Electro Baby

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A while back I had a black Yashica Electro 35GTN. It looked beautiful, and the images it was capable of were (and still are) amongst my favourite I’ve ever taken. In fact, quite probably the best photographs I’ve taken without using an SLR.

So you’d think it would have become an instant favourite and remained at the core of my collection of cameras… 

But due it’s bulk, weight, slightly tricky to focus rangefinder, and awkward metering lights, it was more frustrating than enjoyable to use.

Whenever I get film back from the developers I love discovering photographs I’ve taken that thrill me. But the process always outweighs the results.

If I don’t like using a camera much, it doesn’t matter what it’s capable of.

Some time later (maybe two years) I explored the Electro line again, wondering if there might be a sibling that offered some of the best parts of the 35GTN (looks, build, lens, reliable metering) but without the “flaws”.

Enter the tiniest Electro 35 ever made, the 35MC. 

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Face on, it’s smaller than a smartphone, or if you prefer, the main body is about the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes. The depth of the body is doubled by the protruding lens, but it still remains pretty tiny overall.

Now there are no shortage of diminutive compact 35mm film cameras available.

But most of them are plastic, have Auto Focus (AF), Auto Exposure (AE), and tiny viewfinders, so there’s little control, and they’re not much fun to use.

The Electro 35MC has a rather capable Yashinon-DX 40mm f/2.8, four elements in four groups lens, and even better, you have complete control of the aperture, from f/2.8 to f/16. The camera selects the shutter speed to give the correct exposure.

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Focusing is, for me, far preferable to either AF or a rangefinder – via zone focus (or scale focus).

You set the lens to the distance the object is away, and shoot. This sounds difficult, and many people struggle to estimate distance accurately.

But I really like it, and if you allow yourself a little margin of error with the aperture chosen, it’s really simple to get your subject in focus.

For example, focusing on something two metres away and using an aperture of f/8 is going to give much more leeway in the focusing than using f/2.8. Plus the relatively wide 40mm lens helps too, giving a greater depth of field at all apertures than a 50 or 55mm lens would.

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My first film camera was a Holga 120N. After wanting to shoot closer with it, I bought a simple push on close focus lens kit. The lens filters were marked with the distance from subject you needed to be for optimum focus – 20, 50 or 100cm if I recall.

Not wanting to carry a tape measure everywhere with me, I quickly devised a way of measuring with just my body. With my fingers stretched wide, the tip of my little finger across to the tip of my thumb is almost exactly 20cm.

With arm outstretched to my side, from the tip of my fingers to my opposite shoulder is 1m. Later I calculated that 0.9m – the minimum focus of many rangefinder and compact cameras I’ve used – was a little less, from the tip of my outstretched hand back to the middle of my chest.

So focusing with the Yashica Electro 35MC (as with my beloved Konica C35 EF3, also zone focus), with its minimum focus distance of 0.9m, was a doddle. 

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Aside from focusing, all I needed to adjust was the aperture of course. I played it safe (partly to help with accuracy of focus) and mostly used f/5.6 and f/8, occasionally dipping to f/11 for brighter scenes and f/4 for dimmer ones. This reflects how I use an SLR, nearly always these days on aperture priority also.

Most of the time I was using the 35MC for the first test roll, I was simply marvelling at its tiny dimensions.

Also, and despite its size, it feels a class act, really solid, well made, and almost entirely glass and metal, as all cameras used to be.

Actually there is more plastic in the MC than you might realise, but the crucial parts are metal, and you feel their reassuring cold presence on your fingers.

The viewfinder doesn’t look much from a distance, but when your eye is up close it’s actually very respectable, especially for such a little machine.

The framelines are clear, and although there are zone focus symbols up the right hand side, whatever it is that’s supposed to highlight the relevant one of these, doesn’t work on my example, so I ignored them.

As much as I love the immersive experience an SLR viewfinder provides, sometimes it’s very refreshing to make your adjustments on camera first, so when you raise the camera to your eye all you see a simple outline in which to frame your shot, and nothing else (no microprisms, needles, LEDs, numbered scales, icons etc) to get in the way.

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The wind on is subtle and short, and the shutter very discrete. My example, in highly polished silver (easily the shiniest camera I’ve ever had!) is not the most anonymous looking in a crowd of people, but a black version is available, and given their compactness and quietness, they would make an excellent camera for urban environments.

So, two questions come to mind.

First, is the 35MC the Electro I’ve been looking for, where the 35GTN frustrated me?

