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DX labels: you’ll thank me on your wedding night!

Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.

Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!

I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.

Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.

*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.

** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.

You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.

The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.

Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.

Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.

Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.

You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.

Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.

Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.

Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.

Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.

Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.

You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.

You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.

Lomo LC-A 120: same disillusion, bigger package

When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:

I think I shall never see /
A poem as lovely as a tree /
Blah blah blah. Bullshit /
I hate Robert Frost /

It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.

The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.

The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.

Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.

With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.

Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).

Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.

Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:

You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.

Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:

You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.

Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.

Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.

The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.

Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.

The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.

I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.

But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.

Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.

You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.

Cameras like this are bought by fools like me /
But only F&H can make a Rollei.

The 51.6% solution

This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.

I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.

Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.

Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…

Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.

So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.

For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.

But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:

  • Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
  • CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
  • LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
  • Reading glasses.

So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:

  • At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
  • At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
  • At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
  • From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.

If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).

Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.

Konica 35/2.0 L/UC Hexanons

uc35f2-1
The above is #0000 of the UC; Fujisawa-Shoukai (which commissioned the lenses) gave me explicit permission, back to 2001, to use this product picture for non-commercial use. This isn’t a commercial site, and F-S is gone from this earth, so here we are!

This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.

How did these things get started?

The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.

The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:

IMG_0644_2.jpg

This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.

F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.

In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:

  • At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
  • The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
  • The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
  • The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.

The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.

Handling versus Leica lenses

Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.

The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”

The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.

The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.

Optics

The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,

Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.

On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.

Should I?

The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.

Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 

 

End-stage​ Nikon manual focus

n6006

There must have once been an awkward moment when Homo sapiens neanderthalensis saw a gangly baby Homo sapiens sapiens and wondered, for the first time, what the future would be like. The Neanderthals basically merged into the surviving human line (or were eaten —  the explanation seems to vary now) — and essentially disappeared. But not before giving Europeans those nettlesome brow ridges and occipital buns.

Neanderthal shock happened sooner in the Canon world than it did for Nikon. Canon released its last mainline* manual-focus camera (the T90) in 1986. Canon did not then engage in a merging of genes but instead a lens-mount genocide. FD lenses faded fast as EOS came to rule the jungle. Nikon took a few more years to get there in 1990 with its last manual focus camera, though that camera lingered for five years on the market — and Nikon never really gave up on the F-mount. Well, not immediately. Like Neanderthals, some degree of interbreeding was available, but all that fur began to repel people after a while.  All of this was 23 years ago now.

By the way, when the last newly designed Nikon MF SLR went out of production, this was dominating the disco:

Nikon would in 2001 release the FM3a, but like the contemporaneous Beatles 1 album. It was just a rehashed FE2 with a new shutter. And that was so long ago that kids born then are old enough to vote. If you were an adult excited about the release of the FM3a, you’ve probably just passed out of the “18-35” demographic, if not past the “uncool 44” milestone. But don’t worry – Nikon has your back with retro-rerun cameras like that, the S3 and SP. Because it’s more fun to reminisce with cameras that were shiny and new (the first time) before you were born.

* By mainline, I mean serious and mass-produced. Yes, Canon made a craptastic T60 and Nikon made (or branded…) the FM10, but these were cameras for developing markets or students.

Detour into how Nikon’s product strategy: so many cameras

It would not be a Machine Planet article without a detour into some kind of editorial, and here is one: digital cameras did not usher in the age of meaningless upgrades and gimmicks designed to excite camera buyers into “one more body.” Film SLRs were the greatest feature-chase of them all: the lenses and the film are the ultimate determinants of performance on a film camera; everything else is metering, motor, and in some cases autofocus.

Consider that in 1980-1985, Nikon fielded five prosumer cameras based on the same platform (FM, FE, FM2, FE2, and FA), at the same time it fielded three based on an intermediate architecture (EM, FG, and FG-20), and a next-generation intermediate (N2000/F-501). All of these variations revolve around binary features/exclusions: needle meter or not; matrix metering or not; internal motor or not; program mode or not. And you thought Sony had a short attention span?

