Rangefinders, Large Format, Tripods And More

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Let's be honest: most photographers, even the most jaundiced and worldly-wise, find it hard to resist a really gorgeous new camera or lens. It makes sense, therefore, to kick off with what was, for me, the camera hit of the show--except that it wasn't officially on display because distributors Schneider weren't at PMA.

I was, however, lucky enough to run into Hirofume Kobayashi of Cosina, who showed me the latest Voigtländer Bessa R2. This is an upgrade of the existing screw-fit (39mmx26tpi) R with Leica M-compatible four-claw bayonet, metal top and bottom plates and back door, and trigger-wind compatibility. It is available in black and olive drab and in the latter guise is one of the most utterly desirable cameras I have ever seen. According to Kobayashi-san, the price will be about 15-20 percent higher than the R.

To go on it, there are two new lenses, a 50mm f/2.5 and 28mm f/3.5, both wonderfully compact with superb styling and top-quality all-metal "retro" lens shades. And there's a new brushed-metal accessory finder for the 28mm, sleek and small, echoing the Leica kit of yore that inspired the new Bessa series. It looks as if there will be an even more incredibly desirable kit at photokina, but I can't talk about it yet. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the R2 because I was shown it "under the table" but take my word for it, it's gorgeous.

Leica M7
Leica, too, introduced a new camera, the M7. This looks very much like an M6, which will remain alongside it in production, but it features an electronically governed shutter and aperture priority autoexposure. There are only two mechanical speeds if the battery dies, 1/60 and 1/125, but apart from this the handling is just about identical to the M6: the only other immediately obvious change is an "auto" setting on the shutter speed dial. Closer examination reveals DX coding inside and autoexposure compensation on the back, the traditional home of the film speed reminder dial. It's in chrome and black, and all the current viewfinder magnifications are or will be available.

How you react to this camera will depend very much on your personality. Some will hail it as the camera Leica should have made 10 or even 20 years ago, the ultimate logical development of the seemingly immortal M-series, first introduced 48 years ago. Others will disdain it as a snapshot Leica for those who don't know enough to shoot without automation. I don't care: as long as they are willing to keep the M-series in production, in usable form, I'm happy for Leica to do whatever they want. I bought my first Leica in 1970, my first M in 1974, and I'm still using M2s and an M4P today, alongside my Voigtländers. Full marks, too, for the song and dance that Leica made about introducing the new camera--though some people were a bit shocked by some of the images in the Ralph Gibson book that Leica used to promote the camera, Deus ex Machina from Taschen Verlag.

High-End Rangefinders
Sticking with high-end rangefinder cameras, Konica introduced a dual focal length lens, the 21mm f/3.4 + 35mm f/4. Twist a ring on the lens mount, and it switches from one to the other. It's an 11-glass lens weighing 295 gm (10.4 oz), which is slightly more than the two competing Voigtländer lenses added together (the 21mm f/4 weighs 150 gm/5.2 oz, the 35mm f/2.5, 135 gm/4.8 oz).

As with the M7, a lot of how you perceive this lens will depend on your personality. For some, the convenience of switching focal lengths without having to carry (and swap) two lenses is sublime; for others, the bulk and slow speed will tell against it. A 21mm f/3.4 is OK (it's the half stop between f/2.8 and f/4) but f/4 is pretty slow for a 35mm. Then again, team it up with Konica's superb fast films (Centuria 800 and 1600) and who cares?

It's not a pretty lens, though, and the lens shade is surpassingly ugly, though probably very efficient. At least, that's the impression I got from the pictures, because Konica didn't have a real shade on the stand. Nor did they have the finder on the stand, so I can't comment on that. And I can't show you a picture of the camera either: Konica didn't have one (even on their press release CD) and the camera was tethered so I couldn't put it somewhere handy to photograph it myself!

Another rangefinder viewfinder that wasn't there, and indeed doesn't exist yet, is a new turret finder from Kiev USA. The current model covers focal lengths of 28-35-50-85-135mm, but Saul Kaminsky (owner of Kiev USA) is contemplating another model with the much more useful focal lengths of 21-28-35-50-90mm or possibly 21-28-35-75-90mm. This would be an ideal match for Leicas and Voigtländers and of course for other lenses in Leica screw fit such as Kobalux.

