“Trying out a…” is a series of articles from the pages of Tailboard magazine. Written by ‘Retro User’, each one spotlights a particular camera, from a user point of view. The cameras featured are all tried and tested out with a fresh roll of film or, in the case of digital cameras, a new SD card. The cameras under scrutiny may not be what many collectors class as ‘classic’ – but they are all worthy of being ‘tried out’.
Trying out a … Kiev 4a (type 2)
A classic symptom of being a collector (or possibly of being slightly soft in the head) is buying either cameras without lenses or lenses without the camera body. 18 months ago I spotted the wonderfully whacky Jupiter 35mm f2.8 lens in the 2nd hand window at my local camera shop. I had seen them before (that giant rear lens element is quite unforgettable) but not at such a knock down price. It’s quite a relief to see that I’m not the only person putting ‘legacy’ lenses onto digital bodies – the ‘Digital Dodger’ is also guilty of it! I bought the lens and happily hopped onto ebay to buy the required Kiev>Sony Nex lens adaptor – and hit a snag – there’s no such thing… Not put off I decided that I’d find a scrapper Kiev body and prize off the lens mount to make my own combo (as the Kiev is a part for part copy I could also have searched for a Contax body for the same purpose, but that would be sacrilege).
I was slightly surprised to find that although plentiful, the Kiev body has a relatively high resale value, so the project was virtually forgotten until Photographica 2019. I’d only gone part way round when I visited a stall with a lot of Russian items for sale – there was even a special sign that said “all items at sale price”… I had a choice of 3 bodies to go at – all included the standard lens. I picked out the nicest looking and haggled from £10 down to £5 as the shutter was broken – according to the dealer.
Sometimes you can get lucky – the single shutter speed that the camera seemed to be stuck on was due to the dealer mixing up the exposure guide (that’s around the rewind spindle) with the speed setting control, which is around the wind on knob. So for £5 I had bought a very nice, fully working Kiev 4a (2) with std lens, in its RE case, for a fiver – sweet!
The ARSENAL factory in Kiev made their original Kiev camera (a ‘copy’ of the Contax II, although the first ones used genuine Zeiss parts) from 1947, with model variants along the way until the Kiev 4m (1976-1987). My model is the 4a (type 2) and was made from 1974 – 1980, and is a fairly close copy of the Contax III. The serial number 7925261 shows it to be from 1979 (so at least 25,261 were made in that year alone!).
Now, there was no way I was going to butcher a fully working camera – even one that was made in staggeringly high numbers. The thing is that the Kiev/Contax is a rangefinder with no mirror box, so the rear element almost sits on the film. Although the Sony Nex is mirrorless, I wasn’t keen on risking damage to the lens, the digital sensor or the shutter. So, instead I’ve had a go with the camera and lens as originally intended by the maker and bunged a film through it.
Incredibly the light meter still works and is accurate, no doubt the shield has helped, and a lifetime in the ER case ditto.
The camera does take some getting used to – thankfully you can set the speed before or after winding and the rangefinder works very well indeed, but the meter is not coupled, you manually set shutter and manually wind on. The quirkiest bit is that a special finger style needs to be used – a ‘normal’ grip will guarantee the user putting a finger across the rangefinder window. On first trying the camera I thought the patch was damaged as I could only see a part of it – in fact you use your first finger on the shutter release, your second on the fab focus wheel that sits on the top/front edge and keep the others out of the way. It’s an odd hold, but it works.
Russian cameras are known for their ‘industrial’ build – the Kiev feels substantial, but the wind on and shutter sound (in particular) are very reassuring – if not totally discreet.
So, what’s that lens like, you all ask?
As the lens is in such good condition it could mean it was either used once, the results being so bad it was left in its case, or it was so nice that the owner kept very good care of it – it turns out to be the latter. I’d read stories online of severe vignetting, terrible definition, blurs and all sorts of horrors, so felt some trepidation.
However even at f2.8 there’s no darkening at the corners, and the definition is more than acceptable. The shot of the tombstone engraving I think shows how capable it is – it was taken at f5.6 and is very even across the frame to the corners. The 35mm lens is deeply recessed and the stepless apertures are slightly fiddly as you reach into the inner surround to set them. I deliberately took shots with the sun in the frame which did incur flare and a drop in definition but no worse than a modern lens.
