I did not devote much attention to CamerAgX last year, but still had 27,000 visitors who read almost 40,000 pages. Thank you for your fidelity.
Stating the obvious, most (75% approximately) of the visitors were directed to CamerAgX by a search engine, predominantly Google. The rest followed links posted by contributors in forums dedicated to photography (including DPreview, surprisingly).
I must have become a specialist of the Fujica 35mm SLR cameras of the seventies and early eighties – Fujica related pages are #2, #3, and #9 on the list of most read blog entries – truth to be told there is very little written about those cameras over the Internet – people interested in the subject have little choice outside of this blog.
Two of my favorite brands (Nikon, Olympus) round up the top ten. Canon cameras are not represented – I only started writing about Canon film cameras rather recently, and the field is so crowded it’s difficult to be noticed by the search engines
Lastly, most of the visitors of this site live in the Anglo-Saxon world – with readers from Non-English-Speaking European countries (Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands) rounding up the top 8.
Photo and Video have become major differentiators in the world of smartphones – and the three-way competition between Google (Pixel), Samsung (Galaxy) and Apple (iPhone) has led to huge improvements in the last few years. Each new generation is markedly better at making pictures than the previous one.
A few weeks ago, I could not resist any longer, and took advantage of a promotion of my favorite carrier to buy the brand new iPhone 11 for $350.00 – I just had to surrender my old iPhone 7 in exchange. The truth is, I needed more internal storage, but I also wanted to see whether the new camera was as good as promised.
And I was not disappointed. The photo section of that thing is incredible. Simply having access to any focal length between the ultra-wide (13mm equiv.) and the wide angle (26mm equiv.) at full resolution, with a digital zoom to bring you a bit closer to the subject if you need it – is literally a game changer: how often have amateurs access to a 13-35mm zoom lens on their full frame digital camera?
Of course, with a 12 Megapixel sensor and a “normal” lens limited to the equivalent of a 26mm wide angle, it can’t beat a medium format digital camera for large prints, or a DSLR with a fast telephoto lens for sports photography. And because of the way Apple has tuned noise reduction and HDR, the pictures are a bit light on contrast to my taste, but that’s nitpicking.
For subjects which are considered “normal” for an amateur photographer: selfies, family shots, portraits, street photography, urban landscapes, interiors, and for the “normal” destination of most of today’s pictures (instant messaging, social networks, on-line photo galleries, prints up to 11x 8) it’s so good that I doubt I could get better pictures out of camerawith any of the digital cameras I own.
Even if I spent big money on the latest and greatest full frame mirrorless camera, bought more lenses, and dedicated a lot of time to practicing and testing in order to seriously step up my technical game, I’m still not sure I would get significantly better results out of camera than what this iPhone gives me effortlessly. (*) (**)
So is the power of “computational photography“…
Very high level, an iPhone takes many different versions of the same shot (just before and just after you press the shutter release), with different focus and exposure settings, and uses artificial intelligence to decompose the image in sections (main human subject, background, sky, …). Each segment of the image is then optimized (exposure, contrast, noise reduction, focus, white balance…) and integrated into the “final picture” presented on the phone’s LCD. They call that “semantic rendering”.
All of this happens in a fraction of a second – the iPhone’s processor is a 64 bit / 6 core chip with a “machine learning accelerator”, and it can process 1 trillion operations per second.
Canon, Nikon and Sony don’t disclose many details about the architecture of the electronics of their top of the line cameras – but I doubt they have anything that even remotely compares to the processing power of the best of the smartphones.
Ultimately, “amateur photography” is about the pleasure of taking and sharing pictures. I’ve been so pleased with the iPhone’s pictures that I’ve not used any other camera (digital or film) since I bought it. The novelty will wear off, and at some point, I’m pretty sure I’ll get tired of a “neural engine” making “semantic rendering” decisions for me. I’ll want my pictures to be really mine, not a quilt of segments massaged by an algorithm running on a chip with 8 billion transistors. Maybe I’ll just go back to black and white film, and process the images in a dark closet at home.
In the meantime….
Happy New Year.
Out of the camera pictures taken on the iPhone 11 – minor adjustments in the iPhone’s photo app.
(*) Of course, the key restriction here is “out of camera” – with the help of Lightroom, and a set of Lightroom plug-ins, a recent full frame digital with a good set of lenses beats an iPhone – but we’re not in the realm of candid amateur photography anymore.
