Gathering For The Winter (Spring, Summer, Autumn)

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With the range of available 35mm film on the whole reducing, I’m always keen to stock up on my favourite emulsions.

My freezer contains an ever dwindling supply of Ferrania Solaris 200 and Solution VX200, both of which are now difficult to source and I’m virtually all out of Kodak ColorPlus 200.

Stocks of AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded FujiColor C200, which I’ve also shot extensively rebranded as Tudorcolor XLX 200) remain healthy though, and I expect this to continue to be the film I shoot with most.

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Recently I’ve come across the opportunity to purchase some expired FujiFilm Superia 100, a film I’ve only used a roll of two of before, but with really lovely results, as shared here.

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Because it’s slower film, and therefore deteriorates more slowly, I’m not concerned at using decade expired film. I’ve seen fabulous results from others using similarly expired Superia 100 also.

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Superia 400 of this age I would be far more careful with buying and using, being two stops faster, ie four times more sensitive to light, than ISO 100 film.

I have another batch of Superia 100 on the way, of much fresher vintage (circa 2012), so in the coming months (and years) I expect to use plenty of this delightful film…

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The future in my film world at least, belongs to FujiFilm…

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The Thinking Man’s Compact

Pentax Espio 160

After having maybe ten Pentax Espio compacts, I can confidently say that they all perform pretty well and are enjoyable to us. Looking for a later era (’90s on) 35mm film compact, you wouldn’t go far wrong with any of this popular and almost endless range.

The latest I have been using is the Pentax Espio 160 (aka the IQZoom 160). 

In many ways it’s the best Espio I’ve used, and indeed one of the best compact film cameras I’ve used.

“Best” is of course always a subjective term. So to be less vague, here are some of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the 160.

23973459579_0689c77048_cFirst, and of course crucial with any camera, it takes decent photographs. 

Sharp enough (especially for a compact), with great detail, and without any obvious flaws, softness or vingetting, you can happily rely on the Espio 160 to take well exposed and accurately focused photographs time and time again.

I would suggest trying a few different films, as most cameras have certain films they just seem to fuse with a little better. I tested it with trusty AfgaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded Fuji C200), and I was more than happy.

The core specs of the camera are the 38-160mm zoom lens with a heady 11 elements in 7 groups, and minimum focusing of 0.8m at the wide end. Not the closest focus, but ok most of the time. 

The fastest aperture is f/4.5 at 38mm, not fast by any means when there are a wide range of 35 and 38mm f/2.8 compacts out there, but it’s not an issue at all when shooting. Whilst you’re never going to get any of the stunning depth of field or bokeh possible with an SLR, you can see from the sample images here that the camera does a fine job of softening the background to bring out the sharpness in the subject of focus.

24233033662_5fe59a4610_cTechnical specifications are important to a point, but ultimately to me mean little in relation to how a camera actually feels to use. 

The Espio 160 is a great pleasure to use, and this can be summed up by the feeling that it was designed by photography enthusiasts, people who had the end user (ie other photographers) at the forefront of their minds throughout the design and creation of the camera.

Looking through my absolute favourite cameras in my collection, this theme is common. I love cameras that feel thoughtfully and passionately designed, ones you can just pick up and use with confidence from the first time you touch them.

The Olympus XA and Pentax KM come to mind, two cameras that featured in my recent Last Three Standing post.

The Espio 160, whilst not quite deserving the same legendary status, certainly brings more than a few smiles in use though.

The overall size is pretty small in width and height, though chunky in depth – presumably housing that 160mm of collapsed lens. You’d never squeeze it in a trouser pocket and still be able to walk, but it’s fine for a coat pocket or bag, and holding it, it does feel quite compact, and pretty ergonomic.

23973459099_e4211f77ea_cOne of the best features (and unique amongst the Epsios I’ve used before) is the mode dial.

This eliminates the need for an on/off switch, and with a quick turn of the dial you’re in Auto and ready to shoot in an instant.

There are a number of flash modes, most crucial to me being the flash off mode, which I used for every shot of the test roll and likely will do for virtually every shot I ever take with the camera.

Once you get used to the position of this mode, in practice the three soft clicks to get there are as quick as one click to Auto mode.

Other features I like are a multiple exposure mode (something you’ll need to check with any Espio spec list if you’d like it, as only a few of them have this feature), and an infinity/landscape mode which locks focus at infinity.

There’s also a spot Auto Focus mode, which when chosen overrides the five point Multi AF. The focus also locks with a half press of the shutter button – a common feature and always good to have.

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The Espio 160’s viewfinder is not the largest or brightest, but works fine once you’ve used it a few times. There’s a diopter adjustment to fine tune the clarity of the VF.

What I really love is the intelligence of the VF. 

