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My First Camera: An Homage to Analog

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A camera obscura box with sliding door from the early 1800s trumpeted as the world’s first camera [2] was recently on display in Macau, China. Its simple method for capturing light and projecting an image continues to drive camera technology today.

Fast forward 200 years, and digital has more than arrived; it is the standard camera format for the world’s photographers. Yet, many of us learned our craft on what some call “analog” cameras.

My first camera was a Minolta X700 from the early ’80s, given to me by my boarding school houseparent. It was my freshman year of high school and I’d gotten a spot in the coveted B&W Photography class, but I didn’t have a camera! My houseparent was gracious enough to give me hers, and I used it for years — until I purchased my own Minolta SLR.

As a shy teenager, my first film camera countered my natural desire to observe rather than participate. It forced me to interact with others and opened up a whole new way of seeing life. With it, I learned the basics of f-stops, shutter speeds and depth of field.

With only 36 exposures per roll of film, I was forced to closely study composition in the camera’s frame and truly decide whether a shot was worth taking.

First Cameras of Famous Photographers

All this nostalgia got me thinking of the masters who were my first photography influences. I wondered, “What were their first cameras?” I did a little research — and found some uniquely personal, life-changing stories.

Mary Ellen Mark

As a 9-year-old child fascinated “by that sense of time stopping and a moment being preserved forever,“ Mary Ellen Mark [3] started taking pictures with a Box Brownie camera. A fine art major, she was lost about what direction to take in life — and then she encountered photography again: “From the moment I picked up a camera for my first school assignment, there was no turning back. I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.”

Gordon Parks

The road to becoming the first African-American photographer for Life magazine started when Gordon Parks [4] got his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, at a pawnshop in Seattle for $7.50. Of that purchase he once said, “I bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism.”

Alfred Stieglitz

In 1883, Alfred Stieglitz [5] bought his first camera, which he saw in the window of a shop in Berlin. He later said about the experience: “I bought it and carried it to my room and began to fool around with it. It fascinated me, first as a passion, then as an obsession.”

Annie Leibovitz

In Annie Leibovitz [6]’s book At Work, the photographer says “I bought my first real camera in Japan, a Minolta SR-T 101. The first thing I did with it was take it on a climb up Mt. Fuji.” Leibovitz’s triumphant trek up Japan’s tallest mountain poignantly ends with her photographing “the sunrise with the two or three frames I had left.”

Joel Meyerowitz

While working as a junior art director on a project in the 1960s, Joel Meyerowitz [7] was sent on a photo shoot with photographer Robert Frank. That same day he quit his job with dreams of photographing the world. His then boss asked, “Do you even have a camera?” Joel replied “No,” but was blessed when his boss offered him his. “With that camera,” says Meyerowitz, “I went out onto the streets of New York and began my life. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that man.”

Walker Evans

And just as there is a first, there will eventually be a last camera. Walker Evans [8] took the last shots of his life, which became his second largest body of color work, with a Polaroid SX-70. Of his experience, Evans remarked, “Nobody should touch a Polaroid [camera] until he’s over 60.”

Sammy Davis Jr.

Although I didn’t encounter this little known photographer until recently [9], in the tradition of friends gifting cameras, I loved this anecdote about Sammy Davis Jr.’s first. He said, “Jerry [Lewis] gave me my first important camera, my first 35 millimeter, during the Ciro’s period, early ’50s, and he hooked me.”

What Camera Hooked You?

Our destinies are often played out in split-second decisions and choices occurring by chance. That same gratitude Meyerowitz felt for his boss is what I feel for my houseparent.

I can’t imagine my life without photography, and I often think, “What if she never had that Minolta?” (Thank you, Cheryl!)

So to all you digital converts out there, I ask you: what was your first camera? In retrospect, that film camera may not be as sexy as your digital powerhouse. But I want to know what camera ignited your passion to start your journey as a photographer. Feel free to leave your answers in the comments!

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32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "My First Camera: An Homage to Analog"

#1 Comment By Charles Carstensen On August 13, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

A Baby Brownie Special. It used 127 film. My parents gave it to me as a gift, the occasion is long gone from my memory. Still have it. Your statement "I can't imagine life without photography" is very very true for me. Photography has and will always be a part of my life.

#2 Comment By Joseph L. Harris On August 13, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

A Pentax K1000 that I borrowed indefinitely from a friend, and then lost when I carelessly left it in my unlocked car.

