Friday, December 30, 2022

2022 In Review

I haven’t done an end of year review in quite a while, and since I now keep pretty active journals, my task is easier.  Typically, a lot of folks like to review what happened in the photography world at large, but I’m going to confine my review to my own activities, which as things go, are relatively tame.  But bear with me, and hopefully, you’ll find some nuggets of wisdom.  As I went through my four journals spanning 2022, it’s gratifying to see that I have kept writing them.  I know that some people have one journal for an entire year, but I prefer them segmented, since losing one does not negate everything I have penned in. It also makes it easier to carry one along.  I’m a fan of the journals made by, as I like the simple styling and 5x8” size.   Having the journal really helps me with recalling my activities and thoughts, and I wish that I’d been as compulsive about writing in one 20-30 years ago.  

In my entry for 1/1/2022, I hoped to finish the toy camera (35mm) issue of Monochrome Mania, and produce 3 issues, including one on panoramas. Explore more of NC and take meaningful images.  All checked in as done!  

2022 was the year that I discovered the writings of William Least Heat-Moon. Reading Blue Highways for the first time was revelatory - and I wish that I’d known of that book when it first came out in the early 1980s.  There are passages in Blue Highways that brought tears - not of sadness but of joy.  His descriptive prose really resonated with me, and since that book, I’ve managed to read his other tomes - Prairie Erth, Riverhorse, Roads to Quoz, Writing Blue Highways, and Here, There, Elsewhere.  If you are at all interested in traveling and stories about the land and people, I highly recommend Blue Highways and Riverhorse as places to start with his books.  

This year, I made a lot of images with Pentax Spotmatics, aside from my Takumar Trek in late June.  There is just something about these cameras and their lenses that compels me to use them.  As M-42 mount cameras, they have their quirks, but the ease of use, smooth operation, and simplicity make Spotmatics quintessential photographic tools that keep on working for me.  In fact, I don’t think Pentax ever made better cameras than the Spotmatic F.  I’ve seen so many failing K-mount Pentax SLRs - mostly in the electronics, that I rank them low in durability.  If there is one Spotmatic I’d like to find and try out, it would be the Spotmatic ES.  Finding a working one seems to be the quest!  I have also been trying to find some nice pre-Spotmatic models, such as the Pentax HIII or SV.  They are meterless, yet very good, if I can get one that works as it should. 

The Heiland Pentax HIII- I've bought 2 of these on ebay, and neither
 one works properly -- maybe a CLA for one will do it. It is after all,
over 50 years old.

I stabilized my Nikon "arsenal" this year, paring it down to cameras that I use, and not ones sitting on a shelf.  The bodies that I have owned the longest are the FM2N and the F3HP, both gifted to me in mint condition in 2008.  I’ve been using the F3 a lot more of late, particularly because of the viewfinder, and it’s one smooth camera.  But my other bodies are: plain prism Nikon F from 1967, Nikon FE2, FM3A, FE10 (keep it in the car), FE black body, FA, N80, F100, F4, and F60.  Aside from the F, I have eliminated all non-AI bodies and most non-AI lenses from my collection.  As much as I love those Nikkormats, I can get along just fine without them.  The plain prism Nikon F is a thing of beauty and simplicity, and I’ve kept the 45mm f/2.8 Nikkor, 20mm f/3.5 Nikkor, 35mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and 50mm f/2 Nikkor just for that body.  With the 45mm pancake lens, it’s quite trim!

A true gem of a camera.

I tried out a few interesting cameras this year.  The Kodak Signet 40 was a real surprise, as it performed quite well and has earned a place in my heart.  I used a Contax IIa for the first time, and loved its precise rangefinder focus as well as the images I got from it.   I have my Leica M2, and Canon 7, so the Contax had a short stay -- but it is a wonderful camera, if you can find one.  I also tried out a Contaflex Super B SLR, and it was the first fully working example of a Contaflex that I’d used. However nice they are, I am still not a fan of lens-shutter SLRs.  Zeiss Ikon produced so many different cameras, that to be an expert on the brand would take many years.

The M5 has been a great addition.

This year, I also purchased a Canon EOS M5 mirrorless camera to replace the aging Nikon V1 that I bought a decade earlier.  I had briefly entertained a Nikon Z body, but the price on the M5 was really great (again, from KEH), and manual lenses for it from 7 Artisans, TT Artisans, etc., are really cheap and I love the results.  The M5 is certainly a very capable camera, and while it does not replace my usual gear, it’s a nice adjunct, and travels well.  

This was the first year that I wrote reviews here on Random Camera Blog based on items sent to me by manufacturers/distributors.  Usually, I buy the items, but if anyone wants to send me something to review, I’m happy to do so!

One of the things that makes me happy is finding a computer program that allows me to write without having to worry about menus, and can take up most of the space on my screen -- I don’t need to be distracted when I’m in writing mode.  Word Grinder on Linux and Windows is one such program, and I use it a lot to write these blog posts. However, more recently, I acquired a used 2008 MacBook for $50, and found this program called Bean - which is absolutely the best writing app I have used.  I love the larger font size, and using the MacBook has made me realize why I was such a big Mac fan/user for so many years.  I may just have to buy a newer MacBook Air in the coming year.  Speaking of acquisitions, I have high praise for the Canon Pixma Pro 200 printer that I purchased in 2021.  I have been making wonderful 12x18in. prints that I never would have made in the darkroom.  Printing panoramas has opened up a new creative path that I never would have attempted in my old wet darkroom. The ink economy of this printer amazes me, and even if I don’t use it for a month or two, it starts up and prints without a fuss.

This year had me visiting the Film Photography Project in early May for 4 days to help with the unpacking, sorting, and examination of donations for the FPP school donation program.  The mountains of boxes gradually diminished while I was there, but as soon as I leave, I know that they’ll build back up again.  John Fedele is a great help, and I wish that I lived a bit closer to NJ to help out more often.  Being a small part of the FPP has been rewarding, and has really made me a lot of friends in the film community.

