I probably should have done it much earlier….the Index.
I probably should have done it much earlier….the Index.
Film cameras are interesting objects. They appeal to collectors who will desire them for their historical importance, their pleasant esthetics, and for their scarcity, and to active photographers, who make their purchase decisions based on the feature set, the availability of good lenses, and the quality of the user experience.
The least desirable cameras (and therefore the cheapest) are characterized by an abundant supply of working but unremarkable bodies with a meager selection of lenses, the most desirable by a limited availability of cameras in working order, combined with an interested set of features, a pleasant user experience, and a broad selection of good lenses: in other words, cameras of great systems (Canon, Contax, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, for instance) that are scarce because they sold in small numbers, and/or because they did not age gracefully, with few of them surviving in working condition.
Let’s focus on the 4 Japanese brands I know best.
Manual focus Canon cameras were mass produced (Canon was the constant best seller except for a few years when Minolta took the lead), and generally reliable. Because the autofocus EOS product line is totally incompatible with the older manual focus cameras, users of autofocus Canon film cameras (and of modern digital EOS models) were not tempted to carry an old manual focus SLR in addition to their modern autofocus camera, and the offer of second hand manual focus cameras from Canon has always seemed to exceed demand. As a result, prices have tended to be low.
Fujica (the AX bayonet mount line)
Fuji’s screw mount cameras sold in respectable numbers in the 1970s, and aged relatively well. They were replaced in 1979 by a new generation of bayonet mount cameras that did not sell very well and had reliability issues. A Fujica SLR such as the STX or the AX-3 in working condition is not as easy to find as a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FE, for instance, but at the same time it does not qualify as exceptionally difficult to locate. The truth is that those cameras don’t seem to be interesting collectors (lack of aura) or active photographers (lack of lenses). Except maybe for the AX-5.
Very few Nikon cameras qualify as “scarce”. Nikon cameras generally sold in high volumes (within their class of products) and are extremely reliable – a lot of them survived. Some of the cameras designed for professional photographers (the F3, the FM2) had production runs of almost 20 years. You will have to look for specific variants of a mainstream model such as the F3p or the F3AF to reach the level of scarcity that commands high prices (above the $1,000 bar). That being said, Nikon cameras of that vintage are very pleasant to use (they ooze build quality), they benefit from a huge supply of lenses and accessories (Nikon have been using the same bayonet mount since 1959, and the current flash system is downwards compatible down to the FE2 of 1983), and they take great pictures. They have a great usage value, but a limited collector’s appeal. A few exceptions:
In the 80s, Olympus had a line of low end “two digit cameras” (OM-10, OM-20, OM-30, OMG..) for amateurs and a line of single digit cameras (OM-2s, OM-4) for the discerning enthusiasts. The two digit cameras are extremely abundant, but unremarkable. The OM-2s and OM-4 are relatively easy to find, but are plagued by lousy battery management issues that limit their attractivity. At the end of their production life, the “single digit” cameras were upgraded to become “T” or Ti” models, which solved the electronics issues of their predecessors, and switched their brass top-plates for Titanium ones. Those T and Ti cameras are highly attractive for the active photographer (small size, unique light metering capabilities, broad system of lenses and accessories) and for the collector – they’re beautiful and are in limited supply. The OM-3Ti – the semi-automatic version- was produced in very limited quantities (6,000 units according to zone-10.com) and was selling at the same price as a Leica M6. The OM-4t and Ti had a long production run, but they were launched in the middle of the autofocus craze, when the large majority of the enthusiasts were busy converting their equipment to Minolta Maxxums, Canon EOS or Nikon N8008.
Except for commemorative models (they often never leave the box they were shipped in), Leica SLRs models of all generations typically sell in the $200.00 to $800.00 range (the R4 are the cheapest, the R6.2 the most expensive). Contax models benefit from the aura of the Zeiss lenses, and sell in the same range as the Leicas.
This blog is about photography. About old film cameras, and the pictures you can still make with them.
Like anybody else, I use digital cameras. They’re convenient. But I also love shooting with film cameras. It’s a different experience, and using different tools make you see the world differently.
