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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

What’s the best film camera to start with?

Every time I see a post about the best first film camera, 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

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Film Photography

Using Sunny 16 to check your camera’s meter

Something might not be right with the meter on my black Olympus OM-1. I’ve taken it out lately on some bright days and the exposure settings that give me that horizontal needle in the viewfinder aren’t agreeing with the Sunny 16 rule.

Olympus OM-1

I’ve said for years that I want to get better at reading the light with my eyes and setting exposure manually. It would let me shoot any non-metered camera in my collection without having to fumble with an external meter. But it also alerts me when one of my old cameras’ meters might not be accurate anymore.

I expect most photographers who learn this skill start with Sunny 16. I did, and I have it down well enough. I’ve even occasionally adapted it down to f/8 as the resulting faster shutter speeds are sometimes useful. (See Mike Eckman’s useful article on his “Outdoor Eight Rule” here for a dead-simple related technique.)

My OM-1’s meter doesn’t appear to be so far off that the good exposure latitude of the Kodak ColorPlus film inside shouldn’t cover it. I’m relying on the meter to see what happens.

But it’s very nice to know that I can sanity check any camera’s meter against Sunny 16 and adjust my shooting accordingly — even “go commando” and ignore the meter if I must.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Sunny 16 rule, here it is. Most negative films, both black and white and color, have enough margin to give you a usable image with these settings.

First, set the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s ISO. So for ISO 100, set the shutter to 1/100 or 1/125, whichever one your camera has. For ISO 200, it’s 1/200 or 1/250. For ISO 400, I don’t know a camera that has 1/400 so go with 1/500. Close enough is good enough.

On a normal sunny day where you see distinct shadows, set the aperture to f/16. On a cloudy day when the shadows soften, go with f/11. On a heavily cloudy day when the shadows are barely visible, use f/8. When it’s overcast enough there are no visible shadows, use f/5.6. A final tip: if the sun is blazingly bright and glaring, go with f/22 if you have it.

If you learn this well enough, you too can easily sanity check the meter on any camera you own. Set the ISO to 100, gauge the light and guess the shutter speed you should use at f/16, and then:

  • On a full manual camera, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed according to the Sunny 16 rule and see where the exposure indicator lines up. If all’s well it should indicate close to proper exposure.
  • On an aperture priority camera, set the aperture to f/16 and see what shutter speed the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to 1/100 on a sunny day, 1/50 on a cloudy day, 1/25 on a heavily cloudy day, and down from there.
  • On a shutter priority camera, set the shutter according to the Sunny 16 rule and see what aperture the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to f/16 on a sunny day, f/11 on a cloudy day, and on from there.

Sunny 16 isn’t exact science. When I say “close” above, I mean within a stop or maybe even two of correct exposure. But if you set your camera to 1/100 and f/16 on a sunny day and the camera indicates strong over- or under-exposure, either you have a bad battery or your meter is faulty.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Camera Reviews

Nikon EM

I’m sure photographers everywhere thought Nikon was going to heck in a handbasket when they released the EM, a 35mm SLR, in 1979. Plastic body parts? No way to manually set exposure? Whaaaaaaat?

Nikon EM

SLRs were originally considered pro equipment. But through the 1970s, everyday photographers came to appreciate the SLR’s many positive qualities. Camera companies sensed a vast untapped market of amateurs and even casual shooters. Pentax may have been first to figure that out with their small, light, simple, relatively inexpensive ME in 1976. Is it coincidence that Nikon’s similarly sized and featured camera reversed those letters for its name?

Nikon EM

The EM was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and least expensive SLR Nikon had ever made. Yet virtually every F-mount lens made to that point mounted right on. The EM eliminated most of an SLR’s fussy controls, limiting the photographer to aperture-priority shooting (the Auto mode you see atop the camera). If you could learn to focus, you could get Nikon SLR-quality photographs.

Nikon EM

Nikon was deliberate in which corners it cut to build the EM. They built in quality where it counted, starting with a metal chassis. They also built in a metal shutter with electronically controlled shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 sec. — stepless, meaning that if the available light made 1/353 sec. the right shutter speed, that’s what the EM gave you. You could set ISO from 25 to 1600. The EM even had contacts on the bottom plate for an auto winder. All of this required two LR/SR44 button batteries, but if they died you could set the camera to M90 and keep shooting with a 1/90 sec. shutter.

If you like little SLRs like the EM, also check out my reviews of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Pentax ME (here). I’ve also reviewed a slew of Nikon SLRs including the F2 (here), the F3 (here) the FA (here), the N2000 (here), the N60 (here), the N65 (here), and the N90s (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was headed out for a day on the Michigan Road, thanks to a quarterly board meeting. I headed south on the road towards Napoleon, the little town where we were to meet. Our meeting was in the Central House (photo here), built in about 1820. I had Agfa Vista 200 loaded as I made some photographs inside.

Inside the Central House

During loading I had considerable trouble getting the film to take on the spool. You have to make perfectly sure that a sprocket hole is perfectly placed on the little notch that sticks out on the takeup spool. Also, the meter won’t engage until the film counter is on 1, so you can’t shoot those early frames.

Inside the Central House

To activate the meter on most period Nikon SLRs, you pull the winder lever out. It’s a drag. Not so the EM: just touch the shutter button. The camera beeps when the meter has done its thing. Also, a needle moves to point to the shutter speed the EM has selected. If the EM keeps beeping, it can’t find a good exposure at your chosen aperture.

Inside the Central House

The wind lever is both neat and annoying. It’s a two-part lever. The first part pulls out to provide a good angle for winding, and then both parts work together to wind. Under use, it feels as if too much pressure would break it. Winding itself feels thin and unsure, lacking the usual Nikon high-quality feel.

Bank

My EM’s meter didn’t always want to engage. I found that if I moved the selector from Auto to M90 and back to Auto the meter would play nice again for a few frames. Old camera blues, I suppose.

White Lily

On the way home I stopped in Greensburg to photograph some favorite subjects. When this gas station switched from Shell to Sinclair several years ago I was very happy to see this Sinclair Dino placed out on the corner for all to see. It’s the company’s longtime mascot.

Dino

I walked Greensbur’g square to finish the roll. The EM handled easily, which is the whole point of a camera like this. I never got used to the cheap-feeling winder, and the fussy meter remained annoying. But I never failed to get sharp, evenly exposed photographs from the EM.

On the square in Greensburg

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon EM gallery.

This Nikon EM came to me from a reader who had it in surplus, and I thank him for letting me experience Nikon’s little SLR. I do like little SLRs, as my love of the Olympus OM-1 and especially the Pentax ME attest.

This is a nice little Nikon body for an easy day of shooting.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.

Standard
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.

Get Down the Road in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.

Standard
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

To see all of my camera reviews, click here. To get my photography in your inbox or reader, click here.

Standard