John Fedele, shot with the Contax IIa.

Camera Heritage Museum, Staunton, VA

On the way to NJ, I stopped in Staunton, VA, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, and visited the Camera Heritage Museum, which I have already written about.  It’s an overwhelming place, and like all of these small camera museums, are pretty much the work of one person over many decades of collecting.  I think of the late Jack Naylor in Boston who amassed an amazing and quite valuable collection of photographica, and after his death in 2007, much of it was auctioned off for about 2 million dollars.  His collection’s scope was world-wide, and contained many unique items.   A collection is not a museum - it requires people to curate, conserve, preserve, and properly exhibit with interpretive displays, as well as make it available to researchers.  It also requires money to guarantee that it runs in perpetuity (or at least close to it), so that the collections are not dispersed to the winds after the principal collector(s) have passed away.  That’s why museums should be in the public trust - for example, the Smithsonian. So, while I appreciate these private photography museums, the long-term outlook for them is not great.  I suppose the model to be used might be like that of the Argus Museum in Ann Arbor, MI which started out as a private collection (which I evaluated), and subsequently was given to the county historical society, and is now in good shape to continue into the future.  

Natural Bridge, VA.  Nikon F3HP, Kentmere 400

The Shenandoah Valley was again a target in September, when I spent a few days in Lexington, VA.  I had wanted to explore more of it, being a fan of Sally Mann’s work, and the visit gave me the opportunity to absorb the history and beauty of Rockbridge County.  A return visit is definitely in the works in the coming year.  If you do nothing else there, visit Natural Bridge State Park - as the limestone arch is really impressive - and yes, it IS a bridge which US-11 travels over.  It’s also the reason Rockbridge County has that name.

The Gin Hotel, formerly the Robert E. Lee, Lexington, VA

Proposed Cover for a a photo book

My Takumar Trek in June, has already been written up here, and I continue to plan for another trek along US-23 to finish up the southern leg, which ends up in Jacksonville, FL.  I need only to finish the NC, GA, and FL segment to have traveled and photographed along its length.  It was also in late June that I participated in Photostock, held this year in Cross Village, MI - about 30 minutes from Mackinac City. If you have never been to a Photostock meetup, I highly suggest it.  When I lived in Michigan, it was a leisurely drive from my home in Ann Arbor to Harbor Springs, and they were always a great time, invigorating, and got the creative juices flowing.  There are so many talented photographers at Photostock, and egos are checked at the door.  It’s a wonderful time to learn new things, meet old friends, and make new ones.

A scene from Photostock 2022

One of the things that I wanted to do this year was to try out a 6x9 Fujica camera. Those “Texas Leicas” used to sell for $250 before the prices started to rise up.  I wish that I’d bought one a decade ago.  However, I found a nice Fujica GL690 body at KEH for around $400.  Without a lens.  One of my Instagram contacts offered me a free lens for it, but it needed repair.  Well, I got the lens and then spent about $200 to have it repaired.  So, once that all worked out, I started using the Fujica GL690, and am quite happy with the results. It does take some time to get used to using a large rangefinder camera and get comfortable with it.  None of those cameras have internal meters, so basically it’s a pretty simple camera - but with really large negatives at the same 2:3 perspective as a 35mm frame.  I made a 12x18 print from it and it just blows me away.  So, 2023 will see it getting a lot more use.  

This camera will see a lot of use in 2023

In late August, I contracted COVID from someone that was visiting us for a weekend. That was a week of my life that I will never get back, and thankfully, I had already had my vaccine and boosters.  I just cannot imagine how awful it is for an unvaccinated person. It really was more like 2 weeks until I felt perfectly normal again.

I have been doing a lot of scanning of old negatives and slides this year. I had not scanned in any of the negatives from my 2003 trip to NM, and I found so many wonderful images among the new scans.  I think that the more removed we are from the event, the more meaningful the images.  What I did realize, though, is that while I started a journal for the trip, I stopped after 3 days.  It’s takes some discipline to write everything down each day, and I failed that -- so nearly 20 years later, I had to extrapolate the timeline of the photographs from the trip after day 3.  Lesson learned.   Eventually, all of my old slides will be scanned in, dating from the mid-70s to the 2000s, removed from their clear storage pages, and transferred to metal slide-storage boxes.  Each box will have a thumb drive of the scans.   They’ll probably all be trashed someday, but I will leave that decision to whomever survives me.

In mid-October, Bill Pivetta and I drove out to Durham, NC to see the Vivian Maier exhibit that was part of the Click! Photofest in Raleigh-Durham.  That nearly month-long event is rather amorphous, as exhibitions and events take place in many locations.  I’d certainly like to do more at the festival, but I would need to stay a few nights in the area to make it really worthwhile.  It was a nice introduction to Durham, and the Vivian Maier exhibit was certainly worth the 4 hr drive each way!  

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Outer banks

In early November, Adrienne, Beverley, and I went to Manteo, NC and the Outer Banks for 4 nights.  It was a great time to visit, and the weather was really fantastic, except for the last full day, when there were winds with gusts up to 50 mph -- it was a perfect time to see the Atlantic with some fury to it.  The only thing was the salt spray on my gear.  I made sure to use a UV filter on the front of my lenses, and after we returned, I wiped my F3 down with a wet cloth and removed any lingering deposits.  It’s a 7-8 hr drive from our place in the mountains to the Outer Banks, so not exactly a weekend trip, but I’d like to go again and stay somewhere near Ocracoke to do more photography.  I think the Holga and the Horizon 202 would get some use there.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Ansco Pix Panorama

After going through a lot of film this year, it’s obvious that my most-used films were: Kentmere 400, Kentmere 100, Ilford HP-5, and Eastman 5231.  Anything else was a few rolls, at best.  I shot very little color film, but I do have a pretty good stockpile of C-41 film in my fridge. It’s no secret that I’m a monochrome maniac, and speaking of that, the final issue for 2022 of Monochrome Mania is all about images from the Ansco Pix Panorama.  Having three other very talented photographers - Derek Keaton, Eben Ostby, and Liz Potter made it a first venture into a collaborative issue of my zine, which I hope to repeat for late 2023.  Three issues per year for 3 years straight is making me quite pleased. Issue 10 is already in the works, and will probably be available in February.

