Cameras, Photography

Time to send my Pentax ME out for CLA

My much-loved Pentax ME has developed a light leak. Much sadness.

Cincinnati Zoo

Bodies go for so cheap on eBay that I considered for a minute just buying another one. But I’m on my third body already — all three wound up with some minor problem. (Should that be telling me something?) Rather than try the camera lottery again, I’m just going to send this one to Eric Hendrickson for CLA (clean, lube, and adjustment) and new seals.

Cincinnati Zoo

I first saw the leak earlier this year when I had some black-and-white film in it. I immediately went into denial. The roll I shot at the zoo came back from the processor’s with so many affected images that I couldn’t avoid reality any longer.

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This also solves a mystery. You might remember a couple shots I shared several weeks ago where I couldn’t remember which camera I used to shoot them. Well, the light leak in the corner of this shot from that roll tells the story. And I had to be shooting my 80-200mm f/4.5 SMC Pentax-M Zoom lens on it to get shots like this one.

Eastern Star

While my ME is out of commission, I’ll just have to fall back on my delightful and pristine Pentax KM when I want to shoot from my collection of Pentax lenses. Life is good.

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Cameras, Photography

Nikon N8008

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I did not need another auto-everything 35mm SLR. But in what is probably my greatest guilty pleasure, which says something about my buttoned-down life, I really enjoy them. I’m no less devoted to my first love: all-manual, all-metal SLRs! Yet I was deeply tempted when I came upon this Nikon N8008 body at KEH for $13.

Nikon N8008

I resisted. But that afternoon KEH emailed me an offer of 12% off used gear and I was a goner. Twenty dollars shipped for a body that cost $857 new. Pennies on the original dollar! Now is the time to buy these higher-end auto-everything film SLRs. And the N8008 (known as the F-801 in most of the rest of the world) was higher end, as it rested just below the pro-grade F4 in Nikon’s pecking order.

Nikon N8008

Befitting its station, its specs are solid. They begin with a big, bright, high-eyepoint viewfinder, which means you can see through it perfectly even when you’re wearing glasses. It offers both matrix and 75% center-weighted metering. Its shutter operates from 30 seconds to 1/8000 second and it takes film from ISO 6 to 6400 (and it reads the film’s DX coding). It syncs with flash at 1/250 second. And common AA batteries power it all.

Nikon N8008

It offers all of the modern modes: manual, programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority. But as you can see, it was designed before the mode wheel became idiom. You expect that from a camera made from 1988 to 1990. To set mode, you have to repeatedly press the Mode button and look at the LCD. It works fine and isn’t cumbersome. It just takes a minute to adjust to it.

The N8008 also offers depth-of-field preview, allows multiple exposures, and boasts a self timer that can take two shots in succession. And its focusing screens exchange. Three screens are available, including the matte Type B screen that shipped with the N8008. You could also get the gridded Type E screen and the microprism Type J screen.

This camera also takes most F-mount lenses. Nikon lens compatibility requires a secret decoder ring (Ken Rockwell keeps his up to date) but with a few exceptions and caveats (pre-AI lenses won’t mount, AF-S lenses won’t automatically focus, AF-G lenses work only in programmed or shutter-priority mode, the latest AF-P lenses won’t focus) you can use your legacy lenses on the N8008.

I considered mounting my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor to this camera just to test that compatibility. The moment passed quickly, a fleeting shadow. I reached instead for my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor, a “gelded” lens that has no aperture ring. The N8008 drives this lens beautifully in P (program) or S (shutter-priority) modes. Even though Nikon shipped this lens with bajillions of its entry-level film SLRs, don’t underestimate this solid performer.

I loaded some fresh Kodak Tri-X and went to work at home, right next to my easy chair. I’d just finished a finger of whiskey. Photograph drunk, Photoshop sober?

Empty whiskey glass

I stepped back and zoomed out, revealing this lens’s one major fault: barrel distortion at the wide end. I reduced the effect in Photoshop.

Illuminated whiskey glass

These well-made auto-everything SLRs appeal to me, I think, because I can get high-quality images with almost zero thinking. That’s not to say I don’t like thinking. I get full joy from shooting my manual-exposure, manual-focus cameras. But sometimes it feels good to let the camera do all the work for you, all the while leaving you confident of good results. And with the N8008, I could have full control if I wanted it.

I never wanted it on this test roll. Good thing, as the gelded lens sharply limited my options. But on a stroll down Zionsville’s Main Street I didn’t much care. I twisted in my zoom level, pressed the button halfway to focus, and then pressed the button the rest of the way to get the shot. With a loud zip, the camera wound to the next frame and I was ready to go again.

