When you buy old cameras, as I do, you frequently get lenses with them. When you’re lucky, you get a really good one, like the time I got a 50mm f/1.4 Rokkor lens with a Minolta SR-T 202 body attached, for something like 30 bucks. That was a good day.
More often, however, you get third-party lenses. I’ve lost track of how many Vivitar lenses I’ve owned, for example. These lenses are decidedly a mixed bag: some are crap, most are so-so, and a few are surprisingly good. In contrast, lenses from the camera maker are usually good to great.
A number of lenses for the Pentax K mount had Sears branding on them. Sears, the once-great department store, bought them from overseas lens manufacturers. A Sears lens could have been manufactured by Ricoh, Cosina, Tokina, or others.
I forget how I came to own this 135mm f/2.8 MC Auto Sears lens. It might have come with the Pentax KM I bought from my old friend Michael many years ago; there were a lot of lenses in that camera bag. Based on the lens’s design and markings, and some Internet sleuthing I’ve done, I am guessing that Tokina made this lens.
I came upon it the other day, realized I’d never used it before, and decided to try it on my Pentax ME. I’m not sure what happened to most of the roll of Ilford Delta 400 I shot, but about a third of the images were so dark as to be useless. I hope my beloved ME is not developing a fault.
Fortunately, all of the images turned out fine from the Sunday morning our granddaughter came to visit. Here are the best of them.
Based on these results, I’d say that this lens is optimized for portraiture. I shouldn’t be surprised; that seems to be the raison d’etre for any 135mm lens. Check out the blurred foreground in the photo below. That effect was a staple of these photos.
It was a little tricky to focus with this lens in bright light as the focus patch tended to go black. When that happened, I guessed as best I could. That’s why the little dog is crisper than our granddaughter in this shot.
In this photo I was deliberately focusing on my wife’s face. The available light forced me to a wide aperture, which led to shallow depth of field.
I shot the rest of the roll at indiscriminate subjects just to see what turned out. This is the ash tree in our front yard. The blurred background is flat and lifeless, and contrast is poor. I had to boost contrast on all of these photos far beyond what I normally do after scanning negatives.
This lens is capable of good sharpness and detail.
It would have been far wiser to test this lens making portraits. But I don’t make many portraits. This is the kind of photography I do, and no 135mm lens is suited to it. At least this 135mm f/2.8 MC Auto Sears lens handled well and is solidly built. Its built-in lens hood was a nice touch.
Not long ago I shared three all-metal, all-manual SLRs you can still get for under $50, all fine machines. But they all require you to set exposure manually, based on the onboard meter’s reading. It can be so nice for a camera to offer exposure automation! If that sounds good to you, then check out these semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50.
Full programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority autoexposure take some of the fuss out of shooting. You’ll find many wonderful cameras in this category — including many popular options that routinely sell for well north of $100. I’m looking at you, Canon AE-1, Nikon FE/FA, Minolta X-700, and Olympus OM-2! They’re all wonderful cameras, and if you can afford them you should buy them! But you might be on a tight budget and need to spend far less.
I can think of five great cameras that offer either some level of exposure automation that you can still buy for under $50 every day on eBay. Read my tips for buying on eBay without getting taken for a ride here. You can also buy from UsedPhotoPro and KEH for a little more, but you get their good guarantees.
Here now, five semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50.
Read my review here. I love this camera. I’ve shot mine a ton. It was the camera I took on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Ireland. I chose it because it take all of my wonderful Nikon lenses — but if it were damaged, lost, or stolen I could buy another for next to nothing.
The N2000 (also known as the F-301) offers two program modes, aperture-priority autoexposure, and manual exposure. Its shutter fires as fast as 1/2000 sec. and it even allows for continuous shooting at at about 3 frames per second. It works with films of ISO 12 to 4000. The N2000 runs on four AAA batteries, easily purchased at any drug store.
Read my review here. This camera isn’t pretty, but it is a fine performer. It takes the whole range of easy to come by, inexpensive Canon FD-mount lenses. They often show up on eBay with the wonderful 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens already attached.
The T70 offers a generous range of exposure modes: three program modes, a shutter-priority mode, a couple of flash modes, and even a stop-down metering mode for when you’ve adapted older FL-mount lenses. The T70 even offers two metering modes: center-weighted average and “selective area” which meters just the center 11 percent of the frame. Whatever modes you choose, your settings appear in the easy-to-read LCD panel. The T70 offers a big and bright viewfinder, and it winds and rewinds your film for you. Two common AA batteries power everything.
This might just be the biggest bargain on a programmed autoexposure 35mm SLR.
Read my review here. This is the real sleeper of this bunch. Originally sold at Sears, it’s the same camera as the Ricoh XR-7, the top of Ricoh’s SLR line in the early 1980s. But because it looks like a no-brand camera, people overlook them.
Really, you can look at any of the Sears KS-series SLRs as they’re all made by Ricoh and are all good performers. The KS-2 just happens to be fully featured, with aperture priority autoexposure and full manual exposure. Its shutter’s top speed is 1/1000 second. It takes films from ISO 12 to 3200. It offers a self timer, a hot shoe, multiple exposure capability, and depth-of-field preview. Two common SR44 button batteries power the KS-2. Most drug stores carry them.
But the best part is that these Sears/Ricoh SLRs feature Pentax’s K lens mount. You can mount any of Pentax’s wonderful manual-focus K-mount lenses. The Ricoh/Sears lenses are no slouches, either.
Read my review here. Minolta’s XG cameras were a step down from their pro line, aimed at advanced amateurs. The XG-1 was the entry-level camera in the line.
