Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon Nikkormat EL

1971 Chevrolet

It was the last of the Nikkormats (or Nikomats, as they were called in Japan): the EL. It was also the first Nikon SLR with aperture-priority autoexposure. Nikon made them from 1972 to 1976. They’re well-built cameras that can take years, even decades, of heavy use.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

This one was a latecomer to my SLR party; by this time I’d settled on my favorites. While I liked this camera fine when I shot my test roll with it I kept reaching for my usual cameras after that. The test roll was Fujicolor 200, and my 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens was mounted. This photo from that roll is of two cars I used to own.

Looking Over my Car

This is a fine, capable camera. Perhaps that’s why I waited until near the end of Operation Thin the Herd to shoot it: I expected I’d like it and keep it. I plopped in some Fomapan 100, mounted my guilty-pleasure 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens, and went to town.

McOuat

I also laid in a fresh battery, a stubby 4LR44. Thank heavens for Amazon, because you can’t get these batteries at the corner drugstore. The battery slips neatly in below the mirror inside the camera. Use the mirror lock-up button to get at it.

Founders Cemetery

Fomapan 100 is far from my favorite slower b/w film, but this roll had been moldering in my fridge for a long time and I decided to shoot it up. This is easily the best performance I’ve ever gotten from this classic film. Highlights are on the light side but at least they’re not blown out, which seems to be this film’s signature move.

Shelbyville on the Public Square

The EL’s tactile experience falls short of luxurious, but everything feels rock solid under use. If you send a Nikkormat EL out for CLA, it will outlast you. That’s what I need to do for this one. Every single frame on the roll showed shutter capping. I’ve just cropped it out of all the photos I’ve showed you before this one. Now you know why some of these photos are 16×9 rather than 4×3.

Capped!

The shame is, you don’t know a shutter is misbehaving like this until after you’ve shot the roll and had it processed. Unfortunately I shot two rolls of film in the Nikkormat before sending them off for processing. The second roll was Agfa Vista 200. Cropping saved many of this roll’s images, too.

Capped Soft Selfie

I brought the Nikkormat out for a day on the Michigan Road. This pizza joint is on the square in Greensburg.

Slices

Half the 35-70’s split prism focusing aid was black on this bright-sun day, a not uncommon problem with zoom lenses. I had to guess focus, and I frequently got it wrong. Between that and the shutter capping I got nine usable images on this roll, which I shot entirely on Greensburg’s square. Not a great day with the Nikkormat.

On the Square

You don’t expect to find a tiki bar in the heartland, but here one is nevertheless. It’s in what used to be Greensburg’s department store, Minear’s.

Tiki Bar

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

The Nikkormat EL is a competent and capable tool, its shutter issues notwithstanding. I didn’t dislike using it, but I wasn’t falling in love, either. Its size and weight is similar enough to my Nikon F2 or F3, which truly delight me to use, that I’ll probably always reach for those cameras first. I’m going to pass this Nikkormat along to its next owner.

Verdict: Goodbye

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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!
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Preservation, Road Trips

Exploring Napoleon, Indiana

There’s a lot of lovely historic architecture to see in Napoleon, a small town in Ripley County, Indiana. But getting there is part of the fun: from the north or from the south, you do it on the Michigan Road.

NapoleonMap1900

From Atlas of Ripley County, Indiana, O. W. Pegee, 1900

Ripley County boasts two alignments of the Michigan Road, the original and a later one that is now US 421. They come together in Napoleon. In the Michigan Road’s early days, what is now US 421 was a plank road starting in Versailles, and it became the more major route. It’s why, during the early years of the automobile, the Michigan Road was rerouted onto this road.

This 1900 atlas excerpt shows where and how the two roads used to meet on the south side of Napoleon. See the two roads that merge? The Michigan Road is on the left.

Each road had to cross a little stream. At some point, probably when it became clear that the old plank road would be the major route, the Michigan Road was truncated at the first county road south of Napoleon. Makes sense; why build and maintain a needless bridge? Here’s what it looks like today from above.

NapoleonGoogleMap2018

Imagery and map data © 2018 Google

In 2008 I documented what remains of this old Michigan Road alignment. Here’s a southbound photo from north of the county road where, today, you have to turn left to reach US 421 and resume your travel on the Michigan Road. My camera malfunctioned on a northbound photo from this spot, but the road was two-track from here and it faded into the grass ahead.

Former Michigan Road alignment?

This little bit of gravel provides access to this cemetery, which is wedged between here and US 421.

Lutheran Cemetery, Napoleon, Indiana

From my many visits to Napoleon over the years, here are a number of scenes from this little town. Its plat has hardly changed since 1900 and many buildings present then remain today. Arguably the most prominent building on the Michigan Road in Napoleon is this old flour mill.

Flour mill, Napoleon, Indiana

The photo above is from 2008 and the one below is from 2018. The photo below would show a building in dilapidated condition were someone not maintaining this building. I hear that this old mill has been converted into apartments.

Mill

Those painted signs would be faded and chipped away if someone wasn’t keeping them touched up.

Mill

The former Napoleon State Bank building is now a real-estate office.

Former Napoleon State Bank

Surprisingly, the Napoleon State Bank still operates in a modern building across the street. It’s remarkable it has survived in this age of bank mergers and megabanks.

Napoleon State Bank, Napoleon, Indiana

If you step off the Michigan Road and explore Napoleon’s Main Street (now State Road 229) you’ll find more lovely historic architecture. This is the Central House, built in the late 1820s. That makes it at least as old as the Michigan Road itself!

The Central House

Two large churches, both probably built in the early 20th century, stand along Main Street. First is St. John’s Lutheran.

St. John's Lutheran Church

St. Maurice Catholic is the other. Given how small this town is, these churches must have drawn members from a very large region to justify their size. Hopefully, they still do.

St. Maurice Catholic Church and School, Napoleon, Indiana

Of all the old buildings in Napoleon, I like the onetime home of Elias Conwell the best. Like the Central House, it dates to the 1820s. Conwell was quite a character; I told his story here.

The Conwell House

That little creek winds all through Napoleon. Here it is on the north side of town, hugging the northbound Michigan Road.

Creek along the road

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