Nikon F4: is its auto-focus that bad?

The F4 is at the same time the last Nikon pro-camera with conventional/analog controls, and the first offering most of the functions that modern bodies have made us familiar with (auto-focus, matrix metering, PASM multi-automatism, motorized film advance and rewind). It was also the last Nikon camera to enjoy (for a few years) an undisputed supremacy on the professional market.

In 1988, auto-focus was still in its infancy. Minolta had launched the Maxxum 7000 in 1985, and Nikon had followed with their first auto-focus SLR, the F501 (N2002 in the US) one year later. The F4 was the first implementation of  auto-focus on a professional SLR.

Compared to what was available in 1988, the F4’s auto-focus was not bad at all, but the arrival of the Canon EOS-1 one year later made it look slow and primitive, and today, the performance of its auto-focus system is what makes photographers think twice before using or buying an old F4.

Nikon_F4-7475
Nikon F4 – an analog user interface with an incredible number of locks (counting 5 just in this pictures)

The F4 is built around Nikon’s second generation auto-focus module, the “Advanced AM200”. Its single horizontal AF zone is composed of 200 CCD sensors, and the focus zone is very small  (probably 3mm wide and 1mm high – if the engraving on the viewfinder’s focusing screen is any indication). The module is shared with other Nikon auto-focus SLR bodies of the same period (F801/N8008, F601/N6006 for instance) but the F4’s auto-focus motor is stronger and the use of a 8 bit microprocessor makes the whole setup faster than on lesser cameras.

On the viewfinder’s focusing screen, at the place where the split image rangefinder would be on a manual focus camera, the AF zone is signaled by two small brackets engraved on the glass of the focusing screen. The markers of AF area are very difficult to see if the subject is poorly lit, and it can be difficult to visualize exactly where the camera is focusing (on modern cameras the active auto-focus zone is often surrounded by red LEDs. Nothing of that sort here).

Nikon_F4-7460
Nikon F4 – the type “E” focusing screen. the auto-focus zone indicator is etched into the glass. Note how small it is compared to the overall surface of the screen.

So, is the auto-focus really that bad?

The F4 was famously launched at the Seoul Summer Olympic games.  Today, nobody would use a F4 to shoot sporting events with long tele-zooms, but in all fairness, with lenses of shorter focal distance,  the auto-focus is reactive and accurate. Its biggest weakness in my opinion is not its slowness, or that it tends to hunt if the scene is poorly lit. It’s that the AF zone is so narrow that you really have to pay attention to what part of the scene the AF sensor is pointed at. You can not simply point the camera loosely towards the subject, and expect the auto-focus system to locate it somewhere in the central area of the frame. You have to aim precisely at it, right at the center of the focusing screen, let the system focus on it, then keep the shutter release button half pressed  (to lock the focus) and re-frame your picture. In that sense, it’s more a focus-assist system (Nikon write about an “electronic rangefinder” in their user manual) than an auto-focus system as we know it now.

The N90S (F90X outside of the US) that came a few years later (1994) benefits from an auto-focus system of a newer generation: it still has a single zone auto-focus module, but it’s much wider (7 x 3mm), and is shaped like a cross (it can focus on subjects presenting vertical lines as well as  horizontal lines), even in low light and with slow (f/5.6) lenses.

The user experience is very different. The camera easily finds the subject even if not perfectly centered in the frame, and it focuses rapidly and accurately, even on mobile subjects moving erratically. In that regard, the N90S is already a modern camera.

Using the F4 as a manual focus camera

A common opinion in the forums is that you should simply forget about the auto-focus system, and use manual focus lenses on the F4. Even if it’s technically possible – the F4 accepts almost any manual focus lens ever made by Nikon (with very few limitations) – I’m not sure it’s a great idea: the viewfinder of the camera has not been designed for that.

In the days of manual focus cameras, manufacturers had to make focusing as easy as possible for the eyes of the photographer, and as result, they used to design viewfinders with a high level of magnification (0.9X) and they spec’d focusing screens to be as precise as possible, even at the cost of looking at bit dark and coarse. As soon as auto-focus systems became the norm, manufacturers adopted viewfinders with much lower magnification factors (0.7X), in conjunction with much brighter and smoother focusing screens, which had a more limited ability to show small differences in focusing. [more about the evolution of the viewfinders of SLRs over time]

The F4’s default viewfinder (the DP-20) and its default focusing screen (the BriteView Type “B”) are typical of an auto-focus camera. The DP-20 is a long eyepoint / low magnification viewfinder (22mm and 0.70X respectively), and the “Type B” focusing screen is bright but not very precise. The Type B provides none of the focusing aids you  find on a manual focus camera (no micro prism, no split image rangefinder).  It’s difficult to set the focus with the naked eye when you can’t or don’t want to use the auto-focus system.

IMG_1612
Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the top LCD is shown (number of remaining pictures on the left, aperture in the middle, green dot for the focus. The grid of the “E” focusing screen is somehow visible.

Optional focus screens optimized for manual focusing were available from Nikon and from third party vendors (Nikon’s Type “K” and Type “P” focusing screens have a ring of micro prisms around  a split image rangefinder spot, the Type “J” just has a central micro prism focusing spot). Equipped with such a focusing screen, the F4 could be used as you would use a F3 or a FE2 – with the additional benefit of matrix metering. Those focusing screens are pretty scarce now, and are sometimes offered for more than $150.00 (they’re specific to the F4 – you won’t be able to focus accurately with a focusing screen designed for the F, F2 or F3).

IMG_1610
Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the botton LCD is shown (showing the metering mode – Matrix – the shutter speed, the aperture and the exposure mode: Program)

On the F4 I bought, the Type B focusing screen had been replaced with a Type E. It’s a variant of the Type B with horizontal and vertical lines etched in the glass. If I mount a manual focus lens on the camera, I just use the auto-focus system as an electronic rangefinder – when the big green dot is on in the viewfinder, it’s focused. This “electronic rangefinder” is as good as a split image rangefinder – you just have to trust it.

More in a few weeks, with my take on compatibility, reliability and ….

Nikon_F4-7463
Nikon F4 – with the viewfinder removed, the small LCD display on the left does not show the same information: here the exposure mode. The green dot on the right shows that the focus has successfully been set by the camera (the auto-focus module and the microprocessor are in the camera’s body, as well as the spot metering system – only the matrix and the average weighted cells are in the DP20 viewfinder).

Early Nikon AF cameras and their AF modules

On a camera, the overall performance of the auto-focus system (and the quality of user experience) depend on much more than just the AF module.

