Thursday, August 28, 2014

Finding the range

Isaac, left, and Maya-Jean Lathan pose April 19 in one of the booths at the Nacogdoches Farmer's Market near downtown. Ease of use and quality construction made the Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder camera popular with casual photographers in its day.
Once more, I venture into the world of rangefinder cameras. This time, cameras made in Japan, primarily during my youth.

I have three: A Minolta Hi-Matic 7s (which has some issues), an Olympus 35 RC, another one of the cameras I inherited from my late father, and the one used to make the photo which leads off this post, a Yashica Electro 35 GSN.

The Yashica was a real blast from the past for me when I acquired it earlier this year from a gentleman who had read and enjoyed one of the first Analog East Texas features in The Daily Sentinel.

LEFT: A trio of 35mm rangefinder cameras manufactured in Japan during the 1960s-70s. The Yashica Electro 35 GSN, bottom left, the compact Olympus 35RC and the Minolta Hi-Matic 7S, top, all featured a host of electronic controls for ease of use coupled with high quality lenses which made the cameras popular with amateur photographers.

He brought that camera and, if memory serves, a vintage Canon A-1 with a strobe and a couple of lenses. Now, it wasn't exactly fair, because when I was studying photography, the Canon A-1 camera was sort of my personal Holy Grail. I'd always wanted one, back when I was a Canon shooter. (And we won't go in to why I'm not a Canon shooter any more. At least, not exclusively.)

I just loved the way the A-1 looked, felt and, most importantly, shot. So it was natural for me to take him up on his offer to sell me the cameras. The Yashica was just icing on the cake, so to speak. That was one of the first cameras I'd learned on and, in fact, the model I shot the image which got me my first, first-place award in a photo contest, back in junior high.

Deceptively simple to use and built like a brick, the Yashica was still an unknown quality when I bought it. Fortunately, he'd taken good care of it, meaning he took the old battery out when he stopped using it and put in on a shelf. I don't know how many beautiful, vintage cameras I've seen, only to find they had a long-dead battery which had leaked and probably rendered them useless.

But that battery gave me a bit of a worry, never-the-less. Cause you can't find 'em any more. In fact,
because they were based on mercury, they're illegal in this country. But, I bought the camera anyway, knowing (at least being pretty sure) I could figure out a work-around for the power source on the good ol' world-wide interwebs. And, a quick search of the Great E found me what I was looking for and I have a working Yashica Electro.

RIGHT: Highway 21 west of Douglass in June through the lens of the Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder camera. The addition of a red filter to the front of the lens turns the sky dark and highlights the clouds by blocking out blue light.

As for the other two, the Olympus is special to me for a variety of reasons. As I said, it was my father's camera, one he used extensively. I can remember him having it with him just about everywhere he went, particularly when he'd head out in the morning to make his regular rounds, calling on farmers to drum up orders for the feed store.

But even further back than that, I guess while I was still in junior high, him carrying the little thing around with him in a pocket of his big jacket, pulling it out occasionally to snap the odd photo. Or, even more thrilling for me, the first time he sat me down and showed me how to use it and then let me go at it.

And that's part of the beauty of the Olympus 35 RC: It's just so danged small! It fit perfectly in my young hands, back before I hit 6-feet when I was 14 or so. And it just makes such beautiful negatives, even today, decades after it was brand new and shiny.

LEFT: A lone chair sits by the window in one of the buildings at Millard's Crossing Historic Village in March in this image made with the Olympus 35RC compact rangefinder camera. Despite its small size, the 35RC is big in features, capable of sharp images made with ease using either automatic or manual settings.

Unlike the Yashica, which is an automatic exposure camera only (you set the aperture and the camera selects a shutter speed), the Olympus could be set manually. I didn't say it was easy, but it could be done.

You had to figure the exposure, either with a hand-held meter or using the built in meter, then turn the camera off automatic and set the aperture. But it was perfect for a young boy, just learning the ins and outs of photography and, more importantly, learning what all those exotic numbers meant and what happened if you changed them.

The last camera in the set is the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. It's one of the many flea market finds in my collection of antique and vintage cameras and, until I started this project, I wasn't even sure it worked. I did know the meter was dead, which I found out was due to a broken connection in the battery compartment, which I can't figure out how to fix.

But a couple of rolls of out-of-date black-and-white film and a hand-held light meter and I knew I had a working camera. And, fortunately, the Minolta can be set to operate fully manually.

There are quite a few advantages to rangefinder cameras, which is probably why Leica and Voigtlander/Cosina still make so many of them.

RIGHT: Train cars sit coupled on a siding near downtown in December 2013 through the lens of the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s camera. The Minolta rangefinders of the 1970s featured both automatic and manual operation which allowed the photographer to set both shutter speed and lens aperture independent of each other, important in this case, due to a non-functional light meter in this particular example of the camera.

For one thing, not needing the massive prism housing necessary in the single-lens reflex camera, rangefinder cameras can be smaller and, in some cases, lighter. These aren't, of course, but that's because they were built in the 1960s and 1970s before the advent of light-weight metals and super-strong plastics. And they were built like tanks!

But, today, I don't mind the weight of the cameras. In fact, it helps me hold them steady when I'm shooting. So many modern cameras feel like nothing in my hands. That's not knocking the companies which make them. It's just an observation.

I like to feel like I've got something in my hands when I'm making images. They aren't as heavy as the digital SLR cameras I use every day. But the weight they do have is comforting.

Another advantage to the rangefinders is they are quiet. Particularly compared to the electronic, built-in-motor, big mirror to move DSLR and even analog SLR cameras. That's particularly important when you're trying to be sneaky discrete while making images.

And, most importantly, all these cameras make great images. They were always popular with both amateur and professional photographers in their day and they remain popular with analog photography enthusiasts today.

Some of the most iconic images of all time were made with rangefinder cameras, including the infamous photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas police station, captured using a Nikon S model. (No, I don't have one of those. I wish!)

A train sits at idle on a siding in south Nacogdoches on Aug. 17. Some rangefinder cameras, including the Olympus 35 RC used to make this image, have the light meter window adjacent to the taking lens which allows for ease of use with effect filters like the yellow filter used to bring out the clouds against the blue sky.
And we haven't even talked about the lenses which, on my rangefinders, are fixed. They are arguably some of the best lenses made in their day. All are still very sharp and contrasty, which is good. The Olympus, due to its small size, is a little difficult to focus. But it's still a joy to use.

As I said before, my father used the heck out of that little camera. One of his projects was portraits of all the farmers who bought feed from us for their livestock. I can still remember all those 5x7 black and white photographs, which covered one full wall and part of another behind the counter at the store. Most of them were shot with the Olympus he carried with him almost every day, the same one I carry with me now.

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