Camera Reviews

If I could own only one camera it would be the Nikon F3

It’s a bold statement, I know: if I could own only one camera, it would be the Nikon F3.

Nikon F3HP *EXPLORED*

My camera collecting has been, in part, a journey toward finding the cameras that work best for me. I think I’ve tried enough cameras now to make this judgment. 

I’d miss my other SLRs, especially my Pentaxes ME and KM. Once in a while I’d pine for my autofocus, autoexposure Nikon N90s. There would be times I wished I could slip my Olympus XA into my pocket, or enjoy a Kodak Retina.

But if I owned only my Nikon F3, I’d make wonderful images for the rest of my life, and be perfectly happy doing it.

The rugged Nikon F3 can withstand any conditions I might subject it to, including my own considerable klutziness. After I send it out for a CLA, it should work beautifully for me for the rest of my life. I own a good range of capable Nikkor lenses. I’m ready for pretty much anything I might want to shoot.

The F3 offers aperture-priority exposure, my favorite way to shoot. It also offers full manual exposure.

The F3 is heavy. One could argue that I might enjoy one of Nikon’s lighter semi-pro bodies more. I own one, an FA, and it’s a good camera — and less fatiguing at the end of a long day slung over the shoulder.

But it took me no time to adapt to the F3’s ways, and now whenever I shoot it I feel one with it. That kind of bonding has happened for me with only a few cameras, my FA not included.

This was going to be my Operation Thin the Herd writeup on the F3. But it is silly to keep you in suspense through a long post when I’ve always known there was no way I would get rid of this camera. So here now, the photos that would have graced that Operation Thin the Herd post. The lens is the 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, and the film is Kodak T-Max P3200.

Chicago River at night

These are from our December trip to Chicago. I really enjoyed being able to capture the city at night on that fast, fast film.

Chicago River at night

I just can’t get over how good these night photos are. That P3200 really performs.

State Street at night

Heavy cloud cover made for poor light during the day. The P3200 let me shoot at comfortable apertures for plenty of depth of field.

Hotel Allegro

The F3 hung off my shoulder nonstop for three days. By the third day I was beginning to wish for relief. That’s my only beef with the camera.

State and Lake

I love Chicago as a photographic destination. I haven’t even begun to exhaust the obvious subjects yet.

Chicago

The F3 is quiet for an SLR perfect for shooting inside a museum like the Chicago Art Institute.

Inside the Art Institute

I managed one photo inside the Merchandise Mart before security sternly warned us that photography was prohibited.

Elevators in the Merchandise Mart

I made a portrait of Margaret at our Sunday lunch, at a restaurant called The Dearborn. We shared a bottle of delicious Spanish wine.

Margaret

All was not perfect with the F3 on this outing. I didn’t know it until the images came back from the processor, but the shutter was acting up a little. On my first roll it affected about a dozen shots, but did not occur at all on the second roll. It’s possible that the shutter was just a little crabby from disuse. I had been using my F3 regularly until about a year ago, when Operation Thin the Herd began. It’s kept me busy with my other cameras!

I’m going to shoot a few more rolls through my F3 to see if the problem recurs. This is a good reason to use up some ten-year-expired Kodak Max 400 I have in the fridge. If I see more of this, I’ll move the camera up in the CLA queue and include a repair to the shutter.

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Camera Reviews

Another Olympus XA2

I’ve never read a negative review of Olympus’s XA2, a remarkably compact 35mm camera. Everybody seems to like it. eBay bears it out: prices hover around $100 for working and complete examples. I am fortunate, as this one came to me for free from the collection of an old friend’s father.

Olympus XA2

The tiny XA2, introduced in 1980, was based on the 1979 XA but replaced its rangefinder with zone focusing and its f/2.8 lens with an f/3.5 lens. And when I say this camera is tiny, I mean tiny — it’s only fractionally larger than my Canon S95 or my wife’s Sony RX100, both compact digital point-and-shoot cameras that don’t have to hold a 35mm film cartridge.

Olympus XA2

I loaded a roll of Ultrafine Xtreme 100 black-and-white film, pulled a battery out of another camera I’d just finished using, slipped this XA2 into my coat pocket, and took it everywhere for a couple weeks. And then, as I explained in this post, I got black shadows, blown-out highlights, poor sharpness, and lack of detail. Here’s a shot from inside a nature park near my home, heavily Photoshopped to make it usable.

Starkey Park, Zionsville

I know better than to test a new-to-me old camera with an old battery and film I don’t know well yet, and then to send the film to a lab I’m still getting to know. So I declared the first test roll null and void, and loaded a fresh battery and tried-and-true Agfa Vista 200 into the camera. I had the camera shop downtown process and scan the film. Glory be, I got good stuff back from the XA2 this time.

