Camera Reviews

Kodak VR35 K12

I don’t know for sure, because I wasn’t there. But I’ll bet that when Kodak introduced its VR35 line of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras in 1986, it was after someone in the Eastman Kodak board room said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Point-and-shoot 35mm cameras had come on the scene, and they were eating into Kodak’s Instamatic business. Kodak turned to Japanese cameramaker Chinon for manufacturing help. Out came a capable, if chunky, line of cameras. The Kodak VR35 K12 was the second best camera in the series.

Kodak VR35 K12

At the top of the line was the VR35 K14, which offered only a date back over the K12. Mike Eckman reviewed that camera at length on his site; see it here. This is a well-specified point-and-shoot camera with a 35mm f/2.8 four-element Tessar-design lens at its centerpiece. You can’t go wrong with a Tessar! It also features auto exposure, infrared auto focus, a popup flash with fill and night modes, and a motor drive. This point-and-shoot ain’t messing around.

Kodak VR35 K12

The lens cover doubles as the flash, and because it opens so wide it separates the flash from the body for better results. It does look strange when open, though.

Kodak VR35 K12

This camera is large, as point-and-shoots go. Its body is about the same size as an SLR, minus the pentaprism. But it’s far lighter than an average SLR. It’s also obviously far less complicated to use: just frame and press the button on the top plate. The camera does the rest.

Kodak VR35 K12

The camera even winds the film for you with its loud winder. Loud winders were typical of the genre in the 35mm point-and-shoot’s early days. The VR35 K12 even does most of the work of loading the film: insert the cartridge and pull the leader across to the yellow mark, close the door, and lift up the lens cover. After a cacophony of whirs and clicks, you’re ready to go. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when the green FILM RUN light blinks. When you reach the end of the roll, the VR35 K12 rewinds the film for you.

The VR35 K12 reads the DX code on your film, but recognizes only films that consumers commonly used in those days: ISO 100, 200, 400, and 1000. If there’s no DX code, or the DX code is for a speed the camera can’t recognize, the camera uses ISO 100. You can’t adjust ISO or exposure.

Autofocus appears to operate in three zones: portrait, group, and landscape. I don’t know what distances those zones represent. Press the shutter button down halfway to focus and the rest of the way to fire the shutter. The camera focuses within the frame marks just above the center of the viewfinder. If your subject is not within those frame marks, place it there and press the shutter button down halfway to focus. Then holding that button down, compose your shot as you want and press the button the rest of the way. Also, in a rare and very nice feature, if the subject is too close the portrait symbol blinks in the viewfinder. I can’t tell you how many point-and-shoot cameras don’t have a feature like this and you are left to guess distance when shooting close.

If you press and hold the shutter button, the camera fires every two seconds.

The flash fires whenever the camera thinks flash is needed, and you can’t turn it off. I found its flash sensor to be pretty decent, only once firing the flash in a situation where I wouldn’t want it. There’s also a manual fill flash feature. When your subject is darker than the background, slide and hold the Fill Flash switch on the camera’s front while you press the shutter button.

The VR35 K12 doesn’t work without a battery. The camera was intended to use Kodak’s proprietary Ultralite battery, which is out of production. Fortunately, it also runs on a standard 9-volt battery. I had one in the fridge that I bought a couple years ago that was still well within its best-by date, but my VR35 K12 didn’t work with it. I bought a fresh battery and all was well.

By the way, if you like compact 35mm point-and-shoot cameras, check out my reviews of the Kodak VR35 K40, the Canon Snappy 50, the Canon AF35ML, the Yashica T2, the Olympus Stylus, the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80, and the Minolta AF-Sv. You can also have a look at every camera I’ve ever reviewed here.

These cameras are meant for consumer color films, but I shot black-and-white in it anyway. I have some 12-exposure rolls of Ultrafine Extreme 400 that I use when I’m not fully sure of a camera’s functioning, because the film was inexpensive and I don’t feel like I’ve lost much if a roll doesn’t work out. I’m not sure why I felt hinky about this camera, but I did. I shouldn’t have worried. Here’s my wife and our granddaughter. Notice how the flash lights the scene evenly, even this close.