To be fair (why start now?!), by the sunset of Nikon’s manual focus cameras in 1995, post-processing was out of the reach of most people. Photoshop was at version 3 and barely able to handle the tasks it routinely handles today (it also fit on 5 Mac floppies…); scanners were insanely expensive; and if you had a bad slide, you were out of luck. If you had a bad negative, you were mostly at the mercy of Candice at Fox Photo to maybe run that one neg through the Fujitsu at N-N-N-3 instead of N-N-N-N (this person actually existed, was roughly my age, and was quite cute).

Even when Nikon made the jump to autofocus, this proliferation continued, with performance carefully meted out between models that used the same AF module (consider that the N50, N70, N4004, N5005, N6006, N8008/s, and F4 used the same module – with outcomes so different, you have to wonder what they were holding back.

But what was going on with the lenses?

Nikon’s lenses had a more tortured history that got off to its first wrong turn when Nikon started releasing metered prisms. That would have been the time to revise the mount to include aperture information (relative and maximum). Almost the entire subsequent drama of Nikon lenses was a product of trying to fix that: prongs, AI, AI-s, CPUs. When the Photomic metered prism came out in 1962, Nikon already knew that it was enough of a market force that it could have moved to a meter coupling in the body without losing its user base. For six long years, Nikon’s meter prisms required the user to set the maximum aperture of the lens on the meter, manually.

Actually, that didn’t just stop in six years. In 1968, Nikon introduced the FTn finder, with its semi-automatic indexing: mount the lens; turn the ring right, turn the ring left, done. The kludginess of this solution was only more glaring when companies like Konica were releasing lenses that could transmit maximum aperture information with a pin on the back of the lens (as opposed to a poky thing screwed onto its aperture ring) and using irises that were consistently linear, so as to allow automatic control of the iris. Granted, shutter priority did not predominate as a single-factor autoexposure method, but the point was that Nikon was well behind the curve. By 1971, Canon’s pro bodies had moved the meter cell to inside the body and were transmitting relative aperture position invisibly.

Nikon’s Aperture-Indexing (AI) lenses did away in 1977 with the prong, song, and dance because they fit cameras that only needed to know how many stops the selected aperture was away from wide-open. If anyone knew what the max aperture of the lens was, it was the user – not the camera. AI was in a way a step backward from the FTN, since it was only a system for transmitting relative apertures. And AI-only bodies turned out to be the full-employment act for repair people and machinists – because mounting an old lens on an AI body, absent modifications to the lens, the mildest of which was a new aperture control ring, would cause damage. AI ushered in a tiny doubled aperture scale, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) that some cameras could display in their viewfinders via a wedge prism, like the F2AS, F3, FA, F4, and F5.

The next iteration, AI-s (1981) brought Nikon almost up to date. It finally added a maximum aperture indexing pin to lenses (as well as a pin that transmitted the focal length to the camera. The only camera to fully implement this scheme was the FA, for its program and shutter-priority modes. There were three implementations of AI-s:

  • The FA used the full AI-s protocol for AI-s lenses, going open loop when shooting AI-s lenses (because it knew the maximum aperture, focal length range, and stop-down rate) and selected a program based on focal length. It went closed-loop when shooting AI and AI-converted lenses. By “closed loop,” I mean the camera reads the scene, stops down, takes another reading, and finally fires.
  • The FG and its replacement the N2000/F-301 all used a similar open/closed-loop setup, except these cameras could not read the focal length via the pin and thus only used one program (or one selected by the user)
  • The N2020/F-501 would act like an N2000/F-501, but it could switch to P-Hi from P-Auto when a CPU-equipped lens with a longer focal length was mounted.

Of course, with closed-loop exposure, the only value of AI-s is purely informational; the FA and FG/N2000 systems don’t really need to know maximum aperture to work. And when it comes to “Program” operation for AI lenses, is it really programmed in the sense of a neat little graph – or is it shutter speeds programmed against apertures stopped down against the maximum?

A tale of two cameras

Nikon’s technological peak came with the FA, pretty much the most sophisticated camera anyone had ever seen. Four (count ’em!) exposure modes – Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual, all powered by two MS-76 cells. Matrix metering with any native AI lens. Program shooting with any AI-s lens. LCD display in the viewfinder. And… it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, developing a reputation for having flaky electronics and poor matrix metering. Or so people say.

