The Fujicarex II

After saying how much I needed a one-handed camera, I got one. Meet an odd hybrid from 1963: the Fujicarex II.

This is a strange hybrid of SLR and rangefinder that weighs as much as the combined pair and is reputed to have more mirror-slap than a Pentax 67. Think of it as a Single Lens Reflex Rangefinder.

Imagine a design team that started with the desire to combine what they thought were the best features of existing cameras. Through the lens focusing – check. Leaf shutter for easy flash sync – check. Light meter visible in the viewfinder – check. And then it all went wrong. Use your right thumb to control exposure and to focus the lens – check. Add mechanical linkages and drives so that the camera is really heavy – check. Put the film rewind out on the end of the camera, a bit like a Leica – check. Fix the lens to the body so that you can only change focal length by swapping the front group – check. Put a split-image focusing aid in the viewfinder so it still works a bit like a rangefinder camera – check. Build a really complicated shutter mechanism that has to close and open a leaf shutter and a swinging mirror at the same time – check. Weighs nearly a kilo – check.

Fuji 1

The 1960s were the time of the fixed-lens rangefinder or viewfinder camera, typically with a 45mm f2.8 lens. So this Fuji seems to have been an odd progression path, offering the photographer a camera that looked and worked a lot like their trusted scale-focus friend, but had a fast lens and some of the features of an SLR. With the odd selling point of being able to use it one-handed. If you were right handed. At least it left you one hand free to support its weight. Think of it as a mirror-image Exakta.

So, snarking aside, what’s it like to use? Odd.

The metering is displayed in the viewfinder. You set the film speed on the lens and select the shutter speed. The aperture and speed move together to maintain the exposure value, or you can turn the dial on the back of the camera to alter the aperture alone until the meter needle falls into the correct zone. It has a good ISO range of 10 to 1600.

Fuji 3
The red dots align to release the front of the lens. And yes, it could do with a clean.

The aperture in use is visible through a little window on the top of the lens. The distance of focus is visible in feet on one side of the camera and in meters on the other. There is no way of setting the hyperfocal distance – you would need to carry the manual to refer to the depth of field scale. There is a lever on the bottom of the lens that stops-down the aperture so you can judge depth of field.

The meter on this one is dead, but if working it would display in the viewfinder. Besides the over and under markings. there are separate markings for 160 and 32 ISO film, as these settings are not shown on the lens. The manual has instructions on how to meter for ISO 32, 64 and 160.

Fuji 4
The exposure and focus wheels are visible, as is the mirror-come-darkslide, that gets out of the way when the leaf shutter does its job.

The focusing screen is unusual, with a horizontal section that acts as a rangefinder wedge.

Split

The flash shoe is cold, as the trigger contacts are in the leaf shutter lens. Even my 1948-ish Mercury managed to have a hot shoe (and a second cold one).

In use it’s quite slow, as the focusing thumbwheel is harder to use than twisting the lens. You also risk changing the aperture instead of focusing. Basically you are taking this camera away from your eye a lot to check the settings. Fine for posed snapshots but I wouldn’t use this for sports. Not unless I could prefocus. There’s a lot happens when you press the shutter too, so the noise is quite distinctive.

I’m also a bit nervous about using it. There is a lot going on inside the camera and I managed to lock it up by using the self-timer – the clockwork is very stiff and it took some encouragement to run it through and give me the camera back. Speaking of shutters, this doesn’t look like it has a separate leaf shutter and aperture in the lens. Watching it work it looks like the aperture stops down and returns, so there is some clever timing going-on between the lens and the mirror.

Its first outing was a trip to the local woods. The shutter noise is quite loud and the focusing screen is dark. I found myself using the odd central rangefinder section to focus. I also kept moving the exposure dial instead of the focus one, which meant taking the camera away from my eye to tilt it and check the aperture setting.

Fujicarex II

Overall it feels like a complex solution to a problem I’m not sure I had. But the film frames were well exposed and evenly spaced, the lens seems sharp enough and the bokeh is smooth.

Would you want one? Probably only to see how weird it is.

Extra

Just before going to press I learned that Fuji used the same focussing thumbwheel on other camera models.

It’s still an odd idea.

The Kodak Retina 1b

This is one of the first of the renowned German Kodaks, produced between 1954 and 1957. This is an early model, so has no rangefinder. It has a lovely heft though, and the lens opening is a joy of smooth cuckoo-clock movement. The focus action is also beautifully smooth, which is really unnecessary as this is a scale-focus camera so you are not going to be holding it to your eye and adjusting the focus. Even so, this thing feels like class and fine engineering. The source for it was my surprise box of cameras.

The lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar of 50mm and f2.8, which is basically a Tessar. It glides out when you press the button on the cover panel but must be set to infinity before it will close.

Retina 1
The rangefinder is useful but not standard

The wind-on lever is on the bottom of the camera, which looks like it would be difficult to use. It actually works quite well if you point the camera downwards after shooting.

Retina 2
Winder and rewind release on the right, with the film door release under the arrowed tab on the left.

It’s a little fiddly to set the aperture. It’s on the bottom of the lens and requires that the pointer is pulled out to set. In use it locks the combination of aperture and shutter speed together so they change in sync.

Retina 4
The green thing sets the flash sync. The cog on the right is the focusing tab.

Making the lens retractable adds complexity and weight for a possible gain in portability: with the lens shut it’s a flatter package that would fit better into a bag or large pocket.

Retina 3
There is a cute bellows hidden inside the lens arrangement

Ken Rockwell tried and wrote about the precursor to this, the 1a. He seems to hate cameras that scale focus and don’t have meters, but he liked the lens.

So basically, unless you want to guess, you need to carry or fit a rangefinder and a meter. It also has a quirk in the way the frame counter works: it counts down from the maximum size of the film and locks the camera after frame number 1 has been shot. This may have been a protection from the heavy-handed, but it’s a pain to a frugal photographer. The trick is to start the counter above the maximum frame count to get that last frame or two off the film.

In use it’s a bit like a miniature view camera, to the extent my darling partner asked if I needed to put a cloth over my head when I was using it. You open the camera, check and set the focus, check and set the exposure, then shoot. Using this will definitely slow you down: it’s a measured performance. This is not the camera to carry around for quick snaps. The lens is sharp though, so it could be a good way to do the slow and mindful photography thing. The fact that it folds up could also make it a contender for the sort of camera that you would throw into a rucksack, if it wasn’t so heavy. If I wanted a folder I would take a medium format one and get bigger negatives, or an Olympus XA which is smaller and lighter. So it’s a mechanical marvel with all the ease of use of a large format camera and all the quality of a smaller negative. So what makes this camera less attractive than the equally-fiddly Mercury? Mostly it’s the looks of the Mercury – it’s a steampunk delight. I forgive it being awkward because it’s fun.

So would you want one of these? It is very quiet in use and it’s a mechanical joy to handle. It might also be perfect for learning how the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and focus works with 36 (or more) shots on hand. I’m not so sure about the folding thing though – that feels more like they did it because they could, than for any real reason.

Wheldrake, Retina 1b
Works well enough

While the lens is sharp, the lack of a coupled rangefinder means that you can’t really use it for close work. But then, that’s probably what most people would have wanted a camera for anyway: groups and landscapes. There was a IIc model that did have a coupled rangefinder, so you could look for one of those if you really needed the focusing.

So the verdict is: nice lens in an awkward package.

The Universal Mercury II

Now here’s an odd little camera. The Universal Camera Company originally made cameras that they sold on the same principle as razors: the money is in the refills, not the product. So they sold a well-featured camera with a high top shutter speed that used their proprietary film. And they sold them by the ton.

They switched to using the standard 35mm film cassette but didn’t want to redesign the unique rotary shutter. Since the standard 35mm frame was larger than their own film and the hole in the shutter was a bit too small, they repackaged the camera as a half-frame 35mm. They sold these from 1945 to around 1948 until the company staggered into bankruptcy and decline and faded away during the 1950s. They had patents on the shutter, so nobody else used it.

So the result is a nicely-made and highly-detailed little camera with a unique and fast shutter. Because of the way the shutter works it is supposed to hold its speeds well and not lag and drag like an old cloth focal plane job.

Mercury

The rotary shutter has an axis of rotation that is parallel to the lens. This puts the winding knob and shutter speed selector on the front of the camera rather than the top. The body has an arched top to accommodate the shutter disk, and Universal made use of it to mount the depth of field tables for the lens. The back of the camera is dominated by an exposure calculator, which works on the same principles as my (much simpler) plastic version but is obviously much more complicated and uses tiny and almost invisible numbers and text.

In fact, the camera is covered in tiny little engravings and markings. This is not a camera for someone with senior eyesight, not unless you carry a magnifying glass. The lens aperture scale for example, is well hidden by the shutter speed knob.

Apertures

Speaking of shutter speeds, they are an odd lot. The series of speeds is not evenly spaced at whole-stop intervals. Instead there are odd progressions of two thirds or sometimes one and a third stops. The full list of speeds is:

1/1000
1/300
1/200
1/100
1/60
1/40
1/30
1/20
B, T

One plus point though is that it has a true T setting: press once to open and again to close. No need for a locking cable release (even though there is a cable socket).

