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Second cheapest

So the idea is, if you are not sure what you need and faced with a long scale that stretches from cheap and cheerful to costly and complex, start with the second cheapest. The idea comes from Ronald Turnbull, and is his way of choosing mountaineering gear. For him, the enemies are weight and cost. The basis of the idea is to start with about the minimum and work up to what you need through actual experience.

I know I wrote previously about buying second-hand as a lower cost entry point. Ron’s is a slightly different strategy, of buying new but buying cheap. As film cameras age and fail, buying used is going to be increasingly risky. I know there are cameras that can be repaired and maintained, but they tend to be expensive and the skilled people who can repair them are also in short supply. The reason these cameras can be fixed at all is that they are expensive. People who buy a Leica or Rollei don’t want to throw them away if they break. People who break a Zenith tend to buy another one, even though they are eminently fixable.

If you look at digital kit there is an enormous range of functionality and features, with new models arriving like Russian taxis. If you know exactly what you need, the choice is easy. Otherwise, it’s confusing. So Ron’s Way might be the best: pick the one above the cheapest, use it and learn what it lacks. I know the old adage of buy cheap, buy twice, but there is no guarantee that buying expensive will deliver what you need. I could buy one of those mythical Leicas or Rolleis, and then find that what I really wanted was autofocus and the ability to use long lenses for bird photography. Or I could buy a top-range digital camera only to find it can’t take alternative lenses.

Not the second-cheapest, but it was second-hand.

Sure, you could do the logical thing and make a list of what you need and compare it with camera specifications, but is your list going to be based on experience or desire? I could wish for a 500mm lens, but I can’t think when I might ever use it. But I did learn from using a digital SLR that I needed better high ISO ability and to be able to use my wide angle lenses without cropping. I confess that I also didn’t buy the original camera new: I waited until a new model was announced and the price of the old one dropped like a rock. It has done, and still does, great service. I have used most of the features it offers. It went on sale in 2006 and was superseded in 2008, so mine is around 14 years old. I don’t care what the shutter count is and I’m not scouting for a spare one as a backup. If it breaks, the new camera is a total replacement that can do everything the old one did plus more.

Already obsolete when I bought it.

So perhaps we add the Duck Dodge to Ron’s Way? Buy a good model when it gets replaced and the price drops. But if you are not sure what you want yet, try Ron’s Way – buy the second cheapest.

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The passing of a trouper

RIP the Ricoh XR-2. This was my first proper SLR camera and has soldiered on through everything that was ever asked of it. It’s been used underwater, in the rain and for everything and it just kept going. The light seals perished but were easily replaced.

And then I developed a film that was blank. A quick check found that the shutter was firing at a single speed, as there was no difference between 1/1000 and 1 second. The other obvious thing was that although the shutter blades were moving, there was no gap between them. Fresh batteries made no difference.

The shutter is a Copal Square and is electronically timed. So it looks like the electronics have died. I know that shutters have a life expectancy, and knowing how much I have used this camera over the years I guess I’ve just found it.

Forty years of hard service. Not bad for a consumer camera.

Am I going to replace it? No, I have more than enough cameras. I did have a Ricoh KR-10 for a while, but that was a bit too odd ergonomically. So if I’m not replacing it with another Ricoh I can just use one of the many other cameras I have, such as a perfectly serviceable Cosina.

On the other hand, it’s worth checking it over before throwing it away. It appears to be firing at the manual speed only. I understand that the shutter blades are held and released by a couple of solenoids. If they weren’t working or were covered in muck it could explain what the shutter is doing. What’s the harm in looking? Actually, quite a lot. I’m not the most gifted at fiddly repairs, or even repairs. I might be better sending this and some other casualties of time and hard use to one of the people who is still repairing cameras. That’s if they have any use as parts.

So what I actually did is take it, plus some other knackered SLR bodies and a lens, to the Photo Show in Birmingham. I donated them all to the Camera Rescue people. With luck they will either live to work again or donate components so that other cameras can have a longer life.

Praktica LTL

The first thing you notice about this and most Prakticas is the design, or ergonomics. The camera has a square-edged body and the shutter button is on the front rather than the top. Many cameras look like the outside shape is moulded around the internal components. This Praktica looks like a box that was made to hold the working parts. It’s at the brutalist architecture end of camera design. It’s reminiscent of the Argus rangefinder, although the Argus was probably made that way for ease of assembly.

