Choosing the right camera
Vintage photography covers from pre WWII right up to about 2005. That’s many decades and lots of cameras. Modern digital photography, which commercially dates from the mid 1990s, includes medium format, dslr full frame and crop sensor cameras plus hundreds of very capable point and shoots. Camera phones are a separate genre and have their important uses but they cannot be called a photographer’s camera.
You may have grown up with film cameras progressing to digital along with the rest of the world and you can end up thinking ‘there’s nothing new to shoot so I may as well put the camera in the bottom draw’. There is always something to shoot with every shot unique to you and this moment in time. Camera technology relating to image IQ is my interest and has sparked continued excitement with everything photographic and especially early image making efforts and vintage cameras. My criteria are 1) I want a useable camera. Good working condition for age. 2)The best camera of its type and vintage. 3) OK for general photography in my genre of interest. 4) Simplicity of function with minor cleaning and servicing able to be carried out by the owner. 5) Availability of specialised batteries if needed.
The 1950s is about as far back as is wise for a well made working vintage camera. This is the era of the Kodak box Brownie, Braun Paxette, various Voigtlanders, including their Bessa, Perkeo and Zeiss Nettar 120 folders.
Moving into the 1960s we see the introduction of SLR technology, The ½ frame (72 frames on a 36 frame roll) and an increase in the TLR medium format design. From the 1970s cameras such as the indomitable Pentax K1000 SLR appear as well as several early auto focus models from Canon, Minolta and Ricoh. Classic rangefinders from Olympus, Minolta, Canon, Contax, Zeiss, Voigtlander and Leica offer plenty of choice in this segment. Assuming you have been gripped by the excitement of shooting a 20 to 50 year old camera now comes the time to closely examine your personal direction in photography – street, architecture, portrait, landscape, studio. Some classics can cover several genres but generally a particular camera is best suited to one specialty. Fixed lens or interchangeable. SLRs, such as the K1000 can be complemented with an extensive suite of very capable Pentax lenses. Also Voigtlander, Contax, Leica, Zeiss, Nikon and Canon manufactured rangefinder bodies able to accept a wide range of their native mount lenses. All these are quite expensive options as the body and lens are separate. Camera ‘cult’ can affect the $ spent especially with Leica and Zeiss. Usually very much upwards.
Budget needs to be considered at this stage as the range can be anything between about $20 to $5000.00. Another consideration is the format. Mostly we think about 35mm, the format which has lots of camera choice and usually good discrete portability, however there is the burning question of image quality. 35mm format cameras with fixed focal prime lenses are capable of outstanding image IQ but medium format with its much larger frame size knocks 35mm completely off its perch. MF cameras are mostly quite large and cumbersome, also expensive. The exception to this is the Voigtlander Perkeo II, a neat little folder from the early 50s. Produced by the German Voigtlander Company and a good well looked after example is still perfectly useable today. Producing a 6cmx6cm frame It is small enough, when folded to fit into a large pocket. Once you get the hang of it they quite quick to use and wow, they produce some very nice pictures. A Perkeo II in A+ condition complete with Voigtlander shoe mount rangefinder is in the range NZ$600 - $750. Going back to 35mm format which, in the end will be the main contender for your vintage camera bag these are the fixed lens rangefinder cameras most suited to street and general work I recommend which will not cause too much bank balance damage. Not in any order of preference. 1) Canon Canonet GIII-QL17, 2) Minolta 7SII, 3) Olympus 35 SP,
4) Olympus 35 RC 5) Olympus 35 DC 6) Canonet SE 45 F1.9, 7) Olympus XA.
This is a brief rundown of their respective pros and cons.
The Canon GIII-QL17, produced by Canon Camera of Japan from 1972 to the early 80s. G = grade up, III = the third and final iteration of the Canonet and QL = quick load. With dimensions of 120x78x60mm It is a solid little camera, being all metal and sporting a fixed 40mm F1.7 lens. This is considered a ‘normal’ view lens with a fast maximum aperture of F1.7. Low light work is no problem with fast high quality glass like this. The quick load film system is a breeze to use – simply bring the film leader over to the orange mark, ensuring it is aligned correctly, close the back and wind on. Works every time. The rangefinder focus patch has reasonable contrast and the tabbed focus ring works smoothly. Shooting on auto you have shutter priority, or manually select your own shutter/aperture combo but without metering. In auto mode a shutter lock prevents the shutter firing when the scene parameters are outside the meter range. The mechanical shutter can be fired in manual settings without the battery. Required battery is Wein MRB625 1.35V. There are two manufacturing versions – 1 made in Japan and the other (same camera) made in Taiwan. The Taiwanese manufacture is just as good but the Japan manufacture commands a significant premium. Pricing for an A+ chrome Japan manufacture ranges between NZ$390 - $480.
The Minolta 7SII is the last fixed lens rangefinder made by the Minolta Camera Co appearing in 1977. Its 40mm F1.7 lens is very well thought of, sharp and contrasty. Auto, shutter priority shooting or unmetered manual. As a battery is only required for the meter the mechanical shutter allows the camera to be used even with battery failure. Battery PR675 zinc/air 1.4v. Not feeling quite as solid as the Canon GIII, nevertheless it is robust and light, so ideal for the wandering photographer. Slightly smaller too at 115x77x60mm. There is no shutter lock (as on the Canon GIII) when in auto mode which allows the shutter to fire even if the scene parameters are outside the range of the meter. This can be a boon and a curse, the plus being you don’t miss a shot with the negative, over or under exposure. In the digital age the boon outweighs the curse as post shoot editing can overcome some of these exposure errors. As photographers, we know image IQ is all about the lens and the 7SII lens delivers without question. Price for an A+ example is in the mid NZ$400s.
