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…

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?