Collectible cameras

Preamble – modest camera history

In 1965 or so I had a Zorki 4 that developed a curtain malaise. The internet was to be invented decades ahead, so I visited the local photo shop (two words at the time) and asked about a camera repair shop.  I rode my bicycles there where very accented man sat next at a small wood bench under a bright light, encircled by red-brown chests of wood drawers. The place smelled the way I had never sensed before. Mix of old time and oils and leather and chemicals and sharp odors I could not identify. He inspected the camera and sighed, probably wasn’t excited by the Zorki, and told me to come back in a week’s time. Once collected it got its kick and click back and life came back to normal.

The Zorki could be repaired. In my book – collectible.

Zorki 4
Zorki 4

In 1981 I bought a second-hand  Canon AE1-P with couple of lenses from a fellow expatriate.  The mounted lens had been stuck and I didn’t want to force it out. Back home I promptly reported to the same repair shop. The settings and odours were same but there was a younger person with no accent but with a long and pointy pinkie nail, probably used as a tool . Couple of days later it was ready. Apparently, it was somehow badly locked in place.

The Canon could be repaired. In my book – collectible.

Canon AE-1 Program
Canon AE-1 Program, built like a tank.

This camera served me for about fifteen more years. In 1983 we spent a week in Disney World, Florida. As a proud father, I toiled around with the Canon and a long zoom lens, together with a compact VHS video camera the size of a shoe box. The photography spree lasted exactly one day, where from lunch onwards both cameras went under the stroller. Therefore, we have a gap in our family photographic history.

I used the camera for special events, school functions and anywhere that did not require stevedore duty. As backup, I had several smaller cameras. There was an Olympus XP, first edition; a Pentax zoom goofproof; a small Yashica that wound the film once pressed the shutter before firing, so it was always late in taking crucial images, and the inevitable disc, a Minolta. The disc was the worse invention in modern photography industry, and I say so because I am not familiar with the 1800’s cameras. For the 20th century it holds the title indeed. It was awkward to hold, slow in shooting and produced bad images. Though, in one aspect it preceded it’s time. It had a front small convex mirror at front and came with a collapsible stick, so one could take a selfie back in the 80’s. Mind you, it was an odd to see a person holding a camera on a stick.

Minolta disc 7
Minolta disc 7. Note the collapsible selfie stick at the bottom.

In a hindsight, I think the best of the lot was the Olympus XP. Superb lens, hardly any controls and produced amazing images. Yet it had two faults: the trigger was sort of rubbery surface that had no mechanical feeling, much like a touch pad; and the attached flash gun was so weak that to take a portrait you had to almost touch the subject’s nose and step back. This could result in under-exposure if the object had a long nose.

Olympus XA
Olympus XA. Note the red rubbery touch pad.

All was nice and I produced a stream of family images, till one day a friend showed me a new Pentax SLR. Compared to my old trusted Canon, it was as if had been taken from a Star Wars set. It had an LCD display (!) and an auto-focus (!) and streamlined controls. Most of all, it was feather weight and tiny, compared to the Canon that was built like a tank. Needless to say, I promptly bought one. To ever regret it.

The Pentax, think a Z something series, never felt right. It was fast to focus so taking time to compose a frame seemed to delay the action. There was always one more setting to fiddle with so to justify its smartness. It felt like a toy, expensive at that, yet a toy. The lenses were sort of frail plastic, unlike the heft of the Canon glass.

Pentax ZX-50
Pentax disposable SLR, built with Mazda technology.

Here I crossed the line between real photographic hardware to the disposable camera era.

The Pentax did what cameras are wont to do, till it died. By now, I lived in a different country, many miles away from the little repair shop, so to the dealer it went. A week later I was told that the board had gone. PC Board, like in any mortal electronics. I felt offended, almost cheated. Cameras should be the bastion of real hardware, finest mechanics that men could design and make, cogs and levers, springs and pullies, second only to clockwork. Here, the Pentax is controlled by jumping electrons and was put to it’s knees by a failing resistor. Repair is not feasible, I was told, it is cheaper to buy a new camera.

The Pentax could not be repaired. Thus passes the glory of the world. This is where cameras ceased to be classic or collectible.

I packed the deceased camera with its three lenses and dedicated flash and filters and whatnot, and took an oath not to buy plastic cameras anymore. Till digital arrived, delivering easier photography and worse value then ever before.

Where did late film SLR cameras go wrong

That generation of automatic SLR was miserable, taking the art of camera making to a wrong direction. Trying to make photography simple and accessible the manufacturers completely missed the point. Good photography is dependent upon the eye and soul, complemented with a good lens.  Now, the manufacturers had offered complex cameras, feature rich, expensive status symbol that were used as a point-and-shoot.

