Tommy Ku Photography


Cameras & accessories

Story of my camera purchases

At the very beginning, after having been to Hokkaido I realized the need of a good camera for taking photos during a trip. The sharpness, color and editability of digital files produced by a mobile camera then was no match to output of even a mid-range digital camera.

My plan had been to get a compact digital camera like Canon G7X Mk. II. I ended up getting a Fujifilm XT-20 body in a sale, and bought a XF 18-55mm with it. Compared to a DSLR, a mirrorless such as XT-20 is still portable enough as a travel camera.

Selfie with XT-20
Selfie with XT-20 in an abandoned house

Even then I wasn't doing photography like I do right now. I only used my camera on special occasions or during travel. My debut in slightly more serious photography was probably when I went out for a photowalk with a friend on Dec 31th 2019, where we walked on the street taking photos of people, buildings and the street.

I continued to take more digital photos, and was frustrated about missing "the shot" because it's taking forever to autofocus, and sometimes it focuses wrongly.

I wasn't sure what drew me into film photography. None of my peers did before me, and I wasn't exposed to the now omnipresent IG and YouTube influencers.

Anyway, shortly after my first photowalk, I bought my first film camera.

My first ever film camera was a disposable, the fuji simple ace. At the time I thought to myself "film cameras are expensive and I am not ready to commit yet". Little did I knew in less than a year's time it led to a transformative change to my gears, styles and even my relationships.

Couple holding hands in Tsim Sha Tsui
The one film photo that got me hooked

I bought 3 simple ace. I used 2 and gave my friend 1 to lure him into a photowalk. I still give people disposables these days if I mean to introduce them to film photography.

Me holding an unopened Fuji Simple Ace
Originally I was giving out Simple Ace, but now I am giving out FunSavers that are reloadable

Then, I learned online that in a dark enough environment it's possible to reload a disposable. I bought a FunSaver, quickly went through it's built-in Kodak 800 roll, and reloaded it with a Kodak UltraMax 400.

Me holding a reloaded Kodak FunSaver
Reloaded with UltraMax 400, I was pushing it by one stop to match the original ISO 800 film

Since then, I became hooked to film photography.

It was a time I revived the long un-used eBay account, and went looking for a simple, cheap and fully mechanical camera.

First one was a cool looking Ansco Memar with a Pronto shutter and Color Aptor lens. Before that arrived, I bought 3 more, all are Agfa Solina Type 3, just to make sure. They are all fully mechanical viewfinder cameras from the 1950s, way older than me!

Sure, the Memar is broken. Focus ring won't turn beyond 6 ft. mark and from my later experiments, it is fixed at 5~6 ft. no matter how I turn it. I got a partial refund from the seller.

When I happen to get the focus right, it is the sharpest lens I have amongst the 4.

My friend waiting for pedestrian light, in black and white
Even with wide opened f/2.8 and unsafe shutter speed of 1/25, the result is still sharp

The other 3 also have different quirks. An Solina Pronto (I am mentioning the shutter here because they put different shutters and lens on the same body) has fungus spots on its lens. The Solina Vario has dents and a half broken film counter that won't advance under 20 (it counts down). The other Solina Pronto has non-working self-timer. The seller said that's because I set the timer before cocking the shutter. Should have read the manual first.

Having 4 new cameras presents me the opportunity to go out and at least shoot 4 rolls of films to test them out. I had a great time learning to shoot with these cameras. The mechanical nature and limited features taught me important concepts like the sunny 16 rule, zone focusing, exposure compensation, &c.

Imagine having 4 girl/boyfriend and having to date them every weekend. One can only take a camera out once per week. It would have taken a month at least to cycle through all 4 of them. On the side I have also been reloading a FunSaver for when portability was demanded.

I probably had special feedings towards FunSaver because it introduced me to film photography as a "reloadable". But its lens distortion and lack of sharpness was unbearable.

