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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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?

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.

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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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.

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.

 

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.

Lomo Fisheye Toy Camera

My Yellow Fisheye
My Yellow Fisheye, by ppinacio

What is a “toy” camera?  Can’t any camera be a toy?  If a toy is something that you have fun with, then you’d have to call a Leica M9 ($9,000) a toy, too.  It seems toy cameras are actually any variety of inexpensive (although usually overpriced) plastic cameras with image quality that is too poor to be taken very seriously.  Let’s face it, if the camera you’re buying is bright yellow (see image at left), then you probably aren’t too concerned with MTF charts.

There is a Lomography “movement” that has sprung up partially in response to the obsession with test charts and image quality brought about by the digital age.  Whether or not this movement has any merit is up to you.  I’ve seen a lot of good work done by toy cameras, but the good/crap ratio is probably about the same as with any camera or imaging medium.  Yes, Lomo cameras and photographers produce photos that look different from most digital cameras, but the photos are not very different from each other.  What I’m trying to say is that there has to be some effort on the photographer’s part to make something original rather than just fall back on the qualities of toy cameras (softness, vignetting, low contrast, funky colors, light leaks, etc.) as a crutch.

Crooked Trees
Crooked Trees, by Bryan Davidson

The fun thing about toy cameras is that they force you to see differently.  A fundamental part of creativity is working within limitations.  And boy is the Lomo Fisheye limited!  It takes film, which limits the number of exposures; it has a single focal length lens, so no zooming; the lens is a fisheye, so things look weird no matter what; it has a single exposure setting; it’s viewfinder is so close to the lens that you can’t see at least a fourth of the scene that you’re shooting; and last, but not least, it’s brightly colored (teal, in my case) so you can’t use it without getting comments from people.  All of these things force you to work outside of your comfort zone, which helps you grow.  Maybe you won’t get any exhibition-worthy shots out of the camera, but you’ll begin to see differently even when using other cameras (with limitations like less than 180 degree field of view).

The key word for this camera is “fun”.  In fact, it’s just about impossible to be very serious while you’re using it.  The color might have something to do with that…  The build quality is better than you would expect.  The all-plastic body is covered in a rubbery skin that provides a nice amount of grip and sturdiness.  The only moving parts are the shutter, the film-wind, and the flash on-off switch.  The lens cap is made of floppy rubber and it’s tethered to the body.  My biggest complaint about the build is the tiny film rewinder knob.  It’s hard to grip and a pain to use.  Not a huge deal, but it manages to annoy me every single time.

In use, the camera could frustrate you if you’re taking it too seriously.  When using film, you already have to wait to find out exactly how your shot turned out, but at least with an SLR you have a lot of control and you can see through the viewfinder basically what the picture will look like.  Not so with the Fisheye.  Getting the film developed is extra-exciting because you never know what you’re going to get.  This camera is the very essence of point and shoot.  You load it with ISO400 film and shoot away.  If you’re indoors, use the flash; if you’re outdoors, don’t.  The only thing you have to think about is what to point the camera at.  Don’t get too fussy with your composition, though, because you can’t see a large chunk of the frame through the viewfinder.  I assume this was a design choice to minimize parallax error.  When using a fisheye lens, it’s often recommended that you get close, otherwise your subject will look tiny.  Unfortunately, at close distances, the parallax effect arises and what you capture on film may not match what you’re seeing through your viewfinder.  To battle this, Lomography put the viewfinder as close to the lens as possible.  The viewfinder is so bad that I often just point the camera at what I want to photograph and hope for the best.  The field of view is so wide that it’s bound to capture everything anyway.

