Classic Film Cameras in Movies

This article started as a list of classic film cameras in movies, take from my own observations and from internet research and focused largely on the cameras I shoot with – Nikon F SLRs and Leica M Rangefinders. As I sat down to write, I decided to focus on two of the most famous films featuring cameras and photographers, Apocalypse Now and Rear Window, which happen to be two of my favourite films of all time. This took me on a voyage of discovery into the influences for the movies that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River in Apocalypse Now.

Classic Film Cameras in Movies Nikon F
Dennis Hopper, festooned with Nikon Fs, as the manic Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays the photojournalist, an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from remote abandoned Cambodian temple. The photojournalist is nearly as unhinged as the man he admires – as his conversations with Willard (Martin Sheen) attest.

Willard : Could we, uh… talk to Colonel Kurtz? Photojournalist : Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…

The Photojournalist

Despite appearing in only three scenes, Hopper’s is one of the most intriguing characters in the sprawling story. Amongst the improvised hippy jive talk his dialogue is constructed from lines taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and poems from Rudyard Kipling and TS Elliot. The photojournalist, whose name is never revealed, also has an important role to play in revealing Kurtz’s plans for Willard.

Hopper’s photojournalist appears as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in photography gear, some of it visibly battered.  The cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; by the look of them a fast 50mm, possibly a 105mm and a 200mm. The role was suggested to Coppola by the stills photographer on the set Chas Gerretsen on the basis that if he wanted to mock TV correspondents in South Vietnam he should create a photojournalist because “we were all crazy.” Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried a number Nikon F’s, and so the role was born, replacing Captain Colby, Kurtz’s right hand man, which Hopper had originally been cast as. Chas sold several of his old Nikon F cameras and lenses to the production company and they were used in the film.

Michael Herr, who collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now, undoubtedly had a strong influence on the portrayal of the Photojournalist. Herr is best known as author of the classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches and several scenes and pieces of dialogue used from that book were later used in Apocalypse Now and also Full Metal Jacket.

In Like (Sean) Flynn

Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War and new many of the photojournalists who covered the conflict. This included Sean Flynn, a man with one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war and the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol. Initially following in his fathers footsteps as an actor (his first film was Son of Captain Blood, sequel to his father’s classic Captain Blood), he abandoned the craft to start a new life in Vietnam as a combat photographer.

He exploits are truly intrepid. He shot his way out of an ambush with the Green Berets with an M16; incurred injuries from a grenade fragment in battle; made a parachute jump with an Airborne Division, and identified a mine whilst photographing troops, saving an Australian unit from potential destruction. Flynn used a Leica M2 in Vietnam, and it came to light, complete with a strap that fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin, just a few years ago.

Disappearance

In 1970 Flynn was captured by Viet Cong guerrillas at a checkpoint along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. The pair had elected to travel by motorbike rather than the limos the majority of photojournalists were travelling in. Neither he or Stone were never seen again and despite the efforts of his mother to find him Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984. Despite the continued efforts of friends and JPAC, the organization responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers, the fate of two remains unknown.

The Cultural References section of Flynn’s entry in Wikipedia references him as the basis for the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, though it is not substantiated. It is entirely possible however, as Flynn, along with Stone and Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. What is certain is that his story is told on the album Combat Rock by The Clash on the “Sean Flynn” track and a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011.

The Real Kurtz

The role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ (which included heads on sticks) was inspired by the character of the same name in Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, a book that impressed me hugely when I read it in my early twenties. What is less well known and is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ is another influence; CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmmong people into anti-communist guerillas.

The Wrath of Klaus Kinski

A huge influence and template for the Vietnam river epic is Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, starring a barely sane Klaus Kinski in the role of his life. The story follows the self styled ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’ Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, city of Gold.

It is an astonishing and spectacular film, described by Robert Egbert as is “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema”. Curiously, I did not make the connection with Apocalypse Now until researching this article, though now it seems obvious. Like Apocalypse Now, which was troubled by a heart attack, an overweight star, a mental breakdown and storms that destroyed the sets, the filming of Aguirre is the stuff of legend. Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to continue to act in the remote fever-ridden jungle district where the film was shot.

The Nikon F, Film Star

The Nikon F was the Vietnam war photographer’s choice, though the Leica M3 was also popular. Known as the ‘hockey puck’ for its indestructible build, it was used by David Duncan Davis, W. Eugene Smith and Alfred Eisenstaedt and famously stopped an AK47 round intended for Don McCullin. The first of Nikon’s SLRs was also quite the film star, as described in Michael Pritchard’s excellent book ‘A History of Photography in 50 Cameras‘.

