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.