While not a ‘pancake’ lens the 35mm is quite shallow in profile (well, half of it sits within the camera body!) and I think that using it with the meterless Kiev body instead would make a very nice pocketable pairing – to my eyes the meter box is a bit of an eyesore!
The joy of cameras like this are that you want to use them as you don’t feel precious about them, and that means you’re more likely to actually take it with you on trips, regardless of the weather, with no anxiety about them getting damaged or stolen. As I’ve mentioned many times in these articles it’s a pleasure to shoot film, and work in a fully manual way – a sort of true and honest approach to photography – the Kiev is highly recommended – and best of all you can leave your Contax body in it’s cotton wool and put its lenses on the Kiev without worrying about a huge repair bill if the shutter seizes (which is more likely on the ‘superior’ Contax than the Kiev!)
Trying out a … Vivitar DVR 510N
SPOILER ALERT! This article features a digital camera!
It’s funny how as a collector you can search for desirable or rare items, and once you finally track them down you may well be disappointed, and wonder why you wasted all that time and (possibly) money in the endeavour. The camera under the spotlight this time is one of which I had no prior knowledge, and only came into the household after my daughter spotted it on the dealers 2nd hand shelf – she was attracted to it as it is bright pink! As it came with its underwater housing, cables, CD photo software disc, ‘fully working’ guarantee from the shop and was £9 all in, I decided that it could indeed be a great purchase for a 5 year girl… possibly she was not the target audience that Vivitar had in mind when they produced this unusual camera back in 2004 (or so).
The beauty of the internet and certain shopping sites in particular is that the stuff that was sold for the last 20 years is still listed (as unavailable) along with the reviews at the time.
Looking at the barbie pink finish it’s a bit of a surprise to read that this thing was purchased as a serious bit of kit back then.
The specs are: 4.8mm, f2.8 lens (of abysmal quality), 8x digital zoom function (truly appalling), 1.3MB file size (an almost worthless 640 x 480 pixels size), 1.8” screen, built in 2GB memory (as if anyone would ever shoot 2500 images on this camera) plus a slot for up to 8GB SD card. It’s impossible to say what the shutter speed range is (there’s no mention in the instruction manual) but it behaves as if it is a single speed.
The design is actually very nice and functional, it is used held vertically with the screen at the back used as a viewfinder – which in anything other than very overcast days is almost impossible to see! But here’s the amazing thing about this camera – and explains the mix of glowing and scathing reviews on the webstore pages. That cluster of LEDs around the lens might suggest that they are used for flash. No! The very clever DVR 510N is actually a Night Vision camera! I didn’t even know that when I bought the thing, and it was only in the evening after fiddling about with it that I thought I’d see what the flash shots were like – and was convinced that it was broken.
I then got a shock to see on playback a very spooky black and white shot of my daughter! The LEDS don’t flash, they give off infra red light so is invisible to living human beings. And spooky is the right word as Vivitar very cleverly jumped onto the hot TV show of the time with this camera. ‘Most Haunted’ was the must see show for all ghost hunters and paranormal nutters everywhere, and the chance to have a night vision camera for under £50 must have been very tempting… The 5 stars to no stars reviews seem to be split between the night vision fans (full marks), to someone dipping their toe into digital waters (no marks!).
Even for 2004 1MB file size is very paltry, and it’s such a shame as this camera did have the potential to be something special. You’ve no doubt worked out that DVR stands for Digital Video Recorder and that is reflected in its operation. On powering up it defaults to movie mode, and I’m sure many users would have been thrown on trying to take a snap, and the camera instead filming a shaky blurred clip of the end their nose as they tried to work out what had gone wrong. The controls are clustered around the rear central shutter release button, and for both movie and stills you can select 1 star or 2 stars – curiously the default is the lower quality setting – and by low, I really do mean low.
The infra red (night vision) function works without any prompting – there is a red icon on the rear screen that comes on when it’s in operation. In movie mode this is great as it is truly weird being in a pitch black room, yet on the screen you can see (just about) the (greyscale) scene in front of you as if lit by a rubbish low powered torch… Sadly the night vision mode for stills misses a trick. In that same pitch black room you can take your photo, but the screen is also black, so any chance of framing the ghost of Anne Boleyn before you shoot is impossible – one wonders how many spirit photos ’got away’ due to this design oversight?
