Rating Vintage Cameras

My collection of cameras as of April 2015. This was taken with a Nikomat FTn and 50mm Nikkor Ai lens,

My collection of cameras as of April 2015. This was taken with a Nikomat FTn and 50mm Nikkor Ai lens.

It is hard to believe, but I have been collecting old cameras for only 18 months and in that time, it has grown pretty big!  Perhaps even more impressive is that I’ve found the time to write nearly 30 reviews for these cameras on this site.

As I reflect on the posts on this site, I’ve come to the realization that I am not so much reviewing these cameras, as I am rambling on about them.  As anyone whose read any of my reviews has noticed, my “reviews” have a lot of history in them, along with info on repairs, and sometimes I even sprinkle reviews with brief tutorials on Sunny 16 and collimating the lenses.  While I am very proud of these articles, and have already begun to receive some pretty positive feedback, I realize that maybe my reviews should more closely resemble a review.

Since a review is always going to be based on my arbitrary opinion, I fully expect anyone reading them not to agree on what I might say.  Even for me, it would be pretty hard to conclusively say whether camera A is better than camera B because of how different they could be.  Which is better, a Yashica-Mat or a Pentax Sv?

For each camera I’ve acquired, there was a reason I bought it.  Maybe I had heard good things about it, maybe it looked cool to me, or maybe it was just cheap and I was curious.  Believe it or not, Ive sold quite a few cameras that were either duplicates of ones I already owned, or ones that I just wasn’t that interested in.

Since there has to be some tangible reason why I like some cameras more than others, I had this idea to come up with some type of “score” that would calculate a number based off the things I find important in an old camera.  This could also get very complicated and confusing, so its important to come up with something thats not overly convoluted.

With those goals in mind, I came up with a system that rates cameras in 6 categories.  In each category, there would only be 3 choices worth 0, 1, or 2 points.  When a category gets 0 points it means “not really”, 1 means that it is on par with other cameras of its style, and 2 means it is exceptional in that area.

I also include an “age multiplier” that awards more points to older cameras.  How could it be fair to compare an all electronic, CPU controlled Nikon SLR to an entirely mechanical Bakelite camera from the 1930s?

Finally, since there can often be an indescribable “cool” factor that a camera has which cannot be quantified in any one particular category, I came up with 2 possible bonus points (which are added to the total score after the age multiplier).

All of these numbers would be added up to come up with a total score for each camera.  Its going to be possible that I use camera with a lower score over one with a higher score, and having a low score does not necessarily mean that camera is really terrible.

Still with me?  Okay, here goes my rating system:

