The Greatest Movies about Photographers: Rear Window

This article was inspired by classic film cameras in movies – specifically , Leicas and Nikons. From cameras in movies, it’s a short step to movies about photographers. My favourite movie with a photographer as the lead character is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and I was intrigued by the camera and telephoto lens Jimmy Stewart used in the role – hence this article.

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Jimmy Stewart, his Exacta Varex with Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window contains probably 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.

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. This manufacturer is best known for the Kine Exakta (1936-1948), the first 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in regular production.

The Exakta Varex VX was introduced in 1951 and was based on the Kine Exakta. The Exakta Varex VX was a system camera that could be used with either a waist level finder or with a pentaprism and a variety of focusing screens. Other specialised equipment available for the camera system included microscope adaptors, extension bellows, stereo attachments and medical attachments.

Exakta as Witness

In addition to a staring role in Rear Window Josef Koudelka used an Exacta Varex to photograph the invasion of Prague in 1968. He had returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania recording his photo-essay Gypsies (also with an Exacta Varex) two days before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

These photographs, of crowds staring down the barrels of tank guns, defiant youths waving resistance flags in smouldering streets and anti-Soviet graffiti that sprang up every day and was whitewashed every night, came to define one of the pivotal moments of 20th-century history. However Josef Koudelka would have to wait another 16 years for an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery before being credited as the photographer. Until then, the pictures had been attributed to PP (Prague Photographer) to protect Koudelka and his family from reprisals. Josef Koudelka: the lonely, rebel photographer

Rear Window

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window the Exakta Varex VX was paired with a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model. The f/5.6 400mm lens weighed 1.76kg and almost certainly required a tripod to obtain sharp shots.

Collectively the camera/lens combination is known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and is 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.

My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens

Greatest movies featuring photographers - Rear Window
The Nikon 400mm f3.5 prime mounted on an F6

I have a 400mm lens prime also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller.

A Beast of a Lens

It’s an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, a whole 1kg heavier than the Rear Window 400mm, and built like the proverbial tank. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and it requires a tripod and a gimbal head, which makes the combined shooting weight pretty substantial.

The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.

I used it originally for shots of the moon with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking, but I have recently acquired the new 100-400 mm zoom for that kind of shot. It’s better optically of course, and far lighter, but has nothing like the presence. I’ve kept the old monster for use with my older Nikon cameras – the F series and FM film classics. Sometimes, only film will do.

Other Movies Featuring Photographers

Whilst my favourite movie with a photographer as lead is Rear Window, but there are many others featuring photographers. My favourite is Apocalypse Now – the subject of another article on this site, but here’s a list of some of the most notable of the others.

  • Blow-Up (1966)
  • Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) 
  • Proof (1991)
  • The Killing Fields (1991)
  • High Art (1998)
  • Pecker (1998)
  • Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
  • Gentlemen’s Relish (2001)
  • City of God (2002)
  • Closer (2004)
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)
  • Everlasting Moments (2008)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
  • Kodachrome (2017)
  • Photograph (2019)

Nikon Film Cameras in The Movies

As a Nikon user and collector, I’ve noticed quite a few Nikon film cameras appearances in the movies and on TV shows. This short article outlines those appearances. I’ve also written in more detail about the Nikon F’s appearance in one of the all time great movies – Apocalypse Now and there is an equivalent article on Leica M cameras in the movies.

The Nikon F, Film Star

The first of Nikon’s SLRs was 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.”

Nikon SLRs in Movies

Beyond those described above, the Nikon F series Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras appeared 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… I am also yet to see another favourite, the Nikon FM3a on the screen, though the FM and FM2 have made appearances. With retro cameras becoming more popular its by no means impossible it’ll appear one day.

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)
  • Blow-Up (1966 Nikon F)
  • 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)
  • The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978, Nikon FM with MD motor-drive)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979, Nikon F)
  • Cannonball Run (1981, Nikon F)
  • The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Nikon F)
  • Under Fire (1983, Nikon F2)
  • Ghostbusters (1984, Nikon FE2)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987, Nikon F) Private Joker and Rafterman!
  • Gorillas in the Mist (1988, Nikon F)
  • Groundhog Day (1993, Nikon F Photomic)
  • The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Nikon F with S36 motor drive)
  • Heat (1995, Nikon F4) 
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Nikon F5)
  • Ronin (1998, Nikon FE2)
  • Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
  • City of God (2002, Nikon F)
  • Walk the Line (2005, Nikon F Photomic)
  • The Bang Bang Club (2010, Nikon FM2)
  • Batman v Superman (2016, Nikon S3 Y2K)
  • Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
  • Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Nikon F3 HP)

The First SLR?

Today many people think of the Nikon F as the first Single Lens Reflex camera, but it was actually the much less well known Ihagee (who made the Exakta VX Ihagee Dresden famously used in Rear Window) that manufactured 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 is similarly profound as it ended the dominance of German rangefinders from Zeiss and Leica. If you are interested in the history of photography there are a couple of comprehensive timelines on the site. From Chemistry to Computation is the timeline of the photographic process, whilst the Camera Timeline Year by Year describes camera introductions and innovations every year from 1900 to the present day.

My Nikon Film Cameras

Beyond Nikon Film cameras in the movies, I have a small collection of Nikons I enjoy shooting with. Some of which are reviewed on this site (The F6 and FM3a).

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 in Apocalypse Now. As much as I like an integrated light meter, the Photomic heads spoil the lines of the F too much so I use a hand held lightmeter. The Photomic heads are a little easier on the eye on the F2 and I have added a DP-12 Photomic head to my 1975 F2. I have a rather battered 1980 F3, which I bought in Sweden, and a 2004 F6, which I use a great deal. I also have an FM3a and FM2n, both of which are very lightweight and great to shoot with.

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 below 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.

  • 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)