Nobody makes new film cameras anymore. But there is such an ample supply of nice second hand cameras that finding one you like is not a problem.
Film cameras are now extraordinarily cheap, and as long as you’re in no hurry to see your images and don’t take too many pictures, using SLRs or rangefinder cameras from yesteryear is a rewarding experience.
In the nineteenth century, photography did not kill watercolor painting and cars did not drive horses to extinction. In the nineteen eighties digital watches did not kill mechanical watches, and vinyl records are making a comeback 20 years after CDs were launched.
People paint, ride horses, wear mechanical watches and play vinyl records for a multitude of reasons, some of them unsuspected 150 or 20 years ago. And they will still be shooting film 10 years from now.
I love taking pictures, I love old cameras, and that’s all it is about. If you’re in the same frame of mind, welcome.
Fuji Photo was a late entrant in the single lens reflex market – they launched their first SLR, the ST701, in 1970. It was followed by a line of innovative high end models (ST 801, ST901), and by good entry level cameras (ST601, ST605, …). But those cameras were still using the old M42 “universal” screw mount that almost everybody else had abandoned.
In 1979 Fuji had to bite the bullet and finally launched a new line cameras with a new proprietary bayonet (the “X” mount), and a series of new X-Fujinon lenses (not to be confused with Fujifilm’s current XF mount, which is designed for digital cropped sensor cameras, is completely different and totally incompatible).
The “X” cameras had to face a tough competition (Canon’s AE-1 and its derivatives in particular), and were not helped by a reputation of poor reliability.
The AX-1, AX-3, AX-5 were well thought and compact cameras, but they were plagued by reliability issues (the electro-magnetic shutter release was a particular weak point, followed by the electronic components in general). The three models shared the same body, and while the AX-1 was a bit stripped down, the AX-3 and the AX-5 were full featured cameras, and looked virtually identical.
In the important West-German market, local constraints obliged Fuji to team with a chain of photo stores – Photo-Porst, and the cameras were relabeled and sold as the Porst CR-1 (the STX), CR-3 (AX-1), CR-5 (AX-3) and CR-7 (AX-5).
In 1983, the Fujica cameras were rebranded as “Fuji”, and the product line simplified with only the STX-2 (a limited refresh of the STX-1n with a black body and 1/1000s shutter) and the AX-Multi, an evolution of the AX-1 offering only three program modes (normal, optimized for fast moving subjects, optimized for small aperture) and no other way to control the exposure parameters.
Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000 in 1985, and made medium level manual focus cameras like the AX series immediately obsolete. Fuji finally pulled the plug on its SLR line of products in 1987.
Unless you’re an avid collector of anything Fuji, there are few reasons to look for Fuji’s X cameras:
Fujica’s m42 screw mount lenses can be mounted on the Fujica X cameras with an adapter (they have to be used at stopped down aperture), and Fujica’s “X-Fujinon” lenses can be mounted on modern Fujifilm “X” cameras such as the XT-1 or the XT-2 via an adapter (Kiwi and Fotodiox have one, I’ve not tested them yet).
Buying a Fujica X camera today
The AX-3 appears to be the most widely distributed of the Fujica AX line, and is relatively easy to find on eBay, very often in the $30.00 to $70.00 range (for a fully tested camera). The STX and AX-1 are marginally cheaper – while the top of the line AX-5 is really hard to find, and can be proposed for prices in excess of $150.
Considering the well known issues of the AX cameras with the electronics and the electro-magnetic shutter release, it is advisable to buy only cameras that the seller has tested with a battery.
Except for the 50mm f/1.9 FM standard lens which is fairly common, X-Fujinon lenses, in particular the multi-coated EBC models, tend to be rare and very expensive ($200 to $600). Lenses from third party manufacturers such as CPC, TOU, D-Star, Hanimex and Porst’s GMC lenses are far cheaper (in the $25 to $50 price range) and easier to find. An interesting option is to use Tamron Adaptall 2 lenses – the Adaptall mount for Fujica X film cameras is still available (sometimes it’s New Old Stock), and Tamron lenses are generally easy to find at prices much more reasonable than original Fujinon lenses.
