The Camera Collector's Top 10 Vintage Cameras

Jason Schneider

the Camera Collector
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The Camera Collector’s Top 10 Vintage Cameras of All Time:

These are the ones I love, admire, and use for making pictures on film

By Jason Schneider

I began collecting cameras when I acquired my first Leica, a brand new IIIg with 50mm f/2.8 collapsible Elmar, way back in 1960. About a decade later, in October 1969, I began writing The Camera Collector, a monthly column that first appeared in Modern Photography, and later in Popular Photography. It’s been downhill ever since, and I’m now resigned to being eternally typecast as The Camera Collector, which I suppose is better than being known as a horse thief, but not much. Countless hapless souls have credited and chastised me for leading them down the primrose path of camera collecting, a circuitous journey from which few ever return with their sanity intact.

Like the late, great Tom Abrahamsson, I am a proud user-collector, which means that I believe classic and vintage cameras should be used for their intended purpose, making pictures, rather than being placed semi-permanently on a shelf or consigned to sterile display cases. (I feel the same way about other vintage “machines” such as cars, motorcycles, fountain pens, and mechanical watches, which I’ve also amassed in varying degrees over the years.) However, unlike Tom, who was more of a purist, I don’t automatically sell or trade any cameras I haven’t used for more than a year. I just keep them in my collection and trot them out perhaps once every year or two, just to keep them limbered up and in working condition.

The bottom line: I own roughly 200 cameras of all types (including half a dozen DSLRs and mirrorless cameras), about 10% of which I regularly use for making pictures. For the record, my film-to-digital shooting ratio is roughly 60%/40%, and I only shoot black-and-white film, almost exclusively Ilford HP-5 Plus 400 and Fuji Acros 100 II. Although my motley collection of analog cameras includes everything from half-frame 35s to 4x5 view cameras, I currently shoot film in only 2 sizes: full frame 35mm and 120 roll film in 6x6cm and 6x4.5 cm formats. My newest roll film camera is a Fuji GS645 Pro, and my newest 35mm cameras are a Nikon F5 and a Canon EOS 3. However, I shoot the overwhelming preponderance of my black-and-white film images on cameras that are at least 50-60 years old because I like the distinctive rendition of older lenses, which have more “character” than many modern optics. Here at long last are my 10 favorite vintage cameras— the ones I shoot with most of the time.

Leica M3 with 50mm f-2 Dual Range Summicron anf %22goggles%22.jpg
Leica M3 single stroke with 50mm f/2 Dual Range Summicron and "goggles." It's my favorite Leica M, but the M2 is mighty close.

Leica M3: My M3 is a late single-stroke, serial number 1,1xx,xxx dating from 1965 and purchased brand new with 50mm f/2 Dual Range Summicron for the grand sum of $450, which, if memory serves, is about 10% below the official list price. This beloved camera is still in near mint condition, and it functions flawlessly—on a par with any modern analog M Leica in terms of on-film results. Considered by many to be the finest rangefinder camera ever made, its focusing and film wind actions are silky smooth and its 0.91x rangefinder has the highest magnification, longest effective base length, and best inherent focusing accuracy of any Leica M. The borders of the rangefinder patch are so crisply defined that the rangefinder can be used as a split-image rangefinder (see manual for instructions), and the bright, projected, parallax-compensating frame lines are keyed in automatically as you mount the lens—the 90mm or 135mm frame lines appearing within the 50mm frame lines, which is always visible.

The visceral experience of shooting with a Leica M3 (or an M2 or M4 for that matter) is unmatched, though some later M Leicas come close. The M3, M2 and M4 were the last of the breed that were literally bench assembled using components carefully selected by master craftspeople, rather than employing today’s simplified production techniques. Their range/viewfinders can be easily adjusted for lateral and vertical alignment, etc. by turning screws; more modern Leica Ms use a different system that requires special tools. All vintage-era Ms are great walk-around cameras that excel in street photography and photojournalism, but can also be pressed into service for portraiture, landscape, travel photography, etc.

The downsides of classic M Leicas

Nothing created by humans is perfect, and no rangefinder camera with adjustable field frame lines can provide subject framing as precise as an SLR, especially with long lenses and at close shooting distances—90mm is really the practical focal-length limit, and I seldom use the M3’s tiny 135mm frame line or (heaven forefend) mount a ponderous 135mm Leica lens with “goggles.” While the hinged back section makes any analog M easier to load than a baseplate-loading Barnack Leica, it’s not as convenient as loading removable- or swing-back camera. And while I adore my Dual Range Summicron, having to select close-focus mode and then install “spectacles” to get down to 19 inches is more labor intensive than using a continuous-focusing macro lens on an SLR.


Leica M2 with lever-type rewind actuation and 35mm f/2 Summicron: The photojournalist's favorite Leica M combo except for the MR meter.

The Leica M2 offers a much more useful set of frame lines than the M3—35mm, 50mm and 90mm frames that appear one at a time as you mount the lens. It also has a cleaner form factor, devoid of embossed “frames” around the front rangefinder and viewfinder windows, an elegantly contoured single-stroke wind lever, and a handsome, large diameter, manually zeroed, external frame counter, just like the one on the original Leica MP of 1956. Bottom line: I’m too emotionally attached to my M3 to trade it for an M2, but I sorely regret selling my M2 with 35mm f/2 Summicron, not only because it’s drop dead gorgeous, but also because it better suits my itinerant shooting style.


The Canon VI-T shown here with 50mm f/2.8 Canon is my favorite rangefinder Canon, but lever wind VI-L is lighter and more compact.

