My cameras and lenses - a brief history  

I used several cameras and lenses throughout my life, although not so many that I completely forgot any of them (although I am a little hazy on some of the dates and details by now). This is a brief narrative of the succession of cameras and lenses that I used over almost five decades.

Galileo Condor I

I was in intermediate school in Italy when I started to use my mother's 35 mm telemeter camera, a Condor 1 by Officine Galileo. My interest in this camera was mostly technical. I have never been especially interested in the "artistic" aspects of photography, and most of my photographs that were regarded as artistic by other people are actually the results of freak accidents. With this camera, freak accidents were on the order of the day, since it had no exposure metering, manual focusing through a telemeter so dark that I could hardly see anything even in sunlight, and nothing that prevented double exposures if I cocked the shutter but forgot to wind the film. I even tried to use it for close-up photography by mounting a lens from reading glasses in front of the camera lens, and that is when I discovered viewfinder parallax and depth of field (i.e., what I wanted to shoot ended up partly outside the upper edge of the picture frame, or out of focus, or both).

I also bought an extremely cheap box camera that used a film with a paper backing. It was fairly easy to use, since it had no focusing, no exposure metering and only two controls and one indicator - the shutter button and a film winding knob, and a red plastic window that told me when it was time to stop winding the film in preparation for the next shot. In sunlight and with a black-and-white film, on the 9 by 12 cm BW prints you could actually see what the general subject was. I believe I shot two rolls of film with this camera.

For a short while I even had a very cheap miniature camera advertised at the time as a "spy camera", in practice a toy, perhaps made in Italy. It was not a Minox, at that time very expensive, or any of the miniature cameras now found in camera collections, but looked a little like an ordinary telemeter Leica-copy in miniature. It was small enough to fit in my palm, and of course had - once more - no metering and no focusing. It also used a paper-backed film, and I remember I tried to develop, for my very first time, a couple of films shot with this camera. I did not succeed, in part because I did not have a sufficiently dark corner to use as darkroom, and in part because the instructions that came with the two bags of chemicals I bought in a camera shop were not sufficient to really tell me what to do.

After this, it was the turn of a Polaroid instant camera. It was, basically, an ugly and large plastic box with odd-looking humps and angles, used magnesium flash bulbs mounted in rows of four or five, had a primitive form of exposure metering, and overall it produced small but detailed instant color prints. The cost per picture was high (especially considering my finances at the time), but it was my first real camera making real color pictures. After the picture came out of the camera, all I needed to do was wait a minute or two, then put the picture on a table, open a plastic jar, take out a rubber-foam pad impregnated with some smelly organic chemicals, swab the picture, and wait a few more minutes before touching it. Best of all, I could see the pictures minutes after shooting them. I had to wait another forty years before getting back a similar capability in a camera, this second time in the form of digital photography.

Cover of Pentax Spotmatic II user manual

After my family moved to Padua in the mid-1970s and I started attending college, my father must have taken pity of my dabbling in photography, and enlisted the advice of a colleague of his who was supposedly an advanced amateur photographer (of the artistic persuasion). He recommended an SLR with built-in exposure metering but manual exposure, because, for some reason I could not fathom at that time, he regarded automatic exposure as unworthy of an artistic photographer. I instinctively knew this idea was wrong. After all, what artistic creation was involved in having the camera tell the photographer to align two needles in the viewfinder, and the photographer obeying the camera's instructions? It would have been better to let the camera do the whole job. However, cameras with automatic exposure were even more expensive, and therefore we followed his advice and accompanied him to the camera store of his choice, where he insisted we would get the deal of a lifetime from a salesman who had always been his bosom buddy. While waiting in line, I noticed a sign over the counter saying "If you ask for the impossible, we will do it right away. If you ask for a miracle, it will take some time." Eventually, we came home from the camera shop with a Pentax Spotmatic II and 55 mm f/1.8 Super Takumar lens.

This Spotmatic II was my first, and last, SLR with manual exposure. After taking it home, I tested it by pointing at a few subjects, focusing, and adjusting the lens aperture by following the indications of the light meter needle in the viewfinder - all this without actually shooting (pictures were expensive). After less than ten minutes, the needle locked in the bottom position, and neither I nor my father found a way to convince it to move ever again. Our expert photographer friend, arrived on an urgent home call, couldn't either.

