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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The heaviest 35mm camera I own is an old Nikon F2 with a motordrive. This behemoth – with a basso profundo shutter and tons of attitude – weighs in at just under six pounds with a moderate-sized lens.

It takes ten double-A's.

I used to say I could drive nails with it.

The F2, like the rest of Nikon's top-of-the-line F series cameras, boasted a metal body and superb, rugged construction. It was not uncommon to see used F2's for sale that looked as if they had been through a riot or a war. Oftentimes, they had been. Dented, ding'd, with brass showing through the paint, they were, truth to tell, ugly in a way only a photojournalist could love.

But the damn things still worked.

Segue ahead 20 years or so. My wife Judy and I are in Venice, photographing for our next book. Her main cameras are a Nikon N90s, bought new maybe a year and half before, and an older Nikon 8008. My main cameras are a Leica M6 and a Mamiya 6 medium format rangefinder.

We stayed in Venice for a month, shooting every single day. Each of us got great stuff.

Each of us also dropped a camera during this trip. But only one of us suffered a catastrophic malfunction.

Judy's mishap occurred on one of Venice's ubiquitous water buses, or vaporetti. As she was photographing with the N90s, she took the camera from around her neck to work more comfortably, leaving the 8008 secure around her neck. Sitting down, she forgot to put the N90s back around her neck with the 8008. When we got to our stop and she stood up to leave, the loose camera fell perhaps 18 inches to the floor of the waterbus.

At first the N90s seemed to be OK, but within 24 hours, it was clear this once-reliable camera had lobotomized itself. The shutter wouldn't release, then the motordive would balk. In short, the camera was toast: unreliable and unusable.

On our return to the States, I brought it to one of the best repair shops in Washington, but their fix was barely temporary. Stumped, the technicians sent it back to Nikon – where it remains as I write this.

Contrast this with the equally heart-stopping experience I had with my all-manual Leica.

It was a gorgeous sunny day as we walked from the vaporetto toward Piazza San Marco. Judy had by this time substituted her balky N90s with the older Nikon 8008 and was back in business, doing with one camera what she had been doing with two. The temperature was comparatively balmy after a succession of drizzly and dank days and, though we loved the crummy weather for the wonderfully atmospheric shots it afforded us, it felt good to see this jewel of a city bathed in sunlight.

We both were in great moods – in fact we were congratulating ourselves on the images we both were making – when my M6 crashed to the sidewalk.

Somehow, one side of the neckstrap had disengaged. It must have been something I had done wrong since the Leica was still fairly new to me. I looked down at my gorgeous new camera sitting at my feet.

Anyone who has gone through this knows the awful feeling in the pit of the stomach; the irrational desire to take the moment back. I quickly scooped up the camera, not knowing what to expect, but fearing that somehow the gods were punishing Judy and me for our bravado by ruining our equipment.

I turned the Leica over in my hand. Nothing. I couldn't even see a mark where it had hit the ground.

The action of the 35mm Summicron lens was as smooth and as silky as ever. The on-board manual exposure meter seemed to be OK. And the shutter still whispered as only the shutter on a Lecia rangefinder can. I was reminded of any number of movies where some big bruiser is set upon by someone much smaller. Like the big guy in the flicks, the M6 seemed to have simply shrugged off what had happened to it. The drop it had suffered was, if anything, steeper than the 18-inch fall of Judy's Nikon.

But the all-metal, all manual, Leica was unscathed.

To my mind, these two episodes only added more anecdotal evidence to my belief that today's hyper-electronic consumer-grade 35mm cameras are much more fragile and prone to major mishap than their simpler predecessors.

And it seems I am not alone.

"Absolutely," declared one local repair tech, "the new cameras are way more fragile."

"In the 1980s," he went on, "if you dropped a camera, or if it got a dent, maybe the meter might not work, but the shutter would still function [and] you'd still be able to make pictures."

Today, however, "the N-series Nikons, even the [new] F100, are complete slaves to the [computer circuit] board. If that gets jiggled, the camera sort of goes into this berserk mode."

And this is true of all consumer-grade cameras: Canons, Minoltas, you name it. Once the circuit board senses danger, it can shut down and you are left holding a very expensive paperweight.

And the problem is not just limited to circuitry.

In an attempt to meet consumers' demands for lightweight cameras – that still do all the thinking for them – manufacturers have substituted high-impact plastic for metal in far too many places.

My repair tech friend singled out the popular Canon EOS Rebel line for its plastic lens mount. "They figure that the average amateur is going to get one zoom lens that he never takes off – not like you guys who take lenses on and off all the time."

But, in fact, Nikon's new N80 – a highly sophisticated, though unacceptably flimsy, camera body – often comes with a bargain basement Nikkor lens that has a plastic flange, something heretofore unheard of in the proud Nikon line.

Logic would seem to dictate that sensitive computer circuitry, which admittedly can perform miracles, should be protected even more by a rugged metal exterior. But with only a few high-end exceptions – like the great, virtually all-metal, F100 and other top line Nikons – too many of today's computer-dependent cameras are protected by little more than a thin layer of impact-resistant plastic.

Given the consequences of a drop, a jolt or a bad bounce, my old F2 and my full-metal-jacket Leica M6 look pretty good by comparison.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


©Frank Van Riper
The legendary Nikon F2. This is one kick-butt camera. It weighs a ton [actually nearly 6 lbs], and can take a hit with the best of them.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty

Slick Trix for Kid Pix

Punchy Plug-Free Location Portraits