Should photography be easy?

Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?

Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.

We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.

The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.

And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.

Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.

The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.

Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.

But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.

There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.

So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.

Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.

Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.

Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.

I could have looked-up that it would be 2EV, or I could have got out and metered it, but I put my phone on night mode. Bite me.

So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.

I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.

1:1:1 Mercury II

My second go at the 35hunter challenge.

I probably shouldn’t have loaded this camera, as I was unlikely to finish the roll quickly. I originally loaded it as I was off to the seaside and there would be wind turbines. I wanted to see if the rotary shutter did anything interesting with the rotating generator blades (it doesn’t). But this is a half-frame camera and gets loads of shots on a roll, so I wasn’t going to finish it quickly. But the 35hunter challenge was the kick up the arse I needed. It would also be the decider: do I actually want to keep and use this camera or do I sell it? If I sold it, could I benefit from it being the camera that captured Marilyn? Ok, not the, but a.

Whatever – it’s a strangle little camera that is entirely and prominently mechanical. But it gets loads of shots to the roll so you can shoot it like a paparazzi. It was loaded with Kentmere 100 as I wanted fine grain because of the small frame size. Ideally I would fit a little rangefinder, but the layout of the knobs and the big curved cover for the shutter disk make that awkward. So I carry one instead. Being American the distances marked on the lens are in feet. I’m more used to meters these days, but I do have a non-metric (you can hardly call it Imperial) clip-on rangefinder. Plus there’s always zone or hyperfocal focusing.

The lens is tiny. I don’t have many lenses that take a 25mm cap. I’m so used to wide-aperture primes the size of beer cans that this one feels dainty. Certainly after the Yashinon lens in my previous event, this thing is teeny-tiny. The engravings for the aperture and distance are tiny too, so I need my reading specs to make changes. It’s strange – all of the markings on this camera are tiny and the controls are small. This camera was definitely not made for old blokes with fat fingers.

Apertures

The focusing is quite stiff – I think Peggy broke a fingernail using it. That’s not a bad thing though (I don’t mean breaking fingernails) – it does stop the focus being changed accidentally. There is a depth of field scale on the arched top, so I find myself setting the lens to the hyperfocal distance for the aperture and varying the shutter speed if the light changes. In that respect it’s similar to the Pentax SV that was first out for this challenge, in that you can’t easily change the settings when the camera is up to your eye. People talk about shooting film to slow them down and these are slow cameras, the Mercury even more so. Where the Pentax has that lovely SLR feature of an accurate viewfinder, the Mercury is nearer guesswork. The tiny viewfinder has no frame lines so I find myself giving the subject a bit more room. This helps with the depth of field but I really don’t want to crop into the tiny negative if I can avoid it.

Having double the number of frames on a film ought to encourage taking more pictures by varying the composition, the distance and so on. But the manual focussing doesn’t encourage moving around and you have to take the camera away from your eye to wind on – no simple thumb lever here, this is a knob on the front face of the camera that you have to twist. I think I had a rant earlier about ergonomics. The Mercury is not quick or easy to use.

Another down side to the camera is that it has no strap lugs. This means I have to carry it in my hand or in my bag. If I do keep it I think I might make a case for it.

I sound like I’m hating it, but it’s actually fun to use. It’s quirky, and having to make decisions about the settings that can’t be changed quickly means that I have to think more carefully about which ones I use. It also looks quite steampunk, not that we carry cameras to impress other people (blush) do we? The shutter also makes a whoosh noise rather than a clack, and that’s fun too.

I was worried about the camera when I was using it. February has been very cold and I took the Mercury out in the thick of it. The shutter sounds like it’s running slow, so I kept putting the camera away in my bag or cuddling it. I needn’t have worried though – the film has a lovely set of evenly-spaced and well-exposed negatives. Not bad for a camera that could be over seventy years old.

Mercury scene

The lens does flare if the sun is in the frame. Also, the depth of field scale printed on the curved shutter housing is a bit optimistic. It may have been ok for small prints but not when you scan. The picture in the woods above should have been sharp to infinity but it’s obviously sharpest on the foreground tree that was at the point of actual focus.

