In most conversations about classic SLR producers, Konica is always left out. The 1970s hosted a tug of war between camera brands vying for supremacy in the SLR market. One brand would develop a camera with new features, forcing the competition to match and improve on prior innovation. Nikon and Canon fought over professional photographers’ wallets with their system cameras. Minolta, Pentax and Olympus scrapped for the enthusiast and semi-pro buyer.
There’s no obvious answer to why Konica was relegated to the JV squad, or why they never really punched into a higher weight class. Surprising, since Konica was responsible for a fair number of pioneering cameras and technologies in their day.
The original Autoreflex T was the first SLR to combine a focal plane shutter with through-the-lens metering and auto-exposure. Minor improvements were made for the Autoreflex T2 and T3, cameras that saw Konica gain a reputation for durability and quality in the SLR arena. But despite the steady innovation and their rather excellent lenses, Konica’s most popular camera and lens combination would also be one of their most basic.
Launched in 1976, the Autoreflex TC was the ninth camera in Konica’s Autoreflex line of SLRs, and it brought notable departures from the cameras that came before it. For one, the camera uses far more plastic than the earlier cameras. This was a risky move in a time when the majority of professional and enthusiast-focused cameras were made mostly out of metal. It’s also a camera that was designed and marketed for the amateur as evidenced by its lean feature set.
A shutter control dial with speeds from 1/8th to 1/1000th of a second plus bulb mode; an ISO gauge built into the shutter dial; a power button on the back, a self-timer lever on the front and a tripod socket on the bottom. It has a vertically-traveling Copal metal focal plane shutter that was specially redesigned for the TC. Its viewfinder has 0.91 magnification showing 90% of the image area, a matte screen with central split-image focusing, a flash sync of 1/125th of a second, TTL central-focused metering with a range of EV 3.5 to 18 at ISO 100 and Konica’s “easy film loading system.” It requires two mercury oxide batteries for its light meter, and uses Konica’s AR II mount, which at 40.5mm boasts the shortest flange focal distance of any SLR.
If it seems like I’m fishing for features, that’s because the TC doesn’t boast many. It’s as bare bones as it gets.
There’s no depth-of-field preview, no multiple exposure function, no auto-exposure lock and its auto-exposure mode (activated on the lens) is in reality a shutter-priority mode. Just move the shutter dial and watch the needle change the aperture. Even its “easy loading system” seems to be marketing fluff. It operates like nearly every other camera of its era. Put the film in, insert the leader into the right hand spool and turn the film advance until the film counter reads “1.”
The TC is clearly aimed at customers just getting started with photography. There’s nothing sophisticated to scare them away and operation couldn’t be easier, but there’s also manual mode for when they’re ready to remove the training wheels. This isn’t a knock – not every camera can be a pro-spec monster. And the fact that the Autoreflex TC is smaller and lighter than any SLR previously produced by Konica, at 510 grams, makes it perfect for vacations or bike rides.
If you had kids and lived in 1976, the Konica Autoreflex TC would deserve serious consideration as the family do-it-all camera. Even the kids could use it. But if neither of those criteria are true (and in 2018, we can be sure that one certainly is not) then what’s the motivation for buying an Autoreflex TC?
In short, it’s still a great camera for beginners. In fact, that’s more true now than when it was released. Since 1992 in Europe and 1996 in the United States, the mercury oxide batteries used by the TC are illegal. While other batteries will fit in the TC and power the light meter, they will not give perfectly accurate readings (off by a stop, at most). Solutions to this are adjusting settings based on the reading, putting faith in the exposure latitude of today’s film, or using an external light meter. Fortunately the TC’s mechanical shutter operates without batteries, so using an external meter is the most reliable way of producing accurate photos.
What better way for a beginner to learn the basics of exposure than by using an external meter and transferring the settings by hand to the camera? If the adage is true that film photography is valuable as a way of slowing down and teaching process, then the Autoreflex TC is one of the most useful cameras around.
