Monday, December 2, 2013

“What’s a good beginner 35mm film SLR?”

As a veteran of the film-shooting days, I have been asked the question in the headline. I usually defer to other opinions as the selection of anything comes down to personal preferences. 
But recently a very nice younger-type person asked me this question and I tossed off the note below. Mostly without thinking too deeply about it. I am absolutely sure the majority of film camera collectors and users would have entirely different choices than the ones I offer. But here we go, this is how I see things.

[NOTE: the person listed some older cameras as examples in their email to me.]

That’s a big question. It comes down to whether you are interested in the shooting of film or the processing and print-making end of film photography. And since virtually no one makes film cameras now, I’ll have to stay with offering you some suggestions on using vintage equipment.
  • I recommend a Nikon FE or FM. FE for auto-exposure shooting, FM for manual everything. These cameras can mount billions of lenses made from 1959 through early auto-focus lenses (OEM and 3rd party, too). (Note that non-AI lenses will meter in stop-down mode.) These cameras are swift to use, compact, reliable and lightweight. Old MD-11 motor drives are available for under $30. The FM is still going for between $50 - $100. The FE is ‘bout the same, slightly higher in price. The FM2, FE2 and newer models are quite expensive as collectibles. If you’re going pro with film (please say you’re not) choose these models. If you want reliable fun, get the original FM/FE models.
  • The Pentax K1000 is a remake of the venerable Pentax Spotmatic with a bayonet lens mount. Not spectacular to use, a bit feature weak when shooting, and kinda dim in the viewfinder. K-mount lenses are NOT as easy to find as you may have heard. But you can find a good, clean K1000 for under $40.

Here’s a shot at some other good film shooters for fun:

A.) Fully-manual exposure cameras with interchangeable lenses:

  • Nikon Nikkormat series FT, FTn, FT2. They use the original “F” lens mount (FT3 was last model and used AI lens mount). Super-strong cameras, shutters are a bit loud.
  • Canon “FT” series cameras*. Durable, millions of Canon breach-lock FD lenses available. Since Canon FD lenses don’t mate well to Canon EOS DSLR without an optical adapter, these lenses can be found for very nice bargains.
  • Olympus OM-1n (not the OM-1, as the silvering of the mirror WILL eventually darken the viewfinder) Very compact with the largest viewfinder you’ll ever see through - it will hook you on first glance. Power film winders are common and inexpensive. You’ll get interchangeable focus screens, too.*
  • Minolta SRT series (large, durable and millions of Minolta MC/MD lenses available)* SRT-102 and 202 are the ones to target.

B. Automatic exposure 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses

  • Canon EOS auto-focus 35mm film cameras. The whole EOS line was very good, but avoid the 750 or 850 as they do not allow much exposure flexibility. Even the original EOS, the 650, is a fine shooter. A big plus is that any old EOS “EF” lenses will work on new Canon digital equipment (with a 1.6 crop factor). I used to hate these plastic cameras till I used one. Very fast and easy to use. These cameras won’t get in the way of shooting lots and lots of film. A few models even have “eye-control” where the auto-focus watches where you’re looking in the frame (Elan 7). So cool and yet a bit spooky. If you’re looking for the last generation of Film cameras from Canon, get a Rebel K2 or T2. They offer tremendous flexibility with exposure and would be good for a few decades of use.
  • Nikon manual focus auto exposure FA, FG, F3 (the F3 was a pro model but is now a relative bargain)
  • Nikon Auto-focus, auto exposure: N80, N8008, N6006, N65, N75 (the N75 was one of the last Nikon film cameras - does everything very, very well)
  • Olympus manual focus OM-2n (I have four), OM-2S
  • Minolta manual focus XD-11, XGM, X-700
  • Nikon auto-focus N6006, N8008, N60, N80, N90
  • Contax (Yashica) 137, 139, RTS auto-exposure cameras. Great build quality. Forget the Zeiss lenses; the Yashica equivalent mounts are equal in sharpness at a fraction of the cost. Saying that, few lenses are to be found.


