Treating your camera well seems straightforward enough, and everyone knows to keep their equipment clean and safe. What may be somewhat less obvious is that all cameras need exercise – they were designed to run frequently, and if they’re allowed to, they will run well for the long term. This is a critical point – cameras locked up and languishing will only atrophy – cameras out in the world, working away, will remain consistent, predictable, and functional throughout their careers. Likewise, you as a photographer will enhance your photographic expertise through practice and diligence, both during shoots and during the times in between. Much has been written regarding how to make pictures, but precious little about what to do when you’re not shooting. My advice: Play with your cameras while no one else is watching.
Neglect has been the ruin of many a good shutter. Your camera, no matter its vintage or provenance, is not an artifact or a museum piece – it is the device which you use to make art. Properly used, it lives and breathes. A pox on the collectors with their jails full of cameras, locked away and forbidden from making photographs. And congratulations to the photographers who keep their photographic arsenals limited to only what they utilise. All cameras are meant to be used, and happiest when they are out making pictures. Lubricants must be kept from drying out, shutters must be fired, apertures must be opened and closed.
Keeping your camera in use keeps it in shape, but for many of us there can be long lapses in between bursts of inspiration. This is the ideal time to be tweaking, tinkering and fiddling with your apparatus. These simple calisthenics not only makes for a healthier camera, they also educate you in the specifics of how your camera works. How consistent is the shutter? Which speeds does it like best and which are most accurate? How accurate is the viewing system? Does the transport work better with one long stroke, or with a series of shorter movements? Overall, what are the foibles of your camera’s personality?
A regular exercise regimen with your camera helps establish familiarity, and ultimately a more intuitive operation. Plus, it’s fun. There is little in life as pleasurable as simply fooling around with cameras. Obviously, given my trade, I adhere to this point. We at the sales counter play with cameras all day long. On my own time, with my own gear, I still enjoy this simple pleasure, with the added benefit of maintaining my connection with the camera I actually use to take pictures. I recommend this for everyone. Downtime from shooting is the best time to be cleaning and fiddling and mastering the controls. Conversely, shooting-time is the worst time to be fooling around with your gear. Tinkering with your camera is the last thing you want to be doing when dealing with an impatient subject or fading light.
You may think of your camera as a companion, as an associate, and as a collaborator. Do not expect a camera which you barely know to automatically respond to your every thought. To have a piece of equipment perform in the way you expect (and need) it to, you must have a solid understanding of its personality. What are the quirks specific to your camera? How does it like to be adjusted? The most competent photographer will be able to intuitively manage his or her equipment under any circumstances, and this ability comes from handling the equipment constantly. You should know it inside and out. Most importantly, you should be friends with your camera.
Being a dedicated Deardorff man myself, I follow the wisdom of Ken Hough. An accomplished master, Hough suggests that your birthday is an excellent anniversary on which to maintain your camera. He has composed a comprehensive list of regular annual maintenance that you should perform to keep your camera looking and feeling its best.
He’s right on various levels. Not only does your camera require some level of maintenance, but both you and it will benefit from a level of personal attention. Making a ritual out of it not only keeps your gear in top working order, it also strengthens your working relationship with your camera. In this sense, which kind of camera you are using is irrelevant – film or digital, 35mm or 8×10, SLR or TLR – the rules, and the profit gained, are all the same. All cameras need to be taken out and exercised, whether on the job or not. Every photographer’s process will improve, even while not actively shooting, simply by becoming more familiar with their camera of choice. This is no mere tool. Your camera is an extension of yourself. It is, after all, how you will be making your pictures.
Sunday mornings, days off from shooting, idle moments waiting for light – these are all excellent times to establish better rapport with your equipment. Remember, every camera enjoys a birthday party.