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. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Spotlight: Yashica T2


The Yashica T2 is a 35mm point and shoot camera from 1986. I bought mine last month as part of an auction lot that also included a Panasonic portable DVD player. I obviously purchased the lot for the Yashica, but I've actually loved being able to watch my Tales from the Crypt DVD's on the go! 

The T2 is pure 80's plastic fantastic goodness. I think the only piece of metal on the camera is the screw on the battery compartment door. However, housed inside this lovably ugly hunk of plastic (this thing ain't winning its user any style points) is a wonderful 35mm f/3.5 Carl Zeiss Tessar lens. The question is, can the camera focus properly to take full advantage of such a nice piece of glass? 

Being from the mid-80's, the autofocus on the T2 is not the most accurate. The camera tells you the general distance it's trying to focus at when you half press the shutter. It does this by displaying a light-up symbol of a person (1-2 meters), a group of people (2-4 meters), or a mountain (4 meters - Infinity) in the viewfinder. I found my camera often wanted to focus at the furthest distance even when I was pretty close to my subject. I often had to half press the shutter two or three times until it displayed the distance symbol I thought was appropriate. If the camera does nail the focus, which is a bit of a toss up, images are quite sharp. 

The shutter and winder create an absolute cacophony of nostalgic photographic noises each time the shutter is tripped. One nice touch is that the camera will not wind to the next frame until the shutter button is released, which cuts the amount of noise in half if you're trying to be a little sneaky. The lens has a  semi-transparent plastic cover that slides out of the way at the moment of exposure. This protects the lens against scratches and dust. 

The T2 has a built-in flash, and its pretty weak. With ISO 100 film (which is what I used) it only reaches as far as 2.5 meters. I took some photos at night, and was a little shocked when most of my group shots came out very underexposed, even though my subjects were fairly close.  At least the T2 offers a decent amount of control over the flash. There's a "No Flash" button to make sure the flash does not fire, as well as  a "Day Light Flash" button you can press to force the flash to fire in sunny conditions for some fill. 

Besides a ten second self-timer, there are no other controls on the T2. Overall it's a simple camera that's easy to use, as long as you don't mind babysitting the autofocusing mechanism a bit. I'm fairly happy with the photos I got using Kodak T-Max 100 film that expired in 1996. Check out my results below! 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Spotlight: Canon EOS RT


Last October I tried out the Canon Pellix, a Canon SLR from 1965 that utilized a pellicle mirror (you can read that article here). This year I decided to try out Canon's more recent pellicle mirror offering, the EOS RT from 1989. Like the Pellix from nearly 25 years earlier, the EOS RT (stands for "Real-Time") has a fixed, semi-translucent mirror that does not flip up during the moment of exposure like on a standard SLR. Instead, 2/3 of the light passes through the mirror to the film, while 1/3 of the light goes into the pentaprism viewfinder. This means that you never lose sight of your subject -- there is never any "blackout" like on just about every other SLR. This makes the RT a handy tool for sports or street photography, as you can see the decisive moment as you click the shutter. 

The tradeoff, like with the original Pellix, is a slightly dimmer focusing screen, since the majority of the light is passing through the mirror to the film. However, with a fast lens like the 50mm f/1.8 that I used with the camera, this dimness is hardly noticeable, especially outdoors. Another tradeoff is image quality, if dust or fingerprints manage to get on the mirror. With a clean mirror, the RT should produce images just as sharp as a non-pellicle camera. 

Unlike the Pellix, the RT boasts autofocus, as well as a built-in 5fps motor drive. In my tests, the AF worked well in decent light, but struggled indoors (pretty typical of an AF system from its era). There is only one autofocus point, right in the center of the focusing screen. I will say, shooting at 5 frames per second with full view of my subject was an absolute thrill! It felt like I was... cheating. 

