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.

Kissed with a seal

This was written prior to the latest lockdown.
——————————————————-

Back in the water for some socially-distanced diving! Yay!

I should explain. There’s a group of us. Our reason for being a group is to take people diving who have physical and learning disabilities. Because you may not be able to walk on land but you can fly underwater. Covid stuffed that, as it did so many other things. We can’t safely do the necessary close contact and the pool we use has had to close. The side effect was diving withdrawal. I was showering with a scuba mask on. I was diving in lakes. We all needed time in the brine.

Then we got the opportunity to dive with the seals at the Farnes. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather – we have to be able to get back on the boat so the waves can’t be too high. But then Poseidon smiled and we got to do some safe, well spaced and properly masked dives from an open boat (we’re missing it, not dying for it).
It was an auspicious start, looking at the rolling waves, as we left from luxury.nothing.twitching. Getting back on the boat is a serious business – we went to the outer group of islands near the Longstone lighthouse. Even the shortest swim to shore from there would be three miles. On the open water on the way out we lost sight of land when the boat was corkscrewing between wave crests. (Follow the link to the Farnes above and see how many ships have run into them).

We do try to get to the Farne Islands each year when the new seals are born. We are not there for the newborns but for the youngsters – probably last year’s babies. They are inquisitive and fun and both they and the adults seem to be comfortable with divers in the water. (Serious aside – if you do visit one of the places where the newborns are on land, do not disturb or bother them. It’s unkind for a start, and then realise that the mother weighs more than you and has teeth and claws. So take the longest lens you own.)

Sealed with a kiss
Sealed with a kiss

How close you get and how much interaction you have are totally controlled by the seals – they are beautiful and sleek swimming machines, and I’m a fat old bloke in a rubber suit. But if you’re lucky they will come over to see what you’re doing, nibble your fins and try to steal anything shiny. The yearlings behave just like puppies and mouth at you in the same way.

Farnes

 

I have dived there before with a video camera as it’s small and has nothing to fiddle with but an on/off switch. This time I wanted to get some stills as well. So it’s my working-man’s dive camera – a humble Canon Ixus 750 point and shoot in a housing with an extra external flash. I’ve been fighting with this for a while to get the lighting balance right between the external and built-in flashes, but I think I’ve finally got it.

It’s a joy though, both to be back in the water and interacting with the seals. These are wild animals but they are inquisitive and happy enough to come up and nudge you.

Farnes

 

There were a lot of seals in the water. Even some of the mature seals came over for a look, which is rare. They must have missed the taste of diver during these lockdown times.

Farnes

 

Yes, it’s British diving, so it’s cold and murky. But who would want to miss an opportunity like this?


And for the photographically inclined, this is where autofocus and auto flash exposure pays off. Despite being in a quite kinetic environment, the majority of my pictures worked. I could never have done this with a Nikonos.
You also want the widest lens you can, to get as close as possible, to reduce the amount of murky water between you and the subject.
And just occasionally, you need a camera that you can work one-handed so that you can fend off a seal who wants to steal the shiny thing. I haven’t shown it here because it’s just a blur, but I have one shot of a seal pressing its nose against the end of the lens.

So that was my first and probably last sea dive this year. It reminds me why we do it.

The Werra – a socialist style icon

I got the loan of a Werra camera, as it is weird and I’ve always wanted to see just how odd it could be. I’m told it’s a Werramat model, which matches the description of the range of models in the manual (thanks again, Mr Butkus).

This is a stylish and sleek camera with some nice design touches. For a start, it has a deep lens hood. The hood is part of the design and stows backwards over the lens, protecting the shutter, aperture and focus controls. You do have to remember to focus on infinity before using it as a guard though, or the protruding lens can crack it. Score one to the idea and take one away for the execution. Give back maybe half a point – you won’t make the mistake of shooting this camera with the lens cap on. You can leave the lens hood covering the lens, take the lens cap off and shoot through the hole, at the expense of not being able to change the settings or focus. If you really wanted to.

