Images (c) Jonathan Eastland
Give me a rangefinder and I'm a happy man, says Jonathan Eastland, who argues they still can't be beaten for candid shots. And you don't necessarily have to spend a fortune to buy one, thanks to a healthy supply of used Soviet models. Just beware the "No Name Contax".
In the seven years my online image archive has been running, only a couple of complaints have arisen about the quality of my prints; one because the colour didn't match the buyer's memories of an event some 20 years past, and the other because there was evidence of film grain - in a print 3m wide. Yet a high proportion of orders are placed for images made on film, and it seems that some sense of nostalgia for a bygone aesthetic is the key to triggering a purchase.
Therefore, I've concluded there is plenty of mileage left in shooting film, especially for the kind of images for which one type of camera still excels. If you're photographing the human condition and discretion is paramount, a rangefinder is still the best option.
For this kind of work, we need shutters that work without delay. Snap focus features on a compact digital may be a useful compromise towards reducing shutter lag, but this is still a long way from perfect, and the DSLR is just too damn big and noisy.
But there are further aspects to shooting with a film camera that are too often ignored. While there's a lot of forum chatter about how old glass performs on digital, little is ever said about the sublime experience of loading a roll of film and getting high on the fragrance of polyester and gelatin.
There is no substitute for the clarity of a sophisticated optical viewfinder found in a modern rangefinder, and there are no half-dead batteries to worry about, no pockets full of hefty replacements, no missed frames because a storage card is full, no stopping every few seconds to check that what you shot is what you wanted.
With film, you have to wait. With film, even when you missed the shot, there may be a pleasant surprise in store at the other end of the roll. But you won't know any of this - and therefore need not be concerned by it - until the lab coughs up the processed result.
We have Oscar Barnack and Ernst Leitz to thank for the introduction of one of the handiest compact 35mm cameras ever created, first made back in 1925. Today's offerings from Leica differ little in appearance from their long line of predecessors; they are superbly engineered and hand-finished tools paired to the finest optical gems money can buy. However, the question of whether or not Leicas do the job better than more modestly priced cameras has often been the cause of heated debate.
My personal armoury comprises several rangefinder models dating back to the 1930s. I'm equally at home using an old screw-thread Leica IIIC, with its separate and diminutive view and rangefinder windows, as a current MP model.
The advantage of the latter is that on studying the subject through the ocular, it is clearly visible. And because the MP has an integral meter, I can be lazy and not carry a separate handheld. With older models, the viewfinder clarity issue is easily resolved by the addition of a supplementary finder slotted in the hot shoe, a ton of which, with different focal lengths and makes, are available through online auction sites.
As near perfect as they are, however, Leica is not the only option if you get caught by the rangefinder bug and begin exploring the secondhand market for ancient relics.
Type the phrase into a search engine and you will get hundreds of thousands of responses - everything from modern Bessas, vintage Niccas, a Foca or a Sears Roebuck Tanak, which came originally with Nikon lenses, to, of course, a plethora of Soviet era junk.
Junk is not the only adjective frequently (and perhaps unfairly) used to describe the vast array of apparently cheaply engineered models and lenses exported from factories as far apart as Moscow and Kiev.
The Fed, from the VOOMP secret experimental factory in Leningrad, later named after Soviet Secret Police founder and chief Felix Edmundovich Dzerjinski (1877-1926), began by copying the Leica II. Some have even dared suggest the ultimate blasphemy that it was Oscar who copied the VOOMP Fed, but that's another story.
Soviet lenses vary in quality, yet the screw thread 50mm f/3.5 Industar is very capable when it's a good one and not misted through balsam separation or clouded by fungus spores; better still when it's a post-1949 coated version. This is a copy of the 1925 Leitz Elmar f/3.5 50mm, although earlier versions are sometimes said to be based on the Zeiss Tessar, a cine version of which was first used by Barnack on his experimental 1913 UR Leica.
In recent months, factory refurbished Fed models stripped of their rough chrome and painted (all over) in black enamel have appeared on Ebay, selling for around the £200 mark.
These at least appear to be rather better quality than the many hundreds of repainted models purporting to be special editions of the 1970s Cosmonaut Moon landing, Luftwaffe Leicas or cauliflower cheese. You name it, those enterprising backroom boys in the new Russian Federation or the Ukraine have a name for it and, few, if any, come with a guarantee of proper mechanical function.
Somewhat less abuse has been fostered on the Kiev, a camera that - to all intents and purposes - largely replicated the pre-war Zeiss Jena Contax, and which for several decades of production in the Kiev Arsenal factory remained true to its pedigree origins.
In 2008, I acquired a refurbished black painted "No Name Contax" - actually a Kiev 4A. To reassure the unsuspecting Western buyer, the front bezel of its Jupiter-8 50mm lens had been ground off and re-engraved with the words "5cm 1:2 Zeiss Sonnar, Jena", and so badly done that the lie would have been evident even to a blind man.
A Jupiter-12 35mm f/2.8 acquired around the same time performed exceptionally well, and on the basis of this, I acquired two more of the same with screw mounts to fit old Leica bodies.
Why two? This lens is a copy of the pre-war 35mm f/2.8 Biogon, which in its time was sought after as the reportage lens of the day - sharper and more contrasty than any Leitz offering then available. When the Soviets cleared out the Jena factory in 1945, the dies for the Biogon were removed along with all the other machinery and tooling for the Contax camera.
The Jupiter-12 seems to have been a particular favourite of the KMZ (Kraznagorsk) and later Lytkarino factories, and apart from upgrading the coatings over the years, the optical cell design remained the same.
Newer element coating makes a subtle difference to performance, and the two I purchased with 10 years between them show slightly different imaging characteristics, the later 1984 version turning in a quality performance with Kodak's new Ektar 100 colour film.
The older 50mm fake Sonnar was a dog, producing low-contrast images with little inherent sharpness for small details. I could buy another for £20, or commandeer my elderly father's brand new Kiev, which was given to him as a birthday present back in the early 1980s. He cherished it, often marvelling at what he then called "value for money engineering". But I knew the camera had barely seen two rolls of film through it in as many decades - the lens was pristine.
Later models with clunky modified rapid film rewind levers, but improved shutter time dials - the Kiev 5 and 5c - tend to be fitted with the more modern Helios 103, 53mm (sometimes 50mm) f/2 glass.
A good Jupiter-8, however, is not to be shunned. Based on the design of the Jena Sonnar f/2, later versions are multicoated and are at least equal in terms of image rendering as a 1950s Leitz Summicron now that Kodachrome has disappeared off the map.
Kodachrome's uniqueness lay in its ability to render an image stamped with the characteristic near-3D fingerprint of its emulsion and processing formulae and, because of this, differences in how the glass rendered the subject were easier to see.
Other types, such as C-41 colour negative, black-and-white or E6 reversal materials, render apparently flatter images; the sharpness, contrast, colour hues or tonal values, aji and bokeh effects of glass are less pronounced, and are, therefore, harder to detect.
I am attached to my Leica lenses, but looking at the equation from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, it does seem to me now that some of us are to be denied the luxury of shooting Kodachrome, almost any old piece of glass that turns in a more than modest result will do the job. BJP
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