The RT with the back open and shutter open, showing how light passes through the mirror

Besides the pellicle mirror and 5fps shooting, the RT is very similar to the EOS 650. Other than the "RT" badge, the body design is practically identical to the 650. This is not a bad thing, as the form factor of the camera is extremely comfortable. However, I do dislike how many of the controls are hidden behind a flap on the rear of the camera, and not immediately accessible. For things like ISO, rewind, and battery check, that's fine, but having to open up the flap to change my AF and drive mode is a pain. 

The damned flap

I love the soothing blue light...

Below are some photos I made with my Canon EOS RT, a Canon 50mm f/1.8 EF lens, and Ilford HP5+ film. I'm pleased with the results, and would recommend this camera to anyone, as it's pretty cheap (I got mine for $30 with a flash!). Thanks for reading! 

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Spotlight: Nikon N90


Last month I stumbled upon an estate sale that had a basement absolutely chock-full of old cameras and lenses. I bought a dozen or so cameras, one being this Nikon N90. With it, I also grabbed a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D series lens. 

The N90 originally came out in 1992, and was positioned directly below the then Flagship F4 model in Nikon's line. It was touted as a professional's camera, boasting even better autofocus performance than its big F4 brother. 

The N90 is a solid camera with a decent heft to it (nearly two pounds without a lens). Its build features a lot of plastic, but it still feels robust. If you're a fan of late 80's or early 90's aesthetics, then you'll love the look of this camera. It has a comfortable deep grip, and balances nicely with chunky primes like the 85mm f/1.8. Overall it's definitely premium, though obviously a step down from the metal monster that is the top of the line F4. One thing to note about the N90 is how the grippy material on the film compartment door turns to gross goop with time. Every N90 I've ever seen has a sticky mess covering the back of the camera. I had to wipe the back of my N90 clean with alcohol. Luckily, the front grip never seems to have this issue. 

My N90 with all the goop removed from the door

The top plate of the camera houses most of the N90's controls, where everything is straightforward and simple. The camera is turned on via a large switch conveniently placed directly behind the shutter release. If you flip the switch past "On" you will turn the camera on, and activate the camera's beeper, which will chirp happily to confirm when your subject is in focus, as well as scream bloody murder at you if the light is too low. 

Most of the exposure and advance controls are on the left side of the prism. You can choose between aperture priority, shutter priority, program, and manual by holding down the mode button and turning the command dial. The ISO button lets you manually set the ISO between 6 and 6400 if you're like me and don't trust DX film coding to work with 30 year old cameras. The Drive button lets you choose your frame rate. There's single shot, 2 fps, and 3.6 fps. Now that's some b l a z i n g speed! The flash icon button switches flash modes if you have a dedicated one attached to the hot shoe. 

Shutter speeds range between 30 and 1/8000 (yowza!), and are selectable with the command dial that's placed within easy access of your right thumb. There's only one command dial on the N90, and that's because aperture is only adjustable via the aperture ring on your lens. Now-traditional dual command dials weren't introduced until the Nikon F5 years later. This being the case, G lenses without an aperture ring will not work with the N90. 

All important information is viewable on a handy top LCD panel. Tap the little lightbulb button to the left of the eyepiece and it even lights up with a soothing blue-green glow. 

Focusing modes include single, continuous, and manual. There is no back button autofocus, so focus must always be activated by half-pressing the the shutter release, which has a nice range of motion. Autofocus is pretty accurate, but it tends to hunt a bit more than I'd like. The camera is also lets off a cacophony of whirring noises while focusing. It's loud. But, just about all my photos came out sharp, even ones I took in low light, so I guess I can't complain too much about a focusing system from 1992. The viewfinder is large, bright, and sharp, so if all else fails, manual focus is a valid option. 

I took my N90 and 85mm f/1.8 with me to a little fair/concert in Skokie last month. My friend, Eli, came with me and brought his Yashica twin lens camera. He got lots of compliments on his cool classic camera, while everyone ignored my lump of 90's plastic. Alas, the N90 is not a sexy camera by any means, but it is a pretty dang good photographic instrument. It's dirt cheap today, and can be had for well under $100. Below are some photos I made with mine (the film was Ilford HP5+). Thanks for reading!