Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Back to shooting film - within limits

I had a hankering to shoot some film the other day. Perhaps with over 200 cameras staring down at me from their lofty pine shelf perches, I might be starting to feel some real guilt in not shooting film. A kind of peer pressure.

So I looked up and down the rows to find just the right candidate for a day in the sun. Now, some of my really fine old instruments are out of consideration as they have media requirements too far out of date. There's no way I can (economically) find rolls of, say, 116 Kodak film and then process and scan it. Likewise for all my collection examples that shoot 126, 127, 110, and 620 formats. Sadly, that leaves just good old 35mm film cameras for my purposes. I keep a few rolls of color about the house.

With all the equipment choices I have for the venerable 35mm stock, I always opt to use one of my many EOS autofocus cameras. Can't help it.  So, yep, I passed up my Contaxes, Retinas, Weltas, Voigtlanders, Contaflexes, Minoltas, Nikons, Olympuses (Olympi?), and others and reached for, of all things, a Canon EOS Rebel S; one of the least expensive pieces in my collection. Got it for a mere $5 with lens.

The EOS Rebel is just about the most forgettable camera Canon made, though wildly popular in its day (hmm, kind of like the Argus C-3). All plastic, all black, no engraving on the body. This thing was made to be cheap. That's why I love it. I can go out and shoot all day shooting on auto-everything and never have to worry about the consequences of dropping it on a rock. For five bucks, I can get another. Disposable super-science.

For a lens, I chose only my favorite non-OEM optic, the Tamron 19-35mm zoom. I love that 19mm perspective. It makes any view interesting, even if pointed at my feet. Plus, with that field of view, I seldom worry about f-stop selections. The wide-angle view allows lower shutter speeds for using the camera hand-held.

Off I went, a digital shooter with 24 shots in the belly of the Canon. I blew half a roll before I remembered again how to shoot with film.Point, compose, adjust for light, check the background, ask yourself if you really want the shot, press the shutter.

I have my lab develop the negs and burn to a CD at an economical scan level (I'm not ready to make 16x 20 prints of any of them yet). While the shots won't win any art contest, the experience of shooting film is very pleasurable. It forces you to think before you shoot; a discipline I've sadly lost using my binary equipment.

I'm waiting the the inevitable first snows to fall so I can have another opportunity to go out and expose more silver salts coated on gelatin. For that cold weather day, I'll take a different Canon with me, an old F-1 with a tack-sharp F/1.4 SSC 50mm. I won't need batteries as the old gal is completely manual in operation. The batteries would just freeze anyway. Exposure? F/16 rule and I'll be fine.

I will never go back to shooting the volume of film I once did. Digital is clearly superior and far less expensive. But working with a film camera is a more deliberate, more enjoyable way to frame a shot, compose your mind. And that's what photography is all about, right?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Argus C4R: What Should Have Been

I never really liked Argus cameras until very recently. I had always considered the brand a distant "also-ran" to German, Japanese and even home-grown Kodak examples. The designs of the Argus C3 and others were just too clumsy and industrial looking for my tastes.

That's all changed. Argus cameras offer something very alluring to a collector like me; infinite variety in same models. Argus was known for making slight, but often not useful, changes in their long-running lines of products.

I've gone from no Argus models on my shelves to over a dozen in about a year. More are targeted for acquisition.

The Argus C4, made from about 1951 to 1957 was a popular model with a sleeker look than its sister camera, the boxy C3 often referred to (with reverence) as the "brick" (for good reason). The C4 was a complete departure in design from earlier models. Where the C3 was all-black and had a decidedly 1930's look, the C4 typified a brash new 1950's industrial design style based loosely on contemporary aircraft styles of the day - the most advanced technology for that age.

With its cast aluminum body and parts, it reeked of post-WWII American industry. Inside the metal body however, Argus continued to cut corners to compete on price. The shutter tripping mechanism is famously delicate, interior parts are prone to corrosion, and that aircraft aluminum dented and bent far too easily.
The C4 did have a good f/2.8 Cintagon lens, a formula copy of earlier German designs. The manufacturing capabilities of Argus did not permit a high degree of precision, and management did not seem to care as they marketed their cameras to snap-shooters and not professionals. In other respects, the C4 fell short in features. Knobs for advancing and rewinding film were large and easy to use, but these operations had become out of date as the 1950's wore on.
The answer was the Argus C4R in 1958. Almost part-for-part the same camera, Argus made a face-lift on the C4 by adding a ratcheted film advance wind lever, a pop-up rewind knob and the ability to mount an Argus light meter to the front of the body and have it coupled to the front-mounted shutter dial. The new parts sported chrome finish in place of the former unpolished aluminum, no doubt following the lead of automotive manufacturers with their wildly popular chrome treatments to their products.
The C4R was where the C4 should have been about five years earlier. A case of just right, too late. Other cameras from around the world already had designs with even more features than the C4R could offer. Argus discontinued the C4R after only one year. They returned to producing C3 brick cameras and rolled-out the Autronic, an even larger, boxier version of the C3 with automated exposure control.

