Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta SR-T 101

State Theater

My Minolta SR-T 101 is from the first year or so of its 1966-75 manufacturing run, making it about as old as I am. It was a mighty advanced kit five decades ago and remains a competent machine today. I hope the same can be said about me.

Minolta SR-T-101

Before its turn in Operation Thin the Herd I’d shot this SR-T but once, and I was impressed with the sharpness, bokeh, and color its 50mm f/1.7 lens gave me on workaday Fujicolor 200 film. Really impressed. Wowed, even. Yet on that first outing I didn’t enjoy how heavy and clunky it felt.

Squirrel

This was the first old-school all-mechanical SLR I’d ever shot. My prior SLR experience was a Minolta X-700, an Olympus OM-1, and Pentaxes K1000 and ME. All of them were far more agile in my hand, even the K1000, which was closest in size and spirit to the SR-T.

Since then, however, I’ve experienced two dozen more SLRs, including early ones like the Pentax H3 and beasts like the Nikon F2. These experiences put the SR-T in proper perspective and let me use it with greater confidence and competence. On this outing, with Ferrania P30 Alpha loaded, it felt satisfying in my hands.

Distillery

When I put a battery in (an alkaline 625 cell), the meter needle jumped up and down, never settling in any light. My heart sank. I was so looking forward to trying this camera but I wasn’t willing to invest in sending it out for repair first. I know, I know, I can shoot Sunny 16 or use an external meter. But daggone it, onboard metering just makes an SLR so much more pleasant to use!

First Source

I asked about it on a forum I follow. One fellow suggested I remove the bottom plate (easy, just a couple screws) and make sure the wire was well connected to the battery compartment. I did, it was, and I figured I was out of luck. But when I screwed everything back together the meter gave consistent readings! Happy day! It read about a stop under, however. I set camera ISO to compensate for the meter’s underexposure and got to shooting.

Steps

I brought the SR-T along on a day trip to South Bend, my hometown. I haven’t spent much time there since my parents moved away four years ago, and I miss the place. Or at least I thought I missed the place. As I wandered downtown’s streets I encountered entirely too many men just hanging out on corners with nothing to do. Several of them approached me. I’m sure they would have eventually hit me up for money, but really, they mostly seemed bored and looking for human connection. I’d never experienced anything like it before in South Bend and it made me sad for the city’s current state.

No parking

I’m disappointed in how the P30 Alpha performed on this full-sun day. Images were so high contrast that subjects stood in full silhouette. Fortunately, in Photoshop I was able to coax out some shadow detail and tone down the highlights. Only a few photos couldn’t be made usable.

Jefferson Blvd. bridge from Howard Park

I didn’t think it through when I chose P30 Alpha. Testing old cameras is best done with forgiving films, which is one reason I shoot a lot of Fujicolor 200. That stuff can take a lot of abuse in exposure, processing, and scanning, and still return usable images. The P30 Alpha needs more careful handling in exposure and, especially, processing. My lab admitted that they did a lot of P30 when it was first released, but my roll was the first one they’d seen in a while. Perhaps they’ve lost the touch.

St. Joe River

But just check out the detail in texture in the St. Joe River above as it makes its way past the Jefferson St. bridge and the di Suvero sculpture. That lens’s excellent characteristics came through! And it did solid documentary work as I photographed this building that’s part of South Bend’s outstanding farmer’s market. Memo to other towns: study South Bend’s market and replicate it.

Farmer's Market

To see more from this camera, check out my Minolta SR-T 101 gallery.

This camera operates well within the typical mechanical-manual SLR idiom. I’m fluent in the idiom, and so in operation everything fell right to my hand. With a CLA that includes a calibration of the meter, this camera would be stellar.

Yet I’m not keeping it. I’ve already decided that I’m going to focus my SLR collection on Pentaxes and Nikons. If I get rid of none of those bodies I will still own a ridiculous number of SLRs, more than I can use. For an SLR from another manufacturer to stay in the collection, it has to have strong sentimental value or be head and shoulders better in some way than my best Nikons or Pentaxes. This SR-T 101 is very good. But it doesn’t clear that bar.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Film Photography

What’s on your film tails?

