What camera should I pick for the film renaissance? (Part I)

Film photography is enjoying a renaissance.

ektachromeThe 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?

  • the lens selection (availability, affordability, quality),
  • the reliability,
  • the quality of the shutter (consistency, fastest speed) and of the metering system,
  • the availability and the cost of batteries,
  • and most important, the pleasure to use the camera.

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.

Nikon F3 in CF-22 case
Nikon F3 – a very expensive pro camera when new, very affordable now

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 are large, heavy and loud, and their ergonomics are sometimes bizarre.The metering system, when it exists, is using CdS photo cells and mercury batteries – CdS cells did not age well, and not all cameras accept the current silver oxide or zinc-air batteries as substitutes to mercury batteries.
  • Those cameras are 40 to 50 years old. Their textile shutters are fragile and the springs and cogs that keep everything in motion have passed their prime. Some brands may be better than others at building cameras  that resist the test of time (Nikon?), but generally speaking, cameras of this age are more curiosity items or collectors than tools for everyday use.
  • Most of them (Nikon again is the exception) use lens mounts which have been abandoned a long time ago. The lenses you will buy for those cameras will be dedicated: the ability to mount them on modern dSLRs is next to zero.

They could be bought in 1971 - Canon FT/QL, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat. The OM-1 is so small.
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:

Nikon FE2 - Canon A-1 - the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties
Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties
  • They are simple, comparatively small and relatively silent
  • They provide some assistance to the photographer (semi auto or simple auto exposure, average metering) but not too much: you still  understand what the camera is doing, and why, and you can still easily over rule the automatism.
  • abundant selection of lenses, generally cheap – Some lenses are even compatible  with modern dSLRs cameras of the same brand or with mirrorless ILCs through adapters.
  • On the downside, cameras from this generation saw the introduction of more electronics, and the initial implementations were not always reliable. Cameras with faulty electronics are not repairable. Test before you buy, or buy from a seller who has tested the camera with batteries.
Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 - Control Wheel vs conventional ergonomics
Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 – Exposure Mode Selector and Control Wheel on the left vs conventional ergonomics on the right.

1985-2000: autofocus, auto-exposure, electronic cameras with matrix metering, with  ergonomics relying on LCD displays and control wheels.

Minolta A Mount on a 700si body (1993)
Minolta 700si body (1993) – a good autofocus camera. The photographer is in control.
  • they generally use a bayonet of the same family as the one of their current digital equivalents. They use lenses that present some form of inter-compatibility with current digital cameras (100% compatibility with Canon, whose EOS mount did not change at all, compatibility with caveats for the other major vendors).
  • Because of all the assistance mechanisms they have (autofocus, matrix metering, auto exposure programs reacting automatically to the movement of the subject to select an appropriate shutter speed), the rate of good pictures is going to be higher than with cameras of older generations.
  • Reliability of those complex electronic beasts should not be too much of a concern – it either works, or not at all.
  • On the downside, cameras from this generation tend to be fairly large and loud, they are battery hogs (and they use expensive disposable Lithium batteries), and they automate the picture taking process so much that some photographers may feel they’re not in control. And while some cameras of that generation are nice pieces of industrial design, they’re all made of plastic. Not to everybody’s taste.

To be continued: Part II – my picks for the cameras of the 1975-1985 period.

Paris, Place de l'Hotel de Ville (City Hall) - Nikon F3 - 24mm Nikkor AF
Paris, Place de l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall) – Nikon F3 – 24mm Nikkor AF


How much did SLR cameras cost in 1985?

1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially  successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.

Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.

Price of Cameras - 1985
Price of Cameras – 1985

A few interesting points….

Minolta Maxxum 7000 - source Wikipedia
Minolta Maxxum 7000 – source Wikipedia
  • the models most popular with enthusiasts  (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
  • Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
  • Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders  (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).

The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.

In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of  low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their  manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus  commissioned companies  like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).

On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.

Charleston, SC - Shot in 2009 - Nikon FM - Kodak CN400
Charleston, SC – Shot in 2009 – Nikon FM – Kodak CN400

The AV-1: probably Canon’s cheapest entry in the Canon FD lens family

The AV-1 is a variant of the A series developed as an entry level model to compete with the myriad of spec’d down SLRs of lesser brands (Chinon, Cosina, Ricoh, Vivitar and the private label cameras sold by Sears and the like). It was primarily designed for the US market. It’s an aperture priority auto-exposure camera, which is stripped of any ability to control the exposure manually or in semi-automatic mode, or to pre-visualize the depth of field. But it will accept most of the accessories of its bigger A series brothers (winder, flash, …), and of course Canon’s FD lenses.