The C4R did have a sister camera for 1958, a similarly featured C44R camera model which offered interchangeable lenses.

Finding a good C4R is hard, as so few were sold. I found the model shown here online. It came withe the film counter wheel missing. No matter, from out of the parts box, I found a replacement off a broken C44 I kept. One flat head screw change and the C4R looked new. (sigh) Yet the shutter is inoperative. Remember that shutter release problem? This model has it. I can wind the film advance, but the shutter link is broken. Too complex and expensive for me to consider repairing.

There is a confident heft to the C4R. It has a solid feel in your hands. The front-mounted shutter speeds are big out of place in comparison to most other cameras of that day, but typically, shutter speeds were mostly set and forgotten; leaving the f/stop to do most of the exposure correction.

The way to spot a C4R in online auction photos is to look for the tell-tale red pop-up rewind lever. If you see that on either a C4 or C44-looking camera, you've got one of the elusive 1958 models. I won't use the word rare for these cameras. Argus typically made products in very large lots for huge groups of consumers. But a C4R in your collection offers a bit of uniqueness to a collection of Argus cameras.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Modern Photography Review, Ansco Anscoset - 1960


Manufacturer's specifications:
Anscoset 35mm rangefinder camera with built-in coupled exposure meter. Lens: 45mm f/2.8 Rokkor. Shutter: Optiper Uni Citizen with speeds from 1/8 to 1/1000 sec., B, MX sync. Viewing: Combined range-viewfinder, bright frameline with parallax markings. Special feature: Single setting system using EV numbers 6 to 18 (shutter speeds and lens openings combined in one setting). Other features: Built-in meter may be set for films with exposure indexes 10 to 1600; auto-resetting frame counter; rapid wind and rewind crank lever. Price: $69.95. Importer: Ansco, Vestal Parkway East, Binghamton, N. Y.

Within the last couple of years a number of easy-to-use semi-automatic 35mm cameras have come along¬some more automatic than others. The Anscoset (actually made for Ansco by Minolta) is semi-automatic, but with a striking new feature. There is no special shutter-diaphragm hook-up. It doesn't need one, since the shutter also acts as the diaphragm. According to the exposure setting, the shutter blades will open to a greater or lesser extent, thus varying the apertures.

First you set the exposure index of your film by lining up a red dot with the exposure index engraved on the lens mount. Then point the built-in meter at the subject as you would with any reflected meter. Line up a pointer in the meter window with the meter needle by turning the EV indicator control. When the needle and pointer are lined up you have the proper camera exposure setting.

Each EV number represents a fixed f-number and shutter-speed combination, which means that, for correct exposure in any given situation, the Anscoset user cannot choose an alternative combination. Thus, EV 6 is 1/8 sec., f/2.S; EV 7 is 1/15 sec., f/2.S; EV 8 is 1/30 sec., f/2.8; EV 9 is 1/60 sec., f/2.8; EV 10 is 1/110 sec., f/2.9; EV 11 is 1/160 sec., f/3.5; EV 12 is 1/210 sec., f/4.4; EV 13 is 1/270 sec., f/5.4; EV 14 is 1/360 sec., f/6.8; EV 15 is 1/450 sec., f/8.4; EV 16 is 1/590 sec., f/10.4; EV 17 is 1/770 sec., f/12.6; EV IS is 1/1000 sec., f/ 16. Therefore it is impossible to use 1/1000 sec. with any f-number other than f/16, etc.

The Anscoset's flash system is unusual. First you focus on the subject with the built-in range-viewfinder (incidentally, if you wear glasses you might find it difficult to see the bright frameline). Then you check your focus distonce on the footage scale situated on the lens mount. Line up that distance, which is also engraved on the EV setting ring, matching it with the letter A, B, C, D, or E, engraved on the camera body. Each letter stands for a different kind of flashbulb or, in the case of electronic flash, a different distance. For example: if you're using AG-l bulbs you set the distance to the letter C, which is the setting for AG- 1 bulbs (the different bulb settings are described in the Anscoset manual).

