Classifying my collection: How many cameras do I need?

My favorite folding cameras
Some of my favorite folding cameras and other vintage photographic items on my display wall. The Pentax Auto 110 SLR is waiting to be reviewed… (Daniel J. Schneider)

The other day a discussion on Twitter got me thinking about how I think of my cameras — about how I classify them and why each one is around.

A lot of us film guys have tons of cameras. Are we collectors or photographers? It’s possible we’re really both. I know I am.

It all started when Ribnar tweeted a link to my article on how I estimate camera values, and Jef Price pointed out that it was a good guide for a photographer, but that collectors might spend considerably more for a camera without as much concern for its functionality.

Before long, we were discussing the sizes of our collections, which led to questions about how big a collection ought to be and why. How many cameras do you need? How many is too many? Is there an absolute minimum?

Do you have different cameras for different types of work? You almost certainly have a variety of lenses for different situations, at the very least. How many different kits or cameras do you have and why? How attached to them are you?

Having more than one makes a certain amount of sense, and some of the reasons seem fairly obvious. Medium format excels at producing big, sharp negatives for fashion or portraiture, and can be plenty acceptable for landscapes and travel work. Large format is the undisputed king of the landscape realm, and can be great for highly-detailed work like product photography or other studio situations. 35mm is easier to carry around, and hard to beat for vacations, street work and photojournalism.

This isn’t to say you can’t use large format for street photos (Louis Mendes, anyone?) or photojournalism (David Burnett, ladies and gentlemen), or that great portraits can’t be made with a 35mm camera (ask Henri Cartier-Bresson and his Leica). The camera is still a tool, and not everyone’s best tool for the job is going to be the same (if it were, there’d be no Nikon vs. Canon debate — neither would ever have gotten off the ground).

It seems equally obvious, though, that too much gear can be a problem. Especially if you’re trying to move between it too often.

Most serious working photographers have a limited number of purpose-driven cameras. Many even get so dedicated to a single system they become inextricably intertwined — Cartier-Bresson had his Leica, Robert Capa carried Contax, Arthur “Weegee” Fellig always had a Graflex Speed Graphic, and Richard Avedon and Irving Penn both swore by Rolleiflex. Some of us aren’t so quick to make up our minds, though.

Dev Samaddar wisely points out the real problem with switching systems too often, though — after Ribnar points out the real reason we’re all addicted to cameras!

I can vouch for this — since one of my pastimes is fiddling with cameras from thrift stores, I’m always using different stuff. It can be jarring, and sometimes a particular camera’s unique operation or ergonomics can definitely impact my ability to make the pictures I want to make. Plenty of my test photos really don’t meet my expectations. How often is it just because I’m not used to the camera?

The disconnect happens often enough that it plays into the ratings I give cameras. Ease of use is always important, but so is ease of adoption. Results, of course, could trump all that. Box cameras are so easy to use they’re almost impossible to go wrong with — but I would never use one for anything I hoped to make a worthy print from unless I wanted that vintage look specifically.

Beyond all that, some cameras are just plain cool. They’re beautiful, or historic, or some other kind of collector’s item — maybe personally nostalgic or very rare. The more you’ve got like this, the more likely it is you’re a collector.

So how does all that play into how I divide my cameras? Well, I have all my cameras mentally sorted into three categories:

Working cameras

These are cameras or systems that I acquired with the intention of making good photographs.

Pentax 6x7 MLU and lenses
My Pentax 6×7 MLU and a few of my favorite lenses. The strap and lugs came to me unused and in the original plastic wrapping for less than the price of a set lugs by themselves. (Daniel J. Schneider)

My working cameras are past the point of experimentation and are in good working order. They mostly live in ready-to-go camera bags, or have a strap attached, and so on. Most do not have a place assigned on my display shelves. The accessories I have allow me to do the work for which I bought the system, and I have spare batteries (where applicable).

My working cameras consist of:

Yashica-Mat film advance crank
The crank! The Yashica-Mat features a film advance crank instead of the knobs on many other TLRs. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Pentax 6×7 system: Two bodies, six lenses, straps, a dozen filters, cable release, cold-weather battery adapter, a ready supply of fresh film, and a dedicated bag with spare batteries, tripod plates and notebooks.

Nikon system: Two FM2n bodies and an F3 body with Domke straps, four lenses, half a dozen filters, lens hoods, two Vivitar 283 flashguns, and a dedicated bag with spare batteries, notebooks and three fully-loaded Hama Film-Safe X lead-lined 35mm containers.

Large format: 4×5 Graflex Pacemaker Crown Graphic, two lenses, film holders, cable release, tripod, focusing hood, loupe, light meter, dedicated hard case and other accessories.

Yashica-Mat: My favorite 6×6 camera, and my favorite TLR, all in one. Has no accessories and requires no batteries. I prefer not to use a strap with a waist-level finders. I carry it in my small Domke F5x-b bag when I take it out.

Permanent collection

I adopted this term from museums. To me it represents cameras that have historic or personal significance, and which I don’t intend to sell or give away. Further evidence that I am part collector, and I have the shelves of display cameras to back it up.