This Ukrainian-built finder is based on the original Zeiss finders for the all-mechanical Contax. These were among the best ever made, much better than the contemporary prewar and postwar Leitz masking finders such as the VIDOM and VIOOH. The projected cost is $205 and I have already placed an order: if Kaminsky gets enough interest, it will go into production, and the first 100 examples will be in olive drab, specially numbered. I hope enough other people will contact him, because I really want one!

Finally, for rangefinders, Tamron introduced a 100mm f/4.5 lens for the Bronica 645, more or less the equivalent of 60mm on 35mm: a useful length for portraits, but arguably less useful than (say) a 135mm or a 150mm. Alongside it they introduced a twin accessory shoe for the camera (so you can use both an on-camera flash and a finder for the 45mm lens) and a polarizing filter with numbered divisions around the rim; obviously, this assists orientation of a polarizing filter on a camera where you can't see through the lens.

Roundshot Roundup
Going from rangefinders to other direct-vision cameras, there were two new all-mechanical Roundshot cameras at $2950 and $3650 respectively. These are rotating panoramic cameras, giving 7-on-220 (I think they also take 120) and thanks to the "potato-masher" styling (like a World War II German hand grenade) they can even be used handheld: a useful trick if you want to do this is to "waste" one or even two circuits in a 720 or 1080Þ rotation, so that the self-stabilizing gyroscopic effect of the camera ensures minimum shake. The full-spec model has shutter speeds that equate to 1/500 sec to 8 sec, while the less expensive model is designed for backpackers and the like and offers only 1/60, 1/125, and 1/250 sec. Both have the same wide angle Nikkor lens offering a vertical coverage of 85Þ. The quality obtainable from these huge rollfilm images is stunning.

Sticking with panoramas, the Chinese-made Widepan 140Þ panoramic camera has been slightly modified with an exposure interlock (making it much harder to get inadvertent double exposures) and with an LED internal light to make it easier to set the focus and aperture. This big, chunky, camera has a suggested retail price of $1499 and shoots 120, 220, and (via an extra-cost adapter) 35mm. Negatives are 110mm (a bit over 4" long).

On the same booth as the Widepan was a 6x9cm monorail which was clearly inspired by Linhof's original 679: so much so that I wonder if Linhof won't be rattling their patent papers. Like the original 679 it has all-indirect rise, fall, and cross via on-axis base swings and tilts. Unlike the 679, the focusing rack looks like a piece of rack railway: it is clearly built for durability rather than smoothness.

Large Format, Where Art Thou?
Every year, there are fewer and fewer large format cameras at PMA. There are two reasons for this. One is that the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) is much more concerned with the second word in its name rather than with the first, and the market for large format cameras is tiny. The other, I was assured by a number of exhibitors as well as by several who had chosen not to exhibit, is that the cost of a booth at the PMA show is now so high that it drives out the small exhibitor--the little one-table guys who were, for me, always the greatest joy of PMA.

The only new conventional 4x5" camera was a new short-bed version of the Chinese-built Shenhao "woodie" for use with wide angle lenses; like other Shenhaos, the TFC 45-II will be brought in by Badger Graphic Sales. The Seagull booth, which showed the Shenhao, also had a revised 180mm f/5.6 lens: it is now a six-glass, four-group Symmar type, rather than a four-glass, three-group Tessar type, with commensurate improvements in coverage. This was so new it hadn't even been engraved yet, but Badger will again be the importer.

Pinhole Cameras
There were, however, two admirably unconventional and delightfully affordable large format pinhole cameras from Daylab, designed by Vern McClish. One has a Graflok back and can be used with Polaroid or conventional film, and the other has a built-in Polaroid quarter-plate back. The really clever part is the rotating pinhole arrangement at the front: one for black and white, one for color, and one larger than usual for "special effects" (even lower sharpness than usual). The color pinhole has a filter built-in, allowing the use of long-exposure Polaroid films without color shifts: clever, huh? I have been promised test cameras in due course. The Graflok model is $89.95 and the one with the built-in back is $99.95.

