The Ultimate film cameras

Ultimate: “last in a progression or series : final” (Source: Merriam-Webster)

Film cameras stopped selling in any significant quantity in the first years of this century – and the production of film cameras had almost completely ceased by 2008. But almost until the end, Canon, Minolta and Nikon kept on launching new models.

Most of those cameras were forgettable entry level models (their main justification was to occupy a lower price point than digital cameras), but a few high end models were nonetheless introduced.

The Canon EOS 3 (launched in 1998), the Minolta Maxxum 9 and the Nikon F100 (1999), the EOS-1v and the Maxxum 7 (2000), and last but not least the Nikon F6 (2004), were all at the pinnacle of film camera technology, and there will probably never be any new film camera as elaborate as they were.

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Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

They did not sell in large numbers. But they kept their value remarkably well, much better than the autofocus SLRs of the previous generation, and than the first mass market digital SLRs that replaced them in the bags of photographers.

Today, if you exclude the limited editions models that Minolta and Nikon had sometimes added to their product lines, it seems that for each of the big three Japanese camera manufacturers, the most expensive film camera on the second hand market is always their most recent high-end autofocus model.

Let’s look first at models launched at the very end of the film era, between the end of 1998 and 2004:

(source: eBay “sold” listings, body only, for a used camera in working order – I did not include “new old stock”, “Limited Editions”, “as-is”, “please read” and “for parts” listings.)

Canon

  • EOS1-V                   $350 to $800         launched: March 2000
  • EOS-3                      $150 to $700         launched: November 1998

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

  • Maxxum 9             $200 to $470         launched 1999
  • Maxxum 7             $150 to $230         launched 2000

Nikon

  • F100:                        $200 to $400         launched 1999
  • F6 (second hand): $600 to $1,300      launched 2004

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And let’s compare them with cameras of the generation that came just before

  • EOS 1n                     $100 to $300        launched November 1994
  • EOS Elan II              $40 to $100          launched September 1995
  • Minolta 800si         $45 to $60             launched 1997
  • Nikon F5                 $150 to $300         launched 1996
  • N90S/F90x              $40 to $150           launched 1994
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Nikon N90s (aka F90x) and Minolta 9xi – the unloved auto-focus cameras of the early to mid-eighties

The “ultimate” models sell for 3 to 5 times more than models that used to occupy the same place in the brand’s line-up, one generation before. Clearly for autofocus cameras, the most recent is also the most sought after, and the most expensive. A few reasons:

  • They have the highest usage value
    • Better performance – cameras of the ultimate generation are better machines – they focus faster and more accurately, the exposure is on the spot in more situations, under natural light and with a flash
    • Better compatibility with the current line of products of the brand (for example the Maxxum 7 accepts current Sony A lenses with ultrasonic motorization (Sony SSM lenses), and  the Nikon F100 can work with lenses deprived of an aperture ring (Nikon AF-S lenses). Older models can’t.
    • There is an expectation that the cameras will be more reliable (they’re more recent,  probably have been through fewer cycles, and their electronics components are most certainly better designed than they were in cameras of the previous decade).
  • Highest potential in collection
    • For bragging rights: “the most advanced film camera – ever”
    • For nostalgia: “the last film camera made by … Minolta”
    • Rarity: cameras launched in 1999 or in 2000 had a very narrow window of opportunity on the market – Nikon D1 launched mid 1999, the Fujifilm S1 Pro and the Canon D30 in the first months of year 2000 – and from there on the writing was on the wall. When the Maxxum 7 or the EOS-1V were launched in 2000, most enthusiast and pro photographers were already saving money for a future (and inevitable) Maxxum 7d or Canon EOS-1d. The last high end film cameras must not have sold in huge quantities.

How are the “ultimate” film cameras doing compared to the first digital models? 

The ultimate film cameras are more expensive than corresponding digital cameras sold in the first years of the 21  century – remember, those were dSLRs with 6 MPixel APS-C sensors at best, with mediocre low light capabilities and a narrow dynamic range. They  have a relatively limited usage value today (a smartphone does much better in many situations).

