Monday, July 22, 2019

Friday, July 12, 2019

Spotlight: Mint Instantkon RF70

The Instantkon RF70 is a unique Instax Wide instant film camera made by the Chinese camera company, Mint. It was released in May of this year, though pre-order models have been out since 2018. What's so intriguing about the RF70 (and why I bought one new) is that it's the only Instax camera with manual aperture, shutter, and focus control. See, I was having a blast playing around with Fujifilm's Instax cameras, but longed for a something that offered more creative freedom. I ultimately bought into the RF70 hype and ordered one a few weeks ago. Was it worth it? Here is my take.

To begin, the RF70 is expensive. It's around $900 new. That's definitely a lot to pay for something most people will argue is a toy. Hell, you can buy Fujifilms top-of-the-line Mini 90 or Instax Wide cameras for around $100 today. So what does the extra money get you? As previously mentioned, the RF70 has full manual exposure controls, whereas Fujifilm's offerings are all completely automatic. All you can really change on Fuji's cameras is the exposure compensation, but if you want a specific aperture or shutter speed, you're out of luck. The RF70 has an aperture priority automatic mode with exposure compensation, but you are also free to use any combination of aperture (f/5.6 ~ 22) and shutter speed (1/500 ~ 1sec + bulb). While in manual mode, there is a light by the viewfinder that turns green when the camera believes you have the correct exposure, and red when you do not. This freedom of manual exposure gives you more creative power than with any other Instax camera.

The lens on the RF70 is a major step up from other Instax cameras, as it can open up all the way to f/5.6. My Mini 90's lens, by comparison, is a laughable f/12.7. This means you can make pictures in dimmer situations without having to resort to a flash. If extra illumination is necessary, the RF70 has a cute baby pop-up flash that works just fine. Along with being able to gather way more light, this also means you can achieve pleasant shallow depth-of-field with the RF70. The lens length is 93mm, which translates to around a slightly wide/normal field of view. If I had to guess, I'd say the viewing angle is equivalent to a 35-40mm lens on a 35mm camera. The lens is a definitely soft when used wide-open at f/5.6, but the effect is to my liking. It kind of gives off an 80's glam-shot vibe that I dig.

Photos at f/5.6 allow for blurry backgrounds and soft features

Cheaper Instax cameras typically have three focusing zones you can choose from: portrait, normal, or landscape. The RF70's focusing is completely manual, so you can focus precisely where you want. To aid with this, the RF70 features a built-in rangefinder, which is separate from the viewfinder. You focus through one window, and frame the picture through the other. If you've ever used an old Barnack Leica, this is the same deal. The lens focuses down to .75 meters, which doesn't seem so bad, but it's really not very close at all with the slightly wide lens. The above photograph was made at the minimum focusing distance. Straight head shots are impossible.

The top window is for framing, bottom for focusing. The rear LCD displays your number of remaining shots and battery life.

One of my favorite features of the RF70 is the advance lever. While other Instax cameras immediately spit your picture out after making an exposure, the RF70 waits until you trip the lever. As a result, you can make unlimited multiple exposure before ejecting the film. Super cool! This is the main reason why I bought the RF70, as I love making pictures that involve four or more exposures.

With the RF70 you can do cool dumb stuff, like this 64-exposure photo of my wife eating Cool Whip

Most of these specs and features look great on paper. And, while I applaud the folks at Mint for making an Instax camera that allows for deeper creative expression, there are some glaring flaws with the RF70 that you should to consider before purchasing one of your own.

Firstly, the build quality is not the best. Now, it doesn't feel cheap. The body is made of plastic, but it's good quality, solid plastic. There are simply a few areas of the build that don't inspire confidence. For instance, when I first took the camera out of the box, the hand grip was loose at the bottom. I almost pulled it off the camera trying to get the RF70 out of its tight packaging. It may need to be re-glued at a later point. The part of the build that worries me the most, however, is the folding aspect of the camera. The RF70's mechanism feels unusually fragile compared to folders I've used in the past. Folding the camera out is okay, but you do have to manually straighten the rails before use. Folding the camera back up, however, is pretty sketchy. Beforehand, you need to make sure the lens is at infinity, or else Mint warns in the instruction booklet that the camera could break. Then you need to geeeeeently depress a button next to the lens and sloooooowly push the lens back into the camera. The whole process makes me nervous and it seems like Mint could have designed a better system than the clumsy one present here.

