Tuesday, October 30, 2012

muscle cars

I've had fun learning to use the Mercury II.  Part of the challenge is to figure out which subjects will fit well within the half-frame format and resolution.  People and vehicles seem to work well.

I have added a page to my vintage cameras web site about the Mercury II.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Best of Albuquerque

The Bébé Cafe is in a niche off the Old Town Plaza Vieja.  I'm mostly there for coffee and pastry in the morning, but they also have some great lunch-time sandwiches, and none of the tourist kitsch of most of the eateries in the neighborhood.

For a substantial breakfast or lunch, the Cafe Lush is hard to beat.  Close to the center of town, but remarkably quiet and relaxing at the sidewalk tables.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Anscoflex II

Ansco introduced its new Anscoflex camera with a full-page ad in the July 19, 1954 issue of Life Magazine:
"...Styled by Raymond Loewy, this completely new reflex camera combines smart good looks with modern technical advances and sturdy metal-clad construction to bring you everything you've ever wanted in an easy-to-use snapshot camera!..."
Raymond Lowey, the renowned industrial designer, probably did have something to do with some of the design aspects of the Anscoflex, but most of the camera's features were already present in a 1948 Ansco prototype camera called the Shurflex. Ad hype aside, there was a lot that was new and interesting in the design of the Anscoflex. The modular construction of the all-aluminum case was a sharp contrast to the molded plastic cases featured in most of the inexpensive snapshot cameras of the era. When most of Ansco's competition had persisted in using singe-element meniscus lenses in their inexpensive cameras, the Anscoflex featured a two-element symetrical lens design with an additional close-up lens that could be swung into position with the turn of a dial on the camera's front.

Some of the new Anscoflex features, however, offered more novelty than usefulness. The tripod socket was unaccompanied by a cable release socket, and the side-mounted shutter plunger was stiff and likely to lead to blurred shots. While the ad copy likens the ratcheting film advance to winding a watch, it was really more like winding a grandfather clock, with about fifty quarter-turn rotations required to get the film to the first frame on the 620 roll. The built-in yellow filter was something of an anachronism at a time when photography was moving quickly toward the universal use of color.

The most distinctive feature of the camera, the sliding front cover connected to the flip-up barndoors over the viewfinder was something of a gimmick too, though a useful one. What was really important, though, was the extremely large and brilliant view provided by the reflex viewing system with its mirror and massive lenses. Even in the dimmest scenes where the flash would be a necessity to obtain an exposure, the view through the big top window was crystal clear. That brilliant viewfinder was also the feature of the Anscoflex which would lead to a sort of rebirth of the camera a half century after its introduction.

If you visit the Flickr photo sharing site and do a search on the term, Anscoflex, you will turn up thousands of recently made pictures tagged "Anscoflex". However, probably not one in a hundred of the photos were made with film in the camera. Instead, the great majority are the result of pointing a digital camera at the brilliant view screen of the Anscoflex to directly capture the image using the through-the-viewfinder (ttv) technique.

For those willing to re-roll some 120 film onto 620 spools it is still possible to do real photography with the Anscoflex. It won't be a process that is quick, easy or very predictable, but some distinctive images and some satisfaction are guaranteed.

Some examples from the Anscoflex II:

Should your Anscoflex need some cleaning there is an excellent detailed tutorial by Shane Blomberg at Flickr. The manuals for the Anscoflex and the Anscoflex II are at the Butkus site.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rotary Shutters

Becoming familiar with the operation of the Univex Mercury II got me looking into the history of the rotary shutter in photography.  It is a shutter type that has been common since photography's very early days and there is a lot on the web about it.  I'm just going to summarize some of my more interesting web finds here with links to the sources.

Most box cameras are equipped with rotary shutters; they are simple and extremely reliable, and give an exposure time of 1/30-1/60 second.  Here is an illustration of the shutter in my Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash; the shutter is held open with the "B" setting to give a clear view of the parts.

The round black hole is the aperture allowing light into the lens. When the shutter release is activated, the cover paddle is lifted and the kidney-shaped opening in the circular shutter plate rotates past the aperture, with the time of its passage being determined by the spring tension and the length of the kidney-shaped hole. At the end of the cycle, the paddle flips back down to cover the opening and the shutter disk rotates back to the starting position.