Another reason the TC might still hold value is that it provides a low-risk, affordable window into Konica’s well-regarded lens series. Much like Minolta, Konica still enjoys a deserved reputation for its stellar lenses, many of which are more affordable than those from Minolta.
If you purchased the TC during its production run you’d have received one of two lenses with the kit. For the first part of its run, the TC came packaged with Konica’s Hexanon 50mm f/1.7 that had been specifically updated for this camera. Later, it would come with the Hexanon 40mm f/1.8 pancake lens. It’s this lens that still elicits unique praise online and the one that took the photos for this review.
In the late seventies, any lens maker worth their salt seemed to offer a pancake lens somewhere between 40mm and 50mm. Their small, lightweight size and simple construction made them cheap to manufacture and cheap to buy. They also, conveniently, produced tack sharp images. Konica jumped into the fray with the Hexanon 40mm.
It has six elements in five groups, an aperture range of f/22 to f/1.8 in full stop increments, and a 1.5 foot minimum focusing distance. At 140 grams and 27mm in length, it’s small enough to fit into most pockets, and perfect examples can be bought today for less than $100.
It was the first Konica lens to have the AE function (which locks into place) disengage with a button on the left of the barrel and the only Konica lens to feature the focal length badging in blaze red on the front of the barrel. Pairing nicely with the blaze red “TC” on the camera body, anyone in front of this kit knows exactly what’s in front of them.
With the 40mm lens attached, the TC retains its lightweight compact characteristics. It’s a balanced pair, a perfect handheld camera in even the shakiest photographer’s hands. Apertures click into place with authority. The TC turns on once the shutter advance lever is pulled. Once it’s released, it stays a few millimetres off the body, giving the camera extra balance. Only when the off button on the back of the camera is pushed will the lever return to its original position.
Results, however, show that the Hexanon 40’s reputation may be conditional on a number of factors. Plainly, it’s an interesting lens with unique characteristics but a temperament that changes with the weather.
It could be assumed with a lens like this that sharpness is a key strength. Pancake lenses are so synonymous with sharp images that it’s more notable when one doesn’t match up to the rest. The Hexanon hangs with the best of them. It’s tack sharp at f/8 and surprisingly good at wider apertures where there’s also very little distortion.
While sharpness meets expectations, color contrast far exceeds them. Anyone with a love of super punchy shots would do well to pick up this lens. Even films with a more subdued nature, like Portra 160 or 400, are exposed as unusually vibrant. Shot on some of the more contrasty consumer films, photos can even be saturated to the point of being distracting.
The ever-subjective measurement of bokeh would here be described as vanilla ice cream. It’s neither distracting nor off-putting, and that’s good for a lens with a close focusing distance and awesome subject isolation. But bokeh might not be the primary reason to buy one.
But all of these happy results only occur when the lens is used in good lighting. In challenging light, things start to unravel.
Without ample light, the lens renders color as muted and dull. Shooting at larger apertures and without a lens hood further courts disaster, as we’re nearly guaranteed that flare will accompany the now muddy colors.
Fortunately there’s a great workaround. This lens is fantastic with black-and-white film. The high contrast qualities come back to life in cloudy weather. That black-and-white film is better for cloudy weather is an obvious rule of thumb, but the Hexanon makes the rule feel more like a commandment. Load up some Tri-X, stick to the f/4 to f/11 range and get ready to be impressed.
Even with all the camera’s limitations and its rather staid personality, it’s hard to imagine a better kit for someone who’s both taking a trip and just cutting their teeth on film. It’s a light, simple combination that forces the beginner to learn some lessons. More experienced photographers, who may love the Hexanon, would likely want a camera with more sophistication and with deeper creative control. In that case, aim for a more advanced Konica SLR like the FT-1.
In my time shooting this humble combination, there were plenty of moments in which I was impressed by the Hexanon lens, and fewer of those moments with the Konica Autoreflex TC. But if you’re someone that enjoys the very basics of photography and you’re shooting with a budget, the Autoreflex TC and Hexanon 40mm may be a perfect combination for you. Just remember that you get what you pay for.
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