‘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.
First entry in the Year of the Point and Shoot.
I have been shooting cheap autofocus cameras all year. It started with a broken M240 (thanks, mini-me, for knocking the RF out) and has been going on in a hail of Kodak Gold 400, ProImage 100, and TMY. For some reason, this also became an excuse to buy a Minolta CLE and a Konica FT-1 half frame(!), neither of which are p/s cameras (but are small in some way, even if just the negative size). As to the choice of film, if you are going to relive the 1990s in camera technology, why not shoot like it? There are lots of things to talk about with compacts, so stay tuned over the next few weeks.
Design and construction. The Yashica T4 Super D (called the T5 in some markets) is the end of an evolutionary line of cameras built around Carl Zeiss T* lenses. Kyocera, of course, was making Contax SLRs, G series, lenses, and compact cameras. It is interesting that the company made some products with these lenses under the Yashica house brand.
The T-series is all-plastic. The T4 Super comes in black and titanium color. Mine is black. Like my heart. The only rubberized surface is a small 1 x 3cm rubber front grip pad. The Yashica T product line evolved from boxy and angular T to a rounded brick shape in the T4 Super D. The T4 Super D is weatherproof. Water can get inside the lens cover, but per the instructions, water cannot get into the inner parts. I am not going to test this.
The camera is not small. If you think this is the size of a Stylus Epic (mju-ii), you are sadly mistaken. The size can work for you if you have long fingers.
Loading up. The back unlatches with a very tight little latch, and it shuts by pressing the back firmly closed (trying to operate the latch does not make this easier).
You will need one CR123 battery to make it work. It is not clear if it will work well with rechargables, though a camera like this is not designed to shoot the thousands of rolls of film that would make lithium-ion batteries worthwhile.
Film loading is that weird right-to-left thing that was popular with point-and-shoot cameras. There is no clear reason why manufacturers did this; the practice is absent on high-end Japanese compact cameras. The only ill effect is that your pictures appear “upside down” compared to the edge printing.
The brain. The camera has the typical 4-bit brain of a Japanese point-and-shoot of the 1990s. You can select auto flash, redeye flash, no flash, and infinity focus. And that is it. Oh yes, you can also pick self-timer. Bring your selfie stick!
No exposure compensation, no manual ISO setting (though you could use DX stickers to fool the camera or simply tape over the DX codes on the film canister to fool the camera into thinking any film was 100 ASA. DX range is 50-3200, so you can shoot pretty much any modern film. Program mode is the only exposure option. Note that the mode selected does not persist through power-downs, so every time you switch the camera on, there is a possibility of shooting a flash off in someone’s face.
Allegedly, the camera is able to automatically compensate or fire the flash in backlit conditions (per the manual), but it is unclear how the camera would be able to detect this. The camera has a dual-element SPD cell, which suggests that the camera compares an inner zone and an outer zone to figure out what the scene looks like.
Lens and focus system. The Yashica T series (not to be confused with the Contax T series) is all built around a 35mm f/3.5 Tessar T* multicoated lens (and it is a Tessar in construction with 4 elements in 3 groups). The use of 35-38mm lenses with moderate maximum apertures (3.5-3.8) was a widespread phenomenon in Japan; it seems possible that this combination allowed the use of simpler lenses with high performance. Every manufacturer seemed to make a compact camera with a similar lens.
Is the lens sharp? Yes, and that is why people put up with the other quirks. This is a mid-aperture shot on 400-speed film, and if you can blow this up, you can see that it is crisp right into the corners. Now this time with more light:
And now for the obligatory out-of-focus analysis. Not bad. But then again, it’s a Tessar.
Early examples of the T series had passive AF based on Honeywell patents; later versions sported active infrared windows and measurement, meaning that the camera range-finds by bouncing a beam off the subject and measuring the return time. This kind of system stops working at about 20-30 feet (that is why the camera has an ∞ setting. Shutter is behind the lens and runs up to respectable 1/700 sec.
It is important to focus with the center of the brackets (the circle) on the subject. When the shutter button is half-depressed, the exposure and focus lock.
Viewfinder. The viewfinder is a small but clear Galilean unit with with an oval RF reticle, parallax correction marks, and two lights: solid green for focus lock (blinking when AF fails or is inside the 25cm close-focus distance) and red for flash status (solid when it will fire; blinking when charging, solid in no-flash mode where there will be a slow shutter speed).
The viewfinder is small and is more resistant to blackout than most. But it is no Canon Sure Shot Owl, Canon P, Nikon F3HP, or Fuji X-T1.