The Anscoset is well made, inside and out. Its rapid wind lever is extremely easy to operate; however, it does interfere with straps hooked onto the body lugs when the camera is used with a neck strap or with the straps from the leather case.
Our tests made with the non-inter-changeable 45mm f/2.S Rokkor indicated that when used in all normal. snapshot lighting conditions, 11 x 14 enlargements made from negatives shot with the Anscoset showed amazingly good sharpness from the center right to the edges.

With the film speed set at E.\. 400, the lowest accurate light readings we were able to take were in conditions requiring an exposure of EV 9 (f/2.S and 1 160 sec.). Results showed that exposure settings were accurate in all normal outdoor lighting.-E.M.
Anscoset (actually made for Ansco by Minolta) is semi-automatic, but with a striking new feature. There is no special shutter-diaphragm hook-up. It doesn't need one, since the shutter also acts as the diaphragm. According to the exposure setting, the shutter blades will open to a greater or lesser extent, thus varying the apertures.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Modern Photography Review: Edixa-Mat C, 12/1961

OCR scan of original magazine article. Provided here as a source of vintage product information and entertainment for camera collecting. Modern Photography magazine has long since ceased to exist. If any copyright holders can be found to object, I will remove this entry from my blog.


Manufacturer's specifications: Edixa-mat C 35mm eye-level single-lens reflex. Lens: 50mm f/1.9 Xenon with stops to f/22, focusing to 1-3/4 ft. Shutter: Cloth focal-plane with speeds from 1- 1/1000 sec. plus B, FPX sync. Viewing: Interchangeable eye-level prism finder with ground-glass screen and split-prism rangefinder. Other features: Built-in exposure meter; internal automatic, instant-return diaphragm; rapid return mirror; depth-of-field previewer; manual reset frame counter; shutter release safety lock. Price: $299.50. Importer: Edixa Camera Co., 10 S. Second Ave., Mt. Vernon, New York.

The Edixa-mat body is basically the same as that of the Edixa Reflex, which was reported in the August 1958 "Modern Tests." The main differences are that the newer camera has a rapid-return mirror in addition to the fully automatic diaphragm, it has a different standard lens, and it costs about $30 less. The Edixa-mat comes in three versions: the B is the basic model, the C has an improved built-in exposure meter, and the D has an adjustable self-timer. 

Mechanically, the camera operates smoothly and easily. The rapid wind lever with its 180-degree throw is among the sweetest-moving we've handled, and the front shutter release is among the most sensitive. Of course, since the body does remain much the same as that of the Edixa Reflex, there's still a rewind knob instead of a rapid lever, and there are two setting dials, fast- and slow-range, for the non-linear shutter speeds. 

What we said of the Edixa Reflex' finder image applies just as well to that of the Edixa-mat: It "was exceedingly bright and had no fall-off of sharpness or brightness at the image corners. The centrally located split-image rangefinder worked clearly with both halves of the image moving out of alignment when the camera was out of focus." In addition, the Edixa-mat features a flag that appears in the finder to warn you when the shutter is not cocked. 

The exposure meter offers a dual brightness range, with a hinged baffle over the meter window that is raised or lowered accordingly. The meter proved to give sensitive and accurate readings in a low-light level requiring the equivalent of f/2.8 at 1/50 sec. with E.I. 400. 

Our tests of the 50mm f/1.9 Xenon lens showed that central sharpness was good at f/1.9 with much fall-off at the edges. Between f/4 and f/5.6 sharpness was very good with some fall-off in the corners. Overall sharpness decreased slightly at smaller apertures. 

Some of the corner sharpness fall-off found with this lens is caused by curvature of field. At all but moderately close focusing distances this effect is slight.-W.H.J.

It was crap then, it's crap now: the truth about some vintage equipment

In the golden-age of mechanical-chemical photography (1950-1980, IMHO) there were a staggering number of companies from around the globe offering thousands of products. Amateurs and pros had their pick from inexpensive box-type cameras like an Instamatic to complex 4x5 sheet film cameras like Sinars. Gadgets ruled the day, each one promising a more efficient, more fun photo experience for the shooter.

But along with fabulous products from venerable firms there were many cameras and lenses of dubious origin and engineering quality. As our popular culture has erased all but the dimmest of memories of chemical photography from the landscape, there is a tendency to believe that everything that was available back then was pretty good. I've seen this from writings by young folk who are new to film photography. I've read great praise for junk we wouldn't have used as doorstops a few decades back.

