Cameras I Wanna Try

Look, I don’t NEED any more cameras. I got my beloved high school Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 repaired and I’ve fixed up a couple of cheap Canon T60s and a Canon AT-1 as wonderful take-everywhere cameras. I’m totally comfortable with Canons of this era and I love the images they let me take. But I’ve had a ton of fun over the past year trying out cheap vintage 35mm cameras from other manufacturers from the 1960s through the 1980s, and when I have a little idle time, I get the hankering to try out a few more. So here are a few of the cameras still on my mind.

Pentax MX

The Pentax MX is famously the lightest fully mechanical and manual 35mm SLR ever made. I’ve read multiple glowing reviews of how fantastic and huge its viewfinder is and how wonderful it is to handle. And it’s relatively cheap, with nice looking copies regularly selling for $70 or so on But that puts it just a touch out of my typical comfort range for buying used cameras. As nice as a camera looks in online auction photos, you never quite know if it’s going to work properly until you get it in your hands. So I usually balk at spending more than $50 for a camera in these auctions. I’ve seen Pentax MX bodies go for that amount or less, but somehow I keep missing the deadline to bid. Some day!

Olympus RC and/or the Canon QL17 GIII

I grew up shooting single lens reflex cameras like the Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 and was barely aware of rangefinder cameras until very recently. But over the last year, I’ve been conducting a slow motion search for a cheap, super-light, take-everywhere camera to toss in my satchel while running errands in New York City. The Canon T60 has become that camera for me, but the Olympus RC and Canon QL17 GIII seem like serious contenders. Both cameras are compact and light with manual exposure controls and famously excellent lenses. But the Olympus RC tends to sell for $70 or so and the Canon QL17 GIII tends to sell for a bit over $100, which, again, is a bit out of my comfort range. However, there’s a Canon GL17 model without the GIII designation that’s pretty much the same camera as the GIII and tends to go for a lot less, so hope springs eternal!

Minolta ER

When I was in high school, I somehow got ahold of an old Minolta SLR with a fixed lens that I can remember fiddling with and keeping on my bookshelf but never actually shooting. I have no memory of where it actually came from. It might have been a camera my mom owned and used before she got her Canon FTb. Or maybe we picked it up at a yard sale or something. I noticed the camera in the background of a photo I took of my bedroom in high school and immediately felt the muscle memory of handling it. It was a heavy, solid, metal camera that made very satisfying clicks. It took a while to figure out what the make and model was, and now I’m a little obsessed with tracking one down. It’s a bit of a goofy desire — the camera’s too big and bulky for everyday use, and the chances that I can find an actual working model are pretty slim anyway. But I want to hold it in my hands again, feel that weight, and let that muscle memory take over. Nostalgia and sentiment are strong, y’all. Of course, the only samples I can find are over $100, so I’m not sure I’m going to pull the trigger on this any time soon.

Contaflex II

This was my maternal grandfather’s camera. He took hundreds of gorgeous, vibrant slide photos with it on Kodachrome during family roadtrips when my mom was a teenager. I dug up the camera after my mom died, and I love its weight and feel. But sadly the shutter’s gummed up and these cameras are notoriously over-engineered and difficult to service and repair. They’re not that expensive on auction sites, but according to various experts on the internet, the chances of finding a working model are extremely slim. I’d still love to shoot with this camera to get into my grandfather’s head for a bit. He was a quiet, meticulous man, and I have this strange feeling that learning to work his camera would help me understand the way his mind worked just a bit more.

Canon Dial 35

I became a bit obsessed with half frame cameras this year, and the Canon Dial 35 is a funky model that I’d just love to fiddle with. Half frame 35mm cameras take two 18×24 mm pictures in the space a normal camera takes one 36x24mm picture, which means you can get 72 frames out of a typical 36 exposure role of film. Each image is lower resolution, of course, since it takes up half the amount of film, but that’s part of the charm. The Canon Dial 35 stands out because of its strange form and clockwork mechanisms. Its unusual vertical orientation and funky crank knob make it look like something out of a 1960s science fiction or spy movie, and it was actually featured in The Prisoner television show. It’s a bit silly for me to want this camera — it’s an autoexposure only machine, and I only really enjoy shooting with full manual exposure controls. And I already have multiple great half frame cameras, including a phenomenal Konica Auto-Reflex that uses standard Konica SLR lenses and thus provides incredibly good image quality. But I look at the pictures of the Canon Dial 35 and I just want to fiddle with it. These are sometimes pretty cheap, so who knows!

Konica FT-1 Pro Half

Speaking of half frame cameras, the Holy Grail of the format appears to be the Konica FT-1 Pro Half, a full featured SLR that’s a variant of the full-frame Konica FT-1 Motor. Apparently Konica manufactured a small number of half frame versions of this camera that were given to special customers and executives around 1982. I don’t know if any other half frame cameras were being manufactured at the time, and I’ve never heard of a half frame SLR as modern as this one. I’ve only seen an active auction for one of these, and the asking price was $1399. So no, I’m not buying this camera. But boy, it’d be fun to try one out!

Olympus Pen F with an Olympus OM adapter

Okay, we’re getting into fanciful realms here. The only other half frame SLRs I know of besides the Konica Auto-Reflex and FT-1 Pro Half are the Olympus Pen F and FT. These are highly coveted, all manual, all mechanical compact SLRs with interchangeable lenses. I’d probably have managed to scrounge one up by now, but the big drawback is that the two most standard lenses for these cameras were manufactured with thorium glass elements, which means they’re slightly radioactive. Different people have different ideas about the actual danger levels of thorium in camera lenses, but I try to avoid it, so I’ve pretty much given up on chasing down these cameras. But there are lens adapters that allow you to attach Olympus OM lenses to Pen F series bodies. The trick is that the adapter itself sells for about $150. Add the camera itself and an Olympus OM lens or two, and the price starts to get pretty high up there. Again, not something I’m going to spring for any time soon, but fun to think about!

Canon EF

This is a strange, rare, but currently pretty cheap camera that was part of the Canon F line that included my beloved FTb and New F-1. The EF was built on the same basic chassis, so it’s a solid, heavy, classic-feeling Canon camera that takes FD lenses. But it’s got an electronic shutter and a shutter priority mode. Like the AE-1 and A-1, it also doesn’t show you your actual aperture in the viewfinder when you’re exposing manually — it just shows you the suggested aperture, and you have to lower the camera from your eye to make sure your lens is set properly before shooting. That should be a dealbreaker for me, but I got my hands on a non-working Canon EF and just like the feel of it. I’d love to try out a working version. But I haven’t yet committed to plunking down $60 or $70 for the privilege.

As I said at the outset, I don’t need any of these cameras. But it’s fun to learn and think about them, and it’s fun to have a little list of things to look out for when I pass a stoop sale or flea market. Simple pleasures, right?