Sunday, January 17, 2010

Canon Photura: Now There's an Idea!

I work in marketing. Have for more than two decades. Whenever a client or boss presented a clinker idea during a meeting, we'd all nod and say, "Now there's an idea!" We didn't say it was a GOOD idea; just an idea. Usually a bad one.

Back in 1990, the Canon camera company had a brave idea. "Let's redefine the shape of how 35mm cameras are made. Why should we be constrained to the architecture of a mid-1950-s camera layouts? I mean, who says cameras can't be shaped along more functional lines? It's the 1990's for gosh sakes!" To increase sales of high-end point-and-shoot cameras, and to further Canon's lead in consumer's minds as being the undisputed, most technically advanced leader in camera technology (they had just released the wildly popular EOS 650 auto focus SLR in 1987), the company unveiled the Photura, a flop so major, it remains solidly ensconced in the "untouchables" caste of collectible camera gear.

The Photura looked like an SLR but it wasn't. It looked solidly built, but it wasn't. It appeared to be the "next thing" in cameras, but it was usually the last camera sold on clearance. It's got so many things wrong with it, designed with the best intentions, that I simply had to have an example for my collection. It's like having an Edsel in your garage along with a Mustang and a Model T. You gotta love the runts of the litter, too.

First off, these things are bigger than a 35mm SLR. It's the Budweiser beer can shape. I suppose the Photura had to be larger because, as the designers opted for a new layout, they probably had to give themselves plenty of internal "wiggle" room to work out all those new locations for apparatus and mechanisms. Their long experience with traditional camera assembly requirements just wouldn't apply.

At the time, most cameras were either black or silver/gray in color. Tradition. Canon opted for this "champagne bronze" color. The paint didn't go too deep. Even a simple scratch gets you down to the dark gray base plastic color. So, um, why not just have made it dark gray, eh?

Next they went over-the-top in their overall plastic construction. Not too surprising. The EOS, "T" and "A" series cameras had established in the photo public's mind that strong, economical plastic coverings could work fine. With the Photura, this devotion to petroleum structures went mad. Again, without much time or experience to tweak the construction, what they ended up with felt more like a cheap transistor radio in your hands and not an optical instrument. It creaks. Just sitting on your shelf, it shifts and pops. The construction did not feel like it came from the same people as the F-1.

You do get this huge wrist strap. So now an overly large camera looked even bigger with this broad handhold which you couldn't remove (not "handy" for gloves in cold weather). Then, there's a neckstrap connected to the rear of the camera body. There's more strappage than camera here.

Its 35-105mm f/2.8-6.6 lens covered a decent, but limited range. A 28mm to 135mm would have been better for scenics to portraits, but that might have increased the length of this guy to make it an even longer looking champagne-colored cigar. The lens has a hinged lens cap that you swing out of the way when you're ready to snap photos. It makes the camera look like the top of the exhaust stack on a Mack truck. The lens cap includes the electronic flash with an absolutely indescribable matched zoom magnification/flash direction fresnel lens system. How clever to tie it all together. When you zoom the lens out, the clear flash lens moves away as well to focus the pulse of light farther out. The word "dopey" suddenly comes to mind once again. Plenty of opportunity to break this stuff off by the average consumer. Yep, that's what's missing on most examples that are still around.

The Photura does nothing manually. Nothing. Everything is motorized. You really don't do anything but point and shoot. The zoom is powered in and out with a loud grinding noise. Guaranteed to get you heard at your kid's once in a lifetime music recital. As with the EOS, focus is done for you by a complex computer system. You take it on faith it hits the right subject. In the viewfinder, you get plenty of nothing. At best, it tells you when you're about to screw up. A green light means go, red means stop. As in stop using the camera.

One good point is how you hold the camera. Score here. You slip your right hand (sorry lefties) into the handstrap and your index finger falls comfortably on the shutter button on top while your other digits rest on a simple fingerhold. Not bad. You need to stretch your index finger rearward to move the zoom lever, but it's not too bad.