  • An auto-focus system is composed of hardware (the AF module with its CCD sensors, the microprocessors) and of software (the AF algorithm). It is  part of an even larger system (the camera itself with its other subsystems and its lenses) with which it has to integrate smoothly.
  • As an example, an explanation of the AF performance improvements between the F90 (N90 in the USA) and the F90X (N90s in the USA), both equipped with the same CAM246 AF module (from a very interesting blog entry in 678vintagecamera.ca :”Improvements over the F90 included faster AF speed and tracking. Nikon claimed a 2x increase in CPU speed, a 25% faster AF lens drive speed over the F90, and a new AF algorithm.”Same AF module, dramatically improved performance thanks to hardware and software improvements. (source: https://www.678vintagecameras.ca/blog/forgotten-film-warrior-the-nikon-f90x-aka-n90s)
Nikon AF Modules (1986-1995)
Name of the AF module Number of AF Points Shape of the AF zone Number of AF Pixels in the module Nikon cameras equipped with the module Launch year of the camera
no name  1 horizontal  96 horizon. F501  1986
AM200  1 horizontal 200 horiz.  F401 1987
Advanced AM 200 1 horizontal 200 horiz. F801, F4, F601 1988, 1990, 1991
 CAM246 1 horizontal + vertical 172 hor; 74 vert; F90, F90X  1992, 1994
Multicam 1300 5 multiple horizontal +vertical 1300 F5, F100 1996, 1999
Nikon_F4-7472
Nikon F4 – with the standard DP-20 viewfinder and the MB-20 grip (4 AA batteries)

 

The four Tokina 28-70 AF lenses and their Angenieux roots

It is well known that Angenieux – before retreating to less cost sensitive markets like the movie industry and the military – made a final attempt to secure a place in the consumer market, with a now legendary Angenieux 28-70 F/2.6 AF zoom, launched in 1990. In 1994, the company was sold to its current owner, Thales, and left the consumer market for good.  Tokina launched its own 28-70 f/2.6-2.8 soon after, and is widely rumored to have purchased the blue prints of the lens from Angenieux.

tokina-7412
Tokina 28-70 AT-X PRO II – this one is a Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) model – export models were marketed as f/2.6-2.8 lenses

But in France, there are collectors who believe that Tokina had played a role in the design and the manufacturing of the Angenieux 28-70 lens. For them, Tokina did not have to buy the blue-prints, because the Angenieux lens was itself the result of a cooperation between Angenieux and the Japanese optics company.

Angenieux 28-70 f:2.6 AF
The Angenieux lens (Minolta A mount) I had bought in 1991. I sold it in 2005 after I had come to the (wrong) conclusion that Konica-Minolta and the A mount would not survive the transition to digital – I had not anticipated Sony’s purchase of K-M’s photography business.

After all, Angenieux had no prior experience with auto-focus lenses, and may have seen a cooperation with Tokina as a way to accelerate the product development and reduce the costs.

tokina-7417
Token 28-70 AT-X PRO II – the focusing ring can be pulled to switch to manual focusing (it’s a Tokina feature)
Angenieux 28-70 f:2.6 AF
The Angenieux lens: two large rings – one for zooming, one for focus. The layout of the Tokinas is similar. Only the Nikon version of the lens has an aperture ring.

How similar are the various Tokina AF 28-70 lenses to the original Angenieux AF 28-70 F/2.6?

Just looking at the characteristics, the 28-70 f/2.8 lenses can be grouped in 3 generations:

  • 1988 – 1994 – the 28-70 F/2.8 AT-X (the non-PRO model) predates the Angenieux by two years. The optical groups share a similar high level design: 16 elements organized in 12 groups. Apart from that, the Tokina and the Angenieux look very different: the Angenieux carries the brand’s very distinctive design language, and is beefed up in every dimension. It’s longer, wider and heavier. The AT-X requires 72mm filters. The Angenieux and all the other Tokina 28-70mm F/2.8 lenses need 77mm filters.
    tokina_28-70_source_KEH
    Tokina 28-70 AT-X f/2.8 from 1988 – Courtesy KEH

     

  • 1994 – 1999 – the AT-X PRO 28-70 AF/2.6-2.8 (and PRO II) lenses are the ones whose main specifications are the closest to the Angenieux. The main difference between the Tokina and the Angenieux comes from the ability to disengage the auto-focus on the lens itself on the Tokina (by pulling the focusing ring): Angenieux never had such a feature.
    On the Japanese Domestic Market, the Tokina were sold as F/2.8 lenses (no reference to F/2.6), but in the rest of the world they were marketed as f/2.6-2.8 zooms. [The Angenieux was sold as a F/2.6 constant aperture lens – in theory, a lens opening at f/2.6 lets 10% more light go through than a lens opening at f/2.8 – the difference is largely symbolic.]

    Tokina_28_70_AT-X Prod
    Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – Note the 77mm filter, the bayonet hood mount typical of the PRO II, and the f/2.8 marking typical of a JDM model. (source: Youtube)

    The PRO II of 1997 was a significant upgrade over the first AT-X Pro, and benefited from one “High Refraction Low Dispersion” (HLD) optical element, from a better multi-layer coating, and from a faster focusing mechanism. The lettering on the lens’ body still reads AT-X PRO. The easiest way to recognize the PRO II: a bayonet hood mount that replaces the screw-on mount of the previous Angenieux and Tokina models.

     

  • 2000-2002 – the 28-80 AT-X “PRO” of Year 2000, and the “Special Value” AT-X PRO SV 28-70 AF F/2.8 of 2002 are clearly 2 variants of the same model, but seem to have little in common with the earlier AT-X PRO models and with the Angenieux: significantly different dimensions, different minimum focusing distance, two aspheric optical elements, internal focusing.

    tokina 28-70 pro sv
    Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO SV (Source: MIST722 on eBay)
Angenieux Tokina AT-X 270 Tokina AT-X Pro
AF 28-70 F/2.6 AF 28-70 F/2.8 AF 28-70 F/2.6-2.8
Year 1990-1994 1988-1994 1994-1997
Elements / groups 16/12 16/12 16/12
Filter diameter 77mm 72mm 77mm
Weight 660g 600g 760g
Length 111mm 90mm 109.5
Width 78.5mm 70mm 79.5mm
closest focusing dist. 65cm 70cm 70cm
Lens hood screw-on mount screw-on mount screw-on mount
Tokina AT-X Pro II Tokina AT-X Pro 280 Tokina AT-X 287 PRO SV
AF 28-70 F/2.6-2.8 AF 28-80 IF f/2.8 AF 28-70 IF f/2.8
Year 1997-1999 2000- 2002-
Elements / groups 16/12
Special glass elements 1 HLD 2 Aspheric, 1 SD 2 Aspheric, 1 SD
Filter diameter 77mm 77mm 77mm
Weight 772g 810g 715g
Length 109.5mm 120mm 108.5mm
Width 79.5mm 84mm 84mm
closest focusing dist. 70cm 50mm 50mm
Lens hood bayonet mount bayonet mount bayonet mount

Using one of those lenses today?