These metal supports unfortunately seem very fragile

The second major issue I have with the camera is viewfinder/rangefinder. The rangefinder is okay, but it's not the sharpest. If your camera is not at the exact right angle with your eye, the twin rangefinder images will not perfectly overlap, instead one image will be slightly above or below the other image. My rangefinder also focuses past infinity, which seems odd, but my shots have been in good focus. The viewfinder is awful. My glasses probably don't help, but the framelines in the RF70's finder are damn near impossible to see. They're super faint, and do not at all give an accurate preview of what will be in your frame. The lines may as well not be there at all, since they're next to useless. Framing any subject less than 10 feet away is a bit of a nightmare. You can see in my photos of Katie how she's a bit awkwardly off to the side or too low in the final images.

I'm undecided on whether I will keep this camera or sell it to buy some new digital gear. I really want to love the RF70, but the lack of close focus, terrible viewfinder, and unwieldy folding design may be deal-breakers for me. The flaws simply make it difficult for me to make the images I want to make. Here are a few more photos I made with the RF70:

f/5.6 at 1/250

f/11 at 1/250

4 Exposures, each f/11 at 1/250

f/22 at 1/500

Two exposures, each f/16 at 1/125

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Collage: Meeting Under the Moon

Meeting Under the Moon, 10"x8", Collage on board.

All collage material was taken from Cats Cats Cats Cats Cats Cats, published in 1958.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Collage: "Sharenting"

Sharenting, 10"x8", Collage on board

All collage material was taken from The Life Cycle Library for Young People, published in 1969.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Collage: "The Way of the Empty Hand"

The Way of the Empty Hand, 10"x8", Collage on board. 

All collage material was taken from the late Masatoshi Nakayama's 1966 instructional book, Dynamic Karate.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Spotlight: Minolta X-700

The Minolta X-700 is Minolta's final flagship manual-focus camera. It's a relatively lightweight and compact SLR with an electronic shutter that works in manual and aperture priority exposure modes, and also sports a program mode. Minolta released the camera in 1981.

I would classify the X-700 as a semi-pro or advanced amateur camera. It's certainly well-made, but lacks the modular aspects of the era's professional cameras, such as the Nikon F3 or Pentax LX. For instance, with the X-700 it is not possible to swap out viewfinders or focusing screens. I would compare the X-700 more-so to Nikon's FE series of cameras, though Minolta's offering is slightly worse, in my opinion. While the X-700 is by no means a bad camera, I believe it has some odd shortcomings. There are better 35mm SLR's out there at the same price point ($100-150).

For one thing, I almost always dislike manual film cameras that require batteries to function. I understand the advantages of an electronic shutter mechanism, but I just hate worrying about batteries. The X-700 requires two 357-type button batteries. Most electronic cameras have a mechanical speed to fall back on just in case (usually around 1/60th or 1/125th), but the X-700 does not have this feature. If your batteries die, you're stuck with a paperweight.

While the viewfinder in the X-700 is one of the brightest out there, the display is lacking for an 80's flagship camera. There is a window that shows your current aperture setting, which is great, but the viewfinder does not show you what shutter speed you currently have selected. All it shows you is what shutter speed the meter believes you should use. You are forced to take your eye away from the finder and look at the shutter dial to make sure you have the correct speed. Better 80's cameras like the Nikon FE and Pentax LX show both your current selected speed and the meter's suggested speed so you can easily set the correct exposure.

Though I know this is not a huge deal for most people, I hate how the X-700 has no multiple exposure feature. Multiple exposures are a large part of my work, and it's always so disappointing when a camera leaves out such a simple feature.

One last gripe. You can't use a cable release!

I know I'm being a negative Nancy. See, the X-700 is a fine camera, but its frustrating shortcomings keep it from being a classic in my book. If you want a truly great manual-focus Minolta camera that no one ever talks about, I strongly suggest the SRT Super. Below are some photos I made with the X-700 and Kentmere 400 film.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Spotlight: Yashica Mat-124G

Released in 1970, the Mat-124G is the last twin lens reflex camera Yashica ever produced. While the Mat-124G lacks some advanced features, it's a well-made camera and is rather small by medium format standards. It's a solid choice if you desire to try out a twin lens setup, but don't want the extra weight of a Mamiya C330, or are afraid to break the bank with a Rolleiflex.

Let's get the negative out of the way. For me, the Mat-124G possesses two major caveats. Firstly, the camera cannot focus close (only up to a meter) without a clumsy, now-hard-to-find adapter, which makes portraiture and other genres of photography challenging. Secondly, multiple exposures are impossible to perform, which is a huge bummer for me.  If you don't care about either of these limitations, then the Mat-124G could be the perfect twin lens camera.

