Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Seagull Camera

Seagull Camera, based in Shanghai, is China's premier camera brand, which isn't saying much. Everybody in China gets Japanese cameras, same as in the US. The company has never even developed a digital model, and I don't really understand how it still survives – perhaps through generous government subsidies?

The Seagull headquarters is located near the Bund, on Huqiu lu near Suzhou River – it’s directly south of Zhapu Lu food street. I didn’t walk around, but I saw it contains a display room, where most of their products are for sale.

Those with an interest in taking pictures might find the brand worthwhile. Seagull exports their TLR cameras to a niche market throughout the world, they're one of only two companies still producing TLRs. These cameras use a film size that is four times larger than 35mm film, and hence contains four times as much detail – theoretically, image quality is much better than any 35mm or digital camera. In operation, they don’t really look anything like a normal camera. I’ve only seen somebody using one once, here’s a picture of it:

The Seagull model is an imitation of the premier TLR brand, Rolleiflex. Personally, I own a Japanese-made Yashica, which also imitates Rolleiflex, and can confirm that the picture quality is outstanding. While I’ve heard the Seagulls TLRs don’t have as good a lens, and that quality can be inconsistent, it’s possible to find them used for around $25 or less, say at the Xingguan Photo Mall. There’s also a 109 model that I suspect is actually an OK camera, and has a higher-quality lens. However, it’s a newer model, not available used, and sells at a higher cost than a used Yashica.

Looking at these used Seagull Cameras gives a quick look at the wacky economy of post-Liberation China. The brand-name “Seagull” itself was shared among various companies, who separately made the same product at different factories. Additionally, the design was shared with a number of regional camera companies, which have since dissolved, but the cameras can still be found used.

Seagull’s other main product is the Seagull DF series. They’re a line of film SLR cameras. Interestingly, they’re fully compatible with Minolta’s old manual-focus lenses (and vice-versa). These cameras are cheap new, and practically free used. It’s a very easy way to get into SLR photography – used, a camera plus a 50mm F1.4 lens goes for about $50. On the other hand, getting a used Minolta XG or X-700 off ebay won't be much more expensive, and they're probably better cameras. Anyway, here's some information on Seagull's SLR line, for those with an interest in giving them a try. I'd guess the zoom lenses aren't very good, but I'm sure the prime lenses are fine. And at $30 for a new 50mm lens, and $60 for a 24mm, it's not a huge investment.

It will blow away the results from any non-DSLR digital camera, especially in lower light. As an example, here’s a band-picture of Muscle Snog, taken on ISO800 film, actually with a slightly dimmer F1.8 lens. Fuji also makes an ISO1600 film, although good luck finding it in Shanghai.

And here’s a picture of a band taken on a small digital camera. While it’s not a scientific A-B comparison, please believe that I’ve taken a lot of band pictures, and both results are pretty typical:

The display room also (strangely enough) sells Olympus's Stylus Epics, a line of smallish point-and-shoot film camera. They're still new, and there's a number of varieties. I have a couple and love them. The fixed-lens is the one to get for indoors, but the variations with zooms are also very good as an outdoor camera.

Seagull also re-brands generic cameras and cheap digital cameras. I ended up getting a 25mm toy camera. It’s fun, even if it sucks:


JanaGitana said...

Hello. thank you a lot for such a useful information. Thanks to you: now i finally know where to buy lomo cameras. and here i have one question more. I also want to buy Seagull (like the one you have taken the last photo - 25mm toy camera.) Can you please tell me where is the best place to get it and how much it cost app.
Thank you a lot.
I reall enjoy reading you blog. I just came to Shanghai and geting used to the life in this city. Love it!!!!

Jeff Rutsch said...

Hi Jana. Thanks for the nice comment. I had a look at your blog, and the pictures are amazing.

I got the camera at the Seagull office mentioned in the update, on Xietu Road just south of Suzhou River. There's a display room on the 1st floor. I forget how much it cost, though.

I haven't seen the camera anywhere else, but it's generic and made in Hong Kong. It's probably available at lower-end electronic market areas, and such.