Sunday, 21 July 2013

Nikon L35AF: Stalking the Misfit Spark

Liberation, London, the Libidex store
Nikon L35AF / Kodak TMAX 400

In the last post I had a look at a compact rangefinder camera from the late 1970s. Since then I've gone on a compact camera trip, and today we're going to have a look at the Nikon L35AF, an autofocus point-and-shoot from 1983. It was Nikon's first ever compact camera, and was released at a time when the company was trying to broaden its appeal. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Nikon dominated the professional 35mm SLR market - and continued to do so for several years - but it struggled to sell cameras to the man on the street.* Nikons were rugged and the Nikon brand commanded respect, but the consumer-level Nikkorex and Nikkormat were still quite dear, and there was a bloodstained feeding frenzy of competition in the lower end of the market. As Apple found recently with the iPhone 5C, it's difficult for a market leading high-end company to "do cheap".

* Or woman. In those days SLRs were marketed squarely at men. Or at least the adverts were aimed at men; the few women shown holding a camera were either housewives taking snapshots of their children, or they were the stereotypical Daisy Duke-wearing wildlife photographers who (you just knew) had been given a camera by her wealthy husband e.g. you, the man.

Was this because men controlled the family's finances in the 1970s? Was it because this kind of advertising was measurably effective? Was it because camera manufacturers had limited promotional budgets and went with cheap old cheesy old ad firms? I have no idea. Camera adverts have traditionally been awful, and haven't improved over time; Nikon's S60 campaign seemed to be aimed at the Eastern European teen porn market, and Canon's Ixus 75 campaign pulled off the difficult feat of being visually ugly, conceptually misguided, technically incorrect and just plain disturbing all at once.

And so in the late 1970s Nikon made a concerted attempt to broaden its appeal, with the plastic-bodied EM and a range of budget-priced Series E lenses. The L35AF was a late arrival, post-dating Canon's similar Sure Shot by four years, but it seems to have sold quite well, or at least there are lots on the used market nowadays. It remained on sale until 1985, at which point it was replaced by the very similar L35AF2. Subsequent Nikon compacts used the same basic body design until the 1990s. Here's mine:

It has a 46mm filter thread, and I've loaded some Kodak TMAX black and white film.

Fuji Superia XTRA 400, shot at ISO 200

The L35AF has a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens, with very simple controls - apart from the shutter button, it has a +2 stop backlight compensation lever, a self-timer, and you set the film speed manually. Unlike the Ricoh 500 ME in the previous post there's no way to set aperture or shutter speed yourself. My L35AF has an ISO range from 25-1000, but earlier revisions topped out at ISO 400 (the manual recommends setting the camera at ISO 1000 for 1600-speed film, which would probably work just fine for Ilford 3200 as well).

Most reviews on the internet point out that the L35AF's lens vignettes heavily, but as you can see this isn't necessarily the case. I shot all of the images that accompany this article on the sunniest day of the year, and presumably the L35's program autoexposure was forced to stop down; perhaps the autoexposure system tries to shoot at f/2.8 unless it absolutely can't, and other L35 users took their camera out on duller days.

Two new American imports opened recently, Five Guys Burger And Fries, and Shake Shack. They're aimed at a posher market than McDonald's, posher even than Burger King. They both had huge queues outside them - tended by jolly staff who will presumably be laid off after a few weeks, once the fuss has died down or they go bust - and I wasn't that keen for a burger on the hottest day of the year, so I can't tell if they're any good or not.

Nikon discusses the camera's lens design in an article here. The lens was completed in 1981, two years before the camera was launched, which suggests to me that Nikon had trouble coming up with an autofocus system that worked properly and didn't infringe anybody's patents. Even if the camera had come out in 1981 it would still have looked a little old-fashioned, because the hot trend at the time was for Olympus XA-esque clamshell bodies. The L35AF's sticky-out lens mount looks like a throwback to the 1970s.

Two years later the queues had died down. On the positive side the relatively high prices keep out riff-raff, and you get masses of chips. The burgers are very filling. On the negative side the menu is tiny and they don't have wi-fi.

According to a review in Popular Photography, November 1983, the launch price was $210, but adverts in the very same publication from a few months later list the street price as $149 (versus $250 or so for an SLR with a 35mm f/2.8). For years afterwards L35AFs were a staple of local charity shops, but nowadays everybody has mobile always-on internet so they have all been snapped up and listed on eBay for inflated prices.