Canon VI-T 1959. My next favorite rangefinder 35 after the Leica M3 and M2, is the Canon VI-T, the ultimate interchangeable-lens rangefinder Canon in terms of features and overall quality. The trigger-wind VI-T was based on its illustrious (and collectible) predecessor, the late version of the VT DeLuxe, in having a three-position range/viewfinder showing the fields of 35mm and 50mm lenses plus a 1.5X setting for critical focusing, auto-parallax adjustment of shoe-mounted finders (!), a titanium focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus T and B, a folding rewind crank, and a Leica-derived 39mm screw mount. To this magnificent mix, the VI-T added parallax-compensating finder frame lines for 50mm and 100mm lenses, a top-mounted, non-rotating shutter dial for setting all speeds and X sync, a double lock on the hinged back, a self-zeroing frame counter, and back-mounted film type reminder dial. If you prefer lever wind, and a somewhat smaller, lighter body with the same feature set, the scarcer Canon VI-L is an excellent choice. Both are beautifully made and very reliable and I prefer them to the very last system rangefinder Canons, the 7s and 7sZ, which have great finders, ditzy uncoupled CdS meters, and are not, in my arrogant opinion, constructed to the same standard.

Nikon SP.jpeg
Nikon SP of 1957-1960: The apotheosis of Nikon rangefinder cameras is shown here with stellar 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor-S.

Nikon SP 1957. The ultimate iteration of the classic, interchangeable-lens Nikon rangefinder camera and the most acclaimed, its signature feature is the distinctively shaped, wide window for the viewfinder, which includes projected, parallax-compensating framelines for focal lengths from 50-135mm and a separate built-in fixed frame viewfinder for 28mm and 35mm lenses. The SP was also compatible with an electric motor drive, popular among photojournalists and sports photographers. Features include: Single stroke film-wind lever, cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 1/1000 sec plus B, and self-timer. Most common normal lenses: 50mm f/1.4 or f/2 Nikkor. A highly prized collectible, the Nikon SP is a great shooter’s camera but IMHO less convenient than the late-model Canons. SPs are most often found in chrome finish, but were also made in a (rare) black finish—costly collector’s prizes. For the record, my personal favorite Nikon rangefinder shooter is the simple unassuming Nikon S2 of 1955, which has a beautiful 1:1 range/viewfinder with a fixed 50mm frame line and is the apotheosis of elegant simplicity—though definitely not as tecnically advanced as the SP, S3, etc.

Contax IIa with 50mm f:1.5 Sonnar.jpg
Contax IIa with superb and distinctive 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar. It's my favorite rangefinder Contax and the most reliable.

Contax IIa 1950-1961: A complete redesign of the Contax II of 1936, the Contax IIa has a simplified, much more reliable vertical roller blind shutter with nylon straps connecting the curtains and slats made of duraluminum. It’s also smaller, considerably lighter, and has more refined proportions than its illustrious prewar predecessor, albeit resulting in a somewhat shorter rangefinder base length. Along with its less attractive sister the Contax IIIa (which added a klutzy uncoupled selenium meter housing on top) the Contax IIa is functionally the best Contax Zeiss-Ikon ever made, and it’s complemented by a full line of superlative Zeiss bayonet mount lenses. Two variations of the Contax IIa/IIIa were produced: the “black dial” and “color dial” based on the color of the shutter speed numerals. The black dial uses special flash cords for bulb or electronic flash; the “color dial” has a standard PC outlet and provides X sync at 1/50 sec.

Sadly, both the Contax IIa and IIIa ceased production in 1960 and were gone by 1961. The Contax IIa is a gorgeous, beautifully proportioned machine with distinctive “cut corner” ends in the Contax rangefinder tradition dating back to the Contax 1 of 1932. It exudes understated elegance and has an aura of precision that accurately reflects its mechanical excellence and its impressive performance potential in the field. It’s too bad that Zeiss never developed the Contax as Nikon, Canon, and Leica did with their top-tier rangefinder cameras but the elegant, “old fashioned” Contax IIa is still one of my favorite (and affordable) user collectibles, especially when fitted with the 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar, a superb lens with gobs of vintage “character.”

Leica A.jpeg
Leica I (Model A) with 50mm f/3.5 Elmar: Oskar Barnack's timeless classic is elegantly elemental, but it's still a great street shooter.

Leica A 1925. This is the camera that really put 35mm photography in the forefront and sparked widespread interest in what was thwn an “upstart” miniature format. No, the little Leica was not the first 35mm still camera in production, and it wasn’t even the first to employ the 24x36mm format , but Oskar Barnack, its principal inventor of the Leica (who field tested the prototype “Ur Leica” as far back as 1912) certainly deserves the title of “Father of 35mm Photography.” The Leica (subsequently called the Leica I model A) announced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925, was the first high quality 35mm camera to be mass produced, and its watershed design defined and foreshadowed the direction photography was to take in the 20th century.

The Leica A established the basic shape and control layout of 35mm cameras, the viability of 35mm as a serious contender, and the excellence and legendary status of Leica cameras that continues to this day. Certainly, the Leica’s exquisitely compact, magnificently integrated, supremely ergonomic design had something to do with its success, but its performance as a picture-making machine was equally important. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the rightness of Barnack’s original design is that fact that, with the addition of an interchangeable lens mount and a coupled rangefinder, the basic concept endured for over 35 years, during which time the Leica was widely revered as “the best camera in the world.”

By modern standards, the Leica A (the name is a contraction of “Leitz:” and “camera”) seems very straightforward and basic, and that indeed is its charm. A true pocket-sized miniature, it’s finished in black enamel with nickel-plated metal parts, including the distinctive “hockey stick” infinity catch on the front. Other features include a self-capping, horizontal-travel cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 1/20-1/500 sec plus T, set via a top-mounted dial that rotates as the shutter fires, a non-interchangeable, scale-focusing, collapsible, Tessar-type 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens (rare early models had 5-element lenses labeled Leitz Anastigmat or Leitz Elmax) with aperture ring (with settings of f/3.5, 4.5. 6.3, 9, 12.5) on the front, a textured film-wind-knob with concentric, manually set frame counter, a rewind knob, and a small optical viewfinder on the top. Like all Leicas prior to the M3, it features a svelte, one-piece main body with rounded ends, and bottom loading by means of a removable baseplate—a type of construction intended to ensure excellent rigidity and accurate lens-to-film-plane alignment.

