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.
- FT/FTb: the FT/QL was launched in the mid 1960’s and the FTb that replaced it was produced until the launch of the AE1 in 1977. Both suffer from the limitations of a camera from the sixties (they need mercury batteries, they have CdS meters, they’re large and heavy with dim viewfinders). The FT is a stopped-down-metering camera and works with the FL lenses, while the FTb offers full aperture metering with the FD lenses.
- AE-1/A-1/AT-1, AV-1, AE-1 Program – they were the best selling cameras of their time, they were generally reliable, and there still are tons of them around here. Which one you pick is a matter of taste, they differ primarily by the type of exposure metering system they use. They all share a textile shutter which must have been cheap to manufacture, but is limited to 1/1000 sec with a flash sync speed of 1/60.
- They were mass produced and designed to a price point – they don’t exude the same quality feeling as a Nikon FE2 or an Olympus OM-2. Little things like battery doors are fragile. But the metering system can be trusted and they’re pleasant to use.
- Of all the A series cameras, the Canon A-1 has the strongest personality,. It’s the most capable, and the one I prefer.
- The Canon AV-1 is typical of a time when camera makers believed that spec’d down cameras were easier to use and had a better chance of bringing amateurs to serious photography. It’s as cheap as it can get, but there are much better options in Canon’s lineup for aspiring photographers.
- They benefit from a wide selection of good and very good FD lenses, still available on the second hand market at very affordable prices.
- Nikkormat FT/FTn/FT2/FT3 – Initially launched in the mid 1960’s – it was regularly updated until the FT3 was replaced by the FM in 1977. It suffers from some of the limitations of a camera from the sixties (size, weight, CdS meters), but always supported full aperture metering, and the most recent models ( FT2 and FT3) work with silver oxide batteries.
- All Nikkormat are built like tanks and rock solid. If you can live with the weight (750g body only) and the very unusual position of the commands (shutter speed ring, film speed selector), the FT3 is still perfectly usable as an everyday camera.
- It’s not necessarily the case for the earlier models (FT and FTn): the process to follow in order to mount a lens on the camera was progressively simplified by Nikon. It is really kludgy on the FT/FTn bodies: you have to follow a bizarre sequence to pair the lens with the metering system of the body – that’s the “indexing”. With the FT3 and AI lenses, indexing has become transparent.
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.
- Nikon FE : Aperture Priority Automatic. Feels as old as the FM (slow shutter, small viewfinder). I would surely buy the FE2 for a very little more.
- Nikon F3 : an all time favorite: great ergonomics, incredibly vast viewfinder, smooth commands, good shutter (1/2000 sec). Launched in 1980, it was produced for 21 years in parallel with the F4 and F5 that were supposed to replace it. The flash system is specific to the F3. All in all, a very pleasant camera to use, compact, rock solid, but also really heavy.
- Nikon FE2 – an evolution of the FE, launched in 1982. It has the same small viewfinder as the FM and the FE. But apart from that it’s a winner: great build quality, great ergonomics, smooth commands, great shutters (1/4000, sync @1/250), modern flash system. My favorite when I’m visiting a new place or a new country, and need to take a break from digital.
- Nikon FA – an evolution of the FE2 with an additional shutter priority exposure mode and matrix metering. It’s already too complex in my opinion – the matrix metering is perplexing (you never understand what it’s doing) and because the camera is supposed to know better, there is no memorization of the exposure in auto mode.
- EM, FG
– plasticky entry level cameras with limited shutter performance – abundant but not recommended. Buy an FE2 instead.
- Nikon FM2 and FM3A – The FM2 is an evolution of the FM with a better shutter, while the FM3A is an evolution of the FE2, with a shutter working in two modes: electronic when the camera is set in aperture priority auto-exposure mode, and purely mechanic (no battery needed) in semi-auto mode. Compact, light and solid – the cameras to bring with you in the most extreme expeditions. The FM2 is somehow affordable, but the FM3A is a recent camera, produced for a short time in relatively limited volumes, and tends to be expensive.
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.
- Olympus OM-1 – it must have made quite an impression in 1971. It is incredibly compact, has a giant viewfinder, a very well thought ergonomics, and feels like a precision instrument. Its shutter is a bit limited today (1/1000 sec) and it requires mercury batteries which are not available any more. I would buy an OM-2 instead.
