Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Vintage rangefinder cameras: A user's view

Mama, don't take my Kodachrome (a lovely screen name, by the way) left this comment on the “Olympus Auto Eye” post:

Wow, funny thing finding your Blog while searching Google for Olympus Auto Eye. I too live here in Tulsa, and just bought one yesterday while working in Dallas. I found it on Craigslist for $10. It appears to be in almost mint condition, complete with cap, case, strap, manual, and flash bracket. The meter is about one stop off, but that is easy to fix by just setting the ASA to half of the film rating. Hoping to run a roll through this weekend. It's a lovely, solid, and clever camera.

I'd love to see your Auto Eye images, as they wont load on this page. Do you have a Flickr account or other photo hosting site?

This is a brief summary of what I've learned from tinkering with vintage rangefinder cameras. There's no attempt at scientific method, just my subjective opinions, so take it with a grain of salt.

I've included a sample photo taken with each camera listed. More are available on my Google+ page. They're small, low resolution images, but if there's one you particularly like, contact me for a high-res version. Also, you should know that most of these photos have had some minor editing in Zoner Photo Studio. I almost always adjust the levels and the gray point, add some color saturation and contrast, and sharpen them slightly. This works well for nearly any photo, including digital ones. When I have lots to do, like after photographing a bike race, for instance, the batch editing tool is my very best friend.

Here's my usual process for evaluating and buying old cameras – whatever the type. It's a given that old cameras will have gummy, rotting seals, so it's also a given that they'll need to be replaced. On SLRs, this includes the bumper that the mirror contacts as it flips up. If you decide to replace this yourself, take pains to avoid dropping any of the gummy pieces on the mirror or inside the camera. Trust me, they're a PITA to clean up.

Most door seals are foam strips that measure 2mm by 2mm in cross-section. I cut them from sheets of foam that have an adhesive backing on one side. After removing the old seals with a sharpened chopstick and cleaning the channels with alcohol, I carefully set the new seal in place, using a small tool to push it down.

I open the camera and watch the aperture leaves and shutter for proper operation. I'm not overly concerned with the shutter calibration as it's common for the slow speeds to be off. Just cock the winding lever and fire the shutter. Go through the whole range of speeds and apertures. In an SLR, the aperture blades should stop down consistently and shouldn't be slow or sticky.

The deal breakers are: broken or missing parts, inoperative mechanisms, lens fungus, and corrosion. Parts for old cameras can be difficult to find unless you have a second, donor camera. An inoperatve shutter, broken rangefinder, or stuck wind lever can be fixed – often at a price that exceeds what the camera is worth unless it's a high end model such as a Leica. And if you have a Leica, you shouldn't be working on it yourself. Some cameras require a working battery in order to fire the shutter. More on them in a moment.

Corrosion is the big deal killer. Old batteries leak acid with devastating results. If the battery compartment will not open, there's an excellent chance the cover is corroded in place. Give it a pass. Acid can wick along the internal wiring, reaching parts that are far from the battery compartment. Corroded cameras are good for parts, but that's about all. I'll spend five bucks for a non-working camera, perhaps ten if I really need it, but no more.
My favorite rangefinder camera is the Yashica Electro 35GT. Yashica allegedly made more than 8 million of these cameras, perhaps making them the Norway rat of photography. This is my “go to” camera for many situations. It's quiet and unobtrusive, but the truly outstanding part is that lens. The camera has numerous flaws, but make no mistake, the lens is superb and the photos are crisp.

Here's what I've learned about individual cameras:

Olympus Auto Eye

This is a shutter-priority camera. You set the shutter speed and it picks the aperture. I was impressed by the build quality of this one. It simply feels solid in the hand and the controls have a precision appearance. The shutter release is a long shaft. Push it halfway while looking through the viewfinder, and you can watch the aperture wheel spin in the bottom of the rangefinder window. There's no battery. Instead, the camera uses a photocell that supplies the necessary voltage for the exposure.

That photocell is a problem. When exposed to light over a long period, it will deteriorate, and since the camera needs it to operate, a blown photocell leads to an inoperative camera. It doesn't have any manual settings. The photocell can be replaced, however, and with a little digging I can probably find the web page with the instructions. Fortunately, mine seems to be working OK. When not in use, I store it in a dark place.

Olympus XA and XA2


These two little cameras – and by little I mean possibly the smallest 35mm rangefinders in existence – share the same basic body but have some major differences. The XA is a true rangefinder with a split image focusing mechanism. The XA2 is a zone focus camera. In use it hardly matters because the 35mm lens is a semi-wide angle with great depth of field. Someone said that the XA tends to vignette while the XA2 doesn't, but I never noticed it.

I gave the XA2 to a friend who'd had one back in the day, and I'm sure she'll cherish it. I still have 2 Xas, but someone who looks remarkably like me fumbled both of them. The crashes resulted in one inoperative rangefinder and another broken exposure mechanism. Perhaps I can graft the parts together to make one working camera, but it's not high on my priority list.

Canon Canonet GIII QL17

This camera has a cult following, but in all honesty I don't understand why. Sure, it's another solidly built camera like the Olympus Auto Eye and probably has a better lens. It's ten years younger too, so that's undoubtedly a factor. But I'm underwhelmed with the photos.

This Canonet operates in both manual and shutter-priority modes. It has a big, easy to use rangefinder that appeals to those of us with eyeglasses. And despite being dropped a few times – a common theme for me – it continues working. Like some other old cameras, it was originally equipped with a 1.3 volt mercury cell. Replacement alkaline batteries are 1.5 volts, so the ASA dial has to be offset to compensate by about 1/2 stop. With 400 speed film, that means I set the dial at 320.
apr 11 2011_ejwagner_013

Konica Auto S2

I was carrying this on a photo walk once when someone asked, “Is that a medium format camera?” It's a 35mm rangefinder, but it's a big, burly, masculine one. It's a heavy SOB too. The Konica has both manual and automatic mode, but I've never tried a battery in it, so I don' t know if the auto mode works. It has a good lens with a integrated hood and it's built like a tank.

Yashica Lynx 14

If the Konica is a tank, the Yashica Lynx is a battleship. This is a massive camera. If you were lost in the wilderness with this on your shoulder, it would force you to walk in a large circle, but you could club a bear to death with it. The lens is a monster, a 45mm f1.4 that isn't found on any other consumer grade rangefinder camera. It's supposed to be optimized for shooting wide open with low light, but in all honesty, I haven't used it extensively.

Yashica Electro 35 series

Last but clearly not least, the Yashica Electro 35 series offers tremendous value. They were inexpensive cameras in their day and can be found on eBay for very little money. The big feature is that lens. It's a 45mm f1.8 that offers wonderful sharpness and contrast. It's color corrected, too, so it performs better with color film that some of the older models.

These are aperture-priority cameras that will operate without a battery, but only at about 1/400th of a second. Some auto cameras, like the Olympus Xas, will not work at all without a battery.

It's common to find extensive corrosion in these cameras, so if the battery compartment cover won't come off or it any corrosion is visible inside the compartment, don't buy it. Likewise, if it doesn't make the “Yashica clunk” when advancing the film, don't buy it. A good camera has a characteristic clunk that is absent when the so-called 'pad of death' is worn or missing, and it's a particularly difficult part to repair as it requires extensive disassembly. Rule of thumb: no clunk = no deal.


Blogger Steve A said...

Some older cameras really LIKE the obsolete mercury cell batteries. My Praktica is one such. While I found a modern battery that is close, it isn't quite the same.

5:24 AM  

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