I admit it – I am smitten by the black models of the old metal bodied manual cameras. Why black? In the old days BP (before plastic) black was the color of the “professional” model cameras. Why? I’m not exactly sure, since there are so many contradictions here… perhaps the black was less conspicuous than the shiny chrome bodies, perhaps they reflected less light. (but then, some of the BIG lenses were made in a white finish, ostensibly to keep them from heating up too much in the sun.)

The fact remains that black became associated with the “pro” as opposed to the chrome “consumer” models. Now some cameras were made exclusively in black, pro or not, but that’s an exception. For some reason, fewer black models seem to have been made as well, and that adds to the mystique.

Consider this… the black was usually enamel paint on the brass body, which did not hold up as well as the chrome finish – consequently, the likelihood of the black enamel wearing off and showing the metal underneath was high, as seen from the ubiquitous ‘brassing’ that is common on black body cameras. A black camera with a mint (read as no brassing) finish usually fetches a much higher price than its chrome counterpart because of its relative rarity.

I am not sure what the production ratios of chrome to black models were in the manufacturing mix – there are probably more black-bodied cameras out there than we realize. Taking the OM line for example – the OM-1 to OM-4 are considered the professional bodies, there are far more chrome versions than black, which gives the lie to the notion that black = professional.

Now consider the consumer version of the OM bodies, viz, the OM-10 through OM-40/PC). Since they are for the regular Joe Amateur, they should be all be chrome, right? But no – it turns out black versions were made for these cameras as well. The OM-40/PC

was made ONLY in a black version with rubber armored bodies, so we won’t take them into consideration.

Looking at the all the OM-10 cameras that regularly show up on eBay, I was lulled into thinking that they were only made in chrome – then Bam! I came across a BLACK OM-10. Never saw one of those before. It was in great condition too – not a bit of brassing.

Sheer chance plays a big part as well. The first Olympus camera I purchased was a black OM-1.

It wasn’t because it was black or anything. I was looking at manual cameras in a pawn shop one day, it was just that the shop had 2 Olys, an OM-1 and an OM-PC and I picked the OM-1. At that time I did not not know anything about the Olympus OM System, it was cheap, and looked much more sturdy than the OM-PC with its rubber body. That’s all.

Most of the old manual lenses were black. The black lenses looked great on black cameras and looked good on the chrome versions, since the leatherette on the chrome was black as well, the black lenses blended right in. Lots of AF lenses were made in chrome/silver plastic bodies though. They look fine on the chrome bodies, but look hokey on the all black bodies. But that’s just my opinion.

All the lenses I have for my Minolta Dynax 800si (late 90’s manufacture, so naturally, big black plastic body) are black. I resisted the impulse to purchase the silver/chrome Maxxum AF lenses. Anyway, the only Maxxum lenses I purchased new were a nice Maxxum AF 50mm f/1.7 when I bought the camera. The other new lenses were a black Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5-6 and a black Phoenix 28-105mm f/2.8-3.5. The rest of my Minolta AF lenses were bought used off of eBay and Craigslist. Hey, I’m Joe Amateur, remember? I have to go Cheap.

Now for anyone on the trail of a black body camera, please watch out for touched up or repainted ones. That is a strict no-no. Besides, they look so fake and terrible. I’d rather have a heavily brassed black camera than one which had a mint looking refinished paint job.

I’ve heard that Nikon had a program years ago where professional photographers working for the leading pictorial publications of the 70’s could send in their battered camera bodies (hey, they were out in the Amazon, Siberia, Australia, Sahara, the Himalayas… what can you expect?) to Nikon, and they would refurbish them and send them back. Even repaint them. I suppose that if the factory did the painting, one could not complain.

However, I have never heard of any of the other manufacturers having such a program, so I’d consider a new paint job on an OM as fake as a $3. bill. That said, an individual collector may decide to have one of his many bodies refinished with glossy black enamel and some jazzy leatherette. More power to them. A little brassing and paint loss, even a small ding or two never hurt a camera. Besides, they ARE from 30 years ago. And if one plans on using them as real shooters, a little wear and tear is to be expected.

Everything changed as manufacturers realized that they could make the bodies much more cheaply in plastic. One small glitch though – back then, the coating technology was not so advanced as now, and “chrome finish” on plastic looked awful and wore off really quickly. It was far easier to make all the bodies in black plastic. That became the new norm, and has stayed with us ever since.

Things changed again in the late 90’s – it became possible to make “chrome look” plastics, and lots of the later consumer model SLRS changed to the chrome/satin finish. Some point and shoots were even made in a “champagne” colored plastic body. With the coming of the digital point and shoot cameras, hard-wearing chrome plastic came into its own. So did colored plastics. But that’s another story.

Anyway. The ‘black’ bodies extended to the point-and-shoot cameras and the rangefinders as well. I have a black Olympus Trip (I love this one)
and a black Olympus 35 EC.

Recently, I found a black Yashica MG-1, a black Ricoh 500G (this is one case where the silver one looks cooler, but that just me). Rounding off the Black cameras are a Honeywell-Pentax Repronar Camera body with bellows,

and a black Ricoh CR-5.

I also have a black Yashica Dental Eye

( an FX3 type body, I believe).

The black models usually cost an average of 3 times the price of a regular chrome (and in some cases, where the camera is in excellent condition, much more.). Rounding off my black collection is an excellent Olympus OM-2n.

Keep in mind that the coating is just skin deep. Black or Chrome, it’s still the same camera. Don’t go out of the way or way over your budget to get one, unless you are comfortable with the price. Above all, make sure it’s a shooter. What good is a camera that’s only fit for a display case?

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This work by Ajoy Muralidhar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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