Projects and ponderings for film photographers

The Burden of Zooms

I’ve mentioned before that I always prefer to carry a couple of good single-focal-length lenses rather than a zoom.

That’s especially true for the zooms of the 70s and 80s, which were particularly “challenged” in terms of girth and optical quality. Today’s zooms are much better—although you still typically sacrifice a couple of stops at their widest apertures.

Vintage Vivitar 35–105 Zoom

A large chunk of glass and metal

But there is one vintage Vivitar 35–105 zoom I have somehow hung onto. Its constant f/3.5 aperture is definitely a cut above the norm for its era; plus it’s one of those quirky TX-system lenses by Tokina, offering interchangeable mounts to fit different camera systems (a topic I will return to sometime). The Viv also focuses down pretty tight—you can fill the frame with something ~8 inches high.

But it’s quite a beast, and certainly throws off the balance of most SLRs it’s attached to. the other day it occurred to me to try a quick comparison. How does this lens stack up against three prime lenses which cover the same range?  Read the rest of this entry »

Vintage SLR buyer’s guide: what to avoid

So you’ve decided to get a vintage film camera? That’s great!

If you’re ready for something beyond a plasticky Holga, I’ve said before that a vintage single-lens reflex is where most people should probably start. These are tremendously versatile and capable film cameras, which should rarely cost you more than USD $50 today.

But on the secondhand market, there are a bewildering number of different models floating around. Some had lame designs which vaguely made sense 40 years ago—saving a few pennies in manufacturing cost, or attempting to lure in uninformed shoppers—but which willl just annoy you today. You might put up with a few of these quirks if someone gives you an old camera. But don’t spend your own cash on some half-baked, limiting option. It’s too easy to find a wonderful classic instead.

So here’s my list of SLR features to avoid. (We’ll be back in a few weeks with a rundown of the vintage SLRs you do want.) Click any photo for a larger view.


Oversized, overweight 35mm SLR

This weighs 2¼ lbs and is approximately the size of a barn

What it is: Boat Anchor
Commonly-found models: Nikkormat; Canon FTb, TLb, TX, and A-1; Minolta SR-T series; many USSR & East German models
Why you don’t want it: All SLRs look roughly similar when you’re just looking at photos online; but if you handle some in real life, you’ll soon discover how insanely large and heavy some earlier models were. Olympus introduced the tiny OM-1 in 1972, and eventually this shamed other manufacturers into shrinking and lightening their cameras too. But it took a few more years before most brands of SLR got down to a girth I’d call “reasonable.”
Any exceptions? The pro photojournalist-duty models from Nikon, Canon, or Pentax are all chunky and tank-like. But it’s doubtful you’ll find those models at our sub-$50 price target anyway. Read the rest of this entry »

Voyage to the Bottom of the Bay

Or: My adventures as a camera-auction bottom feeder


Oh, eBay.

Anyone interested in vintage photo gear will get sucked in eventually.

I admit, eBay has some very frustrating aspects. The sellers who stubbornly cling to inflated asking prices, ones which are sheer fantasy in 2015. Others with terrible blurry pictures and illiterate descriptions—witness the many listings for a lense, len, leans, lendes, len’s, or lends (search if you don’t believe me).

But you can also find odd bits of gear with novel and inspiring imagemaking potential, at a laughably low cost. Do you actually need a Yashica Dental Eye II? Probably not; but there is some price low enough where finally you say, “what the heck—I’m curious enough to pay that.”

Screen-capture from eBay auction


Skim a day’s closing auctions and you may be surprised what slips by with few or no bids. If an item piques your interest, next search “sold listings” to see how low its price can actually go (but always watch out for padded shipping charges). I’m a very lowball bidder—content to lose most of the auctions I follow. But that patience has scored me some very fun items, at prices lower than what you’d spend on dinner and a beer. Some recent examples follow.

Read the rest of this entry »