Sunday, September 18, 2011

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.

SAMPLING OF CRAPPY VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNOLOGY:

  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.

13 comments:

  1. Your "crappy third party lens makers" list is somewhat deceptive because some of those names were not lens makers at all, but only retailers who sold rebranded lenses from other sources. Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Spiratone are in this category. Some of their lenses were terrible, but some were perfectly good lenses from makers such as Kiron, Tokina, and Mamiya. I don't know a great deal about the Soligor brand, but I think they were basically in the same category as Vivitar (who also never made their own stuff, but just contracted it out).

    I have a Sun 24-40mm f/3.5 macro zoom in MD mount from the mid to late '70s (I'm not sure when it was introduced, but it was mentioned in an article on zoom lenses in Popular Science in 1978). Mechanically it's not as smooth as top-brand zooms of the time, but it's not bad at all, and the optics are quite good. It's also just about the earliest zoom I know of to reach all the way to 24mm (Minolta introduced a 24-50mm in 1978; Nikon and Canon waited until 1979 to introduce zooms wider than 28mm; Pentax had no 24mm until 1980; Olympus seems never to have had an OM zoom wider than 28mm), and its macro mode was an unusual feature for a wide zoom (max. magnification 1:3.8, which for a zoom is pretty good).

    Kalimar was an importer and reseller. The only Kalimar camera I've actually held in my hand was actually a re-branded Soviet Zenit B that came with a Helios 44-2 lens. I didn't shoot with it, but it was probably an okay camera for what it was -- a fully-manual camera without a light meter that was sold super-cheap at a time when cameras from the Nikon, Canon, etc. had already had TTL metering for a decade. Kind of a joke for its time, but if you wanted a 35mm SLR in the mid-70s and had no money, it was probably a reasonable choice.

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  2. Thanks. I'll make some adjustments. Appreciate your comments.

    True about Sears, JCPenny, etc. I'll make a change to the copy.

    The Sun lenses were generally offered by the mail-order house Spiratone. It was their mechanical weakness that put them on my list.

    There were many Kalimar cameras of all format sizes offered years ago.

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    1. I have a Sears TLS SLR that's really a Ricoh Singlex. Sears used Ricoh as their SLR source for a long time, and a lot of their lenses were rebranded Rikenons. There seem to be people who specialize in figuring out what factory produced which lenses. I also have a Wards rangefinder that's really a Konica Auto S--if I ever get the diaphragm working, I think it'll be a nice camera, and certainly historically interesting. The Sears TLS is not necessarily all that historic, but it's a solid platform for M42 lenses, with a rock steady Copal Square shutter. And I think I got it with a 50mm Rikenon for $5.00, working!
      Sears also sold a Tower rangefinder in the '50s that was a Nicca Leica clone. I think these are still pretty highly regarded, and they ain't cheap either.

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  3. Almost anything Russian - especially later Zenits. The Russians could make good lenses although the almost total lack of quality control meant that the elements were often misaligned. The bodies were assembled in a 'stick it together and hope it works' manner from poorly machined parts with hopeless tolerances. If it didn't work, then they'd file and hammer it to fit.
    Many of the more interesting stuff suffered from the same problem - if you had it rebuilt by a technician, it would be fine. There was a Czech manufacturer who specialised in buying up new old stock of professional medium format bodies and lenses and rebuilding them to west standards.
    Oh, and a special mention for Wirgin (Edixa, etc.) - the owner, Henry Wirgin (how do you pronounce that?!) was urged to improve the quality but stated that people bought them anyway so why bother?

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  4. Also, Konica made some very good SLRs and rangefinders under the Wards brand years ago.

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  5. Revuenon were disctibutors of Konica Hexanon lenses for the European market. And Hexanon are great lenses, some of the better in fact. So Revuenon lenses should not be in that list...

