Contax ST or Canon T90 – candidates for the “ultimate manual focus SLR” crown?

A motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus, metal built camera with a conventional user interface, the Contax ST had no real equivalent when it was launched in 1992. The Leica R7 and the Olympus OM-4ti were not motorized, and the rest of the cameras targeting the high-end of the market were auto-focus SLRs with a modal user interface.

In fact, there are very few other motorized, multi-automatic, manual focus 35mm SLRs I can think of – the most interesting of them being Canon’s T90.

In 1985, the arrival of the Minolta 7000 AF had caught the industry leaders by surprise: Minolta was the first to launch a brand new – and totally coherent –  autofocus system.

At that time, Canon’s engineers were working on a top of the line manual focus camera with a revolutionary modal interface – the T90 – that was launched in 1986, and whose design and ergonomic study Canon would make to good use on their first successful autofocus SLRs, the new EOS 620 and 650, that they launched one year later.

Contax, on the other hand, did not even try its hand at an autofocus SLR until the AX of 1996 (which still used the Contax Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses), and did not launch a real 35mm autofocus camera system until Year 2000. The Contax ST of 1992 is therefore a very conventional manual focus camera.

Manual exposure mode, Aperture: F/22, Shutter: 1/250th, exposure compensation at +1.3, spot metering – you read the information directly on the knobs and rings (the view counter and the single/continuous shot mode are shown on the small LCD)

The T90 and the ST have a lot in common – they’re positioned one step under the real professional cameras of their respective brand (the F1 and the RTS III) and boast similar characteristics: they’re large, manual focus, motorized SLRs, with a big high eye point viewfinder, with multiple auto-exposure modes and multiple metering patterns (variants of average  and  spot metering), LED displays in viewfinder, and they are powered by alkaline AA or AAA batteries.

Comparing the interfaces – Tv (Shutter priority), 1/250th, spot metering, single shot, no exposure compensation – everything can be read on the large LCD.

Back then, and today, there are two main justifications for buying one of those cameras:

  • they are high quality instruments, with a very good viewfinder, great ergonomics, and lots of control options for the photographer who wants to remain totally in charge of focusing and exposure,
  • they are backed by a renown line of manual focus lenses.

There is one big drawback – of course: those systems are anchored in the past. Canon lost interest in the  T90 and in the FD line of lenses as soon as the EOS hit the market, 33 years ago. The last new Contax manual focus 35mm SLR (the Aria) was released in 1998, and Kyocera has stopped providing any type of support a long time ago.

Whether you prefer the ST to the T90 comes down to lenses (the ones you own and the ones you would like to buy), ergonomic preferences, and your expectations regarding  reliability.

15 years apart: a motorized SLR with a huge 28-85 f/3.3 zoom (1992, left), a non motorized SLR with a tiny 35-70 zoom (body: 1977, lens: 1982, right).

Back then: how did the two cameras compare?

  • Cost and Availability: having been launched 6 years apart, the two cameras never really competed for space on the shelves of the retailers. The T90 was manufactured for less than a year, but remained on Canon’s catalog until the launch of the EOS-1, in 1990. It was a very expensive camera – in the same price range as the Olympus OM-4ti – only professional cameras such as the Nikon F4 and of course the Leica R series were more expensive. The Contax ST became available at the end of 1992. It also had a very high list price (in the same bracket as the Canon New-F1 or the EOS-1)  but cameras were heavily discounted in those days and it’s difficult to know how much people were really paying (and whether Contax cameras were more discounted than Canon’s).
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics – The T90 (nicknamed the “tank” in Japan) is not that heavy after all – at 800g, its weights is the same as the ST’s  (without batteries) but the Canon uses AA cells which are heavier than the AAAs of the ST. Because of its smaller dimensions (height and depth), the ST looks denser and feels heavier.
    One of the best examples of “bio-design” the T90 falls naturally in the hands, with all the command easily accessible. It’s also the first example of totally modal interface  (I press a key to call a menu, and I rotate the control wheel to select the setting which is shown on a large LCD display on the top plate).
    The ST offers a very conventional  user interface, with one knob, one ring or one switch per command. Because the analog commands are designed to be smooth, the knobs are susceptible to changing position in the bag of the photographer, and the Contax’s commands are  protected by a series of locks – it’s useful, but it slows the photographer down until the position of the locks is memorized by the muscles of the hands.
    More than 30 years later, the market has still not decided which UI it likes best – Canon, Nikon and Sony are committed to the modal interface, while Fujifilm is selling cameras whose command organization is very similar to the ST’s.
    Both cameras are motorized – but not as fast as the Nikon F4 or the EOS-1 (3 frames / sec for the Contax, 4 frames / sec for the Canon). And both are loud – you can’t shoot unnoticed indoors.
  • Viewfinder – They’re very comparable on paper – the T90’s viewfinder covers 94% of the actual picture area, with a magnification of 0.77 and an eye point of 19mm.
    The ST’s viewfinder, on the other hand,  covers 95% of the actual picture, with a magnification of 0.8. The eye point is not documented but feels longer than the T90’s.

    Practically, the viewfinder of the ST is cinematic, and next to it, the T90 looks narrower, as if affected by tunnel vision.

    The viewfinder screens look equally luminous (which means not as luminous as what you would find on a Nikon camera of the same era). The micro prism ring on the T90 is made of coarser elements, and is easier to the eyes than the very fine prisms of the ST, which are very difficult to see, even with the dioptric correction of the viewfinder carefully adjusted.

    Both provide information at the bottom and on right side of the viewfinder – the Contax is using only red LEDs, and the T90 a combination of LEDs and of LCDs. Both viewfinders are informative, easy to read, and don’t overload the photographer with useless information.
  • Shutter and metering system: The T90’s shutter was the absolute best of what was available in 1986 – with a flash X sync speed of 1/250s and a top speed of 1/4000. The Contax ST offers similar performances (it can go up to 1/6000sec, but that shutter speed is not user selectable – practically, 1/4000 is the limit). The Canon T90 is probably the most complex SLR ever designed when it comes to exposure control.

    First, it offers no less than four metering patterns: central weighted average, selective (a sort of ultra large spot, for the nostalgics of the Canon FTb), Spot, and last but not least, Multispot. In addition, you can also adjust the exposure for the highlights or the shadows by pushing two small buttons to change the exposure value by increments of 0.5IL. Honestly, it’s a bit too much.

    The Center Weighted Average metering (the one you use for casual or travel photography) gives more importance to the sky than I wish,  but because you can’t lock the exposure with the camera set for center weighted average, you have to let the camera do what it wants, and it under-exposes a bit. The Multi-Spot is gimmicky, the “Highlight and Shadows” correction is extremely powerful but very difficult to use unless you’re fluent with the theory of exposure. Lastly, only the older FL lenses offer a real semi-auto exposure mode, but you have to operate stopped down.

    Compared to the T90, the ST is a model of simplicity – if offers only two metering patterns (center weighted average and spot). Like the T90, you can only lock the exposure in spot, but at least you can work with a real semi-auto mode at full aperture.

    None of those cameras offer “matrix metering” – they’re definitely “old-school” in that regard.
T90 – Semi-auto exposure – stopped down – over exposure (cursor above triangle on bar graph, “CL” message (for CLose)
Contax ST – Viewfinder – the selected shutter speed is shown on the right, the aperture and the view counter at the bottom.

