Konica Auto S3
Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

Konica Auto S3 – Small and Perfectly Formed – By Bob Janes

November 8, 2021

Coinciding with their centenary in the early 70s, Konica fused two of their camera lines together. Since 1968 they had made a compact rangefinder camera called the C35. They had also made a series of fast fixed lens rangefinders in the ‘Auto S’ series. Now they produced a camera with the body of the C35 and the lens of the Auto S cameras. This was known as the C35 FD in Japan and the Konica Auto S3 elsewhere. The Auto S3 was finished in black anodised aluminium, while the C35 FD had a plain anodised finish.

Konica Auto S3 front

Lens

The Konica Auto S3 sports a 38mm f/1.8 lens with 6 elements in 4 groups. Wider than the lenses on previous ‘Auto S’ cameras (45-47 mm). Faster, by more than a stop, than the 38mm found on the standard C35 cameras.

It is a handy little lens. It seems to have had lots of plaudits and attracts a lot of very favourable comparisons. The downside of the superb lens is its extra depth. It is still jacket-pocketable, but is bulkier than its smaller (elder) brother.

Konica Auto S3 and C35

The Auto S3 and the C35 nose-to-nose. The anodised black finish is very hard-wearing, but where it does wear off it shows through as an uninspiring grey. The natural finish shows less wear over time.

Exposure

The Konica Auto S3 gives a little more control over exposure than the C35. It sets an aperture that will work with a shutter speed set on the ring around the lens. Shutter speeds vary between 1/500 and 1/8 (plus B). An exposure lock operates on a half-press of the shutter release.

Konica Auto S3 lens

Shutter speeds, focus and guide numbers are set by rings around the lens mount.

The Konica Auto S3 provides film speeds between 24 and 800 are set by a little tab at the bottom of the shutter speed ring. This positions a mask over the CdS sensor to shade it. As you select slower shutter speeds the mask opens up to let more light in. All very mechanical and reasonably fool-proof.

Battery

The Konica Auto S3 takes a 1.35v mercury battery, but a 1.45v zinc-air battery works as a reasonable substitute. Without a battery the mechanical shutter speeds still operate as normal, but the lens will be wide open, as there are no manual apertures.

Operation

Everything is where you would expect and operates in the way you would expect. The CdS cell is inside the filter ring. The self-timer operates by pulling down to the side. Lifting the rewind crank pops the film door.

Konica Auto S3 open back

Not a lot of wasted space. Sakura was the brand name of Konica’s in-house film at the time.

Focus is set on the Konica Auto S3 using a nice large tab that moves between the 3 and 4 o’clock positions. Closest focus is 90 cm.

Film wind-on is via a little one-stroke lever with a plastic tip on the top-plate. The shutter release is just in front of the wind on lever, offset slightly to the left. The only other features on the top plate are the film counter window, a hot shoe (with a cam that detects if a flash is in place) and a fold-out rewind crank.

Automating flash

Konica Auto S3 lens

Put a flash in the hot-shoe and the lens stops down to an aperture appropriate to the guide-number and focus distance. Note the five-bladed aperture, also found on the later Cosina ‘fellow travellers’.

One extra trick up the sleeve of the Konica Auto S3 is its direct flash capabilities. The camera is able to detect a flash in the hot-shoe and sets the aperture to suit the focus distance for the appropriate guide number. The shutter can synch at any speed and the camera displays a flag in the viewfinder showing what aperture it is going to use. Adjusting the shutter speed to bring the meter needle in the viewfinder in line with the flag, gets you the correct shutter-speed and aperture combination for fill flash at that particular distance.

Konica Auto S3 viewfinder

The viewfinder of the Auto S3 when a flash is in the shoe. The broad green flag shows what aperture is currently set for the selected guide number and focus distance (about 6ft here). The meter needle shows what the settings should be for natural light. If the shutter speed was increased so that the meter needle overlapped the flag, we should get balanced fill-flash exposure for a subject 6ft away.

Good points

  • Light-touch shutter release requiring very little pressure
  • Exposure lock on initial press of the shutter release
  • Compact body
  • Largely mechanical
  • Excellent lens

Downsides?

  • There is no off switch for the meter. The only way of preserving batteries is to cover the lens.
  • There is no shutter lock. You either have to store it without the film wound on for the next exposure, or be careful that the light touch shutter release doesn’t get pressed accidentally in a pocket or camera bag.
  • The plastic cover for the battery compartment is quite soft and tends to get marked-up with use.

The C35 had a little aluminium cover, which does not tend to ‘chew-up’ quite so much.

The only other downside of this fast lens camera is that too many people know how good it is. You are unlikely to find a working copy of the Konica Auto S3 / C35 FD at a bargain price.

Fellow travellers

There are a number of other compacts that are often associated with the Konica Auto S3. These are similar in specification and dimensions and certainly seem to share the same viewfinder/rangefinder unit, but the rest of the internals and the lenses are different. The Minolta Hi-Matic 7sII, Vivitar 35ES and Revue 400SE all appear to have been manufactured by Cosina in the late 1970s. These cameras are almost identical in size  to the Auto S3 (a fraction wider, a tad shorter) and feature a 40 mm f/1.7 lens (also 6 elements in 4 groups). The 40 is also highly respected. Specification is almost identical. Taking the top plates off confirms that the Minolta, Vivitar and Revue cameras are the same camera under the skin. A look at the internals of the Auto S3 confirm that the Konica is a different design.

