Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Nikon FA and 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor

I love a bargain. I especially love a bargain on a fully working Nikon SLR kit. $30 netted me this Nikon FA and attached 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens, with an MD15 Motor Drive (not pictured).

Nikon FA with 35-70 Zoom Nikkor

This is the second Nikon FA to have fallen into my hands; read my review of the first one here. I had no sooner parted with that one in Operation Thin the Herd when I came upon this one. This one looks well used, but on quick inspection it seemed to function fine.

I’ve got a backlog of cameras I haven’t tried yet and so it took me several months to finally shoot this one. I loaded some Agfa Vista 200 and took it around Downtown.

Pacers Bikeshare

My previous FA was in superior cosmetic and operating condition with one exception: its winder didn’t lock after winding one frame. You could wind all the way through the roll without ever shooting a frame. This FA has dings and brassy spots, and the viewfinder/mirror are speckled with black marks. But its winder works properly.

Looking up at the Salesforce building

On a chilly day where temps were only a little above freezing, the shutter suddenly failed to fire and the winder became stuck. I was 20 frames into a 24-exposure roll — close enough to done for me — so I rewound the film and had it processed. I put the FA on the shelf for a while until I had time to investigate.

Toward the Statehouse

Even though old cameras often don’t like cold weather, I suspected battery failure. I tend to trade batteries from camera to camera, and who knows when the ones I put into this FA were fresh. So I put fresh batteries in. Still locked. I then tried putting the camera in manual mode and setting the shutter to its one mechanical speed, M250. That did it — the shutter fired and the camera wound, and when I put it back in program mode everything worked properly. I probably should have tried M250 on the street when the camera seized. If I shoot it again, I’ll know better.

Bank of Indianapolis

I passed my previous FA on to another collector because every time I used it, the wind lever poked me in the forehead. I didn’t like that. Typical of Nikon SLRs, you activate the meter by pulling the wind lever out. But on this FA, it never poked me in the head. I do not understand; these are identical cameras. Now I doubt my previous impressions.

Driveway Entrance

Do you see the dark streak in the photo below, down the middle near the monument? I’m not sure what caused that but fortunately only this image turned out this way. Another image had a foggy streak in it that I can’t account for. I think I need to put another roll through this FA to be sure of it.

The top of the monument

If it turns out this body is faulty, at least I got this nice 35-105mm lens for my money. It’s built well and operates smoothly. These colors seem muted to me, however, more muted than I get from a 35-70 Zoom Nikkor I own. However, this film expired two years ago, I haven’t always stored it cold, and it may be starting to degrade.

Coffee cup handle

The lens has a macro mode, so I made a couple shots with it. Above is my coffee cup on my desk at work. I’ve had that cup since 1987; a potter in my hometown made it by hand. Below are some flowers growing in the bed in front of Christ Church Cathedral on the Circle.

Red flowers

Just because, here’s Christ Church Cathedral.

Christ Church

I slightly prefer twist-to-zoom lenses over push/pull-to-zoom lenses like this one, but I this one worked well in my hands. I also detected very little barrel distortion at the wide end, which is the usual zoom-lens bugaboo. My 35-70 Zoom Nikkor has wicked barrel distortion at 35mm.

Federal Courthouse

I had a nice time shooting this Nikon FA. I’ll put another roll into it as soon as I can manage — I want to shoot the cameras in my to-shoot queue first. If the body truly does have issues I probably won’t repair it. I’ll pass the body on to someone who will give it the proper love, and I’ll turn to one of my other wonderful Nikon SLR bodies to get my Nikon fix.

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Collecting Cameras
Olympus Trip 35

I’ve updated my post of tips for buying vintage film cameras on eBay. Check it out here.

You know how it can be buying a camera you can’t touch or test. There are so many pitfalls. I’ve experienced them all, and my hope is that by sharing what I’ve learned, you can avoid them. So do have a look, here.

Updated: Tips for buying vintage film cameras on eBay

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Collecting Cameras

Informed curiosity about old cameras

Even though I’ve been actively shrinking my camera collection through Operation Thin the Herd, I still like trying new-to-me old cameras to see what kind of images they make.