One of the Leica A’s best loved features was automatic blank- and double-exposure prevention—winding the film to the next frame cocks the shutter and advances the counter by one frame. This doesn’t sound too impressive today, but it was state-of-the-art in 1925. Today, the Leica A is regarded mostly as a collector’s prize. Certainly, its value alone puts it in that category. However, the Leica A is still a great picture taker, and a fun, pocketable, user-collectible (for those with deep enough pockets). It’s the apotheosis of elegant minimalism—everything you need and not one iota more—which is why it’s still one of my favorite walkaround 35s.

Nikon F2 with 50mm f:1.4 Nikkor and DP-1 Prism.jpeg
Nikon F2 with 50mm f/1.4 Nikon-S and DP-1 meter prism: Robust and reliable, it's one of the greatest manual focusing 35mm SLRs of all time.

Nikon F2 1971-1980: Everybody loves the original Nikon F, the first truly professional system 35mm SLR that debuted in 1959, but ask a bunch of seasoned camera repair people and they’ll invariably choose the ultra-reliable F2 every time. This handsome, rugged camera had a long productiuon run, from September 1971 to June 1980 and it incorporates a mechnaically contrilled horizontal-travel focal-plane shutter with titanium shutter curtains that provides speeds of 1-1/2000 sec (up to 10 sec using the self-timer) plus B and T, with flash sync at 1/80 sec. and requires no batteriies. It also has a swing back for easier loading, a larger reflex mirror to eliminate vignetting, and a shutter release placed closer to the front of the camera for better handling. It accepts a wider assortment of meter heads, all with a far more secure mounting system than the F, and offered a detachable motor drive that fit the camera directly, another feature lacking on the F. The later F2A and F2AS versions require AI or AI-S lenses, which is one reason I personally prefer the original F2 and use it quite frequently. However, I wouldn’t refuse a Nikon F2A with titanium body and DP-11 prism if I could find one at a good price. The Nikon F2 is an awesome camera that will probably last 3 lifetimes and it’s a superb picture taker that’s readily available at affirdable prices.

Topcon RE Super with 58mm f:1.4 R.E Auto-Topcor.jpeg
Topcon RE Super, sold in the U.S as the Beseler Topcon Super D, is the SLR I use most. Why? The 58mm f/1.4 RE Auto-Topcor is awesome!

Topcon RE Super 1963. The first 35mm SLR with through-the-lens match-needle metering, it was manufactured by Tokyo Optical Company, Ltd. and initiated the basic trend that all other SLR makers were destined to follow. The RE Super was and is unique in having its CdS meter cell built into the mirror, permitting the use of simple interchangeable optical finders, but this system, designed in a joint project with Toshiba Electric Co., proved complex and expensive to produce. The RE was eclipsed one year later by the Pentax Spotmatic, which took TTL readings off the viewing screen, a simpler system soon adopted by virtually every other SLR maker. Large, robust, and beautifully made the Topcon RE Super features include an Interchangeable eye-level pentaprism and finder screens, single-stroke wind lever, full-aperture metering, cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus B, winder/motor compatibility, and Exakta-compatible bayonet mount. The standard lens is the superb 58mm f/1.4 Auto Topcor, which offers outstanding sharpness and oodles of vintage chasracter—one of the main reasons I often use it for shooting portraits. The other Topcor lenses in the extensive line are as good or better than the correspinding Nikkors or Canons anf they will work, albeit “upside down” on Exaktas! The RE Super was produced in four versions and provided the basis for the Topcon D-1 and Super DM that remained in production until the ‘80s. Clean original Topcon or Beseler Topcon RE Supers with 50mm f/1.4 lens are readily available at very reasonable prices.

Canon F-1, F-1n, and F-1 NEW: Introduced in the summer of 1970 as a successor to the mighty (but ill-starred) Canonflex of 1959, the ruggedly beautiful Canon F-1 was Canon’s first professional SLR to successfully go up against the Nikon F and garner a significant share of the pro SLR market. Supported by a humongous array of system accessories, and an extensive line of Canon FD lenses that fully communicate with the camera, the F-I has a horizontal titanium foil shutter with speeds of 1-1/2000 sec plus B, TTL metering using a CdS cell located on the side of the focusing screen that works independently of the attached finder, and a slide-on finder prism allowing focusing screens to be easily lifted out. An accessory Servo EE finder provides shutter priority automatic exposure using an arm attached to the left-hand side of the finder to operate the lens diaphragm. The Canon F-1 and the F-1n (its nearly identical, lightly upgraded stablemate introduced in 1976) are great user cameras even today, providing they’re modified to accept modern 1.5v silver oxide or alkaline button cells instead of the original, now obsolete, 1.35v mercury cells. The Canon F-1’s crisp, angular, exquisitely proportioned form factor has that indestructible “muscular” look reminiscent of (dare we say it?) the Nikon F, but it’s distinctive enough that nobody would mistake it for its archrival.



Canon F-1 NEW: While the original Canon F-1 and F-1n are gorgeous in a way that their attractive, significantly improved successor, the Canon F-1 NEW of 1981, is not, I generally favor the F-1 NEW as one of my 3 or 4 favotite shooting cameras because its SPD (silicon photodiode) metering system is more sensitive, and more accurate since it isn’t afflicted with the dreaded “memory effect” when used in rapidly changing memory effects. Another plus: the camera is powered by a long lasting, readily available PX 28L or equivalent 6v lithium cell. Other advantages: you can change the metering pattern by switching screens, a compatible accessory AE prism finder provides aperture- and shutter-priority AE, a built-in viewfinder illuminator facilitates shooting in low light, and a hybrid electromechanical titanium focal-plane shutter provides battery-less speeds of 1/90 sec X sync to 1/2000 sec. Fortunately the F-1’s robust body construction have been retained, the viewfinder is superb, and if anything the ergonomics of the F-1 NEW are better than those of its illustrious predecessors. I admit that choosing between the Nikon F2 and Canon F-1 NEW is tough since they’re both tops in the manual focusing 35mm SLR class..

