CamerAgX

January 31, 2010

Nikons’s most advanced manual focus “ultra-compact” SLR: the Nikon FG

Filed under: Gear, Nikon Cameras — Tags: , , , , , — xtalfu @ 11:58 pm


In 1972, Olympus launched the OM-1. Much smaller and lighter than any other single lens reflex (SLR), it opened the path for a new generation of more compact cameras. Nikon’s own FM (launched in 1977) was remarkably smaller than the Nikkormat cameras it was replacing, but still a tad bigger than the Olympus OM-1n. Built like a tank, it was not light, either.


It would take another model, deliberately designed for the beginners, the Nikon EM (1979), to finally beat the OM-1 at its own game (weight: 460g against 510g, width: 135mm instead of 136mm). Small and light, the EM had a plastic (polycarbonate) body over an aluminum chassis, an aperture-priority exposure control system, and very few ways to over-ride the automatism. A magic -2EV button could be used for back-lit scenes, and that was about it: there was no semi-automatic exposure mode. It could use all Nikon’s previous AI (auto-indexing) lenses, as well as a new series of cheaper lenses (the E-Series) launched for the occasion. The E-series lenses were smaller and less elaborate than the other Nikkor lenses, but some of them (like the 50mm f:1.8) gained a very good reputation over time. It has to be noted that the E-Series lenses were the first to use the AI-S version of the F mount. Geeks can learn more about the evolution of the lens mounts of SLRs in the pages published a few months ago in this blog. 50 years of lens mount evolution.


Nikon FG


In 1982, Nikon extended their “ultra-compact SLR” range with the FG. It retained the platform, the dimensions and the shutter of the EM, but its electronics had been revised to incorporate two exposure modes, a semi-auto and fully automated program adjusting the aperture and the shutter speed. It also adopted the On the Film (OTF) flash metering system of the FE2. Not a pro camera yet, but not a beginner’s camera anymore.


To this day, the FG remains the smallest of the manual Nikon SLRs targeting the “advanced-amateur” market. A few “all-plastic” autofocus SLRs tipped the scales at 350g in the subsequent years, but Nikon’s digital reflex cameras are all bigger and heavier.


Shooting with the FG


The FG was available in two versions: “chrome” or black. Both had a small removable grip at the right of the body, and looked like smaller copies of the F3. After all these years, the FG is still a very nice little camera. Like the EM, it’s built around an aluminum chassis, and the body itself is in polycarbonate. The commands are simple and well organized. A single selector controls the shutter speed (for semi-automatic operation) and the type of exposure automatism (aperture priority or program). When the program mode is selected (after pressing a safety lock), the aperture ring of the lens has to be set at the smallest aperture. If the photographer forgets to set the aperture, the “overexposure” LED will flash in the viewfinder. The shutter is taken over from the EM and can not offer anything better than 1/1000 sec, with a flash synchro speed of 1/90. Incidentally the shutter still works at 1/90sec when the batteries are dead.


There are few other controls on the FG. A switch disables the warning beeps that the camera emits in multiple occasions, and a push button on the left side of the body can be used to open-up the exposure by 2 stops, to prevent under-exposure in back-lit scenes. There is no way to switch off the camera, and the best way to prevent battery drain is to leave the shutter speed selector on the manual 1/90sec setting when the camera is not in use.


Nikon FG - The commands

Nikon FG - The commands


The viewfinder is one of the places where savings were made. With 0.84x magnification and 92% coverage, its performances are similar to the FM or the FE’s, but remarkably inferior to the exceptional OM-1, which in spite of being so compact, still combines a magnification of 0.92x with 97% coverage. At the right of the viewfinder, the photographer will find a scale representing the shutter speeds, with one or many (up to three) red LEDs showing the actual shutter speed and/or the ones recommended by the metering system. Red LEDs, as usual, happen to be invisible when the camera is used in a bright environment.


Derived from the EM and largely built in plastic, the FG is obviously not in the same league as the FE2 or the F3 when it comes to build quality. The articulated winding lever is not as smooth as the F3’s (which is mounted on roller bearings) or the FE2’s, which gives the impression of being mounted on a bronze bearing. The camera has the reputation of being prone to a scary shutter lock (nothing dramatic – set the shutter dial to Manual 1/90sec , and everything goes back in order). To me, it looks more like a “bug” than anything else.


Olympus OM-1 and Nikon FG

Olympus OM-1 and Nikon FG: not a big difference in size - the design objectives of their manufacturers were miles apart, though.