I especially love it when I discover a sleeper, a camera that makes images far better than you’d expect. Such was the case with the Argus Argoflex Forty I tried recently (review here). I even enjoy the process when a camera disappoints me, as the Kodak Retinette II did (review here). In the wide world of old-camera sports that’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

After a dozen years of reviewing old cameras, however, I feel like I’m running out of new ground to cover. It’s not that I’m running out of cameras to try, but that I’m running out of genuinely new experiences with them.

I prejudge all sorts of cameras now. I can tell a lot about what they’re like to use just by looking at them. Thanks to all my old-camera experience I know what I like and don’t like.

Let’s use that Retinette II as an example. It has a tiny viewfinder. My first experience with one of those was my Kodak Retina Ia, early in my camera-reviewing days (here). I learned right away that its tiny viewfinder was unpleasant to use. I generally pass by cameras with such viewfinders unless there’s something else about it that’s incredibly compelling, or unless the camera is donated to my collection, as the Retinette II was.

Kodak Retinette II
Who at Kodak could possibly have thought that a viewfinder this small was a good idea?

In my early days, uninformed curiosity drove most of my buying decisions. It was more of an adventure then, and I enjoyed building experience with each new camera I tried. I had a lot to learn and made rookie mistakes, which often led to unsatisfying images. Happily, I’ve learned a great deal and have built good skill.

Kodak Monitor Six-20
This fussy old folder has a gem of a lens.

I still have a few cameras to put through Operation Thin the Herd. At the front of the line is my Kodak Monitor Six-20 (review here), a lovely World War II-era folding camera. Mine has a crackerjack 101mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special lens. But it is also fussy to use, and something’s wrong with the linkage from the shutter button on the body to the shutter itself. I’m not sure whether it will survive the culling.

Several other cameras have been donated to my collection that I have not shot yet. A longtime collector sent me a giant box of goodies three years ago now, which is where the Retinette II and the Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model F (review here) came from. He also sent me a couple Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes, a Tower Flash 120, a Toyoca 35-S, and a thoroughly delightful Graflex Miniature Speed Graphic. And my sister in law gave me the Kodak Retina Reflex III that had been her father’s; it appears to be in good working order. I look forward to trying them all.

I’m not sure what cameras I’ll be buying to try going forward. I could move into high-end gear, which I’m sure I’d go gaga over, but I’m still averse to laying out that kind of money. I’ve enjoyed shooting old box cameras; maybe I could specialize in them for a while. There are a few specific SLRs I’d like to try, such as the Canon F-1 and the Minolta XD-11.

But mostly, I just want to shoot the cameras I’ve kept and really enjoy. My Yashica-12 has gotten a lot of exercise as I’ve been learning how to develop black-and-white film, and I’ve loved having it in my hands so often. I left my backup (battered, brassed) Olympus OM-1 body in my desk drawer at work most of the summer and made a bunch of wonderful images with it. This is where I am now as a camera collector and photographer, and it’s a very nice place to be.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Saluting the original film-camera reviewers of the Internet

The first time I wrote about old film cameras on this blog was about a month after I started it, in 2007. You can read that post here.

It’s remarkable how much has changed in film photography since then.

In 2007, as film stocks kept being discontinued we worried that falling demand for film would kill the business. All of our great film gear would become paperweights and doorstops.

Certo Super Sport Dolly
The Certo Super Sport Dolly, still an underrepresented camera on the Internet.

By the mid-2010s, the Great Analog Resurgence had breathed new life into film photography. Demand for film has slowly increased. It will never return to former heights, but it is enough to keep emulsions flowing from the factories. A few new films have been introduced, and a couple discontinued films have come back.

In 2007, only a handful of people wrote about their gear online. Some wrote full-on reviews, some wrote usage impressions, and some just listed specifications. I was grateful to all of them as they helped me figure out which cameras I might like to try, and to figure out whether to click Buy It Now on a camera that tickled my fancy.

I started writing about my old cameras here because I wanted to be as helpful to the world as these “OG” film-camera reviewers had been to me. I kept using their sites as I researched my own reviews. And then many of my reviews began to lead search results. I felt satisfied — and guilty, as my reviews began to outrank those of the good people whose shoulders on which I stood.

Argus Instant Load 270
Only a couple sites say anything about the Argus Instant Load 270 and my blog is one of them.

