Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Yashica-12

Marathon

As a frugal film photographer with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), I buy well-used cameras. Scuffs, dings, and even minor faults are part of that game. Every now and again I enjoy a camera so much I want to include it in my regular-use rotation. That’s when I invest in repairs, or even in buying another one in near-mint condition. That’s what led me to buy this Yashica-12 which had been serviced by premier Yashica repairman Mark Hama. To own it I forked over the most I’ve ever paid for an old camera. It’s not like it sent me to the poor house at just $135. But I’m used to paying under $50.

Yashica-12

I loaded Kodak Tri-X 400 and took it on a road trip. The camera performed well and returned flawless images, such as of this little cafe on the square in Lebanon, Indiana.

Please be seated

For this outing I loaded my last roll of Kodak Ektachrome E100G and brimmed with confidence that I’d get twelve colorful, sharp, and perfectly exposed images. What I got was a light leak. What the what?

Garrett & Damion

The seals can’t be bad, can they? That Mark Hama overhaul happened only a few years ago. Was I careless in spooling the roll into the camera? Was the roll a little loose after it came out of the camera? All I know is that the shots at the beginning of the roll were most affected, and the shots at the end (like the one below) very little.

Thorntown Carnegie Library

I shot this roll over my birthday weekend. My sons came to visit. We hiked some trails in a nearby nature park and I took one son up to Thorntown and told him the story of the time his mom got me out of a speeding ticket there. (Read it here; it’s kind of funny.) That’s the Carnegie library above and the main drag below.

Thorntown

I had such a nice time with the 12 that as I sent the E100G off for processing I loaded some Ilford Pan F Plus and kept going. I bought several rolls of this stuff thinking that at ISO 50 it would be a good match for my old box cameras. It wasn’t. It turns out this film needs precise exposure — not exactly the bailiwick for a camera with one aperture and shutter speed. The 12 was going to be a much better match.

Available

The 12 handled just as clumsily as I remembered. But I say so in the most affectionate way possible, as I just love the TLR experience. It feels deeply satisfying when an image comes into focus in that big ground-glass viewfinder. All of the 12’s controls feel great to use, full of heft and precision.

Entrances

My only gripe with the 12 is that you have to juggle the camera from hand to hand as you use it — the winding crank and the focusing knob are on opposite sides of the camera. I have yet to grow used to it. My Yashica-D places the winding and focusing knobs on the same side of the camera, which avoids the juggling. But the D’s winding knob isn’t as quick and easy as the 12’s winding crank, and the camera lacks a light meter. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

Carpentry Hall

I suppose another gripe with the 12 — with any TLR, really — is that it’s ungainly to carry. At the nature park I had forgotten to clip on a strap so I just held it in my hands. That got old fast, and I constantly risked dropping it. I clipped on a strap before we left for Thorntown and left it on for this trip to the old Central State Hospital grounds, but the 12’s form factor and weight made it ungainly even at my hip.

Ruins at Central State

The Pan F Plus turned out great. Look, no light leak! I don’t know what the deal was with the roll of E100G. It’s a shame that’s how my last roll of the stuff turned out.

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Yashica-12 gallery.

I wrote most of this review in August, but am just now getting around to posting it because I could not decide whether to keep this camera or not. I really need only one TLR in my life. My Yashica-D is so brilliant that I know I’m keeping it. (Though I might give it a turn in Operation Thin the Herd anyway, because autumn color is just around the corner and I have some Velvia in the freezer…) Yet the 12’s onboard light meter is such a convenience. I’ve decided is to defer this decision, which is a defacto decision to keep this camera. The 12 survives to fight another day.

Verdict: Keep

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Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Kodak Baby Brownie

1957 in Knightstown

Isn’t this thing just cute? Made of Bakelite and aluminum, this palm-sized box camera from the late 1930s is almost certainly the smallest ever made to accept 127 film.

Kodak Baby Brownie

I’ve shot this camera but once. I put my last roll of Efke 100 through it. I wasn’t wowed with the results. The lens might have been dirty; that’s been a common problem with old boxes I’ve encountered. So before shooting it this time I swabbed it clean with rubbing alcohol. Or it could just be that I don’t like the look of Efke 100. This shot of my last house was by far the best of that roll.

