I was a frustrated teenage photographer, unable to afford the cameras that I saw in the window of Jessops in Belfast and in the pages of Amateur Photographer that I browsed — and occasionally bought — in Eason’s newsagents. This was the era of classic enthusiast film cameras — the Olympus OM system, the Pentax MX and ME, the Canon A series, the Minolta XD’s and my personal favourites, the Nikon FM and FE. Time passed and my enthusiasm passed with it, only rekindled much later in the era of the plastic, auto- everything camera.
Last year, though, I finally realised my teenage dream and acquired a very nice Nikon FM2n, rapidly followed by a set of Nikkor prime lenses. Tempted as I was to keep adding SLR’s (the OM-4 and XD-7 were particularly appealing) I decided that the next step was to add a smaller camera for those times when I wanted to carry something more discreet. This is when I discovered the world of compact rangefinders.
Strangely, even though many of these little cameras were still in production at that time I was considering those classic SLR’s, I have no recollection of them. This is stranger still considering that when I did eventually buy a camera back then it was a rangefinder, specifically a Zorki 4K, though I bought it, not because it was a rangefinder, but because it was cheap — around £30 I believe.
Thankfully I no longer had to peruse Amateur Photographer to gain my delayed education in compact rangefinders and I surfed widely and consumed deeply while considering my options. Enthusiasts sang the praises of their preferred cameras, but my impression, after reading through more online reviews than I could count, was that there was little to choose between many of them, in terms not only of features but also of the number of failings they were subject to.
Foggy viewfinders, perished seals, corroded electrics, sticky or oily shutter or aperture blades, fungus in the lenses, mercury batteries — it’s amazing how much can go wrong with these little cameras considering how simple they are. Or, perhaps its more amazing that after nearly fifty years some are still working, or fixable, given that these were very much consumer grade products.
Since no one camera appealed to me more strongly than the rest I turned to a more subjective criterion finding myself drawn to those camera makers who are, sadly, no longer with us — or no longer making cameras — which put Konica, Minolta and Yashica high on my list. Ultimately, though, the two most important criteria for me were that, whatever the maker, the camera needed to work, and it had to be reasonably priced.
So should I spend more and buy a serviced camera from a specialist? Or go cheap and hope for the best? The former appealed to my cautious nature but rather defeated the point of having a cheap and cheerful alternative to my SLRs. The latter ran the risk of ending up with a novelty paperweight. Thankfully my indecisiveness and procrastination paid off since I was still considering my options when Used Photo Pro posted a Konica C35 for sale on their site. Advertised as being in working order, and with a 14 day return period and a six month guarantee, it was an easy decision. A few days later it was mine, for $30.
First impressions. It’s black which looks good, better than the chrome version to my eye. It’s definitely compact, but it’s also beautifully simple. Thus while it is small it still handles comfortably being free of the buttons, knobs, dials, LCD displays and blinking lights that festoon similarly sized digital cameras. That it has to be of a certain thickness to accommodate a 35mm film canister also contributes to this comfortable feel. In fact, it’s not dissimilar in size to my Fuji X-E2 which, no doubt, is why it feels good in my hand. It it solid and has some weight to it (380g to be precise) even though it is only a ‘point and (focus and) shoot’ camera.
Second impressions. The film door has a little bit of play in it, possibly because the light seals are somewhere between lousy and non-existent. While having no interest in getting sucked into camera repair, this is one task I feel I can manage, courtesy of the many instructional posts and videos online. The viewfinder looks clear enough to me without any fogging, though there are a lot of little dust specks inside. There is also something — dirt or mould — on or in front of the exposure scale in the right of the viewfinder but it remains usable. The perfectionist in me would really like to clean it but I’m not convinced about trying to do it myself, and getting someone else to do it would undoubtedly cost much more than I paid for the camera so I’ll probably just learn to live with it as long as it doesn’t get any worse. Overall, though, it’s surprisingly clean and free of signs of wear and tear. I like to think that’s because it has been well cared for and lightly used.