With old mechanical SLR there were several levers and dials, all tangible, visible and clearly defined. In the advanced SLR cameras there are menus, sub menus and sub / sub menus, for lack of other definition. For added confusion, there are extra controls with cryptic symbols that I am not sure if anyone ever used. Before, to change a setting all one had to do is turn a dial. Now, by the time all sub-menus are selected, after so many times pressing the wrong selection just to venture into a menu unseen before, the subject of your photography had long gone to bed. At least the case with my grandchildren.

These cameras had so many options to select from that no mortal could comprehend, let alone use. Flash could have full, fill in, red eye removal, first curtain, last curtain, night portrait. Modes are regular, beach, scenery, night scenery, macro, sport, panorama and so on. Assume next they could add options for ice hokey and synchronized swimming.  There is where users throw in the towel, set it to auto and forget the rest. It is like having an automatic attendant to prepare your breakfast: set the table, crack the eggs, fry an omelette, butter the toast, clear the table and do the dishes.  It could be fun, till the day you feel for a hard-boiled egg but forgot how to set the system, or just to lazy to bother, so omelette it is. Using the mechanical SLR cameras was simple. Now you’ll need to carry a manual with you.

Batteries, which before were used to operate the meter or assist in P modes, now control all functions and wind the film to boot. In my old Canon there was a stubby battery that had lasted forever. If it failed could still look at the sky and use the camera in manual mode. Now the cameras are fully dependent on battery power and as Murphy has it, battery is always flat when needed.

I guess that the serious photographer who reads this may feel that I exaggerate, but I trust most camera users will share same sentiment.

The pixels are coming 

The digital cameras arrived quietly, more as a novelty then a practical gadget. Fist one I saw had 640 x 480 resolution and produced silent-film image quality.  Once first-adapters had their say the cameras got to be about usable. With more demand manufactures added pixels, till all came to realize that adding pixels over what is meaningful is just vanity. No real person would use a point and shoot camera to enlarge an image to tabloid size. More features appeared, such as stabilizing, geo-tagging, face and smile recognition and for sure more fancy staff.  Product gained ground fast so point-and-shoot digital cameras were sold everywhere – pharmacies, hardware and stationary stores and supermarkets. Before, a person was loyal to a brand, now it became a commodity, and she bought what was on sale. All this for compact cameras.

When digital photography transformed from science fiction to a household product, many jumped on the opportunity. HP presented a line of digital cameras, just to pull it back as HP always does. So did Epson, Toshiba, General Electric, Casio and others; all established brands in other lines but had no merit to enter the photography universe. Common thing to all – making technology with no soul.

HP early digital camera
HP early digital camera

Some did succeed. After several futile attempts  to develop own camera, Sony chewed up Minolta and spat out a decent line of cameras. Panasonic rode on Leica branded lenses and created the Lumix brand. Even the name does not fit, it sounds more like a heartburn medication. Take two Lumix at bedtime.

I have gone through several compact digital cameras. Two prematurely died, being a throw-away technology so I did. Always bought the latest technology, just to find a year later that a new one, even more feature rich, is packed in half-size body. I kept retiring perfectly good cameras for no real reason. On SLR – some years ago I bought an Olympus E-330 for it had real time view and retractable monitor, way ahead of the curve. Have recently used it, and it is still perfectly usable, although it has none of the fancy current futures and the processor is painfully slow.

OIlympus Evolt E 330
OIlympus Evolt E 330 – was years ahead of its time.

Modern cameras evolve horizontally, adding features that do not contribute to the image quality. Cameras became just another electronic consumer product, not different from a fashion watches. You put a way a good one just because a new feature that you don’t really need, or to show off a sticker with latest advances.

Enter the vintage camera

Between the 1880’s and the 1980’s mechanical cameras evolved vertically. There were continued advances in optics and fine mechanics, that made the camera better and efficient by improving on necessities – grain only, no chaff.  There were different countries making cameras: Germany, England, France, and later Japan and the US, all compete to produce the best camera for the professional and the affordable and easy to use for the amateur.

The way I see it, there were four distinct generations of film cameras:

Wood and brass

  • 1880’s to WWI
  • Early cameras that created the photography concept, beautifully crafted wood hardware, with basic optics. Static, needed much paraphernalia to shoot an image. Copper or glass media.
  • Second generation of same, where could leave the studio, introduction of celluloid as we know it now.
  • Inventors from UK, France, Germany and the US set the pace for the art of time freezing .
  • Concept took shape, technology lagged behind.