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Canon EOS d-30 from Year 2000 – a dSLR with a 3.25 million pixel CMOS sensor. Working copies can be found for $40 on eBay. (source: “Canon Museum”)

Are buyers of manual focus cameras also looking for the “ultimate”?
No. Not really.

Canon

  • T90                           $60 to $250             launched 1986
  • A-1                            $60 to $250             launched 1978
  • EF                             $90 to $140             launched 1973
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Canon T90 from 1986 – far superior technically to the Canon A-1 from 1978 – but sells for the same price on the second hand market.

Nikon

  • FA                              $50 to $350            launched 1983
  • FE2                            $70 to $400            launched 1983
  • F3                              $120 to $1,000       launched in 1980
  • Nikon EL2                $60 to $275            launched 1977
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The “ultimate” multi-automatic manual focus SLR from Nikon – it does not sell for more than a simpler aperture priority FE2

To my taste (and for many lovers of film cameras), manual focus film SLRs reached their peak sometime between 1977 and 1983 – before the massive introduction of electronics, motors and poly-carbonate led to the monstrosities such as the Canon T50. What contributes to the value of manual focus SLRs today?

  • Usage value
    • Models produced around the turn of the eighties still have a real usage value.
    • Buyers of manual focus cameras tend to value simplicity and direct control of exposure parameters over complexity and automatism – semi auto exposure cameras often sell for more than auto-exposure cameras.
    • They also value the beauty of machines built out of brass and steel, using cogs and springs rather than integrated circuits and solenoids.
    • The reliability of the electronics integrated in the final manual focus cameras is a concern – the electronic components did not always age well, and engineers made bad decisions (like soldering capacitors or batteries on printed circuits or using magnets instead of springs to control the shutter or the aperture).
    • Therefore, the very last manual focus cameras are often not as well regarded as the generation just before. In spite of being massively superior technically and much more pleasant to use, the T90 is not valued more than its predecessor the A-1 because of concerns over its excessive complexity and questionable reliability. Similarly, Nikon’s FA does not extract any premium over the simpler FM2 and FE2, because its embryo of matrix metering is perplexing. And I won’t mention the Canon T50 or the Pentax a3000, which can not stand the comparison with the AE-1 or the ME Super, if only for esthetical reasons.
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Canon A-1 (1978) – Source:  “Canon Museum” –
  • Potential in collection
    • Manual focus cameras from the big camera brands were often produced by the millions (Canon AE-1, for instance). Other models sold in smaller numbers but over a very long production run (Olympus OM-4t, Nikon F3, for example). The usual law of supply and demand applies, but generally speaking, rarity is not a significant factor in the value of most of those cameras.
    • Only special edition models in pristine condition can be expected to be worth more than a few hundreds dollars – for the foreseeable future.

 


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

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The Pentax m42 lenses – meet the Takumars

The Asahi Optical Corporation (known for its Asahi Pentax and Pentax cameras) was founded by a gentleman named Kumao Kajiwara. The brother of the founder was a painter of some fame named Takuma Kajiwara, and in his honor, Asahi named its lenses “Takumar”. We’ve seen stranger things in the past: in the thirties, Leica had named a line of lenses “Hektor”, for Oskar Barnack’s dog, and in 1901, Daimler cars had been re-branded  “Mercedes” after the daughter of their main car dealer on the Cote d’Azur.

Takumar lenses still enjoy a very good reputation, and some of them are highly sought after and sell for hundreds of dollars.

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Pentax Spotmatic SP with a 35mm f/2 Super-Takumar lens

With most vendors (Canon or Minolta, for instance), the different generations of lenses are named for their mount (a Canon FL lens has a so called FL mount and works stopped down, while a Canon FD lens has the so called FD mount that enables full aperture metering).  No such thing with Pentax. The name of the lens (Super-Takumar as opposed to Super-Multi-Coated Takumar or SMC Takumar) relates to the coating of the lens. The most recent lenses (Super-Multi-Coated or SMC) are generally the ones with the updated lens mount supporting Full Aperture metering, but there are exceptions both ways. The only way to determine for sure that a Pentax screw mount lens can meter at full-aperture is to have a good look at the mount.

Coating and Multi-Coating – what is it about?