Podcasts are what I like to listen to while developing film - and my favorite podcast (that’s not the one I’m in) is still All Through A Lens.  Eric and Vania do an amazing job putting together well-researched and informative - and entertaining episodes that really keep my attention.  If you have not listened to All Through A Lens, I highly recommend that you do. My second favorite podcast is I Dream of Cameras, and Jeff and Gabe really hit my camera gear buttons in their lively presentations.  If there are any two people that I’d want to meet at a camera swap, it would be them.  

Best wishes to you all for the coming year.  May you find creativity, joy, good fortune, and good health.  

From the Blue Ridge Parkway, Canon EOS M5

Monday, December 26, 2022

Solving a Found Film Mystery

Christmas in Detroit, 1948.  Shot with a Kodak Bantam Special on
Kodachrome, ASA10.  I am pretty sure that a flash was used here.

In 2018, I ended up with a small box of found film that my now-deceased friend, Marc Akeman had picked up at a Detroit area estate sale a few years earlier. Marc was always adept at finding estate sales and auctions and buying box lots of photographic items that eventually ended up in his basement. After his death in 2018, I spent some time organizing his photo gear estate for his family, and it wasn't until then that I realized he had hoarder tendencies.  I imagine that he intended to do something with all of the found negatives, slides, and prints that were still in the boxes he purchased them in, but he never had the chance.  I sorted out out a few things from one of the boxes - Kodachrome slides, black and white negatives, and some rolled up developed films, since it was obvious that they had a Detroit mailing address, and were from before 1950.  I'm always keen to see old Kodachromes, and I could see that there were quite a few boxes in the lot.

Of course, in my own life, I was preparing for a move to North Carolina, leaving Ann Arbor behind after 38 years, since my wife and I had retired from the Univ. Michigan.  Those finds via Marc went into a small box labeled "Found Film" and it was not until recently that I started going through a few of them.  Aside from one roll of medium format black and white negatives definitely of the NSFW genre, the remaining images are of post-war middle class Detroit family life, 1947-49.  

Same Christmas tree as above

I scanned in a Kodachrome slide for a Christmas-theme Instagram post, and realized that it was shot on 828, or Bantam film.  I was curious if the photographer had used a Kodak Bantam Special for the Kodachromes (Bantam film gives only 8 exposures on a roll), as the images were far better than a cheap bantam camera. Tonight, I was going through the earlier b&w scans, and voila! There were several black and white shots of his Kodak Bantam Special in a chair.  So, I found the camera that the photographer used.  I don't know what he used for the medium format, but they are 6x9 cm, so very likely a folding Kodak of some sort.

Still-life with Bantam Special.

I'm posting several of these b&w images along with the Kodachrome slide.  I'll eventually scan the other slides, but I may end up using a DSLR since the slide carroer for the Epson V700 crops out part of the image. The Bantam slides are larger than standard 35mm, even though they are in 2x2 slide holders.  All of the b&w images are from medium-format negatives.

Photographer's father?  Detroit News, Jan 17, 1949

Musical family

Finally, here is a wonderful example of the Kodak Bantam Special, photographed by me.
It's really too bad Kodak didn't make this a 35mm camera. It's design, by Walter Dorwin Teague, is an Art Deco wonder, and if you can respool 35mm with an 828 backing paper, you can still make use of it.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Kodak's Signet 40 camera


I’ll be honest up front - In my opinion, most of Kodak’s 1950s 35mm cameras not named Retina are fairly basic cameras with Bakelite and aluminum bodies.  While the Pony 135 and its variants were aimed at the occasional photographer, and at a lower price point, the Retinas were high-end cameras  demanding a higher price (see my previous post on Kodak’s Retinas).  The middle ground in post-war America was taken by the Kodak Signet series, with more user-friendly features, good optics, and attractive looks.  If your main US-based competition in mid-50s America is Argus, then it should have been a no-brainer for a large company like Kodak to challenge the popular Argus C-3 which has the ergonomics of a brick, or the more friendly-looking Argus C-4.  The Signet 35 first appeared in 1953, and while an attractive camera, it also looks a like the Kodak Chevron, a medium-format 6x6 rangefinder camera.   The Signet 35 advanced the film with a winding knob, much like the Pony models, and the Argus C-4.  The Signet 40 was introduced the year I was born - 1956, and is a more streamlined camera - with almost Art Moderne-like styling (think of diners).  

The Signet 40 features a 46mm f/3.5 Ektanon lens (3 elements), Kodak Synchro 400 shutter, with B, and 1/5-1/400 sec speeds.  The aperture range is f/3.5-f/22.  Focus is from 2 feet to infinity. The triangular rangefinder spot is bright, and there is no protruding eyepiece to scratch your glasses.  The camera back is hinged, and film insertion and operations go very smoothly.  There is a film reminder dial on the top deck, but since there is no meter in this camera, you must use a separate light meter.  There is no accessory shoe on the top, but there are side attachment points for a Kodak flashbulb holder. This was the mid-1950s, and it would be a while before manufacturers adopted universal flash attachments, such as the PC (Prontor-Compur) flash connector, and the ISO-standard hot shoe, not to mention Xenon-strobe flash units (X-synch).  

My Signet 40 came from FPP listener Tom Frost in Vermont, who sent me the camera after I made disparaging remarks about the Signet series, and figured that I should actually try one.  In my experience, I had rarely come across Signets that were working. In fact, I found a comment of mine on Flickr from 2010 stating that I had seen very few working Signets!  It could have been for a variety of reasons that the cameras I saw had problems - design/construction flaws, hard use, and age may have been factors.  Rick Oleson, a long-time camera tinkerer and photographer, found that it was the rapid-wind lever that is suspect over time, as it may free-wheel if you advance the film too fast.  So, my advice is to wind the film slowly with the  lever.  

