I bought my Pentax MG for 5 dollars. It had a leather case, a SMC Pentax 50mm f/2 lens with seized-up aperture, and it was taped shut on the side, because the latching hooks were bent and someone, probably a photography student, had been too scared to bend them back. I fixed it in the thrift-store before I ever bought it. Then there was the broken rewind crank. I had a broken Pentax Spotmatic that was all too happy to give up its slightly-larger, but compatible rewind column, which has the added benefit of sticking up so far that it’s much easier to access the exposure-compensation dial.
Finally, before I ever used the camera, I sold the non-functional lens to a repair shop and doubled my five dollars, tossed the camera (gently) in a box of non-functional cameras and old 3×4″ holders that I have for some reason, and let it be for about a year.
Then, the other day, I bought a K1000 (the Spotmatic’s ugly, but competent younger brother) with the same lens in good condition for $30 at a thrift store that was, incomprehensibly, still open. Now, I would have immediately done a test roll in the K1000, but I didn’t have a battery that fit ite. So I took the lens and put it on the MG and put a roll in. I knew there would be light leaks, since the foam had long since dry-rotted (and I’ve misplaced my replacement foam), but I decided to gamble that they wouldn’t be bad.
And somehow, despite the utterly basic feature list of this camera, I ended up really enjoying it. It’s tiny in my hands, and aperture priority is very fun to shoot if you can just turn off the old-fashioned, manual photographer part of your brain that has to second-guess it. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised to see something I hadn’t noticed when I bought the camera: a split-image focusing patch. Now, that’s not unusual for some brands. Nikon and Minolta seemed to alternate between split-image and microprism-only focusing screens freely, and I have no idea what was more common for Pentax. I just know that most of the SLR’s I shoot with have microprism-only screens: Nikkormat FTn, Minolta Sr-T 200 and back when it still worked, Yashica TL Electro X.
Now, the split-image screen on this is, surprisingly, almost as good as the best one I’ve ever used, the one on the Nikkorex F. There’s a very fine break between the two parts, such that even diagonal lines can be good enough to focus critically with.
(I once owned a Rectaflex from Italy, with what may have been the first split-image screen ever, and boy have they come a long way. There’s… there’s really no comparison.)
So somehow, the little camera got on my good side. It’s still far from a semi-pro or pro camera like most of the ones I use, but I appreciate its design philosophy. I think they wanted to make a compact vacation camera that was also an SLR. Consider the features:
A compact default lens on a compact mount
A camera smaller even than most of the Olympus compact full-frame SLR’s
Uses aperture priority by default: someone’s dad can use it, but an experienced photographer can get a lot out of it
No complicated settings to mess up
Oddly, a self-timer
I think the Pentax M-line, especially the ME, the MV and the MG, really were aimed at bringing an SLR back to the amateur vacationer market, who, in 1981, would be using pocketable, autoexposure or fixed-exposure point-and-shoot cameras, made even more attractive with the recent introduction of reliable autofocus. If you need further evidence, consider that the same year, Pentax also released a very similar camera, the ME-F, with the very first SLR focus-confirmation system, the year before Canon’s more cumbersome, half-hearted AL-1. Before autofocus, the ME-F was perhaps the closest an SLR had come to point-and-shoot operation, and it’s barely a step above the MG in features.
I can barely respect this camera taken as an SLR, given that I can only select one manual shutter speed, and, as on the K1000, I can’t stop down the lens for previewing, short of precariously unlatching it from the mount and twisting it. However, taken as a compact camera, it blows away the early 80’s compact camera market’s Autoboys and Konicas and such. I give it a 6.5/10, or almost the same as I give the K1000, somehow. Eventually I might get some adaptors and put an old Soviet SLR lens on it or something…
I was over-the-moon to be alone on Christmas Day. The night before, I’d gotten two presents: a box of real, new dry plates (ASA 25 Speed Plates from a Mr. J. Lane on Etsy) and five more sheet-film holders for my 4×5, with cheap ASA 100 Shanghai B/W film loaded. I was itching to do some quality large-format work, so I loaded up my car with a borrowed large-format tripod, my Speed Graphic, and eight shots for it: two plates in a 100-year-old wooden plate holder, and five sheet holders of various stamps. I also took my Nikkorex with a couple of shots left on it, and a 12-shot short roll of 100 ASA film that somebody had thrown my way.
Setting out, I almost went to New Orleans. I had enough spare money to get there and back, park for six or seven hours, take some candids with the high speeds of my Graphic, and maybe get a beignet. Then I thought “New Orleans on Christmas Day,” and recoiled from the image. I went to Morgantown, Mississippi.
Now, this is a little place just outside Columbia and Foxworth. Columbia itself is a spot on the map an hour from Hattiesburg, and Morgantown is, by my estimation, a satellite of a satellite on Columbia, down along MS Highway 587, or more properly, in a net of different state highways that all dead-end somewhere out in the bush. I don’t know that there’s a notable thing in Morgantown, or even if I’ve properly seen Morgantown or Kokomo or any of those little villages. But just outside Morgantown, in some of Mississippi’s most hilly land, there’s a deep canyon formed initially (I assume) by the vicious Pearl River, a complex and active site where the earth is actively eating its way away from the river. Over the course of the last ten years I’ve watch it expand thirty feet, swallowing a patch of road that used to be part of the 587 and dozens of trees. The size of the thing, though, is difficult to get across in a picture, at least without a wide lens and an aerial perspective, neither of which I had that day.
The place is a local legend. People jump into it, slide down and land in the soft clay. People climb the sheer parts in the dry part of the summer when the clay is more reliable. It is occasionally used as a landfill. People have driven cars into it for reasons that are beyond me. There is (do not laugh) a coven that performs certain rituals in the immediate area. It is rare to go there and not see other hikers, and on Christmas Day, of all days, it was a busy joint.