Speaking about evenly spaced negatives – the Mercury spaces them with regular gaps between, unlike the Olympus Pen that creates closely spaced pairs. The result is that the Olympus negatives can be scanned like standard 35mm film but the Mercury ones have to moved around in the negative carrier to coincide with the frame edges. It’s also why the Mercury gets something like 64 shots on a roll of film while the Olympus gets 72.

Do I like it enough though? My Olympus Pen EE is much quicker and easier to use and does the whole ‘shoot loads, see what happens’ thing very well. It’s also easier to carry. I’m coming round to the idea that the Mercury is too fiddly to use, without the compensation of getting special results. So while I have been glad to use it, I think it’s off to a new owner.

Next up – the Pentax Spotmatic.

Old focus

When I was young and I had no sense… but that’s a different rhyme. From childhood I’ve been shortsighted and worn specs. I did try out for contact lenses in my early twenties, but they didn’t work well enough for my vision. The decider was when I got older and finally needed varifocals. I fell off kerbs, down stairs and was a hazard on the road. I’d seen the results of laser correction so went for it. So now I only need cheap reading specs for close-up, due to my advancing years.

What’s this got to do with photography? Focusing. And ageing.

I used to be able to focus anything. The same way I could read the fine print and thread a needle by eye. These days I use a magnifier and a needle threader. Not all my cameras have autofocus though, so I still need to do that by eye.

There’s a whole movement, perhaps cult, around rangefinder cameras. The argument seems to boil down to being able to see outside the frame so you can watch your subject come into view. Want to break a Leicaphile’s heart? Use an SLR and keep both eyes open.

That aside, I do like rangefinders where I can change the diopter value of the viewfinder. Step forward the Zorki and Fed. My lasered eyes focus best at infinity, so tweaking the viewfinder to match works well. I still need to wear my reading specs on my head so that I can see the camera dials but I’m fine with that.

Some of my old SLRs are becoming a challenge in dim light. Tell the truth, they probably always were. A Zenith is not known for the clarity and brightness of its viewfinder. In fact I usually set the Zenit lens by scale or hyperfocal distance and use the viewfinder only for framing. My Ricoh has a split prism in the middle of the screen plus a circle of microprism. These were useful even in my salad days. My Pentax MX has the functional joy of replaceable screens, so it’s fitted with the one which gives me what I need.

Ricoh XR2
Excuse the grunge. This post led to an early Spring cleaning session. This is the Ricoh XR2 – diagonal split prism and a ring of microprism.

I’ve also got a couple of classic Pentax SLRs, of which one is easier to focus than the other. The Spotmatic SPII has a little microprism patch in the centre of the screen which works well in daylight but I struggle with it in dim light.

Pentax Spotmatic
Pentax Spotmatic II. Central microprism spot with collar of slightly different microprism.

The SV has a larger microprism patch and is easier to focus when it’s darker.

Pentax SV. Large microprism spot but possibly a slightly darker screen than the Spotmatic. Same setup as a Praktica LTL.

I do feel guilty though, as if I am failing the cameras. In bright light they’re fine, but when we lack lux my focus sucks. To be fair though, the rangefinders struggle too. The only advantage is that with a rangefinder you can do the finger trick (move a finger in front of the rangefinder window. If it’s in focus the image in the rangefinder patch area won’t jiggle). I must say that I love my Pentax digital SLR, as it has focus assist and will show you the point of focus of any lens you can stick on the front.

A more recent Chinon C1. Horizontal split prism and microprism ring. The meter scale intrudes though.

I suppose one answer would be to shoot in better light, but I live in England. Right now we’re in our winter, so it’s dark by 5pm. I’ve got an f1.2 lens which helps, but I’m coming round to the idea that my later years will be automated or at least assisted. Or perhaps I just use what works best for the conditions? All the cameras focus easily in bright light but when the going gets dim I should swap to autofocus or pick the one that is easiest (the MX). What I don’t do is put an f3.5 lens on the Zenit (or worse, use the Konstruktor).