Bronica EC, EC-TL: Released in 1972 the Bronica EC replaced the all mechanical S2A in the lineup, and was the first Bronica with an electronically timed, vertical travel cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 4 sec to 1/1000 sec plus B and X sync at 1/60 sec. Powered by a 6v PX28 or equivalent battery in the base, it also provides a mechanical speed of 1/40 sec operable without battery power. Other features built into the somewhat larger body include an ingenious instant return, two-piece split mirror, part of which flips upwards while the other part flips down, to help minimize camera shake, an interchangeable finder with easily interchangeable screens, a mirror lock, a depth of field preview button, a combined film wind knob/crank, and interchangeable 12/24 exposure backs for 120/220 film that are incompatible with those of previous models. An interchangeable lens mount with large and small bayonets and a 57mm threaded mount accepts Bronica mount lenses from all previous focal plane shutter models. A bizarrely ugly but workable accessory TTL CdS meter prism was available for the EC. The Bronica EC-TL introduced in 1975 adds a built-in TTL exposure meter employing a single silicon cell behind the mirror for instant stop-down exposure measurements as well as aperture priority autoexposure at the “A” setting on the shutter speed dial. Thirteen shutter speeds and 2 exposure warning arrow LEDs are displayed along the top of the finder and ASA settings from 25-3200 and readings from EV 4-19 at ASA 100 are possible. The EC’s successor, the EC-TL was one of the first medium format SLRs to offer autoexposure capability a key feature that was masterfully integrated into the existing design.

Straightforward and boxy with a shutter/mirror “thunk” that will wake the dead, Bronica EC and EC-TL are not cameras acclaimed for their ravishing beauty as is the original (unreliable) 2-tone Bronica DeLuxe of 1959, but I shoot more pictures with my Bronica EC. than with any other 6x6 cm SLR I own (including my gorgeous Hasselblad 500 C/M) thanks to its close focusing ability and its superlative line of Nikkor and Zenzanon lenses. Bronica ECs and EC-TLs may not qualify as elegant, but they’re beautifully balanced, well-proportioned, understated, and timeless designs. The last of focal plane shutter Bronicas was the EC-TL-II with revised electronic circuitry, a screen with fewer readouts, and no manual metering modes. The Bronica EC and EC-TL are superior, and somewhat underrated user cameras. Clean, functional examples with standard finder, 120/220 6x6cm film back, and 75mm f/2.8 Nikkor-P or -PC lens are currently available at surprisingly reasonable prices.rs=w-1440,h-1440.jpeg
 

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I'm glad you were a camera collector and not a horse thief!

I'm much happier as a Camera Collector, and have you to thank for being one.

Nikon F2- years ago went to a camera show and picked up two of the first 1600 made. The tip of the wind lever is metal on them. Paid under $200 for the pair of them. Fun of collecting.
 
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Another great read. We share many of the same cameras, i.e, Leica M3, Canon VI-T, Nikon F2, and Canon F-1. I use them all, mainly with B&W film.

Jim B.
 
Can't argue with any of these. The Canon VI-T is a little bit of a dark horse, as is the Topcon (with which I especially agree).

But Jason, what more is there to say after this article? :) I hope you're not retiring!
 
The urge to collect is in me, but the space, money, and time for the collection always escapes me. I'm more user than collector, although I have ended up with a brace of Minox 8x11 cameras, a similar brace of Polaroid SX-70 modernized derivatives, and another small brace of Kodak Retina IIc cameras. I use them all, occasionally.

Other cameras come and go with fluid grace, although lately some couple of Leica Ms are always in the kit (currently M10-M and M4-2).

My favorites of the past were the Nikon F plain prism, the Minox B, the Rollei 35S, the original Polaroid SX-70. I have one of each of these still, so I guess that's my "collection" as it were.

I have always heard good things about the Beseler Topcon cameras but, alas! I've never even seen one in the flesh. ;)

G
 
Haha! I definitely credit you for starting me down the path. Like you, I use all my cameras and even if one hasn’t been used in a while I would never sell it.

Although Modern Photography is gone, it is great having you here on RFF sharing your insights and perspectives.

Also, from your photos posted here, especially those beautiful portraits, we see that you are an excellent photographer.
 
Thanks for the list Jason. I too have several of the cameras/lenses on that list (how many of us RFFers can say that? Most!)

I am also a user-collector. I try to explain this distinction to people but often fail to get the concept across. I liken it to the Arts-and-Crafts movement from the turn of the century -- items (for example: furniture) are both functional and beautiful.
 
While I am thankful for the list, and am a user-collector, I actually own exactly none of the listed cameras.

M Leicas? Out of my league. I cover that spot with a Bessa R and (for digital) an Epson R-D1.

I don't own a Contax or a Nikon. I do own an ex-Contax 1930s Zeiss lens remounted for LTM by Brian, and a Leica mount Nikkor 85/2.8. And a Canon 50/1.4.

I don't own a Leica A: I have a IIIa. That or the Bessa R can cover for the Canon VI-T.

I don't own a Nikon or Topcon SLR. Instead, an Asahi Pentax S3. No metering, but I love that it's really a Leica III re-designed into a useful SLR. Though the S3 was one of the first Asahi Pentax cameras to not have some vestigial Leica feature.

Moving to metering, a Canon AT1. The budget consumer SLR to the F1n.

My 120 needs are met by RF cameras, not an SLR.

Overall, though, I agree, but note one (IMHO) deficiency in the list.

In the 1930s there was only one useful 35mm SLR. How can a user-collector get by without an Ihagee Exakta of some sort?
 
The Camera Collector’s Top 10 Vintage Cameras of All Time:

These are the ones I love, admire, and use for making pictures on film

By Jason Schneider

I began collecting cameras when I acquired my first Leica, a brand new IIIg with 50mm f/2.8 collapsible Elmar, way back in 1960. About a decade later, in October 1969, I began writing The Camera Collector, a monthly column that first appeared in Modern Photography, and later in Popular Photography. It’s been downhill ever since, and I’m now resigned to being eternally typecast as The Camera Collector, which I suppose is better than being known as a horse thief, but not much. Countless hapless souls have credited and chastised me for leading them down the primrose path of camera collecting, a circuitous journey from which few ever return with their sanity intact.