And now

  • Reliability: “the tank” may have been solidly built, but when trying to innovate with the design the camera, Canon’s engineers went a bit too far, and introduced some weaknesses. With the benefit of hindsight, some of the design decisions look outright stupid (soldering lithium batteries to the circuit board or replacing springs with magnets in the shutter, for instance). The second issue in particular impacts reliability, and it’s the reason the value of the T90 on the second hand market is so low.

    The ST is not without flaws either – it seems that Contax cameras of that generation (the RTS III, ST and AX) need the aperture command lever to be re-calibrated every now and then, and the process requires access to a workshop manual and a Contax Planar F/1.4 lens.  I could not find a copy of the manual workshop on the Internet so far, and having to buy a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens just to be able to calibrate a camera is not a very palatable perspective (the workaround is to play with exposure compensation dial). Apart from this non trivial issue, I’ve not found or read much (positive or negative) about the Contax ST’s reliability. As far as I know, the only real troubled child of the Contax-Yashica family is the 159MM.
  • Scarcity: both cameras were very expensive high end machines – which limited their sales volumes – but also ensured that most of their owners did not consider them disposable, and took good care of them.

    Most of the interest for the Contax cameras seems to be concentrated in Japan – I could not find any in the US and finally bought my ST on eBay from a Japanese reseller (buying from Japan is generally a very pleasant experience – the cameras are in top condition and you get yours in less than a week through the Postal Service). It’s easier to buy a T90 from a domestic reseller, even if there are only a handful on sale at any given time. And because of the potential reliability issues, I would only buy a T90 from a seller with a very good reputation, who has really tested the camera, preferably with film.
  • Battery: Contrarily to many autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, the T90 and the ST don’t require expensive and difficult to find single use Lithium batteries. They simply need a few AAA or AA batteries.
  • Lens selection: The T90 was designed for Canon’s FD lines of lenses, but also works very well (in particular in semi-auto exposure mode) with older FL glass. Canon also sold for a while an adapter for 42mm screw mount lenses. If you add the lenses sold by third parties, the offer is limitless.

    There are two issues with Canon FD lenses: the interesting ones (the luminous wide angle lenses in particular) were purchased en masse by users of Sony’s A7 series mirrorless cameras (who use them with an FD to Sony E adapter),  which raised the price level on the second hand market. And since production ceased more or less with the launch of the EOS series in 1987, there are relatively few good zooms in the catalog (and in any case none of those f/2.8 constant aperture zooms preferred by the pro photographers).

    Contax lenses have a great reputation – and Contax used to cover any need from the 15mm ultra-wide angle to the 600mm telephoto lens, with specialty items such as the 35mm shift lens or the medical lens also represented.

    Outside of the 28, 35 or 50mm glass which sell for reasonable prices ($150.00 to $200.00),  Contax branded lenses are much more expensive than Canon’s. But since Contax kept on releasing new Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses until 1998 (the last one was a compact zoom for the Aria), the lens designs are a bit more modern than with Canon, which could be good if you’re looking for a zoom.
The Canon T90 is higher than the Contax ST and can’t lay flat on a table (it tips forward). Not an issue, just bizarre. Canon’s 35-105 zoom looks small, in particular when compared to the massive Contax 28-85 Vario-Sonnar

How much? Not  much. Probably because of its reliability issues, the Canon T90 is not in high demand and can be found for less than $100.00; the Contax ST is also relatively cheap (approx $150 if you buy it from a Japanese reseller). In the Contax family, the S2, the RX II and the Aria are more sought after, and sell for two to four times the price of the ST.


The Contax ST and the T90 have a lot in common on paper, but are very different cameras in day to day use:

  • ergonomics – Contax has a conventional user interface, the T90 is modal. Both are extremely pleasant to use and a photographer will enjoy working with each of them – it’s really a matter of taste.
  • exposure determination – in this specific area, the Contax is more limited, but easier to use, while the Canon is much more complex and sometimes gimmicky. Honestly, none of them is a perfect fit for me: ideally, I would simply like to use the central weighted average metering with an auto-exposure lock – an option none of them offers. A matrix metering option would also have even valuable – but no manual focus Canon camera ever offered it, and Contax fans had to wait for the last manual focus SLR of the brand, the Aria, to benefit from it.
A huge viewfinder – the ST’s most striking characteristic.

Is one of those two the ultimate manual focus 35mm SLR?

Besides the ST and the T90, there are few cameras that can legitimately compete for the distinction: a few Leica R models, the Olympus OM-4ti,  a few other Contax cameras, maybe.

The Contax ST is a high quality, carefully designed and nicely built manual focus SLR for photographers who prefer their cameras full featured, but also easy to use and unobtrusive. A very nice tool. But it lacks this ounce of folly and excessiveness that graces the T90.

The Canon T90  is far from perfect – even if its limitations in the exposure department are inherited to a large extend from the FD lens mount’s shortcomings – and it has its own reliability issues. But it was a revolutionary camera in its time: there’s no manual focus SLR like it, and there’s still something magic in the simplicity of its user interface.

Interestingly, the British Contax Web site is still up:

Not exactly fresh news… Canon T90. Somewhere in the region of Vinay (France)

Contax ST – first pictures, first issues

Just before the lock-down was implemented in Georgia, I shot a roll of film with my newly acquired Contax ST, and it took a long time for  the film to get processed and the scans to be made available on line (blame the postal service).

So, here we are…

The camera is pleasant to use in the field (large viewfinder, logical commands, convenient exposure memo lock (associated with Spot metering only). It’s heavy, and the Zeiss 28-85 f/3.3-4 Vario Sonnar zoom makes for a very bulky and ponderous combo (more than 1.6 kg/ 3.5 pounds with batteries and strap). You can’t carry it with the strap wrapped around the wrist for too long – you need a backpack for any photo expedition longer than 30 min.

The zoom is sharp, but it’s a one ring design (you rotate the ring to focus, and you pull or push it to zoom in and out), and of course, the front element tends to slide out under its own weight.

Two Paddle Boarders – Whitewater Creek – Atlanta – Contax ST – Vario-Sonnar F/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Portra 400.

Some of the pictures are correctly exposed, but the majority seem over-exposed, by 0.75 EV up to 1.5 EV.

I had not noticed it when I received the camera, but the aperture information displayed in the viewfinder does not correspond to the values on the aperture ring of the lens: at full aperture, the aperture ring shows f/3.3, but the viewfinder LEDs show f/2.8; at F/8 (on the lens), the LEDs show f/4.5; at f/22, the LEDs show f/13. Roughly 1.5 EV off except at full aperture, where the two values are closer. I tried another lens (a Tamron 28mm f/2.5 with the Adaptall II ring) – same issue. When I googled it, I found out that it’s (probably) a rather common problem related to the calibration of the “aperture linkage lever” of the bayonet mount, on the camera’s side (*).

The Contax workshop manuals describe in detail the process to follow to re-calibrate the aperture linkage lever (some people call it the “feeler”) on the body’s lens mount. Unfortunately, the process is different with each model (you need to perform an obscure sequence of key presses to access the maintenance mode of the camera), I have not found a Contax ST workshop manual yet, and it apparently requires a rather expensive Contax Planar 50mm f/1.4 as a benchmark for the calibration.

Until I find a way to fix the issue, I’m simply going to use the exposure correction dial and hope of the best.

