Tag Archives: cameras

Love affair with a camera

I’ve always thought it a little odd how some photographers have these intense love affairs with a specific camera. They become fixated on the Leica, or Canon or cheap Diana plastic toys. A sort of photo-erotic romance. For them no other camera will ever match their one true love which they elevate on a pedestal, often with the kind of hyperbole that if examined closely, should make them blush. For me, cameras and computers are simply tools of my trade. They do the job and are discarded without sentimentality if and when they fail to measure up.

In reality though, I’m not so different. I must confess that I once had a passionate affair with one particular camera. It was the Nikon SP. Manufactured in the late 1950s, it was a machine that took the best ideas from Contax and Leica and melded them into a camera that I think, was the absolute pinnacle of rangefinder camera development. I bought mine second-hand in 1971. It came with two 50mm lenses, and a 25mm wide-angle. The 50mm lenses were the superb little Nikkor 1.4 and the incredibly fast and bulky Nikkor 1.1.

So large was the front element of the 1.1 that its barrel filled most of the viewfinder area. Without a supplementary viewfinder you were practically guessing at what was in the frame. For this reason I rarely used it, but what triggered this reminiscence was seeing that there was one of these lenses on eBay the other day. It’s price tag: $40,000! I sold mine about 20 years ago for $600 (groan).

With my Nikon SP and the 25mm wide angle, circa 1977 © Rob Walls

With my Nikon SP and the 25mm wide angle, circa 1977 © Rob Walls

The Nikon SP was my walkabout camera. It accompanied me everywhere. Compared with my SLRs it was compact (when without the f1.1 at least) and with its Contax style focussing wheel next to the shutter release, was fast in use. I developed a deep affection for this machine, and still Nikon still hold this fore-runner of the Nikon F in high regard. So much so that about 10 years ago they ran a limited commemorative edition that was immediately snapped up by collectors.

When I lost my SP in a burglary in the 1980s, I went into deep mourning. For years,  I gazed into pawn shop windows, hoping to glimpse my camera again, but eventually, I came to accept that it was gone forever. You can still pick up good examples of the SP on eBay for a couple of thousand dollars and I must admit that looking at them today, I was tempted. But then reality set in. I can’t bring myself to go back to film even for the love of my life. Now if only Nikon would produce the SP as a full-frame mirrorless digital with that superb 35mm F1.8 Nikkor, I could fall in love all over again.

If you want to know more about the history and qualities of this handsome camera, go here:

Here’s a couple of pictures from my Nikon SP.

An off-duty cleaner walks her dog from the back of a station wagon, in Centennial Park, Sydney © Rob Walls 1977

An off-duty cleaner walks her dog from the back of a station wagon, in Centennial Park, Sydney © Rob Walls 1975

Circus boy

A young boy captivated by the trapeze act at a performance by Ashton’s Circus in Sydney © Rob Walls 1973

Both of these pictures are spontaneous grab shots; the picture of the boy in the audience at the circus was shot under extreme low-light conditions. With the 1.4 wide open, I remember that the shutter speed for this was 1/4 second, hand-held, with my shoulder hard braced up against a tent-pole. I got off three frames, this was the only sharp one.

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Filed under Australia, Australian, Autobiography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

The “p” word. Photography? No! Paranoia…

Received this email from my West Australian colleague, Tony McDonough of RAW Images, last week. Yet another example of the rampant and unreasonable paranoia infecting society.

“I have just finished a shoot in Perth’s northern suburbs. Nothing fancy, a pic of a shopping centre and some surrounding streets. Job booked and shot at 10:30 am.

For those of you who are not in Perth or have not seen the news lately, there was an alleged child abduction in the “northern suburbs” a few days ago. Now the scene is set.

While walking down a street with my camera over my shoulder and the person who briefed the shoot ( a lovely lady ). I happened to walk past a school. I didn’t look at the school, just a glance, I judged that there was no picture to be had using the school so we continued walking ( we did not stop ) I did not at any time, touch my camera while passing the school except to adjust the strap which was slipping off my shoulder as they sometimes do when a 200 mm lens is attached. I did not put the camera to my eye.

