I have not abandoned this blog – I’ve just been pretty busy lately (a new job, a house renovation going on, and my Netgear ReadyNAS RN104 crashing again – I simply hope I won’t have to restore 2 TeraBytes of images from Amazon Glacier again).
The review of the Canon AT-1 that I published yesterday had been in the works for six months, and there will be more Canon related pages in the coming weeks (I found a restored Canonet QL17 in an antique show – maybe it’s going to make me more comfortable with rangefinder cameras – I brought my old Leica CL back in service to have a point of comparison). I added two old mirrorless (digital) cameras and a strange pancake lens to my Fujifilm arsenal, and I’m trying to spend more time with my favorite SLR, the Nikon FE2 and with Kodak’s Porta 400 film.
So… compact rangefinder cameras, Nikon SLRs and dSLRs, early Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, Kodak film, you’ve got an idea of what I’m working on.
Please come back regularly, or follow my updates on twitter @xtalfu.
Something strange happened to the Canon AT-1 recently – it has become sought after.
When the AE-1 was establishing sales record for reflex cameras, its little brother, the AT-1, was struggling on the marketplace (Canon did not even bother selling it in Japan) and it remained until recently an under-appreciated camera.
The AE-1 was the undisputed star of the new Canon A line-up, the real successor of the FTb. The AT-1 was a bit of an afterthought, developed for cost conscious photographers who did not trust auto-exposure systems. With the same shell, the same electromagnetic shutter command and the same accessories as the AE-1, the AT-1 had some of the attributes of a modern camera, but its CdS meter (as opposed to the Silicon cell of its siblings) and its semi- auto exposure system with matching needle inherited from the FTb anchored it in the past. Contrarily to the FTb (and to almost any other semi-automatic camera), it could not operate at all without batteries – because of its electromagnetic shutter command.
The electromagnetic shutter has its advantages (soft shutter release, smooth shutter speed knob, automatic selection of flash sync speed when a Canon Speedlite is mounted on the camera), but the ability to operate without batteries has always been a huge selling point with users of semi-automatic cameras. The AT-1 was not meeting this basic requirement, and it could explain why it remained under appreciated for so long.
Before buying a good copy recently on eBay, I never had used one. When I bought my first semi-auto SLR a long time ago, I only had eyes for the Nikon FM and for the Pentax MX – for the record that’s the Pentax I ended up buying, the Nikon was far too expensive. At that time, Canon’s marketing pressure was completely focused on the AE-1 and as far as I can remember, I did not even look at the AT-1. In any case, in comparison to the Nikon and the Pentax (with their LEDs and GASP metering cells), the AT-1 would have looked too primitive to me.
Weight, Size and ergonomics The AT-1 shares its general dimensions and layout with the AE-1. The construction is similar (with some components like the prism housing using a mixed polycarbonate and copper plating construction). It’s not the most compact camera of its generation (the honor goes to the Olympus OM-1) but it’s not significantly larger or heavier – all the cameras of this generation (1975-1980) are more or less the same size. The AT-1 is one of the simplest conventional cameras you can find – the on/off switch on the left, the large and smooth shutter speed dial on the right, a large shutter release button – that’s all.
Viewfinder The viewfinder is relatively large with enough eye relief for photographers wearing glasses (larger than on a Nikon FM/FE, for instance). And because the viewfinder does not provide any information about the shutter speed or the aperture at the periphery of the frame, the eye of the photographer can remain focused on the center of the frame, which makes the viewfinder seem larger than it is. The focusing screen is not as clear as what you find on a comparable Nikon camera, but it’s fine enough. The split-image telemeter and the micro-prisms are present, and focusing is easy. The two needles of the metering system are located at the bottom right angle of the viewfinder, and are easy to read as well.
Metering system Based on a CdS cell, it’s one generation behind the Silicon or GASP cells that Fujica, Nikon or Pentax were installing on their semi-auto cameras in the second half of the Seventies. CdS cells are supposed to be less sensitive in low light, and to suffer from a memory effect (they need 30 seconds to adjust when you move to a low light scene immediately after a bright scene). The matching needle mechanism is very easy to read (when there is enough light) but is not as easy to read as LEDs if the scene is dark.According to Canon, the camera uses some form of average/center weighted metering (I could not find any further explanation). In my experience, it does not seem to be as selective as the cell of a FTb (or of a T90 in the “partial selective” mode), and most of the images, including those with a large bright blue sky, are correctly exposed.
Battery Like all the cameras of the A series (AE-1, A-1, AL-1,…), the AT-1 relies on a relatively easy to find (and cheap) 6v battery. This battery is available in an alkaline and in a silver oxide version. As explained before, the camera can’t operate without a battery.
