Technicolor Mark Ten Super 8 camera. It looks awesome, but does it do everything you want?
Photo by John Kratz.
Do you have a Super 8 camera, but you’re not sure if it works, or if it has the features you need? Or if you’re shopping for a camera, how do you know if one camera is better than another? If you already have a Super 8 camera, then this article will help you get to know it better. If you don’t have a camera yet, by the end you’ll have a lot better idea what to look for.
What’s the Best Super 8 Camera?
There’s a saying about cameras – the best camera is the one you have with you. Any camera that works is better than no camera at all, and audiences will overlook all kinds of technical imperfections if the content in your movie is compelling.
The long answer is that there is no single best Super 8 camera. There are some very good high-end cameras, a lot of completely decent cameras, and some that might be better avoided. A partial list of camera makers would include Bauer, Beaulieu, Bolex, Braun, Canon, Cosina, Elmo, Eumig, Kodak, Konica, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Rollei, Sankyo, and Yashica, but there are hundreds more.
Some types have distinguishing characteristics: Nikon cameras are known to have good registration; Canon cameras offer great automatic functions with easy manual overrides; certain Braun and Elmo cameras are exceptionally quiet; Beaulieu and Leica cameras have excellent interchangeable lenses. No camera has everything, though. How do you pick the camera that’s right for you from the hundreds that are out there?
Walk before you run
“Does it work?” should be your first question. Any Super 8 camera you find today is a decades-old electronic device. Check the contacts in the battery compartment for corrosion. Many cameras need two sets of batteries – one set for the motor, usually AAs; there’s often a separate battery just for the light meter. Is that battery still available? Was the light meter designed for obsolete mercury batteries – 1.35 volts instead of the modern 1.5 volts? It’s a small difference, but the light meter might need recalibration to be accurate, and that could cost more than you paid for the camera.
The battery compartment of a broken Super 8 camera. Two obvious signs of corrosion are circled in red.
There are other typical trouble spots. Many Super 8 cameras have plastic gears inside to run the mechanism, and over time some plastic parts may have deteriorated. Once you’ve put batteries in, open the film chamber and run the camera. Does the pull-down claw have regular motion? Does the wheel on the side of the chamber turn smoothly? Point the lens toward a light – do you see any fungus or haze inside the lens? Does the aperture open and close automatically as you point the camera at brighter or darker objects? While you have the film chamber open, inspect the light seals around the door for any signs of deterioration.
If there are any problems, it’s probably best to find another camera. If a camera seems loud, that’s not necessarily a problem – Super 8 cameras generally aren’t known for being quiet. What’s important is that everything works smoothly and consistently; pay attention and trust your intuition. If you’re buying sight-unseen over the Internet, make sure the seller offers a return policy.
Manual controls are the best feature
If you have more than a passing interest in Super 8, the single most important feature a camera can have will be manual exposure controls. Auto exposure works well for the most common situations, but the camera doesn’t know when it’s wrong. You’ll know with experience when to trust the camera, when to override it… and when it’s technically doing the right thing, but you want something different.
Manual controls – in different places on different cameras.
It’s the little things that make a difference
Given the sheer number of companies that jumped into the Super 8 arena, huge diversity among the cameras is a given. Which features are actually useful?
Variable frame rates: Every Super 8 camera will film at 18 frames per second, the silent movie speed that gives you 3 minutes and 20 seconds per cartridge. If you want a more professional look, or to mix Super 8 with footage from other formats, look for a camera that offers the 24 fps sound speed, which gives 2 and a half minutes per each cartridge.
Many cameras will offer additional speeds – slow motion, up to 54 fps; sometimes 9 or 12 fps for fast motion; or one frame at a time for animation. Having options is always a good thing.
Through-the-lens light meter: Automatic exposure, at the heart of all Super 8 cameras, requires an accurate light meter. The best light meters measure the light that’s coming through the lens. Watch out for cameras that use selenium cells, which look like a honeycomb or a grid on the front of the camera. While selenium meters don’t need batteries, they’re only found on the oldest Super 8 cameras, and aren’t always functional or accurate.
Reflex viewfinders: Just as with light meters, the best viewfinders let you look through the camera’s lens. These are called a reflex finder, which use either a beam splitter or mirror reflex. A mirror reflex viewfinder shows the most accurate representation of what you’ll actually be filming, just like a 35mm SLR. The drawback is that you can’t see what you’re filming at the moment of exposure; mirror reflex viewfinders flicker at the same rate as the film speed. Mirror reflex viewfinders are uncommon.
A beam splitter reflex viewfinder system. Image taken from Nikon R8 Super Zoom promotional brochure.
Beam-splitter viewfinders are the most common type on Super 8 cameras, and offer a continuous view through the lens. They work by diverting a small amount of light that would otherwise go toward the film. The camera will take the difference into account for automatic exposure, so the only downside is that they can be a little darker than reflex finders.
Shutters – standard, XL, and variable: Remember the shutter animation from part I? Well, it gets a little more complicated. Most Super 8 cameras have a standard shutter opening, usually around 150º or 180º, which works well in most conditions.
Starting in the early 1970s, some Super 8 cameras began to feature an XL shutter for filming in eXisting Light. Typically between 200º and 230º, the longer exposure interval was combined with faster lenses to enable filming in dimmer conditions than possible with a standard shutter. As usual, there’s a trade off – the longer exposure time leads to blurrier motion, which can seem less sharp if the camera or subject is moving.
The workings of the Canon 1014XL-S shutter control, from the Canon 1014XL-S manual.
Finally, a few cameras offer a variable shutter which can be changed from smaller to larger openings, even while filming. This offers the best of both worlds – though it’s also one more setting to check before you start shooting!
Variable shutter control on a Braun Nizo camera. Image taken from 1973 Nizo brochure.
Other features: There are other minor features of more or less usefulness that you’ll find on some cameras. The coolest bonus feature you might find is an intervalometer, which lets you make time-lapse movies.
Minolta offered serious time-lapse accessories. Other manufacturers built simple intervalometers into certain cameras.
Images taken from Minolta Autopak-8 D series manual.
Some features are practically useless: There’s in-camera cross-fading (which can sometimes jam in the camera, since Super 8 cartridges weren’t designed for it), a tape head for recording sound (sound cartridges are long gone), and a lid on top that opens for 200-foot cartridges (also long gone). However, all those features were reserved for premium models at the time they were made, so if you find a camera that has one or more of them, it’s probably a decent camera.
Do your research
All Super 8 cameras perform the same basic purpose, and differ mostly in secondary features. Today, you can choose from every Super 8 camera ever made. Sites like the Super 8 Wiki have information on a huge number of cameras, and you can find feedback about practically any camera from people who’ve used them extensively through your favorite internet search engine – something that wasn’t possible when Super 8 cameras were new. Decide what features you need – or don’t need – and go find your camera!
The author’s Super 8 camera, covered in reminders to help during shooting.