(*) I exchanged a few emails with Peter Robinson, who repairs and reconditions a few specific Contax models in the UK, and maintains the Contax139 blog (very nice guy, btw).
According to him, the aperture transmission from the lens to the body is “analog” on models like the RTS III or the RX, but encoded (I translate it by “digital”) on the 167. I suspect the ST, being a derivative of the RTS III, and the predecessor of the RX, also falls into the “analog” category. Peter posted a few workshop manuals on his Website, and the recalibration process is described in detail for each model of camera, unfortunately there are variations in the key presses from model to model, and without the workshop manual corresponding to the exact model you own, fixing the aperture transmission lever is an impossible task.

Three sources of information:

CONTAX RX Repair: Faulty Aperture Readout

Contax catalogs and manuals at

More about the Contax Yashica bayonet

Pet store – Blue Ridge – GA (Contax ST, Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0) –  Kodak Portra 400.

Fujifilm X-100 – a rangefinder camera for the rest of us?

If like me you’ve used primarily single lens reflex cameras in the time of film, and dSLRs or mirrorless systems after switching to digital, using a rangefinder camera with an optical viewfinder has always been a challenge. I have a Leica CL that I bought second hand a long time ago when I was living a few blocks from an official Leica store (temptation was permanent, I could not resist), but I don’t use it much. Recently, I tried to use a fully restored Canon QL17 (the Canonet GIII, the most sought after model), but in one year I may have taken 20 pictures at the most, and I don’t know how many more months (or years) I’ll need to take the remaining 16 and have the film processed.

Family Reunion. Fujifilm X100

On the one hand, I like those cameras – they’re compact, silent, and their direct optical viewfinder is easier on the eyes than the focusing screen of the SLRs. Their field of view is greater than the lens in use, and you also see what is going on outside of the frame: it helps me with the composition of the image, and it will help street photographers better anticipate the action.

Fujifilm X100T – the optical viewfinder – the white frame and the various indications are a digital overlay – you can see the lens hood in the lower right corner of the image.

But it comes at a cost. You have no idea what the depth of field will be like, and if you forget to adjust the focus (which happens to me frequently in the heat of the action), you’ll find out about your mistake when you download your scans, a few weeks too late. There’s a steep learning curve – I find that with a rangefinder camera it’s much more difficult to anticipate what a photo will look like than with an SLR, and in my opinion, a film rangefinder camera has to be used a lot, if you want your success rate to approach what you get with a single lens reflex camera.

The Fujifilm 100T – the electronic viewfinder – not different from what you get with  millions of mirrorless cameras.

In 2010, Fujifilm tried a new approach – they developed a compact camera, the X100,  with an hybrid viewfinder – that could be switched from a rather conventional direct optical mode, to a more contemporaneous electronic mode (an EVF). Since the camera also had a 2.8 inch LCD display at the back, the photographer could use the camera in three totally different ways: like an auto-focus point and shoot of the film era (with the optical viewfinder), like a simple digicam (composing on the LCD) or like a good mirrorless camera (with the EVF).

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – NYC (2016)- Fujifim X100

The camera looked like a rangefinder camera from the seventies, and was graced with an analog interface (aperture ring, shutter speed knob), but it was a modern inside, with a very good 12 Megapixel APS-C sensor, and the four PASM exposure modes a photographer expects on a digital camera.

I had a X100 for a few years. It was a great camera for casual portraits, family reunions, or impromptu landscape. Being small and almost silent, it did not draw attention. But its auto-focus was extremely slow and incapable of detecting where the subject was without human assistance, and I was still missing too many pictures – as soon as the subject was moving or was not centered, in fact.

Hotel Hudson, NY – Fujifim X100

So I finally upgraded to the third generation of the model, the X100T (the X100S is the Second, the X100T the Third, the X100F the Fourth…it’s easy) and I finally have a optical viewfinder camera that gives me an good success rate (let’s say 90% of the pictures are correctly exposed and in focus, which is a huge improvement over the 30% success rate I get with the Leica CL).

Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Apart from the autofocus, the other big difference between the first and the third generation is the sensor – the X100 still has a conventional 12 Megapixel sensor (with the so-called Bayer matrix), while the X100T has a 16 Megapixel sensor with Phase Detection pixels (to accelerate the auto-focus process) and Fujifilm’s patented Trans-X matrix. The X100T is also the first the X100 series to offer the ability to connect over WiFi to transfer images to a smartphone, which is extremely convenient when you travel without a laptop. (*)

It may look like a small point and shoot from the early seventies – but it’s packed with modern technology. Here, the model T from 2014.

If you use the X100 with the EVF, a recent version (X100S and better) will be reactive enough and provide an experience very similar to what a very light and very compact mirrorless camera with a 35mm fixed focal lens (full frame equivalent) would bring. But the real fun is to use the optical viewfinder.

Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Like often with optical viewfinders,  the view of the lower right edge of the image is masked by the lens hood, and of course, you never visualize what part of the image will be in focus, and what part will not. But you get the benefit of a clear, un-intermediated view of your subject. Sure, you have to learn – from experience – when you can let the auto-focus and the auto-exposure modes play their magic, and when to take control back from them. There’s a learning curve, but at the end of the curve, lies the reward.

Where the magic happens – push the lever to switch from the optical viewfinder to the EVF – and back.

How much? 

Of course, the X100 can be bought new – the current model (the X100V) sells for approximately $1,400. Brand new copies of older models can be found for approx. $1,000 (X100 F).

Used models are a bit cheaper, in the $800s for the X100F.

The X100S and the X100T are technically very close, and sell for anything between $450 and $700, depending on condition, on the second hand market.

The first X100 is a sort of classic and sells for approximately $300.00. It’s slow, but it still makes great pictures – if your subject is not too mobile.

Fujifilm X100T – a “real” shutter speed knob and a “genuine” aperture ring – for when Programmed Auto Exposure is not good enough – Beware: the exposure compensation dial (bottom right) is very soft – it tends to move to + or – territory on its own…

(*) – there is another a difference between the X100S and the X100T – the so-called “electronic rangefinder” of the latter.
  • a clarification first – simple cameras (such as a Kodak Instamatic or the Rollei 35) have a direct optical viewfinder. Its most refined implementation, “the bright-line viewfinder, is essentially an inverted Galilean telescope system with an optically projected rectangle outlining the frame area”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica); they are NOT rangefinder cameras, because they’re missing … the rangefinder.
  • the Leica M is the perfect example of a rangefinder camera. Its direct optical viewfinder is supplemented by a coupled optical telemeter, the rangefinder, which assists with focusing.
  • technically, the X100 and the X100S are NOT rangefinder cameras: they’re cameras with a direct optical viewfinder, supplemented with an electronic auto-focus system (contrast detection for the X100, contrast and phase detection for the X100S).
  • With the X100T (and all following models), the photographer can enable an “electronic rangefinder” if working with the optical viewfinder in manual focus mode – it’s a very small EVF display projected in the bottom right corner of the optical image, that shows an enlarged view of the section of the image that the photographer will focus on. As per Fujifilm, “this makes manual focusing while using the optical viewfinder much easier, and more like a mechanical rangefinder”.

In my opinion, on a Fujifilm X100, it’s more a marketing gimmick than anything else; if you really want to focus manually, switch to the EVF. Interestingly, the “rangefinder emulation” is also available on other Fujifilm X cameras,  (the ones with interchangeable lenses), even those with an EVF and no optical viewfinder.