Moving on to tripods, my old chums at KB had one new "working" or "field" tripod, and two new "designer" or "decorator" tripods; the latter are embellished with lots of (heavy!) polished brass. All are excellently built in the U.S.A. from high-quality woods, and deserve to be better known by devotees of large format cameras on the one hand, and interior designers on the other.

My even longer-standing chums from Paterson had a revised Trekker Mk. 2 tripod--still British built, at a bargain $120 or so--with easier-to-use locks, an adjustable articulated "elbow" just below the head end of the "center column" (of course it can also be used as a boom arm) to allow easier camera positioning, and a hook on the other end to allow you to hang your camera bag on it for greater stability. When you do this trick with any tripod, of course, you should not hang too great a weight, and you should let the bag drag on the ground to improve damping. They also had some nice new ball-and-socket heads at $60-$120.

The Velbon MAXi tripod line of mini tripods has now been extended with two new models. The more expensive one is the MAXi347GB ($139.95) with a pan head that is even more compact than the ball-and-socket when collapsed (though it is of course heavier) and a geared center column (more weight again). The MAXi347E ($119.95) omits the gearing on the center column. I'd rather have the original Maxi343E (also $119.95) than either of them, but for those who like pan-and-tilt heads and geared columns, there's now a choice. My 343E is one of the two tripods I use most of all; the other is the Slik Snapman.

Velbon is a division of Hakuba, and Hakuba showed two new carbon fiber and magnesium tripods, the Carmagne 830 three-section and 840 four-section, both with suggested retail prices of slightly over $1000. There's also a heavy-duty video tripod, the Videomate 738, at 71/2 lbs and $280 or so.

Davis and Sanford greatly increased their tripod line-up with two Pro Vista models suitable for big, heavy video cameras, plus the new lightweight Courier at well under $100, and three new ball-and-socket heads from $39.95 (24mm, 10 lb capacity) to $199.95 (38mm, 20 lb capacity). These continue the Davis and Sanford tradition of incredible value for the money, though unfortunately they mean that the entire line-up is no longer exclusively American built: the new tripods include some Far Eastern components, and the heads are made in Germany. I still love their older models, big and chunky, American made, all but indestructible, and utterly staggering value for the money. For fellow aficionados, it's worth pointing out that the old "rocket launcher" spring-loaded center columns are being replaced with pneumatic columns: the same "power assistance" that helps support the camera, without the sometimes dramatic side effects. If you really want one of the old ones, buy it in the next few months before the changeover is complete.

Now that Slik tripods are being distributed by THK, ToCAD (the former Slik distributors) has brought out a line of Sunpak tripods and monopods, all roughly comparable with Slik but slightly less expensive. The top of the line 3300 Pro is made of a light alloy incorporating titanium and magnesium as well as aluminum.

Because of the changeover, which took place between the time I wrote this and the time you are reading it, THK was hesitant to reveal new products and prices. From what I could see, there were some new tripods, and (as ever with Slik) they are first-class; but I can't really say more.

From what I could see, the Fan Cier (honestly!) tripods from Tripods 4 Less were well made, advantageously priced Oriental-built tripods. I mention them principally because of the wonderfully Chinglish name and the compelling honesty of their sales pitch, which is summarized in their name.

Bogen demonstrated some new Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods to me. I remember being impressed by both, as I generally am--both make first-class kits--but if you want details, go to their web sites.

HP Marketing introduced an astonishing line-up of no fewer than seven new monopods in four and five sections, all with foam grips, wrist straps, and leveling feet, at $59-$87. They also had two new modestly priced but well made three-way pan heads, at $49 (590 gm/21 oz, standard camera platform) and $58 (680 gm/24 oz, with quick release). Both are substantial units that can handle up to 18 lbs.

Finally, more and more companies that historically didn't sell tripods now do, so always keep your eyes open. In particular the Smith-Victor Corporation, best known for lighting, has a good line-up at $40-$200, and The Morris Company, another lighting organization, has two that are small and not really very interesting and one that is big, solid and very nice indeed.

List of Manufacturers/Distributors

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