The Unsung Heroes of 35mm Photography – Part II (RFs) by Dan K
In this, the second instalment (Part 1 here) of The Unsung Heroes of consumer photography, Dan K walks us through the leaf-shutter rangefinder and viewfinder cameras of the 1970s.
When it comes to a photographic genre, a typical blog article or forum thread will recommend the most famous cameras of the era and consequently everyone ends up looking for the same ten or so cameras. This drives up prices to the point where once cheap thrills are no longer quite so affordable. Fixed-lens rangefinders and viewfinder cameras originally exemplified the idea of cheap cameras for the masses and so it makes no sense that they should be so coveted and coddled.
While I own some of these exalted and rare beasts, I delight in buying cameras for just a few dollars that outperform the shelf queens that I dare not carry for risk of damage or loss. These are often consumer-grade cameras, versions of flagship professional models that have been stripped of unnecessary features that added disproportionately to manufacturing cost. These simpler cameras often offer faster operation and less bulk. Sometimes they are lesser known domestic designations of famous cameras or more or less the same camera sold under a lesser brand. I also like to buy cameras that have features not offered by any other camera.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Leitz and Zeiss led the world in designing the gold standard of 35mm rangefinder cameras, the Leica Barnack-style cameras and Contax models. Due to the difficulty in enforcing pre-war German patents, many other camera brands made derivations of the Leicas and Contaxes, with camera bodies and lenses that were intended to be compatible with the ‘standard’ systems.
In 1963-64 Leitz came out with the revolutionary Leica M3, which featured a new patented and trademarked lens mount standard. The patent meant that other brands were then unable to produce cameras and lenses based on the new mount. At the same time, the M3’s beautiful lines, well thought-out ergonomics and high quality viewfinder with combined rangefinder patch made the design an instant classic and the top of everyone’s fantasy wish-list.
The arrival of the M3 was a great shock to many of the Japanese camera makers. Nikon responded with the excellent professional-grade Nikon F SLR, but other manufacturers found greater opportunity selling cheaper cameras to the wider consumer market.
Although the plan was to sell cheaper cameras, corners were cut judiciously and economies of scale meant more could be done with less. Indeed, some cost saving changes had inherent technical advantages. Pressed steel construction permitted lighter and more compact cameras to be made.
Loss of lens interchangeability saved weight, complexity and cost, but the biggest advantage was that the shutter could be located between the lens elements. Such a shutter has a shorter travel than a focal plane shutter and is less likely to be damaged by inquisitive fingers or burned through by the sun. Many of these cameras have proved more reliable and less in need of lubrication than a horizontal travel focal plane shutter, but always check the electronics are working.
The lens itself was often a fast prime (wide aperture, fixed focal length) and many were of very high optical quality. Lacking the facility to change lenses, they typically had a focal length of between 35mm to 50mm; a practical choice for a single-lens camera. Also, a wide lens has a deeper depth of sharp focus that a long lens, making them easier to focus at typical shooting distances. Yet, they were fast enough to be expressive used wide open at portrait distances.
Unlike the professional rangefinder cameras that required add-on meters or metered prisms, selenium or CdS metering was built-in as standard and advances in transistor technology permitted shutter-priority auto exposure. You will see 60’s cameras with big selenium meters, first on the body, and later on the front of the lens barrel so that they would take into account the effect of lens filters. Selenium meters don’t require batteries, but tend to degrade over time when exposed to light and many no longer function accurately if at all. Cadmium Sulphide (CdS) light sensors are much longer lived, but require batteries. Many cameras of the 70’s used the superior mercury cells which lasted longer and produced a constant voltage. Unfortunately, mercury cells are banned and very hard to obtain. Their voltage (1.35V) is lower than the initial voltage of modern replacement alkaline cells, and those alkaline cells’ voltage runs down over the life of the camera, so a camera set up for mercury cells may over- or under-meter. There are workarounds involving adaptors or spacers and adjustments to the electronics, but that topic requires an article of its own. As this article focuses on budget cameras that often don’t justify the cost of a full CLA, I would personally avoid using untested Selenium cameras or unadjusted CdS cameras that can only work reliably on mercury batteries if I intend to use slide film.
All things considered, this style of camera is an excellent choice for snapshots and creative works, street photography, photographing kids (or being photographed by kids), parties and travel.
This genre produced some legendary cameras. These are rightly revered as the cream of the crop and recognised in several articles on the topic. They are now highly prized by collectors, street photographers and film camera enthusiasts.
