Tag Archives: analogue

Film Camera Review – Minolta Autocord TLR

Minolta Autocord ReviewI bought my Minolta Autocord on something of a whim. I had been searching for a ‘walkaround’ film camera for a while. Compact cameras were where I started, with the Olympus XA and MjuII, which I liked but didn’t quite gel with. I wanted more control. After that I got hold of an EOS 3 but that was perhaps a little too close to the digital cameras I used, and the batteries are expensive. I found myself at a crossroads. For most of my career, I had really been more of a user of 120 film than 35mm. I still have a Pentax 67 system, but decided years ago that it was too big for casual carrying. So I ended up looking for a portable 120 camera, and settled on a TLR.

TLR camera

One of the unforseen advantages of shooting with a waist level finder is that it makes it much easier to shoot younger children. All film images shot on Kodak Tri-X.

The search for a TLR

I had never shot in the square format, despite being a photographer for 20 years. Going straight from 35mm to 6×7 after university and never looking back. I stuck to the same aspect ratio when I started to shoot 4×5.  So I decided to shake things up and started looking for a TLR. The obvious choice would have been a Rolleiflex but I had rarely even seen one in the flesh. So I wasn’t that keen on buying one off of Ebay without knowing much about them, especially with so many different models that look so similar.

Luckily, I have a very good vintage camera shop near me, that gets TLRs in fairly regularly. The bad news, such is the popularity of these cameras that they barely last a day in the shop! Worse still the stock isn’t on the internet so you have to go in and just see what’s there. Luckily it is on one of my regular routes  so I got into the habit of popping in a couple of times a month. I was looking for a Yashica or Minolta Autocord, and one day a decent user Autocord was there on the counter. Taking a deep breath, I got out my debit card and took the plunge.

First Impressions of The Minolta Autocord

Minolta Autocord TLR

To test out the Autocord I brough it along to a few weddings I shot during the summer. I found it great for candid portraits like this one, and a real conversation piece.

The Minolta Autocord is a handsome camera. It feels solid but isn’t too heavy. My camera is an early version, made around 1956-8. It’s an unmetered version with an Optiper shutter that maxes out at 1/400. The shutter goes in the old Europen progression so from 1/400 the speeds are 1/200, 1/100, 1/50 etc.  I have a digital meter that matches some of those speeds, but for others I just pick the closest speed. Mechanical speeds on a 60-year-old camera aren’t that accurate anyway. 

You can see the shutter speeds and f-stops in these two windows. The two little arrows point to the lever that operates that function. Neat!

The focusing mechanism is very cool. Instead of using a knob on the side of the camera, the Autocord has a lever underneath the taking lens. This means that you can hold and focus the camera with your left hand and trip the shutter and wind on the film with your right hand. This is a much better ergonomic arragement than the Yashicas where you focus with your right hand via a knob and then have to switch hands to wind it on.

The Rokkor lens on the Minolta is excellent. It is a 75mm f3.5 of Tessar design. Sharp enough wide open, and gets progressively better as you stop down, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this lens for professional work. Lots of people claim that this lens gives the Planar-equipped Rolleis a run for thier money and is better than the Tessar lensed Rolleicords and ‘flexes. All I know is it’s plenty good enough. 75mm equates to about 40mm in 35 mm terms. The lens focuses down to 1 metre, not close enough to do a tight headshot but OK for about a 1/4 length portrait.

Minolta Autocord Review

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is a little dim but totally fine in good light. I don’t think mine has ever been cleaned – it may well get better with a thorough CLA. It lacks any kind of focussing aid like a split screen or prism, so you have to use the magnifying glass to be sure of focus. As with all cameras with a waist level finder you see an image that is right way up, but reversed left to right.  If you press in the middle of the hood cover, the hood converts into a sports finder. 

Minolta Autocord Review

Winding On

Winding the camera on takes a bit of getting used to. You have to rotate the handle forward to wind the film on, then wind it back again to cock the shutter. It’s easy enough to get into the rhythm of doing it after a few rolls.

Film loading

Film Loading is straightforward but difficult to do without putting the camera down. The camera has an interlock and I have had no trouble with frame spacing with my copy. Mine will only take 120 film.