Like the late, great Tom Abrahamsson, I am a proud user-collector, which means that I believe classic and vintage cameras should be used for their intended purpose, making pictures, rather than being placed semi-permanently on a shelf or consigned to sterile display cases. (I feel the same way about other vintage “machines” such as cars, motorcycles, fountain pens, and mechanical watches, which I’ve also amassed in varying degrees over the years.) However, unlike Tom, who was more of a purist, I don’t automatically sell or trade any cameras I haven’t used for more than a year. I just keep them in my collection and trot them out perhaps once every year or two, just to keep them limbered up and in working condition.

The bottom line: I own roughly 200 cameras of all types (including half a dozen DSLRs and mirrorless cameras), about 10% of which I regularly use for making pictures. For the record, my film-to-digital shooting ratio is roughly 60%/40%, and I only shoot black-and-white film, almost exclusively Ilford HP-5 Plus 400 and Fuji Acros 100 II. Although my motley collection of analog cameras includes everything from half-frame 35s to 4x5 view cameras, I currently shoot film in only 2 sizes: full frame 35mm and 120 roll film in 6x6cm and 6x4.5 cm formats. My newest roll film camera is a Fuji GS645 Pro, and my newest 35mm cameras are a Nikon F5 and a Canon EOS 3. However, I shoot the overwhelming preponderance of my black-and-white film images on cameras that are at least 50-60 years old because I like the distinctive rendition of older lenses, which have more “character” than many modern optics. Here at long last are my 10 favorite vintage cameras— the ones I shoot with most of the time.

View attachment 4815512
Leica M3 single stroke with 50mm f/2 Dual Range Summicron and "goggles." It's my favorite Leica M, but the M2 is mighty close.

Leica M3: My M3 is a late single-stroke, serial number 1,1xx,xxx dating from 1965 and purchased brand new with 50mm f/2 Dual Range Summicron for the grand sum of $450, which, if memory serves, is about 10% below the official list price. This beloved camera is still in near mint condition, and it functions flawlessly—on a par with any modern analog M Leica in terms of on-film results. Considered by many to be the finest rangefinder camera ever made, its focusing and film wind actions are silky smooth and its 0.91x rangefinder has the highest magnification, longest effective base length, and best inherent focusing accuracy of any Leica M. The borders of the rangefinder patch are so crisply defined that the rangefinder can be used as a split-image rangefinder (see manual for instructions), and the bright, projected, parallax-compensating frame lines are keyed in automatically as you mount the lens—the 90mm or 135mm frame lines appearing within the 50mm frame lines, which is always visible.

The visceral experience of shooting with a Leica M3 (or an M2 or M4 for that matter) is unmatched, though some later M Leicas come close. The M3, M2 and M4 were the last of the breed that were literally bench assembled using components carefully selected by master craftspeople, rather than employing today’s simplified production techniques. Their range/viewfinders can be easily adjusted for lateral and vertical alignment, etc. by turning screws; more modern Leica Ms use a different system that requires special tools. All vintage-era Ms are great walk-around cameras that excel in street photography and photojournalism, but can also be pressed into service for portraiture, landscape, travel photography, etc.

The downsides of classic M Leicas

Nothing created by humans is perfect, and no rangefinder camera with adjustable field frame lines can provide subject framing as precise as an SLR, especially with long lenses and at close shooting distances—90mm is really the practical focal-length limit, and I seldom use the M3’s tiny 135mm frame line or (heaven forefend) mount a ponderous 135mm Leica lens with “goggles.” While the hinged back section makes any analog M easier to load than a baseplate-loading Barnack Leica, it’s not as convenient as loading removable- or swing-back camera. And while I adore my Dual Range Summicron, having to select close-focus mode and then install “spectacles” to get down to 19 inches is more labor intensive than using a continuous-focusing macro lens on an SLR.


Leica M2 with lever-type rewind actuation and 35mm f/2 Summicron: The photojournalist's favorite Leica M combo except for the MR meter.

The Leica M2 offers a much more useful set of frame lines than the M3—35mm, 50mm and 90mm frames that appear one at a time as you mount the lens. It also has a cleaner form factor, devoid of embossed “frames” around the front rangefinder and viewfinder windows, an elegantly contoured single-stroke wind lever, and a handsome, large diameter, manually zeroed, external frame counter, just like the one on the original Leica MP of 1956. Bottom line: I’m too emotionally attached to my M3 to trade it for an M2, but I sorely regret selling my M2 with 35mm f/2 Summicron, not only because it’s drop dead gorgeous, but also because it better suits my itinerant shooting style.


The Canon VI-T shown here with 50mm f/2.8 Canon is my favorite rangefinder Canon, but lever wind VI-L is lighter and more compact.

Canon VI-T 1959. My next favorite rangefinder 35 after the Leica M3 and M2, is the Canon VI-T, the ultimate interchangeable-lens rangefinder Canon in terms of features and overall quality. The trigger-wind VI-T was based on its illustrious (and collectible) predecessor, the late version of the VT DeLuxe, in having a three-position range/viewfinder showing the fields of 35mm and 50mm lenses plus a 1.5X setting for critical focusing, auto-parallax adjustment of shoe-mounted finders (!), a titanium focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus T and B, a folding rewind crank, and a Leica-derived 39mm screw mount. To this magnificent mix, the VI-T added parallax-compensating finder frame lines for 50mm and 100mm lenses, a top-mounted, non-rotating shutter dial for setting all speeds and X sync, a double lock on the hinged back, a self-zeroing frame counter, and back-mounted film type reminder dial. If you prefer lever wind, and a somewhat smaller, lighter body with the same feature set, the scarcer Canon VI-L is an excellent choice. Both are beautifully made and very reliable and I prefer them to the very last system rangefinder Canons, the 7s and 7sZ, which have great finders, ditzy uncoupled CdS meters, and are not, in my arrogant opinion, constructed to the same standard.