The relatively fast lens sets it apart from the tele-zoom compacts of the late 1980s and 1990s - with incredibly slow zoom lenses that were f/10 at the long end - which are basically worthless nowadays. Backpacker magazine has a little overview of the state of the market at the time:

The headline font says 1983. The camera uses an active infrared autofocus system. There are two circular windows just above the lens. The window nearest to the viewfinder has an infrared emitter that sends out an infrared beam. Here's what the beam looks like, with a shot taken by my ancient Game Boy Camera, which is sensitive to infrared:

The other window watches for the beam's reflection, and the camera's digital electronic brain does some simple mathematics to work out how far it should focus the lens. Most SLRs use a passive autofocus system that watches for sharp contrast in the image, but active infrared is cheaper and simpler and works well in dim light, with the downside that it can be confused by reflective surfaces.

The camera has a metal chassis encased in hard black plastic. It feels as if it would withstand being chucked into a glovebox and rattled around and I suspect that lots of them were. The flash unit pops out violently when the camera decides that flash is necessary - you have to hold it down in order to turn the flash off. As a consequence you have to grasp the camera by both hands when you shoot in subdued light:

Some impressive lens flare, there. As with the Ricoh 500 ME in the previous post, hand-held shooting at very slow shutter speeds is easy because there's no SLR mirror slap.

The L35AF takes a pair of standard AA batteries. The camera's only Achilles heel is the battery compartment door, which is flimsy and doesn't inspire confidence. My recollection of the 1990s is that most consumer-level SLRs had flimsy battery compartment doors, it seems to have been a thing.

The viewfinder is large and clear but only shows focus distance and framing. There's no indication of aperture or shutter speed. The camera doesn't have a hotshoe, despite having plenty of space on the top plate.

The L35AF's lens has surprisingly mild distortion.

Apart from being the first compact Nikon (and the first Nikon with autofocus, for that matter), it's also the first ever Nikon with a built-in motor drive. The drive loads, advances, and rewinds the film. It's quieter than I expected but no good if you like to go around photographing women's bottoms clandestinely in public. You might get away with it once, if there's traffic passing by, but once is not enough. The key to victory in the amateur porn market is volume, volume, volume, and in that case a compact digital is a much better bet. Alternatively, hire a model and just pretend that she's a random passer-by. That's what BangBros and the like do.

The clever thing about catering for the ass market is that you can reuse the same models over and over again; change the underwear and no-one will know. Asses aren't as distinctive as faces, which is probably why we have faces. So that we can tell friend from foe.

An Emirates Airbus A380, flying paying customers from Heathrow, rather than sitting on the tarmac smouldering.

Ultimately I didn't warm to the L35AF. It's quite bulky and feels old-fashioned, and although the filter thread is a neat feature I prefer a compact camera to be compact and pocketable. In fact the filter thread annoyed me because it triggered my OCD. The same impulse that compelled me to spend ages working out how tall a person would look from a distance of one light-second whilst writing this post. I've cut that bit out because it was waffly and I wasn't confident enough of my mathematics to leave it in. The joke would only be funny if the maths were precisely correct.

But, yes, I can't help myself from screwing filters into the L35AF's filter thread. The colour shots were taken with a polarising filter, black and white with a yellow filter. In theory I could just ignore it, but it's there, I have to screw something into it, and that chips away at the raison d'etre of a compact pocket camera. It's like having a cock, you know? You see a hole, you can't help but wonder if your cock would fit into it, and it preys on your mind all the time. Does the hole have teeth? Whereas if I didn't have a cock, I wouldn't have that problem. But then again if I was a woman I would spend ages evaluating cucumbers, roll-on deodorants, lipstick sticks etc.

The simplicity and compact dimension of the XA, or the later Olympus Mju, or the Yashica T etc appeal to me more. If the L35AF had been packed with features - a hotshoe, perhaps an intervalometer, manual controls - I would love it to bits, but ultimately it's just too conservative.

What else? My L35AF gets 37 shots from 36-shot Fuji Superia rolls. The motor rewind leaves a little bit of the leader outside the cassette when it has finished rewinding, which is a godsend if you develop your own film, but potentially disastrous if you don't keep track of which rolls you've shot and which rolls you haven't. On a hipster level the L35AF is a bit too obscure to attract the right attention, you'll hunt for ages before you find someone who recognises it. Of all the film cameras I have shot of late, it's the one most likely to end up in a cupboard forevermore. The thing that made it so appealing in 1983 - "it's a Nikon, so it works" - make it feel boring nowadays, and as an arty hipster camera it's a disaster because it's so competent. On an artistic level it doesn't have a distinctive visual signature, and as a practical means of recording the world it's bulkier and more awkward than my XA.

