Shooting Classic Cars with Classic Cameras

Story by Sarah Young • Photography by Douglas Ogden

Douglas Ogden believes that vintage cars should be photographed with vintage cameras. In his search for timeless images, he has been visiting California events with his analog gear in tow. Where most photographers have embraced the latest digital gadgets, Doug makes do with equipment that was cutting-edge decades ago—back when carburetors reigned over air and fuel, and when light beamed through lenses and burned images into celluloid. He shared some of his images with us, along with a few of the thousand words behind each one.

Behind the Viewfinder

Classic Motorsports: Where did the idea come from to shoot vintage cars with vintage cameras?

Douglas Ogden: Like many camera users these days, I was a point-and-click kid—until my good friend John Brown gave me a 1950s Kodak Brownie Hawkeye to play with. The experience was mind-bending: only 12 shots, no delete function or auto focus—not even a reminder to wind the film, for that matter—and the viewfinder image is backwards to boot. Needless to say, it has been downhill from there.

CMS: How would you describe the look your photos achieve?

DO: My ultimate goal is an ageless image: 1958? 2012? The biggest thing I find with black-and-white film is the degree of “true black” in the image. When converting a digital color image to black and white, it seems to result in endless tones of gray.

CMS: Why not just fake it with Photoshop?

DO: Frankly, I’m too lazy. Like many, I live in front of the computer screen. I shoot to relax; my effort and concentration go into the creation of the image. With 12 shots per roll, I try to make every one count.

CMS: What equipment are you using?

DO: Mainly I shoot a 1957 Rolleiflex 2.8F K7D. I also carry the aforementioned Brownie Hawkeye, a 1936 Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta folding camera, and recently I was given a 1940s 4x5-format Crown Graphic. The Crown Graphic is a completely different ball of wax, as you compose your image upside down and backwards! The image is seen uncorrected through the lens on the viewscreen at the back of the camera.

CMS: How hard is it to find and process this film these days?

DO: Film is easy enough to find online. As for development, luckily within about a 30-minute drive I have two shops that can develop oddball-format film.

CMS: What are your future plans?

DO: Getting my ’49 MG back on the road so I can drive it to and from events. My next camera goal is to acquire a camera with a vertical focal plane shutter. This will allow me to recreate the images in the style of Jacques Henri Lartigue and the really early automotive photographers. When shooting a moving subject, the vertical-plane shutter will create a “speed lean” effect due to the shutter traveling from the bottom of the image to the top. Basically, as the subject travels across the film, the camera is capturing the subject at different moments in time: The lower part of the vehicle is captured first, but since the subject is moving, the upper portion of the vehicle is captured fractions of a second later and in a physically different location on the film.

Next, I want to hop on a plane to jolly ol’ England and photograph the pre-WWI race car guys going toe to toe. In the meantime, I’ll be heading to events to get in more practice and take pictures of great events and wonderful old cars.

CMS: What resources do you recommend for readers interested in learning about vintage photography and taking their own photos?

DO: Well, I learned through trial by fire and by picking up period literature on how to use the equipment. Used book stores always have old camera books. Most of my gear has been found via craigslist and local camera stores, mainly as I like to touch things before I buy them. is very useful, as there are many vintage camera users who have uploaded videos showing everything from how to reroll film to how to load and shoot various cameras.

Go to the local camera shop, even though digital is pervasive. Most likely there will be someone there who will talk film and help out (and there may even be a secret stash of old film stuff there!). But if that is not an option, for a start from complete scratch, I would use and start searching for vintage camera threads. This way there is a visual sense of what the camera looks like and what that piece of equipment can accomplish. Then begin to search the Internet for that camera. 

Really the biggest part to understand is the currently available film formats. There are some super-neat cameras out there that film is just not available for.

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View comments on the CMS forums
wspohn Dork
2/17/20 10:26 a.m.

I was a film photographer both on land and under water for decades before digital came about but I would never go back again. The freedom that being able to shoot as much as you want to try and get exactly the right shot, without incurring pretty hefty processing bills is worth it alone.

dougie Reader
3/9/20 11:12 p.m.
wspohn said:

I was a film photographer both on land and under water for decades before digital came about but I would never go back again. The freedom that being able to shoot as much as you want to try and get exactly the right shot, without incurring pretty hefty processing bills is worth it alone.

Shooting with film is like living a classic car. If you enjoy that new car smell, stay with your digital......

wspohn Dork
3/10/20 11:07 a.m.

I grant you that being able to shoot unlimited shots with zero cost often makes one a sloppy photographer that just crops digitally when a quick shot doesn't properly frame an image, but that isn't necessarily so. I still take just as much time setting up a shot and do a fair bit of work using a tripod or monopod.