In 1990, the successor to the FA, the N6000, hit the scene. The N6000 kept most of the FA feature set but swapped in some new features. Incoming ones included:

  • A 2 fps internal motor drive to replace the bulky MD-15
  • Auto film loading
  • Power film rewinding
  • Auto bracketing
  • Slow and rear-curtain flash
  • DX code reading
  • Automatic balanced fill flash
  • An “analog” (graphic) over/under-exposure display that pops up in manual mode
  • Exposure mode indicator in the viewfinder

You could argue that the N8008 was the successor to the “technocamera” FA, but the N8008 was an autofocus camera. Or you might have argued the F4, which is a cross between an F3, an MD-12, and an FA. The departures with the N6000 were somewhat less notable:

  • Elimination of interchangeable focusing screens (which were apparently not a popular feature of the FA)
  • A new reliance on CPU lenses (AF and AI-P), which allowed the correct aperture to show in the viewfinder without an ADR display
  • Loss of program mode for AI-s lenses (due to CPU dependency)
  • Loss of matrix metering for AI-s lenses (same)
  • Loss of a mechanical shutter speed
  • Loss of 1/4000 sec on the shutter
  • Change from MS-76 button cells to the somewhat less common CR223A/CR-P2.

But for all intents and purposes, this was “it.” Although Nikon continued to sell (not make) the F3 into the mid-2000s, the only newish manual purpose-built manual focus design was the FM3a, which is little more functionally than an FE2 with a shutter that could also be governed mechanically. It also followed a six-year period in which the N6000 was off the market.

On Earth-399, Nikon made manual focus cameras from 1959 to 2270. But that is also the universe in which “George Washington freed the slaves… Abraham Lincoln was regarded as the father of his country… and George Custer became president of the Indian Federation.” (“Superman… you’re DEAD… DEAD… DEAD,” 1971).

First in/last in (F3AF/F3)

Nikon had always managed to be both early and late to the AF party. The Nikon F3AF emerged in 1983, just three years into the F3 era. In fact, it came onto the scene at the same time the DE-3 High Eyepoint finder came out (this is the thing that makes the F3 into the F3HP, the most popular variant). The F3AF was the first camera to use electronic contacts to control lens focus, using a contact system that is eerily similar to current Nikon lenses – but with a motor-in-the-lens implementation that most people came to associate with Canon. The manual focus version of the F3 proved wildly more popular and became one of the longest-running Nikons in history, with a 20-year run. That is catalog time, not necessarily production time. When it was time for the F4, Nikon was playing catchup with Minolta and Canon on AF, whose amateur cameras were upping the stakes.

The forgotten Nikons (N2020/N2000)

In 1984-1985, just after the F3AF, Nikon made another pair of cameras, one with AF and one without. These were the N2020 (F-501) and its value-engineered little brother, the manual-focus N2000 (F-301). These were essentially a motorized version of the FG. According to lore, the N2000 was a last-minute decision from the accountants. That’s believable since it allowed the company to drop the FG and make two cameras on a common set of tooling. But it cannot actually be true, because the N2000 was the first of the two cameras to be released – and by a year.

Rather than the interchangeable screens of the N2020 (B/E/J), the N2000 had a fixed K screen (split prism plus micro prism collar), a LED shutter speed display (but no AF indications), and no automatic selection between programs (on the FA, this had required a post on AI-s lenses; on the N2020, it required a CPU to tell the camera the focal length). Common to both cameras, though, was a traditional control layout, a coreless drive motor for film advance, auto-loading, an exposure compensation dial, DX coding, plus pretty much everything the FG had – save the +1.5EV backlight button (the N2000/N2020 had an AE lock button that served much the same purpose). One mystery is why the N2020 was typically sold with an AAA battery holder rather than the N2000’s AA – since it is fairly obvious that the battery chamber was designed around AA. The smaller batteries required a special inset tray. But on the plus side, they do shave some height and weight off the assembled body. And the N2000/2020 is a pretty heavy body.

The N2000 is a camera with a level of elegance that we forget about: a large, bright, spartan viewfinder, a normal control layout, and a certain fluidity of shooting. Motor drives can be very important if you are left-eye dominant. Plus normal batteries that you can buy anywhere. Plus it has nice, sharp edges. It’s just not a camera that has the simulated chrome that is so popular with “the kids today.” And yes, by simulated, meaning that pretty much every “chrome” camera post-1980s has plastic covers.

