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 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? 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. 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