More about the AX-3 and the AX-5 in a few weeks…
Fuji Photo Film, Fujica, Fujifim, Fujitsu…a bit of history
You’re shooting film. Assuming you don’t have access to a dark room for film processing, and don’t want to invest time and money in your own scanning equipment, you will have to rely on photo processors to develop and scan your film. Most labs propose the choice between 2 or 3 scan qualities. What should you order?
Our perception of the “minimum acceptable quality” has changed over time:
Resolution of the scan of 24×36 film needed for a print or to fill a screen:
In theory, it’s pure math. Photoshop will prepare images for printing at 300 or 600 dots per inch (DPI). If you want to fill a 10×8 page at 300 dpi, you’ll need an image dimension of W=300 x 8 and L= 300 x 10 that is 2400 x 3000.
Photo processors generally offer scans in three levels of resolution:
Let’s compare two images taken in the Atlanta High Museum of Art with the same type of film and the same camera, and scanned at different resolutions:
The lower resolution picture is visibly less detailed (look at the hardwood floor, look at the grain in the shadows). A resolution of 1024 x 1544 is very limited, even for a WordPress blog.
However, the image size alone is not enough to determine the quality of a scanning service.
First, an image with 1200 x 1800 pixels has not always been scanned with a scanner resolution of 1270 Dots per Inch (36mm = 1.42in; 1800 pixels for 1.42 in = 1270 dpi) – it could have been scanned at a lower resolution and enhanced with interpolation.
Secondly, even with the same scanning equipment and the same resolution, images can be massively different, depending on the settings of the scanner and the skill of the operator: as an example, let’s use two pictures taken on the same type of color film and processed and scanned by two different Wolf Camera in-store labs in Atlanta:
The second picture looks much more grainy than the first one, even if the JPG files delivered by the minilab contain the same number of pixels in both cases.
I had noticed the same phenomenon with Costco a few years ago – in the same store, you could get very different results from one day to another one, depending on the experience and skills of the operator on duty that day.
The labs, the services, and the cost
Almost nobody operates in-store minilabs anymore. Pharmacy chains or large retailers that used to process film in-store are now contracting the work to a few centralized labs. They target the amateurs using disposable cameras and 35mm color film.
The enthusiast photographer crowd will be better served by a few large mail to order processing labs such as The Dark Room, The Old School Photo Lab , or North Coast Photo Services (NCPS). They offer a wider range of services and also process color slide and “true” black and white film (such as Kodak’s Tri-X Pan or Ilford’s HP5), in many formats.
I’ve been using The DarkRoom and the Old School Photo Lab a few times. Their prices are roughly in the same ballpark. They develop and scan a 135 film cartridge for $11.00 (the base price includes postage, and The Dark Room provides low resolution scans for free). Medium and High resolution scans are available at extra cost ($4 to $5 extra for 2048 x 3084 scans, $ 9 for 4492 x 6774 scans). The scans are posted on a Web Gallery (no need to wait for a CD to come back through the Postal Service) and can be downloaded to a PC or a Mac as jPEGs (TIFFs are available at extra cost). A free app is also made available to visualize the images on a smartphone.
The differentiator between those services is what happens to the film after it’s been processed:
Other vendors package their offer differently but the prices are roughly in the same ballpark.
A general issue with all those services is the lead time. You seldom get your scans on line in less than 10 calendar days (135 film, negative color film). Speciality items (slide film, black and white, medium format) may take a few days longer. But we don’t have much choice anymore, do we?
As a conclusion, if your pictures are important to you, learn to know your lab
The three most popular blog entries over the last quarter
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Fuji Photo Film has been in the photo business since 1934, but only entered the single lens reflex camera (SLR) market at the beginning of the 70s. At that time, Pentax, Minolta, Nikon and Canon had been selling SLRs for more than 10 years.
Fuji introduced important innovations – the Fujica ST701 was the first SLR using a silicon photo-diode for exposure metering, and in 1974, the ST901 was the first camera to use numerical LEDs to show the selected shutter speed in the viewfinder.