But what about the N6006/N6000?!

The N6006 is something of a hidden gem in the Nikon line; it has most of the things you like about the N8008 (sans 1/8000 top speed, AA batteries, and high-eyepoint finder) in a smaller package. It is actually pleasant to shoot, though it does carry the stigma of using 223 lithium batteries. That might have actually made a difference a few years ago, when you could walk into a drug store and buy CR123As and 2CR5s, but today, all lithium batteries are more Amazon than the corner store.

The N6006 is one of many Nikons that share the AM200 AF sensor array (the others being the N4004/F-401,N5005/F-401s, N8008/N8008s/F-801/F-801s, and the F4. As you might have surmised from the AF performance differences in these bodies, CPU speed and motor torque are huge determinants of speed. The F4 is tops in both CPU and motor power, and the N4004 has the smallest brain and smallest muscles. The N6006 and N8008 are mid-range, and the N8008 has a more powerful motor.

The little brother, the N6000, loses some functionality compared to its AF twin: no spot metering (because that comes from the AF module), no built-in flash (spite?), and a slightly smaller LCD display (that omits the AF confirmation dot, obviously…). But all the same, it is much smaller and lighter. Oddly, it still does support (or for P and S, requires) CPU lenses. As an adjunct for occasional manual focus with otherwise-AF lenses, it is fine; in fact, examples of the N6000 sell for less than the price of any manual-focus-friendly interchangeable screen for any SLR or DSLR. So I would ask, are you better off…

Nikon SLR Accessory Finders

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An action finder can be really useful for situations where it is hard to look into the viewfinder – like when you are wearing a space helmet.  Or oversized Italian sunglasses.  This is a picture I took with my DA-20 on a recent vacation.

Introduction

This article [2007] came about because everything I have seen about accessory viewfinders seems to have been cut and pasted from manufacturers’ literature.  This article will (hopefully) help you determine whether you should use one or more of these.  Remember: Nikon sold one accessory finder for every 1,000 F-series bodies.  Although this is a convenient excuse for why the F6 has a fixed prism, it also should tell you that most people learn to live with the standard pentaprism that came with their camera bodies.

Action Finders: DA-2, DA-20, DA-30

The action finders are all huge and heavy (so not for wimps), but they give you some flexibility – like not having your camera jammed in your face.

In an SLR system, eye relief and magnification are closely related concepts.  The higher the eyepoint, the greater the distance the entire frame can bee seen from the eyepiece. The greater the eye relief, the lower the magnification.  The Nikon action finders are designed around an eye relief of 61mm (2.5 inches); the magnification is 0.6x.   Contrary to popular myth, an action finder does not produce a big, “TV-like” image.  It simply lets you see the whole viewfinder from a little bit further back.

Can you use an action finder all the time?  Yes and no.  Because it lowers magnification, the action finder makes it a little more difficult to use telephoto lenses.  If you are relying on focusing screen aids (such as split-image rangefinders, microprisms, etc.) or autofocus, the lower magnification won’t have much impact.  If you use groundglass focusing, life gets a little harder.

Do you need the expensive rubber eyecup?  Yes.  Beware of all the action finders missing this useful part.  Your eyeglasses are not in danger from the action finder eyepieces; rather, the rubber eyecup keeps your eye at roughly the right distance from the viewfinder.

Every viewfinder really has only one eyepoint: the eye position where the whole viewfinder is visible.  Nikon’s high-eyepoint pentaprisms are designed to focus when eyeglasses are pressed up against the eyepiece.

This means that diopter correction is relatively simple: you just pick the correction lens (or setting on an F4, F5 or F6) that works in one position.  You may notice that you use different viewfinder corrections for glasses and contact lenses with the same prescription; part of this is the difference in distance from the camera’s viewfinder system.