I came down the 587 from the opposite direction than my normal route, and was overcome by the rolling hills, so unlike other parts of Mississippi in its airiness and depth, brutal in the baldness of the timberlands (the third pine-logging cycle of my life is in its middle stages), that, when I got to the inlet to the abandoned road, I had to backtrack on foot with the camera and tripod to take this photo:
Unfortunately, I miffed it. I didn’t have my magnifier on me to focus with, so I trusted my frankly infirm eyes and ended up with an image quality that could have been done handheld.
Finally, I went into the bluff area itself. It is always a stunning moment when I come up the abandoned road on foot and finally see the cliff’s edge and the vista of you may see the pictures and say “so what.” The answer is that the horizon is not a common sight in Mississippi. This is a land of small hills and dense pine jungle. Normally, the trees block the horizon and a good part of the sky too, wherever you go in this state, with the exception of the big highways, where a little false horizon might show as the road rises and dips, leading you on. But to see the trees themselves small and marching to infinity, with only cell towers and a water tank breaking the surface: it gives me pause.
I had my best pipe in my mouth, charged with cheap, heady Carter Hall tobacco, an old fishing hat on, and the tripod, extended full length with the camera mounted, over my shoulder like a bindle-stick. I do not know, but I may have looked like some kind of adventurer. When I got to the edge, I set up the big camera and struggled to find a shot that took it all in. The Pacemaker Speed Graphic came with an Optar 135mm, which is a normal on 4×5, and not a bit on the wide side of normal. Looking through the big frame-finder, I found the field of view damn narrow. Finally I tilted the tripod head ninety degrees to the right and lined up a portrait shot that communicated something of the vertical scale of the place, with a spidery branch out-of-focus in one corner, and two white pickups on the opposite cliff. I thought it was a visually rich shot, and I liked the composition of it. I could be wrong. For the first time in my life, I focused with the ground glass and a loupe, a big, powerful brass loupe that came with a microprint compact dictionary. I decided that the time was now, and I shot both plates and two sheets of film to be sure I got a good negative of it. This was also where I killed most of the remainder of whatever was in my Nikkorex. There was this odd tree clinging to the canyon’s edge that I found very compelling. The last of its kind, perhaps.
Soon, it was time to go down through the canyon to the banks of the Pearl. Now, the Pearl River is a fast-flowing, wide river, not as dark and deep as the Mississippi, but with an evil look to it. People drown in the Pearl. It pulls you under, and the last thing you feel is the euphoria of the brain losing air. My mother drowned and was brought back, in the Pearl if I remember right, and the story never failed to send shivers down my spine when I was young, not the drowning but the peace of it. I avoid touching the water as if it were the Lethe.
But there is something primal about the vista of the Pearl as it crosses under Red Bluff. You pick your way to it across the train tracks, listening for diesels, and down through the graffiti-colored wreckage of a freight train that derailed from the same track one hundred and eight years ago. You look out, and you see the opposite shore, bare of any artificial features, and you imagine that the Choctaw still hunt in those woods, or that you’ve just stepped from the wreck of your ancient and rusted spacecraft on a virgin planet, yours in no sense except that you could probably name it after your sweetheart and have it registered on the Human Union starcharts. That is, if you ever get off of that rock… I ran out of film, this time, shooting the graffiti with the Nikon, and I didn’t get to catch any shots of the river. Well enough; it doesn’t transfer to film well.
The graffiti is really something. I had seen the names “Eliza Jane” and “Lacey Jane” all the way from the black-top of the ruined highway down to here; their tags were about every hundred feet on the cross-ties of the ancient track, and among the forest of images and names sprayed up inside the most accessible of the hopper cars, tilted upside-down and on its side at twenty degrees in much the same spot where the earth received it in 1901. There was a massive and well-rendered Pokemon, evidently not one of the ones I grew up with, and the symbol of the theta, which had followed me down from the old highway as well.
I’d left the big camera standing on the tripod near the tracks, where I’d gotten it ready to shoot the wreck and then ruined both pieces of film in the flimsy wooden holder I was using. After I finished the second roll of 35mm, I walked back up and caught sight of yet another ancient symbol on the face of another downed car: first I thought it was the Sanskrit Aum symbol, but then I realized it was just “23.” I saw an Aum in a headshop the next day, and boy, had I been wrong.
Back at the tracks with the Speed Graphic, I shot one shot of the railway receding into the distance–to look at it, you would never know that a well-off residential district was a short walk up that way. Suddenly, I heard a roaring sound approaching fast. I pulled all my stuff and laid it down behind a log and crouched out of site, ready with my SLR to shoot the train if it presented a good shot. But the sound passed behind me and I swung around. It was a fanboat with four or five indistinct figures on it, making mighty wake on the river, and there was no train. I snapped a shot through the trees on the Nikon, but it didn’t turn out and I didn’t think it would.
My film spent, I began the arduous climb out of the canyon. To this point, when I moved, I went like a hobo in my old hat, with my briar pipe hanging out of my mouth and the tripod and over my shoulder. Now, to get back up the most difficult part of the path, I collapsed the legs and clutched it close to me like a priest clutching a big crucifix inlayed with the bones of saints. To get up, there were a couple of choices, and in retrospect, I picked one of the worst. The ridge that the path runs on top of comes to a head with a clay slope up above the tracks that can only be scaled by gripping a rusty steel wire rope–I got down that way, and thanked God for my up-to-date tetanus vaccine before the end. I did find a dollar up on the clay, which was nice. But there was no going up by that path today–the clay was extra slick, and I wasn’t about to fight gravity with that frayed steel cable in my free hand, and me in cowboy boots. So I went up the side of the ridge some two or three hundred paces up the creek, through a dense thicket where I lost my hat, nearly dropped both my cameras several times, and got a few thorns in my knees and chest for my efforts. I got up on top of the ridge and felt like I’d really won something. Then I realized that the hat was gone from my head, and I had to backtrack through the thorns to get it. That, by my estimation, was when I lost the pipe.