“The Nikon F reinforced its reputation and established itself as modern design icon through its starring roles in films such as Blow-Up, with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in London; Apocalypse Now with Dennis Hopper as a Photojournalist; and, later, with Clint Eastwood as National Geographic photographer in The Bridges of Madison County.”

I have a late Nikon F from 1971 and it shoots very well. It has the original standard non-metered eye level finder, like the ones Dennis Hopper was carrying. As much as I like an integrated light meter, the Photomic heads are just too ugly on the F and I manage with a hand held unit. They are a considerably easier on the eye on the F2 and I have added a DP-12 Photomic head to my 1975 F2.

Nikon SLRs in Movies

Beyond those described above, I’ve noticed Nikon F series Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras in several movies, including more greats like Full Metal Jacket and Taxi Driver. I found additional appearances from a little internet research, which revealed quite a few more. The Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 and F5 have all made appearances, but despite searching, I can’t find a movie with Nikon’s final pro SLR, the mighty Nikon F6 in it. Whilst I haven’t included TV, I am sure that my favourite TV detective, Columbo, used a Nikon F or F2 in one episode but I can find no reference to it. I suppose I will just have to watch every episode again…

classic cameras in movies Nikon F
1971 Nikon F with the classic 50mm f/1.4 NIKKOR-S Auto lens (1966-1974)
  • Lolita (1962, Nikon F1)
  • The French Connection (1971, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Diamonds are Forever (1971, Nikon F)
  • The Killing Fields (1984, Nikon F)
  • Jaws (1975, Nikon F2)
  • Taxi Driver (1976, Nikon F2)
  • Cannonball Run (1981, Nikon F)
  • The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Nikon F)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987, Nikon F) Private Joker and Rafterman!
  • Gorillas in the Mist (1988, Nikon F)
  • Groundhog Day (1993, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Bridges of Madison County (1995, Nikon F with motor drive)
  • Heat (1995, Nikon F4) 
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Nikon F5)
  • Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
  • City of God (2002, Nikon F)
  • Walk the Line (2005, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Nikon F3 HP)

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another of the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.

Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.

Inspirations for a Murderer

Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.

Jimmy Stewart, his Exacta Varex with Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

The Role of the Photographer

Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:

“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”

That Obscure Object of Desire

Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. Mounted on it was a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model, and collectively they are now known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and much desired by collectors. Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.

Which was First?

Today many people think of the Nikon F as the first Single Lens Reflex camera, but it was the Exacta that was the first 35mm SLR outside of prototypes . The F brought the innovations and features of earlier models into a single body so well that earlier models seem to have faded from consumer memory. Its effect on the camera market similarly profound as it ended dominance of German rangefinders from Zeiss and Leica.

The Leica M

Which brings us to the legendary German marque, which has also had more than its fair share of movie appearances, particularly the M3. Leica pioneered the 35mm ‘miniature format’, back in 1930 with the first practical camera to use standard cinema film, which required high quality lenses and negative enlargement to make the format work.

Subsequent development, based on many years of learning, resulted in the M3 of 1954, which a huge step forward on its predecessors, combining the viewfinder and rangefinder in one bright window, a bayonet lens mount, and rapid film advance lever. Despite its high price it was very successful with over 220,000 units sold by 1966 when production ended. By that time the Nikon F, nemesis of the teutonic rangefinder, had been in the market 7 years and the world of 35mm photography had changed forever, with the SLR having won the hearts and minds of many professional photographers.

The M6 TTL

Enthusiasts continue to argue over which is the best Leica and the M3 maintains a strong fan base, mainly for its large, bright high magnification viewfinder, which many argue has never been bettered. I’ve shot with the M3, M6TTL and M7 and my personal favourite is the M6TTL (0.58 version pictured below, along with 0.85 M7) The built in light meter is eschewed by the Leica hardcore, but I find it preferable and it has superior ergonomics with a modern film crank and large dial for the shutter speed. Leica consider a film rewind crank, which has been standard on virtually all film cameras since the ’60s to be a bit racy and like the original M3, neither film camera in production today (the Leica M-A and Leica M-P) sports one.

I came to Leica from the autofocus Q, which I travelled the world with as part of my job at the time. I am not a digital Leica M shooter, but I do love shooting with film Ms, the lenses are outstanding and full of character and the build quality is second to none. They are also very beautiful cameras and look great in the many movies they have appeared in.