They include the so-called “Seven Swords”: Canon QL17 GIII, Konica Auto S3, Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII, Olympus 35 RC, Olympus 35 RD, Olympus 35 SP and Petri Color 35 (note: Petri is scale focus). Other noteworthy cameras include the Olympus 35 SPN, Olympus XA4 and the rare Yashica Electro 35 CC and Yashica Electro 35 CCN Wide that were made for the Japanese domestic market.
The Usual Suspects
I was lucky to have accumulated the best cameras of the late 60’s and 70’s a few years back when prices were low. Nowadays, these cameras can be hard to find in working order at prices below $100.
Luckily, there are many cameras out there that are a joy to operate and take great pictures that haven’t made other writers’ top 10 lists. Some of them are simply lesser known domestic model designations of famous export models. Others are typically budget models originally marketed at less sophisticated users that cut expensive features such as full manual exposure control. However, in the heat of the action, the simpler camera often wins out. Lack of manual exposure or aperture priority is not a problem; just adjust the film speed setting for exposure compensation and instead of aperture priority, select a shutter speed that indicates an appropriate aperture.
Rangefinder Unsung Heroes
Here are some of my favourite diamonds in the rough, less well known cameras that are a joy to use. Bear in mind prices are what I’d expect to pay for a camera in reasonable condition in a Hong Kong camera store. You might pick up one of these in a garage sale or thrift store for a song. You are much less likely to find one of the more famous cameras listed above so cheaply, because being better known, sellers are more likely to know that they can get a good price for one.
Konica C35 FD ($125).
The most sought-after and expensive camera in the line is the Auto S3, which often fetches $250 these days. If you want the same camera for less money, buy the Konica C35 FD for around $125. This is no different from the Konica Auto S3; it is simply the Japanese domestic market designation. Before I and a few other enthusiasts published articles about it, this camera went for chump change. It still sells for a big discount, and for no good reason. As a daylight or available light shooter, it’s a good but not particularly outstanding shutter priority camera with a sharp 38mm f/1.8 lens.
However, for people who want to use it with flash, it has no equal among 1970s rangefinders. The killer feature is that alongside the meter needle, there is a flash exposure indicator that pops up when you fit the dedicated Konica X-14 or X-20 flash. The camera adjusts the aperture automatically for perfect flash exposure based on the focused distance and the user can balance or offset the background illumination with the shutter speed. You can quickly see the difference in flash and ambient exposure from the relative position of the needles. That’s why the Auto S3 ranks in the legendary “Seven Swords” of 1970s rangefinders, but why compete with the collectors when you can buy the relatively unknown Konica FD? Like the Konica C35 (base model) described in the honourable mentions below, the C35 FD takes the discontinued PX675 mercury battery but works with silver oxide replacements.
Canon Canonet 19 or Canonet 28 (upto, but rarely reaching, $40).
Ask anyone which cameras represent best of the genre and there’s a good chance the Canon Canonet QL 17 GIII will be mentioned. As a result, everyone goes out looking for this specific model, ignoring the fact that the other Canonets are outstandingly good and the QL and GIII designations represent relatively minor incremental improvements. You don’t need the “QL” quick loading feature. You don’t need a battery tester. I don’t even really need the minor low light advantage of the f/1.7 (Canonet 17) lens over the f/1.9 (Canonet 19) or f/2.8 (Canonet 28).
If you find the black paint edition of the Canonet QL 17 GIII in mint condition, save up and buy it, wrap it in acid free tissue paper and slide it to the back of your dry box… then buy a cheap generic Canonet to actually use. The only real disadvantage to these cameras is the use of PX675 mercury batteries, but I use mine with alkaline equivalents and print film and never noticed the difference. If you do, you can get the camera adjusted.
Olympus XA typically ($65-75) including dedicated flash.
The XA series comprises the XA, XA2, XA1, XA3 and XA4 in that order. Some are rangefinders and other are scale focus viewfinder cameras, but I will deal with them all here as one series.