Popular but poorly-built Vivitar 220SL
Maybe this feeling has also arisen from the dearth of photo product variety today. The digital equipment offered now is generally all well-made. It should be, most of it originates in the same few Chinese factories which rely on the same sub-vendors and the products are simply rebranded for sale by the few remaining camera manufacturers or distributors. So, if we don't see dramatic differences between brands now, we assume it must have been the same back in the day. Nope. Not even close.

Here's my growing list of crappy equipment and lines from the past. I'll give a short reason why it's on the list. It's important to note that I consider some crappy equipment collectible due to a unique industrial design or for a significant role the equipment played in photo technology development.

Please feel free to tell me about any items you'd like to see added to the list and why. I'll add them to the list if I agree. Hey, it's my blog.


  1. Any camera built for Kodak Disc Film technology. OK, that's an easy first hit. Name me one model made by any brand you think you'd have used for an important image.
  2. Petri brand SLRs. Any of them. So-so optics, very poor mechanical reliability, abysmal fit and finish.
  3. Crappy third-party lens makers or importers/distributors: Accura, Admiral, Aetna, Astragon, Bushnell, Focal, Hanimar, Hanimex, J. C. Penny, Kaligar, Kalimar, Lentar, Makina, Makinon, Montgomery Ward, Prinz, Promaster, Revuenon, Rexar/Rexatar, Rokunar, Sears, Spiratone, Starblitz, Sun, Super Albinar, Vemar (oh, yeah, there are many others). Yes, a few lenses stood out, but by and large, these were made for price-point in the market. Some were optically good but mechanically delicate. Collect what you like (obviously) but if you're going to spend money shooting film with old lenses nowadays, stick with the better lines: Vivitar, Soligor, Tamron, Sigma, and Kiron.
  4. Kowa 35mm SLRs. Any of them. Fragile, flimsy, funky. (But collectible for those reasons)
  5. Samoca. Collectible but not usable.
  6. Any Kalimar camera, 35mm, 6x6 or other. Made by many different sub-quality sub-contractors
  7. Vivitar 220/250/420/450 SL cameras. Screwthread mount cameras built in millions by Cosina in the mid-1970's. Really bad, slow 50mm F2.8 (2.8!) lens that's unable to out-resolve a Coke bottle lens. Mostly empty camera insides makes for loud operation when they do work.
  8. Optika, an odd roll film reflex. Collectible and loveable due to oddity. Hard to love for operation.
Oh, there are plenty more to come. This is a random start, now give me your suggestions.

Need better data on vintage cameras? Take a look at vintage photo ads.

Long ago, a friend of my dad's found out I was interested in photography. He was an avid snap-shooter, armed with an enormous Rolleiflex and flashbulbs that was ever the ready to capture whatever he and his wife were doing; no matter how commonplace. As he aged, he decided to rid himself of some items he no longer used or could use. The Rollei went to family (as it should). He presented me with a dozen or so old Modern Photography and Popular Photography magazines from the early 1960's. I couldn't have been more pleased (unless it had been the Rollei).

I poured over those publications, enjoying viewing a window on the state of the industry from 'way back. It was fun to read about what the editors of those magazines had to say about upcoming new photo technologies and trends in photography. Most were fairly accurate, but many were wildly wrong. I still have the magazines, fraying and finger-soiled from much consultation over the years.

The ads from the various companies were great. I like them most. The bulk of them were not done by leading marketing professionals. Profits on camera equipment were slim even then. Big corporate dogs like Kodak, Nikon, Polaroid and Canon had very creative ad insertions, but the rest, um, not so much. In the back pages, there were scads of ad pages for discount photo equipment suppliers. Set in tiny type with blurred line art of camera models, these pages reportedly paid for the printing run of the magazines each month. Nearly all of those companies were located in about a ten-block radius in New York City. No internet, you either called long-distance (not likely) or mailed in your check. How trusting folks were then. (sigh)

Now as I crawl about thrift stores and antique shops in my quest to add more cameras to my collection, I'm always looking for older National Geographic magazines and vintage photo magazines. Partly because I like seeing the old ads, but also because of the important data they store.

Nothing beats information direct from those who actually made the product. I've often seen errors from other collectors regarding specifications. I've made a few myself. The magazine ads help fix a time when the collectible item was available, as well as offer indisputable proof as to what features a camera did or didn't have.

I do not know, but have a feeling there are those of you out there who might collect the ads themselves. I hope so. With so much of the world of chemical photography ending up recycled or tossed-out forever, I think it's important that good information sources should survive. Ads are just one facet of that need.

