Classic Cameras; Samoca 35 LE; One In A Line From Sanei Sangyo

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The Samoca 35 LE definitely wants to be taken seriously. The box is a classic piece of high 1950s design, and proudly announces "Exposure Meter Built-In" and "Lens - F 2.8." Open it up and there's a really classic leather ever-ready case with metal-rimmed, red velvet-lined removable top, so you can use the camera in the half case. Or you can take it out: both the case and the camera have strap lugs.

Samoca 35 LE. It says "Samoca 35, Samoca Camera Co., Ltd., Japan" on top and "Model LE" on the front.

Out of the case, it all looks suitably gadgety. On the front, there are three windows: rangefinder patch, range-viewfinder window, and selenium meter cell with slotted trapdoor (down for high range, up for low range). The fixed, coated 50mm f/2.8 D-Ezumar appears to be a triplet; it is in a rectilinear focusing mount from infinity to 3 ft (no meter markings). The Samoca-Synchro shutter (synchronized for bulb and electronic, with a selector lever on the bottom) offers the old shutter speed sequence of 1-2-5-10-25-50-100-300. Apertures (nonlinear, but click-stopped at full-stop rests) go down to f/22.

On top, on the left, there's a completely non-coupled meter, with the rewind crank in the middle. Set the film speed in ASA
(6-800) or DIN (3-30); follow the needle position to the dial; and set either the "Open" (red) index or the "Close" (black) index to the appropriate point, according to whether the metering trapdoor is open or shut. Read the speed/aperture combinations and set as needed.

Box, case, and instruction book: the Holy Trinity for camera collectors. The box even has the camera's serial number written in faded ink on the bottom.

Apart from the meter, the top plate sports an accessory shoe (without flash contact--that's via a PC nipple on the lens); the shutter release, threaded for a standard cable release; and a manually reset additive frame counter in the center of the wind-on lever.

The counter furnishes the only real surprise on the camera. You wind on your two blank frames; set zero; wind on; and find first, that the counter is reading 20, and second, that the shutter won't fire. That's because it's a double-stroke wind on, like an early Leica M3, a singularly infuriating feature if you are used to single-stroke wind ons. Wind on a second time and the counter reads 1.

Otherwise, it's all pretty easy to figure out. To open the back door for loading, there's a pull-up tab on the end of the door. There's a rewind button on the bottom. Focusing is a minor surprise, in that at infinity the focusing tab is at about 2 o'clock, as viewed from the front, while at the closest distance, just under 3 ft (probably 90cm), it is at about 5 o'clock. There's a standard 1/4" tripod socket.

The view through the bright-line finder is ordinary enough: no auto parallax compensation, just a couple of indicator lines for 6 ft and closer, but as the viewfinder is directly over the lens, it's easier and more accurate than many. The rangefinder patch is soft-edged, but bright enough; the rangefinder base is a mere 34mm or so, reduced to an effective 25mm or less by a viewfinder that is about 3/4 life size. The shutter is on the quiet side of average for a leaf shutter, which means that it is very quiet indeed: not as quiet as the almost-silent Ilford Advocate, my personal benchmark for shutter noise, but a lot quieter than even the legendary Leica.

For a company that only made cameras for a decade or so, Sanei Sangyo certainly crammed in a lot of models. The original Samoca 35 ('52) had a flash sync nipple but no accessory shoe; the 35-II ('53) added the accessory shoe; the 35-III and 35-IV (both '55) were improved in various ways. The Super in '56 was the first to sport a rangefinder, and has a wonderful sort of art deco mechanical design reminiscent of a Wurlitzer; a meter was apparently added the following year, with no change in model name. The LE was a much more modern and streamlined camera, introduced in '57; it was followed by the M35 ('58), 35J ('61), and MR ('61). I suspect (though I do not know) that not all of these had rangefinders. In addition to all this, there was a twin-lens Samocaflex which looked rather like the Super with a second story.

The Super and the TLR are easily the most collectible, principally for their bizarre appearance, but the LE has its fans and I have seen people ask as much $120 for non-working models, though this seems excessive to me. I'd have thought that a fair price for this one might be rather over $100, given that it is complete with case, box, and instruction book, cosmetically excellent, and in good working order apart from a fractious meter cell trapdoor (a slightly bent hinge pin). Even the meter seems to work, though I don't think I'd rely on it for slides. On the other hand, I can't say that I'd pay much more than about $50 for it myself, not least because I have far too many cameras already.

Well, is it actually usable? Hmmmm. A lot depends on your definition of "usable." The picture quality is about what you would expect from a camera of this vintage with a mediocre lens, e.g., not too bad by f/8 or so but distinctly "iffy" at full aperture. As a happy-snap camera for color, or a nostalgia box for black and white, it's OK. At least, it would be if you can get used to that infuriating double-wind system. Personally, I'd be inclined to leave it to the collectors, or to those who take a perverse pleasure and pride in making pictures with elderly cameras that frankly aren't capable of high-quality results.

Overall, though, I find two things intriguing. The first is that this is a modestly priced camera, almost half a century old, yet it is still in excellent condition and good working order, even down to the 1-second shutter speed. It feels good in the hand, too: it's a substantial little beast at over 600 g, about 21 oz. Compare that with anything built down to a price today. The other thing is that when this camera was made, it was quite a desirable piece of kit, the sort of thing that a keen amateur might well consider: the equivalent, perhaps, of a 6-megapixel compact today. And yet it has a mediocre fixed lens, zero automation, no meter coupling, and a manually reset frame counter. It is, in a word, primitive. It is humbling to realize what you can buy today, especially on the used market, for a fraction (in real inflation-adjusted terms) of what the Samoca cost when it was new.

For further information on the art and craft of photography from Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, go to www.rogerandfrances.com.

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