Not all have been tested or reviewed, but many have been. I still use some of these from time to time, as well, but usually more for fun, or for work that isn’t as important.

There may be others, but here is a partial list of my permanent collection cameras:

Imperial Herco 620 bakelite snapshot toy camera front
A front view of the Imperial Herco 620 Snap Shot toy camera, and one of my first ventures into product photography. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Imperial Herco 620 Snap Shot: The first film camera that I actually owned, and a masterpiece of simple design. Also, I love Bakelite. (My review)

Kodak Brownie Junior Six-16: Personal significance is the real key here — I found it at an antique shop on vacation and I like the memory. It’s also an attractive camera, and the only 616 format camera I have.

Kodak No. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawkeye Model B: My first working working folding camera, and memorable because of the trip during which I found it. Also a lovely camera for display. (My review)

Kodak Six-20 Bulls-Eye: Representative of a great thrift-store find and a rather unique box camera. I love the way it looks on the shelf. (My review)

Konica Auto S2: My first rangefinder, and still one of my favorites. Very sharp lens, manual controls and no battery-dependence. Also one of my first repair jobs (stuck shutter and aperture) and still among the quietest cameras I’ve ever seen. (My review)

Leica IIIc: A gift from my parents, and my only Leica. Don’t know that much about it yet, but I know it won’t be going away.

Nikon F2: A thing of beauty, and my go-to camera for post-apocalyptic scenarios. The fact that it can share my other Nikon glass is a big bonus. It’s also great to have around for size comparisons.

Olympus 35RC and Fuji Acros
The Olympus 35RC and a roll of 35mm Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 film. The Olympus is a tempest in a teacup with its superb lens and full manual controls. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Olympus 35RC: A tiny rangefinder with great glass, a big and bright viewfinder, and fully manual controls. Excellent discrete walking-around camera. (My review)

Olympus Trip 35: A design home-run that’s tough to beat for simplicity. Superb lens, too. Despite being a very recent addition to the collection, I foresee it being on the shelf a long time.

Pentax ME Super: My dad’s camera — and therefore full of personal significance. It’s also a truly great camera, and very compact. (My review)

Pentax Spotmatic SP: Just a really great m42 SLR that I want to keep around, not just because I have several nice m42 Takumar lenses, and so I can play with more m42 lenses in the future. Elegant design, looks good on the shelf, and feels good in the hand. (My review)

Voigtlander Bessa I: Another gift from my parents, and in lovely shape. While it has its optical issues, it’s fully functional and makes nice pictures. It’s also just plain fun to use and among the best of my 6×9 folders. (My review)

Wayward Cameras

This is pretty much all the rest. I’ve referred to my collection before as a Home for Wayward Cameras, in part because some of the cameras were added only so I could find them a good home where they would be used and appreciated. Some are duplicates and some are broken, partially or completely.

Box cameras on a shelf
Some box cameras and other miscellaneous vintage cameras from my collection. About half are Kodaks. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Most of these cameras were added to the collection because they were cheap or unique, or even just new to me. Many of them will eventually be tested and reviewed. Some have been already. Some may never be.

They key thread here is that these cameras hold little or no special significance to me and, once they’ve been reviewed, are up for grabs. That could mean for sale, or even just to give away.

Some examples include my three Olympus XA2s, several Kodak Retina folding cameras and Instamatics, some other box cameras, and a plethora of miscellaneous pro- and consumer-grade 35mm SLRs.

At some point in the future I do intend to post a list of the cameras I’m done with and offer them for sale, but I just haven’t quite gotten there yet.

So, how many?

How many do I actually need? Maybe three or four. How many do I want to keep? A couple dozen. How many do I have?

Well, that’s something not even I am completely sure of…

Nikon FM2n and lenses
Nikon FM2n with several of my favorite lenses. I have two of these rock-solid SLRs and pair them with an F3 body sometimes, too. (Daniel J. Schneider)
  • If you scan through my blog, you’ll find references to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras … seems like my idea wasn’t original! :-)

    I have collected cameras for 40 years. At the moment, I have probably 100 in my little house, and I’m running out of places to keep them. So I’m slowly thinning the herd. I’ve given away a couple dozen of them, am selling a few more dozen on eBay, and will probably pitch a dozen or so that are broken and not in any demand.

    I’m keeping cameras I know I will shoot again, cameras that I just think are cool, and (among 35mm SLRs) a representative body and prime lens for several well-known systems. And, frankly, the cameras in that last group are on the bubble, and might go in a later purge. Because like you said, at some point the lines blur between whether you’re a collector or a photographer — and now I’m starting to think I’m a little more the latter.

    • Argh! You probably even beat me to it. I remember Googling around to try not to copycat anyone when I decided to start calling it that, but apparently I missed your references! Well, at least our names are different, right? I don’t mind sharing if you don’t.

      Yeah, I’m starting to think a lot more about consolidating. I have probably a dozen cameras that are in line for reviews, and one the review is published I don’t need the camera in my hand anymore, so those will go then … I just need to get the reviews done…