Fujifilm X100T – Optical Viewfinder – AF-S mode.

Fujifilm X100T – EVF (manual focus) with focusing aid set to “Focus Peak Highlight – Red”. There are other options (Standard and Split Image MF Assist modes are also available)

Fujifilm X100 in manual focus mode – Optical viewfinder with “electronic rangefinder insert”

In the series …. shooting pictures in Atlanta in times of social distancing…. All those places are generally magnets for residents and tourists alike, and would have been packed in normal circumstances.

Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Little Five Points – Fujifilm X100T

Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Inman Park – Fujifilm X100T

Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T

Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T


Another approach to the “learners camera” category: Pentax MZ-M / ZX-M

The Pentax ZX-M

Nikon and Canon had already tried the formula with the Nikon F-601/N6006 and the Canon EF-M: take an autofocus camera and derive a flash-less and autofocus-less version of it. The goal was at the same time to please conservative clients adverse to auto-focus and to offer a cheaper entry to their line of modern cameras by removing the hardware associated to the autofocus system and the built-in flash.

Pentax had different motives. Their two entry-level manual focus SLRs had been on the market for a very long time (20 years for the K1000 and 12 years for the P3/P30) and were badly in need of a replacement. Technically, they had nothing in common with the Pentax autofocus cameras of the time, and even though they were now made in China, those very conventional all-metal, all glass cameras were probably more expensive to manufacture than modern entry level auto-focus cameras made out of plastic and relying heavily on electronics.

The ZX-M was the response to Pentax’s problem. Derived from the middle of the range auto-focus ZX-5 (*), the camera was not a stripper – in fact, it supported the usual PASM exposure modes and it offered all the functions needed by a photographer (exposure compensation dial, depth of field preview and exposure lock). Of course, it was motorized, but it was still incredibly compact, and at 305g, it will be remembered as the lightest 35mm film SLR ever, autofocus or not.

Pentax ZX-M-6698
Pentax ZX-M – Aperture Ring on the “A” position, Shutter speed knob on 1/125 – logically the camera will operate in “Shutter Priority” mode (TV on LCD display).

Its low weight was the result of the extended use of plastics (only the shutter blades are in metal), and of the adoption of a penta-mirror instead of the more conventional (but heavier) all glass pentaprism. Penta-mirrors are shunned by enthusiasts, because they make for less luminous viewfinders. In the case of the Pentax, the viewfinder is not only darker, but also narrower than its predecessor in the P3 – but it’s still usable.

As a true manual focus camera, the ZX-M also benefited from a relatively coarse grain focusing screen, with a ring of micro-prisms around a small split screen telemeter – which is more than the K1000 ever offered. A small greenish LCD display at the top right of the viewfinder showed the exposure parameters chosen by the automatism, and a bar graph to help determine the right exposure in semi-auto mode.

Pentax ZX-M-6697
Pentax ZX-M – Shutter Speed knob on the “A” position. Aperture ring on F/11 – the camera will operate in Aperture Priority mode (Av on the LCD display).

Ideally, it should be paired with Pentax’s KA manual focus lenses (the first evolution of the K lens mount, with electrical contacts to control the aperture), but it nonetheless offered the Aperture preferred automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes with older K lenses. It also works with more recent Pentax F and FA lenses, as long as they’re designed to cover the “full-frame”, and not the cropped sensor of most dSLRs.

In the field…

Paired with a lens like the Pentax-A 50mm f/2 or the Pentax-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5, it forms an extremely light and compact combo, that the photographer can carry all day without any risk of back or neck pain.

The camera is small but all the commands are logically placed. The logic of the command is reminiscent of cameras of the early eighties – there is no PASM selector (for the auto-exposure mode) and the interface remains analog – the shutter speed knob and the  aperture ring are fully functional, each with a green “A” position to set the camera in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program or Semi-Auto modes.

Metering did not convince me: it’s an area where the ZX-M is not aligned with the ZX-5, and where in my opinion de-contenting went too far: with KA, F and FA lenses the ZX-M relies on a very simplified matrix system with 2 zones only (there are 6 on the ZX-5), and with the original K lenses, it reverts to central weighted average metering. There is no way for the photographer to select the average metering mode, other than using a lens with the Pentax K original mount.

The exposure is far from perfect – the picture was to a large extent saved by the exposure latitude of the film (and the sliders in Lightroom). Shot at the Lake Ste Claire sweat lodge – Atlanta.

In my experience with other cameras (Nikon and Minolta in particular), matrix metering is extremely reliable, in part because it’s based on at least five metering zones. In the case of the ZX-M, I’m not sure that 2 zones are enough, and will provide anything different from a more conventional average center metering (some of the pictures I took with it were saved in post-processing by the exposure latitude of the Fujifilm 400 stock I was using, and a Nikon or a Minolta SLR of the same vintage would probably have done much better).

Now let’s talk about what really hurts: the viewfinder. It’s narrow and not as luminous as the competition’s. If we compare it to the viewfinder of cameras of a similar size, like an Olympus OM-2, a Canon AT-1, or even its predecessor the Pentax P3/P30, it’s clearly not in the same category (**). At the top of that, if your eye is not positioned correctly, you will be distracted by unpleasant reflections or aberrations. Very disappointing.

Pentax ZX-M – any auto exposure mode

Pentax ZX-M – Semi-auto exposure mode

How much?

Plastic construction, lithium battery, so-so reputation – logic says it’s going to be cheap. And it is… It’s one of those cameras you can still get for less than $20.00.

Interestingly, the cameras for sale seem invariably to be in a very good condition – my bet is that having been bought at the very end of the film era, they were only used for a very short time before being replaced by digicams in the bags of photographers, and saw little use, or abuse.

Social distancing the Georgian way…(Really ?)  Bobby Jones Golf – Mid April 2020 – Pentax ZX-M – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 F/3.5-4.5 – Fujicolor 400

As a conclusion

Its two predecessors – the K1000 and the P3, had been sales successes, with more than 3 million copies sold for each, over up to two decades. I could not find any figure for the ZX-M, but my guess is that it was not that successful.

On paper, the ZX-M has most of what an aspiring photographer needs. And contrarily to the previous generation of “learners cameras” (like its predecessor the K1000), it will let  new photographers play with multiple auto-exposure modes and with a well implemented exposure lock. In the field, it’s not a bad camera – it’s super compact and super light, easy to use (because film loading and rewinding are taken care of by the camera’s motor), and will take good pictures with the right lens – provided you pay a little attention to the exposure.

The problem starts if you compare it with the P3n or the P3t, or in fact with any good “enthusiast oriented” SLR of the late seventies/early eighties. Those cameras are not motorized, they’re most probably missing the shutter preferred and the program auto exposure modes of the ZX-M, they’re slightly heavier, and they may be a few dollars more expensive on the second hand market. But they  have a real pentaprism viewfinder, they’re still built primarily out of metal, they use very easy to find batteries, and the pictures they take will be at least as good. All in all, they’re more pleasant to use.  In the Pentax family, the P30n or the Super-Program (Super-A) would be my choice. Sorry, ZX-M.

(*) in those days Pentax, like its three big competitors, was selling the same camera under different model names – depending on the geography. The ZX-M (US model) was known as the MZ-M in the rest of the world. Similarly, the P3 was the US name of the P30, ZX-5 the american name of the MZ-5. The cameras were otherwise identical.