Indianapolis Artsgarden

The little green light inside the viewfinder came on a lot, meaning that the XA2 needed a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure and that you should consider using flash or a tripod. Bollocks, I said each time. Every day but one I shot this camera I enjoyed full sun. I should have been getting plenty fast shutter speeds.

Co-op

I can’t tell what is making that green light come on so often. The XA2 doesn’t tell you what aperture and shutter speed it’s choosing based on the meter’s reading, so I don’t know how I would check this meter’s functioning against a known-good meter. But these results speak for themselves: it didn’t matter.

Suburban autumn

Autumn came late in central Indiana this year. It served to deepen the eventual colors, but to shorten their life span. It seemed like all the trees changed color and dumped all their leaves inside two weeks. I was fortunate to be able to take several good walks with the XA2 in my coat pocket during those days. That’s the XA2’s killer feature, by the way: you can carry it everywhere so easily.

Red

These full-sun photos were all noticeably vignetted, so much so that in the centers, light colors tended toward white. I was able to fix that pretty well in Photoshop. I had the same effect with an XA2 I used to own, so I assume this is endemic to the camera.

Yellow tree on Old 334

I experienced the common (and minor) challenges with the XA2 as I used it: the clamshell cover hangs up unless you slide it open in exactly the right direction, and the shutter button is super sensitive and likely to fire when you don’t mean it. If this were my only camera I’d get past those quirks after three or four more rolls.

Wrecks

I finished the roll before meeting a friend for lunch Downtown on a gray, chilly day. That green slow-shutter light was on for every shot, but as you can see the camera did fine.

Maryland St.

When you close the XA2 it moves the focus to the middle zone, which brings into focus everything 4 feet or more away. Because the camera biases toward big depth of field, for most subjects you can just open the camera, frame, and press the button. For truly far-away subjects you can use the landscape setting, and for close subjects (no closer than three feet, though) you can use the portrait setting. I did that here, and in this light got a narrow-enough in-focus patch that the background blurred a little.

Blue umbrella

To see more from both XA2s I’ve owned, check out my Olympus XA2 gallery.

Many film photographers say they prefer the XA2 to the XA. I’m not in that camp. I like the XA’s rangefinder and I prefer the characteristics of its lens. That said, the XA2 is almost point-and-shoot simple with plenty great optics. If I shot people on the street, this would be a great camera for it: open it, frame, snap, done.

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Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon Canonet QL17 G-III

Black Dog Books

When I started collecting cameras again in 2006 I decided to specialize in fixed-lens rangefinders. I expected that in time I’d own one example of each of Canon’s extensive Canonet line, with the Canonet QL17 G-III as their centerpiece. I soon found a good deal on this one.

Canonet QL 17 GIII

My Canonet had its faults. Leading the way was a wicked light leak from degraded seals, an common affliction with this camera. The shot below of my departed friend Gracie (on Fujicolor 200) shows my Canonet’s light leak in full bloom. After this I sealed the camera’s seams with electrical tape after loading film. Also, lower shutter speeds were suspect, the meter was probably a little off, and the ISO selector was stiff. Yet my Canonet always returned good images.

Gracie

I adored this camera for several years. It easy to carry compared to the much larger and heavier fixed-lens rangefinders I had been buying and the controls all fell right to hand. I loved the sharp, detailed images the lens projected onto any film I threw at it. Here I used Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros.

Indianapolis Fire Dept., Broad Ripple

I suspected I was going to want to keep this camera as part of Operation Thin the Herd, but not in its sickly condition. So I sent it out for CLA, and then put two rolls of Agfa Vista 200 through it. Wow, what a CLA will do for how a camera feels in your hands. Every control worked as smoothly as the factory originally intended.

Open for Men and Women

The fellow who did the CLA sent it back to me with a zinc-air 675 battery inside. It powered the meter accurately. But this Canonet was designed for 625 mercury batteries, which have a different form factor. Alkaline 625 cells share that form factor, but because they don’t deliver a consistent voltage across their lives they can lead to misexposure. The films I typically shoot have enough latitude that it doesn’t matter, and the alkaline 625s last a long time. The zinc-air 675s die after a few months. 

Lilly Lake, Eagle Creek Park

I pulled the 675 out and inserted a fresh alkaline 625 cell — and it didn’t work. I tried another, and it didn’t work either. Puzzled, I contacted the CLA guy, who apologized and said he’d fix the issue if I shipped it to him, but suggested I just use the 675 cells for their always-accurate voltage. I decided it wasn’t worth the cost and hassle to mail the camera back for adjustment. So I just got to shooting.