Back at the camera shop the following day, the salesman refused to take back the camera, because he had already written my name on the warranty card. He also apparently did not recall ever having had anything to do with our photographer friend. At our proposal to replace the dead camera with another of the same model, he was adamant that he did not have any camera of the same model in the store, that it would have to be ordered from the general distributor, and that the distributor would have to walk on his knees to Japan to beg for a new one. After a lengthy discussion, the miracle did happen: he agreed to exchange the brain-dead Spotmatic for a Pentax ES II (with automatic exposure!) he happened to have in stock, and we paid the substantial price difference.

Pentax ES II
Cover of Pentax ES II user manual

The ES II was real fun. Automatic exposure in aperture priority (at that time the only type of automatic exposure) gave one less thing to think about when following moving subjects or otherwise being in a hurry, and to potentially forget. Focusing (only manual, of course) was reliable, and there was no viewfinder parallax to worry about in close-up photography. TTL metering was another major improvement with respect to telemeter cameras. Unlike other cameras with M42 lens mount of the time, the ES II had mechanical aperture couplings that allowed metering at full aperture. It did allow "artistic" expression, despite what our artistic photographer friend maintained, with an advanced setting called manual exposure compensation.

Later, I bought a focal length multiplier with the same couplings, and afterwards two Tamron lenses (28 mm and a 300 mm f/5.6) with interchangeable Adaptall mounts, also these with the same aperture couplings. Extension tubes, a monstrous bellows made in the Soviet Union and a cheap Vivitar electronic flash followed next, and afterwards I could do real close-up and macro photography.

In time I built a darkroom in the attic of our house and started to develop and print BW film on a Meopta Opemus enlarger imported from somewhere beyond the Iron Curtain. Instead of an enlarger lens, too expensive at the time, I cobbled up a 55 mm camera lens made in the Soviet Union.

After a few years I sold the ES II and graduated to an Olympus OM-2n, also with automatic exposure (despite a salesman recommending an ungainly Nikon monster costing and weighing twice as much, for the reason that "it didn't have a single part made of plastic"). I used the OM-2n for so long that it became the last film SLR I ever owned. Later, I added an OM-10 as a spare body for times when I wanted to alternate between BW and color slides.

I did not use much the OM-10, never really liked it, and gave it away after a few years. I was able to use my Tamron Adaptall lenses on the OM-2n by changing their mounts, and added a Panagor 55 mm macro lens with a focusing helicoid on steroids that reached all the way to 1:1, quite unusual for its time. Its focusing ring made two full turns to focus from infinity to 1:1. I used this macro lens also to print BW negatives on the enlarger, where it performed very well. I never owned a true enlarger lens until well after enlargers, enlarger lenses and darkrooms had become a part of history.

Olympus OM-2N, from user manual
Olympus macrophotography system, from Olympus OM-2n user manual

I had noticed that the Olympus OM catalogs displayed several accessories and lenses for macrophotography, but all camera shops I questioned in Italy were unanimous in stating that these things existed only on paper and had never been available to purchase. An exception was a small camera shop in my native town, which was able to get me an Olympus 20 mm bellows lens, reportedly by smuggling it in from Switzerland but without further explanations. I did not give much thought on where this nonexistent lens came from, and why.

The OM-2n was singularly capable, besides being the smallest SLR body on the market. Instead of the usual metering system of other SLRs (which metered only before the actual start of the exposure), the OM-2n measured the light reflected by the front shutter curtain before the start of the exposure. When the curtain opened, it continued to read the light reflected by the film and to adjust the exposure in real time. In this way, it provided true TTL metering during the exposure, a feat that even the best DSLRs and mirrorless cameras of today cannot emulate. TTL flash worked in a similar way, reading the flash light reflected by the film during the exposure and quenching the flash when it had emitted enough light. No pre-flashes were necessary, and the system automatically combined ambient light and flash and still obtained a perfect exposure without the user having to do anything. I was well aware of these technical solutions when I chose the Olympus OM-2n, understood what they could mean in macrophotography, and they did work very well in practice.

