If film photography had a golden age, then it was probably the 1970s. Camera manufacturers turned out model after model of tough, simple, robust cameras big on metal and short on flimsy plastic. It was the era of the Nikon F, which had been tested under combat conditions in Vietnam and Leica’s classic Leicaflex SL; Olympus’ classic OM range and the Pentax Spotmatic. Cameras were tough, chunky and relatively expensive, expected to work in all but the most adverse conditions.
There were plenty of other manufacturers making cameras during this time – Edixa and Voigtlander in West Germany, Praktica and Exakta in East Germany, KMZ in the Soviet Union and Fujica, Ricoh and Chinon in Japan, to name but a few. What a lot of these camera manufacturers had in common was their use of the M42 lens mount, also known as the Universal Screw Mount.
Camera and lens manufacturers didn’t have to pay licences to use the fitting (unlike, say, someone wanting to make lenses for a Nikon camera) so for most of the 70s, camera shop shelves were filled with screw-mount cameras. One of the very best of them was the Chinon Memotron.
The M42 mount had one major drawback as camera technology became more sophisticated. Designed when most cameras lacked a lightmeter – photographers were expected to use a handheld one – M42 lenses were all-manual. But camera manufacturers started bringing new features into their cameras, such as aperture priority auto exposure – the photographer chose the aperture and the camera decided the shutter speed. Only one camera manufacturer appeared to support this great leap forward – Pentax, with its ES and ES II – but the lenses had to be completely redesigned in order to “talk” to the camera’s electronic brain. Earlier lenses didn’t work the same way.
Chinon came up with a different idea – one which would allow aperture priority on virtually all of the hundreds of M42 lenses. It “stops down” the lens to take a meter reading at the chosen aperture a split second before choosing the right speed and taking the picture. The camera’s Copal shutter had a top speed of 1/2000th – nothing to be sniffed at in the 1970s – and was of a type also used in much more expensive Japanese cameras of the time.
Three models of the Memotron were released; the CE Memotron, the CE II and the CE 3. The first two models were essentially the same aside from their flash synchronisation speeds; big, robust cameras with satisfying heft. The CE 3 packed most of their features into a more lightweight body. They never had the cachet that cameras like the Spotmatic or the more high-end models from Fujica. This means they can be had from the likes of eBay for little money. The model I have, a CE, was bought for £40, and is in perfect working order.
The Memotron’s aperture priority means it’s a great travel camera, perfect for throwing into a shoulder bag for the day. For landscape photographers, another feature – the metal blind which prevents light leaking through the viewfinder during long exposures – is the kind of thing normally only found on much more expensive cameras. There’s a robustness that is lacking in more modern cameras. This is not a camera to drop on your big toe.
My first real experience using the Memotron was shortly after buying it in 2010, when I took it on a whistle-stop trip of Europe based around shooting The National at a soundcheck in Luxembourg. I ended up in Berlin to see my friends Lambchop play a gig, just in time for a few days of bright but bitterly cold December weather. The picture above, of the old clock in a vintage shop window on cheap and cheerful Fuji Superia 400, was taken on the trip.
Most Memotrons came with the Auto Chinon 50/1.7, a sharp and contrasty lens – it’s not as well coated as the Takumars which came with Pentax cameras, but capable of really lovely pictures. These old 70s lenses are solidly built but can be prone to flare – shooting into the light on bright sunny days might require a lens hood. Or you can try and make that flare an advantage.
The picture below is one example. On the way to a friend’s birthday party in the last dying days of summer, I walked into blazing golden light from the setting sun on London’s wide, busy Euston Road. The people walking ahead of me were reduced to silhouettes framed in bright golden light. The old Chinon lens was minus lens hood, hence the flare raking through the image on the left hand side, but the effect seems to add to the retro mood.
I took my Memotron to Montenegro last summer – the top 1/2000th speed came in very useful trying to take portrait shots in bright sunlight. It was especially good with slide film, especially a roll of outdated Agfa RSX, a long-since discontinued film that gets a pleasantly warm, red cast.
I used it to take the picture of the Montenegrin family at the bottom of this post – the father was pleasantly surprised to see someone shooting film, and the kids seemed confused as to why they couldn’t see the pictures on the back of the camera. Maybe it was the first time they’d had their pictures taken on film…
I’ve taken to bringing my Pentax ES IIs on trips out of London – perfect for using those old SMC Takumar lenses – but the Memotron might actually be a better bet; tough and reliable, able to take auto-exposure pics with any of the ubiquitous M42 lenses and with faster shutter speeds than most of its contemporary rivals. The Memotron might be one of the most under-rated classic film SLRs.
Check out more Memotron pics on Flickr.