“I guess I’ve shot about 40,000 negatives and of these I have about 800 pictures I like.”
– Harry Callahan
One of the major differences in the way that I see digital and film photographers approach each medium is how rapidly we shoot.
A common mantra among film shooters is “I shoot film because it forces me to slow down.”
But I think that instead of relying on a camera force us to do things, we should force ourselves…
to speed up!
Many film shooters pride themselves on getting things right in camera, with minimal editing, to let the character of the film speak for itself. And I’m one of those shooters.
It’s appealing to shoot film slowly and methodically, to enjoy the haptics of ones camera, and also so as not to waste money on processing failed images. This kind of deliberation is great for editorial, landscapes or any kind of tightly planned imagery, particularly on medium and large formats.
But what about 35mm documentary photography or photojournalism? Or just the stream-of-consciousness type of shooting that many of us do between projects, of our day-to-day lives? Where does speed shooting fit into those types of film photography?
I’m not exactly sure about Harry Callahan’s methods, but for me, few things in life are as exhilarating or as rewarding as rapid firing mechanical film cameras during critical moments. This is where the ergonomics and construction quality of my cameras flee the sideline citations of superficial evaluations and become real, tangible advantages that allow me to react more intuitively and reflexively to a scene, while still remaining in full control of my image. That’s right. I don’t just shoot Leica, for example, because the cameras and lenses feel good. I shoot them because that feel contributes, in a tangible way, to shooting accurately and fast.
I fear that the concept of rapid firing is lost in the increasing cost of film and so, when fast shooting is required, more and more of us turn to the seemingly endless, seemingly free and automated high burst rates of our digital cameras instead. It makes me wonder how many important moments in our lives we have, as film photographers, surrendered to digital instead of the analog medium that is nearer to our hearts, as well as in need of our support.
WHEN TO RAPID FIRE
Rapid firing a film camera doesn’t just come in handy when photographing sports, a celebrity or other important event, but those are of course good times too!
Sometimes, something as commonplace as taking snapshots of our kids, pets or a significant other, going about their daily lives can necessitate rapid firing.
Kids, in particular are notorious for moving quickly, changing facial expressions and eluding their parents’ shutter. Taking three shots a second can often offer us that much better a chance at getting a keeper image.
I find that when I shoot people who are talking, such as during a speech, rapid firing is almost always a necessity too. No matter how well-timed you think you are, a blink or a weirdly shaped mouth, or even someone doing something silly in the background can ruin an otherwise perfect moment.
In many cases, shooting less film can actually be a bigger waste than shooting more film. It’s not worth taking a single shot of a scene if the result isn’t useable. It is, however worth taking three or six shots of a scene if just one of them is perfect and gets published, sold or just liked a lot! Some film photographers are so worried about their “hit ratio,” that they don’t cover scenes as well as they need to be covered in order to ensure a grand slam. Learn, based on your personal needs, when it’s worth consuming some film to rapid fire and when it’s not. But don’t assume that it never is!
When I first started using rapid firing as a technique, I looked for a technological solution. Motordrives for 35mm cameras can offer up to about 6 frames per second at the click of a button.
Motordrives usually feature a single and a continuous mode. When Single is selected, each press of the shutter release button causes the shutter to fire once, just like when you shoot without a motor. But the advantage is that you don’t have to manually wind the film forward. When Continuous is selected, it’s time to bring some extra film because the longer you hold the shutter release button, the more shots will be taken. A single, 36 exposure roll of 35mm film can easily be consumed in well under a minute! Continuous mode is the classic spray-and-pray paparazzi setting that makes that crazy machine gun shutter sound that we’ve all heard in movies and news scenes.
Motordrives seem to be the domain of 35mm and medium format SLR’s but there are some Leica motors for 35mm rangefinders as well. For SLR’s that I personally use, like the FM2n, drives are an accessory that can be mounted and unmounted any time to offer flexibility in terms of the form factor of the camera. Consumer grade and late-model heavily automated professional 35mm cameras have drives built-in so you’re stuck with the rig as it is. Robot brand cameras famously had clock-work motors built into them. I don’t imagine myself ever investing in a Robot, but hey, you can’t talk about motordrives without mentioning the original!
1970’s and ’80’s motordrives typically add considerable size and weight to ones camera rig and require between four to eight double A batteries to operate. That means you should also pack a spare set of batteries and check the ones in the drive before shoots.