I recommend the XA (RF) or XA2/3(scale focus) for budget-minded shooters. The XA has the best lens, a Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 (4 elements in 4 groups). XA3 is the XA2 with added DX and a stop higher max film speed at 1600ASA. I actually prefer the scale focus to the rangefinder. The XA4 is a wonderful 28mm f/3.5 that focuses down to one foot, but it’s super rare and pricey if it comes with the original macro-measuring cord. The remaining model, the fixed-focus XA1 is scorned by every reviewer. However, if you’re buying a camera for a child from 3-12 years old, you can’t buy a better film camera. The original XA is the first camera that my son could shoot, because like its siblings it has a hair trigger shutter button. The XA would get knocked off focus when the clamshell is closed, but the XA1 is always acceptably good as long as you aren’t too close. Combined with small size, lightness and cheapness, it’s perfect for kids. The Olympus XA series use common LR44 batteries.
Minolta Hi-Matic E ($40).
The E model was an improved version of the C model with a sharp and fast 40mm f/1.7 lens, rangefinder and Electro Control exposure. Subsequent models were the victim of cost cutting. The later F model remains a well-loved camera, but with a 38mm f/2.7 lens. Subsequent models had a simpler, cheaper electronic circuit.
This camera uses PX640 batteries and tends to over-expose by one stop if used with alkaline batteries. That’s OK, because I like to overexpose print film, but if shooting slide film, adjust the ASA setting down by one stop from the film rating. Note that these cameras have fully automatic exposure systems, except for the opportunity to change film rating.
Yashica Electro 35 GTN/GSN ($60).
One of the most obvious choices for this list is the Yashica Electro 35 series. Shown here is the late model Yashica Electro 35 GSN 45/1.7 and its black paint version the GTN, but enhancements were evolutionary and in small increments, so many of the earlier cameras will do.
There are several reasons why the Electro 35 doesn’t make people’s top ten lists, primarily the lack of manual exposure override and its being one of the larger cameras of the era. However, the camera is outstanding where it counts, with a beautiful fast lens and high-quality viewfinder window.
Tele and Wide conversion lenses are available for the Electro 35 series. However, these add considerable bulk and only achieve 1.3x (58mm) and 0.85x (38mm) focal lengths respectively. I have them but don’t use them.
As usual, the bad news is that these cameras were designed to take the impossible to find PX32 5.6 mercury batteries, but will accept 6v 28A or 4LR44 replacements. I had no idea this was a problem till I wrote this article, checked and found one CR123 battery and two taped together LR44 button cells in the battery chamber. I wouldn’t recommend mixing batteries, but mine’s worked fine that way. The shutter defaults to 1/500s without batteries.
Ricoh 500 series ($40; up to $75 with accessories).
The Ricoh 500 series is a sleeper amongst better-known brands. All 500s have a sharp 40mm f/2.8 lens (Tessar-based 4 elements in 3 groups). The GX, GX-1 and ME are the top-featured models to look for. The ZF and FM were budget zone focus cameras and the FM allows auto-exposure only.
My personal favourite is the Ricoh 500ME, a small light rangefinder. I often find these with clockwork SP-Winder and flash selling for around $65-75. The GX and G (first series) models also shown here do not work with the winder. The winder is noisy and sounds like the wind-up toy that it is, but it helps to avoid breaking eye contact.
The 0.5x finder is bright and easy to focus with a diamond shaped RF patch.
The camera has full manual exposure control but also shutter priority AE. The shutter appears to be mechanical and battery independent and the meter has ASA settings to 800ASA. The ME and GX models also have a self-timer, and a simple multiple exposure cocker, making them great creative tools.
The 500 series were made to use PX 675 batteries. Zinc-air hearing aid batteries are recommended, but I have had no problems shooting with LR44 batteries.
Agfa Optima 1535 Sensor ($60).
Many of the compact leaf-shutter rangefinders of the 1970s are similar in appearance. The Agfa Optima 1535 Sensor breaks the mould with an innovative design and all-plastic construction.
Unlike the other scale-focus cameras in the Agfa Optima series, the 1535 has a rangefinder. I love the easy-load system and the advance lever that doubles as a rewind lever. The electronic shutter is triggered by an electronic contact like the Olympus XA. This electronic shutter is battery dependent, but the shutter can operate at a wide speed range, from 15s to 1/1000s. The camera uses P625U alkaline button cell batteries.
This camera would be my recommendation if you wear glasses, as the camera has Agfa’s characteristic big finder which has about 2cm of eye relief. However I should warn you that the 1535 model is comparably rare and expensive compared to other models in Agfa’s Optima product line.