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Nikon SP of 1957-1960: The apotheosis of Nikon rangefinder cameras is shown here with stellar 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor-S.

Nikon SP 1957. The ultimate iteration of the classic, interchangeable-lens Nikon rangefinder camera and the most acclaimed, its signature feature is the distinctively shaped, wide window for the viewfinder, which includes projected, parallax-compensating framelines for focal lengths from 50-135mm and a separate built-in fixed frame viewfinder for 28mm and 35mm lenses. The SP was also compatible with an electric motor drive, popular among photojournalists and sports photographers. Features include: Single stroke film-wind lever, cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 1/1000 sec plus B, and self-timer. Most common normal lenses: 50mm f/1.4 or f/2 Nikkor. A highly prized collectible, the Nikon SP is a great shooter’s camera but IMHO less convenient than the late-model Canons. SPs are most often found in chrome finish, but were also made in a (rare) black finish—costly collector’s prizes. For the record, my personal favorite Nikon rangefinder shooter is the simple unassuming Nikon S2 of 1955, which has a beautiful 1:1 range/viewfinder with a fixed 50mm frame line and is the apotheosis of elegant simplicity—though definitely not as tecnically advanced as the SP, S3, etc.

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Contax IIa with superb and distinctive 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar. It's my favorite rangefinder Contax and the most reliable.

Contax IIa 1950-1961: A complete redesign of the Contax II of 1936, the Contax IIa has a simplified, much more reliable vertical roller blind shutter with nylon straps connecting the curtains and slats made of duraluminum. It’s also smaller, considerably lighter, and has more refined proportions than its illustrious prewar predecessor, albeit resulting in a somewhat shorter rangefinder base length. Along with its less attractive sister the Contax IIIa (which added a klutzy uncoupled selenium meter housing on top) the Contax IIa is functionally the best Contax Zeiss-Ikon ever made, and it’s complemented by a full line of superlative Zeiss bayonet mount lenses. Two variations of the Contax IIa/IIIa were produced: the “black dial” and “color dial” based on the color of the shutter speed numerals. The black dial uses special flash cords for bulb or electronic flash; the “color dial” has a standard PC outlet and provides X sync at 1/50 sec.

Sadly, both the Contax IIa and IIIa ceased production in 1960 and were gone by 1961. The Contax IIa is a gorgeous, beautifully proportioned machine with distinctive “cut corner” ends in the Contax rangefinder tradition dating back to the Contax 1 of 1932. It exudes understated elegance and has an aura of precision that accurately reflects its mechanical excellence and its impressive performance potential in the field. It’s too bad that Zeiss never developed the Contax as Nikon, Canon, and Leica did with their top-tier rangefinder cameras but the elegant, “old fashioned” Contax IIa is still one of my favorite (and affordable) user collectibles, especially when fitted with the 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar, a superb lens with gobs of vintage “character.”

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Leica I (Model A) with 50mm f/3.5 Elmar: Oskar Barnack's timeless classic is elegantly elemental, but it's still a great street shooter.

Leica A 1925. This is the camera that really put 35mm photography in the forefront and sparked widespread interest in what was thwn an “upstart” miniature format. No, the little Leica was not the first 35mm still camera in production, and it wasn’t even the first to employ the 24x36mm format , but Oskar Barnack, its principal inventor of the Leica (who field tested the prototype “Ur Leica” as far back as 1912) certainly deserves the title of “Father of 35mm Photography.” The Leica (subsequently called the Leica I model A) announced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925, was the first high quality 35mm camera to be mass produced, and its watershed design defined and foreshadowed the direction photography was to take in the 20th century.

The Leica A established the basic shape and control layout of 35mm cameras, the viability of 35mm as a serious contender, and the excellence and legendary status of Leica cameras that continues to this day. Certainly, the Leica’s exquisitely compact, magnificently integrated, supremely ergonomic design had something to do with its success, but its performance as a picture-making machine was equally important. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the rightness of Barnack’s original design is that fact that, with the addition of an interchangeable lens mount and a coupled rangefinder, the basic concept endured for over 35 years, during which time the Leica was widely revered as “the best camera in the world.”

By modern standards, the Leica A (the name is a contraction of “Leitz:” and “camera”) seems very straightforward and basic, and that indeed is its charm. A true pocket-sized miniature, it’s finished in black enamel with nickel-plated metal parts, including the distinctive “hockey stick” infinity catch on the front. Other features include a self-capping, horizontal-travel cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 1/20-1/500 sec plus T, set via a top-mounted dial that rotates as the shutter fires, a non-interchangeable, scale-focusing, collapsible, Tessar-type 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens (rare early models had 5-element lenses labeled Leitz Anastigmat or Leitz Elmax) with aperture ring (with settings of f/3.5, 4.5. 6.3, 9, 12.5) on the front, a textured film-wind-knob with concentric, manually set frame counter, a rewind knob, and a small optical viewfinder on the top. Like all Leicas prior to the M3, it features a svelte, one-piece main body with rounded ends, and bottom loading by means of a removable baseplate—a type of construction intended to ensure excellent rigidity and accurate lens-to-film-plane alignment.

One of the Leica A’s best loved features was automatic blank- and double-exposure prevention—winding the film to the next frame cocks the shutter and advances the counter by one frame. This doesn’t sound too impressive today, but it was state-of-the-art in 1925. Today, the Leica A is regarded mostly as a collector’s prize. Certainly, its value alone puts it in that category. However, the Leica A is still a great picture taker, and a fun, pocketable, user-collectible (for those with deep enough pockets). It’s the apotheosis of elegant minimalism—everything you need and not one iota more—which is why it’s still one of my favorite walkaround 35s.

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Nikon F2 with 50mm f/1.4 Nikon-S and DP-1 meter prism: Robust and reliable, it's one of the greatest manual focusing 35mm SLRs of all time.

