What I’ve Learned About Photo Gear Over the Past 40 Years

Editor’s note: “Tenzing Norgay” is the penname used by the author of this article. He is not related to the famous mountaineer.

This entire story is about black-and-white film shooting, but I hope there are good lessons in this for you youngsters shooting digital. Hopefully, you won’t take this as being arrogant, condescending, or hectoring. I offer this in the spirit of something I’ve found to be fascinating for some four decades.

I have been a very active photographer for most of the past 40+ years. In my early days, I thought I wanted to be a pro and actually worked as a photo assistant and freelance shooter while still in my teens. I rapidly learned that photography was wired into me — I don’t breathe right if I don’t get to make pictures or go into the darkroom regularly.

I also learned that I just hated the business of photography: it’s the difference between being a painter and a house painter. To this day, I just cringe inside when someone says, “Bring a camera, we want pictures of Thanksgiving/Christmas/birthdays/etc…”

A few years ago, I noticed that most of my serious portfolio photos and wall hangings were from the midpoint of my shooting career onward. I had very little from my early days. So, with decades of improvement in my darkroom skills, I went back to the earliest negatives to fill out a “best of” set.

As I looked at the work of the young me, I realized a couple of things: (1) I wasn’t half bad as a young kid, and (2) The pictures had a lot of technical imperfections and limitations. Uh oh… another project began to form in my mind. I needed to find out whether the problem was the equipment of the day or whether it was my problem.

See, as I progressed as a photographer, every “upgrade” of camera meant I had to sell the old one. That meant I didn’t ever really do direct comparisons of how much of an “upgrade” it really was. But film cameras are relatively cheap on eBay now, and I’m fairly good at fixing up the basics. “So”, I thought, “I shall reacquire every great camera I’ve ever owned, get it working again, and see just how much of a difference there is between the old stuff and my newest super-duper stuff”.

My benchmark would be my modern workhorses: a Hasselblad V system and a Wisner 4×5 Technical Field camera with superb lenses from Schneider, Rodenstock, and Artar. I shoot 99.9% monochrome and have a great darkroom, so I could control the entire testing cycle. The other thing I decided is that I was NOT going to shoot resolution charts or do densiometric testing. I would do this by making real pictures.

I’d just created a monster. Over the years, I’ve shot in every format from 16mm to 4×5, and with almost every major brand at one point or another. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve probably shot nearly a hundred different combinations of brands and formats. I therefore had to limit myself to cameras I actually loved and used regularly, not something I owned briefly or did not use.

The final list ended up being this (an X next to it means I’ve got it, and it’s fully functional. This is in the order I got them in the first place, though not in the order that I reacquired them):

With each camera I acquired, I made sure I got it working. In a few cases, I had a repair tech go through them to do CLAs and light maintenance. The hardest one to do was the Baby Speed Graphic because it was made over 60 years ago and parts are… hard to find. McMaster-Carr saved my bacon on that one. I rebuilt that sucker by hand and it works flawlessly now.

I want to emphasize that, while I love all this hardware, I am NOT “collecting” it. I looked for decent condition stuff, but not prisine mint collectibles. I want to USE it to do the “Was it me or was it the equipment?” experiment. Along the way, this also morphed into “How does the old stuff compare with the new?”

So, I started fixing them and shooting with them, sometimes for weeks, more often for months. Along the way, I learned some really important things about photography and — even more importantly — about myself as a photographer:

The problem with my old pictures was 99% me. They were failings of technique, not limitations of the equipment. For example, the stuff I just shot last year with the Nikon F doesn’t compare to my modern medium and large-format stuff — I wouldn’t expect it to given the format differences. BUT, it is better than 90% of the medium format stuff I shot 40 years ago. That, friends and neighbors, is a lack of technique.

The young me had a pretty good sense of composition and lighting, and no chops to consistently deliver results. My old negs are thin, hard to print, and infuriating because I know exactly what I was trying to pull off; I just couldn’t.

