Some subjects draw me in every time I pass by with a camera. This scene on Main Street in Zionsville has become one of those subjects. I am sure I have at least one more photo from here, but I can’t find it now. Enjoy these five.
Single tree flower Nikon Nikomat FTn, 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 2019
I had high hopes when I shot my Nikon Nikomat FTn again. I’ve learned so much about photography and using vintage gear in the last few years, and I expected all of that knowledge would come to bear in the images. Yet I felt disappointment as I looked at the scans. I didn’t like the colors the Nikkor H-C lens rendered on Fujicolor 200.
Maybe it wasn’t the lens, but the processing. Or maybe the film was funky. I don’t know. But I had to do a lot of work in Photoshop to remove a brown caste from nearly every image. I’ve seen green and blue castes before, but never brown. It was weird.
Because of a scanner snafu some of the images weren’t usable at all. The lab agreed to rescan the negatives for me, and I’ve sent them back, but not before I scanned them myself. This is one of my scans. It isn’t bad but it’s mighty noisy. It’s not a bad look but it wasn’t the smooth, crisp look I was going for.
Metal, mechanical 35mm SLRs with coupled light meters are my favorite way to shoot. I like how substantial they feel. The best of them, like my 1967-75 Nikon Nikomat FTn, feel like they’ll outlast me.
On my first outing with this camera I loaded some since-discontinued Arista Premium 400 (which was allegedly rebranded Kodak Tri-X 400) and went to the State Fair. The camera felt a little clumsy in my hands at first, but I soon adapted to its ways and enjoyed the experience.
And then this camera went onto the shelf and stayed there. I simply have too many lovely metal, mechanical SLRs to choose from, and I kept reaching for my Nikon F2 and my various Pentax bodies first. This is one of the reasons for Operation Thin the Herd: to pass on gear I’m just not going to use enough. Let this good gear go to its next owner.
But I don’t want to be too hasty. This is really a lovely camera. Through the 1970s Nikon put its name only on its professional cameras. Starting in 1965, its not-quite-pro cameras got the Nikomat name in Japan and the Nikkormat name in the rest of the world. I see no evidence that they were not as solidly built as the pro cameras. They just lacked some of the pro features of the F-series cameras like interchangeable viewfinder-meter heads and focusing screens. When reasonably cared for, a Nikomat/Nikkormat is a lifetime camera.
This camera is from before Nikon had devised a way for a body to automatically find the mounted lens’s aperture range. Such cameras and lenses are called “pre-AI,” where AI means “automatic indexing.” This is the only pre-AI body I own, and I keep my only pre-AI lens on it all the time, a 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C. The H means Hex, for the lens’s six elements. The C stands for multi-Coated, an improvement over earlier H lenses, which were single-coated.
I loaded some Fujicolor 200 into the FTn and shot the roll. It wasn’t until I shot the fourth image past 36 on the frame counter that I realized something was wrong. I opened the camera to find the film leader sitting next to the spool. I had struggled to get the film to wind around the spool and sure enough I’d utterly failed. But this time when I stuck the leader into the spool it grabbed immediately and wound strongly. I got on with shooting the roll again. We were in Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.
There’s nothing light about the FTn in use. The winder feels substantial. The shutter button requires a solid push. The lever on the lens mount that adjusts shutter speed feels hefty and clicks surely through its stops. This, friends, is what I like about metal, mechanical cameras.
The meter is classic Nikon 60/40 center-weighted. You adjust aperture and shutter speed and the viewfinder needle moves along a scale. When it’s horizontal between + and -, you have a good exposure. + is one stop of overexposure and – is one stop of underexposure. I like how Fujicolor 200 looks when overexposed by up to a stop, so I tended to meter so the needle pointed more towards the +. It didn’t work out for me on this roll; I had to adjust exposure in Photoshop on nearly every frame. I did scan the negatives on my flatbed scanner, however, and I haven’t perfected my techniques yet.
By the late 1970s, SLRs from all makers had largely standardized their controls, placing the shutter-speed selector on the body’s top near the shutter button. That’s what I prefer. I know of two SLRs that place the shutter-speed selector on the lens mount: this one and the Olympus OM-1. The FTn does the OM-1 better in two ways: its selector ring features a tab that makes moving the ring easier when the camera is at your eye, and you can see the selected shutter speed through the viewfinder.
While doing some light shopping on Zionsville’s charming main street, I tried making some photos inside the shops. My shutter speeds were low, like 1/15 sec. But the camera operates smoothly and I have a steady hand.
