mamiya 6 is physically larger, of course, and produces much larger negatives and transparencies. It also goes one step beyond the Leica's built-in metering by adding aperture-preferred exposure automation. Because it has an interlens leaf shutter instead of a focal-plane shutter, you can synchronize electronic flash at all shutter speeds.

However, the Mamiya's lens range is much more restricted than the Leica's. Only three lenses are available (normal, medium wideangle, and medium telephoto), and the lenses aren't nearly as fast as those offered for the Leica.

Even so, the Mamiya 6 is a remarkable camera for those who want the operating convenience of a 35mm with the obvious advantages of a bigger negative. Wedding photographers who have trouble focusing a medium-format SLR or TLR in a dimly lit church will really appreciate the fast, accurate rangefinder.

Aside from the Mamiya 6, the pickings in this category are rather slim. The only notable survivors are the fixed-lens cameras made by Fuji. These models strongly resemble the Leica as well, thanks to their eye-level optical viewfinders, superimposed rangefinders, and top-mounted film-advance levers. But they're meterless, and they don't offer interchangeable lenses. Still, they have a good reputation for quality and are much less expensive than the Mamiya 6 or a medium-format SLR. In fact, I'm surprised that more wedding photographers don't use them. The only models apparently still in production are the GW670II (6x7cm format) and the GW690II (6x9cm format). Older models are available on the used market.

View Cameras

Now we're getting into truly serious hardware. If you want top quality at any cost, and if you're willing to invest the time and effort in learning a whole new approach to photography, a view camera is the ultimate alternative to 35mm.

Did I say "new approach"? Actually, there's nothing more ancient than a view camera. A photographer from a century ago would feel at home with a modern view camera within minutes.

View cameras come in three main sizes: 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10 (inches). These days, 4x5 is the most popular. View cameras are also divided into two categories: field cameras and studio cameras. Although you could use a field camera in the studio or a studio camera in the field, each type is optimized for its particular specialty. Generally speaking, studio cameras have more flexible movements (more on this below), and field cameras are more portable and rugged.

Before choosing a view camera, think carefully about the implications. Yes, the huge negative delivers supreme quality. But forget about spontaneous snapshooting—view cameras live their whole lives on tripods, and rather heavy tripods at that. How many shots on a roll? None. View cameras don't use rolls of film. They use sheet film, and you have to reload after every shot.

View cameras don't have viewfinders, either. You view and focus on a groundglass attached to the back of the camera. The groundglass is large (the same size as the negative) but quite dim, so you have to duck your head beneath a focusing cloth to see anything. And the image you see is not only reversed left to right, but is also upside-down.

Lenses are interchangeable on view cameras, but good ones are very expensive, partly because each lens also contains a leaf shutter. A single lens might cost as much as an entire 35mm SLR outfit.

To take advantage of view camera quality, you really need your own darkroom, unless you can afford to spend a fortune on professional-level custom labs. If you equip a darkroom, the enlarger required to handle the large negatives will be enormous and expensive.

You'll also have to learn about two new features unique to view cameras: front and back movements. With other types of cameras, the lens is rigidly mounted on the body, and the optical alignment of the lens to the film cannot be changed. But view cameras have flexible bodies made of cloth bellows, and both the front and the back of the camera can be shifted and tilted in all directions. Among other things, these movements allow you to manipulate depth of field without changing f/stops, and to correct for distortions introduced when the camera is pointed upward or downward at a large subject (such as a building).

For all these reasons, view cameras are best suited for still-life photography, landscapes, formal portraits, and architectural work. If your subject can't sit still for at least five minutes, forget it. If you like to shoot dozens of exposures in rapid succession and then wait until the pictures are developed before picking the best one, forget it. If you're appalled at the idea of spending perhaps an hour taking a single photograph, forget it. View cameras are for those who can previsualize what they want and are willing to take the time to get everything just right. You can't get any further from 35mm than this—unless, maybe, you take up oil painting.


We haven't discussed a few other alternative formats, such as subminiature "spy cameras," electronic still video, and Polaroid instant-picture cameras. Frankly, it's hard to think of a photographic style for which a subminiature would be the best choice (except spying). Although they're more pocketable than even the most compact 35mm cameras, the difference is not all that great, and you would sacrifice a lot in terms of image quality and processing convenience. Subminiatures are fun to collect and to use as secondary cameras, but you're better off relying on something larger for your primary work.

Electronic still video is an up-and-coming format that's still immature and highly specialized. Still-video cameras aren't yet very cost-competitive with conventional cameras, and the image quality leaves much to be desired. Even so, they have their uses, and they're fun to play with. To get the most from a still-video camera, you should have a "digital darkroom"—a personal computer with which you can import and manipulate the electronic images. You can do the same thing with a conventional camera and a scanner, but a still-video camera offers a more direct path.

Polaroid cameras are often considered snapshot machines for rank amateurs, but they've also been embraced by some avant-garde fine-art photographers. It's possible to alter the images in various ways during development, and Polaroid film is available in special sizes for view cameras and medium-format SLRs. These applications are too specialized for this article, but you shouldn't automatically disqualify Polaroid photography as a possible alternative.

The most important thing to realize is that there's a whole world of cameras beyond 35mm SLRs. You still can't beat a 35mm SLR for all-round versatility, but there may come a time when you develop a personal style that demands something different. Fortunately, there are still plenty of options to choose from.


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