The Leica M in Movies

classic film cameras in movies leica M3
1962 Leica M3 with collapsible Elmar 50mm f2.8 with 2000 Leica M6 TTL and 28mm Elmarit-M
  • Persona (1966, M3)
  • Downhill Racer (M3, 1969)
  • Darling (M3, 1965)
  • Green Berets (M3, 1968)
  • Le Mans ( M3, 1971)
  • Patton (M3, 1970)
  • The Day of The Jackal (M3, 1973)
  • The Odessa File (M3, 1974)
  • Woodstock (M4, 1974)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (M3, 1975)
  • The Omen (M3, 1976)
  • Under Fire (M4-2, 1983)
  • Salvador Leica (M3, 1986)
  • Wings of Desire (M4, 1987)
  • Mighty Joe Young (1988, M6)
  • Addicted to Love (M6, 1997)
  • George of the Jungle (M6, 1997)
  • Payback (M3, 1999)
  • Spy Game (M6 with motor drive, 2001)
  • Imposter (M6, 2002)
  • We Were Soldiers (M3, 2002)
  • Blood Diamond (M6, 2003)
  • Eurotrip (M7, 2004)
  • The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (M7, 2005)
  • The Omen (M7, 2006)

Other Classic Film Cameras in Movies

A huge number of film camera manufacturers have come and gone and their products have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of movies, but here are a few of the more notable ones. Of the models listed below, I have only shot with the Olympus OM-1, another game changing camera which began a shift towards more compact, lighter 35 mm SLRs, away from the increasing weight of the Nikon pro SLRs and back towards the smaller form factor that Leica had always delivered with rangefinders.

Though I don’t have any of the Rolleiflex models listed below (2.8F and T), I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1961 which I absolutely love, and is considered by many to be one of the finest film cameras ever made. The Rolleiflex uses 120 medium format film which produces huge and very detailed 6x6cm negatives. Shooting a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is an entirely different experience to shooting either an SLR or rangefinder, and though manual focus can be challenging, gazing at the world through that illuminated ground glass screen that sees the world back to front is absolutely entrancing.

classic film cameras in movies spiderman
‘Spiderman’ Yashica Electro 35 GSN
  • Rear Window (Graflex Speed Graphic, 1954)
  • Lolita (Agfa Isolette, Nikon S2 Rangefinder, 1962)
  • From Russia With Love (Rolleiflex T, 1963)
  • Bullit (Rolleiflex 2.8F, 1968)
  • Jaws (Pentax Spotmatic, 1975)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Rollei B35, 1977)
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (Olympus OM-1, 1983)
  • Easy Money (Exacta VX, 1983)
  • The Killing Fields (Rolleiflex 2.8F, Pentax Spotmatic, 1984)
  • Bridges of Madison County (Nikon SP Rangefinder, 1995)
  • Ronin (Leica R6.2, 1998)
  • Catch me if you Can (Kodak Retina 2C, 2002)
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Pentax 67 medium format, 2009)
  • Jurassic World (Lomography Diana F+, 2015)
  • Batman v Superman (Nikon S3 Y2K Rangefinder, 2016)
  • Kong: Skull Island (Canon AE-1 Program, 2017) 

The Last Word

The last word in this article goes to the humble Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder pictured above, a typical manual focus rangefinder camera with a fixed lens and aperture priority auto exposure mode. You simply set the aperture and if it is not correct for the lighting conditions the ‘over’ or ‘slow’ directional arrows light up.

Long after it was discontinued, the inexpensive Electro has developed a cinematic identity thanks to an appearance as Peter Parker’s camera in The Amazing Spiderman (2012). There are several Electros (G, GS, GSN, GTN, GL, MG-1 and CC) and thanks to its moment in the spotlight the GSN has become known as the Spiderman version.

In addition to being inexpensive and fun to use, the camera has highly evocative 1960s branding; the space-age atomic symbol on the front of camera and the Color-Yashica branding on the sharp 45mm f/1.7 lens are both very 1960s indeed. Colour was new to consumers when the camera was first released in 1966! I have one myself, and whilst its no Leica, for value for money and fun to shoot with its hard to beat.

That’s it for my classic cameras in movies round up, the writing of which proved to be much more informative than I had imagined. If I have missed any cameras or influences for Apocalypse Now or Rear Window you think I should include please leave me a comment.


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