The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


I briefly introduced the D700 in a recent post from the perspective of a collector and regular user of Nikon film cameras. Let’s see now how this ten year old dSLR compares with recent mirror-less cameras.

Impressive image quality, impressive white balance, impressive auto-focus

I’m not equipped to test a dSLR, and, honestly, I lack points of comparison. So I will just share a few thoughts.

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The d700 – one button or dial per command – an informative top plate LCD, and hundreds of options in the menus

Firstly, for a photographer used to Nikon dSLRs (I’ve had a D80 as my primary camera for almost 10 years until I switched to a mirrorless system), the D700 is very easy to apprehend.

It’s a conventional motorized auto-focus single lens reflex. There are more knobs, buttons and switches than on an enthusiast camera, the menus offer more options and a much greater level of customization, but the D700 is a camera a nikonist  will feel immediately comfortable with, without having to spend too much time buried in the manuals.

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Nikon D700 – a pro-camera with a very useful built-in flash (it controls Nikon’s cobras remotely)

Secondly, it’s a big and heavy camera. More than three pounds if equipped with a light prime lens or a consumer-grade zoom, almost five if equipped with one of the  f/2.8 wide angle or trans-standard zooms that the pros love to use.

Thirdly, its performance is still impressive for a ten year old camera. Admitedly it’s only a 12 Megapixel camera, but when it comes to overall image quality, dynamic range, white balance, auto-focus speed and exposure accuracy, it still holds its rank compared to recent mirrorless cameras.

The D700 – still the ergonomics of a conventional auto-focus SLR

Use a modern mirror-less camera and a D700 side by side – and it’s immediately obvious that the D700 is much closer to Nikon’s last auto-focus SLRs of the film era than to a Sony A7 series or a Fujifilm X-T2. And I’m not even considering the size.

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An electronic viewfinder (here the Fujifilm X-T1). It shows the picture as “seen” by the image sensor, and as it will be exposed. Information (like the artificial horizon or the histogram) can be overlaid if the photographer choses so.

Modern mirrorless cameras have been designed to let the photographer not only frame but also visualize the image as it will be exposed directly on the big LCD monitor at the back of the camera, or in a high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

Sony and Fujifilm cameras have a large exposure compensation dial at the right of the top plate, just under the thumb of the photographer –  who can adjust the exposure values based on what is shown on the screen. The LCDs are now good enough to render accurately variations in exposure, contrast and image density  as the photographer plays with the settings, and in difficult lighting situations, it’s extremely helpful. What you see is really what you will get.

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The top plate of a mirror-less camera (Fujifilm x-t1). The exposure correction dial is large, and is easier to get to than the shutter speed knob. Note the Wi-Fi button, absent from the d700.

On the D700, the viewfinder, being optical, can not show the image as it will be exposed. And if the photographer plays with the exposure compensation settings, he will have to take one picture and then play it back to visualize what the corrections did to the images.

The D700 has a Live View mode, but it’s very primitive and can’t help with the exposure. It’s slow and relatively loud (the mirror first has to be lifted to clear the way to the sensor). The lens is locked at full aperture, and changes made to the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation) are not reflected on the LCD, and the depth of field can not be pre-viewed. Lastly, the LCD monitor is fixed, which further limits the usefulness of Live View – it still is difficult (acrobatic) to frame a picture with the camera close to the ground, or above the heads in a crowd.

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Live view 1.0 – it helps when working on a tripod (a detail of the image can be enlarged to facilitate focusing). But the LCD is fixed, and does not show the picture as it will be exposed.

ISO settings

The other difference is what you do with the ISO settings. The best cameras have reached such a performance level (almost no noise up to 6,400 ISO) that they can be left in Auto-ISO mode if the photographer so wishes. Instead of considering the ISO value as a constant and the shutter speed and the aperture as the variables (like in the old film  and early digital days), photographers can – for a given scene – set the aperture and the shutter speed to get the depth of field and the movement freeze they want, and let the camera adjust the ISO value to get to the right exposure. On cameras such the  Fujifilm X-T1 for instance, it is as easy to adjust the ISO value that it is to adjust the shutter speed, if you don’t want to rely on auto ISO. It’s not that the D700 could not be configured to react like a X-T1 (it supports Auto-ISO and you simply have to  press the ISO button on the top plate to  change the sensitivity with the control wheel), but it’s not a natural way to operate the camera.

Compact Flash reader and laptop required

Lastly, I have come to expect from a digital camera that it connects to a smart phone or a tablet over wi-fi, in order to edit and share jPEG pictures on the spot.

The D700 does not support Bluetooth or WiFi natively (it’s a camera from 2008). Eye-Fi cards (memory cards with a built-in wi-fi adapter) don’t exist in the Compact Flash format used by the D700. An  optional Nikon branded adapter is available (Nikon Wireless Transmitter WT-4), but it costs more than what I paid  for the camera. And when laptops have a slot for a memory card, that’s for an SD card, not for a Compact Flash.

For all practical purposes, this D700 will remain tied to a conventional PC  based workflow – and a traveling photographer will have to carry a laptop and a Compact Flash reader in addition to the camera (and find an Internet connection) if he/she wants to edit, publish or backup pictures while on the road.

Focusing with manual focus lenses

The focusing screen does not offer any of the focusing aids of a conventional manual focus camera (no micro-prism, no split image rangefinder), and no other focusing screen  is available from Nikon. When a manual focus lens is mounted on the camera, the auto-focus system is still providing information to the photographer (a green dot in the viewfinder when the lens is focused on the subject), and if the camera is installed on a tripod, you can use Live View and zoom into the image to check if the image will be in  focus. But you don’t have any of the fancy manual focus assist systems (Zebra, Focus Peaking, Digital Image Split) of modern mirror-less cameras.