This, and many of the other Praktica models, use a vertically-run, metal-bladed shutter that seems to be reliable and long-lasting. It has the usual suspects of speeds, spanning 1s to 1/1000. Unlike its Russian cousins you can safely change the speed without winding-on first

This was very much the thinking person’s cheap camera. There were lots of different models, so pay attention. Be aware too that Praktica used electrical contacts between the lens and body before they moved to a bayonet fitting. If you have an electric-type camera I believe you will need an electric lens to be able to take advantage of open-aperture metering. My version, the LTL, uses plain and simple stop-down metering and has no electrical contacts.

The bonus features in this model were a visible indicator in the viewfinder that the shutter is not cocked, plus a lock for the shutter button. Heady stuff, but mine lacks the shutter lock.

The meter takes a mercury battery, but you can also use an air-zinc one. Or you can just treat it as a meterless camera and forget the battery.

The other thing you will notice using the camera is the way it winds on. What I’m used to with other screw-mount cameras is the feeling of gears moving. They feel like you are winding-up a clock. The Praktica has a sort of clunk to the action – like a switch is being set. It’s hard to describe, but you will know it if you try say a Pentax and a Praktica. It may be down to Praktica’s method of holding the end of the film (see peeve below).

Mine came with a typical Praktica lens, the Domiplan 50mm f2.8. This is a basic triplet design with a reputation of being soft wide open but sharpening up a bit when stopped down. The Tessars are better lenses if you find a camera with one on. Or fit any number of sharp M42 lenses. I’m using a Yashinon on mine, with Pentax 35mm and 85mm lenses rattling in the bag.

But it’s a standard screw-mount camera. Get one of the models that does not use the electrical contacts and it will take a huge range of lenses. I’m pretty sure the electric ones will work too, but the meter probably won’t work without the matching lens.

The one feature I really don’t like though is their design of film take-up spool. Praktica switched from the usual slot in a tube to a clever piece of wire. I struggle to get the wire type to engage the film. I can do it, but it’s a slow film load as I wind-on the first blank bit of the film while watching for the rewind crank to revolve. I’m sure there is a knack to it, that I lack.

The shiny wires either side of the take-up spool are my nemesis

In use, the camera works as you’d expect. The shutter speeds seem accurate, which is a tribute to their design. The meter works if you get the battery voltage right. The negative frames are evenly spaced, so the mechanical bits are working ok. The rest is down to the lens, so the pictures are as sharp as the lens I fit.

Respect is due though. They made a lot of cameras and seem to have built them well. Mine must be at least 47 years old and still works reliably. I’d much rather use a Praktica than a Zenit.

Fed 5b

I didn’t want another rangefinder, but it was like pulling a thorn from a bear’s paw and having it follow you home as a friend (or to eat your dog).

I was mooching the Disabled Photographers stand at the Photo Show. Just out of curiosity you understand, and in case they had any wide-angle lenses. Right on the end of the bench was a grubby and battered Fed. The leatherette was scarred and torn. So of course I picked it up. The nameplate on the front was skewed and viewfinder was fuzzy and out of focus. But this is a Fed, so it can be easily adjusted to compensate for the variations in manufacture. The nameplate on the front, that contains the front windows for the viewfinder and rangefinder, is held on by a spring. It comes off to allow access to the rangefinder adjusters. So I pushed it straight again. The viewfinder itself has a diopter adjustment, so I twisted the eyepiece until it was sharp. I looked through it at a ceiling light and poked the arm in the lens throat. The double images came together with no vertical misalignment. Hmm, this thing might actually work.

Came without a lens, but I had a spare. The nameplate moves sideways and unclips to reveal the rangefinder adjusters.

The big test though was the shutter. Peggy of CameraGoCamera is clever enough to fix a knackered shutter, but not me. I’ve come to accept that I’m not good with anything more delicate than power tools. But the shutter curtains looked good – the fabric looked smooth and there seemed to be no holes when I held the camera up to the light. So I tried all the speeds (winding-on before changing speed, as one must). They looked and sounded about right.

Surprisingly clean inside

The Fed 5b has a better film winding arrangement than some other cameras, like a Zorki. The Fed has a drum with slots for the film leader, where some other cameras have a take-up spool that falls out when you open the camera. My Zorki has the escaping spool, as does my Fed 2. I think in the past I have used the spool from inside a 35mm film cassette as a replacement.

Fed 5 take-up spool
Zorki take-up spool making a bid for freedom

So of course I bought it.

With a better look at home I could see that the film counter was broken – there were no numbers visible through the window. Then I noticed that the window was in the wrong position. Someone had twisted it 90 degrees out of line. So I slacked the grub screw, turned it back and locked it. The film numbers appeared and incremented as the camera was fired and wound-on. Wow! This thing might work.

The window was next to the shutter button

Next is a torch test of the shutter curtains. No point putting film in it if the shutter is more net curtain than blackout blind. It passed – no obvious pinholes.

