Collecting Cameras, Film Photography, Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus XA

Lafayette Theater

I knew I was going to keep this camera the moment I picked it up. The Olympus XA is just that wonderful.

Olympus XA

This tiny rangefinder camera returns stunning images every time I load film into it. Any film, really — black-and-white or color, consumer-grade or professional. It always performs brilliantly. Here are a couple photos I really love from past rolls.

Chrome teeth

Above: the grille of a Dodge Charger on Arista Premium 400. Below: the midway entrance at the Indiana State Fair on Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800.

State Fair at dusk

For Operation Thin the Herd I loaded a roll of Agfa Vista 200, which is just my beloved Fujicolor 200 in disguise. A sidebar: thanks to UK photoblogger Dan James for sending me, at cost, a giant box full of this stuff just before Poundland stopped selling it. Even after I paid for shipping, I got this film cheaper than I can get Fujicolor 200 anywhere in the US.

West Park

While I began the roll shooting a few images around my church, I shot most of it in Lafayette and West Lafayette just after Thanksgiving last year as I returned my son Damion to Purdue to finish the semester. This is part of a mural on the side of a building in Lafayette.

Your Face Here

Though its controls are small, they work easily. Its rangefinder is small but plenty bright; it’s easy to focus. Its coupled light meter handles even complicated lighting situations with surprising aplomb. Shot after shot, the XA returned brilliant color and good sharpness.

Long Center

We had a little dinner in this burger-and-root-beer joint in West Lafayette. If you’re ever on I-65 between Indy and Chicago you’ll see billboards for it. The giant XXX on them is not advertising for an adult bookstore, so don’t look past them too fast.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple-X used to be a drive in, but if you want to eat in your car today you need to order inside and bring it out yourself.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple X is on State Street, which appears to be West Lafayette’s main drag. Given that this is where Purdue is, this street is given over to bars and restaurants that cater to the college crowd. Honestly, I feel a little out of place here.

State St., West Lafayette

The tile accents on this State Street building have captured my attention for years. It was late afternoon and the shadows were strong.

State St., West Lafayette

I was amused to find this unintended selfie on the film tail. I don’t remember taking it.

Inadvertent tail selfie

It’s no wonder the Olympus XA has been so loved since its introduction. It’s simply a wonderful camera. As I continue to thin the herd and work through my small rangefinder cameras, it will be challenging for any of them to approach this camera’s wonderful mix of pocketable size, good usability, and excellent results. I’m sure I’ll part with some otherwise very nice cameras because they don’t measure up to the Olympus XA.

Verdict: Keep

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A Kodak Retina IIc was donated to my collection last year. My longtime friend Alice’s dad was a serious amateur photographer who loved gear. But he hasn’t shot film in a long time, and was glad to hand over his entire collection to someone who would use and appreciate it; i.e., me.

I’ve shot a test roll through this IIc, but I’m not able to write a review of this camera just yet. I don’t know why, but only the first shot on the roll was exposed. Was the shutter malfunctioning? Did I do something wrong? It’s too bad, too, as I ordered prints with this roll. I almost never do that. In this case I wasted my money.

After the film came back from the processor I opened the camera and fired the shutter a bunch of times at various speeds. The shutter opened each time. So I have no idea why I got the results I did. I dropped in another roll of film and am trying again.

Photography

The vagaries of old cameras

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Collecting Cameras

Inspecting vintage film cameras before you buy, part 2: Advanced features

Recently I shared how to check an old film camera’s fundamental functions so you don’t end up buying junk. (Read it here, if you missed it.) But many cameras offer features beyond those fundamentals. They can be broken too.

Minolta SR-T 202

Quite a find at an antique shop!

A couple years ago I found a Minolta SR-T 202 at an antique shop. A 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X lens was attached. What luck! These are great cameras, and a 50/1.4 is always a prize.

But there I stood in the middle of a dimly lit shop 60 miles from home. What problems would this camera have, and could I negotiate a price that would make me willing to take them on?

First I checked the fundamentals, which I described in part 1 of this series. That all checked out. So I moved on to the camera’s advanced features. Here are the things I checked:

Remove the battery cover, if there is one. When there’s no battery cover, the camera is all mechanical. Cameras that take a battery have some level of electronics, even if it’s just an onboard light meter. Without the proper battery you won’t be able to check some or all of its functions, depending on how much of the camera is electronically controlled.