Inflated
Inflated, by Bryan Davidson

The lens is fun, but it’s by no means a match for the precision of a glass fisheye designed for an SLR.  It’s a little sharper than most non-fisheye toy cameras, but don’t expect too much.  Also, the image doe not fill much of the 35mm frame, so you’ll probably end up cropping.  Let’s say that the resulting sharpness is adequate.  4×6’s look decent, but I wouldn’t go any bigger than that.  As expected, fringing around tree branches and other high-contrast areas is extreme, but it’s not that bad at the small print sizes you’ll be using.  Flare is surprisingly well-controlled, which is good since you have almost a 50% chance of including the sun in any of your outdoor shots.  Unfortunately, in bright shots you can often see the edges of the lens along with a “glow” that corresponds to the camera’s color around your image.  This can be taken care of in post-processing, but it’s pretty ugly if left untreated.  Also, there is extreme barrel distortion… obviously… it’s a fisheye.

This is one of the least expensive ways to play around with some fisheye photography.  Even manual focus fisheye lenses for SLR’s run several hundred dollars.  Be warned: this camera is fun enough that you’ll soon be considering a fisheye for your SLR.  Click here for a bunch of examples of what this camera does.

Sony A200

Introduction

The Sony A200 is the camera that made photography real for me.  Since it’s no longer for sale, I have no problem professing my love for this camera and informing you that I have an extremely biased opinion of it.  The A200 was my first real camera.  I had a decent Canon A570IS before it, which had a few manual controls.  The problem was – as I quickly learned – on a tiny sensor camera with a slow zoom lens and no RAW output, the settings just don’t make that much difference.  It was such a pain to traverse the menus and change the aperture, even though you’d have to zoom in to 100% just to see any difference between that and auto mode.  Most of the time, full auto mode seemed to work better anyway.  That’s when I made the mistake of doing some online shopping and reading camera reviews.  This of course led to spending lots of money.

Honey?
Honey? by Bryan Davidson

I settled on the A200 because of its compatibility with Minolta lenses (which I didn’t understand the significance of until much later), its in-body image stabilization, and its great image quality for the price.  The DSLR market was very different just 2 years ago and there were far fewer choices in the entry-level arena.  If I had to pick an inexpensive first DSLR today, it’d be the Pentax K-x.  Sony’s recent entry-level offerings (all 37 of them…) are just a joke for photographers who actually want some control over their cameras.  To me, the A200 was the last decent entry-level Sony and it is by far better than the most recent A290.  The biggest reason?  Buttons!

Handling

From the moment I tried out the A200 at the now-defunct Ritz Camera store I could tell it was the camera for me.  Every control was exactly where it should be.  It took me no time at all to become comfortable using the camera and it fit my hands like a glove.  After using the camera for over 2 years, it is now completely second nature for me to find any button or menu item that I need.  As I’ve probably made clear in previous posts, I love analog controls.  The pinnacle of analog controls on a digital camera was probably the Konica-Minolta 7D, reviewed here.  As a first camera, I think I’d find that one intimidating.  As I think about what I want for my next camera, however, I’d drool all over a camera that had as many analog controls as the KM-7D.  The A200 has a nice blend of buttons and well-organized menus.  The function menu (accessed by pressing the “Fn” button) is nicely implemented and it has become just as second nature to navigate as the analog controls.

Snoqualmie Falls
Snoqualmie Falls, by Bryan Davidson

I never appreciated just how small the A200 was.  As my first DSLR, all I had to compare it too was my A570IS, which fit in a pocket.  Until fairly recently, I always felt like the A200 was a hulking beast.  Two things helped me put the size of the A200 in proportion.  First, I have now tried a lot more cameras and the A200 is smaller than most of them.  Second, I bought a couple of Minolta primes which gave me outstanding images in a smaller package.  With the 50mm f/1.4 attached, the A200 just isn’t very big.  In fact, it’s just right.  (Note to Sony: sell a compact, affordable 25mm f/2 prime for APS-C and I’ll stick around for a lot longer).

The handling of my A200 has become so second nature to me that I struggle to find controls on newer cameras from other manufacturers (and Sony, who changed their layout after the A200).  Whenever it gets replaced, I’ll miss my A200.