When it comes to the optical lenses used with cameras, flare is the enemy. And reducing light reflections also improves the contrast (the images look sharper). That’s why lens coatings were developed.

A coating treatment is engineered to block the reflections in a given wavelength. Multi-coating treatments block reflections in a wider range of wavelengths.

Lens coating was a process unknown to the public until Pentax and Fuji started using it as a differentiator in their advertising campaigns in the early seventies (it had been invented before WWII in Germany and had long been considered a military secret).

The 42mm Pentax lens series  – an over-simplified summary…

Auto-Takumar: 42mm lens mount, with aperture pre-set: the photographer has to cock the spring loaded aperture mechanism of the lens after each shot, and will compose and focus at full aperture. The lens will automatically stop down to the pre-set aperture when the shutter release is pressed. The pre-Spotmatic cameras of the late fifties-early sixties (Model K, Model S) came with Auto-Takumar lenses.

Super-Takumar: 42mm lens mount. Automatic pre-selection lens for stopped down metering cameras. They were released in the early sixties and their long sales run more or less corresponds to the Spotmatic’s. The aperture pre-set mechanism does not need to be cocked by the photographer anymore. And the lenses benefit from some form of single layer coating.

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The mount on two Super-Takumar lenses: on the left, the Pentax ES variant of the m42 screw mount with the prong transmitting the aperture value to the camera (generally found on S-M-C and SMC lenses) , on the right a Super-Takumar with the conventional m42 mount.

Super-Multi-Coated Takumar: Introduced with the Electro-Spotmatic of 1971, they provide full aperture metering on the ES, the ES II and the Spotmatic F cameras – the lens mount was modified and now transmits the pre-selected aperture value to the camera via a prong (because it made its first appearance with the Pentax Electro-Spotmatic, this variant of the m42 Universal mount is sometimes named Pentax ES mount).

Super-Multi-Coated Takumars remain compatible with the cameras with stopped down metering like the original Spotmatic and the  Spotmatic II (although compatibility issues arise when mounted on cameras of other brands and with some modern lens mount adapters). Obviously, they get their “Super-Multi-Coated” name from Pentax’s multi-coating.

SMC Takumar: Minor cosmetic differences with the “Super-Multi-Coated” Takumar. Same full aperture metering capabilities and same Pentax ES mount. Introduced with the Pentax ES in 1972.

To the despair of Zeiss and Nikon who had been manufacturing multi-coated lenses for years without letting it known, Pentax  decided to use “multi-coating” as a marketing differentiator – and using a short acronym such as SMC probably helped convey the message to the consumers.

In any case, Pentax’s SMC multi-coating was more than a marketing ploy: when Popular Photography tested the multi-coated lenses of Pentax against their competitors, the SMC coating proved to be the best by a wide margin.

The bayonet mount lenses launched with the KM, KX and K2 bodies of 1975 are simply named SMC Pentax.

Are they radio-active?

Some of the high-end (F/1.2, F/1.4) Super-Takumar  are radio-active- as are other ultra-luminous lenses from other vendors like Canon. Because the optical glass contained Thorium. The use of Thorium was banned at a later stage because of the harm it could do to the workers in the glass foundries.

I’m not an expert in this field – what I’m reading is that the lenses are not very radio-active (they would veil the film if they were), and that unless you grind the lens, and ingest or inhale the dust, you should be safe. (more about the issue: http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/consumer%20products/cameralens.htm).

What to buy?

The Super-Takumar are probably the most common of all (thanks to their long production run), but even the shorter lived S-M-C and SMC Takumars are easy to find. Lenses compatible with the “universal” m42 mount abound, but there are very few third party lenses compatible with the Pentax ES variant. If you want a lens that does not exist in the Pentax SMC line-up (a trans-standard zoom, for instance), Tamron Adaptall lenses are the best option.