But then you try to look through the viewfinder. Pick either eye and your nose rests on the back of the camera. Keep a tissue handy for cleaning. Ew. Again, you don't actually look through the lens, you look through another tiny porthole with a zoomed approximation of what the prime zoom is doing. The face of the camera has more eyes than a tarantula, what with all the lenses for the auto focus system and viewfinder port. I'm no engineer but it would have seemed to have been cheaper to have made this thing a full-fledged SLR.

The back of the camera remains a mystery to me. It features controls that require you to stick your fingernails into small oval-shaped areas to change settings. The small LCD panel provides scant information. Anything shown could have been put in the viewfinder. I suppose they had to fill the space on the back of the camera with something.

Loading the film is the absolute reason you need to have one of these dudes in your collection. Hand a Photura to an old film photographer and ask them to open it up to put in a new roll of Kodacolor. They'll turn the camera all around and eventually get bored. As with the lens, flash, grip and shape, nothing is where you'd expect it to be. Does that sound like one reason sales didn't exactly catch fire with this Canon?

If you persist in looking for the film chamber, look under the camera right next to the tripod socket. The tripod socket. There's a small RED latch marked "Open". It's the only thing red on the body but you'll still miss it. If you can get your fingernail into the very small slot (always with the fingernails with this beast) and move it forward, the whole freakin' bottom of the camera pops open. Scares ya at first. You're supposed to drop in the film and close the door; the Photura does the rest. The problem is, you're not sure at first where the film goes. Instead of a left to right path, your Fujicolor will take a "S" turn to the take-up spool.

While you've got the back open, you can change the battery. It takes a 6V battery that you'll be needing to change quite often, given all the motors you use to get your shots taken. But, if your batteries die while a roll of film is loaded, there's a separate battery door on the film door. Doors and straps.

OK, enough. I still like this camera. In a world of conformity and tradition, it stands out. It's like Canon had to get this thing out of their engineering systems. I'll bet they blame the consumer for not "getting it". Using a Photura back in the early 90's must have been the photographic equivalent of getting a snapshop only after solving a Rubic's Cube. The camera is too much trouble to use, even with all the automation. And, it looks weird to use at your kid's baseball game; there, I said it. No one wanted to draw attention to themselves taking a picture. That's why there's only one Photura from Canon. If you're a collector, you gotta get one.

So, Canon, when it comes to your Photura, "now there's an idea!"

I'm 4/3rds of the way old-school

I bought a used Olympus Evolt E-500 DSLR camera kit a couple of years ago. Partly because I wanted to jump into a good digital camera, but mostly because I found out I could still mount vintages lenses to the camera. Wow. For a guy with a rather sizable investment in old lenses, that was a huge, huge plus. Now I could have the best of both worlds: digital capture and the ability to keep playing with well-made old optics.

I have some very fine Olympus Zuiko lenses: 24mm f/2.8, 28mm f/3.5, 35mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.8 Shift, 50mm macro, 135mm f/2.8, 200mm f/5, and two Olympus zooms: a 35-70mm and the quite common 70-150mm. All very nice, compact lenses. I also own a couple of off-brand lenses: a Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm zoom and a Tokina 500mm f/8 mirror. I have used all the lenses with my collection of OM cameras. The Olympus brand is one of my favorites as they are/were quite compact and easy on the shoulder to take along.

The old OM lenses don't mount directly on the digital Olympus' 4/3 autofocus mount. The mounts are close, in fact I've mounted OM lens caps on the Evolt by mistake more than once. The body of the Evolt is not as thick as an OM film camera as well. What's needed is a transitional mount; something that provides the spacing distance and the appropriate coupling for the two lens systems.

You can get one of these adapters for around $20 (plus shipping) on eBay. Olympus makes a very well-made version themselves but charges about five times as much. Since I'm doing this for occasional play and not professionally, I opted for the less expensive generic version. It is designed to allow completely normal lens focusing from close-ups to infinity just like when used on a film camera.