One can assume it was being done to protect the local importers by making grey imports more visible.

(**) If I rank the viewfinders of manual SLRs from worst to best, the Fuji STX-2 ranks at the bottom, by far, followed by cameras of the sixties or early seventies. The ZX-M is much better than those ancient SLRs, but not as pleasant as the viewfinder of some cameras sold in the late seventies-mid eighties. If you exclude from the comparison the High Eyepoint viewfinder of the very large and very heavy “pro” cameras from Nikon, Canon or Contax ( F3, T90 and ST respectively), the Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 sit at the top of the list. The Canon A series (AT-1) and the Pentax P3 fare particularly well considering their size and their price when new. The focusing screen of the Nikon FE2 (and similarly spec’d Nikon cameras like the FA or the FM2) is finer and more luminous than what Canon and Pentax were proposing, but it’s narrower and more difficult to use for bespectacled photographers.

More about the Pentax MZ-M/ZX-M

More about Pentax cameras (including current digital SLRs):

Shooting under lock-down….

The stay at home and lock down orders in Georgia have not been very stringent. Public parks were closed, but people could still walk freely on the streets, or play golf on greens like Bobby Jones’, which is located right in the middle of mid-town.

Having film processed took longer than usual (3 weeks), primarily because the US Postal service is slower than normal. But the film rolls did not get lost and were processed with the usual care by my go-to lab,  the Old School Photo Lab.

Social distancing (?) Bobby Jones Golf – April 2020 – Pentax ZX-M – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 F/3.5-4.5 – Fujicolor 400

Atlanta, Colonial Homes – April 2020 – Pentax ZX-M – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 F/3.5-4.5 – Fujicolor 400

Lake Claire Community Land Trust – The sweat lodge – I’ll have to give a good cleaning to this lens – it looks as if it was covered with a thin layer of vaseline. I’ll also have to put a lens hood on the 35-70 zoom.

I’m not a big fan of the color rendering of the Fujicolor 400. Nothing to do with the camera or the lens,  in this case. Lake Claire Community Land Trust – April 2020 – Pentax ZX-M – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 F/3.5-4.5

Pentax’s last manual focus SLRs

I’ve a sort of on and off relationship with Pentax – a MX was my first serious camera a long time ago, and a *ist DS was my first dSLR in 2005, but they were replaced by non-Pentax cameras after a few years of service. I’ve bought a few Spotmatic cameras  during the last decade,  and I’ve not had much luck with them except for a late Spotmatic F. Recently, I gave it a go again, and I’ve just added no less than four Pentax manual focus SLRs to my collection: a P3, two ZX-Ms (an accident – two very low bids on eBay and both went through), and a Super-Program. So far, so good. They work and they’re pleasant to use. An opportunity to  look at the last of the manual focus Pentax SLRs.

The K, the M and the A – a new line of lenses for each generation of camera

The 1975-1977 years were pivotal for Pentax. In 1975, they finally removed the m42 screw mount from life support, retired the 12 year old Spotmatic product line,  and started fighting back.

Their first generation of bayonet mount cameras (the KM, KX and K2) was simply a refresh of  their screw mount predecessors. The KM was a very close derivative of the Spotmatic F, and the K2 a limited upgrade of the ES2.  Only the KX (an enthusiast oriented semi-auto camera) had no direct screw mount predecessor. The three models only stayed under the spotlights for one year, and as a consequence, did not reach large production numbers (approximately 750,000 cameras for the KM-KX-K2 trilogy – the only really successful model of this generation is the K1000, but it came to the market a bit later).

The original K bodies (KM, KX, K2) – courtesy of Pacific Rim Cameras

The K lenses were for the most part bayonet mount adaptations of the most recent SMC Takumars. They were simply known as Pentax SMC lenses: the “Takumar” name had been dropped (*)

The real innovation came one year  later, with two genuinely new models, the MX and the ME,  launched with a new generation of downsized M lenses known as the Pentax SMC M lenses. Very light and compact, with an up to date metering system and LED indicators in the viewfinder, they could  both be fitted with a winder.

  • the semi-auto camera with a mechanical shutter, the MX, came when this type of camera was beginning to be a thing of the past for the amateur photographers, and it had to face the competition of the brand new Nikon FM (whose specs sheet looked pretty similar, and benefited from Nikon’s professional aura and build quality). Impressively Pentax still managed to sell more than one million of them.
  • the auto-exposure camera, the ME, was attacking the heart of the amateur market. Deprived of  a conventional shutter speed knob and of a depth of field visualization lever, it was not an enthusiast oriented camera. Pentax rapidly started deriving even simpler models (the MV and MG)  as well as a more elaborate variant (the ME-Super) to broaden its appeal on the market. It also provided the base over which the Super-Program and Program-Plus of 1983 were developed.

Pentax MX and ME – from the sales brochure (1976) – Courtesy of Pacific Rim Cameras

The ME and its derivatives were a sales success (approximately 6 million sold – to be compared with 10 millions of Canon AE-1 and AE-1 Program) between 1976 and 1987, but they were Pentax’s swan song.

The Super Program and Program Plus cameras that replaced them were technically competitive, but they were launched in a period when SLR sales were at their lowest, and they sold in much smaller numbers (approximately 1 million units total).

The Super Program and Program Plus (known in the rest of the world as the Super-A and the Program-A) offered programmed auto exposure with a new line of Pentax SMC A lenses, equipped with a new KA variant of the K  mount with electrical contacts.

Pentax Super-Program (here with a Sears 70-210 F/4 lens. The lens is made in Korea and was sold with the Ricoh SLRs that Sears was reselling. Ricoh was using Pentax’s KA mount.

They were the last technically advanced manual focus SLRs from Pentax. Following Minolta’ successful introduction of the Maxxum series, Pentax made the transition to auto-focus cameras, and only kept on selling two manual focus cameras for learners and cost conscious amateurs, the K1000 (a stripped down version of the KM of 1975, with its roots in the Spotmatic of 1964), and the P30 (known as the P3 on the US market) a simple program-mode-only entry level SLR.

Pentax P3 – a simple camera with long sales career (1985-1997)

Both cameras were successful (more than 3 million copies sold for each of the two models), and had a long commercial life: the K1000 and the P30 were both retired from the market in 1997, to make room for the ZX-M.

The last one…sold until the very end of film camera manufacturing, around 2004

Pentax’s last manual focus SLR, the ZX-M (on the US market, MZ-X in the rest of the world) was a manual focus version of the middle of the range ZX-50 autofocus camera of the time, with a so-so pentamirror viewfinder, and without a built-in flash. It was sold until 2004 and is one of the very last manual focus SLRs ever manufactured (**)

(*) The Takumar name did not stay unused for long – at least on the US market – it was given to a line of entry level non-SMC lenses – generally kit lenses, sold as Takumar-A lenses. Obviously they don’t benefit from the multi-layer lens coating of their SMC siblings.

(**) The Nikon FM3A was manufactured until 2006, and is definitely the last manual focus SLR from a major vendor. The Nikon F6, the Leica M-P and a few Lomo models are still in production, but the F6 is an autofocus SLR, the Leica M is a rangefinder camera, and Lomo camera are…Lomo cameras.