The Signet 40 that I received looked like a brand-new camera.  Tom had beautifully restored the camera to its like-new appearance and functionality.  It was in its leather case, and since the body has strap lugs (yay!), it does not need to reside in the case to go shooting with it.  As a mid-century US-made camera, the Signet 40 is classy-looking, and has a very different appearance from the Argus rangefinders where all the linkages are external.  You still need to cock the shutter tensioning when ready to take a photo.  You can take double-exposures if you release the shutter lock on the front of the bottom plate of the Signet 40 body.  The Signet 40 isn’t just a step above the Pony series, it’s a step above the Argus cameras of the same vintage.  So, what did this camera sell for in its day?  It sold from 1956-59 for $65.  In today’s dollars that would be $711.  It was definitely more expensive than an Argus C-3 but cheaper than the C-4, which sold for $84 with a clip-on meter.  Obviously, the Signet series was aimed at middle-class Americans that could afford it.  To compare to the Pony 135 series, it was $30 more expensive than a Pony 135 of the same vintage.  

There are several other very good reviews on the Signets:

As for later models of Signets, such as the Signet 30, Signet 50, and Signet 80, they adopted the top-mounted accessory shoe, a single-stoke film advance lever, and in the Signet 50 and 80 models, a light meter, and in the 80, interchangeable lenses.  None of the latter models had the clean styling of the Signet 40, instead adopting a more bulky look with stepped up viewfinders, expanded front sections, etc.  Aesthetically, the Signet 40 has a more polished and minimalist look than the Signet 35 that preceded it.  

The Signet 80 looks more like an Argus!

After Kodak released the Kodapak 126 cartridge and Instamatics in 1963, Kodak’s 35mm cameras were either Retinas and Retinettes, made in Stuttgart Germany, or the US-made Automatic 35 and Motormatic 35 camera series, and were around the $100 mark. By the late 1960s, Kodak's 35mm cameras were gone, and by the late 1980s Kodak once again marketed 35mm cameras.  Of course, within a decade of releasing the Signet 40, the onslaught of excellent 35mm cameras from Japan had started, and the US camera manufacturers and many German ones were headed to extinction.  

My experience with the Signet 40 has been very good.  It’s definitely a more refined camera than the Argus offerings, and not as overbuilt as those Zeiss Ikon models such as the Symbolica or the Balda  Baldessa 1a (a review will be forthcoming for that one, too).   It still has the less-advanced method of manual shutter cocking, but that can be an asset if you want multiple exposures.  In use, the Signet 40 handles well, and I found a lens shade that mates with the filter ring (series V) perfectly.  I have shot several rolls of film with it so far, and will continue to bring it along on various trips.  It remains one of the most attractive of Kodak's cameras.

Some examples from the camera

Fuji Superia 200

Kodak 2238 at  ISO 25 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Building a lens collection

My prime lenses for my Spotmatic cameras. M-42 Super Takumars - 17mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 200mm, 100mm macro, 55mm macro (non Pentax)

When I first started getting serious about photography, I owned a Pentax ME, a 50mm f/2 Pentax M lens, and a Pentax 135mm f/2.8 short telephoto and a 2x teleconverter. That was before the millenium! I used that camera and the two lenses (oh yes, as well as the TC) for 17 years, until I started on my photographic journey 22 years ago.  Despite the limitations, I did okay with what I had, but after I acquired a used 28-80mm Pentax zoom in 2000, I saw how much more I could do with that particular lens. I’ve already described in my previous post, how I have decided that the 35mm focal length has become my choice for the normal lens. But this post is not about a particular focal length. There certainly is something to be said for using a particular lens for all of your photography. If you only use a twin lens reflex, then the 75 or 80mm permanently affixed to your camera is the only lens you need. Or perhaps you have a fixed lens 35mm camera such as a Canonet QL-17 or Yashica Electro 35.  If a fixed-lens camera is all you need for whatever photographic work that you do, then the rest of this post won’t be as useful to you. A great many photographers excelled with nothing more than a Leica with a 50mm lens. However, if you have an SLR of any sort, then you have very likely considered using other lenses with it besides whatever came with the camera. 

For many years, a 50mm normal lens accompanied most SLR cameras.

Back when magazines like Shutterbug and Popular Photography were well, popular, I would peruse the back pages to look at the ads from places like 47th Street Photo, and see all those inexpensive Spiratone lenses, or new/used stuff from Adorama or B&H. Digital had not yet taken over photography, and even used lenses were still not "cheap." It was a time when camera swaps/shows were still common, and eBay had not achieved its preeminence in the used marketplace. Lens reviews on youTube were unavailable, as that had not even been invented yet. So, one relied on camera magazine reviews or books, or word of mouth about any particular lens before plunking down some cash.  Today, the price of lenses on the used market can bring all sorts of bargains to your door without even leaving your house. Whether you buy from a reputable seller like KEH, or go the eBay route, or a (gasp!) camera store, many lenses (except those with the word Leitz imprinted on them) are a fraction of the price they originally sold for. No matter what SLR platform you use, you can now acquire a stable of lenses for a few hundred dollars that will last a lifetime.

Spiratone ad from 1966 U.S. Camera

Why more than one lens? 

If you are using a 35mm SLR, a single lens will limit your ability to make the most of the format and capabilities of the camera body. From fish-eye to normal, to super telephoto, to ultra macro, a 35mm SLR can do many things, and different lenses allow you to explore and create images that you cannot get any other way. Depending on the SLR body, you’ll find just about every kind of lens imaginable - and where to start? If a "new" camera can be a thing that gets your creative juices going, imagine how much a "new" lens can change your photography. Sometimes, a different focal length can be just the thing to make you see things anew. For example, if you have never used a 200mm macro lens, or a 24mm wide-angle, just putting on a such a lens will open new worlds to you. I’m not suggesting that you buy more lenses willy-nilly, just to "have them all," but to have a set of lenses that will provide the kind of tools that you need for most of your photography. You can always rent a lens to determine if you really need it, or if you need it just for a special project. A lot of pros rent lenses just for a special need.   To be more precise, what lenses do you need? Since not everyone has the same needs, you will have to figure that one out for yourself. However, I’ll start with a series of lens types, and you can go from there.

