Chinon CE-4 (1980)

What is it?

This is a Chinon CE-4 35mm SLR made by Chinon Industries Inc starting in 1980.  It was Chinon’s first SLR using the Pentax K-mount, after they abandoned the M42 screw mount.  The CE-4 was quickly upgraded to the CE-4s model which revised the shutter speeds and meter sensitivity to better compete with other models.  Although a less well known brand, Chinon cameras generally compare very favorably to models made by more well known companies like Pentax and others.  Chinon SLRs have proven to be just as reliable as their competition, usually working as good as the day they were made, decades later.

Film Type: 135 (35mm)
Lens: 50mm f/1.9 Auto Chinon coated 6-elements + others
Lens Mount: Pentax K-mount Bayonet
Focus: 1.47 feet to Infinity
Viewfinder: Fixed SLR Prism with microprism collar and split image focus aides
Shutter: Seiko Vertically Traveling Focal Plane Shutter
Speeds: B, 8 – 1/1000 seconds, stepless in AE
Exposure Meter: 2 x Blue Silicon Photo Diode TTL Meter with Aperture Priority AE
Battery: 3 x LR44 1.5v alkaline or silver oxide cells
Flash Mount: Hot Shoe and PC X Flash Sync
Manual: http://www.butkus.org/chinon/chinon/ce-4/chinon_ce-4.pdf

History

Chinon was once a respected maker of budget minded cameras and lenses in the 1970s and early 80s.

Chinon is a name not often associated with collectible cameras.  For those active in the 1970s, you probably remember them as a maker of discount screw mount and Pentax K-mount SLRs.  Their cameras were quite well built, but they weren’t exactly a company known for innovation.  In fact, many Chinon made cameras were rebadged and sold under the brand names of other manufacturers such as Argus, GAF/AGFA, Revue, Sears, Alpa, and Albinar.  As a result, there are far more Chinon made cameras out there than most people probably realize.

The company was originally formed by Chino Hiroshi in September 1948 as Sanshin Seisakusho in Tokyo, Japan.  Unlike other Japanese optical companies of the time, Chinon seemed to be in the business of making parts for other optics companies.  As best as I can tell, in the 1950s, they made camera lens frames and lens barrels for a variety of companies.  It doesn’t look like Chinon had any of their own optical products until 1958 at which time they released their first 8mm motion picture camera lens.

The company would change it’s name in 1962 to Sanshin Optics Industrial Co. Ltd, and then once again in 1973 to Chinon Industries Inc.  As best as I can tell, the company’s first 35mm camera was made in either 1971 or 1972, and I believe it was the Chinon M-1, a rather basic mechanical SLR with an M42 lens mount.

The Chinon CE-II Memotron was an earlier variant of this camera that used the M42 screw mount.

Finding a comprehensive history of Chinon and their early products has proven to be a bit of a challenge.  For a brief moment in the mid 1970s, they released a couple of innovative aperture priority auto exposure cameras using the M42 screw mount called the CE Memotron series.  The Memotrons used a clever shutter release that would stop down the iris and take an AE reading moments before firing the shutter.  Other companies had attempted AE on screw mount cameras, but they usually had a compromise such as requiring a special lens for it to work correctly.  The Memotron series would work with any screw mount lens, as long as it had the automatic diaphragm pin.

By the time the CE-3 Memotron was released in 1977, most every other SLR maker had abandoned the M42 screw mount and was using some form of bayonet mount.  Even Asahi Pentax, who was one of the biggest supporters of the M42 mount, had released the K1000 in 1975 with their new Pentax K-mount.  Bayonet mount lenses are superior to M42 screw mount lenses not only because they are quicker to take on and off, but they allow for a much more precise mount which allows for features like coupling pins, auto focus motors, and electrical connections.

When Asahi Pentax had released their new K-mount in 1975, it was developed in cooperation with Zeiss and was intended to be a universal mount that could be used by a variety of manufacturers.  Zeiss would never actually produce a K-mount lens, but other companies would.

