Five Pointed SLR

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Despite having four more SLRs than pictured here, these are my latest incarnation of the core kit I love and need.

I’m tired of having more, and always switching batteries, straps and lenses around.

Here’s why I love these five, and plan to keep them and sell the rest –

Contax 167MT

As fierce as it is handsome, it does all I possibly need from an SLR, efficiently and seamlessly.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.5 lens, Northern Film Lab Kodak Vision 3 ISO1.6 film

This is the one I reach for if I need a wide ISO and shutter speed range (ISO6-6400 and 1/4000s to 16s respectively), exposure compensation (+/- 2 in 1/3 stops), exposure bracketing (+/- 0.5 or 1 stop), continuous shooting and automated wind on.

It also has the purest viewfinder (VF) of any camera, pure matte, bar the simple central circle.

Though I don’t yet have a Zeiss lens with MM modes, the 167MT supports these so offers shutter priority and three program modes, as well as the fully Manual (M) and Aperture Priority (Av) modes that can be used with an C/Y lens. With the M42 > C/Y adapter I can use any lens I have (I now only have M42 and C/Y lenses!) on the one camera.

Also, this is the only camera here I don’t have any “if onlys” about. It has everything.

Contax 139 Quartz

My favourite SLR I have ever used.

Simpler than the awesome 167MT, but with that comes smaller size, lighter weight and a more straightforward, arguably more immersive experience.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film @ISO125

Excellent VF, Av and M modes, and the smoothest wind on and shutter button I’ve yet experienced in any SLR, make it an absolute delight to use.

With the aperture read out as well as shutter speed in the VF (that remain easy to see, yet don’t obstruct the main composition), plus a depth of field (DOF) preview button, it has all I need for 95% of my photography.

I might argue the button on the front for exposure check is less instinctive to use than a half press of the shutter button, but the 159MM has that, as well as a wider range of capabilities, yet somehow I don’t like that model as much as the 139 Quartz or the 167MT.

Canon EOS 500

This still feels a very strange choice for me, and a real oddball in that it’s relatively modern (1993-96), very plasticky, not made by Contax or Pentax, plus I have no native lenses for it.

But despite my long reluctance – disdain even, at even picking up an EOS, I finally succumbed when this came along and still left me change from a fiver.

For the money it’s an incredibly useful, versatile and easy to use camera.

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Canon EOS 500, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 film expired 2003 @ISO64

The ergonomics are surprisingly good, it’s very light, and in many ways is even more capable than the 167MT, equalling the ISO6-6400 range of film speeds, plus whilst the top shutter speed is a stop slower at 1/2000s, the max is an impressive 30s!

The VF, if not a revelation compared with the Contax cameras, is really very good for a camera designed purely with AF lenses in mind.

Talking of which, with a native EF lens you have the option of auto or manual focus, Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program modes, as well as further portrait, landscape, macro and sports modes, and a very fancy A-DEP (Automatic Depth of Field) setting which apparently lets you choose two points between which you want everything to be in focus, then the camera chooses the right aperture to do this. Wow!

I’m very tempted to pick up a 50/1.8 EF lens to explore these modes, and then I’d have an SLR that covers every mode from fully manual (ISO, focus, aperture, shutter speed) to fully auto and everything in between.

Oh and the exposure system is excellent, I’ve been delighted with the shots I’ve got with the EOS and my M42 lenses so far. As well as the M42 > EOS adapter I have a C/Y to EOS adapter so again like the Contax bodies I can use any lens I have on this camera.

Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F

The most classic, most endearing, best built and smoothest to use M42 SLR I’ve tried. Indeed it’s the best mechanical camera I’ve used full stop. Just a joy, especially with the Takumar lenses.

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Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F, Auto Chinon 55mm F/1.7 M42 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

Whilst the meter does work in mine, I just use it Sunny 16 (Sunny 11 in the UK!) and get along fine.

The camera I reach for when I want battery-less old school simplicity, elegance and fine mechanical engineering.

Contax 139 Quartz

Same as the other one, just this one has been re-covered. Aside from that they’re equally delicious to handle and use, and it’s the only camera I love so much I feel I need a back up!

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Contax 139 Quartz, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, FujiFilm Superia 100 film expired 2012 @ISO125

Writing about these five has been enlightening.

It’s compounded the fact that the three Contax and the Spotmatic are absolute keepers and cameras I adore owning and using.

