Back on the old Beau Blog, we had done a segment of some of our customers favourite cameras, their dark room setups and other subjects. We loved hearing from all of you and your various favourite cameras! We recently had a lovely customer send us in his story about his love for the Konica IIIA and here it is! Thanks, Dwayne!
The Konica IIIA with Both Eyes Open – Dwayne Brandt @filmamental
I have been slightly obsessed with 1950s rangefinder cameras for a few years since I started digitizing some of my grandfather’s Kodachrome slides. One of my favourites is this shot from the 1958 Tournament of Champions international ski jumping competition in Revelstoke. The family collection includes a slide of my grandparents while visiting friends in California. My grandfather has his camera hanging from his neck but most of the camera is outside the frame. No one in the family remembers what this camera was exactly. Not my mother who took it along hitchhiking around Europe with her nursing school friends in the early 60s. Nor my brother who had it stolen with other camera gear from his funky live-work studio in 1990s Toronto. My unsuccessful attempts at identification online had given me an overview of what was out there but I hadn’t settled on any particular camera.
Finally in late March 2022 the right rangefinder found me. Not my grandpa’s, I am certain, but a fixed-lens manual rangefinder from the right era selling for a price I could afford. As a bonus, it just happens to be about as good as a camera can be within the limitations of fixed-lens and meter-less. The camera I am describing is the Konica IIIA. It was there in the glass display case of my neighbourhood thrift shop one Saturday. I was initially skeptical as one needs to be with any camera sold “as is”. Plus the prices for vintage cameras have risen substantially in this store in recent years.
After a thorough inspection, I went home to think and research. The shutter was obviously sticky and unreliable but otherwise the camera and original leather case appeared to be in great condition. A repair video on the Japan Vintage Camera YouTube channel was enough to convince me I could clean up the sticky shutter myself and that the results would be worth it. So I rushed back to the store hoping I was not going to have yet another stalled camera repair project on my hands.
It turns out I made the right choice. The IIIA is a great camera in the category of mechanical fixed-lens rangefinders. The lens is a sharp and fast 50mm f/1.8 with coated optics. The viewfinder could not be better: 1x magnification so you can shoot with both eyes open plus parallax adjustment as you focus to enable very accurate framing. After several attempts over about a week, I had the shutter blades cleaned and finessed back into working condition.
Now I have become even more of a camera fundamentalist. Shooting with both eyes open at a single focal length is the way to enlightenment! Use the Force to determine exposure! Actually I use the Lightmeter app on my phone and a coupled rangefinder is luxurious decadence. But I do aspire to improve my ability to look with both eyes and frame and fire at the decisive moment.
I used to think that an SLR with a through-the-lens light meter was the minimum essential camera. The standard for me is the Pentax Spotmatic SPII handed down from my parents. I learned differently when I bought an all-mechanical Kodak Stereo camera from the same thrift shop a few years ago out of curiosity. It’s actually not so hard to set the exposure from an external meter or the “sunny 16” rule. In most situations the light doesn’t change very much from moment to moment and one can always make a guess on the fly. The Stereo doesn’t even have a rangefinder but I have found myself capable of estimating the distance.
Basically I like the experience of working within the limitations while being freed from over-dependence on technology. It’s a bit like walking barefoot and takes some getting used to but I feel more alive. Shooting with the IIIA also eliminates any anxiety about lenses. The highly coveted Leica and Canon rangefinders (and others) with interchangeable lenses suffer all sorts of complications and add-ons to adapt the viewfinder to the variety of lenses. The IIIA avoids such complexity in favour of optimizing photography at a focal length of 50mm.
This is actually not my first experience with a Konica rangefinder. The first camera I bought for myself was a Konica C35 Automatic found at a garage sale in the 1980s while I was a student on a low budget. (Student rent was so cheap in 1988 for the draped-off front section of a living room in a Burnaby duplex.) I still have some of the negatives from those days when I would make black and white prints myself at Ampro on East Broadway near Fraser where darkroom access was charged by the hour. (Also worth noting that it was the pseudo-rangefinder Fujifilm X10 digital camera that restarted my interest in photography 10 years ago. The manual zoom coupled to the optical viewfinder plus the physical exposure-compensation knob still gives me some enjoyment.)
The Konica C35 is really like a grandchild of the IIIA. And just like I am only a fraction of the man my grandfather was (he hunted and fished for food, built rowboats from cedar trees he sawed himself, and in the winter cut large blocks of ice from the lake for storing food all summer and for making ice cream), the C35 is a mere shadow of the IIIA. The light little body, undersized viewfinder, and clumsy, overconfident autoexposure just don’t compare to the solid, adult precision of the IIIA.
Holding the IIIA you feel its weightiness and enduring quality. It’s not small but it isn’t too big to fit nicely in my hand. And it looks good with the simple logo-free front face while the name plate on top features very classy lettering.
So now to the real question, how does it shoot?
First, the correct way to hold the IIIA is different than a typical SLR and takes some getting used to. But soon, everything is where it needs to be. You focus with the left index finger below the lens. Your left thumb pulls down on the front-mounted lever for cocking the shutter and winding the film. Two firm strokes are required which will become a habit quickly enough. The aperture control is around the lens as expected along with the shutter speed ring since the shutter is inside the lens.
With a rangefinder you also need to remember to remove the lens cap since you can’t detect it through the viewfinder. Just a week after I bought the IIIA, I found the perfect shiny metal lens cap in the used lens cap drawer at Beau Photo, right at the top of the pile. I was told it had just been put into the bin the day before after some box of random stuff was unpacked. The previous owner had stuck florescent orange tape around the rim presumably as a visual reminder, a sure sign this cap was used with a rangefinder. I can’t help imagining the lens cap has been reunited with its camera partner.
Obviously, exposure control is the biggest weakness compared to my Pentax Spotmatic and K1000 where the light meter needle provides instant feedback as I adjust aperture and shutter speed without taking my eye away from the viewfinder. On the other hand, with the IIIA it’s set and forget. Set it for the conditions then get with the flow, both eyes open, and frame the right moment.
Another exposure setting challenge with the IIIA is that the aperture ring does not have click-stops so I have to peer at the markings on the ring to adjust it. The stock IIIA has a light value or exposure value (EV) coupling ring to lock the aperture and shutter speed together. Once you have settled on an EV number from 2 to 18, you can easily select a new aperture/shutter speed combination without altering the exposure. It sounds like a good idea, but it makes independently choosing the shutter speed or aperture more awkward because you have to pull back on the narrow EV ring while rotating. On the advice of YouTube, I decoupled the EV ring when I had the lens apart by removing a small bracket held with two screws.
Once exposure is set, it’s simply focus and shoot. Rangefinders have the reputation for being easy to focus because you are just bringing the split image from the offset window into alignment with the main viewfinder image. In my understanding, the term rangefinder always involves a comparison of two images from different positions on the camera. A triangle is formed between the viewfinder window, the rangefinder window, and the point you are focusing on. The distant point of the triangle has to be positioned on the thing you wish to focus on which occurs when the viewfinder and rangefinder windows are aimed at the same point. Adjusting the focus changes the angle of the rangefinder window. In a coupled rangefinder, the shooting lens focus is linked with the rangefinder angle.
Using the IIIA, you don’t need to know any of these details. The viewfinder shows the scene you are trying to capture, bright, life-size, and in focus. The alignment of the rangefinder patch is basically all or nothing as long as you have some recognizable edges in view. The images either align or they don’t.
Everything else about the IIIA is typical of most other 35mm mechanical cameras. Loading film is not unusual. There is a frame counter and self timer, an accessory shoe and flash sync cable connector. It has a cable release thread on the shutter button and a time exposure “B” setting for the shutter.
The Konica IIIA is now my preferred camera to carry with me. It keeps me inspired to shoot more and to connect with people who don’t mind having their photo taken. I am excited with the quality of the results three rolls in, from sharp architectural images to wide open shots with pleasing background blur. The shutter has been perfectly reliable. Exposure and focus look right. I will continue on this path, learning the way of shooting with both eyes open. The primary benefit of practicing photography is seeing the world more attentively in every moment. This should be done with both eyes whenever possible.
Below are a few images Dwayne shot with his Konica IIIA. All image belong to Dwayne Brandt.