Bringing a Vintage Rangefinder Back to Life: A Review of the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe

The Konica Auto S 35mm rangefinder film camera
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Written by Daniel Keefe

When my aunt passed away a few years ago, one of my assigned responsibilities was to clean out her condominium crawl space. No one really knew what was down there except for the minimal Christmas decorations that we would bring up for her every Thanksgiving and return a few weeks later after the holidays.

Armed with a flashlight, I steeled myself for a raccoon or possum encounter and descended the small stepladder into the storage void.

Most of what I found was of the routine variety, items one would expect to find in a crawl space: Old TV trays, lamps, broken fans, office furniture, boxes of old work files and tax returns. Odds and ends. No rodents, gold bars, or bags of money.

However, there was one special surprise hidden behind some rolled up carpet remnants – what appeared at first glance to be an old, hard-cover camera case.

The Konica Auto S 35mm rangefinder film camera

Discovering a Vintage Rangefinder

I hadn’t known my aunt to be a photographer. I don’t recall that she ever chased us around with a Super 8 or 35mm camera when my sisters and I were kids. In fact, she never mentioned owning a camera to me in the 50-plus years that I knew her.

Perhaps she forgot that she still had it. Regardless, here it was in the crawl space waiting to be found.

I brought the case up to where there was more headroom and better light for a closer look. Inside, I discovered a vintage Konica Auto S rangefinder. It seemed to be in great shape, with lens and light meter caps intact. There were a couple of lens filters, a user manual, and even an old button battery (wisely stored in an 8 X 11” business letter envelope). Subsequent online research placed the model as a first generation circa the early 1960s.

Find the Konica Auto S at KEH Camera or on eBay.

The Konica Auto S 35mm rangefinder film camera
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Getting the Konica Auto S Working

The camera felt substantial in hand. I pushed the latch and the back popped open crisply. The interior was clean with no signs of rot or other damage. The shutter, film advance mechanism, even the built-in timer appeared to function normally with satisfying clicks and buzzes and snaps.

The 47mm f/1.9 lens looked perfect: no fungus or scratches inside or out. The viewfinder was hazy but not unusably so, and I could see the built-in meter clearly. I started to get excited that this crawl space discovery might actually be usable.

As I played around with the settings a little more, I noticed that the aperture was not opening or closing when the dial setting was changed and shutter fired.

I contacted the good folks at Central Camera in Chicago who agreed to take a look. A couple of weeks later, I got good news: They could replace the shutter and aperture mechanism for a reasonable cost.

Was I interested in making the repair? “I think we should do it,” I said.

“I think we should, too,” came the reply. I authorized and paid for the repair before we hung up.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Meanwhile, I located a company that manufactures button batteries for vintage cameras. Because many older cameras use different, often lower voltages, new batteries with slightly higher voltages risked giving incorrect meter readings, or worse, possibly causing damage to the camera.

I was able to find a conversion table and new battery number at the correct 1.35 volts and purchased a couple of those online from Wein Products.

A few weeks after that, I had a repaired camera back from the shop, and with the addition of the new button battery, the light meter needle wobbled readily with new life.

The Konica Auto S appeared to be fully functional again which brought a huge grin to my face. I decided to name the camera ‘K’ in tribute to its manufacturer, as well as its previous owner, my dearly departed Auntie Kay.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

The Konica’s Auto Setting & Light Meter Gauge

Now it was time to find out what K could do.

The owner’s manual – or ‘Instruction Booklet’ – for the Konica Auto S is a treat. Printed in Japan on heavy, glossy stock, in 5.75 x 4 inch (15 x 10 cm) format, it’s a 66-page model of simplicity. All of the key camera markings and settings are explained efficiently. The instructions are clear, to the point, with retro line art and images that provide visual guidance to accompany the narrative.

When did owner’s manuals become so bloated and clunky? The most helpful sections for me talked about how to focus with a rangefinder and the camera’s unique automatic exposure function.