The Fed 5 was the last iteration of the line, produced from 1975 to 1990. This one, the 5b, was a cheaper version that lacked the uncoupled light meter of the 5. One less thing to break. The body is basically a box with rounded corners. Not as intricate as my Fed 2 or as steampunk as the Argus C3, but functional. It’s noticeably taller than the Fed 2. That’s not a bad thing for handling – I have big hands and the Fed 5 fits into my whole hand whereas I carry the Fed 2 using two fingers and a thumb (which is why it gained a raised grip on the front of the body). There are no strap lugs though, so it will be a bag carry.

Fed 2 to the left, Fed 5 to the right

The real test will be the rangefinder calibration. Setting the infinity point is easy, but you sometimes also need to adjust the close point. This means turning the cam on the end of the arm that rests on the back of the lens. It’s doable, but delicate. But I can’t wait, so I loaded a part-used film. I often tell my wife she has the patience of dynamite (with the expected result), but in this case it’s me.

The developed film showed consistent exposure, so the shutter is probably OK. The negatives were well spaced, so the mechanicals are probably OK. Infinity focus was good, but close focus was way off. So I’m going to have to twist the cam on the end of the rangefinder ‘finger’. The lens was focusing beyond a close object, so it wasn’t far enough out. The camera thinks the lens is further out on its focusing thread than it is. So I think I have to twist the cam to protrude further out. This will push the arm back in a bit, so the lens will have to be racked out a bit further. Luckily the whole back of the camera comes off to load, so it should be relatively easy to put a focusing screen over the actual film gate, lock the shutter open on B and then experiment.

To be continued…

Canonet 28

I was given this camera with the words “I was going to throw it away, but you can have it if you want and can make it work”.  A quick check showed that the light seals were glue and the meter battery was flat (but hadn’t leaked). A little bit of emery cloth on the battery contacts, a new battery and some light seals and it sprang into life. Incidentally, Covid handwash gel is perfect for cleaning old light seal residue: the alcohol does the work and the gel stops it spreading.

So, what do we have? An automatic exposure rangefinder camera with a 40mm f2.8 lens. It was made from 1971-76 and was one of the last all-metal compact cameras before everyone switched to using plastics. This puts it right in the middle of the production run of the Olympus Trip (1967-1984) and it’s a similar offering.

The Canonet 28 was a cheaper person of the more famous Canonet QL17 and was made in Taiwan. It has shutter speeds ranging from 1/30 to 1/600, apertures from f2.8 to f16 and film speed settings from ISO 25 to 400. All pretty normal, basic and usable. Like several other automatic cameras of this type, the shutter locks if the meter indicates under or over exposure. So putting a lens cap on the camera prevents accidental shots. It also stops you taking blank shots if you forget to remove the lens cap.

The white tape makes the lens cap a tighter fit.

The lens might be better than you would expect, with five elements in four groups. This is the same configuration as the Pentax 40mm pancake lens that everyone is chasing, so this Canon might be a cheaper alternative that comes with its own film holder and shutter.

The viewfinder shows only the shutter speed selected by the meter, not the aperture. But they vary together from 1/30 at f2.8 to (the experts say) 1/620 at f14.5. If you take the setting off the Auto position you get 1/30 shutter speed but access to manual control of the aperture. This is meant for using flash. The meter itself will lock and hold its setting with a half press of the shutter. Perfect for this camera’s audience – you can shoot on automatic, then take a bit more control as you learn more about photography. It also weighs just over half a kilo, so not too onerous to carry around. The only thing to perhaps think about is that it was originally built to use a 1.35v mercury battery. Mine now has a fresh 1.5v cell (same as the expired one that was in it), so there may be a difference in the metering. We’ll see if it matters.

The lens has a short focus throw, turning only through about 40 degrees to go from infinity to its closest focus of 0.8m. The rangefinder patch in the viewfinder looks faint, but in use works quite well. I’m used to twisting and turning my rangefinders to get an edge or feature that can show a double image for focusing (or even using a laser pointer). The Canon surprised me by showing a clear double image without any fiddling.

The flash hot shoe has an extra contact, as there was a dedicated flashgun for this camera that could be used in full autoexposure mode. With any other flash you have to take the camera off auto and set the aperture. This sets the shutter speed to 1/30, which is pretty slow for a Copal shutter that should sync at all speeds.

There is a little window below the tip of the winding lever that gives visual confirmation that the film has engaged with the sprockets and is winding-on. It’s a bit superfluous, as the rewind crank also rotates. Or I thought so, until I rewound the film. When you do that the indicator wiggles until the end of the film releases from the make-up spool. This makes it easy to rewind the cassette with the end still out. The film counter window is tiny, but has a magnifier. Even so, I had to tilt the camera into the light to be able to see the numbers.