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With a manual focus lens, the photographer can still chose the focus area (the black rectangle) and the green dot at the left of the LCD display indicates that the picture is on focus. No other focusing aid is available in the viewfinder.

That being said, the focusing screen is luminous, very fine, and the viewfinder is large (it’s a full frame camera, remember): when it comes to coverage and enlargement it sits somewhere between a N90 and a F3 HP. Getting the focus right with a wide-angle or standard lens does not seem too difficult, even without the focus assist modes.

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Nikon D700 – on a digital reflex camera, the photographer will see the image as it comes from the lens, but can not visualize how the sensor and the electronics of the camera will record it before the picture is taken (here with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D mounted on the camera)

Full frame digital – dSLR or mirror-less? 

As I’m writing this article (early 2018), the cheapest way to shoot “full frame” is to use second hand dSLRs such as the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700.

Shooting with conventional dSLRs with an optical viewfinder still has its benefits: the optical viewfinder is much easier on the eyes in bright light, the autofocus of dSLRs is still faster and more reliable, and the battery life far superior. If you compound that with  Nikon’s decades of experience serving the most demanding professional photographers, and a line of auto-focus lenses built over 30 plus years, you understand why their dSLRs still win comparative reviews when opposed to mirrorless cameras (check DPReview‘s end of the year Buying Guides: Nikon D7500 – best camera under $1,500Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000Nikon D850 – best camera over $2,000).

DPReview may still prefer dSLRs to mirrorless system cameras, but there’s no denying that  mirrorless cameras bring unique advantages: you can use indifferently the electronic viewfinder or the LCD monitor to compose your pictures, and you will visualize how the picture will be exposed before you shoot. I had never used the exposure compensation dial on any camera before,  because I never knew if I had to set it to +.5 or -.5 or whatever to get the exposure I wanted – I simply used to switch the camera to the manual exposure mode. On a mirrorless camera, exposure compensation becomes extremely easy to use because you see what it does in real time, not after the fact.

Although most mirror-less cameras systems have a very rich offering of native lenses, they are also very good bearers of old (manual focus) lenses, and they generally tend to be smaller and lighter than dSLRs.

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Non-CPU lenses (namely manual focus AI and AI-S lenses) can be preconfigured in the camera – the camera will base its matrix metering exposure on the actual focal length and the actual aperture of the lens – which should make it more accurate.
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Nikon D700 – when a manual focus lens is pre-configured in the camera, its actual F aperture value is displayed on the LCD (instead of the number of stops above full aperture).

Nikon and Canon are both widely rumored to be launching full frame mirror-less systems in the coming months. Because they’re late entrants on this market, Nikon and Canon can’t be content with “just average” cameras – you can expect their future mirror-less systems to raise the bar of performance to a level not yet reached by Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony. If they manage to preserve a good level of compatibility with their traditional dSLRs systems, many of their faithful customers will rapidly add one of the  new mirrorless models to their equipment bag. And it’s likely that the DPReview’s Buying Guides will put forward very different winners at the end of this year.

As for the D700,

it’s a very satisfying camera to use. Like the Nikon F3 in the world of film, it’s a unique opportunity for an amateur photographer to shoot with a tool built for professionals, but still of a manageable weight, size and complexity.

I don’t use my F3 that often, but taking pictures with a camera of such a build quality, with such a great viewfinder is an experience I enjoy from time to time. I suspect the D700 will follow the same path – I’ll shoot with a smaller and lighter APS-C mirrorless camera more often – when traveling in particular – but will go back to the D700 when I need to shoot digital, but still want to use my old Nikkor lenses and enjoy the true Nikon SLR experience.


How does a d700 compare with an entry-level APS-C dSLR such as the Nikon d3400, which can be had more or less for the same price? 

  • only  d700s with hundreds of thousands of actuations sell in the same price range as a new d3400. The d700 is a very solid and reliable camera, but buying a used d700 is riskier and could lead to high repair costs.
  • compared to the d3400, the d700 is a large and heavy camera, which will need larger, heavier and much more expensive full frame lenses.
  • the d700 is an old camera – it still requires to be used in a traditional workflow (Compact Flash cards instead of SD cards, no Bluetooth, no WiFi). Not that the d3400 fares particularly well in that regard – it also lacks WiFi, and neither the d700 or the d3400 have an articulated lcd monitor on the back of the body.

On the other hand,

  •  The choice of lenses is  limited on the d3400 (no wide-angle prime lens, only zooms). No such issue with the d700.
  • If you’re planning on using lenses of the film era (AI, AI-S, AF and AF-D lenses), the d700 is also a much better pick: it can meter with any of those lenses, it can auto-focus with conventional “screw-drive” auto-focus lenses, it does not “crop”the image, and its large viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.

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  • regarding image quality, DXOmark, – for what it’s worth – rates a d3400 at 86, and a D700 at 80. Not everybody agrees with their methodology, but in their world  the d3400 with a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor and a dynamic range of 13.9 EVs is rated higher than a d700 with a full frame 12 Megapixel sensor and a dynamic range of 12.2 EVs. Interestingly, the d700 still leads in the high ISO race – they consider it’s usable up to 2,300 ISO, while a d3400 will peak at only 1,200 ISO. The benefit of the full frame imaging sensor, and of its relatively low pixel density.

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Max – Nikon D700 – Nikon 135mm f/3.5 AI – 1600 ISO – 1/60 sec.

 

Nikon D700 – an everyday camera and a future collectible?

A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.

Judging by  the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.

Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.

Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?

The sweet spot? 

I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.

And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.

But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?

Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:

– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was  huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.

– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser,  I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making  nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the  light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography  was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.