(**) I don’t do videos. But I’ve read multiple comparative reviews of the iPhone 11 opposed to good mirrorless cameras: for still images, a dedicated camera will ultimately yield better results than Apple’s latest smartphone (think large prints, action photography, …) – but for videos there is no discussion that the iPhone – because it has enough processing power to enhance each individual frame in a real time – is the better widget.
The “DP” in dpreview stands for “Digital Photography” of course, and the site was launched in 1998, at the beginning of the digital camera craze. And they’ve never reviewed a film camera. As far as I know. But over the years, they compiled two lists of recommended, “excellent and affordable” film cameras, the first one in 2017, with a follow up in June 2019.
A few of the cameras listed as “analog gems” by DPreview have been presented in this site over the years (the Nikons FE2, N90, the Olympus OM-1 and the Canon T90). Very often, my preference goes to other models of the same family (I prefer the Olympus OM-2 to the OM-1 because its battery is much easier to find, the Canon AT-1 to the AE-1 because I’m not a fan of shutter speed priority automatism, and the EOS-620 to the EOS-5 for its simplicity).
I’ve never been a fan of compact cameras in the days of film (poor viewfinder, not enough controls for the photographer). Their only advantages were their small size and their ease of use, but a film SLR with a pancake lens was not much larger and delivered much better images. And today, why would you spend money on film and processing to use a compact camera which will give you less control over your images than a good smartphone?
My absolute favorite? The ones I would bring on the proverbial desert island (assuming the desert island has no electricity, no Internet access but a huge stack of film cartridges waiting for me)?
a compact, mechanical, semi-auto SLR – not the Olympus OM-1, not the Pentax MX, but the rugged and supremely reliable Nikon FM. The FM2 is probably an even better camera, but it’s also more expensive.
the most elaborate pre-autofocus SLR, the Canon T90, for the looks, the ergonomics, the crazy exposure system, with no concern for its questionable reliability or its mass, because I would always have the Nikon FM as a backup.
And of course, when I would be back from the desert island, I would reconnect with my cherished Nikon FE2…
Thom Hogan has been on the Web forever, it seems. He’s a pro photographer, has a background in marketing and product planning, and he also teaches, I believe. He’s been publishing very detailed user guides for Nikon cameras for ages, and his collection of Web sites (www.bythom.com; www.dslrbodies.com, www.sansmirror.com) is always an interesting read, not only for users of Nikon equipment, but also for anybody who wants to understand the market forces shaping the photo equipment industry.
He has much more experience of Nikon cameras than I do, and my tastes have been – at least in part – formed by what I read in his books and Web pages over the years. So I won’t say “I’m right, he’s wrong”. Let’s be honest: if there’s such a thing as being right in photography, the odds that he is are much higher than mine. But sometimes I simply beg to differ.
Thom’s list includes some cameras that grace my personal collection, even if they’re not my preferred in Nikon’s range. The F90/N90 is extremely efficient, but a bit too automatic for me, and the F4 is really too heavy to be used anywhere but in a studio. I never used the F100 or a F5 (too modern for me – I tend to like my film cameras with a conventional user interface – you know, knobs instead of LCDs and control wheels).
A single control wheel, and the aperture value controlled by the aperture ring on the lens itself: the two major differences between the N90 and a modern Nikon body.
Nikon F4 with the MB-20 grip. The MB-20 grip is smaller than the MB-21, and was standard equipment in most of the world. In the US, the MD-21 was standard.
Which leaves us with the last entry of his list, the FM3A.
The FM3A is an evolution of the FM2/FE2 cameras, with a dual shutter control mechanism (electronic and mechanic) – which offers the best of what the FM2 (mechanical) and the FE2 (electronic with On the Film TTL flash control) can offer. I don’t own a FM3A, but two of its direct ancestors are at the top of my list: I use my old FM relatively often – because it’s a rugged camera and I know it’s going to work no matter what. The FE2 is a peach (it oozes quality, and it’s so pleasant to use) – one of the very best film cameras ever.
You can collect “classic” cameras for their beauty and for their importance in the history of the industry or a brand, but to me, a camera I can’t use to take pictures doesn’t qualify as a classic – it’s at best a “curiosity”.
In my opinion, early digital cameras are not really usable anymore, primarily because of their very limited dynamic range and very low resolution. If I brought one to cover a photo opportunity, I would most probably end the day disappointed and frustrated for having missed what could have been a great shot because of the technical limitations of the camera. Or I would have put it back in the bag, and used an iPhone instead. That’s why there is no early digital camera in my collection.