Home sweet home

So this time I shot Ektar, which in my experience is the best film for testing an old box. Such cameras tend to operate at 1/50 sec. at f/8, or 1/40 sec at f/11, or some other similar aperture/shutter-speed combo. On a sunny day, ISO 100 film is a good fit. Ektar in particular has wide enough exposure latitude to make up for unsunny days and exposure vagaries from box to box.

Centerville

Kodak doesn’t make Ektar or any other film in 127; nobody does. But I found a fellow on eBay who cuts various 120 films down to 127’s width and respools the stuff onto 127 spools. His film flowed flawlessly through my Baby Brownie.

Centerville

As you can see, however, light leaked everywhere onto these frames. There was evidence of leaking light on my Efke 100 roll but not as strong as here. Given the hand-rolled nature of the film I can’t be sure something wasn’t perfect with the way the film was rolled, either. But I’m betting it’s the Brownie.

Centerville

This is such a wonderful little camera to use. Pop up the viewfinder, frame, and slide the shutter lever. You get used to its front-and-center placement in no time, and it moves easily. Shooting at close range, however, you can see this simple lens’s tendency toward barrel distortion.

1957 in Knightstown

I brought the Baby Brownie onto the National Road in eastern Indiana in August; these photos are from Centerville and Knightstown, Indiana. To see more from this little box, check out my Kodak Baby Brownie gallery.

Even though my Baby Brownie outing was pleasant, I’m not that likely to shoot very much 127 going forward. If I do, I know I’ll always get out my Kodak Brownie Starmatic. It’s even more pleasant to use, its lens is better, and it leaks considerably less light (as you’ll see in an upcoming Operation Thin the Herd review). I briefly considered keeping the Baby Brownie for display, but in the end decided it’s time to let it find its next owner.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta XG 1

Garrett at the bridge

Minolta SLRs and I have not gotten on well. They are unfailingly delightful to use and return great images — when they work. Which, in my experience, is seldom. I’ve owned two X-700 bodies that developed the well-known stuck winder problem. The fix involves soldering new capacitors. I’ve owned two Maxxum 7000 bodies that developed the common failure of the aperture-control magnet, meaning every photo was taken at f/22. There’s a fix but it involves major disassembly and considerable luck. Even the SR-T 101 and 202 I’ve owned had issues, though less catastrophic. The one reliable Minolta SLR body I’ve owned is this one: an XG 1, from the late 1970s.

Minolta XG-1

This was an advanced amateur camera in its day, chock full of electronics to make the photographer’s job a breeze. It’s an aperture-priority camera, too, which is my favorite way to shoot. Mine came with a 45mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X lens, a good lens with interesting characteristics. Here’s one of my favorite shots on this kit, of my son in his room, on Fujicolor 200.

Garrett, down the hall

For this outing I mounted my 50mm f/1.7 Minolta MD lens. It came with the first X-700 I owned and I’d shot it just once before that camera bricked. I’ve kept meaning to shoot it again, so onto the XG 1 it went. I loaded a roll of Agfa Vista 200 but shot it at EI 100. It did lovely work. Minolta’s manual-focus lenses are just so good.

Phlox

My sons were together over my birthday weekend and we took a hike through Starkey Nature Park in Zionsville, where we came upon this old railroad bridge.

Bridge

There are some lovely trails inside Starkey. Zionsville really is a lovely place to live, with a charming downtown and amenities like this middle-of-nowhere getaway right in town. The rents are not for the faint of heart, however. Or the taxes. My inner skinflint wants to run right back to much-less-expensive Indianapolis.

Trail

The camera and lens handled nearly perfectly. The shutter button is electronic — placing your finger on it activates the meter, and a light touch fires the shutter. It’s so light that twice I accidentally fired the shutter and wasted a frame.

What is this?

I sure do love my sons. They’re both back in college now. I really miss the years they were still in public school because I got to see them all the time. They’ve got some of the growing-up troubles typical of entering your 20s, but I think that the big picture looks bright for both of them.

Boys

I carried the XG 1 to work a few days. The building going up next door to my office looks like it’s starting to wrap up. It was hard to frame things in the viewfinder — a line of black schmutz obscures the view in there. I’m not sure when that happened; I don’t remember it being that way the last time I used it. I’m sure it wasn’t that way when I got it. The mirror is clean so it’s got to be inside the prism. I wonder how hard it would be to get in there and clean it up.

Construction

There were just a few shots left on the roll when Damion and I made a quick trip to Thorntown. I wanted to tell him the story of the time his mom got me out of a speeding ticket here largely for being young and blonde and beautiful. It was good to share a happy memory of his mom with him, from a time before he was born. I’m not sure we would have had that moment without “taking a photo walk” as an excuse to get out.

Welcome to Thorntown

Here’s a gallery of the photos I’ve shot with this Minolta XG 1. Check it out!

Standing on Thorntown’s mean streets, I extolled the XG 1’s strong reliability to Damion when the meter stopped responding. I was at the end of the roll; could that have been why? Or was it a weak battery? I’d used those two LR44s in several cameras before. When we got home I swapped in fresh batteries and the meter still didn’t respond. I rewound the film, dropped in a fresh roll (Ultrafine Extreme 100, photos to come). The meter came right to life and was strong through the roll.

Even though I’ve already decided to focus on Nikon and Pentax SLRs, I thought I might keep this XG 1 in case I came upon good Minolta Rokkor glass in my travels. But then I inventoried just those Pentaxes and Nikons and counted fifteen bodies. While doing that I came upon my two Olympus OM-1 bodies and the great set of lenses I have for them, all donated to me by the father of one of my closest friends, and knew I could not part with those either. I just don’t have room for Minoltas after all.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Argus A-Four

In Faytette

I have a deep affection for this little bit of Bakelite, aluminum, and glass. The first argus a-four I owned, in the 1980s when I was a teenager, was the first camera I ever shot that let me set aperture and shutter speed. It generated the little spark for photography that, in my 40s, would finally burst into flame.

Argus A-Four

I put several rolls of film through that a-four, including a roll of bulk-loaded Plus-X that I developed in my high school’s darkroom. The photo below came from a roll of drugstore Kodak color film that I shot around my neighborhood. My brother made this shot of me leaning on the family car. It was the summer I turned 16.

Me, Van, July, 1982

I set aperture, shutter speed, and focus for my non-photographer brother — this is a viewfinder camera with no onboard light meter, so you have to guess and then set all of those things before every shot. You also have to cock the shutter by pulling the cocking lever atop the lens barrel. You’ll never make a quick shot with an a-four. But in the 1950s, when this camera was new, it was a solid step up from the box cameras amateurs otherwise used.

As my first marriage crumbled away I did a few regrettable things, including selling my entire camera collection. I owned a couple hundred cameras then, mostly junk excepting that a-four and a handful of others. My life eventually settled down and I started collecting again. I searched for and eventually found another a-four. I took it along to a muscle-car auction with some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros loaded. Just check out the resolving power and sharpness of that 44mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens.

67 Ford LTD

This a-four hasn’t given me such great results on every roll, however. It seems like one roll turns out great and the next not so much, kind of like Star Trek movies. This was a not-so-great roll as too many shots turned out soft. I don’t think I focused wrong on so many shots, and I used apertures of f/8, f/11, and f/16 most of the time, so I should have had plenty of depth of field. It’s not so evident at blog size, but if you look at any of the photos at full size you’ll see that softness. Unfortunately I burned my last roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros for these results.

Zionsville house

The a-four’s viewfinder isn’t precise. When I made this photo every bit of that arch was visible in the viewfinder.

Oak Hill

The camera is roughly the same size as a compact SLR like the Pentax ME or the Olympus OM-1, but is much lighter. The shutter button is awkwardly placed, but after a few shots you get used to it. The winding knob is this camera’s big usability disappointment. It’s too close to the body to really grab it, so to wind it on you make a whole bunch of short turns with just your fingertips. Mine turns stiffly, as though it could rip through the film sprockets.

Flowers

When I finished the roll and started to rewind, the film immediately tore. I’d been meaning to buy a dark bag anyway, so I bought one, put the camera in, spooled the film into a black 35mm film can, and sent the film to Dwayne’s. They processed it no problem.

Oak Hill

The lens is also prone to flare when the sun isn’t behind you. Or perhaps the lens is dirty. This a-four was on display in my home for nearly a decade and who knows how much grease and dust landed on the lens over the eyars. A swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, applied gently, would have been a good idea before I shot this camera. I regret not at least checking its condition.

