Pinnacle of Pentaxness

•April 24, 2019 • Leave a Comment

It can be tough for camera designers working for a company that does well in the mid-priced, budget-priced market. If you worked for Pentax, Minolta, Konica, and others back in the day (1970 – 80s for our discussion today), you had to be content to work on popular, but less stellar products.
Sure, Pentax had their 67, and 645 medium format cameras to be proud of, but the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Contax were able to brag about state of the art 35mm SLRs that pushed the boundaries of camera technology at the time. But every now and again, in order to build a bit of brand prestige, the top designers were let off the leash and could make something everyone was proud of. And back in 1980, Pentax stunned everyone with the release of their LX system: a true pro-grade, super enthusiast camera that didn’t mind being a bit off the beaten path.
In later years, Pentax released “pro-sumer” type autofocus models like the PZ-1p, and the MZ-S, but they weren’t…. hmm, well, they weren’t an LX.

LX e

While this one shows honest wear on its corners, this LX is still working smoothly and accurately.

For the very first time, Pentax launched a 35mm with interchangeable viewfinders – and no fewer than six of them. Pentax geeks could get a standard eyelevel finder with built-in diopter adjustment … or a slightly different one with even more adjustment range. There was even another one without the hotshoe on top, in case such conveniences offended you. A high magnification finder was expected, and a waist level finder for those who had money to spend on something truly useless (I bought one for my Nikon F2, and realized later how silly it was). There was also a “system finder” with detachable eyepieces. A brochure I have shows a dozen interchangeable focusing screens.

LX c

While interchangeable finders were on their way out, the LX was one of the last 35mm SLR’s introduced with the feature.

What the brochure doesn’t, and can’t show is the stunning view through that LX finder and screen combo. Truly the clearest and brightest 35mm SLR viewfinder I’ve ever seen. Asking someone to take a peek just gets you a “whoa”.
Naturally there was a motor drive (with power rewind), and a winder option. Even a 250-frame bulk back for the eight or ten people out there who actually need one. There was a regular data back, and a “Watch Data” back to record the time on the frame. A tiny thumbwheel inside the camera moves a blind to block off the corner of the film frame to make that data clearer – in case you wondered what that was for. Another eight or ten happy customers there … check!

LX a

The mystery tiny little thumbwheel moves a flag into the corner of the frame for those very few who bought a special data back.

The eccentricity continued right out the camera’s strap lugs, which required a special LX strap. But you could dangle the camera from its left side if you so wished. The socket at the bottom right was where you screwed in a little handgrip if you wanted.
The LX was also one of those few cameras that put the light meter down in the bottom of the mirror box, and funneled light from the lens to it via a semi-transparent mirror. And yes, it had TTL flash metering years before anything from Canon (a topic for another day).

LX d

Cool, calm and collected. And yes, I apologize, the A-series lens should not be set to “A” on the LX.

And if you read my earlier post about battery fear, and the Ricoh XR-S, the LX is one of those few cameras that not only had electronic shutter speed control, but also mechanical backup speeds (from 1/2000th down to 1/75th X sync) without batteries. And for the ultimate in weirdness, the LX may be the only camera out there where you could actually rewind the film a few frames and multiple expose something you’d done earlier. Yeah, that’s odd.

While the LX continued Pentax’s penchant for 35mm bodies a bit smaller and lighter than most, there was nothing lightweight or flimsy about the LX. Unlike its predecessor MX, the LX could not be blamed for being anything but top-grade. Pentax fans could rejoice, and rejoice they did. In fact, they still sing the praises for this camera and many still consider it the high-water mark of Pentaxness.

LX b

In addition to ports for a winder or motor drive, the LX even had little non-slip rubber feet on the bottom.

Of course, autofocus was just a few years down the road, and the LX was soon relegated to old fashioned “manual” camera status (despite being an “automatic” camera when released!). It kept good company in that role for a few years with things like the Olympus OM-3 and OM-4, the Nikon F3, the Leica R series, and the Contaxes.
The one pictured here is the prized possession of a Pentax fan and collector. It came in for some cleaning and fixing the sticky mirror issue that has become common to the LX. Despite some wear and tear, this LX is once again in fine working condition. It passed its shutter and metering tests with flying colours, and that viewfinder …. well, if you ever are offered the chance to handle an LX and take a peek through that finder, don’t pass it up.

Wider than wide

•September 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Perhaps you’ve seen them, the hoardes of dejected, sad looking photographers, all searching for a bargain in a wide angle lens. If I look out the window, the line stretches into the distance, perhaps halfway round the world by now.
It doesn’t help to take one aside and point out that the widest setting on that kit lens they got with their DSLR outfit actually is a wide angle lens.
“No, I’m looking for something really wide. You know, for landscapes and stuff,” they say.
Of course, there’s nothing like an ultra wide angle lens for making that majestic mountain landscape into a distant row of small humps. Those sailboats out on the lake become mere specks, dwarfed by too much sky and too much water.
That’s okay, they’ll have to learn the hard way.
I remember when I bought my first wide angle. I was still in high school, and it took a lot of scrimping and saving to finally buy it. I was so jazzed about how great it would make my photos, and was so shocked at how weak those first rolls turned out. Sure, I had a wider angle of view, but my subject matter got smaller, more distant, with too much space in between, around, and above. What the heck?
Of course, with time, I figured out that wide angles sing best when snuggled right up to their subject, and a spacious background gives the shot its “air”.

2.1 in cap

This is just odd looking, when you take it out of its case. But it keeps the lens and its special viewfinder all together.