Here are some ads I happen to like for my own reasons. I hope you enjoy them as well. I'll post some further examples again, stop back and take a look.

A glimpse of  1940's culture.
Wonderful line art was often made.

One of many celebrity endorsements.

List price information.

Nikon product chronology from Nikon.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Camera Collecting Tip 2: Shutter Jammed? Check the Film Interlock.

Quick tip.

I've purchased some very nice cameras from folks who were sure that the instrument had a locked-up shutter. Turns out, many old cameras had a simple mechanism to prevent double-exposures of negatives; a film interlock.

This interlock was usually a very simple mechanical sequence stop. Unless you had film in the camera and had wound an exposed frame on to the next, you couldn't trip the shutter. This was fairly common on cameras with a leaf shutter out in front with the lens, where you needed to manually activate a shutter-cocking arm before each shot. If you waited too long between shooting a couple frames, you could often forget to advance the film. The interlock prevented you from ruining a precious moment.

Eventually, most camera manufacturers devised a way to wind the film and cock the shutter at the same time. But many fine old folding cameras did not have this feature, particularly German-made film cameras and some Kodak 35s. 126 Instamatic-type cartridge cameras (even 110 models) came with this feature as standard, but then, who has any film for them anyway?

To test a camera's shutter and get around the interlock without film loaded, cock the shutter arm and then open the film back. You'll see the film sprocket advance (on 35mm type cameras) and the film take-up reel. Use your finger to gently rotate the teeth on the sprocket advance in the direction of the film winding. You'll usually hear or feel a click as the interlock disengages. At that point, you can trip the shutter. If this doesn't work (and you know the self-timer has not been engaged), you might want to reconsider the functionality of the camera if you intend to use it as a shooter.

One way to research if a camera you're interested in has an interlock is to download an old instruction manual. You can find many manuals from places like Michael Butkus' Thank about making a small contribution to help Michael keep this very useful resource online, too.

Monday, August 22, 2011

3 Reasons Why I Don't Shoot Film Anymore

Cost of film, cost of processing, cost of wasting shots/making mistakes. Well, that's it, I'm done. Short post. Seriously, the reasons why digital photography so quickly replaced chemical-based photography are easy to see.

I often get folks visiting my flicker camera collection photos who would like to see images created using a particular vintage camera. How nice for them if I could. But no way. With over 200 cameras on my shelves, I haven't the time or cash to snap 24 (mostly artistically useless) shots on each vintage camera just to see how they operate. Don't care. That's not the point to my collecting.

I enjoy the nostalgia of film and film cameras. The mechanical/optical construction and the industrial design are quite fascinating enough for me to admire as part of a large collection of objects. My transition to digital photography happened back in the late '90's and haven't looked back.

If you want to shoot film and promote such activity for others as a hobby, fabulous, I absolutely approve and would do all I could to help when it comes to explaining how the old instruments operate. It's just not for me, though. Been there, done that. Still, I do remember how much I liked the smell of Ammonium Thiosulfate (rapid fix) in an open print tray (sigh). Easy, Jim, easy. There's no going back.

So, I guess, for me, "Film is dead, long live the cameras!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Camera Collecting Tip: Shutter Jammed? Check the Self-Timer First

When looking for vintage cameras to add to my collection, I'm always attracted to "parts" cameras in stores or online. Sure, many that are offered have suffered a failed disassembly or a fatal drop to a concrete floor. I steer clear of those. But there are plenty of good units with tell-tale signs of an often easy fix: self-timer interlock. Once remedied, you've usually got a great fully-functioning camera again.

See that little red dot beneath the lens? By nudging it
to the right, this old Wirgin Edinex's shutter
came alive again.
Old mechanical film cameras frequently featured a spring-driven device that delayed the release of the shutter in order for you to get in your own photo: a self-timer. This device is found on the shutter of leaf shutter assemblies, usually as a small post sticking out with a red color at the tip to remind you it's a self-timer and not a shutter cocking lever. On old 35mm SLRs you typically see a lever sitting on the font of the camera body next to the lens. You'd swing the lever up or down to engage the spring timing mechanism (and hear a tiny whirring noise as you did so as all those micro-gears are energized). On a few models, you push a revealed button to activate the timer after engaging it, on other brands, you press the main shutter release button. About ten seconds later, the shutter goes off.