But surprisingly, more than that, it’s reminded me how versatile the little EOS is, and how it’s the lightest and arguable most versatile body of all here. An AutoFocus EF lens (50/1.8 or maybe 35/2) seems very tempting, which would extend its versatility much further still.

Which is almost unbelievable, especially given it cost me about a tenth of what the other four here did!

The conclusion, to my own shock as much as anyone, seems to be that for those who want a light, adaptable, capable and super affordable film SLR, get an EOS and an M42 adapter!

What are your favourite SLRs? Have you had any of the above, or similar? Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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The Smiling Camera

The Smiling Camera

Not one for endless analysis, poring over the fine detail of tech specs, or pixel peeking, I prefer to judge a camera’s worth (and whether I keep it or not) by my response to two simple questions – 

1. Does it make me smile when I’m using it?

2. Does it make me smile when I see the final photographs?

A Yes to Q1 but not Q2 and it will likely get another chance to see if I can produce some better final images, or just for the pleasure of using it again.

Yes to Q2 but not Q1, and it will likely be on the way out pretty soon. Life’s too short to waste time and film on cameras I don’t love using.

Yes to both questions of course is the holy grail of the photollector.

For me, there are a small group of cameras that have excelled in these areas, including the three above –

Konica C35 EF3 (the only compact camera I have two examples of, and even think about buying a third)

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Canon Sure Shot A1

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Olympus XA

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I plan to use these two simple questions more to weed out the mediocre and the maybes and get my collection down a handful of glistening gems…

How do you judge a camera and whether to keep it or not?

Wet Weather Wonder

23576529671_a04c5d3a70_cCanon Sure Shots and me have a pretty good history. I’ve had maybe ten, and all but one have been more than competent, intelligently designed, and fun to use.

I recently wrote about the Canon Sure Shot Classic 120, a camera that despite having a zoom lens, is very impressive in virtually all areas, and has become a favourite of mine.

This post is about the Canon Sure Shot A1, a compact made to be weatherproof and even waterproof, with specific design features to allow easy use underwater.

22981084901_54cc2380a0_cThe overall size is smaller than it looks in pictures, and handling is very good with the rubber grips front and rear and a big red shutter release button on top.

Similar to other later era Sure Shots, the A1 has a mode dial, and my favoured mode (flash off) is a simple two clicks up on the dial. I like that it’s the furthest most setting on the dial, so you can just grab the camera, push the lever up as far as it will go without looking at the front of the camera, and know you’re in the right mode and good to go.

I didn’t worry too much about its other features and modes, this is a camera that’s meant to be very much a point and shoot.

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The viewfinder is excellent, big and bold, and designed apparently to be usable with a diving mask or goggles on so even a few centimetres away from it you can clearly frame the scene.

The info in the VF is minimal, with the usual frame lines, centre section to focus the AutoFocus (and lock if required with a half press of the shutter button), and AF confirm light. If the green light doesn’t come on at all with a half press, then the camera hasn’t found focus and/or the subject is too close.

Speaking of close, the minimum focus is a pleasing 0.45m, closer than most compact AF cameras, and a big plus in my book.

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If the AF light stays green, the camera is focused and ready to shoot. If it blinks rapidly, focus is locked but (in the flash off mode I used it in) the blinking is warning you of camera shake, ie a slow shutter speed will be used, so you can make a decision to either switch to a flash mode, find a composition with more natural light, or just hold very steady and shoot!

Usually cameras have a green light for the AF and a red light for the flash. Once I understood the green light, I found it clever how Canon had eliminated the need for two lights and enhanced the camera’s overall simple, chunky and fun persona.

23658959585_16b3f11b0d_cOn the subject of the AF, it seemed to lock easily enough in use, but in the final images quite a few in my test roll seem a little off in focus. This might be down to it being a cloudy day with the camera using slow shutter speeds, and my hand not being as steady as I thought it was.

The lens is a 32mm f/3.5. My favoured focal length is 35mm, so I was intrigued to see if/how the extra 3mm would make a difference.

It did, marginally, and I was able to get a little more in the frame than usual, without getting into the wide angle compositions (and sometime the edging into distortion) that you get with a 28mm lens or wider.