But I think I should tell myself to get over it – I can moan all I like about focusing, but try doing it underwater. So I’m back to where I started – focusing is getting harder with age, but there are ways of compensating. I’m just going to have to take more care over it or change my methods.

Another Nikonos

Having waved goodbye to the Nikonos V – the Legend – I thought that itch was scratched. It didn’t do what I wanted underwater. It was too heavy on dry land. Nice lens though, and very rugged.

But the earlier models were lighter and had the same lens. No automation at all and built like Russian tanks (what it doesn’t have can’t break). You can guess the rest.

So this is my Nikonos III.

Nik 3

It’s the last incarnation of the original Calypso camera that was bought and renamed/ redesigned by Nikon.

So why do I want an even less clever underwater camera? Because that won’t be its main job. Underwater is for digital, zoom lenses and automatic everything. Plus small enough to not fight me when I’m doing something else.

What I wanted, or what I told myself I wanted, was a rugged camera that could cope with water, sand, mud and cold. All the highlights of a British summer. I know I’ve already got several of these, but hey….

First challenge – load it. Start by taking the lens off. Pull out and twist and the bayonet unlocks with a ninety degree turn. Then use the odd strap lugs to lever off the top of the camera. It comes apart into an outer case and the inner working parts. The lens locks them together. Clever. Also rugged – if it does flood I’m told you rinse it in fresh water and dry it.

Next challenge – wind on. The wind-on lever pulls back towards you rather than being pushed round with your thumb. The lever lies across the front of the camera rather than the back. You squeeze the tip of the lever back towards you to fire the shutter. The lever then springs out and can be pushed back with your forefinger to wind on. I’m told this was meant to be easier to use, possibly one-handed, underwater. It’s odd, but saves trying to find the shutter release. The original designer obviously had experience of trying to use a camera in the dark, wearing gloves. The down side is that there is a fair bit of movement to fire the shutter and no half-press position to tell your finger it’s nearly triggered. It takes a deliberate press, so this is probably not a great camera for fast moving action. But that’s not what it’s for.

Nik 1
Ready to shoot. Note the shutter lever is locked.
Nik 2
Fired and ready to wind on.

Not a wide range of shutter speeds – these things would normally be used with flash and a macro lens or attachment and frame finder. Once you’d got your exposure right, probably on slide film, you’d leave it there. Speaking of flash, the Nikonos cameras use a special dedicated waterproof connection. But you can get a plug for land use that provides a standard PC socket. Just don’t go anywhere near water with this converter plugged in.

The Nikonos III is the one to have from the early models, as it has X sync and uses the sprocket holes in the film to count and space the frames. Hence my choice and purchase.

I’ve almost justified it to myself. But I can sell some other cameras or even camera to cover it. As cameras go the Nikonos III needn’t be expensive if you look carefully.

In use we are really back to basics. The Russian tank joke is quite true: the narrow range of shutter speeds and zone focusing make this very similar to using some Russian cameras. Metering is easy – I can use everything from guesswork via a rotary calculator to a proper meter. Focussing can be the same – from guesswork through zone to using a clip-on rangefinder.

So what’s it like to use and was it worth dipping my toe back in the underwater? Slow to load and unload, but you don’t do that often. You can mount the lens upside down so that the distance and aperture scales are easily read when you tip the camera backwards. Like using many old cameras, you take a meter reading when you start the day and keep checking and tweaking the settings on the camera to keep them right. Keep it adjusted and you can just raise it and shoot immediately without fiddling. The viewfinder is quite big and has good eye relief – it was meant to work for people wearing a diving mask. The camera can live over your shoulder whatever the weather. You might have to wipe the front of the lens, but that’s it. The 35mm lens can be used on land and underwater and has a plain glass disk at the front, so it’s safe to wipe it dry as long as you don’t use a sandy rag.

The only thing to remember is that if you do drop it in water it will sink. If you are out on a boat, attach some buoyancy to the strap.

The 35mm lens is nice – it was borrowed from Nikon’s rangefinder camera. It’s worth fitting a lens hood for land use because of the glass disk at the front of the lens. Even so, it doesn’t flare as much as you might expect and the lens is sharp and contrasty. Other than that, this thing will take whatever is thrown at it (or it’s thrown at). No batteries to freeze or die, no electronics to fail. It really does have a lot of things that can’t fail because they are not present.