More about the Pentax 42mm lenses: http://www.klassik-cameras.de/Pentax_Takumar_e.html


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Horace – French bulldog – shot with Pentax 35mm f/2 lens (attached to a Fujifilm X-T1)

The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

The price of used film cameras on eBay is racing to the bottom. No brand is immune – not even Nikon or Leica –  only a few models seem to be worthy of the consideration of the buyers  and still sell for more than $100.00:

  • single digit Nikon F models,
  • Nikon FM2 or  FM3A,
  • Contax 159mm or ST,
  • pristine and tested Canon T90 or Canon New F-1,
  • all rangefinder cameras from Leica and a few of their SLRs,
  • Olympus OM-3t / OM-4t.

The very last high end film auto-focus SLRs of Canon, Minolta and Nikon – such as the EOS-3 and EOS-1 V, the Maxxum 7 and 9, and the F100 and F6 – are also in a a category of their own. As the “ultimate” film SLRs, very close technically from the current dSLRs of the same brand, they can be sold for anything between $200.00 and $2,000.00.

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Olympus OM-2000 – a beautiful member of my $5.00 league

The rest is trending towards being virtually free, and autofocus SLRs fare even worse than manual focus bodies: I recently paid  $3.25 for a nice N6006, a Nikon SLR from the early auto-focus era and $15.00 for a beautiful Minolta 9xi with a good lens,  its original catalog and user manual. We already passed the point where the shipping costs exceed the sale price of the camera, and where a set of batteries can be many times more expensive than the camera itself – the lithium battery of the N6006 cost me $12.00, almost 4 times the price of the camera.

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Nikon N6006 – a very competent auto-focus camera, to be had for less than $5.00 on eBay

For the photographer starting to shoot with film, there has never been a better time to buy a good camera on the cheap. Collectors are more attracted by pro or high-end cameras which were expensive when new, and still are in top condition. The  “last pro or last high-end film cameras manufactured by a given brand…” fare particularly well: a tested and working Pentax LX, a beautiful Olympus OM-4Ti or a Canon EOS-1 V are relatively rare and can sometimes reach prices between $400 and $1,000.

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Canon AV-1 – It was part of a $8.00 bundle which also included 3 other cameras. In all fairness the other cameras were all defective, but this one worked pretty well.

SLRs  originally positioned as mid level cameras for enthusiasts or experts provide the best opportunities, in particular if you’re willing to accept a few scratches or blemishes on the body: they tend to be much more usable than entry level cameras (they’re almost as feature rich as the high end models, if not as solid), but don’t catch the attention of the collectors because they’re too ordinary and too easy to find.

On my short list of recommended cameras:

Manual Focus cameras: strangely enough, manual-focus cameras from big brands tend to be more expensive than most of their auto-focus SLRs.

Although not as expensive as a T90, a FM3A or an OM-4Ti, the three cameras listed below can still command prices in the $70.00 to $100.00 range. They are very competent tools, they benefit from a large supply of good lenses, and are a great way to move one step higher with  film photography:

  • Canon A-1
  • Nikon FE2
  • Olympus OM-2n
they could be bought in 1983
Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – certainly not cheap cameras – but still a bargain at the current price level

You can find cheaper manual focus alternatives – the Olympus OM-2000 is one of my $5.00 cameras, but I’d be more prudent with brands like Fujica (and other brands which did not have strong following on the expert or enthusiast markets). Not that they did not make good cameras – but good lenses are going to be more difficult to find – and without a set of good lenses, a SLR camera is not really worth having.

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Fujica AZ-1 – the camera can be had for cheap, but apart for the ubiquitous 50mm lens and the zoom shown here, Fujinon EBC lenses (operating at full aperture) are rare and expensive.

Auto-focus Cameras: manufactured in the early to mid-nineties by the big four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax), they are mature technically, with a good multi-sensor auto-focus, matrix metering, and a long eye point viewfinder. The lenses are still somehow  compatible with the current dSLRs of the brand – and they’re incredibly cheap.  A few examples of the “expert” or “enthusiast” category:

  • Minolta 600si
  • Minolta 9xi
  • Nikon N90s
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The “prosumer” cameras of the early to mid eighties – they can be yours for $15.00 to $25.00 now, with a (good) zoom included.

Auto-focus cameras designed for amateurs (such as the Minolta 3xi or the Nikon N6006) are the cheapest of them all, but the price difference with the “expert”, “enthusiast” or “prosumer” model of the same brand is minimal (the price of their disposable Lithium battery, roughly). Don’t hesitate. Go for the top of the line.