Compatibility Canon manufactured tens of millions of FL and FD lenses, that the AT-1 will happily support. FD lenses used to be cheap until the advent of mirrorless cameras and the development of FD to Sony FE lens mount adapters made them popular again. Truly exceptional lenses (the L series) are now seriously expensive, but cheaper alternatives abound. Most of the Canon accessories (winder, flash) can be shared with the AE-1 or A-1 models.
Reliability Compared to the multi-auto-exposure and auto-focus cameras launched in the following decade, the AT-1 is a very simple machine. With the A series, Canon had introduced new design and manufacturing methods, with significantly more plastic and electronic components that before, but Canon’s engineers did a good job and the cameras of that family don’t have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability. Over time, cameras of the Canon A family can be affected with the squeaky shutter syndrome, but I’ve not found anything on the Internet showing that the AT-1 is affected (my copy is not). In any case, the AT-1 was not designed for war correspondents or National Geographic photographers taking tens of thousands of photos per year in impossible lications; it was an entry level camera designed for cost conscious amateurs, and it does not seem to have betrayed its targeted audience.
Scarcity and price With only 520,000 copies manufactured between Dec 1976 and 1985 (to be compared with 9,700,000 AE-1/AE-1 Program during the same period), the AT-1 was not very popular – for a Canon SLR, that is. Today, with the AE-1 and the AE-1 Program becoming seriously expensive (for mass market SLRs of the early eighties), the AT-1 suddenly becomes a sort of next best option for people eager to use Canon FD lenses, and not willing to spend more than $50.00.
Compared to its more expensive siblings of the Canon A family (AE-1, AE-1 Program, A-1), the AT-1 is a very simple camera – but to my surprise, it did not feel like an excessively spec’d down camera, and happened to be very pleasant to use.
The viewfinder is large and bright, and focusing is easy thanks to a combination of micro-prism and split image telemeter. The shutter speed dial is large and smooth, which makes it easy to adjust the exposure by changing the shutter speed (the shutter speed dial is generally very stiff on semi-auto/mechanical cameras, but the AT-1 benefits from its electromagnetic shutter command).
Nothing important is missing (it has an electronic timer for “selfies” and a depth of field preview button) and little details taken over from the AE-1 make the life of the photographer easier. Even though it retains the metering and the on/off switch of the FTb, it feels like a much more modern camera than its famous ancestor, its only limitation being the lack of any information about shutter speed or aperture in the viewfinder.
In the Canon family, there are more elaborate cameras for users of Canon FD lenses. Their performance may be better (more precise metering, faster shutter, larger viewfinder), but they’re also less flexible and – for some of them – not as reliable. Simpler and offering more control over the exposure than the AE-1, lighter and not as expensive as the A-1, more reliable than the T90, it’s a very good camera to go back to the basics.
The first pair of Canon EOS bodies (the “enthusiast” EOS 650 and the “prosumer” EOS 620) came relatively late to the autofocus SLR party (2 years after the Minolta 7000 and one year after Nikon F501/N2020), but they were already very mature cameras – when you shoot with one of those early EOS cameras today, they seem so easy to use and so modern that you don’t even notice you’re shooting with 40 year old gear.
Before launching the EOS series, Canon had tried to convert its FD mount to auto-focus, but their first AF SLR, the T80, had been a technical and commercial failure. Canon had no choice but to adopt a more radical approach, and used their top of the line T90 body as the starting point for the development of two new revolutionary auto-focus cameras, the EOS 650 and 620. A new lens mount and a new line of lenses were launched at the same time. Contrarily to Minolta, Nikon and Pentax, Canon installed the auto-focus motor inside the lens. Most of the new Canon EF lenses launched at the time were equipped with a conventional micro motor, but the top of the line USM lenses were designed around a new type of motor, which promised incredible AF speed and total silence (it reads like an ad for Tesla ;-).
It was its USM technology that made Canon the leader of the photo equipment industry at the end of the eighties: it all started at the Seoul Olympic games in 1988: Nikon had planned to make a big splash with Pro Photographers with the introduction of the first modular Auto-Focus camera ever, the brand new F4. Canon had nothing comparable to show yet (their EOS 1 camera was still one year away), so they brought the most advanced body they had at the time, the EOS 620, and paired it with an EF 300mm f/2.8L USM lens. The Canon auto-focus combination ran circles around the conventional AF architecture of Nikon’s AF 300 f/2.8, and the pro market rapidly shifted towards Canon. Canon would retain its dominance in the pro market to this day.
Both cameras do most things right, without being encumbered by a litany of settings and options. Of course the models that followed brought improvements to the autofocus performance and to the ergonomics (the famous Canon wheel at the back of the film door), but the EOS 620 and 650 set the standard for what a modal interface SLR should look like, and they were already so good that it can be argued that Canon had to fall into gadgetry (Eye Control Focus and Bar Code readers, remember ?) to keep the public interested in the EOS line over the following decade.
The two EOS models are differentiated primarily by their shutter (the EOS 650 has a conventional 1/2000 shutter with 1/125 flash sync speed, while the EOS 620 has a 1/4000 shutter with 1/250 sync speed). The EOS 620 also benefits from a backlit LCD on the top plate, its Program mode is “shiftable”, and it manages multiple exposures.
Surprisingly, and considering Canon’s reputation of superiority in the early auto-focus days, the EOS AF performance is not that great – probably because the 28-70mm lens I bought with one of the cameras was an early non-USM lens. The tiny, single zone auto-focus sensor is not very sensitive in low light, and the camera tends to hunt if it can not find vertical lines in the subject. Canon’ s USM technology can help with reactivity but won’t enlarge the sensor or make it better in low light.
On the other hand, Canon’s first implementation of matrix metering was a success – and you can leave the camera in auto-exposure mode most of the time. Interestingly, none of those cameras has a true semi-auto exposure mode (in the “M” mode, you can set the shutter speed and the aperture any way you want, but the metering system of the body is inoperant).
The cameras are built out of good quality plastic – they feel substantive – even if they’re much lighter than the T90, in part because they’re using a lithium 2CR5 battery instead of heavier AAs of the T90. They have a pretty good viewfinder, large enough, clear enough, OKish for bespectacled photographers, have very few knobs or buttons but a large grip, and are easy to control.
They accept any Canon EF Lens made to this day, and thanks to adapters, can even work with older m42 screw mount lenses (they don’t work with Canon’s own FD lenses though).
They were produced in large quantities, and many seem to have survived. Because nobody loves early autofocus cameras, they’re extremely cheap ($5.00 to $7.00) and if you consider their performance, they offer an unbeatable price/performance ratio.
Conclusion: will I use them?
If you’re looking for an easy introduction to film photography, and want to be able to reuse the modern Canon EF lenses and accessories that you may already own, the Canon EOS 650 and 620 are great cameras. The 620 is marginally more capable, and since all early EOS cameras are now selling for the same low price, that’s the EOS 620 I would pick. You won’t find a better camera to shoot with film in that price range, and you will love the results. The camera is surprisingly competent and mature for a 1.0 version, and I’m not sure the gadget laden models that followed (EOS-10S with bar code readers, EOS 5/A2 with Eye Control focusing) will yield better results in the real life.
The Japanese camera industry has a tendency to work in cycles, with a big innovation every ten to fifteen years, followed by years of incremental improvements – until the next big thing makes the previous generation obsolete, and opens a new cycle of incremental improvements. Generally, during the first years following a big innovation, progress is rapid and the improvements really significant. And generally, after a few years, the pace of the changes slows down, the manufacturers end up promoting all sorts of useless features to keep the public interested in their products, until the next big thing arrives.
Normally, it takes more than a few years to reach the peak – but in the case of autofocus film SLRs, I’m wondering whether it was reached with the EOS 620, just two years after the launch of the Minolta Maxxum 7000. Of course, Canon (and others) would launch cameras with better autofocus systems (more zones, better low light sensitivity) and with a useful built-in flash, but the newer products were more complex, often fell into gimmickry, and were not always as well built. Few enthusiast autofocus SLRs are as easy to use as those early EOS cameras. You should try one.
I published a blog entry on $5.00 cameras a while back, and now I have two extra SLR bodies and a lens to add to my league of fivers. I recently became the proud owner of a Canon EOS 620 for $4.95 (nobody seems to like first generation auto-focus SLRs) and of a nice Canon EF 28-70 F3.5-4.5 zoom, (the hidden part of a bundle with the very first generation EOS camera, the EOS 650: $8.95). They both seem to work well and the lens is …pristine.
Generally there is not much in terms of a bargain on shopgoodwill.com : as opposed to eBay where the sellers are independent entrepreneurs competing for your dollar, Shopgoodwill is a sole source marketplace.
On eBay, sellers have to describe the piece of equipment they’re offering in detail and the buyers are protected by the feedback mechanism. On Shopgoodwill, item descriptions are minimalist, and the equipment for sale is almost always “untested, sold as-is”.
