Tightwad's Trailblazer: The Taron Marquis

Battery powered exposure metering is something that the vast majority of today's photographer's take largely for granted.  Today's sophisticated systems can do matrix metering, spot metering, and often include older standards such a "center-weighted" and "evaluative" as well.  Simply put, there is often little need for one to give much thought to exposure when armed with a camera, and can elect to concentrate more on composition and or focus in taking photos.

But this wasn't always the case.  One need only go back to the early 1960's to find a very different world photographically.  In-camera meters were themselves hardly universal, and those cameras that did offer metering typically did so via selenium cells that had a somewhat limited life expectancy and didn't really function adequately in lower light situations.

Interestingly enough, the advent of "CDS" cell metering powered by a battery didn't start with a well known name in photography today such as Nikon or Canon or Fuji, but rather a lesser known Japanese maker by the name of Taron.  Their release of the Marquis in 1962 was a significant leap for photography, and one whose effects are all too well known today, even if their own significance regarding this milestone has since been forgotten.

There are a number of Japanese camera makers of the 1950's and 1960's that were unable to adapt as global marketplaces and the camera industry changed through the decades.  Aires, Samoca, Petri and Taron are four such makers.  Taron's specialty was in 35mm rangefinders, and offered models such as the JL, MX, Unique, Robin, and EyeMax.  None of these other models were quite as groundbreaking as the Marquis however, whose CDS equipped body was the first such camera in the world.

Paired with a particularly swift Taronar f/1.8 lens, the Marquis could meter from light values ranging from LV 4 to LV 17, the Marquis was quite the shooter from a specification standpoint. With my interest piqued having seen a posting of a photo the Marquis in the Facebook Vintage Camera Collectors Group, I took a look on ebay and spotted one starting on auction for 99 cents.  I was certainly intrigued, and put a proxy bid in for a few dollars.

Of course, in my haste, I didn't notice in my quick glances at the auction listing that the camera had some issues. For example the aperture ring wasn't positioned so that the indicator faced a valid aperture value, a clear sign that the camera had been disassembled and hastily reassembled.  And as luck would have it, once I noticed this (near the close of the auction), I wound up winning the camera.  The good news is that I won it for the 99 cent opening bid, resulting in a total outlay with shipping included of under $10.  Having just had an unlucky stretch with a pair of other rangefinders, I mentally prepared for a dud to arrive in shipping.

Despite its weathering from some abuse in its 54 years, the Marquis still had a touch of class to its aged finishes. 

Sure enough, the camera wasn't in a usable state out of the box.  The aperture ring simply spun freely, and it seemed the shutter didn't fire properly.  However, after disassembling the outer rings of the lens, applying some Ronsonol to the shutter, I was able to get it firing snappily.  I also noticed loose screws on the inside of the lens barrel mounts that secured the aperture ring.  After tightening and proper repositioning, the aperture opened and closed properly as well.  I was hesitant to say that I had "fixed" the camera, but it seemed to be functional, so I elected to give it a try.

One thing that didn't work, even after installing the correct battery, was the pioneering light meter: the very feature that makes the Marquis such an interesting camera.  In addition the etching that holds the brightlines screen for framing jiggled about a bit in its frame, so the camera required some degree of coercing prior to shooting at times in order to jockey this screen back into its proper position.  

Though the meter was no longer operable, I was able to get a look at how it would have worked.  It appears that the meter use a mechanically linked device that would either block or tint (in red) the yellow dot atop the viewfinder to indicate exposure.  Arrows help guide the shooter to correct exposure.  If the dot is yellow, as seen here, turning the shutter speed ring to the right would move towards proper exposure, and if red, the shutter speed ring would need to be turned left to achieve the proper exposure.  On my copy, the dot was always yellow, indicating a broken meter.

But once I got over the inoperative meter, and got off the ground shooting, the Marquis was a surprisingly nice camera.  Despite its condition on arrival, the Marquis was a very solid camera, similar in size to the Konica Auto S2.  The rangefinder patch, though small, was bright enough to make for easy focusing in most situations, and the shutter release and winding felt fine, though my film advance lever did not automatically spring back and needed to be manually retracted. 

While many rangefinder cameras have the distances on the focusing ring itself, the Marquis has a simple mark on the focusing ring, with the distances shown on the camera body. 

I started off splitting a roll of Arista EDU 100 (presumed Foma) between the Taron and some other cameras to get some test shots, particularly since I wasn't entirely confident that the camera would work properly in the field.  In fact, my cynical side was expecting the worst from the Marquis, partly because of the incredibly low price I paid for it, but mostly because this was the among the first cameras I managed to revive from the dead.  

Despite my pessimism leaving me to put only minimal effort into the first photos, the Taron surprised me with some winners.  I was particularly impressed with the initial characteristics I could glean from the Taronar 45mm f/1.8 lens.  Though the results were not perfect, they were a stunningly good start.

 A sample distant scene taken on an overcast day rendered quite well on the Taron, albeit offering some flare in the upper right hand corner. 

A shot taken at f/4 of a near subject to test both sharpness and out-of-focus rendering reveals a decent sharpness of the in-focus subject and fairly pleasant but not terribly distinctive bokeh.

On a sunnier day, with the aperture stopped down, the Taron provides a very sharp image.  The Arista film offers a particularly vintage look from this scene, even if modern apartments invade. 

Despite evidence of a light leak seen here, the Taron produced a very nice rendering of the front of this truck, conveniently parked by one of my lunch spots.  

The camera certainly did an excellent job of rendering in-focus details sharply while providing good delineation to out of focus elements in the backdrop. 

With my first roll in the Taron Marquis a surprising success, I turned to see what it would do in color, and got a few shots on both color slide and negative films to continue to play with the focus and sharpness while getting a better idea of the color rendering of the Taronar lens. 

Loaded with Agfa Precisa 100CT, and shot through a less than pristine train window, I was surprised to get a result this good.  

On a humid summer afternoon, the Taron caught a nice color photo of one of my favorite Frederick County settings, albeit with the light leak still plaguing the left side of the image in exactly the same fashion as the image above. 

Sometimes, when I am focusing too much on nailing focus on an element, I can lose sight of other things, such as my complete disregard for the horizon in the background.  My main interest was the focus on the Black Eyed Susans, while keeping a lot of the background to see bokeh.  Overall, a decent test and result of both of these.

Under lower light, but stopped down, the Taron rendered quite well. The vivid look of this color slide is quite impressive.

I finished with some home-developed Fujicolor 200, taking the Taron out through Frederick County and into DC to give it another try.  In the above scene of Jefferson MD, the Marquis rendered the scene sharply and true to color. 

Despite some blown highlights in this brightly lit scene, I can't be anything but impressed by the rendering put forth by the Marquis. 

In varied lighting, the Taron Marquis performed well, even if I had to guesstimate exposure due to the coveted and pioneering meter no longer being optimal.

While previous bokeh tests were uninspired though not distracting, this example shows the lens is capable of some painterly swirly bokeh in the right conditions.  

A very difficult scene lost the detail on the statue above its platform as it hid in the shadows, but still rendered rather well. 

A second attempt with more exposure produced a much better result. 

The Farragut Memorial was not nearly as shrouded in shadow and rendered sharply, even if the harsh lighting gives off a less than flattering color profile to the resulting image.

While I can't say I was blown away by the Marquis, I was certainly say that I was pleasantly surprised, and that I got my money's worth in its 99¢ purchase price.  If I were to happen across another copy of this camera in more functional condition at a reasonable price, it would be a tough item to resist.  For now through, the Taron Marquis sits amid my stable as a working example of one of the "lost" camera makers of Japan from the 1960's, and I'm glad to have it.