23576529371_9f92c2f405_cThe lens – or rather the final photographs – were more “lo-fi” than I expected. On the basis of this roll compared with the roll I’ve shot with the Sure Shot Classic 120, I’d say the 120 has the superior lens – surprising, as that’s a zoom compared with the A1’s fixed lens.

I was happy enough with the end images, but if I was more obsessed with sharpness and clarity, there’d be a number of cameras I’d pick up before the A1.

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But to look for this kind of performance is missing the point of the camera.

Even on land it’s very easy and fun to use, and the almost oversized controls (including the refreshingly large VF) in an overall relatively compact package (jacket pocket compact, or hung around your neck with the funky wide strap) make it unique.

Though I didn’t test it underwater (and don’t plan to, I don’t know how well those seals have endured the last couple of decades) I was more than happy to walk around in light rain when I took the shots featured in this post, in a way I wouldn’t with a standard camera, and certainly not an SLR.

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The Sure Shot A1 helped me further clarify what I enjoy most about AF compact cameras, and the functions I value most –

A bright clear viewfinder, flash off control (and an easy way to select this), good handling, close focus (0.45m opens up a whole other world compared with 0.8m, especially with the slighter wider angle 32mm lens) and logical AF.

The A1 ticked all of these boxes for me, and overall remains another Sure (Shot) triumph for Canon in my eyes.

It’s not going to give you bitingly sharp images, but it will likely bring a great deal of enjoyment and a big smile to your face (and to the face of anyone who sees you using it and thinks you’ve borrowed your daughter/ granddaughter/ niece’s toy camera). And that is a huge part of what making photographs is about.

New Pocket Heroes

22572347388_0a8b414cdc_cOne of my ongoing quests in photography is finding the best genuinely pocket sized cameras.

There tend to be three sizes of (film) camera that I’ve experienced.

The largest are any that are too big and bulky for even a coat pocket. This includes virtually all 35mm SLRs, and a surprising number of supposed “compact” cameras.

The next group are somewhat smaller, and can be comfortably secreted in your jacket pocket. Most compact 35mm cameras are in this category, and personally I prefer this option to having a compact dangling round my neck.

Lastly are the genuinely trouser pocket sized machines, those that can be slipped in a trouser pocket without causing you to either limp or burst the stitching, or simply held in the palm of your hand.

These are few and far between, and I rounded up the few contenders pictured above recently.

The tiniest of these, and arguably the best featured, and capable of the most impressive photographs, is the Olympus XA.

With its amazing level of creative control (manual ISO, manual focus, manual aperture) in a body small enough to smuggle even in slim fit trews, it’s hard to beat.

After a bit of further research though I’ve come across a new contender for the crown.

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Yes, I am bending the rules, as it’s an APS camera, rather than 35mm. But even so it’s absolutely tiny, and smaller than most digital compacts.

But fortunately the little Canon IXUS L-1 is about more than size. 

For starters it features a fixed 26mm f/2.8 lens. This equates to a 32.5 mm lens in 35mm film format, so on the wider side of fixed lens compacts. And yes, that’s a fixed lens, not a zoom – rare in any consumer film camera made after about 1990!

Modes are pretty straightforward, including the vital flash off. And that’s about it, aside from the usual C, H and P image sizes/crops available on all APS cameras. It also has the usual two lights in the viewfinder, green for AutoFocus confirm, and red for flash required.

To be honest, at first glance I wondered if it was too small, too fiddly, too flimsy.

Reassuringly the L-1 has a fair bit of metal in its body and feels well made and robust. Added to this, Canon have cleverly added a curvaceous bulge at both the front and back of the right hand side of the camera, which fit in the hand very well. Without this, it would have been too thin to properly grip, even with my smallish hands, and fallen into the bar of soap handling category like the Olympus mju II.

Finally, another pleasant surprise is the viewfinder. It’s not vast but better than many late era 35mm zoom compacts, and for this miniature size of camera it’s more than adequate.

I’ve not shot APS before, but having found a guy via eBay who processes the film at a reasonable cost, I want to give it a try. 

Of course having been discontinued as a format for some years, the only film you can obtain now is already expired. Hopefully, with modern film, anything within about 10 years or so of expiry should give decent enough results, and I’ve managed to pick up a few different rolls fairly cheaply by Jessops (probably made my Kodak or Fuji) and Kodak and Fuji themselves.

Another appeal for me is the aspect ratio of APS.