And for those fast shots (cars, wildlife etc.) the image stabilization available on some new digital cameras is a definite advantage.

sir_mike New Reader
3/12/20 9:53 a.m.

  While I only shoot color film I still use my 1974 vintage Yashica 35mm.So old it has screw mount lenses.Get a lot of comments when people see me using it.I'm to old to switch...

MadScientistMatt PowerDork
3/12/20 12:36 p.m.

I have Cannon SLRs in both film and digital format, and I don't see myself going back to the film SLR. The experience there is not all that different from digital other than the limited number of pictures one can take. For that matter, none of the film cameras I've owned really seem like they'd be something I'd want to go back to; they have either been SLRs with similar levels of equipment to a modern DSLR, or cheap point and shoot models. But if I could see myself getting interested in a high end camera design that was old enough to be significantly different in both the experience of using it and how the pictures turned out. The vertical plane focal shutter, for example.

Kiwimgaguy None
5/3/20 6:34 p.m.

I was a newspaper photographer, my hobby was doing motor racing pictures - all with a SLR.

devoping and printing in my own lab allowed me to do all sorts of stuff with the film like dramatically increasing the ASA to allow for light conditions. Enlarging the pictures myself also allowed me to crop the picture as desired.

as they say - "the good old days" - in some ways I miss it

TR8owner HalfDork
5/3/20 7:15 p.m.

No thanks. I did that years ago when I had a part time gig with an automotive magazine as well as being a part time wedding photographer. Todays cameras and photoshop make things so much easier. I sold all my classic cameras on ebay years ago when I first embraced digital. Unlike some of the classic cars I've sold, I don't miss any of the cameras. 

DaveD New Reader
5/4/20 12:05 a.m.

As a former automotive magazine publisher/editor myself (in fact, this very publication you're reading grew out of the DNA of my publication, British Car Magazine, when Tim Suddard purchased it many years ago from the fellow who purchased it from me), I took countless thousands of exposures over the years in the pre-digital age. Mostly 35mm print, color and B&W, as well as medium format 2-1/4 and also 4x5 stuff. Digital was still years away when I sold the magazine.

I can tell you that lugging a kit bag with a Canon F1 body, motor drive, a selection of lenses the density and weight of GM Powerglides, bags of filters, light meters, tripod, and many and sundry other necessities gave one that simian droop to one side. It was like driving a vintage car cross-country, with a trunkful of belts and hoses and other spares, bottles and cans of fluids, jumper cables, bottle jack, flares, and if there was still room, more of the same.

After my publishing days came to an end, I sold my well-patinaed Canon F1 equipment (reluctantly, as I'd shouldered those old SLRs all over the world—like old friends—but their value was plummeting by the minute). But while I was still in the film world, I'd gotten interested in vintage cameras, and compiled a collection of roughly 250 film cameras, ranging from late 1800s (with a couple of glass plate devices in the mix) up to the late Sixties. I had—and still have—folding cameras from the late 19th/early 20 centuries, all manner of range finders and some SLRs too.

I collected almost the entire range of American-made Argus 35mm rangefinders (and taught my kids photography basics on these "bricks"), as well as Leicas from the 1920s, Zeiss-Ikon, Contax, etc. I used these primitive devices at car shows and other events and many of the images in my publication were made with cameras as old as—or older—than the cars or bikes themselves.

The German Leica range is well-known, but its compatriot Exakta—an early SLR—is every bit the match for Leica, in my opinion, and has as vast a range of lenses and accessories as does Leica. I'd recommend either of these compact cameras (some of the Leica lenses actually retract so you can carry the camera in your pocket) for shooting classic cars and other subjects on interest. The Zeiss lenses are superb and give an almost organic quality to the exposures.

The point here is not the expediency or ease with which to capture the optimal image, such as is possible for the "lazy" digital photographer—not inferring all digital lensmen are lazy or that their craft lacks finesse and merit—but to capture the finest image you can in a more deliberate, contemplative process. You only have so many exposure on a roll with which to work. So composition, lighting, exposure, shutter speed, etc., all become far more critical and require the sort of intimate involvement with the machine as does hustling along a sinewy roadcourse at speed in a vintage sports car, matching engine and mainshaft speeds in a perfect, seamless double-declutched downshift, feathering in the throttle to control drift on narrow, bias tires, and grinning broadly when being passed on the straight by a guy in a modern XYZ1000 SuperDuper, paddle-shifting his 800 hp computer-controlled missile. But you're having way more fun.

Sort of like picking up your packet of prints from the photo lab to see what you got on that last roll...

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