Chinon Memotron review

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Winter sunset reflected in a Berlin window, shot on Fuji Superia 400

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 ESII – 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.

3771946986_57dca138ba_bChinon 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.

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An old Ensign Ful-Vue snapped at the Chap Olympiad

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 ESIIs 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.

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Silhouetted figures on the Euston Road, on Agfa Precisa slide
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The TV Tower on a wintry East Berlin afternoon
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A Pizza Express table awaiting lunchtime customers
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Cross-processed Fuji slide in a central London pub during Wimbledon…
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An installation at the Wellcome Trust, with London dusk reflected
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Cautious smiles for the man with the strange old camera…

15 COMMENTS

  1. Great review! Many thanks for this. I just got this camera and looking forward to use it with my Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50mm 1.8. However am a bit confused with setting up the DIN/ASA speed.

    On my ZENIT 12XP I just set up the right ISO speed according to the film i use (400 for instance) and i am done, but here is just have asa/din 100, a red mark and white marks for exposure compensation. So how will the correct exposure detected in the camera matching the film i use? Or is it automatic?

    Sorry for the noob question i just started using analog machines. 🙂 but i am very keen, seeing your great results with the chinon. Many thanks for the answer in advance. Laszlo

  2. One of the sad things about the Chinon range was that many people in England believed
    that because they were retailed solely by Dixons they were cheap, (and it did not help that Dixons would put the Prinzflex* brand name on them originally). Chinon were a well regarded company in Japan and I was told they supplied other major camera companies with major parts and lenses.
    * our ‘Prinzflex’ 35mm slide projector is marked on it’s back as made by Rollei…!!
    Dad told me about the (in)famous AP magazine review of one of the Chinon(Prinzflex) products
    when the reviewer commented about the “unfortunate association with Dixons”…!
    Dixons were NOT happy……

    Bob CE1(Mem) & CE3 who got his photo knowledge from his Dad 1923-2011

  3. One of the sad things about the Chinon range was that many people in England believed
    that because they were retailed solely by Dixons they were cheap, (and it did not help that Dixons would put the Prinzflex* brand name on them originally). Chinon were a well regarded company in Japan and I was told they supplied other major camera companies with major parts and lenses.
    * our ‘Prinzflex’ 35mm slide projector is marked on it’s back as made by Rollei…!!
    Dad told me about the (in)famous AP magazine review of one of the Chinon(Prinzflex) products
    when the reviewer commented about the “unfortunate association with Dixons”…!
    Dixons were NOT happy……

    Bob CE1(Mem) & CE3 who got his photo knowledge from his Dad 1923-2011

  4. There is a lot of snobbish crappyness about these days. I recall Dixons in the early 1980s having a sound system in their stores that repeatedly said ‘Saisho’. It’s the photo you take that matters. Look at some of the greatest of our snappers : take Henri Cartier-Bresson for example. He started taking photos in 1932 with a second-hand Leica 1A made in 1929 . No aid to focus, no inbuilt meter and a fixed 5cm lens. He used this until 1940 when the model 111 came out with rangefinder and slow speeds. Jane Bown started with an original Rollieflex and moved onto Olympus OM1. She claims not to use the meter – just gauges the light falling on the back of her hand – and just uses 50 or 80mm lenses. These two, and many others prove that equipment does not matter. A Chinon can take photos the equivalent of a Nikon anyday.

  5. There is a lot of snobbish crappyness about these days. I recall Dixons in the early 1980s having a sound system in their stores that repeatedly said ‘Saisho’. It’s the photo you take that matters. Look at some of the greatest of our snappers : take Henri Cartier-Bresson for example. He started taking photos in 1932 with a second-hand Leica 1A made in 1929 . No aid to focus, no inbuilt meter and a fixed 5cm lens. He used this until 1940 when the model 111 came out with rangefinder and slow speeds. Jane Bown started with an original Rollieflex and moved onto Olympus OM1. She claims not to use the meter – just gauges the light falling on the back of her hand – and just uses 50 or 80mm lenses. These two, and many others prove that equipment does not matter. A Chinon can take photos the equivalent of a Nikon anyday.

  6. I just picked up one of these beasts on Ebay for <£20. Can't wait to get it into the field. I stand by the Chinon name, despite Dixons. My CE-4 is a true workhorse, and I'd never want to be without one in my bag (unless I'm using the Memotron with some nice Soviet M42 glass, that is!)

  7. I just picked up one of these beasts on Ebay for <£20. Can't wait to get it into the field. I stand by the Chinon name, despite Dixons. My CE-4 is a true workhorse, and I'd never want to be without one in my bag (unless I'm using the Memotron with some nice Soviet M42 glass, that is!)

  8. I bought a chinon cs camera with 55mm 1.7 lens, and case a couple of weeks ago on ebay for the princely sum of, £18.00 . Its in beautiful condition, almost as new and is just as well built as a minolta srt or, a canon FTB. The 55mm lens is gorgeuos with no marks or, internal dust. Iv’e also added a prinzflex 28mm as well for £8.99 from a local charity shop. This chinon m42 equipment is so underrated its untrue! For anyone who wants to get into film photography, on a budget who wants bulletproof reliable gear, then look no further than a chinon cs, or cx. Every bit as good as minolta or canon, or even dare i say it, nikon, for a fraction of the price!

  9. I worked at Dixons (1977) when the Chinon range was in full flow with their cine and sound cine camera range being market leading (I believe that they beat Kodak to market the very first Cine 8 camera that also recorded sound on a separate sound strip down the edge of the film) as well as 35mm cameras. Sadly as a brand they didn’t earn the respect that perhaps they deserved being linked so closely as a ‘home brand’ of Dixons – who marketed some real rubbish as well. The CE (auto exposure) & CM/ CS (manual exposure) cameras were battleship construction until the early 80’s when more and more plastic began to invade camera manufacture. I’d be very happy to pick up a CE or CM if cheap enough and crack a roll or two all over again….

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