Bluejay
Bluejay, by Bryan Davidson

Image Quality

I’m not going to talk too much about image quality, because I’m a firm believer that any DSLR released in the past 2 years is good enough for 95% of applications. The worst DSLR available today can still produce fantastic results. When shooting RAW and using Lightroom 3, the A200 can produce beautiful results up to and including ISO1600. That’s a stop or two below today’s best offerings, but don’t forget that over two years have passed. Using Lightroom 2, I usually stopped at ISO800, but Lightroom 3 (beta) has opened up the option of ISO1600 and made IS800 a no-brainer. At high ISO’s, setting the chroma noise reduction to 20-50 and leaving the luminance setting at 15 or less (I usually go with “0”) gives some nice film-like results. When combined with a quality lens, there is nothing I can complain about regarding the A200’s image quality.

Rocky Ridge
Rocky Ridge, by Bryan Davidson

Performance

This is where my bias comes in.  As my first DSLR, I was blown away by everything from the lack of shutter-lag to the quick on-off times and the battery life.  There are lots of DSLR’s out there today that can outperform my A200, but to me it was perfect.  The sensor-based image stabilization has won me over and I will never be able to buy a camera without it.  I’ve gotten usable images at ridiculous shutter speeds down to 1/2 second.  When I started using film cameras for the first time, I was surprised at how much more careful I had to be to keep my images sharp.  I know that lens-based stabilization can be theoretically better, but I’ve got stabilization on every lens from any decade without paying extra.  The only thing I could ask for is a more obvious indication if it is turned off.  Almost every time I turn it off for tripod use I forget to turn it back on until I get my first blurry shot.

Glowing Tulip
Glowing Tulip, by Bryan Davidson

Conclusion

I know at the time I made the right choice by buying the A200.  I will always remember it as the camera that taught me and got me hooked on photography.  This was the perfect first camera and I have no regrets for purchasing it.  I’m not too excited about Sony’s latest offerings, but I can’t blame the A200 for the crimes of its younger siblings.  Any time that I think about upgrading, all I have to do is put the A200 back into my hands or look at some of the pictures I’ve taken with it and those thoughts almost vanish.  It has served me well.  All of my A200 Flickr pictures can be found here.

Lone Tree on White Stone
Lone Tree on White Stone, by Bryan Davidson

Canon S90

Canon S90
Canon S90, by bfishadow

Small sensor compact cameras are a dying breed.  I give them 5 years at the most before becoming a niche product.  They’re being squeezed from both ends.  From the smaller end, cell phone cameras are getting bigger and better every day with the current champ being the 8mp camera in the HTC Incredible phone.  Obviously megapixels do not equate to quality, but at Facebook resolutions, the quality difference between a good camera phone and a compact is minimal.  Meanwhile, the quality difference between a compact and a DSLR is huge, even at small print sizes.  The larger sensors on DSLRs (and mirrorless large sensor cameras) enable low-light performance and a shallow depth of field that’s impossible to replicate with a tiny sensor.  The danger from that direction is the flock of Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (EVIL) cameras.  Or, if you like, Digital Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (DEVIL) cameras.  EVIL cameras are almost pocketable and they can match the image quality of most DSLRs while beating the pants off of small sensor compacts.  Pants, actually, are exactly the reason I bought the Canon S90 even though I can see that it’s a member of a dying breed.  If a camera is small, but too big to fit in my pocket, then it’s not small enough.  For example, take a look at the new Sony NEX cameras.  The camera body looks pocketable, but the lens is huge.  There is a 16mm (24mm-e) pancake lens option and I’ll admit to that combination producing a bit of drool from me.  Maybe I’ll wait and ask Santa for one at Christmas.

Spiky Mushroom
Spiky Mushroom, by Me

For now, I’m happy using one of the best small-sensor cameras ever made.  At the top are probably this camera, the Canon G11, and the Panasonic LX3.  The biggest thing that sets these cameras apart is the ability to shoot RAW.  If you don’t know what RAW is, this article provides a good explanation.  Simply put, a RAW file contains the original data captured by the camera, while a JPEG file has been compressed and processed according to the camera settings.  For me, the two biggest benefits to shooting RAW are the ability to rescue files that have not been exposed properly, and having more control over noise removal.  I tend to prefer detail with some noise in my photos while Canon and other camera manufactures prefer to smear out detail in order to remove as much noise as possible.  Yes, chroma noise is ugly, but it can be removed without smearing details.  Luminance noise just doesn’t bother me very much.  In use, the JPEGs from the camera look fine to me up to about ISO400, but in RAW I can get results that I’m very happy with up to ISO800.