With an action finder, your eye could be anywhere in the range from right against the eyepiece to the magic 61mm from it.  Although this does not seem like a very big range, your eye works very hard to see the focusing screen as the distance increases and diminishes – much the same way that a camera lens needs to extend or retract much more when it is focusing on a close object.  The rubber eyecup keeps your eye at the “right” distance: the one where the average eye can focus comfortably.  If you don’t use the eyecup and press your eye up to the finder, you might find your eyes a little bit fatigued after a while. Unfortunately, the usual solution for this problem is absent: the action finders have no built-in adjustment and there are no accessory diopters.

The F3 action finder (DA-2) meters the same way that the F3 standard one does – it doesn’t.  On the F3, centerweighted ambient metering and centerweighted TTL flash are measured by a sensors in the camera body.  The body of the finder is made of brass.  The eyecup is rectangular and snaps on over a large rectangular plastic frame on the back.

The F4 action finder (DA-20) gives you a choice of centerweighted or spot metering via a switch on the side of the prism (like the DP-20).  The DA-20 outer housing is plastic.  It features a normal TTL hot shoe (no locking pin).  The DA-20 has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. The DA-2 provides an abbreviated viewfinder information display (the lower display is actually part of the DP-20, not the F4 itself)

Exposure mode Small window (left) ADR window (center) Focus ind.
P or P HI “P” + auto-selected shutter speed Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window) Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
S Auto-selected aperture Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window) Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
A “A” + auto-selected shutter speed Aperture set on lens Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
M Shutter speed + reading of how off from normal exposure (e.g. +2.0) Aperture set on lens Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)

One variation of the DA-20 (which I assume was made for underwater work – and which I stupidly returned to KEH) has a built-in illuminator for the lens aperture ring.  It comes on whenever the meter is on, so watch your batteries.

The F5 action finder (DA-30) gives you matrix (not 3D or color), centerweighted or spot via a similar switch to the one on the DP-30 (standard F5 finder).  Its body is made from a crinkle-painted l.ght alloy.  It has a locking hot shoe.  Given its functionality, I suspect the DA-30 shares its electronics with the DP-20 (the F4’s standard finder).  The DA-20 also has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2.  You get all of the same viewfinder information that you get with with the DP-30 (standard F5) prism.

Magnifying Finders: DW-4, DW-21, DW-31

Magnifying finders are fun.  They eliminate the light loss from the pentaprism and give you a magnified (6x) view of the whole focusing screen.  Distortion is very low.  These have very low eyepoints and are designed to be used without eyeglasses (precisely why the Nikon magnifying finders have correction from +3 to -5 diopters built in.  Once you press your eye all the way in, it’s a revelation.  These have three (by my count) multicoated elements.

Magnifying finders are very useful with standard groundglass focusing (D-screen) and with astrophotography (M-screen).  You can actually use them for anything with the sole exception of (1) situations where you need to keep the camera high (at eye level) and (2) situations where you lose track of left-to-right movement. The latter is related to the fact that all magnifying finders reverse the view left to right.

The DW-4 (F3) gives you centerweighted ambient and TTL flash metering.  The DW-21 (F4) and DW-31 (F5) give you spotmetering for ambient and for flash.  The F4 and F5 magnifying finders require the oddball SC-24 TTL cord, which plugs into an eight pin connector on the back of the finder.  I am not sure why the first flash needs eight pins, since the hot shoe only has five pins (three dedicated, one hot shoe contact, one shoe).  The SC-24 terminates in a standard Nikon TTL hot shoe.

Magnifying finders (and waist-level finders) seriously impede taking vertical shots.

Waistlevel Finders: DW-3, DW-20, DW-30

First it killed the Rolleiflex.  Now it’s killing me.  35mm SLRs started with this type of finder; thank heavens it didn’t survive in  the mainstream.  The pentaprism displaced the waist-level finder – and the fact that a pentaprism shows everything correctly, right-side up and correct left-to-right, and not brightness, carried the day.

Today, the waistlevel finder has only three real uses: shooting above crowds, shooting from low angles, and shooting on a copystand.  The DW-3 (F3), DW-20 (F4) and DW-30 (F5) are essentially the same thing: just a popup hood through which you look at the top of the naked focusing screen from a foot or more away.  This makes manual focusing difficult and pretty much defeats any focusing aid in your focusing screen.  Things are better with the autofocus cameras.