#3 Comment By Trudy On August 13, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

Vivitar 110. I loved the way 110 film looked. 🙂 Then in art camp at age 12 I had a Canon, but it still escapes me as to what model, was a 35mm film SLR. I was so in love with the medium that I guess I never paid attention to the model. It didn't belong to me...was a loaner from the camp because I couldn't afford such a camera at the time.

#4 Comment By Walter Tychnowicz On August 13, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

My first camera was a Minolta SRT 101 that I had inherited from father when he passed away in 1982. After that I had traded the camera up for a Minolta X-700 and then bought a Minolta X-370. From there I traded up to the Minolta Maxxum 9000. I then traded my Minolta equipment for my Nikon F2,F3, in 1987a,then aquiring a Nikon FM2, and have never looked back since.

#5 Comment By Ronald Thain On August 13, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

A second hand, mint Zeiss Ikon Nettar folding 120 square format, bought in 1970 when I was a student. When I saw it in the window of Aberdeen Photographic Services, I knew that I had become irreversibly obsessed with photography. I hadn't taken much interest in cameras till then and was astonished that they could be so beautifully engineered. I went a few doors aong the street to my bank, withdrew £6.00, returned to the shop and bought it.

#6 Comment By Keith Dotson On August 13, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

A Canon AT-1, lesser known manual version of the AE-1

#7 Comment By Jeffrey High On August 13, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

A Kodak Brownie, handed down from my mother. She got it in about 1928 or so. It used 620 film. I think I still have it...

#8 Comment By Rob-L On August 13, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

My very first camera was a Kodak Instamatic, I believe it was a Model 104. But, what I considered my first *real* camera was a Bell & Howell Auto Reflex 35mm. My grandfather gave me the entire kit when I was 11 or so; camera, 3 lenses and a flash. Actually, he SOLD it to me because he felt that if I bought it with my owned earned money, that I would take care of it. 30 years later, I still have that same camera and it still works.

#9 Comment By Sterile Eye On August 13, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

My first was a Vivitar compact camera my parents gave me when I was 11 or 12, but what really got me hooked was my father's Minolta SRT 101.

#10 Comment By Jim DeLillo On August 13, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

My first "real" camera that was my own, was a Minolta Hi-Matic 7S rangefinder that I got as a gift for highschool graduation.

Before that, the very first camera I actually took a picture with was the family's box brownie when I was about five years old.

In highschool I got to use a variety of 35mm and 120 TLR owned by the yearbook committee.

Later, after going through a Nikon stage with film and selling my F5 outfit, I moved to digital and now own an Olympus E-3 and a suite of lenses.

I know that's more than you asked for, but it was fun.


#11 Comment By Christian Løverås On August 14, 2009 @ 12:50 am

My first camera was a Balda Baldessa 1b: [13]

#12 Comment By Thomas Fitzgerald On August 14, 2009 @ 3:37 am

My first camera was a Yashica FXD. While I lost it many years ago I recently bought a new one (well, second hand) on ebay and it's still a great little camera!

#13 Comment By Luc de Sampaio On August 14, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

wow. a Praktica LTL-3 my dad kindda gave, kindda lent me (I still use it every now and then, when feeling nostalgic) back in 1999 when I started college. He got it in '78, when my older brother was born, and kept it working until that day from '99 till now, I keeo it running. it's been a while since I last took it for a spin, though.


#14 Comment By Chris Harley On August 14, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

Well what started my obsession and desire, that ignited my passion for the moment to capture time...?
It was way back at the tender age of 10, when my Aunty gave me her Kodak Instamatic and a book on black & white photographic development...
the irony in this being she gave me 5 colour cartridge films!
So at age 10, I thought I was a sports photographer when I shot a cross country motor sports rally near to where I lived.
Oh for the days of innocence and simplicity.

#15 Comment By Fábio Teixeira On August 14, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

A '75 Kodak Instamatic 155X, 126 film. Love those squares!

#16 Comment By Gerald Holubowicz On August 15, 2009 @ 3:15 am

I started when I was a teenager with a Canon AE1-P and his 50mm, I quickly bought a faster camera, a Canon T90, just to have the look of a photojournalist. young and silly...

#17 Comment By Esa Kivivuori On August 16, 2009 @ 4:06 am

I got my first camera at the age of six. It was West-German made Felica. 120 roll film, two shutter speeds and a buit-in yellow filter. I was lucky to find negatives from the very first film taken with that camera (fall 1959).