In 1980, Chinon would be one of the first third party manufacturers to embrace the K-mount with two new SLRs called the CM-4 and CE-4.  The two cameras were very similar, with the major difference being the former had a fully mechanical shutter with no automatic exposure, and the latter had an electronic shutter with AE.  Keeping with tradition of making cameras for other brands, the CE-4 was also branded as the AGFA Selectronic 3 and Revueflex AC-2.

An ad from a 1981 issue of Modern Photography listing the value benefits of the CE-4.

This page from a 1981 catalog from Shutan Camera lists the CE-4 with an f.1/9 lens with a price of $239.99.

As with previous Chinon SLRs, the CE-4 was well built and had a competitive feature set for the price.  The magazine ad to the left sells the CE-4 as having more features than any SLR in it’s class.  The page to the right from Chicago’s Shutan Camera Summer 1981 catalog lists the CE-4 with 50mm f/1.9 lens for $239.95.  The same catalog lists comparable cameras like the Konica FS-1 for $269.99, Minolta XD-5 for $299.99, and Nikon FE for $299.99.  It wasn’t the cheapest AE capable SLR available, as models like the Olympus OM-10 and Pentax ME beat it, but with a reduced feature set.

The early 80s was a period of quick advancement in camera design as features like automatic exposure with electronic shutters was still pretty new, but features like auto focus and more advanced metering choices were right around the corner.

The CE-4 was only in production for a year, before a slightly revised model called the CE-4s was released in 1981.  Changes to the updated model included a new top 1/2000 shutter speed (although the manually selected 4 second speed was missing), an improved viewfinder, and subtle changes to the light metering circuit.  Whether these changes were done as a way to make the camera more competitive, or if they were necessitated by a technology or manufacturing change, is anyone’s guess.

I was unable to find any information about how successful these models were or how many were sold.  I can’t even conclusively say when the models stopped being produced, although the release of the Chinon CE-5 in 1983 is a pretty good guess.

Today, the CE-4, or most Chinon SLRs for that matter are not highly sought after by collectors.  But those who remember them, will likely tell you that they were very capable K-mount alternatives to those offered by other companies.  If your goal is to take 35mm photos with an AE capable SLR camera that uses K-mount lenses, you could do worse.  As a result, CE-4s in working condition often go for bargain basement prices.  You could pick up a nice Chinon CE-4 with 50mm prime lens for a lot cheaper than many other SLRs sell for without a lens.

My Thoughts

I first became aware of Chinon SLRs when researching the CE-II Memotron for that camera’s review.  I had a pretty decent selection of M42 screw mount lenses and wanted to find an auto exposure capable camera to use them with.  The CE-4 showed up as a compact and modern camera, but it used K-mount lenses, which at the time I had no interest in.  But then one day, I came across one at a garage sale in a case, with the motor winder, a couple third party lenses, and a Chinon branded flash.  $10 later and the whole lot came home with me.

The winder was hopelessly corroded and the third party lenses were of no interest to me, so that left me with the body, the Chinon 50mm prime and the flash.  I cleaned up the camera, put in 3 fresh batteries and the camera seemed to work great!

By the 1980s when this camera had come out, most Japanese SLRs were designed in much the same way.  They had comparable feature sets, ergonomics, and looks.  The most logical comparison this camera has to another in my collection is to the Pentax ME Super, which not only was sold at the same time as the CE-4, but it also shares the same Pentax K-mount.

The Chinon CE-4 has a simpler and more traditional film speed and EV compensation dial, and allows you to choose shutter speeds by rotating a wheel.

The Pentax ME Super goes for a more modern approach with it’s integrated film speed/EV wheel, and push button shutter speed selector.