Other Features

The Minolta Autocord has a PC socket and can switched between X-Sync for electronic flash, and M-Sync for flash bulbs so make sure you have it on the right setting if you don’t want blank frames. 

There is a cold shoe on the side for fitting a flash but you will still need to connect a PC cable for the flash to work.

My camera also features a self timer, a standard tripod socket, and a shutter locking ring.

Film Camera Review

Straps

Minolta Autocords sport two types of strap lugs. A standard type where a strap can just loop through, and a Minolta specific type which will only accept a type of strap that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. I was unlucky enough to have the second type. I like to have a strap for extra security so I use a wrist strap that screws into the tripod. The drawback with this is you can no longer put the camera upright on a flat surface.

 

Conclusions

Minolta Autocord

The Minolta was described as ‘fully automatic’ in the 50’s. I’m not sure you could get away ith that now!

A good camera gets out of your way while you make great pictures. One of the great things about all-manual cameras is that they have no modes or gimmicks, and this offers you a kind of creative clarity. The Minolta Autocord is one of these cameras. It is ergonomically very sound, and performs superbly. Like all older cameras it has a narrower set of applications than a modern DSLR but it is none the worse for that. You have to shoot to its stengths, you can’t pick a style and bend the camera to it so easily. It is an excellent candid or street portrait camera, great for working thoughfully. I found it harder to use for action because of the reverse image in the viewfinder. It’s always disconcerting to move one way while the viewfinder image moves the other. 

I like the fact I don’t have to worry about batteries, and the camera is beautifully quiet. The shutter is very smooth and I am sure I’ll be able to handle this camera at pretty low speeds with practise. I like the quality of the negtives it produces. Sharp, but not aggressively so, with a nice 3d depth to them and decent bokeh.

Another great plus point is its portability. I easily fits into my main kit if I forego one of my lenses, so I can carry it with my digital camera easily.  On its own it’s light enough to carry around all day, so it means I have a nice camera with me even if I’m not going out with photography as my main priority. It doesn’t elicit groans from my children when I pick it up, which is always a good thing!

All in all it’s easy to see why this camera is considered a classic. It is one of the first Japanese cameras to take on the Germans on their own terms rather than just making cheap and nasty copies. When the Minolta Autocord was introduced the Nikon F was still 3 years away. It is a great TLR option for the photographer who is more concerned with making good pictures than presticious labels. A definite keeper in my collection.

Toby

Wedding Photographer in Sussex and Hampshire

Commercial Photographer

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Posted in Analogue Photography, Film Photography, Hints and Tips Also tagged , , , |

Beginners Guide for Shooting Portraits on 4×5 Film.

 

 

I love shooting portraits on sheet film. They have a lovely smooth tonality and uncanny depth to them. A classic style that makes anyone look fantastic.

 

Large format cameras can seem intimidating . In reality, a view camera is actually a very straightforward device. It has same basic controls as any other camera, focus, aperture and shutter. The camera came seem old fashioned compared to a modern DLSR, but it can produce results that can’t easily be copied by a digital camera. Large format cameras have many controls that a standard digital camera doesn’t. Develop you skills and you can use these to your benefit. These are my tips for making great large format portraits.

Lens Selection

Lens selection for large format is not quite as straightforward as it is with other formats. Although you can fit almost any lens on to almost any camera in theory, the reality can often be more complicated.  Longer lenses  (240mm +) can often be big and heavy and require a lot of bellows extension for portraits. On top of that, they generally come in large No.3 shutters which only have a fastest shutter speed of 1/125, and because they work on 8×10 cameras, they often are more expensive too. 

For all of these reasons I would recommend a 210mm 5.6 lens as your first portrait lens. They are relatively cheap, plentiful and easy to use. They can be focused to portrait distances with any camera that has 300mm of bellows extension (which is the vast majority of view cameras) and are not so heavy as to make lighter field cameras unstable. Any modern lens from the major manufacturers (Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji or Nikon) will be an excellent performer.

Have a Shot List and shoot your film sensibly.

Using a view camera is a deliberate process, and there is less room for spontaneity than if you were shooting a smaller format. Portraits tend to be more formal. Personally, I prefer to work from a plan. I have a list of poses I want to shoot. I work on getting my sitter into the pose I want and then I make two negatives of that picture.