The camera can be used naked or with it’s underwater clothes on – this is a very well made unit, and the only thing you can’t do in that state is to connect it to the computer. When you’ve taken your shots and movie clips the camera (minus the housing) connects to the PC with a nice integral sliding USB connector, and can also hook up to a TV by standard video cables and jacks (supplied).
As mentioned the 1MB file size is a non starter for even kiddie use, let alone serious photography. Coupled with a (probably) fixed focus of about 1 meter the camera is hamstrung from the off, and sadly the definition is easily the worst I’ve ever come across in a digital camera. I say probably fixed focus as the camera gives such unsharp images that I can’t truly say what the focus point is – if indeed there is one! Possibly the lens is offset for infra red focussing and daylight use has been left to its own devices… One final insult is that it is powered by 4 xAAA batteries – it keeps the design slim, but crumbs it’s an expensive way of powering the thing, and 15 years ago rechargeable batteries in that size were not that easy to come by. AAA always have a bad habit of giving up the ghost (pun intended) just at the vital moment.
So having slagged off the poor DVR 510N, why on earth have I reviewed it? Well, for one thing it is unusual in having true night vision. Secondly it was made in at least four colourways (black, pink, red and blue). The Coronet Midget is a true giant of the collector world, with many who are desperate to get the full colour set. The fact that the Midget barely functions as a camera is of little importance when you are trying to track down the marbled rose pink model. So I put the Vivitar in that class – a camera that was sold as a working camera (even though it was rubbish), that was available in different colours, was sold with promises of great things to the owner (‘now everyone can afford to carry a superb pocketable camera, ready to take shots at any time of day – or night’) and that in the decades to come it might just be one of THE ‘get the set’ collectables.
In case you do fancy getting one (or more) of these as a future collectable, be warned – there is a Vivitar 510 (without the N suffix) that is a totally different camera (different specs for one thing) and is held like a gun with the screen flipping out to the side.
Trying out a … LOMO LC-A
Once upon a time (in the early 80’s) it was possible to buy brand new, notoriously variable Russian cameras and equipment from many camera dealers. Zenits were a long running joke among camera snobs, who associated the noise and agricultural implement build quality with sub par performance (not always the case). FEDs had always been on dealer shelves, first the original Leica ’inspired’ bodies, later models taking their own uniquely Soviet approach to what should go where in the overall layout of controls. Nestled in among these ‘serious’ cameras was a humble, but vitally important viewfinder camera – the Lomo LC-A. One can argue that if this camera hadn’t been made, then 35mm film would have ceased to be available from the early 2000’s.
You can start to gauge the size of the former USSR when you read some of the production figures in the fabulous ‘Authentic Guide to Soviet & Russian Cameras’ book by Jean Loup Princelle. The LC-A was made from 1983 – 1993, selling well over a million units. For a camera that was barely marketed, that figure is amazing. However the truly amazing bit is the post 1993 life of the camera.
Before going to that a few words on the camera design origins and it’s peculiarities.
The Russians are well known for copying many western designs, (the Leica, the Bronica, Minolta 16 subminiature), but why on Earth they chose to visibly (but not physically) copy a poor selling Japanese viewfinder camera is anyone’s guess… The COSINA CX-2 is the inspiration, but although the LC-A has the hump front lens surround, Lomo ditched the complicated swivelling cover, and used a simple slider instead to reveal the lens. What makes the LC-A really different is the way the auto exposure works. The CX-2 was an aperture priority auto, the LC-A has aperture settings but set a fixed shutter speed, so these are only for flash use. The “A” setting is an oddball program mode, using a capacitor to determine when the exposure is correct – the instruction manual states 2 seconds to 1/500th, and you can see the blades creating variable sized apertures, giving quite unique out of focus patterns. A very wayward lens quality, and models that refused to work, even when fitted with new batteries, resulted in the camera rarely selling in the UK, and I remember in the mid 80’s seeing these in boxes for £5.