There is another bit of good design that you find when you load the camera. Rather then the usual wind-and-fire to get past the initial exposed part, the Canonet just winds-on a couple of times to get to the start position. Clever, as it just works and would save you from losing the first shot or two on the film if you were not familiar with 35mm.

In use, the viewfinder display of the camera’s selected shutter speed is not that helpful. It really only confirms that the camera is not struggling with overexposure or a slow speed.

The shutter button has quite a long action, but this does make it easier to find the half-press spot where the meter reading will be locked-in. This is really the only control you have – take a look at the displayed shutter speed, point the camera at a darker or lighter area to change it, then lock that exposure with a half-press of the shutter button. Then reframe and shoot.

I’m impressed with the build quality of this camera. It was Canon’s cheap and low-end model but the rangefinder seems to be in adjustment and everything works.  For a 45 year old camera, this is pretty good. It does help that it has obviously been looked after.

Carrying the camera is not so great. The standard strap slips off my shoulder (which could be fixed) and it places the camera under my elbow. This would be fine, but it risks me knocking the lens cap off. That would enable the camera’s meter and shutter, so there could be a risk of taking accidental shots. The camera is small and light though, so it’s easy to hand-carry. Hey, I could even go tourist and carry it around my neck.

I loaded the camera and took it for a walk. Normally I would be more interested in the handling of the camera than the pictures, but I’m curious to see what the automatic exposure does and how the 40mm lens performs. …And it’s pretty obvious that the higher battery voltage is being seen as more light, meaning that the camera is underexposing. Now, I’m sure I could do something clever with a battery adapter but I took the crude and simple route: I put a spot of black marker pen on the meter window. It’s not a permanent marker, so I can see how the lens works and buy the adapter if I need it.

The lens is quite good. It even delivers a slightly swirly bokeh under the right conditions.

Even though the aperture of f2.8 is modest, it can be used in lower light and it can give some subject to background separation.

The negatives were nicely exposed, so the bodge with the marker pen seems to have worked. Neat.

So overall, quite a handy package that works better than you might expect for what was a cheaper consumer camera.

Kodak 616

I’ve got a rather handsome art deco Kodak folding camera made in 1938 or ’39. The plate on the lensboard describes it as a Six-16 Model C. It was an ornament for a while, until I got curious about using it. The camera was made to use 70mm wide film to produce negatives of 2.5 by 4.25 inches. That’s more than twice the size of the usual square 6×6 roll film negative. You could think of it as a half-frame 5×4 camera. The idea was that the negatives were big enough to be contact-printed at around postcard size. Load it with ortho film, develop in dishes under safelight and you could make contact prints. Very easy amateur photography without the need for an enlarger.

What this large negative size gives you is a large camera. Quite heavy too, as it’s made of smart lacquered metal. But I got to wondering if it could be adapted to take 120 roll film.

The first thing it needed was a clean – it had been on someone’s shelf and was very dusty. The lens seemed to clean-up ok. The lock nut on the back needed tightening, but that’s easy. The main thing was that the wind-on knob wasn’t engaging in the film spool. It should be spring-loaded, so that it can be pulled out to release the spool but will be held in the drive slot. A quick disassembly of the winder found no spring. That’s odd. I wonder if that accounts for the excellent condition of the camera? It would have made winding-on unreliable, so perhaps it wasn’t used much? But where could I get a suitable spring? A clicky pen spring was too small – I needed one with a 5mm inside bore and about 5mm length. To the rescue came Springs and Things. They had exactly what I needed. Their minimum length was 6mm, but I was probably going to have to trim the spring anyway to get it right.

So after a very fiddly session getting some small, awkwardly-placed and spring-loaded components together, I had a working knob (stop giggling at the back). A bit of careful bending of the metal fingers that located the ends of the film spool and we appeared to have a working wind-on. Hurrah!

Now, roll film has numbers printed on the backing paper to locate the frames. But these numbers don’t match the larger film gate of this camera. Luckily the numbers for 16-on (6×4.5) did match the location of the red window on the back of the camera. So what I did was to load the backing paper from a previously used film and start from the point where the film would have been attached. With this just past the film gate opening, I closed the camera back and saw what number appeared in the window. Then I wound-on the paper to clear the film gate and noted what number was then visible. It looks like I can get seven frames on a 120 film.

