Friday, April 30, 2010

Praktica Nova IB: Not even the Berlin Wall could stop them

I, like many other photographers, have a Flickr account. I really enjoy seeing all the great images people from around the globe post for viewing. I also belong to many Flickr camera collecting groups; people like myself showing off their goodies.

Seeing all the European collectors and what they chose to feature often exposes me to photo manufacturers who were uncommon in the US years ago. Praktica is one such manufacturer. There are many, many photos of various Praktica cameras on Flickr with captions extolling their rugged construction and reliable operation. So, when I happened to find an example of a Praktica camera at a local antique store, I decided to try one.

Now, mind you this is the experience of one camera model out of dozens the company offered through the years, and I don't know how well the previous owner cared for the instrument, but I gotta say, "what's the big deal here?"

The Hanimex Praktica Nova IB I purchased has one significant reason to exist: it makes even the sickliest of the other European or Japanese cameras in my collection look robust and well-designed. Wow, what a dog.

While it has a shutter speed dial, the speed indicated has no relation to the one you get. Wind and shoot two times in a row and you get two different speeds. Rotate the dial in any direction and you never know what speed it will land on. Now, I know, this is a repair issue. But I have never seen this in any other camera I've owned or known about going back over 30-years.

Everything on this camera is cheap. It's so bad, it was worth buying just to keep finding short-cuts and compromises. The body finish is bad, the controls seem to be machined by high school students. The Selenium meter (hopelessly out of date for 1967, the year this camera was introduced) is hidden behind the front nameplate. So, we know that they knew it was a negative selling point from the get-go. As to the Oreston 50mm normal lens, I'll have to mount the lens on my Spotmatic II to see if that at least it was well made (having my doubts). With its machined focusing and f/stop ring grips, it looks more like a lens for a darkroom enlarger than a camera lens. Plus, you can file your nails on all that exposed metal. Ever heard of rubber grips guys?

So why do Europeans love these East German Prakticas so much? Must be the price when available. Europe has had periods with high VAT taxes on cameras. Perhaps the Prakticas were still a value even when saddled with the extra government charges. I mean, they do LOOK heavy-duty and rugged all right. But if this is an example of 1967 East German camera skills, they had a long way to go. I used to think that we didn't get Prakticas in the 'States because they were a product of a communist nation and we didn't want to trade with such folk for political reasons. (Not like now where we have fully embraced trading with communists as long as we can exploit their workers to fill our super-stores with cheap TVs and socks. I'm kidding and yes, I'm deviating from my point.)

It turns out the main reason is that even the worst Japanese maker, someone like, oh, say, Petri could have made a better shooter than what I've seen in these Prakticas. We may have been saved from countless repair bills and millions of ruined photos.

In fact, the Petriflex I own that died in my hands one day has better build quality than this operational Praktica. It's a toss-up for last place in my collection, a Petri paperweight or the "guess what shutter speed you have now!" Praktica. Well, at least the German tank has a M42 lens I can maybe use for snapshots. The Petri's lens, with its proprietary breech-lock bayonet mount, is now only good for burning ants on the sidewalk on a sunny day. Which still makes it more useful than the Praktica Nova IB.

Minolta XE-7: You never forget your first camera love

I needed a job after high school back in the mid-1970's. At that time, there was a large, successful Midwestern department store chain called Dayton's. It was a very highly regarded place where you could get anything from airline tickets to fine china to a good suit or bath soap. Old-school department store variety. Dayton's eventually died as the family that owned it sold it to new investors, and they in turn sold it to other investors. Now, the same store is a Macy's; a chain we stodgy prairie types are not fond of.

Anyway, among the many departments Dayton's maintained was a camera counter. I got my first real job selling film and processing as the part-time number two clerk at our out-state store. Eventually, I got the chance to sell cameras and lenses. It was the big leagues of camera sales in our town and I loved that job.

Dayton's was very selective about which vendor brands to feature. Their policy with customer service was very liberal and they needed to partner with companies whose products offered reliability and a certain panache that fit in with the store's brand image. Along with other manufacturers, we sold Minolta products; their cameras, lenses and binoculars. Since we a more rurally placed store than the main metro locations, they did not offer the high-end stuff where I worked. You could get Nikons and Leicas from Dayton's, but only from a trip down to the main big-city stores. Minolta would do fine for us hard-scrabble farm types. And they did.

I didn't really need much of a camera in those days, an Instamatic did fine for most occasions. I was a long-haired nineteen-year-old with visions of moving out to the Rocky Mountains someday, man. Then we received a shipment of the (then) new Minolta XE-5 and XE-7 cameras. At first, we could only have a scant few as these popular cameras as they were being rationed among the many other stores. It was a game changing moment in my desire to own a really nice camera. Nothing felt so solid, so smooth, so ,well, sexy as that Minota in your hands.

The XE series of Minolta cameras were developed in conjunction with E. Leitz, the maker of the Leica camera line. Leitz was suffering greatly in those days. Their labor-intensive manual technologies lagged far behind Japanese makers and the prices they charged were far out of line in the days of gas shortages and high mortgage interest rates. It was truly a different time. Leitz selected Minolta to help drive down the cost of their new R3 SLR camera by doing the manufacturing in the orient and not in Europe.

It was a huge win-win for both companies. Minolta got to work with the god-like inventors of the Leica camera and have their quality shine rub off on them. Leitz got access to fabulous mass manufacturing facilities, cutting-edge electronics systems, and to work with a Japanese vendor who still made their own glass (most makers, other than Canon and Nikon, subbed-out their lens glass-making at the time).