Wheldrake Woods
Surprisingly resistant to flare

It is lighter than the Nikonos V. Not supermodel light, because it still weighs 620g, but it’s 80g less than the Nikonos V and that’s near enough three rolls of film. It’s still a chunky beast though, but it has to be. The Nikonos cameras are rated to at least 50m depth. This is around 74psi in old money. It’s also why you pull out on the lens to unlock it, not press in. At 50m depth that lens is already being pressed into the body with 290lb of force. Try putting one of your own cameras lens-down on the floor and let your 20 stone chum stand on the back. Like I said – rugged.

But that’s all top trumps talk (the game, not the nutter) – what matters is what sort of pictures it takes and what it’s like to use.

Superb bright viewfinder that shows more than the frame margins. Quiet shutter – mainly because it’s buried inside a block of metal. Grippy body – that pattern is sharp hard rubber, not leatherette. Very clear focus and aperture scales with a nice smooth resistance to the knobs. Nice sharp lens – it’s a 35mm f2.5 that drops to the field of view of a 50mm underwater due to refraction. I’ve already had good results from the one I had on the Nikonos V so I know I’ll like it.

This is a camera that I would happily use on the beach and run under the tap afterwards to clean. So the Legend is dead; long live the Legend.

1:1:1 Pentax SV

This is my first go at the 35Hunter challenge of one camera, one lens, one month. I had three possible cameras available but chose the Pentax SV. It didn’t originally come with a lens so I stuck on a lens I found in a charity shop that turned out to be better than I first thought.

So an unmetered Pentax SLR, 55mm manual lens, Kentmere 400.

The SV itself is well regarded, if very basic. Mine has been CLA’d and has new light seals. One of the joys of a mechanical camera, while you can still find people who can service them, is that they can be kept going almost indefinitely. The film? Well, the argument has probably already started between Tri-X, HP5 and Kentmere. It ends for me when you compare prices. The lens is the largest aperture one I have that fits, as this is the darkest end of the year. Even at 400ISO I could do with some help.

SV

The camera was already loaded and I’ve got perhaps a dozen shots left on the roll. At least one of these has to be of the field of grass behind my house, for reasons I’ll explain in a later post. So, less than half a roll – how hard can it be?

I’d forgotten just how nice the SV is to use. The shutter makes a gentle clop sound and the wind-on is smooth. I went out with it on a freezing night to get a particular shot and the camera got too cold to carry without gloves, but it still worked perfectly. It feels a bit old-fashioned, as it still uses a separate catch to open the back rather than pulling up on the rewind crank.

This is photography at its most basic – no electronic anything. The camera has shutter speeds, the lens has apertures, the rest is down to you. My biggest argument with screw-fit cameras is how slow and fiddly it is to change lenses, but that goes away if you stick with just one. So this challenge takes away some of the differences between cameras and leaves you with the results.

Not that this exercise will tell you much about the camera, as the best it can do is not screw up the work of the lens. The Yashinon lens though, it’s a thing of wonder. 55mm and f1.2 so it’s big and full of glass. It feels like there is a lot of field curvature as you need to adjust focus if you move the subject from the centre to the edge of the frame. It focuses close – under half a meter (eat your hearts out, rangefinders). Out of focus highlights become eliptical at the sides of the frame. They can get even weirder at night. The glass is radioactive. In other words, it’s full of character.

Lamp night
F1.2 and a proper T setting lets you shoot in the dark

The 55mm focal length may be a good covid lens too as it’s slightly longer so can cope with a bit more separation between the photographer and subject.

The combination of lens and camera works quite well. The focusing screen is fairly good but the bright lens makes the most of it. There is no information in the viewfinder at all, so you do have to take the camera away from your eye to check or change the settings. So you change your methods. Rather than adjusting the camera while looking through the viewfinder I take a light reading, set the camera and then keep taking light readings as I walk about. I’ve got an old Leningrad meter that is quite small and easy enough to carry in a pocket. It’s good practice too – I guess what I think the exposure will be before I use the meter and then see how far out I am. I’m usually a stop underexposed, but I’m getting better. And yes, I have a light meter app on my phone, but the Leningrad is quicker to use and less visible.