Canon AV-1 with a Canon 35-105 zoom.
Canon AV-1 with a Canon 35-105 zoom.
Canon AV-1 - the photographer can not select the shutter speed. (no semi-auto mode)
Canon AV-1 – the photographer can not select the shutter speed. (no semi-auto mode)

The shutter speed selected by the camera is indicated by a needle in the viewfinder, and a button on the left side of the camera can be used to adjust the exposure if the subject is backlit. A trained photographer will feel deprived of control on the camera, but in simple situations, it’s good enough.

Most AV-1s I’ve seen have a broken battery door. The one I found is not different. But it does not prevent the camera from operating, and delivering good pictures in the standard situations that an amateur would face.

Because it’s an automatic-only camera, the AV-1 is not a very sought after item, and it can be found for next to nothing – I bought mine as part of a bundle of 4 cameras, for the princely sum of $8.95.

Canon AV-1 - the button on the top plate is the battery check. The button on the side of the reflex chamber is for exposure compensation
Canon AV-1 – the button on the top plate is the battery check. The button on the side of the reflex chamber is for exposure compensation
Canon AV-1 - The battery door is broken, but it does not prevent the camera from working.
Canon AV-1 – The lock on the battery door is broken, but it does not prevent the camera from working.

Canon FD Lenses

The Canon FD lenses are abundant and, because they could not be mounted on modern Canon autofocus bodies, they remained cheap.   With the advent of full frame mirrorless system cameras (the Sony A7 family), it became easy to use an FD lens on a modern camera, and the most sought after lenses (mostly the “AL” or “L” fast prime tele objective lenses) are now selling for prices in excess of $1,000. Zoom lenses are not as highly valued, the most expensive ones selling for $500 to $700.

Canon FD Zoom 35-105 f/3.5 (3 rings)
Canon FD Zoom 35-105 f/3.5 (3 rings).

Zoom lenses (even those with a very good reputation when new like the three ring 35-105 F/3.5 I’m using for this blog post) are somehow disappointing today, even when mounted on a old film cameras: they’re large and heavy,  sensitive to flare, and three rings (zoom, focus, aperture) is a lot to play with for photographers used to working with modern autofocus bodies. That being said, this particular zoom is a very beautiful piece of glass.

It was Canon’s  first  35-105 lens. It is a true (or parfocal ) zoom which stays in focus when magnification/focal length is changed, with a constant F/3.5 aperture. The front element of the lens is rather large, and the zoom requires 72mm filters.

It was replaced a few years later by a much more compact lens,  with a sliding aperture (f/3.5-4.5), an aspherical element and a 58mm filter ring. Canon derived an autofocus version of that lens, and it’s the precursor of the consumer grade trans-standard zooms still sold with digital SLRs today.

I  bought my copy of the lens from a Japanese store on eBay. Their description of the articles is sometimes difficult to understand (poor translation in English), but in my experience, Japanese resellers tend to have very nice items at a very reasonable price.

Japanese resellers generally ship with Chronopost. This global service is extremely efficient and works seamlessly with the US Postal Service:  you typically get your purchase delivered to your door step by the USPS in 3 to 4 days.

Deer - Atlanta - Canon AV-1 - 35-105 Zoom.
Deer – Atlanta – Canon AV-1 – 35-105 Zoom.

The Canon A-1: there’s no better film camera for Canon’s FD lenses

In 1976, Canon launched the AE-1, an automatic camera with  shutter speed priority automatic exposure. It was a very capable, judiciously priced camera which sold in excess of 1 million units. It was driven by a microprocessor, and Canon took advantage of the flexibility of its architecture to derive rapidly more models – the AT-1 (semi auto) in 1977, the AV-1 (aperture priority automatic in 1978), the AE-1 Program in 1981, and the AL-1 (a camera with an electronic focus assist system) in 1982. The A-1, launched in 1978, was the top of the “A” line, and was the first system camera to combine 3 types of exposure automation modes – shutter priority, aperture priority and program, in the same body.

Canon A-1. Still impressive after all these years.
Canon A-1. Still impressive after all these years.