Olympus gave us the 35 SP in the early 1970s and their design team built in a few desirable extras. The lens is a superb 42mm F1.7 G. Zuiko 7 element corresponding to the letter G position in the alphabet. It is a little bigger at 129x76x61mm that the previous 2, still nice in the hand but not pocketable. Metering works in auto and manual mode which is great when working manually (aperture and shutter photographer's choice) as you still have the meter’s guidance. Auto mode is shutter priority with the meter recording an EV reading in the viewfinder which is then transferred to the shutter ring to create the correct exposure. Rangefinder focusing is easy to align through the viewfinder using the focus ring with the left hand. The battery only works the meter . A Wein MRB 625 1.35v battery is needed with a fresh cell lasting about 10 months given average useage. Film loading is very good as the rewind crank does not pull up – the film back is opened via a spring loaded tab on the bottom left with the camera base plate being cut away allowing the cassette to drop right in. The only problem with this camera is the cds light meter situated to the left of the viewfinder is always on, drawing albeit very low current continuously if exposed to light. If your camera has the eveready case use it or keep the camera in your dark camera bag when not in use. A well kept A+ working condition SP can command anything from NZ$420 - $550.
The Olympus 35 RC is a neat little rangefinder travel camera,. Carry it around all day and easily pocketable. It is a very small camera at 110x70x45mm (including lens housing) and light. The E Zuiko 5 element 42mm F2.8 lens is the right focal length for most photography and fast enough to cope with moderately light challenged scenes. Shutter priority in auto mode the shutter locks if the light conditions are outside the meter range. This means no bad exposures but can mean missed shots. Shoot manually but no metering. Not so hard if you know a little about light conditions and exposure. A hand held meter can help. The meter requires a Wein MRB625 1.35v cell. An ‘off’ setting is provided on the aperture ring and using this when storing the camera for a day or so saves the battery. The RC needs a bit more care than the others on our list as the film wind lever operates through an unsealed slot on the back of the top plate. Not a camera recommended for the beach or excessively dusty conditions. Apart from that heads up the RC is a little beauty, vastly underrated. Price range for an RC in A+ working and cosmetic condition is NZ$230 -280.
The Olympus 35 DC is an almost forgotten small rangefinder with automatic aperture and shutter. The photographer only has to load and wind the film, focus and click the shutter. It has the same F Zuiko 6 element 40mm F1.7 lens as the much revered RD. The body is slightly larger than the RC but smaller than the 7SII, making the DC a great camera for out and about. To give some degree of exposure control it has a back light button which when utilised narrows the metering range to the rangefinder patch, prioritising this area of the image. In the reality of street photography where only a few seconds may be available for the shot the DC is the perfect choice. Olympus build quality shines through. The DC is suited to daylight photography using a moderately fast film. It does need an Wein MRB625 1.35v battery to operate the meter as well as the shutter being auto aperture/shutter.Not so good for interiors and other light challenged situations. The DC is worth remembering with an A+ Olympus DC should run to NZ$190 - $240.
The Olympus XA, marketed in 1980 is a very small rangefinder with aperture priority shooting and has built up a cult following. . An F Zuiko 35mm F2.8 lens uses an internally focusing design, not retracting or extending. The clamshell sliding outer cover powers the XA up when slid open and powers down when closed, completely protecting the optics. The camera body is smooth and rounded making the XA a very useful photographic tool for candid work. With no protrusions to catch on pockets or camera bag linings it is shutter ready in seconds. 2 fresh SR or LR44 batteries power the meter and shutter for years. There are 2 flash units that complement the XA – the A11 or the A16 being the more powerful. The shutter trigger is electronic and extremely light, protecting the image from camera shake but needing some practice to avoid inadvertent activation. The XA is capable of handling light challenged scenes by virtue of it’s bright lens and hair shutter. Although plastic the XA is robust, lasting for years with moderate use and is tiny enough to always have in your pocket. A nice A+ example with working flash can be NZ$250 -$330.
The Canonet SE 45mm F1.9 is Canons first and very successful rangefinder from the early 1960s. No battery is needed as the shutter is mechanical and the metering system is powered by a circular selenium cell surrounding the lens. A solid well built all metal camera which has come through the intervening 60 years very well and can be shot with confidence today. We admit some bias towards this camera as from our extensive experience of it during the 1960s and again today we can attest to the 45mm F1.9 Canon lens attributes and the robustness of the camera mechanics. On a lot of cameras from this era with selenium cells, these have stopped working either from constant exposure to light – the always on syndrome, or from moisture intrusion through poor storage. The Canonet fared quite well with the positioning of the cell allowing a lens cap to be placed when the camera was not in use thereby effectively turning the meter off. Most of the Canonets light cells have survived to be still working today which means the EE (electric eye) system can be deployed. Setting the aperture ring to Auto then selecting an appropriate shutter speed from B up to 1/500 the EE system displays in the viewfinder the aperture selected by the camera. Even if the meter has failed the camera can still be shot manually. The rangefinder patch is usually clear with the focus ring easy to use. These cameras range a lot in price from NZ$15 to $220. An A+ example will be at the upper end and can be expected to be in top working order. The lower end may be disappointing due to stuck shutter, faulty film wind and failed meter.
These are our recommendations for mid price range vintage rangefinders. If you find one you like and can’t physically check it ask the questions about operation, working meter, lens fungus and cosmetics. There are many options, more or less expensive, complex or simple. If you have any queries we can help with please contact us.