  • Pentax universal screw-thread lens cameras (M42). Most require you to do “stop-down” metering. That means looking through a dark camera to adjust lens openings/shutter speeds. Not real fun after the first few times. Although the Pentax Spotmatic and similar are spectacular shooters with their lens quality, changing lenses by unscrewing them is slow and clumsy. You WILL get tired of doing it.
  • Praktica, Ricoh, Petri, Exakta, Exa, Miranda, Vivitar, Konica, Topcon, Kowa. Some good models mixed with the bad, some had great performance but getting a variety of lenses is either expensive or futile.
  • Anything weirdly vintage: Kodak Retinas, Voigtlanders, Zeiss stuff, and Agfa. Beautiful to look at, joys to hold, but if you break ‘em, no help for you. The rigors of shooting can destroy these old birds.
  • Leica equipment. For collectors only. No, don’t argue. Most Leica owners are too afraid to take their photographic investment out shooting for fear of loss or damage. Most of the best “socks and feet photos from my chair shots” ever made were by done Leica owners.
  • Rangefinder type cameras in general. They are silent and smooth to use, but you’ll yearn for a telephoto or wide-angle lens soon after you buy one. Again, Leica – no, no.
  • Minolta Maxxum series cameras. Great shooters, tons of fun and lots to fiddle with. They just haven’t proven to be as responsive or reliable over time as Nikon or certainly Canon EOS cameras. Great lenses, though. Super.
  • Nikon F and F2. Batteries and heft will kill you here. These cameras will last forever but are limited to older Nikon lenses. Still, no one ever went wrong using one.
  • Canon F1. Big and still expensive to buy. Shutter reliability measured in millions of exposures. Stay away unless you’re a serious shooter with a bit more cash to spend. But then, this is one FABULOUS camera.

D.) Interchangeable Lenses

  • Stay with the OEM if you can. They had more pride in optical quality than the off-brand folks. That’s not to say they made some dogs, too.
  • Since many new digital cameras can accept vintage lens adapters, you’ll find that all the really cool stuff is being bought up for mirrorless cameras. Older Nikon and Minolta stuff seems to be overlooked as digital folk prefer the new Sony or Nikon mount lenses
  • Some off-brand lenses were great. Lenses from Vivitar, Tamron, or Sigma offered good quality at lower prices. You’ll find them on auction sites all the time. The Vivitar Series 1 lens group rivaled OEM lenses.
  • Avoid Albinar, Promaster, Quantaray, Asanuma, Soligor, Braun, and, well, there are others too numerous to name. It’s tempting to use them, but quite often either the build or the resolution lacks.

Those are my opinions. Hope any of this helps. Do your research and good luck shooting. Glad to see someone still holding a torch for chemical-based photography.

* You will need a special battery or slight modification to use current non-Mercury batteries. The new batteries will last for years in some manual exposure camers, so the hassle of finding the correct battery isn’t too bad. Or use a hand-held light meter. Makes you look oh, so cool.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Airing Out Focus Problems With an Ancient Olympus Evolt E-500

I bought an Olympus Evolt E-500 DSLR four years ago when it was already an outdated product for four years. So I'm cheap.

Lately, the camera has had an awfully hard time auto-focusing. It searched back and forth for the right setting but in the end, it gave up and stopped at some incorrect distance. Not all the time, just most times. The 40-150mm zoom was particularly bad at the 150mm end. As you can imagine, makes it hard to get that one-in-a-million shot possible.

I could override this focus problem with manual adjustment of the lens, but the E-500's viewfinder screen lacks crosshairs to guide you and the view is decidedly small and somewhat dim just to add to the frustration. Besides, it's an auto-focus camera for cryin' out loud.

My first thought for an attempted self-repair went to the electrical contacts between the camera body and the lens. I gently rubbed all the gold-colored contacts with a clean pencil eraser. I always try that first before applying chemical cleaners on contacts. The cleaning seemed to help somewhat, but the problem re-occurred in full flower quickly.

I was about to ditch my Olympus when I did a search for the experiences of similar folks. I came across a post on a forum that claimed a sensor cleaning would help. They said that using a Rocket-type sensor air blower was all that was needed. Their theory was that some dust had settled on the focus sensor and was throwing off the reading.

