May the Fourth be with you!
The glittering black camera sat on the nearby shelf, awaiting its first use by me. A generous loaner from Mike Eckman, it awaited a roll of film for an initial trial. And as I glanced at it, the tag line above from the classic space trilogy kept ringing in my head.
Where does one buy an Aiborg? In the Darth Maul (sic) of course!
Normally, the benevolent gift of a loaner camera is one met with great excitement, but my excitement was tempered by a large dose of skepticism. Not only had I read Mike's excellent review in which he candidly shared his frustrations with this camera, but as I took my initial glances at the form factor of this camera, I could only seem to feel confusion regarding its operation.
In a film camera world where we often lament the degree of sameness evident across different models from different makers, the Aiborg does stand out as truly unique, but it is this uniqueness that helps make it feel intimidating. Add in the "Death Star" styling and dizzying array of buttons, and the result is a "point and shoot" camera that feels like a far more complex and challenging machine than most of its genre.
The Aiborg feels in some ways like a ground up "reboot" of the concept of an automatic film camera, and a version focused on a feature rich environment. And while the concept of this sounds exciting at first glance, the execution of it comes off quite a bit less than perfect, It's impossible to know exactly what was going on behind the scenes at Konica as the 1990's dawned and the design and production teams converged to plan out their new premium offering.
Conjecture is the only tool one can elicit as they gaze upon the Aiborg, and my conjecture after looking at it and after using it was that the physical design of this camera took all precedence over its usability. The result is a rather large and intimidating form factor for what is supposed to be a "point and shoot" camera, but one that is nearly symmetrical.
The complicated layout on the rear of the nearly symmetrical Aiborg. The rocker switch at right controls focus point and zoom while the circular dial below the viewfinder is a diopter adjustment, Below is a view of the control panel, whose icons are in a forced perspective that only makes them more difficult to discern.
Control of the Aiborg's functions comes via 6 buttons of varying color atop the back of the camera. This is augmented by a rocking 4-way joystick control that adjusts the zoom level and focusing point. At the center is a small wheel to act a diopter adjustment for the viewfinder.
So, I guess now that I mentioned the "viewfinder," it's time to mention the Aiborg's most fatal flaw. In making the camera so symmetrical, this tiny viewfinder does not naturally line up with the eye. It may not seem like much of an issue at first mention, but it is infuriating. Seriously, it is a thousand times easier to find the right parts of one's significant other while making love in the dark than it is to pull the Aiborg's viewfinder up to your eye in bright sunlight. Each time I tried to look through the viewfinder, I found myself looking at black plastic rather than the scene ahead, and it seemed that when I tried to adjust where it was, I was only moving farther away. I strongly believe that this was a camera that was mapped out on a computer lab for which no mock-ups were made to test the ergonomics, or that it was tested by someone with abnormally widely spaced eyes.
Once you finally find the viewfinder for the Aiborg, the information is pretty decent. Seen here is an overlaid LCD with both distance and focal point information.
Scrolling through the feature set isn't too tough to figure out though the top mounted LCD's "perspective layout" is a challenge in that the visual icons aren't too easy to make out. Add in that some features allow numerical entry (such as a duration for the time exposure mode) and the result is a cumbersome camera not really designed for the beginner.
It took a little while to get up the nerve to shoot the Aiborg in practice, but I finally dropped in a roll of Ferrania 200 into its chambers to see what it could do.
While shooting the Aiborg wasn't an outright terrible experience as I initially expected, it was by no means miserable either. I used about 5 of the 12 special modes in its employ in the course of its initial roll, and each time, it seemed to function fairly well. The small and poorly placed viewfinder is also rather dingy in appearance when looking through, but does offer a few nice features. The nicest of these is a gauge that shows the focusing distance. Though in meters, I found it to be quite helpful at times when composing scenes with different possible focusing distances. For example, when shooting a tree branch with a distant backdrop in which the foreground element was the desired subject, it was easy to tell if the focus was properly set by looking at this gauge. If focused to infinity, it was a simple matter to release and retry focus to get the proper distance. This actually saved my shot a couple of times. Adding to the information on the viewfinder were clear icons to suggest flash or tripod usage.
Despite these few niceties, I hadn't yet seen enough from the Aiborg that would seem to justify its once hefty price tag or the rather cult-like following it has seemed to foster among some of today's film camera collectors. I only hoped that its 35-105mm zoom lens could offer up something otherworldly that only the force can provide. There was only one way to see!
First shot, first good result. It helped that it was a picture perfect Saturday!
An example of a shot in which the distance gauge in the viewfinder came in handy. Bokeh on this camera is nothing special as seen in the distant trees.
Using the backlight feature, I got a very good result from this scene.
Though beautiful bokeh is not to be found, this scene does render more or less just how I'd hoped it would.
When shot at the widest focal length, I found the Aiborg's lens to be nicely sharp.
Though only the slightest motion seemed to give some fuzziness, as seen here.
Seven second time exposure. Should have gone for about 20 to burn in lost shadow details.
Due to a tripod issue, I wasn't able to secure this longer shot properly. Shame as it had the makings of a good shot.
Another wide angle shot in good light well handled by the Aiborg.
And again... Very good sharpness in these conditions.
Despite some processing issues, this shot came out marginally decent, through no fault of the camera.
Oddly, the buildings that are 100 feet or more away are sharply detailed, but the trees on the hill backdrop are mushy and indistinct.
Another shot taken with some backlighting gives off a decent result without any help from the backlight feature.
A vivid and colorful scene that the Aiborg rendered just as I remembered it.
My only shot in the bouncy ball mode was a test of my favorite bouncy ball. It was a neat attempt, but will likely be my only attempt.
With the bouncy ball more at rest, I got this. Interesting how there is some lack of depth in this shot despite not a lot of distance being covered. Admittedly, I expected some futuristic font on the data back.
Wide and bright equals sharp - check!
Yet again, the distance gauge allowed me to shoot this with confidence.
Despite being shot in full sun, the result here looks more like bright overcast. Still a decent result.
While my disturbing lack of faith in the Aiborg was ultimately put at ease, I could find little to really love about this camera. It rendered shots that were nice enough, but really not worth the bulk and hassle that comes with the camera itself. I was thankful enough to have had the chance to use it, but more thankful not to have wasted any more than shipping money in the process of getting the experience. I'm far more thankful that I didn't shell out the serious money that this camera commanded upon its release, and can say that it didn't lure me to the dark side!