Saturday, February 14, 2015



THIS IS MY CANON EOS ELAN. It hasn't worked in more than a decade. The rubberized grip on the shutter side of the body is decaying and sticky. It's a useless brick that will never shoot another roll of film again, but I can't bring myself to get rid of it. This was the 35mm SLR I used the longest and for the busiest part of my career.

It did yeoman service, and for that reason, I suppose, I want to give it a suitable retirement, so it's tucked away in a ragged Domke camera bag with rusted hardware, next to its stiff old camera strap. I can't think of a piece of equipment I was married to as closely, or used as hard, so it has my abiding affection.

It was not my first professional 35mm SLR. That was a Nikon F3 that I bought used in the late '80s when the drawbacks of using Pentax Spotmatics (lousy meter, fiddly screw-in lens mount, no motor drive) became too hard to ignore. The camera above is not the F3 I used - that camera was sold in a fit of rage over twenty years ago.

The F3 was the industry standard - a heavy, rugged piece of kit that Nikon advertised with testimonials from war photographers. You could rent accessories for the thing almost anywhere, but I still invested in a nice set of lenses for my F3, including the legendary 85mm/f1.4, a massive piece of portrait glass famous for its sharpness. I became a Nikon Professional Services member and should, by all rights, still be a Nikon user today.

Unfortunately my F3 was cursed. Either the camera body or the motor drive I purchased for it new - we never quite figured out which - had a habit of sticking at the end of a roll of film and exposing frames on top of each other well past the 36th shot. It was never consistent - it would only happen every few rolls, and if you weren't paying attention, you'd find yourself shooting one wasted frame after another until you realized that no roll of film could last this long.

For a year it was in and out of Nikon's service bay, and I ended up running up an impressive bill in camera rentals. I took pains to describe what was going wrong, and provided plenty of evidence of the camera's irritating flaw. I persisted, hoping to get satisfaction as a pro user who was generally happy with my heavy, vaguely military-grade camera except when it turned on me.

Finally, on Valentine's Day, 1992, I was called up to Nikon's offices to meet with the head of pro services and Gunther, who ran the (almost wholly German-staffed) repair department. They had decided, after much discussion, to sell me a new motor drive at cost, even though no one had come to any satisfactory conclusion that the problem was either in the drive or the camera body. Additionally - standing next to each other behind the counter at the service bay and smirking wryly - they told me that they thought I was faking my camera's malfunction, at great personal inconvenience and cost, just to get a new motor drive.

I was furious. I should have thrown the whole bag of gear at their heads, but I was at the end of my tether after a year, so I paid for the drive, tucked everything back into my camera bag, and told them that, come Monday, I would be selling every piece of Nikon gear I owned and switching to Canon. I turned in the doorway of the service department and shot Gunther a vigorous Nazi salute - a futile but satisfying gesture of contempt.

True to my word, I went down to Vistek on the following Monday and sold the lot, finding that all my Nikon gear wouldn't fetch near enough trade-in value to get me Canon's equivalent 35mm SLR - the mighty EOS-1. Instead, I was shown the Elan - their camera for the "advanced amateur" market, which I could afford along with a few lenses to replace my Nikon glass.

It was an autofocus camera but, built out of plastic and polycarbonates and a few scant bits of metal, it weighed a fraction of the brass and steel F3. It didn't need a motor drive, so I purchased a flimsy little stub of an accessory grip that made the camera sit a bit more comfortably in my (rather large) hands.

It was a far more technologically advanced camera than the F3, but it looked and felt like a toy and didn't even have a flash sync. (I'd have to buy a cheap accessory sync cube and stick it on the camera's hot shoe.) Owning one guaranteed that I'd get dismissive looks from the pros from the wire services and newspapers as long as I showed up in their scrums and photo pits. Still, it was all I could afford, and it rewarded my trust by working non-stop for over a decade until the day its LCD display finally blinked and died.

It taught me that, ultimately, gear wasn't terribly important, and that as long as everything worked, what your eye saw mattered more than what the camera did. Still, whenever I'm asked advice about buying cameras, I pointedly badmouth Nikon. Fuck those guys.


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