Both the Pentax and Chinon have similar control schemes with only one major difference, which is the manual shutter speed control.  The Pentax favors two up/down buttons that change the shutter speed when the camera is in “M” mode.  The Chinon has a more traditional shutter speed wheel that you simply turn to whatever your chosen speed is.

The Pentax further complicates this with a tiny white button that must be pressed to move the selector out of Auto mode.  I found this to be very cramped and difficult to press with my fat fingers.  While both of these cameras were likely targeted at customers who used both in AUTO mode 99% of the time, this likely wasn’t a major issue for most people, and I appreciate Pentax’s effort at modernizing the controls, but I think the Chinon’s system is slightly easier to use.

Another minor difference is in how the film speed and +/- EV control scheme works.  Chinon employs a simpler system in which you turn the control dial so that your chosen film speed is next to the green line.  If you want to over or under expose your film, turn the dial so your chosen film speed moves toward the + for overexposure or – for underexposure.  Each click of the film speed dial represents a 1/3 EV change in either direction.  The Pentax uses a system in which you lift up on the dial to set your chosen film speed in the small window at the bottom of the dial, and then turn the whole thing either clockwise for underexposure, and counterclockwise for overexposure.  I can’t really say one system is better than another as I would bet that 99% of the people who bought this camera never used either feature.  Chinon’s system that requires a press of a little button before this dial can be changed was probably a bit more foolproof in that it would have been harder to accidentally change.

The viewfinder in the CE-4 is bright, and shows the shutter speed scale indicated by red LEDs on the left side.

The Pentax ME Super’s viewfinder is very similar but offers color coded LEDs for the shutter speeds and an ever so slightly brighter image.

The Pentax’s viewfinder on my example was a tad brighter overall, as the Chinon had an ever so slight yellowish hue to it.  It’s plausible that this yellow tint is a result of the plastic viewing screen yellowing over time as some plastics tend to do.  I cannot be sure if this would have been there when the camera was new, so its possible that brightness was the same 30 years ago when these cameras were new.  In the images to the left and right, you can’t even see the difference, but when looking at it in person, it’s subtle, but there.

Both have split image focus aides surrounded by a microprism collar, and both indicate the chosen speeds using a scale of LEDs on the left side of the viewfinder.  The Pentax ME Super shows speeds from 4s to 1/2000 and the Chinon CE-4 shows speeds from 8s to 1/1000 (although this was changed in the Chinon CE-4s to match that of the Pentax).  Where the Pentax has a bit of an edge is in that the LEDs are different colors indicating slow speeds.  1/60 and up are all green indicating that the camera can most likely be safely used handheld.  1/30 down to 4s are all yellow indicating that you’d want to stabilize the camera to prevent camera shake.  Finally, there is a red LED next to “OVER” and “UNDER” meaning the camera’s meter will not be able to expose the scene correctly at the chosen aperture value.  I found these color coded LEDs to be a nice touch, especially for the novice that this camera was likely marketed towards.

Beyond these differences, the rest of each camera is pretty similar.  Both have a soft press shutter release comfortably located on the top plate where you’d expect it to be.  Both have plastic tipped wind levers that swing out approximately 180 degrees and have exposure counters on the right side of the top plate.  Both cameras have a self timer on the front, although the Chinon’s is electronic and has two values, 5 second and 10 seconds whereas the Pentax’s is mechanical and has a variable 4 – 10 second delay.

Both cameras can achieve double exposure by manipulating the rewind release button while advancing the camera, and both cameras use the same SR44/357 button cell batteries, although the Chinon requires three, compared to the Pentax that uses two.

The Pentax ME Super’s film compartment improves upon the CE-4 by offering a multi-slotted takeup spool which makes film loading very simple.

The CE-4s film compartment is cleanly designed and offers trouble free film loading.

Loading film in both cameras is almost identical as well.  Pull up on the rewind knob to unlock the film door and load a new 35mm cassette on the left side and pull the leader to the takeup spool on the right.  The Pentax’s takeup spool has a unique multi slotted spool in which you can insert the leader in almost any orientation, whereas the Chinon has a more standard slitted spool that requires the spool be in a more specific location.  The ME Super also has a red film transport that indicates proper loading of film when the door is closed.