All sales statistics from:

Old Pentax catalogs: Pacific Rim Camera – the flyer from the importer presenting the new Pentax K bodies

Pacific Rim Cameras – the MX and ME catalog (1976):

More about the Pentax K series:

Walking through the Hoggar Mountains (Algeria) – Fall 1991 – Pentax MX – it was my last trip with the Pentax – the light meter did not work anymore (not a real problem in the desert where sunny 16 rules, but anywhere else)

Walking through the Hoggar Mountains- Fall 1991 – After a few days in the desert, you become much more comfortable with being at a distance from your fellow walkers

Hoggar Mountains – 1991 – Pentax MX

the hoggar 1991
Hoggar Mountains (Algeria) – 1991 – Pentax MX

Walking through the Hoggar – Fall 1991 – Pentax MX – Pentax SMC 35-70 lens (all pictures in this series scanned from prints – no idea where the negatives can be)



Pentax – the road to insignificance

It’s a bit early to write Pentax’s obituary. But there’s no denying that the company (now a subsidiary of Ricoh) is  a mere shadow of its former self.

The Spotmatic – a great camera in the sixties – but Pentax should have replaced it earlier than 1975

From the mid fifties to the early seventies, the Asahi Optical Corporation  was an innovator. They scored an impressive number of “first” :

  • First Japanese single lens reflex camera to enter production (Asahiflex – 1952)
  • First reflex camera with instant return mirror (Asahiflex II b – 1954)
  • First modern single lens reflex (SLR) camera,  with a pentaprism at the center of the top plate, a winder arm and shutter speed knob on the right side, and a folding rewind crank to the left (the “original” Pentax of 1957). This was to be the model for all other reflex cameras for the next 20 years. The camera was so important for Asahi that the whole corporation became later known as “Pentax Corp”.
  • First SLR with Through the Lens (TTL) metering on the market  (Pentax Spotmatic – 1964)
  • First automatic exposure SLR with an electronic shutter (Pentax Electro Spotmatic – 1971)
  • First multi layer coated lens  (or at least the first manufacturer to communicate about multi-layer coated lenses to the public at large – 1971)

As a result, Asahi Pentax was a sales leader in the sixties and early seventies: for example, it was the first Japanese camera company to sell over one million SLRs.

Pentax lost its supremacy during the first half of the seventies

  • they stuck to the Spotmatic form factor until 1975
  • they stuck with stopped down metering on their line of bread and butter Spotmatic cameras until the launch of the Spotmatic F in 1973, and to the m42 screw mount until far too late. Because they had adopted a proprietary bayonet early on, Minolta and Nikon had been able to offer full aperture metering (a major comfort improvement for the photographer) since 1966, with Canon and Olympus following in 1971.
  • As a result, Pentax was out-innovated by new entrants:  Olympus OM-1 (the first ultra-compact SLR and camera system); Fujica ST-801 and ST-901 (first use of Silicon metering cells and of LED displays in the viewfinder); Olympus OM-2 (first implementation of On The Film (OTF) real time flash metering).

The Pentax Spotmatic F (1973) with a Pentax specific version of the universal 42mm screw mount – designed  for full aperture metering.

The second half of the seventies was not better:  Pentax was in reactive mode and started progressively being pushed to the bottom of the market :

  • Changes to their lens mount are always very risky for camera manufacturers. It may not bother the beginner or the amateur who are only going to shoot with the kit lens they bought with the camera, but it’s an invitation for enthusiasts and pros to reconsider their aleigence to the brand.  Between 1971 and 1976, Pentax changed the lens mount of its cameras twice.
  • Pentax could not compete with Canon and Nikon in the “pro” market because they did not have a modular camera to offer until they launched the LX in 1980, and after they did, they lacked some of the specialized lenses and the support network that the pros required,
  • they were out-innovated in the heart of the enthusiast market: Canon with cheaper to manufacture and feature rich micro-processor driven cameras such as the AE-1 and the A-1, Minolta with multi-mode SLRs.
  • they had to face new competitors in the “amateur” segment of the market with  Nikon and Olympus successfully entering the broader consumer market with cameras such as the EM and the OM-10 in 1979.

By the end of the eighties, Pentax had been relegated to the 4th position on the photo-equipment market, behind Canon, Minolta and Nikon. They had completed the transition to auto-focus SLRs, but were primarily known for their two remaining manual focus SLRs (the K1000 and the P3) and their water-resistant point and shoot cameras.

Pentax P3 – a camera for beginners – very successful on the market (3 million sold between 1985 and 1997)

They survived until the advent of digital photography. Konica-Minolta’s deep troubles gave them one last chance of resurgence in 2003-2004. They recovered the #3 position on the market for a while. But after early successes – their first dSLRs, the *ist D and *ist DS were good cameras, technically on par with contemporary Canon and Nikon offerings –  they did not (or could not) keep up with the pace of their competitors, and let their market share decline to the point where their presence is hardly noticeable today.

More about Pentax’s last manual focus cameras in a few weeks with reviews of the Super-Program (Super-A),  P3 (P30) and ZX-M.

Pentax’s last manual focus SLR – 1997

Haleakalā volcano, Maui, Hawaii – Pentax *ist DS – Pentax 18-55mm lens.

Hawaii – Big Island – Pentax *ist DS

Hawaii – Big Island – Pentax *ist DS

Are film cameras grossly over valued today?

I don’t know what percentage of film cameras collectors actually use them.  But the value of a camera is at least in part related to its capacity to be used … as a camera, and help the photographer shoot good, beautiful, interesting pictures.  Without film, film cameras are little more than paper weights.

Contax T3 – cameras proposed for sale on eBay 0n 4/24/2020

So if film was to become unavailable, the value of film cameras would change. I don’t believe it’s going to happen anytime soon – Kodak  (Altaris) and Ilford (Harman) are still committed to film because it’s their core business, and Fujifilm will keep one or two film plants running, if only for sentimental reasons. The rebirth of the Polaroid instant film packs (the Impossible Project) and the success of Lomography are also showing that when the big players disengage, boutique producers step in and fill in the void.

Contax T2 - completed listings
Contax T2 – a bit cheaper than the T3. The “completed” listings on eBay show that even if sellers ask for prices in excess of $2,000, the cameras that actually sell are priced a bit more reasonably.

So, let’s assume that film remains available and affordable, and that 35mm film cameras keep a certain usage value. And let’s forget about those commemorative editions, cameras with remarkable serial numbers or other gold plated models, that Leica (and to a lesser extent Nikon), release from time to time for avid collectors. They are destined to be kept forever in their original packaging and in a safe, with no concern for their potential usage value.

In the realm of cameras that actual photographers use to take pictures, Leica cameras hold a special place. They’re “classics“.

On eBay, the price of Leica’s rangefinders has been remarkably stable over the years, with the M5 and the M4 at the bottom of the ladder (around $800), followed by the M2 and M3 a bit above $1,000 (depending on condition, of course). The more modern Leica M (M6, M6 TTL, M7) are selling for two or three times more, reflecting their comparatively higher usage value.

KEH app – the price asked for the T2 is a bit more reasonable – but still in Leica M territory

Manual focus SLRs designed for enthusiasts or pros, and known to be at the same time simple to use and reliable have seen their value rise spectacularly (Nikon FM2, FE2, FM3a or F3, Canon AE-1, Pentax Super Program or LX), while more complex or less reliable models don’t attract the same high prices (Nikon FA, Canon T90). Those new classics were launched between 1975 and 1985, a decade which is increasingly being seen as the golden age of film SLRs.

dirt cheap
Entry level manual focus SLRs with lots of polycarbonate (Canon T50), or amateur-grade autofocus cameras – nobody wants them and the prices reflect that.