The Helios 44-M 58mm f/2 - a great lens for its specific properties

Although I am primarily a Nikon user, my experience over the years with just about every SLR system made has convinced me that most of Nikon’s bodies remain the best constructed, and most reliable with age. Minolta made excellent glass, but their SLR bodies have not aged well. Pentax has a bad track record with their electronic bodies (such as the ME), and nothing they have made since after the Spotmatic days has really aged as well as the Spotmatics. The vaunted K1000 may be fine - as long as it wasn’t made in China at the end of the run for that model.   Canon, with its various mounts - FL, FD, EOS, produced good lenses, but the bodies ran second-fiddle to Nikon. It was not until the EOS system that Canon was on par with whatever Nikon glass and bodies were produced, and it vaulted past Nikon because of the EOS Rebel. However, the bad news is that many of those old EOS bodies have shutters that are getting gooey with age, so you have to look out for that. Olympus OM-series glass is also fantastic, and many of the OM series bodies continue to work pretty well. The other SLR manufacturers - Mamiya, Exakta, Topcon, Rollei, Miranda, Zeiss Ikon, and yes, even Leitz do not have the lens offerings that Nikon and Canon produced. However, within those other systems are notable lenses, all with their own unique characteristics. 

Over the years, I have used many, many lenses, and sold some that I now regret. I’ve also gotten rid of lenses that were definitely not so great.   So, no matter what 35mm SLR system you are using - I’m not going to delve into rangefinders or medium format - there will always be a lot of choices one might make in the lenses that they use.   In addition, modern DSLRs are sold with kit zoom lenses, and for many beginners, a zoom makes a great choice, because you only need to carry around a single lens, maybe two, for a lot of photography. Some photographers prefer prime lenses, some prefer zooms, some prefer wide-angle zooms over telephoto zooms, etc. No single lens can be expected to do everything, though in the days before auto-focus, a 50mm lens was considered the every-day do-it-all lens, with your feet becoming the zoom. 

With a prime lens, your feet do the "zooming."

Lens selection really depends on what you photograph and your working methodology. There are some street photographers that use only a 28mm lens, others that feel that the 35mm focal length is their forte, and some that like a longer lens to close the distance - say, 85mm. Landscape photographers may like the 20-24mm end and the 300mm end. It really is a very personal choice, and most of us get a lens that we think we’ll use for a given purpose. I happen to like Lensbaby lenses, so of course, I have three different models, each with its own characteristics.

Lensbaby lenses

Since I do love prime lenses, I have a suite of primes - some that I use often, others that have only special uses. I also have various zoom lenses, and I’ll discuss what I use and why.


Primes are single focal length lenses - 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 55mm, 85mm, 90mm, 105mm, 135mm, 180mm, 200mm, etc. Primes go from fisheye to long telephotos, but most of the primes I see in use are in the 24-135mm range. I consider 24mm the best alternative to a slightly less-wide 28mm. However, 28mm lenses typically have less distortion than anything wider. In my own inventory, I have 16mm, 17mm, 19mm, 20mm, 24mm, and 28mm wide-angle primes. If I have to choose what to take in one bag, I almost always choose the 28mm. 

You can't go wrong with this one.

or its manual version

35-58mm are the "normal" lenses, and there’s a ton of them. If I’m not carrying a 35mm f/2, I am probably using a 50mm f/1.4 The number of 50mm-ish lenses out there are staggering, and for good reason. Not all 50mm lenses are equal, and some have far different and pleasing bokeh than others. You don’t need a high-priced Zeiss lens on your Nikon to take great images -- the modest 50mm f/2 Nikkor is one of the best lenses ever made for 35mm cameras. But even within that "normal lens" genre are legendary optics among SLRs. The 58mm f/1.4 Minolta PF Rokkor is a lens that you should have if you are using manual Minolta SLRs. The 45mm f/2 MD Rokkor is a great pancake lens. If you are shooting with Olympus, then of course, that 50mm f/1.4 Zuiko lens is a sweet one. With Canon FD mount - the 50mm f/1.4 is also a favorite, but that 50mm f/1.8 is also excellent. In the screw-mount M-42 world, there are lots of great normal lenses aside from the 50mm f/1.4 SMC Takumar. I’ll bet there are more varieties of 50mm M-42 mount lenses than any other lens mount. There is a lot of love for the 58mm f/2 Helios 44 from Zenit - and there are several iterations of that, from the early pre-set versions to more modern auto-diaphragm versions. I could probably make a list of some of the "best" nifty-fifties in M-42 mount, but that’s an article all by itself.   

Tamron Adaptall-2 17mm lens

Back in the old days, you bought an SLR and it most likely came with a 50mm lens, and that’s the one that you used the most. Today, lenses that were too expensive for many of us back then are sold for a fraction of what they are really worth. But even then, there were budget brands like Spiratone (the most affordable), Vivitar, Albinar, Tokina, Tamron, Makinon, Promaster and others.   Of those brands, there are some gems in the Vivitar line that were made by Kiron, and I don’t think people today appreciate the longevity of many Tamron Adaptall-2 lenses. Change your camera system? Just get a new Adaptall-2 adapter for the lens. The Tamron 90mm Macro has had several iterations, but the last manual version is the best.   Now, you can buy on eBay pretty much any Tamron or Vivitar lens ever made for a fraction of what they originally sold for. 

