Visibly different, part 33

Another different take on the title this time, partially because I have nothing else ready, partially because I feel like showing off my toys.

pair of subminiature cameras
I picked up both of these, separately, last year just because I wanted them, though I admittedly didn’t pay a lot for either (less than $20 apiece with the shipping.) Both are subminiature cameras taking 16mm film, often considered ‘spy’ cameras though their actual use in espionage or covert operations was probably minimal – there were smaller cameras available on the open market, such as the Minox line (which still command some pretty serious prices,) not to mention that fact that a real spy camera should be concealable and/or unrecognizable as a camera. Instead, these were lightweight ‘tourist’ cameras able to go into any pocket, dashing in their unobtrusiveness, targeted (indirectly of course) at Bond wannabes.

Minolta 16 MG camera
First we’ll look at the sleeker of the two, the Minolta 16 MG. This was one of several variations, often sold as a full kit that included filters and a flash unit that took small single-use flashbulbs. It possesses a working selenium light meter, which required so little power to move the needle (in the window on top right of the camera) that they didn’t require batteries – the minuscule solar cell in the front of the camera (the wide rectangle) provided all of the power. This did nothing but indicate what you should be setting the controls at – operation was still manual, while the film winding and simultaneously shutter cocking took place with that large dial on top; the shutter release is the black button in front of it, shielded on either side to help prevent accidental photos. Full credit to the designers: even though the user aimed through a separate viewfinder, the shutter would not trip unless the film was wound to the next frame and the sliding lenshood open. This camera was produced from 1966 to 1974. I had possessed an earlier and smaller version of this many years ago, and even had a single roll of film for it that I never tested out – these little gizmos are more fun to fiddle with than to pursue photography.

Now let’s look at its rival, from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Kiev 30 subminiature camera in closed position
This is a Kiev 30, shown in the closed position, a mere 85mm long.

Kiev 30 subminiature camera in open position
And now open, expanding all the way out to a whopping 109mm. The Minolta, with strap attached, exceeds this by a millimeter, but of course doesn’t close down. This was a product of the Soviet Union, back when Ukraine and Kiev (the city) were part of that entity, and despite its much older appearance and design, was introduced in 1974, the same year the Minolta ceased production. But, it’s got that little kachunk extendy action, which winds the film and cocks the shutter, as well as exposing the little silver shutter button to begin with – far more spy-like, and even semi-matte black to avoid throwing reflections out of the office windows which can attract the guards.

No light meter at all on this one, but what kind of spy needs such a thing? They’re expertly trained to know what shutter speed is necessary. But for the other customers, there’s one of the typical dial gauges on the back that gives exposure guidelines for generic situations.

Kiev 30 subminiature camera back with exposure guide
Kiev 30 subminiature camera controlsThis dial doesn’t do anything mechanical, like the exposure meter on the Minolta; it just tells the user (roughly) what exposure should work, and the user sets the control dials on the end of the camera accordingly. But the Kiev is the first I’ve seen with a “sunny beach” setting, and what the hell is that for? Any spy worth the kruggerands stashed in their shoe knows the beach is the spot for seducing their sexy rival (who always walks in slow motion there – something about the tides.) But I suppose the ‘norms’ may want to take a few surreptitious pics on the beach, yet using a dinky spy camera looks exponentially more creepy than using a full-size rig, where you might get away with claiming you were photographing the pelicans.

The Kiev also has something that the Minolta lacks, which is a very limited focusing wheel, albeit one that makes no visible difference in the viewfinder. But the Minolta has a tripod mount that the Kiev doesn’t – alas, it’s part of the attachable flash unit, but at least you can do studio work easier with the Minolta. Both actually have PC connections too, which has nothing to do with computers, instead standing for “Prontor-Compur,” so that clarifies that. It was, and remains really, a standard small interface for flash and strobe units, so again, all set for that model shoot that serves as the cover occupation.

The worst thing about both is their use of 16mm film, suffering from the same thing that killed 110 and disc films: being ridiculously small. Prints from such films were very limited in size, because there’s only so far you can enlarge an image before it shows grain and softness, and forget about setting the friends down in front of the slide projector; it’d be like, I dunno, showing them on your phone or something. Totally ludicrous.

I’m not a camera collector, though, and the actual usefulness of these two is about nil. I just like them for the gadget aspect. Both have nice a solid, machined feel to them, and appear to be fully operational, so from time to time I get one down to fidget with it. Better than smoking.

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