Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Magic and Allure of Toy Cameras

Just a few of the cameras in Monochrome Mania #3

If you have been following this blog for a while, you have probably seen a few recent posts about 620 and 120 low-fi cameras.  Whether you want to call them toy cameras, crappy cameras, low-fi cameras, or plastic fantastic wonders, is up to you. I’m sticking with toy cameras, because it’s a pretty simple term, but also a bit misleading.  To some, the "toy camera" conjures up a child’s toy that doesn’t really take photos, sort of like one of those Fisher-Price cameras with the rotating images.  That’s not what I am talking about here, or in my new issue of Monochrome Mania #3, "The Magic and Allure of Toy cameras." These are cameras that lack a lot of the controls that we typically use in our photography, or have at best, a reduced amount of functionality.  That puts box cameras, plastic brownies, Dianas, Holgas, faux-TLR Duaflexes, and a bunch of other simple cameras under that umbrella. That lack of precise control is what makes them alluring, and you can make magic with them. 

Some of the crowd that attended the 2007 Cheap Shots exhibit

The work for this latest zine actually started in 2007, when I typed up a partial manuscript for a book on toy cameras.  I had just hung my "Through A lens Softly" show at Pierpont Commons at the University of Michigan, and I was also in the planning stages of an exhibit by members of the Ann Arbor Crappy Camera Club, called "Cheap Shots." While I had been using a Holga since late 2001 and an original Diana a little after that, it wasn’t until the formation of the Ann Arbor Crappy Camera Club in 2006, that I really became encouraged by the use of these cheap cameras. Finding kindred souls just as the digital onslaught was underway was a propitious event that influenced my creativity and social circles.  While I am no longer living in Michigan, I still keep in touch with my Crappy Camera friends.

The many iterations of Kodak "Brownies" not all are 120/620.

The manuscript sat dormant until 2019. As COVID-19 eliminated many of the activities that I had planned, I knew that working on a toy camera issue for my new zine Monochrome Mania would occupy my time.  What I soon realized, was that if I was going to expand the selection of cameras, I needed to go on eBay and purchase camera models that I once owned so that I could photograph them as well as run film through them. At one time, I probably had well over 250 cameras in my house in Ann Arbor, and over the course of a decade, sold off a lot of the ones that I had lost interest in, were shelf queens, or were just unrelated to my photographic interests at the time. Luckily, the market for cheap Bakelite cameras is not an expensive one, and I was able to procure ones that I felt should be in the issue. I limited the scope to medium-format toy cameras for a reason -- 120 and 620 film cameras offer the largest negatives, and one gets all the benefits of cheap lenses. There are quite a few models to choose from, as well.  I left out 127 cameras even though there were hundreds of models made. The film just isn’t readily available, and that made little sense to include them. I do plan on doing a follow-up issue with 35mm toy cameras sometime in 2021.

I don’t know how many hours I spent on writing and rewriting the text for this issue, but the text went through several iterations, and several people received copies to read for any errors of fact and readability. My wife Adrienne is my copy editor and found places where I needed to be more clear.  I was also busy trying out cameras and re-spooling 120 onto 620 spools into October, before I felt that I had enough cameras to include in the issue. In searching for examples from the various models, I ended up going through all my filed negatives back to 2002. It turns out that I had scanned very few of those older negatives because I had made prints of some of them for shows, and the early work really pre-dated the explosion of social media. I found myself scanning in hundreds of negatives, and in doing so, found a good many excellent images that I had forgotten about. I realized that I had nearly 100 negative sheets from my Holgas alone. Another plus for film, as looking only for digital files would have been a real difficult task.

sample pages from MM #3

So, the issue "The Magic and Allure of Toy Cameras" is now available.  It contains reviews of over 20 cameras with historical information, tips on using them, how to modify them, and a multitude of images taken with these cameras.  Every camera reviewed is one that I have shot.  With over 100 figures, this zine is filled with photographs in its 36 pages.  I think it’s one of the best pieces of writing that I have done, and people that have already received a copy are really enthusiastic about it.   At $12 in the USA (which includes shipping) it’s one of the best bargains you’ll ever find.  

