Konica Auto S3 review

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By Olli Thomson

Despite being old enough to remember the 70’s and to lust after classic SLRs of that era like the FM and the OM-1 I have little recollection of the many rangefinders to be had in those years.

My interest in photography developed in the mid to late 70s at a time when rangefinders were starting to give way to point-and-shoot autofocus camera. I finally fulfilled my teenage dream of owning a Nikon FM when I bought an FM(2n) last year, 40 years after first setting eyes on one.

It was while browsing many websites, Kosmo Foto included, reacquainting myself with the SLRs of that era that I came upon the world of classic rangefinders and decided that I needed (at least) one of those as well.

So when a Konica C35 showed up at Used Photo Pro for a little more that $30 I bought it. I reviewed that camera on 35MMC and like it well enough that when a Konica Auto S3 was listed at KEH I jumped on it, though it was a bit more expensive than my C35 at $170.

First, a little history. Konica introduced the C35 rangefinder in 1968 and many variants of this camera followed, including the world’s first autofocus camera, the C35AF. Another member of the C35 family was the high end C35FD, which was marketed outside Japan as the Auto S3. The two standout features of the Auto S3 compared to its cheaper siblings were a shutter priority semi automatic exposure system in place of the fully automatic system and a faster lens, a 38mm f1.8 Hexanon instead of the 38mm f2.8 lens.

The Auto S3 is one of a group of high quality compact rangefinders of that era that are highly sought after these days and are, consequently, quite expensive. An Auto S3 in good condition on eBay often costs upwards of $250, when you can find one. So $170 seemed quite reasonable for one described as being in excellent condition and coming with KEH’s six-month guarantee.

Having confirmed it was in working order I decided to get it fully serviced and sent it to Advance Camera in Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, on its way back to me, someone at UPS decided to kick the package around the warehouse, or drop it from a great height – I’m still not sure what they did.

Whatever it was, inside a very battered box was a now dented and non-functional camera. Back it went to Advance Camera who got it working again and fixed the bodywork as best they could. This time it came back intact and functional via USPS.

The Auto S3 is relatively compact without being tiny. It’s similar in size to my Fujifilm X-E2 and about the same weight when the latter is fitted with the Fujinon XF 27mm lens.

For me, the size is ideal: large enough to hold and operate comfortably while also small enough to slip in a coat pocket or small bag. The body of the camera is quite basic since most of the controls are clustered around the lens. The top plate hosts only a film winder and rewind lever, a film counter, the shutter release and a hotshoe. There is a self-timer lever in the usual place and that’s about it.

Compared to an SLR winding the film does feel like operating a clockwork toy, but the winder does generally have a smooth and even action. That said, towards the end of a film the winder does require more force and the action becomes a little more clunky. The release has quite a long travel before tripping the shutter, but the moment of release is decisive and clear and also quiet. The shutter release also serves as an exposure lock so the extra travel also facilitates the use of that feature.

The front of the lens houses the CdS meter which sits above the front element. The meter is always on when exposed to light and there is no on-off switch so it’s important to keep a lens cap in place when the camera’s not in use to preserve the battery.

On the underside of the lens is the film speed lever. Press this lever in and slide back or forward to set the film speed in the available range of 25-800. The scale is marked in both DIN and ASA and can be set in intermediate positions. I find that the resistance on this lever to the initial press is on the weak side and it is possible to accidentally adjust the film speed if not careful.

Next, on the upper part of the lens is the shutter speed ring which offers speeds from 1/8 to 1/500 in full stops – no intermediate speeds are available. There is also a B option that can only be set after depressing a small locking pin. The focusing ring is marked in feet and metres and is adjusted with a large and easy to use lever with a 45-degree throw. Closest focus is 0.9 metres or roughly three feet.

Finally, there is a guide number ring in both feet and metres for use with the Auto S3’s flash system, adjusted by a lever on the bottom of the lens. More on the camera’s flash system in a moment.

The viewfinder seems bright enough to me, though I have little to compare it with. As well as the bright frame and parallax compensation mark there is also a scale on the right of the viewfinder which indicates the camera’s chosen aperture marked by a swinging needle. Red areas top and bottom indicate over- and under-exposure respectively. When a flash is attached the scale also displays a flash indicator mark.

The rangefinder patch is the common yellow – orange rectangle and on my camera is very clear making focusing quick and accurate. The effective base length is 14.2mm. I have no idea if that’s good or bad; I imagine it’s similar to all the other compact rangefinders of this era.

The one thing missing from the display is an indication of the selected shutter speed – not a critical lack but it would be nice. I do occasionally find myself having to readjust my eye to see the whole of the bright frame but given the small size of the viewfinder this is hardly a surprise.

The lens is, apparently, very good. A Hexanon 38mm f1.8 with six elements in four groups and ‘Color Dynamic Coating’ as Konica called it back then. Search out this camera on the internet and you will find repeated reference to a the conclusions of a review of this camera by Modern Photography magazine regarding the Hexanon lens: “One of the best semi-wide angle optics of its speed we have ever tested. All apertures demonstrated center values between 64 to 82 lines per millimeter of resolution providing Leica-class performance.” Which sounds quite impressive.

I’ve never found the source of this quotation but I’ve no reason to dispute it. Konica’s advertising for a number of cameras, including the earlier Auto S and Auto S2, employed the slogan ‘the lens alone is worth the price’, so the company was obviously confident of the quality.

My own conclusion, having looked at some of the images I’ve taken is that it is good enough for me, which is all that really matters for me.

The advertisements for the Auto S3 that I have seen focused on the camera ability to automatically apply fill flash. Simply attach one of the two available flash units – the X-14 or the X-20 – to the camera, set the guide number, then adjust the shutter speed until the swinging needle matches the synchro flash mark on the aperture scale. This, Konica assured us, would result in ‘beautiful daylight flash pictures at the correct exposure’.

On the back of this capability Konica marketed the Auto S3 as ‘the world’s only 35mm with balanced daylight/synchro flash’. Does it work? I’ve no idea. The Konica flashes for the Auto S3 are even rarer than the camera itself and I haven’t used a flash unit since, I believe, 2011.

Handling is fine. I use mine with a wrist strap. It’s easy to carry one handed or tucked away in a larger pocket or small bag. As I mentioned earlier, there is a slight risk of accidentally moving the film speed selector and in addition while the chunky focusing lever helps with fast and accurate focusing, its size can result in some accidental adjustment if you are not careful.

The simplicity of the camera appeals to me, though if you prefer to be more hands on then it may not be for you. There is no manual option with the Auto S3, nor is there any direct exposure compensation. The only way to adjust the camera’s chosen exposure setting is to change the film speed.

For me, the shutter priority option on the Auto S3 trumps the fully automatic exposure of the C35; if it were aperture priority it would be better still. But on a camera of this kind, that is all the control I need.

The Auto S3 is a fine little camera and I would happily recommend it to anyone. Just bear in mind that they are a little harder to find than many of their better-known peers from Canon, Minolta or Olympus, and a copy in good condition will be at the upper end of the compact rangefinder market.

If you are happy with fully automatic exposure and the slightly slower lens the C35 will meet your needs for a lot less. If you want one of the very finest of the compact rangefinders the Auto S3 is up there with the best.

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