Birney Imes: Cameras I have owned (and loved)


Birney Imes



Lately, I've been thinking about buying a digital camera, one with professional features. While I've taken plenty of pictures with point-and-shoot digitals, I've yet to fully embrace the trend that almost overnight relegated film to the same status as record albums.


In those days, you bought a camera and used it, well, all your life. As I write this, I have within arm's reach a Nikon single-lens-reflex camera and a Leica rangefinder, both purchased in the 1970s and both still in excellent working condition. How many of today's digital cameras are going to be working 40 years from now? Very few, I'd venture.


This year, Canon, arguably the preeminent digital camera maker, has brought to the market 15 new cameras, according to, a website devoted to digital photography. In 2014 Canon released 16 new models. Crazy.



That is to say, there are a lot of choices out there, and that's not even getting into phone cameras, a trend that someday soon may make obsolete digital cameras.


For now, though, the Internet is filled with exhaustive (and exhausting) reviews of digital cameras one can waste hours parsing.


I got my first camera when I was about 10 or 12 years old. At the time my father dabbled in photography, and for some reason thought I should too. I don't remember the details, but I somehow ended up with a Yashica twin-lens reflex, a clunky Rube Goldberg of a camera (If you ever took a photography course at The W, chances are you've held the Yashica.) We set up a darkroom in the pump house that, as I remember, had a perpetually wet floor and moss growing on the wall.


An 8x10 glossy of our German schnauzer is the only residue of that early foray into the medium.


Many years later I became interested in photography, first tinkering with cameras my father owned, then buying a Leica M4. I bought the Leica in 1974 with money I'd saved from delivering The Dispatch to the residents of Chickasaw Drive many years earlier.


One of my photographic role models, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson roamed the world with a Leica searching for, as he termed it, the "decisive moment," (Google "Cartier-Bresson Faulkner" to see his wonderful portrait of William Faulkner), and, for a time, I did likewise on the streets of my hometown.


Many of photography's iconic images were made with the Leica. The camera is a mechanical marvel, a precisely made 35 mm rangefinder with a dial for shutter speed, an aperture ring on the lens and a self-timer -- no more. As a rangefinder, the camera has no mirror that slaps with each exposure; thus, it is small and quiet, traits favored by street photographers for whom speed and stealth are paramount.


The Leica, like a fine acoustic guitar or a handmade knife, is one of those things you can hold in your hands and know you're holding something that approaches art.


The marketplace affirms this assertion; M4s available on eBay sell for far more than I paid for mine 40 years ago. (Too, there are many Leica collectors out there.)


The Nikon F2, bought about the same time, is a clunker of a camera. It's built like a steam locomotive. For years it was the go-to camera for news and sports photographers, who bolted a motor drives to them and ran thousands of rolls of film through them. I suspect the one I own will be good for another half century.


In contrast to the Leica, the Nikon, like most film cameras, can be had on eBay for a fraction of its original price.


The two cameras are now bookends, relics of an age forever gone.


Not long ago, I took the Leica down and put it in the hands of a grandchild. As he clicked the shutter and thumbed the film advance, his eyes lit up.


We were both transfixed by the whisper of the shutter, for me, the memories it evoked, and for him, perhaps, the unknowable possibilities it suggested.











Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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