Lilly Lake, Eagle Creek Park

I didn’t stick with rangefinders. One person gifted me a Minolta X-700 and someone else an Olympus OM-1, and I fell in love with the 35mm SLR. That’s where my collection has gone, and as a result I haven’t shot this Canonet in six years.

At Coxhall Gardens

It’s a shame, really. There’s still a place in my shrinking collection for a couple good rangefinder cameras. I love my Yashica Lynx 14e for its sublime lens, and my Konica Auto S2 just feels great in my hands. But this Canonet is smaller and lighter than both of them and delivers quality results through its 40mm f/1.7 lens.

At Coxhall Gardens

Many other fixed-lens rangefinder cameras have passed through my hands, and this little Canonet is the best user of them all. It’s a good size even for my largish hands. The little lever on the focusing ring is right where my finger expects it to be, and it glides precisely. Slung over my shoulder I hardly notice it’s there. I’m more likely to grab it for an impromptu photo walk than any other rangefinder I’ve ever owned.

At Coxhall Gardens

For this camera’s turn in Operation Thin the Herd I took it on several impromptu photo walks: downtown Zionsville, Lilly Lake at Indianapolis’s Eagle Creek Park, Coxhall Gardens in Carmel, and on a rainy day to the hip intersection of 49th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in Indianapolis. It was a fine companion on them all. I only wish that the rangefinder patch were brighter. In dimmer light I struggled to see the split image within it. Maybe that’s just middle-aged eyes.

At Coxhall Gardens

In the decade since I bought this Canonet I’ve been blessed to use some truly outstanding gear. I have a lot more experience now against which to compare this camera. It’s a nice camera. It feels good to use. It gives fine images. But I don’t experience it as great in any of these measures. For most everyday photography I’m going to reach for something like my Pentax ME anyway, mount one of the many excellent lenses I have for it, and get results no less than equal to these.

49th & Penn

There’s nothing about this Canonet that makes it my best choice for a particular situation. In contrast, my cumbersome Yashica Lynx 14e has a killer use: its giant f/1.4 lens returns brilliant photographs indoors on black-and-white film. I can imagine future scenarios where I’ll be glad to have that camera in my arsenal. Not so this Canonet.

Bathroom selfie

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Canon Canonet QL17 G-III gallery.

Given this Canonet’s cult status, I feel like I should keep it in my collection. When I put film into it I really thought I’d fall in love all over again. I managed, disappointingly, to fall only in like.

I’ve waffled for weeks about this camera’s fate. I’ve rewritten the end of this post four times, flip-flopping between Keep and Goodbye all the way. What I finally decided is that because I’ve become an SLR guy, any non-SLR has to blow my socks off in some way to stay in the collection. This Canonet just didn’t do that.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus OM-1

Butterfly

Why have I not used my Olympus OM-1 more? This is such a wonderful camera — compact, precise, capable. It sparked the SLR fever that has so heavily influenced my collection. Could my subsequent SLR promiscuity simply have kept me from loving this camera fully?

Olympus OM-1

Probably. But I also know I’ve hedged on using it because I never got used to setting shutter speed on the lens barrel. What a wealth of great gear I have that this one little thing led me to favor other SLRs. But really, this is my only gripe. The OM-1 otherwise feels like a luxury item in my hands. Everything about this camera oozes excellence.

Peppy Grill

I own two OM-1 bodies, this minty silver-topped body (review here) and a slightly worn all-black body (review here). I made the above shot with the silver top on Kodak BW400CN, and the shot below with the black top on Fujicolor 200, both with the 50mm f/1.8 F.Zuiko lens.

Schwinn Collegiate

While I shot the silver-topped one this time, I’m including both bodies in this evaluation. They both stay or they both go. These cameras came to me with a bunch of lenses from the father of a dear friend, and I want his whole kit to be a single unit. With that, I mounted the close-focusing 50mm f/3.5 Zuiko Auto Macro lens that came with the kit, dropped in some Kodak Gold 200, and went looking for little flowers to shoot. I don’t know why this little blue chicory flower came out purple, but I don’t care, I love the photo.

Chicory

I made these photos as summer was ending. There were plenty of little flowers left to photograph.

Fall flowers

I even moved in close to this railroad spike on some abandoned tracks. I love the colors this lens picked up in the blurred background. I’m not sure my Pentax or Nikon lenses would have seen them.