That first wide angle, however, was a 28mm, which is just about as wide as what the typical kit lens gets down to these days, in equivalent field of view. And yet all these people out there think they need to go even wider?
Tastes change, of course, and even though a 28mm was considered a decent wide angle in those days, and some considered it even too wide and “distorted” for their taste, a 74 degree angle of view is just ho-hum nowadays.
For the record, I’m going to specify focal lengths for the 35mm/“full frame” digital format. If your camera has a smaller “crop” sensor, then translate to your appropriate focal length. If your sensor is even bigger – well … good for you!
My old 28mm Minolta lens cost around $150 bucks back then, which is close to spending $400 today. As I said, it was a stretch buying it then. But a 24mm Minolta extra-wide (84 degrees corner to corner) would have set me back, and anyone else, another $100 – which is why vintage 24mm lenses are much harder to come by these days. 28mm is common. 24mm is rarer, regardless of what brand of 1970-80s camera you are talking about.
And it went up from there. Back in those days, a 20mm cost $400, and a 17mm nearly $500 – and that was from budget-friendly Minolta. Those with Nikons and Contaxes expected to pay even more for wide angle exotica.
That said, I don’t believe I have ever beheld, in the real world, a manual focus Minolta 20 or 17mm. In the grand scheme of things, they’re super rare. Ultra wide Nikon lenses do surface, of course, mainly because the pro-oriented (or just wealthier) photographers were willing to pony up all that cash for 10 or 20 degrees more coverage.

2.1 what inside

The special rear cap hides the long rear element group of the non-retrofocus wide angle 2.1cm lens.

But I was taken aback the other week, when shown a true rarity from the early days of SLR ultra-wide angle photography: a Nikon 2.1cm Nikkor … with viewfinder.
Back in 1959 when Nikon brought forth the first pro-grade 35mm SLR, the “F”, there weren’t many lenses for it. Some designs were modified from those made for their earlier rangefinder 35mms. But wide angles posed a problem for the SLR and its slappy, dangly mirror that just plain got in the way. Still, Nikon had a couple of wide angles ready for their new creation – 28 and 35mm lenses (actually badged 2.8 and 3.5cm), using the relatively new “retrofocus” design, that allowed clearance for a mirror, despite the short focal length.

2.1 lockup

To get that long rear end into the camera, the mirror has to be locked up out of the way – so you no longer have an SLR!

Wider than that? Well … they had a new 2.1cm ultra-wide wonder lens, that was introduced at the same time for the Nikon rangefinder. But it wasn’t a retrofocus design, and that meant its dinky 2.1cm focal length put its optical centre right inside the mirror box, with some lens elements even closer to the film. The only way it could work was with the mirror locked up out of the way. No through-the-lens focusing, or metering. You guessed your focus distance, used a hand-held meter, and viewed through an accessory finder clipped over the rewind knob. Hardly convenient.
If you watch those television specials that document the days around the President John F Kennedy assassination, you’ll see plenty of news reporters using a wide variety of camera equipment trying to document those turbulent hours. Unlike today, when every news photog seems to have the same black DSLR, in November 1963 you saw photographers with Rolleiflex TLRs, Leica rangefinders, and the fairly-new Nikon F SLR. There may have even been a few still using 4×5 sheet film in their Speed Graphics. But in the often-repeated footage of the crowded hallway of the Dallas Police Station, you can clearly see a photographer hoisting over his head a Nikon F, distinctively wearing the 2.1cm ultra-wide, with its viewfinder over the rewind knob. I notice trivial crap like that.
It truly was a state-of-the-art optic at that time, even if it turned your shiny new pro SLR into a scale focus 35mm. Its optical design was apparently an improvement on the 1954 Zeiss 21mm Biogon. And that basic design lasted into the Nikkor wide angle large format lenses, and even into my little Nikon 35Ti pocket camera that currently has a half-shot roll of film in it, and a dead battery.

2.1 on body

Even though this is a 35mm SLR, with the 2.1cm installed, you have to compose with the rewind knob-mounted finder; you have to guess your focus distance too. Not shown is the hand-held meter you need since, the camera’s own is inoperable with the mirror up.

When I was offered the chance to try out this 2.1cm Nikkor, with its eight-element almost-symmetric lens design, I quickly dusted off my Nikon F2 and dropped in a roll of film.
I wish I could say that first roll confirmed the lens’ legendary status, but it didn’t take long to realize nothing was sharp. Nothing was in focus. Nothing.
Putting it on the collimator confirmed that it was focusing past infinity, even at its minimum 3-foot distance. Taking it apart, I discovered that the last time it was serviced, someone put it back together on the wrong thread. Its owner couldn’t recall who did that, or when. But that might have explained why the lens was likely retired from active duty. A sticker on the lens case says it went to the 1976 Olympics. The owner says he indeed used it there, as a press photographer.
After re-assembling it properly, with a bit of cleaning and fresh lubrication, I set out to try it again….

Ghost flames

With great sharpness and detail right into the corners, minimal flare, and surprisingly little light falloff, this lens can be mistaken for a much newer design.

This time round, I got sharp negatives. In fact, really sharp. I have to say the old Nikkor surpassed my expectations. One presumes old lenses like this to have those compromises you see in ‘60s optics. A bit more flare, some saggy contrast, and fuzzier edges and corners, can all be forgiven. But this old 2.1cm held its sharpness right into the corners. Light falloff was also expected, but wasn’t really a problem at all. I can see why people have praised this lens over the years. And, yes, I was able to generate a few “sunstars” by including the sun in the frame.

Last season

Again, you can see great detail across the image. Here, you can see a bit of light dropoff in the corners – but then again, not much worse than current wide angle zooms.