But Fuji bet on the wrong lens mount – their first SLR had a “universal” m42 screw mount that only supported stop down metering at a time when the market was already demanding full aperture metering. They rapidly had to create a proprietary derivative of the “universal” mount to support it. Their implementation (a protruding tab on the outside of the aperture ring to transmit aperture information to the camera) was clever and maintained the inter-compatibility of the lenses with the cameras of other vendors (I tested Fujinon lenses on Pentax and Yashica cameras – and there was no problem).
In 1979, Fuji was the last major vendor to abandon the screw mount, and finally launched a brand new proprietary bayonet, the “X” mount, supporting all types of auto-exposure modes.
Switching to a new lens mount is always a difficult exercise for a camera manufacturer, as it’s a powerful signal sent to its installed base that the investment they’ve made in the lenses of the brand is going to be worthless; at some point, the photographer will need a new camera to replace the existing one, and that day, he/she will also have to buy a whole new set of lenses. But if you have to buy everything anew, why stay with the brand that “betrayed” you?
The m42 bodies (Fujica ST 701, 705, 801, 901) were technically innovative and were praised by the press, but the bayonet mount cameras (Fujica STX, AX-1, AX-3, AX-5) were nice but unremarkable me-too products that never found much traction on a market place dominated by Canon and Minolta. When Minolta launched the first modern autofocus SLR, the Maxxum 7000, in 1985, Fuji was already folding down its SLR business, and did not even try to launch its own line of autofocus SLRs. They left the market for good in 1987.
Today, some of the Fujica screw mount cameras are highly regarded by the supporters of the m42 Universal mount. They were very modern when they were launched, and are far more pleasant to use than cameras of the same generation such as the Pentax Spotmatic.
Fujica AZ-1 and Fujinon-X f/3.5-4.5 43mm-75mm zoom – the AZ-1 was the first mass market SLR bundled with a zoom instead of the standard 50mm lens.
It leaves us with the ST801 and ST705 (both semi-auto cameras with full aperture metering), and the ST605 (an entry level semi-auto camera with stopped down metering and a slower shutter).
Fujinon lenses have an excellent reputation in the world of m42 lenses and apart from the 50 or 55mm lenses which are abundant, they are pretty rare. As the result, they’re probably the most expensive m42 screw mount lenses you can find on eBay. In particular, they are significantly more expensive than equivalent (and similarly highly rated) Pentax screw mount lenses.
Tamron used to sell an Adaptall 2 ring specifically designed for Fujica’s full aperture metering system. Tamron Adaptall lenses are more abundant than Fujica’s, and are an interesting option if you don’t want to spend $500.00 on a Fujica EBC Wide Angle lens (for instance).
The ST801 was the top of the line of Fujica in the seventies – it was significantly more expensive (maybe 25% more) than the Pentax Spotmatic F – which would have been its closest competitor in the word of screw mount cameras, and was probably in the same price bracket as Nikon’s Nikkormat.
Conclusion – for a camera of the early 70’s, the Fujica ST801 is much more usable than equivalent models from Nikon or Canon. The viewfinder is brighter, the metering system is modern and reactive, and the body is comparatively smaller and lighter. The contrast with the Pentax models of the same era (Spotmatic) is also striking. Maybe it’s because of the sorry state of most of the copies of the Spotmatic you can find today, but a Pentax feels really clunky compared to the ST801. The Fujica is much more satisfying to use.
In my opinion, the ST801 is the best screw mount Fujica camera, and arguably the best 42mm screw mount semi-automatic camera to reach the mass market. Ever.
For a single lens reflex camera or a lens manufactured after 1975, full aperture vs stopped down metering is a non issue. But it was a key differentiator between 1965 and 1975. And if you’re considering mounting an old lens (manufactured before 1975) on a mirrorless camera, it may still impact you.
