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Snapshot of the Film Community – A Chat with Mike Eckman

My next guest from the film photography community is someone who you may already know. He has been somewhat of a mentor to me when it comes to blogging about vintage cameras. If you love vintage cameras and haven’t heard of the man with an encyclopedic knowledge of cameras and their history, Mike Eckman is someone you should know.

Hey Mike! Thank you for joining me for this chat. I am glad to finally have you featured here.

ME: Glad to be here, Alyssa! I always enjoy talking with fellow collectors/bloggers!

So let’s begin this conversation with how your love for vintage cameras came along. When did you first pick up a camera, and how did it evolve into the dedication you have now?

Mike Eckmans Collection
Mike Eckmans Collection

ME: My first ever camera was some kind of Fisher-Price Kodak Instamatic camera that I got when I was a kid. I remember the thing had a blue and yellow rubberized body and it took 110 film. I loved shooting pictures with it like my dad did with his “adult camera”.
As I got older, I know I had some kind of slightly more advanced point and shoot, but in 2006 I got my first “real” camera, a Nikon D60 SLR and I got hooked on digital photography.
I didn’t get back into film until around 2014 when one day while I was bored and browsing eBay I thought it would be fun to buy a film camera.
That’s about when the film camera rabbit hole began!

Can you remember which camera you bought that day?

ME: I bought a Nikon EL2. I didn’t know a thing about it other than I had read that older lenses from older Nikon film cameras could be used on their digital SLRs. At that time, my DSLR was a Nikon D7000 which had pretty good compatibility with film lenses. I didnt quite understand the difference between crop sensors and full frame though, but I didn’t care.
For my next camera, I went back far in time to a No.1 A Folding Kodak. That camera used 116 film and I didn’t know anything about it, but I found an article online that talked about adapting 120 film into a 116 camera and I think that’s where my research bug began because I started discovering all of these other wonderful sites and people willing to share and talk about their collections that I kept trying more and more cameras. By the end of 2014, I had an Argus C3 Matchmatic, a Yashica Electro, and a FED 2.

Mike Eckman's Photo - Brownie Hawkeye
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Brownie Hawkeye

What led you to start sharing your knowledge and camera collection online?

ME: I already had the mikeeckman.com domain and website since early 2012 and I would just randomly post stuff that I found interesting. I would write movie and music reviews, and talk about technology. I had a review about my thoughts on the Boy Scouts of America, things like how to write a good resume. I had a very scatterbrain approach.
I did it just to do it. I didn’t actually care if anyone read anything I wrote, so when I got that first Kodak, I wrote about how cool it was to buy an 85 year old camera. When I got the Argus and Yashica, I thought it would be fun to write a review similar to the ones I had seen on other people’s sites. I have alwyas loved history and when I get interested in something, I like finding EVERYTHING I can find about it. In those early days, I reached out to a number of collectors like Mike Connealy, Matt Denton, and a few others and they were so helpful, I felt that I should at least give back in someway by sharing what I had found. Maybe some day someone would stumble upon my reviews and it would help them. From there, I just kept writing reviews, and well, that was over 6 years ago.

That’s really cool. You basically started on a whim and now you have what’s become a legacy really.

Mike Eckman's Photo - Rollei 35
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Rollei 35

ME: Yeah, my completely random start to blogging is why my site doesn’t have a cool camera centric name. Your site, “Aly’s Vintage Camera Alley” is super cool. Other sites like casualphotophile or emulsive are neat, but I’m just mike eckman dot com. I guess, unintentionally, my name is now a brand name for camera reviews.

See I regret my name and wish I had just used my actual name lol I didn’t think anyone could pronounce my full name though

ME: Other guys have been successful and making photography related sites using just their name. Ken Rockwell for example.

Absolutely.

Mike Eckman's Photo - Rollei 35
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Rollei 35

ME: Rebranding is hard, because it messes up your rankings on search sites. Around 2017, I seriously considered rebranding once I realized my site was exlusively camera related. I tried to think of a cool name that fit my site, and I came up with one. But it was already taken and I tried really hard to get it, but couldn’t without spending an insane amount of money.

How do you go about choosing which camera you’re going to review next? Are they all part of your collection already, or do you seek them out?

