Developing a Relationship with the Samoca 35 iii
As Hand-me-down-heroes go, this camera must surely be one of the greatest we have ever seen. A Samoca 35iii camera from the 1950’s, rescued by the grandson of the original owner and brought back to life. What a story.
By Bryn Thomas
My Samoca 35 iii was purchased by my grandfather while he was on leave in Japan at the tail end of the Korean War. He dragged it across the war-torn peninsula during his time as an army engineer, and his basement contained shoeboxes full of black and white photographs, taken on the awkward yet compact aluminum and plastic, fully manual camera.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and it sat on my father’s desk. My grandfather, his father in law, had given it to him as a replacement for his Pentax ME Super, which had befallen some long-forgotten misfortune. It remained there until I grabbed it in 2012. After that, it sat on my shelf, used as an aesthetic paperweight and conversation piece.
Until recently, I had considered the camera broken, and had kept it as an heirloom while pursuing digital photography. My father thought the same — claiming, “it leaks light!”. Evidently, its advance — a fully-manual affair leveraging knobs — was jammed. Its 50 mm triplet C. Ezumar Anastigmat coated lens was caked in mold, and its body had a clear crack explaining my old man’s “light leak”. A visible dent implied that someone had dropped it sometime in the late 1950s, the approximate date its photos stop appearing in the family archives.
Despite this, its vario-type shutter fired accurately at all four speeds —1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and Bulb — and its focus metering system, written in feet, moved smoothly. Likewise, its aperture, which ranged between f3.5 and f22, adjusted easily.
The Samoca iii reappeared on my radar in 2019 when I converted to the dark side, joined the cool kids, and started shooting film. At the time, I was living in Vietnam and was looking for a camera that took decent photos, but that I wasn’t afraid to lose to the seemingly endless phone/purse snatchers that prowled the streets of Ho Chi Minh City during the pre-pandemic golden age of tank-topped backpackers and Swedish yoga instructors.
My solution was a Canon EOS Kiss SLR acquired for USD$ 15 from a local camera dealer. This camera, which was probably (and, considering my motivations, appropriately) stolen from another farang years earlier, sent me down a rabbit hole the readers of JCH have long been seeking the bottom of. A year later the hobby had expanded to repairing cameras, and the Samoca 35 iii sat, on my kitchen table under fluorescent lights disassembled.
Fixing the camera went smoothly, despite the utter lack of online resources — it’s an apparently rare, somewhat exotic, and under-researched camera. All I could find was a manual and a few limited reviews. Removing the aluminum top enclosure was a bit of a mission, but the interior’s beautifully simple mechanical design was easy to repair. After cleaning and lightly oiling the advance mechanism, it began functioning normally.
Cleaning the lens was the next order of business, and proved equally uncomplicated. I simply unscrewed the front element with a lens spanner and cleaned all three pieces individually. I found no paper, rubber components or small, easily-losable metal rings.
Next up was the body repair. I removed the film door and spool, both of which separated from the body similar to a Holga 120, and are accessible via a latch marked O and C (open and closed). The crack, likely acquired with the dent, ran behind the take-up spool on the lens’ side (front) of the camera. I first filled the crack with liquid electrical tape, then, after drying, applied a 3 cm length of actual electrical tape for good measure. It was now time to test my work.
Loading film into the Samoca iii necessitates removing the spool from the camera and inserting the film into a slit. Similar to Leica iii, the camera is from a period in which the beginning, take-up portion of a 35 mm roll of film was slightly longer. As such, modern canisters come loose from the spool when advanced. Consequently, I had to secure the film to the spool using a tiny piece of gaffer’s tape. After reinserting the spool and the film, I taped the back on to secure against light leaks and prevent the back from popping off unexpectedly (remember, it’s like a Holga). Once this was complete, I manually set the counter to 36 by twisting it counter clockwise — after advanced to the first shot, it will start again at one. This counter counts upwards every time you cock the shutter.
I chose Fomapan 100 B&W as a test roll for several reasons. I wanted something forgiving, cheap, and familiar. In addition, the vast majority of the photos taken by my grandfather were taken on black and white film and I wanted a point of comparison. Finally, as this fully manual camera, and as the four shutter speeds (on a dial marked 100, 50, 25, and B) seemed designed for the sunny 16 rule, I specifically chose something with 100 ISO to compensate for my inability to do basic math.
I waited for a sunny day and invited two friends over for portraits. The limited online material regarding this camera described the visual characteristics of this lens as “dreamy” — not sharp, not fast, not clear — indeed a worrisome adjective for any lens. But, considering the amount of tape that I used in my ad-hoc repair job, I thought, “Well, if 5 shots out of the 36 turn out, I’ll be over the moon”.
In the end, I got 26 surprisingly sharp, pleasantly exposed shots. The limited speed options and aperture speeds made setting the exposure quicker than most manual cameras, but the range focusing — in feet — proved challenging. Likewise, the cocking mechanism, which also simultaneously advances the film counter (but not the film!) proved problematic and led to several double exposures.
In the end, I gained a clearer idea of why my grandfather liked this camera, and have since put several rolls through it. I intend, after becoming more versed on the device, to write a formal review of this camera, but for now, I am just enjoying the eerie resonant comparisons.
Two tall skinny men in Asia, 70 years apart, shot through the same lens on the same Samoca 35 iii.
About the Author:
Bryn Thomas is an UK-born, Michigan-raised writer, photographer, and martial artist living in Taipei, Taiwan. He holds a Master’s in Asian Studies, is comprehensible in Chinese, and is a Purple Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Examples of his photography can be found on IG: @high_mountain_green
Examples of his grandfather’s work can be found on IG: @forgotten_war_remembered
Thanks to Bryn for sharing this wonderful story. Do you have a story of a camera you want to share with us? Send your camera story here.