The lens is a teeny little American-made Wollensak. How teeny? It takes a 25mm lens cap. There were three lenses available – mine is a coated f2.7 triplet. There was a (probably cheaper) uncoated triplet at f3.5 and the top end job of a coated Hexar f2. All of them unscrew from the focusing helix, which is a fixed part of the camera.

The viewfinder is tiny and has no frame markings. The advice in the manual for dealing with parallax in close-ups is to use a pair of arrows in the right and bottom corners of the viewfinder. Place these on the centre of the subject if you are within five feet or less.

Viewfinder
See the two little arrowheads in the viewfinder? Line-up their intersection with the middle of the subject at close distances.

You will notice in the picture above that the camera has two flash shoes. The middle one is probably the earliest version of a hot shoe. The one over the viewfinder is a cold shoe and probably meant for a rangefinder.

The frame to frame spacing is wider than other half-frame cameras, so it doesn’t get quite as many shots per roll: 44 from a 24 exposure and 65 from a 36, rather than the 72 of something like an Olympus Pen.

Like a lot of old cameras, there is a definite sequence of actions to using it. The camera has to be wound on before the shutter speed is changed. The film counter has to be set before the camera back is closed on loading, so that it advances to the starting position. If you were looking for film photography to slow you down, this is the way to do it. It’s probably the photographic equivalent of a flintlock musket.

  1. Estimate range to subject, use a separate rangefinder or set the lens to its hyperfocal distance using the scale.
  2. Set aperture – you may need a magnifying glass.
  3. Check shutter speed is set. You need to wind-on first.
  4. Frame subject, adjusting if close.
  5. Press the slightly raised shutter button to hear a muted whoosh as the shutter spins.
  6. Wind-on using the knob on the front of the camera. The shutter speed dial resets to its set speed and the exposure counter increments by one.

You can slow down even more by using the exposure calculator on the back.

Dial

You will definitiely need the magnifying glass for this, plus good fingernails. There are two separate disks that rotate on a fixed background and it can be difficult to turn one of them without the other also rotating.

These aside, the camera is rather delightful. It looks fantastic and feels like a rock-solid little lump of cast alloy. Its quirks are endearing – this thing is 70 years old and still working!

Rock

So Fritz, how does she handle? Nicely. The camera has some good heft. The first film through it came back well exposed, so the seventy year old shutter works well. The frames are reasonably well spaced, even though the film must be advanced by a train of gears running from the winding knob. The lens seems sharp enough, although the limit is likely to be the small film frame. I like it – it’s quirky and interesting. I can enjoy using the camera as much as I enjoy taking pictures.

Negs
Not bad spacing and consistent exposure

 

Compact vs SLR

I want a new camera. Well, new to me. It has to be able to do some specific things, chief amongst which is the way it handles. Perhaps strangely, I need a camera I can use one-handed. So this means I need a compact and not an SLR.

This camera is to be used underwater as a replacement for the Nikonos. It will spend its working life in a housing, tethered to me with a lanyard. I will typically want to work the camera with my right hand and hold a big torch in my left, or use my left hand to brace my position.

SLRs are great, but I don’t want to have to use my left hand to work the zoom. Nor do I want to buy a housing that is specific to one range or model of lens. If you thought classic Leicas were expensive, try an underwater housing for a good-to-decent dSLR.

So I want a compact digital camera, as they usually have the zoom control somewhere under the right forefinger. I also want a Canon, as they make the best compact cameras.

OK – contentious. Let me explain best. Canon had (and have) a habit of putting top-range sensors and processors in their compacts, but disabling some of the functionality depending on the model. Enter the hacker’s kit – CHDK. Run a temporary firmware update from the memory card and you get back some of the hidden features, like saving RAW files, motion detection, timelapse and so on. So you can often buy a lower-range Canon compact and add back to it some of the features missing from more expensive cameras.

If you are happy buying second-hand you can also get some real bargains. My current underwater rig uses a Canon Ixus 750. The quality is quite good and I got a second camera as a spare from eBay for £5. Since there is always a risk of flooding the thing with salt water, the spare camera was cheaper than insuring the original.

But I’m pushing the performance and capabilities of the Ixus, so I want something a bit better. What I want is a wider ISO range, image stabilisation, a wider maximum aperture if possible, better macro capabilities if I can get it, better control over the flash (as I will be using a second external flash), more megapickles, and the lens to be wider at the wide end. Oh, and world peace.

