Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Canon F-1: I Find My Valentine

OK, I used to sell cameras back in the late 1970's. Paid my way through college. I worked in this drug store in my small(ish) hometown in the upper-Midwest. The drug store was more of a wonderous Turkish Bazaar marketplace than a counter where you got your medications. We sold everything and anything that anyone wanted. Loved working there, great memories.

Our camera department rivaled camera stores in major cities. We sold photo equipment across several states and were the destination for hundreds of die-hard photo fans. If you wanted an Instamatic or a Leica, we had it in stock and at a good price.

While sales were slow, usually before closing time, I got the opportunity to fondle equipment from almost every brand. I thought of this as my product knowledge time, but really it was just playing.

A couple of cameras were the first to get their springs wound and shutters released. I liked the sound of a Konica SLR's shutter. Had a crisp sound that actually seemed to convey a sense of confidence in your choice of their stuff. Then I'd play with the Olympus stuff. Still like the compactness and generous viewfinder images of OM series equipment.

I left the Leicas completely alone as people who bought that kind of equipment - doctors and such affluent types - had a strong desire to own cameras untouched and unobtainable by simple folk, including sales clerks at camera stores. You could look, but don't touch unless you were selling one.

My hands ended up holding a Canon F-1 most of the time. It was the professional camera response to the big Nikons back in the day. Nikon always had the market on swagger and overbuilt brass cameras. Owned it. Canon had some innovative new ideas for pros. The Canon FTB could not match what pros wanted from Canon. Their response was to build the F-1, a rock-solid instrument with an integrated system of accessories.

They started by putting the light meter in the camera body, not the finder. Go look at old Nikon F Ftn finders and you'll see just how big a prism could be (and weigh). Even with the Nikon F2, the successor to the F during the Canon F-1's reign, Nikon just didn't get it. Those Nikon F2 finders were huge, too. Pros learned to live with the extra weight and size, maybe they even liked the "big boy" look of them, who knows?

Canon then spend considerable time and resources to improve their lens line. The result were optics that were as good or better than Nikon's. Still, the folks at Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) held Canon back from universal acceptance by the professionals of the world. That all changed when the revolutionary Canon EOS autofocus systems arrived. That's another story.

I loved those F-1s. Wanted one, badly. But they required far too much cash from a college student's camera counter commissions. I had credits and books to pay for.

Today, Valentine's Day, I sold a camera from a listing on Craig's List in another town. I had some extra time after the sale before I drove home, so I stopped in one of my favorite used camera haunts. Saw a beaten-up old Canon F-1 for $100. Just sitting there. Ignored. People scurried about next to me, fretting about which of the cookie-cutter black digital cameras would be the best to buy.

I asked the clerk if I could see the F-1. He lifted the body off the glass shelf from the counter in front of me, blew off some dust (thank you for helping to keep the flu season alive, sir) and handed it to me. Suddenly I was back in 1979. It felt . . . perfect. Closing time is coming up soon and I'm a kid playing with stuff I couldn't afford.

This example had just enough brass showing through the paint to let you know this guy was used by a pro to keep bread on the table. Not too many scratches or gouges to let you know they cared for this when they owned it. The meter worked fine, no wrinkles on the shutter blades and the view in the finder was sharp and clear. Sold.

I knew I had a 50mm FD-mount Canon lens at home; I did the deal and walked out. So it's Valentine's Day and I'm in love all over again. The years show on both the camera and me, but in my eyes, the F-1 is still young and good-looking.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vivitar 20mm f/3.8: A really wide-angle

Back in the late 1970's and early 80's, if you wanted a lens with a wider angle of view than, say 24mm, you had to look to the original equipment manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Olympus and such. Only they had the technical ability and financial resources to provide such lenses. Most people did not require such lenses, so the main audience was with the professional photographers. Since they earned money from providing new and exciting images, the cost of buying expensive lenses could be justified.

Vivitar Corporation was not a manufacturer but a re-brander of other manufacturer's equipment. Vivitar's people would spec a product and then shop the orient for someone to build the product. Sound familiar with what goes on today? Same thing.

The good folk at Vivitar knew that hobbyists love all things new and denied to them. A really wide-angle lens that was affordable was something lacking in the general market. Never mind how sharp it was, what people wanted was just the ability to get the whole Grand Canyon in one shot.

The result in this case was a fabulous 20mm f/3.8 optic. Much wider than a 28mm or 24mm lens (things get geometrically wider with a couple millimeter's drop) and priced at only $81 out of a New York City camera store in 1976! That's over a $300 optic in today's money (still not bad).