I shoot Fujicolor all the time and know it better than any other film. The lab’s scans didn’t look great; everything was very brown, and large areas were blotchy. I thought maybe the lab had a bad day with its scanner, so I scanned them myself. They, too, were very brown, but at least they weren’t blotchy. You’re looking at my scans in this post. I had to do a lot of Photoshop work to try to correct the colors.
I also shot a roll of Kodak Portra 400 in the FTn — my first ever, so it’s a film I know not at all. Those images were blotchy too but the colors were good. The lab agreed to take the negatives back and re-scan them. If that makes any difference I’ll let you know. Meanwhile I’ll share scans I made from that roll in an upcoming post.
I like this camera fine. I like my Pentax KM and my Nikon F2 more, and so I reach for them all the time and this Nikomat FTn almost never. This is only the second time I’ve used it. Sadly, that sounds the death knell for the Nikomat FTn in my collection.
I have been feeling burned out lately. I’m settling into my new job okay, but there’s a lot to it and I still have a lot to learn, and that’s stressful. Also, we’ve been working on a rental house we own, painting and laying new flooring, after our longtime tenant abruptly moved out. I’ve left Margaret and a couple of her sons holding most of the bag there, as I just don’t have it in me to devote my weekends to the place. I urgently need downtime.
Except for a little noodling around with my Canon PowerShot S80 and a recent long-weekend trip to bourbon country in Kentucky with my Nikon FA, I haven’t been making many photographs. My blog doesn’t depend entirely on fresh photographs because of the stories and essays I write. But being burned out, I haven’t had anything to say.
I’ve been updating all of my camera reviews. They drive a great deal of search traffic to my blog, and are therefore my blog’s calling cards to the world. Especially on my older reviews, I wanted to make the text more compelling and reprocess the photographs using the tools and skills I didn’t have then but have now. It’s been a nice little project, one that gives me feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment with little mental strain.
In updating my review of the Kodak Pony 135 I discovered that I only uploaded to Flickr about half of the usable photographs from the two rolls of film I shot. I use “usable” broadly as my Pony 135 suffered from a wicked light leak that affected nearly every photograph. But today I find the effect to have a certain charm, and on many photographs it doesn’t detract all that much from the subjects or the great color and sharpness the Pony’s lens captured on Fujicolor 200.
I walked through my neighborhood with the Pony in my hand and captured some of my neighbors’ homes.
Almost every house in the neighborhood was faced in brick all around. This was pretty common for 1950s-1960s suburban homes in Indianapolis. Today’s suburban homes tend to be wrapped in vinyl siding. Having now lived in both kinds of houses, I prefer the brick.
The houses on every corner were duplexes, while all the ones in between were built for single families. This is one of the corner houses. The green Mustang parked in this carport only for a few weeks before it disappeared.
I’m pretty sure I had Walgreens process and scan these. The store near my home still had a one-hour lab in 2011.
Sometimes I look at one of my old photographs and wonder why I shot it. This is one of those photographs. I’m not sure what I thought the subject was. Yet somehow it pleases me today.
I’d had my blue Matrix just a couple years in 2011. It still looked pretty good. In the years that followed its paint chipped off, faded, and went chalky on pretty much every panel. When I sold it last year it was the worst-looking car I ever owned. Still, I miss it and would have another Matrix. I could carry so much stuff in its wayback, especially with the back seat folded down.
I used to work near the Monon Trail, a former rail line converted into a pedestrian trail. Where the trail runs under Interstate 465 there’s a small parking lot and a restroom. These benches give hikers and bikers a place to rest for a minute.
I’m sure these restrooms are welcome sight for people who travel the 20-mile length of this trail.
I liked using the Kodak Pony 135. I thought I’d try to fix that light leak. Degraded light seals are a usual culprit of leaking light in old cameras, but the Pony 135 seals light using deep channels where the door attaches to the body. There’s nothing to replace. Then a Kodak Pony 135, Model C, fell into my hands. It didn’t leak light, and its wider lens (44mm vs. the original Pony 135’s 51mm) was more useful for the kind of walking-around photography I do. So that’s the Pony I kept.
When I started making photographs again in 2005 I couldn’t afford a new digital camera, so long story short I bought a used Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for $20 and some film and got to shooting. That necessarily meant I’d need to find a lab to process my film.
Walmart still processed and scanned color negative film, for about $6 I think. Money was tight for me then, but I could manage that price if I didn’t shoot too often. So that’s who I used.