Self-timers were a feature people really very seldom ever used. Even today, your DSLR probably has this ability in electronic form, but I'd guess you haven't used it more than a couple times - if ever. Hence the problem with older cameras, too. If you never used the self-timer, if it never had it's gears and springs wound and used somewhat routinely - it got stiff and stopped working. I'll bet over 75% of the cameras I collect don't have a functioning self-timer due to non-use over decades. I never touch those little levers.

The problem is that the self-timer and shutter operation are connected. So, if the self-timer fails to unwind and release the shutter, the camera is rendered "jammed".Stuck self-timers I would guess are the number one reason folks drop off cameras at thrift or antique stores. Most likely, the owner went to use the camera, fiddled with the self-timer and found they couldn't snap the shutter anymore.

I've seen plenty of Minolta SRT 35mm SLRs advertised online as being parts-only cameras due to shutter malfunction where you can clearly see in the photo that the self-timer lever is engaged and stuck in the down and ready position. Ditto for many other Japanese brands of a similar era; those self-timer units were typically made by some other firm and sold to OEMs.

The fix is very simple: release the energy in the coiled spring of the self-timer. Well, if you're lucky, doing that can be a matter of gently nudging the lever or arm to it's original position, (go slowly and don't over-force) with the result of the shutter happily going off. Or it may involve removing the leather skin or front plate of the camera body and using a small screwdriver to help rotate frozen gears. The worst case is you've got a self-timer on a leaf shutter, as in those used on most old folding cameras, that won't respond to nudging. Sorry to say, the repair involves some tricky disassembly. If it's a German-made unit, do not attempt. These shutters are marvels of miniature engineering. Training is key here, and you don't have it.

Generally, if you can't nudge the timer lever back on a camera you see in a store, leave it be and choose something else. And try not to repair a self-timer in front of the salesperson as well. I did that once and upon success, the price instantly went up. "Thanks for fixing that!" Jerk.

Happy hunting!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Back to the 70's with a Soligor Zoom on my 4/3 Evolt

The truth is, camera bodies don't matter. Any of them. Never did, never will. Film or digital they are just the vessels for recording the image. It doesn't matter what the media is. All you need is a light-tight body and a light-sensitive something to fix the image in time. The camera is admired as being the brains of the picture-taking activity, but it's the lenses that are the eyes. The sharper the better. And manufacturing folks have been making extraordinary optics for many generations. Lenses have always done the heavy lifting in photography.

I picked up a used Olympus Evolt E-500 a few years back. At 8 mega-pixels, it offers plenty of image size for my needs. I don't make money with my cameras, I document my family life with it. Works great.

One thing the E-500 has is the ability for me to mount vintage optics on it by means of an adapter. That formed one of the prime reasons for its purchase. With all my vintage film equipment about, it was natural to want to mount some cool old lens on my DSLR.

I've played with mounting all my Olympus OM system lenses. Some results are great (like the 50mm f/3.5 macro), some not so much. The 4/3rds sensor doubles the magnification of whatever old lens I place in front of it. My 500mm f/8 Tokina becomes a whopping 1000mm f/8 just like that. But all those wideangle lenses become either "normal" lenses or "portrait" length lenses. No matter, it's all fun.

Soligor two-touch 85-205mm zoom lens
I purchased an old Soligor 85-205 f/3.8 (OK, let's call it an f/4) zoom in an Olympus mount from an antique shop. The lens was made in the early to mid-1970's. Five-bucks. It's a clunky old optical design of the "two-touch" variety; one collar (the front ring) for focusing light, the next ring back is a collar for setting zoom magnification. Oh, and there's a third and FOURTH ring, too. Number three is a macro-enabling ring that allows very close-focusing at any focal length. At it's maximum setting, it allows for a 1:3 magnification. Gets you within a couple feet with the equivalent of an 8-power telephoto. Wow. The fourth ring is a very large aperture setting ring. Yeah, lots of finger dancing on this stovepipe to get a shot.

The Soligor was never designed to go head-to-head with a Nikon, Canon or other OEM lens as far as resolution. Manufactured by a third party and badged with the Soligor name (a brand name by the American distributor AIC, Allied Impex Corporation), it did a fine job for those folks who could not afford OEM lenses.

Once you mount a non-digital lens, like the Soligor, on the E-500, you're left with aperture-preferred automation. You set the lens to an f-stop, and the camera selects the correct shutter speed. And just like it was done around 1963, as you move the aperture ring on the lens, the light is reduced through it. So, you compose and focus at full aperture, then stop-down to shoot. Can get really dark in that viewfinder. This combination of camera and lens is best left to non-moving subjects that afford you the time to do all this fiddling.