Motordrives are also very loud. If you’re using a motordrive, expect to turn some heads – particularly in the 21st century where their sound is even more unheard of (sorry for the pun, I just couldn’t help it!) than it was in the 1970’s through the 90’s. The loudest drive I ever used was for my Nikon F2sb. These get even louder with age as a result of wearing nylon gears. I bought a few copies from KEH that were supposed to be in usable condition but were so loud that I gave up on trying to find one that didn’t stop events and turn attention back on me. Had I really been committed to using a motor on my F2, I should have sent one to Sover Wong to service.
All of the Nikon drives that I’ve used also allow for one to screw in an accessory remote control or additional electronic shutter release button, like the MR-3. So you have some different ways to fire the camera with professional electronic motordrives also.
When dealing with vintage cameras, it’s important to buy/use serviced motordrives. Because of the great mechanical stress that they cause, motordrives should probably be serviced more frequently than the cameras themselves. My motordrives for the Nikon FM series often had electrical contact issues and would suddenly stop working in the middle of shoots despite having been serviced. Luckily, if these MD-11 and MD-12 units did stop working mid-roll, you could switch them off and use the conventional film advance. Or remove the drive from the camera entirely, without exposing your film. I never had any issues with Olympus OM or Pentax M drives but they are smaller, consumer grade units with less features and I don’t use these cameras for 12 hour wedding shoots for that and other reasons. The MD-4 drive for the Nikon F3 is practically a work of art that I never took off the body and was as reliable as the sun and moon. It could also rewind your film, which I really liked. Installing and removing it, however, requires one to open the film compartment so you have to commit to using it.
If you use motor drives, also consider the added stress on the camera itself. Apparently the addition of motor drive capability is partly what caused Leica to move from brass film advance gearing to steel. It’s no joke, drives can put considerable wear on ones equipment. So everything should be routinely maintained if you’re going go this route.
An alternative to motordrives are rapidwinders. I’ve never seen one made specifically for an SLR but for rangefinder shooters, there are some rapid winder options for Leica, Voigtlander and Canon. Maybe others. Rapidwinders do not take batteries and are not nearly as loud or large as motordrives. The Canon ViT even had one built-into the body. With Leica’s, the rapidwinder, or Leicavit, unit replaces the conventional bottom plate of the camera. And with Voigtlander Bessa’s, they simply screw into the bottom of the camera.
Rapidwinders are operated via a collapsible trigger on the bottom plate of the camera. Rather than use ones right thumb to advance the film via a lever moving perpendicular to the camera on a circular post, the rapid winder trigger moves across nearly the full length of the camera in a single, straight path using the left hand.
Rapid winders accommodate faster shooting by allowing you to make use of both hands on the camera simultaneously. Your right hand can fire the shutter while your left hand advances the film. You should also be able to keep your eyes on the finder during all this and crank out about 3 frames per second.
I have used a Voigtlander T-Winder on my Bessa R2 for many years and find it a fun and useful device. However, unlike a motordrive, I find that I need to keep my shutter speed at 125 or faster in order to absorb the camera shake that comes from the winder at speed. With a motordrive, I can comfortably shoot down to my conventional 1/60th on continuous mode without additional camera shake. Maybe I just have bad technique on the T-Winder?
Whereas a motordrive’s noise will garner attention, clicking away in a frenzy with a rapidwinder will also elicit stares. Not because of noise, though that is also of interest, but because they’re very uncommon and people are probably confused as to what exactly you’re doing to your camera!
Rapidwinders are smart because they don’t consume batteries or add considerable size and weight to ones rig. But for some reason they seem to have only been developed for use with rangefinder cameras (aside from the Voigtlander Bessaflex) and are available only for more upper end models. Leica winders, called Leicavits, are pretty costly for M bodies or exotic collectors’ items for screw mounts.
MANUAL MACHINE GUN
After years of confusing the lines between buying technology and developing technique, I’ve largely stopped using accessory devices like motordrives and rapidwinders to speed up my photography. Nowadays, when it’s time to rapid fire, I do it myself using my cameras as they are. I find that I can fire about as many frames per second as a slower motordrive or my Voigtlander rapidwinder using the conventional, built-in advance lever and some practice.
Unlike with an added device, it is critical to put your body on lock-down when you’ve decided you’re about to “machine-gun” your manual camera. By this, I mean that you’re about to shift your concentration away from the scene and into holding the camera and your body tightly. This is both to diminish camera shake as well as to properly and securely hold and operate your camera.
To rapid fire your camera, you need to ensure that the composition of your shot doesn’t change during the motion and that your fingers/hands do not get interrupted from the rhythmic action you’re about to perform. This means that eyeglasses, hair, camera straps, etc are not in the way of your hand and will not get in your way during this motion.