With the full frame digital cameras becoming more affordable, there has been a renewed interest in the Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AF lens family in the recent years. They’re a far cheaper alternative to current luminous trans-standard zooms from the big camera makers.  What do you lose if you use a lens from the nineties?

  • compatibility: the lenses were designed for 35mm film, and are only a good fit with full frame digital cameras (on cameras with an APS-C sensor, their angle of view is similar to a 43-105mm zoom on a 35mm camera). The Angenieux was available in Nikon AF and Minolta AF mounts (both of the screw driver AF type), and in a Canon EF variant, with an integrated auto-focus motor. In addition to the mounts of the big three, the Tokina models were also available for the Pentax KAF mount.
    As far as I know, Canon and Minolta-Konica-Sony have never altered the bayonet mount of their auto-focus lenses, and Sony Alpha bodies still have the motor required to focus automatically with a “screw–drive” lens: any of the Tokina AF lenses should work on a Canon or Sony camera. The case of Nikon is more complex. All those lenses behave like Nikkor AF lenses of the first generation, which means they won’t auto-focus on Nikon bodies deprived of an auto-focus motor, such as the D3x00 and D5x00 series, as well as the new D7500 (there should be no issue with Nikon’s full frame  cameras, as they still have an in-board auto-focus motor).
  • Performance of the 28-70 f/2.8 lenses compared to modern offerings

    • It’s difficult to assess – few of the tests conducted by paper magazines in the nineties are still available today (most of the magazines are gone, and the online archives of the survivors don’t often go that far back). Shutterbug is a good source of information: they’re one of the few surviving US photography magazines, and the articles they published in the nineties are still available on their Web site.
    • Tests were made with film cameras, in reference to equivalent zooms from Canon, Minolta and Nikon. A few tests published on the Web 10 years ago were conducted with digital cameras with a smaller APS-C sensor and a lower resolution, and are of little value with today’s high resolution full frame sensor cameras.
    • on the forums, as usual, there is a lot of hear say, wishful thinking and self re-inforcing opinions, but little in terms of facts or serious tests.

That being said,

  • there is not much information about the original 28-70 AT-X (non-PRO) of 1988 on the Web. It got a good review from Ken Rockwell in 2011 (obviously as a “used” lens option for cost conscious buyers). He liked its price, its relatively small size and weight, and its sharpness at the center, even at full aperture. In his opinion, you needed to stop down to f/8 to get to excellent levels in the edges or at 70mm.
  • the 28-70 AT-X PRO 2.6-2.8 (the so-called “Angenieux” design) generally got great reviews. Reviewers were impressed by its built quality and its sharpness (with a few restrictions): the review of Peter Burian on Shutterbug is very positive (it was originally published in 1999, and Peter was shooting with film). He rates the image quality as exceptional in the center of the frame at full aperture, and excellent even in the edges at F/4 and above, with a sweet spot in the 35 to 60mm range between F/5.6 and F/11 where it’s as good as a prime lens.
    Maybe because he tested the lens more recently on a digital full frame camera (a Nikon D700), Eric Tastad in ERPhotoReview is not as enthusiastic. In his opinion, the lens is very sharp in the center at 28mm and full aperture, but needs to be stopped down to F/5.6 to reach excellent levels across the frame and above 50mm. And it will remain relatively weak at 70mm even when stopped down. To summarize, you could say that in his opinion the lens should have been sold as a 28-60 f/2.8-4.

    tokina-7420
    The 28-70 AT-X PRO II – Just the right size for a full frame digital body.
  • the 28-80 AT-X Pro F/2.8 IF – there does not seem to be a definite opinion about this lens – according to some of the reviews, it’s inferior to its predecessors, while others (Peter Burian at Shutterbug in particular) say it’s the best of the bunch (which would be logical considering it’s more recent, and that it does not seem to have been designed with aggressive cost cutting in mind). The fact is that it had much serious competitors than its predecessors: lenses such as the more recent Nikon 28-70 F/2.8 AF-S are significantly better at full aperture, and focus faster and silently thanks to an integrated auto-focus motor.
  • the 28-70 Pro SV is a budget version of the 28-80, and is generally considered inferior in performance to the 28-70 AT-X Pro II.

Price:
The Angenieux is a collector’s item. Its value on the market has little to do with its usage value. It can not be found for less than $1,500 – much higher than more recent Canon, Minolta or Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 lenses.

The price of the Tokina lenses does not necessarily reflect the reputation (good or bad) of a specific 28-70 model – poorly regarded AT-X PRO SV lenses are often proposed for prices as high as the AT-X PRO II ($250 to $275 for perfect copies). The AT-X Pro 28-80 tends to be even more expensive (up to $400.00), but at this price it’s getting dangerously close to the cheapest lenses f/2.8 zooms of the Big Three (the Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 AF-S zoom can be found at $500.00).

More about the Tokina 28-70 AT-x PRO II f/2.6-2.8 in a few weeks…

Test_Tokina-6214
Chastain Park, Atlanta. Nikon D700. Tokina 28-70 – Shot at f/6.3 and 40mm. A first attempt to assess the performance of the lens (according to tests published in the past, 40mm and f/6.3 are right in the sweet spot of the lens).

Reviews by paper Magazines:

Shutterbug (1999): https://www.shutterbug.com/content/tokina-x-af-28-70mm-f26-28-amp-x-af-80-200mm-f28-sd-lenses

Shutterbug (2000):https://www.shutterbug.com/content/new-tokina-x-28-80mm-f28sd-af-pro

Tests by Web sites:

Ken Rockwell (the Tokina 28/70 AT-X from 1988): https://kenrockwell.com/tokina/28-70mm-f28.htm

Opticallimits.com (formerly known as photozone.de) : the AT-X Pro II from 1997 review in photozone.de

erphotoreview (AT-X Pro II from 1997): http://erphotoreview.com/wordpress/?p=987&page=5

Tokina’s archived Web pages:

Tokina’s web page: AT-X PRO 28-80 f/2.8

Tokina’s Web page: AT-X 28-70 F/2.8 SV

To learn everything about Angenieux, there is no better source than a French writer and collector named Patrice-Herve Pont, who is the author of an extensive history of the French optics company (Patrice Herve Pont : Angenieux, made in Saint-Heand (Loire, France).

9782912848222_h430
Angenieux: made in Saint-Heand, Loire, France – Editions du Pecari

Unfortunately, his book (written in French) was never translated and seems currently unavailable (I ordered it from Eyrolles a while ago and they’re still trying to fulfill my order).