Dog walking under 32 degree Celsius, severe drop in sharpness around the edges
While the dog appear quite sharp in the middle, observe the bushes near the edge where sharpness drops and distortion happens

Feeling unsatisfied with the FunSaver as a portable camera, I went on eBay looking for an alternative. Sane persons would have gone for a compact rangefinder that comes with a proper glass lens and advanced features such as a rangefinder or a light meter. I might have developed some sort of viewfinder and Agfa complex. So instead I bought a rare but nobody-cares-about Agfa Isoly 100 in mint condition.

It even came with a roll of half exposed Agfa Vista 200 inside! Almost all of the shots were destroyed when I opened the back except 2.

Upper half: 1/3 of the shot is visisble with someone's leg. Lower half: view from a beach where a wind farm can be seen from a distance.
Heavy color shift perhaps due to old age, unknown time and location

This was a happy accident that taught me that I should open a film camera I bought online in the dark, so I can keep the pictures from the original owner, and return those to them if possible.

At that time, I realized that if I own 4-5 cameras, I should take them out to shoot at least once in a while. The more camera I own, the more difficult this gets.

From that point on I told myself: if I am buying another camera it has to fill a gap where my existing collection is unable to fill.

I didn't have a portable, half-frame camera with f/2.8 lens. Thus, I bought an BelOMO AGAT 18K for half the price of the more famous half-frame cameras. Again, it is mechanical. This little camera produces stunningly sharp and vibrant images despite the framelines in the viewfinder are faded so I was never sure whether my framing is correct. The in-chamber reflection comes visiting from time to time, causing flare on the edges of the image. I've still yet to decide I like it or not. There are ways to reduce this, such as by pasting non-reflective paper inside or painting it, I didn't want to risk messing up the camera so no action as of now.

Symbolic shutter speed selection, and the Industar lens of AGAT 18K
28mm f/2.8 Industar-104 on AGAT 18K

You may have noticed already that my collection is composed mostly of Agfa cameras (5 of them!). I guess there's something about their design that attracted me, even though they are not really that good optically. These are cameras targeting amateurs and leisure photographers.

Among all the Agfa cameras, there's one that was praised for having superior lens sharpness, saturation and usability - Agfa Optima 1535. The dark, industrial body design adds a cool look to it, among the many compact film camera of the time (QL17/Electro 35). I wanted a Solinar for its sharpness, and 1535 has a variant of that, so of course when I saw one near my birthday, I had to grab it. It was on auction, and I used money power and slammed on that buy now button. Paying the higher-end of the price to avoid losing this one - they come up from time to time but this one was in good condition, and seems to come from a responsible owner.

Someone taking photo of me holding up my Agfa Optima 1535
Me holding up my Agfa Optima 1535 (courtesy of @lifeisbubbletea)

The day I got it I was working from home, and found myself instantly falling in love with the little photographic device. Came in the box the seller included a pack of 3 Kodak Gold 200. Right after work that day I loaded a roll of Fujicolor C200 and rushed out to test it out. The camera was surprisingly easy to handle and the rangefinder was accurate. In high contrast situation the sensor struggled to figure out whether I want to get it bright or dark, other than that nothing was out of place. I may need steady hand in low light situation because the automatic shutter speed could have gone as long as 15 seconds.

The Agfa Optima 1535 reminded me of the simple joy of photography when I didn't need to fiddle with the exposure triangle and zone (guess) focusing, just aim, focus, and take the shot (though I later found myself habitually preset focus by distance, before looking into the finder). To test the consistency of light sensor I took panoramas and they turned out to be excellently consistent. I have yet to test the color vibrancy of the Solitar S with my overly saturated film stock Kodak UltraMax 400 or Ektar 100.

I used to envy people who inherit hellishly expensive cameras for almost no cost from relatives. Well, I have never envisioned that I'd one day be one of them. My aunt, who owned a Nikon Zoom 600 AF and am Olympus Mju Zoom Deluxe, generously gave me those after I've helped with her smartphone and home WiFi situation. One other camera I got, the Canon Sure Shot Caption Zoom, originally owned by my family, and now it's back.

