Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

Do You Use a
Hammer or a Saw

The other day I was asked a question that I haven't heard for a good many years. "What camera do you use?"

I wonder if surgeons are ever asked what tool they use? "Do you use a scalpel or sutures?" How about a carpenter? "Did you build those shelves with a hammer or a saw?"

Probably the most used camera in photojournalism is the 35-mm single lens reflex. While it's not best for everything, it is probably the single most versatile camera made. Add autofocus, auto exposure and a motor, and it's the great butt-saver for the harried photojournalist. No wonder some of the better digital still cameras use the SLR film cameras as their platforms.

But, it's a less than perfect world. A giant conspiracy of gadget bag and carrying case manufacturers, assisted by those camera manufacturers that do not make 35-mm single lens reflexes, have made sure that a photojournalist will carry a heavy burden if he wants to do it all.

Herein are some of the cameras that often come out of my over-packed cases. An 8x10 view camera: At first glance, there's no real reason to use the big box on a journalistic shoot. Admittedly, a 16x20 or 20x24 print from an 8x10 negative can be staggering. But you're not going to stagger when you see an 8x10 camera image in the local paper. However, that big a camera stops a subject in his tracks. The celebrity that is used to being gunned by motorized SLRs and believes he knows more about photographing himself than you do (he may be right), is a true pain in the butt when it comes to getting good and/or different pictures of him. Pull out your 8x10 and say, "Look into the lens and hold still. I am the master here." Works every time. Greg Heisler taught me this stunt. He does it even better than I do because he has an 11x14 view.

By the way, I often use a 4x5 reducing back on my big boy. No one notices. Intimidation still rules.

An underwater camera: I have an old Nikonos that has never been underwater in its entire life, but it sure has seen action as a mud, rain, and grit camera. It paid for itself the first time it rained at an outdoor rock festival. It's been sterilized to work in sensitive labs. And after a hard day on the beach, it takes a shower with me.

Medium format cameras: I use them whenever possible for black-and-white portraiture. I don't use them for increased sharpness; a lot of the time I'm diffusing the image slightly. I use them because they give me a big
enough image on a contact sheet that I can select "the good expressions."

With 35-mm and most subjects, I don't even have to make a contact sheet. I can loupe the negatives, make 8x10 prints of the selected frames and rarely pick a bad frame. But with portraiture, I'm at a loss. A couple of rolls of nearly identical heads with slight variations in expression - I can't pick the right ones from a 35-mm contact sheet much less the negatives. I need the bigger size of roll film to judge human expressions. Almost always, so does the client.

My favorite cameras are the tiny ones, range finder and point-and-push cameras. I have said before that people still know when you are photographing them with a Leica; it's just that they aren't constantly reminded. And, I must say, I enjoy working with small cameras that neither weigh me down nor bog me down. It gives me more pleasure to deal with the subject rather than my camera.

There are obviously other advantages and some disadvantages. The disadvantages first: you can't use long lenses and you can't work at very close distances. Nor do you get that photo-like preview that you get in the viewfinder of a SLR. The advantages: you get a bright, clear viewfinder image in dim, low contrast available-light situations. You get accurate focus of high-speed, wide-angle lenses in dim light. The viewfinder image certainly does not preview the picture; everything is sharp even though your using a F/1.4 lens; you can see outside of the frame that will be the final photograph. And when it comes to news, it's often better to see what is happening and be able to predict what will happen than to use composition, framing and selective focus to make an interesting picture. In that sense, the range finder takes pictures and the SLR makes pictures.

Of course, you give up some of the advantages of the range finder camera when you move to the point-and-push. Exposure automation is rarely as advanced as it is in many larger cameras; autofocus is fooled more often. Lenses aren't fast or interchangeable. And the a viewfinder image can be horrible compared to that of "pro" cameras. I don't care; I just point and push. I rarely look through the finder. When I do, the assumption is I am just a silly tourist that no one should pay attention to. I can shoot a half dozen frames of someone who is three feet away and never be looked at. I feel like Erich Salomon whose Ermanox was no larger than some of today's 35-mm SLRs. Because he wasn't using a big camera, a tripod and flash powder (and because he was duplicitous and sneaky) he was able to photograph where photographers are not welcome.

Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

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