A Poet And A Mathematician Walk Into A Camera Shop…

The poet spies a beautiful looking camera with elegant vintage styling, and heads straight towards it.

Picking it up carefully, he gently closes his fingers around the curvaceous grip, taking delight in every last contour.

It looks right, it feels right, it even smells right.

This is a camera he connects with, one which speaks to his soul, and he begins to daydream about the many wonderful adventures they’ll have together.

Meanwhile, the mathematician is busily studying the spec list of every camera on every shelf.

She stops at a rather bland, black and bulbous DSLR that could have been made by any one of a dozen manufacturers in the last ten years.

The technical features are exactly what she needs, it ticks every box of her mental checklist, there could not be a more sensible, logical choice to make photographs with.

The poet shows the mathematician his choice.

She looks past the design, the aesthetics, and asks questions about maximum shutter speed and ISO, and its AF, Wi-Fi and GPS credentials, the things that really matter with a camera in her eyes. She remains far from impressed.

Then the mathematician offers up his preferred camera to the poet.

He turns up his nose at such an ungainly and unwieldly beast of a machine, anonymous black plastic and rubber bulging in every direction. How could he ever get excited or emotional about such an ugly device?

And thus the above scene offers a window into my inner dialogue virtually every time I’ve come to decide on buying a camera.

Sometimes the logical mathematician wins out, and I end up with a fiercely efficient and eminently practical camera like a Canon EOS 300V, which has absolutely everything I could want in a film camera, in a lightweight and compact package, supremely adaptable to a vast range of lenses.

But other times the soulful poet triumphs, making cameras like the Asahi Pentax S1a seem as beautiful to me as any camera possibly could be, despite it lacking everything but the very rudimentary functions like a shutter speed dial, and requiring considerable knowledge and commitment to use.


The holy grail must be a camera that exists in the sweet spot between logic and beauty, between practicality and emotion.

Just occasionally I find it, in the guise of a camera like the Contax 139 Quartz or Ricoh GRD III, both of which deliver stunning results and performance in a delightful and desirable form.

The results are as efficiently dependable as the experience is abundantly joyful.

How about you? Do you choose cameras with your inner poet or mathematician, with your heart, or your head? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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13 thoughts on “A Poet And A Mathematician Walk Into A Camera Shop…”

  1. I love this. I started reading it and thought “wait, it should be a poet, a mathematician, and a photographer because …” You did not disappoint. The photographer has to be both, as well as an arbitrator between the two. The thing I like least about modern cameras is the paradox of them being complex in nature yet limited in operation. Oh I use “automatic” for basic shots, but am unimpressed with the “scene specific” settings and prefer to go with my own judgement. I also like specific controls, not all-in-one-find-the-right-sub-menu-touch-screen operation. The T100 almost gives me exactly what I want. Almost.

    1. Thanks Marc, glad you enjoyed it.

      Having used a good number of digital compacts in the last couple of years, yes one of the most useless (in my eyes) features is all those “Scene” modes – Food, Fireworks, Close Up etc. And even worse when a camera tries to automatically predict which scene mode is best for the current composition.

      I’d much rather have a simple Av mode (or even Program), control over ISO, exposure compensation, exposure and AF lock (separate if possible), focus control (to switch between AF, close up/ “macro” AF and landscape/infinity) and some contrast and saturation adjustments over a dozen “scenes”.

      I think the cameras I like most have this, and it’s easily accessible, not buried in menus. To give credit to Canon, I’ve tried a few of their IXUS cameras and they have a very intelligent set up in this regard. My inner mathematician loves them, even if my inner poet finds them devoid of character and charm!

      1. The T100 I have has a knob on top that turns it on and sets mode all in one go, including the P/S/A/M settings expected on normal SLRs. Also the ‘scene settings’, which I’ve found disappointing. The controls relegated to the ‘multifunction’ I don’t have to access much, and have four dedicated buttons. It could use some improvement on Manual, such as not having to hold a button down while turning the adjuster to change f stop.
        But it’s pretty close to just what I wanted, and that’s a rare thing these days.

  2. In my former life as a systems engineer we would say to the customer, “fast, good and cheap, pick two.” And we would always start a project by defining the deliverable.

    Applying this approach to my choices in photography I started by saying I want to make really good black and white inkjet prints from film negatives. That meant a really good inkjet printer (fast and good, not cheap). That meant a good scanning arrangement (fast and good, not cheap). And that meant developing my own negatives (good and cheap, not fast). And lastly, that meant choosing a camera which I started by defining the absolute minimum feature set and then setting aside my engineer’s (mathematician’s) hat and choosing the camera system I thought would be the most fun to work with (good but neither fast nor cheap).

    1. Thanks Doug. I love that two out of three rule, so true! For me, the vast majority of my camera choices are good, but cheap. And very rarely fast! A quality product that’s ten years old is still better than a new one that’s poorly designed and built, and with cameras, the former is usually cheaper too!

  3. Sometimes, rarely, the mathematician and the poet are one and the same… This is how I feel about my EOS Elan 7. It ticked off all of the boxes, AND it felt good in my hands. The first time I used it, everything seemed to just flow.

    My E-M10 Mk II is definitely my mathematician – Ruthlessly efficient.
    Its hard for me to pick my poet camera – so many amazing ones to choose from. If I had to pick a top two or three, it would be my Contax 139Q, Pentax ME Super and Olympus OM-2n – not necessarily in that order.

    1. I think those early DSLRs from big players like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta etc are so interesting, as they took decades of evolved technology in terms of AF, handling, lens quality etc, and then added a digital sensor. They weren’t like brand new products where everything was done from scratch by designers who had no experience.

      Many cameras do the “ruthlessly efficient” part much better I think than being tools we can connect with and love using. Perhaps the materials play a part too – all plastic and rubber compared with the metal and glass and leather of vintage film cameras…

      1. You can be forgiven for making that mistake, Dan. I go out shooting with the Elan 7 and folks think its digital until they catch the sound of the (very quiet) film advance, or see me load/remove a roll of film. If you look at Canon’s digital lineup, the Elan 7’s DNA is in all of their design.

        As to your comment about materials, I agree wholeheartedly, but also think that the electronic nature of the beast amplifies the coldness of it. There’s a certain feeling I get looking into the innards of an old SLR and seeing the clockwork inside. I don’t get that with a modern DSLR or Mirrorless.

        I just finished cleaning the aperture assembly and front element of a M42 Fujinon EBC 50mm f1.4 a few days ago and I could almost channel the feeling of the person who painstakingly assembled that lens by hand. I don’t get that same feeling from any of my my modern lenses, nor would I even attempt such a feat on them.

      2. Rob, yes Canon are a great example, how their DSLRs evolved almost seamlessly from their last 35mm SLRs.

        I think you’re right about the electronics too. Whilst many electronic/digital devices are almost magical in what they can do, it is in a very distant and aloof way. Not like winding on and firing the shutter of a mechanical SLR!

        The Fujinon sounds a tasty lens. I had a 55/1.8 in M42 mount which was lovely.

    2. Oh I looked up the EOS Elan 7 on Canon’s Camera Museum and it mentioned a CMOS sensor so I assumed it was digital. But looks like it’s 35mm film! Not sure what the sensor is for. Nevertheless, my comments about early digital SLRs remain!

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