I was even unaware that my companion was not alongside me anymore when I reached an intersection. I stopped and looked around, she was chatting to someone, so I walked back to join in. The stranger was wearing a school name tag, and was enquiring just what we where doing walking past the school. Unfortunately the conversation was over by the time I got there, and all I heard was “…. you can’t be too careful ….” as the busy-body returned  100 meters to her rightful spot.

I only wish she had stopped me :). I could have asked her if she had indeed asked the two other men over the road, they had motorbikes, perhaps the vanguard of a criminal gang scoping out the area to sell drugs. Or I could have asked her if she would so willingly have stopped a plumber carrying a wrench, or perhaps a muslim, because they may have been planning a bombing raid, but sadly I missed my opportunity to chat to this guardian as she scurried back to her vantage point within the school fence.

She obviously  has a keen eye for  for dodgy characters , her first clue would have been the camera, because it is a well know fact  amongst our protectors that people who want to do mischief, often carry cameras worth upwards of $12,000.

What is wrong with our society that people feel a need to question people going about their lawful business? Why didn’t she at least ask me? Why do people immediately feel threatened by people with big cameras, or indeed anyone who carries a camera in public, when almost everybody today carries a smaller camera or a phone camera ? Why should I feel guilty just for carrying a camera?

What have we become? I was and still am really disappointed and upset that I was singled out for his treatment. Do I drive a white van (there was one mentioned in an alert) or was there one parked nearby? No. Did I fit the description of the alleged offender? No. Did I carry a camera past a school? Yes.”….

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Filed under Australian, documentary photography, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photojournalism

Bucking horses and chunky cameras…

The Australian National Rodeo Championships, Cootamundra, 1964

The Australian National Rodeo Championships, Cootamundra, 1965

It was the summer of 1965. I had been a very green staffer on Rupert Murdoch’s newly founded national daily, The Australian, for a mere three months, when I was assigned to cover the National Rodeo Championships in the New South Wales country town of Cootamundra.

Arriving early, after an early morning start and a 200 kilometre drive from Canberra, I approached the ring boss, to introduce myself. He was a rangy, tall, laconic cowboy straight out of central casting, Marlboro Man in an Akubra hat. I asked whether there might be a good vantage point I could use to photograph the action. My hope was that he might give me the OK to shoot from the announcer’s box high above the arena.

With the faintest shadow of a smile, he said, “Right here’s good?” We were standing in the centre of the arena, which in about half an hour would be a scene of bucking mayhem as bulls and broncos did their best to get rid of the cowboys on their backs. I managed a nervous, “You’re kidding aren’t you?” “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you and you should be OK.” He reassured me.

The first riders were called and as that gate slammed open, and the first horse exploded out into the arena, I couldn’t think about taking pictures. I was much too scared. When the ride was over, I realised that I had managed to stay out from under the hooves and survived. I began to think about taking photos. After the third or fourth horse I actually found I was beginning to enjoy myself. But there were still the bulls to come. But with each animal my confidence grew.

Because of the pace of the events there were often a couple of riderless horses or bulls in the arena at the same time as the one with a rider. You not only had to watch the action in front of the lens but have an awareness of what was going on behind you. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I found I developed a fairly certain awareness of where everything was and where to place myself to stay out of the way. There were a couple of near misses, but in the end it became all part of the excitement.

This picture turned up when I was going through some old prints the other day. It was taken with a 180mm lens. So what, you might think; a reasonably long telephoto. The thing is it was actually a 180mm Mamiya Sekor and it was on a 6×6(120) Mamiya C3 twin lens camera. To fill the frame on a 2 ¼ x2 ¼ inch negative you had to get quite close enough to make for an exciting afternoon, especially with nothing between you and all that plunging, bucking, thundering livestock.