Well, in many ways yes – it’s far more fun to use, easier to focus and to set the aperture, very small and light and can’t help but bring a smile when either using it or just looking at it.

Obviously the lens is vastly smaller (though wider at 40mm) and less sophisticated, and it’s unfair to directly compare it with its big brother’s wonderful 45/1.7.

Having said that, the little 40/2.8 impressed me far more than I expected, and in terms of sharpness, focus, and colours, I was more than happy, especially from a (very) compact camera.

25254108574_2bb18dca49_cThe second question is – Is it unique in my collection, or put another way, am I going to keep it? 

The two most immediate rivals are the aforementioned Konica C35 EF3, the only camera I have two examples of – one red and one black – and the Olympus XA.

The EF3s are also zone focus, but the lens is slightly wider at 35mm (my preferred focal length in a compact) and more sophisticated (five elements in five groups). I’m being picky, but if anything the C35’s Hexanon just edges the Electro’s Yashinon in the final image. But it’s fully AE, with no aperture control.

The XA is a rangefinder, so a bit trickier (for me) to focus, and, miniature marvel that it is, doesn’t feel like you’re using a “proper” metal camera, like the Electro does. Again the XA’s Zuiko lens might just have the edge over the Yashinon, and it is also aperture priority metering.

Being fresh from using the Yashica, I would take it in preference to the Olympus, mostly for the easier focusing, clearer and simpler VF, and for feeling more like you’re using a camera.

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Given any one of these three cameras, and told it was the only compact I was able to use for the rest of my life, I’d have a smile on my face.

But I suspect the size of my smile would be largest for the Konica, very closely followed by the Yashica, then the XA. The prices I paid for the three just compound this result – Less than £10 for each of my C35 EF3s, around £30 for the Electro (inc postage from Germany) and around £45 for the XA.

If you’re looking for a very compact, manual focus and manual aperture priority camera, capable of excellent results, than the Electro 35MC has to be a frontrunner.

I’m keen to try some black and white film next, most likely Ilford XP2 or Kodak BW400CN.

Last M Standing

MG vs MX

After using a Pentax ME, ME Super, MV, MX and most recently an MG, the humble MG has become my favourite.

The only two M cameras I currently have are the MG and MX, originally aimed at very different users and with different budgets. Here are some thoughts on how the MX and MG compare, and why in my eyes, the MG is king of the Ms –

Size/ Handling

The MX is tiny, but for me too tiny. Width is good, but the short height means with my forefinger on the shutter button, I can only fit one other finger on the body to hold it, which makes it feel heavier than it is, and a little unbalanced. With the MG, the extra few millimetres in height makes a bit difference, and means two fingers comfortably grip the body, and balance feels much better.

Winner – MG, it just feels right in my hands, the MX feels awkward.

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Viewfinder

The MX has a slightly larger viewfinder (VF), but to my eyes it’s no brighter than the MG (and both feel inferior to my Minolta X-700 with MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4!). Both are very good, and easy to focus. My MX has quite a bit of dust inside, whereas the MG is very clean, which does make a difference in use also, though this is obviously specific to these two examples I own.

The MX has shutter speeds on a dial in the VF to the right, which shows the current speed plus one either side, then the LEDs next to that to indicate when you’re properly exposed. Quite a neat system for a manual shutter camera. But I’ve come to realise that with fully manual and mechanical cameras, I enjoy a very simple, uncluttered VF (as with a Pentax S1a or Minolta SR-1s), then I meter externally and set the shutter speed and aperture before I put my eye to the VF to compose and focus.

With the cameras I use that have their own lightmeters, I prefer using an aperture priority (Av) system. The MG is Av, and shows the shutter speed the camera will choose up the left side of the VF. Even in poor light, the LEDs are cleverly colour coded – red at the very top or bottom to indicate over or underexposure beyond the camera’s capabilities, green for speeds from 1/60s – 1/1000s (ie fine for hand held shots) and orange for 1/30s down to 1s, indicating a warning of camera shake. It’s all just more intuitive and simple to use than the MX.

(Plus although the MG warns of underexposure with a red light, it will still open the shutter for far longer than 1s marked on the Auto dial on the top of the camera. I just put the lens on f/11 at ISO200 in a very lowly lit room, and the shutter stayed open for 45s! Which give scope for some interesting metered long exposures… )

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Pentax MG

The MX does also indicate the chosen aperture of the lens via a little window, which is a useful feature, but not essential. Again, with my style of shooting I know I’m using f/4 or f/5.6 or f/8 90% of the time so I don’t need to always be reminded of the aperture, so it’s a bit redundant for me.