I recognize the importance of cameras like the D1h or the D100 in the evolution towards modern digital photography, but I will not add them to my collection. On the other hand, I believe that cameras like the D3 and D3X are still perfectly usable, but because they’re so big and heavy, I would ignore them, and buy their little brother, the D700 instead. Admittedly it’s still a big and heavy camera, but its performance is still exceptional, and with it I can use all the Nikon (and Nikon-compatible) lenses I own.
Because I’ve been using Nikon cameras for so long, I find the D700 very intuitive and rewarding to use, and even today, the quality of the pictures that the 12 Mpixel sensor produces is incredible (in particular in low light or high contrast situations).
It may be too early to add a D850 to a collection of classics, but it will most probably be the last enthusiast / pro DSLR from Nikon – the future is clearly mirrorless. They may launch a D6 for the Olympic Games next year (who knows) but I doubt they will keep on developing the D800 series beyond the D850.
I have not abandoned this blog – I’ve just been pretty busy lately (a new job, a house renovation going on, and my Netgear ReadyNAS RN104 crashing again – I simply hope I won’t have to restore 2 TeraBytes of images from Amazon Glacier again).
The review of the Canon AT-1 that I published yesterday had been in the works for six months, and there will be more Canon related pages in the coming weeks (I found a restored Canonet QL17 in an antique show – maybe it’s going to make me more comfortable with rangefinder cameras – I brought my old Leica CL back in service to have a point of comparison). I added two old mirrorless (digital) cameras and a strange pancake lens to my Fujifilm arsenal, and I’m trying to spend more time with my favorite SLR, the Nikon FE2 and with Kodak’s Porta 400 film.
So… compact rangefinder cameras, Nikon SLRs and dSLRs, early Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, Kodak film, you’ve got an idea of what I’m working on.
Please come back regularly, or follow my updates on twitter @xtalfu.
Something strange happened to the Canon AT-1 recently – it has become sought after.
When the AE-1 was establishing sales record for reflex cameras, its little brother, the AT-1, was struggling on the marketplace (Canon did not even bother selling it in Japan) and it remained until recently an under-appreciated camera.
The AE-1 was the undisputed star of the new Canon A line-up, the real successor of the FTb. The AT-1 was a bit of an afterthought, developed for cost conscious photographers who did not trust auto-exposure systems. With the same shell, the same electromagnetic shutter command and the same accessories as the AE-1, the AT-1 had some of the attributes of a modern camera, but its CdS meter (as opposed to the Silicon cell of its siblings) and its semi- auto exposure system with matching needle inherited from the FTb anchored it in the past. Contrarily to the FTb (and to almost any other semi-automatic camera), it could not operate at all without batteries – because of its electromagnetic shutter command.
The electromagnetic shutter has its advantages (soft shutter release, smooth shutter speed knob, automatic selection of flash sync speed when a Canon Speedlite is mounted on the camera), but the ability to operate without batteries has always been a huge selling point with users of semi-automatic cameras. The AT-1 was not meeting this basic requirement, and it could explain why it remained under appreciated for so long.
Before buying a good copy recently on eBay, I never had used one. When I bought my first semi-auto SLR a long time ago, I only had eyes for the Nikon FM and for the Pentax MX – for the record that’s the Pentax I ended up buying, the Nikon was far too expensive. At that time, Canon’s marketing pressure was completely focused on the AE-1 and as far as I can remember, I did not even look at the AT-1. In any case, in comparison to the Nikon and the Pentax (with their LEDs and GASP metering cells), the AT-1 would have looked too primitive to me.
Weight, Size and ergonomics The AT-1 shares its general dimensions and layout with the AE-1. The construction is similar (with some components like the prism housing using a mixed polycarbonate and copper plating construction). It’s not the most compact camera of its generation (the honor goes to the Olympus OM-1) but it’s not significantly larger or heavier – all the cameras of this generation (1975-1980) are more or less the same size. The AT-1 is one of the simplest conventional cameras you can find – the on/off switch on the left, the large and smooth shutter speed dial on the right, a large shutter release button – that’s all.
Viewfinder The viewfinder is relatively large with enough eye relief for photographers wearing glasses (larger than on a Nikon FM/FE, for instance). And because the viewfinder does not provide any information about the shutter speed or the aperture at the periphery of the frame, the eye of the photographer can remain focused on the center of the frame, which makes the viewfinder seem larger than it is. The focusing screen is not as clear as what you find on a comparable Nikon camera, but it’s fine enough. The split-image telemeter and the micro-prisms are present, and focusing is easy. The two needles of the metering system are located at the bottom right angle of the viewfinder, and are easy to read as well.