You’ll notice I used my Nikon F2 for this exercise, but I could have used my older Nikon F, or even my Nikomat FTn, but nothing else. Only those cameras have the hard mirror lock up, and the tiny nub at 10 o’clock behind the lens mount that fits the notch on the back of the lens. This keeps the lens oriented correctly. Later cameras, like the F3 and such, didn’t have it. And why would they? The 2.1cm was discontinued in 1967 as Nikon launched its proper retrofocus 20mm f3.5 in 1968. The newer lens was much more successful, as it sold well over 40,000 units in six years, compared to less than 6,000 in eight years for the 2.1cm.
Retrofocus wide angles may have their issues, but they do usually have less light fall off in the corners, and there’s still no substitute for viewing and focusing on a focusing screen for most of us.
Now that Nikon has launched a mirrorless camera, there’s an outside chance someone might make a special adapter to use such oddball lenses as this ultra-wide, and the mirror-up Nikon fisheyes that worked the same way. I won’t hold my breath though.
It was a real treat to handle and try out this special optic from a time when shooting with anything wider than an 84-degree 24mm made you a member of a very exclusive club.

The last of its kind?

•April 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

There’s a school of thought that says a particular product or technology will reach its peak just as that technology or product becomes obsolete. Supposedly, the very finest buggy whips, or saddles would have been made just as the horseless carriage was introduced. The idea there is that the greatest artisans of such products would have retired, leaving later artisans to turn their efforts to newer endeavours.
I can think of a couple of examples that might run counter to that argument. The Leica M3 of 1953 (54) is considered by many to be the finest made 35mm rangefinder camera ever. I’ve taken a few apart, and indeed, the workmanship and precision is on a level not quite met in later M4s and M6s, etc. The M3 proved just too darn expensive to keep making that way.
My 1989 VCR was a very well-made piece of equipment, and was worthwhile repairing two or three times before I had to replace it with another in around 2004. That one barely made it past its warranty period before it started refusing to load tapes. It was certainly cheaper than the 1989 model, but I don’t really know if I could have spent much more at that time, even if I wanted to.
But the rule of peak perfection does apply to such things as pocket watches, for instance. While it’s true that Patek Phillipe made pocket watches well into the 20th century with all manner of exotic complications – moon phase dials, perpetual calendars that know when February will have 29 days, chimes for the hours and minutes – those pocket watches were made in an era when such things weren’t really carried or worn. They are horological works of art designed and bought by collectors for exotic sums of money.
You would never have expected the station manager at your local railroad station in 1890 to have had a Patek Phillipe on the end of his fob. No, you would hope he had an American-made Hamilton 992 “railroad grade” to make sure the trains ran on time (and didn’t crash into each other – lives really were at stake). Those finely finished, but practical and robust Hamiltons faded away as wristwatches took over, and today’s Hamilton branded watches aren’t American, but Swiss.
And of interest to us is the idea that the 35mm SLR would have peaked right as the digital SLR arrived. Canon fans would point to the EOS-1v as their most advanced, never-bettered 35mm body. Minolta fans had their Maxxum 9 (or Dynax 9 or Alpha 9, if you lived in Europe or Japan). Pentax fans seem to prefer their 1980s LX to the 1990s MZ-S, but we can keep out of that debate today. And Nikon users often hold up the F5 as the finest example of film camera-dom to wear an F-mount.

F6 with MB-40 grip

It may have looked like a step back from the mighty F5 it replaced, but with the battery grip, the F6 could still rip through film at 8 frames per second.

Of course, it’s the F5 of 1996 that is king of that hill: the last Nikon to have interchangeable finders and backs. The last one to have focusing screens in snap-in aluminum frames (with electrically operated focusing points, no less). We all recognized the F6 of 2004 as being something a bit watered down: a fixed finder, a fixed back, powered by a pair of (gasp) CR-123a lithiums – just like grandma’s point and shoot. But what did you expect? By 2004, the D2 series was Nikon’s flagship, not the film camera. The F6 was a smaller lighter replacement for both the F5 and the F100. The F5 was proudly unveiled for the 1996 Olympic Games. Few F6’s saw Olympics action. Sports cameras were digital by then.

F6 batteries

Without the accessory grip, the F6 had to rely on a pair of lithium batteries – like a point and shoot?

Of course, not many of us got to see an F6 in the flesh. They were expensive, and digital was all the buzz at the time. Pleas to our local Nikon rep to bring by an F6 were ignored. There wasn’t an F6 available for show-and-tell, apparently.
And besides, if you still wanted a top-end film body, there were plenty of guys selling off their barely used F5’s.
But some weeks ago, I was able to pick up and behold my first F6, some 13 years after it went into production. I’ve loaded film into it, and shot with it. And I can state categorically that I had been wrong. Boy was I wrong.
I’m pretty certain that had I seen an F6 back in 2004, 2005, 2006, I would have bought one. I still proudly owned and used my F100 at that time as my primary camera, not yet trusting digital to anything important. I think that F100 would have been sold off to purchase an F6, toute suite.

F6 top

This all looks quite familiar, even to digital Nikon users today.

What an awesome camera, especially in the ergonomics department. Compared to an F5, it just snuggles down into your hand so much better. The F5 feels clubby in comparison. And unlike the F5, it can be run without the 8-AA battery pack on the bottom (the F5 incidentally was Nikon’s only pro F body that didn’t have a detachable motor drive/battery grip feature – it was always full size). Those CR-123a’s might be forgiven after all.
No, the F6 didn’t have interchangeable finders, but Nikon (and Canon) by that time knew no one really bought them. The F6 back doesn’t come off, but few realize that the F4 was the last Nikon to have a bulk back option. Go ahead, re-read those F5 brochures, but there’s no 250 exposure bulk option there. The F5 gave us eight frames per second, but 36 shots was the limit.