Similar to the full ‘Auto’ setting on a modern digital camera, the Konica Auto S featured the novelty of ‘EE (electric-eye) photography.’ EE photography was described as being where ‘correct exposure can be obtained merely by pointing your camera toward your subject and releasing the shutter,’ as long as the aperture ring was set to ‘Auto’ and the film speed lever was set at the proper ASA number. From there, the photographer needed to set a shutter speed according to lighting conditions, and use the aperture scale built into the viewfinder.

As long as the aperture needle remained in the brighter, yellow portion of the scale, the aperture value would set automatically and ‘you may safely take pictures.’

If, however, the aperture needle fell into ‘the red zone of the warning mark,’ you were instructed to move the range shift lever – a High/Low light meter switch on the front of the camera – or change the shutter speed entirely if the needle hit the ‘red limit mark zones’ at either end of the scale.

Basically, as my brain processed it, use High if it’s bright, Low if it’s dark, keep the needle in the yellow and you should be fine.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Testing Out the Konica Auto S

I felt pretty confident following my Instruction Booklet review. As such, I decided to take K with me to an IndyCar race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis late last summer. Not to shoot the racing action, mind you – K is not suited for 190-mph race cars – but rather to capture the action going on around the track.

For those of you who have never been to a professional car race, I can highly recommend the experience: There are many colorful cars and characters. It is a ‘target-rich environment’ for anyone with a camera who’s paying attention.

I loaded K with a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 film for this maiden voyage, and with pit passes in hand, we headed for the garage area where the cars are prepped for the race.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Halfway to the garage on the asphalt infield, I spotted former IndyCar driver and current TV race commentator James Hinchcliffe hopping on an electric scooter and starting to head straight for us.

When he got close I raised my camera and yelled out, “Hey James!” He smiled and gave us a little wave as he whizzed by.

Here’s what the Konica captured:

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

I don’t recall if I actually tried to focus the camera, but it’s quite obvious that the camera is moving and the image is blurry. As suspected, action photos are not K’s strong suit.

The Konica Auto S has an unusual, parallax focusing system with a lever on the bottom left-hand side of the lens. I’m right-handed, so the lever is quirky for me to operate left-handed, particularly when rushed. I didn’t really have much practice focusing K at that point, and I think I was more concerned about just making sure James was in the frame!

The result was a blurry, smiling James Hinchcliffe-on-a-scooter-behind-the-scenes photo and a funny story. Every time I look at that photo, I’ll remember the circumstances with a chuckle. For me, it’s the imperfection of the image that makes for the good memory.

The open-air garage area is a beehive of activity before a race. Teams have dedicated stalls where they prepare the cars, which line up in nose-to-nose pairs under a large, long roof.

You never know who might walk by. I happened to grab a shot of four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves as he made his way through the crowd.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Again, not the best of action shots, but I got it. You can also get close enough to touch the cars (but don’t ever try to do that).

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

The garage area is separated from the track entrance by a short, wide strip of pavement. Fans line the path to watch the cars get pulled to and from the track via cables attached to trucks or ATVs and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of the drivers.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

As race time approaches, many of the drivers zip by on electric scooters, but others simply walk to their cars (with team members and security, of course).

Some will even pose for photos with fans or chat with a team member or friend. That was the case with this photo of driver Jack Harvey who stopped for a prerace hug.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

I like this photo because it feels genuine: the head on the shoulder, the smile, and the embrace all indicate this is a heartfelt exchange between comrades. It was a brief moment that passed in seconds. That’s one of the joys of photography for me – spotting and capturing those fleeting moments in time that maybe no one else noticed.

Overall, despite the steep learning curve, I was pleased with how the Konica Auto S performed and the images it produced. There is no doubt that the experience is significantly different than shooting with a modern digital camera.

It’s even different than my personal experience shooting with other vintage film cameras. I already mentioned how quirky the focusing mechanism is to use. Plus, with a hazy viewfinder, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether you’ve actually got the double images aligned such that the subject is in focus. This is particularly true in low light situations.