The twist in the story is that some Austrian student nutters came across the camera in 1993, loved the unpredictable/streaky/light leaky results and decided that it represented a change to the established order (or something, I never quite followed the manifesto), and they sought out the manufacturers to build them again. When various fashion models and celebs were seen carrying the LC-A it became the must have accessory. Cue the stampede to have one, eventually the sales of 2nd hand models got very silly, topped only by the price of the (camera) models (now made in China) that are on the LOMOGRAPHY webstore. I cannot criticise them for their success, for not only is the success of the LC-A responsible for the upsurge in 35mm film now available, they even made 110 cameras and made 110 films to go with them.
Even a brief web search will reveal thousands of typically vignetted, incorrectly exposed, colour unbalanced shots, and lots of night exposures with streaked headlights and so on. I do ‘get’ the enjoyment of the unpredictable outcome, but I do find it mad that people are happy to waste god knows how many failed shots to get one accidental success… why not buy a good, cheap RELIABLE camera and shove some COKIN filters on it, if that’s what you’re after?
Having said that, there is much to enjoy with the LC-A. Peering through the viewfinder you can see a charming series of icons for each of the click stopped main focus settings, if you’re lucky the sliding pointer MIGHT even line up with the correct one (mine doesn’t), you can marvel at the genius of the battery check red led in the top left corner: genius until you get blinded by the damn thing EVERY time you press the shutter release. If that’s not enough there’s another one top right to finish you off while telling you that the exposure is longer than 1/30!
But for me the real winner is the inclusion of a baseplate provision to mount a motor wind… that was never made! The aforementioned Cosina CX-2 had this feature, and they even made the winder… but good luck to you in finding one, they are very thin on the ground.
Even the best made Russian cameras have their quality quirks – my example has a correctly working back latch, but you have to apply a certain amount of pressure to the back door to get it to release – all part of the fun. The sample shots show the unmistakeable vignetting, and swirling out of focus patterns, and while the quality is unarguably not high, there is something about the combined effect that recalls/captures a bygone age – especially when shooting on ancient stock (I used 2005 expired Kodak High Definition).
A fave trick is to cover the light sensor to force the camera into a stupidly long exposure – I’m sure that my example tends to double digits, not 2 seconds, possibly it’s the battery signal trundling along mediocre soviet wires that makes it take longer shots?
The ebay average price has dropped to a more affordable £50 for a good clean working LC-A (whether it says zenit or lomo makes no difference value wise), and new China made ones from LOMOGRAPHY are an eye watering £275+. You pays your money, and takes your choice – good, bad or (most likely) indifferent!
Trying out a… Canon Demi
The Canon Demi from 1963, was Canon’s answer to the Olympus Pen camera, originally launched in 1959. The huge success of the Olympus Pen made many other Japanese manufacturers jump into the half frame boom with Canon being very successful with their range of cameras.
The Demi is a very useable and slim sized camera, with program mode (plus B and flash synch settings), manual focusing and lever wind. Over the next six or seven years Canon would produce several variations on the original Demi design and they would also produce their most famous, most quirky and original half frame camera – the Canon Dial 35.
The Olympus Pen was successful due to its easy handling, it’s superlative lens quality and the economy of half frame format – it was a camera that was designed to be pocketable and always ready for action. Canon used this same set of criteria in designing the Demi, although it is slightly bigger than the Olympus Pen, but then it does have the built in meter. The camera is nevertheless pocketable – the main controls all surround the lens and are proud of the body by about 4mm, but any snagging or damage is avoided by using the clever push on/in lens cover, which makes for a very smooth profile. The camera was also supplied with a zip case and wrist strap.
The camera is very easy to hold and very easy to use, with all controls falling comfortably to hand, the wind on needs a single stroke to wind on the film, ready the shutter and move on the frame counter. Space has been saved by the clever cutaway in the film cartridge compartment, and the rounded corners of the body mean that it’s will slip in and out of the pocket very easily, thus improving readiness and usability.
The viewfinder may look very small, but it uses several glass elements which produce a very clear image: there’s no brightline or parallax indicators but it is perfectly usable and gives a decent representation of the area that ends up on the film. Focus is by guestimate and the lens has click stopped icons with the usual head for close-up/portrait, several heads for medium distance and mountains for infinity – handily there’s a plate on the back cover showing the actual distances which these icons represent, from just under 1 m through to infinity. The user manual shows a different plate with the Canon company name and details – whether that is rare or mine is, I don’t know!