Traveling light

  • WWI to WWII
  • First mass produced cameras, variants of box style. First SLR introduced.
  • Compound mechanics brought the compact folding cameras, with attached viewfinders. Early light meters appeared on scene as advisers, not high-handed bosses.
  • Photography on the road came to being, with styled as detective, field, press, cycle and so on, to embrace the mobility idea.
  • Film gets widespread.
  • First compact cameras make use of 35mm film.
  • The industry had been notorious for divisions and mergers. Engineers from established brands branched out to set own shops. Smaller companies were taken over by others, or several manufacturers joined together to create a whole new brand or to continue under one of the names. Therefore, at times same camera model appears under different names, such as Netter, Contessa and Zeiss; Dr. Nagel and Kodak

The golden age of classic cameras

  • WWII to 1970’s
  • Advanced optics allowing for shorter focal length saw the mono-block bodies replacing the folding or pop-out lens cameras.
  • Coupled rangefinder becomes commonplace.
  • The compact SLR created to its own category. TLR cameras surfaced at the top.
  • UK and France lose ground. The French as they tend to do tinges differently, sometimes before it’s time – see the Panhard and the Citroen DS. The Brits, as they could not make their cameras leak oil.
  • Japanese camera makers mushroom as cottage industry, boosted by the buying power of the GI. A wave of manufacturers optical and mechanical manufacturers branch into camera making, just to vanish without trace.
  • The Soviets loot, borrow and copy, building a camera industry that was almost non-existent before the war. Creating camera factory manned by street urchins and naming it after a mass murderer, and moving whole plants from Germany under the guise of reparation, assuming Ivan will do as good as Fritz. At least till lunchtime.  It is to be noted that while one superpower poured money into western Europe and Germany in particular to revitalize the economy, the Soviets, at their dependant colonies and the other Germany in particular, removed anything possible and drained all resources.
  • The two Germans retort to the pre-war glory, bickering as to who owns what. Cameras were about the only consumer product that the DDR got right, now were used as a foreign exchange generator. It had gone from semi-private entities into lumping most under KW.
  • The US goes full steam ahead making millions of cheap, sometimes sub-par cameras, just to have the local industry vanish altogether and relaying on imports. Now Trump wows to bring jobs back, only pity that no one buys mechanical cameras any longer.
  • Compact cameras become commonplace, medium format and miniature reach maturity.
  • A brief camera middle ages, with boring camera designs and dumb control icons.

The Mazda period

  • 1970’s to late 1990’s
  • Semi / automatic / program cameras, both in amateur and professional photography hardware.
  • Hardware works till the warranty expires, just like a Mazda. Repair becomes unfeasible. Cameras useful lifetime gets shorter.
  • Came a full circle from a camera with no controls to a camera that controls self.
  • The Japanese rule the market. High end cameras still being made in Europe, US is out.
  • The death of the film camera.

 The golden age of collectible cameras

The golden age of film cameras was short – about 40 years of intense creativity. It was the most exciting era in photography, living behind the most collectible cameras. The wood and brass cameras were made in small numbers and did not offer much in way of real technology. The period after – only the very early models are worth noticing, as the latter are more of a disposable product, and the masses of compact point and shoot were dull and worthless to begin with.

Collectible cameras can not be easily defined. Not anything with a lens and a winding mechanism is considered classic, and probably few will be. Same apply to the term vintage camera. Any old camera is vintage, but not necessary collectible or classic camera.  There is a certain paradigm to pronounce a film camera to be rare, vintage, classic and collectible as the terms are not interchangeable and all do not necessarily apply to the same model. All this without considering the specific exemplar’s condition.  Regrettably, in many cases there is another adjective that could be used – plain junk.  It is to wiser and better qualified people to agree on which is which. I, however, would define a collectible camera as a product that at the time represented the latest technology, pioneered a concept or a feature or an improvement thereof; and can be taken apart, serviced and restored.

Which cameras to collect much depends upon personal interests and preferences. Could be anything that’s available, a period, style, brand and anything in between. I can find my way through complex mechanics, but am intimidated by soft material, namely bellows. Cogs and lever behave in a predictable way, leather or cardboard do not. Same with electronics – I know nothing about it so have no interest in electronically controlled cameras either. This limits my preferences to hard shell, all mechanical film cameras, which in turn represent a specific period.

