Will I ever find the perfect compact camera?

I’ve written previously about my love for the Olympus Trip 35, though unfortunately the shutter seized on me and I haven’t sent it in for a CLA yet (though at least it can be repaired…I’m looking at you, Contax).  Instead of spending a cool hundred bucks on repairing a camera that cost me about $8, I went back to my roots, shooting cheap-as-shit cameras I’ve happened to snap up at my local thrift store.  Another rule for me: I wanted to only buy cameras I knew I could make a profit from later on.

First was the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 ($4) which has an annoying design flaw in a circular light leak.  It also has all the other failings of its ilk, including iffy autofocus, a flash that needs to be turned off every time one activates the camera, slow zoom, zoom at all with the accompanying drop in lens quality.  I also bought a few more zoom models at the same time but decided it wasn’t worth it to burn a roll of film in one.  Oh, some more downsides: the CR123 battery cost me about $12 and there’s no manual ASA setting or exposure adjustment.

I then lucked into an Olympus Infinity Stylus ($5) with its 35mm f/3.5 prime lens.  Sure, I’d prefer the Epic with is faster f/2.8 aperture but I’ll take what I can find at a bargain price.  And there are a few nice improvements over the Zoom 80 version.  For starters, the prime lens makes this camera truly compact.  The ’90s rounded styling make it easy to fit into a pocket though it’s light enough (read: plasticky) to fit around my neck where it hung all of Fall 2019.  Having shot the Zoom 80 I already knew many of the failings though this one has at least a couple more: the fiddly shutter release that occasionally doesn’t fire, as well as a truly horrendous shutter lag.  The camera doesn’t shoot until the lens is fully extended and it makes a rather loud mechanical whir in doing it.  I lost quite a few shots due to this little problem.  And the lens flares at the drop of a hat.  It’s a camera I found useful for my photo project but it’s something that I will never be able to love unreservedly.

The newest acquisition is a Canon AF35M II ($4) and I’ve got to say I’m happy with just how manual this automatic camera is!  I suppose being older had a bit to do with it, but the design philosophy is so much closer to being something that I approve.  For starters, the flash needs to be engaged to work, something I don’t ever imagine using.  But thank God I’m not having to push another button every time I turn on the damn thing.  Another plus is its manual ASA setting from 50-1000, a wide range to handle not only different films but exposure adjustments for things like backlighting, snow, etc.  And it has an AE lock mode as well, though admittedly it’s slow, requires both hands, and makes one depress the shutter release twice. The shutter is responsive though, and there’s no ambiguity surrounding pushing that shutter release.  It shoots quickly and though battery-dependent, it’s the most ubiquitous battery of all, the humble AA.

The Canon AF35M II is the antithesis of the Olympus in nearly every way which is simultaneously its greatest asset and worst flaw.  For starters, it takes not one AA battery but two, which not only increases its weight but also its size by a considerable margin.  And most glaring of all, the motor drive makes a horrible and loud noise that would wake the dead.  If you want to draw attention to yourself during a quiet meeting, this is definitely the camera for the job.  But for now this camera works well for me and ensures that when I drive it’s easy to keep a camera at the ready.

And now that I’ve deconstructed all these cameras and their failings it’s time to bring it back to the Olympus Trip 35, a camera that has caused me many a failed photo due to its lack of automation.  Its zone focusing system can be a bit tricky at full aperture, and while it has two shutter speeds, the slower one at 1/40 second is nearly always preferred.  I find that I have to be very careful shooting it because if I’m too fast the shot will be blurry.  Giving the camera to a stranger to get a picture of me has almost never turned out a good result.

One thing that I’ve discovered along the way is that the longer time went on the more camera design would go toward making cameras so simple even an idiot can figure it out.  Well actually, I already knew this.  But we’ve come a long way from the days of Grandpa shooting Kodachrome slides with an all-manual camera (something which took a bit of skill).  The more they try to make something foolproof, the more I tend to say “Don’t overestimate the fool.”  So customers “demanded” simpler cameras that would give them the ability to expose pictures like a pro and this has led to the average photographer being a complete idiot.  Take away their iPhone and make them think for any length of time to see that it just keeps going downhill still today.

