|Moving Pictures - A Look at Classic Cameras|
|Written by Michael S. Goldfarb|
In today's headlong rush into the future, people tend to leave behind great older technologies that worked beautifully for decades. The great cameras of fifty, thirty, and even just twenty years ago are sitting forgotten in closets, or turning up for a pittance at garage sales.
Still, many of these old classics are capable of wonderful results—better than ever, in fact, with today's improved films—and their splendid 20th-century designs are a welcome aesthetic break from today's nondescript plastic blobs festooned with LCD displays and tiny buttons.
There are several things to keep in mind if you're interested in buying and using old cameras, including film and battery availability, processing costs, and overall usability and reparability. Also, the majority of these cameras are mostly or fully manual, so loading film, setting the correct exposure, and sometimes even focusing, requires some smarts...but it's not rocket science, and there are loads of resources to help you out.
In the days before "miniature" 35mm film became the standard, most cameras either used individual pieces of sheet film in holders that only held two at time, or taller-than-35mm paper-backed rollfilm that made only a few shots on a roll, typically eight or twelve. If you really want to do the 1930s press-photographer thing, put on your fedora and find yourself a nice 4x5 Speed Graphic or Crown Graphic!
One of these old press cameras (as opposed to the larger, must-use-a-tripod-and-cable-release view cameras) in good condition with a decent lens can still produce stunning results because, quite simply, the bigger the negative, the better the image. Graphic's are American-made classics, incredibly well-built, plentiful on the used market, and it's hard to imagine a more recognizably iconic old camera.
Among the mulitude of old cameras that use rollfilm are some wonderful beauties. But most of the old rollfilm formats have been discontinued over the years, including such once-popular film sizes as 828, 620, 616, 127, and even the 1960s 126 Instamatic cartridges. Thus, many lovely old folding bellows cameras and little twin-lens reflexes like "baby" Rolleis and Yashica 44s are now orphans.
This is also true for the majority of old Kodak Brownie (etc.) snapshooters and many old, fantastic, folding Polaroid instant-film cameras. These cameras are still worthy collectibles, but the limited availability of film means you may not be able to take pictures with them.
The one size of rollfilm still made in a wide variety of film emulsions is 120, which the pros call medium format. Cameras using 120 film produce a 2-1/4 inch square negative, or a larger rectangular negative, which (because of the "larger negative" principle) typically produce results vastly superior to 35mm cameras.
Go for it—find yourself a way-cool folding bellows camera that takes big rectangular negatives on 120 film, one with a great lens like a Zeiss Super Ikonta, or a more humble snapshooter like a late-20s Number 1 Pocket Kodak. Or get a twin-lens reflex that gets 12 square shots on a roll, like a Rolleiflex, Rolleicord, Minolta Autocord, one of the great Mamiya C series.
You can also consider medium format SLRs like Hasseblads, Bronicas, Kowas, one of the Mamiya R series, but these typically cost much more than folding bellows cameras and TLRs. Just keep in mind that you'll have to use a pro lab for film processing, and it will be considerably more expensive than drugstore developing...but the jaw-dropping results will definitely be worth it!
35mm, King of Film Formats - Part One
Until the 1960s, the most popular cameras using 35mm film were rangefinders. In fact, it was a German-made rangefinder camera that initially demonstrated in the 1930s what double-perforated 35mm movie film could do in still cameras: the famous Leica. And it was the German-made Kodak Retina of the late 30s that introduced the standard rewindable 35mm cassette that's still in use today.
Rangefinders have separate viewfinders independent from the camera's lens allowing accurate focusing with a split-image display. The better ones (Leica, Contax, the 50s Nikons and Canons) take interchangeable lenses, and typically include integrated rangefinder displays for a variety of lenses.
35mm, King of Film Formats - Part Two
Although 35mm single-lens reflex designs had been made for years by some German manufacturers (most notably the Exakta), it took the 1959 introduction of the Japanese Nikon F to really demonstrate the value of the SLR approach. Built on top of the perfected design of the great Nikon rangefinders, these original Nikon Fs were robust cameras, incredibly tough and dependable, with superior lens optics. Photojournalists loved them at once, and began using them in place of the Rolleiflexes, Leicas, and Graphics that had documented earlier decades.
Soon, Nikon improved the camera to include through-the-lens match-needle metering in the Photomic models and provided alternate kinds of finders and focusing screens, motor drives, and an ever-increasing array of lenses. The other major camera manufacturers were soon making 35mm SLR systems to compete with Nikon, some of them very good indeed. The SLR boom was on!
For example, in 1965 Nikon introduced a no-frills "budget" camera to allow amateurs to make use of their lenses, the Nikkormat. Pros loved them too, and the late-60s Nikkormat FTn model remains a fantastic camera.
35mm, King of Film Formats - Part Two...and a Half!
Another interesting variety of 35mm cameras that's all but forgotten now is the half-frame camera. While these use standard 35mm film, they shoot two vertical 18x24mm frames in place of every standard horizontal 24x36mm frame, thus getting twice as many negatives on a roll of film.
Given the fine grain and high sharpness of today's films, this is still a big enough negative to make tack-sharp 8x10 prints. Olympus introduced their first significant half-frame "Pen" camera in 1959, and went on to produce millions, in many variations at a variety of price levels.
Nearly all of the Olympus Pen half-frame cameras are great shooters, with excellent lenses, and some with very accurate light meters. Of particular interest are the later Olympus Pen EE-2, EE-3, and EES-2 models, whose auto-exposure systems support films up to 400-speed, have hot shoes for flash, and in the case of the EES-2, feature accurate zone focusing (the EE models are fixed-focus, and can't shoot closer than about four feet).
An even more impressive design masterpiece from Olympus is the Pen F from 1963—an elegant half-frame SLR that supports a large range of interchangeable lenses and other accessories. It was followed by the Pen FT in 1966, which added an uncoupled through-the-lens light meter. Nearly all the Olympus Pens are great cameras, and their film economy—typically 55 shots on a 24-exposure roll—is extraordinary.
There are vast resources out on the Web about old camera equipment, regarding general use, historical and repair information, and used-camera dealers who can sell you practically every camera ever made! Some selected useful links follow, in no particular order. Good hunting!
Photo.net—probably the premiere photography Web site, with enormous amounts of good information and very active forums
CameraQuest—great informative pages about lots of older rangefinders, SLRs, etc.
Graphlex.org—everything you could ever want to know about press cameras
The Sub Club—great information clearinghouse for all kinds of subminis and other small cameras
Minox GmbH—home of the current Minox organization
Medium Format articles—vast amounts of info
KEH—one of the best used camera dealers
All Seasons Camera—another good used dealer
Favorite Classics—great site with online manuals, articles, and active forums about supporting and repairing old cameras
Brooklyn Camera Exchange—good used dealer, actually on Long Island
Antique and Classic Cameras—nice articles and links on real oldies
Classic Nikons—great visual reference on 60s/70s Nikons, and other good stuff
Classic Camera—nice visual reference from Japan
Submin.com—links and info about subminiature cameras
Woodmere Camera—another good used camera dealer
David Silver's articles—great stuff originally published in Photo Shopper magazine
Canon Camera Museum—entries on every camera they ever made
Kodak Collector's Page—essential for identifying old Kodak cameras