Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mountain photography in yellow brick mode

Camera review: wading with a Weathermatic up the wildest river in the Japan Alps

Ah, the joys of yestergear. Yes, you read that right – I mean, today’s gear gets plenty of attention from Bre’er Hendrik and many other puissant hiking and mountaineering bloggers.

But what about the kit that Workmen Alpinists used twenty years ago? Who’s going to write about that? Well, I guess I’ll have to fill the gap myself, starting with a review of the Minolta Weathermatic Dual 35 (above). This, for the benefit of youthful readers, was an imaging device that captured light on a chemical-smeared synthetic substrate. We called it “film”.

As I had to get my Weathermatic in a hurry, from Yodobashi Camera’s pullulating multi-storey emporium in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, I probably paid close to the full list price of ¥36,800. Back home, I unpacked what looked like a yellow brick, solid as a bank vault, with an armoured window jutting from its front casing.

“Your Minolta Weathermatic DUAL 35 is a fully waterproof 35mm camera that is designed so that you can take pictures anywhere you go,” I read in the instruction leaflet. Apparently, I was the proud owner of “the world’s first waterproof camera that lets you select either standard (35mm) or tele (50mm) lenses at the touch of a button.”

I needed a waterproof camera because Sawa Control had just invited me on his return match with the fearsome Kurobe River, a multi-day swimming and scrambling expedition through the upper reaches of Honshu’s wildest mountain river gorge. No ordinary camera was going to survive this epic. And even the Weathermatic’s creators seemed to have their doubts.

“The Weathermatic DUAL 35’s watertight seals and rugged body are designed so that you take pictures in any weather and anywhere,” the manual says, “however, special attention must be given to the following precautions:”

In the event, the river let us off lightly - there was no need to surf or dive.  In just two days, we made it all the way through the Kurobe’s “inner corridor” to the hut in Yakushi-sawa. Perhaps we relaxed too much. On the second day, I tripped over in a boulder field, falling on top of the camera. The Weathermatic wasn’t even scratched; it was my ribs that came away with contusions.

But can this yellow brick actually take pictures? Eccentrically, the camera works only with two film speeds – ASA 100 or 400. I opted for 400-speed Fuji slide film, as river gorges can be dark and gloomy. Alas, the Provia proved a touch too fast in brightly lit places, where some pictures came out overexposed.

Where it mattered, though, the Weathermatic’s metering was spot on. The photo above shows Sawa Control moving pack-awash through a deep channel. Note how the film manages to capture the shadowed foreground without getting completely burned out by the sunlit rocks behind. That’s a trick that digital sensors still struggle to emulate.

Sharpness, said Henri Cartier-Bresson, is a bourgeois concept. Weathermatic users are compelled to agree. In anything less than the brightest light, this lens is what Ansel Adams would call a fuzzy-wuzzy. It harasses the light a little as it passes by; its zones of confusion would extend beyond the planet Pluto. It is, in short, an optic of the Anti-Leica.

Does it matter, though? To my mind, the unsharp image (right) does honour to the way that the late-afternoon light shimmered off the river as we worked our way towards that first day’s bivouac site. On the other hand, National Geographic is never going to beat a path to your door if you use a Weathermatic.

On the fourth and final day of our expedition, we went home over Washiba-dake. The camera’s metering coped well with all manner of lighting, from the pre-dawn airglow over Yari, through fogbows above the clouds, to the gloom of forest glades on the long, straggling ridge that we descended. Only the flower pictures were a bust – the autofocus couldn’t cope with close-up subjects.

After this trip, though, the crappy lens, the limited zoom (35mm or 50mm, but nothing in between), and the sketchy autofocus meant that the Weathermatic stayed at home whenever I could get away with something less robust. On our second visit to the Kurobe, three years later, I took along one of the newfangled Pentax Zoom WR90s, which had a proper zoom lens and better metering.

My last outing with the Weathermatic was a winter climb on Yatsu-ga-take. The last pitch of Sekison Ridge takes you into a steeply angled lava tube, almost like a miniature subway tunnel, except that the roof had fallen in. I was halfway up this defile when the rope came tight – we’d run out of slack, and Mike, belaying 50 metres below, couldn’t hear my shouts for him to come up.

For a moment, it looked as if an unstructured situation might develop. Jammed in my tube like a Northern Line train in the London Underground, I could move neither up (no rope) nor down (too steep). Spindrift came blasting up the tunnel, driven by a fierce cold northerly. The last piece of protection was far below. A giant chock was desperately needed, to slot into the only wide crack within reach. Unfortunately I had no such gear with me. Unless, perhaps, the camera would fit.

Before the Weathermatic could be put to this ultimate test, Mike moved up and the rope came free. So I never did find out how this most bombproof of cameras might function as a makeshift bong. No, not that kind of bong. In our day, a bong was a kind of expanded piton made of folded aluminium, specially shaped for off-width cracks. Really, is it necessary to spell out everything for the youth of today?

1 comment:

wes said...

Ah, the halycon days of analogue. Most of my early shots of Japan's mountains were done on those once ubiquitous disposable cameras.