The XE-7 had a decidedly European design look, a remarkable new metal shutter, and the fit and finish was far better than the company's long-lived SRT series. It wasn't a Leica in terms of snob appeal, but it was a match in operation and construction.

Oddly enough, what seemed to help sell the camera like hotcakes at our camera counter was a typically overlooked feature on cameras of the day, the film-advance mechanism. With other makers, this function was merely to advance the film to the next frame. Minolta and Leitz made you WANT to advance the film. The action was so smooth and sure, completely unlike other cameras of its day. A Nikon F2 had a stiff, geary feeling to the advance. You knew it would last forever due to it's over-the-top industrial feel. Not so with the XE-7. People surmised that if the simple film advance had so much attention paid to it, well then surely the rest of the camera must have that Leitz attention to detail, too.

I had to have one of these cameras, had to. I remember that the camera body, leather case, Minolta Electroflash 25 and 50mm f/1.4 Rokkor-X lens camera to just about $425. A fortune in those days of $2.35 an hour wages. I applied for and got a Dayton's charge card and made endless payments. Who cared? I owned what I thought was the poor-man's Leica. Which it was.

The lens was superb. Loaded with Kodachrome, what you got back had excellent resolution, contrast and color. Even snapshots looked better. I made Kodak a lot of money buying film the summer of 1976,

Minolta always favored their own type of light metering pattern. Their CLC or Contrast Light Compensation system on the SRT series was very reliable under most conditions amateurs encountered. The CLC tended to over-expose a bit, which was easier to correct in the darkroom than under-exposed negs. The XE-7 didn't claim to use the CLC system, but the results were pretty much like other Minoltas. Reliable as sunshine.

I would have been happy to own the less expensive XE-5 version, except for the silly decision on body finish. This camera did not have an all-black finish. They left on the black prism area on the XE-7, but opted to go with chrome on the body. It looked odd then, odd now. And, as I recall, the price difference really didn't amount to a deal-maker over the sexier-looking XE-7. Too bad, it shot just as well as it's bigger brother.

I sold my old XE-7 in the late 1980's. Nikon took over my photo needs at that time. Bad idea. I should never have sold that fine Minolta and its lenses. I was fortunate to find a clean version of an XE-7 recently. It's a time machine. Everything about this camera is smooth and precise. The near vacuum tube electronics technology inside still performs faultlessly.

When I have a free moment, I still use the Minolta for quiet moment photography. With the loss of Kodachrome and those delightful days of slide shows with a gently whirring Kodak Carousel projector long gone, it's not the same. Still, I still regard the Minolta XE-7 as a pinnacle machine; the engineering talent, the manufacturing excellence that went into that department store camera could not, will not be available ever again. That's why I keep one close on hand. You just can't let go of your first love.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vintage cameras and vintage aircraft: birds of a feather?

I no longer shoot images with film. I collect scads of old film cameras, but I no longer find shooting film to be pleasurable or even necessary. I gave up this winter, or I should say, I found my use of film dwindling down to nothing - zero frames. No, I don't see myself ever going back. No need. I have no nostalgia for silver halide image-making. Cameras were always the fun part of photography, film never was. It was about capturing the moment, not adoring the thin light-sensitive metallic goo spread on sprocketed cow hoof gelatin ribbons. What a waste of resources. Sorry.

Thus ends nearly forty years of film consumption. The transition to digital is complete and quite satisfying.

We have four digital cameras in our home. Three point-and-shoots and one DLSR (never mind the brand for now). Even the cheapest of the point-and-shoots takes far, far better images than my old Nikons ever did. The little digitals work under any level of light, any color of light and fit in my shirt pocket. If the images are a bit soft in sharpness, there's a filter in Photoshop to correct that. I can send images across the room or over continents within moments. No more expensive processing of images I may not want anyway. Just hit the delete key and fill up the media over again.

To me, shooting images with vintage film cameras and continuing to develop film are akin to maintaining and flying vintage aircraft. The technology of flight has moved on dramatically since, say, WWII. The old camouflaged warbirds have a strong retro appeal due to their complexity, form, function and inestimable value in world history.

But most of us would never dream of flying one to attend a business meeting nowadays. Nobody is going to use a Boeing B-17 bomber to go to a regional sales meeting in Utah. I mean, finding just ONE operating model of this airplane these days is rare, even more so finding an owner open to its use in personal cross-country travel. The amount of care it takes just to keep an old bomber like this aloft makes its every use very expensive to operate and thereby far to valuable to waste on anything other than special events. Also, a flight on a venerable old craft like a B-17 would take far longer to accomplish than compared to using a modern Boeing commercial airliner operated by a major airline.

Still, there are many people who derive deep satisfaction in keeping old warbirds flying. And good for them. Countless happy hours are spent on research, locating scarce parts and discussing the various details, memories and shared knowledge about these old mechanical machines across the internet. Sound familiar? Thought things might "click" for you.

That's cameras for me. I love the mechanical construction, admire the optical excellence and pour over history and specs. Just don't care to load 'em-up with film and take 'em outside.

Besides, no one in my neck of the woods develops film anymore. No one-hour processing available anywhere, except through the mail, which kinda kills of the one-hour part. Shoot, wait a week then send back in for enlargements. Or shoot, look at the screen, print out at home. Guess which way I've gone.

If you shoot film with vintage cameras, I admire you. If it makes you happy, go with it. In a year or so, maybe less, you won't find film available - at least easily. There will always be a place for hobby film use, just as there will always be a place for reverence of any outdated technologies. So keep on shooting while you can, or should I say, "keep 'em flying."