With my mechanical 35mm cameras I can shoot every frame, including 0 and sometimes even 00. It makes my inner skinflint happy to get 37 or 38 images on a 36-exposure roll.

Frequently the first image includes the exposed film tail. I usually burn that frame off without composing or focusing. But sometimes even that photo turns out to be interesting — and other times I don’t realize I’m not beyond the tail when I start shooting for real.

Coffee mug at the sink

With a rare idle hour recently I looked for interesting tail images. Unsurprisingly, most of them were crap. But here are some that aren’t, not entirely, anyway. Above: my coffee mug at the edge of my kitchen sink. Below: eggs in the refrigerator door. These may not be the most gripping subjects of all time, but I still find the incomplete images to have some appeal.

Eggs

Most of my interesting tail photos are from around the house. It’s not surprising: that’s where I usually am when I load my film! But once in a while I start a second roll while out and get a tail photo from wherever I am.

Chevrolet sign

Here are more. Click any of them to see them larger.

What’s on your film tails?

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography, Old cars

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon AE-1 Program

Chevelle nacelles

Who doesn’t like the Canon AE-1 Program? It’s universally praised, and with good reason. It’s a capable tool with good features. A photographer could make great images with it indefinitely.

Canon AE-1 Program

I mounted my 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens and loaded up some Agfa Vista 200, which I shot at EI 100. This is the lens I commonly use on this camera, as I did a few years ago on a photo walk Downtown when I had some Arista Premium 400 inside. That’s Circle Tower, a gorgeous building in the Art Deco style.

Circle Tower

Old buildings, old cars, and old roads — these are the things I photograph most. No old roads in this post, however, as I took the AE-1 Program to a “cars and coffee” gathering and shot two rolls there. It’s all old cars up in this joint for the rest of this post. I think my favorite car of the day was this late-70s Firebird because it was in rough, original condition. This is what all ’70s Firebirds looked like in the mid ’80s when I was in high school: rusty and rough. The school parking lot was full of them. This parking lot had just this one.

They're only original once

The AE-1 handled perfectly, as expected. Mine has developed that annoying squealing shutter that is common to this camera. But it doesn’t affect function, and it got quieter and quieter as I kept shooting. This Cadillac’s delightful tail was the first photo I made at the event. The shutter howled.

Cad fin

Color and light play make car shows a wonderful place to test gear, especially on color film.

Speedster

This Porsche Speedster was mobile during the event. I saw it in two or three different places, including coming out of the host’s garage.

Speedster on the move

People from all walks of life came to show and see the cars. Our shared interest created opportunity to talk to people we might not normally interact with. I bumped into one other fellow shooting film, someone whose clothes marked him as being in a much higher economic class than me. When he heard my AE-1 squeal, he whirled around and said, “I know that sound!” He then showed me the Canon T60 SLR he had picked up in the used section at our local camera store. We chatted for several minutes about the relative merits of Canon film gear.

Cop and camaro

What I concluded with that fellow is this: every Canon SLR I’ve ever shot has been competent enough, and the lenses are technically excellent. But the cameras never spark joy when they’re in my hands, and the images I get never give me “wow!” moments. In contrast I’ve swooned, and hard, over Nikon and Pentax SLRs and the images I’ve received from them.

Stang

I enjoyed my car-show morning with the AE-1. I got good results. But as I reviewed the photos, I felt certain that I would have gotten better color from the delightful 50mm f/2 lens I keep for my Pentax bodies. I know that my little Pentax ME would have felt better in my hands.

Celica GT

This, really, is what Operation Thin the Herd is all about. Now that I have built skill as a photographer and have experienced so much gear as a collector, which gear hits that sweet spot of feeling great in my hands and returning images that delight me? That’s the gear I want to keep.

Triumph tail

Yet the AE-1 Program handled everything I threw at it this sunny Saturday morning. I can’t really complain.

Lotus tail

If you’d like to see more photos from this camera, check out my Canon AE-1 Program gallery.