ME: I am very disorganized. I have to write things down and plan in order to be able to do what I do. Very early on, I realized I needed to stay organized, so I built a spreadsheet in Excel that has all the cameras I have yet to review along with some stats on them, whether they need repair, to be cleaned, whether they are loaded with film and if so, what kind, whether I shot a roll and need to develop the film, and whether they’re all ready for a review. I then plan things out so that I can get at least one review out, usually on a Tuesday and if possible, some other kind of article, like a Keppler’s Vault on a Thursday.
In terms of what’s next, I try to have a variety. If I review a modern electronic SLR one week, I’ll likely switch it up to an older rangefinder. I try not to do too many 35mm cameras in a row, so I’ll mix in some medium format cameras in there too. So, there’s really no system for what’s next, other than I want it to be a little different from what I just published.
On occasion, I’ll do a theme month, like “Red October” where I’ll do all Soviet cameras in the same month. One time I thought it would be fun to do a whole month of Voigtländer cameras in November, and I called it Voigt-vember.
I actually think I am going to do another Red October this year. Maybe I’ll call it “Red October II: Even Redder”
As for whether I own them, I’d say that roughly 75% of the cameras I review are mine. In the last 2 years, ive gotten a lot more loaners, and on occasion if I review a camera that I own, and don’t love, I’ll sell it to fund something else. So there are reviews of cameras on my site that were once mine, which I no longer have.

Mike Eckman's Photo - Tower 41
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Tower 41

You also review many different types of cameras, and lean more towards the ones that are buried down deep in the closets of history. What draws you towards the lesser known camera, and which one is the most interesting that you’ve reviewed?

ME: I started reviewing cameras for fun, and that’s still my primary motivation today. I am doing this for me, first. I won’t lie though, it’s nice to receive positive feedback and I love helping other people out. I get a lot of emails and comments from people who found XXX camera in their dad’s closet and searched online and found my site and loved the info they found. One review I did for the Certo Doppel Box, I actually found the original owner and it was her grandfather’s who lived a very rough, and interesting life. The camera was his prized possession, and his granddaughter shared with me his story and even included a picture of him which I put in the review dedicating it to him. She was elated to see the memorial I gave her grandfather and his camera. Stuff like that is so awesome and keeps me motivated to keep going. As for the more obscure cameras, I am more drawn to doing reviews for lesser known cameras because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, digging up information. As much as I know cameras like the Leica M6, or a Nikon F3 are, there’s SO much information about them out there already, there’s really nothing new I could say that hasn’t already been said countless times. So, that’s why you see me do super popular cameras less often. I never gave the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE1 a full review for this reason, but I decided to put them head to head in a Student Camera Showdown as I had never seen anything like that out there. That was more fun for me to do than trying to write about the history and how to use either camera.
As for what’s the most interesting, that’s really hard. Probably one of my favorites to research was the Kodak Ektra. I had really longed for one for a really long time and finding one in any condition, let alone one that works, is nearly impossible, but I pulled it off.

Would you say that the key to having a successful camera review blog is to try to be different from all the others?

Mike Eckman's Photo - Rollei 35
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Rollei 35

ME: Absolutely. I can review a camera that you’ve reviewed or a much bigger site than either of us have, and I think my history is the best part of my reviews. People appreciate the stories. I’m not a very good photographer, so the actual images I get from them almost take a back seat in the review.
Stephen Dowling says he usually likes to shoot 10 or more rolls of film through a camera before reviewing it, because getting really familiar with a model and using it in a variety of situations is important for him to get to know a camera before he can review it.
For me, I’ll shoot a roll or two and be done with that aspect of my review. I’m not talented enough to compose images in a way where I could come up with more things to say after 2 rolls vs 10 rolls.
I love how you pair a short video with your reviews. That’s super cool and something I’d love to do, but I just don’t have the time or energy to also do videos.
So you, Stephen, and I could all review the same exact camera, and each of us would have different things to say about it, and I think that’s really cool.

Exactly. We all have a different perspective, and a different approach.

