Saturday, October 20, 2012

Compact Film Cameras

Pentax Zoom 90

Here's a topic I never thought I'd be writing about - the compact film cameras of the 80's and 90's, immediately pre-digital era, so to speak. Although a fan of earlier compact cameras, like the beloved Olympus Trip 35 (I just ordered a replacement through Ebay, as the one I had got lost in my driveway and went through the snow-blower as I had found its remains the following spring!), I've never paid any attention to these butt ugly, neoplastic 35mm predecessors of the Digital Compact cameras.

But I think I found a good one. It's not plastic. It's made of robust metal, with some plastic exterior parts. It's fairly heavy. It has a wonderful, very large and bright viewfinder. It has a very good auto-focus lens that zooms from 38-90mm, although not exceptionally bright, being f3.5 - f7.5. It works in a full Program Mode, but also features a Shutter Priority Mode in which you can select lower shutter speeds and "Bulb". It has a socket on the side for an optional remote shutter release (I didn't get one). Strangely, there is no Aperture Priority Mode. It also comes with a genuine leather case. Aside from these up-scale features, it also has what had become very standard at the time DX film reading for automated ISO selection, and full auto film advance and rewind.

So, why my sudden interest in this albeit fine example of an otherwise forgotten breed of camera? Well, first, it was at the local Salvation Army (Goodwill) store for $6.99. And more importantly, when I opened the back, I saw a very rare thing - the lens, when retracted to the wide-end has a big "bubble of glass" in very close proximity to the film plane, the same as found on the wide angle Leica Thread Mount Jupiter-12 (Zeiss Biogon design). This is the design which best overcomes the wide angle retro-focus weakness found on mirror reflex (SLR) cameras - the biggest reason I don't like SLR's once I had discovered what this lens design was capable of.

So I got it home, put in a fresh set of batteries (which BTW are supposed to last through 125 rolls of film - that's 3000 shots folks! The battery cover is even secured by a little Phillips screw because you won't need to open it very often!), a roll of Fuji Superia Xtra 400, and discovered that everything works flawlessly, although I'm never totally sure until I get the film developed. Stay posted for results.

So why should we even be remotely interested in a camera like this? When I look at these on Ebay (there are several listed right now, some of which are the WR - water resistant model), I probably wouldn't even get my $6.99 back if I put it on Auction! Well, I'm interested, because this camera is built like no digital can be - it is a compact with an amazingly great lens design combined with what is still the best full-frame sensor available- 35mm film! Imagine a truly compact full-frame digital camera with one of the greatest lens designs ever which you can buy for probably $1.00 (I got ripped off at $6.99 didn't I?) I'm also interested because Photographers need to keep a foot in the film world, even if we believe (as I do) that digital photography is now the better way. We need to be shooting a roll of film every once in awhile, so as to keep us grounded in the basics of our art. Film shooting needs an obvious discipline - one where you cannot see what you just shot, and keeps you within the very narrow constraints of the film you're using. This is the discipline that creates good habits - because you only get one chance to get it right. The beauty is, now that you can get quality film cameras - even once expensive SLR's if that's your cup of tea, for practically free, you can build up a "kit" of maybe a dozen cameras for less than $100, with all different lens and film speed / white balance combinations, making sure you label every camera with what's inside, and be able to shoot in many different styles as conditions demand it. Beautiful fall foliage? Take out your camera with ISO 100 super colour daylight film. A concert with stage lighting? Grab your camera loaded with a very fast lens and ISO 800 film (this one will probably have to be an SLR). Street photography? Any old camera will do, like a wide angle fixed lens plastik compakt, loaded with Ilford XP2 (a B&W ISO 400 film that you can get processed anywhere that does C41 color). A camera to keep in your car? A cheap one without electronics or batteries would be best.

Forget about film vs digital, and which is best. The fact is, both are best, for something. If you shoot weddings for money, these days, one wouldn't dare show up with anything else but a top rated DSLR, unless the clients really want it done with film (rare, but it is done). Also, there's no sense wasting expensive film and processing on a birthday party - go with digital for any kind of family event. Save film for your artistic shooting, or especially for street photography. People are getting more and more hostile toward having their pictures taken impromptu - even with a smartphone camera. Just the other day, I was in a Tim Hortons and took a picture of my coffee and bagel with my smartphone. A few minutes later, the store manager came over an kindly informed me that they don't allow pictures to be taken inside the store. Once I showed her what I took, she was OK with it, but warned me not to take pictures of the customers seated at the tables. My thinking here may be wrong, but if you're street shooting with an old plastic looking film camera, people will probably object less, because the term "social media" (puke) is not connected with cheap plastic film cameras in the mind of the now hostile  public. For the mean streets, shoot nothing but film from now on - promise me!


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  2. I understand completely. Years ago, in a film processing shop that no longer exists, I found a new Konica BigMini BM-302. It has a medium wide angle 35mm f/3.6 lens, no Zoom capabilities, but does provide auto macro and normal aufofocus. It takes great shots and I keep it loaded and ready to shoot.

  3. Liked your review on this little gem. Have been buying a few cameras off ebay lately and have tried to pick a few of the ugly, plastic monsters from the 90s, but could not really find any good info. When I saw bids going up on one I would google it and find out why the attraction. The camera would usually have some redeeming feature, like a great lens. I managed to get a Panasonic Super Mini with the Leica lens in it for €5 and the Yashica T3 can be bought for under €20 (people are putting starting prices of €200 on these) if you hunt around.

    I wouldn't feel bad about the $6,99 you paid, since I will have to pay the same amount for this little Pentax right now on Ebay because apart from the €1 I have bid, there is a €5,99 shipping charge. Oh yeah, it's a waterproof model!


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