Nikon F2 1971-1980: Everybody loves the original Nikon F, the first truly professional system 35mm SLR that debuted in 1959, but ask a bunch of seasoned camera repair people and they’ll invariably choose the ultra-reliable F2 every time. This handsome, rugged camera had a long productiuon run, from September 1971 to June 1980 and it incorporates a mechnaically contrilled horizontal-travel focal-plane shutter with titanium shutter curtains that provides speeds of 1-1/2000 sec (up to 10 sec using the self-timer) plus B and T, with flash sync at 1/80 sec. and requires no batteriies. It also has a swing back for easier loading, a larger reflex mirror to eliminate vignetting, and a shutter release placed closer to the front of the camera for better handling. It accepts a wider assortment of meter heads, all with a far more secure mounting system than the F, and offered a detachable motor drive that fit the camera directly, another feature lacking on the F. The later F2A and F2AS versions require AI or AI-S lenses, which is one reason I personally prefer the original F2 and use it quite frequently. However, I wouldn’t refuse a Nikon F2A with titanium body and DP-11 prism if I could find one at a good price. The Nikon F2 is an awesome camera that will probably last 3 lifetimes and it’s a superb picture taker that’s readily available at affirdable prices.

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Topcon RE Super, sold in the U.S as the Beseler Topcon Super D, is the SLR I use most. Why? The 58mm f/1.4 RE Auto-Topcor is awesome!

Topcon RE Super 1963. The first 35mm SLR with through-the-lens match-needle metering, it was manufactured by Tokyo Optical Company, Ltd. and initiated the basic trend that all other SLR makers were destined to follow. The RE Super was and is unique in having its CdS meter cell built into the mirror, permitting the use of simple interchangeable optical finders, but this system, designed in a joint project with Toshiba Electric Co., proved complex and expensive to produce. The RE was eclipsed one year later by the Pentax Spotmatic, which took TTL readings off the viewing screen, a simpler system soon adopted by virtually every other SLR maker. Large, robust, and beautifully made the Topcon RE Super features include an Interchangeable eye-level pentaprism and finder screens, single-stroke wind lever, full-aperture metering, cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1-1/1000 sec plus B, winder/motor compatibility, and Exakta-compatible bayonet mount. The standard lens is the superb 58mm f/1.4 Auto Topcor, which offers outstanding sharpness and oodles of vintage chasracter—one of the main reasons I often use it for shooting portraits. The other Topcor lenses in the extensive line are as good or better than the correspinding Nikkors or Canons anf they will work, albeit “upside down” on Exaktas! The RE Super was produced in four versions and provided the basis for the Topcon D-1 and Super DM that remained in production until the ‘80s. Clean original Topcon or Beseler Topcon RE Supers with 50mm f/1.4 lens are readily available at very reasonable prices.

Canon F-1, F-1n, and F-1 NEW: Introduced in the summer of 1970 as a successor to the mighty (but ill-starred) Canonflex of 1959, the ruggedly beautiful Canon F-1 was Canon’s first professional SLR to successfully go up against the Nikon F and garner a significant share of the pro SLR market. Supported by a humongous array of system accessories, and an extensive line of Canon FD lenses that fully communicate with the camera, the F-I has a horizontal titanium foil shutter with speeds of 1-1/2000 sec plus B, TTL metering using a CdS cell located on the side of the focusing screen that works independently of the attached finder, and a slide-on finder prism allowing focusing screens to be easily lifted out. An accessory Servo EE finder provides shutter priority automatic exposure using an arm attached to the left-hand side of the finder to operate the lens diaphragm. The Canon F-1 and the F-1n (its nearly identical, lightly upgraded stablemate introduced in 1976) are great user cameras even today, providing they’re modified to accept modern 1.5v silver oxide or alkaline button cells instead of the original, now obsolete, 1.35v mercury cells. The Canon F-1’s crisp, angular, exquisitely proportioned form factor has that indestructible “muscular” look reminiscent of (dare we say it?) the Nikon F, but it’s distinctive enough that nobody would mistake it for its archrival.



Canon F-1 NEW: While the original Canon F-1 and F-1n are gorgeous in a way that their attractive, significantly improved successor, the Canon F-1 NEW of 1981, is not, I generally favor the F-1 NEW as one of my 3 or 4 favotite shooting cameras because its SPD (silicon photodiode) metering system is more sensitive, and more accurate since it isn’t afflicted with the dreaded “memory effect” when used in rapidly changing memory effects. Another plus: the camera is powered by a long lasting, readily available PX 28L or equivalent 6v lithium cell. Other advantages: you can change the metering pattern by switching screens, a compatible accessory AE prism finder provides aperture- and shutter-priority AE, a built-in viewfinder illuminator facilitates shooting in low light, and a hybrid electromechanical titanium focal-plane shutter provides battery-less speeds of 1/90 sec X sync to 1/2000 sec. Fortunately the F-1’s robust body construction have been retained, the viewfinder is superb, and if anything the ergonomics of the F-1 NEW are better than those of its illustrious predecessors. I admit that choosing between the Nikon F2 and Canon F-1 NEW is tough since they’re both tops in the manual focusing 35mm SLR class..

Bronica EC, EC-TL: Released in 1972 the Bronica EC replaced the all mechanical S2A in the lineup, and was the first Bronica with an electronically timed, vertical travel cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds of 4 sec to 1/1000 sec plus B and X sync at 1/60 sec. Powered by a 6v PX28 or equivalent battery in the base, it also provides a mechanical speed of 1/40 sec operable without battery power. Other features built into the somewhat larger body include an ingenious instant return, two-piece split mirror, part of which flips upwards while the other part flips down, to help minimize camera shake, an interchangeable finder with easily interchangeable screens, a mirror lock, a depth of field preview button, a combined film wind knob/crank, and interchangeable 12/24 exposure backs for 120/220 film that are incompatible with those of previous models. An interchangeable lens mount with large and small bayonets and a 57mm threaded mount accepts Bronica mount lenses from all previous focal plane shutter models. A bizarrely ugly but workable accessory TTL CdS meter prism was available for the EC. The Bronica EC-TL introduced in 1975 adds a built-in TTL exposure meter employing a single silicon cell behind the mirror for instant stop-down exposure measurements as well as aperture priority autoexposure at the “A” setting on the shutter speed dial. Thirteen shutter speeds and 2 exposure warning arrow LEDs are displayed along the top of the finder and ASA settings from 25-3200 and readings from EV 4-19 at ASA 100 are possible. The EC’s successor, the EC-TL was one of the first medium format SLRs to offer autoexposure capability a key feature that was masterfully integrated into the existing design.

