On Sean Penn, His Trusted Nikon F3/T and the Distraction of the Camera

The other day I posted Watching Life Through a Viewfinder — Are Photos Ruining the Experience? on the difficulty of making photographs while enjoying the moment. The article didn’t attract any attention, so I thought I’m talking about something that’s of no interest to anyone. Until I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Director and main actor Ben Stiller might not have produced the most sophisticated of movies, but interestingly it’s all about the search for a missing negative, a photo shot by photojournalist Sean O’Connell alias Sean Penn. And boy he’s shooting with a trusted Nikon F3/T Titanium.

Sean Penn a.k.a. photojournalist Sean O’Connell with his trusted Nikon F3/T in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
Sean Penn a.k.a. photojournalist Sean O’Connell with his trusted, taped over Nikon F3/T in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

While the remake of a 1947 flick isn’t first class entertainment, there’s a key scene with Walter Mitty a.k.a. Ben Stiller finally finding Sean high up in the Himalayas. With a huge zoom mounted on his Nikon Sean Penn’s after a snow leopard.

Nikon F3/T Titanium is available on eBay for a few hundred dollars.
The famed robust workhorse Nikon F3/T Titanium is available on eBay for a few hundred dollars.
The moment the predator walks into the frame, Sean lets Walter take a look through the viewfinder. And makes no attempt to take the shot.

Walter Mitty a.k.a. Ben Stiller, confused, asks Sean Penn, “When do you gonna take it.”

“Sometimes I don’t,” says Penn.

“If I like a moment (…) I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just wanna stay in it.”

“Stay in it?”

“Yeah, right there,” smiles Penn. “Right here!”

For what it’s worth, it’s a Hollywood product, romanticizing a good old hip film attitude. Still, it’s at least comforting to see that the retro approach makes it onto the big screen…

BTW, in Hollywood movies actors don’t seem to prefer state-of-the-art digital gear. You generally see old film Leicas and Nikons. Maybe because the modern cameras look obsolete too quickly? Film cameras definitely make a movie look more timeless.

Same goes for mobile phones. Think Motorola StarTAC, once a must-have in movies.




  • terrible movie. sean hates photographers and beat some many times. he’s a good actor though.

  • There’s a difference between hating photographers and hating paparazzi.

  • Melissa Cook

    I think about this constantly. I’m a mother of 3 small, fast-moving kids under 5. A somewhat frustrated photographer wannabe whose Depression Era father wouldn’t support an artistic career, last year I convinced my wife to let me buy a Canon 5DM3. To be sure, I have a good number of great shots of our beautiful (luckily photogenic) kids, to justify the expense. But every time I’m schlepping that thing (in addition to the 3 toddlers, 2-strollers, up and down an upper floor walk-up in Brooklyn), I’m quite conscious of this issue. Every time I choose to grab the camera, remove the lens cap, turn it on, check the settings and start clicking away, I wonder if I’m getting the shot but missing the moment, and missing the point. Of course, when I’ve missed the shot, it’s worse. When I’ve gotten spectacular ones, well, that reinforces it all. I’ve been using an old but good 70-300, IS, USM because I prefer close-ups. But them it gets me wondering if maybe the 70-200, 2.8L IS II USM, for $2500.00, or $2200.00 (or I saw it briefly on sale for $200 less at B & H, but missed it) would be better. But, I don’t think I could justify that expense… Then I wonder if I should start thinking about mirrorless… But, I feel invested… Anyway, yes, this is a huge issue for me. Thanks for writing about it. Anyone have a 70-200, 2.8L IS II USM lens they don’t need?

  • Scarlet_Billows

    Hilarious. I feel sorry for all who lug such cameras and lenses around. I used to do it. I’m so happy I don’t anymore. I wouldn’t even go the mirrorless route but instead get a compact with good image quality and fast autofocus.

  • Melissa Cook

    Got any recs?

  • It’s just in this scene he’s using this monster, otherwise it’s a sensible down-to-earth inconspicuous combo.

  • Are you worries about gear or distraction a.k.a. missing the moment? Any gear can perform or not perform, that depends solely on you. The more you spend on good quality gear = the more you might like it. If weight and size are issues for you, why not try a prime lens for a change? Why not even a 35 that forces you to go closer? The 5D Mark III is an exceptional camera. You’ll be able to take great shots with a mirrorless setup. But low light, texture and tones will never be the same.

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    This is by far the best portrait I saw in 2014. Hard to beat.

  • You’re sarcastic, Wolfgang.

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    Not at all – I mean it. The best I saw within these 14 days since the new year started. And hard to beat because you’d first have to find someone like Sean Penn for a photo like that…

  • genotypewriter

    Sorry Melissa but you’re all over the place and I struggle to understand what is it you’d wish to address, a topic Dan wrote above or the issue of your own gear size/weight etc.
    Is it the kids that make your mind jump in quick succession from one bit to another or could it be an adult ADHD? Hope you don’t get this the wrong way ;-)

  • Roscoe Tanner

    “…I wouldn’t even go the mirrorless route but instead get a compact with good image quality and fast autofocus….”
    And always keep longing for something ‘better’ out there…been there, done that dear Scarlet, done the whole circle and gone back to a trusty full frame DSLR.

  • Eduardo Kim

    I wouldn’t go with a 35 if you are not shooting portrait. I know what she is passing through, I’ve been there! First things first.

    1. If you want to take glorious pics with your canon best chance is to keep your distance and let the children be free to play.
    2. If you want to be involved within the action, take a 85mm and you will not be too much on their way nor you are gonna feel lonely cuz of the distance, try a fast lens (1.8 is great). Also, you can save big bucks with a lens like that.
    3. If you still feel that you are loosing the moment, DROP the camera (or give it to your husband lol) and go play with them as much as you want or need. GET IN THE MUD!!! :P

  • Michael Egbert

    Endeavor to take the shot. You will forget the moment someday. They (munchkins) kick out moments like gamma rays. Take the shot until you have the flavor of what was happening. It will last a lot longer. Then put the camera down until you see another moment.

  • Michael Egbert

    Gear doesn’t matter.

  • Joo

    I think this picture says “DON’T SMOKE, OR YOUR SKIN WILL LOOK LIKE THIS”