Angenieux is primarily serving the movie industry now. One of their corporate publications: http://fdtimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FDTimes-Angenieux-Special-Aug2013.pdf


Test_Tokina-6222
Max, French Bulldog. Nikon D700. Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 (picture taken with the lens set at f/2.8 and 70mm, where the lens is supposed to be at its weakest).

Nikon N90s/F90x – why almost nobody seems to like auto-focus film SLRs

When kids take a photography class in high school, the teachers typically recommend cameras like the Pentax K1000. If you Google “best learner camera for film photography”, most of the sites making the top of the list will recommend the Pentax K1000 (again), or cameras such as the Canon AE-1 (often), the Nikon FM, the Minolta X-700 or the Olympus OM family. All are manual focus cameras, all were launched in the seventies or in the early eighties,  and most of them only offer semi-automatic (some people call it “manual”) exposure.

Nikon_N90-7299
The Nikon FE2 of 1983 is objectively not as capable as the N90s (F90X) – but it’s more sought after. Nobody seems to like auto-focus SLRs from the early nineties.

 

James Toccio in his blog “Casual Photophile” is almost the only one to make the case that newcomers to film photography should start with a camera from the mid nineties, because with its multi-mode auto-exposure and reliable auto-focus system, it’s more similar to the current  digital cameras, and will yield much better results for an untrained photographer than a semi-auto/manual focus camera from the seventies (in: Casual Photophile – How to cheat at Film Photography)

James may have a point here. And if you look for a reliable, auto-focus multi-mode SLR with great performance and a large supply of lenses, the Nikon N90s is a very good choice.

cameragx-6592
The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very capable cameras to be had for next to nothing.

Unfortunately, if the value of a camera on the second hand market is any indication, most buyers disagree:  very good enthusiast-oriented auto-focus SLRs from the mid-nineties such as the N90s or the Minolta Maxxum 9xi seldom sell for more than $25.00, in the same ball park as the very primitive K1000, with more amateur-oriented auto-focus SLRs (such as Minolta’s Maxxum 400si or Nikon’s N6006) struggling to reach the $10.00 mark.

Nikon_N90-7296
The Nikon N90s was sold as the F90X in the most of the world (in fact, anywhere but in the USA). Note the trademark Nikon Red Stripe on the front grip –

The Nikon N90s

Nikon joined the auto-focus market shortly after Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000.  Its first auto-focus SLRs were slow to focus – even the flagship F4, but it did not matter much at the beginning, at least not until Canon launched the EOS-1, and showed what a good auto-focus camera should be able to do. From there on, Nikon had to play catch-up. It took them almost 10 years to do so (with the F5 & F100 bodies and the motorized AF-S lenses), and in the meantime, Nikon’s cherished pros kept on defecting to Canon in droves.

Nikon_N90-7297
The N90/N90S – In terms of design, uncomfortably seating between the analog Nikons (F, F2, F3, FM, FE) manual focus bodies,  and the modern auto-focus generation (F100, F6, D700, D800).

 

Launched in  1992, the N90 (named F90 in the rest of the world) was Nikon’s first real response to the EOS series. Officially, the N90 was designed for committed enthusiasts. But scores of pros also bought the N90, because it had the best auto-focus system Nikon could provide at the time. The  “N90s” aka “F90X” that rapidly followed was a level of performance above the N90 (improved auto-focus and weather sealing),  with a mission  to retain the pros who had fallen in love with the Canon EOS system until the launch of the F5.

Nikon_N90-7293
The aperture value is controlled by the aperture ring of the lens itself (and not by a second control wheel at the front of the grip as is the case with more recent SLRs or dSLRs)
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

    Size, weight, features and ergonomics

    Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

The N90s is a typical auto-focus SLR of the mid-nineties – with a black polycarbonate shell and high levels of automation:  auto-exposure with the conventional Aperture Priority, Shutter priority, Program and Manual (understand semi-auto) modes, Matrix, Weighted average and spot metering, and motorized film loading and rewind. Compared to its lesser amateur oriented siblings, the N90 has no built-in flash, but a better shutter (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250), a better viewfinder and runs on AA batteries (instead of the harder to find and more expensive lithium batteries).

Nikon_N90-7287
Nikon N90s – a single control wheel at the right of the top place – the main ergonomic difference with modern “Enthusiast-oriented” Nikon AF SLRs and dSLRs, which have two.

Apart from the build quality and the use of Nikon F lenses, the N90S has very little in common with the previous generation of “enthusiast” and “pro” cameras, the FE2 and the F3. While not as bulky as a modern full frame dSLRs (like the D810), N90s is larger than the FE2, as heavy as the F3, and very close to the D7500 in its dimensions and weight.

Nikon Film Cameras Nikon dSLRs
FE2 F3 N90/N90s D7500 D810
35mm film 35mm film 35mm film Digital – APS-C (DX) Digital (full frame – FX)
weight (g) 550g 760g 755g 640g 980g
height (mm) 90mm 101mm 106mm 104mm 123mm
width (mm) 142mm 148mm 154mm 136mm 146mm
  • Viewfinder
    In my opinion, the long eye point viewfinder of the N90 is one of the two reasons to prefer the camera to a FE2, the other one being its very accurate matrix metering. With a magnification of 0.78, a 19mm eyepoint and 92% coverage, it’s a good compromise between magnification (the image is large enough) and the eye point distance (at 19mm, it’s conformtable for photographers wearing glasses).
    It’s not as good as the high-point viewfinder of the F3, but much wider than the viewfinder of a conventional SLR such as the FE2 – and of course than the narrow viewfinder of APS-C dSLRs.It’s also very luminous, not as much as a modern full frame dSLR (such as a d700), but much more than its Minolta competitors of the nineties.All the necessary information is grouped on a green LCD display at the bottom of the screen.The only significant difference with modern Nikon cameras (and with Minolta cameras from the nineties) is that there is no LCD overlay to show information (such as the area of the image chosen by the auto-focus system) – considering there is only one central autofocus area, it’s not much of an issue.