As usual,  I only recommended cameras I’ve used and liked. I’m sure there are very good auto-focus cameras from Canon (EOS mount), and great manual focus cameras from Minolta (MD mount) or Pentax (K mount). They’re all supported by a great line of lenses and will also constitute very good buys.

One last word…of caution

When you buy a camera for less than $5.00, you don’t always win.

  • shopgoodwill.com  is a very good source for cheap equipment, but you have to consider it’s sold as is, by people  who – generally –  have absolutely no clue of what they’re selling and can’t describe it in any useful way.  To me, it has been a bit of a hit and miss – cameras from the 90s (the Olympus OM-2000, the Minolta 9xi, the Nikon N90s) were diamonds in the rough, and after a good cleaning, they worked perfectly. Older cameras (a Spotmatic, a Fujica AX-3) were broken and could not be fixed. The older the camera, the riskiest it gets. But most cameras are sold with a lens, and even if the camera is defective, the value of its lens alone sometimes makes buying the set a good deal.
  • eBay – thanks to the system of feedback, sellers tend to describe their items with some level of accuracy. In my experience, if you stick with sellers with an almost perfect feedback score (99% or better), and read the item description extremely carefully,  you won’t be disappointed.

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Dogs playing. Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400 – The Nikon N90s nailed the exposure and the focus perfectly.

 

Yashica’s comeback – what is to be learned from this farce?

Entrepreneurs operating under the Yashica brand just managed to raise over $1,000,000 on Kickstarter, for a $140.00 camera shooting “digiFilm” (that’s a trade mark). That’s eight times what they expected. It’s a success.

What’s so special about this camera?

It’s a very simple point and shoot digital camera with a tiny sensor and a fix focus lens (not a zoom, and pre-set to the hyperfocal), which looks like a compact camera of the seventies (Canon Canonet 27, Olympus Trip, Rollei 35, …) and is not technically different from the very basic entry level point and shoot digital cameras that were selling by the tens of millions twelve years ago.

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The Yashica Y35 digital camera and its digiFilm canister (source: Kickstarter)

It has no LCD display at the back to visualize the images, just an optical viewfinder. A fake wind lever needs to be activated to arm an inexistent spring loaded shutter.

Its unique selling proposition is that its jPEG files are processed in-camera to emulate 4 different types of film (B&W 400 ISO, 200 and 1600 ISO color film, and a square format); the settings of each “film” are stored in a cartridge that looks like a 35mm film canister. Supposing the camera is shooting “200 ISO color film emulation”, and the photographer wants to switch to Black and White or to 1600 ISO color settings, he/she has to open the back of the camera, remove the 200 ISO cartridge from the camera, and insert the B&W 400 ISO or the 1600 ISO cartridge. As far as I know, the cartridge is not storing any image (there’s an SD card in the camera). It’s just contains a ROM with a few instructions for the jPEG processing engine of the camera.

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The digiFilm cartridge – the cartridge does not store images, just instructions for the jPEG processing engine of the camera ((source: Kickstarter)

 

Nothing here that a smartphone and a few Instagram filters could not do. Fujifilm has been letting the users of its cameras chose the film emulation they wanted to apply to their images for years – photographers can pick the type of film (Fuji’s own Provia, Velvia, Astia and Acros as well as generic interpretations of “chrome” and “professional negative” film), by simply selecting the desired emulation in a menu, and without the gimmickry of cartridges that have to be purchased, inserted, removed, carried around and possibly lost.

Why such an outcry in the photography blogs?

In the grand scheme of things, the number of subscribers of the Y35 camera on Kickstarter (5,500) is a drop of water in the ocean: Instagram has 700 million users and the Japanese industry sold more than 20 million conventional digital cameras last year.

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With the exception of the Samsung Digimax 35 (on the left) and the Palm Treo (foreground), any of those old digicams is a more capable photography tool than the Yashica Y35.

To a large extent, this Yashica is a fake. It’s an entry level digicam, maskerading as a film camera, and sold on a promise of simplicity it can not meet. It won’t be easier to use than a conventional digicam (you’ll still need a USB cable or a WiFi enabled SD card to upload your images to your PC, and from there to your favorite messaging or social networking app).