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  6. Is the point of your article to protect others? That's admirable. Telling people not to waste their time and here is why. One huge big problem with that; these people you want to save from these products (btw, Sun lenses made respectable lenses) aren't asking to be saved from themselves though and many of us thank you for bringing down value in the market with your effort. Our market is not geared by reviews at all and rather by cheapness....(you get what you pay for and then one day a winner comes along that rewards us)

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  7. Actually the particular series of Vivitar Camera you mention (e.g. 220, etc) are very good pieces of hardware. They were built by Cosina, they're very solid, and most still work great today. If you want an M42 mount camera body, these are a great choice. You can pick them up on eBay cheap. Might need to replace the light seals but odds are good the the mechanical components still work. I shoot with these cameras all the time.

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  8. I have had a Vivitar 220Sl for many years now. Used it during the 84 Olympics in LA. Dropped it during a bike race. Didn't bother it at all. Excellent for Astrophotos. All the modern Battery ones would run out of juice. Universal screw mount lenses all fit. Including the Vivitar Series one series. Most reliable camera I have ever owned. Makes my Dimage 7HI look ridiculous! (which it is anyway)

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  9. Just discovered your blog.
    Amazing topic.
    A Vivitar screw mount (which model exactly, don't remember) has broke down on me a few years ago, everything from the lightmeter to shutter release and more, if possible. A real implosion.
    So it is essential to point out at good brandmarks, 'cause buying cameras or lenses from film era is a situation where you expose yourself to buying somebody else's problems. And you don't want it.
    Low cost camera brands is explainable by low quality materials, most of the time. It is a matter of life expectancy. Your camera will be longlasting as long as the quality parts. Do you think Nikon FM10 (Cosina) is as good as and old FM2n?
    An advice: take into account the parts availability, otherwise a good technician could not fix a problem without the part. For instance, the Ricoh bodies, althought they were good in their prime, could not be repaired by now, unless it is a mere adjustment. Yashica as well. Camera parts are not universal.
    By the way, I got unlucky with most of my Canons (A-1, AT-1, T90), and I tend to believe that Canons made more complex camera (more electronics), so they have more chances to break down. IMHO.
    Now I stick to Nikons, Pentax, Konicas (T3n and FT-1, both CLA'd by an expert), and Tamron adaptall2 lenses.
    My other concern is that they don't build brand new film cameras, except the Nikon F6 and other expansive state-of-the-art cameras made by Hasselblad, Leica, Voightlander and so on. Even, the Holga (plastic camera) is discontinued!

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  10. No disrespect meand, but this seems to be another misleading and poorly-informed article on this blog.

    The Vivitar/Cosina screw-mount SLRs were not top-of-the-line models, but they are solid, well built and durable with quality Copal shutters, and the 50/2.8 lens is a Tessar design, not a "Coke bottle." Nothing wrong with the cameras or lenses. (And some of the best standard lenses ever made are slower, f/2.8 and even f/3.5.) Cosina may not have the name recognition of some Japanese brands, but they are a respected and capable manufacturer building other brands' equipment to their specifications.

    Sears M42 and K-mount SLRs and lenses are an overlooked bargain in the used market; many were sourced from Ricoh, another respected manufacturer. Revuenon was a German store brand, with many lenses supplied by Tomioka and cameras by Chinon. Not junk.

    And to label all Petri cameras under the "crappy" label seems pretty unreasonable. They were a lower-priced brand and did not always enjoy the best reputation for reliability, but some SLRs like the V6 and FT are very nice user cameras and well put together, with typical good 1960s build quality. And specifically what Petri lenses has the author used? I have used many of their prime lenses and their is definitely nothing inferior about their optics--very comparable to top Japanese brands of their day.

    OK, I would agree that the Disc cameras were crap (though I liked the styling of the Kodak Disc camera).

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  11. What do you expect from a ``Marketing Professional``???

    Enough said....

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  12. I have a Vivitar 220 SL and it came with an f1.8 lens. Where did you get the idea that it was f2.8?

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