  1. Quality of Images / Optics – Since a camera’s whole purpose is to make photographs, I felt that its ability to do that should be an important consideration.  Obviously the lens is really what matters here, and it can be confusing when talking about an interchangeable lens camera versus a fixed lens one, so my theory goes that for interchangeable lens cameras, I rate the camera based on the selection of lenses available to me.  Would it be fair to judge a Leica if the only lens I had was a Soviet Made Industar?  I have no idea, because I don’t own any Leicas.  This will obviously be a very arbitrary score.  Oh, and in terms of image quality, I am comparing cameras of similar film types, so I would not dock a point from a 35mm camera because it doesnt have the quality of a medium format camera.
  2. Ergonomics and Handling – Another important consideration is how well the controls on the camera are laid out.  Are the buttons and levers easy to reach while looking through the viewfinder?  Are they small or big?  Are they easy to find?  Can you fit the camera in your pocket or in a small bag?  Since a camera is merely a tool for a skilled photographer, a camera with excellent ergonomics and is small and lightweight is going to be more appealing than a large and heavy tank.  Yes, this means that TLRs will most likely not score as well here because they’re simply less portable.
  3. Available Features / Bells and Whistles – I said earlier a camera is a tool, and the more bells and whistles a camera has could possibly make that tool easier to use.  Also, when a particular camera is made, lower end models were often more basic and lacking in cool things like an automatic frame counter, parallax correction, auto exposure modes, or more information visible through the viewfinder.  I will make an attempt with this category to score cameras compared to those of a similar era.  I’ll have higher expectations of what constitutes a basic or a loaded camera if its from the 70s or 80s than I would one from the 30s or 40s.
  4. Viewfinder / Focus Ability – While one could possibly say that the viewfinder is a feature of a camera, or part of it’s ergonomics, I am giving this it’s own category here mainly because I am very visually impaired.  My ability to “see” through a camera and accurately focus an image greatly influences whether I am able to use it.  As much as I love some of my older cameras with teeny viewfinders, I simply have a harder time using those cameras, and therefore are less likely to take one out shooting.  For this reason, I am giving this it’s own category.
  5. Tactile Feel / Beauty – Now this is where it gets really shady.  Whats the difference between Handling and the Tactile Feel of the camera?  A huge factor in this area will ultimately come down to perceived quality and looks while holding it and staring at it on a shelf.  Plastic cameras will generally score lower in this category, because well, simply metal looks and feels better.  The Ihagee Exakta is a very well built camera that is beautiful to look at and feels wonderful in your hands, but the ergonomics on it suck.  I would rate that camera low in the ergonomics score, but high here.
  6. History – Back when any of these cameras were new, did anyone care about the history of them?  Did Miranda buyers in the 60s care that the company was once called Orion or does anyone care that the Kodak Retina was the first camera made to use 135 format film?  Probably not.  But I do.  This is my hobby, and I collect these cameras for a variety of reasons, one of them is it’s history.  A camera with a cool story or more historical significance is much more appealing to me than a run of the mill camera without much of a back story.  For this reason, the history and back story of a camera gets it’s own category.
  7. Age Multiplier – I mentioned earlier that there should be some level of correction based on age.  Modern cameras should be technologically better than older ones, but that doesn’t mean we should penalize a 70 year old camera because some technologies didn’t exist yet.  If anything, older cameras that were able to do things as good as newer ones should get more points.  I have to mention that in this category, I will base a camera’s age by the year in which it was first produced.  For example, although my Argus C3 was made in 1958, it’s design dates from the late 30s, so I will consider it to be from that era.  Here is the system I came up with:
    1. 1972 and Newer = 0% multiplier – I chose 1972 because thats a nice middle point between when SLRs were large and clunky bricks of metal aimed at professionals, and when compact electronic cameras became the norm.  By 1972, almost every camera used some form of electronics, had some type of auto exposure mode, and was designed with ease of use as a priority.  While cameras from this era can still be excellent, I don’t think they deserve any extra points.
    2. 1959 – 1971 = 20% multiplier – In 1959 both Nikon Released the first 35mm SLRs, the Flex and Nikon F and from that point forward, camera design and quality forever changed.  Rangefinder cameras were still very common, but the ease of use and costs were coming down to the point where almost everyone could use them.  These cameras are both modern and vintage at the same time and as such deserve a 20% bonus.
    3. 1945 – 1958 = 30% multiplier – The end of WWII brought a ton of change to the industry.  The Japanese camera industry exploded, everyone was copying German designs, and color photography was more common with the inclusion of modern lens coatings.  This era saw the most innovation of any era and produced some of the most exciting models in my collection.
    4. 1925 – 1944 = 40% multiplier – What happened in 1925?  Some German company made a little ole thing called the Leica.  The design of the Leica blew open the door of what was called a “miniature” camera, it introduced the world to the concept of 35mm film, and was the single most copied camera design ever.  Cameras loosely based on Leica design were made through the 1980s, and even today, in 2015, Leica cameras are considered to be the best.  While this era still mostly consisted of folding cameras, it was the first era in which a camera resembled what we considered a camera to be today.  Also, since many cameras in this era could use 135 and 120 film (which is still available today), this era contains the oldest selection of models that are still usable today.
    5. Pre 1925 = 50% multiplier – These are the oldest of the old.  If any camera from this era still works and makes good photographs, that’s pretty cool to me.  Since very little of the design from this era remains in “modern” cameras, it would be a very good idea to familiarize yourself with the manual or some instructions before attempting to shoot with a camera from this era.
  8. Bonus Points – I came up with two reasons to give a camera a bonus point, and they are:
    1. Indescribable cool factor – Some cameras just have something cool about them, a look, a feel, even a sound that is hard to explain, but it still appeals to your primal instincts.  You just need to hold it and use it to know what I mean.  Have I said the word “arbitrary” enough yet?
    2. Historical Significance – This builds on the History category, but is only reserved for cameras that were very historically significant, either by design or that they innovated a new feature that had never existed before.  Some examples would be that the Argus C3 was in production for nearly 30 years, the Kodak Medalist was made for and used by the US Navy in WWII, and the 1916 No.1 Autographic Kodak was the first camera to ever use Bakelite plastic.  Each of these models would get bonus points here.

In addition to this scoring system, I thought it would make sense to come up with a “Final Word” at the very beginning.  A very short (I am not good at making things short) summary of what I ultimately think about the camera.

I thought it would make sense to make this section of each review as consistent as possible so that as I go back and update previous reviews and write new ones, that the formatting is as similar as possible.

Here is a sample of how this new section will look, taken from my review of the Kodak Medalist I from 1944.

My Final Word The Kodak Medalist is an incredible camera with a lens to match.  It is a large beast that isn’t easy to lug around, but when you do, it makes it worth while.  Although it doesn’t support interchangeable lenses, it supports a couple of different film backs, and it has a very bright and easy to use prism-based rangefinder making it very easy to focus.  It also played a very significant role in World War II and has a fascinating history, which means this camera appeals to almost everything I like about vintage cameras.  The Medalist earns one of the highest scores of any camera I’ve reviewed and I look forward to shooting with it some more.
Images Handling Features Viewfinder Feel & Beauty History Age
2 0 1 2 2 2 40%
Bonus +1 for its role in WWII by the US Navy and other military organizations, +1 for the overall impressive design and over the top dedication to quality – this could very well be the highest quality American made camera ever.
Final Score 14.6

Is this a good idea?  Is it going to make my long-winded articles any more useful to someone else?  Will my scores invoke rage and angst against the vintage camera collector underground?  Who knows.  I make these posts for fun, but there is a part of me that hopes this information is useful for others.  If you have any feedback on this new system, let me know!

49 Comments

  1. Very interesting insights, and admittedly reflecting things I too think about as a fellow collector, blogger, and film photographer.

    Putting a score on these sorts of things is pretty tough. Not only is there variances for preferences in style (60’s chic vs 40’s deco) and features (I like manually focusing or even zone focusing, but some may loathe it), but one person’s historic acquisition may vary from another’s. I love the photos my Franka Solida puts forth, but a fellow collector was totally disappointed in what he got from his own copy.

    I love what you write just as it is, as it shares information on items for which there is not a lot to be found on the interwebs. I can see tons of reviews of the latest Nikon or Canon, but you share working experiences with cool and often unknown items like the Welta and Kodak Autographic.

    If you want to leave scores, by all means do, but just keep doing what you are doing. It’s fun to read and share with you!

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