The next problem is that 120 film is 61mm wide and the film gate on this camera is 63.5mm wide. So what I need is a 2 or 3mm strip on each side of the gate to mask it down and support the film edges. Black art paper and tape will do the job. It’s easy enough to confine the tape to the places that the 120 film will not be moving across, so there shouldn’t be any issues with sticky residues. The 120 film spool seems to be the same diameter as the 616 one, but shorter. I used a couple of rubber tap washers to space the spool centrally. I will have to unload the camera in a dark bag though, as the longer 616 spool will not protect the edges of the film from light leakage.

Tap washers used as spacers, and you can see the strips of black paper taped down the sides of the film gate.

The good thing is that all of the changes are reversible, unlike some of the things I have done to folding cameras. It’s also a much easier conversion than for cameras that used 620 film.

The end result should be a wide-frame medium format camera – the Xpan of roll film, if you will. It will be shooting a 6 by 10.8 frame, or 1:1.8 aspect ratio. The lens is a 12cm f4.5, giving a 48 degree field of view across the long side of the frame. This is the equivalent to a 40mm lens on 35mm, so a slightly wide standard lens.

So, how well did it work? Well, the first step is that it worked at all. I took it out in bright sunlight as that would make it obvious if the bellows leaked. The first two frames overlapped, so I will need to check my wind-on numbers. But I have seven recognisable frames on the film! In retrospect I think I’ll adjust my numbering to get six more widely-spaced frames. There’s no point in having a panoramic camera if you lose the ends of the frame to overlaps.

That flare at the top right of the frame seems to be a hole in the bellows. When I looked carefully, a tiny wire spring that forms part of the folding mechanism was adrift and had poked a hole. So the next step is a small patch of black card. But this eighty year-old camera works!

If you fancy a panoramic medium format camera, then this is the way to go.

Going down smiling

I got the chance to go diving in warm water again. This time it was in the Red Sea, and my first time on a live-aboard boat. This means living and diving from the boat rather than going out from shore each time. What it should mean is more dives in the day and being earlier at each dive site than the shore-based divers. This means there could be fewer people so less crowding on the dive site, fewer chances to lose your buddy in the throng, and less disturbed silt.

The down side is that there are fewer opportunities to hire kit. Basically, I needed to take most of my dive kit with me, within the weight limit of the flight. So that constrained my camera choice. The dive kit was a necessity – a second or third camera was not. I had 20kg hold luggage and 10kg cabin luggage allowance. There were also some gotchas, such as the requirement that all powered gadgets in the cabin allowance (other than mobile phones) have the battery removed. So my dive computer, that I was planning to wear as a watch, went in the hold and added to the weight. (This rule seemd to be void – there was no problem bringing the dive computer through in hand luggage on the way back). The plus side of being on a boat was that I needed minimal clothing – I would not be going out in the evening or visiting tourist attractions: I would be diving or sleeping. I could get away with a few tee shirts and a pair of shorts, but all the camera gear had to fit into the 10kg allotment.

So – what to take? It would have to be one compact camera with an underwater housing plus spare batteries and charger. The external flash would be nice, but I would be diving in clearer water than the UK and my torch could substitute. Second camera, just in case? If I can squeeze it in, yes, as it would mean I could cope with one flooded housing event. Loads of memory cards, but they weigh nothing. Video action camera and housing? Probably not, as the main camera can do video. A general use camera for surface shots? Not if I take a second camera for the housing – I can use one underwater and the other on the surface. So it’s coming down to a brace of Canon G9 cameras and one underwater housing. For safety I need to pack the batteries, with their terminals taped-over, in the cabin bag. That eats into the weight allowance too.

Lots of test packing and weighing took place. One of the most useful pre-trip purchases was a small weighing scale. I hung this up in the shed and weighed my main suitcase each time I added an item. First in was a full set of diving gear and a thin wetsuit. By reducing my clothes and personal gear to the minimum I got the case down to 19kg. That 1kg leeway was a safety factor in case my (or the airport’s) scales were out. There was also a chance that some of my kit could be damp on the way back, so heavier.

The camera housing is basically a plastic box – light but bulky. This went in the hand luggage with one camera inside it. The second camera and all the batteries went in the same bag. And I was inside the weight limit!

What I hadn’t figured was that the camera and housing were buoyant underwater without the external flash. This was a bit of a nuisance, as holding the camera in front of me tipped me head-up. It doesn’t sound like much, but we try to get as flat and level a posture as possible to reduce drag. It’s all about reducing air consumption – I can vary between 16 and 21 litres of air a minute depending on how much I am finning. Given that we want to surface with a 50 bar (50 atmospheres) reserve, anything that increases my air consumption is to be avoided. The solution was to hold the camera in front of my navel when I wasn’t using it, so that I stayed level.