Black Dog Books

I did, however, fall pray to one pitfall of easy-peasy shooting: I shot indiscriminately. Lots of uninteresting photos was the predictable result. This post shares almost all of the photos I think have any merit from this 36-exposure roll.

Brick Street Inn

Here Margaret stands between our two Fords in the parking lot at work. I used to work not far from her workplace, a large suburban church where she’s in charge of buildings and grounds. She wears dresses on Mondays to remind her co-workers that she’s a woman after all, as otherwise it’s jeans and T-shirts because a Director of Facilities never knows when she’ll find herself cleaning up after a sick child or crawling around a failed baptistry heater.

Margaret on Dress Monday

My sons have always been curious about my cameras. When they were very small I used to get the boxes down from my closet and we’d play with them together, cameras strewn across the living room. As I got serious about my collection again in my 40s and began to shoot my cameras more, my sons often asked if they could shoot them too. Frankly, I wasn’t always thrilled to say yes. They showed no real interest in exposure and focus, so explaining it to them got us nowhere. I took to setting the camera for them, but they were often impatient as I read the light and guessed distance and all. But a camera like the N8008 is perfect for kid use, even if that kid just turned 18. It requires no explanation beyond “press the button halfway so it can focus and then the rest of the way to get the shot.” My son did that perfectly while we waited for dinner at a Perkins one evening.

Me, taken by my son

Finally, I took the N8008 along the day I visited this abandoned bridge. It’s the one that cemented my love of exploring the old roads, because finding abandoned infrastructure is strangely exciting.

Abandoned US 40 bridge near Plainfield, IN

The N8008 is not without its flaws. It’s a little heavy for all-day use. The loud winder was annoying. Autofocus is slower than on a modern camera. But so bloody what? I don’t shoot sports anyway. This camera worked great, full stop.

But I still own a Nikon N90s, also a wonderful auto-everything 35mm SLR. One does not need both cameras. One does not need a hundred cameras stuffed into every nook and cranny of one’s house, either, but that’s where one is despite ongoing efforts to thin the herd.

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Cameras, Photography

My first book! Exceptional Ordinary: Everyday Photography with the Pentax ME

Exceptional images can be made with even the most ordinary 35mm SLR. The Pentax ME certainly qualifies as ordinary, with its middling specifications and features. Yet I’ve done some of my best work with this camera and the great Pentax lenses that mount on it, and I want to share some of that work with you.

That’s why I’ve assembled 30 images I made with this camera, images I like best, into a book — Exceptional Ordinary: Everyday Photography with the Pentax ME.

BookPromo

It’s easy to forget that for most of photography’s history, a photograph was a physical, tangible object. Even now that film photography appears to be finding a new niche after years of decline, so many of us film photographers scan our negatives and work with the resulting digital images.

I wanted both to hold prints of my photographs in my hands and to share them with you. That’s why I collected them into a book. And in the book I described each photo with the same kind of words you’re used to finding here on my blog. Click here to see a preview. Click my book’s cover below to buy one (either paper or PDF) on Blurb.com.

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Cameras, Photography

Shooting the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for the last time

I’m breaking up with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80.

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80It’s been my favorite point-and-shoot camera. It’s so small and easy to use, and I love the contrast and sharpness it always delivers. No matter what film I drop in, I’m always thrilled with the results.

Except for its fatal flaw. And I’ve finally had enough of it.

It’s this weird curved light leak, which this photograph shows. I shot a roll in this camera recently, some Kodak Tri-X 400, and half the images suffered from it. I’ve owned two of these cameras and both had this problem. And reading the forums, it’s not just me; this appears to be a problem with this camera, period.

Rock Bottom

One forum participant said to cover the window on the back that shows the film canister inside. He thought this was the leak’s source. I tried it and it didn’t work. I assume now that the leak comes from around the lens barrel, and I don’t know how anyone would fix that.

It’s a shame. This lens is so capable. And the 35-80mm zoom range is useful, even though the camera zooms slowly. And the flash is pretty good for an onboard flash, lighting remarkably evenly, as this throwaway shot of my kitchen shows.

Air drying

Typical of this kind of point and shoot, the camera decides when to use the flash. But the camera uses it well. I didn’t intend for the flash to fire on this shot, so I turned it off and shot it again. The flash-enabled shot looked much better. Could this camera be smarter than me?

Park-O-Meter

But anyway, back to the light leak. I’ve always cropped the leak out of the afflicted photos, as I did on this shot of some mailboxes in my neighborhood. But I’m tired of having to do it. And sometimes the leak covers up some of the subject.

Mailboxes

I’m sad that it’s time to break up with this camera. It’s just perfect to carry around with me everywhere. I’ve started taking 15-minute walks around my neighborhood before going to work, and after a skiff of snow fell one morning I snapped these tire tracks on the street. It’s great to whip this light little camera out of an inner coat pocket and quickly grab the shot.