Branches
The lens gives some nice separation even when it’s not wide open

So I’ve quite enjoyed my first go at the one camera challenge thing. It certainly cuts through the usual crisis of decision-making when planning to go out somewhere. No more ‘what camera shall I take’ as the choice is made. It will also get some of the old relics out of the cupboard and give them some exercise. And if it turns out I don’t love them, then off to eBay they will go. This one is a keeper.

Next up – the Mercury II.

Mending digital cameras

Is about as difficult as you would think. But sometimes it isn’t. Let me explain.

Film cameras are like proper clockwork watches. They have gears and springs and components that push and pull each other. There’s a guy on 35mmc who has taken a Minolta apart. Part of its mechanism is basically a length of string. My Pentax MX is allegedly similar: it uses a string to rotate the shutter speed indicator in the viewfinder and there is a known error when it gets out of sync. (It affects the display, not the camera). Analogue cameras – full of pingfukkits. Ask me how I know this.

Digital cameras though are built from sub-assemblies. This is how we build things now – a set of individual circuit boards linked together. This should mean that a camera can be more easily taken apart into chunks. It should mean that you can replace just the faulty chunk. Indeed, it can make it easy to alter some of the components.

Enter the G9. This is one of Canon’s clever point and shoots and has a serious design flaw. There are two internal screws that have no form of thread lock and so work loose. They are upside down, in the sense that gravity will normally encourage them out. They live just above the main power circuit board. So the usual sequence is ‘oh, it rattles’ followed by ‘oh, it’s broken’. Mine refused to switch on, then did but immediately broke.

IMG_2825
The main power board and the offending screws

OK, so I didn’t spend a lot of money on it originally, but I’m loathe to just throw all this technology away. Fear not, YouTube and some tiny screwdrivers are your friends!

As you probably expect for a common problem, someone has put a video on YouTube of themselves fixing it. The best part of this is that you can see exactly what they do and pause the video at the critical stages. Anyone of a certain age will remember trying to mend a car or bike with a Haynes manual. And as a kid, I can still remember helping my dad to connect a cooling hose after the cylinder head had been refitted, because it wasn’t clear in what order to do things (the only reason I was any use was that my hands were smaller than his).

So what’s the problem? I’ve already said that digital cameras come apart into chunks. It’s the coming apart that hurts. The connectors between sections are tiny. It’s impossible to tell by looking whether you pull, unclip or lift. This is where you want to watch someone else do it first. You can also get a sense of how much force they used.

The camera comes apart into sections if you undo the correct screws. It comes apart into even more pieces if you undo the wrong screws. So I sit under a bright desk lamp, YouTube on pause, gently dropping screws in order of removal onto a length of masking tape (sticky side up). I’ve taken old motorbikes apart often enough to have a method and order for where I put the loose bits. It’s also why I have thread locking compound to hand.

Sure enough, two loose screws fall out of the camera. So I put them back in with threadlock and reassemble. Could I be lucky? What do you think? Yep, still broken.

EBay is your other friend, and I order a new power board from China. Surprisingly cheap – they must sell a lot of these.

After careful stripping, fitting the new power board and reassembling, the moment of truth. Nope, still broken. When the screws fell out of the camera they were deep inside the body, so I think they must have dropped right inside and fused or broken other bits of circuitry.

What a nuisance. Even more so that the prices for the G9 seem to be high. Even broken ones are seeking more than mine cost working and with an underwater housing. But my kung fu is strong, and before long a nice working one is mine for a bit less than the original.

So what did I learn? Repairs are possible if someone else has done it before and filmed it, and if the parts are available. I now have a working camera and a replacement power board if this one suffers a loose screw. If it’s broken anyway, don’t be afraid of mending it. And internal screws need thread-lock.