With the advent of autofocus SLRs and then the DSLR explosion, zoom lenses became the norm for most photographers, and the typical zoom for a kit was something in the range of 28-80mm. That range covers many photographic needs, but also at a cost of being slower, with a smaller maximum aperture, and a variable one at that. Typically, a variable aperture zoom of 28-80 equivalent would be f/3.5-5.6. Meanwhile, a 50mm f/1.4 becomes a game-changer for someone that’s only used a slow zoom! So, as the market has evolved, we are seeing really expensive niche AF lenses for DSLRs and mirrorless systems - lenses that often negate the smaller mirrorless body advantage. At the same time, there are many new manual lenses coming from Chinese manufacturers (7Artisans, TTArtisans, and others) that bring back the simplicity and advantages of fast prime lenses at an amazing low cost to consumers. 

Mirror Lenses

Nikon 500mm mirror lens

front view of the 500mm Nikkor

A T-mount 500mm mirror lens

Catadioptric, or mirror lenses are yet another attempt to make a low-cost high-magnification telephoto. Using a system of mirrors and refracting lens elements, they are similar to a Cassegrain astronomical telescope. A 500mm f/8 mirror lens doesn’t weigh much, doesn’t cost much, and doesn’t get used much. If you get one, you’ll probably play around with it for a bit until you realize the images generally are not great. The donut-shaped circles of confusion are not attractive. One good use for these lenses would be photographing the moon. Just about every major camera manufacturer made a mirror lens, some with 1000mm focal lengths. Today, new ones are usually T-mount, meaning you’ll need the proper adapter for your SLR system. In addition, with no electronic contacts, you will need to use one in manual or aperture-priority mode. Since they are more compact and lightweight than the equivalent all-glass lens, they are easy to carry and if you like the results, well, good for you. Used mirror lenses generally are inexpensive on eBay, and if you buy one that is a T-mount, make sure that you have the right adapter for your SLR.

Macro Lenses

Vivitar Series 1 90mm macro lens with 1:1 adapter

Macrophotography is another world of special lenses. While many zoom lenses have a "macro" setting, it’s just close-up photography, and not true macro. Macrophotography is typically making something life-size on the frame (1:1), or larger than life size. A true macro lens will have 1:2 or 1:1 on the lens barrel to indicate that. Depending on your SLR system, macro lenses are almost invariably more expensive than normal lenses of similar focal lengths. Since I use Nikon most of the time, I am familiar with what has been available for the F-mount over the years. I’m not going to cover modern lenses made for DSLRs or mirrorless systems. However, the older classic lenses still work great with film, and in most cases, digital bodies. My all-time favorite is the 90mm Tamron macro lens. It’s had several iterations as an Adaptall-2 lens, as well as mount-specific AF versions. 

  • 90 mm f/2.5 Tele-Macro with 49mm filter diam. - the earliest version, 1:2 without an extension tube or diopter.
  • 90mm f/2.5 Tamron SP with 55mm filter ring, 1:2, 1:1 with matching extension tube. I have had this lens for over 20 years, and with the adaptall-2 mount, it has been used on various SLR systems.
  • 90mm f/2.8 Tamron SP AF Macro. 1:1. The filter ring is 55mm, and at 1:1 the closest focus distance is just under foot. 
  • 90mm f/2.8 Tamron SP Di. The latest version of this lens, presumable optimized for digital SLRs, it still does exactly the same as the previous version, but seems less plasticky-looking and operates more quietly.

Nikon's 55/2.8, 55/3.5/105/4 and 200/4 macro lenses

The most common macro lens for Nikon is the 55mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor, which was produced virtually unchanged, for both non-AI and AI versions. With the matched M-ring, an extension tube made especially for that lens, you get 1:1 reproduction, otherwise, it’s 1:2. That lens was replaced by the 55mm f/2.8. However, that lens has a reputation for some batches being nearly unusable over time due to the helicoid seizing up. I have seen many of them in various degrees of stiff focus, to being nearly unusable. A trip to a repair technician can cure the problem. If you have one that focuses smoothly, it’s a great lens that can be used as a general purpose normal lens as well as a macro lens. The PK-13 Nikon extension tube is used to bring it to 1:1 reproduction. 

One lens that is also a favorite, but I have not owned in a long time is the 60mm f/2.8 AF-D Micro-Nikkor. It focuses from infinity to 1:1 on its own. It’s very likely the best Micro-Nikkor made, and whether on a film or digital body, it gives great results. I used that lens quite a lot in my work in the Museum of Zoology at the Univ. of Michigan. 

Next, is the 105mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor, which has had several iterations, but because of its longer focal length, provides a better working distance (subject to lens) than the 55mm Micro-Nikkor. Without the PN-1 extension tube, it provides 1:2 magnification, and 1:1 with it. It has a built-in lens shade, and a 52mm filter ring. To be honest, I prefer the Tamron 90 over this lens, but it can be a general-purpose short tele as well as a macro lens. There is a newer version 105mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, which is reputed to be a much better lens, but I have no experience with it. 

The 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor is a lens that I’ve had for 20 years, and it’s different from the other macro lenses listed here because the lens barrel length does not change while focusing, as the internal elements move, so it’s called an IF lens (internal focus). Without an extension tube, it goes to 1:2, with a working distance of 20 inches. It’s a great lens for a lot of larger insects, flowers, nature, etc., and yet it is also a very good 200mm telephoto.   Add an extension tube or diopter, and of course, you get greater magnification. With the f/4 maximum aperture, it’s a versatile lens and easily hand-held. 

Minolta macro lenses are among the best.

There are other single-length macro lenses out there for just about every SLR system, and while a 50mm macro lens is going to be the most common, I suggest looking for the Tamron 90mm Adaptall-2, since you can find an adapter to use it with just about any 35mm SLR system. With that maximum f/2.5 aperture, you have a macro lens, a portrait lens, and a short tele. For greater magnification, you can use extension tubes or a bellows, and there is a whole world of special lighting, clamps, and lenses for extreme macrophotography, that is beyond the scope of this post.