After finishing my studies, I started publishing scientific papers. This gave me a new use for photography, and especially macrophotography. Starting from my very first published paper, I did all the photography, darkroom printing, mounting and red-masking for the illustrations of my papers. In the days before Photoshop and desktop publishing, red-masking was a manual and very time-consuming technique for obtaining a uniform, totally black or totally white background on illustration plates containing multiple photographs. Scientific journals, at the time, published only black-and-white photographic illustrations, so I did not need the drudgery of color processing and printing at home, which was both very expensive and very unreliable.

Olympus OM 135 mm and 20 mm bellows lenses

In the early 1980s, I moved to a small town in West Germany on my first research job. I accidentally passed in front of a camera shop, and there in the shop window sat Olympus bellows, macro lenses, bellows lenses and many of the accessories that should not have existed.

Apparently, the Olympus general distributor for Italy had decided that there was no money to be made by importing the Olympus macro system and electronic flash system, and found it easier to tell customers that these things did not exist, except as vaporware in Olympus catalogs. The Italian camera stores I questioned were simply repeating the distributor's lies. At that time, national camera markets were pretty much isolated from each other. Camera magazines were published only at the national level, and foreign magazines were regarded as best kept out of the reach of Italian readers, except as redacted and translated national editions supervised by the Italian authorities (which had no particular interest in photography, but meticulously screened any news that involved the Italian political figureheads of the time before these news were allowed to reach the public). Most photographers simply had no idea of what camera equipment was sold and used in neighboring countries.

I still have the Olympus bellows and the 20 mm and 135 mm bellows lenses I bought from this German shop. I bought there also Olympus TTL electronic flash (apparently regarded as unnecessarily sophisticated by the Italian Olympus representative, and therefore not made available on the Italian market), flash battery grip, power winder and other items. During occasional visits back to Italy in the following years, I continued to hear, and even to read on Italian photography magazines, statements saying that the Olympus OM equipment I bought in Germany was vaporware only to be seen in Olympus catalogs, but not available anywhere to purchase.

Camera-wise, not much happened for the next two decades. I moved to Sweden, then the US, then back to Sweden. I did my research for short periods in a dozen other countries, with the Olympus OM-2n in my camera bag. None of the more recent SLRs could do anything useful to me that the OM-2n could not already do.

Digital cameras started to appear, but they were either unwieldy things twice the size of an ordinary SLR and outrageously expensive, or trinkets usable, at most, for photographing one's children birthday parties. I got married and had children of my own. I photographed their birthday parties with a cheap Olympus 35 mm film camera.

In 2000 I took my first research fellowship in Japan, and discovered a whole new world of digital photographic equipment. The Nikon Coolpix 990 came out while I was there, and I bought one. The LCD screen was about the size of a coin, and not a very large coin at that. The body design in two articulated halves was odd, but handy for special purposes. The time lag between pressing the shutter release and the actual exposure felt like about a second, and there was an additional time lag between reality and the live view on the screen, so I frequently missed the subject while attempting to photograph people walking on a street.

Nonetheless, the Coolpix 990 had extremely good macro capabilities, filling the image with a subject less than10 mm wide - at the price of a working distance of just a few mm from the lens. I took thousands of macrophotographs with it, and I am still using some of them for my scientific publications. The 3.3 megapixel resolution of this camera is not a significant obstacle, since there is real image detail in each pixel.

At the time, Nikon was introducing its first consumer DSLRs, but the prices were far higher than I was prepared to go. Since I started using the Coolpix 990, I never took another photograph on film, and gave away my Olympus SLRs and their lenses as presents to distant relatives, keeping only the macro equipment without any real plans on ever using it again. Interestingly, at that time the Yodobashi store in Ueno, Tokyo, was still selling some of the Olympus OM macro lenses and accessories. They were keeping the OM stuff in glass cabinets at the back of the store, separated from other equipment. There might still be small unsold stocks of it.

After the Coolpix 990 followed a second-hand Coolpix 5700 (figure at the right), bought during a subsequent stay in Japan. It was less capable in macrophotography, but more conventionally designed. It had a 5 megapixel resolution and much better telephoto capabilities. Image resolution in real terms was only about the same as the Coolpix 990. Except for the very small LCD rear screen, the same basic camera design is still in use today. I am still using many of the pictures taken with this camera, too.