It was a peculiar, ancient thing, unlike any other pipe I’ve ever seen, except for one. It was large, with an in-tapering bowl that burned hot and a wide stem. The mouthpiece, bakelite, I think, had a chip out of it in such a way that it was easier to block off the opening with my tongue. I never saw another one like it, until one day, while researching Manu Chao’s background for an album review I never wrote, I came upon a picture of a socialist guerilla general from down in Mexico, a man known only as “Subcomandante Marcos,” sitting on a beautiful horse with a balaclava around his face, a fishing cap on his head, and an expression in his eyes that I have seen in the eyes of more than one of my relatives, and once in my own eyes in the rear-view mirror of a car I no longer own. In his teeth was a pipe closely resembling the one I inherited from my great (or great-great?) uncle Oscar. I do not know whether I’ll ever see another like it. No matter, I still have a dozen other briars and a good unused Meerschaum I can start.
Finally, I trudged up, pausing only to tell some other hikers about the state of the path below. They asked me who I was photographing for. I almost said “I work for the FSA.”
At last, back at my car, I made my way back out through Foxworth, which I passed through in the happy knowledge that, down whichever road it was, a dear friend of mine would be celebrating Christmas with her family. I treated myself to a cheap lunch at what seemed to be the only open gas station in Columbia, and a little bourbon and eggnog on the road, and spent the rest of the day developing photos and getting sopping drunk.
All in all, a serviceable Christmas day.
Postscript: Unfortunately, the shots I took of the downed train got ruined in processing. It’s a shame. What little I’ve been able to recover of the mis-processed negatives would have been very nice pictures. Unfortunately, I tried a trick while processing them that I didn’t have the expertise to pull off.
Do not use my images without my prior written permission. I reserve all rights.
The photo of Marcos by José Villa of Villa Photography, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Thanks to Mr. Villa. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
This combination of lens and film is, by far, the fastest traditional photography setup I have ever held in my hands. On my SR-T 200, the 58mm lens looks the best of any of my Minolta lenses; the two are from the same era and the same product line, and while it’s a deluxe lens and a stripped-down budget camera, they feel right together.
The lens is one of the ones I got in a shoebox for ten dollars at a flea market in Statesville, NC. It’s not in the greatest shape as far as the front coating goes, but it looks fine through the viewfinder and I don’t tend to worry about it. The helical could stand to be re-greased, but who even does that anymore?
Physically, it’s a nice lens, with what I take for a painted brass housing, milled metal grip, easy-turning aperture ring (with positions in between the full stops) and a massive front element. As a lens with a lot of outward-bulging forward surface area to catch the light, it really needs the factory clamp-on hood, which I was lucky enough to get with it. That being said, I shot this roll without, and most of the time I did alright shielding it with my left hand when I noticed any flare.
As for specs, it’s not at all unusual for its time, as much as it is for us: for some reason that no one has ever adequately explained to me, there was a time when it was easier to make a 58mm with a wide aperture than a 50mm with a wide aperture, and so for a while, 58mm was a pretty common length for a normal lens. Actually, I believe that’s how the normal went from being 45mm (sometimes called “ideal length”) to 50mm in the first place: it was easier to make a faster lens in the longer focal length. Why is beyond me: it should by all rights be the opposite, according to my tenuous grasp of the math involved.
The maximum aperture was by no means groundbreaking (there had been 50mm f/0.95 Canon RF lenses by this point (not that they gave good images), and the Stanley Kubrick Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 Planar lens, used on the moon and for filming by candlelight, was either in the works or recently finished) but for a consumer lens it was fast and it remains so. I’ve never owned a faster-specced lens in any focal length, with the exception of phone cameras, and that barely counts.
As for actual light transmission, that’s really the question, isn’t it? I don’t really notice a difference in light transmission looking through my Canon FD 50/1.4 on my AE-1P and this 58/1.4 on the SR-T. Now, obviously this is both subjective and dependent on the transmission of the mirror, pentaprism, condensers and oculars inside each of these two cameras’ viewfinders, but these cameras each had famously bright viewfinders. The SR-T used an over-sized, double-jointed mirror and a focusing screen that was mostly a fresnel lens, and so with the exception of certain obscure, failed Zeiss Ikon products, it was almost certainly one of the brightest SLR viewfinders ever made when it came out in the 60’s. The much later Canon AE-1P uses specialty precision optic glass in the pentaprism to achieve an about equal brightness. So when I look through the two cameras and the two lenses and say that the transmission seems equal to me, there’s no reason to assume any complicating variables. The Minolta lens is seemingly quite equal in transmission to the much later (and now probably more expensive) “super-coated” Canon. At any rate, from the low-light performance I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if its actual light transmission was close to T1.5 or 1.6.
And 58mm is a surprisingly easy length to work with. You imagine it’d feel too long to be a normal lens, but in fact, I barely notice the difference from my other Minolta normal, a 45mm. Focusing is a pain when the depth of field wide open is minimal, and I still don’t have the hang of focusing it precisely.
My main criticism of this lens is that its close-focus distance is a little weak compared to my other f/1.4, a Canon FD 50mm. Actually, I think this is true of most Minolta lenses. I would say it’s just that it’s a 60’s lens, but I briefly posessed a Meyer Primoplan 59/1.8 from the mid-50’s that could focus even closer than any of my 70’s Canons, so I tend to think of it as more of a Minolta thing. None of my Minolta lenses do extreme close-up photography the way some Canons do.