The joys of diving in the Red Sea were the clarity and the critters. The visibility was 30 meters or more, compared to the 3-5 meters we typically get in the UK. There is much less silt in the water too. But the critters… most awesome! Fish ranging from smaller than my fingernail to bigger than me. Octopus changing colour and texture to hide between rocks. Moray eels like sock-puppets with teeth. Shoals of exotic and lurid fish. They do say that divers come in two types, depending on whether they like wrecks or critters. You can probably tell I’m a fan of the tentacled and wriggly.

But enough of the diving already, what about the photography? There was almost too much to photograph. I could have taken a hundred pictures of one coral outcrop, and missed the thousand other blooms in the coral garden. There was every possible type, colour and size of fish.

And then there are the things you only see by looking very carefully. Crocodile fish looking like bits of rock; scorpion fish like coral growths; octopus hiding in plain sight.

The weirdest was a Filamented Devilfish that looked like a bit of craggy rock but flashed open a pair of butterfly wings as a warning. It then crawled away using its front fins as legs.

There were bigger fish cruising at a distance, including a Silvertip Shark that slid past close enough for it to take a look at the strange bubble-blowing fish but too far away for an effective photo.

Not a shark: Napoleon Wrasse.

One thing I found interesting is that I was shooting like a film photographer – trying to make every frame count – while one person on the boat was shooting like a Hollywood gunfight. He had a GoPro- type camera on a long extension stick, and he had set it to take a still frame every half second. At the end of one dive he told me had had taken 3,500 pictures. Given that only amounts to 28 minutes and we were diving for up to 60 minutes and four times a day, I guess he had a huge editing job to do when he got home. It’s similar to a sports photographer I have mentioned, who shot thousands of pictures at each event. I suppose it comes to the question of whether you make single pictures mindfully, or play the odds to get one needle-sharp picture in your haystack? I can see a use for both methods, so I’m not saying I’m better. I did notice though that he was using the GoPro pole as a selfie stick. That is something I’m less sure about. There are already underwater drones that can follow the diver and take video, so it won’t be long before the influencers move in.

In the meantime I will be taking snaps of smiling fish and bashful octopus to remind myself of the joys of diving. It helps when I’m paddling around in the cold soup we enjoy in the UK.

The Argus C3

I never intended to buy another camera, let alone one as awkward and basic as this. I had liked the look of them, but reading about using one put me off. And then one turned up at the right price, so I thought I could see if they were as odd as they appeared. 

So what you have here is probably the best selling camera with the longest production run ever made. If it wasn’t for the C3 we might never have adopted 35mm film as the default. Leica may have got there first, but selling two million cameras in the biggest consumer market in the world counts for a lot.

What they built was rugged and simple. Not simple to use, but simple to make, simple engineering and simple to fix. So this was no svelte Leica with its precision engineering. This was a large block of bakelite plastic with metal edges, made for easy assembly. The rangefinder mechanism is a self-contained block held on with screws. The front face of the camera is a separate sub-assembly that carries the lens and focusing gear and has an inspection hole to allow the shutter mechanism to be easily connected when the camera is assembled. The rest of the working parts fit onto the front of the camera body behind the face plate. This is automotive style industrial design, meant for a production line. That’s probably how they made so many of them.

The viewfinder is on the right. In the middle is the rangefinder window; its other lens is in the middle of the range dial.

I’m reminded of a motorbike I used to have – a Moto Guzzi Nuovo Falcone. This copied some of the concepts from an earlier model, such as the engine layout, but it was built to be sold to the Army and Police. It was robust and simple. The (car) dynamo was driven by a rubber v belt. You could take the entire top off the engine without touching any other part of the bike. You could get to the clutch and other important bits without draining the oil. It too was not svelte, but it was rugged.

I said that the C3 wasn’t simple to use, and this is what initially put me off. For example, most 35mm cameras have a mechanism that releases the toothed wheel that engages the film sprockets when the shutter is pressed. Not the C3. You have to press a button to release the film, start winding on and let go of the button. The toothed wheel will make one rotation (counting out the width of the exposed frame) and lock again. Asking the photographer to do this dispenses with some extra clever parts at the risk of accidental double exposures or missed frames. You also have to cock the shutter before it will fire. This avoids needing any mechanism in the camera body to tension the shutter on winding-on. It also avoids needing any moving parts passing through the plastic block of the body – the shutter mechanism is on the front of the camera so that is where the cocking lever lives.

The release that allows the wind-on to pull the film through.