I picked up an old windup Kodak motion picture camera in the 1960s.  Even though it was about 30 years old when I got it, the camera ran very smoothly.  I didn't give the mechanics of it much thought at the time, but it very likely had a rotary shutter like all the mechanical movie cameras of the time.

The rotating shutter mechanism in a modern sound-synched movie camera is usually a half circle set to operate at 24 frames per second and giving an exposure to each frame of about 1/50 second.  The purpose of this timing is not only to achieve the correct exposure, but also to yield the illusion of smooth, natural movement when the images are projected.  The animated gif below from Wikipedia illustrates the action of the motion picture shutter; the film is advanced one frame during the closed phase of each rotation.

Joram van Hartingsveldt
Perhaps inspired by motion picture technology, Heinz Kilfitt designed the Robot, a 35 mm motorized-advance still camera  in about 1930.  A very nice article about this long-lived precision camera is at the Dieselpunks  site.

By locating the shutter just behind the lens, Kilfitt was able to achieve a very compact camera design that gave a relatively large, square image measuring 24x24 mm.

"The rotary shutter and the film drive are like those used in cine cameras. When the shutter release is pressed, a light-blocking shield lifts and the shutter disc rotates a full turn exposing the film through its open sector; when the pressure is released the light-blocking shield returns to its position behind the lens, and the spring motor advances the film and recocks the shutter. This is almost instantaneous. With practice a photographer could take 4 or 5 pictures a second. Each winding of the spring motor was good for about 25 pictures, half a roll of film. Shutter speed was determined by spring tension and mechanical delay since the exposure sector was fixed. The Robot I had an exposure range of 1 to 1/500 s plus the usual provision for time exposures."

The rotary shutter reached an apex of sophistication in 1963 when Olympus introduced the Olympus-Pen F, a half-frame single lens reflex design by Yoshihisa Maitani. 

It seems remarkable that Maitani could fit a focal plane rotary shutter and a Poro prism slr viewfinder into a camera of such diminutive size.  Much of the success of the effort was due to the development of an exceedingly thin and lightweight titanium shutter disk which allowed a top speed  of 1/500 second.

U.S. Patent Office

In some ways the Universal Camera Corporation Mercury camera was even more remarkable than the earlier Robot and the later Pen F.  The large diameter focal plane shutter devised by George Kende was extremely robust and accurate, achieving a reliable top speed of 1/1000 second.  The relative simplicity of the shutter design facilitated low-cost construction and made the Mercury much more likely to be successfully repaired and renovated by the DIY enthusiast.

U.S. Patent Office
The shutter in my Mercury II was sluggish when I received it.  A little lighter fluid applied with a small brush was all that was needed to bring it back to life, and the resultant pictures show it to be operating as designed.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nice Day for a Ride

Perfect weather today for a ride up Route 66 to take in the car show at the Santa Ana Star Casino, and a good excuse to exercise the Mercury II.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Phoenix in a Box

My latest yard sale find, the Genos Rapid.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Four more from Phoenix

From a roll of Fuji 200.

The f2.7 Tricor lens seems a little soft around the edges, but I thought it handled a variety of subjects and conditions very well. I changed the focus with a shim behind the lens, but have decided now that it was unnecessary.  I'll try to make some controlled test shots with my next roll of film to get a better idea of the accuracy of the focus.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dispatch from Phoenix

We're visiting my daughter's family for a week in Phoenix.

I took a walk down Central this morning to try out a Genos Rapid box camera that I recently picked up at a yard sale.  One of the first things I came across was this Peregrine falcon sitting on the sign on the facade of a hotel.

I went back to the room to get my digital which has a good zoom and took quite a few shots.  I've only seen a handfull of Peregrines in the wild, so this was a thrill for me.  Peregrines have been nesting in the city for about fifteen years, but only fledged young for the first time in 2009.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Design of the Mercury II

Snatching failure from the jaws of success

The Universal Camera Corporation released the first Mercury Camera in 1938 and it proved to be a great success in the market.  The innovative precision design included a high-speed rotary focal plane shutter that was equal in accuracy and reliability to the Leica or the Contax at a tenth the price.

The first model of the Mercury used 35mm film in a proprietary cassette and produced half-frame negatives. The lenses available for the camera were orginally produced by Wollensak and provided adequate resolution to support the small format.