Go Wiiiiide

Wide-angle lenses are sort of niche, in the sense that REALLY wide lenses go all the way to fish-eye lenses. A semi-fisheye lens will have barrel distortion, and a full fish-eye lens will be a full circle on the film (or sensor) plane. Fish-eye lenses have their use, but in my opinion, they can easily be over-used because of the novelty. Really wide lenses such as 16mm can be pricey, and of course, will distort the image. I have found that the 19mm Vivitar f/3.5 wide-angle is one of the better wides available in any mount. It’s almost pancake-like. Next would be 20mm, and there I have some favorites. The 20mm f/3.5 Nikkor-UD with a 72mm filter ring is a non-AI lens is truly great. It’s worth getting one converted to AI-mount if you can. However, if you have a Nikon FM, FE, or F3, you can release the metering tab on the body and use the non-AI lens in stop-down mode. I use mine on my plain-prism Nikon F and really enjoy that combination.

The well-regarded Canon 24mm f/2.8

Four different Nikon 28mm lenses

Six different 28mm M-42 mount lenses

The Vivitar 28mm f/2.5, shown in M-42 and Nikon F-mount.
One of the best third-party 28mm lenses.

However, the 20mm f/2.8 AF-D lens is certainly an excellent lens that is a lot of fun to use, and I recommend it for anyone using an AF Nikon. It’s 62mm filter thread is certainly easier to deal with than the monster 20mm non-AI lens. A 24mm lens in any mount will be a very good choice for a lot of wide-angle photography. Of course, the various 24mm Nikkor lenses are my first choice, but I have used the 24mm f/3.5 Super Takumar, and it’s a very good lens on my Spotmatics. Although 28mm lenses are common as can be in most SLR systems, don’t knock them. A 28mm lens will often surprise you with the lack of distortion, and if you are just starting out, it’s one of the focal lengths that I think belongs in everyone’s bag of prime lenses. If you are looking at M-42 mount lenses, there are many 28mm lenses available - most of them pretty good.

Telephoto Lenses

The excellent Canon 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens

It seems that everyone thinks 85mm is a portrait lens on 35mm SLRs, and they would be right. The little extra reach allows you some space between you and the subject, and since many 85mm lenses have wide apertures of f/2 or larger, you can have shallow depth of field, dropping out the background. However, it’s not the only focal length to consider for portraits - 90mm (as in the Tamron lens mentioned previously) and 105mm are also considered to be good for portraits, and in 105mm, there are a lot of choices across the many lens mounts. Yes, the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor is a favorite, but so is the SMC Takumar 105mm f/2.8 lens, which by the way, is about half the weight of the Nikkor lens. There is also a 100mm f/2.8 Series E Nikon lens, which ain’t bad. All of these lenses should be used with a lens hood to keep extraneous light away from the front element. Many photographers use the 105mm lenses with extension tubes for close-up photography, and the 105mm Nikkor was a staple for a lot of nature photographers. The shallow depth of field at f/2.5 again works well to isolate the subject from the background, as does the focal length. 

135mm lenses - Nikon, Olympus, Pentax M-42, Minolta MD

Now, I’ll discuss the orphan lens of the 1970s and 80s, the 135mm telephoto. At one time, the 135mm lens was almost always in a camera bag, often with a 2x teleconverter (a short magnifying lens that couples to the back of the 135). They were the the most affordable telephotos, as short as they were, and were really common in T-mount with an adapter to fit your camera mount. A 135 mm/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter basically gave you a 270mm f/5.6 lens.  Today, 135mm lenses tend to be overlooked, but among them are ones that are bokeh monsters - especially those lenses that were pre-set with a maximum f/2.8 or f/3.5 aperture. (See my post on pre-set lenses). These were low-cost lenses labelled as Spiratone, Vivitar, Soligor and others. They are compact, cheap, and the multi-bladed apertures are circular. I highly recommend them if you are looking for something a little different. Otherwise, all the SLR manufacturers sold perfectly good 135mm lenses, usually either with f/3.5 or f/2.8 maximum apertures. Some focus closer than others, and yes, they can be used for portraiture as well as landscapes. 

The Nikon 180mm f/2.8 ED telephoto is a great manual lens that is tack sharp, and yet could also be use for fashion photography and landscapes. I once had one, but found that I rarely used it, so I sold it. I should have kept it! 

200mm telephotos are plentiful and inexpensive today. Aside from the common Nikon versions, there are many to choose from in M-42 mount, some a bit faster at f/3.5, but f/4 is the typical maximum aperture. The 200mm f/4 Super Takumar is an excellent lens. Just about every SLR system has a 200mm prime lens, and of course, there are many third-party options available. 

The 300mm f/4 AF-D Nikkor

As far as telephoto lenses go, it really comes down to what you need that determines what you get. At one time, just about everyone wants a big telephoto lens of 400mm or greater, but unless you really need to haul that thing around for nature photography or sports, a tele zoom of 80-300mm is going to be the better choice. Fast telephotos are of course, very expensive and very heavy. Sports photographers and bird photographers will have those - and big apertures mean BIG pieces of glass, which also means $$$. However, if you just need a decent telephoto of 300mm for high school sports, etc., the 300mm f/4 AF Nikkor is still a great lens that sells from $250 -$400 used. Meanwhile, the manual focus 300mm f/4.5 Nikkor sells for about $150 or less. I have both of these lenses, and I rarely use the older manual lens, but the newer one has had a fair amount of use over the years, especially with an extension tube for insect close-ups.