Each has a small 5x magnifier that provides a small, highly distorted view of the center of the focusing screen.  While this is sufficient for copy (and some macro) work, it is pretty unpleasant for general use.  This is no different from a standard Rolleiflex TLR viewfinder.  The only reason people tolerated it on Rolleis was that in the olden days, medium format pentaprisms were so dark as to be useless.

Metering and TTL flash are similar to the magnifying finders.  The F4 and F5 versions use the same TTL connectors that the magnifying finders do.

The principal virtue of the waist-level finder is that it is cheap, simple, compact, and lets you do a couple of unique things.  If you don’t do those things, skip this type of finder.

Konica Hexar (AF)

hexar-af

This is the text of the page that had its debut in 2001 and (for better or worse) helped trigger Hexar-mania. Last update was late February 2018.

Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime)..”H-E-X-A-R.” Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved… and gained consciousness.

Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens and leaf shutter. Form factor is similar to a Leica M.

History: the Hexar came about in 1992, reportedly a last vanity project for the Konica engineers who worked on the FT-1. Or so the story goes. Some of the key technologies on the Hexar, such as a sealed lens barrel, projected brightline finder (zoom on some models, albeit always with fixed framelines), and tri-window AF showed up first on the 1988 models MR640 (weather resistant) and shock-resistant Genba Kantoku (“Site Supervisor”), a ruggedized camera designed for construction sites. In fact, the wind motor of the Genba K. sounds like the Hexar in “loud” mode.

genban

Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?

pht_large_1988

Tokina’s site, oddly, was the only one that had a picture of a clean GK. Most examples of this camera, including mine, look like holy hell. This is the fixed 40mm version, which has a shallower silver protrusion.

Before you confuse the Genba K. with a poor man’s Hexar, understand that the lens and operation are totally different; the Genba Kantoku has a 40/3.5 (3 elements, 3 groups) or 40/3.5-60/5.2 bifocal lens (3/3 and 6/6) of completely different construction. And on the Genba Kantoku, here are your controls. All of them: flash on. Flash off. Self-timer. Manual rewind. No nonsense here.

Later models of the Genba Kantoku (the 28mm and 35mm second-generation models in 1994) apparently acquired the Hexar’s funky electronic shutter and accordingly had maximum shutter speeds of 1/280 sec.

Construction. The construction is all metal, with the exception of the top and bottom covers, which are a period-typical black chrome (or bright chrome) plated on polycarbonate. Which is a good thing because if they were brass covers, this would be a very heavy camera. Konica made a big deal about the front barrel being a heavy alloy casting to add the retention of precision in focusing.

Lens. The lens is the Hexar’s raîson d’etre. In fact, it is legendary.

The 35mm f/2 Hexar (actually, Hexanon) lens has the imaging qualities of the 35/2 Leica Summicon-M and the general design of the Nikon 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor (the rangefinder lens from the 1950s and 60s – you know, the one whose Leica screwmount version sells for $1,800 and up today). Konica won’t go further than to call the design “Gaussian,” but Nikon has acknowledged on its 1001 Nights Site that this is a Nikkor derivative. Konica’s own technical materials reflect this design intent, although they also mention a slight recomputation aimed at allowing an electronically controlled aperture and shutter to be inserted between the lens groups. The aperture has 6 blades that form a perfect circle down to f/5.6, after which point, aperture shape is not that important.

This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2L Hexanon (chrome) and its optical twin, the 35/2 UC Hexanon (black paint), both in Leica mount. These are beautiful lenses run in limited numbers (1,000 and 2,000 respectively).

The lens out of the original Hexar AF has been independently converted by many into a Leica M lens (though this takes a lot of work and frankly is not as elegant as Konica’s own ported versions). But it is a lot cheaper way to do it.

hexar-lens.jpeg

This camera featured in a Konica white paper that discussed the camera’s total control of chromatic aberration. It also posts some impressive MTF compared to the lenses whose formula and optics it replicates. Wide-open, it exhibits a very smooth falloff from the center; at f/5.6 it is uniformly great.

hexar-mtf

Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure. The front and back covers are glass, which is good for durability.

Rangefinder and limitations:  It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera.  The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m.  It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity.  If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.