40 years of technique improvements makes a huge difference. I can command these old cameras to do things now that I wouldn’t have even understood 4 decades ago. I can pull things out of a print in a darkroom I didn’t even know were possible back then.

Format matters more than equipment. A 30-year-old medium-format camera with a decent lens will equal or better all but the very highest-end modern DSLRs. By “better”, I mean better dynamic range, tonal rendering, and acuity. Make that a 4×5 and it beats everything in sight. No amount of tweaking and begging can make even the most recent 35mm negs do what even a 645 can handle. It’s physics, not magic.

The old optics were way better than anyone realizes. The Baby Speed Graphic has a 101mm Ektar on it and this lens is so sharp you can shave with it. It’s ridiculous how good those old lens designers were. Similarly, the late model Mamiya TLR and 645 lenses are absolutely top rate.

My favorite old Nikon lenses still fit my modern Nikon DSLR. The 24mm f/2.8 and the 105mm f/2.5 are arguably the best lenses Nikon ever made. The 105mm on the Nikkormat body rocks as a handheld portrait camera.

The difference in image quality between the oldest (Baby Speed) and newest (Hasselblad V) is invisible to me. This is a bit disappointing, considering that the Baby Speed cost me about $300 all in with parts and I paid north of $3000 for a single ‘Blad lens some years ago. But, part of this is the difference in format: 6×6 vs 6×9 is a BIG difference in neg real estate.

My favorite format will always be 6×9. It’s a huge neg without a huge camera. It starts to approach 4×5 in quality but you can hand hold and do street shooting with it. I am so itching to find a Mamiya Universal at a decent price.

I never even came close to realizing the potential of that Yashica — probably because I was trying to use the onboard meter, which is nearly useless. But the lens and body? Amazing.

Some cameras just feel right in my hands. The Hassy and the Fuji are top-quality pieces of gear, but I never feel like they are an extension of me. On the other hand, the Baby Speed, the Mamiyas, and the old Nikons just put me into a subconcious flow of work. The Wisner puts me on another planet. The lesson here is that the gear doesn’t make that much difference EXCEPT that it causes you to work in different ways and thereby be receptive to different possibilities.

I hope to do this for a long time yet. If the Good Lord allows, I think I’d like my last breath to either be looking through a camera, or with my hands in fixer.

About the author: “Tenzing Norgay” is a longtime analog photographer and an active Redditor. This post was originally published here.

Image credits: Analog Kit by Ruud Raats, Darkroom (365/365) by Jack Amick, The World Through Ground Glass by Shawn Hoke, Product Shot by Dr. RawheaD

  • Amryl Malek

    Good read!

  • craig sutters

    good experiment and good write up. I am a much younger photographer, but I love going back and questioning/ referencing skills and ability.

    I’d say the majority of it was me, but I had many limitations in my equipment. It was still me for the fact that I wouldn’t have known what to do with the equipment anyways.

  • Richard

    When I read the name “Tenzing Norgay” I’m old enough to think it’s this man:

    Or, his son:

    Is there a relation?

  • Michael Zhang

    Sadly, no. It’s a pseudonym :)

  • Kevin Mandara

    My friends say I am crazy but I realy miss the magic I could do in a real darkroom. photoshop is nice but an enlarger and some chem trays are tangeable. I miss that.

  • Richard

    Interesting, I wonder why he’s take the famous name of the (arguably, maybe Hillary) first man on Everest?

  • mko

    that cameras must be silver and black

  • bryan willman

    I’m sure this is generally true. I suggest two *narrow* counter claims:
    a. It won’t apply so well to old digital versus new – because the sensors changed so much. That’s more equvalent to comparing Super-X to Tmax. You’d see that difference…
    b. It doesn’t apply to camera features that enable more work – high ISOs, low cost waterproof cameras, high frame rates for the handful of cases where that matters.
    And current me probably makes fewer technical errors now, but also does fewer really clever experiments that sometimes pan out and sometimes don’t, compared to younger me.

  • jos

    You are missing the Olympus OM camera’s and lenses. Great stuff!