As part of my research I had downloaded and read manuals for all of the cameras I was interested in, including three versions of the C35 manual. (And a word of thanks to all those good people who scan and post these manuals online). In anticipation of the camera’s arrival I had ordered a lens cap, use of which appeared to be the only way to switch off the meter. I had also ordered a Weincell MRB675 in place of the no longer available PX675 mercury battery. I did this despite having a handful of SR44 cells lying around because I had read that using the latter, slightly more powerful, battery would affect the accuracy of the metering leading to underexposure. So when the camera arrived I was all ready to go.
It didn’t work. The exposure indicator needle twitched, but refused to leave the under-exposure red zone no matter how bright the scene I pointed the camera at. The shutter blades also seemed faulty, opening quickly enough, but only closing up slowly. I checked the battery — thirty minute warm up, in the right way round, battery cap properly closed. No lens cap accidentally left on. It still didn’t work.
I was all set to pack it up and send it back when on a whim I replaced the MRB675 battery with an SR44. The needle zipped up and down the exposure scale and the shutter snapped open and snapped shut — sort of. There still appeared to be a bit of stickiness when the shutter was closing but five minutes winding and firing over and over again seemed to resolve the problem. So it seemed the new battery was the problem. (I subsequently discovered that it was not the battery itself but the placement of the battery in the chamber that was the problem. After a little adjustment of the battery and the battery chamber cover the Weincell worked normally). Now the challenge was to work out how the more powerful battery was affecting the exposure metering.
I set the Konica to 200 ASA and pointed it a blank white laptop screen so that the screen filled the bright frame in the viewfinder. Just under f4; just under 1/125. For comparison I used my Fuji X-E2. The Konica’s metering is centre-weighted, an option that isn’t available on the Fuji so I set it to average on the basis that it should make no difference when metering on a blank white screen. With the lens at f4 I framed the screen with the Fuji and checked the shutter speed — 1/85. About half a stop under exposed then. Much better than the two stop difference which I had read of in a number of posts. On the basis that a bit of overexposure is better than a bit of underexposure the simplest way to adjust this on the C35 is to set the ASA one stop under box speed: if it’s a 400 film set it to 200, if it’s 200 set it to 100, if it’s 100 set it to 50. The ASA dial moves in 1/3 stop increments, so you can fine tune the exposure adjustment to some extent.
So I was all set to go for the next day. Load up some film, tape up the film door to compensate for the banjaxed seals, and hit the streets of Washington DC.
But first, a quick run through on the controls. Up top there’s a film wind lever and frame counter, a threaded shutter release, an accessory shoe for a flash, and a combined film rewind crank and door release. On the left side is a PC socket. On the front is a self timer lever. On the base is the film rewind release button, a tripod socket and the battery chamber. On the barrel of the lens is the shooting mode ring with release button and the focus ring with a focusing knob. On the front of the lens is the film speed ring and the CdS cell for metering. The lens itself is a Hexanon 38mm f2.8 with four elements in three groups.
There are three shooting modes: auto, B and flash. I rarely use flash and I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I would do so on this camera so I’ve no idea how this works. When selecting B the metering disengages and the aperture defaults to 2.8. Again, I can’t think when I would ever use this setting. For me, this is a camera to set on auto and leave there.
The focus ring has a throw of around 60 degrees and moves smoothly and evenly. Closest focus is 3.5 feet. The ASA ring is a knurled dial on the front of the lens which you push in and turn until the required ASA number appears in the small window directly below the front element. ASA range is from 25 to 400 in 1/3rd stop increments.
