Collecting Cameras, Film Photography, Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus XA

Lafayette Theater

I knew I was going to keep this camera the moment I picked it up. The Olympus XA is just that wonderful.

Olympus XA

This tiny rangefinder camera returns stunning images every time I load film into it. Any film, really — black-and-white or color, consumer-grade or professional. It always performs brilliantly. Here are a couple photos I really love from past rolls.

Chrome teeth

Above: the grille of a Dodge Charger on Arista Premium 400. Below: the midway entrance at the Indiana State Fair on Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800.

State Fair at dusk

For Operation Thin the Herd I loaded a roll of Agfa Vista 200, which is just my beloved Fujicolor 200 in disguise. A sidebar: thanks to UK photoblogger Dan James for sending me, at cost, a giant box full of this stuff just before Poundland stopped selling it. Even after I paid for shipping, I got this film cheaper than I can get Fujicolor 200 anywhere in the US.

West Park

While I began the roll shooting a few images around my church, I shot most of it in Lafayette and West Lafayette just after Thanksgiving last year as I returned my son Damion to Purdue to finish the semester. This is part of a mural on the side of a building in Lafayette.

Your Face Here

Though its controls are small, they work easily. Its rangefinder is small but plenty bright; it’s easy to focus. Its coupled light meter handles even complicated lighting situations with surprising aplomb. Shot after shot, the XA returned brilliant color and good sharpness.

Long Center

We had a little dinner in this burger-and-root-beer joint in West Lafayette. If you’re ever on I-65 between Indy and Chicago you’ll see billboards for it. The giant XXX on them is not advertising for an adult bookstore, so don’t look past them too fast.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple-X used to be a drive in, but if you want to eat in your car today you need to order inside and bring it out yourself.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple X is on State Street, which appears to be West Lafayette’s main drag. Given that this is where Purdue is, this street is given over to bars and restaurants that cater to the college crowd. Honestly, I feel a little out of place here.

State St., West Lafayette

The tile accents on this State Street building have captured my attention for years. It was late afternoon and the shadows were strong.

State St., West Lafayette

I was amused to find this unintended selfie on the film tail. I don’t remember taking it.

Inadvertent tail selfie

It’s no wonder the Olympus XA has been so loved since its introduction. It’s simply a wonderful camera. As I continue to thin the herd and work through my small rangefinder cameras, it will be challenging for any of them to approach this camera’s wonderful mix of pocketable size, good usability, and excellent results. I’m sure I’ll part with some otherwise very nice cameras because they don’t measure up to the Olympus XA.

Verdict: Keep

I am offering some lovely cameras for sale. Check them out here!

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Konica C35 Automatic

Craft Brewery

I asked a lot of my Konica C35 Automatic — probably too much, shooting it mostly at and beyond dusk as I did. Late afternoon sun was the best light I gave it. That’s what happens when you shoot mostly after work in late autumn. Given that this autoexposure camera forces wide apertures and slow shutter speeds in dim light, I risked softness and camera shake nearly every time I pressed the shutter button.

Konica C35 Automatic

Let’s look first at a couple late-afternoon photos. This lens has a character that, to my eye, enhances the film’s grain. It’s a pleasing effect, but it does rob images of a little sharpness.

Tree

But as I said, it’s quite pleasant. It could be put to excellent use for the right subject.

Scenery

The C35 struggled with reflected light. The late-afternoon sun cast this black fence with a delicious glow. I’d admired it for several days on my drive home from work, and this day with the C35 in my pocket I stopped to photograph it. This isn’t a bad shot, especially after I toned down the highlights in Photoshop. It just doesn’t capture the scene’s warmth. I own cameras that could have captured that glow. Of course, those cameras are large, heavy, and complicated compared to the C35.

Plug

I made this photo in downtown Fishers on a cloudy afternoon. I focused on the front bench. Shooting Fujicolor 200 in this light, the camera chose a wider aperture and softened the background just a bit, to a pleasing degree.

Benches

I was lucky to pick up this little rangefinder camera for about 30 bucks a few years ago, as they routinely go for up to $100 in online auctions. While this camera is pleasant enough to use, I couldn’t remotely justify trading a C-note for one.

Autumn

I gave the C35 some challenging assignments, such as this light sculpture inside the lobby of the office building where I work. I made a similar shot here with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Tri-X earlier this year. I like it better. See it here.

Lights

I was downtown for a work-related event and had the C35 in my coat pocket. The event wrapped late. I wondered if the spotlight illuminating this sign provided enough light for a photograph. It did.

Biltwell

Of course, it’s hard to focus a rangefinder camera in the dark. I love how the C35 rendered the light within the bells of this clock tower, but man, I wish I hadn’t muffed focus.

Clock at dark

If you’d like to see more photos from this camera, check out my Konica C35 Automatic gallery here.

My experience shooting this camera was pleasant enough. It’s certainly a breeze to use: in Auto mode it is a focus-and-shoot camera. But as I shot it, I couldn’t shake a strong feeling that if I kept it, I’d probably never shoot it again. I own other capable compacts that I just like better.

Verdict: Goodbye

I am offering some lovely cameras for sale. Check them out here!

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Kodak Retina IIa

Retina-Xenon
Canon PowerShot S95
2012

Working on a personal project I had reason to search through my whole photo archive. It led me to find a bunch of photos I never uploaded to Flickr, an oversight I corrected. This was one of those photos.

This is the lens of my Kodak Retina IIa, which I reviewed here.

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Collecting Cameras, Photography

single frame: Retina-Xenon

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Agfa Clack

Suburban banalia

I began Operation Thin the Herd with my Agfa Clack because it was handy. I’d just moved into my new house and my cameras were all still in boxes. The Clack had been on display in my home office and so got packed into a box of office stuff. It was unpacked early because I needed my home office set up pretty much first thing.