Werra closed

You advance the film and cock the shutter by twisting a ring at the base of the lens. The twist is quite short, about 80 degrees. Why go to the trouble? To preserve that smooth and polished top plate, I guess. There is one control on the top of the camera – a large and nearly flush shutter button. This camera looks stylish.

Werra hooded

As a consequence of the smooth top and front, some of the controls were moved to the bottom of the camera. There you will find the frame counter, the release for the camera back and the film rewind crank. In use you will find yourself tipping and turning the camera a lot. Tilt it back to change the settings on the lens or to wind-on. Tilt it forwards to see the frame counter. In use though it is possible to twist the lens base and wind-on with your left hand while the camera is still up to your eye. When you do tip the camera over to see the frame counter, it is oriented correctly for reading. Nice touch.

Werra bum

There are some more nice design features on this model. For example, there is a tiny prism in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder that shows the aperture and shutter speed set on the lens. The lightmeter displays in the bottom of the viewfinder and is coupled to the lens settings, so you turn the aperture or shutter speed rings on the lens to centre the needle. That little rectangular patch to the right of the shutter button appears to be a bit of frosted plastic, but is actually part of the lightmeter and illuminates the scale in the viewfinder. The lightmeter itself is more than just a match-needle affair – if the light is too low for some combinations of shutter and aperture, a dark bar intrudes from one side of the metering scale in the viewfinder. If the light is too high, the dark bar intrudes from the other side. It’s a very clever way of telling you that some combinations of speed and aperture will not give good exposure under the present conditions.

viewfinder

The shutter is, from reading other reviews, also a clever thing. Where most bladed shutters top-out at 1/500, this goes to 1/750. It also has slow speeds going down to 30s. All this from a camera that, if the serial numbers work like Russian ones, will be 60 years old next year. So this camera was built at the same time as the Berlin Wall and was meant for export to obtain hard currency.

The Werra is a technical surprise. Compare it with say, a Praktica, which was also made in East Germany. The Praktica is a basic SLR with obvious controls. The Werra is a clever design with some useful functionality. The viewfinder has built-in diopter adjustment, for example.

So what’s it like to use? The lens is a Zeiss Tessar so should be sharp enough. To an SLR or rangefinder user it feels a little strange doing the whole business of metering and composing with the camera to your eye but having to take it away to set the focal distance on the lens. I carried a little clip-on rangefinder to check focus, but of course there is no flash shoe on the top of the camera to clip it to. The manual shows an optional flash bracket that screws to the tripod mount or a cold shoe that appears to fit over the viewfinder eyepiece.

The shutter is discretely quiet. The twisting film advance worked better than I expected but you need to make sure it fully returns to its start position. The negatives it produced were evenly spaced and different combinations of shutter and aperture gave consistent exposure. Not bad for its age. The film gate has the guide rails cut in a hatched pattern, which would have the effect of stretching the film and flattening it. Like I said: nice technical touches. It all feels very well made and functioning, very different to the Fujicarex I had. The Fuji felt like a very complicated machine working at the limits of reliability. The Werra feels well made, competent and a bit odd.

Werra inside
A is the clever guide rail. B is the export quality mark. C could be the housing for the clever high-speed shutter.

This was an export camera, which would probably appeal to the more technical photographer who would appreciate the details. The Werra range was developed and added features with something like seven models, of which this Werramat is the sixth. The sleek exterior of these cameras hides some good design and manufacturing. In the same year this was made Olympus released the Pen-EE with no settings and 72 shots per film. This mutated into the Trip, sold a squillion and the Berlin Wall (that went up around ’61) eventually came tumbling down. No philosophical insight intended.

quad

I did like the Werramat but as a loaner rather than a keeper. They feel well designed and very well made, so worth a look if you fancy something a bit unusual but stylish or a very clever thing that hides its craftiness.

That, and washing your hands
That, and washing your hands

Thanks for the loan.