In Britain there’s a popular BBC radio show called “Desert Island Discs“. Each week a celebrity or public figure has to choose their eight favourite tracks, and explain why they’ve chosen each one. The result is invariably an interesting autobiographical ramble, and you can learn a surprising amount about someone from their choice of tracks.
But can you do the same for cameras? Choosing eight cameras would be too easy. To make it more interesting, what would be your one desert island film camera? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because, ever since I’ve started shooting film, I’ve enjoyed trying out different formats, different types of camera and different sorts of film. But I can’t carry all of them everywhere with me (though I do sometimes try). So I’ve been asking myself: given that it’s only really practical to take one film camera around with me, which one should it be? Which is really a way of asking a much deeper question: what is it that I like about film, and which single camera most perfectly encapsulates it for me?
Since I started to shoot film just over a year ago, I have tried several cameras. I began by borrowing my husband’s Rolleiflex 3.5F. It really is a thing of beauty, and it was a great way to start. Its square format and reversed viewfinder made me look at the world in a new way. Literally. But it’s more than a little bulky and isn’t really a camera to capture those everyday scenes with the kids (especially when everything is back to front). By the time I’d taken the tripod out, metered and focused, the kids had often wandered off to do other things.
Then I bought a Contax 645. What an amazing camera! I mean seriously gorgeous in every way. I often find myself looking through the pictures I have taken with it over and over. Like the Rollei it produces pin-sharp medium-format images, but it’s easier to use, like a big SLR, and has a stunning f/2 Zeiss lens. It’s more than a little bulky, however. What I realised I wanted was a camera I could take everywhere with me alongside my Nikon D800, my trusty digital workhorse.
So I dug out my dad’s old Canon AE-1, replacing the battery and buying a new 50mm f/1.8 lens for it. There was something very satisfying about winding on the film, I have to admit. But the shutter-priority system drove me insane and the viewfinder is dim compared with the Contax, so I struggled to get things in focus.
But I loved the 35mm format. So I spent a long time researching 35mm cameras and their accompanying lenses. I mean weeks and months, looking at cameras and all their details. Finally, I discovered what seemed to be the right solution for me: the Contax Aria, a 35mm Contax model, paired with a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens.
At last I have a film camera I can take everywhere with me. It’s not too big and heavy and seems less serious than the 645. The viewfinder is bright, making it easy to focus. It’s not medium format, but the Zeiss lens is as sharp as you can get on a 35mm camera. We have become inseparable. Of course, I still use my Contax 645 in more formal situations or for particular subjects. I have my collection of Polaroid cameras, and I’ve just ordered a Polaroid Land Model 250 that takes pack film because you can never have too many cameras, right? But the Aria is my desert island camera, the one I would choose if I were marooned somewhere (presumably, an island with a fridge and an infinite stock of film).
Even if you don’t end up buying a new camera, asking yourself the same question is an interesting way to examine your own motivations. In my case, I realised that I wanted to be able to shoot film everywhere, and that portability was more important to me than the sharpness of medium format. Just like the choice of tracks with Desert Island Discs, being forced to make a choice can help you get closer to the essence of the personal vision that drives you as a photographer. Which of your cameras would be the one you would choose to take to a desert island? Whether it’s a film or a digital camera, I’d love to read your choice in the comments.