Merry-Go-Round
Merry-Go-Round, by Me

One of the reasons the S90 has decent noise performance is that Canon wisely chose to sit out during this round of the megapixel race and focus instead on image quality.  The S90 shares its sensor with the G11, which miraculously has less pixels than it’s predecessor with 10mp instead of the whopping 14.7mp in the G10.  What this means is better low-light performance and an added bonus of about 40% smaller file sizes.  The sensor is bigger than what is found in most compact cameras at 1/1.7″, but it’s still tiny compared to a micro 4/3 or APS-C sensor.

Not so Tall
Not So Tall, by Me

The lens is great, mostly for its f/2 aperture at the wide end.  A larger aperture means a lower ISO, which is extra important when dealing with a small sensor.  I end up using the camera as if it had a 28mm prime on it.  As you zoom in, the maximum aperture drops to a very slow f/4.5, and the lens seems to be a little softer on the long end.

Skylight
Skylight, by Me

I love the minimalist design of this camera.  There’s not a single unnecessary crease or bulge.  I find that this is one of the very few digital cameras that is possible to admire as an object.  Some have complained about the lack of a grip on the right side.  While it would probably benefit from one, I can’t say that it makes that much of a difference on a camera this small and light.  For such a small camera, the S90 is a pleasure to use.  It has the control wheel on the front that got everyone buzzing when the camera was released.  There is a second control wheel on the back that is adjusted using your thumb.  Both control wheels and a custom button can be set to control just about anything.  The front wheel has a nice feel to it and it clicks into place with discrete stops as you rotate it.  Unfortunately, the back wheel has no discrete positions and spins freely.  Be careful what you set this wheel to control because you will change it without meaning to.  It’s amazing that such a small thing has caused me a lot of annoyance when using the camera.  Still, if you fiddle with the settings enough you can set up the camera to be very usable.

Droplets
Droplets, by Me

Image quality is better than I’ve ever seen in a small sensor camera.  That said, after editing images from the S90 for a while and being quite pleased with the quality, I was stunned when I returned to editing images from my A200.  The S90 is perfect for a go-anywhere camera.  It works great as a backup to my A200, but certainly not as a replacement.

Loop
Loop, by Me

Even though it’s aimed at enthusiasts, the S90 would make the perfect camera for the not-so-digitally-savvy.  It works just fine in auto mode and it doesn’t have very many buttons and menus to clutter things up and confuse an inexperienced user.  Plus, there is plenty of room to grow into more of the manual settings.  If you are concerned more about responsiveness and image quality than size, look elsewhere (DSLR or EVIL).  Otherwise, I highly recommend it.

A Splash of Yellow
A Splash of Yellow, by Me

Thrift Store Cameras: Olympus OM-10 and Fujifilm Instax 100

My sister-in-law came to visit last weekend and wanted to visit a few thrift stores around town.  I have a strange fascination with technology from the 70’s and 80’s, especially audio and photography equipment.  Thrift stores such as Goodwill can provide a nearly endless supply of half-broken, ugly electronics.  To be clear, if you are looking for a specific camera that you intend to use as your primary shooter, a thrift store is probably not your best bet.  If you are looking for a boring, terrible, who-cares, pocket-able 35mm point and shoot camera from the ’90’s for less than $10, then you’ll be in heaven.  I like to look for obscure cameras that stand out to me as a little different.  I found two cameras that met my requirements.