Erwin, TN, Spartus Full-Vue

You can order from my marketplace on Square -- links are to the right, and if you live outside of the USA, there are additional order options.  Like all of my issues of Monochrome Mania, this is a real, tangible, in-your-hands item. I do not offer digital versions. If you love film cameras, or know someone that does, this makes a great gift for yourself or others!

Imperial 620 camera

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Chinon CS SLR - Ordinary, But Good

If you have been reading my posts over the last 16 years, you’ll probably see a pattern of my fondness for M-42 (Praktica, Screw Mount, Pentax screw-mount, etc.) cameras.  A lot of them were manufactured by many companies in the 1960s and 70s, and they ultimately died out as the Pentax K-mount supplanted it. The biggest drawback against the M-42 mount was that it took time to attach a lens, and the mount did not lend itself to electronic contacts or more complex automation of the cameras. However, since so many M-42 camera bodies and lenses were produced, the prices tend to stay lower, compared to K-mount cameras as well as the offerings from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Minolta. While Pentax Spotmatics are what people usually associate with the M-42 mount, there are other cameras that used the mount, and many of them are quite good, if not especially innovative. Such is the case with the Chinon CS.

Chinon is a Japanese company that started in the city of Chino in 1948. Initially, the company produced only parts for lenses, but by 1956, it released a lens for 8mm movie cameras, followed by the world’s first 8mm zoom lens. Subsequently, they manufactured 8mm movie cameras, and the company at the time was known as Sanshin Optical Industrial Ltd.  The company started making 35mm cameras in 1971, and in 1973, changed its name to Chinon Industries. Chinon manufactured M-42 mount SLRs which were re-branded for other companies, such as Argus, GAF, Photo-Quelle, and Prinz. The Chinonflex TTL was introduced in 1966, followed by the Chinonflex in 1969. The Chinon CS appeared in 1978, and it features:

    • TTL match-needle metering - CdS cell, center-weighted, stop-down, center-needle indicator in viewfinder.

    • shutter speeds 1 sec - 1/1000 sec, + B.

    • Depth of Field Preview

    • Copal Square vertically-traveling metal shutter

    • X-sync hot shoe as well as PC sockets for external flash, x-sync at 1/125 sec

    • ISO range of 25-800

    • 15 sec. Self-timer

    • M-42 mount

    • power - PX625 1.3V Mercury cell

Pretty standard layout, easy to use!

Simplicity is a creative asset.

So, while there is nothing that really stands out in the camera, everything is there that you need to take photos with full control of the exposure.  The only wrinkle is that like almost every other camera manufactured at the time, it requires a PX625 mercury cell for the meter.  In other words it’s a fairly ordinary, but well-built 35mm M-42 mount SLR. It doesn’t have the name recognition of Pentax or Praktica, but it can hold its own with any M-42 camera body made by anyone else at the time. I can say that had I owned this camera in 1978, I would have been won over very easily to its attributes, seeing that I owned an Exa 2a at the time. 

I picked this particular Chinon CS body up on eBay for $30, and I already had a matching Chinon 55 mm f/1.7 lens waiting for it. I used a PX625A alkaline cell, and then realized that to get a meter reading correct, I needed to dial down the ISO to one stop. So, for example, I was using ISO 400 film, I set the ASA (ISO) dial to 200, thereby compensating for the over-voltage of the cell.

I loaded a roll of Holga 400 film (i.e., Foma 400), and took the Chinon CS out on some local trips to test it out.  The camera handles well; after all, it is "ordinary" and the stop-down metering button on the right side of the lens mount returns to its off position after the shutter is released.  The metering is center-weighted, and I had no issues with this 42 year-old SLR. The shutter has a satisfying "clunk" that is typical for the Copal Square shutters. 

I think that this camera encompasses the status quo in mid-1970s 35mm SLRs.  Nothing plastic, everything manual, and sturdily built. You can easily build your camera kit with cameras like this, as M-42 lenses are generally plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and mostly primes.  There are many other Chinon SLR models besides the CS, and a switchover to K-mount lenses occurred around 1981.  You can get an idea of the various models on the Camera-Wiki site. 