Until the launch of the A-1 (and of Minolta’s XD-7 at about the same time), an auto-exposure camera only operated in one mode. Minolta, Nikon and Pentax were in the  “Aperture Priority” camp  (the photographer selects the aperture, the camera sets the shutter speed automatically), while Canon and Konica were defending “shutter priority” (the photographer selects the shutter speed, and the camera sets the aperture automatically). Each camera manufacturer was presenting the solution it had picked as the best, but the truth is that a photographer could have benefited from Aperture Priority one day (if he was shooting landscapes, for instance) and from Shutter Priority another day (when he was shooting sports events, for instance). With the A-1, Canon not only offered Aperture and Shutter Priority modes (which required the user to pick the most appropriate mode and set the aperture or the speed accordingly), but also a program mode, where the camera automatically selected the Aperture and Shutter speed combination, without any intervention from the photographer.

Canon A-1 - battery check, exposure memorization, depth of field preview - buttons, switches and cursors
Canon A-1 – battery check, exposure memorization, depth of field preview – buttons, switches and cursors

Today, most of the “A” series cameras of Canon are still abundant and cheap – they were manufactured in huge quantities, and they have withstood the test of time much better than most of their less reliable competitors. With the exception of the A-1 which has a stronger personality, the cameras of the “A” generation are rather unremarkable. They’re not big  (but not as small as the Olympus OM cameras), their build quality is good, but not exceptional (compared to a Nikon FM or FE of the same vintage, they feel plasticky), the view finder is large and luminous enough – but … not exceptional (you guessed it right). They need a battery to work, but the battery is an easy to find a 6v alcaline or silver oxide battery. They’re easy to use, and in the hands of a moderately competent photographer, will produce good pictures.

The A-1 is a bit different. It was designed as Canon’s top of the line, and it was intimidating when it was launched (there had never been so many buttons and switches and cursors on a camera). But the controls were very logically implemented and the learning curve must have been short. Canon’s implementation of the controls for the three automatic exposure modes was very clever and was a decisive step towards the modern ergonomics (control wheel and LCD) of the Canon T90 and its EOS successors.

In order to operate in auto-exposure mode, first set the lens’ aperture ring  to “A”. Then move the mode switch to “Av” (Aperture priority) and select the aperture with the control wheel, or set the mode switch to “Tv” (Shutter priority), and use the control wheel to select the shutter speed (from 30 sec to 1/1000 sec.). The Program Mode is accessible from the “Tv” position – there is no dedicated position of the mode switch for the Program Mode.

Canon A-1 - Shutter Priority Mode and Program Mode. The photographer can not pick the aperture, so the aperture dial is hidden and only the shutter speed values are shown.
Canon A-1 – Shutter Priority Mode and Program Mode. The photographer can not pick the aperture, so the aperture dial is hidden and only the shutter speed values are shown.

Canon’s implementation of the multi-mode auto exposure is more user friendly that Nikon’s. When they launched the FA (5 years after the A-1), Nikon kept the conventional shutter speed knob next to the mode selector. In the picture above, the camera is set in Aperture Priority Mode (the photographer selects the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed, that could be anything from a few seconds to 1/4000 second), but the shutter speed knob still shows 1/250, which can be  misleading.

Today, the A-1 is still a very good tool. It offers all sorts of controls (exposure memorization, depth of field preview, multiple exposure of the same frame) and its only limitation is its shutter. Film is now significantly faster than in 1978 (200 or 400 ISO is the new normal), and a shutter with a fastest speed of  1/1000 can be a limitation.

The “T” models that followed were ugly plastic bricks controlled by push buttons – with the exception of the T90 which is a beautiful precursor of the EOS models, but suffers from reliability issues (sticky shutter).

In my opinion, the A-1 is the last great camera using FD lenses that can still be used today. It is not a beautiful piece of classical photographic machinery like a Canon F-1, but it’s a solid and very capable tool, that a photographer trained on modern “control wheel” SLRs will learn how to use easily.

Canon A-1. The control wheel is used to change the lens aperture or the shutter speed in auto mode
Canon A-1. The mode switch is in the “Av” position – the photographer can only pick the aperture and that’s what’s displayed on the mode dial.
Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector
On the Nikon FA, the value displayed on the shutter speed will not necessarily be used to take the picture. The camera is set in “A” (aperture priority) mode and the shutter speed will be determined by the electronics of the camera.

What were the competitors doing when Canon was launching the AE-1 and the A-1?

The Nikon cameras of 1978 were conventional semi auto and aperture-priority auto exposure cameras.