Bubbles

A few photos on the roll (that I’m not showing you) suffered from mild camera shake. I found the shutter button sometimes stiff, which probably caused the shake. Here’s an alleyway in Lebanon, Indiana.

As seen in an alleyway

The winder shrieks as it advances frames. That’s typical of point-and-shoots of this era but it sure is a jarring sound. Here’s the fountain in front of the library in Thorntown, Indiana. I developed this film in Ilford ID-11, by the way.

Thorntown Library statue

I kept going with a roll of Fujicolor 200. Check out that slightly blurred background when I focused on these potted flowers. This is about as close as you can get to a subject.

Potted flowers

Ellison Brewery is a two-minute walk from my Downtown Indianapolis office and makes for a nice, colorful subject.

Ellison's

I made this photo inside my company’s offices with no flash. The VR35 K12 handled this available-light situation just fine.

Paper lamp

My ideal walking-around point-and-shoot fits in the palm of my hand. That was so not the VR35 K12. Thankfully, its long strap let me sling it over my shoulder. It’s not heavy to carry. That’s my company’s building behind this Jeep Cherokee, which is always exactly right in this spot.

Cherokee

The lens delivers good sharpness and detail.

Kilroy's

To see more from this camera, check out my Kodak VR35 K12 gallery.

I didn’t love the Kodak VR35 K12. The Kodak VR35 K40 I used to own had a slower lens and was fixed focus, but was a little smaller and easier to hold. I preferred it. Yet the VR35 K12 returned plenty of interesting images for me. In 1986, this camera would have been a great choice. It’s still not a bad choice, especially given that you can buy these for 20 bucks.

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Broken windows

Brick wall, broken windows
Kodak VR35 K12
Ultrafine Extreme 400
Ilford ID-11 stock
2021

The Kodak VR35 K12 (review forthcoming) is a point-and-shoot camera meant for people to use to photograph their families and their vacations, that sort of thing. I used it to photograph the kinds of things I typically do, which is neither families nor vacations.

The viewfinder is inaccurate, off center to the lens, showing more than what the lens actually sees. That makes it challenging to compose a shot and have any idea whether the frame contains what you want. Fortunately, if your scan is large enough you can crop it liberally.

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Film Photography

single frame: Brick wall, broken windows

Broken windows in a Lebanon, IN, alleyway.

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Boone County Courthouse

Boone County Courthouse
Kodak VR35 K12
Ultrafine Extreme 400
Ilford ID-11 Stock

I don’t like Ultrafine Extreme 400. I’ll be glad when I shoot through my stash. No matter what developer I try it in, I get muddy images with unattractive grain that obscures fine details.

The Kodak VR35 K12 I used for this photo was a recent impulse purchase. It’s not a bad camera for what it is, a mid-80s 35mm point-and-shoot. A review is forthcoming.

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Film Photography

single frame: Boone County Courthouse

The courthouse in Lebanon, Indiana, on b/w film.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

A good used car

To help one of our sons launch into independence, we decided to buy him an inexpensive used car. The criteria: Under $3000, four doors, cosmetically and mechanically okay, a couple years of life left in it.

You’d be surprised how many cars at this price are clapped out and beaten up. Darn good thing we weren’t in a hurry, because it took us about a month to find this 2005 Ford Escape. We paid $2600.

Escape

It had nearly new tires on it. They’re some off brand I’ve never heard of, and I’ve already found them to be so-so on wet pavement. I’m sure they went to some tire store and said, “Put on the cheapest tires you’ve got.” Regardless, I was happy to see them when we went to look at this car. These tires probably cost $500, a large percentage of the car’s purchase price.