Minolta Hi-Matic 7S ($65)
The 7S is the big sister to the 7SII (my favourite camera of the genre). The 7S has a bigger, better finder, with parallax correction and an excellent Rokkor-PF 45mm f/1.8 lens. It was designed for mercury batteries but will work with silver oxide replacements. Auto and manual exposure with shutter speed and aperture is set independently.
In case you’re wondering, the “S” in 7S stands for Syncronisation, having a hotshoe, which the model 7 lacks. The exposure system as also improved. This is a top spec camera, but due to its size and weight, which is similar to a Yashica Electro 35, I take it out less than its little sister.
Vivitar 35ES ($50-65).
I have saved the best of the rangefinders for last. You may recall that I mentioned that my favourite camera of the era is the legendary Minolta 7SII. The Vivitar 35ES is almost exactly the same camera under a different brand and also manufactured by Cosina. As far as I can tell, it has the same 40mm f/1.7 lens and coating. The main difference is that the manual aperture manual override has been replaced with a guide-number based flash exposure system, coupled to the focusing mechanism for reliable exposure using manual flashes. The version sold in the European market is called the Revue 400SE, which is the same camera with an added PC terminal.
I use mine primarily in daylight in shutter-priority auto mode. The only catch is the specified PX675 1.35v mercury battery. I am using Silver Oxide cells without noticeable problems.
There are some classics worth mentioning, but would be less likely to pick, as they are either less well equipped or less easy to handle.
Yashica Lynx 14E ($60).
Compared to the others, the Lynx feels like a tank. It’s big, won’t fit in your pocket and has the biggest gun on the battlefield, a 45mm f/1.4 lens. Capable of the shallowest depth of field of all the cameras mentioned here, it also has a quality finder with reasonable rangefinder base length. The metering is manual with electronic indication. This requires power from two PC640A batteries, which are still available if you know where to look.
To be honest, I don’t get on with this camera, because it deviates from the quick-shooting pocket cameras that characterise the genre and I find a Leica does what this camera does, only a lot better. Having said that, there’s no Leica model in this price bracket and hardly any leaf-shutter rangefinders with such a wide aperture.
Konica C35, original model ($25-40).
I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the Konica C35, a wildly popular camera that many credit with starting the trend.
The C35 is pocketable and light. I bought a pristine example for $350. The camera sports a sharp 38/2.8 that is a little let down by a base length of under an inch. I find scale focusing faster and more accurate. Exposure is fully automatic; slow speeds down to 1/30s are coupled with wide apertures and fast speeds to 1/650s are coupled with narrow aperture upto f/14. There is no manual exposure control.
The best feature is guide number automatic flash exposure, but there is no flash balancing needle as found in the Auto S3 or FD models. The camera takes the discontinued PX675 mercury battery but works with silver oxide replacements.
Scale Focus Viewfinders
Considerable optical engineering is required to make a camera with a rangefinder patch, so many brands also brought out simpler viewfinder cameras. While you may be concerned about your ability to focus a camera based on guesswork alone, but many cameras have simple symbols to guide you.
There is limited advantage to having a rangefinder on a small camera of this type. For a start, small cameras tend to have inaccurate rangefinders. Scale focus cameras have relatively wide lenses with smaller maximum apertures, so they have a greater depth of field. Most ‘advanced’ compact cameras from the late 80’s and 90’s zone focus and nobody frets about their focusing. Indeed, I find scale focusing to be faster and more in tune with my way of working than even a premium rangefinder. I often reach for a scale focus viewfinder camera over a rangefinder if I expect to use it in daylight, out of doors.
As you can see from the photo, these cameras are tiny; smaller than the already compact Canonet and on the same scale as the famously small Rollei 35 and Petri Color 35. As such, they make excellent candidates for pocket-carry.
Yashica 35-ME ($40-50).
The entire Yashica Electro 35 series is so good and so cheap as to obviate the need for a budget model. Just buy it and don’t overthink the choice of model. However, sometimes, less is more and that is the case with the ME. Using a rangefinder, I often miss the shot when focussing, so I ignore when the occasion calls for it, I ignore the expensive optical rangefinder patch, guesstimate the distance, stop down a little and scale focus. That’s the logic behind the ME.
The ME displays distance, shutter speed and aperture in the periphery of the finder where it doesn’t get in the way, and there is no reason to take your eye from the finder to adjust settings, something that I can’t say for a Leica. On the top of the lens barrel it displays pictograms to indicate distance, on the bottom it shows metres and feet, so you have the best of both worlds.
The original battery was the PX675E mercury battery, but I use the modern LR44 batteries for print film.