Yashica Electro 35 GSN

Battery cover on the bottom, slotted to be opened with a nickel

I don’t know about where you live, but where I live Walgreens and CVS are on every other corner, and they have a surprisingly extensive battery selection. For a camera I really, really want, I’ll duck out and buy a battery.

Many battery covers have a slot that fits a nickel or a penny, so grab one out of your back pocket and unscrew it. Alternatively, there might be knurling on the cover that lets you grip it with your fingertips. Or you might find a tab you press in that lets you pull the cover back. Ideally, the cover removes easily and the inside is free of leaky-battery corrosion. If the cover is jammed shut, there’s probably corrosion. I’ve had good luck cleaning up a little corrosion (I use a dab of vinegar and fine steel wool), but my experience has been that a lot of corrosion means the camera’s electronics won’t work.

Check the camera’s focusing. The camera either focuses manually or automatically.

On manual-focus viewfinder cameras, you guess how far away your subject is and twist the aperture ring until that number of feet or meters lines up with the focusing mark. There’s no good way to check accuracy in the field, short of carrying an accessory rangefinder everywhere you go.

But if the camera has a built-in rangefinder, use it to check focusing accuracy. The rangefinder might be inside the viewfinder or it might be in a separate window near the viewfinder. Look for the “patch” in the center, which should be bright enough for you to see the image inside it. Aim the camera at something a known distance away. Turn the focusing ring until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the image in the viewfinder. Check the distance selected on the focusing ring and see if it matches the actual distance.

You can do the same on a manual-focus 35mm SLR. Twist the focus ring until the image in the viewfinder’s split screen lines up, or the microprism ring stops shimmering.

On autofocus cameras, see if there’s a manual-focus mode and try the tips above. If there’s no manual mode, you’ll have to roll the dice that focus is accurate. Fortunately, of the dozens upon dozens of  cameras I’ve bought in over 40 years, only one or two were significantly off.

Olympus Trip 35

Selenium meter around the lens

Check the light meter, if there is one. Look through the viewfinder. If you see a needle or an LED/LCD panel, there’s an onboard meter. A few cameras place the meter needle on the camera body instead.

Some meters need power and others don’t. Selenium light meters are photosensitive on their own and need no battery. Look for a bubbled plastic patch on the camera’s face or around the lens.

Yashica Lynx 14e

CdS meter “bubble” on the body

Cadmium sulfide (CdS) and silicon meters need batteries to work. Some cameras place CdS meters on the body. Many cameras embed these meters inside the body

For a powered meter, the camera must be on for you to check it. Some cameras, like the Pentax K1000, are always on. Others have an on switch or button, and still others require you to activate the meter by pulling back the winder lever a little or pressing the shutter button partway.

There are so many ways cameras show exposure settings in the viewfinder that I can’t explain them all here. Many cameras use some sort of needle system: when the needle lines up with a mark or a notch, you have good exposure. Other cameras use LED or LCD displays.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK

Meter needle at the top of this viewfinder

Download a light-meter app to your smartphone. Read light on a subject with the app and the camera, making either shutter speed or aperture match on both. Do this for a few different aperture and shutter speed combinations to see if the meter consistently agrees. A consistently wrong meter is still usable. My Yashica Lynx 14e above is consistently off by a full stop. I just adjust as I shoot. It works beautifully.

A busted or inaccurate meter doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. The meter on that otherwise all-manual SR-T 202 was quite dead. I dropped in some film anyway and metered with an app on my phone. I prefer a working meter, but I still had a fine time with the SR-T. That camera had a bigger problem my initial inspection missed: a pinhole in the shutter curtain that left a bright spot on many photos. That disappointed me far more than the inactive meter did.

The more electronics on a camera, however, the more likely its manual exposure settings are buried in counterintuitive menus. And some cameras lack manual exposure settings altogether. A busted meter renders them useless.

Check the motorized winder, if there is one. For this, you must have a battery. But then this is as simple as turning the camera on and pressing the shutter button. If it doesn’t wind, or if the winder sounds sick, move on.

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Speaking of all- or mostly-electronic cameras, they present special challenges in field inspection. They can be broken in surprising ways that you might not be able to detect without putting a roll of film through them. In the final part of this series I’ll share how you can predict the problems a camera might have.

