Cameras, Reviews

Nagel Vollenda No. 70/0

It’s been a while since I’ve had any film developed, but here are some shots from my Nagel Vollenda No. 70/0. Information on this camera is scarce, but I did find this.

nagel vollendaThe camera is 80+ years old so it’s a miracle it takes photos at all. What’s shocking is that it works quite well. I’ve had digital cameras break after 2 or 3 years, but this guy is still kicking after more than 80. Using the camera is a challenge without a tripod and a tape measure. The “viewfinder” is a metal rectangle with a smaller rectangle in front of it. Zone focusing is the name of the game here, which is German for “all of your pictures will be out of focus.” Depth of field is pretty shallow even at f/11 when using 120 film, so focusing closer than infinity is tough. I’m also uniquely terrible at estimating distance, and I’m sure others could do better.

The design and build of the camera is beautiful in a way that digital products can never match. While lacking in the solid-as-a-brick build quality of 60’s and 70’s SLR’s, the engineering is precise and much more visible than more modern cameras. There are only four choices for shutter speed, but the aperture adjustment is continuous between f/4.5 and f/32.

By any modern metric, this camera is terrible. However, using it will help put modern cameras in perspective. After using a camera like this, you can’t help but laugh when someone reviews a modern camera and complains about slow autofocus or a bit of noise at ISO6400 or the “soft” results from slow kit zooms. A camera like this can put you in touch with the past and teach you new ways to think about photography.

cannon beach

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Cameras

Pentax ME

This isn’t a full-on camera review (not that any of my “reviews” are), but just a discussion of the pros and cons of automation.  I ran a roll of film through a Pentax ME recently and had a bunch of problems that I wouldn’t have had with a camera that has manual exposure controls (or with a digital camera…).  All of the pictures in this post were taken with a Pentax ME, a Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens and Fujifilm Superia 100 film.  The lens and the film pass with flying colors, but the camera was frustrating.

"Hello, I'd like to store my self here please."

First, some background.  Prior to automated exposure settings all SLR cameras had controls for aperture, shutter speed, and focus.  After automation became all the rage (and it still is), SLR cameras had anywhere from full manual control to no manual controls.  Today’s DSLR’s thankfully have lots of manual control with the added bonus of fully automated modes and instant feedback.  The Pentax ME lands towards the fully automated end of the spectrum.  It has manual focus and aperture settings, but shutter speed is completely controlled by the camera.

New Beetle never understood why he wasn't as cool as Old Beetle. Prius was ignored by both of them.

This is the problem.  When the meter in the ME is working correctly, it’s a fine and easy to use camera.  However, my meter was acting wonky and there was nothing I could do about it.  Exposure compensation only works if the metered value is consistent.  I almost always work in aperture priority mode on cameras that offer it, but I need some way of choosing the shutter speed if the brains in the camera aren’t working right. On occasion my brain works right and it wants to pick shutter speeds!

Some cars are art...

...and some cars have art on them

I have to cut the ME some slack because it’s over 30 years old and who knows what the condition of it’s battery is?  I love the form factor and the build-quality, but I don’t feel like depending on a 30+ year-old meter with  no ability to override it.  Of course, the answer is the Pentax MX.  It’s almost exactly the same has the ME, but with a shutter speed dial on top and a 0.97x 95% viewfinder.  Anyone care to trade?

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Cameras

Minolta AF-Sv Talker

Minolta AF-Sv Talker

Minolta AF-Sv Talker by Capt Kodak

If I had to sum up in one word what it is that draws me towards certain used cameras, it would probably be “interestingness”.  “Cheap” probably ranks pretty high too.  After buying my first DSLR, a Sony A200, I got on a bit of a Minolta kick.  Sony bought the rights to Minolta’s A-mount, so I researched Minolta’s history and started collecting a few of their cameras.  During my research, I found a camera that seemed to have everything:  it was interesting, cheap, and employed the most obvious misplaced use of technology in a camera that I’ve ever seen (including blink detection).