Nikon Coolpix 5700

Very few scientific journals were accepting manuscripts and their illustrations by online submission. For a few years, after doing all processing, from shooting the subjects to preparing the final illustrations, with digital equipment, I uploaded the files to a web site in Switzerland, and received crisp, very good photographic-quality black-and-white prints by mail after a couple of weeks. Afterwards, I packed the prescribed number of manuscript printouts and illustration copies in a padded envelope, sandwiched between two heavy-duty corrugated cardboard sheets, and walked to the post office to ship it to the journal. Eventually, after one or two years and several more back-and-forth mailings of revised manuscripts and proofs, a package of reprints popped up in my mailbox to announce that the paper had been published.

Nikon D300S

I continued to travel to Japan for longer and longer stays. It was not until 2004 that I took the plunge and bought a Nikon D70s DSLR in Kyoto, where I lived for about a year and a half. I suddenly had a use for my old macro equipment.

On this stay, I started buying second-hand camera gear from the legendary camera stores in Shinjuku, downtown Kyoto and the neighborhoods around Osaka JR Station. I quickly built up a kit of about a dozen lenses, some new, others second-hand. Later, I discovered the Japanese eBay.

I moved back to Sweden and switched careers from university research to the IT and telecom industry. I found the Swedish camera stores and online auction sites pathetically uninteresting. Swedish photographers apparently did never let go of anything still usable, and when they got rid of junk, expected to sell it for more than they originally bought it for. I saw camera stores still stocking four-year-old camera models at twice the Japan price of when they were newly introduced. I bought equipment only on eBay or from large European mail-order outlets.

Things are better now, with most small stores vanished and large chains selling current models at relatively competitive prices. Swedish auction sites are still uninteresting and largely used as havens by fraudsters, with practically no protection offered to buyers. eBay first attempted to open a Swedish branch, then threw up their hands and left in despair. Amazon did the same thing. eBay visitors from Sweden are now usually routed to the UK site.

I gradually added a Nikon D200 and a Nikon D300s to my kit. In addition to the Nikon kit zooms, at its peak, my lens stable contained Sigma 10-20, 100-300 and 50-500 mm, Samyang 8 mm fisheye, Micro Nikkor 60 and 105 mm, Sigma Apo Macro 180 mm, an old Micro Nikkor 55 mm f/3.5, Tamron 300 mm f/2.8, and dozens of special-purpose and photomacrography lenses, microscope objectives, microscopes and related equipment.

After switching to the Micro 4/3 format in 2012, initially I kept all Nikon kit, in part just in case I missed it, and in part in the hope that adapters would eventually become available to use Nikon lenses in autofocus mode on Micro 4/3 cameras. These adapters never materialized, so eventually I sold the D200, D300s and most of their lenses on eBay. The D70s still serves me now and then, after converting it for multispectral photography. I still keep my collection of special and photomacrography lenses, although they are clearly too many to be really useful. I also keep a relatively small collection of enlarger lenses (about 30-40) and legacy camera lenses I assembled for various reasons.

My first Micro 4/3 camera was a Panasonic Lumix G3, which I used for a few months in order to decide whether the Micro 4/3 idea was viable. I wasn't really satisfied with the available lenses, but after a while the Olympus OM-D E-M5 came out, and it was love at first sight. The E-M1, too. The Panasonic G3 found a second life as a multispectral camera, far better at this, in some respects, than the Nikon D70s. Although the Micro 4/3 format has the largest choice of lenses among mirrorless cameras, lenses for this format sufficiently good to appeal to me have started appearing only recently. After initially purchasing a few not-so-exciting lenses just to enable me to use these Micro 4/3 cameras, I am enlarging or updating their lens kit only when a fully satisfying new model becomes available, which seems to happen perhaps once a year or so.

Olympus OM-D E-M1

A natural question to ask is which camera and lens are my favorite. The answer is simple, and has almost always been the same: the last camera and lens I got.

The rest is just details, and you can read about them on the other photography pages of my site.


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