Olympus OM-10, by Lex Tollenaar

The first, an Olympus OM-10, is not so much strange, but I like it.  What I really want is an OM-1, because of it’s historic significance, but I haven’t gotten around to looking for a good one and I don’t feel like spending the money on it right now.  The OM-10 is a “consumer” version of the OM-1.  The significance of the OM-1 is that it was the smallest 35mm SLR of its time and it set a precedent that was followed by other camera manufacturers for years to come.  The OM-10 matches the form-factor of the OM-1, but it has slightly less build quality and lacks native support for manual shutter speed adjustment.  To address this, an additional “manual adapter” can be plugged into the front of the camera to provide a shutter speed setting.  The camera I bought from the thrift store included the adapter.  I usually shoot in aperture priority even on my DSLR, though, so the adapter is more of a “nice to have” for me.  It also sells for almost as much as the OM-10 itself, so there’s that.  I’m currently shooting my first roll of film with it, so I’ll write up a full report once I use it some more.  The lens I’m using is a 35mm f/2.8.  It’s very compact and light, but it’s not in the best condition.  The rubber focus grip is coming off and the focus movement is not as smooth as I’d like.  Still, the view through the viewfinder is big and bright and the entire package is very compact for an SLR, so I’m pretty happy so far.

Fujifilm Instax 100 Instant Camera
Fujifilm Instax 100 Instant Camera, by Arty Smokes

The second camera I bought was a Fujifilm Instax 100.  Introduced in 1999, the camera is Fujifilm’s answer to the Polaroid.  Since Polaroid film is no more (with a resurrection in the works), Fujifilm’s Instax system provides a nice alternative for those of you who like to get your pictures instantly.  Although you can’t tell from the picture, the Instax 100 is comically large (and let’s be honest, that’s why I bought it).  It’s bigger than your head (probably).  It also happens to be the single ugliest camera I’ve ever seen.  I happen to think that cameras can be beautiful (the Kodak Retina IIa, for example), but not the Instax 100.  It doesn’t matter whose eyes are beholding it, the thing is ugly.  It would have been ugly in any color, but Fujifilm chose horrible shades of blue and gray to enhance the ugliness to near epic levels.  When I first powered the camera on, it came up with an “E” on the LCD screen and wouldn’t respond to any button presses.  I opened up the back and it looked like the cheap plastic gears that extend the lens’ front element were jammed.  With some grunting, a little elbow grease, and a dash of swearing, I popped the lens back into place with a cracking sound that was loud enough to make me think I just destroyed my priceless $9.99 plastic camera.  Luckily, the camera came back on without showing the dreaded “E” on the display.  There were about 6 sheets of film left in the camera and I was actually able to get a few pictures from them.  I’ve ordered some more film, but it runs at about $1 per sheet, so I was glad to have some free sheets to get some practice with first.  This camera is so crappy in every way that it’s endearing.  Here’s the experience of taking a photo with the Instax 100: 1) push power button 2) wait and pray that the “E” doesn’t show up 3) cringe while the lens grinds its way out into shooting position 4) aim the camera using the tiny, impossible-to-see-through viewfinder 5) push the flash button 6) wonder what the flash button actually does, because it seems to go off no matter what 7) push the flash button again 8 ) nothing happens 9) subject starts to get restless, probably stops smiling 10) push the shutter release 11) wait, and pray that the new grinding noise is normal 12) grab the picture from the top of the camera and wait for it to show up.  13) realize that you cut off your subject’s head 14) curse, because that shot just cost you $1 15) repeat.  It may not sound like it, but I’m incredibly happy with my purchase.  The Instax 100 is hilariously fun to use, and when you get a good shot (which I might eventually accomplish), it is probably quite satisfying.  However, I’m scared to use this camera in public.

Reg in My First Instax Shot
Reg in My First Instax Shot, by AndyWilson

Both cameras were good finds, especially for thrift stores.  It’s funny to me that I bought one camera renowned for its small size along with another camera that’s so comically large.  If you’re feeling like you might be in a photographic rut, then go out and find a strange camera.  Have fun, shoot pictures with it.  Image quality isn’t everything.  You may not get anything frame-worthy, but at least you’ll be shooting and having fun.