There are three framing options – C, H and P – and in reality all shots are captured as the full frame size H (30.2 × 16.7 mm) and the film records whether the user has chosen to have prints as C or P and instructs the developer to print them accordingly.

I’m not going to mess around with different sizes, and shoot purely at the full size H frame, which is an interesting 16:9 aspect ration as opposed to the 3:2 of 35mm film that I’m so used to.

Essentially, it’s like watching a widescreen TV instead of an older more square format TV.

Whether APS and the Canon IXUS L-1 ends up as a brief fling or a lasting and treasured relationship, only time will tell. 

But for now, the camera’s small yet ergonomic size, quality feel, simplicity and promising lens make this new adventure an enticing prospect…

 

The Promise Shot

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It starts with someone else’s “Promise Shot”. 

A photograph taken with a camera I’ve become curious about, that shows enough potential to urge me further to get one for myself and see what I can create with it.

Then, hopefully after a roll or two, I manage to make a Promise Shot of my own, one that shows that this new (old) camera and me in partnership can conjure up something that excites and inspires me enough to try to do more with it.

The letterbox above is the first Promise Shot from a Canon Sure Shot Classic 120 I picked up a few weeks back. 

The colours, sharpness and depth of field are more than enough for me to want to take the 120 out again.

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But of course if the camera itself was horrible to use, these Promise Shots would mean next to nothing. 

For me, the experience of shooting with a certain camera is more important than the end result, though it’s even better when you get a few pleasing photographs to show for the experience too.

Fortunately, the Sure Shot Classic 120 is very enjoyable to use. 

It’s genuinely compact size (just about trouser pocketable, certainly fine in a jacket pocket), comfortable hold (the rubberised concave front grip is a delight), decent viewfinder (for a zoom) and thoughtful controls make it an immediate winner.

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Best of all, is the mode dial which controls the main settings of the camera, and has a Personal mode.

Whatever other settings you change when you’re in Personal mode, it remembers, even when you switch the camera off. And very cleverly, is I found out just now, even when the camera hasn’t had a battery in for a week!

These “other settings” are accessed by three buttons in a hidden panel on the back. The first is for flash modes which include the all important flash off and +1.5 or -1.5 exposure compensation – great for over- or underexposing expired film in an auto DX coded camera.

The Personal mode stores these settings remember, so once you set +1.5 exposure compensation at the start of a roll of film for example, it’ll stay set all the way through, until you tell it otherwise. Excellent.

The third button switches been the default metering and spot metering. Again, Personal mode remembers which you choose.

The middle button of the three alternates between single shot, timed shot (ie self timer) and continuous shooting. The self timer setting is not remembered when you switch off (probably a good thing) but whether you’re on single or continuous frame shooting is memorised.

Intelligently, the Personal mode on the dial is just one notch clockwise from the off position.

Also cleverly, the Auto mode is the same single click, but in the other direction from the off position, so whether you use your Personal configuration or just want the all Auto pure point and shoot experience, it’s a very quick single click of the dial to waken the camera ready for action.

It feels like this Sure Shot was designed by people who actually care about photography and the end users of their cameras.

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Two things I don’t love.

First, the flash that pops out sideways every time you switch on. It would have been good if, when the flash was set to off in the Personal mode, it meant this flash itself didn’t pop out. I just always found it trying to pop out where my finger was already resting. I may just put a piece of my favourite black insulating tape over it to keep it inside the camera, as I never use flash. Crude but effective!

The other feature I think could have been better (aside from the obvious fact that instead of the less than stunningly spec’d 38-120mm zoom lens it could have been made with a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens like in many of the early Canon Sure Shots, or even a 35-70mm like in the Rollei X70 or Pentax Zoom 70 series) is the AutoFocus confirm light. It gives the feedback you want, but in broad daylight is just so tiny it’s hard to always see. I found myself locking focus then pulling my head back a couple of inches to check the light was on and the focus locked, as I couldn’t see it when my eye was up against the VF.

Aside from these minor quirks, both of which can be got around, the 120 has impressed my greatly – as indeed have a number of Canon Sure Shots of the past. 

Whereas with film SLRs my favourite brand by a clear margin is Pentax, in the compact camera genre, Canon with their Sure Shots give Pentax with their equally vast Espio range a very good run for their money.

I look forward to shooting another roll with it soon, and maybe this time black and white.