Tire

I’m not an expert in buying used cars. I did pay for a Carfax report, which revealed just two owners and no accidents. I checked the car for things I know how to check. When I stuck my finger in the tailpipe, it came back grey and sooty, which was good. The oil was dirty, but it wasn’t foamy or low. The belts I could find were old but not dry or cracked. I grabbed the top of each front tire and pulled and pushed hard, looking for loose front-end linkage. They didn’t budge. All the switchgear worked, and there were no lingering idiot lights on the dashboard. The car drove and stopped straight, and had good, smooth power all the way up to highway speeds.

Dashboard

A couple minor issues were evident, however. The headliner is starting to separate from the roof where it meets the windshield. One of the hinges for the hatch glass was broken. I replaced the hinge myself — it’s incredible the car parts you can buy on Amazon and the instructions for repairs you can find on YouTube. I let the headliner go.

XLT

Whenever you buy an inexpensive used car, Murphy dictates that it will need some sort of repair shortly after. So I drove it for a couple weeks to shake it out, to keep our son from having to deal with it. Sure enough, one day I pulled into the parking lot at work and found the oil light to have just come on. My mechanic said that the valve gasket cover was leaking ever so slightly, and that there was a temporary plug in the oil pan, neither of which is great. But he said that for a car this old with this many miles, he wouldn’t invest in those repairs, he’d just drive it like that. He replaced the oil pressure sensor and couldn’t get the oil light to come back on, so we both declared it good.

One headlight

It’s been only in the past few years that I stepped up from driving old cars much like this one. I know very well that after a certain number of miles, you live with some issues that you choose not to fix because the return isn’t worth the investment.

Ford

This Escape has 175,000 miles on it. I remember a time when a car with 100,000 miles was used up. But despite this Escape’s issues, I’ll bet it has at least 25,000 miles left in it — maybe 50,000 with good care and good luck.

I forget which camera I used to make these photos — it was one of my 35mm SLRs, probably with a 50mm prime lens. The film is Ultrafine Extreme 400, which I developed in the last of my LegacyPro L110, in Dilution B.

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Camera Reviews

Pentax ME F

For photographers younger than about 40, it’s probably hard to imagine a time when autofocus cameras didn’t exist. Pentax brought the first one to market in 1981, as the Pentax ME F. They designed an autofocus lens, and modified the chassis of their compact M-series (ME and ME Super) cameras to take it. The focusing motor was built into the lens, and it was dog slow. But it worked, and it showed that autofocus was no longer a pipe dream.

Pentax ME F

Check out that huge honking lens! It’s a 35-70mm f/2.8-22 zoom lens of seven elements in seven groups. It’s a “pumper zoom” — pull it in to zoom in, push it out to zoom out. It needs its own batteries, four AAs, with which this lens weighs a shocking pound and a half. Just the lens! It makes the ME F hopelessly front heavy, negating the small, light body’s advantages. It is so large that when you attach it to the camera, the bottom plate can’t rest squarely on a surface.

Pentax ME F

Here’s a closer look at the lens. An on/off switch is at the bottom front of the lens; strangely, an indicator is green when the lens is off and red when it’s on. Notice the button on the top; there’s one just like it on the side you can’t see in the photo. You press and hold one of those to focus the lens. Even though the focusing motors are in the lens, the focus confirmation system, which tells the lens when it’s locked focus, is inside the ME F. Therefore, this lens autofocuses only on an ME F body.

35-70mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-AF

You can mount any other K-mount lens as well, but you must focus them manually. Fortunately, the ME F’s focus confirmation system works with any lens. When you achieve focus, it lets you know with a green LED in the viewfinder.

Pentax ME F

The ME F is uses a vertical-travel, metal focal plane shutter that operates from 4 to 1/2000 second. It syncs to flash at 1/125 second. Like the ME Super, it offers both aperture-priority autoexposure and a push-button manual mode. To use manual mode, turn the top dial to M, use the aperture dial on the lens to set aperture, and use the two buttons next to the dial to move the shutter speed up and down.

Pentax ME F

You could get the ME F in satin chrome over black, or in all black. I’ve never seen an all-black ME F except in a photograph.

This ME F was an incredibly generous gift to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras. Check eBay for working bodies with the zoom lens included and you’ll see why I wrote incredibly before generous. These are highly collectible and prices reflect it.

Another camera I reviewed with a focus-confirmation system is the Canon AL-1 (here). Also check out my reviews of the Pentax ME (here) and ME Super (here), on which the ME F is based. Or read my reviews of these other Pentax SLRs: the KM (here), the Spotmatic F (here), and the ES II (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

To turn on the ME F, you not only have to turn the main dial to Auto (or M if you want to use manual mode), but you also have to turn on the lens (on the bottom at the front), and focus confirmation using the switch left of the prism. If you want to hear the focus confirmation beep, you need to turn on that switch too, below the focus confirmation switch. Don’t forget to turn them all off when you’re done!

I put a roll of Agfa Vista 200 through this ME F when I got it, and I found the meter’s readings consistently led to heavy underexposure. Thank heavens for Agfa Vista’s wide exposure latitude. Here’s a photo from that roll; it’s typical.

In Stonegate

I was surprised by this misbehavior, as this ME F had been cleaned, lubed, and adjusted just before I got it. The meter should have been spot on. This ME F’s underexposure is a mixed bag; sometimes it was way off as above, and other times it wasn’t so bad, as below.

Meijer

I decided I’d send it to Eric Hendrickson, the premier Pentax repair person, to have the meter calibrated. Before packing it up I decided I’d remove the batteries. The fellow who gave me this ME F told me to read the manual first, because it has some usage quirks. I failed to do that. Naturally, the first quirk involves opening the battery door. It includes an imprint of an arrow and the word OPEN, suggesting you slide the door sideways to pop it open. You do, but only after you press in the black button next to that door to release the door. Idiotically, I tried to force that door open. To my shame, that broke off the tabs it that hold it closed.

I bought a parts ME F body off eBay for its battery door. When it arrived, I noticed that the sticker on the door showed pushing the button in and then sliding the door open. How did I not notice that on the other door? So I looked at it, and saw that its instructions sticker was different: half the text s in Japanese, which I don’t read; the other half is so tiny that even with my reading glasses, I have to squint to see it. But it did tell me exactly what to do. Facepalm. Will I ever get over my deep-seated feeling that to read the instructions is to admit defeat?

Pentax ME F

In replacing the battery door, which involved removing the bottom plate, I lost a tiny spring under the door-release button. I barely touched it and it sprang away, gone in an instant! Without that spring, the button doesn’t work. But I had that spare body, so no worries, right? I got the spring from that body and set it in place — and then accidentally nicked it with my needle-nose pliers and made it vanish, too. I searched my work area for a long time but found neither spring.

After clenching my jaw and muttering a long string of four-letter words, I bought another parts body off eBay — and then lost my nerve for three years. This March I finally screwed together my courage and tried again, this time with success. I finally had an ME F that could hold its batteries! Those batteries, by the way, are four 1.5-volt 357, LR44, or SR44 cells.

Then I reached out to Eric Hendrickson to see if he had time to calibrate my camera’s meter, and he replied that he no longer works on ME Fs. Drat and double drat!

I shot the camera without film inside at EI 400 to find out exactly how the meter was misbehaving. I discovered that most of the time it underexposed by about a stop, but randomly it would read six or seven stops of underexposure. When I switched to EI 200, the camera overexposed by about a stop. I discovered that EI 320 read close to right for ISO 400 film most of the time. So I loaded some Ultrafine Extreme 400 and took the ME F for a long walk.

No outlet

This is the slowest autofocus I’ve ever experienced. I am neither surprised nor disappointed — this is very early autofocus, after all, barely more than a prototype. It had to be clear to Pentax even before they released this camera that this system was not commercially viable. But it worked, and that’s what mattered. The industry could innovate from there to perfect the idea.

Focus under the tree

The ME F focuses at the center of the frame. When you press one of the focus buttons, the lens begins what I’ve come to call The Process: a series of focusing increments until it achieves focus. Snerk, snerk, snerk — the lens turns a little, checks for focus, turns, checks, turns, checks, until it locks onto the subject.