The Hi-Matic does not have the flashmatic feature of the Konica, Revue or Vivitar cameras, but does allow manual setting of apertures for tricky exposure situations or when using an automatic flash.

It is notable that the release of the Minolta, Vivitar and Revue models in 1978 coincides with the discontinuation of the Auto S3. It is not impossible that the Auto S3 was produced in Cosina’s works to a Konica design, with Cosina using what they had learnt to produce their own similarly specified camera on the same production line afterwards – but this is speculation.

Pictures

Konica Auto S3, Kentmere 400, processed in R09 (1:50)

Shadows

Old Naval College against the light

Masts

Old Naval College chapel

Entrance to the chapel

The Yacht – the first pub in the Western Hemisphere. The Cutty Sark pub, about 100 yards to the right, can claim to be the first pub in the Eastern Hemisphere…

Shrimps and beer

Summary

The body of the Konica Auto S3 is very compact and fits the hand well. Given the spec of fitting in a fast 38mm lens and a 135 film the camera is about as small as it could be – exactly the same height and depth as the Canonet GIII QL17, but 1 cm less in width.

The lens is very good, but then the ones in rivals from Canon, the Olympus and the others are too. The main advantage over the GIII and the Olympus 35 SPn is the lightness of the shutter release, but all are very usable.

Whenever I use the Konica Auto S3 I find myself wondering why I don’t use it more. It wasn’t cheap when I bought it used over 30 years ago, but I’m rather glad I picked it up.

For a similar and slightly more affordable experience, the Konica C35 rangefinder camera is also a lovely little camera, featuring the same focal length on a slightly slower f/2.8 lens with programmed exposure.

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7 Comments

  • Reply
    Helge
    November 8, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    Pretty overrated in my book.
    Which is a good thing since it works as bait and distraction for other better options.

    Only thing it has got going vs. other similar rangefinders is size.
    But size usability goes in steps. Either *real* small so it’s easy and carefree to carry in a small cover in you pocket.
    Talkin Contax T, Minox or Pen EE.

    Any bigger and it’s going to just be a distraction and hindrance out and about, so you might as well carry it in a bag or on a strap.

    S3 is just that bit to big, but with all the negatives of a smaller camera. IE no manual mode with meter, squinty finder and fiddly controls.

    The lens while good, is woefully oversold.
    All the hype hinges on the elusive magazine review, that everybody quotes but no one has ever seen.
    It’s most likely a Cosina lens. Both in design and make.
    The S2 and HiMatic 7 lenses, being ten years older are either superior or every bit as good.

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      November 10, 2021 at 6:31 pm

      There are some lovely small rangefinders out there – some of which you mention, but they do have slower lenses than the class of rangefinder cameras this article is focused upon. I can’t think of another fast rangefinder that is smaller than the Auto S3.

      I’ve never found the viewfinder to be ‘squinty’ and the auto functions on the S3 work well enough that I don’t feel the need to switch to manual.

      Part of the advertising for the Auto S series was a tag line that said the lens was worth the price alone. However elusive the review might be (your post is the first rebuffal I’ve seen of it), there are countless users who have been impressed over the years.

      I have no doubt that the lens could have been made by Cosina, as they were one of the premiere lens grinding companies in Japan at the time – being made by Cosina is hardly a minus. That Cosina made the lens slightly different for the Minolta/Revue/Vivitar versions makes me think that the design was originally from Konica and that it was changed just about enough to not offend. But what the hell, it is a lovely little lens, whoever designed it.

      As for the S2 and HiMatic & lenses on previous models – I’m sure they were great (although I’ve not shot with them) – however I find the ergonomics of the Auto S3 to be about as good as 35mm fixed lens rangefinder got. Other opinions are, of course, perfectly valid.

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    November 8, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    These were nicely made little cameras. Your results look good. I take traveling a similarity specified Yashica Electro 35CC camera with a 6 element 35mm f/1.8 lens. The Yashica is aperture priority; no total manual unfortunately.

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      November 10, 2021 at 6:33 pm

      Well, if the auto works well, you don’t necessarily need ‘total manual’ (although it is always nice to have in your back pocket).

  • Reply
    Craig Schroeder
    November 8, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    I had S3’s and most of the decent alternatives (Minolta Hi-Matic E, Canonette’s, Rollei 35’s, etc) The S3 always seemed to produce the best negatives. The loose lens housing gave it a “Made by Mattel” sense that I didn’t like but its function was intuitive and easy. I liked the flashmatic system, too. There were many small manual flashes floating around in those days that paired nicely. I sent one with a photo friend who was headed on a mountain hunting trip and taking his F-1 Canon gear. His best shots were with the S3 and he purchased one for himself right away. The S3 wasn’t as tactiley gratifying as some others but as a functional tool, it was a great producer….

  • Reply
    Paul Trantow
    November 8, 2021 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks for the little Greenwich travelog! I was there for the first time just a couple years ago. The photos look quite sharp! Always amazes me for these little old brownies : )

  • Reply
    Gil Aeherter
    November 8, 2021 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for the interesting review!

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