The Kiron 70-200mm f/4 zoom in OM mount

Zoom lenses have become a fixture and just about every new digital camera, whether fixed lens or a body with the ability to change lenses, comes with a zoom. In the days of auto-focus film SLRs, zoom lenses became the standard as film speed ratings of 400 ISO and higher allowed the proliferation of f/4.5-5.6 slow zooms with a typical range of 28-80mm kit lens. That trend continued into the DSLR era with the 18-55mm lenses for APS-C sensors. Back in the late 70s to late 80s, the typical zoom was a 70-210mm in any mount, but there are some surprises, such as the 1970s Vivitar Series 1 35-85mm f/2.8 zoom. That lens was available in all popular lens mounts, and while it is getting on in years, it still outperforms many modern short zooms.  It’s a short beast of a lens with a 72mm filter ring. Soligor’s compact 28-55mm f/3.3-4.5 variable aperture is a well-made short zoom that is excellent for wandering around with a camera. It has a close-up feature that lens you get to 1:3 reproduction. Yet, the lens isn’t any larger than a typical 55mm prime lens. In my opinion, one of the best manual zooms made is the Kiron 70-200mm f/4 macro zoom. It comes with a locking tab that keeps it at the desired focal length, and for a push-pull zoom, it’s still an excellent lens that’s available in popular lens mounts, and was also sold by Vivitar as a Series 1 lens. It’s a handful of lens, to be sure. There are many other Vivitar 70-210mm zooms, but only the Kiron-made model with the zoom-lock and 62mm filter size and a fixed f/4 maximum aperture is the one to get.  Another odd zoom is the Chinon 40-15mm f/3.5. It’s not a push-pull zoom, but a two ring zoom, with the lower ring rotating for the focal length. In addition, the macro ring allows it to close focus at any focal length, up to 1:4 close-ups. It has a nice bokeh, and a 67mm filter ring. It was available in popular lens mounts. It’s not a tiny lens, by any means, but certainly worth a look. 

Not the best - the 43-86mm Zoom-Nikkor

One of the best - the 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D Zoom Nikkor

43-75mm Fujinon Zoom

The Minolta 28-85 zoom

A monster - the Tamron 35-210mm zoom

The Tamron 28-80 zoom is a good buy.

Some of the really old zoom telephotos are massive, heavy metal beasts with so-so optics. I’d stay away from those 100-500mm f/8 zooms that look like a mortar on the front of your camera. However, you can often pick up some interesting old zooms for less than $20. 

With prime lenses, you can usually get a faster lens at a given focal length than zoom lenses, and if you want fast zooms, be prepared to spend money. Back in the previous century, a fast zoom would have been the Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8. Still, an amazing lens, but expensive and heavy. More likely, you would have the Nikkor 80-200 f/4 - which is a fantastic lens all around. Cheap manual zooms from the 1980s such as an Albinar 70-210 would typically be a variable zoom of f/4.5-5.6, or even f/6.3. In today’s market these old zooms sell for a few dollars, if at all. They are not necessarily bad, it’s just that there are much better lenses out there for not much money. When 200mm seemed ho-hum, lens manufacturers then went to 70-300mm zooms, and in the AF world, they are now commonplace. The Tamron 70-300mm is a lightweight and impressive AF zoom that has a 1:2 macro setting that really is quite good for a lot of nature photography.

Nikon's best all-purpose AF zoom

Within the Nikon universe, I have a few favorite zooms that I use regularly:

  • 24-50mm f/3.3-4.5 AF Zoom Nikkor - great city street lens
  • 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 AF Zoom Nikkor - excellent range of focal lengths - a "one lens" for travel
  • 80-200mm f/2.8 AF Zoom Nikkor - fantastic lens 
  • 70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF Zoom Nikkor - the old standby
  • 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor - pretty decent range, sharp
  • 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom Nikkor - one that I have carried along the most
  • 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E Zoom Nikkor - one of my favorite lenses, by the way!

The Nikon Series E 75-150mm f/3.5 - a favorite lens

Care of your lenses

Some advice for your lenses - don’t store them in the OEM lens cases, no matter the SLR system. Over time, these lens cases become fungal breeding grounds. Depending on their age and construction, deteriorating foam within a case can coat your lenses with a layer of black dust, so throw those old grungy lens cases away. 

Lenses should be stored where they won’t be subject to moisture, and never in a closed plastic container for any length of time. Yes, use silica gel to keep lenses free from moisture - only when necessary. Store them with the rear lens cap attached as well as the front one to avoid damaging the surfaces, and to keep them free from dust. 

Some people keep a skylight filter always attached to the front of a lens - not a bad idea when you are worried about damaging the front lens element when out shooting an expensive lens. However, I rarely have done that myself. I do use various filters when necessary, so the additional layer of glass from a UV filter really doesn’t warrant its use.   

Clean the lens surfaces with a blower or lens brush and a microfiber cloth when out in the field. I always use lens tissue and an optic cleansing solution when I am cleaning lenses at home. 

There is a misconception that any flaw in a lens is something serious, and that it makes the lens nearly worthless. I can tell you that if you have ever looked at older lenses from before the 1960s, you will find some with a tiny bubble or two in the glass of some of the elements. That’s not a problem. A tiny scratch or "wipe mark" on the front element isn’t a problem, either. Interior dust in a lens usually is not a problem, either, and almost any telephoto zoom will have some. Some people obsess so much about perfection that those are treated as if they are big problems. They are not. Fungus and haze are problems, for sure. So is delamination of lens elements where the balsam cement has degraded. However, I once tested a 100mm Series E lens with a fair amount of fungus against the same lens model that was pristine. There was loss of contrast in the images made by the fungused lens - and somewhat softer image - but that didn’t make the lens unusable. If you have a nice lens that gets spots of fungus, or buy an expensive lens at a really low price because of the fungus, have it cleaned by a repair professional. While old lenses can often be disassembled and cleaned if you follow instructions and have all the right tools, modern lenses should go to a repair shop for cleaning and lubrication.   

As the old Stone’s verse goes, "You can’t always get what you want..." but persistence and sometimes a bit of luck will get the lens you need. Sometimes it might take some time with a lens to really get used to the potential it offers. Other times, you’ll be gob-smacked immediately with it. The best thing is that the prices for older manual lenses makes it easier to acquire them and build a collection of lenses that become tools to work with. Just like a craftsman always has a box of different screwdrivers, that box of lenses will have something for almost every situation.  After all, no matter what SLR system you are using, it’s just a holder for a lens and film.  Have fun exploring with other lenses and see which ones become your favorites!