The camera also has a secondary viewfinder, the “Superscope,” which allows waist-level shooting. The window for the Superscope is larger than that of the main viewfinder. This probably accounts for the tiny size of the main viewfinder window.
On/off sequence. The T4 Super opens with a sliding switch on the front near the top. A mechanical linkage retracts a circular plastic lens cover, and the camera comes on. Flipping the switch back causes the lens to retract and the camera to switch off. The lens barrel is the thing that keeps the lens cover open.
Autofocus/shutter release. The “half press” setting on the camera requires a very light touch; it does not have a tactile click. As a result, if you miss the status lights coming on, you might shoot the picture without intending to.
Shot sequence. The camera reads distance with a half press, extends the lens to achieve focus, and then retracts slightly after the shot. There is a moderate shutter lag. If you are fixated on shutter lag, consider a Canon Sure Shot 120 Classic, which has a Leica-rivaling 0.06 firing time. I will get to a writeup on that shortly.
Flash. Get used to it. Unlike its polite, more expensive Contax cousins, the Yashica does not have a way to change the default from “auto flash” on power-up. You will forget to turn the flash off. You will be surprised when it fires. You will ruin some pictures.
Noise level. Terry Richardson is not sneaking up on naked people with this camera. Sounds like a point and shoot and makes a bright flash.
Conclusion. They say love the sinner hate the sin; here it is hating the camera but loving the pictures. Well, maybe not exactly, but this is a now-very-expensive camera with quirks, and if you can learn to live with them, you will gain a lot.
This originally ran on the old site — Ed.
It was on the ground floor of John King’s book store. All the light came from translucent windows on Howard Street. The Michigan Camera Exchange had the musty, mildewy and wonderful smell of any camera shop. Every possible surface was covered with fingerprinted and grimy fluorocoated lenses, blue plastic baskets of orphaned camera parts, and the bellowed diaspora of Rochester, Tokyo and Dresden. Looking around, you could see the odd outdated roll of Kodachrome II, the Canon Pellix camera body with the dusty pellicle mirror, the white telephoto zoom lens that fit a Konica Autoreflex-something-or-other. The man behind the counter never put down his cigarette as he read the newspaper.
When the world is gone, or when I am gone from the world, I will miss a great many things. It could be the smell of rain, the pink light of a northern sunset, or the intoxicating smell of perfume when I was sixteen years old. But what I might miss most is the smell of a roll of 120 film, pushing the paper tongue thumbwise into a plastic takeup spool, or the whirring of an old Rolleiflex.
We don’t have it now, the gelatin or the silver or the sucking sound of a metal shutter flattening reality into a still frame. There is no struggling in the dark with loading film into developing reels or the surprise of seeing that the negatives actually came out. We don’t have the magic anymore. For the would-be chemists and physicists, there was so much documentation, the disintegrating, mildewy Kodak data guides that showed curves in so much precision and told us what to do, at what temperature, and for how long: it was all method to tame the magic. Today you can find those booklets in the free bin at the front of King’s. But for all of the technique, all of the numbers and the graphs, there was always the faith of Tri-X Safety Film: you take the picture, we do the rest.
Seeing them decrepit and moth-eaten and being used as props at furniture stores, you might never understand why old cameras were so decorative and so conventional: all sandblasted chrome on brass, thin pebbled leatherette, hundreds of ornate numerical engravings, a sticker inside the film door advertising a film discontinued before you were born. A camera’s functional parts just as easily could have been housed in a plain wooden box. Maybe you can understand it this way: magic objects have a certain look about them. We know that Christ did not drink from any jewel-encrusted gold chalice – yet that is the form that is shown today.
We’ve replaced all of the ritual with cold, austere rationalism: histograms, curves, color balance. Photography has moved onto office devices, and it’s a plastic click and a RAW file. Even the machinery of the ritual has changed; there is nothing in the form of a digital camera to separate its shape from an Ipod or a cellular telephone: thermoplastic, rubberized finishes, flat silk-screening. It’s all functional.
But as they say in the transition, your sad devotion to that ancient film religion has not helped you conjure up the blown highlights or given you clairvoyance enough to divine the color temperature of daylight fluorescent tubes. Today we shoot, and we look at the little screen, and we shoot again. We fill computers with thousands of identical pictures taken at arm’s length with redeye-reduction flash. We revisit and re-level and fix the contrast and the color and sometimes the composition. But neither the process nor the result ever has the old magic: the twinkle in the eye of an old girlfriend or the firm confidence that the landscape was done right the first and only time.
Maybe in some afterlife, one where we’re having a cup of coffee with Weston or Strand, we’ll reach into that paper bag, crack open a box of Verichrome Pan, and remember that it’s f/11 and 1/250 of a second for bright or hazy sun, distinct shadows.