 

IMG_1308
The information is grouped at the bottom of the screen – it’s less crowded than the viewfinder of a modern dSLR.
  • Shutter, metering and auto-focus system:
    The shutter is still at the state of the art (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250). Nikon’s matrix metering was considered the best in the nineties, and it’s still very good. You can trust it most of the time. The auto-focus (a single sensor, in the middle of the screen) is reactive, accurate, and works well in low light situations.
  • Lens selection and accessories compatibility
    Designed for Nikon’s “screw drive” AF lenses (Nikon AF and AF-D lenses), the N90 also works with AI and AI-S lenses – basically, anything sold by Nikon after 1977. The camera can also focus with modern Nikon AF-S lenses (the ones with the focus motor in the lens), and works in Program and Shutter Priority modes with lenses devoid of an aperture ring (most of the current Nikon AF-S lenses).It can’t work with them in Aperture preferred or Manual (semi-auto) mode, because there is no way for the photographer to directly set the aperture.It is not compatible with pre-AI lenses (unless they’ve been converted to AI, of course) and can not take advantage of the vibration reduction (VR) function of the recent lenses.
    The N90 was part of Nikon’s line of Enthusiast and Pro cameras, and many accessories (the remote control systems, for instance) are still inter compatible with Nikon’s current Enthusiast and Pro dSLRs. The flash systems are downwards compatible (you can use a recent Nikon flash on the N90, but the opposite is not true).
Nikon_N90-7294
Fifteen years separate those cameras. But the connectors (PC Sync, Remote) and the buttons (AF settings) are still at the same place.
  • Reliability
    The N90’s polycarbonate film door was initially covered with a sort of mat soft skin which has a tendency to peel.  Rubbing alcohol will take care of it, and will leave you with a shiny, naked camera. Apart from this somehow minor issue, it is a very solid and reliable camera.
Nikon_N90-7288
Nikon N90s – the film door was covered with a thin soft skin, which is peeling. It’s not specific to this copy – all N90 cameras suffer from this issue at various degrees.
  • Battery
    The N90 uses four AA batteries, which are cheap and easy to find, and do not seem to be depleting too fast.
  • Cost and availability
    I don’t have production figures for the N90. But the camera was a sales success, had a long production run, and has withstood the test of time pretty well. It is still easy to find. Supply apparently widely exceeds demand,  and the prices a incredibly low for a camera of such quality (if you’re lucky, $25.00 buys a good one).

Conclusion: why is this camera so unloved?

Objectively, the N90s is a very good film camera. It has a great viewfinder, you can trust its metering system and  its auto-focus. It is solid, reliable, and runs on cheap AA batteries. It’s designed to be used as an automatic camera, but lets you operate with manual focus lenses or in semi-auto exposure mode if you so wish. Why is it so unloved?

Because it’s a tweener. It’s far too modern for some, and not enough for others.

Its predecessor in the eighties, the FE2 and the F3, are simple cameras, with a single auto-exposure mode, average weighted metering and no integrated motor. They offer the minimum a photographer needs, and a few goodies at the top of that (shutter speed and aperture values displayed in the viewfinder, depth of field preview, exposure memorization). Nothing more.

The FE2 and the F3 are the cameras that a photographer will look for when he wants to work on his technical skills, as a pianist would do with his scales.

They will also appeal to photographers who believe that using a simple tool and following the deliberate process it imposes will help them create more authentic, more personal pictures.

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The N90S next to its predecessor of 1983 – autofocus, matrix metering, large long eye-point view finder, modal interface on the left, manual focus, center-weighted metering, and analog interface on the right.

For those photographers, the N90 is already a modern (understand feature bloated) electronic camera. It is not too  dissimilar in terms of ergonomics, commands, auto-exposure and auto-focus performance to a recent entry level dSLR  – except that you shoot with real film instead of relying on a digital sensor and on film simulation algorithms. The technical difficulties of photography are to a large extent masked: you can shoot for a whole day in the programmed auto exposure mode, with matrix metering and auto-focus,  simply concentrate on the composition of the pictures, and still get mostly good results.

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Nikon N90s next to a Nikon D700. High end cameras have a built in flash now. It was not the case in 1991.

But the N90’s successor – the Nikon F100 – is even better at producing technically perfect pictures with little human intervention. Manufactured from 1999 to 2006, it is  closer technically to the high-end dSLRs that Nikon is selling today (general organization of the commands, meter and auto-focus performance, full support of AF-S and VR lenses).  The F100 is a better choice for photographers shooting not only with film but also with a full frame Nikon dSLR  – they can use the same lenses and rely on their muscle memory because the commands are so similar between the F100 and a high end Nikon dSLR.

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Nikon N90s (front) and Nikon D700 (back). The cameras had the same place in the Nikon hierarchy (just below the top of the line F4 or D3 bodies). With “only” 17 switches or buttons, the interface of the N90S looks simple in comparison to the D700’s.

It relegates the N90S to a narrow niche of film photographers who want the convenience of auto-focus and automatic exposure, the build quality and the viewfinder of a pro-camera, without having to pay to the roof for the ultimate film SLR.


More about the Nikon N90s

Thom Hogan’s review : http://www.bythom.com/n90.htm

The Casual Photophile’s review: https://www.casualphotophile.com/2017/10/13/nikon-n90s-camera-review/


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400.

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Shooting with a Konar: of the unintentional use of offensive words as product names

Finding a product name that is not ridiculous or offensive when selling it to international audiences is difficult – there are famous examples of faceplants.

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Konar 1000 – a taiwanese camera from 1985.

In the world of cars. Rolls Royce, for instance, has a tradition of naming its cars “Silver-something”, the “something” being a word evoking “ghosts” or “spirits”, in reference to the car that made them famous, the Silver Ghost of 1906.

It does not always work that well, though. Rolls Royce’s bread and butter model of the sixties was destined to be named “Silver Mist”, which unfortunately would have translated into “silver manure” in German. Germany was a market of significant importance for Rolls-Royce, and the issue was addressed in time:  the model was  launched as the “Silver Shadow”, which was better, although not that huge of an improvement. “Shadow” sounding pretty much like “Shade”, the German word for “pity” or “shame”.

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Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow – it sounds like “silver shame” in German (Source: wikipedia).

Toyota had the same issue with a little two seater they were selling in the nineties – named MR2 in most of the markets, it was simply named MR in France because MR2, phonetically, would have sounded like “Merde” or “Merdeux” (“Shit”, or “Shitty”).

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Cameron lens (Source: eBay)

In this country, I  was surprised to find  lenses named “Cambron” – the private label of the Cambridge Camera Exchange store, in New York. They even had their own  private label camera, the Cambron TTL,  manufactured in the USSR by KMZ and sold all other the world as the Zenit TTL.

Cambronne was a general in Napoleon’s army at the Waterloo battle – when asked to surrender, he famously shouted what is still known in France as the “word of Cambronne”, “Merde!” (a word which in addition to meaning “shit” – as Toyota’s marketing department had found out – is also used in French to convey exasperation – a very impolite form of “go to hell”).

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I would have liked to find a Cambron TTL – I found a Konar instead….

Speaking about French, a rather strong insult in that beautiful language is “connard” [pronounce ko-nar]. A “connard” is a despicable man, at the same time profoundly stupid, petty and mean. “A.. H..e” would probably be a good translation in modern English.

As I could not find a Cambron TTL, my consolation prize was a Konar 1000 – a very simple point and shoot camera with the looks of a SLR. The trademark belonged to a “Selectdirect Inc”, and has been available since 1987.