Firstly, when you’re in the standard MultiAF mode, you get square brackets in the centre of the frame showing which part of the image the camera will focus on. When you switch to Spot AF mode, these brackets become smaller and closer together. On infinity/landscape mode they disappear altogether giving a clear view to compose your photograph.

The AF confirm and flash lights are just below the bottom of the main composition frame, and the AF light flashes if the camera can’t focus (usually because you’re too close to subject).

I like the clarity of these lights – some cameras have them as lights on the outer body of the camera outside of the VF window, and in bright light they can be hard to see.

Something else the VF does very intelligently is change the frame for close shots, ie it provides parallax correction.

When you’re close up, a black bar pops down from the top, providing a new reduced composition area. It even does this in the Panoramic mode, where the view is already greatly reduced vertically with black bars top and bottom. Nearly all compacts have parallax correction markings with the main frame lines, but it’s easy to forget to use them. Not possible with the Espio 160!

This VF feedback, the fast and easy to use (and see!) mode dial, the range of modes, the quality feel (for a plastic compact) and the fact it takes good photographs make the 160 one of the very best Espios Pentax made.

It feels like it’s your companion, your friend, willing to do all it can to make the experience of making photographs as smooth and easy as possible for, whilst giving you a few creative options in the process.

No camera of course is perfect, and if I was being super picky, I would change two things about the 160, which are essentially the same thing. 

I don’t much like zooms, and rarely use them on anything but the widest setting. Past about 1985, nearly all manufacturers produced only zoom cameras, especially in the mainstream consumer market. So to get a 35/38/40mm lensed compact from this era, you usually end up with a 35/38/40-somethingsillybeyond100mm lens.

Having 160mm at the tele end is pretty impressive if you like that sort of thing. But I would far prefer having say 35-70mm in a camera that can then be far more compact depth wise as its not housing so much lens barrel.

Another Espio I have, and am currently running a film through, is one of the earliest models, the Espio AF Zoom from around 1992, with a 35-70mm lens, incidentally.

This camera also has flash off, multiple exposure and infinity/landscape modes, in a much smaller package. It focuses closer at 0.6m too. If it takes pictures as well as the Espio 160, then it will become the only one of the two I need to keep.

If you do come across the 160 (like all Espios, they’re usually very cheap), it genuinely is one of the best Epsios made and offers all you could want, if you don’t mind a bit more bulk.

If you’re seeking a zoom specifically, with a long telephoto lens. it makes even more sense.

Last Three Standing

Feeling somewhat overwhelmed recently by the extent of the cameras I’ve amassed, I’ve been thinking about the “rip it up and start again” approach.

If I lost all my cameras in a fire or flood, which three would I seek to replace first?

After surprisingly little thought (approximately 30 seconds) the candidates were obvious.

Here they are, and why –

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Pentax KM with Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.8 lens

Though I still have a couple of SLRs each from Konica and Minolta, after using a number of cameras in the last few years, Pentax have risen as my clear favourite for this type of camera.

I have eight Pentax SLRs, but if I had to choose one to use ahead of all the others, it would be the KM, with SMC Pentax 55mm f/1.8 lens.

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The KM is the pure essence of what an SLR (and indeed any camera) should be.

It has all you need, and nothing more, and despite its creative capabilities, every time I go back to use it, it feels a stripped down and refreshing experience.

The KM has an excellent lightmeter, with a simple needle on the right of the viewfinder.

When your exposure is good it rests horizontally in the middle. As it goes up, you’re overexposing, as it goes down, underexposing. No lights or numbers, just that needle. After a while you don’t even look at it, it’s just there, and you know when your exposure is on point.

Being a fully manual camera, you can of course ignore the lightmeter (or take the battery out) and meter with an external device, Sunny 16 or your own instinct.

The VF is a very good size, clear and clear, again with no frills. I love focusing with this camera.

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Essentially the KM for me is superb because it just gets out of the way and lets you focus and take pictures without any complications or fuss.

Whilst I have older cameras, without lightmeters at all (like the Pentax S1a for example), somehow the KM still wins with its reassuring and reliable presence.

Also, being a Pentax K mount, I can not only use K mount lenses like the excellent SMC Pentax 55/1.8 (optically identical to a Takumar 55/1.8 I’m informed), but with a simple adapter I also have access to a plethora of M42 lenses, like the Takumars, Helios, Pentacons and so on, if I want to.

In reality I’d be more than happy with the SMC 55/1.8, and have found it produces beautiful results as well as being super smooth to focus and having a beautifully weight aperture ring.

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In short, I’ve never had a more rewarding SLR experience than with the KM.

The MX is also fantastic, but sometimes I find it a bit overly fiddly with its LED metering instead of the needle, and a more tricky to adjust shutter speed dial. And sometimes too, bizarrely, it feels almost too short in height, whereas the KM feels just the right weight and size.

I also have a K1000, which I got before the KM, and they are almost identical, bar the KM having a depth of field preview lever (which I use a lot) and a self timer (which I never use). Otherwise the K1000 is just as brilliant.

I also have a Spotmatic F, which pretty much what the KM was when it was M42 mount, not K mount, and that camera is equally wonderful to use. It’s only the K mount and M42 mount option with the KM that noses it into the lead.

If I only had one SLR, the Pentax KM is all I ever need.

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Olympus XA (pictured right, above)

One of my first handful of 35mm film cameras was an Olympus XA2. To this day it remains one of the cameras I’ve taken and uploaded most photographs with, even though I sold the original one over two years ago.

The compact size, ingenious closing clamshell cover, and competent lens performance makes it a winner.

But then, I sold it.

Some time later (about two years!) I started looking at something with all the great features of the XA2, but with more creative control, and an even better lens.

Enter the XA.

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It has all the positive points of the XA2,  plus rangefinder focus (which after using the black square of tape trick becomes very usable), and aperture priority.

And an ingenious 35mm f/2.8 lens with six elements compared with the XA2’s 35/3.5 with four elements.

In many ways, although nothing like the Pentax KM, it is similar in that it has all you need, very intuitively arranged.

The aperture adjustment is a sliding switch on the front, and in the viewfinder you have a needle with the shutter speed scale, to give an indication.

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The focus is done via a tiny lever that protrudes below the lens. At first glance you think it’s far too small and fiddly to work.

But it does work, and its placed exactly where the tip of your forefinger can focus from less than 0.85m up to infinity whilst barely moving a centimetre.

If you’re feeling you crave the point and shoot simplicity of the XA2, just set the XA’s focus to the 3m mark (conveniently coloured orange on the scale above the lens), your aperture to f/5.6 (also coloured orange), or even f/8 or f/11 on a sunnier day, and you’ll get the vast majority of shots in focus and with a decent depth of field.

You also of course still have the shutter speed scale/needle to glance at if you want to make sure you’re not shooting too slow – though with the hair trigger shutter and minimal internal parts, you can shoot at a stop or two slower with the XA than with an SLR, and still have crisp shots.

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I love that the needle is horizontal at around 1/30s, ie the speed at which most people can still shoot handheld without any camera shake, so you don’t even need to look at the numbers, just the needle’s position.

Fantastic design in a camera that’s packed with it.

And that, aside from the almost unbelievably compact size (this is an aperture priority rangefinder camera too remember), is what makes the XA such a joy to use.

It feels like every last detail was designed by someone passionate about cameras, someone who wanted the end user, ie the photographer, to be delighted to use the XA.

For a size to features to lens performance ratio, I don’t think I’ve used anything better. An essential.

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Konica C35 EF

Another of my first half dozen cameras was a bright blue Konica Pop, a camera that was great fun and very simple with its fixed focus, fixed shutter speed and fixed aperture lens. You just set the ISO – 100, 200 or 400 (which actually changed the aperture size) – then pointed and shot.

I got some surprisingly good results with it, and it’s one of the cameras that once you get to know its parameters (for example its focus was fixed at 2.8m I believe), was really rather capable with its little Hexanon lens.

It was in seeking out a replacement a couple of years later, I stumbled across what at first glance I thought was a black Konica Pop.

It was instead the C35 EF3, its more sophisticated sibling, with autoexposure, shutter speeds between 1/60s and 1/500s and a 5 element 35mm f/2.8 Hexanon lens.

The focus options were greater than the Pop too, with four zone focus settings – 1m, 1.5m, 3m and infinity.

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Whilst the simple Konica Pop’s lens impressed me, the EF3’s left me gobsmacked.

When you got the focus right (which is much easier than some people tend to think with zone focus), the results were really special, especially for a cute little plastic compact that cost me less than £10.

Much like the other two cameras I’ve raved about above, the C35 EF3 does all you need and nothing more.

Everything is simple – you don’t need a rangefinder to focus, or the ability to set the aperture when the camera performs so well.

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I’ve used more compact cameras than any other kind by far (maybe 50, compared with say 15 SLRs, and a mere half dozen rangefinders), and the EF3 is the one that rises above them all.

I think it offers that sweet cocktail of tactile and sensory satisfaction with its manual ISO dial, wind on lever and zone focus around the lens.

Combined with the simplicity of the viewfinder, the charming, almost toy like design, and that delightful and unexpected gem of a Hexanon lens, the EF3 makes me grin every time I look at it, let alone use it.

Konica have made some very special cameras, and Hexanons have never disappointed, and this compact king is one of the best, in my book.

It’s so good I bought another (red) one as a back up in case the black one fails.

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Any one of these three cameras could be my sole shooting machine for years and bring a great deal of happiness.

The three combined as a super streamlined (for me!) collection offer even more potential delights…

So, that just leaves about 30 other cameras I need to sell…