Kodak Retina IIa

Kodak Retina IIa
Kodak Retina IIa, by Me

Well, it’s about time to write about the camera that’s visible in my header image: the Kodak Retina IIa.  My Retina IIa was manufactured sometime between January and March 1951, making it 59 years old (unless you are reading this a year from now, in which case it’s 60 years old!).  The camera is a fold-able rangefinder with a small, dim viewfinder and a fixed 50mm f/2 lens.  The viewfinder is better than most digicams, but not by much.  For those of you not familiar with rangefinder cameras, I’ll explain a little about the difference between a rangefinder and an SLR.

Fixture
Fixture, by Me

In an SLR (Single Lens Reflex), the image formed by the lens is sent to the viewfinder by reflecting off of a mirror in front of the film/sensor which must move out of the way before taking the picture.  This means that you see exactly what the film is going to see…almost.  In order to keep the view as bright as possible for SLR users, the aperture on the lens is left wide open until the moment the picture is taken.  What this means is that the image in the viewfinder will potentially have a shallower depth of field (DOF) than the captured image.  In contrast, a rangefinder viewfinder shows everything in focus while the captured image may have a much smaller DOF.  The rangefinder is used to aid in focusing the lens.  When you look through the viewfinder, you will see a double image in the center of the frame, as shown in the left half of this picture.  You then adjust the focus until the two images line up, as shown in the right half of the picture.  The major benefit to rangefinders is size.  Without the mirror, the camera body can be smaller.  The drawback is that the image through the viewfinder may not match what the film sees.  This is called the “parallax effect,” and it gets worse the closer you are to your subject.  The rangefinder vs. SLR debate of the past has been replaced by the optical vs. electronic viewfinder debate emerging now with the introduction of large sensor mirrorless cameras.  In both cases, the choice usually comes down to a matter of taste and shooting style.

Wavy (cropped)
Wavy, by Me

The Retina has no built-in metering, so it is not a camera for beginners.  In fact, the camera doesn’t have auto anything.  It’s manual focus, fixed focal length, no meter, and most importantly of all, NO BATTERIES.  Cue Tim Allen’s monkey noises.  The camera may not be great for beginners to pick up and use, but it is a fantastic teaching tool.  Every variable involved in capturing an image must be deliberately controlled by you.  Outdoors, figuring out the exposure is pretty easy.  It just takes a little bit of math and book learnin’.  Look up the Sunny 16 rule if you’re interested in manually setting exposures.  Indoors, guessing exposure is much more difficult, and I can’t do it.  Even if you don’t plan on becoming a full-manual, film-only shooter, using a camera like this will improve your photography skills.

Red Elevator, Orange Wall
Red Elevator, Orange Wall, by Me

With that out of the way, how fun is the camera to use?  Answer: very fun, but not perfect.  The metal construction and physical knobs and levers are great to use and are far superior to the menu-based systems most digicams employ.  The camera fits in my pocket, so I can bring it anywhere and it’s always a conversation starter.  It’s easy to load and once you learn the controls, it’s a breeze to use.  That said, I do have some complaints.  The camera controls seem like they were designed for baby’s hands.  I kind of feel like a giant when I try to adjust the focus (no, feeling like a giant is not a positive thing).  Also, the viewfinder, although decent for its time, is just not very good.  It’s tiny and I have to squint to see much through it.  I struggled with the parallax effect and cut off more heads than Henry VIII the first time I used the camera.  I also end up always putting my finger over the rangefinder window, preventing me from being able to see the double image and focus correctly.  All consequences of being raised on digital cameras, I’m sure.

Bike Path
Bike Path, by Me

The 50mm f/2 Retina-Xenon lens is wonderful, even by today’s standards.  It’s uber-sharp, with very little distortion.  The lens gives a slight warm tone to pictures, but I like the look it provides.  In general, the lens on the Retina IIa has that special “something” that sets it apart from modern slow zoom lenses.  You can tell just by looking at the pictures that they were taken with an old camera.  That’s not always a good thing, but in this case I like it.

Overall,  the camera was a great eBay purchase.  My only regret is that I don’t use the Retina IIa often enough.  It gets trumped too often by my newer digital cameras which are easier to use because of their built-in metering and auto-focusing.  If you’re interested in learning a lot more about this camera and other classic cameras, I’d recommend this link.