My heart beats for Pentax and my mind pines for Nikon. I own plenty of their gear, enough to keep me busy and happy for the rest of my life. Because my Canon gear just doesn’t grab me in the same way, because I’m unlikely to use it very often, I should probably let it go. Perhaps I’ll keep one body, maybe my mechanical TLb, and a couple of my older lenses. Perhaps not; this isn’t the day to decide. But this is the day to decide about the AE-1 Program, and I know it’s time to let it go.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon N90s

Church door

Sometimes a person needs to just get out and shoot for the joy and fun of it. At such times, a great choice is an auto-everything SLR and a zoom lens. You’ll be ready for pretty much anything you encounter. Especially when the body you choose is as robust and capable as the Nikon N90s.

Nikon N90s

I’ve had great luck with this camera every time I’ve shot it, no matter the film or lens I chose. Here I used the well-regarded 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor on Arista Premium 400.

Anthem

And here I used the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor that came in the kit with the Nikon N65 I used to own, on very expired and poorly stored Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400.

High West

Ken Rockwell calls this plastic-bodied zoom lens one of Nikon’s 10 best lenses ever. I marvel at that a little bit, as Nikon had to have made ten superior F-mount primes. But this lens turns out to be a good performer, sharp edge to edge anywhere in the zoom range.

Lebanon front door

It does have some barrel distortion at 28mm. The shot below shows it a little. That’s its major flaw. But I’m not much of a 28mm guy anyway. 35mm is as wide as I normally go, and the distortion is largely tamed when you zoom in that far.

Union Station

The lens also had some difficulty focusing close. I tried to capture some magnolia blossoms but the lens would only hunt. It also tended to wash out the image a little if the sun wasn’t directly behind me, as this shot of the Slippery Noodle bar shows. I’ve meant to go to the Slippery Noodle ever since I moved to central Indiana in 1994. They say they’re Indiana’s oldest bar, operating since 1850.

The Slippery Noodle

But this should be a referendum on the N90s and not on that lens. So let’s get to it: this camera is large and fairly heavy. Also, its controls don’t follow the modern “mode dial” SLR idiom. But I didn’t experience its weight as a problem. And those controls, specifically a bunch of buttons and one unlabeled dial, are not hard to discover and learn.

Lucas Oil behind the old houses

For example, I was pretty quickly able to figure out how to manually set ISO. The camera accurately read the DX coding on the Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 I had loaded, but I wanted to shoot it at EI 200. A few button presses and I was set. But on this cloudy-day photowalk Downtown along South Meridian Street I might have been better served leaving the film at 400. Meridian Street is the city’s main north-south drag, but some street reconfiguration in this area isolated a couple blocks and the lovely old homes on them.

South Meridian St.

The N90s gives you a lot of controls to keep track of. Apparently I set the camera to center-weighted metering the last time I used it, and forgot to reset it to matrix metering for this roll of film. I think that might have contributed to the problems in this shot of St. Elmo’s, a steakhouse operating since 1902. Pro tip: before shooting an N90s, press in the two green-dot buttons atop the camera for a few seconds to reset the camera’s settings.

St. Elmo's

But for this full-sun shot, everything worked perfectly. The Union 525 was originally a high school but is now a space where startup tech companies can begin to build their businesses. There’s quite a tech startup scene here in Indianapolis.

Union 525

The callery pear were in bloom this day. They smell like rotting shrimp.

Rolls-Royce

I’ve shot this camera often. See everything I’ve photographed with this camera in my Nikon N90s gallery.

A couple years ago I chose this N90s as my Nikon auto-everything body over the entry-level N60 and N65 I used to own. Those more basic bodies certainly demand far less of me than the N90s and could certainly have taken every photo you see in this post. But among these cameras the N90s was the only one built to last.

As I’ve been thinning this herd I’ve already decided that my main SLRs will be metal, (mostly) mechanical, and manual focus. I’ll never leave my first love, Pentax. And I have some truly great Nikon gear that will always have a home here. I might keep a Minolta and a Canon body in case I come upon an interesting lens for those mounts.