In a few words, the FG is a strange combination of relatively advanced features (multi-mode exposure automatism, on the film flash metering) with a base which is derived from an entry-level camera. In particular in its black version, it looks very competent and professional, which could lead to some disappointment. Because of its small size and its serious looks, it’s easy to believe that it’s a pro camera, comparable to its FM2 and FE2 stablemates, or to the Olympus OM-2.


Nothing could be more wrong. The Nikon FM2 and FE2 are equipped with an exceptional titanium or aluminum shutter, with flash sync speeds up to 1/250sec and a maximum speed of 1/4000 sec. The shutter of the FG is much more limited, and its top speed of 1/1000 sec is a serious limitation on a bright sunny day now than 400 ISO seems to be the universal film sensitivity, in black and white as in color.


The FM2, FE2, OM-1 or OM-2 were cameras built for demanding amateurs or professionals; a small size was one of the design objectives of their manufacturers, but it came second to build quality.


The second hand market recognizes those facts: a nice FE2 costs at least $ 125, with the FM2 and some late Olympus models crossing the $250 barrier. Well received on the market when it was launched, the FG is still abundant on the second hand market and a very nice one can be found for approx. $50.00. A nice compact SLR for casual photography.


More about the Nikon FG


Nikon’s own words about the FG
Photography in Malaysia: the “bible” for the amateurs of Nikon cameras. Check the Nikon FG pages.


The Nikon FG - a light SLR for mountain hikes

The Nikon FG - a light SLR for mountain hikes

January 23, 2010

The world through a plastic lens? A few pictures in Rome with the Holga 120 CFN

Filed under: Gear, Pictures, Weird cameras — Tags: , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 11:59 pm


When your good friends learn that you still shoot film, and write about it, they understand they have a unique opportunity to get rid of all the – let’s be polite – worthless photo equipment they don’t use anymore and you end up with Kodak Brownies or Instamatics by the bucketload. And if your brother in law is really facetious, he brings you a brand new Holga from one of his trips in China, and since it’s a Christmas present and everybody in the family is intrigued, you buy film and start using it.

Holga 120 CNF

Holga 120 CNF


That particular camera comes in a big orange box with the rest of the “Starter Kit”. Reading the user manual, you get confirmation that the camera is “extremely low tech, and will eventually wear out”. Major design flaws are presented as unique features – the dreaded manual mentions “leaks of light, unvoluntary multiple exposures, loose connection between the film and the take up spool” among the desirable characteristics of the product. Looking for some comfort, you check a little square format book at the bottom of the box. It’s a nice paperback of 192 pages, showing 300 images taken with Holga cameras. Not something Leica or Nikon would be proud of, but interesting pictures nonetheless.


The camera’s design is very basic. It accepts 120 format roll film, has a plastic wide angle lens (60mm, F:8 or F:11) with 4 possible focus settings, and a shutter which offers a unique and unspecified speed. The camera comes with 2 user interchangeable back plates, one will give you 6×6 cm negatives with some vignetting, the other one 6×4.5cm negatives, probably with less vignetting (I don’t know, I only shot with the 6×6 plate). The “CFN” Holgas also come with an electronic flash, equipped with a turret of 4 filters (Red, Blue, Yellow and transparent) for special effects.


Using the Holga


The Holga 120 CFN needs 120 film – of course – and since Holgas are supposed to be enjoyed for their shortcomings, color film should be preferred (the plastic lens is prone to chromatic aberrations which would not be visible with black and white film).


Finding color film in 120 rolls proved very difficult. If 35mm film is still easy to find (even in supermarkets or in the little stores attached to many hotels), the same can not be said for 120 roll film. Only stores dedicated to professional photographers still have a few references. I bought a few rolls of Kodak’s Portra 400 NC film. Loading the camera is a difficult task, but in all honesty I’m not used to roll film and I would also have suffered with a more high end camera.


Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (120 film adapter removed)

Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (the 6x6 back plate has been removed - the two AA batteries power the electronic flash ).


In the street, the camera attracts lost of attention. People notice the bright red color (Holgas are also available in black, kaki and in a unique blue and yellow combination), and are intrigued by the cheap aspect of the camera. It looks like a toy, and people are surprised to see an adult using it.


The camera has very few controls and is easy to use, with a decent viewfinder and relatively smooth commands, and provides a user experience very similar the “boxes” that Kodak used to sell before the launch of the Instamatic cameras.