The world is such an over-regulated place these days, the opportunity to get so up close to the action like this rarely occurs. Nowadays you’d have to shoot from behind the barrier and probably wear a hard hat and a high-visibility vest as well. It’s probably a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that in a society that seems to reject the notion of personal responsibily for one’s safety and actions, that so much of the enjoyment and excitement has been leached out of the press photographer’s job.

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Filed under Australian, News, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

The Harley Davidson of cameras…

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Long before digital photography was there to provide me with everyday excitement and enthusiasm, whenever my work became stale and predictable, I would try to introduce a change of pace, subject or format to freshen up my eye. Sometime in the early 80s, I suggested to my then assistant, Frank Lindner, that we take a trip to the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival, to see what it was about.

For change of format from my usual 35mm work, I borrowed a 5×4 Pacemaker Speed Graphic from my good friend and colleague, Simon Cowling, and with a couple of Grafmatic backs loaded with T-Max 400 set off on the 600 kilometre drive to Tamworth.

We arrived mid-morning and drove around the city looking for picture opportunities. We drove all over town looking at all these boring, cowboy-hatted, line-dancing types and country yodellers, but just couldn’t get excited about the subject. Now don’t get me wrong. I like country music. The real thing, American country music, that is. I just don’t enjoy the derivative Australian version that masquerades in pseudo-American accents as the voice of rural Australia. But that’s another story, and will probably get me a whole lot of rude comments from Slim Dusty or Lee Kernaghan fans. To me, Tamworth lacked authenticity, and I wasn’t in the mood to make pictures taking the piss out of imitation cowboys.

In cruising through town we had both taken a sideways glance at a particular noisy pub. The Locomotive Hotel had been adopted by biker gangs as their headquarters for the weekend and the noise of their rioting could be heard for several blocks. Neither of us said anything. But on our third pass, I said to Frank, “What do you reckon?” The answer he gave was probably not the one I wanted or needed. “I’m game if you are.” Now, we were committed by our egos, come what may.

Finding a parking spot nearby we tried to insinuate ourselves quietly amongst this rough and rowdy crowd. As we arrived they didn’t seem to take much notice of us, but they were too pre-occupied throwing beer cans at a singer on a makeshift stage on the back of a truck and also, as we were, distracted by biker women who were flashing their breasts. Frank and I tried to look as tough as we could. Anyone knowing Frank is probably laughing right now. I at least had the advantage of size, but in reality there was no disguising the fact that we were soft civilians. I also had that Speed Graphic hanging like a baby coffin from my left hand and in my mind it now took on the dimensions of the Polaroid 20×24 camera (and I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with that monster too, but that’s another story altogether). Discrete photography was never an attribute of the Pacemaker Graphic.

Frank and I separated to look for pictures. In less than ten minutes, he was back having been immediately robbed of his cash in the hotel. Luckily they let him keep his cameras.

Things were looking decidedly perilous. After about half an hour of trying to get up enough courage to take pictures, some burly bikers bailed me up, eyed the Speed Graphic and demanded, “What the fuck is that?” This was it, I thought. The moment when I’m kicked to the ground and stomped to death by a crowd of enraged bikers.

Seeking an appropriately conciliatory response, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline. I briefly weighed up my chances of using that big camera as a weapon. I’d once seen one used to knock out a photographer, but that’s yet another story. I immediately thought the better of it. Suddenly, inspiration! Trying desperately to conceal the quaver in my voice, I said, “I guess you could call it the Harley Davidson of press cameras. It’s called a Speed Graphic”…a couple of beats while this information penetrated their beer and dope-soaked brains…”Shit mate, that’s cool. Take our photo!” they ordered.

I didn’t hesitate. Desperately struggling to hide the trembling of my hands while cranking away at the rangefinder I got away a couple of frames. They bought me a beer…

PS If you are old enough to remember using a Speed Graphic, please feel free to add your memories of this wonderful camera…

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Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls