Monday, December 7, 2009

Contax IIa for $12.99: who cares?

My heart still flutters when I think about my luck.

I have this regular goat trail I make through local thrift stores, antique shops and pawn shops to look for vintage film cameras. Pickin's  have been mighty slim lately due to the economy and the general disinterest by merchants to do anything with film cameras.

So I walk into one of my typical haunts around lunchtime. On top of a glass case used to protect broken old costume jewelry appears to be a clutch of leather camera cases. Now, if you're a camera collector, you know that (in most cases) a black case probably holds a Japanese camera, a brownish case is usually something from Europe. (German leather camera cases have a particular deeper brown hue that is unmistakable.) Older American cases have a reddish-brown coloration; kind of the Kodachrome color equivalent of leather.

There were three brown, one red and three black camera cases. After a drought of looking for several weeks for something to collect in the small upper-Midwest town where I live, I hit the jackpot.

Each case contained a camera I didn't have: a Kodak Signet 80; Voigtlander CLR; German-made Argus V-100; Yashica Electro 35 GSN; Konica Autoreflex T; a Mamiya-Sekor 500 DTL (eh, not so whipped-up about that one) and . . . a Contax IIa in the original case with a German filter and a lens cap! The price for the IIa? $12.99. My guess is that some family member must have disposed of the whole shootin' match at once as just so much old junk, once they couldn't find the little TV screens on the back of each. Likewise, the thrift store only wanted it out the door to make room for digital stuff.

I literally scooped up all my little metal friends in my arms, forgoing to leave them for a second to fetch a shopping cart or basket. I stumbled to the check-out counter with leather straps draping all over my arms. The seven cameras cost me less than $70. Ten bucks apiece. I would have been happy to have bought just the Contax for that amount -- or more.


My collection does not contain many truly rare or historically important cameras. Until now. The IIa is my crown-jewel. This is a camera from a maker on par in the day with the vaunted Leica. This is the camera from which all Nikon rangefinder designs sprang. It's like finding a Rolls-Royce at a flea-market under a velvet painting of Elvis.

It's a beaut, too. Sixty years-old and it still feels good in the hands. It's still tight and taut in its fittings and movements. OK, I'll say it, "They don't build them like they used to." It's true and I feel better.

As a "black-dial" version (the numbers on the shutter speed dial), it probably dates from the early 1950's. The instrument is in great shape. The leather is perfect, the shutter sounds quiet and stable. Typically, the rangefinder is accurate but the golden image in the viewfinder does not match up vertically with the main view. Off a weee bit. From what I have read, that's a common maladjustment generated from time and gravity.

The only significant problem with the mechanics of the camera comes from some abrasions across the top rear of the camera in the chrome. Somebody removed a Social Security Number engraving in a less than delicate way. Brillo pad maybe. Shows the brass underneath. Looks better than my description. Eh, I'll take it as the camera will never leave my possession and I'm not into this for future value. Collecting is (mostly) a one-way ride for me.

Mechanically, I guess CLA'ing a Contax of this era is fairly easy, but requires experience. I've found more than a few shops willing to do the work. One dedicated shop appears to be outstanding. The cost is from $100 - 250. Added to my initial investment of thirteen-bucks, I'm still ahead and will own a refurbished unit. Um, that's how collectors can justify these kind of expenses.

The 50mm f/2.0 Sonnar is reputed to be one of the finest primes made. It is heavy and all glass and brass. You can almost imagine the technician squinting through a loupe while they assembled it by hand. Probably had schnitzel for lunch. I'll be running some film through the camera soon to find out how it stacks up against modern poly-plastic optics.

But who cares?

Here's the conclusion. I happened to visit my local camera store (yes, we still have one; yes, Best Buy and Wal-Mart are doing their corporate best to kill it) shortly after buying the Magnificent Seven. I know the young clerk pretty well. I describe my find of the precious Contax to him with glowing words and excited tones. I expected him to appreciate the rarity and value of my find. He didn't. He had no idea what the poot I was talking about. Who cares about stuff like that. (Well, me.) To him, the Contax, or whatever, thing must have been old and dirty and should be recycled into something more contemporary, more useful, like the internal parts of a new Canon EOS-1.

I understood his modern perceptions and choked-back my righteous indignation. Instead I said, "Well, if your customers ever want to trade-in old cameras you're not interested in, here's my card. Let 'em know I would be happy to make an offer" At $12.99 at a pop.

Contax 137MD: Sometimes beauty isn't only skin deep!

Quite often, I can pick up a vintage film camera going for sale cheap because the owner thinks there's a problem with it that either doesn't really exist or can be easily fixed. Little things like a stuck self-timer, won't work because of unfamiliar operation needs by the user or  mirror lock-up due to a dead battery. Easily fixed stuff.


I found this very nice Contax 137MD camera with a couple of new-looking Yashica ML zoom lenses and a Contax TLA20 flash unit going for way less than $100. To me, a deal. Now, most film cameras go for nothing in these digital days, but a Contax at a great value is something collectors like me snap up fast.  Up until that moment, I didn't collect Contaxes. Now I'm on my way.

Mechanically, the camera was perfect. Just about as good as the day it was made. It's just that the leather (or "skin") on the body looked awful. That's purely a condition relating to the choice of a new synthetic material by Contax/Yashica in the 1970's. Instead of animal leather, they found a soft, spongy covering that had a wonderful grip and feel -- when it was new. Turns out, this covering deteriorated quite nastily over time, leaving a somewhat runny, sticky mess. Ew!

The owner loved the camera and reported on how much it cost him when new. He just couldn't stand using it in public because it appeared so shabby.

So what? A sawbuck spent at cameraleather.com and an afternoon of happy fiddling on my part will restore the Contax to it's previous glory. A classic camera and some time spent on my hobby. Life's good.

But since vintage film cameras have absolutely no value (other than for collecting) nowadays, I'll never sell it. It'll proudly sit alongside the other photographic instruments in my collection. I may opt to re-color the Contax in some other color than black. I fancy bright red for now. Since I fully intend to run some film through the camera, I may just want to break out of the current trend of strutting about dangling an all-black cookie-cutter looking DSLR and go for an old-school shout in the eye with wild colored coverings on something made during the Carter Administration.If I'm shooting with the 137 for fun, I may as well as have fun using it.

Than again, I kind of like that bad-boy look to the Contax right now. Perhaps I'm more concerned about how it looks and not how it works. Hmm, after all, beauty is only skin deep, eh?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sedic XF33 110 Instamatic: Sedic who?

I inherited this camera from my late brother years ago. The camera store where I worked got a "deal" with the distribution company who represented Sedic light meters. Seems Sedic decided to get into the camera business and chose the (then) popular 110 Instamatic film format for their first foray into the equipment world. As I remember, these suckers were not inexpensive; Sedic assumed their good name (almost unknown in North America) was worth the extra buck or two. Boy, were they wrong.

The Sedic XF33 shown here was one of several models they offered. As usual, the line was arranged along price-points for consumers. The XF33 as I remember was somewhere at the top of the line. It seems to me there were a few underneath this model and maybe one or two above. No matter. With an unknown brand name, these cameras soon found themselves in the wire basket of clearance stuff near the checkout counter. They languished for some time until my brother came along.

My brother took to this camera as it had a certain high-tech look and it allowed the addition of an add-on motor winder. That was something to have in a camera during the late 1970's. The whir of a motor winder was usually only heard on far more expensive 35mm cameras of the day. What he really liked is that it provided a much better grip for him to hold the camera. I told him that for under $5 I could get him a tripod socked grip. Nope, the motor winder was just too cool to pass up.

After a dozen or so rolls of Instamatic film through the XF33, my brother noticed that the photos produced by the camera's "Color-Balanced Lens" (aren't they all?) were not so hot, or at least no better than our father's older Kodak Instamatic 50 camera. He found out that how a camera looks and how it shoots are two different things. On top of that, setting the zone focus never matched where he happened to be standing. Soon the Sedic ended up in a drawer until it was given to me.

When presented with the Sedic, I wanted to just quickly donate it. But I kept the camera out of respect for my late brother. He loved it, though he didn't use it. Except to click off the motor winder from time to time.

And the hotshoe. Let's not forget the hotshoe. Most other 110's used Flipflash or MagiCubes. Very few offered the same interface as a "real" SLR camera. The trouble was, the hotshoe was on the side of the camera. Any flash of the day weighed about a pound. It was destined that either the flash's plastic foot or the hotshoe itself would lose-out to gravity. And no one wanted to bounce their Vivitar's flash sideways instead of the usual upward. Bit of a design error there.

I certainly had no interest in collecting a camera series from a company that didn't have either the kind of construction quality that was high enough to admire or the funky coolness of any of those lovable photo doggies out there like a Lomo or a Spartus.

Actually, the longer I have this camera, the more I like it. Sure, it's got more chrome on it than an old Chrysler, yeah the leather is flying off it daily. Worst of all, you've got to unhook the motor winder just to load another cartridge into the camera. It just looks, so . . . Disco era. Not really a camera looking camera, more like a some old sci-fi show pistol. I guess I'm drawn to the weird.

Whatever. There's room in the collection for examples of the also-rans as well as the classics. Sedic may have come and gone but I've got one piece of someone's marketing dream to prove they once existed. Excuse me, I've got to go and put some fresh AA's in the Sedic's winder now.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Petri Cameras; Bet you can collect just one!

Petri cameras are suddenly bountiful for collecting lately. Lots of models of their rangefinders and SLRs are to be found on auction sites. Which is odd for me, since you could hardly find a new model to buy back in the day. Anywhere. Petri cameras were never known for their build quality, advanced engineering, optical sharpness or even their good looks.

Back in the early 1960's, Petri had a couple of, um, competent cameras, particularly the 7S Circle-Eye 35mm rangefinder. It had a pretty good lens, reasonable fit and finish, and a fairly reliable shutter. It was an OK camera for a few years between the Kennedy and Johnson administration years. That's about it.

The company doggedly tried to stay in the world-wide 35mm SLR market, but they were always behind in features and styling. You could call them the American Motors of the Japanese camera manufacturers. All they made were Pacers and Gremlins.

By the early 1970's Petri cameras were hopelessly out of date in their technology. They couldn't keep up with the emerging electronic substructures to cameras. Without a base of rabid fans for something unique about these manual cameras (like lens quality for instance) the company finally collapsed on lack of innovation about 1977. It's had to feel too sad about that. These cameras are not great image-making tools.

Instead of using an existing lens mount for their SLR's line of interchangeable lenses, they opted for their own design. Always a fatal marketing flaw. Perhaps if they went with the universal screw-thread mount, they could have fared better for a bit longer. As it is, I've found a scant few lenses out there. I've got one 35mm lens for my Petri. The build quality is rough. That's the word. Rough. Optical quality was supposed to be OK. I haven't tested it yet.

I have a Petri Flex as my sole example of the brand in my collection. There is so little information about these cameras out there that I would have to guess that it comes from the mid-1960's. That's based on features and the looks of the unit. But that's just a guess. I'll keep looking.

This camera is an all-star Petri. The chrome finish is a bit crude (too shiny). The leather coverings are good, but they don't look like any other camera's leather. Kind of a discount leather. The controls are in odd places and come complete with odd shapes. The shutter release is on the main body in the front, not on the top like 99% of all cameras. An Alpa this isn't. This location required extra engineering to do. Why? No idea, there's no extra benefit and it's actually uncomfortable in this position. Maybe they did it just to be different. Score one for them on that count. When the shutter goes off, it sounds like the camera is in pain. You can tell there's lots of empty space in the body to resonate the shutter's noise.

I'll leave comments about styling alone. Except to say that Petri SLRs were a mash of many German and Japanese-looking exterior design features. And not any of the good ones.

Taken all together, a Petri SLR is a goofy instrument. Maybe that's why I love it. I've taken it out into the sunshine a couple of times to shoot some photos. People squint and look puzzled. It's like driving around in a Studebaker. Not an old car anyone would really want to spend money on, but they can appreciate your taking care of something weird.

Whatever, you sure can find oodles of Petri rangefinders and SLRs for sale out there these days. Most of what people bought of this brand has been junked. The failure rate on new Petris was very high years ago. What's left seems to be the cream of the crop, as it were.

Don't be fooled. Go ahead and collect Petris if you like funky-looking Japanese cameras. As an investment object, the brass inside of them is worth more in scrap than the potential collecting value. Accessories like lenses and general doo-dads are very rare in North America. We just didn't like this brand of camera when it was in its prime. I guess some things do get better with age.

Still, everyone should have at least one Petri in their collection. It helps to highlight how truly well built Nikons, Canons, Minoltas and other cameras were, and are. But keep it at one camera. You won't be sorry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rollei A110: A camera and a story

It seems that with every new old camera I buy, there's a side story. That's something I really like about collecting vintage cameras. It's one of the best aspects of the hobby to me.

Recently, I found a for-sale listing on our local craigslist.com site for a Rollei A110 camera in great shape. The price was only $20! A super deal. You don't see these cameras very often, and when you do, some collector thinks it's a junior Leica worth far too much. I collect for fun, not for investment opportunity.

I expected the camera to be a bit worn or abused at this low price. Had to be. But a Rollei for a sawbuck was hard to pass up. The owner was located in a nearby city. After a brief phone call to set a time and get directions, I set off to fetch this beautiful little "instamatic".

The owner had me meet him at his house on a busy, tree-lined residential street. He met me at the curb with a broad smile and invited me in to look over the Rollei. Very nice guy.

He brought out the camera housed in an old plastic bread bag. "Oh, boy, this could be bad," I thought. Instead, inside was a pristine example of a German-made Rollei A110 camera complete with a MagiCube flash adapter. Wow. Beautiful. These cameras were a high-quality alternative to the mainly disposable offerings by other manufacturers of Kodak 110 Instamatic film format cameras.

Rollei A110 CameraEverything about this camera is, I don't know, plush, over the top. The Rollei has a silken-smooth paint finish on its metal body that feels more automotive than camera like. It has a unique, complex and wonderful film advance mechanism whereby you pull on both ends of the camera apart and then push back in to cock the shutter and move on to the next exposure. It even makes a gear-whizzing noise as you push-pull on the camera. Cool. Very creative engineering and a mechanical marvel in miniature construction. The lens quality was reputed to be one of the finest ever placed in front of a cruddy 110 film cartridge. Too bad the film back in the day wasn't as good as it is now.

Needless to say, I fell all over myself handing over the twenty-dollar bill. With business concluded, the owner began to tell me how he came to own the camera. We sat on his porch and I listened to him while the hot mid-summer sun hit zenith.

He purchased the camera back in the '70's after he got a job at a Boy Scout camp in the Southwest. He wanted to have the smallest, lightest camera possible to take quality photos. He chose the Rollei A110 because it fit perfectly in a certain pocket in his backpack. It was also the "sexiest" camera he'd ever seen. Still was as far as he was concerned. The camera set him back a substantial sum for a young man, but he clearly loved owning it.

As the job's wages were not large, he couldn't really afford to take many snapshots with the camera. The shots he did take were saved for spectacular vistas or the singular moment with his fellow campers and co-workers. He captured a collection of great memories on every roll. I know, I saw them.

But, it was time to lighten up all the stuff he owned these days. No more 110 film is available and his digital camera takes better snaps. Time to sell. He was happy he sold the camera to me, someone who would appreciate it and take good care of it. We shook hands and I left.

For $20 I got a real gem for my collection. I was also treated to the personal memories of how the camera was used by its photographer. In my mind, that ups the value of this camera to nearly priceless.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Old off-brand lenses worth it? Sometimes.

Back in the bad old days, we photo people had a certain snobbery regarding our 35mm SLR equipment. If you bought Nikon, it was assumed you'd buy their lenses as well. Why contaminate a great body with an off-brand lens?

Cost. An old mechanical Nikon F body could set you back the modern equivalent of over $1,500 or so. A kind of HD TV of its day. Just to take photos, you'd need a few lenses of various focal lengths. A Nikkor would, again, set you back about $1,000 each in current change. Great lenses, no doubt, but you paid for those extra few lines of resolution.

If you were an amateur, you'd opt for one of the many off-brand lenses from Japan. In the US, we never saw much of European off-brands as their distribution companies tended to only offer the major lines of makers and promote their lenses only. There were a few noticeable exceptions, like Novo-Flex, but really, those lenses were too funky or expensive to be considered.

In the '60's and '70's, the big non-names were Soligor, Kiron, Tokina, Tamron, Sigma, and (everyone's favorite) Vivitar. The selection was amazing and the quality quite varied a bit, too. Which was not good. In anyone's line, there were optical stars and glass dogs.

There were a number of other lens makers on the market as well: Sun, Cambron, Kalimar, Aetna, Asanuma, Spiratone, Star-D, etc., but they were definitely second-tier suppliers. You could actually tell that by looking at them. Yeesh.

There were dozens and dozens of lenses created under contract by a handful of lens-makers with new names merely added on at the end. Add to that the many house brands from Sears, JCPenny, K-Mart and others and you had a staggering number of crappy lenses from which to choose. And people bought 'em. If it came down to having a 85-210mm zoom or not, many folk opted for at least the opportunity to magnify a shot by 4X with a Sears. I mean, if you're only using your SLR to shoot a few rolls a year, why opt for a pricey lens?

The photo magazines of the day were kept quite busy trying to uncover the diamonds from the slag. By the late '70's, many bad lens makers were beginning to fade as production costs rose. The good companies left in Japan had to start sub-contracting production to less expensive countries such as Korea and Taiwan. China was still an off-limits Communist regime (not like now, eh?). Many of these lenses were on par with their former Japanese counterparts. They looked the same and worked identically.

Time has proven the good brands out. The crappy lenses have mostly been recycled or discarded by their owners. You'll find them tossed in with a deal on a vintage camera at a pawn shop, flea market or online auction offering. I never have the heart to just toss out an old Zykkor or Prinz zoom; I just sneak them into the bag going back to the thrift store. Maybe someone will love it.

Which lenses to look for? Sigma, Tamron and Tokina in the '70's were not as well made as they are today. They were at the lower end of the off-brand layer.

In those days, it was Vivitar that reigned. It was "OK" to have one of their zooms, particularly their top-0f-the-line Series 1 types hanging off your Canon F-1. Vivitar, like most other brands, offered lenses with mounts specific to the maker, you could buy about any lens of theirs in Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and other mounts.

They even had trans-gender mounts so you could switch the same lens between your Canon and Nikon camera. Tamron was the king of this at the time with their Adapt-All mount.

I still have a Vivitar 28-200mm zoom for my older Canon F-series collection. It's huge, it doesn't focus that close and it puts a strain on the lens mount when used on a tripod. Who cares? One lens for just about any casual shooting. I love it.

Vivitar also made a 20mm f/3.8 wide-angle with an ENORMOUS front filter ring. 82mm! It was one of the first off-brand wide-angles down in that range. It was significantly less expensive than a "real" lens from a big maker. It just took some getting used to seeing that huge front element and retaining ring.

Usually made by Kiron for Vivitar, that lens delivered great results with the bonus of a very close-focus distance (like an inch or two). Yes, Vivitar, the off-brand, used other makers to make their lenses. They even used a US company to produce a few types (I think the early mirror lenses). I don't recall seeing many of these 20mm lenses in the day as most amateurs wanted lenses in the telephoto range.

Soligor was also one of my favorites. A wide range of types were offered in just about anyone's lens mount. The optics were quite good but the construction was a bit on the flimsy side. So what? If you cared for it normally, it would last forever. Most have. But against the snobbiness of the legendary Nikkor durability, Soligors appeared delicate. Soligor also had some real hidden star lenses. They made this fabulous 200m f/2.8 telephoto that was hundreds of dollars less than a Canon or Nikon that produced very good images. If you find one, nab it.

When it comes to complementing your vintage SLR collection with some lenses, don't overlook older off-brand types. They help to truly represent how older cameras were used by the vast majority of people. I've even heard of some people who collect these older lenses as a stand alone collection. Lenses, too can have mechanical and optical milestones to celebrate.

Choosing an in-house brand such as an Olympus Zuiko or a Konica Hexanon for your camera will never be a wrong move. But there are a few optical gems out there with the name Vivitar or Sigma on them. Go with your gut. If it feels well-built and does not have the name of a major retailer on the filter ring, go with it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

So long eBay, hello Goodwill

I've been a member of eBay just about as long as it's been around. For a camera collector, it has been a great site to view vintage stuff and get a good idea regarding value and availability of specific brands or models. Going from searching local antique stores or pawn shops for older cameras suddenly became a waste of time with the tremendous variety of items suddenly available on the online auction site at any time, day or night. I was able to purchase cameras from the comfort of my home that I would never see in local haunts. Fabulous.

In the beginning, eBay was an open-city type location. It was a bit wild and wonderful. Fun, too. As with anything in capitalism, the higher the risk, the greater the reward. True, transactions could be a bit hinky from time to time early on, but mostly people were easy to do business with. We all built up our ratings by really trying to be the best sellers and buyers we could be. But there are always a few people with other intentions. As in anything. You took the good with the bad.

Paying for items was always the most delicate step. To their credit, eBay did a good job of trying to steer people clear of known trouble-makers or risky exchanges of money. Where once we could simply send in a personal check and wait until it cleared, suddenly PayPal appeared and became the transaction choice for many sellers. Didn't like that concept from the start, but as an available payment method for the nervous seller, it seemed appropriate, safer.

Then came the recession.

Like many other Americans, I've paid off my credit cards and have earnestly begun saving my money. Those wonderful credit card folk who brought us 30+% interest rates and numerous hidden fees made doing this a huge priority for me, and many others.

Whoops! Now PayPal is off-limits. And along with that, eBay. No more charging means no more surfing. Cash is king in our home (for now). Since eBay no longer will even let us transact with certified check, no more buying on eBay. Period. Light on, light off. I've even deleted the bookmark in my browser.

So where does a fella go for a vintage camera fix? Where online can you view junky, clunky, funky old cameras and still buy with cash? www.shopgoodwill.com. That's right, those good folk at Goodwill must have found out that selling vintage cameras at their local stores didn't make them as near enough money as listing them on a nation-wide auction site. That's good for us collectors.

Shopgoodwill.com is like an early eBay. The fun is back. Goofy stuff at reasonable prices, and you can pay sometimes by personal check! It's clearly not as polished a site as eBay, but who cares if you can slake your vintage camera collection bug with an occasional buy without whipping out the credit card.

I suggest you visit their site today. You'll find some great deals and you'll be doing a truly good deed by underwriting this very fine non-profit organization. So get a good deal and feel a good deal better by supporting www.shopgoodwill.com.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When in doubt, buy the second one?

I was passing through a local thrift store after dropping off some donations. I saw a beautiful Kodak Signet 35 35mm film camera on the shelf. The leather case was in tatters, but the camera was nearly perfect. The shutter worked, the rangefinder was bright and accurate. As my wife shopped for potential treasures on her part, I continued to evaluate the camera. Took the back off and practically disassembled the Signet right there. Fabulous. Great little camera that I could actually use to expose some film. Fun on the way. But then, I already had a Signet35. Right? Or did I?

The camera was marked at under $8. A real steal. Then again, with the world gone madly digital, you can find almost any film camera under a sawbuck. But, again, I was convinced I already had an example of this fine Rochester NY-made unit from the 50's. They're so plentiful on eBay, why it's one of the first Kodak 35's people can collect with ease. Why would I need two of the same model? I put it back on the shelf with a heavy sigh joined my wife.

At home, sure enough, I checked my inventory. Yep, I only thought I had that model of camera. Just goes to show that if you can't remember if you have a particular model, you've probably got too many cameras in the collection. Some problems are the good kind.

The next morning, I went back to the thrift store, and of course, the camera had been snapped up by a lucky camera buff. Let's hope it brought them film-based joy.

The lesson for me is that I'm comfortable that I had the discipline to not buy what I thought was a duplicate unit. Then again, at $8, what was I thinking? No, no. There are other Signets out there. There's no rush to complete my collection or blow through even small amounts of money without a good reason.

But, um, now I carry a mini version of my collection's spreadsheet on my phone. Just in case.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nikkormats: The Forgotten Nikons

If you limit yourself to collecting professional-grade Nikon 35mm cameras from the 1960's, the good news is that you'll only have a few models to find. It's true. In that decade, Nikon really only released two main models: the Nikon F and the Nikkormat FT. Let's not count the goofy Nikkorex series for now.

The Nikon F was the much lauded professional camera, evolved from the company's excellent rangefinder cameras of the 1950's. It was once the undisputed king of 35's. Introduced in 1959, the F was upgraded several times to compensate for its two major short-comings: no through-the-lens metering and no film motor drive ability. The basic body stayed the same while new prism finders and custom-fit motor adapations were introduced.

The F was a very expensive camera in its day, going easily for over $400 per body. That'd be about two grand a pop in today's dollars. News services ordered them for their shooters by the hundreds all the time.

Even as successful as that camera was, Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) decided it needed to produce a less expensive camera for advanced amateurs and pro-wannabees. This way more people could take advantage of Nikon's wonderful selection of exceptional quality (and expensive) lenses without breaking the bank on just a camera body and a normal lens. Brand extension for more profit. No problem with that.

Enter in 1965 the Nikkormat FT (or Nikormat in Japan). Positioned as a transition camera to what you should really own (that big ol' F), this camera was a brick of solid brass construction. Fit and finish is exceptional even forty or more years later.

In reality, the FT was still too expensive for most people, which was just fine with the folks at Nippon Kogaku. This helped preserve the well-earned brand image of Nikon as the preeminent 35mm camera builder. You could strut about with a Nikkormat around your neck in much the same way Lexus drivers imagine we're all admiring their choice in fine automobiles. Didn't matter if all you shot were photos of Christmas and the occasional birthday party. You were in. You were happenin'.

SIDE NOTE: Nikon also made an attempt at a cheap camera during this period with the name Nikkorex (made by other camera manufacturers). But that camera series did more harm than good for Nikon's image. Those bodies were oddly shaped and not very well finished. Break-downs were frequent and inexcusable. Nikon wasn't going to make that mistake again. The Nikkormats were made in-house by Nikon to Nikon's OCD specs. That's why I treat the Nikkorex as a separate, hybrid camera model to collect. Collector snubbing.

The original Nikkormat FT veered off-course with its more expensive parent, the F, in several features, all improvements over the Nikon F. The shutter speed settings were made by turning a ring on the lens mount, exactly like an Olympus OM series camera. While not as convenient a placement for this control as on the top-plate for photo-journalist trying to get a shot in the line of fire, it was very appropriate for the day-shooter who would typically settle on one speed and leave it alone. Yeah, and the little prong sticking out to help you rotate the shutter speed dial often interfered with a tripod mounting plate, but wow, it was convenient to your finders.

The viewing pentaprism was fixed to the body, where on the F you could exchange theses pieces of glass for several other viewing options. What you gained on the Nikkormat was through-the-lens metering in a compact (for a Nikon) format. This was something that the F struggled with for 0ver 10 years.

Even better, there was a small meter window built into the camera body on the top-plate where you could determine the proper exposure level without looking through the camera! This was ideal for situations such as microscopic photography, slide-copying and use with telescope. Very handy.

Most beneficial was the swing-open back to the Nikkormat. On the F, you had to remove the whole camera back to load film, a throw-back to the early Nikon rangefinders. You needed three hands to hold the camera body, the back and load film. Unbelievable. A huge negative everyone just put up with. On the Nikkormat FT, you only needed the usual number of hands to load film. A huge advantage.

In 1967 the Nikkormat FTn became available. This differed only in the metering pattern and some improvement in the linkage with the aperture indexing required when changing lenses. (You had to attach a lens when it was set at f/5.6 and then ratchet the lens opening collar back and forth to set the minimum aperture with the camera - yeah, it was crude.)

By 1972, Nikon took the FTn build and created an aperture-preferred automatic version, the Nikkormat EL. Fabulous. Heavy build, lots of new features. The camera had mirror lock-up and a much better metering system. You really can't appreciate this camera until you hold one. The precursor to the Nikon FE, this camera is solid. Whether that translates into better photos doesn't matter, you had confidence that this machine would take abuse and keep working.

The early electronics system of the EL demanded a lot of power. EL's are well-known battery eaters. So much power was needed that the typical button-batteries were too small. A larger battery was required. With few empty spaces available, Nikon engineers opted to place the battery under the mirror in a secret compartment. Hence a double reason for that mirror lock-up feature.

The Nikkormat ELW (1976) came around soon after which offered a screw-on motor winder accessory, something the professional Nikon F and the Nikon F2 couldn't do. If you find an ELW with a winder, get it. Better yet, get two. The weight of one of these suckers on your shoulder can hobble you. Balance all that weight with another on your other shoulder. Load the camera with Kodacolor and install the forty billion AA batteries in the winder. When you hit the shutter, you won't find a louder, slower film winder. Il's like starting a Ford F-150 at forty below zero. It is sooooo cool. It's like shouting, "Yeah! I just took your photo, so whaddya gonna do 'bout it?"

By 1977, the Nikkormat EL(W) evolved into a full-fledged Nikon EL2 with the new AI lens mounting. End of the line for the Nikkormat automatic.

The Nikkormat FT2 (1975) and FT3 (1977) models offered improvements to the aperture linkage, a built-in hot shoe for flash attachment and (with the FT3) full Nikon AI aperture compatibility. But these models, as fine as they are, are just incremental improvements to the venerable FT from the Johnson Administration years.

Collecting The Nikkormats
They're going cheap. Cheaper than their wonderful, rugged construction should go for. Some FT's go for not much more than $20. But, for the collector, that's good news.

The late model FT2 and FT3 are much harder to come by and do fetch higher prices. Theses models also seem to all be in better shape. The FT2 only lasted a couple of years, it's probably more desireable of any model. The FT3 suffered the fate of being offered the same year as the much better Nikon FM. Same price for a smaller camera with motor-drive capability. End of the line.

Nikkormats will usually work or not: 100% failure or 100% service. Meters can be the weak link on the FT and FTn, ditto on the EL. Shutters seem to be the most dependable part of a Nikkormat, with only the typical sluggish lower speeds cropping up.

Don't worry if the model you're looking at has a few bumps and dents. Even grisly amounts of wear. That won't matter with camera function and some battle damage adds to the photo-journalist allure to the cameras. It's like owning a one-eyed alley cat.

Suggested Nikkormat Models to Collect:
As I've said, there are only a few available. Get a FT and FTn, FT2 and FT3, an EL and ELW and you're really done. Six cameras.

US GI's stationed in Japan would bring home the Nikormat (one "k") models. They are the same as the imported Nikkormat versions, but that might be something you could look for to distinguish your collection slightly.