A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, autofocus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.

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Nikon D700: the sensor and the user interface of a Nikon Professional camera in a (relatively) compact and light body.

When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.

380,000 Shutter Actuations

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Volkswagen Badge for 100,000 km Source: AlexWoa World of Accessories (eBay)

Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).

Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5)  reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).

In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way,  this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.

The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car

In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.

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Nikon D700 – I had to change the rubber grips – but the overall condition of this camera is remarquable considering it shot 190 pictures every business day for 8 years.

To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe:  the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the autofocus mechanism of the top of the line D3 –  in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.

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Nikon D700 – One button for every function, locks on the rings – a true “pro” camera by Nikon’s standards

Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.

What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of  Nikon film cameras?

The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:

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Nikon F90X (N90s in North America) next to a D700 – the two cameras are 15 years apart, but they were designed for the same target audience of serious enthusiasts and pros who don’t want or need the very top of Nikon’s Profesionnal line.

Lens Compatibility

One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.

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Nikon D700 with Nikon Lens 50mm Series E – Aperture Preferred Auto Exposure and Semi Auto Exposure are offered on AI-S and AI lenses.

Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.

Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.

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Nikon D700 with 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor – as long as the lens supports Aperture Indexing (upgraded pre-AI lenses, and AI, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S lenses) it will work with the camera.

The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.

With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes:  they don’t  have the micro chip and the data bus of their autofocus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.

Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).

Compatibility with other accessories

In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of   “prosumer” and professional  equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80.

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Nikon D700 (left) next to a F90X from the mid nineties – the remote control connector is still the same.

Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.

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The D700 shares the same round viewfinder accessory mount as the other “high-end” Nikon cameras (here a F90X on the right)

How much? 

On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.

The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still  have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.


More about the D700

Links:

Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time

Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility

Interesting reviews of the D700

http://ricksreviews.org/nikon-d700-review-2016-perspective/

https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-d700

Through the F Mount: a comparison of the D700 with the D4


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My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.

Lomo Instant Square – just delivered…

A few months ago, I pre-ordered a Lomo Instant Square on Kickstarter, and I received it last week. It came without film, and I had to order the new Fujifilm Instax Square film on Amazon ($12.45 a pack of 10 instant prints).

On paper, the Lomo Instant Square is a very interesting camera:

  • it works with the new Fujifilm Instax Square film, which yields images significantly larger than the Instax Mini, without needing cameras as large as those accepting the Instax Wide film.
  • It also accepts the Instax Mini film – but it needs a different film door, which is only sold as part of a bundle of accessories ($59.00). I’ll pass for the moment.
  • It has a lens with glass elements. The focal distance is 93mm, and the maximum aperture F/10.
  • Thanks to its folding construction and light weight, it’s easy to carry.

I’ve only shot a few pictures so far, but because it’s a brand new model that only Kickstarter subscribers have received so far, I decided to post a few pictures of the camera with my comments.

The Lomo Instant Square in 4 bullet points:

  •  it’s intelligently designed, with the needs of serious photographers in mind.
  • the build quality is good – for a Lomo camera – it’s not a Leica for sure, but it worked out of the box, and looks like its going to withstand the test of time in the hands of a moderately careful user.
  • the Fujifilm “Square” prints are much larger than the “Minis” (which are credit-card size), but they’re still significantly smaller than the Polaroid SX700/600 format. The Impossible Project and Polaroid have a clear advantage here.
  • I need to test the camera in different situations (in particular taking pictures of people with and without a flash – which seems to be the typical use of an instant film camera) – but what I’ve seen in admittedly difficult conditions shows potential – it’s hundreds time better than the combination of a Holga 120 and a Lomo Instax Mini back.
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Lomo’instant square in its box – it’s available in three colors. As you can see, this one is white. The camera comes without the film, and more surprising, without batteries.
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the camera, a manual, a box of accessories, a box of sample pictures, and a filter. The remote control is stored in the base plate of the camera (you have to buy the batteries of the remote separately)
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Lomo’Instant Square – folded – the lens (93mm, F/10) is protected by plastic curtains. They retract when you unfold the camera.
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The Lomo has two strap lugs, but the strap does not come with the camera (it’s $9.90 extra if you want it)
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The commands at the back – flash off, multi-exposure, exposure correction, mode Normal or pause B, timer. The film door can be replaced by a door designed for the Instax Mini film (a $59.00 extra – you start seeing a theme here? )
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The shutter release button is the square (of course) Lomo logo on the front.
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It’s a folding.The lens (with glass elements) can be set in 3 positions: 0.8m, 1 to 2.40m (the default position), and the infinite.
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Lomo ‘instant Square internals – the Fujifilm Instax Square has a sensitivity of 800 ISO
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Jules – my first picture with the Lomo Instant Square  (scanned on multi-function printer) – real size: 6cm x 6cm image, on a 8.5cm x 7cm print.

When I took this picture, it was already getting dark in the house, and Jules was somehow back-lit. With a lens opening at F/10 and a 800 ISO film, I was clearing flirting with the limits. The camera did well considering  the circumstances. The picture is too dense (under-exposed), and the color balance is blue-ish, but the result is encouraging – the lens shows potential, and it’s my first Lomo camera that produces decent results out of the box without requiring some form of surgery.

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The picture in the center is one of the examples provided with the camera – it shows the relative size of the Instant Square picture compared to the Instax Mini. Left – a picture taken with the Square (default exposure); right a picture taken with the exposure on “-“. On the Lomo, “+” over exposes, and “-” under exposes.
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The Instax Square picture is much smaller than the Impossible Project’s SX70 film. The Lomo seems to under-expose, but the picture has much more contrast than the first iteration of the Impossible Project’s film (picture on the right was shot in 2010, with a Polaroid SX70 camera)
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When comparing the quality of pictures, all things are relative. After I was finished shooting pictures of the Lomo, I took a picture of Jules at the same place, but this time with a Nikon D700 and its Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 lens (1600 ISO, f/4, 1/60 sec, cropped and adjusted to taste in Lightroom).