John Hume

The shutter’s 1/200 top speed makes it challenging to shoot fast films on sunny days. I shot Tri-X 400 in this thing once and even on a cloudy day my external meter wanted exposures this camera can’t give. I shot everything at smallest aperture and fastest shutter (f/16 and 1/200 sec), relying on Tri-X’s famous exposure latitude to cover. Pro tip: use films of no more than ISO 200 in this camera.

Pleasant Hill Cemetery

The argus a-four was Argus’s answer to Kodak’s Pony, and unfortunately the Pony bests it slightly in every way. Its shutter is slightly faster, its lens is (in my experience) sharper and less prone to flare, and it’s a little easier to use.

Durango

Yet the whole roll through, I felt good when I brought this a-four to my eye. It connected me with my photographic beginnings and that just felt great.

Mail stop

To see more from this camera, check out my Argus a-four gallery.

I’m going to move on from the argus a-four, however. I’ll never shoot it again. Yet my first a-four introduced me to photography’s possibilities, and for that reason this camera has a special place in my heart. I reserve the right to change my mind.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta SR-T 101

State Theater

My Minolta SR-T 101 is from the first year or so of its 1966-75 manufacturing run, making it about as old as I am. It was a mighty advanced kit five decades ago and remains a competent machine today. I hope the same can be said about me.

Minolta SR-T-101

Before its turn in Operation Thin the Herd I’d shot this SR-T but once, and I was impressed with the sharpness, bokeh, and color its 50mm f/1.7 lens gave me on workaday Fujicolor 200 film. Really impressed. Wowed, even. Yet on that first outing I didn’t enjoy how heavy and clunky it felt.

Squirrel

This was the first old-school all-mechanical SLR I’d ever shot. My prior SLR experience was a Minolta X-700, an Olympus OM-1, and Pentaxes K1000 and ME. All of them were far more agile in my hand, even the K1000, which was closest in size and spirit to the SR-T.

Since then, however, I’ve experienced two dozen more SLRs, including early ones like the Pentax H3 and beasts like the Nikon F2. These experiences put the SR-T in proper perspective and let me use it with greater confidence and competence. On this outing, with Ferrania P30 Alpha loaded, it felt satisfying in my hands.

Distillery

When I put a battery in (an alkaline 625 cell), the meter needle jumped up and down, never settling in any light. My heart sank. I was so looking forward to trying this camera but I wasn’t willing to invest in sending it out for repair first. I know, I know, I can shoot Sunny 16 or use an external meter. But daggone it, onboard metering just makes an SLR so much more pleasant to use!

First Source

I asked about it on a forum I follow. One fellow suggested I remove the bottom plate (easy, just a couple screws) and make sure the wire was well connected to the battery compartment. I did, it was, and I figured I was out of luck. But when I screwed everything back together the meter gave consistent readings! Happy day! It read about a stop under, however. I set camera ISO to compensate for the meter’s underexposure and got to shooting.

Steps

I brought the SR-T along on a day trip to South Bend, my hometown. I haven’t spent much time there since my parents moved away four years ago, and I miss the place. Or at least I thought I missed the place. As I wandered downtown’s streets I encountered entirely too many men just hanging out on corners with nothing to do. Several of them approached me. I’m sure they would have eventually hit me up for money, but really, they mostly seemed bored and looking for human connection. I’d never experienced anything like it before in South Bend and it made me sad for the city’s current state.

No parking

I’m disappointed in how the P30 Alpha performed on this full-sun day. Images were so high contrast that subjects stood in full silhouette. Fortunately, in Photoshop I was able to coax out some shadow detail and tone down the highlights. Only a few photos couldn’t be made usable.

Jefferson Blvd. bridge from Howard Park

I didn’t think it through when I chose P30 Alpha. Testing old cameras is best done with forgiving films, which is one reason I shoot a lot of Fujicolor 200. That stuff can take a lot of abuse in exposure, processing, and scanning, and still return usable images. The P30 Alpha needs more careful handling in exposure and, especially, processing. My lab admitted that they did a lot of P30 when it was first released, but my roll was the first one they’d seen in a while. Perhaps they’ve lost the touch.