Wait, what?All it needed was some dusting?

Sounded too good to be true. But since it was free to do (told you I'm cheap) I decided it couldn't hurt to try.

So I took off the lens and held the camera upside-down while I blew out the mirror chamber and shunted some air under the mirror itself to stir any dust loose on the sensor(s). The poster recommended slight dusting pressure, but my Midwestern farm machinery ethic demanded that I employ gale wind forces on the E-500. To my credit, I did not even think about using my air compressor.

It worked. Both lenses now focus quickly and surely. Well, new-ish.

I love it when problems are solved with simple solutions. I don't know if such a sensor cleaning process would work on focus problems for other DSLRs by other brands. Thought I'd pass this little tip on to you for what it's worth.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rollei Rolleiflex Product Guide, Circa 1960

Found this product catalog in a plastic bag of seemingly random photo accessories I purchased from a thrift store. Hope it's of use to you in getting accurate information about a piece of Rolleiflex equipment you're planning on purchasing.

Kodak Retina Series 35mm Camera Accessory Flyer

An official publication from Kodak showing the variety of accessories available for late 1950's / early 1960's Retina series 35mm rangefinder cameras (IIIS & IIIC) and the Kodak Retina Reflex S leaf-shutter reflex camera. The lenses and some accessories would also work on the later Retina Reflex III and IV. 

Here's the outside spread:

The inside spread of the flyer:

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Nikon 55mm f/1.2 lens is anything but "normal"

A nuance that's forgotten about film-based photography was the endless challenge of film speed. We wanted to make prints with great resolution at large sizes, but to do that we needed to use film that was "slow" in reacting to light. You see, to make a proper exposure with film, enough photons  have to strike enough molecules of light-sensitive silver bromide/halide (or color film dye layers). The finer the apparent "grain", or resolution, of the film, the more densely packed the granules of silver salts were and thus the greater amount of light required to expose each shot sufficiently.

Today's digital cameras largely ignore "speed ratings" as their electronic sensors can see quite well in even very low light. Light levels that are now "normal" for image-taking. But back in the day, a roll of 1936 Kodachrome transparency film had an ASA/ISO value of 10. To put it in perspective, shooting original Kodachrome meant exposures on a very bright, sunny day of 1/60th of a second shutter speed at f/5.6 lens apertures. Even a dull day meant putting the camera on a tripod. Sports? Not easy.

That's why your elder film camera users/collectors get so excited about "fast" prime lenses instead of great zoom lenses. For us, the extra one-half to one full stop of light gathering ability at minimum aperture was the difference between using a tripod or not. Old habits will die with us. Even though a 135mm, f/3.5 lens shot brilliant, clear images, we held out for a f/2.8 version to buy. These days f/3.5 or f/4 maximum openings on a lens is considered fast (enough).

So, OK, now let's get to Nikon here. Partly to help with the needs of professional photographers shooting in varying lighting conditions and party to show-off their manufacturing prowess, most film camera manufacturers - especially Nikon - offered a few very high speed (and coincidentally very expensive) versions of lenses in the most popular or useful focal lengths. 

For "prime" lenses (what we called "normal") of around 50mm (1x magnification on a 35mm camera), you generally had two lens speeds from which to choose; something around an f/2.0 Nikkor, and a "faster" lens of f/1.4 Nikkor. Either lens took great images at shooting apertures of f/8 or so. Ah, but that extra light-gathering of the f/1.4 might get you a better exposed negative in lower light. Average consumers swallowed hard and bought the f/2.0, well-heeled consumers and pros opted for the f/1.4.

Then in 1965, Nikon introduced a 55mm f/1.2 lens. A beast of glass and brass. It allowed you to shoot in very low light when you needed it and in any light otherwise. It was big, heavy and well outside of the price range for anyone other than a pro with paying customers.