That camera was the Minolta AF-Sv Talker, and I was lucky enough to find one on eBay.  Unfortunately the seller claimed not to know anything about cameras so they couldn’t verify if it even turned on or took pictures.  It’s funny that someone who can figure out how to use a computer and sell something on eBay can’t figure out how to put a couple of AA’s in a camera and push the “on” button.  Oh well, I won the auction for $10 and at that price it was worth the risk.  The camera arrived with its box and manual and it looked as good as new… Until I opened the battery compartment and saw that the batteries has leaked all over the place and the contacts were severely corroded.  Was my dream of having a camera that talked to me dashed forever?  Find out after this short commercial break.

After watching that commercial, is it any wonder Minolta went out of business?  I did a bit of scrubbing and some grumbling and eventually got the camera to turn on.  When I attempted to load my first roll of film, I found that the camera has the best film loader that I’ve ever used.  After pulling the film leader over to the other side of the camera, all you have to do is close a clear plastic cover over the film and the cameras winder motor does the rest.  I grew up with digital, so I’m never 100% confident that I’m getting an image when I take pictures with film.  I know exactly how a digital image sensor works, but film is mostly magic to me.  When I can see the leader being spooled up instead of just trusting that it’s happening gives me nice piece of mind.  The second thing I learned after getting the camera to turn on is that it only says two things: “Load film,” and “too dark, use flash.”  Why couldn’t it tell me things like “theres a telephone pole growing out of your uncle’s head” or “that’s boring, don’t even bother wasting film on it”?

As it turns out, this camera is incredibly simple and fun to use.  It’s not for control-freaks who want to set things like exposure compensation, aperture, focus, shutter speed, etc. Even though it says “AUTO FOCUS” in large, white letters on the front of the camera, I’m pretty sure the Talker is fixed focus.  If the Talker is autofocus, then it has the fastest, quietest focusing mechanism I’ve ever seen. This camera is a true point-and-shoot, unlike the point-wait-and-shoot digicams available today.  As soon as you click the button, there is a quiet springy sound and the moment is captured.  When you let go of the button, the film advances with an annoying whine common to all auto-winding film cameras.  That film-advance delay is a nice trick and can be used to avoid embarrassing distractions caused by the loud noise.  This gives the camera a dual-personality.  It works great as a funny, lo-fi anachronism, but it also works as a simple, discrete and pocket-able camera.

The two wedding photos above were shot using Ilford XP2 chromagenic film (black and white film that can be developed in C-41 chemicals at drug-store photolabs).  The Talker tends to underexpose, which I didn’t realize at the time, so the results on XP2 (or any film) are pretty grainy.  The 35mm f/2.8 lens is far better than any lomo plastic thing.  It’s real glass and the results are fairly sharp with decent contrast and low distortion.  The downsides of the lens are the strong vignetting and low saturation.  However, I find the performance of the lens to be just my taste (one part of my taste, at least).  It has some of the qualities of lo-fi photographs that I like (vignetting, low saturation) without the extreme softness exhibited by plastic lenses.

For such an undeniably stupid product idea, the Minolta Talker is a surprisingly good camera.  It’s simple, small and fun.  The camera’s dual personality allows you to be as discrete as you want with it.  There is probably no better way to get a subject to smile than hearing a synthetic, strongly accented voice say “too dark, use flash!”  I can’t imagine a better use of $10.

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Update: Steve (aka Capt Kodak) has cleared up my confusion with the autofocus system in the Minolta Talker.

The “quiet springy sound” you hear is the autofocus mechanism. It is NOT like what you find in either modern DSLRs or video cameras. It is phase detection (the method of AF used in SLRs) but instead of zeroing in on a specific point of focus, it is doing “zone” focusing–near, medium, far–and the lens has enough depth of field to cover for it. If you look at the front of the camera (specifically at the two rectangular windows on either side of the viewfinder) and press the shutter release, you’ll see that one of the openings has a mirror that “moves” (more of a pivot). That’s the sound you are hearing. The AF system works just like an old rangefinder but uses phase detection to put together images and calculate the distance. Very cool and very reliable.