If I were a consumer in 1980 at a camera shop looking for an easy to use 35mm SLR for vacation photos and I required a lightweight and compact body with automatic exposure, both of these cameras would have been good “bang for the buck” contenders.  The Chinon offers a few things I like better like a more standard shutter speed dial that is easier to change and doesn’t have tiny buttons that aren’t easy to locate with the camera to your eye.  Also, while it probably wasn’t used often, I think Chinon’s more standard EV compensation system simply works better, plus it offers a way to lock in your setting so that it can’t be accidentally changed.

The bottom of the Chinon CE-4 features the motor drive connection, rewind mode selector, tripod socket, and battery compartment.

The Pentax though, has an easier film loading system with the convenience of a film transport indicator, and I appreciated the multi-colored LED indicators in the viewfinder.  These features likely were more important to novices than a slightly easier exposure compensation system and more straightforward manual controls.  Perhaps the nail in the coffin for the Chinon is that according to the 1981 catalog referenced above from Shutan Camera in Chicago, both the Chinon CE-4 and Pentax ME Super equipped with each brand’s respective 50mm f/1.7 lens sold for the exact same price of $249.99.  Chinon might have been able to market the value of their camera compared to more expensive brands like Nikon or Minolta, but there was other competition out there keeping pace from a value standpoint.

Finally, in terms of size and weight, the Pentax ME Super is both smaller and lighter than the Chinon CE-4 in every way, width, prism height, and top plate height.  Without lenses attached, but batteries installed, the CE-4 weighs in at 497 grams compared to the ME Super at 448 grams.

Perhaps the best feature of the CE-4 was the use of the Pentax K-mount which means it could use one of many excellent lenses available.

Both cameras were well designed and solidly built examples of late 70s/early 80s SLR technology.  Both used the same Copal Square vertically travelling metal blade shutter and both could use the same exact K-mount lenses suggesting that the quality of the images would have been identical between the two.  As a potential customer during this era, you could do much worse with other cameras, however I’ll speculate that more people probably preferred the Pentax for it’s more recognizable brand name, more compact and lighter body, and it’s improved “novice” features.  Although I could not find sales figures for either camera, the fact that the Pentax brand still exists today, and Chinon stopped selling cameras before the end of the 80s suggests my theory is correct.

My Results

Continuing with the theme of comparing the CE-4 to the ME Super, I shot both cameras back to back with the intent of getting the reviews out at the same time, but life had other plans and it turned out that the CE-4 review will come first, with one for the ME Super to follow.  I’ll update this review with a link once it posts.

My first roll through the CE-4 was Kentmere 100 and I shot it this past summer on some random days around where I live.  Keeping in the spirit of the target customer who likely bought this to be a family “snapshot” camera, I took pictures of every day life.  I kept the camera in Auto mode for most of the roll and since I shot everything outdoors, I generally stayed close to f/8 so that I could maximize the sharpness and depth of field of the Chinon 50mm prime.

Upon reviewing the results from the roll of Kentmere, I was mostly pleased with the results with two exceptions.

The first, was that I missed focus on a couple interior shots.  This suggests that the slightly dimmer viewfinder posed a problem for me indoors.  Most modern SLRs have bright enough viewfinders with the useful split image focus aide which allows me to nail focus on every image.  I shot quite a few images at close focus to try and blur the background and I had no problem in the floral shots above, but for whatever reason I struggled a bit indoors.

The second thing was more of a side effect of the simplicity of this camera.  I found that in an effort to treat the CE-4 as a casual snapshot camera, I seem to have left my creativity at home.  I found that when looking through the images I shot, most were pretty boring.  Of course, you can’t really blame a camera for a photographer’s lack of creativity, but in some ways, the CE-4 is such a simple and easy to use camera, it didn’t inspire or challenge me to make better photos.