The shutter on K is also unique. It actuates with a soft ‘Pffft’ sound, rather than a snappy ‘click-whrrr’ like on a point-and-shoot, or the resounding ‘CLACK!’ of my Minolta SRT-202. Regardless of the weak audio signal, the shutter fires reliably, and the film advance lever cranks smoothly and snaps back into position with authority.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Taking the Konica Auto S to the Gulf Shores

A family vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama this spring presented the next challenge for K. We were lucky enough to rent a house for a full week in a neighborhood called Kiva Dunes. It is a quiet, fairly secluded residential development approximately 15 miles west of Gulf Shores proper, with large, multi-story homes bordering a beautiful public golf course. Beach access to the Gulf of Mexico is a short walk from any property.

I chose a fresh roll of Ilford HP5+ 400 speed for doing some walking around photos. As I loaded the film (unsuccessfully on my first try, successfully on my second), I noticed K’s highest ASA (ISO) setting was 200, but I didn’t worry too much about that. I thought, if anything, I would be overexposing rather than underexposing.

Plus, I was cocky enough to think that I would remember everything about the settings and how to shoot with the camera based on my one previous experience with it. I hadn’t even bothered to pack the manual or review it before the trip. My mistake.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

As I neared the beach, K in hand, I suddenly seemed to forget how to operate the thing. How does that Auto setting work again? Maybe I should just set things manually? That shutter sounded very quiet when I loaded the film; is it working properly? The film counter is advancing, so the film must be, but how can I be sure? Am I getting any images here?

Doubt hounded me for the entire roll mostly attributable to my over-confidence and lack of preparation. Despite my uncertainty, K was doing its job just fine, and I managed to get a few standard shots of the beach that I liked.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

With about half a roll left, three of us ventured west to Fort Morgan early one morning to explore and take some photos. The historic site is located on the tip of the peninsula at the entrance to Mobile Bay in an area that has been used as a military installation for hundreds of years. Fort Morgan itself was completed in 1834 and remains an imposing structure.

The morning of our visit was overcast, and I, once again, found myself intimidated by the shooting conditions, especially going from hazy daylight outside on the grounds, to the old fort’s dark and damp interiors.

I started to second-guess what the Konica was telling me. I tried to adjust the settings to what I felt would be optimal for the conditions, but doubt crept in once again. I completely forgot about the Auto setting and the High/Low light meter lever on the camera front.

Frustrated, I eventually used some shutter speeds that I thought were way too low for handheld and would definitely be blurry or over-exposed. To my surprise, somewhat the opposite happened once I got the scans back: Shots that I thought were well exposed in the daylight came back full of grays and grainy, while those I thought would be terribly underexposed or blurry came back with some nice blacks and relatively sharp.

Here are examples of the good and the bad:

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

Final Thoughts

Lessons learned? Don’t assume you can pick up a piece of equipment that you haven’t touched in six months and remember everything. Take some time to review the manual. Revisit the buttons and dials and levers.

I’ll probably stick with 200 speed film (or slower) going forward to optimize K’s ‘electric-eye photography’ function, which I’ve learned to rely upon because it has proven to be very accurate. Likewise, for action photos – really anything that’s moving – the Konica Auto S isn’t the best tool.

As the old adage goes, practice makes perfect. Each vintage film camera will have a unique personality. Take time to develop the relationship. Cut yourself some slack during the learning process. Embrace the imperfections and enjoy the experience.

35mm film image with the Konica Auto S by Daniel Keefe on Shoot It With Film

K and I haven’t been together very long so we’re still learning each other’s quirks. Nevertheless, with time and more practice, I fully expect to develop a very strong partnership, one based on mutual trust, familiarity, and filled with wonderful photographs.

Something else I think is important to keep in mind. When we shoot film with vintage cameras like the Konica Auto S, we honor those who preserved this equipment for us and taught us how to use it. I also think we have an obligation to pass this knowledge down to the next generation of film photographers – if they’re willing to listen to us! It is an important responsibility to bear. And it should also be an enjoyable one, so don’t forget to have fun along the way.

Thanks, Auntie Kay, for saving this little Konica Auto S piece of history for me. I’ll think of you with a smile every time I use it.

Thank you so much, Daniel!

Leave your questions about the Konica Auto S below in the comments, and you can pick up one for yourself at KEH Camera or on eBay.

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Blog Comments

Cool camera!

What a special story of a special camera! I love how you brought it back to life and your images are just gorgeous. Glad to see another racing fan out there shooting film 🙂

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