The other day my daughter took a picture of my wife and me with her phone. As many phones do, it made a noise that I’ve been hearing most of my adult life but didn’t think about until that moment. I asked her, “Do you know what that sound is?” “It’s a camera,” she answered.
“Well, it’s a camera with a motor drive.”
“What’s that?” she asked, more out of politeness than actual interest, her attention on the phone.
So I tried to explain, as briefly as possible. She’s interested in photography, which helped, but I don’t think she’s ever exposed a frame of actual film except for when we handed disposable cameras to her and her friends to shoot souvenirs of a trip to a local theme park years ago.
For a few minutes I went back in time to when I had first attached a motorized drive to one of my 35mm cameras. My college roommate and I were both budding photographers and were building our own kits, his Nikon, mine Canon. He got a drive first, and we were fascinated by the click-buzz, click-buzz that the motor drive made. Now he could capture dramatic action photos, freed from having to advance the film a frame at a time in the heat of whatever moment he was trying to commit to film.
My first single-lens reflex camera was such a basic model it wouldn’t accept a motor drive. So I built my gear in other ways, adding a wide-angle and a telephoto lens to the “normal” lens that came with my camera for the venerable three-lens system. (In those days zoom lenses were considered inferior in their image quality.) When I started working in magazines I saved my money so I could upgrade my camera body and finally get a motor. But the body took such a bite out of my budget that all I could afford was a power winder—basically a semiautomatic version of a motor drive. It would take a while before I could finally fulfill my motor-drive dreams.
When I started at Petersen Publishing in 1986 and for years after, I carried two cameras to every event and photo shoot, one loaded with color film, the other black-and-white. In those days only a few of the magazine’s pages were printed in color, so it didn’t make economic sense to shoot everything on color transparency film, which was more expensive to buy and process. With a camera loaded with each, you could make photo editing decisions in the moment, saving the Fuji color film for beauty shots while the b/w Kodak Tri-X did the heavy lifting.
Digital photography—and printing— changed all that.
I was slow to switch to a digital camera, just like it took me a while to own a cellular phone. (I just didn’t get why anyone would want a camera in their phone, for Pete’s sake.) My first digital camera was an awkward thing, a Nikon that swiveled in the middle. Soon after, I bought a digital SLR, which was much more like my film SLR except for, well, the film. And even though a motor drive was totally unnecessary, I bought a battery holder shaped like a motor drive, because I was used to the way it filled my hand.
Over time even that went away. My digital SLRs got smaller and lighter, as did their lenses. I learned there was a name for my old lenses: legacy glass, a nod to both their age and construction.
These days a lot of the photos we take could be done with cellphone cameras. Lens quality and image file sizes in those pocketsize computers are light years ahead of the digital cameras of even a few years ago. I have occasionally submitted a cellphone photo for this magazine, but it’s rare. I’m far more comfortable producing my mediocre photography with an actual camera in my hand.
You may wonder what the point of all this camera talk is in a muscle car magazine. Just this: When I heard the term legacy glass, it sounded to me like the nostalgic window through which we view our hobby cars. Today’s cars, just like today’s cameras, do just about everything better and more efficiently, if what you’re looking for is transportation or a means to record events. But the primal nature of yesterday’s cars, like yesterday’s cameras, offers a more engaging and therefore satisfying experience. The journey is as important as the destination, if not more so. I love rowing gears, like I loved hearing the motor drive’s click-buzz as a race car thundered into frame, swept past, and was gone.
“Why would anyone want a camera in their phone, for Pete’s sake?”
n Eric Rickman, one of Petersen Publishing’s most prolific photographers, demonstrates what legacy glass looked like in a 1958 photo taken for a Hot Rod magazine subscription ad.