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Another Kickstarter project – Lomo’s Instant Square Camera (Picture – source Kickstarter)

But its relative success (the catch is that it was purchased by people who have not seen, let alone tested it) is yet another indication that beyond the smartphones and the serious digital cameras – which both are predominantly operating in the abstract world of software – there is a demand for a simpler, more analog user experience.

Today, it’s the instant film cameras, and not toys like this Yashica digicam,  which are the best answer to this quest for simplicity, authenticity, and unencumbered fun.


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Jules (French Bouledogue). Instax film. Holga camera with defective shutter.

More about the Yashica Y35: https://www.slashgear.com/yashica-y35-digital-camera-is-a-toy-that-tries-hard-to-be-retro-11503506/

http://mymodernmet.com/yashica-digital-camera-y35/

 

A universal digital back for almost any 35mm camera?

Is it the right way to give a new life to old film cameras? Or is it a solution in search of a problem? The images below were published on Kickstarter  – and as of Oct 4th, 100 people had actually subscribed.

What it looks like  from the outside:

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The “I’m back”  – Kickstarter project – the prototype mounted on an Olympus OM-10 – “I’m Back is a “Multi-System” that can be adapted to various cameras from the 50s until the 90s!”

How it works

The simplest thing to do is to check the Kickstarter page of the project. A few interesting points: it’s a  small sensor, paired with a small lens, capturing a picture of the image projected by the camera’s lens on a mat screen placed where the film would normally have been – the camera has to be set with the  exposure in “B” (Bulb), and the shutter button has to be pressed for 2-3 seconds.

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I’m back – “The picture is created on the focusing screen which is then captured by I’m Back’s camera module”

How it looks behind the curtain

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I’m back – Kickstarter project – final product  – “We’re working together to create a high quality product with an Italian Design!” or so they say.

The new and improved version

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The newest version – using a smartphone as the viewfinder.

My take on it?

If you need a smartphone anyway, why not take the picture with the smartphone? And use the film camera for what it does best: shoot film.

It reminds me of previous attempts of marrying technologies which had nothing to do with each other…

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A horse on a treadmill on a railroad.

 

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Helicron propelled car – France – 1932 – Source: https://io9.gizmodo.com/is-there-anything-cooler-than-a-car-with-a-giant-propel-1220328894

The Leica Digital-Modul-R

The idea is not new. Leica even made a very serious and very expensive digital back for its R8 and R9 35mm SLRs.  It was actually selling (probably in very small numbers) in 2003, for 4,500 Euros (in addition to the cost of the camera body, or course).

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Leica Digital Modul-R – it added a 10Megapixel APS-C sensor at the back of a Leica R8 or R9. The best part of it: it worked.

As almost any dSLR of the early years of this century, it did not capture the images full frame, but on a 10 Megapixel APS-C sensor. It was kludgy (if I remember the reviews of the time), but it worked. Look at the pictures taken by a Danish photographer: Thorsten Overgaard.


 

You press the button, we do the rest

Of the importance of convenience in photography, and how it will drive conventional digital cameras to irrelevance for casual photographers.

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Before they lost everything, Kodak had built an empire on convenience. They had made a process which was seen as extremely complex and cumbersome – taking photographs – into something as simple as pressing a button.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram and a few others have made an activity which was discouragingly complex for billions of people – taking pictures, uploading them to a computer, editing them and sharing them with family, friends or perfect strangers over the Internet – so simple that a 6 year old can do it.  For the casual photographer, there is no better camera than a smartphone.

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Paris-Plage – iPhone 5s – August 2016

How is the obsession with simplicity and convenience going to impact photography as we know it? 