You need to know right now that things are done very manually to shoot images. The lens will not have an automatic diaphragm. You focus with the lens wide open and then close the iris down to the shooting aperture required or desired. That means the camera must be set on aperture-preferred or manual operation. Mostly, I just use aperture-preferred.  The camera selects the shutter speed as I dial the aperture open and closed. Obviously, focus is manual, these are manual lenses. Duh.

Now for the fun. The general sequence is to mount the OM lens on the adapter first and then mount both on the Evolt. This is done as it's harder to grip the small adapter ring and remove it on the body. Since the Evolt uses the 4/3 system sensor, the magnification of any vintage OM lens is doubled. A 24mm becomes a 48mm. A 135mm becomes a 270mm. And here's the fun one; a old 500mm mirror becomes a whopping 1000mm telephoto (that's a 20x magnification on a 35mm camera!) at the same aperture (a 1000mm f/8). Way cool.

So that's the combination I've been playing with. Since the aperture is fixed on the mirror lens, I don't have to do anything but focus and shoot. Um, but first I have to mount everything on a tripod. At twenty-power, camera shake, even minute vibrations, is terrific.

How's the image quality? Who cares? You're lucky if it's only lousy. It's the effect you're going for. At f/8, you get a small sliver of "sharp" image to move back and forth. This lens really only shines at sharpness set at infinity. Landscape, mountain range image stuff.

I have read and seen a lot discussed about lens "Bokeh" a Japanese word used to describe the quality of out-of-focus areas produced in a photo. Smooth Bokeh is most desired. With a cheap mirror lens, save yourself the translations. You get out of focus doughnuts. Light, fuzzy, unnatural looking doughnuts everywhere. You either love 'em or hate 'em. Most people hate 'em, they did when film was king, too. I think they're funky enough to be fun. In the words of Homer Simpson, "Doughnuts, is there anything they can't do?"

Check out the doughnuts going on in this next image of some pine needles. Nothing's sharp, not even the doughnuts. But if you know that, you can choose your subjects better. I wouldn't do a High School portrait this way, but light glittering off snow or a summer's day at the lake might yield some soft-focus images of a gentle nature. And, um, thankfully Photoshop has that fabulous unsharp mask function to clean everything up a bit.

The focus screens on modern digital DLSRs, particularly this Olympus model don't make using lens magnifications this high easy. The Evolt E-500 is always like looking down an optical tunnel. My OM-1 has a viewfinder on order of 100x better and brighter (rant ended). As the camera leaves everything up to the auto focus system, if you do choose to shoot old-school, the focus screen is about the same as those offered years ago without the fresnel or split-image focus aides we took for granted. Guess your best, shoot a bunch and chimp images right away for sharpness.

Why no focus help in the viewfinder nowadays? Most lenses, zooms,  are way slower in transmitting light than years ago. Anything slower than f/4.5 and the split-screens aides wouldn't work. The zooms we use today are glacially slow compared to the common f/2.8 and f/2.0 lens of film cameras. But with dial-in ISO values in digital cameras now going over 100,000 (yes, that's right) who needs to worry about having fast lenses? OK, my rant is done.

But for the cost of a $100 Olympus mount mirror lens from the 1980's, you can get SERIOUS telephoto reach. Honestly, very few people have a consistent use for this kind of magnification. Going this route saves easily a thousand dollars (or more) over buying a modern digital optic at this power.

I have shot with other Zuiko lenses, particularly the 50mm macro lens. Results have been far, far better. I'll be doing a kinda unscientific shoot-out with the other old lenses I have in springtime. I'll post the results.

The new Olympus EP-1 and 2 have the ability to add old OM lenses on them, as well as other mount types. At least that's the rumor about upcoming adapters. If so, that opens up millions of perfectly fine old lenses to a new life as digital gadget items. I'm fine with that. Part of the attraction of photography from the beginning for many of us was the fantastic variety of tools and techniques to explore.

Sony, Nikon and Canon all can mount auto focus film camera lenses (with some limitations). As far as I know, only Olympus can mount and use the old manual focus stuff. Let's hope this is the start of a wider trend of recycling vintage lenses back into service with the latest digital stuff.

In the meantime, I'll be enjoying my doughnuts.