As you can see, the lens is not compact. That front end takes 82mm filters and forget about a lens shade. The OEMs could hone the optical formulas to produce the same angle of view lenses without the bulk. Vivitar opted for economy, hence the bulk of glass to bend the light.

I love this lens for a variety of reasons, but mostly for its ability to focus down from infinity to under 6 inches. Super wide-angle view with close-up abilities. Wow. That's what photography used to be about; happy hobbyists exploring the world around them with fresh perspectives.

I got this guy for less than $50 at an ailing camera store. It was a Minolta MC/MD mount type, not suited for any Maxxum or Sony autofocus camera use. I guess manual focus  = bad, autofocus = good. Whatever, all the better for me and my collecting mania.

This well-built lens is going on my Minolta XD-11 with some fresh Kodak film inside. Maybe I'll post a few examples soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kodak Retinette IA: is this how I look?

As a collector, the thought sometimes hits you, "what was I doing in the year in which this camera was manufactured?" Kind of a perspective thing. You try to place how things where in order to gain insights on how people might have used the camera. For me, a Kodak Retinette IA camera's time period would correspond with me in diapers. Ouch. Thanks for reminding myself how old I am. Good job, Jim.

That revelation aside, the late 1950's were a golden age for camera gear. All the Japanese, German and American makers were happy supplying newly rich post-war consumers with just about anything they could throw at them. Soon the withering of brands in the coming turbulent decade would wipe out many venerable names or see them sold to vaporous holding companies.

This was a good time for Kodak. Unscathed by WWII, they built up their lead in their homeland and basked in brisk sales. The Retina lines of cameras were the upper-end of the amateur market. Made by Nagel in Germany starting back in 1939 or so, the Retinas were class-act cameras, usually overpriced for the typical US family. Rather than cheapen the name Retina, they gave it a renewed sales lilt with a downward engineering emphasis on features and a new brand name: Retinette. A junior Retina.

They were great little cameras. The lenses were not as big or as fast, the guts were not as complicated with additional features. But they took fantastic photos, and were offered to consumers well within the price limits of thrifty American shoppers.

If you can find a Retinette, you'll first be surprised at the highly reflective finish on the body even after 50-years. Secondly, they feel very good in your hand. German leather from these days is different from Japanese leather. How? Um, smoother. The Japanese seem to have preferred a roughened surface for better grip, the Germans liked embossures of logos and a more gentle, velvet touch.

The major draw-back to Kodak Retinas is the Compur shutter they used. Over time, they just die. It's like they have a maximum number of clicks to go before they break. By contrast, Seikos and Copal shutters on most Japanese cameras fare much better. I'm no expert, but when I look at vintage German cameras, I tend expect two common occurrences: the shutter will be slow or not work; and/or the shutter's self-timer will not work or have helped to jam the shutter.

One last thing about 1950's cameras like the Retinette, more are in good shape than comparably-priced cameras from later decades. Why? People were very good about keeping the camera protected in its big leather case. Remember, the war had just passed and these good folk had survived a depression, too. They know how to take care of something that set them back a month's wages. No credit cards in those days, you paid cash from money you saved.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Olympus 35mm f/2.8 Shift Lens: Do One Thing Well

Before Photoshop, if an image captured on film needed to be corrected, you had two options: fix it in the darkroom or shoot it correctly right away. The darkroom offered many tools to alter images but had many limitations, too. Photographers usually opted to remove doing work later by doing things right first.

One common challenge was shooting architectural assignments where there would be perspective control problems. As you stood in front of a building and shot photos, you would get unappealing convergences of lines that would show up as a distortion of the true state of the structure. Sure, in the darkroom you could easily tilt the easel with it's photo paper under the enlarger to correct for a tall building looking like it was falling over. But in doing that process, you could also converge the edges of your photo so that the borders would creep into your usable image area.

View camera users had an ample 4 x 5-inch negative area and a flexible bellows between the film plane and lens board to twist an image around to precisely place areas of focus and correct any image distortions. The 35mm types of cameras generally did not offer this ability. Most major camera manufacturers, including Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax and Olympus (and others) offered a few specialty lenses to emulate a few view camera abilities. These lenses carried designations such as PC (perspective correcting) or, more commonly, shift lenses.

I happened recently to find an example of an Olympus OM-series 35mm f/2.8 shift lens at a local camera store (we still have one in my town). The clerk assumed that since the lens had no digital abilities, it was therefore useless and let it go to me for $50.