St. Joe River

But just check out the detail in texture in the St. Joe River above as it makes its way past the Jefferson St. bridge and the di Suvero sculpture. That lens’s excellent characteristics came through! And it did solid documentary work as I photographed this building that’s part of South Bend’s outstanding farmer’s market. Memo to other towns: study South Bend’s market and replicate it.

Farmer's Market

To see more from this camera, check out my Minolta SR-T 101 gallery.

This camera operates well within the typical mechanical-manual SLR idiom. I’m fluent in the idiom, and so in operation everything fell right to my hand. With a CLA that includes a calibration of the meter, this camera would be stellar.

Yet I’m not keeping it. I’ve already decided that I’m going to focus my SLR collection on Pentaxes and Nikons. If I get rid of none of those bodies I will still own a ridiculous number of SLRs, more than I can use. For an SLR from another manufacturer to stay in the collection, it has to have strong sentimental value or be head and shoulders better in some way than my best Nikons or Pentaxes. This SR-T 101 is very good. But it doesn’t clear that bar.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon TLb

Hudsonly

It doesn’t surprise me one bit that the one Canon SLR I like is the most mechanical, most metal one of my bunch. It’s also typical of me to like the simplicity of entry-level gear, which the TLb certainly was upon its 1974 introduction. Its 1/500 sec. top shutter speed is the tell. More expensive cameras go to 1/1000 sec.; top-tier cameras to at least 1/2000 sec.

Canon TLb

On earlier TLb outings the 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C. lens that came with it delivered creamy results on consumer color film like Kodak Gold 200, as here:

Allied Van Lines

Not one to mess with success, I loaded more Kodak Gold 200 for this outing. This time, however, I exposed it at EI 100. I like Kodak Gold 200, but sometimes its highly saturated colors are a little much. Exposing at EI 100 softened them beautifully.

Super Bird

Something is wrong with my 50/1.8 lens — when I adjust its aperture, the viewfinder dims or brightens. This doesn’t happen with other FD-mount lenses I own, so the mechanism that keeps this lens wide open for composing is broken. It made for some frustration on this full-sun day, as shooting at f/11 or f/16 made for a dim view. I took to composing at f/1.8 and then setting aperture and shutter speed as I wanted.

Mustang dash

You have to set both aperture and shutter speed yourself on the match-needle TLb. Even though I prefer aperture-priority shooting for its ease and speed, I never felt frustrated or hindered setting exposure on the TLb. It does what every good camera does: performed well and got the heck out of my way.

Another dashboard

To begin this TLb outing I met my buddy Jim at a cars-and-coffee gathering. I met Jim through writing for Curbside Classic, the site for old parked cars. He lives across town. He brought his little red Miata out for the occasion,

Buddy and his car

We spent the most time lingering over a lovely blue 1972 Lincoln Continental. Here’s my favorite photo of it, with a Mustang reflected in the paint.

Mustang reflected

Jim knows his Lincolns: his dad owned a few during Jim’s childhood. Here’s a story of Jim, his dad, and a ’72 Mark IV.

Continental

The event was at a dealer of classic cars, and of course they invited us inside to see their inventory. I bumped the camera up to EI 200 to get more depth of field.

Camaro light

The TLb functioned well and was a pleasure to use. Yes, I said it: a pleasure. You might know that I haven’t been a giant fan of Canon SLRs, but this metal, mechanical camera feels and works great.

bloom

I shot two rolls with the TLb, finishing up the second roll on some usual subjects around Fishers, where I work. I’m so impressed with how this lens rendered color and bokeh. This 50/1.8 FD S.C. should be optically the same as the later 50/1.8 Canon FD lens I shot on my Canon AE-1 Program, but I like the results this older lens returned much, much better. If I were going to keep my Canon gear, I’d invest in another one of these FD S.C. lenses.

McD's

To see more from this camera, check out my Canon TLb gallery.

I guess I’ve tipped my hat: this camera is not long for my collection. I made the choice easily, with my head: I’m planning on using my Pentax and Nikon SLRs going forward, meaning this TLb will get little or no use. It deserves a new owner. But my heart aches a little, because this camera is such a gem. I use a simple heuristic when judging a camera: if the rest of my cameras vanished, could I just get on with making great images with the one that remained, and be happy? The answer for this TLb is hell yes.

Verdict: Goodbye

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