Contax T3 Camera

Finding the Perfect Film Camera

At the beginning of this year, I made a new year’s resolution to learn to develop and scan film at home and I can now say I’ve given it a go and thought I would record my findings in a few posts here.

The thing that made me want to experiment with film again, after not doing so for many years, was the aesthetic. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you’ll already know I’ve become pretty anal about the way my photos look. In my digital photography my post-processing had moved increasingly towards achieving that ‘film look’ so I figured I might as well just make the jump and see how it went.

The first thing I needed was a film camera, so I set about trying to find one I liked.

My preferred weapon of choice for a long time has been a compact camera – so I started by trying to find a film compact I liked. I tried a cheap and cheerful Minolta AF101R, an Olympus MJU-I, an Olympus MJU-II, and a Contax T3. I had hoped the compact cameras could provide the snapshot aesthetic that I am so fond of, with the added bonus of being small enough to carry everywhere.

The Minolta AF101R was awful. I had high hopes for it, cos it had a built in flash, was completely automatic (I’m lazy) and had a 28mm lens – my favoured focal length for the last couple of years. The AF101R cost me £1 from ebay so maybe my hopes shouldn’t have been so high after all. I used it for my first roll of colour film that I developed at home. The camera gave me some crazy colours, that although interesting, weren’t really my style.

Minolta AF101R Camera

Minolta AF101R Camera

Minolta AF101R - Soft and Weird Colours

Minolta AF101R – Soft and Weird Colours

Minolta AF101R - Soft and Weird Colours

Minolta AF101R – Soft and Weird Colours

I picked up the Olympus MJU-I from a charity shop for £20. It was a joy to use and felt of a much higher quality than the AF101R. I got a couple of photos I liked from it, but it seemed to have a pretty shoddy autofocus system and a lot of the photos would be soft. I put a couple of rolls through it and sold it on.

Olympus MJU-I Camera

Olympus MJU-I Camera

MJU-I – When it was in focus it was decent

MJU-I - But in reality most of the shots would come out soft

MJU-I – But in reality most of the shots would come out soft (a poor photo anyway but this is the only example of poor focus I haven’t deleted yet)

The MJU-II is a very popular camera right now, renowned for it’s fast and sharp lens, so I thought this would be the one. The AF system was a lot better than it’s predecessor, but it was by no means perfect – again a lot of the photos were soft. From what I can gather, some of these cameras have better autofocus than others – so maybe I just got a dud. I’ve also heard that the focus point in the centre of the frame may not actually be where the AF point is actually pointing and that if you experiment you can figure out how to get it to focus properly. It sounded like a pain in the arse to me and lots of potentially missed shots. Either way, this wasn’t the epiphany I’d been hoping for.

Olympus MJU-II Camera

Olympus MJU-II Camera

MJU-II - Again, fine when in focus

MJU-II – Again, fine when it hit focus

MJU-II - While better than the MJU-I, it was still not hitting focus sometimes

MJU-II – While better than the MJU-I, it was still not hitting focus sometimes

The Contax T3 I’d actually had sitting around for a while, and I’d shot a couple of rolls on it but had never developed them. They’re widely regarded as one of the best compact film cameras ever made. I’d picked it up as a bargain from ebay. I paid £280 after it was listed with a typo in the auction title meaning there wasn’t much competition in the bidding. Much like the two Olympus cameras it was a joy to shoot. It also had the bonus of being much more pleasing on the eye – there’s no denying it’s a sexy camera. This was definitely the best of the bunch but still not as good as I had hoped. I did sell it for a tidy profit though, so that was nice.

Contax T3 Camera

Contax T3 Camera

Contax T3 - Definitely the best of the bunch

Contax T3 – Definitely the best of the bunch

Contax T3 - But still not what you'd call tack sharp

Contax T3 – But still not what you’d call tack sharp

Having tried ‘the best compact film camera ever made’ and being slightly disappointed I gave up on autofocus altogether and picked up the Pentax MX that my dad had handed down to me. I remembered being on a family holiday on beach somewhere back when I was a kid. I had this camera around my neck and the old man taught me how to make photos. I hadn’t used it in many years, but using it again gave me a flood of nostalgia. A good start I guess. Being a fully manual camera, if things were out of focus, the fault could only be attributed to the user. After a tune up by the magic hands of Miles Whitehead (highly recommended for anyone looking for film camera repairs in the UK) it was a dream to use. To my surprise, I actually quite liked the considered approach of having to dial in my settings for each shot and I could finally get the reliable focussing I’d been looking for. The viewfinder is huge, and being an SLR you’re framing directly through the lens so you don’t have to deal with parallax error like you do on compacts. What you see is what you get. The split screen and microprism focussing is also breeze to use. The obvious downside is that while the camera is pretty small for an SLR, it is still much bigger than a compact, so it’s quite a commitment to lug it around all the time if you’re like me and take your camera everywhere you go. Especially when a flash is added into the equation.

Pentax MX Camera

Pentax MX Camera

Pentax MX with flash - nice and sharp

Pentax MX with flash – nice and sharp

Pentax MX - Sharp even in low light

Pentax MX – Sharp even in low light

So, for me at least, the perfect film camera ended up being one I could control myself. With the compacts I found I was constantly worried about whether the camera had chosen the settings I wanted and whether it had nailed the focus. I would be taking multiple shots of the same thing in the hope that one would come out ok.

With the Pentax I knew what the photo would look like before I’d even taken the shot. I liked that it was beat up and broken, and I also loved that it could be fixed – when a compact dies, it’s dead and for this reason you tend to handle them with care. With a fully mechanical camera it can almost always be repaired. They’re also exceptionally well-built and can take a lot of abuse – which is great if you use your camera a lot. This one is nearly 40 years old, and after some love and care, it works flawlessly again.

Somewhat understandably, I think I was somewhat seduced by the nostalgia and sentimentality of using my dad’s old camera. I kind of fell in love with it and decided my hunt for the perfect film camera had ended. I liked the idea of using a camera that had already been used to document a large portion of my life, before I could even walk and talk, and indeed a life before I even existed.

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Comments 4

  1. Brendon May 31, 2017

    Nice write-up Matt. I have a Pentax x-300 that was given to me about 10 years back. Always enjoy shooting with it, and having to engage with the more considered approach you describe.

    One thing, though, I have been getting my film developed and scanned at a lab and often find the reds come out way too hot. Might also be that I’m using cheap film. Was using it to shoot black and white, which it seems to excel at, but that just got too costly.

    • Matt May 31, 2017

      Thanks for reading Brendon. I think finding the right film is key to getting the colours right. And of course you have a lot more control over the results if you’re willing to scan your own. I’m planning a blog post on that type of thing next so stay tuned!

  2. Brendon June 1, 2017

    Will look out for it as want to start experimenting with film scanning at some point. Also, it’s a Minolta X-300 not Pentax. Confusion.

    Cheers,

  3. Pingback: Film Photography: The Process — Endless Proof

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