After you load film into the XG-1, just set the shutter speed dial to A, choose an aperture, and let the XG-1 do the rest. Its cloth shutter is stepless from 1/1000 to 1 sec. A shutter-speed scale appears inside the viewfinder. You can set the XG-1’s exposure manually, too, but the camera doesn’t make it easy. This camera is really designed for aperture-priority use. It needs two SR44 button batteries to work.
The XG-1 feels the most luxurious to use of all of these cameras. I especially enjoy its electronic shutter button, which requires only a light touch.
Pentax ME/ME Super
Read my ME review here and my ME Super review here. I’ve used my Pentax ME more than any other camera I’ve ever owned. It’s the smallest and lightest camera in this list, and is so easy to handle.
The Pentax ME is an aperture-priority-only camera. I like that just fine, but if you want manual exposure control you’ll want the ME Super instead. If you don’t care either way, buy whichever one you find first at the price you like.
The ME and ME Super are reasonably flexible, working with films up to ISO 1600 and allowing exposures as fast as 1/1000 sec. on the ME and 1/2000 sec on the ME Super. All of this convenience relies on two SR44 button batteries.
I almost didn’t include this camera because it’s a little harder to find than the others for under $50. It surprises me, because only a handful of years ago you could buy these any day of the week for under $20! If you want one, buy it soon, before prices are consistently above that $50 threshold.
There you have it, five semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50. Any of these cameras will prove a fine companion when you want the ease of automatic exposure.
Wherever it came from, it’s been rolling around at the bottom of my film box for at least two years now. There’s just never been a time when my subjects would have benefited from a strong red cast! But I’m busy shooting up everything in that box, and this roll’s number came up. I loaded it into my Pentax ME, which already had a 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M lens attached, and took it with me everywhere I went for a while.
You’re supposed to be able to control the red by setting ISO anywhere from 50 to 200. The more light you let fall onto this film, the less red effect you get. I set my Pentax ME right in the middle at EI 100 and got mighty, mighty red images.
It turns out you need to shoot this film in direct, bright sunlight. Shadows come out muddy and underexposed.
This shadowy tree-tunnel shot turned out okay, though.
If I had another roll of this stuff I’d shoot it at EI 50 to try to tone the red down. I tried to tone it down in Photoshop, but I couldn’t manage it without introducing other deleterious effects. These images are all straight of the processor’s scanner.
I know that plenty of film photographers love films that give them unusual looks like this. I’m not among them. As I looked through these scans for the first time, I wished I’d shot many of these scenes with one of my usual color films. Lomography Redscale XR 50-200 just isn’t my jam.
Mail station Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M Kodak Panatomic-X (expired) LegacyPro L110 Dilution B (1+31)
When I was a kid, the mailbox was attached to the house next to the front door. On summer days, when the windows were open, we could hear the mailman open and close its lid as he delivered our letters.
As a young adult with my first house the mailbox was on a post by the curb. I didn’t much enjoy needing boots and a coat to get my mail on winter days.
Now I live in a new subdivision, and all mail is delivered to a locked box in this building. We walk or drive over to it; it’s ¾ mile away. I know this is a first-world problem, but I hate it. I want a mailbox next to my front door again.
Kodak Panatomic-X film has developed almost a cult following since it was discontinued in 1987. Look around the forums and the blogs: people call this the best black-and-white film ever made. It’s a fine-grained but slow film at ISO 32.
Mike Eckman of mike eckman dot com sent me two short rolls he bulk loaded, just to try this film. “Shoot it at ISO 20 or 25,” he said, “and develop it in HC-110 Dilution B for 6½ minutes.” I asked him what temperature. He said that it didn’t matter, 6½ minutes just always works. And so it did.
I knew I’d want a fast lens for this slow film, and the fastest lenses I own say SMC Pentax-M on them. So I got out my Pentax ME, set it at EI 25, mounted my 50mm f/1.7, and loaded the first roll of Panatomic-X.
I shot indiscriminately around my yard and within a few minutes’ walk of my home.
For the kind of shooting I do — handheld, outdoors — slow films need great light. I went out with my ME only on full-sun days and I still got shallow depth of field. But if you know that going in, you can work with it.
Mike told me that this stock is at least 30 years old. Yet look how it performs!
This fits Panatomic-X’s reputation: no matter how old, almost no matter how stored, this film performs well. These photos bear it out — they look very good, with creamy middle grays and solid blacks.
My scanner is the weak link in my workflow, as it delivers soft scans in 35mm. Even after heavy unsharp masking, the images still aren’t truly sharp. These negatives scanned as sharp as my tools can manage, and required only moderate unsharp masking.
To wrap up, here’s a shot of my neighbor’s dog, who came out to have a bark at me. I think he wants to be my pal, but his innate skittishness makes him back away whenever I go over to say hello. So I immortalized him on expired Kodak Panatomic-X.
Pencil cup Pentax ME 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M Arista EDU 200 L110 Dilution E
My son Garrett made this when he was 4 or 5. It’s a pencil cup made out of a tin can with a piece of thick paper glued around it. He wrote his name on it and painted it. I love the way he shaped the g to start his name: a circle and a J-like curve, not connected. You can’t tell because this is a black-and-white photo, but he painted it in watercolors, peach and pink and green.
Garrett also made the fake flower, in the third grade. It’s a pen, actually; his class made them by the score and sold them to raise funds for something I can’t remember anymore.
I used to have a drawer full of keepsakes my kids made. I let a lot of them go a few years ago when I moved out of my last house. It was a little painful to see them go. It was very nice to get that drawer space back.
I will keep a few things, like this. They will stand in for everything else.