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Cameras, Recommended

Traveling Camera Project

Way back in July, the Feeling Negative? blog started their Traveling Camera Project.  The concept was that a cheapo 35mm camera would be mailed from person to person around the world with each person shooting a roll of film in the same camera.  It sounded like fun, so I signed up to take part.  The map of where the camera has been so far can be found here, but I’m not sure how well it’s been kept up to date.

I received the camera from Janne in Osaka who blogged about his experience, too.  The camera being used for this project is the Vivitar Mariner, available at Amazon in a waterproof case for the extraordinary price of $100, used.  Ours was missing the waterproof case and only cost $5.  After using it I can say the value is much closer to $5 than $100.  It’s basically a disposable camera that you can reload film into.  The Mariner is fixed-focus with only one aperture and shutter speed setting.  You truly do just point and shoot.  Where you’re pointing is not so precise, however, since the tiny viewfinder covers maybe 70% of the image captured on the film.  The lens is 28mm and has the typical chromatic aberration and blurry corners of all plastic lenses.  Of course, blurry corners implies that something in the image is sharp, which requires luck.  It’s a fun camera to shoot with and is capable of some nice lo-fi shots, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you read camera reviews of modern DSLR’s, you’ll often come across complaints about entry-level cameras having poor build quality and employing too much plastic in their construction.  They obviously have never used the Mariner.  Without batteries (batteries are optional), the camera feels like it could break at any second.  Luckily, simplicity comes to the rescue, so the only things that could break are the shutter, the winding knob, or the light seals.  I think the winding knob and the light seals were broken.  The frame counter stayed at “1” after I had taken at least 5 shots and then it all of a sudden jumped to “6” on the next shot.  Advancing the film in between shots is…imprecise.  I was shocked when all of my photos came back and weren’t half overlapping.  You can see in this shot that the camera is prone to light leaks, but this was the only picture where it showed up.

It was fun to take part in the Traveling Camera Project.  I can’t pass up an opportunity to try out a new camera and it’s fun to watch it make its way around the world.

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Cameras

Canonet GIII QL17

As promised here, I am reporting back with my Canonet experience.

The Canonet is one of if not the most popular compact 35mm camera from the 1970’s.  It was introduced in 1972 as the top of the line in Canon’s Canonet series of fast fixed-lens rangefinders.  According to CameraQuest.com:

The G-III  became a best seller  with over 1.2 MILLION SOLD from 1972 to 1982 per the Canon web site. This probably makes the G-III the best selling 35mm  rangefinder with built in meter OF ALL TIME.

What this translates to today is that you can find Canonets today in good condition and for a good price.  The 70’s seem to have been a great time to find a fast, fixed lens rangefinder.  Too bad I wasn’t born yet.  Other notable cameras in this class are the Minolta 7sII (drool), the Olympus 35RC (very small), and the Yashica 35 Electro.  I had been bidding on Minolta 7sII’s on eBay for a while, but the prices were just too steep for me.  I have no doubt the 7sII would be worth it, but I knew there were other excellent rangefinders of a similar size and build for a lot less money.  As often happens, once I stopped looking for a compact rangefinder, I found the Canonet at a thrift store for $30.

Design

Rangefinder cameras are small, but they’re not as small as the latest digicam or cell-phone.  If you can accept that the Canonet won’t fit in your pocket without an unsightly bulge, then you will notice that everything about the camera is just right.  The 40mm f/1.7 is fast enough and wide enough without being too wide or too big.  The size and weight of the camera body are perfect: heavy enough to feel solid, but not too heavy.  Goldilocks would love the Canonet.  Like all fully manual cameras, the controls include only the necessities: aperture, shutter speed, focus, shutter release, and film advance.  The controls for aperture, shutter speed and focus are all positioned around the lens.  There is a learning curve to figure out which doohickey controls which thingmajigger but once you do it’s very intuitive.  The focus is manipulated via a lever and the aperture and shutter speeds are adjusted using rings around the lens with a distinctive feel so that you can tell them apart.