  • Nikon was selling three models, the F2, FM and FE, with AI lenses.
  • The AI bayonet mount could not have supported Shutter Priority and Program modes. A new variant of the Nikon F mount, the AI-S,  was  launched in parallel with the FG and FA, the multi-auto cameras of 1983.

In 1978, Pentax was selling the ME/MX cameras with the K mount (not capable of supporting Shutter Priority and Program modes).

  • The bayonet mount was revised in 1983 to become the  KA for the launch of the Pentax Super A.
  • The Super-A was Pentax’s only manual focus reflex camera supporting the same 3 auto-exposure modes as the Canon A-1.

In 1978 Minolta was selling the XD-7 and its derivatives (dual auto, but no Program mode) in addition to a line of Aperture Priority cameras.

  • Minolta’s MD lenses  (launched in 1977) benefited from an updated version of the SR mount and could support cameras with Shutter Priority auto-exposure in addition to the Aperture Priority mode that the MC lenses already supported
  • The first Minolta SLR to offer also a Program Mode was the X-700 in 1981.
  • Interestingly none of those newer generation “X” models offered the 3 auto-exposure modes of the A-1: the shutter priority mode was missing.

With its 3 auto-exposure modes, the Canon A-1 was definitely unique among the system cameras of the Big 4.

Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park - Canon A-1 - 35-105 Zoom -
Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park – Canon A-1 – 35-105 Zoom – My father in law is the original owner of the camera. Nice gift. Thank you.

A more serious comparison – iPhone 7 Plus vs dSLR

For three years now, Arstechnica has been comparing images of a same scene taken with a high-end smartphone, and with two good full frame dSLRs. By the way, one of the two cameras they tested was Sony’s A7 II, which is a full frame mirrorless camera, not a dSLR, but we’ll ignore this detail . They just published the latest iteration of their tests:


Just a quote: “phones long ago left “good enough” territory; images produced by a modern smartphone like the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel can be flat-out excellent when the images are constructed to play to the smartphones’ strengths.” (Lee Hutchinson)

No wonder the camera maker are now preparing Full Frame or Medium Format digital cameras with 50 MegaPixel sensors. Trying to maximize the advantages of a conventional camera for the situations when the smartphone is not good enough.

Chicago - iPhone 5S
Chicago – iPhone 5S

Fuji X-T1 vs Apple iPhone 7 Plus – should we still carry a conventional digital camera with us?

A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Taos area in New Mexico with friends. One of them – a pretty good photographer – had decided to travel light and had left his full frame DSLR at home. He only had brought his smartphone, a brand new Apple 7 Plus. I had brought my Fujifilm X-T1 with the standard 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens. Along the day, we took pictures of the same scenes (natural and urban landscape for the most part), and at the end of the day, we compared our photos. Let’s use two pictures taken from the Rio Grange Gorge Bridge, on Route 64, a few miles from Taos as an example:

Rio Grande from Taos - iPhone 7 Plus
Rio Grande from Taos – iPhone 7 Plus. Photographer: L.C.
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge - Fujifilm X-T1
Rio Grande from Taos Bridge – Fujifilm X-T1

To our surprise, the pictures were virtually indistinguishable when displayed on a smartphone, an iPad Pro or a laptop screen. We did not expect the resolution to be differentiator (at 12 Megapixel, an iPhone 7 has more than enough resolution for pictures shared on social networks). The biggest surprise was the dynamic range of the iPhone 7 Plus, which appears to be better than the Fuji’s on a very difficult subject (black rocks, snow, sun reflections on the river).

At the top of that, the iPhone can publish photos in seconds after they’ve been shot (on iCloud or on the major social networks). The Fujifilm is relatively good at this exercise – for a conventional camera. But you still need to bring up WiFi on the camera (it becomes a WiFi access point), launch the Fujifilm app on a smartphone, connect the smartphone to the camera, and upload the selected pictures to the Photo application of the smartphone. Only then you can edit and share your pictures. Definitely not as fast.

Our goal was not to conduct an exhaustive scientific comparison – we were tourists and just shot landscapes under daylight. There are areas where a dedicated digital camera probably still has a marked advantage: action or wildlife photography, low light or night shots, for instance. And a dedicated camera has a viewfinder, and gives to the photographer a much greater ability to control the technical parameters than the Photo app of a smartphone. But the iPhone, now with a second short telephoto lens and a portrait mode simulating the shallow depth of field you would get with a 55mm f/1.2 lens on a dedicated digital camera, is getting closer to what a dedicated camera can do with every new generation.