F6 back

If you’re looking for live view, or even image review, you’re barking up the wrong tree!

But the F6 back does have a screen in its middle, that allows for custom settings and other setup options in the clear language of your choice. You no longer have to remember if custom setting 14 or 16 is the one that changes the self timer setting.
Heck, that screen even allows the terminally geeky to scroll through your last few films and see how each shot was exposed. Also the F6 back can not only destroy your photos by printing an ugly date/time stamp across the corner (no, no, no!), but it can also sneak cool geeky data between the frames (yes, yes, yes!).

F6 inside

How could the F6 really be a flagship pro body without removable finders or accessory backs? But times had changed, and the 35mm SLR had a different purpose in 2004. Still, the fixed back had special powers of its own…

But aside from such sillliness, the F6 borrowed the AF unit from the D2 cameras, and compatibility with the newer flash system and accessories. Whether film photography Luddites of that era needed such stuff is a moot point.
The viewfinder may be a bit cluttered with all those focus point targets, but at least there’s a wonderful vertical exposure scale on the right hand side. Manual metering isn’t an afterthought in this camera.
And yes, just like the D2x, you can program in your favourite nine manual focus lenses, so all the readouts and metering make sense. The meter pattern switch is on the side of the prism where I always thought it looked coolest – and the LCD screens have Indiglo blue type backlights, not those dinky green LEDs Nikon’s been using lately.
The build quality is very, very worthy of the “F” badge: metal where it belongs. Say no more.

And here’s the thing. Unlike the Maxxum 9, the EOS-1v, or the Contax RTS III, the Nikon F6 stands alone as the only one still available today brand-new. Yes, Nikon, they’re the ones who held a press conference back in the day to announce they were discontinuing film cameras and succeeded in making the 6 o’clock news around the world by a happy-to-bash-film media – they’re the same ones who quietly kept in production two film SLRs for years: the FM-10 and the F6.
The inexpensive Cosina-made FM-10 disappeared just recently. Which makes the F6 the last of its kind, I think. Is there another brand-new 35mm SLR still in production anywhere in the world? I can’t think of one, but maybe there’s something low cost in China or Russia still being made.
Given that it’s highly improbable we’ll see an F7, that makes the F6 the latest and greatest of its kind, for as long as it sticks around. Not a bad way to go out.

Well, this is fun

•September 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I came across something unusual in a bag of old camera equipment the other week. Well, it didn’t look unusual at first glance. It appeared to be a bog-standard 135mm f2.8 aftermarket lens in a Nikon Ai mount. If one were to gather up all the old 135mm lenses mouldering away in old camera bags in the world’s closets and garages and attics…. well, there’s tons of aluminum and glass sitting there.
The 135mm lens faded from popularity when the 80-200 and 70-210mm lenses became affordable and decently sharp – around the early 1980s. Before that, good zooms were very expensive, and affordable ones weren’t that sharp or contrasty. They tended to be long and bulky too in those days.

Looks ordinary

It’s just another 135mm 2.8, even if it looks a bit fatter than usual.

So the 135mm lens was the go-to choice for the young photographer short on cash, like me with my first 35mm SLR: a Minolta I’d bought shortly after my 16th birthday. It came with a normal lens, but when I’d saved up more money, I quickly bought a 135mm f3.5 genuine Minolta lens and my photography came alive. As a handy cropping tool that also brought subject matter up close and personal, it’s not hard to see why 135mm lenses were popular for so long. The fact they were affordable didn’t hurt either.
When I bought that Minolta 135mm, I spent a good bit more than if I’d settled for an off-brand budget model. The difference was maybe $30-40, but to me that was a lot of hours babysitting the neighbour kids. I’ll admit I’d looked over the budget 135mm’s and the fit and finish turned me off. I decided to save up the extra money and do it right. I have to acknowledge the Minolta 135mm was only an f3.5, whereas I could have got the 135mm “Makinon” in a f2.8 for much less. I can only presume that if I’d looked around, I might have been able to buy a good quality Vivitar or Tamron or something like that for more money, but less than the genuine Minolta, and maybe with a f2.8 aperture.
So back to the mystery lens I found in the camera bag the other day. Yes, it was a Vivitar f2.8 135mm lens, short and compact, but curiously fatter than most of the type. Instead of a 52mm or 55mm front cap size, this one was 62mm. Taking the cap off revealed “Auto Telephoto Close Focusing” markings.

Front nameplate

Behind the 62mm front cap, you find the trim ring promising “close focusing”

Uh oh, one of those, maybe. I recalled that back in those days, aftermarket manufacturers tried to add value to their budget lens offerings, especially the 135mms, with extra features of dubious quality or utility. I recall some 135mm’s having an adjustable ring on the front to dial in soft focus. Back in those days, soft focus filters were very much in vogue, and special purpose “soft” lenses were used by pros. Nobody seems to like that too much these days – unless you’re geeking out about the “bokeh” on your f1.4 lens wide open.
But other times the adjustable ring up front added a “macro” mode to a basic 135mm. You got closer all right, but sharpness went out the window. This Vivitar, however, had no such extra ring, but the regular focus ring was marked down to 0.75 meters. A regular 135mm Vivitar I compared it to only went down to 1.4 meters. Okay, so close focusing is possible, and I gave the ring a turn and found the lens extending out, out, and out, exactly like Vivitar’s well known Macro 50mm and 100mm lenses of the day. The ring actually makes one and a half turns, and reveals a second close up scale extending down below 0.6 meters. Another scale says that’s 1:2, or half life size.

On the body

That focus ring just turns and turns, and this is what you end up with.