You choose between program, bulb or flash mode with the ring around the lens – this is also used to set the meter sensitivity. The camera uses a manual flash sync of 1/30 of a second with the aperture being set with the click stopped aperture selector, positioned to the bottom of the lens front, the lens clicks from f2.8 through to f-22. The Bulb setting also uses the aperture control in the same way, and finally the program setting can be selected, with a steeples 1/30th @ 2.8, through to 1/250th @ 22. The large selenium cell on the front of the camera on my example still works quite accurately, which for a well over 50 years old camera is something of a miracle – it would be possible to use the camera even if the meter was dead because the program shutter works independently of the meter, but it’s very handy having the match needle system in the top plate, it’s very quick and easy to use and with the camera at eye level you can fire off a series of shots quickly, it being half frame there’s only a short amount of film to move each time.
That lovely slim profile isn’t spoilt by a cold shoe – instead Canon supplied a small clip which slots into the edges of the back door latch allowing a flash/bulb to be used, the pc connection is at the front of the camera. This is a relatively scarce accessory and sadly I don’t have one! This being a camera from the early 60s it’s used a flash reflector and peanut type bulbs – but of course you can use a later electronic flash. The other clever thing of the design of that bracket is that it slots onto raised edges that surround the back door latch, so it’s actually quite difficult to accidentally open the back door.
A series of filters were also available which screw over the lens, but not the meter, so there are dots above the aperture selector to help with the filter factor that needs to be applied, but I can imagine how often people would have got that wrong – and forgotten to remove the orange filter when they changed to colour film as well!
As with the Olympus Pen the lens on the Canon is very nice quality indeed, pleasantly sharp, even wide open, and is really a stellar performer when stopped down a couple of stops. The inherent depth of field that you get with half frame cameras does mean that you can be quite slapdash with the focusing – even when working at maximum aperture – you can’t get away with murder but it means you can confidently take snapshots knowing that you going to get reasonably accurate images. Leaving the camera set to the middle-distance and stopping down couple of stops makes for higher than average success rate.
The models that came after this all added more functions, higher range of shutter speeds, brightline finder, CDS instead of the selenium meter, faster lenses etc, but these all added to the bulk of the camera and for me they don’t have the the same “classy-got-it-right-first-time” appeal of the original Canon Demi.
In these days of Mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras, one of the Canon Demi models is very highly sought after – this was the Demi C. This was almost unique in offering half frame format with interchangeable lenses – f2.8 28mm and 50mm lenses. ‘Buy-it-now’ isn’t an indicator of true value but these kits do go for several hundred £’s – a good condition Demi should be up to £50 max – including box. If you want to really make a collection there are also three colour variants of the Canon Demi – available in red cream and blue finish, with a matching colour zip case. As with most of Canon’s 1960’s output there are ‘Bell & Howell’ badged versions.
If you’ve never tried half frame photography the Canon Demi is a great starting point. If you’re lucky enough to have a high Street processing house do as I do and have the film processed and scanned direct to CD – you end up with very charming side-by-side frames, and deliberately shooting pairs of images, especially portraits can be very effective.
Why not give it a go?
Trying out a… Mamiya 16 Automatic
The Mamiya 16 Automatic was a 16mm subminiature camera introduced in 1959. Mamiya had launched their first subminiature, the Mamiya 16, ten years earlier, and found immediate success with it, allowing them to release minor spec updated models every few years, all of which are prized items in collectors circles.
The original Mamiya 16 is roughly the size of a box of matches, and although slightly limited by having a fixed focus lens, it was quite capable as a snapshot camera. The models after this (Super, Super II, Super III) all have a focussing f3.5 lens and a decent range of shutter speeds.
The 16 Automatic is clearly based on these cameras but with some major upgrades. A newly designed and faster (f2.8) lens, ingenious flip up viewfinder with brightline frame (instead of the pull out frames of the earlier models), shutter wind interlock, and most importantly an almost too clever exposure system!
Depending in which decade you grew up (photographically speaking), the term ‘automatic’ will have a different meaning. For me (in the mid 1980’s) ‘auto’ meant auto exposure, but within a year or 2 it would mean autofocus. In 1959, auto would be applied to functions that still involved serious manual labour.
Here’s the procedure to use the so-called automatic function of the Mamiya 16.