(God, I wish I had pictures from that Meyer lens. It was very nice-looking, but I didn’t bother keeping it when I sold my Prakticas, because the only m42 camera that left me with was a Yashica with rotten light seals and bad metering, and using the two together would require juggling three or four different controls.)
I haven’t figured out the sweet spot for bokeh just yet, but the overall blur wide
open is very soft and very nice, with very selective focus possible at close range. At f/8, the lens performance is crisp and contrasty, with good sharpness and a decent depth of field. At f/16, quality doesn’t suffer all that much.
Now let’s talk about the film: I was apprehensive. For almost eight bucks a roll, and knowing Lomography’s reputation for uneven quality, I was really apprehensive about getting my money’s worth. I was worried that I was going to pull the film off the development reel and see that it had taken some hideous color cast. Instead, even looking at it with the colors reversed I could tell that this was quality film stock. When I shoot film at box speed, I expect it to have some thin frames, because no meter is perfectly attuned to every shooting situation, but the latitude on this film must be incredible, because there are none: I shot and processed it metering at its rated speed, with very little manual compensation, and portraits shot indoors under modest artificial light are almost as thick and healthy-looking as landscapes shot in bright daylight–indeed, some of these latter are thinner, because I likely overcompensated on one or two. It probably helped that this was the first roll I did with my current batch of color chemicals, so the developer was at its most active, but that can’t account for this consistent performance. I’d have to look again but I think I got thirty-seven full frames out of the roll, so that was also nice.
So how did the combination work out? You know, I think they work well together. I’m trying to get the hang of focusing this lens precisely, and I wish the film were cheaper so I could explore the combination at more length. At any rate, I’m much more excited about the results I got with my Nikkormat…
I have always lusted after the Speed Graphic. I don’t know, there’s something about it: the large format is forgiving enough that a mediocre lens blows expensive 35mm SLR lenses out of the water; it has direct focusing when you want it and a rangefinder when you don’t; all kinds of tilt-and-shift action; my idol used one.
Yeah, I call the creepy cigar-chomping AP man known as Weegee my idol; an honor he shares with Diane Arbus and Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and very few other
photographers. There’s something about him; he never changed the focus, speed or aperture on his Speed Graphic and developed sheet film in the trunk of his car. Usher Fellig, you creepy man, you taught me the most important lesson about documentary art: you must be there.
The first time I encountered a large format camera, I had been a photographer for less than a month, about a year and a half ago. It was another Graflex, an early SLR the size of a small microwave oven, with shoulder straps, a leather hood you put your whole face down to, and a complicated array of controls for the ponderous, slow-moving single-curtain shutter. It was a hundred dollars at an antique store on Pass Road in Gulfport and I had no desire for it.
The second time was on Decatur Street in New Orleans, in the antique shop of an enthusiastic photographer who tried to convince me that film was “making a big comeback.” Yeah, right, I thought. He had, I think, a 3×4″ Horseman press camera in a case with several lenses and a rollback and a 4×5″ Pacemaker Crown Graphic, both of them in the $150-200 range. Believe me, if I’d had the money… He also had a working Univex Mercury, mountains of expired film, decently-priced lenses, a refurbished Nikkormat FTn that made me want one…
I don’t see these things often, and I’d thought about shelling out $60 for a Polaroid 600 at the other antique store because in a pinch, you can shoot 4×5″ sheet film and 120 in one, if you know the trick and have the knack.
Then, one day, I walked into Leaman’s. This is without a doubt the premier antique store in my hometown, Hattiesburg, M.S. The owner and proprietor is what we call a mensch. He’s extremely fair when he prices, and he owns most of the merchandise in the store, so I check with him regularly for cameras and gear. I bought my Nikkorex F and my Argus C3 from him, and probably one I’m forgetting, at exceptionally fair prices. I walked in to look for 9×12 film holders for my Kodak AG Recomar 33, a primitive but elegant large format that was my first foray into “grownup photography.”
I found another camera hunter there, a rich stoner with a face like Evan Breen and a hot girlfriend, who had come up to Hattiesburg to escape the Friday 13th storm that was flooding New Orleans, and who were buying all of Claude Leaman’s Polaroids. All the power to them, I guess. I was showing him where Claude keeps the nicer cameras, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar shape sitting off on its own. It was a Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5″. If you don’t know, this is the upmarket version of the Pacemaker Graphic, the third or fourth iteration of the Graflex Graphic press camera. It has both a focal plane (cloth-curtain) shutter and a leaf shutter mounted on the default lens board.
I made my move immediately; I suspected that if I didn’t, it might become a shelf warmer for the stoner; the price on it was $15. I could not believe my eyes. I pried it open with a collectible silver spoon to find that, while it had the sick turquoise crust of corrosion on many of its surfaces, it had a supple bellow and a mostly-working front shutter, albeit one that could use a good soak in some volatile solvent. I’ve had good experiences with a Wollensak shutter before… they’re basically American copies of Compurs with all the delicate little tricks removed: no self timer, simpler gear trains, et cetera.
I walked to the counter. Claude wasn’t there, but his sole employee was. I asked her if she’d seen “North by Northwest” with Cary Grant. Now, Claude will surprise you. He looks like an old Pentecostal but he’s well-read, woke to racial tensions and things like that, and he knows when to drop the F-bomb tastefully and to good effect. He’ll surprise you. The same is true of the 60-something-year-old woman at the counter, who must be a wife or sister. She said “duh.”
So I recount my favorite scene from the movie, where the ambassador (who turns out to be a red herring) is killed by a thrown knife to the back and collapses into our hero’s arms. He pulls the knife out and is promptly photographed in an extremely guilty pose by an AP man with a Speed Graphic and, I’d bet you anything, one of these old Press #25 flashbulbs I have lying around. That photograph becomes the leitmotif of the film, the shadow self that haunts him on his journey.