So the end result: the Olympus cameras went on the ‘bay and I made quite a lot of money off them.  I’m keeping the Canon for the moment, as it seems to be less annoying than the others, plus it’s not worth as much.

I don’t dance but I learned the Nikon Shuffle

Because I just happened to find a camera that requires it, at a thrift store, for 1/8 the price that the F2 had cost me.  Had I waited another day I might have gotten it for half off, but then again someone might have snatched it up before me.  A bird in the hand, right?

The Nikon F Apollo (the meter doesn’t work but hey, the shutter speeds are “surprisingly accurate” according to my guy at Cameraworks when he checked it out).  So a camera that can at least do Sunny-16, this will make a good backup/secondary body for the time being.  And once again, I’m not doing the Nikon Shuffle.  As a bonus it came with a (very dirty and scratched) pre-AI 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor-SC lens.  I suppose that if I wanted to put the money into it, I could buy a working Photomic finder (it’ll cost me nearly twice as much as I’m into it for right now) and send the whole thing out for a CLA.  I’ll definitely do a CLA at some point, I hear that Cameraquest is the go-to for the Nikon F.

I found this camera about two weeks after I put my F2A on layaway so I was already committed to the Nikon system, but this is officially the first fully professional camera that I’ve ever shot.  Ironically (or maybe not), I used it as a hammer before I ever put a roll of film through it.  Not too different from the Uzi as it’s a bit “loose” in some of its parts but the manufacturing tolerances are such that it just works.  I felt the same thing about this Nikon F: there’s quite a bit of play in the finder, winding lever, and film door, so I shot a few tests to confirm that it is in fact still light-tight.  And considering that the shutter speeds are still accurate after God knows how long since its last CLA, I have to say that I’m pretty damn impressed.

So now that I’ve handled both for months and shot rolls through them what do I think?  As you might imagine there’s not a whole lot of difference between them, they’re both solidly built fine pieces of machinery, and just look at the picture to see how similar they are.  But I will say: everything that the F did the F2 does better.  It’s a refined design in every way, from the placement of the shutter release, the improved mirror lockup, the faster shutter speed, the swing-out film door, the light meter switch, light meter sensitivity.  I’ve seen a bit of discussion online about the F vs. the F2 and really there’s no reason to choose the original F…unless you happen to find a screaming deal on one like I did.

The one advantage that this camera has for me over my F2 is its look. It might be more evident if these were color photos but this F has some beautiful brassing on nearly every corner.  These two Nikons aren’t the first black cameras I’ve had but this is the first where I’ve paid attention to the patina, evidently it’s something very much desired.  I don’t think much of people who pay to get a camera looking like this (and I’ve seen it done a few times) but I’m happy to inherit its bumps and bruises.  While the F2 looks nearly pristine it’s very obvious that this F has seen some history and if it could talk I’d buy it several drinks to hear what it’s seen.

I don’t dance and that includes the Nikon Shuffle

For the last decade I’ve shot M42 and been extremely happy with the results.  However, as I move forward and mature as a photographer I’ve been running up against the limits of the system I’ve built.  I could see this coming for a while which is why I added a list of cameras to my favorite cameras page that lists what I’ve been looking to try out.  Back in the beginning of December I was down at Cameraworks, my local Colorado Springs camera store, and saw that they had a large collection of Nikon bodies just in, and thanks to some Christmas and birthday money I felt comfortable putting one on layaway (thanks, Mom).  So here it is:

The Nikon F2A, and I bought an AI-modified 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor-S lens with it.  So I’ve finally taken the plunge and said goodbye to M42, Takumar, and Spotmatics.  It could have easily have been a switch to K-mount with the Pentax LX but I felt like this F2 just sort of fell into my lap, so Deus Vult!  I’ve been doing quite a lot of research ahead of time and decided to steer clear of anything non-AI, hence the title of this post.  Johnny Martyr’s post about brand new F6 cameras had me thinking about Nikon and things they still make.  If you go onto Adorama’s or B&H’s sites right now you will still be able to buy these manual focus AI-s Nikkor lenses brand new:
28mm f/2.8 ($540)
35mm f/1.4 ($1100)
50mm f/1.2 ($700)
55mm f/2.8 Micro ($400)
105mm f/2.8 Micro ($800)
(Actually there are more but these are the ones that interest me)  It’s just a shame that the only body they make is the F6.  Remember in 2000 and 2005 when they made limited edition reproductions of the S3 and SP rangefinders?  The 50th anniversary of the F2 is in 2021, I say they bring it back.  The Nikon F2C, with updated metering head.  Hey Nikon, are you listening?

So it was on layaway and I put down the last payment in February, and it’s been mainly sitting since then.  I was hoping to start getting a lot of use out of it but have had no work thanks to COVID-19.  I’ve taken a few shots so far and am halfway through my first roll (Tri-X, naturally) but have devoted more attention to super 8 lately.  But as I write this businesses are starting to open up and people are getting out and about again so hopefully that means that the work will continue.

Shooting half a roll of Tri-X I would say that the camera feels very good in my hands, like it belongs there.  Definitely great build quality, though some pieces feel lighter than I would have imagined.  I would say the F2’s reputation is well-deserved and I’m sure this camera will last me a long time.  There is a problem though: the meter is a bit jumpy at a certain EV value if you’re shooting 1/60sec near wide open.  It will be at – when at f/2 and jumps a bit before settling all the way at + for f/1.4; the experts say jumpy meters are a sure sign of a dirty ring resistor.  While it’s still under warranty I intend to have Cameraworks service the metering head, but I also bought this camera fully intending to send it to Sover Wong, the F2 Master.

Spotmatic shutter problems

This is where I start jumping around in time a little.  After shooting ~40 rolls of film summer 2019, I found out that on the last few rolls the camera shutter had developed a problem.  I had already decided that I would start using my Olympus point & shoot, which has the same focal length lens as I’d been using, plus weighing a heck of a lot less, so it wasn’t like I was obliviously using this camera and ruining so many images; it was only the last 2 rolls of Tri-X that I shot with the camera, thank God.  If you look at a lot of the exposures you can see that the right side of the frame is underexposed, to the point of being clear.

Still, it was annoying since I’ve had this exact camera serviced twice in the last couple years, but this time I think it’s my own fault.  I’m extrapolating from what Sover Wong says about the Nikon F2, but seems like it might be applicable, and I’m a guilty offender: I left my shutter cocked for hours, overnight, even several days in a row.  It’s a habit I have that as soon as I take a shot I’m winding for the next shot, I like to make sure I’m cocked and ready to shoot.  And I never thought about burning a frame at the end of the day to let the springs inside rest, so I did this to myself.  The slower shutter speeds are fine and I shot a roll of Tri-X at 1/60 back in the Fall but I’m hesitant to go above 1/125 which means outdoor shooting will be tricky.  I’m smarter now than I was earlier this summer, but this has put me at a bit of a crossroads.


This was a 1/1000sec exposure which should have been a good shot, alas!

I sent my Pentax ESII to Eric Hendrickson a few years back but he couldn’t bring the camera into spec.  My other ES has developed the same problem it had before which means I’d need to take it apart and give it a bit more valve oil.  And despite giving my beloved SPII two CLAs there were still other problems that came up this Summer (outside of the 6-month warranty), namely that the film spacing is starting to become a bit erratic and the film counter has stopped working. Is my local camera tech to blame for not checking everything thoroughly, or is this just the consequence of using a nearly 50 year-old camera?  Until this I’ve had no problem with the build quality of the Spotmatic and the lenses are top-notch of course.  While the shutter problem would require a CLA anyway and is totally my fault, what that means is that I’m looking at another $120-150 repair.  I’ve shot M42 (and this specific Spotmatic SPII) for a complete decade now and I’ve been so pleased with the Takumar lenses but with my current needs I’ve decided that it’s time to move on to a more capable camera system.