  • Ralph Hightower

    It’s great to hear from a photographer that still uses film in a digital world. I am still using my Canon A-1 that I bought new 30 years ago. I added a Canon FD 28mm lens to my arsenal nearly a year ago.
    My camera has been reliable. For this year, I am using B&W film exclusively. 2012 is a year of experimentation, of learning to use different B&W filters for me. I primarily use C-41 B&W film instead of traditional B&W film since I can get C-41 developed locally.
    I want to get a medium format camera, perhaps the Mamiya RZ67, maybe a 645 when I need a longer reach than a 6×7.
    I will buy a DSLR one of these days, but I have definitely recovered the ROI on my A-1. The costs of buying film and developing costs is less than buying the latest DSLR and lenses.

  • W3PYF

    I started on the same quest, to reacquire one of every camera I’d ever owned over 50 years in photography. Then, I decided to try to acquire one of every camera I lusted after as a teen or college student, but couldn’t afford. Along the way, I became interested in the cameras produced in the immediate post-war Japan period. Then, the American cameras produced in the same period. Then the Soviet era cameras.

    Finally, when the collection topped 70, I stopped. They’re now all arranged on 5 shelves in my living room. What a joy to pick up a Leica IIIa, a Canonflex, a Mamiyaflex C-3, a Topcon Super D, a Canon F1n, a Nikon F with a 105mm f2.5, a Canon T90 with an 85mm f1.2, a Canon IVS2 rangefinder, an Olympus OM-1 – and Dad’s Hasselblad 500C and Linhof Press Teknika, the latter draped with his PPA Master’s gold medal and sash.

    Surprise cameras: The Kiev 4A with a Jupiter 53mm f2, and the Zenit C SLR built on a Leica screw-mount body, and a Helios-44 58mm f2 lens – both OUTSTANDING shooters. Disappointments? None – they were ALL great cameras!


  • wickerprints

    You need to make it clearer in the header of this article that it *is* in fact a pseudonym. You should NOT simply write “Tenzing Norgay” as the author, because that name belongs to a specific and well-known person. Doing so creates a great deal of confusion and is sloppy. If the author wished to go by the pseudonym “Barack Obama,” would you have done the same?

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the feedback. We’ve modified the “about the author” section to be more explicit about the fact that the name is a pseudonym. The famous Tenzing Norgay passed away nearly three decades ago, so it would be more like using the name “John F. Kennedy” or something. Wouldn’t have done the same with “Barack Obama”. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Michael Zhang

    We’ve added a note to the very top informing readers of this fact. Thanks :)

  • John Kantor

    I think Keyser Soze here is looking at the past through rose-colored filters.

  • madmax

    Nothing like big collodion glass plates and very practical indeed for kids, pets and sports photography…

  • Chris Popely

    You should really reign in that tone. It’s abrupt and rude, not necessary.

  • The_photographer_Tom

    I also feel nostalgic about the film camera days and have my EOS 5 and loads of accessories which I’m loathe to part with.

    I wrote about my camera family tree here:

  • Sporkguy

    35mm film is expensive to buy, expensive to develop and generally a pain to work with.

  • phloiterer

    Thanks for the essay, it is a genuinely nteresting experiment and your presentation was done well. I suppose i might have also guessed something similar–90% of old me’s photo problems were my skill deficit not camera deficiencies–but i dont have the patience to actually generate good data like yours. Of course, since i still use my first serious camera (om3 bought new), i can just look at the progression…
    However, a large part of how and why my skills are better now is that i have experience generated from using a variety of cameras, each of which ‘taught’ me something. And the biggest teacher was undoubtedly the immediate feedback loop of digital… digital has unquestionably made me a much better film photographer.
    I have to wonder one thing about your test though… Some of those old cameras were darn hard to focus well, which i am surprised doesnt cause you some frustration. You also sound like you’re getting some (most?) of the improvement in results by virtue of improved exposure and darkroom technique. All well and fine. But not really comparing cameras in terms of their own contributions–things like handling, getting the shot in a difficult situation.
    Still, well done and rock on-

  • Likes PetaPixelarticles

    Winkerprints…Are you aware there was a very fine documentary series on British TV called Wickers World? From ’59 to ’88 Alan Wickers took us all over the world covering subjects we had never heard of before.
    Relax-no one will ever confuse you with the great Alan Wicker.