There is also the camera’s most striking feature of the external gear train connecting the lens to a focusing wheel under your right forefinger. What this actually does is transfer the rotation of the lens to a dial that pushes a protruding pin on the rangefinder block. So it needs no arm inside the lens mount to register the lens moving in and out. This makes the lens mount a separate sub-assembly for easier assembly. The camera was basically assembled by three people: one worked on the body, one did the front plate and lens and one the rangefinder. Industrial production methods from Adam Smith via Henry Ford. The more I look at it, the more I can see how this camera was designed to be assembled by technicians rather than experts.

The end result is a camera that was tough enough to be used by soldiers and fixed in the field. Tony Vacarro used one right through World War 2.

The lens can be removed and was actually designed to be swapped with a tele or wide angle option. It’s a fiddly affair and I would not want to do it on a beach or while walking. But you can, so that’s far more sophisticated than the simple spec would have you think. Oh, and it’s perfectly possible to focus by twisting the lens and ignoring the focus wheel.

The viewfinder is small. It’s also separate to the rangefinder. None of your illuminated frames or focusing patch here. There is one window to focus through and a separate one to frame the shot. Mine came with a very blurry rangefinder. Someone had obviously had the viewing window apart to clean it and had assembled the two little lenses inside it the wrong way round. A quick check with Mike Eckman’s site and it was back to crisp and clear.

The slower shutter speeds on mine are hesitant, which is common. It’s 64 years old, after all. The fix is fairly simple: take the front off the camera (5 screws) and flush the delay mechanism with lighter fluid. I’m going to wait a bit and see how it goes – if the faster speeds (1/50 to 1/300) are ok then I can wait.

So – how does it shoot? Slowly. The fairly simple lens works well enough. This was the main point of the thing after all – not to buy the most awkward camera possible but to get access to another vintage lens with (supposedly) its own quality of rendering. You get into a rhythm with the camera quite quickly: flick the little switch and wind-on after each shot; cock the shutter lever just before shooting. The shutter fires with a very spring-like ping noise. At the end of the film, rewind it using a knob on the bottom of the camera. The film counter rotates as you rewind, so it’s easy to stop with the leader still out of the cassette. The odd winding arrangements may make it easier to do the Lomo thing. Double exposures should be simple, and it may even be possible to wind back to a previous shot. It’s just that I’m not cool or groovy enough to try this.

I found that I can stop worrying about the shutter – the top three speeds of 1/300, 1/100 and 1/50 appear to work just fine. The camera does space the negatives quite close together though. It’s a good job I have a film cutter I can use instead of scissors. The plus side of this is that I can probably squeeze an extra frame out of the film.

The lens was a pleasant surprise – it was sharper than I expected. The rangefinder appears to be correctly calibrated too.

The lines mark anticipated sea level due to global warming

So I’m actually finding it better to use than I feared. It’s a big lump with steampunk charm, but will probably last me for as long as 35mm film lasts.

Lady Diana

How Lomo can you go? I’m afraid I succumbed. Meet Lady Di. She’s a 60’s original, so not even the newer Diana F.

Lady Di (the camera) is made of a small amount of thin plastic and very few moving parts, so it weighs very little. Heft is one of the many things it doesn’t have. Saying that, it has more controls than a Holga, which isn’t saying much. It’s like saying a Citroen Dyane is faster than a 2CV. The Wikipedia entry is not complimentary about the build quality – “It is constructed primarily of low-quality phenolic plastics of the type commonly found in toys imported from Asia during the 1960s.”

The shutter release has a long travel and, with the camera being so light, can probably shake the whole thing as it releases. I have found it works better to pull down on the release with my left forefinger, with my hand under the lens. The squeezing motion shakes the camera less and supports it more.

The shutter speed seems to be pot luck and could be around 1/50 to 1/100. Mine also has a B setting, but there is no cable release so you would need to keep your finger on the shutter lever or build a gadget to do it for you. The lens has three apertures. There is a wide open setting of f11 or two different holes that swing across to provide f13 or f19. Given the variation in the shutter, you may as well ignore the number values and just go by the weather symbols. The main control then becomes the speed of the film you load. Bright day? FP4. Dullish day? HP5.

Unlike the Holga it shoots a smaller frame, 4 by 4 cm, but this means it gets 16 shots on a roll rather than 12. My ex father-in-law’s old Balda camera covers the full 6×4.5 frame, but it has a better lens. The Diana’s wind-on is awful. It’s a noisy ratcheting dial that occasionally locks. Don’t force it, just wiggle it, and it frees and keeps working.

The push-fit lens cap is easily knocked off but you only really need it when the camera is packed in a bag. For walking around you can leave it off. Unlike a rangefinder camera you are not going to burn holes in your shutter curtains.

Because of its age the labels are falling off due to the glue under them drying out. The first was the focusing scale around the lens. This just needed a bit of alignment and a spot of superglue. Then the label on the winding knob departed. Luckily I found it in the bottom of my bag, which saved me using a bit of tape with an arrow drawn on it.

