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I bought this Nippon AR4392FH at a flea market for around three dollars. I'd heard of them before, but this was the first time I actually came across one in the wild. I figured the price was reasonable, considering it came with the box, a flash, some batteries, a pouch, a lens cap and all. So I bought it for curiosity's sake and for the sake of my website. Nothing beats cheap content. And because I'm such a hell of an original and witty Internet writer I'll give the Nippon the best and only treatment it deserves: complete derision and finger-pointing. Sorry folks, perhaps sometime later I'll come up with a nuanced and well-written piece. For now – it's this.
Of course I knew this wasn't a real SLR. Of course I knew this was a cheap Chinese fake meant for people who think anything big, black and with a giant "lens" has to be a professional camera. But I didn't care. I wanted to salvage one in the name of Science and my Website, because for all I knew they could have some very nifty communist technology.
Most of all, I think that LOMOgraphy and toy camera photography and similar ooh-let's-call-it-art fads prove that you can never be sure which crappy camera is going to be tomorrow's icon. Admit it, these Nippons have a lot of cult value. They're crap, they take shitty pictures, their boxes have outrageous claims, and they're Made in China. If that doesn't make them worshippable sex machines, I don't know what will.
The concept behind these cameras isn't too hard to understand. The idea is that they're supposed to look like real big expensive cameras, in the hope that the other people in your North-Korean labor camp will pay you and your camera due respect. It's communism at its finest, actually. Equality to the workers, emancipation to the proletariat, and to each his own shit camera. OK, so it's not real. But it looks real. And it takes pictures.
If I have to pick something to make fun of, I think I'll start with the box. Where Leicas and Nikons have expensive glossy stylized boxes, the Nippon sports weak blue cardboard. To be frank, it looks like shit. There's a big logo on the side that reads "As seen on TV!" — I think that says it all. Take these absurd claims:
IT'S ALL HERE!
ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED!
TAKE PROFESSIONAL QUALITY CLEAR COLOUR PRINTS OR SLIDES.
MAKE FUZZY OR OUT-OF-FOCUS PICTURES A THING OF THE PAST.
Wow, this is very impressive genius. Take claim number one: "Take professional quality clear colour prints or slides". Slides? They mention slides? They're so tricky I have Nikons I don't dare to take them with!
And what about the fuzzy or out-of-focus pictures? You know I in fact misread this a couple of times for "makes fuzzy and out of focus pictures. A thing of the past!". Like in, "back to the fun fun happy roots of photography!". But NO. They're serious!
Perhaps even more ludicrous are the product descriptions on the side of the box. They mention a Professional Lens Sunshade (a WHAT?), a High Resolution Lens (in the sense that a mustard jar is a Fair Resolution Lens), a New Optical Color Lens (it's not only new, but also optical!), and Automatic Exposure Control.
The Automatic Exposure Control took me some time to figure out. After applying lots of Britney Spears Rocket Science I think I have the answer. The trick to understanding it is that the film is the Automatic Exposure Control. See, when you underexpose the film, your picture will be dark. When you overexpose the film, your picture will be light. And when you correctly expose the film, your picture will be right. So all of it comes down to picking the right sensitivity for the right moment. See how easy this is? "It's the film, stupid!"
The killer has to be the New Optical Color Lens. Apart from the question what's so New about an Optical Color Lens and a simple meniscus at that, I wonder what comprises an "Optical Lens". Does Nippon have any knowledge of secret commie technology involving Non-Optical Lenses? Are they referring to gravitational lenses or diffractive slits? (A camera with a gravitational lens would be kind of cool. Unusable because of the gravity, but still a cool idea.)
From a holiday to Turkey in 1994 I can remember that these cameras were sold on bazaars right next to fake Rolexes and Nike shirts. That's probably where you'll have to go to find the kind of people who buy these things. I suspect they're the kind of person who've never seen a real camera up close and bets their relatives haven't either. That would make these Nippons something of a status symbol. *shudder*
Lest you not forget the professionality of the Nippon AR-4392FH, it comes with a score of Professional attributes. The most striking is the Professional Lens Cap (the professionality of which is reflected by the large inscription "CAMERA"), the Professional Lens Shade (no professional could do without his rubber press-on cone!), and the Nippon Flash. The Nippon even comes with a pair of AA batteries and even a strap. More than you can say of Leica!
The bag is also a splendid example of pristine excellence. No doubt glued together by a retarded nine year old with severe birth defects, it was somehow glued to the box' foam. After tearing it loose and cleaning it off, I found it only housed the camera body, but not the flash, the strap, the sun shade, etc etc etc.
Like the Romans used to say, nomen est omen. In this case we have the Nippon AR-4392FH, and who'll deny it sounds prestigious and fancy? Even stereo systems and motherboards have less elaborate names. Nippon is ofcourse meant to sound like Nikon, and AR-4392FH like F5. Seriously, no camera manufacturer would even dream of thinking to consider to name their camera like this. No, they call theirs Bessa, Maxxum, Rebel, Bessy, Click or Clack.
Like I expected, the Nippon is all style over substance. Quite literally, because the boys from China didn't even have the courtesy of weighing it down with sand or lead. It's extremely light as it is. Apart from what it needs to take pictures, it's absolutely hollow. Baked air, as the Dutch say when they mean worthless crap.
This camera doesn't fool anybody who's seen any camera from less than a hundred yards away. The prism is so hollow and worthless it's sad. So is the huge lens. If you look through the massive front glass element, you see a small point-and-shoot meniscus embedded deep inside. Lo and behold, the famed New Color Optical 50mm f/6.3. If it wasn't for all the flare caused by the transparent cover, you wouldn't even need the Professional Sunshade.
The lens tube has a lot of phony rings and markings that look like they do stuff, but don't. They all form a single monolithic unit with the lens tube. "Aperture" and "focus" rings – all stuck in permanent catatonia. It's sort of sad – this Nippon is definitely a "look, don't touch" camera.
The viewfinder is one of the sorriest elements of this camera. Instead of having the courtesy to somehow fit it into the fake prism to make it look at least a bit like a normal camera, the Nippon "engineers" placed it to the side where it's very conspicuously inconspicuous. I wouldn't want to be seen dead looking through a viewfinder to the side of the huge prism.
The viewfinder is pretty crisp, but makes it up by distorting like mad, not having any framelines and being very flare-sensitive.
Loading film goes in the same way familiar from the plastic compact cameras loved by poor and rich alike. It's the usual hassle with drop-in loading, take-up spool and the regular. In fact the Nippon is nothing other than a normal plastic compact camera disguised as an expensive but highly idiosynchratic pro reflex. Nippon has other models of plastic camera, and they use exactly the same technology as this AR-4392FH.
The film compartment is way too long, which I think is an "alibi" for making the body about twice as long as necessary for a plastic point-and-shoot. The film rails are curved, which shows the engineers or whoever they are couldn't even make their High Resolution 50mm lens project an image on an equal plane!
Of course the Nippon has an automatically resetting film counter, which is one of the features boasted on the box, no less. You open the back. The counter resets. Genius.
I have the manual to go with the camera too. Here's a transcript from the first page:
Thank you for buying our 35mm camera Allow me to explain something to you: How the 35mm camera works well? When you pull out the rewinder knob, please don't pull it out too hard. May be you can find a experienced person to help you. When you loaded the film it should be loaded in proper position (right on the gears), then close the back tightly and advance the film until the film counter reads from "1" (ptease always use ASA 100 Negative)
When you can take a nice picture, this is good timing from 8:00 AM till 11:00 Am and from 2:30 PM till 4:30 PM. The subject should have to face the enough sunshing then you can take a good picture.
How to release the film? First of all, you have to PUSH IN the rewind button located at the base of the camera body then start to rewind the film, when it fully rewound then pult out the rewind knob slightly and sent the film to develop it.
After this stupid word of welcome by persons unknown, the exact same procedures are explained further on in the manual. I have a feeling the person behind this crap is the president of the factory, who, in his school English, tries desperately and vainly to make the camera less of a fool than it already was. Of course, none of his employees dared to stop him, probably because he was the district leader's kid brother.
I've never taken any pictures with this camera (come on, I'd be too embarrassed. At least with Russian cameras you have a story), but based on experience with other shitty plastic cameras I think the results will be extremely mediocre and poor quality. I think I'll wait till these are mainstream.
I have to admit that a lot of my toy camera enthusiasm has gone since I was a Dianagrapher, but spending some time with the Nippon and analyzing its flaws and its manual, I really know what it's all about again. This is likeable crap!
Here in New York City, these are sold in the street to tourists by con artists. There are many variations of this camera sold, but they look almost the same and must be made in the same Chinese factory. One comes in a very expensive looking box (much improved from the Nippon box) and is called a "Neekon". I have also seen a "Cannon".
One type of seller has an expensive real SLR (Nikon, Canon) around his neck. He approaches tourists with with a conspiratorial whisper and offers to sell them his expensive camera for a very low price, say, $50–100. He implies that he has just stolen it. When he finds a sucker, he then tells them he will give them one of the "sealed" ones, because he needs the one around his neck to demonstrate his goods. In the heat of the moment, and in fear of the police, the ignorant tourist will hand over the money and accept the sealed box, which is the "Nippon". Not until he returns to his hotel room does he discover it is a piece of junk.
Other sellers sell the cameras outright. The box makes the unsophisticated tourist think it is a very expensive camera, and the seller always hints that it is a huge bargain because he has just stolen them.
Another type of con artist will have a sealed, shrink-wrapped real box of a very expensive camera, VCR or digital camcorder, worth thousands of dollars. Often he will have the manual or guarantee card to show tourist. He says this item has just been taken from a car or a truck, and he wants to dump it quickly for $200 or so. The tourist will pay for the camera, rush back to his hotel room, unwrap the "sealed" box, and find it full of wet rags, rocks, or old books added to give the empty box weight. Even a sophisticated friend of mine was once duped in this way, even going to a cash machine to get the money. His "digital camcorder" turned out to be an *old hammer*, wrapped in wet newspapers. The con artists apparently take the empty boxes out of trash cans and have access to a plastic shrink wrapping machine.
The "Nippon" was also sold as a mail order item in the USA very successfully for several years. The customers were mailed a very colorful, elaborate, and lavishly illustrated mailing pak full of photos of pretty girls in bikinis, happy families and pictures of Disneyland supposedly taken with the "Nippon" camera. It came with endorsements by famous "photographers" and many pages of bogus technical information. There was a price chart comparing the Nippon to Nikons, Minoltas and Canons, claiming the the Nippon was formerly only sold in Japan and was a huge bargain being newly imported into the USA. It came with a cheap tripod, some off-brand film and other extras claimed to be worth about a thousand dollars. The kit was sold for $199.
They also claimed to give you "free film" for life. Free, of course, when you developed your film with a special company that charged twice the normal rate for processing, and returned to you another 12 exposure roll of cheap film.
They sold tens of thousands of these kits until they were stopped by the Post Office due to fraudulent claims. I wish I had saved one of these mailings, they were hilarious but very convincing for a person with little knowledge of photography.