Features

The camera can be used in shutter priority mode, but I can’t tell you anything about the metering because I’ve worked sans battery since my first attempt at replacing the dead mercury battery.  A lot of cameras from the 70’s used batteries that are now illegal in the US because of their mercury content.  There are a few options for replacing the battery but luckily only one of them involves smuggling poisonous batteries across the border inside of the unpleasant body cavity of your choosing.  The option I attempted was ordering a zinc-air battery.  Supposedly the voltage matches well enough but the battery life is not so good.  My order never showed up, but by the time I noticed, I was already having too much fun using the camera in manual mode.  There is something liberating about taking pictures without electricity that has to be experienced to be understood.

The “QL” in “QL17” stands for “quick load”.  It’s hard to explain, but the film loading system in the Canonet is easier than even the most modern film camera.  If you swear while trying to load film into the Canonet, then maybe film photography isn’t for you.  The quick loading is a feature I could do without, but it’s undoubtedly nice to have.

The whole point of compact rangefinders is their portability and stealth.  It’s stealth where the Canonet shines.  It stands out a bit visually today since the chrome and black color scheme screams “vintage”, but it’s small enough that most people won’t even notice you have a camera.  The real stealthiness lies in the shutter sound or the lack thereof.  Yes, it’s louder than a digicam with the fake shutter sound turned off, but it doesn’t rely on a bright LCD screen on the back either.  The leaf shutter in the Canonet is so quiet that you’ll often wonder if you took a picture at all.  It’s a nice change from the cacophony happening over in SLR-land.  The drawback of the leaf shutter is the relatively slow max shutter speed of 1/500s.  You’ll need some pretty slow film if you want to venture into large aperture territory during the day.

Conclusion

The Canonet GIII QL17 is a great example of a compact rangefinder from the 1970’s.  It’s probably not as cool or rare as some of the other offerings of that era, but rarity comes at a price.  Canonets are relatively easy to find and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the build quality.  The fantastic 40mm f/1.7 lens and small size are just icing on the cake.  Sometimes I wonder if the time and money it takes to process film are really worth it, but it’s cameras like this one that keep me coming back.

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Cameras

Minolta SRT200

Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera

Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera, by Bryan Davidson

I bought my Minolta SRT200 at a camera show in Tucson where I was floored by the reasonable prices and the chance to try out all kinds of fun toys.  There were a few grumpy old men who gave me ‘tude just for existing, but the knowledgeable and friendly people and the huge variety of working antique cameras at market price made up for that.  It was funny for me to see the bucket of old Kodak Brownie cameras going for $5 or less.  At antique stores and even thrift stores, Brownies can be found with pricetags of $50 and up.  I found an SRT200 with a 55mm f/1.4 lens and I had to have it.  It was so heavy and metally and the meter worked.

As it turns out, maybe I didn’t get the incredible historic find that I thought I got at the time, but that hardly diminishes the fun I’ve had with my SRT200.  This is what RokkorFiles.com had to say about the SRT200:

The major specifications of the budget SR-T body were now as follows:

  • Single lens reflex camera with through-the-lens CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) meter coupled to shutter and film speed.
  • Meter sensitivity EV 3 to EV 17 at ASA 100.
  • Film speeds supported ASA 6-6400
  • Fully mechanical cloth focal plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus B
  • Shutter speeds 1-1/60 sec with electronic flash
  • Oversized quick return mirror for no image cut-off even with supertelephoto lenses
  • Exposure control needle visible in viewfinder
  • Flash synchronisation (X and FP)
  • Automatic reset film counter
  • Accessory shoe
As with the original SR-T 100, the later budget model does not have a lot to recommend it when other more fully featured models are now available for similar prices. At the time, however, it remained an attractive option for someone seeking a fully mechanical body with a limited budget.
Oh well, I’ve bought all of my old cameras with the intention of using them, so I’m not all that bothered by the fact that there is a better option out there.  The SRT200 was manufactured sometime between 1975 and 1977.  For reference, 1977 is the year that the original Star Wars was released.  That’s right, I knew that without looking it up.