3-point AF.jpeg

That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift (also described in a Konica white paper). The Hexar’s lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller.  The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes.  Too bad AF SLRs don’t have this feature.

But wait.  This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too.  No IR marks, no guesswork.

And for the free set of steak knives, the camera’s AF system is temperature-calibrated as well.

If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back – useful for hyperfocal technique).

Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry.

137_18A

The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly. You can add silent mode and a number of other advanced features to the Hexar Silver, etc. through a control sequence that you can find on the ‘net.

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Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn’t think so. Some people complain that you can’t use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens’s resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.

  • For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
  • Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [–]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays [0]. The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).

In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it’s digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.

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Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels… good. It could use textured grips, but it’s not a big deal.

Durability: It’s a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage – and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.

Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus… shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles – and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 25 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in “loud” mode – and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150. But once you have that done, it seems unlikely that you will wear out the next switch.

Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:

  • Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
  • Filters: I would recommend a B+W MRC nano. Thin and repels everything.
  • Case: avoid the soft case.
  • Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap. I would think about a Peak Designs modular strap that can exchange for a wrist strap or a neck strap.

Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.

 

 

 

The curious case of the Minolta AF-C

af-c

A Minolta AF-C landed on my doorstep today. It’s a tiny little thing, no bigger than a Contax T, which is one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever made. Why does the f/2.8 lens have so many elements (6) for a compact? How do they run an AF system off four button batteries? How did they get this thing so small?

Brilliant engineering.

The thumb wheel film advance also cranks the lens backward toward infinity, against a spring. Even then, it looks like only the rear group moves. Releasing the shutter lets the lens jump forward to the position selected by the active AF. Then when you wind to the next frame, the lens returns to its “ready” position. It’s a lot like how cameras like the Konica Autoreflex T could run AE off two 675 cells – all of the mechanical work is done by springs, regulated at a place where a tiny amount of mechanical leverage can arrest great forces.

Half Frame + Full Fun: Canon Sure Shot Multi Tele / Prima Tele / Autoboy Tele 6

canonautoboy6

I’ve got so many names! But why don’t you call me Mr. Strange?

Introduction

The penalties for doing drugs in Japan are quite severe; nevertheless, the use of recreational marijuana seems to have worked well in Canon’s 1980s design room. Imagine and point-and-shoot camera that could be switched from half to full frame (with viewfinder masking) for two different focal lengths – and a third with a dedicated teleconverter that does not throw off autofocus. Oh wait, throw in an optional intervallometer, time-computer, frame number imprinter back. With Nikon pro-style spatter paint. But while you are doing all of this, build a metering system that only goes down to EV9 and heavily uses flash. There is a business case here, I swear to God!

Half frame! When this camera is in half frame mode, you get a 50mm f3.5 equivalent and a 90mm f/5.6 equivalent. That is very unusual in a space dominated by fast-aperture focus-by-guess cameras (like the Canon Demi), small and unreliable designs like the Konica AA35/Recorder, and bulky “subminiature” systems like the Pen. To say nothing of full-sized cameras that are masked down to shoot 18×24 (Hexar 72, Konica FT-1 Pro Half, Konica Autorex).

By the specs

(from the Canon Camera Museum, whose summary/overview page actually contains some inaccurate information):

Type Fully automatic 35mm Lens-Shutter autofocus camera with two focal lengths
Picture Size 24×36 mm, 17x24mm (not switchable in midroll)
AF System Triangulation system with near-infrared beam. Prefocus enabled.
Lens 35mm f/3.5 (3 elements in 3 groups) and 60mm f/5.6 (6 elements in 6 groups).

* With the optional Teleconverter, a maximum 75mm focal length (110mm for half frame) can be set.

