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
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
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
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
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
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.