So, all that aside, does it live up to the hype? Is the Diana a better Holga? Why am I bothering when I already have a Golden Hammer?

Well, the first roll through the camera showed that, contrary to folklore, the camera had no light leaks. The roll of film did though – it obviously winds a slack roll so some light got through at the sides. I’ll just be careful in future to unload it in the shade and keep the used film roll covered.

The film could also have done with a bit more exposure. Perhaps the shutter speed is closer to 1/100 than I was expecting? The lesson is though that I can give it a bit more. So this will mean using a faster film or leaning more towards the cloudy aperture setting.

So how did the mythical soft lens turn out? Pretty soft, as it happens, with perhaps a touch of that Lomo vignetting. But does it have that magical quality that these toy cameras are known for? Maybe. Further experiments needed. Oddly, some frames seemed softer on one side than the other, and the soft side changed during the roll of film. There is a plate that holds the film against the gate, but perhaps this is a result of the loose take-up roll? I need to get this thing out again in brighter light, so that I can stop the lens down a bit.

Did I enjoy using it? Yes, as it happens. I’ve moaned before about carrying heavy cameras about but this one is featherweight. Set the aperture for the conditions, tweak the lens to the zone you will be shooting in and just go for it. This may be the perfect post-apocalyptic camera.

Fed vs Zorki

I wrote previously that I had both a Fed 2 and a Zorki. But which one is best? Do I keep one and sell the other, and which one? Does anyone really need two rangefinder cameras?

So first, the basics. The Fed dates from around 1959 and the Zorki from 1969. The Fed has a long rangefinder base of around 68mm and the Zorki a shorter one of around 38mm. So the Fed ought to focus more accurately, yes?

The rangefinder window is on the left
The rangefinder window is in the middle. The thing on the left is the PC socket.

Between the two cameras I have three lenses. The Zorki came with its usual Jupiter 8 lens. This has a serial number starting 08, so could be much newer than the camera body. This lens is a 50mm f2 with a Sonnar design. The Fed came with an Industar 26m that is probably coated, as it has a red P on the front, although I found it fairly low contrast in use. This has a serial number starting 017 and is probably the same age as the camera body. I’ve also got a more modern Industar 61ld. This has lanthanum in the glass and is coated. This should be the sharpest and most contrasty of the bunch. Both of the Industars are based on a Tessar design. The main difference in use is that the ’61 has click-stop apertures while the other two do not. The clickless apertures may be favoured by film-makers, but they are a pain to photographers as it is too easy to nudge them and change the setting. So the best lens for general use should be the ’61, although the Jupiter is an extra stop wider.

Neither camera has frame lines in the viewfinder. Both are supposed to show the field of a 50mm lens and there were external viewfinders available for other lenses. The magnification of the Zorki viewfinder seems to be larger than the Fed. So the view through the Zorki looks the same as the actual scene (or as seen through the other eye) while the Fed appears smaller. I suppose it only really makes a difference if you want to keep both eyes open.

Fed shutter speeds

The Fed has a smaller range of shutter speeds and a lower top speed of 1/500. On my Zorki however, the slower speeds were printed in red ink and have faded away. Not that I am going to be using speeds slower than 1/30 anyway, or that I’d trust the old shutter clockwork to still time them accurately. So the main difference is the top speed of 1/1000.

Zorki shutter speeds

The rangefinder patch of the Zorki is rectangular but not well defined, while the Fed one is circular and a distinct yellow colour.

The shutter releases are different, but that may be their age or how well they were assembled. The Zorki needs a firm push while the Fed is smooth and light. Both shutters are quiet. Perhaps not Leica quiet, but they didn’t cost Leica money. And the Fed seems to have managed 60+ years with probably little care or cossetting.

Carrying them around is similar, except the Zorki has no strap lugs so needs the bottom part of its case to provide them.

So which one do I prefer? The Fed. It’s a bit smoother in action and the rangefinder patch is a bit brighter. Rewinding the film is a bit of a pain, but one doesn’t do it that often. Besides, if I wanted a camera that’s faster and easier to use it would be an SLR. But I want to keep all three lenses, so I may be looking to see what a Zorki body would sell for. <brief pause> About £20, which is just a few quid more than it cost. I will probably hang onto them both. One thing I could check is that all three lenses register correctly on both bodies for the rangefinder. These cameras are more fiddly than SLRs and do sometimes need to be adjusted. Maybe when I’ve got some spare time. In the meantime I’m treating them like a free Leica and I will try to wear them out. But the Fed is my favourite.

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