Friday, July 3, 2009

One Good Screw (Thread) Deserves Another

Film cameras that used the old 42mm screw-thread for interchanging lenses always seem to languish at the bottom of collector's hearts. These brands and models seem to be the forever also-rans of cameras, fit only for the unaware collector or unfocused bargain-hunter. For those of us over age 40, cameras that used this mount were generally seen as the cheap alternative to "real" pro cameras that used the more complex bayonet mount (Nikon, Minolta, etc.). Your aunt might fiddle with an old Fujica or Praktica camera, but a serious photographer? Never. Such ego.

Pentax is regarded as the spiritual originator of the mount, even though the German company, Praktica, really was the daddy. Since the mount was just a screw-thread and not really something you could patent easily, the people at Pentax, being savvy marketers, touted that they any other camera manufacturer or lens builder could use "their" mount without copyright infringement or royalty. We came to call it the Pentax mount in the US. In any event, the screw-thread mount (M42) was very successful, with may Asian and European makers offering a wide range of camera models by the late-1960's. You could find M42 lenses in any camera shop, some at real bargains. The mount came to be as the "universal screw-thread" for good reason, they were widely and wildly, popular.

The 42mm screw-thread mount was a paragon of simplicity. Easy to machine into metal, hardy in service and boringly reliable, the mount was a favorite of off-brand lens makers such as Soligor, Vivitar, Tokina and others because it was the least expensive type to manufacture. The only apparatus required might have been a stop-down pin on the inside of the thread. This would push in and close the diaphragm as the shutter was released.

The mount did have its fatal shortcomings. The screw mount was fine in the days when people carried around a separate light-meter to determine exposure and transferred the settings to the camera. Once cameras evolved internal light metering capabilities, the M42 mount couldn't handle the extra linkages between the f-stop and camera body. And after electronic and autofocus cameras came around, the M42 mount was hopelessly antiquated by the early 1980's. Pentax updated the mount to a universal bayonet mount (K-mount) and offered some exceptional models, but even that proved too late as autofocus systems, such as Canon's EOS cameras snapped up market share.

Still, a few cameras exist that every collector should probably have on their shelf, if not right up front. The most obvious is the Pentax Spotmatic. This was the high-water mark for the M42 mount. Sure, there were some stunning trys such as the Pentax ES, Fujica ST901 and others. These offered shutter-speed priority automation. Quite a stretch for the old mount and some mount inconsistencies cropped up between manufacturers. So much for the universal mount.

The Spotmatic had a great silky feel to the body, controls were basic but located where most hands would expect to find them. The Spotmatics were the first to offer an internal meter which measured the light coming through the lens and not from a meter on the body somewhere pointing hopefully to the same spot. The 1/1000th shutter speed for the cloth shutter was speedy in its day and endeared the camera to sport photographers.

A Spotmatic (plain or the "F" model) is a really well-built device. Kudos to the Pentax people from the 21st-century. You can find Spotmatics nearly anywhere from online auctions to your local thrift store. Millions of these suckers were made, and I'll bet more than half are still serviceable. But the thing that people bought Spotmatics for were the Pentax lenses. They were spectacular. With multi-coatings and a careful manufacturing process, Pentax lenses were on par with the best Leica, Nikon and Canon had to offer. The build of the lenses was first-rate. Not many lenses focused with the smoothness or snap of a Super Multi-Coated Takumar, Pentax's brand-name for its lenses. Pentax offered a staggering variety of lenses from fish-eye to super-telephoto. Many were among the fastest on the market.

Alas, because of that universal mount, most people bought the Spotmatic body and outfitted it with a cheaper Soligor or other off-brand lens. Too bad. If you can find a Pentax lens from this era today, it's kinda rare. The only people who seemed to buy the real brand back then were military types, universities and other public institutions. As such, these examples are well-worn and usually adorned with deeply scribed inventory markings.

I have a Pentax 135mm f/3.5 and a 35mm f/3.5 (very slow for its day). These are early examples, made during the prime years of Pentax's domination of the sub-pro camera market in the late 1960's. I've shot a roll of film through them and have found the results nostagic and pleasing. The physical size of these lenses is even smaller than my Olympus OM Zuikos, yet they still fall into your fingers naturally. But the build! Wow, it's satisfying just to sit around and focus them. The screw-thread is still slower to couple and uncouple, which is why many pros of the day shied away from the mount.

The usual comparison to "how bad things are made now-a-days" fits. It would be nearly impossible to offer lenses of this careful manufacturing in today's world. You can feel the brass and glass weight in them. Forty years later and they still work wonderfully.

So, I've gone from not really being a screw-thread camera collector to someone actively seeking a few more examples. Pentax lenses that is. I know there must be a few more out there. That's the way with Pentax, they were never anyone's true first-choice builder. They had to grow on you. Well, I'm hooked. Time to clear some space on the shelf and prepare to get screwed again.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Roll with it

In June of 2009, Kodak announced that Kodachrome film will be discontinued. After a 74-year run, the undisputed king of color film will be gone. Negative films will continue for some time, but without this venerable slide film, silver-based photography takes one more step into memory.

Behind the headlines, know that offering Kodachrome was always a love-hate effort for Big Yellow in Rochester, NY. The film offered unsurpassed color and sharpness, but it came at the cost of a very complex, finicky processing system that involved chemistry that make everyone involved a bit nervous. The company's E-6 process film alternative, Ektachrome, never had the beautiful golden hues when viewed and couldn't match the image stability over time; but it is a far easier, less expensive film to process. Fuji uses this processing system to develop their line of slide films, too. Ektachrome and Fuji slide films will continue for a bit, but they're not the same as Kodachrome.

