Old cameras fail. Fortunately, some skilled repairers remain. The meter in my Pentax Spotmatic F failed, so I sent the body to Eric Hendrickson for a new meter. It came back recently so I ran some Ultrafine Extreme 400 through it as a test.
Our granddaughter was over on a recent Sunday morning and was a good sport as I photographed her eating her breakfast.
Here she is with her grandma, my wife, Margaret.
I shot the rest of the roll on la-de-da subjects around the house.
I shot these through my 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens, and developed the film in HC-110, Dilution B.
My Olympus OM-1’s meter wasn’t reading right anymore, either, so I sent it to John Hermanson for an overhaul and repair. I’ll test it and share photos when I get it back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ellison Brewery is a two-minute walk from my Downtown Indianapolis office and makes for a nice, colorful subject.
I made this photo inside my company’s offices with no flash. The VR35 K12 handled this available-light situation just fine.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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