So off we go to the shops. Or eBay. Up pops a Canon Powershot G9 with housing at a good price and soon it is mine (Precious). More features than Netflix and more knobs than a political rally. The housing is taken for a swim sans camera but packed with tissues to check the O ring. The camera is parked on the kitchen table while I read the manual and make ooh ooh noises.

Canon
Is this the new legend?

The first question is why it has a separate knob to set the ISO? Because it can. This is digital, not film. There is no need to set the ISO once when you load the camera and live with it – you can change it for every shot. So having a dedicated control makes more sense than burying it in a menu system. What stumped me for a bit is that the flash controls are in a menu system, which you get to by holding down the flash button and not by pressing the menu one. Hence all my first test shots were done using slow-sync flash and second curtain triggering. Sharp with a blurred overlay – nice!

It has an underwater mode that adds a virtual red filter. The usual trick is to then put a blue gel on the flash, but I need to see what happens if I’m shooting RAW.

There are also a bunch of settings for the autofocus to try, plus working out how to balance the built-in flash with the external one. The Ixus 750 was not very good at this – it kept seeing the external flash and quenching the built-in one. Even masking things with some highly technical plastic and gaffer tape didn’t cure it. Early tests with the G9 look promising.

So there you have it. For me, a reasonable compact camera beats a dSLR hands down. Or one hand down, anyway. Right then fishes, smile!

(And if his doesn’t work, perhaps I need a Diveroid?)

Want a K1000 for less than a k?

Seriously, have you seen the prices a Pentax K1000 can fetch? The allure, I believe, is that it is seen as the ‘best’ camera for learning about camera settings and how they affect the picture. What you get is a manual camera with a light meter and a top shutter speed of 1/1000. You also get access to the vast resource of K mount and M42 screw mount lenses ( and a large number of medium format lenses, using adapters).

But the prices! So you have to ask yourself, do you feel lucky, punk? do you want the functionality or the brand? If only there were other cameras that used K mount lenses and cost less than a K1000…

Pentax introduced the K mount in 1975 and appear to have given licence to other camera and lens makers to use it. As a result, there are quite a few K mount cameras around. The companies that took-up the offer of a pre-invented lens mount were not the big ones: Canon, Nikon etc all had their own systems and stuck to them. So the cameras that came with a K mount tended to be at the cheap end of the scale. As a result, there are loads of cameras with the same or better functionality than a Pentax K1000 at much lower prices.

You might think that buying cheap means buying twice, or that anything less than a Pentax is fragile rubbish. Or I could tell you that I am still using the Ricoh I bought around 1980 and which has only needed the light seals replacing. My professional-quality Pentax MX has twice had the shutter speed display in the viewfinder go out of sync. And the light seals replaced. Even so, for the price of some of these alternatives I could buy two cameras, with lenses, and still have change from a K1000 to feed them with film.

So here is one I prepared earlier. This is a Cosina C1. It has LED exposure indication in the viewfinder and a top shutter speed of 1/2000. The shutter works without the battery, just like a K1000, except it has a better top speed and synchronises with flash at 1/125. The meter ranges from ISO25 to 3200. The body is plastic and light in weight. That actually makes me like it more: try carrying a Zenit around – it’s far heavier and probably harder to use.

CS1 1

I bought it for the lens, so in effect it came as a base cap. I started using it because it actually works very well.

CS1 2

The shutter button locks when the winding lever is folded back, which is nice. And because it uses the K mount, for a few quid you can get the M42 adapter to use screw-mount lenses with proper infinity focus. A few quid more again gets you the adapters to use any of the Pentax medium format lenses, or in the case of mine, any Pentacon 6 or Kiev 60 lens. This opens the way to some pretty awsome Zeiss lenses like the 180mm f2.8 ‘Olympic’ Sonnar (photo here).

So, yay for the cheapies! If you want to see who made cameras with a K mount take a look at the Wikipedia article here.

A box of curiosities

I accidentally bought a box of cameras. Maybe not accidentally, but definitely unexpectedly. What happened was that I was mooching around on eBay, using odd searches – things like misspellings or imprecise descriptions like old camera. It sometimes turns up interesting results.

There was a set of old film cameras on sale, ending in less than one day. The description didn’t match the picture. One bid of 99p. So I popped in a bid of just over a fiver, expecting that I would be immediately over-bid. It’s a fairly low-risk way of learning how much interest there is. I was travelling at the time, so logged out and forgot about it, beyond a small curiosity of what they would eventually go for.