  • Tim

    I shoot both film and digital, and i have to disagree. Film is EXPENSIVE. £4.40 – £5 for a roll of 120 or 12 shots. I love using it, but since you can get a canon 30D for about £150 these days there’s really no comparison.

  • Scott Hutchison

    I love my Russians. My Zorki 4 with Jupiter 8 goes with me everywhere.

  • TenzingNorgay

    I am the author of this article and wanted to respond to a couple of comments here:

    – First, thanks for the very warm reception!

    – I chose “TenzingNorgay” as a name on Reddit because it has absolutely nothing to do with me, my background, or what I do for a living. I admire him greatly, of course, but I prefer to maintain my privacy on the ‘Net and that name will not help anyone figure out who I really am :)

    – The Olympus OM-1 family is on my “nice if you get one at a great price” list. I owned an OM-1 system for some years and it was very fine in every way: Great optics, great build quality, and – most of all – small and light for the time.

    – Film is not particularly slow process. It takes less than an hour end-to-end to hang the film to dry. *Printing* takes time.

    – Film and digital are not in competition. They are fundamentally different art forma. Film “sees” light much differently than does a sensor – the so-called HD curves are different and grain is not exactly the same thing as noise. Both will coexist for a very long time. The synthesized did not put Steinway pianos out of business.

    – Every serious photographer owes it to themselves to master film and paper printing – the sooner the better. NOTHING will help you understand how to read light better than working with traditional media because – when you get it wrong – you cannot just magically fix it in PhotoShop.

    – There are some things you can only do in digital. But there are also some things you simply cannot do at all in digital – not at any reasonably price anyway. As I mentioned in the article, large format film beats everything in sight for sheer rendering power, dynamic range, and tonality.

    Remember: The causal user “takes” pictures. Photographers *make* pictures.

    Happy Shooting…

  • Troy Holden

    You can get Arista Premium 400 (repackaged Tri-X) for $2.69/roll at Freestyle Photo (online). If you develop yourself, it’s another $0.30/roll for chemicals.

    You can shoot ~5 rolls/week for under $15!

  • Troy Holden

    Hmm. Second time leaving this comment. Was it deleted for some reason? My original comment text below:

    “35mm black/white is cheap! You can get rolls of Arista Premium 400 (repackaged Tri-X) at Freestyle Photo for $2.69/roll. If you develop your own negatives like I do, chemicals will cost you around $0.30 a roll.

    You can shoot ~5 rolls/week for under $15! #beleiveinfilm”

  • Guest

    What the heck, now they are both showing? Something is amiss with Disqus it seems.

  • mikemike9

    This is a very belated reply, but I concur with you and Scott. I have a Jupiter 8 that came with a very good Zorki 4K, and I’m now occasionally using it on a Zorki 5 (which is gorgeous), and more often than that on an adapter on digital.

    It bears repeating that there are some truly great lenses out there for next to no money.

  • Tim

    Just think what the profit-margins must be on high-street film development these days… The last time I checked it was something like 10-20p a roll in chemistry.

  • Tim

    You can use a desktop scanner (eg V700) for MF and LF work, but it’s a real bugger to get anything decent off 35mm without a dedicated film scanner.

    People should factor this in when counting the cost of film.

    Me, I’ve got bored of chemistry going sour in the months between evenings spent up to elbows in fixer, and can easily get results I like out of digital.


    I recently pulled out my old Nikon F’s and the only thing I missed was the auto focus. The eyes aren’t as good as they used to be!

  • Vernon Chalmers

    Elegantly written – enjoyed reading about an era that is [still] almost unknown to me. Not by age, but ignorance of older technology, but nevertheless I appreciate you sharing parts of your own very significant journey.

    Vernon Chalmers

  • Jeff

    What’s stopping you?