Agfa Clack

While unpacking it I remembered very well how pleasant it was to shoot and what lovely results it returned. I’d always shot black-and-white film in it before, slower stuff like Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros and Ilford Pan-F Plus 50. So this time I spooled in some color film, Kodak Ektar 100. I blew through the whole roll in 20 minutes without ever taking more than ten steps from my new house.

Suburban banalia

These colors are a little washed out, rather than showing Ektar’s signature vibrance. Perhaps I needed to shoot on a cloudy day. Or maybe I’ll just stick with black-and-white film in the Clack from now on. Here, take a look at how Pan-F 50 performed on an earlier shoot.

Crew Carwash

I now live in typical modern suburbia. My previous neighborhood of 1950s-60s brick ranch homes was typical suburbia for its time. But in my old neighborhood, owners had placed their individual touches on their properties over the years. Here, the HOA makes sure every home always looks just like every other. Property values, don’t you know. Stultifying sameness.

Suburban banalia

And what is it about modern home design that makes giant exterior walls of vinyl, punctuated only by random tiny windows, seem like a good idea?

Suburban banalia

Oh, and our home overlooks beautiful and scenic I-65. See the big green sign there through the brush? This is suburban living at its best, folks. The retention ponds do nothing to blunt the relentless traffic noise. Fortunately, I stopped noticing it after just a couple weeks. One positive: this unblocked westerly view has shown us some spectacular sunsets.

Suburban banalia

But back to the Clack. It was just as much of a joy to use as ever. It’s a glorified box camera, but it’s so much easier to carry and use than a boxy box. It’s small and light. It’s easy to frame subjects in the bright viewfinder. It offers a few easy settings: apertures for cloudy and bright days plus a built-in closeup lens and a yellow filter. The only downers: the lens is soft in the corners and there’s some pincushion distortion.

Suburban banalia

But as soon as I finished this roll my mind started thinking of other eight-photograph monographs the Clack and I could make. Imagining a future with a camera: is there any better sign that it should stay?

Verdict: Keep.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

How to be Internet famous in film photography

Yashica MG-1

When I collected cameras in the 1970s and 1980s, I bought gear only as I found it at garage sales and in junk stores. Information about what I had just bought was extremely hard to come by. When I restarted collecting film cameras in 2006, the Internet had transformed the hobby. Not only could I buy cameras online, but I could research them there as well.

Yet even in the early 2000s few people wrote about old cameras. My searches kept leading me to the same names, the online titans of camera collecting: Karen NakamuraMike ElekMatt DentonRick OlesonSylvain Halgand.

If they could do it, I reasoned, so could I, and so I started writing camera reviews on this blog. I’ve been deeply pleased that online searches for this gear have brought thousands of visitors here. Many of my reviews are among the top five results on Google. Here are the ten most-viewed camera reviews of all time on Down the Road:

  1. Yashica MG-1
  2. Minolta Hi-Matic 7
  3. Kodak Pony 135
  4. Kodak Duaflex II
  5. Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80
  6. Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK
  7. Canon Canonet QL17 G-III
  8. Canon AF35 ML (Super Sure Shot)
  9. Kodak Junior Six-16, Series II
  10. Yashica-D

Am I now one of those names budding collectors keep coming across? “Oh, it’s that Jim Grey guy again.” I sure hope so!

But in the last couple years or so a lot of people have started writing online about the old film cameras they collect and shoot. I share all of the reviews and experience reports that I find in my Saturday Recommended Reading posts, and it seems like the number just keeps growing.

Was there ever a surer sign that this hobby, once odd and lonely, has caught on?

But it’s got to be challenging now for anyone to become one of the well-known film-camera collectors or film photographers. I’m sure that most of the new crop of writers don’t care at all about becoming Internet famous in the hobby. I didn’t when I started reviewing film cameras here. It was a nice bonus that searches started sending me lots of visitors.

Yet the growing number of reviews available online makes it challenging for any one reviewer to keep rising to the top of search. It’s reduced the number of views I get for common cameras like the Pentax K1000, because so many people have written about them now. I keep seeing it in my stats: 2015 was the high-water mark for the cameras everybody wants to try.

PK1000stats

Yet my reviews of off-the-beaten-path cameras like that Yashica MG-1 keep getting more views every year.

YMG1stats

I really admire Casual Photophile, the film-photography site run by James Tocchio. It is everything I wish my blog could be: interesting gear, fine photographs, sparkling writing. But don’t let the “casual” in the site’s title mislead you: James is very intentional about his site’s vision and execution. He carefully selects top-flight photographers and writers as contributors, is willing to spend serious coin on cameras that will interest a wide audience, writes crisp analysis of film-photography news, and spends considerable effort promoting each new post. His efforts have made Casual Photophile popular and respected in our community.

I’m envious of his success, but I’m not so ambitious. I recognize the irony in that statement — I spend up to ten hours a week writing this blog. But I’m not willing to give up writing about personal topics and esoterica like old road alignments to focus this blog entirely on photography. I remain too frugal to be buying Leicas or Hasselblads. I usually can’t pause the rest of my life quickly enough to write timely commentary on industry developments. And I have neither the time nor the stomach for the social media efforts necessary to build this audience further.

If that sounds like you, find film gear few others have reviewed, and review them. Internet search will reward you. The audience will come.

Or just shoot the cameras you want, write about them as you will, and enjoy the hobby. Internet fame might not find you, but at least you’ll have a lot of fun.

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Collecting 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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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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