A few links

Lomo’s official site

My previous experiences with instant film:

Fujifilm and the instant film bonanza

The Impossible Project’s PX100 – the ultimate “low-fidelity” film ?

Spring cleaning in January…

It’s time to trim my  collection of film cameras, and make room for newer entrants.

The Minolta Maxxum 9xi has to go – I like it but I can’t use it to its full potential unless I spend more money on a set of Minolta A lenses and, maybe, a flash. I already have 4 sets of lenses for as many different makes of cameras. That’s already one or two too many, I won’t add a fifth one.

The Olympus OM 2000 falls into the same category as my Nikon FM (a modern semi-auto SLR), and is also competing for my attention with an Olympus OM-2 and my beloved Nikon FE2 (which both have very good semi-auto modes). I know I won’t be using it and I need to find a better place for it.

The two cameras are currently listed on eBay. It took them for one last photo shoot …

One last round with the Minolta Maxxum 9xi

I don’t know what drove Minolta out of the photography market – the expensive (and ultimately lost) lawsuit against Honeywell over auto-focus patents, the APS format debacle, or their inability to get more than a tiny fraction of the “pro” market –  but at some point they decided to throw the towel and sold themselves to Konica (forming Konica-Minolta). Two years later, Konica-Minolta stopped manufacturing film, and sold its photography line of business to Sony. It explains why current Sony a77 and a99 still work with the same Minolta lenses that the 9xi uses.

The Minolta autofocus SLRs designed for enthusiasts and pros were very pleasant to use and worked very well.  The Maxxum 9xi is no exception. It falls very well into the hands, gets the exposure right, and does not impose an information overflow to the photographer. Being designed as a “pro” model, it’s very well made (better than the 700si, for instance) and still looks good (no panel gap, no sticky paint) after all these years. If you love the Minolta brand, or if you are an active Sony Alpha photographer, it’s a camera to have.

  • Links to previous blog posts in CamerAgx

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

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – part II

 

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi –
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Heritage Park – Mableton – Minolta 9xi 28-105 AF zoom – Fujicolor 400.

Olympus OM 2000 Spot Metering

The Olympus OM 2000 is a Cosina-made semi-auto SLR, and has little in common with the rest of the Olympus OM family, except for its bayonet mount, of course.

It’s still an interesting camera – good looking, simple, with spot metering (in addition to the conventional weighted-average metering). A good introduction to the OM family of cameras, and a good backup for owners of an OM-3ti or OM-4ti who don’t want to risk damaging their expensive and sometimes temperamental camera in difficult situations.

  • Links to previous blog posts in CamerAgx

The Olympus OM-2000 – not a true blood Olympus, but a cheap and convenient bearer of Zuiko lenses

 

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Olympus OM 2000 Spot Metering
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Olympus OM 2000 – the fastest shutter on any Olympus SLR (1/2000sec, Flash X sync up to 1/125)
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Florida sunrise – Olympus OM 2000

 

Minolta Maxxum 600si: the return of buttons and knobs

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The Minolta 600si – one switch for every function

The 600si was at the same time Minolta’s cheapest enthusiast auto-focus SLR, and the test bed for the ergonomics of the future Maxxum 9, 7 and 7d.

After the launch of the 700si – at a higher price point than its predecessor the 7xi, Minolta had a gap to fill in their line-up. And because they had taken heat about the user interface of their xi generation of cameras, they took the opposite route for the 600si.

The design of its interface was so well received that it served as a model for the high end Maxxum 9 and 7 launched at the end of the century. And its influence could still be felt in the Konica-Minolta 7d, and in more recent Sony digital SLRs.

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The Minolta 600si – it looks like a “pro” – but its very light construction feels very “consumer”

High level, the 600si is a cheaper variant of the 700si, somehow spec’d down technically, with a very different user interface and a lighter build. Instead of being designed with a modal interface (press the FUNC button to access a menu, and navigate the menu with the control wheels), the 600si is covered with dedicated knobs and rings to control the flash, the exposure mode, exposure compensation, and the drive mode. In addition to which a few rotating switches control the auto-focus setup and the metering modes.

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The Maxxum 600si’s mode control knob – it looks and feels really cheap.

The Maxxum 600si is clearly engineered to a price point. Compared to the 9xi and the 700si, some components are one notch below, with a shutter limited to 1/4000 sec, an auto-focus sensor analyzing 3 zones instead of 4, no LCD overlay in the viewfinder and no “creative Card” slot. Fortunately, the camera retains a steel bayonet and the good long eye-point viewfinder of the higher end Minolta cameras. Minolta had cut cost intelligently.

The camera’s body is made of shiny black plastic, and the knobs and dials – in a dark shade of mat gray, look and feel extremely cheap – a bit like those of the low quality electronic devices you find in dollar stores. I’m not aware of any reliability issue specific to the 600si, so it must be better than it looks, but back in 1993 I would never have paid $500.00 for such a sorry looking camera, when the 700si was selling for only $100 more.

As for the interface, I’m not necessarily sold on the “one knob per function” type of ergonomics – I shot hundreds of rolls with a 700si and I never felt that its interface was getting in the way. I also played with a 9xi recently, and provided it’s set up to your preferences, it’s perfectly fine too. What really matters is your ability to verify at a glance how the camera is set up. If the top plate LCD is informative enough, it may be simpler to read it rapidly and know everything about the camera’s setup, than have to check each knob and switch individually.