Thoughts on Silbersalz35

First of all, I’m happy that it’s happening at all.  I’ve shot Cinestill but never any unadulterated ECN-2 film but it seems to be the big thing now.  I’m glad 35mm film is coming back to its roots.  There have been some big announcements in the past week or two, and even Kodak has been promoting it.  Perhaps one day we’ll get rid of the C-41 process and shoot ECN-2 color negative completely; I had a dream about that once.

But despite the hyperbolic review by the Phoblographer, there is nothing new or game changing here.  First of all, there was a company called Seattle Filmworks that was doing the same thing way back in the ’90s though they didn’t exactly have the best reputation for quality, I think they used a lot of recans and short ends of varying age.  And even more recently the Film Photography Project has been hand rolling some movie film for people that either want to develop it at home or send it to a lab (there are several labs in the US that will do it, either with ECN-2 or cross-processing in C-41 chemicals).

I’ve been thinking about trying movie film in ECN-2 for a while, if nothing else, then because it should give me the same look as shooting super 8 or 16mm.  And being a lot cheaper than shooting a roll of super 8, I could test out various lighting schemes and shots before going down the motion route.

But this is the first time since Seattle Filmworks that the entire ecosystem has been set up around just ECN-2 processing.  Silbersalz35 does sell everything together at once though, so you’re getting a better idea of the full price, which is €20 or 4 rolls for €60.  I assume that the quality will be top-notch but the big problem is that you’re shipping to/from Germany which won’t be quick and you’re looking at a shipping charge of at least €30 (which includes VAT I think).  Then again it’s about €92 for 4 rolls of film which comes out to just under $25 per roll.  And considering that the US labs are charging around $20 just to process ECN-2, maybe I’ll be trying this out after all.

Project final: gallery installation – Advanced Photography (redux)

We had a pop-up show for one night, this was what I had printed and installed.  It’s hard to sequence them exactly linearly but the last picture gives you an idea what I had in mind.  Final sequence can be glimpsed among my exhibition photos here.

Artist Statement:

Yee-haw State – Joseph Irvin

Coming from Ohio, all I originally knew about Colorado were the stereotypes: mountains, skiing, Coors, and cowboys (this was pre-marijuana).  I was initially forced to embrace the Western aesthetic when taking a job as a Jeep tour guide around Colorado Springs, but I’ve gotten into the spirit over time, to the point where it is now a lifestyle.  Every time I go to a thrift store I’m looking for more western shirts and cowboy hats to wear on tours.  I’m paid to present a certain aspect of Colorado culture/history to visitors and new arrivals, and the boss’s mantra is “Make it like Disneyland!”  While it might not have happened quite like that in real life, we live in a postmodern settler society, where the cowboys have traded in their horses for 4x4s.  We’re driving them on old wagon trails and railroads.  A lot of my time is spent in Garden of the Gods, now the #1 visited park in the country (and it’s being loved to death).  In a state that is experiencing massive population increase and a rapidly growing tourism industry, what is it that makes Colorado unique, and what about that are we selling?  A lot of people say that they hope I never take this landscape for granted, and I didn’t…back when I moved here.  But one does get used to it over time: now it has the familiarity of Home.

Everything was printed on Ilford fiber paper at a custom size of 15×10.  I’d got my usual box of Oriental 8×10 but my photo instructor insisted I go bigger which was frustrating because I’d bought this paper months ago in preparation and now had to find something last minute.  Thankfully Cameraworks came to my rescue cutting me a deal with some 16×20 Ilford they’d had for a while.  I had less than 2 weeks before the show and had to print like mad all day everyday and still didn’t get everything finished, but enough to display at least.  I suppose that printing on 11×14 paper would have been easier to frame (I just hung everything with putty) but I had to come up with a plan fast to print as much as possible and use the entire frame.  So I cut my 16×20 paper in half, trimmed an extra inch, and made a custom taped-off template.  I had a negative holder which showed the edges of the frame so I tried as much as possible to give every print a black border, a nice differentiation to the usual white.  I think I’ve ranted before about cropping the side of a 35mm film frame when printing to a 5:4 aspect ratio, something else my photo instructor insisted on was seeing my entire frame.  Thankfully everything worked out.