Saturday, April 13, 2024

Spotlight: Leica M5


The Leica M5 is a professional rangefinder camera from 1971. The auction house I work at got one in on consignment, so I was able to test it out. The opportunity got me excited, as it had been about nine years since I'd put film through a Leica. Spoiler: I wasn't disappointed! 

People often complain about how ugly the M5 is compared to the classic M3 and M4 cameras, but I find it rather attractive in person. While it certainly looks a little clunky in photographs, when held in the hand, the M5 feels premium. While the M3 is objectively one of the best looking cameras of all time, I think the M5 has all the other M cameras beat. I always hated the diagonal rewind  knob on the M4, M6, and M7 cameras -- The M5 has the knob on the underside of the camera, which gives the camera a cleaner, more uniform look. 

The viewfinder of the M5 is absolutely crystal clear, with a rangefinder patch brighter and more contrasty than anything I've ever used before. Yowza! This excellent viewfinder/rangefinder combo allowed me to focus quickly and accurately, even in the somewhat dim light of the auction house. I also appreciate how the current shutter speed is displayed in the finder, and how the oversized shutter dial let me easily change my speed without forcing me to pull my attention away from the subject. There is also a light meter viewable in the finder, but the meter on this particular M5 wasn't working (corroded battery), so I didn't get to try it out. 

One odd thing about the M5 is how the timed shutter speeds only range from 1/1000 to 1/2. Every other M-series Leica to my knowledge also has a 1 second timed speed. Not that it really matters to most people, but it just seems odd to omit the 1 second speed. Hmm. Another M5 oddity is how it's the only M camera to have three strap lugs. I admire this, even though I didn't dare attach one of my straps out of fear of scratching the finish! 

Overall I found the M5 enormously enjoyable to use. I'll certainly put in a bid once it's on the auction block, though I think this little guy is gonna end up well out of my price range. For the roll I shot with it, I used Ilford HP5+ film, pushed to ISO 1600. The lens was a 50mm f/2 Summicron. The subjects are my co-workers at the auction house, who are all excellent people! :) 

Don't worry, Boss. It's only apple juice! 

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Spotlight: Rolleiflex SL35 E


The Rollei Rolleiflex SL35 E is a 35mm SLR from 1978. I picked up mine at the Chicago Photorama camera show last month. In short, my curiosity got the better of me, and I traded 75 bucks for the camera and a standard 50mm f/1.8 Planar. A pretty decent price, I think. 

The SL35 E is a small, handsome camera with a nice finish. It possesses a few unique features that set it apart from the myriad of other mid-range SLR's of its period. For one, the shutter speed dial is completely clickless. You can smoothly and quickly change speeds (16 seconds to 1/1000) with your right index finger while your eye is to the finder -- it feels like a precursor to the now standard command dials on modern digital cameras. In the middle of that shutter dial is a huge, comfy shutter release. It's threadless, but there is a separate cable release thread right next to the shutter dial which doubles as a shutter locking switch. 

The other unique feature of the SL35 E is its focusing screen's central focusing assist. Instead of a standard horizontal split image assist, the Rollei has an unusual diagonal assist. Rather than having two images that move horizontally and converge, the image assist is made up of three zones. The middle zone will twist around until it matches up with the two outer zones. The outer zones are also microprisms. It's as weird as it sounds, and I didn't really care for it, especially in lower light. I tried to illustrate how it works in the photos below, but you kinda just have to try for yourself to understand it. 

As you can also see from the above photos, the Rollei has a nice full information viewfinder. The light meter is easy to use, with steady diodes lighting up next to the shutter speed you have selected, and flashing diodes indicating the speed the camera thinks you should use (based on your aperture, ISO, and available light).  In addition to manual exposure, there is also an automatic aperture priority mode. 

The film advance lever is smooth and ratcheted (a premium touch), and multiple exposures are possible via a small switch on the back of the camera that also functions as a rewind release. 

And that's really all there is to tell. Besides the bizarre focusing assist that I didn't care for, the SL35E was a pleasure to use. I shot a roll of very expired Kodak Tri-X 400. I'm not sure whether it was the old film or a light leak in the camera, but my negatives did not come out great. The whole roll turned out very dense and grainy. See for yourself below. Thanks for reading! 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Spotlight: Nikon FA


Since moving back to Chicago from New Orleans four years ago, I have accumulated a ton of photographic crap. To get rid of some of it, I got a few tables at the local "Photorama" camera show to unload some of my gear that was going unused. I managed to sell off a decent amount of stuff, and also came home with a few new toys. One of those toys was a Nikon FA that I bought for a great price from a fellow vendor named David Granroth, who runs a camera repair service out of Detroit called "Light Box Services." The FA is one of the few Nikon SLR's I had previously never used, so I was curious to try one out!