Back in the day, say about 1979, this lens would have fetched about $290 to take home. Not too bad for an Olympus Zuiko lens? That's around $1,100 dollars in 2010 money. I did the math. Yeah, you better have had a real need for one of these lenses. Most people obviously didn't and sales of these lenses could be regarded as occasional. 

Other manufacturers, particularly Nikon, had several versions of shift lenses. All shift lenses were usually wide-angle types, as most of the uses that anyone could conjure up for owning one would be used for taking snaps of buildings. Telephotos aren't much use for that purpose, and the effect of distortion control is lost on such lenses, too.

This lens is a really fine piece of optical-mechanical engineering. You can shift the whole front portion of the lens in two directions, even at once. Typically, you only need to correct for distortion in one direction. The ability to go in either direction had more to do with whether you shot vertically or horizontally than with combined effects. This shift lens does not need some kind of mechanical stop or knob to prevent the front element group from sliding around as you correct for distortions. Olympus engineers somehow made sure enough pressure would be available to keep the lens in place no matter which angle you pointed in.

All lenses cast a "circle of confusion" image area toward the film (or sensor nowadays). It's a circular area of even light distribution and equal optical sharpness. This lens had to be designed to throw a larger area of illumination so you could move the front elements around and not have a "vignetting" or darkening of the edges on your film.

The lens differed from the rest of the OM series of optics as you have to manually close the iris to meter and make sure it was closed to the shooting f/stop before you hit the shutter release. As the lens moves about in its shifting abilities, there was no way for a mechanical link to be able to connect to the exposure system. A large push-lever under the lens does this for you.

I haven't shot with this lens yet. I'm certain it will be as sharp as its other cousins in the Olympus line. As for now, I can do the same thing in a moment or so in Photoshop. Time marches on.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A little Honey(well) of a camera: Dacora Dignette

A classified ad listed two vintage cameras for sale for a very low price. I opened the photo of the two and saw a Honeywell Electric Eye 35R (really a Mamiya EE) rangefinder and a Heiland Premiere. The first camera dates from around the early 1960's, while the little Premiere a bit earlier.

After meeting the owner, I was told that both cameras belonged to his father, a Honeywell employee. His dad picked both of them up at the company store in St. Paul, MN. We had a nice chat by our vehicles. A short one, as most conversations in sub-zero weather normally are. My examination of the cameras was only momentary. At home, I cleaned and inspected my new finds.

The Mamiya is nice, it's the camera that I thought I most wanted as I had not heard of a Heiland Premiere. But I found that the more I handled each, the Premiere was fast becoming a more comfortable instrument in my hands. I had no idea about this camera, and, ta-da, the internet provided some insights.

Turns our the Heiland Premiere was really a Dacora Dignette; a direct viewfinder camera made by the Dacora-Kamerawork in Reutlingen, Germany. Teutonic sounding enough for you, eh? From other readings, it appears the Dacora was one of those many "me-to" camera manufacturers destined to die-out as the Japanese photo juggernaut gained speed. Too bad, it's really not a bad little shooter.

Even fifty years later, the leather is good and the metal surfaces are still smooth and shiny.  You set everything with the camera: focus, shutter speed and lens opening. Without a meter or rangefinder, it's guess your best at everything.

The lens is a 45mm f/2.8 Cassel from Steinheil Munchen. No idea yet if it's any good, I'll have to finish the roll inside someday. It's hard to see, but the lens is a tiny button of a thing, about the size of your thumb. Actually, the whole camera is very compact and can easily fit in your pocket. Given that miniature form factor, it's good that the shutter release is on the front bezel of the camera. A much better, more natural spot for your fingers. Top shutter speed is 1/250th of a second. You only get speeds down to 1/30th and then the "B" setting. No matter. This is obviously a camera made for shooting outdoors in bright Bavarian sunshine.

The only main detraction in use is the viewfinder. Unless you actually press your eyeball on the finder's glass itself, you can't get close enough to compose within the whole frame. I guess the intention was just to center everything and snap away.

I really like the Dignette. There are few things as elegantly simple as this instrument. There isn't a wasted millimeter or feature on the unit. Perhaps in its day it may not have had the added design styling as more expensive versions or of those from other manufacturers. Somehow, the Dignette appears almost modern in its looks. No, take a gander at it. Without the wind lever, you could almost, almost pass this thing off for an older digital camera (if such a thing exists).

Oddly enough, I keep the Dignette close by my desk. Like a metalic stress ball, I wind and snap it during my periods of contemplation. The also-ran of my dual camera purchase has become a favorite to me. It's a Honey(well) of a find.