The results
Having the rolls processed proved as difficult as buying the film in the first place. Costco and the proximity drugstores don’t process anything larger than 35mm film, and the rolls had be sent to a professional lab (some of them charge up to $20.00 per roll). When you receive the pictures, you discover the “Holga paradox”: you’re not attracted to the almost “normal” images, but by the most severely flawed. The pictures with the fewer technical faults are just bad (with vignetting and all sorts of aberrations), while some of the images plagued with the worst of the problems (involuntary multiple exposures, light leaks) have a surrealist quality that the most creative of the photographers would struggle to get from a digital picture processed in Photoshop.


Holga, what for?


“Normal” photographers are supposed to spend thousands of dollars in the equipment which will help them produce pictures as perfect as possible from a technical point of view – in focus, sharp, with the right exposure, no vignetting, no distortion, and no chromatic aberration.

Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN

Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN - This is one of the pictures with the fewest defects.

Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles

Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles


Deviations from the norm of the technically perfect picture are supposed to be voluntary, in order to convey an emotion or a message. They’re not supposed to have been brought randomly by a poorly designed camera.


Holgas don’t follow the rule. They’re not “normal”, and they’re not what “normal” photographers would be looking for. Their results are totally unpredictable. When nothing went really wrong, the results are dull. It’s only when they are massively flawed that the pictures start being surprising and interesting.


Using a Holga reminded me of the “Exquisite Corpse” creativity method used by the Surrealist movement at the beginning of the XXth century. With a Holga you will rely on chance to create something new and different. Using the bright red Holga, I started believing that chance could be an artist on its own right. And you end up loving that little camera for that very reason.



More about Holga cameras


Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...

Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...


A few decades ago, photographers in Austria discovered the “Lomos” (copies of Cosina point and shoot cameras made in the USSR), and liked the – flawed – pictures made by those very imperfect little cameras so much that they launched the “lomography” movement. They started distributing the “Lomos” in Austria and Germany, and progressively added other cameras from Eastern Europe and China to their catalog. Lomos and Holgas are now widely distributed, and can also be purchased directly from the Lomography web site, where a red Holga 120 CFN can be found for $75. That’s a lot of money for such a low tech object. Bargain hunters can also find Holgas on eBay, for far less.


Cynics will say that the initiators of the Lomography movement found a way to get rich selling Soviet surplus to the rich photographers of the West, and philosophers that they showed that chance and chromatic aberrations could be more creative than would be artists obsessed with technical perfection.


Holga links


The Holga blog: a blog about film photography, Holgas, Toy Cameras, 6×6 TLRs, Polaroid – “LO-FI” photography at its best.
The Holga group on Flickr
Cameras from (formerly) communist countries: does not include Holgas, but the original Lomos, Dianas & Lubitel cameras, among other things.


Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN

Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN


January 17, 2010

Single Lens Reflex or Rangefinder Camera? A few days with a Leica CL

Filed under: Gear, Leica Cameras — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 12:50 am


I was back in Paris for a few days at the end of last year, and since there was still room in my equipment bag, I pulled my old and battered Leica CL from a drawer and took it with me. A good opportunity to check whether I could get acceptable results out of it this time.


I never was a rangefinder guy. When I started being interested in photography, semi-automatic Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) were already the norm, and Leica an expensive brand of obsolete cameras. My formative years were spent with a Pentax MX, and I’ve always found natural to see the world on the matte focusing screen of a reflex camera. But I was intrigued by the Leica legend, and one day, purchased a Leica CL. Over the last 15 years, I used it rarely, but being light and compact, it could find a slot in my equipment bag from time to time.

Leica CL with its two lenses

Leica CL with its two lenses

The CL was a sort of entry-level rangefinder camera, designed by Leitz in Germany and built by Minolta in Japan from 1973 to 1976.


From a technical point of view, it is a miniature M5, and very advanced for a Leica of its time. A semi-auto camera with through the lens metering, it used a mechanism very similar to the system used in the much maligned M5’s.


After the CL and the M5 were abandoned in the mid seventies, Leitz reverted to fully manual cameras with no metering capabilities, and aficionados had to wait for another 10 years before a semi-auto rangefinder camera was proposed again by the German firm.


With its M bayonet mount, the CL could use the 50 mm lenses of its bigger brothers, but Leitz had also designed two lenses specifically for the CL, a 40mm Summicron (F:2) and a 90mm Elmar (F:4).

Using the Leica CL


A true Leica, it also used a focal plan textile shutter (1/2 sec up to 1/1000 sec). The rangefinder has a short base and is not as accurate as the M6’s, but is good enough for the 90mm Elmar.


A class at the Louvres Museum- Jan.2010. Paris

A class at the Louvres Museum- The CL is small and silent, and nobody paid attention to me or to the camera.