- OM-2 – same body and general layout as the OM1, but with aperture priority auto-exposure mode and modern silver oxide batteries. It was also the first SLR with a modern TTL flash metering system. It’s a pleasure to use: the commands are precise and smooth, the mirror and the shutter don’t vibrate (I’ve shot at 1/15 sec without a tripod). There is no exposure memorization in auto mode (but it’s easy to switch to semi-auto). Another of my favorites – when I know I’m going to shoot in low light without a tripod- in exhibits and museums for instance, that’s the one I bring with me.
- Olympus OM2-S Program/OM-3/OM4 – close derivatives of the OM1/OM2 – with a new body and an improved metering system. Unfortunately this generation of cameras was plagued by battery drain issues. And because it provides more information at the periphery, and offers a dioptric corrector, the viewfinder gives the impression of being smaller. The OM3t/OM4t addressed the electronics issues of their predecessors, and are sought by fanatics of the zone system because of all the possibilities of the metering system (spot and average metering, exposure for high lights, low lights). Nice tools for passionate photographers.
- Olympus OM-2000 – the ugly duckling of the family, this semi-auto camera was designed and manufactured by Cosina. It shares the OM lens mount of the family, but has nothing of the grace of a “one-digit” OM. It’s a bit plasticky, the LEDs in the viewfinder are crude, but it offers spot and average metering like its siblings – and it simply works. The ergonomics are conventional, and the metallic vertical shutter is completely different from the horizontal textile shutter of the other OM bodies (flash sync 1/125, 1/2000 sec).
- The Olympus “Zuiko” lenses have a great reputation, but the selection and the second hand availability tend to be narrower than with Canon or Nikon: OM cameras were bought more by amateurs and enthusiasts than by pros, and in smaller numbers. Olympus used to offer 3 models of lenses for the same focal length, and the slowest f/3.5 lenses are by far the most common. The lenses opening at f/2.8 or f/2 are rare, and very expensive.
- the slow textile shutter is a limitation to all OM cameras (1/60 flash sync for all models, 1/1000 sec for OM1, OM2 and OM2 SP)
- the original Spotmatic – launched in 1964, received a limited refresh in 1971 and was updated more significantly in 1973 (to become the Spotmatic F, with full aperture metering and a new set of lenses). The Spotmatics form a nice line of cameras (innovative when they were launched, relatively compact and well finished), and they were produced in large quantities. But they’re too old to be considered in this category. They were replaced by the first K bodies (KM, KX, K2) in 1975, when Pentax introduced the K bayonet mount. The KX and K2 had a short life (replaced by the MX and ME in 1977), but the K1000 (a simplified version of the semi-auto KM introduced in 1976) would be manufactured until 1996, and would become the camera most recommended for “learners”.
- the Pentax MX was my first serious camera, a long time ago. It was a very compact and modern semi-auto camera in its heyday – with a nice and robust metal casing. Its closest competitor (technically) was the Nikon FM (but at that time Nikon cameras were more expensive than anything but a Leica, and I could not afford it). I kept the MX for fifteen years, but the camera was not that reliable now that I think about it: I had issues with the frame counter, the timer, and a faulty stabilization circuit in the metering system that could not be fixed sealed its fate. I liked the lenses, though (the 35-70 zoom was very good).
- the ME, ME Super were even more compact than the MX, offered aperture priority exposure but were not as enthusiast friendly as the MX. There was no speed knob but touch buttons to change the shutter speed, and no depth of field preview. The Super A/Super A Program were probably the most enthusiast friendly of that generation – but I never used them and can’t comment.
- There is a good lens selection under the Pentax brand. Prices tended to be moderate when they were new, and it’s still the case today. Pentax tried to impose their K bayonet as the new “universal” mount. They did not completely succeed, but many second tier vendors adopted the K-mount (Cosina, Ricoh, Vivitar and the usual distributor labels) and third party good quality lenses are abundant and affordable.
- I did not mention brands like Contax, Fujica, Leica or Minolta. Not that I don’t like their cameras, but I’ve never really used the manual focus SLRs they were manufacturing in those years.
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)