This week No. 35: My first Chinon, and photographing strangers

Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus
The Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus I got from the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is a bug-eyed freak of a camera. While it’s mostly a point-and-shoot, which I mostly eschew, it’s growing on me a bit. (Daniel J. Schneider)

This Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus was gifted to me in the EMULSIVE Secret Santa, and while I don’t know much yet, it is loaded and in my camera bag.

While I haven’t even finished the first roll yet, here’s what I’ve got to tell so far…


This company is something of a mystery to me, but it turns out there’s more to them than I would’ve guessed.

Chinon started out in Japan as Sanshin Seisakusho in 1948 and, over the years, made cameras and camera parts for other manufacturers and resellers, including Argus, Kodak and Sears. The company became Chinon Industries in 1973, with Kodak becoming the majority shareholder in 1997. Kodak continued increasing its ownership and as of 2000, Chinon is known as Kodak Japan Limited.

Honestly, with the name, my first guess was that they were Chinese, and given the age, that they were probably basically knockoffs. But I was totally wrong.

Chinon built a number of well-reviewed 35mm SLR cameras in the 1970s and 1980s, using the Pentax K-mount for the lenses for many years. Pentax had long hoped the K-mount would become something of a universal mount to replace the m42 screw mount, and must’ve been thrilled by this validation.

Chinon was also among the first to introduce a 35mm SLR with an autofocus lens, although the lenses reportedly had to be purchased separately from the body and are now relatively rare.

They were also the first Japanese manufacturer to develop a near-infrared autofocus system — which they called Infrafocus. That’s the system in play on both the autofocus SLR lenses and this handy point-and-shoot.

So, while I’ve been skipping every Chinon SLR I’ve seen in the thrift stores for years, maybe I’ll pick one up one of these days and give it a try — maybe even with some of my Pentax K-mount lenses.

The 35F-MA has a 38mm f/2.8 autofocus lens that determines focus distance with the near-infrared sensors that look like the bulging eyes of an over-squeezed stuffed animal. The distance the camera has selected is shown on a scale-focus indicator in the viewfinder so you know it’s working.

The film auto-advances, too. When you load the camera, you just lay the leader across the film plane and engage the sprocket holes on the teeth of a small gear. Close the door and listen to the whine — as loud as a Detroit diesel, but sounding every bit as involuntarily resolute.

There’s a pop-up flash, and the whole camera is powered by two AA batteries. It’s bigger and heavier than an Olympus XA or XA2, but the autofocus and autoexposure might be worth it — and would’ve been a big selling point back in 1979. While the 35F-MA is pretty large as point-and-shoots go, I think it would have been fairly comparable to a lot of its direct competitors when it was introduced.

Also: it looks like Andy Warhol had his very own Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus. If it was good enough for Andy, I suppose it’s probably good enough for me.

The Chinon came to me wrapped up with a roll of Ilford HP5, so I loaded it straight up and took it with us when Kate and I did an initial exploration of the walking and sight-seeing available in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver last week.


I said last week that my New Year’s resolution was to end this year with handmade, homemade darkroom prints. I’ll do that, I have no doubt. But I’d also like to get a little better at documenting people.

The struggle to connect with strangers and make good pictures of them — environmental portraits, really — has been ongoing for me. Kate calls me an extrovert, and I suppose I have some of those tendencies. I’m gregarious at times, jovial when I’m excited…

Despite that, I still find myself uncomfortable interacting with strangers when I’ve got a camera in my hands. Matthew Thompson, however, recently published an article that’s got me thinking about how to work on improving those interactions, and thereby, those photographs.

Caricatures at the Stock Show
Two girls have their caricatures drawn at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, Jan. 13, 2013. Nikon FM2 and Kodak Tri-X. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In “The Human Landscape: Photographing Strangers,” Thompson writes, “The same person you find interesting to look at is likely to be interesting to speak with as well. Even you exchange a few words and they decline, it’s a win.”

I find myself thinking back on some of my experiences engaging strangers when I’m ultimately seeking a photograph, and they have all been good. And Thompson is surely right about the ice-breaker factor of using a camera that’s a conversation-starter.

There’s more to it than that, though, and Thompson explains very concisely what it takes to make a compelling environmental portrait:

I had a photography department head who would talk a lot about the juice. He’d look at your work, get your talking about it and ask: have you gotten the juice out of this idea, this scene? It took me a while to get the gist of this way of thinking, but my sensei was of course correct. Photography, especially environmental portraiture, usually has to hit the mark in one shot.

He makes several other good points, and I strongly encourage you to read the article. Then, take Thompson’s advice and “Go get the juice.”

Kids in the creek at Belleview Park
Kids play in the creek at Belleview Park in Englewood, Colo. From the first test roll in my Nikon F3 — shot on the way home from picking it up. (Daniel J. Schneider)