Point-and-shoot cameras by the window
UV bathing the cameras to kill the fungus

They are cool, I guess, except that I am not feeling the same level of satisfaction as when I was using the Optima 1535. Maybe they are too auto, taking away even the manual focusing, which is like the last thing that Optima 1535 has for me. Or because they are slow, I cannot capture an unstaged scene when things move quickly. Anyway, they are good cameras for home party or family outings where I can just shoot before the impatient family members take out their smartphones…

The cameras I have bought for myself so far are viewfinder, rangefinder or digital mirrorless camera. I have never sensed the feeling of a prism flipping inside the camera body. Even though one day, a highschool friend of mine was sell his Pentax K1000, an excellent starter for film SLR beginner, I redirected the offer to another friend of mine who I introduced film photography to.

Not sure if it's because I got too comfortable with non SLRs, or I simply had too many cameras, or the interchangeable lens world is a money-sucking blackhole, or a mix of all of them. I don't feel like buying camera anymore (whisper: let me know if you know of any good, cheap medium format camera…).

The invisible hand of market dictates that camera and film price will only go up due to rising demand in the past few years, and supply is nearly flat if not reducing (as they break down irrepairably). So gear, I don't know, should I need to buy them all before they become prohibitively expensive? Should I buy them while many are still in decent condition, and before some irresponsible owners mistreat and eventually break them?

After struggling for days, I have decided that I want to keep this current collection of cameras until at least end of the year 2021, no more addition except for the one or two disposables I have always kept in stock to I can hand out to people who's interested (to lure them into film photography).

Moskva-5 and Contina II placed side by side
Somehow, there are new joiners before the year ends

Later into the year, I have made some regrettable to have bought two broken FEDs, a Moskva-5, less so regrettably a Contina II and not sure why a Sports 35. An addition of 5 cameras to the collection.

Do they fill a gap? Yes somewhat, the interchangeable lens gap, medium format gap, 135 folder/Tessar/Zeiss Ikon gap, and the stereograph/wigglegram gap. The more I explore the more I found in this art and thus follows an urge to purchase cheap (therefore inevitably crappy) gears for proofs of concepts, to satistify a sudden urge to "try them out" to see if they are what I need.

Do they fill a need? Not always. These are all functional gears (except the FEDs) I could take out for a shoot should I will it, yet I see less of a need to do so. If I need a handy camera I would have picked the Optima 1535 or AGAT 18K over any of these. Medium format isn't always what I wanted to shoot and handheld shooting are hits and misses so I rarely bring the Moskva-5 out now.

With all that are being said, I believe the next time I find something interesting, I will go out and look for the gear for it, to fill a gap, not necessarily a need.

Octopus tentacles holding cameras, fingers of a human hand becoming tentacles
My friend says that I am becoming an octopus as I kept expanding my camera collection

No two 2nd hand film cameras are the same

As a owner of 3 Afga Solina, and having seen countless cameras listed on auction site, I came to realize that no two 2nd hand film cameras are the same. This may be no surprise for many who frequent auction sites for 2nd hand goods but it is more so for used film cameras.

On a FED by setting shutter speed before cocking the shutter, you can permanently damage the camera.

On a Pronto shutter by setting the self-timer before cocking the shutter, the self-timer will never fire again, even though you can manually push it back and the shutter will still function without the timer.

I personally is guilty for ruining the timer of a mint condition Solina. My girlfriend almost ruined another—that was a close call to the Solina and our relationship.

Despite film cameras, espectially those fully mechanical ones, were built like tanks, they do have quirks of their own. Based on the storage environment and how the prior owner(s) treat it, cameras can come in a wide-range of conditions, even if they all look the same.

One of my Agfa Solina has a non-working timer (coz I was stupid), another has fungus spots on the Color-Apotar. The one with Vario shutter has a broken film counter after it counts down to around 20 so for every shot I had to manually lower the counter.

No two 2nd hand film cameras are the same. They are all lovely in their own way, and mine are the ones I still love even after I had learned of their flaw.