But my first real camera was Asahi Pentax Spotmatic. No other camera (several Leicas, HBLs, Canons, Nikons etc.) has made such a huge impact. I loved that camera and since that spring 1968 I´ve been hooked on photography 🙂

#18 Comment By Diane Wah On August 16, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

A pentax Zx-7 . I still have it and iIstill use it. I've been through 5 lenses already 🙂

#19 Comment By jamesrdoe On August 17, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

Kodak Tele Disc. I think I was about 5 years old when I was given one as a gift. Too bad the film was so expensive in comparison with 35mm. I would have been able to use it much more had it been more affordable to shoot.

#20 Comment By Qiana Mestrich On August 21, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

Wow, thanks to you all for the responses. I loved reading about your first cameras and the stories behind them! Also a great way to discover cameras that I've never heard of.

#21 Comment By Gary Ombler On August 22, 2009 @ 3:34 am

My first camera in 1984 was an Olympus OM4. With it ignited a passion for photography which eventually led to a career as a photographer

#22 Comment By roberta On August 22, 2009 @ 5:23 am

Think it was a Canon AE-1; which I later sold to a friend in Europe so I could continue traveling.

#23 Comment By David W. Sumner On August 22, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

Mine was a second hand Nikon FM. I still use it.

#24 Comment By Kenneth Yap On March 23, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

My first camera was a Kodak dispensable camera. I lost it when I was around 9 years old, used it to shoot for fun for 1-2 years. Since then I've used a Panasonic dispensable camera, a Vivitar which I can't recall what name was it, a Ricoh dispensable camera, a Canon A710 IS (My first ever digital camera) and then my first ever serious camera, Nikon D3000.

#25 Comment By Stew On April 24, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

Mine was a Canon AE-1...1978 just before our first child was born. I still have it and recently had it refurbished. I am too attached to ever let it go!

#26 Comment By Chris Oaten On April 24, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

My first camera was an Olympus OM-10. I still have it. And as chance would have it, I picked it up yesterday to check if it still worked. It does. Even better, though, was that a roll of T-Max 400 was in there. Must have been there for 20 years. So here's a piece of advice for y'all. Doesn't matter how long your old film camera has been sitting on a shelf.... always, ALWAYS, check for film inside the chamber before cracking the back open. D'oh! 😉

#27 Comment By Paul Conrad On April 25, 2010 @ 3:12 am

When my dad returned from the Vietnam War in 1969, he brought back a camera bag and a bunch of books. In those books was the whole Time-Life series on photography.

In the camera bag was his Minolta SRT-101, 3 or 4 lenses, about a dozen rolls of film, and a myriad of other supplies.

After a few years, he gave it to me. I played with the camera and lenses for a few more. Eventually the camera broke. I processed the film using my High School's lab. I discovered several rolls hidden in the bottom of the bag.

When I processed it, I was amazed at one I found: Lines of fighter jets and B-52s on the tarmac. Photos of my dad's friends, and scenes of his base.

Becasue I loved photography so much, when I joined the Navy, I bought a Minolta X700. But because I was serious about being a pro, I converted to Nikon buying a F3 w/MD4 motor drive, lenses and strobes.

My first officially published photo was of an apartment fire on East 6th Ave in Aurora.

I fell in love with the process of capturing a moment and preserving it on film. I fell in love with the devices that allowed me to capture my vision. It hasn't left me to this day, which is why I became a professional photographer.

It wasn't until shortly before my dad died that he finally understood what fascinated me so much about photography that I would make it a career. He gave me the key to my future.

Thanks Dad.

#28 Comment By Mário Pires On April 25, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 126

#29 Comment By Filippo Angelone On June 13, 2010 @ 8:24 am

My first camera was a Nikkormat Ft2. I still use it and recently I bought other two on Ebay.

#30 Comment By riyas rasheed On June 13, 2011 @ 4:56 am

My first camera was a brick 🙂
You know, i ordered it after seeing an ad on a local newspaper as VPP (value payable post ) and it came one day, after payment, when i opened the cover with enthusiasm.
It was a brick which had a note saying Happy Clicking 🙁


#31 Comment By Agus Adji On August 24, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

Mine was Asahi Pentax ES II. Actually it's my father's camera but he was very kind to let me use it. I learn a lot from him.

#32 Comment By Puja Astika On December 26, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

My first camera was Fujifilm Starr (pocket, 135 film, made on 1996) given by my uncle.
Now it's broken, and I've replaced it with my recently two cameras: A black Nikon FE (SLR, 135 film, made on 1977-1983) and a Voigtländer Perkeo IIIe (Rangefinder, 135 film, made on 1953)