The other thing a lens with such a large minimum aperture offered was a razor thin depth of focus ability. When you focus a lens you're moving an area of sharpness forward and back from the camera's position. With a lens set to f/4, that area is decently large (maybe a few feet at distance). With an f/1.2 lens that area of focus is only a few inches wide when you shoot images closer-up; fabulous for shallow depth of field images in portraiture. Shallow as in you could have one eye in focus on someone's face, their other one blurred kind of effect. Today, you'd simply whip open Photoshop and add Gaussian blur to an area. Not back in 1965, it was all done live on film (or in the darkroom if you had one).

The Nikon 55mm f/1.2 of 1965 was a bit longer focal length "normal" lens. This was done to aid construction to accommodate the large mirror box of an SLR camera in those days. The lens didn't need to protrude into the mirror box as much. Optical formulas were worked out by hand, not computer then.

By 1977 Nikon had developed a 58mm version designed with special aspherical elements (more showing off). Marked the Noct-Nikkor (Noct meaning night) the lens improved the cancelling ability for the prominent flairing and coma effects typically produced by lenses of the f/1.2 variety when shot at full aperature. Of course, nowadays, we would WANT those in-camera defects.

 The final 50mm AI variant came along in 1978 just as film speeds with tighter grain arrived. The days of the Nikon f/1.2 normal lens ended in that year. Too bad. They were marvels of optical construction, the likes of which we may never see again.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Photo paper", not photo paper.

Short story.

Visited a nice second-hand store. After cruising the aisles for a few minutes, I knew I wouldn't find any vintage cameras about. Oh, well. On my way to the exit, I see something out of the corner of my eye; a familiar yellow box with red lettering: It just screams Eastman Kodak. I recognize it as being a box of some kind of photo paper. From the looks of it, not too old (in a relative sense compared to my own age). The box was in a glass presentation case, the reason why it needed secure storage I could not guess.

I move to it to get a good look. Cool. It's a box of Polycontrast Rapid RC II photo paper. 250 sheets. Five bucks for the box, I'm in. I ask a clerk for help in finding someone who could open the case to show me the box.

A very young woman with several facial piercings soon arrives with the keys to the cabinet. She reaches in and does her best to assist the potential sale on her part with some chatter. Things like, "It looks almost new. There's plenty of paper inside for printing." I nod knowingly and wait for her to present the box to me for a quick examination on the way to the checkout counter. Instead, she cradles the box with one hand, and before I can stop her, she lifts off the top of the box. I see white paper.


I'm gurgling some kind of incoherent response while my face contorts in a questioning look. "Why did you just do that? Are you stupid?" She sees my confused expression and quickly states, "It's paper for printing photos on an inkjet. You know, Kodak photo paper. Like at Office Depot." She draws out the words "photo paper" slowly in the hope that I would understand her better.

"See, it says it right here, photo paper." She gestures with her index finder adorned with a white skull on shiny black fingernail polish. "Photo paper." Thinking I need some further visual stimulus to get her meaning, she lifts up about fifty sheets from the box and fans them back. I imagine billions of atomic exchanges going on as each sheet gets full exposure.

I finally blurt out, "Yes! It's PHOTO PAPER!" Now it's her turn to look at me with a furled brow. "Right, photo paper," she finally nods in agreement.

I take a cleansing breath and say, very calmly I might add, "No, you don't understand. Light-sensitive photo paper. By opening the box in the store in this light, you ruin the paper's ability to be used to print photos. You might as well toss that in the garbage now."

Oh, yeah. Whoosh. Right over her head. She looks down and sees (to her) ordinary white paper. She looks back up at me.

"Look," I say, "this kind of paper was used in photographic DARKROOMS. It's a special kind of paper with a thin coating - an invisible coating - that must be kept in the dark until its ready to be used. When you project a negative on it - in the dark - where the light strikes an area of the paper, it will eventually turn that part black during chemical developing and fixing and . . . ".

Whoosh again. Well THAT little lecture didn't help. Her expression remains fixed and befuddled.

"Photo paper?," She says. "Photo paper," I reply. She turns her head slightly to one side. She takes on a thousand-mile stare. I begin to back slowly away from the counter. I smile and give a little wave. "Thanks, but I'll pass on the . . . photo paper."

As I turned to go, she looks down and fans a stack of sheets again, perhaps looking for some confirmation of what I was talking about.