Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Zenit and Yashica

Here's one for all you camera-loving peeps.  Delving through my archive of old prints, I came across these stowed away in a box of Kodak 3 1/2" x 5 1/2" Bromesko WFL.2D paper.  The first is of my very first camera - a Russian Zenit B.  Built like a tank it was, coming in at nearly 2lb weight.  An SLR - Single Lens Reflex, which means you look into the viewfinder through the lens thanks to a series of mirrors housed in the prism.  M42 screw mount lens (58mm f/2.8), totally manual - no light meter!  And - remember this? - no automatic diaphragm!  You had to manually stop down the lens before pressing the shutter release - there was an 'extra' ring on the lens, just before the aperture ring.  So you set the aperture and shutter speed from the readings on your handheld exposure meter, focus with the lens wide open and then close the diaphragm before releasing the shutter.  Simple and effective, provided you remember to stop down the diaphragm, that is.

Zenit B - taken and printed around 1975.
Nearly a million Zenit Bs sold, apparently, and of course behind every camera lies a story.  The Zenit was my first foray into the art of photography.  If I close my eyes I can still see it.  It didn't have much smell, of course.  Talking of smells, it's amazing how opening a box of photographic paper in the darkroom can take me back 35 years - the smell is the same.  Now I'm not sure if it's the aroma of the black plastic pouch holding the paper or the paper itself (or both) but when I opened a pack last year - wham! - I was back in my youth, instantly.  Amazing what those olfactory sensory neurons can do to your brain...

I wish I still had it - the Zenith, that is.  Don't know where it ended up, but I guess ££ was tight enough in those teenage years so it probably got traded for something.

Now the question is begged, isn't it, what did I use to take this snap with?  Actually that's one of the questions I always had about the Apollo 11 moon landings - Who filmed Neil Armstrong walking down the steps?  But that's an easy one - there was (apparently!) an assembly attached to the side of the Lunar Module which housed the camera.  In the strange case of the Zenit photo above, it was taken using one of The Brother's cameras.  He had one of these:

Yashica TL Electro X, c1975

For some reason The Brother liked his Yashicas and as time progressed he spent his hard-earning cash from his Saturday job on a beautiful Contax RTS.  But at that time, around 1973, he had a TL Electro X.  Compared to the Zenit this was an advanced camera - it had a meter! A weighted TTL (through-the-lens) meter at that, so you metered the image that would end up on the film - weighted so that the bias was towards the bottom of the image and landscapes and the like wouldn't be overexposed due to the sky.  Lights, visible in the viewfinder, indicated whether the current settings would lead to over or under exposure and you could then alter the aperture or shutter speed accordingly.

This particular Yashica had a very advanced vertical metal shutter, unlike the horizontal cloth shutter in the Zenit.  It had a wider range of speeds - 1s to 1/1000 (vs 1/30 to 1/500 in the Zenit) and a hot shoe for flash (cold shoe for the Russian).  It came with a 50mm f/1.9 lens, a full stop faster than the Zenit's f/2.8 lens.

Both these are SLR cameras - that was important back in 1973.  I mean, why would you not want to compose your image knowing that's exactly the way it would be captured on film?  What exactly is the point of rangefinders??  Funny thing is, in 2014, I love my rangefinders (as well as my SLRs).  Rangefinders are smaller and tend to have brighter viewfinders, since you're not looking through a mirrored prism.  And you have frame lines showing you what will end up on the film.  And they are much quieter than SLRs, since there is no mirror to swing out of the way before the shutter is opened.  There are pros and cons for each and often it comes down to personal choice and what kind of user the photographer is.  And if like me you don't mind using old cameras, you can have several varieties for not a lot of ££.

If you're into film - as a lot of people are, for a variety of reasons - then you are limited in choice if you want a new camera.  I suspect this might change and we might see a few more manufacturers adding a film camera to their stable.  In 35mm, Nikon has their FM10, and Vivitar has similar, although both these SLRs are marketed as 'student cameras' and not as full systems.  In rangefinder land, Voigtlander have their Bessa R3/4 and of course Leica have their MP and both have a wide range of lenses and accessories.  In Medium Format there are new offerings from Fuji, Mamiya and Voigtlander again.  Then we also have the Large Format cameras and at the other end the Holgas and Pinholes.

Notwithstanding the sole offering from Nikon, for film to survive as a medium it might be that we need the weight of a big consumer manufacturer to enter the market again.  But for now I'm not sure they would get many sales - certainly not among the professionals who normally need instant feedback for a shoot, where you might have make-up, designers, models, wedding parties all present and you can't bring them all back if you mess up.  Most amateur photographers who are into film - like myself - are happy to use second-hand gear to scratch this particular itch.  This is great for buyers&users - the market for s/h cameras is huge and prices are reasonably affordable.  As of today there are still places you can get film cameras serviced.  We don't know if this will still be the same in 10 or 20 year's time - time will tell but it would be safe to assume that a lot of service centres will disappear in time.  Even now, the 'newer' old film cameras - the ones using electronics to control shutters and meters - are less able to be serviced at economical prices and so these are more of a gamble.  But since the costs aren't huge its a gamble perhaps worth taking, particularly if you get 10 good years out of one before they give up the ghost.

Whatever camera you use, people who use film are by and large very enthusiastic about it.  It's physical, you can touch it, hold the negatives up to the light and print them.  Your skillset is very different to that of the digital photographer.  There are several very active web groups for film users - including APUG, FADU and Filmwasters as well as ones dedicated to particular camera users which include film users, such as the Leica Forum.

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