Tire tracks in the snow skiff

On an evening when I met Margaret for a pint I photographed this fence across the street. Truly, except for this flaw this is a quality point and shoot camera that’s easy to carry and use enables photographs I might not otherwise make.

Fence

But now the search begins for an easily pocketable point-and-shoot 35mm camera with a great lens. Is it too much to ask of it to take a battery I can buy at the drug store, and will zoom across the 35-80mm range?

What pocketable point-and-shoot cameras do you like? Tell me in the comments.

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Cameras

Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 3: Research

Recently I told you how to assess a camera’s condition, first by checking basic features and then by checking advanced features. Now I’m going to tell you about the powerful tool in your camera-inspection arsenal, especially when it comes to all- (or mostly-) electronic cameras: your smartphone.

That’s right. Because wherever you get a good signal, you can research the camera.

Minolta Maxxum 7000

Failed aperture-control magnet

I didn’t do that at the counter of my local camera shop, where I was hot to buy this Minolta Maxxum 7000. It wasn’t until I took it home and shot a roll of film in it that I learned it suffered from a very common Maxxum 7000 fault: a failed magnet in the autoexposure system. When it goes, the camera shoots only at its smallest aperture. To test it, drop a battery in, go into low light (but not so low you can’t see the camera well), look down at the lens, and fire. In low-ish light the camera should select a wide aperture. If you see a tiny aperture as the shutter fires, the Maxxum has this problem.

I had a great mobile signal while I stood at that counter. A quick search for “Maxxum 7000 fault” could have spared me the disappointment.

Canon EOS Rebel

Failed shutter

As electronics crept into cameras, so did intractable problems. That’s not to say used electronic film cameras are inherently a bad deal. I own several that just keep on trucking. But when they do fail, they can appear to be functioning properly. More than once I’ve happily shot an entire roll only to find every shot spoiled by some internal gremlin. I’ve owned two Canon EOS Rebel-series cameras, for example, with failing or failed shutters. It’s the number one problem these cameras develop. But the camera sounds like it’s working as you shoot it. (Tip: look at the shutter curtain. If there’s any goo on it, or an arc of marks, the shutter is failing or has failed.)

Minolta X-700

Jammed tight

Sometimes the failure is as subtle as a brick to the forehead. My aunt Maxine gave me her Minolta X-700 kit a long time ago, and I managed to shoot one roll of film before its most common failure happened: a rogue capacitor breathed its last. When that happens, the winder locks tight. My friend Alice later gave me her X-700, which had already suffered the same fate. This can be repaired with a new capacitor, but it’s major surgery and expensive to have done. Such is the case with most failures in electronic cameras.

Yet it’s not just electronic cameras that have quirks and common failure points.

Kodak Retina Reflex IV

Wind to fix this cameras main “fault”

The fully manual Kodak Retina Reflex series has a quirk: the mirror stays up after you press the shutter button. You see black in the viewfinder until you wind, which raises the mirror again. If you come upon one of these and find you can’t see through the viewfinder, if you don’t know this you will think the camera is broken.

The Argus A-series cameras and some of the Kodak Pony-series cameras have collapsible lens barrels.  They don’t work right unless the barrel is extended.

And many folding Kodak Retina cameras might appear to be broken, the winder being stuck. But when the frame counter atop the camera counts town to zero, the camera locks the winder. Moving the frame counter off zero frees the winder.

For many cameras, you can find the original manual online as a free download. The best and best-known site is butkus.org, but there are others. It can be a little tricky to read a manual on your phone, but it can mean the difference between not buying a camera because the winder’s stuck, or realizing that moving the frame counter off zero frees that winder up.

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The point is that many cameras have quirks, common issues, and known failure points. And others have gone here before you. They like to write about their woes with old cameras, either in their blogs or in the photography forums. A quick Internet search often reveals all.

And now you have a complete camera-evaluation toolkit. First check fundamental functions. Then test advanced features. Finally, research the camera’s quirks and known failure points. If you do these things, you’ll greatly reduce the risk of bringing home a dud.

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Cameras

Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 2: Advanced features

Recently I shared how to check an old film camera’s fundamental functions so you don’t end up buying junk. (Read it here, if you missed it.) But many cameras offer features beyond those fundamentals. They can be broken too.

Minolta SR-T 202

Quite a find at an antique shop!

A couple years ago I found a Minolta SR-T 202 at an antique shop. A 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X lens was attached. What luck! These are great cameras, and a 50/1.4 is always a prize.

But there I stood in the middle of a dimly lit shop 60 miles from home. What problems would this camera have, and could I negotiate a price that would make me willing to take them on?