Retention pond

The lens has no way of knowing whether the subject is in front of or behind the starting focus point. It has to just keep doing The Process until the focus confirmation system in the camera body signals that it’s locked on a subject. The lens can change direction only at infinity and at minimum focus distance. Whichever direction it was last going, when you press the focus button, that’s the direction it goes in. If the lens’s current focus direction is outward, but the subject is inside the starting focus point, the lens has to go all the way out to infinity, then reverse and come back to find the subject.

Statue

As you might guess, this autofocus system is not nearly fast enough for moving subjects. Also, it needs pretty strong contrast to be able to see what you want to focus on. It can’t focus on a flat wall, for example. Move the center of the frame to something on the same plane that has that contrast, focus, and then recompose.

A random curbside stove

You can focus this lens manually, too, but there’s no fat, rubberized focusing ring as on a normal Pentax-M lens. You have to twist the bare metal of the narrow outer ring. Twisting it fights the autofocus motors, which whine in protest. But as far as I know it doesn’t damage those motors.

On a couple frames, I focused manually and used focus confirmation to see how it went. The beeper quickly proved to be annoying so I turned it off. The LEDs in the viewfinder worked fine, though. They are a red >, a green o, and a red <. When the green o lights, you’ve achieved focus. The split image patch in the viewfinder worked even better, though.

Fountain

This 35-70mm zoom is a surprising performer, offering good sharpness even at f/2.8 and no distortion that I could detect, even at the wide end. It’s a shame Pentax never made this lens in a non-AF version.

At the end of the roll, the film wouldn’t rewind. The rewind knob turned freely, with none of the familiar resistance of dragging film back into a canister. I removed the film in my dark bag and spooled it into a black film canister until I could develop it. The canister itself wasn’t faulty so it had to be the camera. But good heavens, how could this possibly be broken? I still had one of my parts bodies out, so I compared them. The prong on my good ME F body is too short! How is this even possible?

“Good” ME F
Parts ME F

Now I wonder if this camera was ever used before I received it. Fortunately, it’s easy to get that prong out: hold it fast (such as by wedging in a thin screwdriver) and turn the rewind crank, and it unscrews. I swapped this prong in these two bodies.

To see more from this camera, check out my Pentax ME F gallery.

The Pentax ME F is a historic camera, but its balky and slow autofocus make it not a useful system today. That’s not to say you should turn down a working ME F body if you find one — just attach a manual-focus lens and go to town. It’ll work like an ME Super, a delightful compact camera in its own right.

If I ever find someone who can calibrate its meter, I’ll update this review.

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Camera Reviews

Nikon F-801s

As 35mm SLRs transitioned to autofocus, it took a few iterations before manufacturers settled on the controls we all know. The Nikon F-801s is an early camera in that transition. Also known as the N8008s, and manufactured from 1991 to 1995, it supplanted the F-801/N8008, but added only improved autofocus and a spot-metering mode to the earlier camera. (Read my N8008 review here.)

Nikon F801s

This camera represents Nikon’s second iteration of autofocus cameras. The first was the F-501/N2020, which had a much more square body. The F-801s generation of cameras introduced The Blob as the dominant SLR shape.

Nikon F801s

The F-801s was in Nikon’s semi-professional range, sitting just below the F3 and F4 in the pecking order. As such, it was a robustly built camera, solid and heavy. It also offered a ton of features, including depth-of-field preview, multi-exposure, a two-shot self-timer, matrix or center-weighted metering, programmed autoexposure, and film setting by DX code with manual override from ISO 6 to 6,400. The F-801s’s shutter operates from 30 to 1/8000 second. Finally, three focusing screens are available, including the standard matte Type B screen, as well as a gridded Type E screen and a microprism Type J screen.

Nikon F801s

The F-801s loads the film for you when you insert the cartridge, pull the leader across to the red mark, close the door, and fire the shutter. It winds the film for you, but it doesn’t rewind automatically. If you’re not paying attention to the frame counter, you won’t find out you’re at the end of the roll until you press the shutter button and nothing happens. To rewind, press both buttons atop the camera marked with the red rewind symbol.