Yashica 35 MC ($40-50).
Although the ME is smaller than the usual Electro 35 cameras, the tiny gem of the series is the MC. This is one of the smallest cameras of the era that doesn’t have a collapsing lens or sub-miniature format.
Three pictograms and a parallax correction line is all you get to focus and compose in the finder, plus there’s distance and aperture on the barrel. You can call it Spartan, but I like how it concentrates my attention on position, composition and timing.
This camera uses the PX28 mercury battery, but I have had success with LR44s.
Minox GT/GT-E ($70-90).
The Minoxes were famed for their excellent optics in a small package. Reputedly one of the smallest, if not the smallest, 35mm cameras ever made, they are a good choice if pocketability is a priority. For the same reason, it’s not really for people with large fingers due to fiddly focus and aperture rings.
The Minox has a unique operating method that I found far easier to adjust to than other funky miniature 35mm cameras like the Rollei 35. Like the Rollei, you have to remove the camera back to load film. Again, both cameras have retracting lenses. However the Minox has a fold down lens cover that extends the lens as it opens, which is faster and protects the lens.
Unusually for the genre, it is aperture priority; indicated speed is shown in the finder. The finder is small, but also manages to show the distance scale and depth of field, if you raise your eye level slightly.
I like the simple but controllable exposure system; the film speed setting ranged from 25 to 1600 ISO/ASA and there is a one stop backlight compensation switch. The GT-X adds DX coding, but I think it has a shorter maximum shutter duration.
I have also heard that it’s a great camera for long exposures in low light. The only thing I don’t like is the film advance is double-stroke. The Minox uses PX27 mercury batteries or the alkaline PX27A. Adapters are available for four alkaline LR44 or two lithium CR-1/3N batteries. Mine’s working on 4 LR44s held together with a little masking tape. Alternatively, consider the ML model which uses V28px Silver-oxide batteries.
Do check the electronics work before buying; I’ve not encountered one that doesn’t work, but some people complain of unreliability.
My Favourite Scale Focus Camera
It’s hard to pick a favourite, as each is unique and has its own strengths. The 35-ME (38mm f/2.8) is fast and confidence inspiring, the 35 GT (35mm f/2.8) is the smallest and sharpest. However, I feel the 35MC (40mm f/2.8) represents that which is for me the best balance of both. I’m so happy to have rediscovered it in my collection I’m taking it out for a spin today. I love this camera.
Olympus Trip 35 ($40).
The Olympus Trip 35 was one of the most popular cameras of all time. Some authorities claim around ten million cameras were produced, a testament to its usability, quality and low price point. Consequently, these cameras are cheap and plentiful in today’s second hand market.
The lens is a slightly slow, but sharp 40mm f/2.8. A selenium meter means no battery is required. In A mode, the meter is coupled to the aperture and shutter speed. Below EV 13 (cloudy bright sunlight with no shadows), 1/40s is used. Above that, 1/40s is selected. The aperture can also be manually selected up to f/22, but the shutter speed is fixed at 1/40s, allowing manual exposure for flash use.
I love the little window in the bottom right of the viewfinder that displays a distance pictogram and aperture setting (you can set the aperture for use with flash but the shutter speed is fixed), but the most compelling reason to own one is pure nostalgic charm.
Buy these cameras in person or from a reputable dealer because there are two common faults: the selenium may not meter correctly; or the meter needle may not properly retract to f/22. However if the camera is working properly, the camera is capable of taking excellent pictures.
Some Cult Classics
I will mention some cult classics here, but I cannot recommend them under the criteria of Unsung Heroes. They include the Lomo LC-A/LC-Wide which is notoriously bug prone and also the following rare collectibles: Chinon Bellami (quirky), Ricoh FF-1 (Minox-alike) and Minolta AF-C (which is actually an autofocus camera!)
I hope I’ve managed to convey my great enthusiasm for these wonderful and inexpensive cameras. I hope you pick one up and find new passion for simple film photography. As always, I can’t cover all candidates and my own experience is limited to a score of cameras. We would all like to hear about any models that I have omitted, as well as your views on my descriptions and your own experiences. Please share them in the comments below.
About The Author
Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer. He celebrated his return to film by collecting just about every quality camera and lens that he could lay his hands upon. Along the way he has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film cameras and film processing. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovers and a generous helping of gear-porn.
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Text and images © Dan K. All rights reserved.