Open-aperture TTL metering was pretty standard when I started using 35mm SLRs in the Eighties, but back in the Sixties it was a Big New Thing. These two cameras, the Topcon RE Super and Miranda Sensorex, were pioneers of the genre.
Their specifications are very similar, so they’re worthy of comparison. The key to that is the interchangeable viewfinders – which remained a rare feature and is unheard-of on DSLRs. Apart from that they both have an instant-return mirror, front-mounted shutter release, shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s, and a self-timer.
Topcon RE Super
The first to market was the Topcon in 1963. This is a big, square-cornered camera, and oozes quality. The feel of the wind-on action is the most exquisitely smooth I’ve experienced on any SLR. No wonder it was the camera of choice for the US Navy, who ordered special editions by the thousand.
The killer feature of TTL metering was achieved by placing a CdS photocell behind the mirror. A criss-cross pattern of lines cut into the silvering allowed just enough light through to the cell, while remaining unnoticeable in the viewfinder. The meter needle is a swinging T-bar, moving across a circular target. It’s directly visible through a window in the top plate.
Looking into the eye-level pentaprism viewfinder, you realise that the same T-bar needle is visible below the image. Eh? How can that work? The answer can be found in a complicated series of prisms in the finder that look sideways, through a little window into the left side of the top plate. From there, the light is bounced through even more prisms that enable you to see the meter from underneath. Clever.
The Topcon uses an enhanced version of the Exakta bayonet mount. It has a small diameter, so the additional mechanical connections that enable open-aperture metering are outside the bayonet and aren’t covered by the lens cap.
Launched three years after the Topcon, this is a more rounded and stylish design, perhaps making it more consumer-friendly. Again, the TTL photocell is behind the mirror – but this time it sees the world through an oval of horizontal slits. The match-needle meter is above the focusing screen, but to use it you first have to dial in the maximum aperture of the lens on a knob on the left front plate. After that you’re chasing the big orange meter needle with a circle-on-a-stick controlled by the shutter / aperture combination. All very familiar.
The lens mount is an external bayonet, a bit like the Canon FD design. Despite a decent size and four lugs, it never really feels secure and lenses can rattle around a bit. The aperture coupling is very external — both the body and the lens have a long arm sprouting out, with sprung pin at the end to snap them together.
This is a dual mount though, because inside the bayonet is Miranda’s proprietary M44 screw thread. There are no control couplings, so it’s for pre-set lenses only (if you can find any).
Both cameras were designed to take the now-discontinued PX625 1.35V mercury oxide battery. There are various workarounds available, and my preferred option is to solder a BAT43 Schottky diode into the wire from the battery compartment. It conveniently absorbs 0.20V, allowing you to use a 1.55V silver oxide SR44. There’s plenty of space for the diode inside both cameras. Job done.
As with a lot of consumer choices, it’s the little things that make all the difference. Here’s a run-down of the main three things that impress / annoy me:
Original equipment is split-image on the Topcon, and microprism spot on the Miranda. Personally I can’t stand microprism focusing and for me it’s a complete deal-breaker. That doesn’t put the Miranda out of contention for anyone who’s handy with a screwdriver. The great access provided by the interchangeable viewfinders means it’s a relatively simple job to swap out the focusing screen for a different one. I chose a nice ‘period’ split-image screen salvaged from a Ricoh 35 Flex, calibrated with shims so it matches the focus at the film plane.
Meter on/off switch
On the Miranda, this is very sensibly placed around the rewind knob and can be quickly operated by your left thumb. The Topcon is a bit of a pain in this respect. The meter switch is recessed into the base plate, and is a bit fiddly. I keep forgetting to switch it off.
An optional waist-level finder is available for both cameras, and in both cases takes mere seconds to fit. It’s really just a hinged cover for the bare focusing screen, plus a fold-out magnifier so you can put your eye right up (down?) to it and focus accurately.
There’s an issue with metering though. A TTL meter is affected by light coming in through the viewfinder, which doesn’t matter for eye-level pentaprism finders because your head blocks out the light. With waist-level finders, you can’t block the light as effectively, even when using the magnifier.
Here’s where we can really differentiate these two SLRs. With the Miranda, waist-level metering is always going to be miles off. Perhaps only a stop with the magnifier, but a good 2 or 3 stops without it. The Topcon has an ace up its sleeve. Just close the waist-level finder, and you can still see the meter needle through the window in the top plate. Meter, open the finder, focus, compose, and shoot. Brilliant.
I love the looks of the Miranda, but the angularity of the Topcon makes it just as much of a head-turner. As a camera to take out and use, I’d go for the Topcon. Being able to use the meter with the waist-level finder fitted is a wonderful bit of well-thought-out design. Just remember to take a spare battery for when you forget to switch off the meter.
Oh – and good luck finding rear lens caps for either of them. Thanks for reading.
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27 thoughts on “Topcon RE Super vs. Miranda Sensorex – By Stuart Jenkins”
If you’re still looking for rear lens caps for the Topcon lenses, then have a look at eBay for item #153438778099 I got a couple of them recently and it looks as though they still have some available.
I can’t get a result on that item number, but I’ve recently seen some very nice Tamron lens caps for Exacta mount. Very expensive though.
That’s really weird – I got the number from my purchase history (I bought 2 caps) but when, as you did, I make a search on the number I also get ‘nil’ result !
The caps are £4.36 each, the p&p is £2.58 and the name of the supplier is analog-lounge and they’re based in Germany. I was going to send you a screen shot of the listing, but it doesn’t look as though this form supports attachments.
I can recommend analog-lounge as a reliable supplier of obscure items.
Had a Miranda about 30 years ago, gave very nice results but the handling was rather clunky compared to the Nikon I was using at the time
Thank you for presenting this old vintage cameras.
You are very welcome Bernhard! 🙂
Stuart, a very informative comparison and timed beautifully as I’ve been perusing ebay for the last couple of weeks looking at the Topcon RE Super to add to my camera collection because of its historical setting in the development of the slr.
I love the looks of it, and always have since I read the press reviews when it first hit the market at a price way, way far too much for me at the time.
Despite my eclectic collection, it’s taken me quite a while to get round to considering one. I’m still undecided as with all things film related at the moment prices are going up and to add to my indecision is the situation re lenses. Unlike Nikon, who kept the F mount, Topcon played around with theirs and today it can be quite confusing for someone not familiar with the system to determine which lenses, other than the original ones for the RE Super will fit. Most, if not all, of my Exakta lenses should fit, but it’s not the same.
I do have two Miranda cameras, the Sensorex and EE. The meter is dickie in one, and dead in the other, but both are in lovely cosmetic condition and fully working, mechanically. It is well known that Miranda did not make its own lenses but sourced them from a number of lens manufacturers, some good some not so good. And this was the problem I found as I’m not really happy with the Miranda badged standard lenses on either camera I have. But as I got the cameras out of interest more than anything else, and cheaply, and not as shooters, it really isn’t an issue. But I mention it as it segues into my observation regarding the lenses. The early Topcon lenses have an enviable reputation for quality and this is where, IMO, the RE Super and its early derivatives will trounce the Miranda. And this will explain the price differential between the cameras and which can’t be explained away by build quality as the two Miranda cameras I have aren’t poorly built at all.
I also suspect Miranda’s odd choice of lens mount was more of an issue than with Topcon’s. Why provide a screw variant, but make it 44mm, when the 42mm mount was already well established? They tried to get round this by providing a 44mm to 42mm screw adapter (one of my Miranda bodies fortunately came with one) but why go down this route? Today, I suspect most of these adapters will have been lost, but even if you come across one blindly, how would you know what it was for?
My choice: the Topcon for looks and lens performance, but you’ll pay for it! However, if you can find the 42mm screw adapter and which opens up the world of 42mm mount lenses, then the significant price difference could swing it the other way.
Thanks for the nice comment Terry.
Regarding lenses, the choice is widened by the fact that you can get Vivitar / Soligor T4 adapters for both cameras. I have several adapters for each, and they also work with the later TX models. Most of the T4 / TX series were made by Tokina and many of them are excellent.
Thanks for the memories. I was just starting my adventures in photography in the late 1960’s. I worked for a camera shop that catered to the professional trade. We sold the Beseler’s, Nikons, Hasselblads, etc.
The US Navy used the Beseler Topcon Super D as their official 35mm camera. It was said at the time that they got the contract because the Navy thought it was an American made camera. I used to deliver some to a local naval base from our store. We were allowed to check out equipment from the store. I always thought the Topcon was superior to the Nikon both optically and mechanically. Topcon suffered from poor management & marketing, and lost the race to Nikon.
The Miranda was an ‘engineers’ camera. We sold many to construction, engineering and architectural companies. The engineers loved the design and the advanced features. The mount the Miranda (and Canon) used was called a ‘breech’ mount. An engineer once explained to me it was patterned after the breech loading feature of artillery guns. The thinking was you could always sung up the ring to compensate from lens mount to camera body wear and it wouldn’t unscrew like the LTM or the M42 mounts on older Leica and Pentax cameras.
A well written article and I’m glad to see these fine cameras are still producing. Thanks!
Thanks Dan! Opening up a Topcon and a Nikon shows a marked difference in approach. Nikons have compact, precision mechanisms with little spare room inside the body. The Topcon has lots of space inside and a more ‘agricultural’ design ethos – including an elaborate arrangement of chains and pulleys in the metering linkages (yes, CHAINS!).
I can beat that. My Zenit-C uses a piece of string (call it cord if it makes it sound more technical!) that is used to pull the reflex mirror back down into position when you wind the film on. Just remove the lens and you can see it. Also, New Zealander Chris Sherlock, who is an expert on Retina reflex repairs, tells me that the exposure meter linkage to the shutter in my Retina III reflex is cord driven. All that beautiful and complex engineering relies on a piece of string. Ha, Ha.
Yes, and that string breaks and the meter still works but doesn’t couple to the shutter speed/aperture setting. I have a beautiful working Retina IIIS rangefinder that has a broken string. The Retina IIIS is an incredible camera that has automatic framing when you interchange the lens and has parallax adjustment framing. Plus, it has a beautiful finish, ala Leica. The really incredible thing is that there is lens interchangeability between the Retina IIIS rangefinder and the Retina SLRs. I don’t think there was any other camera system that was able to pull such a thing off. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Retina didn’t use a something that wouldn’t break so easily. But a string?
Very nice. I’m a big fan of the Miranda so it’s interesting the you prefer the Topcon (a camera I have never tried. One other thing with the MIranda at the time of release was that you could buy camera mounted adapters for other makes of lenses like Nikon, obviously the realized they didn’t have the range of lenses available that their competitors had and doing that was a clever workaround; it also would have made it easier for photographers already invested in glass to switch systems.
I’ve not had an issue with the lens feeling loose that I am aware of (Now I’ll have to go home and give it a wiggle). My solution for replacement batteries (before I had mine adjusted) was AZ130P hearing aid batteries; they are small but I put a plastic ring around mine to keep them in place. They didn’t last a huge amount of time but worked well.
One thing missing from your review is the images; I am sure they both produce great photos but it would be nice to see what yours can do?
Cheers Nigel. Adapting to Nikon wouldn’t be too difficult as the F-mount has a greater flange focal distance, but it would be stop-down metering only. I’ve only got one M44 lens — a Hanimex 28mm f3.0 pre-set with their H-mount and an M44 adapter. It compounds the incompatibility even more because it’s a slightly-different alternative to the popular T2 mount. It’s a dreadful quality lens but I keep it for the novelty value.
I didn’t want to blow my own trumpet too much by posting photos I’ve taken, but there are examples from both cameras on my Instagram. 🙂
Nigel, I do take your point about not showing any images but, for me, images that have been compromised by scanning and then resized for viewing on a monitor, don’t really tell me much about the camera that took them, especially when quality optics have been used. If we’re really being honest with ourselves, how many of us could really tell which lens was used? So, far better, IMO, for a user to highlight the pro’s and cons of the camera, as I suspect that budding film photographers, or those with little to no knowledge of old school film cameras, would find a technical overview by itself very useful. I’d also say, even experienced photographers who won’t have handled every camera, would find reviews such as this useful, too.
Excellent review of a couple of oft-overlooked cameras! I found my Sensorex at thrift store in mint condition with the 50mm f1.4 and 35mm f2.8 and I love the look and feel of it.
I totally agree with you on the microprism focusing screens – definitely not my favorite which I why I sold my Pentax K1000 and bought a K1000 SE. I’m not a waist level shooter (except when I use my Rolleicord), but it’s nice that you pointed out the Miranda’s exposure issue with the WLF. I like your focusing screen hack though!
Cheers Rob. Swapping the focusing screen has made a huge difference to the Miranda’s usability, and in fairness I don’t use the WLF very often. I do love a good camera hack!
Hello from NZ.
I came here became I’ve just got a new Topcon GT Total Station for Survey work. We still have the previous two instruments both sokki dating back 25years I guess. I wasn’t aware topcon did cameras. Very interesting article I can see many similarities between cameras and survey instruments. BTW I like Leica instruments best.
Hi James, yes it’s a long-respected optical company… and who doesn’t like Leica? Cheers.
I’ve read that the small throat diameter of the Exakta / Topcon lens mount (a design that dates to about 1937, when an f2 lens was about as fast as they came) forced the use of very large diameter front elements on f1.4 lenses made for the Topcon.
Topcon cranked out the first 300 2.8 if I remember correctly – my dad has one packed away that was converted to Nikon f mount – is a beast and relatively affordable
Thanks for this. I found it very informative.
Where can I get a hold of those bat38 schottky diodes? Didn’t find any on the web
Hi Stefan, I got mine from eBay, and I searched my purchase history and saw that I actually bought BAT43 diodes so I’ve updated the article. If you search eBay for “BAT43 Schottky diode” you’ll get plenty of hits. The modification is based on this very useful article I found online: http://www.buhla.de/Foto/batt-adapt-US.pdf.
Hi Stuart – thank You for the reply, and the link to the article You found!
You wouldn”t happen to have a picture of how You did this mod on the topcon? Which wire (colour) is the one the diode will be soldered to?
Hi Stefan, the diode replaces the short wire between the battery compartment and the on/off switch. As the diode itself is longer than that distance, I placed it curving around the outside of the battery compartment, and then ran a wire from the other end of the diode to the switch. The LR44 battery has an O-ring around it to keep it central, and I bent the contacts at the bottom of the battery compartment up a little so they make good contact (an LR44 is thinner than the mercury battery).
I don’t seem to be able to display a photo in the comments, but here’s the link: Photo. In the photos, the diode is the blue component and the new wire is green. I used black heat-shrink sleeve to prevent it shorting.