The market is flooded with compact automatic cameras, each offering a bewildering array of built-in bells and whistles, and each promising to make every frame you take something for David Bailey to worry about. At around pounds 200- pounds 250, idiot-proof cameras abound.
My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 50, a birthday present that cost three guineas, which dates both camera and owner with a precision that the plastic lens of that simple Sixties device was unable to match. Still, it was reliable, foolproof and fazed only when the sun was less than brilliant, or when anything ran across the path of the tiny lens. The fixed shutter speed was designed to 'freeze' nothing more active than a tree sloth.
If you are a little older, your first camera might have been a Brownie 127, the train spotter's favourite in the days of steam, long socks and belted raincoats. If that is a bus pass in your pocket, I bet you took that first out-of-focus picture of Uncle Jack with a 'Box Brownie'. But if you are a child of the superstore age you could have started with a disposable camera that came in a packet of breakfast cereal, or with some hi-tech, Beta- cam lookalike that made more irritating noises than Space Invaders.
The choice is astonishing. Yet, when you look beneath the top plates of these cadmium-powered, computer-aided marvels, they are much of a muchness. It is interesting to discover that the most expensive compact cameras are also the simplest. So much so that the Contax TVS, the Mercedes-Benz of modern cameras, even looks as if it were made 30 or 40 years ago.
Here is a crisp and elegant device that would serve you well for a lifetime, and although offering a little help when light conditions get awkward, it allows you to make your own mistakes. This is the kind of camera that would match your aspirations, should you get a little arty or creative in years to come. Equally, those holiday snaps would be the crispest you have ever seen. The only snag is the price: more than pounds 1,000. But, with cameras, you really do get what you pay for.
Sure, if you are clever you can take fascinating pictures with a pin-hole camera made with cardboard and sticky-back plastic, but a Contax TVS could accompany you into outer space and still deliver the goods. Lesser compacts appear to sell on style. A rational consumer would deny this: we buy a camera for the features it offers, ease of handling and so on. However, as it is impossible to know whether a camera is easy to handle until you have used one for days on end and, as few of us are particularly rational, the middle-market choice is likely to be based on superficial judgement. And how different these cameras look.
For example, the eminently sensible Canon Sure Shot, a camera with the styling characteristics of an Austin Allegro, is a bestseller in its class. It has most of the goodies on offer in the pounds 200- pounds 250 price range and an excellent lens. Yet for a similar sum you can have a Konica Aiborg: 'extraordinary styling,' says Which Camera, 'gives character to this model'. It certainly does - a camera shaped for a latter-day Captain Nemo or else a mechanical extra for some future remake of War of the Worlds.
Not to be outstyled, the Minolta Riva Zoom 105i looks exactly like the camera that Dan Dare (of Space Fleet and Eagle fame) took with him on safaris to Venus in the late Nineties. Even more extraordinary is the Canon Epoca, which steals its form from the world of the hand-held video camera, but might also tickle the gills of Jacques Cousteau and other deep-sea divers with a penchant for weird cameras with big lights attached to the sides of their lenses. 'A stunning-looking product,' says Which Camera, 'which sits beautifully in the hand. However, it does require a completely new approach to using a camera and some may find it offputting.'
For those who do, there is always the Leica C2-Zoom, a simple and sturdy device that reminds me of any number of steel-and-plastic consumer durables that emerged from Germany in the days when the country was run by the even more solid-looking Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (who grimaced from stamp albums in the days of Brownie 127s). Here is a compact camera that offers with a no-nonsense approach to photography and sells on the name of its famous professional siblings which cost 10 times more and are as old-fashioned and virtuous as a shaft- driven BMW motorbike.
For those with a taste for old- fashioned cameras but wanting something freshly minted, there are two choices. Either you spend a kaiser's ransom on a Leica M6 (a manual compact with no frills whatever which dates in essence from the Thirties - this is a superb camera highly prized by professionals), or a small fortune on a Contax TVS, or drop to the bottom of the market where you will find such technological wonders as the Lubitel 166U, a Russian-made copy of a 1938 German Voigtlander (yours for about pounds 30) or, for about pounds 70 more, a Seagull 4A-1 made by the comrades in China. This is a variation on the theme of the twin-lens Rolleiflex, a favourite of studio-based professionals.
So much choice, so much style. The sad thing is that none of these cameras will turn you into a Karsh or Doisneau, Beaton or Bailey. For all their fail-safe, foolproof gizmos, for all their racy looks, none can guarantee to frame a memorable image. If you need to learn how to compose a picture, you might as well rummage through the Oxfam bag and dig out the Instamatic 50 you almost gave away . . .