Rail nail

You can use a macro lens for normal work, too. This one acquitted itself well.

L O V E

The 50/1.8 and the 50/3.5 Auto Macro were the only Olympus Zuiko lenses in the kit. He also owned a 70-150mm f/3.8 Vivitar Close Focusing Auto Zoom, a 100mm f/4 Portragon, and a big 500mm f/8 Spiratone Mintel-M mirror lens. I’d never shot some of these lenses, so I tried them this time on a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. First, here’s a big green highway sign that is about a half mile away from where I was standing. I had to put the camera on a tripod to steady it enough for this shot, which shows the 500mm Spiratone’s resolving power. Which is only okay, by the way. But in its day it was an inexpensive way to get a long lens.

East

Spiratone was a mail-order house for inexpensive photographic accessories. The 100mm Portragon lens is also a Spiratone product. It was meant for portraits, obviously, but I didn’t have anybody handy so I just shot stuff with it. It created an out-of-focus effect around the center of the image. The best of my Portragon shots was of this Subie’s snout.

Subie snout

I finished off the roll with the 50/1.8. I placed the OM-1 on my tripod, set the self-timer, and got this photo of me in our front yard.

Posed under the tree

Finally, I moved in close to these blue seed balls for one last 50/1.8 photo.

Blue ballies

To see more work from this camera, check out my Olympus OM-1 gallery.

The OM-1 almost makes up for its awkward shutter-speed ring by placing a rewind release on the camera’s front. You turn it to the side and then crank to rewind. Most SLRs place a release button on the camera bottom, and in most cases you have to hold that button in the entire time you’re rewinding. It’s awkward. The OM-1’s system is so easy in contrast.

While I’m going to focus the SLR portion of my collection on Pentax and Nikon, I won’t part with my OM-1s. I feel like I’m this kit’s chosen steward. And they’re just so lovely to use, weird shutter-speed ring notwithstanding. And so this gear stays in my collection.

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

I’ve achieved the Kodak Pony 135 trifecta, having now owned and shot now all three models: first the original, then the Model C, and now this Model B. I wasn’t exactly striving for this goal, mind you. But an old friend’s father sent me his entire camera collection a couple years ago and this Model B was present. It was only a matter of time before I put film through it and secured this particular hat trick.

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

The 1953-55 Kodak Pony 135 Model B, like the original Pony 135, is a step-up camera from the basic Brownies Kodak sold. Its 51mm f/4.5 Anaston lens, probably a Cooke triplet in design, was a serious improvement on the meniscus lenses in most Brownies. It was set in a Kodak Flash 200 shutter that operates at 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200 seconds.

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

Like the original Kodak Pony 135, you have to extend the lens barrel before you can shoot photos. Twist counterclockwise, pull, twist clockwise until it locks. To collapse it, twist, push, twist.

Kodak Pony 135 Model BKodak Pony 135 Model B

Kodak sold this camera to amateurs who wanted to shoot color slides, Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodacolor negative film existed, but not in 35mm format until 1958. These were all seriously slow films — Kodachrome of that day was rated at 12 or 16 ASA, yes twelve or sixteen. Kodak Plus-X was rated at a comparatively blazing 80 ASA then. When using fast modern films, this camera’s camera’s maximum aperture and range of shutter speeds seem limiting. But in context of the time, they were fine.

Ice cube croutons

Kodachrome and Plus-X are discontinued, so I loaded Agfa Vista 200 color negative film into this Pony and took it out onto Indianapolis’s Massachusetts Avenue. My wife and I made it an evening out.

Liberty Street

But first I had to cure a sticky shutter. I’d just learned that on cameras like this carefully flowing a couple drops of lighter fluid into the slot for the shutter cocking lever usually does the trick. It freed the shutter immediately!

Mural

And yes, you have to cock the shutter on this Pony. You also have to guess exposure and set aperture and shutter speed, as well as guess distance and focus manually. The budding early-1950s photographer got no help from the Pony 135 Model B.

Mass Ave

But as that photographer’s skill grew, he or she could get good performance from the Pony. Mine suffers the vagaries of age. I got a lot of haze in most shots, especially when the sun wasn’t perfectly behind me. The lens wasn’t dirty, and I can’t see any haze or fungus among the elements, so I just don’t know what was wrong. Photoshop corrected the problem well enough on many frames but couldn’t cure it on many others, including the one below.

Bench

I also took the roll on a lunchtime walk in Fishers, the town in which I work. With the sun directly overhead my shots suffered from far less haze.

