Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Shooting the Bad Guys With a Ricoh

Back in October I was in Tucson, AZ, and my daughter suggested that we go to the local Antique Mall. That’s something that we always enjoyed doing together whenever we were on road trips, and part of the fun is that we never know what we’ll find that attracts our interest. Usually for me, it’s cameras, but pickings have been slim at any antique stores that I have visited in NC. An antique mall in Arizona should certainly have some different and unusual items, so off we went. Jorie found some animal skulls (that’s her thing), and pointed out Zuni fetishes and other local art that was there. A few aisles over, I saw what looked like a camera up on a high shelf. I took it down, and was immediately interested. It was an inexpensive 35mm camera with an electric stepper motor and armature connected to it. Also inscribed in multiple places was Tucson Police Department (TPD)! Hmm. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and the price was $35. I thought it might be on sale for 20% off, but it wasn’t in a display case. To compound the idea that I was going to purchase it, their credit card machine was down. So, I had them place the camera and a typewriter that I also wanted on the shelf behind the register and I’d return the next day to try again when their credit machine would be working. The next day, I went back and still no credit card operation, so I walked a block to an ATM and got cash. I got everything back to the vacation rental we were staying at, and took a better look at the camera and the gizmo it was attached to. I could see that the focus and manual control on the barrel of the Ricoh 35 ZF were taped so that they wouldn’t easily be changed, so my first thought is that the camera was used for something like mug shots or interview-room photos. I posted a photo of the contraption on Instagram and got some suggestions about what the camera might have been used for, and then I got a direct message from Kikie Wilkins, who knows a guy that was in the TPD.

The outfit that I purchased - front


It turns out that the camera was used in convenience stores and gas stations in Tucson under the Robbery Surveillance Program, which ran from the 1970s to 2008. The program installed these cameras into the majority of convenience stores throughout Tucson, and had an arrest rate of 80%! The Crime Scene Unit serviced the cameras. Once video surveillance became more common and affordable, these cameras were removed and sold off as surplus

In use, the camera was hidden behind a speaker grille and faced the counter where the transactions were made. In case of a robbery, the clerk would remove the "bait money" which allowed two contacts to touch in the cash drawer, sending a signal to the remote camera, activating the AC circuit, which powered the stepper motor, and the camera would generally shoot 22 frames of 35mm black and white film. The Crime Scene Unit officers would remove the film and replace it with fresh film. Back at the station, the film was developed and printed, and I assume that the images were good enough to capture the perps in a short time.

Robbery Camera inside speaker case

speaker case

front of speaker grille pulled down

view through the mesh

final image 

transmitter with bait money

transmitter with bill removed

We are so used to CCTV cameras in stores, gas stations, banks, and on the street that we generally don’t give them a second thought. Compared to the camera shown here, they are remarkably compact, quiet, and can save the information on a tape or a hard drive, and perhaps relay to a station what’s going on in real time.  While it might seem somewhat archaic, the TPD system was successful, and unless the camera was activated, it required little maintenance.

The camera is a Ricoh 35 ZF, a fairly inexpensive camera with auto and manual exposure control. The camera had no battery inside, so I am guessing that the TPD figured out the ambient lighting and adjust the camera to a setting that gave a good exposure, taping the barrel controls so that it would not get "readjusted." The Ricoh 35 ZF is a competent little Zone Focus (hence the ZF?) camera with a 40mm f/2.8 lens, shutter speeds from B to 1/8- 1/500 sec, and focus from 3 feet to infinity. The ISO settings range from 25-800. The Ricoh ZF was manufactured in 1976 in Taiwan. It can be operated without the mercury cell in manual mode, or with power, be used in A mode as a shutter-priority camera. As I said above, the camera was used in Manual mode. I don’t know if other camera models were used in the Robbery Surveillance Program, but I would not be too surprised if there were. The stepper motor and actuator could have been customized for any similar-sized camera. 

I bought this unit out of curiosity, and I have high hopes for the Ricoh 35 ZF as a pocket-able camera to take along with my bigger SLRs, etc. The camera did have a roll of Kodak Ultra Max 400 color film inside, but after I developed it, the result was a blank roll.  I have since removed the camera, put in fresh foam seals, cleaned it up and have some film loaded.  I'll review the camera after I have used it in a separate post.

After I returned home from our trip, I decided to plug the AC cord into some power, and lo and behold, the motor turned and it was fascinating to watch the process. The motor operates at 30 rpm, so the exposures are 2 seconds apart. With each revolution, the film advance lever was moved forward and a small projection on the upper arm depressed the shutter button. The process continued as long as I had power to it, so I do wonder of the controller had some sort of timing switch that turned off the device after 40 seconds or so, which would have been at least 20 exposures.

From the photographs from the TPD display, the camera was set at 1/60 sec and f/2.8. I am guessing that the distance was the 15 ft. mark.  It does make some noise, so you know something's going on, though I suspect in the heat of the moment, it probably doesn't register that it's clicking away.

I thank Kikie Wilkins in Tucson for his fantastic help and getting images from the Crime Scene Unit display to me. I like this bit of information: "The crime scene unit has a small display case with their old cameras and other doodads and one of them had one of these cameras in there with the speaker box and a photo they developed of a robber pointing his gun at the speaker box, shortly before he shot the camera. The film was still able to be retrieved and developed."

Now THAT's getting the shot!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post! I remember when I was searching for Ricoh 35 ZFs on eBay last year, a few came up with this bizarre aperture on the shutter release and winder. (They didn't have the extra motor part.) I wondered what the heck was up with that, and now I know!

As for the 35 ZF, I had one for a few months last year. I got one when I was looking for a "bikeable" rangefinderesque camera, something small and with at least an f/2.8 lens. I got the Ricoh because it was one of the very few zone focus cameras that had full manual control. I wasn't that excited by the camera, as it felt sort of dinky, and the images were just OK. When someone gifted me an Olympus 35 RD I got rid of the 35 ZF.