First I checked the fundamentals, which I described in part 1 of this series. That all checked out. So I moved on to the camera’s advanced features. Here are the things I checked:

Remove the battery cover, if there is one. When there’s no battery cover, the camera is all mechanical. Cameras that take a battery have some level of electronics, even if it’s just an onboard light meter. Without the proper battery you won’t be able to check some or all of its functions, depending on how much of the camera is electronically controlled.

Yashica Electro 35 GSN

Battery cover on the bottom, slotted to be opened with a nickel

I don’t know about where you live, but where I live Walgreens and CVS are on every other corner, and they have a surprisingly extensive battery selection. For a camera I really, really want, I’ll duck out and buy a battery.

Many battery covers have a slot that fits a nickel or a penny, so grab one out of your back pocket and unscrew it. Alternatively, there might be knurling on the cover that lets you grip it with your fingertips. Or you might find a tab you press in that lets you pull the cover back. Ideally, the cover removes easily and the inside is free of leaky-battery corrosion. If the cover is jammed shut, there’s probably corrosion. I’ve had good luck cleaning up a little corrosion (I use a dab of vinegar and fine steel wool), but my experience has been that a lot of corrosion means the camera’s electronics won’t work.

Check the camera’s focusing. The camera either focuses manually or automatically.

On manual-focus viewfinder cameras, you guess how far away your subject is and twist the aperture ring until that number of feet or meters lines up with the focusing mark. There’s no good way to check accuracy in the field, short of carrying an accessory rangefinder everywhere you go.

But if the camera has a built-in rangefinder, use it to check focusing accuracy. The rangefinder might be inside the viewfinder or it might be in a separate window near the viewfinder. Look for the “patch” in the center, which should be bright enough for you to see the image inside it. Aim the camera at something a known distance away. Turn the focusing ring until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the image in the viewfinder. Check the distance selected on the focusing ring and see if it matches the actual distance.

You can do the same on a manual-focus 35mm SLR. Twist the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder’s split screen lines up, or the microprism ring stops shimmering.

On autofocus cameras, see if there’s a manual-focus mode and try the tips above. If there’s no manual mode, you’ll have to roll the dice that focus is accurate. Fortunately, of the dozens upon dozens of  cameras I’ve bought in over 40 years, only one or two were significantly off.

Olympus Trip 35

Selenium meter around the lens

Check the light meter, if there is one. Look through the viewfinder. If you see a needle or an LED/LCD panel, there’s an onboard meter. A few cameras place the meter needle on the camera body instead.

Some meters need power and others don’t. Selenium light meters are photosensitive on their own and need no battery. Look for a bubbled plastic patch on the camera’s face or around the lens.

Yashica Lynx 14e

CdS meter “bubble” on the body

Cadmium sulfide (CdS) and silicon meters need batteries to work. Some cameras place CdS meters on the body. Many cameras embed these meters inside the body

For a powered meter, the camera must be on for you to check it. Some cameras, like the Pentax K1000, are always on. Others have an on switch or button, and still others require you to activate the meter by pulling back the winder lever a little or pressing the shutter button partway.

There are so many ways cameras show exposure settings in the viewfinder that I can’t explain them all here. Many cameras use some sort of needle system: when the needle lines up with a mark or a notch, you have good exposure. Other cameras use LED or LCD displays.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Meter needle at the top of this viewfinder

Download a light-meter app to your smartphone. Read light on a subject with the app and the camera, making either shutter speed or aperture match on both. Do this for a few different aperture and shutter speed combinations to see if the meter consistently agrees. A consistently wrong meter is still usable. My Yashica Lynx 14e above is consistently off by a full stop. I just adjust as I shoot. It works beautifully.

A busted or inaccurate meter doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. The meter on that otherwise all-manual SR-T 202 was quite dead. I dropped in some film anyway and metered with an app on my phone. I prefer a working meter, but I still had a fine time with the SR-T. That camera had a bigger problem my initial inspection missed: a pinhole in the shutter curtain that left a bright spot on many photos. That disappointed me far more than the inactive meter did.

The more electronics on a camera, however, the more likely its manual exposure settings are buried in counterintuitive menus. And some cameras lack manual exposure settings altogether. A busted meter renders them useless.

Check the motorized winder, if there is one. For this, you must have a battery. But then this is as simple as turning the camera on and pressing the shutter button. If it doesn’t wind, or if the winder sounds sick, move on.

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Speaking of all- or mostly-electronic cameras, they present special challenges in field inspection. They can be broken in surprising ways that you might not be able to detect without putting a roll of film through them. In the final part of this series I’ll share how you can predict the problems a camera might have.

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