Tree on the path

Because I’m a terrible guesser of distance, I generally shoot cameras like this at f/8 or smaller apertures and shoot distant subjects so good depth of field makes up for my bad guesses. But I did try moving in fairly close to these plants near my home. It went all right.

Foliage

See more from this camera in my Kodak Pony 135 Model B gallery.

These Kodak Pony 135s are all pleasant to shoot. They’re light and easy to use once you get the hang of setting aperture, shutter speed, and focus. My only complaint is that the 51mm lens felt too narrow. I prefer my Model C’s slightly wider 44mm lens. But really, you can make lovely photographs with any Kodak Pony. I hope you won’t dismiss them as junk just because of the Kodak name.

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Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta XG 1

Garrett at the bridge

Minolta SLRs and I have not gotten on well. They are unfailingly delightful to use and return great images — when they work. Which, in my experience, is seldom. I’ve owned two X-700 bodies that developed the well-known stuck winder problem. The fix involves soldering new capacitors. I’ve owned two Maxxum 7000 bodies that developed the common failure of the aperture-control magnet, meaning every photo was taken at f/22. There’s a fix but it involves major disassembly and considerable luck. Even the SR-T 101 and 202 I’ve owned had issues, though less catastrophic. The one reliable Minolta SLR body I’ve owned is this one: an XG 1, from the late 1970s.

Minolta XG-1

This was an advanced amateur camera in its day, chock full of electronics to make the photographer’s job a breeze. It’s an aperture-priority camera, too, which is my favorite way to shoot. Mine came with a 45mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X lens, a good lens with interesting characteristics. Here’s one of my favorite shots on this kit, of my son in his room, on Fujicolor 200.

Garrett, down the hall

For this outing I mounted my 50mm f/1.7 Minolta MD lens. It came with the first X-700 I owned and I’d shot it just once before that camera bricked. I’ve kept meaning to shoot it again, so onto the XG 1 it went. I loaded a roll of Agfa Vista 200 but shot it at EI 100. It did lovely work. Minolta’s manual-focus lenses are just so good.

Phlox

My sons were together over my birthday weekend and we took a hike through Starkey Nature Park in Zionsville, where we came upon this old railroad bridge.

Bridge

There are some lovely trails inside Starkey. Zionsville really is a lovely place to live, with a charming downtown and amenities like this middle-of-nowhere getaway right in town. The rents are not for the faint of heart, however. Or the taxes. My inner skinflint wants to run right back to much-less-expensive Indianapolis.

Trail

The camera and lens handled nearly perfectly. The shutter button is electronic — placing your finger on it activates the meter, and a light touch fires the shutter. It’s so light that twice I accidentally fired the shutter and wasted a frame.

What is this?

I sure do love my sons. They’re both back in college now. I really miss the years they were still in public school because I got to see them all the time. They’ve got some of the growing-up troubles typical of entering your 20s, but I think that the big picture looks bright for both of them.

Boys

I carried the XG 1 to work a few days. The building going up next door to my office looks like it’s starting to wrap up. It was hard to frame things in the viewfinder — a line of black schmutz obscures the view in there. I’m not sure when that happened; I don’t remember it being that way the last time I used it. I’m sure it wasn’t that way when I got it. The mirror is clean so it’s got to be inside the prism. I wonder how hard it would be to get in there and clean it up.

Construction

There were just a few shots left on the roll when Damion and I made a quick trip to Thorntown. I wanted to tell him the story of the time his mom got me out of a speeding ticket here largely for being young and blonde and beautiful. It was good to share a happy memory of his mom with him, from a time before he was born. I’m not sure we would have had that moment without “taking a photo walk” as an excuse to get out.

Welcome to Thorntown

Here’s a gallery of the photos I’ve shot with this Minolta XG 1. Check it out!

Standing on Thorntown’s mean streets, I extolled the XG 1’s strong reliability to Damion when the meter stopped responding. I was at the end of the roll; could that have been why? Or was it a weak battery? I’d used those two LR44s in several cameras before. When we got home I swapped in fresh batteries and the meter still didn’t respond. I rewound the film, dropped in a fresh roll (Ultrafine Extreme 100, photos to come). The meter came right to life and was strong through the roll.

Even though I’ve already decided to focus on Nikon and Pentax SLRs, I thought I might keep this XG 1 in case I came upon good Minolta Rokkor glass in my travels. But then I inventoried just those Pentaxes and Nikons and counted fifteen bodies. While doing that I came upon my two Olympus OM-1 bodies and the great set of lenses I have for them, all donated to me by the father of one of my closest friends, and knew I could not part with those either. I just don’t have room for Minoltas after all.

Verdict: Goodbye

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