Yeah, we still have it. Not the magic touch, but the scanner (with the magic touch). Potions of the below appeared on dantestella.com years ago; I have added some updates and new notes on light sources, a subject on which there is tremendous misinformation on the ‘net.
What is a Pakon?
The company is best known for its plastic slide mounts, which in the old days you would buy to fix the cardboard mount that your projector mangled. But as division of Kodak, it began to produce minilab scanners (the F135, F135 Plus, F235, F235 Plus, and F335).
Many people are familiar with the Pakon F135 and F135 Plus, which have become very popular as tabletop scanners. What makes these scanners genius is that they do scanning on one pass, without annoying prescans or the rat-a-tat-tat of stepper-motor driven film scanners.
The PSI software is even more ingenious. Basically, you feed it a roll of film, and:
- It can take strips of film up to and including a 40-frame uncut roll.
- It scans all of the frames as a bitstream image at rates in the hundreds of frames per hour, with Digital ICE turned on.
- It uses DX codes on the film to determine the frame number and applies that to the filenames of the resulting files (JPG, TIFF, or RAW, to your preference)
- It automatically finds the frames, DX coding or not. On its software, you can adjust framing after the fact.
- It quickly and with astonishing accuracy corrects color and exposure, even on frames with exposure errors or fading.
- It spits out all of the files, in sizes up to 3000×2000 (this is a 2000dpi scanner) onto your output drive or media (some earlier models require software fixes to output at this resolution).
- It does not require a special console, just XP (real or emulated) with an unformatted N partition on the boot drive. You install the software and go to town.
If you are feeling especially technical, you can use the TLXclient software, which allows different bit depths, full-out-to-the-edges framing, unusual frame sizes (you can scan individual half frames or Xpan frames – or output them as full-resolution strips), and many other things. It comes into play more, one would surmise, if the Pakon is your only scanning machine.
How is a Pakon different from other negative scanners?
This minilab scanner differs from your Coolscan in a few key ways.
First, they are designed for speed. An F235 Plus, for example, will do 800 frames an hour at 3000×2000 resolution. Yes, that’s 33 rolls per hour, or a roll or 24 frames about every two minutes. Most people would burn through a lifetime of black and white 35mm negatives in a few days of work. The 135 series runs at about half that speed with ICE off.
With Digital ICE turned on, the 235 Plus still does 400 frames an hour. Reduce the resolution to one of the lower settings (such as what you would use for web-sized pictures or 4×6 prints), and it really flies. Part of the speed comes from obviating negative carriers, the cumbersome and relatively fragile part of any consumer-grade scanner. The rest is dispensing with the prescan, which introduces more complication in the process.
These are the relative speeds of Pakons vs each other (Digital ICE off / Digital ICE on) for a maximum-resolution scan. This is per hour. Loading film in strips slows this down slightly. This is the order in which the machines were released:
- F235 (400 / 250)
- F235 plus (800 / 400 )
- F135 (293 / 220 @ 1500 x 2000)
- F335 (1053 / 790)
- F135 plus (477 / 387)
One thing that is clear is that the speed of Digital ICE processing ramped up to where it was very close to the limit of the scanning speed. But that is of no moment if your life is all silver b/w or Kodachrome, where dust and scratch removal doesn’t work.
Second, Pakon scanners are designed for a minimum of human intervention. Despite the availability of an SDK for this scanner, the proprietary PSI software is the only fully finished piece that will run this scanner. This software, by the way, is brilliant in its simplicity. Even in “advanced” mode, it has only a few settings: what type of film (color, b/w, slide), how many frames per strip (4, 5, 6 or many), whether you want Digital ICE on or off (color only), and the roll number that will become the name of the folder when you save the roll. That’s it. The machine scans as much film as you want to give it, figures out where the frames are, does all color corrections without human intervention (unless you want to participate) and kicks out your choice of output (3 resolutions, JPG or TIFF, RAW or processed). It even reads the DX codes off of the film and gives each frame the name of the nearest barcoded frame number. Brilliant.
Buried in your program folder is something called TLXclient, which you can use for oddly-sized frames (such as half-frame 35mm and Xpan). It’s a little more geeky, but it lets you play with wide frames (a lot of the time you can get black all the way around a 24×36), play with the bit depth, and do other things that aren’t really central enough to PSI’s minilab mission.
Finally, the Pakons not generate information that you do not need. The first thing that a gearhead will look at is the scanning resolution. The maximum is 3000×2000 (6MP), which is an acceptable resolution for an 8×12 on a dye sublimation or inkjet printer, if not a Frontier.