(God, I love flashbulbs. I recently photographed a real, old-world farrier at work on a horse’s hoof with a Brownie Hawkeye and a flashbulb, and the light was so intense, so sun-like, that I think for a moment he was actually stunned by it. Now a Press #25 is to an amateur-grade flashbulb what that flashbulb is to an electronic flash. I always want to say “Now I am become death!” when I let one off with my Argus or my Medalist. It’s a little glass sphere full of wire so fine it looks like smoke, but it classes as a small nuclear weapon.)
Even at the absurdly low price of $15, it was more money than I needed to spend, especially after buying my beautiful Recomar for $44, but listen; the last time I saw one it was in the three-figure range. The next time I see one, it will surely be as well. On eBay, you can list them with a starting bid in the one-figure range and no reserve and watch the bids roll in until it goes for $150, $300, even $600 with a nice lens. I’ve watched five or six and always been disappointed to see that that was invariably the result.
So I bought it. In the car I screwed around trying to fire the back shutter for several minutes, until the stoner in the Ralph Lauren shirt tapped on my window and showed me the Polaroids he and his girl had bought. I directed him to another place where he could find something worth his time, and drove home through the schizophrenic weather.
Now, whenever I try to repair something on my own with my cheapass black and yellow screwdrivers and my piss-poor eyesight (a severe astigmatism, in fact), I make the problem exponentially worse: if bad, disastrous, if terrible, ruined. This is especially true of focal plane shutters. They have it in for me. I literally could not open the back of the camera (a Graphic back on this particular instance), so I consulted an old, wise wizard: my maternal grandfather. He has just turned 70 and is debating whether or not to quit teaching introductory science at USM. He looks rather like Sam Elliot and is a champion at puttering. Now, his sons are creative geniuses and his daughters can solve advanced crossword puzzles in the time it takes you to fry an egg, while holding an intelligent conversation. It only figures that Doc has a few superhuman attributes. One of them is that he can remove any stuck screw; literally any. He brings an array of screwdrivers, pliers and diag cutters and slaps them down in a pile and goes to work.
It turns out that the back of a Pacemaker Graphic is held on by five soft brass screws that go into wood. All of them we got out without damaging the underlying materials, but the screws themselves were uniformly shot. Basically he had to crush the brass screw-heads and twist them out with special flat-tipped pliers. I have no idea where he got them or for what purpose, but they’re top-dollar stuff with special rubberized handles.
This didn’t reveal much; only the shutter curtain. It was time to open the shutter mechanism itself. My hands shook, but I got the screws out and put each one in a shot glass. Then, because the winding key wouldn’t budge, to get the cover plate off the shutter, I had to take the case off the rangefinder mechanism.
So I looked for the first time at a Pacemaker Speed’s legendary focal-plane shutter. This design is simplified from the Speed Graphic’s already bombproof mechanism; it’s a layout so simple I could have thought of it: there is a long cloth with four slits of different widths in it. You wind it until the proper slit is in position, ready to fly across the film plane, adjust the spring tension to one of two settings to yield the proper speed, load the film and pull the awkward rectangular trigger. (It’s definitely a piece of American engineering.) There’s some simple gearing so that, when the shutter is released, one slit and one slit only will
move down across the focal plane (bottom-to-top in relation to the image, which is, naturally, inverted) at a decent but not breakneck pace. The top speed is 1/1000th of a second, which we take for granted now, but which was fast enough to justify calling the camera a Speed Graphic at the time. The lovely thing about this shutter, other than the fact that it’s reportedly easy to repair, is that it tends to impart a pleasing forward lean to moving objects; sports photography from the first half of the 20th century has a certain look to it because of this effect.
It was surprisingly easy to work the stuck curtain roller free, and the curtain was in good shape over its length. I felt for the first time that I’d made a good purchase. The shutter was still sluggish, and it still wouldn’t fire with the slow speed switch on and there was something wrong with the trigger mechanism, so I could only fire it by using the “trip” position on the selector switch. I opened it up and immediately broke everything.
I love rangefinders. They’re quiet, usually compact, and with my vision problems, I find them so much easier to focus than SLR’s. Unfortunately, most of them tend to cost more than SLR’s. Today I’m going to review two of the cheapest interchangeable-lens rangefinders, both of which go in the 20-40 dollar range. Yes, you read that right. If you’re eBay savvy, you already have some idea which ones I’m talking about.
Now, I’ve owned a number of rangefinders, from the huge and unreliable Kodak Medalist II to the hyper-advanced Canonet QL17 G-III. But I’ve only owned two with interchangeable lenses. One was mass-produced (and I mean mass-produced) where my grandparents went to college, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and one was hand-made by juvenile delinquents (or maybe adult convicts, or maybe not; it’s hard to tell) in Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine.
Like most American cameras, the Western contender doesn’t have much going for it at first glance. The Argus C3 is shaped like a brick, difficult to hold, doesn’t cock itself and doesn’t have a combined finder. That means you’re looking back and forth between the focusing window and the composing window, several times a second if you’re like me. This is one of the slowest cameras you’re liable to use. You actually have to unlock the advance mechanism and turn a knob until it locks, click the awkward lever that looks like a self-timer, frame your shot, look through the rangefinder, line the blue (or yellow) image up with the clear one, re-frame your shot because you inevitably threw it off, and fire, bracing yourself for the loudest shutter you’ve ever heard, louder even than a poorly maintained East German Praktica. And that’s assuming that you know your exposure beforehand. There’s a clip-on meter but let’s face it, it’s not going to work after all these years. Changing the lens is also slow and fiddly work and must be done in a clean area because it leaves the actual blades of the leaf shutter exposed.
