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.