I suspect that because purchases at Goodwill can be easily disguised as tax deductible charitable contributions, lots of buyers are not really sensitive to prices, and end up paying a lot for a poorly described and untested piece of equipment. As much as they would pay on eBay for an equivalent camera, but without the implied warranty of a seller or the support of eBay if things go south.
Lastly, considering that cameras and lenses are sold “untested and as-is”, the risk of buying a lemon is pretty high – if a camera is known for a weak point (fragile shutter curtains, short lived capacitors, temperamental electronic shutter release, for instance), it’s safe to assume that the item for sale will be plagued with it. Even if it looks “pristine” cosmetically.
Canon T90 with a Canon 50mm f/3.5 macro lens.
Spotmatic F – a very nice copy
I would not buy a camera from a series with a known weak point on Shopgoodwill – far too risky. I would buy it from a seller with a great reputation on eBay.
In my opinion, there are only two ways to score a good deal at Shopgoodwill: buy for cheap something that absolutely nobody wants but that has value for you (a first generation AF cameras for instance if that’s your fancy), or buy a poorly documented bundle, whose perceived value is dragged down by a very disserving description. Imagine an item advertised as “Nikon N4004 + Sears lens” or “Olympus film camera with broken lens”. Nothing to grab the attention of the casual browser. But if you look carefully at the pictures, you notice that only the lens cap is from Sears, and that the lens looks like … a recent Nikon AF-S lens. Or that the Olympus camera sold with the broken lens is a rather rare (and sought after) OM-2000 in seemingly pristine condition.
How is it possible? With a few exceptions, the people who write the item descriptions at Goodwill know nothing about photography, and don’t have time to check or research.
More about my first Canon EOS cameras and how they compare to Nikon’s best in a few weeks.
One of the biggest challenges of digital photography is the long term archival of the images. And because slides and negatives are generally scanned, and end up in the same post-processing chain as “native” digital images, they’re subject to more or less the same issues (I guess that you could still go back to the original negative or the slide and re-scan it, but you would have to locate it first).
There are three big obstacles to the long term preservation of pictures in a digital world:
the long term availability of the digital asset management software,
the evolving file format standards
the inherent fragility of the medium used for storage
Users of the original version of Apple iPhoto, of Apple Aperture, of Microsoft Expression Media and of plenty of other discontinued products have not lost the original images stored in their photo libraries, but they have lost an easy way to access them – and in some case, of all the changes and adjustments (crops, exposure, contrast and curves) they had performed. Of course, it’s always possible to port the images to … the standard of the moment: Adobe Lightroom, but it may require a serious effort.
Adobe Lightroom is not about to disappear (on the contrary, it has become a de facto monopoly), but Adobe may progressively price it out of the reach of amateurs: they have already transitioned to a subscription-only licensing model, which may make sense for professionals, but is costly for amateurs who used to perform an upgrade every 5 years or so…
Surprisingly, evolving standardshave not been too much of an issue so far – after early challenges by patent trolls were defeated, JPEG has led a quiet life. Evolutions of JPEG are being discussed in the international standardization bodies, but they promise to maintain backwards compatibility. At this stage, jpeg is still jpeg, tiff is still tiff, and we can still read files saved 15 years ago.
The proliferation of RAW file formats (how many for Nikon or Canon already? ) is also a potential issue, but computer Operating Systems and RAW converters still keep up – and support most of the old RAW formats, even though it’s probably wise to keep a JPEG or a DNG version of your images, just in case.
Which brings us to the worst issue by far – the medium (tape, CD, DVD, hard drive, cloud blob) used for storage.
the storage needs have exploded (24 Mpixel is the new normal, and I know amateurs who refuse to shoot with anything less than a 40 Mpixel camera, like the Pros) – shooting 10 Gigabytes worth of images per day has nothing exceptional anymore,
At the same time, the capacity of WORM devices (CD, DVD, …) has stagnated,
solid state media is still expensive,
spinning hard drives have capacity but are fragile,
in spite of all the promises, consumer grade Network Attached Storage (NAS) is far from 100% reliable,
on line backup/archival services and cloud hosting services come and go (many vendors have decided to leave the consumer market, while some services are tied to a specific brand of computer or smartphone hardware), and some free photo sharing services may sell your secrets to advertisers (“if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product”).
For long term storage at home, hard drives are currently the best option, but at least in my case, they’ve been quite unreliable: over the last 10 years,
I lost two hard drives on my personal laptop, before I upgraded to a SSD – which has less capacity but seems to fare much better when it comes to reliability,
I lost a hard drive on the Apple Time Capsule I was using for backups (Green Seagate Barracuda)
I lost a LaCie network attached hard drive (a Barracuda also, I’m afraid)
Files got corrupted (see above),
the Netgear ReadyNAS RN104 (with four 1 TB drives arranged in a so-called X-RAID) lost its file allocation tables (even if the Western Digital Red disks were still OK) and had to be reinstalled from scratch – without using X-RAID this time, but under a proper RAID 6 scheme instead.