I personally love the look of the FA (which came out in 1983), especially with the optional hand grip attached. It definitely has a retro 80's look, which is in stark contrast to Nikon's FE and FM cameras that instead sport timeless classic designs. The FA has an aesthetic that's not for everyone, but as someone who enjoys CRT televisions, VHS tapes, and classic Nintendo, the FA makes me swoon. Though I prefer the camera in black, it also comes in a silver finish. 

With the grip attached, the FA is one of the most comfortable 35mm SLR's I've ever used. The slightly oversized film advance lever and silky smooth shutter release combine to make creating exposures a pleasurable experience. The shutter is electronic, with selectable speeds ranging from 1 sec - 1/4000. Without batteries the camera is able to fire at 1/250 (also the max flash sync speed) and bulb. The camera features four (!) exposure modes that are selectable via a small switch beneath the shutter dial: Manual, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Program. All of these modes work well; the only awkwardness is making sure the lens aperture is at its smallest setting in Shutter Priority or Program mode, or else it wont work properly. 

The FA's meter has a small LCD readout in the top left of the viewfinder, very similar to an F3. I dislike this simple LCD, and much prefer the detailed needle readout of the FE camera, or even the diode system of the FM. In Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority the LCD works fine, as it will read out the speed or opening that the camera wants to use based on the amount of light in the scene. In manual exposure mode, however, all you get is a rudimentary  "+" or "-" indicating over or under exposure. Unlike with a needle or diode system, you don't know how many stops off you are, which is annoying. It feels to me like Nikon just assumed people would use the fancy auto modes, and left manual exposures in as an afterthought.  

Like all respectable cameras, the FA has a multiple exposure mode-- just pull a small lever as you cock the shutter to avoid advancing the film. 

I shot a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 with my FA. Before this roll, I had not used color film since 2017! While a fun novelty, I think I'll stick with black and white for the foreseeable future. I just don't care for the look of color film, and personally prefer digital for color work. Each image was made with a 50mm f/1.8 series E lens, which pairs perfectly with the FA. For some indoor exposures I utilized a Vivitar 283 flash. Enjoy! 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Spotlight: Bell & Howell Foton

As the resident camera expert at the auction house I work at, I was recently tasked with going through a large lot of vintage equipment that came in from an estate. Inside one of the many boxes of old gear, I found a Bell & Howell Foton, one of the rarest and most sought after American-made cameras of the 20th century! As I realized what I found, my mouth dropped wide open and I instantly started breathing heavily. While out of my price range (these things often fetch over a grand), my boss was nice enough to let me put a roll through the camera.

The Foton was made right here in Chicago by the Bell & Howell company in 1948. It first retailed for a whopping $700, which is about $9,000 in today's money according to the CPI inflation calculator. Yikes! Mostly due to this high price, the Foton didn't catch on and was soon discontinued in 1950. 

Check out that cool frame counter!

The Foton's most distinguishing feature is its spring-driven motor drive which, once wound up via a key on the bottom plate, lets the camera fire at six frames per second! If the key is fully wound, you can shoot through an entire roll of 24-exposure film without having to wind at all between frames. It's a thrill to fire the shutter and watch the circular dial-style frame counter spin, spin, spin away! You can set the camera to fire in semi-automatic mode, or flip a switch and make the Foton keep firing until you take your finger off the shutter release. There is also a manual film advance knob on top of the camera, but it is only used during film loading. The shutter is of the focal plane variety, made of metal, and travels vertically. Speeds range from 1 second to 1/1000, plus bulb.  I didn't get a chance to shoot any action sequences, but you certainly could with this camera. I'm sure the 6fps winder made the Foton a dream camera for photojournalists and sports photographers back when it originally came out. 

Bottom of the Foton, showing the winding key.

The Foton came with a standard "2 inch" (about 50mm) f/2 lens, which is actually measured in t-stops on the barrel. Other lenses were manufactured, but are just about impossible to find these days. You can focus the lens by twisting the barrel, or by turning a small dial on the front of the body, similar to on a classic Contax or Nikon. The Foton has separate focusing and framing windows, both of which are pretty small. The rangefinder window on the Foton I used had a bit of haze, which made focusing slower and trickier than it should have been. I also shot almost my entire roll indoors, which didn't help the situation. 

You can use this little dial to focus the lens, if you're not in a hurry!

Besides the slightly hazy focusing window, I absolutely loved using the Foton. For my roll of film that I shot with it, I made photographs of my wonderful co-workers at the auction house. I used Ilford HP5+, which I pushed an extra stop to ISO 800. Below are my results! If you want to bid on the camera, it will be up for auction live and online on November 11th at Direct Auction Galleries in Rogers Park.