“Wait? 4000dpi!” Most 35mm pictures don’t get enlarged more than 8×12, most in fact are just shown on computer screens these days, and for situations where you need to, you can always use a high-end desktop negative scanner, pay to play on Flextight, or have your work drum scanned.
If all you are out to do is quick proofs to see what is worth scanning with a much higher resolution machine – and just want 1500×1000 thumbnails, the F235 plus blows out up to 3,000 of those an hour, or roughly one per second. You would need a spotter to catch the negatives flying out of the machine. And a second helper feeding it.
But let’s be real here. If you for some reason believe that you need to scan every single picture you have, you will never get it done on a normal negative scanner that runs with a carrier and Vuescan or Silverfast.
What’s different about the F235 Plus?
The 135 and 135 Plus have a “dog bowl” form factor in which film travels in with the sprockets at top and bottom, around a curve, and out the other side. Negatives end up neatly in the tray. They are not as fast as the 235 and 335 series machines for a number of ergonomic reasons in addition to the slower transport speed.
The 235, 235 Plus, and 335 use a larger chassis (about the size of a large bread making machine) and take film straight through and out the back into a negative bin made of Lexan. The 235 Plus and the 335 are the speed demons, with the 335 — exceptionally hard to find in working order — edging out the 235 Plus by 20% with no ICE and almost 100% with ICE. They can take shorter strips of film than the 135 – down to two frames – though you may want to use a chopstick to nudge the strip to engage with the sprocket rollers.
But the real difference with the 235 Plus is that it uses a halogen light source and not an LED. Many people have made uninformed suggestions that this bulb is somehow difficult to find, expensive, or otherwise a problem. It’s not. You can access it by taking one magnetic-catch cover off the scanner.
The exotic-sounding “Solux” bulb is a actually a 12v, 50W EIKO MR16 (GU5.3) track light bulb whose only special parameters are that it has a 24 degree throw angle and has a 4700K calibration (so close to daylight). This bulb was not actually developed for the F235 series but was an off-the-shelf (and still current production) art museum track light bulb whose fitting, voltage, and wattage are identical to bulbs in lamps you probably have around your house. So even if you had to wait to buy a 4700k version for a whopping $10-14, you could march down to the local hardware store buy something reasonably close for $2 and be back in business in minutes. Witness:
So what? You ask. LEDs go 10,000 hours instead of 1,000. Why should we put up with a bulb that has to be replaced? One could always point out that 1,000 hours on this machine is 800,000 b/w negatives, which is several times more than anyone outside a professional photojournalist shoots in a lifetime.
But the real reason is color. A lot of early Kodak scanners ran on halogen light sources. Why oh why? It’s all about color. Kodak was always fixated on perfect color in all of its systems, and at the time that the F235 and F235 Plus came out, and even now, you can’t get a Color Rendering Index of 98 with LED. CRI is the measure of how even a spectrum a bulb produces compared to a reference light source, and until recently, LEDs have scored very low because they have holes in their spectral transmission. And if you are fixated on the quality of color through transparency film, the white LEDs that were in play in the Pakon era were nowhere near hitting the barely 90 CRI that LEDs are hitting today.
The other thing is that the F235 system is highly diffused, like a diffuser enlarger. LED light sources are very concentrated and often very unforgiving of other than perfect negatives. If you have ever compared the output from a Nikon LS and a Flextight (or a Sprintscan), you know that diffused light sources don’t multiply the retouching workload later.
So how did LEDs get into the 135 and 335? They were later machines, and as slide shooting went off a cliff, there was little call to maximize color rendition for that application (and even the declining use of film made the slower speed of the 135 completely livable). LED turned out to be fine for negatives (note that the 135 series did not have native chrome capability until a later version of the software, which might be employing its own methods to correct for the light source).
Today you could probably retrofit the 235 with a direct-fit LED bulb (query what might happen if you put the scanner in “dim” mode, though) or pretty any much light source. The machine calibrates itself to the light source on startup
But in general, the F235 Plus is a very fast platform that is easy to clean, does not twist your negatives around curves, and is more suitable to scanning several rolls, then correcting them all at once, then hitting the next set. The one downside is that it does have a fan, and so it is a little louder than a computer. Not 747 jet-engine loud, but still noticeable.
The only sad thing about the F235 Plus is that you might find that your life’s production of negatives zips right through, and after you scan all of the negatives in your family and from some of your friends, there are no more worlds left to scan, er, conquer.
I booted mine up after having it in the box for a while. I ran a few long rolls of film that I forgot about until after I moved. It’s magic. The machine is genius. But now what?