Fortunately, I’ve always had relatively good backups (not 100% success at recovery – there’s always something that falls thru the cracks, but close enough)
Here is how my pictures are processed and protected, currently:
if I’m using a modern digital camera:
while traveling – I upload the files to my iPhone over Wi-fi at least once a day – then Apple syncs it to my Photo library in iCloud. It’s not a full backup – my Fujifilm XT-1 camera only uploads JPEG files via Wi-Fi, it does not upload the RAW files, and with a resolution limited to 1776×1184 (a bit above 2 Mpixels) – but it’s convenient, good enough for social network updates, and better than nothing if the SD card fails or the camera is stolen,
the “exposed” SD or CF card are copied as soon as possible to the SSD of a laptop;
and I store the SDs for up to 6 month before reformating and reusing them.
if I’m shooting with film:
I don’t have any form of backup until the film has been sent to the lab, processed and scanned (it’s the rule of the game with film – but it always makes me uneasy when a drop an envelope with a few irreplaceable rolls of film in a USPS mailbox, even if they have a 100% reliability record with me so far).
when the scans are available, I download them to the SSD of the laptop, and when I receive the negatives from the lab, I keep them in the proverbial shoebox.
once the JPEGs, the RAWs and the scans are on the laptop,
there is an automatic backup process to an external HDD drive (using Apple TimeMachine), to the NAS (TimeMachine again), and to Amazon Glacier (using the ARQ backup application)
I upload the pictures to the Netgear NAS for Lightroom processing and archival,
Amazon Glacier is the long term archival service of AWS (the Amazon Cloud). Storage is extremely cheap ($0.004 per GB per month) and Amazon keeps multiple encrypted copies of the data in multiple AWS data centers.
There are all sorts of interesting features for Enterprise clients. But it’s not the exclusive domain of IT departments and the man in the street can also store files on Amazon Glacier.
Now there’s a catch: data retrieval is not instantaneous (Amazon needs 3 to 5 hours to start processing the request in the standard retrieval mode) and it’s not free either ($0.01 per Gbyte in the standard mode) – which is perfectly fine if you remember that Glacier is about long term storage. Consider the typical use cases for an amateur photographer:
you lost the pictures of that fantastic trip you made 10 years ago – it’s not going to be an issue for you if Glacier starts retrieving the pictures 5 hours from now,
you lost a hard drive and its local backup with 1 TB of pictures (to a flood, a fire, a burglary, a massive power surge) – again, you’re not going to complain if the data retrieval actually starts a few hours after you requested it: you’ll be happy to retrieve your files, even if it takes time (assuming 1TB, that would be 44 hours on a 50 Mbits broadband circuit continuously operating at that speed, which means much more time in reality) and you will have to pay a few dozens of dollars for the service.
Arq is a backup solution for Mac OS and for Windows, leveraging the storage and archival services provided by a large selection of public cloud services. I’ve been using it in conjunction with Glacier for a few years, and it’s proved its worth a few times already.
It may seem like overkill – but massive hardware failures, catastrophic events and user errors happen, sooner or later. If you don’t want to lose your pictures eventually, do something, now.
Definitions, Buzzwords and Acronyms:
Archive: collection of records kept for long term retention. Typically, archives are not actively used.
Backup: “process of making extra copies of data, that will be used to restore the original in case it is lost or corrupted”
AWS: Amazon Web Services – the on-demand cloud computing platform of Amazon.com
HDD: hard disk drive – they’re called hard disk drives because there are made of a few hard, metallic disks spinning at high speed, with tiny mechanical arms moving a magnetic head a few microns above the disks. The technology has been here forever, hard drives are cheap, offer a large capacity, but are somehow unreliable over the long run. (see Backup, above)
NAS (NAS Drive): Network Attached Storage – appliance containing one or more hard drives, connected to a LAN, that provides file level data storage to PC or Mac clients. Practically, a NAS is a small file server, generally running a version of Linux, with an easy to use Web based configuration interface. For the user of a PC or a Mac, the NAS just presents itself as another storage volume in Windows Explorer or in the finder. Models supporting two or more disk drives generally offer redundancy mechanisms (mirroring, RAID) to minimize the consequences of a hard drive failure.