The controls were an evolutionary step toward the now-standard mode dial. Press the Mode button and turn the dial to cycle through the modes, which appear in the LCD. There are two program modes, normal (P) and high (PH), which chooses faster shutter speeds to freeze motion. You can also choose dual mode (PD) that chooses normal for focal lengths less than 135mm, and high otherwise. There are also aperture-priority (A), shutter-priority (S), and full manual (M) modes.

If you like auto-everything Nikons, I’ve reviewed several, starting with the similar N8008 (F-801). Also check out the N90s, the N50, the N60, and the N65. You should also check out Nikon’s manual-focus bodies like the F2, F3, FA, and N2000. Or just check out my big list of all the cameras I’ve ever reviewed here.

I loaded four AA batteries into this Nikon F-801s, without which the camera is inert. I mounted my 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor lens and spooled in some Ultrafine eXtreme 400, which I developed in LegacyPro L110, Dilution B. This was my first go with this film. I don’t know why I do this to myself, because when I don’t like the way the images look, I can’t tell whether it’s the film or the camera. I wasn’t thrilled with these images. A few that I shot on a walk around the strip mall near my home turned out best.

BW3

I knew I was going to enjoy using the F-801s because I enjoyed using the N8008 (F-801) I used to own. This is just a solid, competent performer. The autofocus is dog slow by modern standards, but that never bothers me. I almost never photograph things in motion. I have the time to wait.

Drive thru

But something’s wrong with the autofocus on this F-801s. At infinity, it hunts like mad and half the time won’t focus. When it does, the camera usually won’t let you make a photo. An X appears in the viewfinder LCD rather than the solid circle that means everything’s hunky dory. At closer range, the camera often focuses just behind your intended subject.

Do Not Pass

I finished the roll around the house. Trying to figure out what was up with the autofocus, I trained the camera on a drawing my brother made for me many years ago. He’s a talented illustrator; his favorite genre is comic-style art. It’s too bad he doesn’t draw anymore.

Java Jive

Our granddaughter was over for a visit that day. She likes it when we make a bowl of soapy water for her so she can play in it. Notice how the F-801 focused just behind our granddaughter’s head.

Playing in the sink

Disappointed in, but not daunted by, the F-801s’s focusing woes, I decided to try a different lens in case something had gone wrong with my 50/1.8. I thought the lens was unlikely to be at fault, but what the heck. I mounted my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor lens and spooled in some Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. Sadly, the camera continued to whiff focus in just the same ways.

I nosed around the photo forums for tips on what might be wrong. A few others reported this problem, and one fellow said he repaired his by blowing dust off the AF sensor. It’s behind the lens, under the mirror. I tried it, but it didn’t help. Perhaps the AF sensor has just gone bad.

I finished the roll with autofocus turned off. The focusing screen offered no focusing help such as a split image, so I just twisted the focus ring until things looked sharp enough and hoped for the best. It worked out fine.

Lion graffiti

I took the F-801s on a walk around Lions Park in Zionsville. This is where the Little League plays.

From the mound

The 28-80mm lens was a fine choice for this walk and it delivered good sharpness. As for the sign in this photo, Zionsville is a wealthy suburb, and families here have high expectations of their experiences around town.

Remember

Except for its autofocus woes, the F-801s performed well. Its large grip makes it a little awkward in the hand; the F50 I shot recently felt far more balanced.

Ladder

See more photos from this camera in my Nikon F-801s gallery.

This Nikon F-801s was a gift to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, but if you want one, they go for peanuts on eBay all the time. My F-801s’s autofocus problems notwithstanding, these are generally reliable cameras and are a good value in easy SLR shooting. I prefer my Nikon N90s, which replaced the F-801/F-801s and evolved the 35mm SLR’s controls even further toward the configuration that everybody uses today. It feels more luxurious in my hand, and it focuses faster.

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