So, is it a macro lens? Well, probably not really, as true macro lenses are specially designed and tuned for close up photography – and the word “macro” does not appear on this thing. “Close focusing” is the only claim.
Maybe it’s only a regular 135mm f2.8 stuffed into a macro style lens barrel, so you can get in close without having to add an extension tube onto your rig. I certainly remember using an extension tube on my old Minolta lens to get in close, and I never worried at the time that I wasn’t using a proper “macro” lens.
I had to take this lens apart to give the elements a good cleaning of probably two decades of haze from poor storage. The tiny holes you see in the front trim were drilled by me just so I could get the stuck ring unthreaded. It wouldn’t budge otherwise. The glass came clean, and everything else worked fine, so it all went back together.
What to do with it? If it’s just a junky old Vivitar with macro pretensions, someone might have fun with it on a modern Nikon body. But I did an internet search and discovered that over on the Pentax Forums, more than a few Pentax owners were raving about this close focusing 135mm Vivitar (in K mount, naturally) and posted some nice-looking pics to prove its worth.

Nice colour

This lens reminds you how pleasant that 135mm perspective can be

Really? Could this thing be any good? I counted only four glass air-spaced elements inside it, and sure enough, that’s the design. Contemporary macro lenses usually had five elements and were limited to f3.5 or f4.0. I’m still going back to the idea that this a fairly regular 135mm 2.8 design stuffed into a close focusing barrel.
But apparently a good one, according to the internet buzz. Since Vivitar never actually made any of the things that carried their brand, this particular lens was apparently made by the respected Japanese optical house of Komine, and badged up for Vivitar. How much of a hand the optical experts at Vivitar had in its design is uncertain.

Great detail

The perfect lens for a walk in the woods

What is certain is that it’s darn fun to use. While I have a Nikon 135mm f3.5 in my collection, it doesn’t get much use. Part of that is because if I’m carrying a 80-200 or 70-210 zoom, I’ve got that covered. For portraits I’ve preferred an 85mm for some time. And there’s the sad, but silly fact that the old 135mm and 105mm manual lenses I own are very compact and skinny and look a bit skimpy on a big full-frame DSLR. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. The lens has to look like it belongs, and this chubby little Vivitar looks and feels well-balanced on the big camera.
That’s really why many of the newest lens offerings these days have large plastic barrels with lots of airspace inside and oversized lens caps on the outside. Sure they could make that 35mm, 85mm or 50mm a lot smaller (and they have done in the past), but they’d look unbalanced on a plump, overstuffed modern body.
So I took the Vivitar with me on my recent visit up north to cottage country, and honestly wondered if I’d get around to trying it out. But once on the camera, it rarely came off, and I ended up revelling in that nice, tight short telephoto perspective I recalled from my youth, and loving the fact that it just kept focusing closer, and closer and closer…. And unlike my proper 55mm micro, it has lot more “working distance” between the object and lens front when you are getting right in tight.

Glowing

Despite its simple specs, this darn lens performs

The 70-210mm just stayed in the bag, and the Vivitar took the most of my photos – at least when I wasn’t using an ultrawide or fisheye to photograph the night sky.
The images are sharp, with nice colour and lovely smooth backgrounds. I think I used it mostly at f4.0 to f5.6 with no complaints. Some close critical examination showed a bit of chromatic abberation around brightly lit objects – but then that’s true of most lenses these days anyway, regardless of price or design.
If you should come across one of these in a mount that’s useful to you, give it a second look.

The rarest of the rare

•September 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This camera up for discussion might not be in the greatest of condition, but it is surprisingly rare.
What’s so rare about a Leica 35mm SLR, you might ask?

Leica RE with lens

If you have those Leitz R mount lenses, this is where they belong

Well, Leica SLRs are certainly out there, about a half million having been made from 1964 Through to 2009 when the last R9 sank beneath the waves (along with the Digital Modul R that converted it to a very costly 10 megapixel DSLR). But this camera here is a Leica R-E, which oddly enough ranks as the lowest production model of all the Leicaflex/Leica R lineup. It was introduced in 1990 as a lower cost alternative to the full-fledged R5, but pretty much the only features missing were the program and shutter-priority modes that no one really ever needs. The trouble was that Leica at that time making a lower cost SLR was like Rolls Royce making a lower priced sedan – so only about 6,000 or so R-E’s rolled off the production line, and that makes it a low production rarity in anybody’s book. Even the poor-selling last-gasp R9 got 9,000 customers. In contrast, the most successful Leica SLR was the R4, which sold over 100,000.

Leica RE front

A bit of wear, here and there, but still in perfect working order.

I was loaned this rare camera for a few days to help test and adjust a bunch of Leica R series lenses that were headed for a new career in cinematography, so it seemed appropriate to run a few rolls of film through the beast – especially since I don’t think I’d ever had the privilege to shoot with a Leica SLR before. I’ve owned and used a few Leica rangefinders from time to time, but never a “Leicaflex”.

Leica RE top

That little “m” in the round circle means manual mode with spot metering.