There is an exclusion to my interest. As described above under medieval ages, there was a time in the 60’ and 70’s where makers produced lines of exceptionally bland cameras. The Agfa Isola and Silette; Voigtlander Vito and its derivatives and Kodak’s Retinette included.

Agfa Optima
Uninspiring camera

Even Less exciting cameras of the same era are the range of Instamatics, Polaroids and cine cameras. I often see offers for ‘amazing’ collections, presenting a selection of these types.  The Instamatics were cheap, plastic boxes with a poor lens, and plenty were made. The Polaroids baffle me.  It seems as thee was a decree by Congress that each household must have a Polaroid. Otherwise I can not explain why there are so many of them. Few are collectible, but I shy away from them altogether. They hold little technology and look as if designed at Miss Ruth’s grade two play-doh hour. Cine cameras have few followers, maybe as there is no media available for over a generation now, or for it is crude technology and optics.

Vintage camera pricing

Collectible cameras are not necessarily expensive. There are hundreds of models that are masterfully crafted, easily available and cheap. Cameras that were expensive at the time are now sold for a fraction. ‘Fraction’ could be deceiving, as price for a sought-after collector’s cameras could soar to thousands and more. Assuming down-to-earth collection, one does not need deep pockets to put together a nice collection.

While cameras that were made decades ago are sold at certain price level, owners can not part from cameras made in the Mazda era. I see the such as Minolta Maxxum, Nikon N and Pentax Z where owners can not comprehend that they are now worthless, let alone usable or collectible.

Car owners understand the concept of Black Book pricing, or the concept of market value for a used car. Not same with camera ‘Black Book’ concept. I sometimes wonder where do they take the asking price from. Trying to negotiate to a real-world price, you’ll get animosity in return.

I presume the reason for the gap in asking prices by non-collector can be easily explained.

A Kodak folder that was bought in the 40’s for $50, is now sold for the same nominal amount. The old folk who sells it may remember the original $50, so he is content with it. At the time it had the buying power of today’s $800, but 50 is still 50.  Alternatively, the old folk is no longer with us, and her grandson just wants to get rid of that for whatever price. Not so with the cameras bought in the 90’s to early 2000’s. A fully automatic Pentax or Canon kit was bought for say $800, now worth $30 if found a buyer. The camera is in mint condition and performs perfectly well, so the not-so-old seller wants to recoup his cost.

Vintage camera road end

The camera industry was its own biggest enemy. The more users were there, the more technology pushed forward. Companies that excelled in brand building, innovative products, consistent quality and good balance of market segments survived, while other gradually phased out.  All that even before digital showed up. Minolta merged with Konica, just to be born again Sony. Yashica, that catered to the full user’s spectrum had a short revival surge with the Contax series, just to seize making cameras. Fuji, a maker of a few high-end film camera and tons of compacts reinvented itself into supplier of excellent digital cameras – the X series, and supplement it with toy instants. The instant royalty, Polaroid, had gone through each variation possible, just to hit the end of the road. It has now resurfaced in Hong-Kong as Mint Camera, not sure whom it caters for. Similar was practiced by Arax in Ukraine, reviving the Kiev brand.

Mamiya, that made any type of camera thinkable, is now a shadow. Miranda, Ricoh and other once prominent name have long gone.  The two biggest names, Agfa and Kodak, that were synonyms to photography are out of that altogether.

Stalwart brands such as Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Pentax in Japan, Leitz and Hasselblad in Europe, have all gone digital.

As did the camera trade reinvent itself into digital, the ever-smaller cameras found a new carrier, and began symbiotic life within the mobile phone industry.  With no moving parts, minuscule lens, and endless storage, cameras as a stand-alone product will soon become novelty items. A good image on a phone camera is on par with same taken by a good and so much more expensive SLR. The way the industry goes, there will be justification only for the high-end cameras – SLR’s onwards.

The cellphone cameras now go the same way the early digital went, advancing into laterals, such as filters, masks and mass photo sharing.  After all, few things in life are as important as sending the world a picture of the spaghetti and meatballs you are about to eat.


Mazda and cameras

I used the Mazda brand as an analogy to a short-living product. I drove many cars, and had so many more in the family. The cars that the gave no trouble at all, were two Mitsubishi and one each Toyota ad Lexus. Three Peugeot, four Volvo and three Mercedes cars we had during the years needed some attention, where Mercedes replaced at no charge a gearbox a year after warranty expired, saying that it should have lasted longer. GM, Mazda and BMW lasted till warranty expired, when they began to fall apart. The worse cars we ever had were a Ford – two, and a Lincoln.  I can not say a good word about the fords, save that the riding was pleasant, when they were out of the garage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *