film photography

Re-entering the world of film photography: Minolta Hi-Matic 7s

It has become a pattern for this century: The first year of the new decade (and yes, I consider 2020 the first year of the ’20’s) I find a new nerdy obsession. The aughts saw the introduction of my love of trains, especially when it came to personal travel. And while I liked bikes and did tour before 2010, my bike geekery really reached new heights in the teens, especially when it came to three speeds.

Will the twenties be my decade of obsessing about film photography?

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It’s probably been a good fifteen years or so since I used a film camera. The last one I owned was a 70’s rangefinder: a Honeywell, most likely a Visimatic 615. I found this when cleaning out some junk drawer at my mom’s house back in Connecticut before I moved west. I guess my mom used it a bit for trips, then abandoned it. I put some film in it, shot a test roll or two. It took okay photos, at least to my limited abilities. So I used that for a few years. It came with me on my first cross-country trip by train. I definitely used it a bit during the first few years in Portland. It came out when I needed some reference photos. Eventually, it stopped working, I think it was the winding mechanism or the shutter got jammed. I was broke and lacked knowledge, so I scrapped it.

Since then, everything I’ve shot has been digital, whether a dedicated compact camera, or my phone. I’ve owned three digital compacts, the last one being a pretty decent Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS6. I got this to replace the stolen Canon PowerShot that was stolen on Election Day 2016. It took okay pictures, but I never got excited about it, preferring to shoot on my phone. It didn’t help that my current phone, an iPhone 8, takes good pics at the same resolution (12 megapixels) as the Lumix. The only things the Lumix had going for it was optical zoom and good battery life. But I rarely used the zoom, so I sold it.

And I feel like I’ve taken some decent shots with digital. I can see that I’ve learned a bit more about composition over the ten years of consistently taking photos. But I end up doing a lot of post-processing with any digital photo I do, whether it be cropping, adjusting color and levels, adding effects, etc. It’s easy to just shoot a bunch of photos with digital, see what’s good, and then tweak them until you have a satisfying final image. In the end, the photo taking becomes less satisfying.

I wanted to have a more satisfying photo-taking experience. I wanted to immerse myself a little more in the process, be more methodical. And really, I wanted to learn more about photography itself. While I’ve gotten better at composition, shooting with either a digital compact or a smartphone gives you little knowledge over the mechanicals of the process–sure, you can see what the ISO, f/stop, and shutter speed is after you take the shot, but not before. Unless you get a digital camera with full manual modes, you’re not going to do any of that.

And while I can get a nice DSLR or certain types of digital cameras that would allow me to select aperture and shutter speed, I wanted to go back. There’s plenty of vintage film cameras out there. I love the idea of using some perfectly fine equipment from an earlier age. What can I say, I’m a retro-grouch!

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Dr. Squirrel tests the Hi-Matic 7s.

Getting a film camera has been on my “to-do” list for the past couple years, but despite all the “Pedal Bikes, Shoot Film” action going on around me, it had to wait until this year. In the beginning of January I got laid out by a nasty cold. So I had plenty of time to sit in front of the laptop and look at and read about cameras.

But what kind of film camera to get? I didn’t want a point-and-shoot (yet) since they’d be too automatic. And for some reason I wasn’t feeling an SLR, so rangefinder it is. A rangefinder is a manual-focus camera where one looks through the viewfinder and lines up a “focus patch” image to get correct focus. (Read more on how a rangefinder works here.) And many of the rangefinders offer full manual controls, which is the only way I’m going to learn more about photography.

Rangefinders were popular in the middle of the twentieth century before auto-focus became a thing. So, there’s quite a bit out there, especially those made by Japanese companies. Which one to find?

Well, there’s a lot of opinions out there on the interwebs on the best rangefinders, most of the good ones came from Japan in the 1960’s and 70’s.* I checked eBay for the the brands and models that came up the most, but they usually were over $50 for working models. (I could get cheaper if I went with an untested one.) So I dug a little deeper, see if I could find a sleeper, one that was good but flew under the radar, so to speak.

And I found what would become my first film camera in 15 years: The Minolta Hi-Matic 7s.

Minolta has a long lineage of rangefinders, and the Hi-Matic series started in the early ’60s and went to the early ’80s. The first Hi-Matic, in a heavily modified and rebadged (Ansco) version, flew with John Glenn on Friendship 7 in 1962! The most covetable Hi-Matic was the 7s II that came out in the late ’70s.** But finding an inexpensive one wasn’t happening. The 7s came out in 1966 and has all the features of the later model, just in a bulkier package. I found a bunch of good reviews about it,*** so I was sold. I found one on eBay that was in working condition for $35 plus shipping, so I bought it.

The camera is a beauty of mid-century industrial engineering. Everything about it says “camera” in that classic sense. It has fully automatic exposure if I want it. Or, I can choose aperture or shutter priority. Or, I can go fully manual, determining f/stop and shutter speed via the built-in light meter.

I bought some film and took it with me on my travels around town. I filled up a roll or two and sent it off for processing.

Now this is the point where you may ask: Does anyone process film anymore? Yes, the choices are limited: gone are the days of Fotomats and One-Hour Developing at every pharmacy. But I’m lucky that I live in Portland, since we have at least four different photo shops that do in-house film developing! Citizens Photo is just two miles from my house, so I dropped it off and waited in stressful anticipation. Because: this is film. There’s no way to know when I took the photos if and how they’d turn out. What if the camera didn’t work after all? What if the shutter didn’t really open? The film didn’t advance properly? The lens was damaged? The light seals were not good, allowing errant photons to ruin prints?

Thankfully, all my doom and gloom was for naught. I got back the first roll of film, and I got back actual pictures. Not all of them are good, mind you. I’m still getting used to this whole manual focus thing. But some of them turned out great. The lens is nice and sharp. I shot a bit in automatic exposure mode, to test it, and yes, it works fine. The stuff I shot in low light wasn’t that great, and there’s camera shake on some shots, especially those with slower shutter speeds.

But this film camera from over 50 years still works beautifully, and takes beautiful shots.

I still have a way to go in getting used to this camera and learning about photography. But I’m off to a good start and have a good traveling companion!

So yeah, you’ll be seeing more film shots here on the blog, and more talk about film photography from now on. And yeah, I need to do some experimenting with black and white. And I’m sure another old 35 mm camera is going to make its way into my hands. Hope you enjoy the journey!

See all of the photos taken with my Hi-Matic 7s on flickr here.

All shots (other than that of the camera) taken on Kodak Gold 200 film.

*There is of course Leica, a German company that still makes classic film rangefinders. But the prices they fetch are prohibitive to a broke artist like me.

**The Hi-Matic AF from the early ’80’s also fetches high prices. But it’s fully automatic, so it didn’t have as much appeal to me.

***The only meh reviews I could find was from a Leica fanatic, who considered it “pedestrian”, and another from a guy who felt that the Canonet QL 17 III was superior to it.

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