Garden Gate

Garden Gate, by Bryan Davidson

The appeal of this camera for me is the extremely mechanical feel.  Every detail about the camera makes it feel like a finely tuned machine from the days of old:

  • Very heavy
  • Dirty (but very large) viewfinder
  • Analog needle to show exposure
  • Winding sound when changing the shutter speed dial
  • Deafening mirror-slap
  • Manual focus
  • Manual aperture ring
Kent Station

Kent Station, by Bryan Davidson

Due to the control layout, the camera operates similarly to shutter-priority, if it had automated exposure modes.  The shutter speed dial is on top, and the aperture ring is around the lens.  There are two needles visible on the right side of the viewfinder.  One is pointy, and it represents the exposure reading.  The other needle has a circle on the end of it and changing the aperture and shutter speed moves the circle.  When the circle is on top of the pointy needle, the exposures match.  A good explanation of this method along with some general comparisons between film SLR’s and DSLR’s is given here.  Maybe it’s blasphemy, but the shape and control layout of my A200 is more comfortable and more accessible than the control layout of the SRT200.  However, the simplicity of the SRT200 along with the gigantic, bright viewfinder and the mechanical feel add up to a wonderful experience.

Prickly Pear Lemonade

Prickly Pear Lemonade, by Bryan Davidson

The included 55mm f/1.4 lens was icing on the cake.  It’s not in the best condition, but the images it creates are gorgeous.  The focusing ring sticks and just feels a bit icky compared to some of my other Minolta manual focus lenses.  It’s tough to complain about the results, though.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley, by Bryan Davidson

For anyone looking for the MMM (metal, mechanical, manual) film experience, you can’t go wrong with any of the Minolta SRT cameras.  The manual focus Minolta lens lineup is fantastic and the used prices are nice and low.  Digital cameras are great and they have truly created some amazing opportunities for today’s photographers, but it’s nice every once in a while to experience what it feels like to be the one responsible for how your pictures turn out.  Try as I might, I can’t find “scene modes” or “art filters” anywhere on the SRT200.  That’s exactly why I like it.

 

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Cameras

New Toy!

Geez, I need to stay away from thrift stores from now on, I think.  I just couldn’t resist the Canonet GIII QL17 that was under glass in perfect condition just begging me to pull out my $30 and buy it.  If you would have seen the look on its face, you would have caved too.

Canonet GIII QL 17

Canonet GIII QL 17, by the other Martin Taylor

Actually, $30 is a good price for the top-of-the-line Canonet and it was in very nice condition and it included the original flash attachment.  The foam light-seals are a bit gooey and I’ll probably be replacing them soon, but other than that the camera should serve it’s purpose nicely.  My Kodak Retina IIa was my first rangefinder, but it had such a tiny viewfinder that framing amounted to guesswork.  Quite a few heads were cut off by accident.  The Canonet, however, will give me a proper rangefinder experience because it has a big, bright viewfinder and parallax-corrected frame lines.  That means that frame lines move when you adjust the focus distance.  Very cool.  I’m still working on my first roll of film through the camera, but I already like it a lot.  It’s compact (but not pocket-sized), but still very heavy and incredibly well-built.  The old cliché “they don’t make them like they used to” applies here 100%.  I can’t imagine a better use of $30.

Come back here in a few months for a more detailed report on the Canonet.  That is if I don’t get thwarted by gooey, decomposing foam and a sticky shutter.

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