Set film speed on exposure surround dial. Set shutter speed at preferred speed. Point camera/meter at subject. Turn exposure dial until needle lines up with shutter speed on exposure surround. If needle points either side of speed choose another speed and repeat procedure! Apply filter factor that may be required… Take photo.
Alternatively turn the meter surround to set required aperture, visible in tiny window on top deck. Read off indicated shutter speed from needle. Set this shutter speed on shutter dial. etc etc
Now, does the word ‘automatic’ spring to mind? Hardly!
All criticism aside, the camera can be used in this ‘nearly’ aperture/shutter priority mode, or you can use it purely manually, as you can set both aperture and shutter speed independently. The important thing is that the camera is a very capable performer. Some nice touches are the sliding lens cover/shutter lock and the sliding filter switch, which is returned on closing the camera lock – there’s a sliding hatch on the underside of the front plate to insert the filter, and Mamiya made the usual black and white contrast filters (and a neutral density) all in good quality glass. These were available in storage pods, and the rectangular filters have nice angled corners to assist when putting them in and out of the slot.
This camera was a very early addition to my collection – I already had an early Minolta 16, and was on the look out for my first Minox, but seeing this at a fair at Allerton Grange (Leeds) in the mid ’90’s I was struck by the weight of it (it’s surprisingly heavy) and the gadgetiness of the mechanism – it seemed to be working ok so I handed over the money, not too sad about the sorry state of the zip case. I took the dealers word that it would take the Minolta 16 cassettes which amazingly were still available new at that time (it doesn’t) but hoped I’d find some original cassettes at some point. I actually got my cassettes through a club member who had bought some thinking they were for his Minolta 16!! Mamiya made single drum versions (as here) and did eventually make their own variant of the bridged twin drum style that the Minolta uses. The drums are brass and very well made, with slip on caps and pimples to hold them in place. The film is slid under the strong clip that surrounds the take up drum – the spool os turned by the big cross head so has a very positive action on winding.
16mm subminiature SHOULD have taken over the photographic world, but sadly the subminiature makers would never commit to one cassette format, so although popular at an enthusiast level for most of the ’50s, it never fully caught on, and it would be (almost inevitably) Kodak who would clean up with a simple to use cassette mechanism (Instamatic) in 1963, albeit with a larger format, which was incapable of producing the quality that a well exposed frame from a 16mm camera could. As I’ve mentioned before in these articles, it’s only now with ultra fine grain films that you can appreciate just how good some lenses are on 1950’s and 60’s cameras. I’ve regularly printed 10×8″ prints from subminiature – has anyone ever printed anything larger than postcard from an Instamatic? No, I thought not…
An indication of the enthusiast popularity of the format is borne out by the excellent accessories that were made for the Mamiya. Along with flash guns (of the bulb variety) that used a bonkers ‘attached thru the tripod socket’ approach, the afore mentioned filter sets, an oversized screw in steadying handle that completely ruins the subminiature point of the camera, there’s possibly THE ultimate add on – the ENLAhead. This ever so clever gadget was a screwed extension tube that attached to almost ANY enlarger (with lens removed), and had its own enlarging lens built in, along with a 16mm film strip carrier – anyone who has ever tried to faff around masking off a normal 35mm neg carrier and use a standard enlarging lens with a subminiature negative will appreciate the genius of the design – NOT needing to put your enlarger head at totteringly high distances from the printing paper is a real bonus!
Mamiya produced two more models in the range after the Automatic – the almost minimalist Delux (with its sublime parallax correcting viewfinder) and the 16 EE, which is a chunkier but clunkier version of the Automatic, before quitting the subminiature field in the early 60’s.
The Automatic ticks all my collecting boxes – useable, quirky, intriguing and surprisingly cheap – expect to pay around £30+ for a really clean one. Although the selenium cell is likely to be dead, the shutter blade mechanism is very sturdy so the camera will still be useable. The cassettes on the other hand may cost as much as the camera, the ENLA head ditto. But at least black and white 16mm film is still available (a 100 foot reel of FP4 costs about £50 – enough for 60 full cassettes) so you could be shooting with these cameras for decades to come – and compared to trying to continue to use your polaroid collection, that’s peanuts… although not IMPOSSIBLE!