When I got home, there was an email telling me I’d won. Perhaps the message should be ‘be careful what you wish for’. So what did I get? Eight old film cameras, reportedly all working.

  • Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKE.
  • Zeiss Ikon Contina.
  • Fujicarex II.
  • Pentax MV.
  • Universal Mercury II.
  • Leidose Leidox Westlar.
  • Kodak Retina 1a.
  • Kodak Retinette 1b.

Which of course made me ask myself why I needed yet more cameras. Part of it is the fun of trying something weird at low cost and risk. I’m sure we would all like to have a go with a Leica to see what all the fuss is about, but it’s unlikely to happen soon.

The unusual suspects
Not quite as they arrived. The Pentax has grown a lens as a form of body cap and one of the Kodaks gained a rangefinder.

The mixed bag of marvellous oddities will give me a bit of fun though. The Pentax will work with my various lenses as a backup camera. The MV was an auto-only body that nobody liked but if it works, it has a place. It will nicely fill the role of sacrificial camera: one that can be put at risk because it doesn’t matter if it gets broken.

The Westlar uses 127 film which is scarce and expensive. Not sure what I’ll do with it. I may run 35mm film through it, which I did with an old Kodak I had.

Of the others, the Fuji and the Mercury are both unusual. The Fuji is a fixed-lens SLR with rangefinder focusing, designed to be used one-handed with all the controls operated by the right hand. It’s the mirror-image of an Exacta.

The Mercury is a half-frame camera with a rotary shutter. It was made in America from 1945 to around 1948, with some sales trickling on into the early 50s. The rotary shutter is supposed to reliably deliver its marked speeds, even at this age. The lens is coated and supposed to be quite good. We’ll see.

The other four are fairly typical 60s fixed-lens cameras, although the LKE has a rangefinder and the Retina is a mechanical marvel with a cuckoo-clock lens.

This is going to be fun! I’ll try them all out and write them up.

No more heroes any more

I wanted to love the Legend but I can’t. It’s not that I discovered my hero had feet of clay: it was more that we didn’t get on. It may well be the most competent camera in the world, but it doesn’t do what I need. I find myself saying “it’s not you, it’s me”, and it’s true.

What the Nikonos V does is rugged and sharp film photography underwater. It has a dedicated flash with off-the-film metering. Mine also has a close-up lens with a frame-finder. You don’t even have to look through the viewfinder – just place the prongs either side of the subject and shoot. Which would be perfect if I was shooting things that kept still and didn’t mind being surrounded by metal prongs.

However, this is not what I do. What I need is a camera that can do macro work and general context scenery. I need a zoom so that I can frame subjects that would flee if I got closer. I need autofocus that will allow me to lock on the subject and reframe. I need a screen on the back of the camera so that I can operate it at arm’s length, so that I don’t scare the critters or I can get the camera into small and awkward places.

Flabellina Affinis. Nudibranch, Gozo
I need to be able to do macro (this is about the size of my thumbnail)

I did get carried away with the romantic notion of shooting film in a classic camera. And then I realised I would be spending so much attention working the camera I was likely to ignore things like my dive buddy or my own safety.

The telling thing is that I took the Nikonos on a diving holiday and never used it. I didn’t want to struggle with it getting in and out of the water. Underwater, I didn’t want the restrictions of either fixed-distance macro or having to remove and stow the close-up lens to do general pictures. Basically, it was going to be too difficult and too restrictive, so what was the point?

Comino caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
And general context shots

I’m not alone – Martin Edge talks about using Nikonos gear in his book The Underwater Photographer. And then he says he switched completely as soon as cameras with autofocus became available.

Comino Caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
To accurately-framed shots at mid-distance

On my recent diving trip, instead of the Nikonos I used an old and cheap Canon Ixus 750 in a housing. It has many limitations, but it is small and moves easily between macro and scenic work and takes reasonable pictures. To be fair, it took great pictures. What it lacked are things that I now know I really do need: not the fancy gadgets and features they list in the adverts, but the things you find yourself wishing the camera could do better. So I will be replacing the Canon with something that has more of what I want and saying goodbye to the Nikonos that doesn’t really do anything I need underwater. I could keep the Nikonos for surface use I suppose, but I have better and lighter cameras. So the legend will be leaving.

I did manage to buy it at a good price, so I should hopefully get more for it than I paid. The surplus will go towards a more capable digital camera plus housing that has a better ISO range, hopefully some image stabilisation and higher resolution.

So mark this one up to experience.

So, was my dream shattered by reality? No: it turned out that my reality was different to my dream. The dream is still a valid and highly capable camera system. My reality is needing something more flexible.