On a single lens reflex camera (SLR), the photographer composes the picture on a mat focusing screen, where the image formed in the lens is projected. This layout has all sorts of advantages, but the viewfinder tends to get too dark for focusing when the lens aperture exceeds F/8, and at smaller apertures (F/11, F/16), even composition becomes impossible.
Therefore, the best practice in the 50’s was to open the lens at the widest aperture, focus carefully, and then rotate the aperture ring to stop down the lens at the aperture needed to expose the picture optimally. It worked, but it was slow. The process was easy to automate, and that’s what aperture pre-selection systems do.
Aperture pre-selection mechanism
Their goal : let the photographer compose and focus at full aperture, and then stop down at the last fraction of a second, when he/she presses the shutter release. Practically, the diaphragm stays wide open, until the shutter release mechanism (through various cogs, springs and levers) activates a rod in the lens which closes the diaphragm to the aperture pre-selected by the user.
Through the Lens (TTL) metering
Aperture preselection solved the problem of composing and focusing at slow apertures, but the introduction of CdS cell meters to evaluate the illumination of a scene Through The Lens (TTL) brought a new set of challenges: the camera needed to know how open the diaphragm was going to be when the picture is finally taken. There were two ways to do it:
A few other vendors chose to simply modify the design of the aperture ring of the lens, and use it to transmit the aperture value to the camera’s metering system. At the beginning, Nikon used an external fork (the “rabbit ears”) screwed at the periphery of the aperture ring to communicate the pre-selected aperture to a pin connected to the metering system in the body.
Later, Nikon redesigned the aperture ring to add a small protruding tab at its back, and this tab moved a sensor on the circumference of the body’s lens mount (Nikon Auto Indexing or “AI” lenses). Nikon’s system is similar (in its principle) to Fuji’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 universal mount of the ST801 (pictures below).
Mounting an old lens on a mirrorless camera
When the photographer is using an old lens through a lens mount adapter, the cameras needs to work with the lens stopped down (only semi-auto and aperture priority automatic exposure modes are supported). There are none of the inconveniences associated with stopped down aperture on a reflex camera: on a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder always shows the image as it will be exposed, and if the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are correctly set, the image will be perfectly legible in the viewfinder, even if the lens is set a f/11.
But the challenge is to force an old lens to operate stopped down:
Film is back. At least if Kodak and Ilford are to be believed.
To my taste, the best single reflex cameras (shooting film) were made in the 1975-1985 decade. Cameras sold earlier were a bit too limited (metering), too big and too quirky, and cameras made later are more autofocus robots. Not that I refuse to benefit from the advances of technology – it’s just that if I want to use the most technologically advanced camera I can afford, I shoot digital.
The list of my picks is not a catalog. I’m writing about cameras and camera systems I’ve really used – and learned to know over the years on multiple photo shoots. This list does not include any camera from Minolta, Konica, Fujica, Leica, … because I’ve never owned and used the SLRs they were selling between 1975 and 1985.
Nikon FM – Nikon’s first compact semi-auto exposure camera. Built like a small tank, it was often used as a backup camera by pros shooting in very taxing situations. It’s a modern camera (conventional ergonomics, LEDs in the viewfinder) but the commands are a bit stiff and the viewfinder seems small in comparison to an Olympus OM or even a Canon AE-1. The metal blade shutter is solid, but limited to 1/1000 sec. If you buy now, try and find an FM2. If I did not already own the FE2, I would try and find an FM3A. That being said, if I had to pick one of the cameras I own to bring to an extreme expedition, that would be the FM.
All Nikons benefit from a huge selection and an abundant supply of good lenses, with some form of upwards and downwards compatibility (they’ve been using the same bayonet mount since 1959). Similarly, flash compatibility with current systems is also maintained for most bodies (FE2 and more recent)
The Olympus OM series
When they launched the OM-1, Olympus tried to position it as a camera for reporters, and managed to sell a few copies to leading American newspapers. But at that time, the press photographers did not buy their equipment, they received if for free from the newspaper, and had little incentive to treat their gear carefully. The little Olympus failed the tests, and the press photographers returned to their Nikons – not as sexy but built like the proverbial tanks. Or so goes the legend.