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Minolta 600si – the AF zones are engraved on the focusing screen

The viewfinder is informative (with a lit up green LCD at the bottom of the focusing screen) and displays a very useful scale in semi-auto exposure mode. Interestingly, the 600si also operates stopped down in semi-auto mode with adapted lenses (using a M42 to Minolta A mount adapter) and is somehow usable with old Pentax Takumar lenses – (focusing manually is difficult through – the focusing screen of an auto-focus camera is not designed for that).

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The Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens.

There is very little technical difference between the Maxxum cameras of  the “6 to 9 segment” (7xi, 9xi, 700si, 600si, 800si), which were sold for the largest part of the nineties.

  • Metering and auto-exposure had reached their final form with the 14 segment “honeycomb” pattern of the 7xi, which would be retained on all models until the final Maxxum of 2004.
  • They share the same 3  or 4 sensor setup for the auto-focus, and still rely exclusively on the in-camera motor. The final models of 1999 and beyond  (Maxxum 9 and 7)  would adopt a different sensor module, and only the Maxxum 7 would gain the ability to work with ultrasonic (SSM) lenses.
  • Lastly, they all share the same viewfinder (penta-prism, enlargement, high eye point). When comparing the viewfinder with similar Canon and Nikon cameras, it does not look as bright on the 600si, but we’re really nitpicking here.
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Minolta Maxxum 600si with the Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens. It works, but once in place, the adapter is extremely difficult to remove from the body’s bayonet.

What’s my pick in the Minolta family, today ?

The Maxxum 9 and 7 are in a category of their own. They have unique characteristics (the all metal construction and the 100% viewfinder coverage for the Maxxum 9, the user interface for the Maxxum 7 with its large LCD display on the film door and its ability to use current Sony and Zeiss SSM lenses). They are purchased by photographers who want the very best of Minolta SLRs. And they still command top dollar.

Considering that there is no significant cost difference between rest of the Maxxum models – which are all more than 20 years old and are all selling for a few dozens of dollars at most, I would not consider any of the entry or mid level models; I would also avoid the quirky 7xi, and would limit my choice to a few cameras such as the 9xi, the 600si, the 700si and the 800si.

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi (left) and the 600si (right). Two very different approaches of the ergonomics

The 600si may be spec’d slightly below the three other models, but it does not really matter for photographers shooting film today – those are ancient cameras in any case and nobody will complain if they don’t shoot 6 frames per second. Any of those four cameras is very pleasant to use, and will produce well exposed pictures. The choice is primarily about your preferences regarding the user interface, and about your expectations when it comes to perceived build quality. Personally, I’ll stay with the 9xi.

What was my pick in the Minolta family, back then ?

Interestingly, when those cameras were on the shelves of the photo stores in the early nineties, I did not even consider the 9xi.

My first pick was the 7xi and its 28-105 Power xi  Zoom. There is no doubt that the camera was making good pictures (autofocus and metering were top notch for the time) but it was eating its very expensive lithium batteries with an alarming regularity, the Power Zoom and the built-in flash popping up automatically were a pain, and there was no depth of field preview capability. I got rid of the Power xi Zoom after a few months, and replaced the 7xi with a 700si and its optional vertical grip 2 years later. With the grip, the 700si could run on conventional AA batteries. I liked the 700si a lot, and kept it until I switched from film to digital, in 2003.

When I bought the 700si, I never considered the 9xi (far too expensive, too big, too similar to the 7xi, with no way to support AA batteries that I knew of). And once I had the 700si, I was never tempted to “downgrade” to a 600si.


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Joe – Skipper on Lake Powell (AZ) – Scanned from print – Minolta 700si – Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6 zoom (May 1994)

 

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – back then and today (part II)

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a streamlined interface – unusual in the world of SLRs.

Back then

I introduced the Minolta Maxxum 9xi in a blog post a few weeks ago. The 9xi was a camera built to near pro quality standards, with a high end specs sheet (the fastest shutter on a 35mm camera, weather sealing, electric command of the depth of field preview), but its user interface and its internals were lifted from the 7xi, a camera designed for the average amateur more than the enthusiast photographer. It faced a difficult task:

  • In 1992, the lines had been drawn – pros and enthusiasts had already invested in their autofocus camera system, and it’s unlikely that a photographer having recently spent thousands of dollars in new autofocus bodies and lenses would have thrown everything away to enjoy the power-zoom gimmickery of Minolta’s new xi cameras.
  • It had a formidable competitor – Nikon’s N90. The N90 was positioned by Nikon as a prosumer camera, but this very serious and capable camera was often purchased by pros who needed a faster autofocus than what the F4 could provide, in a smaller and lighter body.  The N90 was a very efficient tool,  backed by a large range of lenses and an efficient pro support organization that Minolta did not have.
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Smooth lines, very few buttons in a nice bronze color, a card slot for extra functions.

Shooting with the Minolta  9xi today

The industrial design of the 9xi is unique (one of the most beautiful examples of “bio-design” in the world of cameras), and its build quality is significantly better than its lesser Minolta siblings (7xi, 700si and 600si). That being said, the 9xi suffers from the usual limitations of the autofocus cameras of the 90s:

  • It’s piece of black plastic
  • It’s a battery hog (and needs an expensive 2CR5 Lithium battery)
  • It’s not excessively heavy but it is really very large
  • It’s loud when the camera is “hunting” to focus
  • It can’t work with the most recent lenses or flashes from Konica-Minolta or Sony. To be fair, a similar limitation applies to most of the Nikon autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, which have no real-life compatibility with Nikon’s current AF lenses (the ones deprived of an aperture ring).
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Minolta 9xi – the most unconventional interface – a “func” button to call a menu, and a door where “creativity cards” can be inserted – the predecessors of scene modes.

