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. 

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!