But it’s great. This is literally the ideal camera to learn on. It does you exactly no favors. If you can learn how to use it, you can learn how to use any camera. It rewards both zone-focusing and careful, precise use, with or without a handheld meter. And the camera can do everything. It has 35mm, 100mm and 135mm lenses (though they will cost more than the camera), a 50mm kit lens that’s a very good copy of the Elmar, and a bomb-proof shutter. And you can get one without a case for 20-something dollars most of the time, or 30 dollars in the case. They made millions of these, from the 30’s to the 50’s, and most of them still work, so they’re not scarce. Mine is a late 40’s example and the worst thing wrong with it is that some pieces of leatherette have broken off. I mean, the focus is stiff enough with the main lens that you can barely use the finger wheel, but that’s not a big loss. Nobody used the finger wheel anyways. It’s not a Contax. Twist the stupid lens.
My favorite feature is the lens, which is really that good, whatever you may have heard. This lens has colors and it has contrast, and if you calibrate the rangefinder, which anyone can do if they read the documentation and own a smallish flat-head screwdriver, it has sharpness, too. Tony Vaccaro took award-winning war photographs in the European theater of WWII with this camera, sometimes against orders. He may still use the same one at the age of 97; I don’t know, but it’s possible. That’s what this camera is. That’s what this camera is like.
So the Argus represents how the American camera industry, such as it was, responded to the Leica II. Let’s turn this on its head for a minute: How did the Soviet camera industry respond?
Well, there wasn’t a Soviet camera industry until some of the work communes started copying the Leica II directly, both before and after WWII. Eventually, in the 50’s, the Felix E. Dzerzhinsky commune (named after the founder of the secret police that became the KGB, and a noted mass murderer), which had been one of the main producers of these Leica copies, came up with its own design, the FED 2, a sort of fresh take on everything that made the Leica II great. This camera kept the body-style, the shutter and the lens mount and added a Contax-style removable back, a combined rangefinder, a diopter for near- and far-sighted users, basic flash sync and eventually a Leica III-style self-timer. In essence, this is the Leica II without most of its weaknesses.
Granted, it has weaknesses of its own. Whereas it was dangerous to change the shutter speed before cocking the shutter on a Leica, it’s downright suicidal on any Soviet rangefinder. In nine cases out of ten, it will break the selector mechanism. Now, later FED 2’s (model C and later) are supposed to be one of the few cameras that’re better about this, but I’m not going to risk finding out on my FED 2C. And like the Leica II, this camera has no slow speeds. This is not your rich uncle’s Leica M3, but it is easier to load.
(If you don’t know, by the time the M3 came around, they still wouldn’t put a Contax-type back or an SLR-style swing door on their cameras, and so the bottom still came off and there was a little door on the back to help you push the film through and inspect the shutter._
This camera is one step up from the Argus in price (40-something when you factor in shipping from Ukraine or elsewhere in the FSU) and several steps up in convenience. It cocks itself when you wind on, the shutter dial is right where you want it to be and you can focus and frame in the same window. Plus, most of the lenses that you’re liable to get will have depth-of-field markers, which the C3’s default Cintar doesn’t have
And using it is still an educational experience for the young photographer. I discourage buying a clip-on meter or using a handheld, at least at first. Learning to estimate exposure manually, perhaps from the baseline of “Sunny f:16,” is incredibly freeing and it will teach you how to check the meters on aging SLR’s and compacts, which often tend to underexpose after all these years.
And it comes with a pretty decent Tessar copy, any one of three that were the default over its lifetime. They’re all called “Industar,” which is the Soviet trade name for Tessar copies/four element, three group formula lenses. I only have experience of the Industar 26m ~50mm f:2.8, which replaced the collapsible Industar 22 50mm f:3.5 (based on the Elmar, but more of a Tessar copy, all told) and was replaced by the very similar Industar 61 L/D 50mm f:2.8. I like this lens, but it’s not perfect. It usually has a lot of air bubbles, worse even than most old lenses, and in some cases these can affect image quality. It’s also prone to flare.
But there are so many lenses you can mount on it. Unlike the Argus, which is pretty much
where it’s always been in terms of lenses and accessories, the FED can grow with you. When you outgrow the potential of whatever Industar it came with, you can get any number of better, faster M39 lenses; eventually, I’ll get a Canon normal for it, or maybe just the lauded Soviet Sonnar copy, the Jupiter-8 50mm f:2.
Even with the flawed Industar 26m, and even with a shutter that occasionally glitches out when I change speeds, my FED 2 is a joy to shoot. It has a little of the
feel of an SLR in some ways, but it’s light, compact and with the collapsing Industar-22 you can carefully put it in your pocket and carry it around that way, a feature no SLR has ever had, to my knowledge.
The viewfinder isn’t huge, but for me it’s sharper than a lot of viewfinders thanks to the diopter, and I appreciate how sharply the images in the rangefinder spot mate up.
So which one wins?
Oh boy, is it ever hard to call. Now, some people would make this kind of innocently political. “The FED is a commie camera!” And the Soviet Union was a deadly, authoritarian regime, don’t get me wrong. But to apply national politics to cameras is just idiotic jingoism.
On their own merits? Well, that’s difficult too. The Argus was introduced in the late 30’s. We forget that this camera is so old that Kodak 135 format was only one of the 35mm formats going around. And indeed, this camera was sort of a kingmaker: where the Leica popularized 135 in Europe, the Argus popularized it here. So obviously, for its time, the Argus was a real feat: a precision small-format rangefinder camera with the possibility of interchangeable lenses, cheap.
On the other hand, there was nothing so revolutionary about the FED 2. Every feature it has was a derivative of prior art from Leica or Contax, and compared to contemporaries from the rest of the world, it was already obsolete just by virtue of being a screw-mount rangefinder. And it wasn’t a camera for the people. This was what reporters and military correspondents carried in the Soviet Union; for the proles, there were folding cameras and box cameras and so on.
