My first SLR, which I bought as a 16 year old boy, obsessed by photography, was an East germany made Porst Reflex, which came in an very affordable package with a 35 F3.5, a 50 2.8 and a 135 F2.8 lens. Of these, only the 50 had an automatic aperture, while the 35 and 135 had a pre-set aperture that had to be closed down by hand. The 50 had a robust metal construction, the other lenses plastic. The lens mount was the then very popular M42 screw mount.
One peculiar detail was the exposure meter. It did not measure through the lens, it was positioned in a small window on the camera body, to the right of the prism housing. Since it was a Selen-meter, it didnt need any battery. A scale showed all the possible shutter time/aperture combinations at the actual light level. In that way it was very pedagogic, if not very convinient or reliable.
The finish was rough, and the shutter/mirror action was very loud. The lenses were so-so. It was really not a good camera, but as a tool for learning it filled its purpose.
I began to enviously look at the much more well made japanese cameras. This was a classic golden age for SLRs, with cameras like Pentax Spotmatic, Olympus OM-1, Canon Ftb, Minolta SRT-series, Nikkormats and many more. The magazine Modern Photography became my favourite reading. I enjoyed the writing style of Herbert Keppler and the ambitious tests of cameras and lenses.
I finally found a candidate that was affordable, but still way ahead of the Porst in finish and build quality. I took my savings and a huge loss in trade in value for the Porst system and bought a Yashica SLR.
Yashica TL Electro
The Yashica came with a 50 F 2.0 lens. It featured stop down metering through the lens. Two green light diodes in the shape of arrows should both light up when the exposure was right. The metering was averaged over the whole image and the mount was again the M42.
I also wanted to try a really long tele (doesnt everyone when they are new to SLRs/DSLRs?). I bought a 400 F6.3 Soligor with pre-set aperture. Soligor and Vivitar where the big brands in third-party lenses at the time. The lens had a T2-mount – an adapter system so the lens could be used with different mounts. However, it did definitly not add stability to the mount. To this day I am suspicious about lens adapters that makes lenses to fit different brands.
I switched my color shooting from prints to slides, getting an enormous quality boost. I used Agfa CT18 (ASA/ISO 50) in good light, and Ektachrome High Speed (ASA/ISO 160) in bad light. For black and white I settled on Kodak Tri-X.
An obligatory sunset image with the Soligor 400 mm lens (the North Dellen lake in Hälsingland, Sweden, where we had a summer house):
This low cost tele, with its slow speed and woobly mount, was of course nothing for sharpness fanatics. However, I think the bokeh and smooth subject isolation with the shallow depth of field still looks good, compared to for instance to what we get with todays DSLRs with crop sensors and 70-300 lenses.
Then came the day when I got the opportunity to do a real photo assaignment. The photographer my father had booked for a job got sick, so I got the chance (see the “Tri-X stories“). It was a small series of reportages about the life of “Gastarbeiters” in Germany, mostly turkish immigrants. The newspaper liked the photos, the story was published and I earned some money.
I also learned a few things that made me re-think my choice of photo gear: It was fiddly working with stop down manual metering in a fast changing situation. Switching lenses was painfully slow with the M42 screw mount. You have very little use of a very long, very slow lens. A wide angle is really needed when you work close to people. All things considered, it was time to switch again.
Konica T3 Autoreflex
The Konica Autoreflex was the first camera that offered auto-exposure with shutter speed preference. It had a bayonet mount, got good reviews and was very robustly built. Some downsides were that the shutter had a very hard sound and the viewfinder was relatively small (however big with todays DSLR standards) and not very bright, but altogether the camera seemed like the perfect candidate to me. I should mention that the professional cameras at the time – Nikon F2, Canon F1, Leicaflex, was so far beyond my economical reach that I never even considered them. They were much more expensive than the high end amateur cameras.
I invested in a powerful flash, a handheld Rollei with bounce capability – one of the first flash units on the market with this feature.
As for lenses, I bought a 50 1.8 with the camera. As a wide angle I choose a Vivitar 28 2.5 and for tele use the then brand new Vivitar series 1 70-210 F 3.5 Macro zoom. Vivitar constantly scored top ratings in Modern Photography, with resolution values deemed “excellent” more often than the lenses from the top camera brands like Nikon, Canon, Minolta, etc. However, there was a catch to this, which I will come to later.
Some months later I realized I wasnt really happy with this set-up either. I got more and more assaignments and many of these were sports. The 70-210 F 3.5 was not fast enough in stadium light and it had very low contrast wide open. The big lens was akward to handle with the grip-less camera body. Auto exposure showed itself to be a two-edged sword. It was fine with color slides, but not with push processed high speed B&W film which tolerated no underexposure at all. Thats the reason why newspaper photographers always used manual exposure in these days. The Konica had a mode for manual match needle metering, but it was clumsy and not very convinient.
Swedish pros Conny Torstensson (first left) and Björn Andersson (third from left) on the bench of FC Bayern Munic. Konica T3, 50 F1.8.
So what should I get now? The Olympus OM-1 intrigued me, but the professional motordrive was so expensive that a camera/motor combo was far out of reach, just as with the Nikon/Canon pro models. A good friend of mine had a Minolta SRT 101. I was very impressed by the image quality, above all the high contrast. In a test I read regarding SLRs with 50 F1.4 lenses, the sister model SRT 303 beat all the competition, including Nikkormat, Pentax Spotmatic , Canon Ftb, Olympus OM-1 on the grounds of image quality wide open. As a side note Modern Photography now had revised their lens tests and added the very important image quality parameter “contrast”. Now it showed that the Vivitars or other third party lenses did not fare so well against the top camera makers. Appearently these choose another balance between contrast and resolution.
Minolta SRT 303b
I sold off my Konica stuff and bought a black Minolta STR 303b. It had a big, bright viewfinder with a good match-needle open aperture manual metering system. This time I a choose a different lens strategy. The most popular lenses by photo amateurs was a 28, 50 and 135 mm set. But most professionals prefered a 35 as a normal lens, a 24 or 20 (21 if they had a Leica system) and a 85 or 105 for short tele. I got the Minolta Rokkors 24 F 2.8, 35 F 2.8, 85 F 1.7, 135 F 2.8 and for economical reasons the Vivitar 200 F 3.5. The Rokkors was love at first sight. These finely crafted lenses had a wonderful color rendition and great sharpness and contrast. They had a special color signature that made me decide to in the future whenever possible get original lenses instead of “pirates”. My favourites were the 24 F 2.8 and especially the 85 F 1.7.
A friend of ours travelled to Japan, and I asked him to buy a camera on my behalf – the then brand new Minolta XE. This was to this day one of the finest built cameras I have owned. The professional Nikons I later owned were probably more robust, but the sheer mechanical precision of the camera, like the buttery smooth short-throw manual film wind lever, the shutter release and whispering shutter/mirror action was remarkable. This “sleeper” camera was the basis of the Leica R3, and according to some camera experts on the internet, the best built Minolta of all times.
With the two-body Minolta system and the Rokkor lenses I was happy for years. Most of my assaignments during our two year stay in Munic was shot with the Minolta/Rokkors. I was a litte handicapped by the lack of motor drive in sports shooting, but a sensitive trigger finger and timing/anticipation had to do.
Swedish skistar Ingemar Stenmark in Madonna de Campiglio. Minolta XE, 85 F1.7 Rokkor.
Minolta XE, 24 F2.8 Rokkor. The highlight roll-off looks very gentle and smooth compared to todays digital captures, in my opinion.
This is a work in progress – to be continued.