By Jon Sparkman
As many of you may have guessed by now, I do like my film cameras. There’s just something so compelling about them, like a vintage car. They have their little tricks and unique functions which set them apart from the digital cameras of nowadays. Rotating backs, gaudy wooden handles and exotic camera batteries are the norm in my house, today I’m going to talk you through some of my favorite film cameras of all time and why I believe they should still be used and valued within the fashion photography workplace.
We’ll start off this little collection tour with the big, bad square box known as the Hasselblad 500CM. Still fetching a hefty price tag, I picked my 1970s edition up for £820 a few years back. In a 6x6cm film format, you get 12 shots per roll of 120/medium format film. The square format was made famous by such photographers as David Bailey and the camera was adored by Helmut Newton, as seen in his documentary Frames From The Edge. The lenses supplied for the Hasselblad were some of the finest in the world, Carl Zeiss made optics with the famous T-star coating (signified by a red T* on the lens). Super sharp, smooth operations and compartmental, the camera was designed so you can switch out parts to best suit your job. I had a prism and waistfinder, as well as a 120, 220 and Polaroid back for the camera. The ability to shoot instant film (the only stock left for this is Fujifilm FP100c/3000b) gave photographers the opportunity to review their light settings in a studio instantly, without the need to shoot blind and send the rolls off for developing. Most importantly, Hasselblad and Phase One still support the old cameras (called the V series) and build digital backs for them to this day. The diminutive size, heritage and fashion appeal of the original 500CM Hasselblads make them a studio favourite for photographers. My advice is to stay away from the cheaper 500EL versions – these had a battery powered motor winder beneath the camera, but the batteries are no longer produced and the camera cannot work without it easily.
The Mamiya RZ67 was the successor to my Hasselblad, after I sold it. I became disenchanted with the 6×6 format of the pictures, having a hard time composing images within a square frame. The Mamiya RZ67 is twice the physical size of the Hasselblad and half the price. Taking 10 shots per film, the back rotates to give you a portrait or landscape orientation. A chunky behemoth of a camera weighing in at 3kg, this isn’t a portable camera and nearly always needs a tripod/monopod to help stabilise against that shutter moving around inside. Much like the Hasselblad, it features great lenses and a range of compartmental accessories, like the Polaroid back and viewfinders. Both these medium format cameras feature leaf shutters – the shutter is inside the lens instead of inside the camera body behind the mirror. This lets you sync your flash to the lens at any speed, something which an SLR just can’t do. If you’re looking to get into the medium format game with a good all rounder, I’d recommend this camera. Try to avoid the RB67 – the older version of this camera and instead go for the RZ edition. It has electronic parts which makes the camera slightly easier to use as the mirror reset and film wind on are combined (on the RB you have to cock the mirror back with one lever and then wind on with another – this is something you always forget to do and get lots of multiple exposures as a result).
My very first camera, the one that started me on this career that makes me write these blog posts for you. I had my dads old camera given to me in 2005 for my college degree in photography. A few years later I picked it back up, spent £100 refurbishing it and gave it new life. Its the most basic mechanical camera you can get. All metal, can work without batteries and just does what a camera should do. You can drop it, kick it around and abuse it and it will still be fine. Coupled with a single 50mm f1.8 lens, I’ve taken this camera all over the world with me. The metal shutter curtain inside is what makes this survive so long. Most cameras from the 1980s featured cloth curtains, such as the Olympus range. After 30/40 years, these cloth curtains have frayed, torn and can no longer take the snap and speed needed for a fast shutter speed. The Nikon FM has fully metal shutters, still retaining their spring and pounce. They’re available for under £60 in great condition and worth adding to your kit, regardless of what brand you shoot. I sometimes mount the Nikon 50mm to my Canon gear with an adapter, just because I don’t actually own a digital prime in that length. Avoid the Nikon FE if possible, thats the electronic version (denoted be the “E” of “FE”), as it is only semi automatic and will choose most of your settings for you.
Any cheap backward compatible body
Whatever brand of camera you have, I’m pretty positive you can buy yourself a basic 1990s consumer entry-level body that fits the lenses for less than £10. Throughout the years I’ve found countless cameras that take Canon EF lenses – for instance, you can pick up a Canon 1000fn for £5. Some second-hand camera shops will even have a bag of these for free, as they’re so plentiful and low quality. Made of cheap plastic, with simple functions, these entry-level cameras were designed for the grandparents to be able to point and shoot to get great results. Why I’d recommend getting one is because, for a cost of practically nothing, you can now use your digital kit lenses on film. A body is just that – a piece of material that holds your film in place, winds it and has a shutter. Mid 90s camera bodies will still be in great condition and the batteries are still available to use in them. Just chuck one in your camera bag down the side with a roll of film inside and if the moment grabs you on a shoot, connect up your digital lens, dial in the shutter speed and take a few snaps. Currently, I’m using a Canon EOS 5, a semi decent body with a lot of great functions that only set me back £36. You can shoot hybrid now, without a giant outlay or needing a second camera bag to cart around with a secondary camera system inside. My advise would be to try hybrid shooting first to see if you like film and are comfortable with it, before outlaying a larger amount on a dedicated medium format system.
Jon Sparkman is a fine art photographer from the UK using film cameras, interesting lighting and bright colours in his images. Follow him on Instagram @sparkman_uk and see more work at www.sparkman.co.uk.