If you aren’t familiar with Leica’s foray into the SLR world, you can be forgiven. The first Leicaflex arrived in 1964, and despite being precisely well made and German, it was already obsolete, using an external meter cell when everyone else had embraced the TTL concept. The Leicaflex SL and SL2 played catch up, but fans of the Leitz SLR glass realized something was up when Leica turned to Minolta in Japan to help launch the Leica R3 – which was essentially a beefed up and refined Minolta XE-7. The Leica R4 arrived in 1980, as a beefed up and refined Minolta XD-11. Even some of the vaunted Leitz lenses were made under contract by Minolta in Japan. You couldn’t dispute the quality and precision, but were they really German? Were they really Leica?
The later R5, R6, and R7 cameras also used the revamped Minolta XD chassis, even though Minolta by that time had moved on to increasingly plasticky autofocus cameras and lenses.
So this rare-ish Leica R-E is still based on the XD platform, and still has that slow “ker-chunk” shutter sound I enjoyed so much in my XD-5 a gazillion years ago. But the thing to remember is that this Leica isn’t a 1970s model, or 1980s, it came out in 1990. Like its R5 big brother, its flash sync was only 1/100th, and autofocus was strictly verboten. Leica was still chasing the Nikon F3, at a time when the F4 was already looking long in the tooth, and the F5 was on its way.
When this R-E was new, I was shooting with a Nikon F-801s, and enjoying autofocus, flash sync at any speed up to 1/250th, and built in autowind, all run on four AA batteries. Could I have done all the same things if I’d bought an R-E or R5 at that time? Not a chance.

Leica RE back

Clean and simple. A 1980s camera made for the 1990s.

Nevertheless, this R-E is a lovely thing to behold. While the layout and technology is very reminiscent of the old Minolta XD models, there’s a lot more refinement and solidity. Every metal part that could be made thicker and beefier, was.
There’s no on/off switch. Pressing the shutter button always activates the meter (also just like the Minolta), but the R-E continues Leica’s fascination with the spot meter. In aperture priority you have a choice of average metering, or spot. Manual mode is spot only. The viewfinder display uses a combination of LED lights, and windows for aperture and manually set aperture. Again, this all anyone really needs, although newer cameras with digital readouts all in one place below the screen have us spoiled.
The oddest thing about the R-E is its viewfinder, which has a strangely bluish-green tint about it. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my viewfinder image to be the same colour as the outside world. But that split-image focusing ring in the centre is just the way things ought to be.
I took the camera out, with four Leitz lenses, making for a very hefty kit. To add to the misery, I brought along my latest DSLR, which needed to be shown the ropes. While the DSLR is big and pudgy, the Leica feels dense as uranium, especially with those stoic, precise, and thickly barrelled lenses. The Nikon lenses seemed deft and nimble in comparison.


Still, one doesn’t knock the Leitz optics. I don’t care whether they were made in Germany, Canada, or Japan, they all prove their worth. The only downside is that they won’t turn ordinary photographs into masterpieces, despite what their well-heeled owners may have been told.
The R-E wasn’t going to be a big seller in the early ‘90s, not with all those AF cameras dominating the market. And Leica was still towing the party line in those days, insisting the magnificent precision of their lenses was not compatible with the loosey goosey sloppiness of autofocus. Contax, the upscale brand from Yashica, said the same thing about their German-sourced Zeiss optics. Trouble is, magazine covers, and award winning journalism was being shot with autofocus Nikons and Canons at the time. The old ways might have been appreciated, but were being forced into the background.
It wasn’t long before Leica was essentially becoming less a manufacturer of high-grade, but relevant and practical 35mm equipment, and more a maker of Euro-luxury goods. Prestige was supposed to win over practicality, but it was a slippery slope. It might work for Rolex, but photographers don’t buy jewellery. I wasn’t the only one nauseated by the long list of special edition models that permeated the Leica rangefinder line. I think I truly lost a lot of respect for the concept when I evaluated an M6 Titanium, with its matching titanium lens. Now, titanium had been used to make camera shells lighter and stronger for some time. That M6 had a gorgeous tan metallic sheen on both body and lens, and complementing ostrich skin leather. But further inspection revealed it weighed no less than a regular M6. Huh?
Turns out the “titanium” was merely a finish on a normal body and lens. And the ostrich was also just embossed leather. Despite the premium price, it was no lighter or more durable than a regular M6. I guess the collector types weren’t supposed to notice.
But this R-E was made before all that nonsense, and as a no-nonsense 35mm SLR, it deserved to be loaded up with black and white film and put through its paces. The solid, firm handling lenses inspired confidence (I used a 50mm f2.0, a 24mm 2.8, 90mm 2.0 and a 80-200mm f4.0 zoom). The images didn’t disappoint, and I share some of those scanned negs here.
The irony is that cameras like this are enjoying some renewed interest these days. It just seems appropriate to have a traditional wind lever under the thumb, and a shutter dial under the finger when shooting 35mm film. The higher tech AF bodies, with their LCD displays and multi-modes just seem like digital SLRs without the digital, and nobody wants them right now.
It was nice to have the privilege of trying out this classic rarest-of-all Leica SLR, especially as it’s getting harder and harder to do so. All those solid, well-made, sharp R series lenses are being poached by the cinema crowd and having all manner of adapters fitted. Sad to say, those Leica SLRs will all be sitting around lenseless.

How we learned to stop worrying, and love our batteries

•June 17, 2017 • 1 Comment

Some weeks ago, a regular customer stopped by for a little help with his Ricoh SLR. I think it was the XR-P, which ranks as one of the last Ricoh SLRs put onto the market. It only took a moment to figure out his problem, and as I just happened to have an old Ricoh product brochure close at hand, I opened it up to see if his camera was in there.
The XR-P, was a model boasting new-fangled multiple program modes intended to lure photographers away from knowledge of shutter speeds or apertures, and it had a new line of updated lenses – Rikenon “P” lenses, which still used the Pentax-type K bayonet, but added extra electrical contacts to help with programmed exposures. These lenses were short-lived on the market as autofocus was the next big thing on the horizon, and Ricoh, like many other SLR companies, never made the investment for jumping into the AF marketplace. Instead, they put their eggs into the 35mm point-and-shoot marketplace, and did well there while the SLR line faded away. One trick to remember today is to never try to mount those “P” lenses on a current Pentax camera – they’ll jam on the AF coupling.