It may take a few years, but digital photography as we know it is going to leave the mass market and become a niche:

  • Smartphones and their cloud ecosystem will only get better at meeting the needs of casual photographers. They will not only take better pictures, but will also offer more functions and even more convenience than today, in a way that will be impossible to match with conventional digital cameras. Imagine the possibilities of combining Presence, Search, Face Recognition, Augmented Reality and Video to make pictures more beautiful, more flattering for the subject, more relevant, easier to share and easier to retrieve for the average user.
  • Conventional digital photography, with its big and heavy cameras and its cumbersome workflow requiring PCs or Macs and Terabytes of storage will not be able to compete on convenience with smartphones. It will leave the mainstream, and will increasingly be the field of people passionate about creating the absolute best pictures. Those photographers will form a small niche – with its forums, its Web galleries, its exhibits, its sub-culture. The situation of digital photographers  will be comparable to what photographers shooting with film experience today. They will form a new minority of enthusiasts.
  • I don’t expect photographers working with digital cameras to abandon their 50 Megapixel sensors and the Terabytes of disk space where they store their RAW or DNG files to go back to film.
  • But you can wonder what newcomers to photography will do. If they have an interest in photography as a craft or as a form of artistic activity, and want to go beyond the pictures that the smartphones of Apple and Google will have prepared for them, will they invest in digital cameras and in the digital workflow, or will they go to film? I don’t know. But I’d like to bet on film.

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Bagpipe Player – London – Jan. 2012 – Nikon F3.

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a fuzzy logic camera for the “Pros”? (part I)

There is no clear and widely accepted definition of what a “Pro” photographer is.

But for practical reasons, camera manufacturers have one. Canon, Nikon and Sony have a dedicated support organization for Pros. The admission criteria is somewhat different for each brand, but, high level, they all consider that a Pro photographer has to derive most or all of its income from photography, and owns a few high end camera bodies and lenses of the brand. At the top of that, Sony also asks for samples of the photographer’s work before granting admission.

Who was manufacturing “pro” cameras in the time of film?

In the days of film, Canon and Nikon clearly were the vendors of choice for pro photographers. At some point, Minolta and Pentax had modular SLRs in their product line (the XM and the LX), but those cameras were a one off – Minolta and Pentax never developed a family of pro SLRs over the long run, the same way Nikon developed the F series and Canon the F-1/EOS-1 product lines.

Minolta, Pentax, Olympus (and even Fujica) probably had many bona fide professional photographers among their customers. But they did not have Canon or Nikon’s presence in big events like the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup. And they did not have the lenses and accessories that professional photographers needed (or thought they might need one day).

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The “Prosumer” camera of reference in the early nineties – the Nikon N90 (here a European version corresponding to the N90s) – next to its challenger – the streamlined Maxxum 9xi.

The power of 9

The closest Minolta came to having a line of pro SLRs was its series of Maxxum autofocus cameras,  starting with the Maxxum 9000 in 1985, followed by the Maxxum 9xi in 1992 and the Maxxum 9 in 1999 – remote predecessors of  Sony’s high end dSLRs (Alpha 900) and mirrorless cameras (A9).

The 9000 was launched a few months after the revolutionary Maxxum 7000, the first technically and commercially successful autofocus SLR. The 7000 was the “prosumer” model, and the 9000 was supposed to target the “pros”.

Minolta replaced the 7000 with the 7000i in 1988 (relatively similar, but faster), and enriched the product line with the 8000i (a 7000i with a better viewfinder). In 1991, the 7000i was replaced by the 7xi with even more automation (xi stands for “eXpert Intelligence”), and in 1992 a new 9xi replaced both the 8000i and the 9000.

The 9xi was an expensive camera in 1992, with a US list price of $1190, which probably translated into a $650 street price at retailers such as B&H and Adorama. Minolta was very ambitious – its price placed the 9xi in the same ballpark as the Nikon N90, at a much higher level than any Canon SLR bar the EOS-1, which was selling for $1099 (street price).

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Nikon N90S – does the cloverleaf make a “Pro” camera?

xi : eXpert Intelligence, fuzzy logic

With its Maxxum line of autofocus SLRs, Minolta was genuinely trying to make photography simpler. In the early eighties, manufacturers had tried to attract new customers for their lines of reflex cameras by removing features – hoping that stripped down SLRs would be less intimidating for people who were just looking for a camera delivering better pictures than a point and shoot. They failed – those simplified SLRs (Canon AV-1, Pentax MV, Nikon EM) were still complex for the average amateur – they offered no program mode for auto-exposure, and still required the user to know how to focus and to load the film. They were too complex compared to a motorized/autofocus point and shoot, and at the same time too primitive to guarantee good results to amateurs ignorant of the technical fundamentals of photography.