Metering system Based on a CdS cell, it’s one generation behind the Silicon or GASP cells that Fujica, Nikon or Pentax were installing on their semi-auto cameras in the second half of the Seventies. CdS cells are supposed to be less sensitive in low light, and to suffer from a memory effect (they need 30 seconds to adjust when you move to a low light scene immediately after a bright scene). The matching needle mechanism is very easy to read (when there is enough light) but is not as easy to read as LEDs if the scene is dark.According to Canon, the camera uses some form of average/center weighted metering (I could not find any further explanation). In my experience, it does not seem to be as selective as the cell of a FTb (or of a T90 in the “partial selective” mode), and most of the images, including those with a large bright blue sky, are correctly exposed.
Battery Like all the cameras of the A series (AE-1, A-1, AL-1,…), the AT-1 relies on a relatively easy to find (and cheap) 6v battery. This battery is available in an alkaline and in a silver oxide version. As explained before, the camera can’t operate without a battery.
Compatibility Canon manufactured tens of millions of FL and FD lenses, that the AT-1 will happily support. FD lenses used to be cheap until the advent of mirrorless cameras and the development of FD to Sony FE lens mount adapters made them popular again. Truly exceptional lenses (the L series) are now seriously expensive, but cheaper alternatives abound. Most of the Canon accessories (winder, flash) can be shared with the AE-1 or A-1 models.
Reliability Compared to the multi-auto-exposure and auto-focus cameras launched in the following decade, the AT-1 is a very simple machine. With the A series, Canon had introduced new design and manufacturing methods, with significantly more plastic and electronic components that before, but Canon’s engineers did a good job and the cameras of that family don’t have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability. Over time, cameras of the Canon A family can be affected with the squeaky shutter syndrome, but I’ve not found anything on the Internet showing that the AT-1 is affected (my copy is not). In any case, the AT-1 was not designed for war correspondents or National Geographic photographers taking tens of thousands of photos per year in impossible situations; it was an entry level camera designed for cost conscious amateurs, and it does not seem to have betrayed its targeted audience.
Scarcity and price With only 520,000 copies manufactured between Dec 1976 and 1985 (to be compared with 9,700,000 AE-1/AE-1 Program during the same period), the AT-1 was not very popular – for a Canon SLR, that is. Today, with the AE-1 and the AE-1 Program becoming seriously expensive (for mass market SLRs of the early eighties), the AT-1 suddenly becomes a sort of next best option for people eager to use Canon FD lenses, and not willing to spend more than $50.00.
Compared to its more expensive siblings of the Canon A family (AE-1, AE-1 Program, A-1), the AT-1 is a very simple camera – but to my surprise, it did not feel like an excessively spec’d down camera, and happened to be very pleasant to use.
The viewfinder is large and bright, and focusing is easy thanks to a combination of micro-prism and split image telemeter. The shutter speed dial is large and smooth, which makes it easy to adjust the exposure by changing the shutter speed (the shutter speed dial is generally very stiff on semi-auto/mechanical cameras, but the AT-1 benefits from its electromagnetic shutter command).
Nothing important is missing (it has an electronic timer for “selfies” and a depth of field preview button) and little details taken over from the AE-1 make the life of the photographer easier. Even though it retains the metering and the on/off switch of the FTb, it feels like a much more modern camera than its famous ancestor, its only limitation being the lack of any information about shutter speed or aperture in the viewfinder.
In the Canon family, there are more elaborate cameras for users of Canon FD lenses. Their performance may be better (more precise metering, faster shutter, larger viewfinder), but they’re also less flexible and – for some of them – not as reliable. Simpler and offering more control over the exposure than the AE-1, lighter and not as expensive as the A-1, more reliable than the T90, it’s a very good camera to go back to the basics.
The first pair of Canon EOS bodies (the “enthusiast” EOS 650 and the “prosumer” EOS 620) came relatively late to the autofocus SLR party (2 years after the Minolta 7000 and one year after Nikon F501/N2020), but they were already very mature cameras – when you shoot with one of those early EOS cameras today, they seem so easy to use and so modern that you don’t even notice you’re shooting with 40 year old gear.
Before launching the EOS series, Canon had tried to convert its FD mount to auto-focus, but their first AF SLR, the T80, had been a technical and commercial failure. Canon had no choice but to adopt a more radical approach, and used their top of the line T90 body as the starting point for the development of two new revolutionary auto-focus cameras, the EOS 650 and 620. A new lens mount and a new line of lenses were launched at the same time. Contrarily to Minolta, Nikon and Pentax, Canon installed the auto-focus motor inside the lens. Most of the new Canon EF lenses launched at the time were equipped with a conventional micro motor, but the top of the line USM lenses were designed around a new type of motor, which promised incredible AF speed and total silence (it reads like an ad for Tesla ;-).