Ergonomics are excellent, and make for quick, simple operation. All exposure information is easily viewable during waist-level operation. Aperture settings (f/3.5 ~ f/32) and shutter speed settings (1 ~ 1/500) are viewable through a window on top of the lens. These exposure settings are adjusted via twin dials to the left and right of the lenses. The match-needle light meter (ISO 25 ~ 400) is also conveniently located on top of the camera in front of the lens hood, though the meter takes outdated 1.3V mercury batteries. Focusing is achieved by rotating a knob with your left hand, while the shutter release is tripped with you right index finder. The matte focusing screen is not the brightest, but it's good enough in decent light, and I've seen much worse. As standard for most waist level finders, there is a pop-out magnifier for critical focus. Other features include an automatic crank advance, and a self-timer for when you want to get in the shot, or don't have a cable release handy for tripod work.

Did I mention the Mat-124G is small? Below is a size comparison with my Mamiya C330. It's really not any heavier or larger than a typical 35mm SLR.

Below are some photographs I made with the Mat-124G and Kodak TMax 400 film. I'm really impressed at the sharpness of the lens, even when shot wide-open at f/3.5.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Woods: Fontainebleau

  Multiple exposures from a hike through Fontainebleau National Park.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Spotlight: Minolta Maxxum 7000

The Minolta Maxxum 7000 is a semi-professional SLR camera from 1985. It was a highly advanced instrument in its time, being the first camera to incorporate internal auto-focus and an internal motor drive. The 7000 sported a brand new "A-Mount," which was not compatible with older manual focus "SR-Mount" lenses. A-Mount lenses were designed from the ground-up to support the 7000's new internal auto-focus system. I own the stylish and sleek 50mm f/1.7 lens.

Though it's packed to the gills with cutting-edge 1980's technology, the 7000 is still nice and compact. Previous to the 7000, if you wanted to automatically advance your film after each exposure, you needed to buy a separately powered motor drive to attach to the bottom of your camera. This device made your camera bulky, heavy, and not so fun to carry around all day. The 7000's internal drive was surely a godsend for photographers, as without any additional attachments the camera automatically advanced the film at a rate of two frames per second.

To power the camera, the 7000 takes four AAA batteries. With an optional attachment (seen on this particular camera), it can be modified to take four AA batteries for extended battery life, which also makes the grip a bit larger but arguably more comfortable. Speaking of ergonomics, the 7000 is simple and enjoyable in operation. Instead of command dials seen on more recent automatic cameras, the 7000 utilizes two sets of blue arrow buttons. The buttons on top of the camera control shutter speed, and the buttons on the side of the camera control aperture. I was initially a bit confused by the placement of the aperture control buttons, but in operation found that my left thumb could easily operate them while still supporting the camera.

You can change the exposure mode, drive mode, exposure compensation, and ISO by holding down the associated button on top of the camera and then pressing the shutter control buttons. Take note that the 7000 automatically detects film speed through DX encoding, but you can also adjust it manually. All settings, as well as the exposure count, are displayed on an LCD panel on top of the camera body. Settings are also viewable on a second panel inside the viewfinder, which even lights up! Like most LCDs from the 80's, the 7000's screens tend to bleed a bit over time.

For a camera that's older than I am, the auto-focus works well. There's only one central focus point, so you need to focus and recomposed if you have an off-center subject. Focusing speed is a tad sluggish by today's standards, and the camera will often hunt a bit in low light. It works totally fine for stationary or slowly moving subjects, but good luck trying to get a sharp exposure of anything moving faster than a leisurely stroll. You can also use manual focus, but the 7000's stock focusing screen is plain matte, which makes achieving exact focus difficult. Screens are interchangeable, and there is a split-prism version available, which could make manual focusing a lot easier.

This particular Minolta Maxxum 7000 belonged to my wife's grandfather, Dick Baer (I also tested out his Rolleiflex). It came with some Kodak Max 400 film half-exposed inside of it, so I took it upon myself to finish the roll. The film was so old (plus I don't know how the camera was stored over the twenty-odd years the film was inside it) that the negatives came out very thin and green. I had to convert the scans to black and white, and really boost the exposure to get any information. The below results do not reflect the quality of the camera in any way, but should serve as a warning against using old film. The first two images were made by Dick, the rest by myself.