In any case, if the Olympus cameras were not widely adopted by reporters, they found a following with scientists, researchers or ethnographers, who liked the compactness of the camera bodies and the quality of the lenses.
In the subsequent years, Olympus developed two lines of products – the “one-digit” OM cameras OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 for the enthusiasts and the professionals, and the “two-digit” OM-10, OM-20 and so on for beginners and amateurs. Let’s focus on the single digit cameras.
More information about cameras of the 1975-1985 era
There is an abundance of Web sites, blogs and forums dedicated to film cameras of the 1975-1985 era. They tend to come and go.
A very good source of information on Nikon, Olympus and Canon cameras has been around for years: Photography in Malaysia (MIR)
Film photography is enjoying a renaissance.
The most recent sign? At CES, earlier this month, Eastman-Kodak announced they would re-launch Ektachrome film at the end of 2017, and their head of marketing even said they were considering manufacturing Kodachrome again (I have my doubts on this one, but it’s great news if it ever happens….).
So it looks like we’re going to have film. What about cameras?
There is (almost) no new film camera produced, and the second hand market is the only option for people who are new to film.
What matters in the perspective of contemporaneous use of old film cameras?
You don’t use film for the immediacy of the result, or because of its cost effectiveness – you would use a digital camera or a smartphone if that was what you were looking for. You don’t use film if you want to be absolutely sure you’ve shot the picture you had visualized in your mind. The real-time trial and error process of digital (shoot, check the picture on the rear display, adjust a parameter, repeat until you get what you want) does not work with film. You have to think, proceed carefully, and you won’t know if “you nailed it” until you receive your processed rolls a few days later.
You shoot with film because it’s a different, slower, more deliberate experience. And using a nice camera you love, that works in unison with your mind and your eyes, is part of the pleasure.
Interestingly, you can now afford cameras that only the wealthiest among us would have dreamt of when they were new. The hierarchy of the prices of the cameras on the second hand market has relatively little to do with the sticker they wore in stores 40 years ago.
Today, the market of film cameras is to a large extend a collector’s market. It’s a paradox, but surviving copies of models which sold poorly – or did not withstand the test of time gracefully – are more difficult to find, and therefore tend to be more expensive than copies of the more common and reliable models of the major league Japanese manufacturers. That’s very good news if you buy a camera to use it, and not primarily as a collector item.
With even the most high end cameras of the Big Four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax) now selling in the $150 to $200 range, the spread of prices for cameras in working order is relatively narrow, and there is no good reason to buy a plasticky spec’d down entry level model at $50 or $75 when you can get a really great camera for just $50 more.
The Big Four (and particularly Canon and Nikon) also have an advantage when it comes to the lens selection. If what you find on eBay is any indication, amateurs in the seventies bought their cameras with the standard 50mm lens, and sometimes bought a 135mm tele or a 70-200 zoom to extend their reach. Trans-standard zoom lenses (35-70) were not widely used. Only a few enthusiasts bought wider angle lenses (35mm or 28mm – generally from independent manufacturers). And only pros bought ultra wide angle lenses.
As a result, and paradoxically, 24mm or 28mm lenses from Nikon or Canon (the brands of pros at that time) are more abundant (and significantly cheaper) than equivalent models from brands which were not bought in large quantities by pros and enthusiasts (Fujica, and to a lesser extent Olympus are a good examples). Another reason to buy a camera from the so-called Big Four.
When it comes to film SLRs, there are three generations to consider:
pre-1975 : with or without a photo-cell, cameras of this generation tend to have a limited usability.
They could be bought in 1971 – Canon FT/QL, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat. The OM-1 is so small and modern compared to the other two.
1975-1985: manual focus, semi auto or simple auto exposure, with average weighted metering and conventional ergonomics (aperture ring, shutter speed knobs). Still built primarily in metal. In my opinion it’s the golden age of film SLR cameras:
1985-2000: autofocus, auto-exposure, electronic cameras with matrix metering, with ergonomics relying on LCD displays and control wheels.
To be continued: Part II – my picks for the cameras of the 1975-1985 period.