There are only so many ways to compose a picture with a moderately wideangle, moderately fast lens. Here are two of them.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Polypan F

Ricoh 500 ME / Polypan F 50 / Brescia, Italy

A discarded Apple 20SC 20MB hard drive on the streets of  Milan, June 2013, with a pair of Macintosh 800K external drives. I can't identify the keyboard.


Famously, Italy doesn't have Starbucks. Milan does however have a clone, Arnold Coffee(tm).

Polypan F seems to be home-made, or at least hand-rolled. The batch I bought from eBay had been taped on to used spools:

If there's one thing I learned from Twin Peaks, it's that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. I also learned that from Mary Poppins. Imagine a Twin Peaks / Mary Poppins crossover. You can see it, can't you? Polypan is apparently some kind of cine film. ISO 50 is of course very slow but, with a rangefinder camera, 1/15th is by no means impossible. The shots above were all stand developed with R09 and are very grainy but, dammit, I like grain. "Life has surface noise".

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Ricoh 500 ME: I Disconnect From You


Today we're going to have a look at a compact rangefinder camera from the 1970s. Back in the 1970s, if you wanted something more capable than an Instamatic, but you couldn't spring for an SLR, you were probably looking to buy a compact rangefinder. There was a glut of them on the market, and they all had a broadly similar specification - a 40mm f/2.8 lens attached to a rectangular body, with some kind of programmed automatic exposure system that used a battery-powered CdS metering cell mounted inside the filter ring. Sometimes the lens was 38mm, sometimes 42mm, although I suspect they were all the same basic design with some fudging of the numbers.

The 500 ME was the last of Ricoh's Mark II 500-series rangefinders; the original Mark I Ricoh 500 had been launched in the late 1950s, but the 500 ME used the body style of the 500 G and GX, which had been introduced in the early 1970s.


Konica popularised the format in the late 1960s with the Konica C35 - "the grab-shot camera", according to the adverts - and its heirs went on to dominate the middle of the camera market for a good ten years or so, roughly between Neil Young (1968) and Everybody's Rockin' (1983). The Ricoh 500 ME seems to have been discontinued in 1984 or thereabouts, by which time it was an anachronism.

Here's what the camera looks like:

It has a 46mm filter ring - in this shot I've reversed a 49mm filter and slotted it over the lens barrel.

In its day the 500 ME was a budget alternative to the new Olympus XA capsule cameras and autofocus Canon Sure Shot point-and-shoots that replaced it. It has an unusually capable specification, with shutter-priority automation and manual control over the shutter and aperture. The "ME" stands for "Multiple Exposure", which was the camera's big gimmick; the other gimmick was a spring-loaded film winder that screwed onto the bottom of the camera and is apparently naff (too slow, too noisy). My thumb is better.

Alan Myers is dead, but we are all devo

The 500 ME wasn't at all famous when it was new, and it seems to be a rebadged OEM design, possibly from Cosina. As Matt's Classic Cameras point out, the late-period Konica C35 clones were almost identical, and I surmise that they shared the lens/shutter unit (at the very least).

The 500 ME's manual exposure control sets it apart - most of the other pocket rangefinders were fully-automatic, or they had an EV system whereby the shutter speed and aperture were linked together - and furthermore the camera will still take a shot even if the automatic exposure system goes out of range. A lot of its competitors locked the shutter button instead. On a physical level the design has aged well. I'm old enough to remember when the 500 ME would have looked dated and naff, but that was the 1980s, and people had some odd ideas back then.

The preview display screen is the little glass hole in the top-left corner. It has a very high resolution and is updated in real time. Focus is silent.

Ricoh is one of the world's leading photocopier and office equipment manufacturers, essentially a Japanese analogue of Xerox. As a camera company it has long been a non-entity, although it jumped up a notch in the 1990s with the GR1, a tiny but well-made compact camera with a sharp 28mm f/2.8 lens. It was part of a wave of posh 35mm compacts that were popular at the time, although unlike the Contax T2 and Minolta TC-1 (for example) it didn't look posh. It had a modest, well-made magnesium alloy body and was, yes, the non-entity of the 35mm posh compact world, albeit that it was apparently a fine camera.