RAID: (Redundant Array of Independent Disks): a technology that provides data redundancy and performance improvements in storage systems using multiple physical disk drives. Having a NAS configured with RAID is not the panacea and does not dispense from running regular backups: RAID usually protects the data if one disk fails, but it does not protect against a massive failure (two or more disks fail, a disk controller corrupts the data) or against human error (files erased by mistake).
SSD: solid state drives. With a SSD, information is stored on microchips. There is no moving part. SSDs are both faster and more expensive than Hard Drives, that’s why they are used in laptops, but not in long term storage systems.
With smart phones and wireless Internet connections being cheap and ubiquitous, billions of human beings have access to an always available camera of very decent quality and can easily share the pictures they shoot via messaging, photo sharing or social networking apps.
I don’t think there is any geography where film photography is still broadly considered an easier to use and cheaper alternative to digital (smartphone and digicam) photography.
Some people may still want their 4×6 prints, they may refuse to deal with smartphone apps or with memory cards at the self service kiosk of a pharmacist, and stick to film for those reasons. But there is no doubt that they form a small minority.
The rest of the film photographers are not necessarily enamored with 4×6 prints and don’t refuse to use PCs. They scan film or have it scanned, and insert the resulting files in a digital workflow. For them, there are roughly three options: premium film, boutique film, and expired stock.
premium film is designed to offer the best performance (finest grain, highest dynamic range, most realistic colors, most constant quality), but at twice or three times the price of standard amateur film,
boutique film is produced by small outfits, and prioritize special effects (color rendition and image resolution of the sixties, strong color hues, scratches, ….). Prices are all over the map, with some films in the low-cost category, and others being 4 to 5 times more expensive than the standard amateur film.
The ultimate bargain chasers are looking for expired film, and enjoy the consequences (unpredictable rendering, bizarre color hues).
Where does it leave the typical “amateur” color negative film like Kodak’s Gold and Fujifilm’s Superia, that casual photographers used to trust for their annual family reunions or for the trip of a lifetime ?
Firms like Fujifilm, judging by the type of film they dedicate to this usage, perceive people still sticking to a conventional film processing chain and to 4×6 prints as more price than quality sensitive, and reformulated their Fujicolor 200 ISO stock to make it cheaper to manufacture (it’s now sold as the Fujifilm C200).
Brick and mortar stores only seem to carry old inventory about to expire, the low-cost Fujicolor C200 mentioned above, and sometimes Fujifilm’s Superia X-TRA 400. Online retailers like Amazon or Adorama still carry Kodak Gold and Ultramax, but they also tend to put forward cheaper products from the same manufacturer.
How does it translate in the offer of film?
My observations are based on the US market, and on what the three major photo retailers (Amazon, B&H and Adorama) are offering. The situation may be different in other countries – (Kodak is probably better represented in the US than in the rest of the world, but Fujifilm’s catalog is wider in Japan), and here and there there are small specialized distributors also selling products from smaller brands.
The part of the old Kodak Company which is still in the film business is named Kodak Alaris (Alaris belongs to the pension fund of the British employees of the Yellow Giant, but the products I’ve purchased over here are still manufactured in the USA, and sold under the Kodak name).
Looking at their Web site, it’s obvious that Kodak Alaris wants to sell “professional” (understand “premium”) film (Ektar, Porta, TMax and Tri-X). Amateur color print films (Gold 200, Ultramax 400) are impossible to find in the menu hierarchy of the site, or with the built-in search tool. Google Search still returns the spec sheets of all films currently in the catalog of Kodak Alaris (the list includes includes Gold and Ultramax), and the three major photo retailers of the US still sell the whole range of Kodak Alaris products.
Amazon and Adorama are also selling Kodak ColorPlus 200 – but there is no spec sheet on Kodak Alaris site, and it does not seem to be widely available in the US. It’s a budget film – supposedly relying on a simpler/older formula than the Gold 200, and it falls in the same low-cost category as the Fujicolor C200 – you use it if you look for the absolute lowest price (for a Kodak branded product, that is) , or if you want a rendering similar to the one you could get in the eighties/nineties.
Kodak also has a large range of B&W film (Tmax in 100, 400 and 3200 ISO declinations) as well as the old Tri X. They have announced they will soon manufacture slide film (Ektachrome) again.
In the US, Fujifilm have significantly reduced their product range (they have retired most of their Superia color print films last year) – leaving us with only the “low cost” C200 sold at Wal-Mart or CVS (available in 24 exposure cartridges only, manufactured following a simplified formula and replacing the more elaborate and now retired Superia 200), and a single Superia reference, the X-TRA 400 ISO (in packs of three 36 Exposure cartridges only). With Kodak having left the amateur market and deserted the brick and mortar stores, Fujifilm is the only major vendor of general purpose “amateur” color negative film.