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No comment

You could understand that a small photo equipment store in New York, NY or a company importing $1.00 cameras for the US market would not be bothered with  checking what a name like Cambron or Konar meant to French people, but what about a large company with a global presence like Ricoh. In addition to their “Rikenon” lenses, they also sold a line of entry level lenses named  “Riconar” – which in French sounds literally like the imperative form of “to laugh”, followed by an insult: “Laugh, A.. H..e”, what a name for a product.

What does a Konar look like? 

When I found a Konar 1000 camera on Shopgoodwill.com, I had to have it.

The Konar 1000 is one of those ultra-simple cameras that look – from a distance – like a “real” rangefinder – it even has a small hump where the viewfinder of a reflex camera would be to add to the confusion. It was made in Taiwan in the mid eighties,  was also sold under names such as Capital MX II or Ultronic, and was often given out for free with a magazine subscription (the Time Kinetic camera) or after a visit to a casino (there is a golden Caesar’s Palace version).

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Konar 1000 – with Auto Fix Focus lens (!)

Technically, they’re all the same, and to my surprise, they’re real, functional cameras. They use 35mm film, have a single element fix focus lens (plastic, of course), and a single speed shutter. The aperture can be set at F/6, F/8, F/11 and F/16, but there is no metering or auto-exposure mechanism.  The flash hot shoe is functional and the viewfinder – usable.

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Konar 1000 and Leica CL – the Konar looks like a real camera.

All in all, it does not look any worse than a Holga – and judging by pictures published by users of Capital MX cameras on Lomography.com, the results are somehow OK, considering the lens is a piece of plastic.

Buying a  Konar? 

They’re no Leica, they’re no Nikon, and have a very limited usage value. Objectively, considering you can get a Nikon autofocus SLR for $3.50, the value of a Konar should be expressed in cents, not in dollars. But sellers won’t be bothered selling a camera for 10 cents, so you’ll have to pay a few dollars to get one. In any case, shipping, packaging and handling costs will exceed the cost of the camera itself.

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Konar 1000 from above – film rewind crank, functional hot shoe, exposed view counter on the right – it’s a real camera.

The same should be true for Cambron lenses – in theory a manual focus trans-standard zoom from the seventies sold under a distributor’s label is virtually worthless. But surprisingly, there are still people willing to engage on a bidding war to get one.

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The Konar 1000 at full aperture (F/6). The aperture is set by a sliding blade located at the back of the shutter.
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Konar 1000 – the aperture is now set at F/16. The slit in the sliding blade is now much narrower.

More about the Konar / Capital: Pictures taken with a Capital MX-II on Lomography.com

Another clone of the Konar: Time Magazine Kinetic camera

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The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


I briefly introduced the D700 in a recent post from the perspective of a collector and regular user of Nikon film cameras. Let’s see now how this ten year old dSLR compares with recent mirror-less cameras.

Impressive image quality, impressive white balance, impressive auto-focus

I’m not equipped to test a dSLR, and, honestly, I lack points of comparison. So I will just share a few thoughts.

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The d700 – one button or dial per command – an informative top plate LCD, and hundreds of options in the menus

Firstly, for a photographer used to Nikon dSLRs (I’ve had a D80 as my primary camera for almost 10 years until I switched to a mirrorless system), the D700 is very easy to apprehend.

It’s a conventional motorized auto-focus single lens reflex. There are more knobs, buttons and switches than on an enthusiast camera, the menus offer more options and a much greater level of customization, but the D700 is a camera a nikonist  will feel immediately comfortable with, without having to spend too much time buried in the manuals.

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Nikon D700 – a pro-camera with a very useful built-in flash (it controls Nikon’s cobras remotely)

Secondly, it’s a big and heavy camera. More than three pounds if equipped with a light prime lens or a consumer-grade zoom, almost five if equipped with one of the  f/2.8 wide angle or trans-standard zooms that the pros love to use.

Thirdly, its performance is still impressive for a ten year old camera. Admitedly it’s only a 12 Megapixel camera, but when it comes to overall image quality, dynamic range, white balance, auto-focus speed and exposure accuracy, it still holds its rank compared to recent mirrorless cameras.

The D700 – still the ergonomics of a conventional auto-focus SLR

Use a modern mirror-less camera and a D700 side by side – and it’s immediately obvious that the D700 is much closer to Nikon’s last auto-focus SLRs of the film era than to a Sony A7 series or a Fujifilm X-T2. And I’m not even considering the size.

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An electronic viewfinder (here the Fujifilm X-T1). It shows the picture as “seen” by the image sensor, and as it will be exposed. Information (like the artificial horizon or the histogram) can be overlaid if the photographers so chooses.

Modern mirrorless cameras have been designed to let the photographer not only frame but also visualize the image as it will be exposed directly on the big LCD monitor at the back of the camera, or in a high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

Sony and Fujifilm cameras have a large exposure compensation dial at the right of the top plate, just under the thumb of the photographer –  who can adjust the exposure values based on what is shown on the screen. The LCDs are now good enough to render accurately variations in exposure, contrast and image density  as the photographer plays with the settings, and in difficult lighting situations, it’s extremely helpful. What you see is really what you will get.

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The top plate of a mirror-less camera (Fujifilm x-t1). The exposure correction dial is large, and is easier to get to than the shutter speed knob. Note the Wi-Fi button, absent from the d700.

On the D700, the viewfinder, being optical, can not show the image as it will be exposed. And if the photographer plays with the exposure compensation settings, he will have to take one picture and then play it back to visualize what the corrections did to the images.

The D700 has a Live View mode, but it’s very primitive and can’t help with the exposure. It’s slow and relatively loud (the mirror first has to be lifted to clear the way to the sensor). The lens is locked at full aperture, and changes made to the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation) are not reflected on the LCD, and the depth of field can not be pre-viewed. Lastly, the LCD monitor is fixed, which further limits the usefulness of Live View – it still is difficult (acrobatic) to frame a picture with the camera close to the ground, or above the heads in a crowd.

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Live view 1.0 – it helps when working on a tripod (a detail of the image can be enlarged to facilitate focusing). But the LCD is fixed, and does not show the picture as it will be exposed.

ISO settings

The other difference is what you do with the ISO settings. The best cameras have reached such a performance level (almost no noise up to 6,400 ISO) that they can be left in Auto-ISO mode if the photographer so wishes. Instead of considering the ISO value as a constant and the shutter speed and the aperture as the variables (like in the old film  and early digital days), photographers can – for a given scene – set the aperture and the shutter speed to get the depth of field and the movement freeze they want, and let the camera adjust the ISO value to get to the right exposure. On cameras such the  Fujifilm X-T1 for instance, it is as easy to adjust the ISO value that it is to adjust the shutter speed, if you don’t want to rely on auto ISO. It’s not that the D700 could not be configured to react like a X-T1 (it supports Auto-ISO and you simply have to  press the ISO button on the top plate to  change the sensitivity with the control wheel), but it’s not a natural way to operate the camera.