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Camera Reviews, Photography

Konica Auto S2

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I’m a sucker for a fast lens. Whenever that magic number sinks below 2, I’m a goner.

And so I can’t believe it took me more than a year to shoot the f/1.8 Konica Auto S2 that John Smith donated to my collection. But at long last, this camera has come up in the to-shoot queue.

Konica Auto S2

I’d never heard of the Auto S2 before this one fell into my hands. But a quick Google search yields reviews by all the usual film-camera collectors — and they all love this black-and-silver rangefinder camera. Produced for a couple-three years starting in 1965, the Auto S2 succeeded the earlier, similar Auto S. The S2 bettered the S with a slightly faster lens (f/1.8 vs. f/1.9) and moved the meter’s CdS cell from the body to the lens housing, where it adjusts for filters. A dreaded, banned 625 mercury battery powers that meter, enabling shutter-priority autoexposure. Everything else about this camera is mechanical.

Konica Auto S2

The 45mm f/1.8 Hexanon lens is of six elements in four groups. It’s set in a Copal SVA leaf shutter that operates from 1/500 to 1 sec. The S2 supports films from ISO 25 to 400. In its day, f/1.8 at 1/500 sec on ISO 400 film was about as good as it got when you needed to shoot in low light or to stop motion.

Konica Auto S2

The Auto S2 has a couple super nice features. First, not only does the aperture show up inside the viewfinder, but it also appears on a readout atop the camera. But more importantly, the Auto S2 makes focusing and framing easy and accurate. You focus by moving a lever on the lens barrel. It’s easy to find your left index finger while your eye is at the viewfinder. The rangefinder patch is bright and large enough even for my middle-aged eyes. And then frame lines in the viewfinder adjust as you focus to show how the photo will be framed. They are pretty accurate. A pet peeve of so many viewfinder and rangefinder cameras I’ve used is that the viewfinder shows considerably less than the lens sees. That’s not a problem with the Auto S2.

This is a big camera, the same size as a Yashica Electro 35. And it’s heavy, though not unbearably so when it’s strapped across your shoulder.

I dropped in an alkaline 625 cell and some Kodak Gold 200, twisted the aperture dial to Auto so I could enjoy the autoexposure, and got busy shooting. And right away I found my two disappointments with the Auto S2: the flimsy feel of the shutter button and the ratchety sound and feel of the winder. I’d expect as much from a cheap point-and-shoot, not from a heavy camera otherwise so well built. But they worked reliably enough through my test roll, which began on a trip to photograph The Pyramids.

The Pyramids

I visited a post office on that trip, and something about this scene across the street spoke to me. I still like this shot, but I can’t put my finger on why, as nothing in it is terribly exciting.

Industrial park

I felt pretty uninspired during the time I had film in this camera. I hadn’t visited New Augusta in a while, so I drove over there with the Auto S2 and ended up getting the same kinds of shots I always get there. Ho hum. But at least they show you that the lens is sharp and contrast is good.

Green bench

I spent a while on the railroad tracks around which New Augusta was built. I’m more a roadfan than a railfan; perhaps you can tell me what the heck this thing is. But as you can see, the lens is capable of some nice, smooth bokeh.

Red and green thingy

I drive over these tracks almost every day on my way to and from work. Multiple times, actually, as they run diagonal to the streets in this part of town. Fortunately, they get light use. I’ve been stopped by trains on them only two or three times in the more than 20 years I’ve lived in this part of the city.

Tracks in Augusta

At the tracks, I wasn’t sure the Auto S2 was firing properly. This shot I dashed off to check the camera’s function ended up being another good example of the lens’s sharpness and ability to capture detail.

Knurled

But that was the last shot I got, even though the film counter read only 20. I couldn’t wind any further. But after I rewound the film, the camera operated fine. I don’t get it.

To see more photos from this camera, see my Konica Auto S2 gallery.

I liked the Konica Auto S2. But I liked my Yashica Electro 35 and my Minolta Hi-Matic 7 as much; they’re all similarly specified. And of course there’s my delightful Yashica Lynx 14e with its outstanding f/1.4 lens. In a fast-lens contest, that Yashica wins hands down. But any of these cameras is a great choice.


Do you like old cameras? Then check out all of my old-camera reviews!

 

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