With its mechanical shutter, the CL only needs a battery for metering, and uses it sparingly. Mine still has the mercury battery I bought it with, but I suspect it must be at the end of its life, because the recommendations of the metering system were so bizarre that I decided to forget about it and apply the “sunny 16″ rule. With a battery in working order, the determination of the exposure is very simple (a match needle at the right of the viewfinder).


On the CL, the image in the viewfinder is large and clear. The viewfinder has a greater field of view than the 40mm lens normally mounted on the camera, and projected bright lines show to the photographer what the actual picture will look like. There is little difference between the respective field of views of the viewfinder (similar to a 35mm) and of the 40mm lens, but the bright frame projected of the 90mm lens will seem minuscule at the center of a viewfinder, whose enlargement factor does not change. Disconcerting, but not dramatic.


What really requires adaptation is focusing. On a manual focus Single Lens Reflex camera, the image of the subject is projected on a matte ground glass, and the photographer can see immediately whether the image is in focus or not. Similarly, with tele-zooms used at large apertures, the effects of the reduced depth of field are easily visible, and the photographer can visualize what will be in focus, and what will be pleasantly blurred.

The back of the Leica CL

The back of the Leica CL - Note the viewfinder at the top left corner of the body, leaving ample space for the nose of the photographer


On a rangefinder camera, the finder does not provide any feed-back when it comes to focusing. Every element of the image seems in focus: it’s very easy too forget to set the focus, and very difficult to predict the depth of field.


The coupled rangefinder is materialized by a small window at the center of the viewfinder. It’s extremely accurate, but the focusing ring on the small lens is narrow and rather stiff, and you get the impression that you could have reacted much faster with the large focusing ring of the 50mm lens of your SLR.


I guess it gets better with experience, but it’s very frustrating for a beginner.


If you can get over the idiosyncrasies of the viewfinder, the Leica experience is very rewarding. The camera is virtually silent, and being small and black, gets totally unnoticed. The pictures are sharp, with a lot of micro-contrast, and give the impression of being of higher quality than the images taken with most of the SLRs (provided you could master the focusing system). Your success rate will be lower than with a manual SLR, and far lower than with a dSLR of the latest generation, but when the images are good, they’ll be very good.


Buying a rangefinder camera


Rangefinder cameras are markedly different from SLRs, and will not produce good pictures without some serious practice. The first attempts will be frustrating, and there is no point in spending a lot of money in a Leica M9 if you discover after a few days that you’re totally allergic to this style of cameras.


The Leica CL is one of the cheapest options for a photographer who would like to try rangefinder cameras. Good Leica CL are rather easy to find in the US or in Europe. Even in a pristine condition, they never cross the $1,000 threshold, and nice items can be found between $300 and $600. In Japan, the CL was sold as a Leitz-Minolta camera, with no other difference with the “Leitz only” CL than the logo.


A few years after the production of the CL was stopped, Minolta launched the CLE, an automatic exposure version of the CL, and the first camera to propose On the Film (OTF) flash metering. There is no semi-auto or manual mode. The CLE contains much more electronics than the CL, and it can not be repaired if the main circuit decides it had enough. The CLE is much more difficult to find than the CL. Expect to pay $600 for a nice one, and thousands for collector editions.


Full size M series Leica are either more primitive (no exposure metering) or more recent and significantly more expensive than the CL. Even in poor condition, a Leica M6 can not be found for less than $1,000. Cosina is still producing a line of rangefinder cameras, sold under the Voigtlander brand, and available with Leica M lens mount as well as less common mounts such as the Nikon and Contax rangefinder mounts. Amongst all the the rangefinder cameras from Voigtlander, the Bessa R3M is the closest to the CL (it accepts the same 40 and 90mm lenses), and can be found between $400 (used) and $600 (new).

The light chamber of the Leica CL - In this picture, the shutter is not armed. As a consequence, the CdS sensor of the exposure meter is not deployed.

The shutter is armed; the CdS sensor of the exposure meter is deployed. It will retract when the shutter release is pressed, just before the shutter opens.


References and links


A specialized source for rangefinder cameras (Leica, Nikon and modern Voigtlander): http://www.cameraquest.com/leicacl.htm


Canal St Martin - Paris - Located between the Gare de l'Est and the Bastille, the canal was a favorite set of the French film makers in the thirties. Using a Leica with B&W film seemed appropriate.

Canal St Martin - Paris - Located between the Gare de l'Est and the Bastille, the Canal was a favorite set of the French film makers in the thirties. Using a Leica with B&W film seemed appropriate

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