Straightforward and boxy with a shutter/mirror “thunk” that will wake the dead, Bronica EC and EC-TL are not cameras acclaimed for their ravishing beauty as is the original (unreliable) 2-tone Bronica DeLuxe of 1959, but I shoot more pictures with my Bronica EC. than with any other 6x6 cm SLR I own (including my gorgeous Hasselblad 500 C/M) thanks to its close focusing ability and its superlative line of Nikkor and Zenzanon lenses. Bronica ECs and EC-TLs may not qualify as elegant, but they’re beautifully balanced, well-proportioned, understated, and timeless designs. The last of focal plane shutter Bronicas was the EC-TL-II with revised electronic circuitry, a screen with fewer readouts, and no manual metering modes. The Bronica EC and EC-TL are superior, and somewhat underrated user cameras. Clean, functional examples with standard finder, 120/220 6x6cm film back, and 75mm f/2.8 Nikkor-P or -PC lens are currently available at surprisingly reasonable prices.View attachment 4815514
Hi Jason, your article is right on and prompted me to get these and others out on this snowy day in Detroit and give them a whirl. thanks, Chuck Fehl
 
I would have liked to have seen the Stereo Realist on that list. Pretty much this One Camera started and fueled the Stereo craze which was so very much a part of general interest photography for a decade. Strong, well made and easily available today, the Stereo Realist was built from 1947 to the early ‘70s. It was accompanied by a Vast array of support items from slide making materials, carrying cases and 3D Stereo projectors. Stereo Realist + Kodachrome was a match made in Heaven. ••••. If you have Never viewed stereo slides....you’ve not really appreciated how “different” this is from looking at prints (or a phone screen)04EE982E-CCEB-4726-A423-CACB1FB45B96.jpeg
 
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Thanks Jason, great article as always. Unfortunately I haven't owned any of these cameras, I'm pretty sure they are great fun to collect and use.
 
Collecting cameras...the fun is in the cheap and obscure just as much as in the rarified air of the famous names!
I've sold almost all my still camera, loads of the blighters have gone, probably at a loss.

However...I still have around 100 French 8mm movie cameras so I'm not out of the woods yet...
 
Collecting cameras...the fun is in the cheap and obscure just as much as in the rarified air of the famous names!
I've sold almost all my still camera, loads of the blighters have gone, probably at a loss.

However...I still have around 100 French 8mm movie cameras so I'm not out of the woods yet...
Totally agree with you about the cheap and obscure. As for the French 8mm movie cameras, "wow" is all I can say. :)
 
My says “Why do you have so many cameras? You hardly ever use them?”. My answer is the “Elephant Gun Theory”. You can collect these, from Winchester .458s to H&H .600 Nitros, spend a fortune on them, admire them, appreciate their history and value.....and Never Shoot a single Elephant.
 
Collecting cameras...the fun is in the cheap and obscure just as much as in the rarified air of the famous names!
I've sold almost all my still camera, loads of the blighters have gone, probably at a loss.

However...I still have around 100 French 8mm movie cameras so I'm not out of the woods yet...
That ciné camera collection sounds interesting. I‘d love to see some of what you have. I’ve always wanted a Beaulieu 8mm - they are so sleek and beautiful - but they were also so expensive back in the great days of film.

Occasionally I see one now, but they all have the same problem: no battery, no charger or other power connections.

By any chance do you have any 9.5mm ciné cameras? Long ago, early 1970’s, I read about the French 9.5 format with the sprocket hole in the middle. Lots of image area. The article (Modern Photography?) claimed it was a superior format, but Kodak’s marketing of double-8 Kodachrome overwhelmed it.
 
My says “Why do you have so many cameras? You hardly ever use them?”. My answer is the “Elephant Gun Theory”. You can collect these, from Winchester .458s to H&H .600 Nitros, spend a fortune on them, admire them, appreciate their history and value.....and Never Shoot a single Elephant.

That’s my case. I have two rifles in .375 H&H and .416 Rigby - the great British cartridges - but I use them for competitions of simulated hunting rather than actual hunting (I also shoot .50 BMG, but that’s a different story). I will get a chance to go to Africa in a few years, but my deliberations about equpiment will be photographic in nature.
 
That’s my case. I have two rifles in .375 H&H and .416 Rigby - the great British cartridges - but I use them for competitions of simulated hunting rather than actual hunting (I also shoot .50 BMG, but that’s a different story). I will get a chance to go to Africa in a few years, but my deliberations about equpiment will be photographic in nature.
If anyone thinks shooting film is expensive, take a look at the cost of .416 Rigby ammo. Makes 8x10 look cheap by comparison.
 
My says “Why do you have so many cameras? You hardly ever use them?”. My answer is the “Elephant Gun Theory”. You can collect these, from Winchester .458s to H&H .600 Nitros, spend a fortune on them, admire them, appreciate their history and value.....and Never Shoot a single Elephant.


Something good to have around under some situations.
 
... Makes 8x10 look cheap by comparison.
Long ago I bought reloading dies for everything. Brass, primers, powder; I have three different presses. So my costs can be low(er).

But the 8x10 shooter is at the mercy of those who make film - or coat your own plates. I think we’ll always have 35mm film and at least some medium format and large format we can order somewhere. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised and be more delighted that I can find Fuji Instax film just about anywhere. They truly are FujiFilm!

Every so often I’ll see a beautiful folding camera that I want to buy - but I don’t buy it because it takes some odd glass plate size that I have no hope of finding or being able to coat.

”Tremors” - LOL.
 
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