Thoughts on gear

Merely 1 year after begining analog photography, I have already acquired 9 film cameras. The urge (trap) of getting the next camera that fulfill a need unmet by the cameras on hand led me into buying one camera after another…

First I wanted something more portable. Then something half-frame and with good lens. After that something auto. And lastly something that's fully auto with built-in flash.

What I learned from posting on Instagram for 365 days is that no matter what camera you have on hand, most of them are gonna be good enough to capture the scene that touches you.

Of course, there are things like self-timer, long exposure, and low-light photography that demands some features to be present. As someone who primiarily take photos on the street though, I'd say the best light is whatever light you have at the moment, and the best camera whatever camera you have at the moment.

Positioning myself as an amateur photographer allows me to forget unnecessary pride and do whatever I want. I don't have an reputation to uphold and I am sure almost all of my photos are nowhere near what a professional would produce.

What that also means is, I don't need to use any professional gear to do what I like. Buying expensive cameras/gears may make my photos look sharper or color more vibrant, but it won't improve my photography skils overnight.

One time my friend offered to sell me a Pentax K1000. I wasn't too keen on getting an SLR for myself. Perhaps if I got something as versatile as an SLR it'll render all my fixed lens cameras obsolete, or perhaps I want others to experience the joy of analog photography. At the end, I forwarded this opportunity to a friend of mine who has been looking to buy his first serious film camera for quite some time.

On Film & camera price

These cameras are artifacts from a different era, where film cameras were the only way you can take a photo (Polaroids are still film). Unlike Polaroids though, they no longer produce these film camera from the yester-era in the modern day (exception LOMO), which I'd say is not targeting the more serious film photography community. Nowadays people use smartphones, digital camearas, and (ahem) Polaroids.

Yeah somehow Polaroids survived.

Therefore smartphones, digital camearas and Polaroids are what the factories produce. No new film cameras except for the disposables with plastic lens are being churned out of the smoking factories. A sad fact we all have to accept is that there's no new film cameras under the sun nowadays, all old, used, many battered.

Another sad fact of our time is that old cameras are being mistreated or misused (one can easily damage a FED by setting shutter speed before cocking the shutter), further cutting down on the supply of usable film cameras in the market. Like the heat death of the universe one day there'll be no more working film camera because nobody knows how to fix them, or there are no spare parts to fix them.

First batch that'll go are the compact point-and-shoot with their complex electronics. Then perhaps the oldest medium and large format with bellows broken along the folding lines. Then maybe we'll run out of shutter curtains. A lot of fungus and haze develop on lens being kept in humid environment.

With dwindling supply and an increasing demand, it's foreseeable that film camera price will continue to rise. So that's for the cameras, what about film?

On 2020 Polaroid is ~HK$20 a shot, while 35mm film + development + scan is around HK$3-4 a shot on the budget films such as Kodak ColorPlus 200 and FujiColor C200.

On February 2021 I have seen a 33% price hike in budget films I like such as ColorPlus 200 and UltraMax 400. Despite only temporary during Chinese New Year holiday season, the development cost went up by the same 33%.

The price of film and development cost is difficult to tell, as the supply depends on the film producers and availability of labs. As for myself, I am keeping myself a minimum stock of 30 rolls, expiring in the next 2 years. Just to give you an idea—I have taken 1,272 film photos between Jan 2020 and Feb 2021, which is about 3 rolls per month. I probably need at least double of this for the next 2 years.

Given the resurgence of analog photography in the recent years, I personally anticipate the film price will continue to increase. Some film stocks may be discontinued even, as had happened to FujiColor Pro 400H in 2021. Therefore I am keeping a good amount of film supplies at home to be on the safe side.

I identify myself as an hoarder of films, now with 55 rolls in the inventory and 15 more rolls in 135 and 120 format are being shipped to me. Over time I identified filmstocks that are good for different situations, and I adjust my inventory by the frequency of the occasions these film are getting used. UltraMax, 250D/5207 and 500T/5219 seem to be some good all-purpose film; C200 works best with automatic compacts like the Mju; Ektar and Portra 160 are what I will happy shoot with good glasses only; and ColorPlus/Gold 200 I will never buy them again.