Looking through the viewfinder, on the right side is the exposure indicator. A vertical scale lists shutter speed and aperture combinations from 30/2.8 through to the slightly unusual 650/14. The camera selects one of these combinations but there is no way to adjust them. To put it another way, you get programme mode, but not programme shift. A swinging needle indicates the chosen combination. You can lock the exposure with a half press on the shutter release so it is possible to meter and recompose. This and the ASA speed adjustment are the only options for fine tuning the exposure in Auto mode. There are red zones top and bottom to indicate over- and under-exposure. There is no shutter lock, so the shutter will still fire if the meter is in either zone. The viewfinder also displays the rangefinder patch, a bright line frame and a parallax compensation mark for composing at distances of less than four feet. Both marks are still very clear and easy to see. A flash symbol appears when the flash mode is selected.
The shutter and aperture are both controlled by a single set of blades in the lens. The shutter is mechanical so I assume that it only operates at fixed speeds. Since the shutter speed numbers and the aperture numbers aren’t precisely aligned on the viewfinder scale and since the needle can and does stop between numbers, it’s difficult at times to know precisely what combination has been selected.
Operation of the camera couldn’t be simpler. Set the mode ring to Auto, compose, focus, shoot, wind — repeat 36 times. Rewind.
Time to take some pictures. A cheap roll of Kodak Gold 200 is the film choice and thin strips of black electrical tape seal it in. The C35 is pocketable if you are wearing a coat. I was, so I didn’t bother with a bag and just kept it handy in a front pocket. I took a walk around downtown DC, the Mall and the Air and Space Museum the first day, and visited a couple of the DC Monuments the second day. I took some shots at ASA 200 and others at ASA 100 to see what difference it made. I took some shots in a darker part of the museum when the needle was only just clearing the red zone. On an overcast day it never got particularly bright but I covered a reasonable range of lighting conditions.
The simplicity of the camera makes it a joy to use. The only problem I encountered is that I sometimes had to readjust my eye to see clearly through the relatively small viewfinder window. The needle can also be a little difficult to see in darker environments. Other than that everything works. The film advance lever has a reasonably short throw and moves smoothly, the same is true of the focusing ring. The shutter button requires quite a long press before the shutter fires with a discernible click, but, again, it moves smoothly. The leatherette finish enable easy handling free of the fear of the camera slipping from your grasp (something I’ve learned to appreciate as a former owner of a Sony RX100).
My first roll complete I stripped off the black tape and took the film to District Photo in downtown Washington for developing, taking care to explain the circumstances in the hope that they wouldn’t then conclude that I was the world’s least competent photographer. Two days to wait.
In the meantime I opened the back and did some more testing of the meter and shutter. Worryingly, I had the distinct impression that the shutter had started sticking again when closing. Did this mean that every shot I had taken was going to be drastically over-exposed? I wound and fired, wound and fired, wound and fired, and again the blades eventually started to snap shut. This time I kept going. Later that day I did the same again. I kept at it. The following morning the shutter still seemed to be working properly. While repeated usage may be enough to loosen it up permanently, perhaps I also need to clean the blades.
Still, it meant that my expectations were rock bottom when I picked up the developed film the next morning. And so I was pleasantly surprised when I ran it through my scanner. Some shots taken, as I recall, when the needle was still in or near the red zone were drastically underexposed and not worth keeping. Others, though, taken in lower light levels were acceptable but needed work. I couldn’t see much difference between those shots taken at ASA 100 and ASA 200. Generally, pictures shot outdoors in good light turned out very well, though there were a couple that weren’t quite up to scratch. One shot showed up some lens flare, something I’m used to being able to see through the lens when using my other cameras, but which I obviously can’t see with the rangefinder. Overall, though, the images turned out very nicely, better than I was expecting.
Having decided I was keeping the camera I replaced the seals and I’m thinking of trying to clean up the viewfinder since it seems an easy enough fix from what I’ve seen online. The only problem is that I don’t have the necessary tools open up the camera. The shutter blades continue to be a little mysterious, working normally most of the time but still displaying a tendency to not close fully in certain circumstances. Fortunately they always seem to work properly when I’m shooting. I’ll need more rangefinder practice but this will be a very nice take along camera for times when I’m going to be outdoors in decent light and don’t want to carry anything bigger.