Winner – MG, the VF is great, the shutter speed display near perfectly designed.

Creative Control

The MX is all mechanical, and only the meter is battery dependent, making it still an appealing option for someone seeking a small all mechanical camera and metering externally or using Sunny 16.

But if I want to use an all mechanical, meterless camera, I would choose my S1a or Minolta Sr-1s, because of their pure stripped down simplicity. For my uses, the MX falls between two stools – neither simple and pure enough an experience as a fully mechanical camera, nor automated enough as a electronic one.

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Pentax MX

The MG is battery dependent for the meter and all automatically selected shutter speeds. But it does have a mechanical back up speed of 1/100s, so if your batteries fail you still have a very usable camera with Sunny 16 or an external meter.

Most of my creative control with a camera comes from how I manipulate depth of field, via changing the lens aperture. With the MG I can focus on this and let the camera choose the shutter speed. The MX does have a depth of field (DOF) preview button which the MG doesn’t, which is a bonus.

However, as my shooting has evolved, I don’t rely on DOF preview like I used to – I now have a good idea of what DOF I’ll get close up at f/4, 5.6, or 8. Plus if I do need to see, I use the simple trick of unmounting the lens a few millimetres until the blades close down, adjusting aperture  if necessary, then clicking the lens back into its locked position, composing and shooting.

Also, much of the time I use M42 lenses on the M cameras, like the Takumars, Pentacon Auto, Helios 44s etc. Here the DOF preview becomes redundant as the lenses become manual aperture and you get a constant view through of how the DOF looks.

Controlling shutter speed is something I rarely require. It’s more direct with the MX, but the shutter speed dial is a bit stiff and awkward, especially compared with the S1a, Spotmatic F or KM, which are all a joy to turn. With the MG if I want to shoot at a specific shutter speed I just look through the VF then turn the aperture ring until the required LED is lit up. Easy.

Winner – MG, it gives me all the creative control I need without ever getting in the way.

Other features

Both cameras are identical in the following aspects – Manual ISO dial running from 25-1600. Shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s (and both have Bulb mode). Small red indicator shows by wind on lever when shutter is cocked. Loading film is also identical.

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Pentax MX

The wind on lever is similar with both, though the MG is a little lighter and smoother to use, and has a shorter throw. Again, like the height difference, although this seems quite negligible, in practice it’s another aspect that just feels right with the MG, and somehow not quite right on the MX. However, for the quality of the feel of the wind on, neither come close to my S1a, Spotmatic F or KM.

Of course, the lenses the cameras are compatible with are the same too, ie any manual aperture Pentax K mount lens, or, with my adapter, any M42 mount lens.

The MX has a shutter button lock, which is useful as the button does protrude quite far up. The MG doesn’t, but as its button is virtually flush with the surrounding knob, it’s unlikely to get pushed accidentally anyway.

Winner – A draw, as they are near identical in these other features, though the MG again feels slightly more natural to use.

Overall

Obviously this comparison is specific to me, my likes,  and the way(s) I prefer to shoot.

Also, price is not a factor, as it would have been when the camera were new(er) – Both I bought with lenses – the one with the MX I sold, meaning the camera cost me less than £10, and the MG with the lovely SMC Pentax 55/2 lens it’s pictured with at the top of this post cost £13. If I had paid full price (new) for the MX I think I might have been more disappointed, especially compared with the MG which no doubt cost vastly less.

I’m sure there are people who adore the MX and it offers them a far more satisfying experience than the relatively simple MG.

But it’s this simplicity of the MG that makes it such a winner for me. It does all I need it to, and keeps it straightforward and easy.

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Pentax MG

If I’m shooting all manual, all mechanical, my Pentax S1a or Minolta SR-1s offer the kind of minimal, pure experience I enjoy. But for most of the time, when I favour shooting aperture priority, the MG ticks every box, plus handles very naturally, and again just feels “right”.

Plus it gives me access to my Pentax K mount lenses and with a very basic adapter all the M42s too, two of my three favourite lens mounts.

So, after nearly four years of dabbling in the M game, and trying virtually all variations available, my last M(an) standing it seems is unexpectedly the humble MG…

Seven

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Since my first taste of film photography in June 2012 I’ve used maybe 80+ different cameras, and probably 30+ SLRs.

I finally feel like I’ve honed down to my essential SLR collection.