A post-war redesign produced the Mercury II Model CX with a slightly larger case which enabled the use of standard 35mm cartridges.  Lens production was moved in-house, and the 35mm Tricor f2.7 was given an anti-reflective coating while retaining the sharpness of the earlier lenses.  A modification of the shutter had been undertaken earlier to increase the maximum speed from 1/1000 to 1/1500 -- the fastest then available -- but it was abandoned due to reliability issues.

In addition to sporting the unusual shutter, the Mercury made the half-frame format very popular for a time just after WWII.  The format was reintroduced in the 1960s by Olympus and others, and took over the industry for about five years until it was found that additional miniaturization could support a full 35mm frame.  The camera's designer, George Kende, also introduced the hot shoe for synchronizing flash which also became a standard for the industry.  In spite of all the good things the Mercury had going for it, the company went bankrupt in only a few years after the war.   The fault likely lay not with engineering, but rather with a surrender to marketing hype coupled to bad management and financial decisions.

In sorting out the fate of the Mercury camera it is instructive to compare the actual camera to an introductory passage in the camera's manual:

...To assure the sharpness of negatives necessary for good color photography, the old-fashioned ideas of negative size had to be discarded.  Universal engineers incorporated in the Mercury, the same size 35 mm. negative as is used for the projection of motion pictures shown in your local theatre...

That is mostly nonsense.  The hype-artists were trying to invoke the idea of images produced on the big screen and conflating that with the use of the half-frame format in a miniature still camera with the implication that image quality would be superior to full-frame.

What was really going on in regard to design were some perfectly reasonable compromises coupled to real-world experience.  The designer, George Kende, did in fact have a useful background in rotary shutter development implemented in motion picture cameras.  Making the idea work in a small still camera using 35mm film, however, dictated the use of the half-frame format.  Looking in at the open back of the camera it is obvious that trying to use the rotary shutter with a full 35mm frame would have resulted in a camera that was about half again as large and perhaps twice as heavy as the Mercury.  It just would not have gotten off the ground given the competition.

Had design considerations been given some priority over the decisions of ad flacks and bean counters it seems possible the Mercury might easily have retained a big share of the small camera market.  There was certainly some room for improvement.  For instance, devoting all that surface space to a depth-of-field chart divided between front and back, and that unbelievably complicated exposure-calculating dial had some 'Forties geek appeal, but gave very little real help to making well-composed and exposed images.

The other big lack in the Mercury was a built-in coupled rangefinder, or better yet a reflex finder.  Or, they could even have used both of those viewing systems together as was done with the little 35mm Bolsey Reflex. There was certainly plenty of space in front of the top shutter hump  to  play with those possibilities, and any would have helped resolve the close-up parallax issue which plagues the Mercury shooting experience.

Another possibility would have been to go the route of the Robot camera and use a square image on 35mm film which would have gained some surface area while eliminating the need to rotate the camera for compositional purposes.

Speculation aside, the Mercury II as it stands is a good shooter with interesting features and history.  At a time when film prices are going up quickly, there is also some appeal in the idea of getting twice the normal number of images from a roll of film.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Wild West

Tourists have always come to New Mexico looking for cowboys and Indians.  Albuquerque obliges them during the Balloon Fiesta with free performances throughout the day in Old Town.  I've shot this dancer several times before, but he keeps coming back.  Fabian Fontenelle has Zuni and Omaha roots; his costume here is from the Plains tradition.  His wife, Shelly Morningsong, has a wonderful voice and plays a mean flute.

Old Town is crowded throughout the Fiesta week and you are likely to see some interesting characters wandering the narrow streets.  Some, of course, will be ghosts, but it is hard to tell which and it's probably not a good idea to go around poking old cowboys to find out.

All the pictures here were made with what is probably America's most interesting old film camera, the Mercury II Model CX, which shoots 35mm half frame.  When the first of the line appeared in 1938 it sold for $25, the same price as the Argus A.  This post-war model had a number of improvements including a focal plane rotary shutter with a top speed of 1/1000 that was as accurate and reliable as anything made at the time.

I've done little restoration work on the camera so far; just swabbed a little Ronsonal on the shutter mechanism and rubbed off some of the exterior tarnish from the aluminum/magnesium shell using metal polish.  I'll have more to say about the camera after gaining some experience with it.