Shutter Electromagnetic programmed shutter and aperture. For 35mm: EV 9.5 (f/3.5 at 1/60 sec.) – EV 15.5 (f/11 at 1/350 sec.) For 60mm: EV 11 (f/5.6 at 1/60 sec.) – EV 17 (f/19 at 1/350 sec.) Built-in electronic self-timer. Bulb provided (max. 4 sec.).
Viewfinder Variable-magnification, direct viewfinder with automatic switch of picture size. 0.42x – 0.63x magnification and 85% coverage. Within the image area are the AF frame, parallax correction marks, and OK-to-Shoot lamp.
EE CdS cell for full-auto program EE. Metering range of EV 9.5 – 17 (at ISO 100). Film speed range: ISO 25 – 3200 (with DX code).
Built-in Flash Guide No. 10.5 (at ISO 100 in meters). Fires automatically in low-light conditions.
Power Source One 6 V 2CR5 lithium battery
Film Loading &
Advance
After opening camera back, align film leader at mark, then close the camera back for auto loading. Automatic film advance with built-in motor. Film advance speed of 0.6 sec. per frame.
Frame Counter Seven-segment LCD on camera back. Counts up. Resets automatically when camera back is opened. Counts down during rewind.
Film Rewind Automatic rewind with built-in motor. Midroll rewind enabled.
Dimensions &
Weight
133 x 72 x 50 mm, 330 g (with battery)

Shooting it

Startup. Startup is instant, in part because nothing really happens until you take the picture. The flash powers up (somehow) almost instantly, and you are ready to go.

Grip. This is a fairly substantial point and shoot, so you will have no problem getting or keeping your grip.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder is reasonable for a camera of this type, and it has a single parallax line and square bracket reticles. It masks down automatically in 72-frame (X2) mode. The finder snaps from one focal length to the other. Little or no distortion is visible, which is nice. There is just a green light that comes on when focus is locked. It also comes on when the focus is not locked. Or when there is imminent underexposure. There is no orange or red light for failure modes, which puts the internal computer at a notch below the usual 4-bit processor in the Stylus Epic/mju-ii, Yashica T4, etc.

Half-press. Pressing the shutter lightly, you get a loud click. Not sure how that classifies as “prefocus,” since the lens is still firmly inside its hidey-hole when you press down. May just be that the AF measures the distance.

Shutter impulse. This camera has something of a lag because the act of shooting it retracts the lens cover, extends the lens, shoots, retracts the lens, and closes the door. This makes it almost impossible to throw a camera with an un-capped lens into your bag. All of this happens inside the teleconverter tube when the teleconverter is on.

Autoboy6-2.jpg

Flash. Get used to it. It is almost always on.

Bulb mode. This is for fireworks. That’s it.

Macro mode. If you get too close, the camera goes to 30mm, stops down, and fires the flash. It makes out-of-focus pictures fairly difficult to achieve. You can still do it. Maybe you’ve met my children.

The date back. The unicorn-like Multi Tele Date, instead of just having a frame counter on the back, has a multifunction back that is not unlike what you would have gotten on a pro SLR (not DSLR) back in the day.

autoboy6-3.jpg

  • Date/time/etc. imprint (good to 2027, which is way longer than any of these cameras are going to last).
  • Frame number imprint.
  • Calculation of time from a fixed point. This will compute the difference between today’s date and a date you input. As such, if your child is 4 years and 6 months old, it can print that in the frame.
  • Intervallometer. When you want to shoot that flower opening, the Canon has your back.

 

Canon AF Teleconverter. The AF Teleconverter automatically turns this into a(n even more) weird and wonderful camera. It screws into the tripod socket, flaps over the front, and snaps over the back. It activates a small rubberized switch that tells the camera to adjust focus. It can flip off almost immediately like an everready case. The 40.5mm filter thread opens things up to a lot of mischief, including special effects and contrast filters.

Having a 110mm-equivalent lens for half frame that actually focuses quickly and accurately makes this a pretty compelling portrait machine. It shoots at f/7, but that’s within easy flash range. Take that, Konica AA35/Recorder!

The teleconverter also has a quite undistorted view (see the architectural pictures below). It is very well engineered.

The pictures

Quite good. Here is a sampling taken with the teleconverter (which makes this a fantastic portrait machine), shot on TMY with an orange filter (hint: tape over the DX code on the film cartridge), and scanned on a Pakon F135 plus:

20170527_21234620170522_00042620170522_00054220170522_00071420170522_00071020170522_000720

Conclusion

This is an oft-overlooked gem in the half-frame world. It is low-maintenance, easy to use, and has a very broad ASA range to work with. It also has unique portrait capabilities in the half-frame space. But wow, 72 frames take a long, long time to shoot.