Flowers shot at about five feet away.
Results? Modern digital lenses blow the Soligor away for clarity, color rendition and ease of use. That's not the point. The fun of photography can also be about seeing what you can do with something that gives you a new or distinct view of the world. I mean, the old zoom works with the Olympus. IF you stop down to at least f/11. IF you use a tripod. IF you have enough light, like mid-day sun.

But the Soligor has a, um, vintage look about it's images. The contrast is much lower. After all, when you processed film and made prints, contrast got added as a natural part of photo-processing. Maybe it's a modern sensor/ancient optics issue. Maybe it's just a crappy old lens.

No matter. This is fun. I'm gonna do it again with some other piece of glass to see what happens.

If you've got a DSLR that can accept older lenses via an adapter, try it out. You'll find you get WAY more involved in taking a photo, even (horrors!) planning each one out before you shoot. You'll chimp each shot less as you concentrate on the viewfinder more.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Clarus MS-35: A Hometown Hero (Almost)

Minneapolis, MN-made Clarus MS-35, my hometown hero.
Quite often, the reason for collecting a vintage camera may have nothing to do with its performance in capturing images. In the case of the Clarus MS-35, I was surprised to find that it was made not far from my home in the US state of Minnesota; Minneapolis, specifically. It was a pleasant revelation that produced a small amount of hometown pride in knowing that, if even for a brief moment, your friends and neighbors were smart enough to compete against world-wide competitors in producing a reasonably competent 35mm rangefinder camera. And I am stretching the word "reasonably" a bit here.

The Clarus model MS-35 camera was designed, built and sold by the Clarus Camera Manufacturing Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota USA from around 1946 and 1952. The post-war boom years when consumers demanded satisfaction for their pent-up demand for consumer products. Clarus cameras were sold by several major retailers, including the Montgomery Ward Company (a now-defunct, but once hugely important source for many American camera sales).

The MS-35 was the only camera model manufactured by Clarus, and they were very lucky to even managed that. After a management change later in the decade, the camera was sold under Wescon name, sending the Clarus into the distant realm of camera obscurity. Before vanishing against the onslaught of re-emerging German consumer cameras, as well as new Japanese models, Clarus/Wescon began work on a variation of their camera with a different shutter and flash system. No matter, by the early 1950's nothing seemed to help and they simply shuttered their factory doors. 

The Clarus is a very heavy, sturdily-built camera, very reminiscent of  the Chicago-made Perfex camera of the late 1930's. I have no doubt the designers of the Clarus must have seen an opportunity to improve on that brawny metal camera's weaknesses.

If it were not for the initial problems with the focal plane shutter of the Clarus MS-35, the camera might have succeeded for a time. But those first batch cameras were dogged by erratic speeds or stuck shutter curtains. From what I've read, the problems were sorted out by around 1950, but industry reviews and spurned camera shops turned their merchandising eyes toward better cameras from other manufacturers.

The Clarus also suffered from some other fatal design flaws. The interchangeable 50mm f/2.8 Wollensak lens had a screw-thread mount machined (apparently) in English thread diameter around 38mm, just shy of being able to accept a Leica-thread lens. Clarus offered at least two other lenses for the camera, a 35mm f/3.5 Wollensak Raptar and a 101mm f/3.5. I have seen the very rare accessory optical finders needed to use these lenses only on online auctions going for far more than the cameras themselves.

I acquired my Clarus from eBay for less than $20. Everything works, even the shutter. However that same shutter displays the breed's penchant for erratic, slow performance. No matter. To me it's enough to have something made on my shelf that was made by folks in my home state. I'm proud to display my Clarus as an example of local ingenuity and manufacturing ability. OK, so we can't do precision mechanisms so well, but at least we tried - once.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cover that Selenium Cell Meter to Make it Last

Revere camera with large Selenium cell meter.
Many vintage cameras of the late 1950's to almost the mid-1970's used a kind of internal light meter that created a small amount of electricity simply by being exposured to light. They're called Selenium cell meters, named for the light-sensitive material that produces the electrical charge magic.

Selenium cell meters are easily identified by a faceted or multi-waffled glass plate on the front of the camera or around the lens. Often these meter cells were small, as not a lot of electricity was needed to measure light leverls, but it was not uncommon to see very large use of Selenium in cameras where automatic exposure systems required more voltage (thus more sunlight) to operate.

An upside to Selenium cells is that they did not require batteries to operate. As long as light struck the cells, they could make enough juice to move a meter needle and tell you which f-stop or shutter speed would be best for the light at hand. If you left your camera in its leather case, the meter was effectively shut off.