ME: I also try to have a sense of personality and engagement with my readers. That’s something that Jim Grey from Down the Road does really well. He’ll post a really short update on something he did traveling through his home state, and get 10-20 comments from his readers on the first day the post is live, because he has a dedicated following of people who don’t just like his reviews, but they like him. I don’t have quite that level of engagement, but I do try to reply to every single comment and email I get. And whenever I get a donation of any dollar amount, I always say thank you, every time. I doubt sites like Petapixel have that level of engagement.

Don’t get Stephen started on Petapixel lol.

ME: Ha yeah, he’s a great guy. I’m trying to convince him to travel “over the pond” and visit me!

I’d like to see a video of you guys on a photowalk.

ME: I’ve been really fortunate to meet a lot of great collectors in person too. That’s another key to having a successful site. Build up a network of people who you can ask for help with.

I can’t remember exactly how we met. I do however know we met through repairing an Argus C3. How did you learn to fix cameras?

Mike Eckman's Photo - Rollei 35
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Rollei 35

ME: Yeah, I think you’re right. You were having trouble with the rangefinder on yours and that was happening at the exact time I was redoing my Argus C-Series article for the 5th anniversary of my site. I wanted to do an all encompassing article on the entire series, including some simple repairs, so your questions had perfect timing.
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever learned how to fix cameras, as the things I do to get them going make life long professional camera technicians cringe. My desire to tinker with something to “make it work” comes out of a necessity to be frugal. I can’t afford to keep buying properly CLA’d cameras all the time, so taking them apart to clean them or repair minor issues came out of a necessity. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I had wanted a Bronica S2 for a long time. For one, they’re the closest I’ll come to a Hasselblad, two, they’re gorgeous, and I was attracted to them having all Nikkor lenses. Anyway, the prices for a working one and lens are $250 – $300 and up. I took a chance on one for a lot less than that the seller said was jammed. I figured if I couldn’t get it working, I could likely flip it for close to what I paid for it. I reached out to another technician who repairs cameras for a living, and he suggested I firmly whack it on the floor. I did that and amazingly, it worked. Apparently, the Bronica is famous for having some linkage that gets out of whack with the reflex mirror and a firm smack on the bottom will usually loosen it up. I’ve shot that camera several times already and the problem has never come back. Of course, I would not recommend people start slamming their cameras on the floor to get them working!

Mike Eckman's Photo - Bronica S2
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Bronica S2
Mike Eckman's Photo - Bronica S2
Mike Eckman’s Photo – Bronica S2

Wow, that’s amazing.

ME: I must confess though, that I don’t write reviews on my failures! There are many I’ve tried to get working and couldn’t. That’s where a bulk of my Cameras of the Dead articles come from.

What advice would you give someone reading this who may be thinking of starting a camera review site?

ME: Do you want the long answer or a short answer?!

Whatever you think is necessary lol.

ME: The long answer would be to read my article here. I actually have a quote from you in there. But more simply, the best advice I can give you, is to do it for you. Do not try to make a camera review blog to get famous or to make a living out of it. If you aren’t writing about something you enjoy, you will get discouraged very quickly. It takes a long time to build a following. I published my first reviews in December 2014, and it wasn’t until 2018 where I was consistently getting 1000 views per day. Even now, I’m MUCH smaller than many other sites out there. My style of writing 4000-12000 word reviews is not conducive to things that will trend on social media.

Yes, I second all of that.

Well, thank you for chatting with me Mike.

ME: My pleasure Aly! I enjoy helping others, and it’s great to see how your site has grown in the short time you’ve been doing this. Reaching out to a variety of people is definitely the right way to go about it.

You’ve been a big help in my journey so I know the advice in this interview and your article will help many others.

Be sure to check out Mike’s website. It is chock-full of information and film history. You’re bound to find something you love there.

If you’d like to check out some of the other interviews I’ve done with the community click here. If you haven’t already, please sign up to get my articles in your inbox as I post them.

If you would like to help me out with the cost of film, developing chemicals, and the upkeep of this website, please consider making a small donation through the yellow contribute button above. If you would rather purchase one of my zines, that would also help. Other ways to help that are free would be liking, sharing, and subscribing. Anything you do is always very much appreciated by me.

Until next time, stay motivated and keep shooting.

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