Compact Flash reader and laptop required

Lastly, I have come to expect from a digital camera that it connects to a smart phone or a tablet over wi-fi, in order to edit and share jPEG pictures on the spot.

The D700 does not support Bluetooth or WiFi natively (it’s a camera from 2008). Eye-Fi cards (memory cards with a built-in wi-fi adapter) don’t exist in the Compact Flash format used by the D700. An  optional Nikon branded adapter is available (Nikon Wireless Transmitter WT-4), but it costs more than what I paid  for the camera. And when laptops have a slot for a memory card, that’s for an SD card, not for a Compact Flash.

For all practical purposes, this D700 will remain tied to a conventional PC  based workflow – and a traveling photographer will have to carry a laptop and a Compact Flash reader in addition to the camera (and find an Internet connection) if he/she wants to edit, publish or backup pictures while on the road.

Focusing with manual focus lenses

The focusing screen does not offer any of the focusing aids of a conventional manual focus camera (no micro-prism, no split image rangefinder), and no other focusing screen  is available from Nikon. When a manual focus lens is mounted on the camera, the auto-focus system is still providing information to the photographer (a green dot in the viewfinder when the lens is focused on the subject), and if the camera is installed on a tripod, you can use Live View and zoom into the image to check if the image will be in  focus. But you don’t have any of the fancy manual focus assist systems (Zebra, Focus Peaking, Digital Image Split) of modern mirror-less cameras.

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With a manual focus lens, the photographer can still chose the focus area (the black rectangle) and the green dot at the left of the LCD display indicates that the picture is on focus. No other focusing aid is available in the viewfinder.

That being said, the focusing screen is luminous, very fine, and the viewfinder is large (it’s a full frame camera, remember): when it comes to coverage and enlargement it sits somewhere between a N90 and a F3 HP. Getting the focus right with a wide-angle or standard lens does not seem too difficult, even without the focus assist modes.

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Nikon D700 – on a digital reflex camera, the photographer will see the image as it comes from the lens, but can not visualize how the sensor and the electronics of the camera will record it before the picture is taken (here with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D mounted on the camera)

Full frame digital – dSLR or mirror-less? 

As I’m writing this article (early 2018), the cheapest way to shoot “full frame” is to use second hand dSLRs such as the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700.

Shooting with conventional dSLRs with an optical viewfinder still has its benefits: the optical viewfinder is much easier on the eyes in bright light, the autofocus of dSLRs is still faster and more reliable, and the battery life far superior. If you compound that with  Nikon’s decades of experience serving the most demanding professional photographers, and a line of auto-focus lenses built over 30 plus years, you understand why their dSLRs still win comparative reviews when opposed to mirrorless cameras (check DPReview‘s end of the year Buying Guides: Nikon D7500 – best camera under $1,500Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000Nikon D850 – best camera over $2,000).

DPReview may still prefer dSLRs to mirrorless system cameras, but there’s no denying that  mirrorless cameras bring unique advantages: you can use indifferently the electronic viewfinder or the LCD monitor to compose your pictures, and you will visualize how the picture will be exposed before you shoot. I had never used the exposure compensation dial on any camera before,  because I never knew if I had to set it to +.5 or -.5 or whatever to get the exposure I wanted – I simply used to switch the camera to the manual exposure mode. On a mirrorless camera, exposure compensation becomes extremely easy to use because you see what it does in real time, not after the fact.

Although most mirror-less cameras systems have a very rich offering of native lenses, they are also very good bearers of old (manual focus) lenses, and they generally tend to be smaller and lighter than dSLRs.

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Non-CPU lenses (namely manual focus AI and AI-S lenses) can be preconfigured in the camera – the camera will base its matrix metering exposure on the actual focal length and the actual aperture of the lens – which should make it more accurate.
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Nikon D700 – when a manual focus lens is pre-configured in the camera, its actual F aperture value is displayed on the LCD (instead of the number of stops above full aperture).

Nikon and Canon are both widely rumored to be launching full frame mirror-less systems in the coming months. Because they’re late entrants on this market, Nikon and Canon can’t be content with “just average” cameras – you can expect their future mirror-less systems to raise the bar of performance to a level not yet reached by Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony. If they manage to preserve a good level of compatibility with their traditional dSLRs systems, many of their faithful customers will rapidly add one of the  new mirrorless models to their equipment bag. And it’s likely that the DPReview’s Buying Guides will put forward very different winners at the end of this year.

As for the D700,

it’s a very satisfying camera to use. Like the Nikon F3 in the world of film, it’s a unique opportunity for an amateur photographer to shoot with a tool built for professionals, but still of a manageable weight, size and complexity.

I don’t use my F3 that often, but taking pictures with a camera of such a build quality, with such a great viewfinder is an experience I enjoy from time to time. I suspect the D700 will follow the same path – I’ll shoot with a smaller and lighter APS-C mirrorless camera more often – when traveling in particular – but will go back to the D700 when I need to shoot digital, but still want to use my old Nikkor lenses and enjoy the true Nikon SLR experience.


How does a d700 compare with an entry-level APS-C dSLR such as the Nikon d3400, which can be had more or less for the same price? 

  • only  d700s with hundreds of thousands of actuations sell in the same price range as a new d3400. The d700 is a very solid and reliable camera, but buying a used d700 is riskier and could lead to high repair costs.
  • compared to the d3400, the d700 is a large and heavy camera, which will need larger, heavier and much more expensive full frame lenses.
  • the d700 is an old camera – it still requires to be used in a traditional workflow (Compact Flash cards instead of SD cards, no Bluetooth, no WiFi). Not that the d3400 fares particularly well in that regard – it also lacks WiFi, and neither the d700 or the d3400 have an articulated lcd monitor on the back of the body.

On the other hand,

  •  The choice of lenses is  limited on the d3400 (no wide-angle prime lens, only zooms). No such issue with the d700.
  • If you’re planning on using lenses of the film era (AI, AI-S, AF and AF-D lenses), the d700 is also a much better pick: it can meter with any of those lenses, it can auto-focus with conventional “screw-drive” auto-focus lenses, it does not “crop” the image, and its large viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.

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  • regarding image quality, DXOmark, – for what it’s worth – rates a d3400 at 86, and a D700 at 80. Not everybody agrees with their methodology, but in their world  the d3400 with a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor and a dynamic range of 13.9 EVs is rated higher than a d700 with a full frame 12 Megapixel sensor and a dynamic range of 12.2 EVs. Interestingly, the d700 still leads in the high ISO race – they consider it’s usable up to 2,300 ISO, while a d3400 will peak at only 1,200 ISO. The benefit of the full frame imaging sensor, and of its relatively low pixel density.