But I like the N90s. It’s a smashing companion to my 50/1.8 AF Nikkor and my wife’s 35/2 AF Nikkor lenses. With this zoom lens attached it’s a fine, but heavy, photo-walk kit. If in a few years I find I just don’t use it much, I reserve the right to change my mind — but for now…

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Dad and Sons

Margaret and I met my sons for dinner during their recent Spring Break. She photographed us with my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK, a viewfinder camera with a coupled selenium light meter. Before I handed it to her I matched the needle to set exposure, using an aperture narrow enough that it wouldn’t matter whether I guessed distance wrong.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

It performed, of course, delivering good sharpness, contrast, and detail even on this overcast day. That’s the goodness inherent in a Tessar lens! This camera was my first experience with a Tessar. I first shot seven years ago when my sons and I spent our Spring Break in a cabin in the Tennessee woods. Here’s the fencepost in front of our cabin, on Fujicolor 200.

Fencepost

This time I spooled in some Ultrafine Extreme 100 and brought the Contessa along everywhere I went for a few weeks. That included my recent trip to Logansport for a Michigan Road board meeting. Margaret came along; here she is photographing the State Theater. I do love her long gray hair.

The State Theater

I’d never shot the Ultrafine film before and didn’t know what to expect. The seller is mum on who makes it, but Ilford is the most common guess I’ve found. Some even say it’s Kentmere 100. The last time I used this camera I shot the Kentmere in it (as you saw in yesterday’s post). The results look similar.

Welcome to Logansport

The Contessa was a lovely, willing companion when I took it for a walk along Meridian Street in Indianapolis. If you’ve never walked or driven our Meridian Street, put it on your list: it is lined with stunning homes. I’ll share more photos from that walk in an upcoming post.

Steps

I also took the Contessa to the places I usually go. I keep thinking I’m going to find a new, more interesting angle on my church, but I seem never to.

WPCC

Some views always work photographically, and I suppose it’s no sin to keep revisiting them.

WPCC

I’m not blown away by this film — it’s fine, but not fantastic. But the Contessa brought feelings of delight every time I composed, exposed, and pressed the shutter button. I even liked the winder’s long-travel action. Everything about this camera is light and easy, yet still solid and sure.

WPCC

I drive past a nearly derelict mall on the way home from church. This used to be its Sears Auto Center. I remember when Sears closed here. I bought a ton of stuff cheap at their closeout sale. I also remember when this mall was bustling and vital. When I started my career I drove to it all the way from Terre Haute to buy a young careerman’s wardrobe in one of its men’s stores. Harry Levinson’s, I think. But that was almost 30 years ago. Times change.

Dead Sears Auto

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK gallery.

Its taken me most of a decade to figure out I should use a camera for what it does best. The Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK is brilliant at medium-distance group shots and does pretty well for landscapes and, if you back up enough, architectural work. The lens just adores black-and-white film. Its only flaw is that whenever I load a 36-exposure roll of film, it tears during rewinding. That’s kind of a bummer. But I always have 24-exposure rolls of film in the fridge. And this camera is just a pleasure to carry and shoot. It’s hard to say goodbye to a camera like that.

Verdict: Keep

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Overexposed selfie

A lovely Pentax ME F was recently donated to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras.

This is a historically significant camera: the first mass-produced autofocus 35mm SLR. Pentax created a single autofocus lens, the pictured 35-70mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax AF Zoom. Its focusing motors were built in, making it almost as large as, and heavier than, the body.

The ME F’s autofocus sensor is inside the body. LEDs in the viewfinder communicate focus: red for out of focus, green for in focus.

I put a roll of Agfa Vista 200 through it recently. Focusing was slow, and sure only in bright light with obvious subjects. Much of the time the lens hunted hopelessly and I ended up focusing it manually. This is a common complaint with the camera. But upon its 1981 introduction, people were probably impressed that it worked at all.

About half the roll came back underexposed. I noticed while shooting that the camera kept choosing shutter speeds that seemed far too fast for the conditions. Just now I checked the ME F against my ME using my 35mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-A lens. In the light available here at my desk, at f/2.8 the ME chose 1/30 sec, while the ME F chose 1/1000 sec. The meter clearly needs a little adjustment.

I’ll put it into the queue to have it done. While as an autofocus camera the ME F isn’t all that useful, I’m keeping it for its historical significance. And since it still takes the entire range of manual-focus K-mount lenses, it will make a fine backup body to my everyday SLR, the Pentax ME.

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Film Photography

Underexposed selfie

An underexposed selfie from a historically significant camera: the first autofocus 35mm SLR. Meet the Pentax ME F.

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