What Does This Mean for Camera Collectors?
At the most basic level, you should probably grab a couple rolls of Kodachrome off the shelf now, before the eBay types run up the value beyond retail. Displaying a few rolls of film of the type your film cameras used adds a colorful touch on the shelf from the mostly chrome and black cameras.

I plan to buy a few rolls of Kodachrome and shoot them through representative samples of my old 35mm film cameras. Maybe one will go through my 1966 Nikon F, another into my beloved 1976 Minolta XE-7. And just to close the book on film, I'll shoot one in my 2005 Canon EOS Elan 7, one of the last film cameras produced. In this way, I'll have undigitized evidence of the potential sharpness of the film and lenses of by-gone days.

Some people actively seek out collecting unexposed film. The draw seems to be more the packaging and not the possibility of using the film. Often, you can identify a whole era by the design of the box; it's lettering and wording.

So, good-bye Kodachrome. I'll miss ya, although I stopped shooting ya years ago. Hmm, perhaps that's at the root of the problem. If you film aficionados want to keep shooting your favorite media, keep buying the product. Otherwise, your collecting future won't come with sprocket holes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How to Start Casual Camera Collecting: Motivation


People collect all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Collecting cameras is no different. It’s important for you to be clear on why you’re going to collect cameras. Partly because of the enormous scope of potential collectible items available, but also to ensure that you’ll be properly positioned to continue collecting in the most pleasurable frame of mind over a longer time.

The impetus to start collecting something, anything, usually falls down along two main lines of reason. Let’s start with the least typical of the two main reasons people collect photographic equipment.

Return on Investment
Sure, you can make money finding and reselling photographic equipment. There are people who do it. It’s not as easy as you might think, though. Hence the reason not that many people go this path for collecting.

Cameras are hugely mass-produced consumer products; they have to be. Even the cream of the crop vintage film or latest digital equipment for professionals must be targeted at an audience large enough to pay for the development, manufacturing and marketing of the product. No one manufactures equipment for a hobby. Well, there are a few craftspeople that will make you a hand-made wood 4x5 view camera, but that number could probably be counted on the tips of both your hands.

Like any product, a camera has an initial purchase price and a future value. The initial purchase price (the in-the-box store price) depends (depended) on the features and quality of the instrument and the number produced. The future value, or used value, is tied to how well the quality of the camera has stood the test of time, the number of cameras still available and a more subtle quality, the “brand” value of the manufacturer. Very subtle stuff.

To be honest, if you’re collecting cameras to flip and turn a profit, particularly with older film cameras, you’re dealing with only a few brand-name companies and a very narrow range of camera bodies and lenses. You’ll more than likely be looking at anything that has the name Leica or E. Leitz on it. These cameras were the first real 35mm film cameras, and they began manufacturing models in Germany before WWII. The Teutonic mystique of this brand, with it’s imagery of hand-crafted quality and obsessive attention to details, keeps collecting cameras from this brand the most expensive, but also most assured bet to be able to sell for more over time. Know that with Leica, you’ll be trading in cameras about 40 to 50-years old. These were the golden days of Leica’s rangefinder equipment. The newer stuff, things from the ‘80’s, is usually constrained to the specially-built, limited production offerings produced for collectors of those days.

Except for a few other types of cameras, Alpas, Nikon rangefinders from the ‘50’s, and Hasselblad medium-format cameras to name a few types, collecting cameras for profit is probably not a very secure investment opportunity based on not a lot of valuable inventory.
One reason for such a select crowd of increasing value photo stuff lies in the meteoric decline of film use, which has lowered the values of ALL cameras over the last few years. And since film cameras are passing into the LP record realm of discarded technology, there are just fewer people using them to justify hoarding the best examples and offering them at a premium.
Then again, if you’re OK with collecting something with the idea that you get about the same amount or slightly more for it once you sell it after enjoying it for a bit; that’s not a bad reason. Just don’t expect to factor it in with your retirement investments.

Personal Enjoyment
Rather obvious, I know. This is where most of us live. Collecting cameras, old or new, is just another, well, hobby. Each of us for our own personal reasons collects cameras because we like it. That’s all, that’s enough. Your reasons to do it are as good as any other and you need never defend it to anyone. Enjoy the collecting and the having; the learning and the sharing. If you find you don’t enjoy collecting any longer, stop. Or start collecting for profit.

Since you won’t be in this camera-collecting mode to make money, you’ll be spending money on it. Lots of it, just like with any absorbing hobby. Know that right now. Budget for it. Pace yourself. Paypal is not your friend.

Seriously, if you don’t establish the rate at which you’ll be collecting early on, you can soon find yourself justifying regular purchases to slake your collecting zeal that begin to impact your “real world” activities. Keep it a hobby and not an obsession. Cameras last many decades after they’re built. You’ve got time on your side for this type of collecting. More on this on some other post.
Once you know you’re in it for the fun, keep it fun. If you get drawn off on another collecting tack, like moving from collecting one brand or type of camera to another, go. As with any collecting, the hunt for an elusive item is often more fun than the kill of actually acquiring it.