The flagship XR-S

Billed as the world’s first “solar powered” SLR.

But that brochure I pulled out didn’t show the XR-P. It was just a couple of years too old. Instead, the flagship Ricoh shown was the XR-S. I was quite familiar with photos and descriptions of the XR-S, but I told my Ricoh-enthusiast customer that it was the one model I’d never, ever seen. I’d even asked the Pentax Forum people if the camera really existed, or had only been a short-term “vaporware” kind of proposition. However, those who responded assured me the XR-S was a real product they had seen and used, once upon a time.
My only conclusion then, is that the XR-S didn’t make it onto shelves in Canada, whereas its almost-identical little brother, the XR-7 … well I’d seen lots of them over the years.
My Ricoh-fan customer looked at the brochure, and said he hadn’t even heard of the XR-S, but promised to see if he could find one. I’d almost forgotten about the conversation, but the other day, he walked through the door and presented to me an honest-to-goodness, XR-S!
I asked where he found it, and he confessed he’d bought it on that on-line auction from a fellow in England. He didn’t come across any in North America.

XR-S b

While Nikon were still putting leatherette on their prism sides, Ricoh had a better idea.

So what is an XR-S, and why does it hold such a fascination? Well, as the brochure clearly states, it was the first camera to use built-in solar cells to keep the battery charged up.
In around 1980-81, when this camera appeared on the market, many photographers were paranoid about battery-dependent cameras. Low battery voltage could suddenly render a camera useless. Whatever would you do?
Never mind that you could ask the same question about your radio or flashlight, the fact was that cameras had traditionally been mechanical devices, powered by springs and such. Professionals demanded cameras that had some mechanical override should the batteries die. Which is why the Canon New F-1 of 1981 could shoot at most shutter speeds if you pulled the battery out. Nikon’s F3 had one 1/80th shutter speed should things go dead.
And Ricoh’s XR-S had solar panels up on the sides of the pentaprism, recharging a special 5-year battery.
Trouble is, 10 minutes later, photographers seemed to forget all about mechanical backups. Nikon, after all, had made their F3 able to draw power from the motor drive pack. Any self-respecting Canon F-1 owner just made sure they had a spare battery or two in the camera bag.
And Ricoh shoppers probably thought the XR-S looked cool, but saved a few bucks and bought the almost-identical, but not solar, XR-7.

XR-S a

Aside from the solar panels, the XR-S was pretty similar to the less exotic XR-7

And, as I said, autofocus arrived only a few years down the road, and batteries were going to be an essential part of that. The worrying and fretting about batteries seemed to fade away.
Still, the XR-S was a neat testimony to those battery fearing days. Despite being Ricoh’s top-of-the-line model in 1981, it’s still only a basic, competent, aperture priority SLR. Ricoh never had any models with professional aspirations, but they always offered good value for the money. Despite the fact this camera probably cost nearly half what a Nikon FE did at the time, it had manual speeds from 1/1000th down to 16 seconds, depth-of-field preview, a memory lock button, an electronic self timer (with new-fangled beeper), multiple exposure button, and an LCD viewfinder display that mimicked a traditional needle readout. Oh, and there was a window so you could see the aperture below the focus screen. All the goodies.
Sad to say, this particular XR-S didn’t work. Its shutter wasn’t cocking properly, but its owner wasn’t deterred. He came back a few days later with another one – but it too was dead. A few days later again, he came in with another in good mechanical order, and only needed new seals to put it back to work.

XR-S d

The bigger battery was rechargeable, but two button cells were a logical replacement.

But he also held up a special trophy – a pack of three of the special rechargeable batteries. A specialty battery supplier he found on-line sold them to him at a close-out price. Naturally, we found they could only be barely charged up, and died a little while later, solar cells or not. We don’t think these batteries were actual 1980’s vintage cells, but were probably old stock from their revival in a solar recharged bicycle computer. Not that it mattered, we couldn’t get them to work. At least we know what they looked like.
My best guess is that owners of the XR-S probably used the original battery until it pooped out after the first five years or so, and then never bothered to seek out another one: two regular 1.5v cells fit and work fine, but don’t have the tab on them to activate the solar recharging system.
Oh, and by the way, none of the fellow’s three cameras were found in Canada.

The “Girl Watcher” lens

•March 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The word came this month that Popular Photography, the venerable American magazine, would be closing its doors.
No doubt a victim of both the declining interest in enthusiast photography equipment, and the preference for many consumers to get their information more rapidly, and for free, on-line.
Still, it’s a sad thing to digest, especially since, for me, photography and magazines were inseparable – at least in the beginning.
Before buying my first 35mm SLR, eons ago, I pored through articles, test reports, and advertisements in magazines, and I think Popular Photography was my favourite.
A year or so later, after I’d gone through more than a few rolls in my shiny new Minolta, I happened upon the mother-lode: a big box of old photography magazines being sold at a neighbour’s yard sale. I can’t remember if I paid $5 or $10 for the box, but it was worth every penny. The magazines all dated from about 1967 through 1973, with most being from ’69 to ’71. And most were either Popular Photography or Modern Photography.
I devoured them all. It took me months to read each and every one, but read I did.
While they were really only about 10-12 years old at the time, to my young eyes they were from an earlier era – before cameras had LED displays, beepers, or program modes. Automatic flash was still in its infancy, and automatic exposure was the new kid on the block and regarded with suspicion.
There was also a bit more of the “Popular Mechanics” ethos still around: technical articles telling you how to build your own this or that, or how to modify a military surplus lens into something useful. Fun stuff like that was mostly gone by the ‘80s. As responsible camera consumers we were expected to buy only the officially sanctioned accessories and lenses described in the official test reports.