It was its USM technology that made Canon the leader of the photo equipment industry at the end of the eighties: it all started at the Seoul Olympic games in 1988: Nikon had planned to make a big splash with Pro Photographers with the introduction of the first modular Auto-Focus camera ever, the brand new F4. Canon had nothing comparable to show yet (their EOS 1 camera was still one year away), so they brought the most advanced body they had at the time, the EOS 620, and paired it with an EF 300mm f/2.8L USM lens. The Canon auto-focus combination ran circles around the conventional AF architecture of Nikon’s AF 300 f/2.8, and the pro market rapidly shifted towards Canon. Canon would retain its dominance in the pro market to this day.
Both cameras do most things right, without being encumbered by a litany of settings and options. Of course the models that followed brought improvements to the autofocus performance and to the ergonomics (the famous Canon wheel at the back of the film door), but the EOS 620 and 650 set the standard for what a modal interface SLR should look like, and they were already so good that it can be argued that Canon had to fall into gadgetry (Eye Control Focus and Bar Code readers, remember ?) to keep the public interested in the EOS line over the following decade.
The two EOS models are differentiated primarily by their shutter (the EOS 650 has a conventional 1/2000 shutter with 1/125 flash sync speed, while the EOS 620 has a 1/4000 shutter with 1/250 sync speed). The EOS 620 also benefits from a backlit LCD on the top plate, its Program mode is “shiftable”, and it manages multiple exposures.
Surprisingly, and considering Canon’s reputation of superiority in the early auto-focus days, the EOS AF performance is not that great – probably because the 28-70mm lens I bought with one of the cameras was an early non-USM lens. The tiny, single zone auto-focus sensor is not very sensitive in low light, and the camera tends to hunt if it can not find vertical lines in the subject. Canon’ s USM technology can help with reactivity but won’t enlarge the sensor or make it better in low light.
On the other hand, Canon’s first implementation of matrix metering was a success – and you can leave the camera in auto-exposure mode most of the time. Interestingly, none of those cameras has a true semi-auto exposure mode (in the “M” mode, you can set the shutter speed and the aperture any way you want, but the metering system of the body is inoperant).
The cameras are built out of good quality plastic – they feel substantive – even if they’re much lighter than the T90, in part because they’re using a lithium 2CR5 battery instead of heavier AAs of the T90. They have a pretty good viewfinder, large enough, clear enough, OKish for bespectacled photographers, have very few knobs or buttons but a large grip, and are easy to control.
They accept any Canon EF Lens made to this day, and thanks to adapters, can even work with older m42 screw mount lenses (they don’t work with Canon’s own FD lenses though).
They were produced in large quantities, and many seem to have survived. Because nobody loves early autofocus cameras, they’re extremely cheap ($5.00 to $7.00) and if you consider their performance, they offer an unbeatable price/performance ratio.
Conclusion: will I use them?
If you’re looking for an easy introduction to film photography, and want to be able to reuse the modern Canon EF lenses and accessories that you may already own, the Canon EOS 650 and 620 are great cameras. The 620 is marginally more capable, and since all early EOS cameras are now selling for the same low price, that’s the EOS 620 I would pick. You won’t find a better camera to shoot with film in that price range, and you will love the results. The camera is surprisingly competent and mature for a 1.0 version, and I’m not sure the gadget laden models that followed (EOS-10S with bar code readers, EOS 5/A2 with Eye Control focusing) will yield better results in the real life.
The Japanese camera industry has a tendency to work in cycles, with a big innovation every ten to fifteen years, followed by years of incremental improvements – until the next big thing makes the previous generation obsolete, and opens a new cycle of incremental improvements. Generally, during the first years following a big innovation, progress is rapid and the improvements really significant. And generally, after a few years, the pace of the changes slows down, the manufacturers end up promoting all sorts of useless features to keep the public interested in their products, until the next big thing arrives.
Normally, it takes more than a few years to reach the peak – but in the case of autofocus film SLRs, I’m wondering whether it was reached with the EOS 620, just two years after the launch of the Minolta Maxxum 7000. Of course, Canon (and others) would launch cameras with better autofocus systems (more zones, better low light sensitivity) and with a useful built-in flash, but the newer products were more complex, often fell into gimmickry, and were not always as well built. Few enthusiast autofocus SLRs are as easy to use as those early EOS cameras. You should try one.