Some sample shots from the first roll:

Monday, November 16, 2020

Golden Oldies: Pre-Set Lenses and T-mounts

Over the many years that I have been dealing with camera equipment, it seems that the least desirable (from a selling point) have been pre-set lenses and lenses that have a T-mount.  First of all, let me tell you what I am talking about here.  

Two pre-set T-mount lenses, M42 mount

When you photograph, you set your aperture on the lens and/or adjust your shutter speed until you get the light meter indicator to where it suggests the correct exposure. That’s pretty much how it works with any camera, including digital, unless you have it in complete auto mode, and the camera makes those decisions for you. If you are using an SLR, everything looks the same to you through the viewfinder, unless you push a button or lever to observe the depth of field, which stops down the lens to the chosen aperture. We do it so automatically, that it’s easy to not think about what is actually happening inside the camera.  That’s called open-aperture metering, and even though the lens is wide-open the mechanical or electronic linkages relay all that information to the metering system. When the shutter is fired, the lens then stops down to the selected aperture (assuming that you are not shooting wide-open, of course). It’s been with us since 1963, and adopted by most camera manufacturers by 1971. While cameras have evolved to do just about anything via some electronic adjustment, the basic system of aperture/shutter control is really all you need to control the exposure of an image.

Aperture pin, (indicated by red circle) on a M42 lens

Before the days of open-aperture metering, we had stop-down metering, which means that you set your aperture and pushed a button or lever on the camera to actuate the diaphragm and the light meter.  The problem with that system is that the smaller the aperture, the dimmer the image, making focusing more difficult. If you have used a Pentax Spotmatic, Canon FT QL, Praktica, Zenit, Minolta SR, and any number of M-42 mount cameras, it’s likely that you have used stop-down metering. It’s why many lenses in the early days have an M and an A at the base of the lens. M=Manual, and the aperture is wherever you set it at all times, and the A = Automatic, meaning the aperture changes from wide open to the selected aperture when the shutter is released. Often such lenses have the word "Auto" on them, at least before it became standard on all cameras and lenses.

Three different lenses with A and M control

To actuate the diaphragm in the lens, there needs to be a small pin at the base that is pressed against by an arm or movable plate inside the camera at the moment the shutter button is pressed. Usually, that lever is in front of the mirror. It’s not needed for rangefinder cameras, or twin-lens reflex cameras, because you are not looking directly through the taking lens to focus and compose.  However, on an SLR, you want to have the view as bright as possible, so the lens only stops down when the shutter is released.  

Pre-set T-mount lens has no aperture pin

But wait, what if there is no aperture actuator in the camera or on the lens?  You could still do the manual route and suffer with the dimmer image at smaller apertures, or you could use a pre-set lens. Pre-set lenses have two rings for setting the aperture(usually towards the front of the lens, not at the base). The foremost ring sets your final aperture, and the following ring closes the aperture when you are ready to shoot.  You can view your subject at the full aperture of your lens, and since your shooting aperture is been pre-set, you just close the second ring to shoot. I’ll tell you more about this later on why this is a good thing today. 

Simplified system - shooting aperture at top and
C to close down, O to open up

Final aperture set at f/22, but open to view at f/2.8

Final aperture at f/22
135mm Spiratone lens

T-mount on lens, adapter at right

Now, obviously, the pre-set system is rarely used on modern lenses, but back in the 1950s and 60s, it was pretty common.  It was also used a lot on T-mount lenses, which are third-party lenses made by a variety of manufacturers into the 1970s. The T-mount is a 42mm thread which has a different pitch than the M-42 mount that it is sometimes confused with.  The usual T-mount is a screw mount using a male 42×0.75 (42 mm diameter, 0.75 mm thread pitch) metric thread on the lens with a flange focal distance of 55 mm and a mating female 42mm thread on a camera adapter or other optical component.  The T mount is a mechanical-only mount, meaning it does nothing beyond physically connect the lens to the camera. It does not transfer electrical signals, auto-focus information, or aperture settings. So, the beauty of the T-mount is that you can use one lens with different SLR camera mounts, so long as you have the right T-mount adapter.  The other part of this is that you don’t have to worry about the linkage to an aperture pin, because there isn’t any.  The image below shows a Spiratone 135mm f/3.5 T-mount lens that I have used on M-42, Pentax K, Nikon F, Konica, Leica R, and Minolta SR/MD mount cameras.  You may ask why I would bother.  The aperture in this lens is completely circular due to the many-bladed diaphragm, and it gives very pleasing image. I have used it on digital SLRs, as well.  Since it’s also a pre-set lens. I can easily focus and stop the lens down to any aperture, not pre-determined click stops. 