Girl Watcher001

Yes, the “Famous Girl Watcher Lens”, complete with a snapshot of a supposedly unsuspecting bathing beauty. I guess that sounded better than “Lothario Lens”.

And then there were those 1960’s ads. Wow, did they look out of date when viewed through the eyes of a 1980s teen (of course, looking at ‘80s ads today is equally cringe-worthy). Those late ‘60s, early ‘70s ads drew inspiration heavily from the ‘60s counter-culture, hippie movement.
But one ad I remember seeing again and again, and it seems every other photographer who read those magazines back then remembers it too, was the “Girl Watcher” lens ad.
The big New York mail-order houses were at their peak back then, offering insane deals on items of questionable quality, along with recognized brands. I had thought the “girl watcher” ad came from Cambridge or Spiratone, two of the big advertisers at the time. But a check of some old magazines on hand quickly found that it was the Sterling Howard Corp. of Yonkers, NY who ran those ads with their completely pervey hook. Did it seem that creepy and inappropriate at the time? Dunno, but they ran the ads for years, so they couldn’t have been crushed under the complaints.
What was the “girl watcher” lens, you ask? Well, it was simply a 400mm f6.3 telephoto, which offered apparently enough magnification to snap pictures of unsuspecting bathing beauties at the local beach. It sold for only $34.95 in the late ‘60s.
The other mail order ads offered similar lenses, at similar prices, but with less creepy descriptions.

Girl Watcher002

Still 34.95, and still called the “Girl Watcher” a couple of years later. Notice you could buy, for a lot more cash, a 600mm f8, or a 800mm f8.

And it’s not like $35 was chump change back in those days. I recall seeing mid-‘60s ads for bachelor apartments going for $35 a month in a new building. Of course, real-estate and rents have soared more than most other things in the following decades.
So, you plunked down your $35 plus shipping, and maybe spent a bit more to get a leather case, a hood (good idea), maybe a filter – what did you get? Well, I’ve handled and tried out more than a few of these type lenses over the years, and I have to conclude they were pretty good fun for the money.
The 400mm lenses were typically f6.3, which looks a little dim through the finder of the standard SLR, film or digital. The 500mm f8 versions (which is what I’m picturing here) were even dimmer and trickier to focus accurately. The apertures were pre-set – meaning you have to remember to manually close them down before shooting. With the right T-2 adapter on the back of the lens, you could fit your “girl watcher” to just about any interchangeable lens camera, from the fanciest Leica reflex, to the crappiest Petri.

Kimunor A

No doubt many of these lenses were sold just for bragging rights: “I’ve got a 500mm!!”

The lens design is modest, despite the advertising hype, and you can’t expect results to compete with multi-kilobuck high-end lenses of today. But if you focused carefully, stopped down to f11, or f16, and kept the thing steady at a decent shutter speed, the results weren’t dreadful – and probably not all that far behind the long telephotos offered by the camera makers at the time – before high-grade coatings, and exotic super-low dispersion glasses came along.

Kimunor 8

Wide open at F8, and even after some digital sharpening, you can see the Kimunor is a bit lacking.

Kimunor 16

Still, stopped down to F16, it’s pretty decent. But how easy is it to live with a 500mm lens at f16?

But even today’s photographers, armed with newer-spec lenses, know that long telephoto photography is never easy. Atmospheric haze, loss of contrast from light-scatter, and the struggle to avoid high-magnification shake are always an issue, and the buyer of the $34.95 lens faced all that and a bit less overall sharpness, and some more chromatic aberration to boot.
As I said, the results aren’t dreadful, but many bargain hunters quickly learned their bargain was difficult to use well. The $34.95 either whetted your appetite for something better, or more likely got stashed away in the closet as a constant reminder that the 200mm telephoto or zoom was really plenty of lens for most situations.
So what happened to the cheapie pre-set long telephoto lens? Did they fade away along with bell-bottom pants and Neanderthal-era sexist advertising? Actually, no, they are still alive, well and with us today.

Kimunor B

Long and skinny, and lightweight, they’re no threat to the big boys offered by the major makers. Add in a manual aperture, and tricky manual focus, you can see the pre-set telephoto spent more time in the closet than out in the wild.

Kimunor C

It doesn’t take much to unscrew the basic parts of the pre-set budget telephoto. There’s only optics at the very front of the front barrel (top left), and in the group front centre.

The 400mm versions are gone, understandably, as many zooms these days achieve 300mm. But you can still find brand-new 500mm f8.0 pre-set lenses being peddled on line – where the disappointed customers are less likely to expect their money back. They are no longer made in Japan, but now come from Korea. There are more plastic parts here and there, but they’re still basically the same thing as the old Tele-Astranar, Albinar, Spiratone, Promaster, Rexatar, and the one I share with you here: a Kimunor. Current names include Bower, Samyang, Rokinon, Phoenix, and Vivitar. No doubt there are others. You can even see them with cosmetic upgrades, like white painted finishes and red trim lines, meant to make you think “Canon L”. You can find all you want for $150 or less, usually including the t-mount of your choice (but I don’t think they’ll get you a Petri mount these days). Accessories include cases, filters, and cheap 2x converters in case you have a hankering for a super-dim 1000mm f16 (I dare anyone to get a sharp picture that way).
What they don’t come with is a big floppy sandbag to drape over the lens while bolted onto your biggest, sturdiest tripod. These things are still lightweight, and those tripod collars are still bendy, and the lightest breeze will still conspire to wiggle your pixels into a blur if you aren’t super careful.
I’ll wager they are still better optically than the budget 500mm mirror lenses offered by the same outfits these days, so take a chance on one if you must, and have some fun.
But, please, stay away from the beach.