Fujifilm only offers a single “professional color negative” film, the Pro H 400, aimed at Portrait photographers, and a single Black and White reference, the Neopan Acros. But they still offer three slide films (Velvia 50, Velvia 100 and Provia 100).
Obviously Fujifilm is more interested in pushing their highly profitable Instax film packs, which are declined in multiple sizes (mini, square, wide), and available in black and white as well as color stock.
Harman / Ilford
It’s been a very long time since Black and White film was last considered the default choice for the casual “amateur” photographer. And Ilford (now part of the Harman Technology group) does not manufacture or sell color film. But Ilford is worth a mention here: they have the largest catalog of Black and White film (classics like the Pan F, the FP4 or the HP5, fine grain products of the Delta series, and products now unique such as the XP2 (a Chromogenic B&W film that can be processed in the same chain as color print film).
Cinestill, Lomography, Revolo, Rollei, fall into the Boutique category. I don’t know much about Boutique film – and now that some of my old favorites are gone (Fuji Reala, Kodak CN400), I tend to stick to Kodak’s Ektar 100, that I use alongside Fujifilm’s Superia 400 and Ilford’s FP4 Plus B&W film.
I have to admit that I don’t really get this “low cost at all cost” thing: in the US, a 35mm (24 exposures) cartridge sells for anything between $2.75 and $3.50 – with premium film being generally sold in rolls of 36 exposures at prices between $6.75 and $9.90. Worst case, the cost difference between low-cost and premium amounts to $0.20 per exposure.
Processing a single 35mm cartridge will cost approx $8.00 to $10.00, and scanning another $5.00 to $10.00 (postage included). Some processors may advertise cheaper prices, but only scan in low-resolution, or don’t return the negatives (they destroy them), or charge a significant extra fee for the postage or for a higher resolution. All in all, consider that $17.00/cartridge is the best price an occasional/low volume user can get for a decent service (it’s a scale game, and prices get lower when the volume goes up).
And if you spend that much on processing, why not buy the best film you can get?
Brick and mortar stores (big box and pharmacists): not much to chose from, only Fujifilm’s products.
On line: besides the big Three (Adorama, Amazon, Bhphotovideo), there are a few sites specialized in ‘Boutique” film: Freestyle Photo ; Lomography
The N2020 (F-501 outside of the US) was Nikon’s first mass market auto-focus SLR. It was an upgrade of the N2000 (F-301 “in the rest of the world”), Nikon’s first SLR with an integrated motor. They inaugurated a new type of laser etched focusing screen, and a new camera naming scheme based on numbers. Because they had the two lowest numbers in the hierarchy, they were often mistaken for low performance entry-level models.
It’s obviously a wrong perception: just consider the price of the N2020 – a few years after being launched, it was still more expensive than Minolta’s enthusiast oriented Maxxum 7000, in the same ballpark as the ground breaking Canon EOS 650, itself derived from the very high-end and very expensive Canon T90.
Like the Nikon F4 that would follow two years after (and contrarily to the Minolta and Canon auto-focus cameras), the N2020 retained conventional commands (shutter speed knob, aperture ring, ISO speed dial), and, as a true high-end Nikon, protected the photographers from unfortunate lapses of attention with all sorts of locks and flashing red LEDs.
Nikon’s transition to auto-focus
At the end of 1985, Nikon was apparently not certain that their (generally technically conservative) customers would enthusiastically embrace auto-focus, and they edged their bets. They first launched a manual focus version of their new body, the N2000 (*), and took their time to fine tune the auto-focus version, the N2020, finally presented in April 1986. They were not certain that the photographers would adjust to motorized film advance either, so they kept a conventional rewind crank. The N2000 and the N2020 could read DX coding, but still had a conventional film sensitivity selector. Just in case. This prudent approach extended to the design as well. Nikon did not go for a full poly-carbonate body with rounded edges, they kept an hybrid metal/plastic construction with a design language based on sharp angles. Do you start seeing a pattern here?
Yes, the auto-focus of the N2020 is primitive – with only 96 photosites (the following generation launched in 1988 with the N8080 and the F4 had a new sensor with 200 photo sites). Strangely enough, the auto-focus area at the center of the viewfinder does not feel as narrow as it does on the F4, but it’s far less sensitive in low light, making it almost unusable indoors.
