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.
Well, 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.
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.
This article  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.
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.
Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . 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.
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.
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?
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.
I’ve got so many names! But why don’t you call me Mr. Strange?
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 &
|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.|
|133 x 72 x 50 mm, 330 g (with battery)|
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
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.
‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either.
— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
As Charrington might have said to Smith, it is kind of late in the game for film Leicas. It’s 2017; Kodak makes three varieties of black and white film; and frankly, every other manufacturer has narrowed down to that number or fewer emulsions. Is it fun to shoot a film rangefinder these days? Yes and no. The beauty is that you can afford cameras you would have never dreamed of buying when you were 12 and reading old issues of Popular Photography. The bad news is that 30 years later, the cameras all seem so mortal.
The short take
Let’s forget about doing a full-on description of the camera; you have Google for that. Perhaps it is better to start with how this camera works for people who normally use Leicas.
The CLE, like a lot of small cameras (and M cameras) is straightforward. It is small, light, and easy to handle, if a bit blocky. The rangefinder seems more capable of focusing longer lenses than people seem to think. And it is extremely quiet. But there is more.
- Size. The CLE is the size of a Canonet. A small one. It is about 80% of the size of a Leica M-series camera. Not vanishingly small, but quite a bit smaller and lighter. In fact, it might be uncomfortably small for the large-handed.
- Rangefinder construction. The rangefinder mechanism is very similar to the Hexar RF in its design, right down to the annoying gear wheel for vertical adjustment. It also has the same general affect as in the Fuji GSW690III, Mamiya 6/7, and Bessa M cameras. You will love it or hate it.
- Common parts. The CLE is built on the Minolta XG-7 platform. So it is cheap as an SLR and very expensive as a Leica-style rangefinder. A repair person has confirmed for me that many of the parts are the same but that some key ones (like the viewfinder/rangefinder) definitely are not.
- Capacitive (or not). Your finger closes the circuit that makes a half-press of the shutter. This will be fun with gloves, I suspect. That said, it may make the camera more resistant to the breakdown of a two-stage shutter switch (ahem, cough, Hexar AF…).
- OTF/WTF metering. The camera meters off the film (hence, there is no exposure lock). The metering is far more sophisticated than any Leica film M (and indeed the digital ones if they are not in the multipattern mode).
- Wide lenses. The CLE is a great platform for compact wide M lenses. Your 21, 15, or 12mm lens does not need massive rangefinder accuracy – and when it comes to getting images on film, the CLE still gives you a 24x36mm frame.
- Cheap TTL flash. A TTL flash costs $10 (Vivitar Auto Thyristor 550D for Minolta). Take that, Leica Camera AG.
- Rangefinder. The rangefinder masks are on glass plates, not metal pieces. Don’t be surprised to see some degradation.
Quirks and Annoyances
If you are used to traditional Leicas, you may be tripped up by a few things:
- Swing-open back. The Minolta dispenses with the irritating bottom-plate loading of a Leica M. And yes, it is annoying and pointless on a film Leica, and even more so on digital Leicas. The idea originally was to allow a bigger pressure plate and flatter film. While there may be a use case for this with some lenses, there is no real-world consequence to using a normal-sized plate except that your chances of successfully loading film go way up with a swing back.
- “Easy” loading takeup spool. This is one place where Leica is easier to live with – on a Leica, you just jam the film leader into a multipronged spool. The CLE has a fairly terrible spool with a white collar. It’s tough to get the film tip in there. Konica wins in the easy-loading spool race; Minolta should have sucked it up and licensed that feature.
- Rewind knob on the bottom. This is mostly harmless except that you need to lift and rotate the knob to open the back. This is definitely a “read the manual” moment.
- No manual metering. A carry-over from the XG-7 series, the meter shuts down when you switch the shutter speed dial off A. This is not the worst thing that could happen; before you switch to M you will see the recommended shutter speed – you can dial it up or down from there.
- Viewfinder blockage. The viewfinder/rangefinder window placement is terrible for big-diameter lenses. Most of these lenses are fast 50s, but even where they are not (such as the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon or the 18mm ZM Distagon), a lens with a 55-62mm front end will block the viewfinder and rangefinder.
Do we like it?
The CLE is a very solid camera; it is small, quiet, and does not get in the way. It seems to distill the things that are fun about shooting rangefinders while minimizing the things that seem to be baggage. Maybe the sunset of film photography is here, maybe it is not, but this is a good companion with which to watch the sun go down. Or come up.