Other limitations are more specific to the Maxxum xi generation:

  • the 9xi is controlled exclusively by a modal interface (a “Func” push button that you have to press once or twice to access different menus, two control wheels and a LCD, and almost no dedicated button).
  • hidden functions are only accessible by pressing a combination of buttons during the startup process. And they’re not always mentioned in Minolta’s documentation (I found out about one on them by reading the pages of a fellow blogger)
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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – “complex” commands hidden behind a door

The last remaining issue is the choice of lenses, and the impact on the second hand market of Sony’s price policy.

  • No “pro” lens was available when the 9xi was launched. The issue finally started being addressed by Minolta in 1993, but the brand was always one or two steps behind Canon and Nikon when it came to adopting new technologies (such as the ultra-sonic motorization for the auto-focus).
  • Because Minolta was a brand only marginally popular with professional photographers, the f/2.8 pro zooms and the fast prime lenses never sold in huge quantities – probably a tiny fraction of what Canon and Nikon sold (*).
  • Sony’s current A series bodies still are 100% compatible with Minolta’s screw-drive lenses, and Sony’s current lens line up of full frame lenses is only addressing the very high end of the market. In other words, they’re very expensive. Therefore, there is a steady demand for cheaper lenses,  and the second hand market does not have enough of the old Minolta prime lenses and of the old “Pro-zooms” to fulfill it.
  • High usage value, steady demand, relatively limited availability: the price of Minolta’s auto-focus lenses tends to be high on second hand market today.
  • The only really affordable lenses on the second hand market are consumer level zooms, and Minolta has a mixed record in that area – some of their zooms were good, but some of their entry-level products were really bad, much worse mechanically and optically than the entry level products of Canon or Nikon. Do your homework and pick carefully.

Comparing the 9xi with Nikon’s N90.

If you read the manual (and the forums), set the camera to your preferences,  forget about the Power xi gimmickry and mount a conventional auto-focus lens, the 9xi’s behavior will not be that different from the prosumer body of reference, Nikon’s N90. Their interface could not be more dissimilar (the Nikon has one clearly identified button for each function),  the Nikon looks more compact (even if it is only marginally smaller) and it works with AA batteries, but the performance of the cameras is comparable, and the photographer will have access to the roughly same set of functions.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very different interface design approaches. The photographers of the nineties obviously preferred Nikon’s.

Both cameras fall pleasantly into the hands of photographers, even if I tend to prefer the two control wheels of the 9xi to the single one gracing the top plate of the N90.

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The Maxxum 9xi – there is an LCD overlay on the focusing screen. It’s contextual (here, it shows the selected focusing zone at the center) and not very legible.

The eye point length and the enlargement of the viewfinders are also comparable, and perfectly adequate for photographers wearing glasses. There is a LCD overlay at the top of the focusing screen of the Minolta, to provide contextual information, such as the auto-focus point selected by the camera or the metering area selected by the photographer. It also shows the exposure scale when the camera is operating in semi-auto exposure mode. Unfortunately, the information is difficult to read in low light, and the LCD overlay could be one of the reasons why the viewfinder is not as bright and contrasty as in the N90. By a wide margin: the difference is really striking.

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Almost no buttons to control the Maxxum 9xi – the two control wheels do everything. A reminder of their respective functions is displayed at the top viewfinder when you press the Func key.

The Maxxum 9xi has no built-in flash, but in the early nineties no “pro” camera had one. That’s one of the reasons to prefer the 700si or 800si bodies: their built-in flash can be used to command other Minolta flash cobras wirelessly.

Buying a 9xi today? 

Committed users of full frame Sony A series cameras (A850, A900, A99) will probably be more interested in the more recent Maxxum 7, which supports all current Sony lenses, including the SAM and SSM lenses with ultra-sonic motorized focus. The Maxxum 9 – the “pro” SLR from 1999 is also an interesting pick for users of Sony’s full frame digital bodies because of its outstanding build quality and its 100% coverage viewfinder, even if it’s not natively compatible with the new SAM or SSM lenses (some cameras have been retrofitted with an updated circuit board by Minolta’s customer service organization). The Maxxum 7 and 9 are the ultimate Minolta cameras and command a much higher price on the second hand market than the generations that came before.

For photographers just interested in setting a foot in the Minolta autofocus system, the 9xi is an interesting pick. Considering the low cost of all Minolta auto-focus SLRs on the second hand market today (except the Maxxum 7 and 9, of course), it makes little sense to settle for an entry-level model designed for beginners or amateurs such as the 3xi or the 400si. Go for a “pro” model for the same price.

The 9xi performs better than the previous generation of Minolta auto-focus cameras (7000, 9000, 8000i), it offers a few important features which are missing on the 7xi (depth of field preview, bracketing, programmable function button, ability to use a AA battery grip). It lacks their built-in flash and its interface is more cryptic, but it is better built than the 700si and 800si  that followed without being inferior in terms of features or performance (**).

If you’re looking for a well built auto-focus film cameras with matrix metering, it’s perfectly adequate. The user interface is not to everybody’s taste, but when you get used to it, it works.

As mentioned above, finding good lenses at a good price is a challenge.  And you can not mount any generic electronic flash on the camera. The 9xi (like all the Minolta, Konica-Minolta and Sony bodies until the A99 and the A6000) uses a proprietary Minolta accessory shoe. There are adapters, but they add to the budget and are a pain to use.

As usual for cameras which did not sell in huge numbers and have no particular claim to fame, there is no widely accepted price for the 9xi. Prices are all over the place, with some specialized stores in Japan asking for up to $800.00 for a nice 9xi, and the online store of a well know charity effectively selling them for less than $15.00.