I have lamented on this blog (here) the loss of easy, inexpensive film processing at drug and big-box stores. The by-mail labs I use now charge up to three times more than Walmart used to. But perhaps you get what you pay for.
I was looking back through old scans recently to update my review of the Kodak Retina Ia and was surprised and disappointed with the dull color. I didn’t see it then, as I had a lot to learn. I sure see it now. I don’t blame the camera — that Retina’s lens is crackerjack. I also shot Fujicolor 200, a film I know well. So I blame the processing and/or the scanning. I brought the scans into Photoshop hoping to improve them. I got better color at the cost of too much contrast, but I couldn’t tone that down without making the images too hazy.
These aren’t bad images, but they could be better.
I did some quick checking of other images I had processed and scanned by Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS, and think that I get noticeably better work from the by-mail labs I use now. The only in-store lab that did equal work was Costco.
In 2012 I bought a Retina IIa and put it through its paces with another roll of Fujicolor 200. I forget who I used to process and scan the film — probably Dwayne’s Photo or Old School Photo Lab. Can you see it like I do, how much more natural and nuanced the colors and contrast are in these?
I’ve never read a negative review of Olympus’s XA2, a remarkably compact 35mm camera. Everybody seems to like it. eBay bears it out: prices hover around $100 for working and complete examples. I am fortunate, as this one came to me for free from the collection of an old friend’s father.
The tiny XA2, introduced in 1980, was based on the 1979 XA but replaced its rangefinder with zone focusing and its f/2.8 lens with an f/3.5 lens. And when I say this camera is tiny, I mean tiny — it’s only fractionally larger than my Canon S95 or my wife’s Sony RX100, both compact digital point-and-shoot cameras that don’t have to hold a 35mm film cartridge.
I loaded a roll of Ultrafine Xtreme 100 black-and-white film, pulled a battery out of another camera I’d just finished using, slipped this XA2 into my coat pocket, and took it everywhere for a couple weeks. And then, as I explained in this post, I got black shadows, blown-out highlights, poor sharpness, and lack of detail. Here’s a shot from inside a nature park near my home, heavily Photoshopped to make it usable.
I know better than to test a new-to-me old camera with an old battery and film I don’t know well yet, and then to send the film to a lab I’m still getting to know. So I declared the first test roll null and void, and loaded a fresh battery and tried-and-true Agfa Vista 200 into the camera. I had the camera shop downtown process and scan the film. Glory be, I got good stuff back from the XA2 this time.
The little green light inside the viewfinder came on a lot, meaning that the XA2 needed a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure and that you should consider using flash or a tripod. Bollocks, I said each time. Every day but one I shot this camera I enjoyed full sun. I should have been getting plenty fast shutter speeds.
I can’t tell what is making that green light come on so often. The XA2 doesn’t tell you what aperture and shutter speed it’s choosing based on the meter’s reading, so I don’t know how I would check this meter’s functioning against a known-good meter. But these results speak for themselves: it didn’t matter.
Autumn came late in central Indiana this year. It served to deepen the eventual colors, but to shorten their life span. It seemed like all the trees changed color and dumped all their leaves inside two weeks. I was fortunate to be able to take several good walks with the XA2 in my coat pocket during those days. That’s the XA2’s killer feature, by the way: you can carry it everywhere so easily.
These full-sun photos were all noticeably vignetted, so much so that in the centers, light colors tended toward white. I was able to fix that pretty well in Photoshop. I had the same effect with an XA2 I used to own, so I assume this is endemic to the camera.
I experienced the common (and minor) challenges with the XA2 as I used it: the clamshell cover hangs up unless you slide it open in exactly the right direction, and the shutter button is super sensitive and likely to fire when you don’t mean it. If this were my only camera I’d get past those quirks after three or four more rolls.
I finished the roll before meeting a friend for lunch Downtown on a gray, chilly day. That green slow-shutter light was on for every shot, but as you can see the camera did fine.
When you close the XA2 it moves the focus to the middle zone, which brings into focus everything 4 feet or more away. Because the camera biases toward big depth of field, for most subjects you can just open the camera, frame, and press the button. For truly far-away subjects you can use the landscape setting, and for close subjects (no closer than three feet, though) you can use the portrait setting. I did that here, and in this light got a narrow-enough in-focus patch that the background blurred a little.
Many film photographers say they prefer the XA2 to the XA. I’m not in that camp. I like the XA’s rangefinder and I prefer the characteristics of its lens. That said, the XA2 is almost point-and-shoot simple with plenty great optics. If I shot people on the street, this would be a great camera for it: open it, frame, snap, done.
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