One lens

My first camera didn’t have a zoom lens. It was a while before I could afford a second lens, so I learned the basics with a “standard” lens – a 40 degree angle of view. This is supposed to match the normal field of vision of the human eye, which it does not. Perhaps the ‘perspective‘ (meaning diminution) matches, which is more likely.

Zooms were great though – my favourite is a Pentax 24-50mm. I’ll bet though that a lot of zooms are used at one end or the other of their range and not much in between. There used to be a number of point and shoot cameras that offered two switchable focal lengths rather than a zoom. I know I had one for a while. It made a lot of sense – easier to make, quicker to use and probably got exactly the same shots.

I wonder though if sticking to a single fixed lens might be a useful exercise? I know that 35Hunter does a thing of using one camera with one lens for one month. I’m not sure I could be that disciplined. If anything, it would be the one month that was hardest. I’ve regularly been out with one camera and one lens, but I will change the combination depending on where I’m going. Not at all like the old days where the camera and lens of choice were the (only) ones I owned.

These days I have more lenses but I find myself swapping them less often. After that initial period with only my standard lens I had the standard hobbyist set of wide, standard and long. In those days it meant 28mm, 50mm and 135mm on 35mm film. (That’s 65, 40 and 15 degrees angle of view) I was constantly swapping lenses. The main reason was that I had them with me – I used to carry a huge bag stuffed with lenses and gadgets. As I got older I tended to cut down on the camera gear and carry things that were more useful, like drinking water or a map.

So what’s the big deal? I think I might have a go at the 35Hunter 1:1:1 challenge to see what effect simplicity has. Even though I take great joy from being able to play with different kit, it would be interesting to go back to the basics and my roots and see what happens when I have to work within constraints (and not the Konstruktor challenge). A good starting point could be that I’ve got a couple of cameras loaded already. I’m going to flip a coin and carry just one of them until it’s done, then swap to the other. Make that three – I’ve just found another one that’s loaded and part shot.

Choices

Which should it be then? The Pentax is loaded with Kentmere 400, the Mercury with Kentmere 100 and the Ricoh with some Kodak colour print film. The Pentax it is. If nothing else, it will get some part-used film finished.

Have a go yourself. See what happens.

Olympus 35 RC

I’ve played with an Olympus Pen-EE and a Fed 50 (the Trip-alike) but this camera is the real deal: a full rangefinder with a sharp lens in a package the same size as the other two.

Mine is not a great example – the shutter speed dial is a bit loose and the light seals were shot – but, in common with most of my gear, it was cheap.

What you get is a great package. Olympus were the best at putting a good lens on a small camera that worked well. Owning one of these isn’t like a Leica, where you fret in existential turmoil over whether your viewfinder has the right magnification or choice of frame lines and fumble with the awkward film loading. This just works. The tiny dimensions mean you carry it, and you probably get 38 frames on a film.

o35rc

The lens is a cracker – sharp and contrasty. Having said that I like the Fed 50, you can see the difference in the shots from the RC.

The camera has a very neat feature for anyone wanting to use flash, in that it can make a cheap and simple manual flash into an automatic. If you set the flash guide number on the side of the lens, the camera adjusts the aperture according to distance when you focus. Since the shutter is a leaf type you can use flash at any speed. What this means is that you can stick an old (cheap) flashgun on the camera to light the foreground and use the shutter speed to control how light or dark you want the background. It’s clever and it works. Note though – it only works for on-camera flash, so don’t go Strobist.

O35rc GN
Guide number setting on the side of the lens

The camera is basically a shutter-priority automatic, but you can also use it in manual mode. Why, I don’t know – the meter seems to do a good job. You can also easily compensate for odd lighting – aim the camera at something lighter or darker (depending on what you need) half-press the shutter button and the exposure locks. Reframe and shoot. Simples.

Flashmatic
Changing the background exposure by choice of shutter speed

Ken Rockwell loved it.

The shutter and the diaphragm are simple two-bladed designs with a square opening. The purists will tell you that this ruins the bokeh. The rest of us will just take pictures. I’ve only seen a square aperture produce odd effects in one of my underwater cameras and that was because the flash lit up the floating debris in the water. In practice I can see that some of my pictures with the RC have out of focus backgrounds but there’s nothing distracting. Again, it just works. Olympus use the same square aperture on the XA and why not – it’s mechanically simple, small and reliable.

Wheldrake Woods

So there you have it. It’s a neatly packaged little camera that you can focus accurately and has a good lens. It works really well with flash. Top marks, Olympus.

Fed 50: the poyezdka

As I didn’t like the Lomo LC-A very much, I was offered a chance to swap it. So now I have a different camera that was also on my ‘one day, perhaps’ list – the Fed 50.

The Fed 50 Automat was made between 1986 and 1996. It looks very much like the Olympus Trip but didn’t even start production until two years after the Trip had stopped.

Fed50

In some ways it’s more sophisticated than the Trip as it has more than two shutter speeds. Unlike the LC-A it tells you what combination of speed and aperture it’s going to use, in a range of 1/30 at f2.8 to 1/650 at f14. There is even a basic manual mode: set the camera to use flash and the shutter is set to 1/30. You can then change the apertures to suit. This is similar to the Lomo LC-A, although that set the shutter speed to a more useful 1/60. The viewfinder also shows the zone distance you have focused on. While the lens is marked with a conventional distance scale, twisting it moves a pointer in the viewfinder between the typical zone-focus icons of person, group, scenery.

Fed VF

I’ve seen mention that the dial that sets the film ISO is easy to nudge and that the camera tends to underexpose. So I’ll be careful with the ISO dial and I might set the camera to overexpose a bit on my first roll of film. And yes, having since carried the camera in a bag, the ISO dial does get nudged. A bit of tactical sticky tape is called for.

It’s a chunky little monkey that has some heft. It feels good to carry – like it would survive the occasional bump. It’s an easy carry too – it sits well in one hand with a wrist strap.

It does underexpose. I rated my first film through it at 250 ISO rather than 400 and it could even have done with a touch more. I wonder if putting a lens hood on might help, to restrict the view of the light meter that surrounds the lens. It’s a strange 45.5mm thread but I could get a step-up ring to take it up to a more conventional 49mm. <Rummages in the box of bits and finds a 45.5mm lens hood I never knew I had. Yippee!>

The first shots into low but strong (for this time of year) sunshine look like there is some internal light reflection at the sides of the film gate. Nothing that a dab of matte black paint won’t fix. (I have a Kiev 60, and dulling the reflections on that was like painting the hall). While peering at the film gate I noticed a raised spot of paint that probably coincides with scratches on the negatives. A scrape with a sharp blade, a rub with fine emery cloth and a lick of paint and we’ll see if both the reflections and scratches are cured.

I like the lens a lot more than the one on the LC-A, specifically because it doesn’t vignette. I like to be able to have things at the sides of my pictures occasionally, not dead central.

The usual old camera tests went well: it exposes evenly and the frames are well spaced. Things that should be in focus are. So mechanically it looks fit.

In use it felt very much like a Trip – set the lens to the right distance and just shoot. The Olympus Trip may have the sharper lens but I don’t have one to compare with. And who cares? While I was taking the first set of pictures one of the group remarked on me having a ‘proper old camera’. I don’t suppose you see too many people these days having to wind-on between shots. (And yes, we were all doing the right anti-virus stuff. No trumping here.)

On the second outing I found it still underexposes with a lens hood on. I could either try blanking a few of the light-gathering bobbles on the meter with a marker pen or just set the ISO lower. But the flare and the scratching were gone, which is good.

Where canoes go in winter.

Down side? It’s difficult to engage the end of the film in the takeup spool. Once it was properly caught it held tight, enough that it didn’t release on the rewind. Still, better that than not catching.

Where old vans go in winter.

So I’m very happy with it. I like the results, it has a viewfinder I can use and it’s proper old. It can be carried in one hand, set to the likely focus distance and you can just raise it and shoot. I definitely prefer it to the LC-A. Plus it doesn’t have the cult following of the LC-A, so prices are still reasonable.

Digital-clever film cameras

The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.

My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.

By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.

Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?

Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.

I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom

The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.

So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.

Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

IMGP5272

Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.

Dalby Forest

I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.

Dalby Forest

This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.