When I think about Berlin, there are tons of things that cross my mind; there’s the famed subculture of this city, and places like the Kunsthaus Tacheles, the wall, the wastelands to the east, or the architecture of Alexanderplatz. Enough talk, let’s go for a long, long walk: Berlin is only 347 square miles wide! In a way, I feel like Leonard Cohen is here with me, singing “first we take Manhattan” (… then we take Berlin). Enter the Minox 35GT.
The Minox 35GT: a small, light camera, perfect for travel
I just hate being weighed down by camera gear when walking around, a feeling I’m sure many of you share. That’s why I decided to bring along the smallest pocket camera of its generation (according to the ads from the 1980’s): a Minox 35GT. And I have to say that it keeps its promise of compactness, certainly when compared to other cameras that I own.
It settles in the hollow of my hand during the afternoon, and it is still there when night falls. I’m reminded of it when I see an interesting subject, and then I totally forget about it. It might be the only camera in my collection with an in-built meter; no need to carry my old Lunasix to measure light.
How to be a versatile photographer
The Minox 35GT is really well made and is very pocketable. In my opinion, the 35mm focal length of its Color-Minotar lens is ideal for street photography, some landscape photography, and travel photography in general. The lens is lovely and has a special rendering quality, producing contrasty pictures that are sufficiently sharp. I feel that the Minox has a distinct photographic signature. Some people say that it delivers really saturated colors but I can’t comment, since I’m a black-and-white shooter.
For this trip, I chose one of the photojournalists’ favorite films to shoot in the 35GT: Ilford HP5. What is interesting about this film is its capacity to produce clean images even if pushed, which allows shooting in every type of light. One roll was exposed at 400 ISO, another at 800 ISO. The Minox’s meter is limited to 1600 ISO, which, for most circumstances with available light, is perfectly adequate.
A potential challenge in using that Minox 35GT is that it’s a zone focusing camera. Given the size of this camera, it must have been impossible for Minox’s engineers to add a rangefinder to the 35GT. Were I richer, I would have bought a Contax T, a contemporary competitor of the Minox with a rangefinder. Never mind, I soon got used to thinking about hyperfocal distance, varying aperture size for desired depth-of-field, and estimating distances – the focusing process is part of the Minox charm.
Lens hood? Be ingenious and do it yourself!
When I bought my Minox 35GT, I invested in a dedicated lens hood. Very quickly, I learned about my mistake – trying to use a folding camera while the hood is attached to the lens; there is no way now to fold the optical block and close the camera back to its compact form. It’s far better to use the lens cover/flap as a lens hood, by positioning it between the sun and the lens – given the camera’s small form and simple ergonomics, this is quite easy to do. And there is no need to carry a separate lens hood.
The Minox 35GT uses old Mercury cells which are now discontinued. There are several ways to still use the Minox – for example, an expensive adapter sold by the German brand, as well as some cheaper hacks using more easily available batteries. Personally I went for the adapter but I still remain afraid with this camera that the battery will go flat at any moment, rendering it useless. This is probably an irrational fear that comes from the fact that all my other cameras are purely mechanical without any electrical needs.
Now… a few words about Berlin
I’m quite sure that I’ve lost some of you with my ramblings about the Minox 35GT. We should talk about Berlin now. What I felt during my trip in the German capital, is that it still smells of its history. This city does not have a typical historical district – there is Mitte, but it lacks some of its former architecture, which has been cleared and rebuilt. Imagine the way Berlin would have looked like before and after 1945; and subsequently as it experienced communism, division, the wall and reunification (and this is only in the last century!). The city’s rich and dramatic history becomes tangible when you walk the streets.
As soon as you visit a major city, it can be difficult to avoid tourist traps; in Berlin, there is the Traban tour or Checkpoint Charlie – the kind of places everybody wants to see, and which lose any kind of soul. The Mauermuseum is another place where tourists abound, but which remains interesting as it is rich in testimonies about life during the Soviet era.
I also really wanted to see the Tacheles. What can I tell you about the “artists” in residence in that place ? In my opinion, they have become just traders of their wares, putting up “NO PHOTO” signs everywhere, and watching like hawks anyone who might try to take any pictures of their artwork. This is a place where I was reminded about Johnny Rotten’s “This is not a love song”:
I’m going over to the other side
I’m happy to have and not to have not
Big business is very wise
I’m inside free enterprise
What you should see in Berlin
Berlin is a wonderful city: there are so many amazing things to do and see! I recommend the excellent Berlin Museum of Photography. An interesting feature of this place is that it houses the Helmut Newton Foundation, and regularly features temporary exhibitions about him and his work.
Another place I recommend is the Hamburger Bahnhof. If you are mad about modern art, here you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff to see. For those who are more interested in classical painting, head to the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin’s art gallery.
Berlin is also a place where it’s fantastic to just walk around. Mitte district houses the museum island, on the river Spree’s bank. Kreuzberg or Prenzlauerberg are lively and bohemian districts. You can also walk through the socialism ruins in Freidrichshain, over the Karl Marx Allee or along the East Side Gallery where you’ll find the remains of the wall.
A footnote the Rolleiflex
Here are a few final images from Berlin made with my Rolleiflex, a well-known friend that needs no batteries to work. Even if it is a “little” heavier than the Minox, I had the pleasure of using it near Karl Marx Allee and Tacheles.
My verdict on the Minox 35GT
The Minox 35GT is not my best camera, but it has the advantages of small size and low weight. Having reviewed some of the pictures taken in Berlin 5 years ago, I feel the urge to take it out again! I think that the small Minox is so simple to use that it allows me to focus on my creativity.