T-mount lens with a variety of adapters

So, here we are with some lenses from a time when NOTHING was automatic, yet they can still be used today, with the proper adapter, on your film SLR or your DSLR or mirrorless camera.  The beauty of the pre-set lens becomes more apparent when you see the image on your LCD, and adjust the aperture to get exactly what you want in the image.  Since there are no electronic connections, you may have to do all the exposures in Manual mode with some cameras, and Aperture-Priority in others.

I should add that not all T-mount lenses are vintage. Some T-mounts date from the 1980s, and are often seen on mirror telephoto lenses, oddball art lenses, slide copying units, and telescope and microscope adapters. You can also buy new 500mm telephoto lenses that use the T-mount, AND have pre-set apertures. So, the T-mount and pre-set lenses have never really gone away after all these years. The beauty is that you can usually pick up a used T-mount lens or a pre-set lens quite cheaply, and the only factor will be if you can find a T-mount adapter for your SLR. T-mount adapters are easily found for M-42 Pentax screw mount, Pentax K-mount, Nikon F-mount, Olympus OM, Minolta SR, and Canon FL. I think I have seen most pre-set lenses/T-mounts for M-42, as it was a very popular mount before the mid-1970s.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Rollei RPX 100, One-roll Review

I had hoped to have shot and developed this film before I posted my list of 100 ISO b&w films here on RCB back in September.  Anyhow, the roll sat in my Nikon FM3a for over a month before I finished with it, and last week I finally got around to developing it.  I have read good things about the Rollei RPX films, and I know a few photographers that really, really, like them.  Of course, as I wrote here previously, “RPX 100 may be the "same" as the old APX 100, but Rollei of course, does not make film, and neither does Maco, who bought the rights to use the Rollei branding. What's the film's origin? I really don't have an answer to that question. It is purported to have extended red sensitivity, and is available in 35mm and 120.”  After shooting a roll, and developing in Rodinal, I can say that it definitely is not the old APX 100.  Of course, neither is the new APX 100!  But does it matter what the film’s origins are?  The results I got from the RPX 100 are very good, with a nice range of tones and imperceptible grain. It has excellent latitude, and while I did not test it for extended red sensitivity, others have done so with good results. I did use a yellow filter and or a polarizer on some landscape shots during sunny days.

I really appreciate that there are developing instruction printed inside the box of film. Even though the Massive Development Chart has the same information, there is something that just feels right about having it printed.  That’s just my “old man” attitude.  If we are going analog, might as well have analog information, too.  

I loaded my Nikon FM3a (Nikon deserves every accolade given for making this camera, and damn, they should still be manufacturing them.) with the RPX 100 when I was at the Biltmore Estate on August 13. I have more than one Nikon SLR, so I wasn’t always shooting with the FM3a.  I finished the roll on September 30, while visiting the Blue Ridge parkway on a bright, sunny day.  In between, there are shots from around home, Asheville, and Mars Hill, NC. While I mostly used the 50 mm f/1.8 Nikkor, I did use a telephoto while on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Developing – I developed the RPX 100 in Rodinal 1:25 dilution for 9 minutes.  When I poured out the developer, it did not have that nice purple color that I used to get with the original APX 100. The film dries nice and flat and is easy to scan. I scanned the negatives with my Epson V700 photo scanner.

Here are a few examples from the roll. 

Overall, I am really pleased with this film.  Price-wise, it’s not all that expensive. It’s cheaper than TMax100, but more expensive than Fomapan 100 and Kentmere 100, two of my favorite ISO 100 films. You can also buy it in bulk 100 ft rolls to spool yourself.  The mere fact that it is also available in 120, should give you a reason to try a roll or two!