At the other end of the price scale, cameras that did not do very well on the second hand market a few years ago are doing even worse now. The list includes any entry level model from any manufacturer if it was launched after 1980, and almost any autofocus SLR except for the very last enthusiast and pro models, probably because of their good compatibility with the current digital offerings of their respective manufacturer (Nikon F100 and F6, Minolta Maxxum 9 and 7, Canon EOS-3).

Photographs don’t like that those cameras were built out of plastics, with a bizarre feature set (often deprived of useful functions – reserved for the “pro” models – and at the same time loaded with useless gimmicks and encumbered by unconventional controls). And many of them require expensive and hard to find single use Lithium batteries. They have little appeal for today’s would-be film shooters,  and can be had for a few dollars, even from specialized stores.

“La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode”*

What’s hot? Any luxury compact (point and shoot) camera, with a titanium body and a lens with a famous name: the top of the top is occupied by Contax with the T2 and T3: the craze started with a few actors and celebrities in Hollywood posting pictures of themselves shooting with their T2 on Instagram), but similarly positioned models such as the  Leica CM and Minilux or the Nikon 35ti also command big bucks (they’re all in Leica M territory).

Kendall Jenner and a Contax T2. Image Source: Getty / Kevin Mazur/MG18

Cameras like the Olympus XA, and even the Cosina CX-2**, which were far cheaper than the luxury cameras from Contax or Leica in the eighties, have also been contaminated – with sellers asking for hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a somehow basic camera.

cosina CX-2
The Cosina CX-2 – the ancestor of the Lomo LC-A – a cheap camera in its heyday. Prices are all over the map now ($240 to $1,250 for what looks like two cameras in the same condition)

As a conclusion:

Old classics hold their value, new classics are on the rise: if you buy one of those, you may not win big, but you won’t lose money if you decide to resell  it after a few years.

Contax luxury compacts are reaching insane values. They’re nice cameras, with a great little Zeiss lens, and demand currently outstrips supply. But those luxury compact cameras (Contax’s and the others) rely heavily on electronics and generally can’t be repaired if a component goes bad. If you don’t have one already, you missed the boat, and I would not spend thousands of dollars trying to get one. You can also wonder how long will celebrities be seen playing with their T2, pushing demand and prices to the sky? Prices could very well go back to more normal levels in a few years.

Two other Titanium-clad point and shoot cameras (Leica CM and Leica Minilux) selling for more than old Leica M3s

There are still bargains to be found if you’re not obsessed with shooting with a “classic” : the Canon AT-1 has not reached the “new classic” level of the AE-1 and AE-1 Program, and sells for half the price. But in my view, it’s a better camera for an enthusiast photographer. Early Canon EOS cameras  (650, 620) are solid, very pleasant to use (a T90 with matrix metering and without the bugs), and dirt cheap. An entry level camera from the mid eighties, the Pentax P3n, is at least as competent as its more expensive Super Program predecessor, but can still be had for next to nothing. Nikon’s partially motorized N2000/F301 (the manual focus version of the N2020/F501) is also a great buy. So is the Olympus OM-2. Future classics? I don’t think so. But great everyday cameras at a great price, for sure.

(*) “La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode”  (Literally, “Fashion, that’s what going out of fashion” or “Fashion is made to become unfashionable”) – the aphorism is generally attributed to Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel famously added that “Fashion fades, only style remains the same”.

(**) Cosina CX-1 and CX-2  – those cute and very small point and shoot cameras sold reasonably well in the early eighties. With their tiny wide-angle lens they were subject to severe vignetting but they offered more controls to the photographers than the other ultra-compact P&S cameras. A few years later, an almost identical camera was launched as the Lomo LC-A by the LOMO PLC in Saint Petersburg (Russia). The little Lomos were adopted enthusiastically by a group of photographers in Austria, and it started the Lomography movement. But that’s a whole other story.

The Olympus OM-2n – a “new classic” – in my opinion the best camera of the Olympus OM single digit series (OM-1,OM-2, OM-3, OM-4, OM-4ti) for everyday use. Photos shot a few years ago at the Universal Studios in Burbank, CA.

Universal studios – Burbank CA – the Studio tour – here the house from Psycho. Olympus OM-2n.

Universal Studio (Burbank, CA) – the set of the movie “Waterworld”. Olympus OM-2n

Venice Beach (CA). Olympus OM-2n


Manual and Semi-Auto – what does it really mean?

Exposure control basics

With film (digital is different in that regard) the photographer is working with a medium of fixed sensitivity (a 100 ISO film roll will have the same sensitivity from the first frame to the last one). Therefore, there are only two parameters that can be adjusted when trying to bring the right amount of light to the film: the shutter speed (how long will the film be exposed), and the aperture (how large of a hole is the iris forming to let the light go through the lens).

For a given scene, there will be more than one combination of shutter speed and aperture that will bring the same light energy to the film: for instance, a very short shutter speed and a very wide aperture (1/1000 sec and f/4.0) will be equivalent to a slow speed and a narrow aperture (1/60 and f/16). The photographer will have to pick the combination that suits the scene (short shutter speed/wide aperture for action scenes, longer shutter speed/narrower aperture for landscapes, for instance).

Most modern cameras pick the right shutter speed/aperture combination automatically in Program Mode.

In Shutter Preferred mode, the photographer has to pick the shutter speed, and the camera will set the aperture to a value that brings the right light energy to the film; in Aperture Preferred mode, the photographer picks the aperture, and the camera will select the shutter speed bringing the right amount of light to the film.

Nikon FE-2 in Automatic exposure mode (Aperture preferred). The photographer selects the aperture (here f/8). The camera is set to Auto (green needle) and the camera informs the photographer that the shutter will be set (automatically) at 1/60 sec. (thin black needle)

In semi-automatic exposure control mode, the photographer will pick the shutter speed and the aperture, and the camera will only indicate whether the camera is receiving the right amount of light, or not. Up to the photographer to adjust the aperture or the shutter speed until the camera is happy.

In older cameras, the camera communicates its recommendations with the needle of a galvanometer. When the needle is aligned with a target in the viewfinder, exposure is correct. It’s the match needle system.

Canon AT-1 – a typical implementation of the old “match needle” semi-auto metering. Here the two needles on the right of the viewfinder are aligned. For the metering system, the exposure is “perfect”.

In the mid seventies, manufacturers started replacing the relatively fragile needle mechanism with a bank of LEDs (sometimes color coded) or bar graphs. But the idea is the same. The camera simply indicates whether the image will be over, under or correctly exposed.

Fujica ST801 – a semi-auto camera wit a bank of red LEDs: a very easy to understand layout – here, the red LED indicates that with the aperture and the shutter speed selected the film will be exposed correctly.

The beauty of this system is that it gives the photographer a lot of freedom – he/she can easily change the shutter speed/aperture combination, or set the exposure for a specific area of the scene and reframe the picture, or decide to override the exposure system of the camera and deliberately over or under expose. That’s why semi-auto cameras are great as learner cameras.

Fujica ST-801 – here the film will be receiving too much light. The photographer has to select a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture.