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Max – Nikon D700 – Nikon 135mm f/3.5 AI – 1600 ISO – 1/60 sec.

 

Nikon D700 – an everyday camera and a future collectible?

A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.

Judging by  the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.

Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.

Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?

The sweet spot? 

I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.

And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.

But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?

Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:

– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was  huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.

– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser,  I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making  nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the  light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography  was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.

A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, auto-focus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.

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Nikon D700: the sensor and the user interface of a Nikon Professional camera in a (relatively) compact and light body.

When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.

380,000 Shutter Actuations

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Volkswagen Badge for 100,000 km Source: AlexWoa World of Accessories (eBay)

Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).

Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5)  reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).

In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way,  this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.

The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car

In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.

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Nikon D700 – I had to change the rubber grips – but the overall condition of this camera is remarquable considering it shot 190 pictures every business day for 8 years.

To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe:  the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the auto-focus mechanism of the top of the line D3 –  in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.

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Nikon D700 – One button for every function, locks on the rings – a true “pro” camera by Nikon’s standards

Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.

What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of  Nikon film cameras?

The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:

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Nikon F90X (N90s in North America) next to a D700 – the two cameras are 15 years apart, but they were designed for the same target audience of serious enthusiasts and pros who don’t want or need the very top of Nikon’s Profesionnal line.

Lens Compatibility

One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.

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Nikon D700 with Nikon Lens 50mm Series E – Aperture Preferred Auto Exposure and Semi Auto Exposure are offered on AI-S and AI lenses.

Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.

Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.

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Nikon D700 with 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor – as long as the lens supports Aperture Indexing (upgraded pre-AI lenses, and AI, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S lenses) it will work with the camera.

The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.

With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes:  they don’t  have the micro chip and the data bus of their auto-focus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.

Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support unmodifed pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).

Compatibility with other accessories

In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of   “prosumer” and professional  equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80 (which is a more consumer oriented camera).

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Nikon D700 (left) next to a F90X from the mid nineties – the remote control connector is still the same.

Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.

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The D700 shares the same round viewfinder accessory mount as the other “high-end” Nikon cameras (here a F90X on the right)

How much? 

On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.

The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still  have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.

A follow up to this blog entry: The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


More about the D700

Links:

Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time

Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility

Interesting reviews of the D700

http://ricksreviews.org/nikon-d700-review-2016-perspective/

https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-d700

Through the F Mount: a comparison of the D700 with the D4


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My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.

Lomo Instant Square – just delivered…

A few months ago, I pre-ordered a Lomo Instant Square on Kickstarter, and I received it last week. It came without film, and I had to order the new Fujifilm Instax Square film on Amazon ($12.45 a pack of 10 instant prints).

On paper, the Lomo Instant Square is a very interesting camera:

  • it works with the new Fujifilm Instax Square film, which yields images significantly larger than the Instax Mini, without needing cameras as large as those accepting the Instax Wide film.
  • It also accepts the Instax Mini film – but it needs a different film door, which is only sold as part of a bundle of accessories ($59.00). I’ll pass for the moment.
  • It has a lens with glass elements. The focal distance is 93mm, and the maximum aperture F/10.
  • Thanks to its folding construction and light weight, it’s easy to carry.

I’ve only shot a few pictures so far, but because it’s a brand new model that only Kickstarter subscribers have received so far, I decided to post a few pictures of the camera with my comments.

The Lomo Instant Square in 4 bullet points:

  •  it’s intelligently designed, with the needs of serious photographers in mind.
  • the build quality is good – for a Lomo camera – it’s not a Leica for sure, but it worked out of the box, and looks like its going to withstand the test of time in the hands of a moderately careful user.
  • the Fujifilm “Square” prints are much larger than the “Minis” (which are credit-card size), but they’re still significantly smaller than the Polaroid SX700/600 format. The Impossible Project and Polaroid have a clear advantage here.
  • I need to test the camera in different situations (in particular taking pictures of people with and without a flash – which seems to be the typical use of an instant film camera) – but what I’ve seen in admittedly difficult conditions shows potential – it’s hundreds time better than the combination of a Holga 120 and a Lomo Instax Mini back.
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Lomo’instant square in its box – it’s available in three colors. As you can see, this one is white. The camera comes without the film, and more surprising, without batteries.
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the camera, a manual, a box of accessories, a box of sample pictures, and a filter. The remote control is stored in the base plate of the camera (you have to buy the batteries of the remote separately)
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Lomo’Instant Square – folded – the lens (93mm, F/10) is protected by plastic curtains. They retract when you unfold the camera.
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The Lomo has two strap lugs, but the strap does not come with the camera (it’s $9.90 extra if you want it)
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The commands at the back – flash off, multi-exposure, exposure correction, mode Normal or pause B, timer. The film door can be replaced by a door designed for the Instax Mini film (a $59.00 extra – you start seeing a theme here? )
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The shutter release button is the square (of course) Lomo logo on the front.
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It’s a folding.The lens (with glass elements) can be set in 3 positions: 0.8m, 1 to 2.40m (the default position), and the infinite.
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Lomo ‘instant Square internals – the Fujifilm Instax Square has a sensitivity of 800 ISO
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Jules – my first picture with the Lomo Instant Square  (scanned on multi-function printer) – real size: 6cm x 6cm image, on a 8.5cm x 7cm print.

When I took this picture, it was already getting dark in the house, and Jules was somehow back-lit. With a lens opening at F/10 and a 800 ISO film, I was clearing flirting with the limits. The camera did well considering  the circumstances. The picture is too dense (under-exposed), and the color balance is blue-ish, but the result is encouraging – the lens shows potential, and it’s my first Lomo camera that produces decent results out of the box without requiring some form of surgery.

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The picture in the center is one of the examples provided with the camera – it shows the relative size of the Instant Square picture compared to the Instax Mini. Left – a picture taken with the Square (default exposure); right a picture taken with the exposure on “-“. On the Lomo, “+” over exposes, and “-” under exposes.
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The Instax Square picture is much smaller than the Impossible Project’s SX70 film. The Lomo seems to under-expose, but the picture has much more contrast than the first iteration of the Impossible Project’s film (picture on the right was shot in 2010, with a Polaroid SX70 camera)
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When comparing the quality of pictures, all things are relative. After I was finished shooting pictures of the Lomo, I took a picture of Jules at the same place, but this time with a Nikon D700 and its Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 lens (1600 ISO, f/4, 1/60 sec, cropped and adjusted to taste in Lightroom).

A few links

Lomo’s official site

My previous experiences with instant film:

Fujifilm and the instant film bonanza

The Impossible Project’s PX100 – the ultimate “low-fidelity” film ?