Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Spotlight: Asahiflex IIA

The Asahiflex IIA came out in 1955, and is a slight revision to the original Asahiflex, which came out a few years earlier in 1952. The Asahiflex was made by Asahi Optical Company (known as Pentax today), and has the honor of being the very first Japanese single lens reflex camera. The 1955 IIA model I got to try out has a few features the 1952 version does not, such as an instant-return mirror and slow shutter speeds. Otherwise, the IIA is about identical to the OG model. 

The Asahiflex came out before pentaprisms (eye-level finders for through-the-lens viewing) in SLRs were commonplace; Asahi Optical Company would not release their own pentaprism SLR until their aptly-named Pentax model in 1957. Instead, the Asahiflex came outfitted with a waist-level viewfinder. The waist-level finder is easy to focus with, but can be tricky to frame action with, due to the image being mirrored. To attempt to remedy this, Asahi added a simple eye-level action finder next to the waist-level finder. I never used this little finder, as it's small and not fun to look through. 

Controls on the Asahiflex feel similar to the screw-mount Barnack Leicas. Film is advanced and the shutter is set via a knurled knob. This knob sits atop a frame counter that must be manually reset after each roll of film. The shutter speed dial can only be changed once the shutter is set, and you must lift the dial before it will turn. Fast speeds (1/50 ~ 1/500) are selectable on the main shutter dial on the top plate, while slow speeds (1/2 ~ 1/25) are relegated to a secondary dial on the front of the camera.

Asahiflex lenses do not have automatic diaphragms. This means you have to focus with the lens wide open, then manually stop the lens down before you fire the shutter. It's a bit of drag, lemme tell ya. I shot most of my roll wide-open just to avoid the whole dull process.

Focusing is pretty easy, even without any assists on the focusing screen. The all-matte screen is bright, and it's easy to tell when your photo is sharp, as subjects really pop into focus. I was pleasantly surprised, as a lot of focusing screens from the Asahiflex's era are dim and dull. The standard lens for the Asahiflex, the 58mm f/2.4, is wonderful. It's pretty sharp for its age, and produces beautiful swirly bokeh. 

Below are some photos I made with the Asahiflex IIA and 58mm f/2.4. Like I said, most photos were shot wide open at f/2.4. I used Kodak Tri-X 400 film. Overall, the Asahiflex is a fun camera and an interesting piece of photographic history, but not something I can recommend for regular use.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Spotlight: Zeiss Contaflex S


The Zeiss Contaflex S is a compact, fixed-lens, 35mm SLR. It was released in 1968, and is the final Contaflex camera Zeiss ever made. I lucked out and found mine for about $20 at an antique mall. 

The Contaflex S is a beautiful, well-built camera, but operation feels sluggish and antiquated, even for the time when it came out. For starters, the frame counter does not automatically reset after each roll, which is laughable for 1968. It is a countdown-style frame counter, however, which I do appreciate, and I like how it encircles the shutter release. The second aspect of the camera that really slows down operation is the lack of an instant-return mirror. This means that when you take a photograph, the finder goes black until the shutter is re-cocked. The advance/cocking lever on the S is also very stiff compared to contemporary cameras. 

The lens on the Contaflex S is a fixed 50mm f/2.8 Tessar. It's pretty sharp, but I do wish it was an f/2, like on the Kodak Retina Reflex. The front element of the lens can be removed, and auxiliary lenses can be attached to achieve a few different focal lengths, but they ruin the look and balance of the camera. The 50mm lens's slightly slow f/2.8 aperture translates to a focusing screen that's a bit dim. There is a split-image rangefinder assist on the focusing screen, which makes achieving focus a little easier, but trying to use this thing in subdued light is a nightmare. The focusing ring is very smooth, but can only be turned via two little tabs on either side of the lens. In the heat of the moment, these tabs can be a difficult to locate.

The leaf shutter on the Contaflex S ranges from 1 second to 1/500, plus bulb. Apertures vary from f/2.8 to f/22. While shutter speeds are easy to change, the aperture dial has a locking mechanism that's super annoying to fiddle with. A major selling feature of the Contaflex S is its shutter priority mode, where you choose the shutter and the aperture is selected automatically, if you set the aperture ring to "A." This feature requires a battery, which I didn't have, so I shot with the camera entirely in manual mode. 

The film rewind release took me a minute to find on this camera. To load film, the entire back of the camera must be removed by turning two switches. If you only turn one of the switches, marked "R," the film is unlocked and can be rewound. I've never seen anything like that before, where the camera back lock also acts as the rewind release. Strange! 

Overall, while I love the aesthetics of the Contaflex S, as well as the sharpness of the 50mm Tessar,  it's just not fun camera to use, for me at least. Below are a few photographs I made with the Contaflex S, using Ilford HP5+ film.