Cameras have come full circle in terms of simplicity, from the box cameras of yesteryear to the digital do-it-alls of today. I know which I prefer though.
I’ve been toying with box cameras recently. Although I basically keep my collection under control (well-compared to some!) and of course have my default favourites, i.e. the cameras I would rescue if the flat was burning down (my Pentacon Six, Welta Weltaflex, and maybe a Praktica, Lubitel or my Mamiya if I had time), I feel it’s always nice to have something a little different in one’s armoury occasionally. My Pouva Start for example is my tip of the hat to the ‘soft’ but saturated medium format toy camera look one sometimes wants, and my Beirette is similarly my tip of the hat to the type of simple, cheap-as-chips point-and-shoot camera, kept in a pocket or glove compartment, which sometimes proves inspiring.
Of late, box cameras have sort of interested me though, partly because they’re so darn cheap. I have a Zeiss Box Tengor which I got recently for under a tenner, and I’m looking at maybe a British made Ensign Easy-Vue.
These are primitive cameras, not for everyday photography or for when you want that guaranteed excellent landscape or portrait shot (for that, with me, it’s then an East German SLR or a TLR like the Mamiya all the way). The only thing more basic than a box camera is a pinhole camera. I don’t see me getting a load of them. But they have two major points of curiosity/interest-the sheer simplicity of their operation (fixed shutter speed, usually 1/30) and the lenses which give photographs an instant ‘vintage’ look.
They generally need decent sunlight, and focus tends to be guesswork but, when you think about it, they’re actually doing what all modern digital cameras also aspire to-breaking photography down into the simplest steps possible. All the major decisions, such as aperture, focus and shutter speed, are more or less already made for you, much like on most modern digital SLRs. Of course, the difference in image quality-measured by sharpness , detail and contrast-is pretty extreme, and there are no real options to, for example, deliberately generate bokeh. But I don’t need every camera to produce images worthy of a Bronica or Rollei-my Pentacon Six and Mamiya C330 are more than sufficient for that, at much less purchasing cost. On the other hand, I like some (old) cameras that remove ones choices almost completely, in ways that I cannot like comparable modern digital machines that aim for the same outcome. And finally, these box cameras demonstrate, when you think about it, that film itself is actually pretty amazing in terms of its qualities-that you can put film in a camera which basically has fixed shutter speed, limited focus possibilities, and little or nothing in the way of aperture settings, and still get interesting/usable images out the other end. The fact that it makes you really appreciate the qualities of film itself-the generosity of the chemistry if you will-is reason enough, once in a while (for me at least, certainly not every day) to get out my Pouva Start or Box Tengor, and use some of the most primitive cameras imaginable to modern man.