The success of the Maxxum 7000 proved that if you added more automation to make SLRs easier to use (automatic film load, auto-rewind, programmed exposure, and of course, auto-focus) customers would come in droves.

Beyond all the buzz-words and the marketing verbiage – ”expert intelligence”, “fuzzy logic” –  the Maxxum  i and xi cameras introduced features that we still find in today’s digital cameras – matrix metering with a large number of metering cells, predictive AF, info provided on an overlay over the matt screen in the viewfinder, eye sensor to wake up the camera, scene modes and wireless flash control. Other ideas did not stick because they were too weird (automatic zooming), too cumbersome to use (expansion cards giving access to scene modes or extra features), or too irritating for technically savvy photographers (no direct access to exposure and metering modes, built-in flash that automatically pops up).

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The user interface of the 9xi – more or less the same capabilities as the Nikon, but far fewer buttons. Note the P (for Panic) button, to reset the camera to the default settings.

Power XI zooms – automation pushed to the absurd

The xi cameras were compatible with the “normal” Minolta A series autofocus lenses, but were designed to work with a new line of Power XI zooms. The main difference was that zooming was motorized. When the camera was powered on, it set the zoom automatically to the focal length best suited to the scene, and in some scene modes, the camera could even override the photographer and reframe the picture on its own. Pretty radical at the time.

In retrospect, the Power XI zooms happened to be a distraction for Minolta. They were not widely accepted on the marketplace, and consumed engineering resources that could have been used to develop a line of “pro” lenses. When they launched the 9xi in 1992, Minolta did not have any of the lenses of the pro-trifecta: the f/2.8 constant aperture wide angle, trans-standard and tele-objective zooms that professional photographers tend to use. The “Pro” zooms would arrive in time for the launch of the 700si, but too late for the 9xi.

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Minolta 9xi and its unconventional user interface: a “func” button to call a menu, and a door where “creativity cards” can be inserted, and behind the door a few buttons.

The fate of the xi series

I don’t have access to sales figures, but I does not look like the 9xi, the Power xi zooms, and the xi product line in general were very well received on the marketplace. The 7xi was replaced with the 700si after a very short sales career of only two years. The Power XI zooms were discontinued at the same time, and replaced with conventional non-motorized lenses. The buying public did not root for the design of the 7xi, and did not see the benefit of power zooms. It can also be argued that the 7xi had been crippled to leave room for the 9xi (it lacked the depth of field preview, exposure bracketing, a programmable function button, and the ability to use AA batteries with in a grip) – all features that enthusiast photographers expected from this class of camera, and present on the 9xi.

With the Maxxum 700si, Minolta addressed the concerns of the enthusiasts about the feature set, made the interface more configurable, and returned to a pleasantly conventional design. But in the process they  also made the 700si much closer to the  9xi, whose only remaining differentiator was its weather sealing.

The 9xi remained on Minolta’s catalog for a few years – as a signpost to confirm that Minolta still had ambitions in the “Pro” market.

Was the 9xi a “pro” camera? 

In the early nineties, Minolta only had a marginal presence in the “Pro” market, and its line of auto-focus lenses and its support organization were not on par with Canon or Nikon.

Was the 9xi  so significantly better than its competition, or so innovative, that it could lure a large number of Pro photographers into abandoning the Nikon and Canon systems? Would the Pros take a leap of faith with Minolta, hoping the brand would beef up its product line and its support organization as more of them became Minoltians?

At the time, the market’s answer was  “no”. It would take the revolution of mirrorless, and Sony’s introduction of the A7 to finally see a product of the Minolta-Konica-Sony family encroach Canon and Nikon’s duopoly in the world of professional photography.

More about the 9xi with a review in a few days…


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Le Pont Neuf, Paris, 1992. Shot with  the 9xi’s little brother, the 7xi. The 9xi is built more solidly and has a larger feature set, but the metering and the autofocus systems are the same on the two cameras. (Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6 zoom, Fuji Reala).