Large format portraiture is a medium that favours photographers who direct their sitters well. Film costs can soon mount up if you don’t have a plan. You can’t shoot away hoping for a bit of magic or that lucky shot. You have to make your own magic. Having a shot list is a great way to make sure you don’t overshoot or repeat things you don’t need to. I find the one set up/two shots works well for me and allows me to cover a lot of ground without spending £100’s on film and processing every shoot.

Make Conversation as you make your portraits.

Making large format portraits is a leisurely process. Setting up can be slow, so it’s really important that you keep your subject at their ease, and being a able to chat away while you set up the camera is an important and underrated skill. Using a view camera can help as it is a real conversation piece. When I have approached people to take their photo I find that the vast majority are interested in the camera, and interested to know about the process. So it’s easy to keep them engaged, and to prepare the camera at the same time. 

Use a  Posing Stool for Headshots.

Slim depth of field is your greatest enemy and your greatest ally in large format photography. For any type of close up portrait, it is imperative that your subject stays in the same plane of focus, from composing on the ground glass to loading the darkslide and tripping the shutter. I have found that a tall stool is the simplest way of keeping things steady. People sway when they are standing, and it only takes a movement of a few centimetres to ruin your shot. A stool solves this problem easily, and makes life more comfortable for your sitter.

Stop down your lens.

As mentioned above, large format lenses wide open have razor thin depth of field. F5.6 equates to f1.2 in full-frame digital. While portraits shot wide open can look stunning, they can be very hard to pull off consistently when you start out. They can also be very tough on your sitter. It makes more sense to start out at more conservative apertures and build you skill level.

For environmental portraits widest aperture I will shoot at is F11, and given the choice I’ll shoot at F22. There are several reasons why I do this. The main one is that people can move slightly between when when you focus on the ground glass, and when you load the film and take the shot. There is no way to check focus once the film is loaded, so you have to either give yourself a bit of leeway, or accept a certain number of not *quite* in focus shots.

Even at f22 depth of field at head shot distances is 8cm. The background will still be blurred. Moreover, most large format lenses were optimised for f16-22 so by stopping down you will be using your lens as it was designed to be.

Use a fast film.

Stopping down has its side effects. We get more depth of field and lenses working at their best, but the flipside is we get slow shutter speeds and if we are using flash, we need more output. Using 400 iso film helps minimise these problems. The best fast films like HP5, Portra 400 or Tmax 400 still have minimal grain in sheet sizes, and means that you only need a quarter of light you would need shooting 100 speed film.

Take Notes.

There is no EXIF data or LCD screens with film. For that reason it is vital that you keep notes so you know what works and what doesn’t. the shutter speed and f-stop you used is the bare minimum but it is also incredibly useful to number your holders and assign them to each set up. That way you can trace what’s on your negatives for the tip below!

Shoot two copies of each shot and develop them separately.

One of the great benefits of large format is that you can process each sheet separately. When I shoot portraits I use each film holder to shoot one set up. I always try to shoot two near identical shots. I then split the shots in processing so both go into different batches. That way if there is an exposure issue I can changes the development for the second sheet, and if I make a mistake in processing I still have another go to get it right! 

Invest in a good quality Loupe.

Although it is definitely possible to start with a cheap plastic loupe, you will save money in the long run (not to mention avoid a lot of heartache) if you invest in a good quality loupe. I use an 8x nikon loupe that I bought cheaply second hand. Originally, I used a 4x Schneider loupe, but I found his wasn’t quite strong enough for critical focusing at closer distances. Cheaper plastic loupes make the whole focusing process very uncertain. I doesn’t take long for wasted film to far outstrip the cost of a decent loupe.

Be Prepared to Break these Rules.

These tips are just a starting point. Things I wish I had known when I started shooting portraits with my view camera. As you gain experience, I hope you develop the confidence to create your own rule book and you own methods. So that you can express yourself through the magical medium that is film.

Tobias Key is a professional Wedding, Portrait and Commercial Photographer working in West Sussex. 

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Posted in advice for new photographers, Analogue Photography, Brighton portrait photographer, Chichester portrait photographer, Editorial Photography, Film Photography, Large Format Photography Also tagged , , , , , , , |