I wouldn’t rule out any slight variations in the future, but these core seven are all firm favourites, for various reasons.

Pentax cameras dominate, as quite simply, they’re the cameras that feel most “right” in my hands.

I’ve tried a number of Olympus, Canon, Konica, Praktica, Zenit and Chinon SLRs, but none feel like a Pentax.

The only other brand to make an appearance in this top seven is Minolta. 

The MC and MD Rokkor, and even the later plain and far more plasticky MD lenses are fantastic, and the best of them feel at least as good as the best from Pentax. Because with an SLR, half of what you’re holding in your hands when shooting is the lens, the fact that I enjoy the Minolta lenses so much means maybe the cameras don’t need to be quite so spectacular themselves.

Here are the Seven.

Top Row (l-r)

Asahi Pentax S1a – For me the ultimate all manual meterless camera I’ve owned. Just beautiful to look at to hold, and to use, and surprisingly compact. I came to these (I had a black one too) after I’d already had a Spotmatic F and ES, and was surprised to find the S1a smaller, and significantly lighter. They’re barely any bigger in width or depth than the renowned for being tiny MX, and for me the extra few millimetres in height actually make them more comfortable to handle. I don’t think I’ve used or held a camera that fits better in my hands.

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Pentax S1a with Super-Takumar 55/2 plus Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

The M42 mount means a huge range of lenses, but most of the time it feels sacrilege to use anything but a Takumar. My example at the very latest was made in 1971, maybe as early as 1962, and for a 45+ year old machine its deliciously smooth to use. Which makes the aforementioned Takumars the obvious lens choice.

The only reason I wouldn’t maybe choose this as my sole SLR is that more often than not I like to shoot aperture priority, or at least with an in built meter. But for the purest, most stripped down yet somehow still luxurious experience, the S1a for me is unrivalled. Just, see below.

Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F – Arguably even smoother than the S1a (though bulkier and heavier), and with a very simple yet very reliable needle meter, for when I don’t want to meter in my head or with my iPhone.

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Pentax Spotmatic F with Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50/1.4 plus Fuji Superia X-Tra 400 expired film

Because of the simplicity of the meter – just a needle, with no numbers or lights – it makes the experience only barely more cluttered than using the S1a. Though such is the beautiful balance of the S1a, the F can’t help but feel a little over sized and weighty in comparison.

Again the mount is M42, and again 95% of the time I shoot with a Super- or Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens attached, with which using the F is a near flawless experience. Although I have other excellent lenses, like a Pentacon 50/1.8, Yashinon DS 50/2 and of course the amazing Helios 44, for some reason I very rarely use them on the F, so my lens decision usually comes to down to a 50/1.4 or 55/2 Takumar.

Middle Row (l-r)

Asahi Pentax KM – Essentially the Spotmatic F in K mount, and equally reassuring to handle and use. This rarely sees any other lens than the fantastic SMC Pentax 55/1.8, itself a K mount version of the classic 55/1.8 Takumar, as it’s the lens that just feels most right on the KM, and always delivers in the final photograph.

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Pentax KM with SMC Pentax 55/1.8 plus Ferranis Solaris 200 expired film

It’s not quite as pretty as the Spotmatic F, and the same downsides are relevant here – it can feel a touch bulky and weighty at times.

This isn’t a camera I can ever sit and swoon over, but it is super reliable, functional and works flawlessly.

Pentax MX – Very compact, robust, and with more intricate metering than the KM. Also has the shutter speed and aperture visible in the viewfinder, as well as depth of field preview. There’s nothing this camera lacks, for me.

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Pentax MX with Auto Chinon 50/1.7 plus Kodak ColorPlus 200 expired film

Except maybe aperture priority mode. Though it’s great to use, and even with its meter, for me it takes more thinking and is less instinctive than the other K mounts I have, and combined with the slightly stiff and awkward to alter shutter dial (especially compared with the S1a, Spotmatic F and KM) this seems to slow me down – and not in the good way that shooting with film cameras slows you down.

In truth I haven’t quite bonded with the MX (yet), and the handling in my view is also compromised by it being a little too short in height. For my (fairly small hands), the S1a is more comfortable to hold, and feels better balanced, as do the ME, ME Super, MV, MG et al.

I think it’s an essential, but somehow my KM is the K mount camera I use far more.

Pentax MZ-6 – Very new to me, and one of the last 35mm film SLRs Pentax made, it’s small, light, brilliant to handle, has excellent metering and everything you could want in an SLR.

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Pentax MZ-6 with Auto Chinon 50/1.7 lens plus Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Though many will scorn its plasticky look and “champagne” finish, ergonomically and technically, the MZ-6 is a fantastic camera, especially given the range of K mount lenses available.

Though it can support an AF lens, and offers various Auto/ Program modes, I much prefer using my older all manual K mount lenses. A particularly impressive feature is the clever audible focus confirm when focusing with manual lenses that works very well. It also simultaneously lights up an icon in the VF to confirm focus.

The disappointment of the inevitably slightly smaller and lacking viewfinder (compared with all of the older Pentax models above), is tempered greatly by this function. It means in practice I can look through the VF with a far more relaxed eyes and concentrate on the composition (more like as with a compact/ point and shoot camera), rather than trying to squint and concentrate to focus.

Unassuming, brilliant fun, tremendously competent (as well as very small and light), I’ve been amazed at how this camera has impressed me.

Bottom Row (l-r)

Minolta SR-1s – Similar to the S1a in that it’s a beautifully built old school fully manual meterless classic. The Rokkor glass performs wonderfully, and the older two MC Rokkor-PF lenses I have (55/1.7 and 58/1.4) are simply the two most handsome lenses I’ve ever had in any mount.

The VF is surprisingly larger and spacious and with the lack of any needles, lights or anything else, it’s a very pure and immersive experience.

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Minolta SR-1s with MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 plus Kodak ColorPlus 200 expired film

The controls of the SR-1s – of which of course there are few, just the wind on lever, shutter button, shutter speed dial and rewind crank – are beautifully smooth and weighted, especially the wind on lever. The shutter speed dial probably has the best feel and is therefore my favourite of any camera of these seven.

Between this and the Pentax S1a, I lean towards the Pentax really only on brand loyalty. The Minolta is every bit as pleasurable to use, in the same way the best Minolta lenses compare very favourably with the Takumars. It’s just not a Pentax.

Minolta X-700 – A compact semi-automated companion to the SR-1s, for when I want the camera to expose so I can concentrate on just the composition, focus and depth of field. A camera that just gets out of the way and lets you shoot. Again, this choice is as much for the MC/ MD/ Rokkor lenses, which are a delight to use.

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Minolta X-700 with Minolta MD 50/1.7 plus Truprint 200 FG+ expired film

The SR-1s was my first Minolta and likely still my favourite. None of the other handful I’ve tried have impressed me much, save for the X-700. Yes it’s all electronic and battery dependent, but features like the huge bright VF (as good as most Pentax cameras are, the X-700’s VF has the edge on them all) and the short eager throw of the wind on lever put a smile on my face with every shot.

Heresy it might be to the ears of a diehard Pentaxian like myself, but if I only shot with this Minolta and two or three Rokkors for the rest of my life, I know I’d be smiling.

What’s missing?

As I began with above, despite dabbling with the SLRs of giants like Olympus, Canon and Konica in the past, and getting decent results with all, none have the same appeal as Minolta and certainly not Pentax. They just don’t feel as “right” to me. So I can’t see myself exploring any different lens mount in the future outside of my favoured trilogy of M42, Pentax K and Minolta SR.

In M42 mount somehow it only seems right to use Takumar lenses on the S1a and Spotmatic F. I have a couple of Helios 44s, a Pentacon Auto and a Yashinon which are all fantastic and I’d like to use more on film, so maybe someday I’ll pick up another old Zenit with the selenium meter to play with these lenses on.

In K mount I’ve tried most Pentax bodies now, and am mostly happy with the three pictured above.

Having said that, there’s something about the MX I just haven’t quite connected with, and at this point still prefer using something like an ME, ME Super or MG. Yes I know the MX is fully mechanically manual, has a bigger VF, depth of field preview etc. But the almost too small size and the generally fiddliness to use still stand in the way, for me, of as seamless an experience as I have with the ME etc. So maybe the MX will be replaced with one of its more humble siblings.

Minolta wise, I’ve tried a number of other bodies and not much liked them.

(Another reason I love Pentax is that pretty much every body I’ve tried I’ve liked.)

The X-700 is likely to remain unsurpassed in my Minolta stable as it was the last of the SR mount cameras before the AF lenses with their different mount dominated from the mid 80s onwards. And I have little interest in either AF SLRs, or starting to collect lenses of a different mount.

I may explore one of the predecessors at the high end of the range someday like an XD7 or XE, but with the SR-1s and X-700 really I have no need for anything else…

To be updated at some point, no doubt…