(*) I noticed the same phenomenon when I was trying to find lenses for my Fujica AX-3 and AX-5 cameras a few months ago – wide angle prime lenses and luminous trans-standard zooms are extremely difficult to find, and reach prices in Leica or Zeiss territory. Brands like Fujica, which were not addressing the professional market, and catered primarily to price conscious amateurs,  had a few high end lenses in their catalog for the prestige, probably developed for a few friends of the brand, but they were never widely distributed and are now extremely rare.

(**) To a large extent, the 700si was a Maxxum 9xi under a more conventional looking  (and cheaper to build) body shell,  with a few extra buttons and switches. With the 700si, Minolta got rid of the weirdest aspects of the 7xi, and made  some of the features previously present on the 9xi (but undocumented) easier to configure.  With an informed use of the boot process (restart the 9xi while pressing a few specific buttons), there are very few of the 700si new features that are really missing on the  9xi.


More about the Minolta Maxxum series:

A site simply named: Fotographie : https://www.mhohner.de

Reviews of different Minolta autofocus cameras by Henk Jammes:

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-700si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-800si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9.html

A blog from Panagiotis Giannakis :  pansfilmcameras with reviews of the Maxxum 9xi, 7000i, 9000 and 5 among other things.


Instead of posting pictures of my dogs, I went back to the archives and found pictures taken in the mid nineties when I was shooting with a Minolta 700si (the closest cousin of the 9xi). My main lens was the Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6-2.8, but I also used (rarely) the Minolta 50mm f/1.7, the famed beer can (AF 70-210 f/4) and a 35-200 xi power zoom. I liked the camera except for its bulk and weight, and ended up using a Minolta Vectis S-1 for my mountain hikes.

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Gjende Lake (Norway). Scanned from print – Minolta 700 Si (Aug. 1996)
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Another lake in Norway (Bygdin, probably). Scanned from print. Minolta 700si – Aug 1996

Semi Auto SLRs for beginners: Pentax Spotmatic F or Nikon FM ?

The Pentax Spotmatic F and the Nikon FM were probably never on the shelves of photo equipment stores at the same time – when Nikon launched the FM in 1977, Pentax had stopped selling their Spotmatic line of cameras and their m42 screw mount Takumar lenses one year earlier, and were promoting the more compact MX (semi-auto) and ME (automatic) SLRs and their new bayonet lens mount instead.

Logically, the Spotmatic F should be compared with cameras such as the Canon FTb, and the FM with the Pentax MX. But shooting with the Spotmatic F and the FM side by side is a good way to measure the progress made in usability and performance in a just few years.

  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics
    Looks can be deceiving. The two cameras are roughly the same size and both weight approximately 600g, but the Spotmatic looks taller and feels heavier.
    The ergonomics and the organization of the commands are very similar. Both cameras offer semi-automatic exposure – the Spotmatic F needs the SMC Takumar lenses (sold after 1971) to offer full aperture metering, while the FM needs Nikkor AI lenses (sold after 1977) or older lenses modified for Aperture Indexing to provide the same capability.
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Pentax Spotmatic F and Nikon FM – almost exactly the same footprint – surprising…

The shutter of the FM has metallic blades traveling vertically, while the SPF uses a conventional horizontal textile shutter, with a slower electronic flash sync speed (1/60 sec instead of 1/125 sec), and – in my experience at least – a more questionable  reliability after a few decades of use.
Lastly, the FM can be equipped with a motor drive, which enables continuous film advance at 3.5 frames per second.

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Pentax Spotmatic F and Nikon FM – a very similar organization of the commands
  • Viewfinder
    That’s where the progress made in a few years is the most…visible. The focusing screen of the FM has a much finer grain, it’s significantly more luminous, and thanks to the combination of a split screen telemeter and a ring of bright micro prisms, focusing is much easier and therefore faster than on the Spotmatic.
    The viewfinder of the FM is also more informative –  it shows the selected aperture and shutter speed.
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Pentax Spotmatic F – just the matching needle for the exposure on the right, and a small area of micros prisms at the center

On the other hand, I could not have imagined that getting the focus right on the Spotmatic F would require such an effort – even with relatively luminous lenses – the focusing screen is dark, and there is no split screen telemeter to help the photographer when the micro-prism ring is not working. Cameras from the late seventies-early eighties are so much better in that regard – that alone is a reason to shoot with the Nikon FM rather than with the Spotmatic.