For me, I concentrate on a three-shot burst and follow a rhythm of advance-fire-advance-fire-advance-fire. My mind sort of shifts away from the visual and to the audio of following this rhythm to ensure that it’s executed smoothly. Sometimes I will see that the scene has changed and only take two of my three rhythmic shots. And every once in a while I’ll go to four shots. But it’s all within that rhythm. The rhythm is important to follow because I find that I can get out of sync and fumble the shots or shake the camera too much.
When machine-gunning it on an SLR, the biggest problem that I run into is lack of real estate at the rear of the camera. You see, with an SLR, the viewfinder eyepiece is positioned near the center of the body, only a few centimeters away from the advance lever. If I’m not careful, working the advance lever can conflict with my eyeglasses or my head. At the same time, if my thumb is not tightly connected to the advance lever, it can also fly off of it mid move. And depending on the camera, it can be hard to hold that advance lever securely. I find it much easier to rapid fire my Nikon F2sb than my FM2n for this reason; the F2 is just larger.
On this note, rangefinders can really come into their on for rapid firing – something that I don’t think is often discussed when people compare rangefinders and SLR’s.
With rangefinders, the advance lever is on the far right of the body and the viewfinder eyepiece is on the far opposite side. This allows for plenty of room to just wail on that advance lever and shutter release while maintaining an excellent grip on the camera with ones right hand. Additionally, of course, there’s no flipping mirror to wait for or to vibrate the camera.
With my Nikons, I don’t like to rapid fire unless I’m at 125 or faster, but with my Leica M6, I am okay rapid firing at 60. I may get a little shake in the images on either, depending on how well I execute the technique, but shake is usually to an acceptable degree for my style of photography.
Particularly with the M6 TTL and it’s segmented film advance lever, large, ergonomic shutter speed dial, and built-in light meter, I can shoot faster on this camera than any other all manual camera that I’ve ever used. I seldom need to take my eye off the viewfinder while still having full control. This makes the Leica an excellent body to shoot a wedding ceremony with. When the bride and groom kiss for the first time, I can blow off 3-6 shots of just that one moment and the camera was so quiet during the whole thing that nobody probably paid any attention to me.
On numerous occasions, I’ve simply bewildered other photographers who’ve caught sight of me machine-gunning my M6. A little girl once told me that she’d never seen anyone use a camera so fast. And a friend of a friend once leaned in and told me “I’m a retired Marine and the only time I’ve seen anyone work something that fast was in combat!”
And I say this not to pat myself on the back but to illustrate how noticeably faster one can operate mechanical cameras if one chooses to do so. Their ergonomics and precision were absolutely designed to be pushed by professionals in the heat of the moment. I’m quite sure that there are people who are faster and more effective with it than myself. I encourage everyone to give machine-gunning their cameras a try. You may find a whole other level of appreciation for the ergonomics of these old mechanical cameras. Believe me, their precision is not just for bragging rights, it’s a tangible benefit.
It all makes me wonder why rapidwinders were even developed for rangefinders instead of SLR’s. I guess they came about in the days of knob advance cameras and then stuck?
But anyway, rapid firing without a drive or winder is the way to go for me. It may just take a more specific camera type and practice.
I will say, in defense of motordrives, ones that also rewind, like the Nikon F3 drives, are really useful when you’re shooting two or more cameras at once because you can blow through a roll, set the drive to rewind, continue shooting another body, then come back and unload/reload the rewound body. This saves a lot of time even if makes you sound like a robot! I also found that, in my days of using motordrives at weddings, if used at the correct times (NOT during a quiet echo-y church ceremony) I am pretty sure that brides feel like celebrities with all that noise and attention!
And rapidwinders are just fun. If you ever get a chance to handle one, even if you’re not going to make the investment, their pure mechanical nature is a joy.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
So anyway, I think that’s the sum of my thoughts and advice on rapid firing manual 35mm film cameras. I think it’s important to shoot some scenes as fast as possible not only to ensure that you got the shot but also to give yourself some variations when editing – not to have to settle for anything less than the perfect moment. Sometimes as action is unfolding you just can’t see every detail in a scene so it’s more important to cover it and be picky after-after-the-fact than it is to be picky while you’re shooting and potentially miss something be a small margin. Sometimes too, you just want to give people a couple versions of something, so that they can decide which version most clearly represents what they want to look like.
I know that film prices keep going up lately and you might second guess somebody who advocates blowing through it any faster than necessary, but for certain types of photography and particular moments, I have come to rely on rapid firing to get the absolute best version of a shot, or even a cool sequence of shots. After all, with photography, it’s better to walk away with more than not enough.
Thanks for reading. Happy RAPID shooting.
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