Kodak Portra 160

The GR series eventually made the transition to digital (as the "GR Digital"), but based on the reviews I have read the cameras were hobbled with a unimpressive, noisy image processing system. Ricoh seems to have fixed this with the recent, slightly confusingly-named Ricoh GR, which is apparently very good indeed. If the company had any sense it would tie up with Kellogg's, and run a series of adverts with Tony the Tiger proclaiming that the GR is GR-r-reat! It can't hurt.

In 2011 Ricoh bought famous camera manufacturer Pentax, and for a short while the company called itself Pentax Ricoh. In 2013 it became Ricoh again, with Pentax as a Ricoh brand name, although Ricoh still releases cameras under its own name as well. There's something profoundly melancholic about the thought of Pentax being turned into the plaything of a major photocopier manufacturer, but it's better than vanishing entirely, I suppose.

Looking through old issues of Popular Photography it seems that the 500 ME was sold until 1983-ish. In January 1983 Midtown Foto of New York listed it for $66.50, versus $79.95 for an Olympus XA2 or $104.50 for an XA. For an extra $100 or so Mister 1983 could have bought a Nikon EM with a 50mm f/1.8, or for just $50 on top of that a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm f/1.4. No doubt lots of people in 1983 spent hours of their time making the same mental calculations, wondering if they should spend a little bit more money and get the next model up. If only they had waited thirty years! They could pick the stuff up for next to nothing on eBay.

Operational-wise, shutter priority automatic is odd, although it's easy to change the shutter speed on-the-fly, in which case you can open up the aperture by shifting it to 1/500. The lens specification is classic and conservative, not-quite-wide and not-quite fast, not in the same league as the f/1.7 and f/1.9 lenses of the faster Canonets, the (much larger) Yashica Electro, and the Olympus 35SP, for example. You'll struggle to get background blur, although it can done, and the bokeh is very pleasant and slightly swirly:

The 500 ME was originally designed for the 1.35 volt PX675 mercury battery, which was banned in the 1990s. I substituted an SR44 cell, although LR44 cells should work as well. They have a higher voltage, 1.55v, and checking the camera against a handheld meter I need to set the ISO a couple of clicks higher than box speed in order to compensate (ISO 80 for 50-speed film, for example).

The shutter makes a quiet click noise - not as quiet as the electronic XA, but basically inaudible outdoors, so if you want to follow around behind people and take pictures of their bottoms go right ahead. An autowinding camera is a better option for that kind of thing, and of course a digital compact is an even better option, because you can shoot hundreds of shots and / or video. On the other hand if the police catch you taking upskirt shots with a Canon GL17 they'll assume you're a photographic artist and let you go - they might even help you - whereas if you try the same thing with a digital compact you'll be arrested. That's my theory anyway. Some kind of belt-mounted video camera is probably the optimal solution, or perhaps a modified briefcase with a hole in the front.

There's no SLR mirror, so you can shoot at slow speeds if you have a steady hand, viz:

Ergonomically the only problem is the small focus ring, which Ricoh should have extended out to the end of the barrel. Apart from that the camera is lightweight and no problem to carry around, and it looks chic enough that the people of Milan completely ignored it, which is a good thing. Probably. The only major drawback is that the camera doesn't fit into a pocket, it's roughly the size of a Canon G-series compact, but lighter. This is one of the things that killed off the 500 ME and its brethren - the XA (for example) easily fits into a trouser pocket, the Sure Shots and Nikon L35 etc will go into a larger jacket pocket, and they feel more robust. I would be wary of chucking a 500 ME into a car glovebox.

Not pictured - Born to Run

The rangefinder diamond was faint on mine but usable, although the aperture readout was almost totally gone. Fixing the interior apparently involves taking off the top of the camera and removing the shutter unit, so I'm not going to try that.

Tinseltown in the rain

On an emotional level I enjoyed using it. It's no bother to carry, it looks cute, and it's nice to have proper manual focus in a compact camera. With 400-speed film the lens is fast enough for most situations, and optically the lens seems to have no obvious deficits - vignetting and distortion are very mild, I couldn't detect any CA. On the other hand it's not much smaller than an Olympus OM or Pentax ME SLR, and on a retro level it suffers from the same problem as a lot of cute old compact cameras - the image quality exists on such a level of optical competence that it doesn't have a distinctive signature. For this reason the 500 ME doesn't stand out from the other rangefinders of its ilk, although on the other, other hand it was one of the last of its kind, so used examples are slightly less worn than the competition. As far as I can tell mine had never been overhauled, but the exposure system was still consistent. The light seals looked a bit ropey, but the design of the back door is such that there are no obvious light traps, and cross fingers I haven't had any light leaks. If you see one cheap, snap it up.