The downside to this system was that the light-producing ability of Selenium cells eventually ceased over time with exposure to light, particularly bright sunshine. Its ability would be consumed.

Many vintage cameras are found with dead Selenium meters. Sometimes it's because of deteriorating wiring due to poor soldering or a shock to the meter system, which were pretty delicate in those days. But very often, the camera may have been stored in the "on" position with its meter cell exposed to light over years, maybe decades.

Camera collectors like to show-off their possessions on shelving or cabinets. Only natural. But care should be taken to protect examples with Selenium cell meters. Left on a shelf in even a dimly lit room, the light-sensing ability of the Selenium cell is "on".

If you plan on passing on a working model of some old Kodak Retina or Canonette to family or other collectors, you really should turn off the Selenium cell until you either want to use the camera, or want to display it for someone. I've found the simplest method is to use black electrical tape. It's cheap, stylishly black, opaque and easily removed at any time. For less than two bucks you can cut enough light-blocking tape to over hundreds of meter cells.

Hopefully, by covering the meter cell with tape, you'll buy enough time to give the next generation of collector working examples of these 60+ year-old cameras.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Recession is Over for Vintage Camera Prices, Too

A quick, unscientific observation reveals that, after a steady decline, prices asked for by sellers of vintage cameras on auction sites in early 2011 is clearly on the rise. Some recent examples of body and lens pricing has approach nearly comical proportions as sellers smell green blood in the online waters.

Film camera prices had been on a meteoric fall in value as digital equipment soundly, finally dominated the image capture market. Instruments that once cost hundreds of dollars to buy when new had bottomed out late in 2010 for literally pennies on the dollar. It seemed to be a race to offer them for free.

Once proud brand-name equipment such as Nikon and Canon had been seen as selling for as little as under $10, but often ended up few takers on at least a couple online auctions. Canon EOS autofocus models, particularly the early versions with all that amazing technology would sell for the price of a dinner at Denny's. Sellers had even taken to splitting up camera bodies from their lenses or grouping an oddball camera with one of some perceived value as a way to move the product and make a small profit to an audience of quite cost-savvy buyers.

Ubiquitous, once wildly popular Kodak, Ansco, Agfa, Argus, Spartus and other makes, still available by the thousands, have suddenly gone from under $20 delivered to "buy it now" asking prices sometimes in the hundreds of dollars.

You can't blame the sellers. After nearly ten years of drubbing decline, they must have just about given up on any gainful transaction with film equipment. For all of us, now's the time to sell, sell, sell.

So what's changed? Here are my barstool opinions.

First, gravity, corrosion, metal fatigue, mold and time have keep working their degenerative magic on all those millions of old film cameras out there. You may have noticed that the rate of inoperable cameras for sale has increased. Finding a camera with all its part intact AND in complete working order is becoming harder to do.

Secondly, the number of repair services for film cameras continues to dwindle quickly, adding to a growing amount of good equipment in dire need of some routine CLA'ing. And since no one wants to repair or maintain a camera that was bought for ten bucks when the repair bill is over one hundred, that Canon AE-1 with the dreaded, easily fixable mirror box squeal just goes until it breaks. What a shame. It's like running your car with dirty oil long after the time when you should have it replaced. What's left is breaking from wear and poor maintenance, further reducing the pool of good working examples.

The good news is that film is making a kind of minor come-back. There are now more and more younger folks interested in chemical based photography for a wide variety of reasons. So many steadfast old camera models with manual controls are more frequently sought after. The trouble is that sellers perceive that ALL cameras have increased value, not just a Minolta SRT or Pentax Spotmatic.

Personally, I'm almost glad to see prices rise. Sure, it makes camera collecting more expensive and more difficult. But higher prices might be what's needed to ensure the preservation of our hobby and our devotion to silver-based image-making. Perhaps a few mechanically-inclined younger people will even be able to at least see the possibility of learning the camera repair trade and even earning a living from doing it.

Long-term, there will be fewer and fewer good examples of the old stuff around. Even with over six billiion people on the planet, no manufacturer seems to want to take on making a new film-based camera.

I think the heady days of finding an old Contax in a thrift store for twenty bucks are drawing to a close. As the supply of good vintage cameras begins to shrink, prices will rise. It's the way or the market.

The recession is over. It may not be a boom coming, but the bust is clearly gone. Choose your camera collection emphasis carefully and save your money. You're going to need it.