The Chinon CE-4 is a capable midrange K-mount SLR camera from the early 80s that is easy, but uneventful to use.

Part of the challenge and thrill of using old cameras is stepping back into the shoes of the people who originally purchased them.  The more interesting a camera is, the more effort I have to put into the shots.  The Chinon CE-4 comes from an era when most of the technical hurdles were worked out.  I never found a sense of awe or a thrill when using it.

Hopefully this doesn’t come off as elitist as the Chinon CE-4 is a fine camera, its just kind of boring.  It’s vanilla.  The shooting experience was boring as well, and as a result, so were my images.

Simply, the Chinon CE-4 was a fine camera.  It represented a pretty good value for photographers upon it’s release, and I am sure many people who bought them were happy with their purchase and chronicled many family events satisfactorily.  I guess what I’m saying is that the time for the Chinon CE-4 has passed.  As a collector and someone who enjoys shooting old cameras, I found nothing interesting about this model.  Whether intentionally or not, the lackluster shooting experience transferred to my images, and well, they just aren’t that inspired…just like the camera.

So do I hate the Chinon CE-4?  Should you add one to your collection?  I guess my answer depends on what you’re looking for.  If you need a simple, and adequate 35mm SLR that uses K-mount lenses, then yeah sure, this is a decent camera.  It’s just that there are better options out there.  Strangely, I would predict my verdict is the same reason that Chinon isn’t around anymore, and Pentax is.

My Final Word

How these ratings work
The Chinon CE-4 is a well built and capable 35mm SLR camera made in the early 1980s.  It offered features like aperture priority auto exposure, a vertically traveling metal blade shutter with fast 1/125 flash sync speed, and a bright and useful viewfinder which were consistent with mid-level cameras of it’s era.  This camera accomplished everything it set out to do and provided a good value for it’s owners, especially when compared to more expensive models available by Nikon, Minolta, and Canon.  The catch is, there are other models like the Chinon CE-4 that do all the same things, use the same lenses, and were sold for the same at the same, or even a lower price point making the decision to buy this model questionable.  Today, this camera represents a good look at the type of camera many families took photos with in the early 80s.  It doesn’t do any one thing particularly well or bad, and is a fine pickup for any collector looking for a bargain.  As long as you don’t expect to be wowed by any amazing or innovative feature, you the CE-4 is a very solid middle of the road camera.
Images Handling Features Viewfinder Feel & Beauty History Age
2 1 1 1 1 0 0%
Bonus none
Final Score 6.0

Additional Resources

http://camera-wiki.org/wiki/Chinon_CE-4

https://simonhawketts.com/2015/06/24/chinon-ce-4-35mm-slr-camera/

http://www.cameratim.com/photography/my-cameras/chinon-ce-4

https://gailatlarge.com/blog/2008/05/07/3779

One Comment

  1. Good observation about the lack of excitement in a camera having the tendency to result in photos you are not excited about. It is an interesting side effect that cameras we find a joy to use tend to push us the most to create images that excite us as well.

    However, in our “kid in a candy store” world of film cameras, where a once expensive model like this can be found for a dime a dozen, it’s not entirely possible to get into the shoes of the person who had saved their paychecks to be able to afford a camera like this that they’d seek to hang on to for many years to come.

    I think these are good images from a solid and all too often overlooked camera. Regrettably, a model like this might all too often be bypassed as a $10 purchase by someone who readily plunks down $50 for something like a Pentax K-1000, but given that the limited film demand tends to cluster in a handful of models, a solid but unremarked example like this gets cast aside!

    Final note: I love the research you put in to all of your articles, but can’t help but see the irony in how you can ferret out details on camera makers of 1930’s Japan, but details of the 1970’s makers and lines tend to be very scarce. I’ve encountered some of this very same bit of enigmatic luck!

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