Since then, dozens of others have started film-photography blogs where they write about their gear. Many of them even do video reviews on YouTube! The Internet is awash in good information about even the most obscure cameras. So much so that many of my former highly ranked posts have fallen in the rankings. It’s personally disappointing, but I suppose what goes around comes around. What we all get in return is a thriving film-photography community.

I want to salute the people whose sites helped me so much when I began researching old cameras in my blog’s early days. Many of their sites are still up, although most of them are not still maintained. Many of them have the same design as when they started 15, 20, 25 years ago; a few appear to be straight HTML! I’m listing these sites in rough order of how often I visited them.

Photoethnography — Collecting and Using Classic Cameras: Karen Nakamura is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley who has used film cameras in her work documenting cultures. She built a large collection and wrote good reviews of her gear, offering usage and repair tips. For years, every time I was interested in a camera, my Googling led me straight to Karen’s pages. I took it as a sign that I had good taste in cameras.

Matt’s Classic Cameras: Matt Denton shares impressions of his classic cameras with usage and repair tips. I modeled my early camera reviews after his site.

Junk Store Cameras: Marcy Merrill loves the crappy cameras you find in junk stores. She makes lovely images with them. She appears to still add to her site, and she occasionally blogs here.

Photography and Vintage Film Cameras: Mike Connealy likes to find out what kind of images a simple old camera can make. He took this site down a few years ago but offered it to anyone who might like to host it. Fellow collector Mike Eckman resurrected it at his site. Mike Connealy is still active, and blogs about film cameras and photography here.

Random Camera Blog: Mark O’Brien has blogged about film cameras and photography since 2004. His blog is still active and regularly updated.

Collection Appareils: Even though it’s mostly in French, Sylvain Hagland’s site remains a key source of good information about classic cameras. Google Translate will put it into English for you in a jif.

CameraQuest’s Classic Camera Profiles: Stephen Gandy is a Voigtlander distributor who has written extensively about classic Voigtlander, Nikon, and Leica cameras, especially rangefinders but also SLRs.

Photography in Malaysia: Don’t let the site’s name fool you, Leo Foo has extensively documented several key classic 35mm SLRs.

Camera Manual Library: Mike Butkus has collected camera manuals for a very long time, and has scanned them and uploaded them to this site. It’s hundreds of manuals, to be sure. When you Google a camera name plus “manual,” the first result is almost certain to be Mike Butkus’s site. He’s done an enormous service to all us collectors and photographers.

Rick Oleson: Rick’s site is still hosted at Tripod, one of the original free hosting sites from back in the day. He offers usage and repair tips on a number of cameras, plus essays on how to make the most of your old gear.

Ken Rockwell: While Ken primarily focuses on new gear, he has reviewed several film cameras. They’re blended in with everything else so you have to hunt around to find them.

The Brownie Camera Page: Online since 1994, the Web’s earliest days, Chuck Baker’s site catalogs Brownie cameras and Kodak history, and gives useful information about how to clean up and use these old cameras.

Yashica Guy: Joe Marcel Wolff catalogs Yashica rangefinder cameras and offers usage and repair tips. He also makes and sells an adaptor that lets you use common batteries in these cameras.

Mamiya 35mm Cameras: Ron Herron collects Mamiya 35mm cameras and writes about them here.

Alfred’s Camera Page: Alfred Klomp shares information about his collection, including usage and repair tips. It hasn’t been updated since 2006 — it was already on ice the first time I visited it!

Roland and Caroline Givan’s Cameras: Roland and Caroline are fans of Agfa cameras, but they also enjoy Russian and half-frame cameras. They document their collection here.

TLR cameras: Barry Toogood documents his TLR collection.

Manual Cameras: N. Maekawa shares his impressions of using several all-manual film cameras.

Guide to Classic Cameras: Specifications and photos of dozens of classic film cameras.

Camera Collecting and Restoration: Dan Mitchell’s site of usage and repair info about many classic cameras.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

What’s the best film camera to start with?

Every time I see a post about the best film camera to start with, the comments pile on. So many different, strong opinions. So many of them recommend a mechanical, manual SLR like the Pentax K1000 or the Minolta SR-T 101.

I think that’s a terrible place for a newbie to start. There’s so much to learn about exposure to use a camera like that. It’s a barrier that could turn a budding film photographer away.

