Shooting Super 8 Today, Part II

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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.

Camera manuals in this entry were found at apecity.com.

Comments

comments

6 Comments

  1. Ryan Clancy
    Posted 17 September 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I’m using a nizo s36 camera. I want to use only manual exposure but am not sure how to do that on this camera. Could you give me a little help?

  2. Daniel
    Posted 17 September 2015 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Hi Ryan,

    I don’t have an instruction manual for the S36 to look at, but from pictures it does appear that it has some form of manual exposure control.

    Try turning the exposure dial from automatic to manual; if the dial continues to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, then this should be controlling the aperture, and the f-stop should be displayed in the viewfinder.

    If the exposure dial only has a single position for manual control, then this will fix the exposure based on the automatic exposure reading at the moment you change the dial position. If this is the case, you can zoom in on automatic mode to use the camera as a fairly wide-angle spot meter – point the camera around your scene to get a sense of the variation on the light levels across it, decide which aperture you want, and change the dial to manual when you find a part of the scene that matches the exposure or f-stop you want. You can also cover the lens with a lens cap or your hand to open the aperture further, or point it directly at a light source to stop down more.

    I hope that helps you figure things out. Good luck!

    Daniel

  3. ryan
    Posted 21 September 2015 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    This does help. My issue now is that the bar which shows the exposure in the viewfinder does not respond to the manual rotation of the knob. It does react to the automatic position and the control position. Do you know what the control position of the knob does?

    Thanks,
    Ryan

  4. Daniel
    Posted 21 September 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The control position is a bit of a misnomer, the manuals of similar Nizo cameras (the Nizo 136 is very similar to the S36) state that it checks the battery voltage. If your camera isn’t responding to the rotation of the manual knob, it’s possible that there’s an electrical issue or other problem with the dial; without having the camera at hand, it’s difficult to diagnose much further. The Nizo Super 8 cameras’ only real drawback is their reliance on highly integrated electronics rather than manual mechanical controls. Since the automatic control on your camera is functional, you should be able to use the second method I described above to trick the camera into the exposure you want, even if it’s a little more cumbersome than being able to rotate the manual dial.

  5. ryan
    Posted 21 September 2015 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    This is my last question for you. The response may answer my last one. Is the connection between the exposure knob and the f-stop indicator in the viewfinder electronic or mechanical? That being said, if I replace the automatic exposure battery, would that solve the problem of the knob (when set to manual) not responding with the f-stop indicator.

    Thanks

  6. ryan
    Posted 23 September 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Daniel. This has been extremely informative.

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