So any comparison is going to be loaded. I’m going to make a case for the older and simpler camera, and I would do so even if it were the Soviet one.
Listen, the Argus C3 (and C2, and Matchmatic…) can be had ridiculously cheap in working condition. There’s very little you can do to screw up the shutter, besides trying to force it the wrong way from 1/10 to 1/300. The normal lens is better in quality than the kit lenses you’ll get with a FED, although the other lenses are probably crap. (I have the Soligor version of the Fujitar 135mm, but I haven’t used it yet.)
Furthermore, you don’t want to deal with calibrating a Leica-style cam-coupled rangefinder as a beginner. If there’s a problem with the rangefinder calibration on a C3, you can try taking the big gear off and adjusting the point at which the lens and the gear mate up.
I recommend the Argus C3 for a beginner, because it’s bomb-proof, prepares you for every other camera you’ll ever deal with, and has such a nice look to it. It’s also a thousand times easier to load than the FED 2 if you know the trick. I wish more cameras had the takeup spool from the C3.
I recommend the FED 2 or one of its successors for a slightly more advanced photographer who’s ready to deal with re-tensioning the springs on a focal-plane shutter by hand (and believe me, you’ll need to, and it’s a nightmare.) The FED 2 requires a bit of delicacy, but because of the lenses available for it, it can stay your shooting camera.
Best Features of the Argus C3:
Sharp, color-corrected lens
Shutter that can last a lifetime
Easy to calibrate
Worst features of the Argus C3:
Hard to carry: sharp corners and no strap lugs
Top speed of only 1/300th S.
Shutter sounds like exactly like you just opened up a stapler
Overall score: 8/10
Best features of the FED 2:
Easy to carry: Leica-shaped and most have strap lugs
Shutter can be adjusted by a determined amateur
Mounts practically any m39 lens
Diopter for bad eyes
Worst features of the FED 2:
Allegedly made by juvenile delinquents; even if this is not a moral issue for you, it can be a quality-control issue
Unless you live in a European country, you’re gonna have to have it shipped
Shutter can start to make that obnoxious “zeeep” sound
Having shot a roll on it, I generally like the Nikkormat. Mine has a bad frame counter and some apparent non-linearity of the meter, as well as a problem with B and an occasional failure to cock the shutter when advancing the film. I try not to hold these issues against the model.
I have some problems with the model as a whole, though. While I like the shutter-speed ring, I don’t like the little lever that sticks out of it. I just wish it had been bigger and knurled a little so that it could be turned directly. And while I’ve gushed about Minolta cameras with the same feature, I don’t like that it has a microprism-only focusing aid. I think a split-screen device would be a very useful and professional touch on this camera.
Overall, I feel oddly… indifferent to this camera. The image quality is great, but it’s the same quality I get on my Nikkorex, and I don’t have to worry about a faulty meter throwing me off or that hard little lever on the shutter speed ring.
As you can see, there’s some blown highlights in the image of the lake, indicating rather severe overexposure. This, by the way, is one of my standard throwaway test shots. Good contrast, good range, and I like the place. It’s about four hundred feet from my house. Now, I swear this lens is razor sharp. I developed this film in Dektol as an experiment, and it’s a little grainy, but bear with me.
In this selfie in a mirror at a friend’s house, you can see that the len’s performance wide
open is quite good, with much subtler flare than some faster lenses would have. I rather like that kind of flare, but I’d like to see it without. I don’t overall like the shot, as the mirror frame makes it too busy. I’m not sure whether to credit the exposure on this shot as a mark in favor of the meter, as I have two shots of this and one of them is underexposed, and I think I cheated the exposure on one of them.
But yeah, that’s me. I needed a haircut, and I still do. If you were expecting a woman based on my name, believe me, you’re far from the first.
Those highlights are a little bright, but not completely blown, and to the camera’s credit I was metering for the shadows in midframe. At least, I think I was. On most of these old cameras there’s a circle on the ground glass that tells you the weighted area for the meter.
I think we have good contrast and rather nice, classic-looking rendition of the dark tones on the ground.
So the Staffordshire terrier at right is actually standing like that. It boggles my mind trying to figure out how his hips do that, especially at his age. He’s fourteen, which is like a hundred and ten for an AST. I didn’t want him, and he’s the reason my house has fleas right now, but I love the little bugger.
Overall, I continue to be extremely satisfied with the lens. It has the best contrast of any SLR lens I’ve ever shot, very nice sharpness at middle apertures (which you can’t see here) and a really nice feel to it. Since writing the last post, I’ve learned that this was the kit lens on the very first Nikon F’s, before the Nikkor-H with equivalent numbers and a different formula was introduced.
But the camera? I don’t want to give it a bad review because mine happens to be missing some features and has a janky meter. I think if this camera were fully functional, it might have rivaled the SR-T 200 as my metered-manual shooting camera. As it is, when I want to shoot that Auto Nikkor-S lens, I mount it on the all-manual Nikkorex it came with.
So here’s my breakdown:
Ease of use: 6/10
Comfort in the hand: 6/10 (somehow it’s smaller than the Nikkorex but also more ungainly. I prefer even an early Praktica for ergonomics.)
Shutter noise: 7/10 (a massive improvement on the Nikkorex)
Range of available lenses: it’s a Nikon. Let’s be honest. 10/10.
Convenience of loading: 8/10, about on par with an AE-1.
Overall rating (of the model, not my example): 7/10
Please do not use my images without crediting me and asking for permission.
So how about the name on this one? I have to assume that’s pronounced with the long “I” as in “Nikon.” In fact, I’ve heard an old photographer say “Nikkor lenses” with a long “I,” so that has to be right.