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Nikon FM – 3 LEDs to help with the semi-auto exposure, a split-image and a ring of micro prisms at the center, a disk showing the shutter speed on the left – a fine and luminous focusing screen.
  • Metering system
    The metering system of the Spotmatic F is derived from the first Spotmatic, and like almost all the cameras from the late sixties and early seventies, it’s build around a CdS cell and communicates the exposure value to the photographer with the needle of a galvanometer. CdS cells tend to react slowly to changing lighting conditions (they have memory) and the needle of the Spotmatic is not very precise. Move the aperture ring one stop up or one stop down, and the needle hardly moves. It’s accurate enough for negatives. Not sure it would be precise enough for slide film.
    The Nikon FM has a much faster GASP cell (they were all the rage in the late seventies, they were supposed to be better than Silicium cells – the Pentax MX had such a cell too). The right exposure is communicated to the photographer through a set of three red LEDs. The setup is very reactive, and more accurate than the needle of the Spotmatic F.
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The big black lever with the white arrow is used for depth of field control with Full Aperture Metering lenses, and for metering on conventional m42 screw mount lenses
  • Battery
    The Spotmatic F still came with Mercury batteries (which have been outlawed in the western world for decades). But it’s very tolerant with the non-Mercury-based replacement batteries available today in every drugstore. The FM works with conventional 1.5v Silver Oxide batteries. They also are widely available.
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The rotating lock on the shutter release, and the red dot showing that the shutter has been cocked and the camera is ready to fire.
  • Reliability
    The Spotmatics are easy to repair – there are still  a few specialists who can service them in the US, and based on my personal experience, they’re not going to be out of work any time soon: it seems that the Spotmatics need more tender love and care than more recent cameras.  On the other hand, the FM inherited from the robustness and reliability of its older brothers in the Nikon family. Even if it was not considered a “pro” camera in its heyday, it was very often used by professional photographers (war correspondents in particular), as their primary cameras when light, compact and very solid gear was needed, or as a backup camera – in case their big Nikon F2 (or later F3) got into trouble.
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Typical view of the film chamber of a Spotmatic – textile shutter, and the label of a Pentax service center (maybe somebody should start collecting those labels).
  • Scarcity and price
    Both cameras belonged to the best selling category of their time – semi-automatic exposure SLRs designed for enthusiast amateurs and professional photographers, they were sold by leading manufacturers with a wide distribution network, and hundreds of thousands (Spotmatic F) or even millions (Nikon FM)  were manufactured.  Lots of them have survived. The Spotmatic F is older, and finding a good copy is more difficult than locating a good FM. There is relatively little demand for the FM (less than for the more recent FM2 with its 1/4000 sec shutter or for the Cosina-manufactured FM10) and supply visibly exceeds demand, which reflects on prices: the FM tends to be cheaper than the Spotmatic F on eBay ($25.00 vs $50.00 for a camera in working condition).
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Same overall size for the camera bodies, but the Pentax lens’ diameter is narrower than the Nikon’s and makes the camera look taller
  • Lens mount and lenses
    The Takumar lenses of the Spotmatic have an excellent, and in my experience, deserved reputation. The “entry level” 55mm lens I used with the Spotmatic F produces contrasty pictures, and the older Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 produces creamy pictures with a fabulous bokeh (it also works very well with mirrorless cameras).
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The internals of the Pentax ES mount – Pentax added a lever to transmit the pre-selected aperture value and a pin to lock the lens in position.

Takumar lenses with the m42 screw mount are abundant on the second hand market, as are third party lenses – but they have to be operated stopped down. Full aperture metering is only possible with the more recent (1971-1975) S-M-C Takumar lenses with their modified m42 lens mount (they can easily be found on the second hand market), but there is next to no offer from third party vendors.Only Tamron seems to have offered lenses supporting  full aperture metering on the Spotmatic F. I’ve tried a 28mm f/2.5 wide angle and a 35-70mm f/4 Tamron Adaptall lens, and they both seem to lack contrast compared to Pentax or Nikon original lenses.

The Nikon FM was launched the same year as the “AI” version of the Nikon F bayonet mount, and as usual with Nikon, some level of compatibility exists with prior and subsequent versions of the lens mount.

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Nikon FM with an AI (or AI-S) lens.
  • The “FM” is one of the “most compatible” of the Nikon bodies –  it’s sometimes called the Rosetta Stone of Nikon cameras-  and it can be used (with various restrictions) with lenses made from the very beginning of the F mount (1958) until today: Nikon still have AI manual focus lenses in their catalog, and some of their current auto-focus lenses can also be mounted on the FM, provided they have an aperture ring and a mechanical diaphragm control mechanism.
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Nikon FM with a non-converted pre-AI lens – the grey metallic tab has to be lifted (you press the shiny mushroom like button below it)
  • The offer of second hand lenses (Nikon branded or compatible) is also abundant.

Conclusion

When working with old cameras, we all place the bar of the required level of performance at different positions – it’s a function of our experience, and of the type of scenes we tend to shoot.

The Spotmatic F, although a very good camera in its own right, is too much of an antique for me. Its base design is rooted in the sixties (if not earlier) – it’s the last evolution of the m42 Pentax line. Focusing is the biggest issue – you really have to pay attention to it, and it slows me down to the point I feel I’ll miss too many opportunities when I shoot mobile subjects. It still has a real usage value (on relatively static subjects) and can draw from a large supply of very good lenses, but it’s an antique first and foremost.

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Big birds – Thompson Park – Mableton – Pentax Spotmatic F – Super Takumar 55mm f/2. Fujicolor 400. Great camera for relatively static subjects.

Only 4 years younger, the Nikon – although not that different on paper – feels like a more modern camera (lower profile, much better focusing screen, more precise exposure determination). I expect it to be more solid and more reliable too. Like the SPF, the FM is compatible with earlier versions of the brand’s lens mount, but unlike the Pentax, it’s also compatible with the manual focus and with some of the auto-focus lenses still sold by Nikon today.


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American White Sheperd – Nikon FM – Nikon 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF zoom. Not sure the dog would have left me enough time to get the focus right on the Spotmatic.

When kids ask me to let them use an old camera to learn the basics of photography or for an art project at school, I pick the FM with a Nikkor E Series lens – it’s a cheap and very efficient combo and I’m confident they won’t break it.

And the FM – along with its aperture-preferred auto-exposure sibling the Nikon FE2 – is also the camera I bring with me when I need a break from modern, computerized digital cameras – without sacrifying the results.

One last word: the Nikon FM10 has very little in common with the rest of the FM and FE series – it’s a camera manufactured by Cosina, at a time when all manufacturers believed they needed a sub $150.00 manual focus/semi-auto SLR in their product line. The FM10 shares its chassis and its kit lens (except for the lens mount, of course) with the Olympus OM-2000 and with other cameras manufactured by Cosina, and is not a “true” Nikon.


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American White Sheperd. Nikon FM-Nikon 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF zoom.