Instead, buy an auto-everything 35mm SLR from late in the film era, around the turn of the century. My favorites are the Nikon N-series cameras, like the N55, N60, and N65. Get one with a lens already attached, preferably a Nikon Nikkor. A 28-80mm zoom lens is common and still useful. You can buy kits like these for $30 on eBay every day. (Read my post here about how to buy film gear on eBay.)

Nikon N65

There are some risks. Any used camera could have issues. But I choose these N-series cameras because, in my experience, unless one has been abused it is likely to work reliably.

The other reason I recommend these cameras is that when you twist the big dial atop the camera to Auto, you have a giant point-and-shoot camera. You’ll easily get great first results.

Nikon N65

If you try one only to realize that film photography isn’t for you, you’re out very little money. You can probably sell the kit to someone else for what you paid for it!

If you find you like shooting film, keep going with this auto-everything SLR until you feel like you’ve mastered it. Then try a mechanical, manual camera like that K1000 (more info here) or SR-T 101 (more info here).

Here are some photos I made with my Nikon N60 and N65 with my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6-G AF Nikkor lens, a common one to find with these cameras. I used everyday color films: Fujicolor 200 and Kodak Gold 200, which you can still buy at the drug store. I walked up, twisted the lens barrel to zoom in on the scene, and pressed the button. (My wife shot the last one.) That’s all there is to it.

Red house
Goals
Story Inn
A portrait of the photographer

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Collecting Cameras

Nearing the end of Operation Thin the Herd

I’m in the home stretch, with just a few more cameras to evaluate in Operation Thin the Herd.

I didn’t count cameras before I started, but I’m sure I owned more than 100. As of today, 43 remain in the collection. See my complete inventory here.

Eight of the 43 cameras are new to me and are in my to-shoot queue. They came to me more than a year ago from photographer David Ditta as he shrunk his own extensive collection. (See his collection on his Web site here.) David, if you’re out there, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your gear. 2019 to be sure.

Kodak Retina IIc

A few cameras have been “on the bubble,” and I could decide to sell them or give them away at any time. For example, until recently I owned two similar Kodak Retinas, a IIa and a IIc, both wonderful. One belongs in my collection, but I didn’t need both. The IIa has a faster lens, but the IIc offers interchangeable front elements and was owned by the father of an old friend. I was originally not in a hurry to decide, but finally chose to send the IIa to my EMULSIVE Secret Santa recipient as a gift in December.

Polaroid SX-70

Another is this minty Polaroid SX-70. I love this camera and the incredible innovation it represents. It works, but a good CLA would make it perfect. SX-70 CLAs aren’t cheap. I’ve considered splurging on one, but I keep holding back because the available films are stinking expensive and nowhere near as good as the old Polaroid films. I just can’t see myself dumping $150 into a CLA only to get soft, washed out images that themselves cost north of two bucks each. It breaks my heart, but this SX-70 will probably be better going to someone who will use it and love it. Yet I hesitate, because I love the idea of this camera so much.

Kodak Monitor Six-20

Several cameras in my inventory never got a turn in Operation Thin the Herd because there was never any doubt I was keeping them. One of them is my Kodak Monitor Six-20 “Special.” Even though it takes discontinued 620 film, even though the shutter linkage is fussy, I love this camera. It does wonderful work. I will commit to one roll of expensive custom-spooled 620 film in it a year. I just bought some expired Verichrome Pan in 620 for it!

Nikon F2

Another no-brainer keeper is my Nikon F2A, which was a generous gift to my collection. It’s a lovely camera and a capable workhorse, but its meter is fussy. I’m about to ship it to premier Nikon F2 repairman Sover Wong for a CLA and meter repair. It will get regular use forever thereafter.

43 cameras is obviously still more than I can regularly use. While I consider myself more a photographer than a collector now, I am still a collector. Yet only a couple cameras in the collection will remain as display items. I enjoy using all of the rest and will put a roll through them once in a while.

After I wrap up Operation Thin the Herd I’ll start shooting David Ditta’s cameras. I’ll even buy a camera here and there and review it, because I still love the experience of a new-to-me old camera. But mostly I’ll get on with making photographs with my thinned herd, getting to know each camera much better, and becoming a better photographer as a result.

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