Right? God, I hope so. Japanese names for things just don’t often translate well into English, which is understandable given the vast distance between the two languages on a linguistic level. The Nikkormat’s predecessor, the Nikkorex F, just sounds like a prescription nicotine patch for smoking cessation when you say it with a short “I,” but “Nikkormat” sounds inexcusably rude said that way. And it’s not intuitive to say it any other way. I mean, we could try a longish “E” sound like in Japanese…
Now, I have experience with the Nikkorex F. It’s a camera built like a main battle tank, weighty and tall in the hand. It’s a manual-only camera unless you happened to buy the clip-on selenium match-needle deal; in fact, it was my first manual-only SLR, when I
bought one from Leaman’s Antique Shop in Hattiesburg a year ago. I learned the value of shooting half box speed (or lower) on that camera. And it’s solid. I fully expect it to outlast many of my other cameras, with its metal-blade Copal Square shutter.
But when I had a little extra money in my pocket last week, and saw a listing for its shiny, fully-TTL-metered little sibling the Nikkormat FTn for only $10 plus shipping, I bought it. I had seen one in an antique store on Decatur St. during my adventure losing a roll in the Minolta, and been rather taken with it. Moreover, any number of people had talked it up to me online.
Like the Nikkorex F, it’s a working-man’s Nikon. It doesn’t have interchangeable viewfinders or fancy add-ons like the Nikon F, but it does have a superior shutter (a Nikon-built version of the Nikkorex’s Copal) and center-the-needle metering, plus shutter-speed display in the viewfinder and mirror lock-up (for rangefinder-style ultra-wide lenses that stick into the camera.)
But that’s only part of why it has a cult following, I think. It’s big, but balances gracefully in the right hand. It has an aesthetic like no other camera, resembling at first glance a hybrid of the Nikkorex F and the Nikon F, but upon closer inspection resembling neither too closely. In fact, looking at it, you can’t quite place it in time, even if you know your history well. The lettering of the nameplate is almost Comic Sans, and the standard lenses of the time had happy pastel color-coding for the apertures, but overall this camera has the look of a 30’s or 40’s typewriter with slick styling but
a lot of exposed mechanisms; as if advanced 35mm SLR’s were even a figment of someone’s imagination in 1945. If my SR-T 200 is rather forward-looking in its design, its contemporary over here is oddly and pleasantly backward-looking. It’s as if someone at Nippon Kougaku in 1967 decided that Oliver typewriters, steam trains and the original Kodak 35mm’s were all great things to draw on when designing a brand new, advanced SLR.
So how is it? It takes getting used to, that’s for sure. The only way to control the shutter speed is a tab that sticks out from a ring around the lens mount; the actual ring is too slick and too recessed to grasp. As the mechanisms for sensing the aperture stick out too far, you can barely see the numbers on the ring; the indicator for the current shutter speed is only visible from the front. Luckily, the designers continuously adjusted the design of the FT series according to popular criticism and suggestions, and on the FTn, they put an indicator in the viewfinder so that you can always see what shutter speed is set–as long as you’re in good light. There are a lot of coaxial rings moving around the lens, and finding the aperture ring can be tricky on some lenses. For another thing, like the metered prism for the Nikon F, there’s a complicated procedure for mounting the lens, a little something old photographers call the Nikon dance. Basically, you have to tell the camera what the aperture range on the lens is. Why it needs to know is beyond me; the SR-T’s just sense the number of stops down from wide open and do just fine. This process got simplified from the FT, but it’s still complicated and the big selling point of the otherwise-similar FT3 was that it could sense the aperture range on AI-type lenses automatically. Setting the film speed is a real pain. Finally, like most 60’s SLR’s it lacks a hot shoe, since most flashes used a PC cable back then, and you were apparently supposed to buy a cold shoe that was attached to the eyepiece, if you didn’t want to hold the flash. It’s a lot to figure out.
But there’s something wonderful about the quirkiness of this damn thing. I can’t disagree with the designers’ ideas of aesthetics, because in fact, the camera looks incredible. There are odd little features, like the exterior meter needle and the stop-down button in a semi-convenient location on top of the camera, rather than on the crowded lens mount area. The advance lever is a single piece of metal with light knurling, and it feels quite comfortable and solid to advance. The frame counter (broken on mine) is huge and conveniently placed (because there’s no shutter dial there in the crook of the advance lever).
You know what it reminds me of, in the end? A Retina Reflex IV. This was an unreliable, over-engineered Nagel A.G. camera sold by Kodak a little before the Nikkormat was built, but based on engineering philosophy dating back to the 50’s. It had the exterior meter needle, the ability to meter for bulb exposures, the shutter speed in the viewfinder, that kind of aesthetic that would have never seemed quite new and so never seems quite old… and I’ve always wanted a Retina Reflex IV. Sure, it’s not very practical, but there’s something about it, and there’s something about the Nikkormat.
I guess what I’m saying is, this camera is a little like vaporwave*. It doesn’t seem to belong to its home era, or even another era, not cleanly, at least. But like vaporwave, it gives you that feeling of false nostalgia you maybe had when you were younger, when you didn’t know what time it was that you were yearning for, when the details of that time could be vague. I dunno, is that why people watch Stranger Things? Is Stranger Things still popular?
So next I’ll fiddle with the film-speed settings some more (because this thing is sensitive to voltage differences, apparently,) shoot this roll, develop it and talk about the results.
* Vaporwave is a whole genre that’s basically the feel of the synth line in Gary Numan’s Cars. It’s designed to make you feel untraceable false nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, even and especially if you only marginally experienced them. Press play and you’ll understand.
All images in this article were found marked for commercial reuse and are not mine.
Sorry there weren’t more pictures when this was first published. I couldn’t get the images to stay the size I set them at at first.