By today’s standards, it’s more of a focus-assist system than a true auto-focus, but because there was a version of the same camera without auto-focus, the viewfinder retains the characteristics of manual focus cameras (92% coverage, 85% magnification, precise and relatively grainy focusing screen). It is still suited to manual focusing, even though the default focusing screen of the N2020 is deprived of a micro-prism ring. Other focusing screens (including the very sought after K type with a micro-prism ring surrounding a split image telemeter spot) may still be available – but as far as I know the model is specific to the N2020 and I could not find any on eBay.
The N2020 (in fact, mine is a “rest-of-the-world” F501) is the camera that I had brought with me – virtually untested – to a long trip to Israel, Jordan and France. The camera did not miss a beat, and fulfilled its mission brilliantly.
It does not exude from the N2020 the impression of quality that emanates from a Nikon FE2, a F3 or a F4, but it still feels less of an amateur photographer camera than the Nikon FG. Compared to the FG, it’s larger and heavier, and receives a faster shutter (1/2000sec) and an exposure memory lock button (more useful than the +2EV button of the FG). Like the current pro cameras from Nikon, it can be controlled via a wired remote. The back has a window showing the film cartridge, a film advance indicator, and a red LED warns the photographer if the DX sensitivity coding can not be read. Clearly not a body for the experts or the pros (roles that would be fulfilled in Nikon’s product range by the N8008/F801 and the high-end F4 respectively), but not a simplified or spec’d down entry level camera either.
If you don’t forget it’s a very early auto-focus camera, and don’t expect it to behave like a Nikon F6, it’s a pleasant camera to use. On the plus side:
the ergonomics – simple, easy to learn, no menus, no hidden functions, just conventional knobs and rings
the conventional Nikon average weighted metering – that is to say: accurate and predictable (at least as long as the cell is not blinded by the middle-eastern sun)
its relatively compact size
it works with any Nikon AI, AI-S, AF or AF-D lens without any limitation (the lens mount has all the sensors and pins of a true AI-S camera).
Exposure determination can be left to one of the three program modes, or controlled more directly by the photographer (aperture preferred auto-exposure and manual modes)
It runs on standard AAA or AA batteries (the AA battery tray was optional)
it’s reliable – it simply works, with no known mechanical or cosmetic issues.
Not everything is perfect: the viewfinder is informative, bright, but rather narrow, with a relatively short eye-point (the same as the FG or FM-FE), the winder is rather loud, and of course its auto-focus system dramatically lacks sensitivity in low light – it is almost unusable indoors if the scene is not lit like a studio. But it’s not too much of an issue today : even with its standard focusing screen, the N2020 is one of the few auto-focus SLRs that can still really be used with manual focus lenses – at least with wide angle lenses.
Today, early auto-focus cameras are dirt cheap, and this one is not different. Very nice copies can be had for $35.00 in specialized second-hand photo equipment stores, and will not fetch more than a few dollars on eBay or at Goodwill.
As a conclusion
Like the F4 in the “pro” market, the N2020 is at the same time Nikon’s last “enthusiast” body with a conventional user interface, and the first of a long line of auto-focus and motorized SLRs.
Its conventional user interface is well thought and makes for a pleasant experience, and its high-magnification viewfinder is better suited than the F4’s for manual focus operations. The N2020 is also reasonably light and compact (half the weight of the F4 with its MB-21 grip), but of course you can’t compare a camera designed for amateurs with a high-end professional rig.
It would not be reasonable to buy a N2020 and expect it to deliver the performance of a more modern auto-focus SLR. With its simple and narrow auto-focus sensor, its limited processing power and its weak focus motor, it can’t even compete with a F4, let alone a N90s or any auto-focus film SLR manufactured in the mid to late nineties. But if you see it as a manual focus camera with a focus-assist system, it becomes much more enjoyable.
The manual focus E Series lenses are a very good fit for the N2020. Designed originally for the EM, the lenses are built out of plastic with a simplified optical formula (to save on weight and contain cost), but some of the E lenses (the 50mm f/1.8 or the 35mm f/2.5 for instance) are probably as good optically as the metal-built Nikkor lenses of equivalent aperture. Nikon’s first consumer grade (sliding aperture) 35-70mm auto-focus zooms have a bad reputation, but the 28-70 AF f/3.5-4.5 that followed a few years later is very compact and sharp – a little known gem.
With a manual focus prime lens or a small auto-focus zoom (like the 28-70 F/3.5-4.5 mentioned above), the N2020 will form a cheap, reliable, compact and highly capable set, to be used to learn the basics of photography, or as a second body for the occasions when a more expensive camera can not be risked.
(*) In 1990, Nikon did it again- they replaced the F301-F501/N2000-N2020 series with two cameras – one with an improved auto-focus system (the F601/N6006), one with manual focus (F601m, N6000).