Fujica ST-801 – with the current settings the image will be under-exposed. The photographer has to select a slower shutter speed or a larger aperture

Automatic cameras can often operate in semi-auto mode, and some of them are better at that than genuine semi-auto cameras.

Nikon FE2 used in Semi-Auto mode – the fat green arrow shows the shutter speed currently selected on the shutter speed knob, the thin black needle shows the shutter speed recommended by the camera. Up to photographer to adjust the shutter speed or the aperture until the two needles align, if he/she so wishes. This setup is informative and works very well. Nikon retained it on the FM3A.

Lastly, the Manual mode. The word is often used as a substitute to “semi-auto”. But those are different things. In a semi-auto camera, the exposure meter (the CdS or Silicon cell) is connected to sensors on the aperture ring and on shutter speed knob. Therefore the camera can predict whether the film is going to receive enough light, and signal to the photographer (with the match needle or the LED) that the image will be over, under or correctly exposed.

On a fully manual camera, there is either no exposure meter at all (cameras of the fifties  and earlier), or if it exists, it is not linked with the aperture ring and the shutter speed knob.

Modern cameras often have a PASM selector for the exposure mode (PASM stands for Program, Aperture Preferred, Shutter Preferred, Manual). In most of the cases, “M” really means semi-auto (think: meter assisted operation). But in a few cases, M really means manual – you’re on you own.

untitled shoot-0525
Canon T90 – Probably due to limitations of the FD lens mount design, the manual mode of the Canon T90 is really a manual mode.

American White Shepherd – Nikon FM – typically a situation where you can’t trust the exposure system of the camera to pick automatically the right shutter speed/aperture combination.

Multi exposure mode cameras don’t always have the PASM mode selector. On this Pentax ZX-M, if the aperture ring and the shutter speed knob are not set on A, then the camera is in Manual (in fact Semi-Automatic – mode)

Learners cameras

Not totally happy with the pictures you get from a smartphone? Do you want more reach, do you want to capture fast moving action, or on the other hand, are you looking for more control over the depth of field, over the exposure? Do you want the images to be really yours, instead of leaving software developers in Cupertino or Mountain View decide for you how the pictures you’re taking should look like?  You need a “real camera” and you have to learn how to use it.

A manual focus lens  mounted with an adapter on a mirrorless camera (Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter). A way to learn more about the technique of photography without making the jump to film cameras.

Obviously, nowadays, your first “learner” camera will be digital – digital accelerates the learning process – you can see immediately the result of changes in the settings, you can re-take the shot until the results corresponds to the scene you’ve seen with the eyes in your mind: remember, your eyes capture the information, but the processing is done in your brain.

But at some point, you may get tired of modern digital cameras as well. While not as automated as a smartphone, they still decide a lot of things behind the scenes (they set the focus, the exposure, they enhance the dynamic of the image, they sharpen) and it’s not always easy (or even possible) to take control back from them. Maybe you’re ready for something more demanding, but also more gratifying: film photography.

There are so many ways to shoot with film. If you don’t have the time (or the space) to deal with film processing, you can buy color film and have it processed and scanned by a lab – not exactly cheap (at least $0.50 per picture) but not too difficult.

Don’t start with a camera like this one – too complex, too heavy (Nikon F4)

If you want the ultimate silver halide experience, you can set you own dark room, and process film yourself (Black and White, let’s keep it simple). The difficulty will be to scan it – unless you go completely analog, buy an enlarger and make your own prints like they used to do in the old days.

But in any case, you’ll need one (or a few) cameras.

Almost nobody makes new film cameras anymore. So your camera will be an “old” one, bought on eBay, at Shopgoodwill, or from the stores specializing in analog cameras.

If you ask Google about learners film cameras, most of the articles they reference will suggest a manual focus camera from the mid seventies to early eighties – like the Canon AE-1, the Minolta X-700, the Nikon FM, or the Pentax K1000.

This Pentax Spotmatic SP can’t be recommended either – too old (1964), too primitive technically. Pick a camera from the mid-seventies or later.

For a reason. Older cameras (let’s say pre-1975) are generally bulkier, have a more primitive exposure metering system (when they do have one at all) and require batteries which are impossible to find today. They often use textile (silk) in their shutter mechanisms, and tend to be fragile. On the other hand, most of the cameras sold after 1990 are not that different from the autofocus, motorized monsters we use today in the digital world.

  • why manual focus? The assumption is that if you shoot film, it’s because you’re not in a hurry and therefore can take the time to set the focus on your own. Personally I like to focus manually, it leaves me more time and opportunities to look at the image and consider the composition, the depth of field and the exposure.
  • Focusing manually lets you determine what part of the picture will be 100% in focus, and with the help of the aperture ring and of a depth of field lever, determine what will be out of focus and pleasantly blurred.

For learners, Pentax launched in 1997 a manual focus version of the ZX-5. Canon and Nikon also had previously created “autofocus-less” versions of their autofocus cameras. The focusing screen of the ZX-M is designed for manual focusing (split image telemeter and ring of microprisms) but the viewfinder is on the narrow side.

  • Using a camera with an easy to use semi-automatic exposure system (matching needle or LEDs), you can take all the time you need to determine the perfect settings, or in doubt, take multiple shots at different settings. You can also more easily compensate for the limitations of the metering system (average weighted metering can be easily fooled by a bright sky – but it’s also easy to understand how it’s being fooled and take countermeasures).
    Interestingly, you don’t necessarily need a semi-auto camera – some automatic cameras like the Nikon FE are absolutely great when used in semi-auto mode (better than most native semi-auto SLRs).
  • one camera or more? considering you can get film cameras for a few dollars, why buy only one? Just remember that experience and muscle memory play a role – the more you shoot with a particular camera (or with cameras of the same generation and from the same manufacturer), the higher your chances of catching the “decisive moment” and get the picture of your life.
  • Lenses – not as cheap as cameras (at least, the good ones). You can buy prime lenses, you can buy zoom lenses (if they were released in the late eighties or later and come from one of the great camera manufacturers, they’re generally good enough). Canon, Minolta, Olympus have all abandoned their old FD, MD or OM mounts when they introduced their autofocus cameras, but Nikon and Pentax have been using the same family of bayonet mounts since 1959 (Nikon) and 1976 (Pentax). You have more options with those two brands even if the compatibility between different generations of camera bodies and lenses is somehow limited.
  • Film – I know it’s fashionable to use bad film (expired stock, film engineered to look like stock from the 60s, not to mention monstrosities like pre-scatched film …). I believe my images deserve better than that and I buy the best film I can find. The choice is up to you.

So, what camera?

This list is about cameras I know – for having burned at least a few rolls of film with them, and which meet my definition of a learners camera. There are other good manual focus cameras that make great learning tools (the Minolta X series for instance) but I never tested them, and interesting cameras (Nikon F3, Canon A-1 or T90, the rangefinder Leicas, the Contax ST) that are a bit too complex and expensive to make it to this list.

I did not include any Fujica, Contax or Mamiya SLR in this list, a learner will need a set of lenses (a couple of wide angle lenses, a short tele, maybe a zoom) and they tend to be difficult to find (and expensive) if you leave the usual gang (Canon-Minolta-Nikon-Olympus-Pentax).

The list….

  • if you love Canon, you can go with the AT-1 (instead of the AE-1 or the AE-1 Program): it’s half the price, and easier to use in manual (semi-auto) mode. All right, it needs an easy to find battery to operate. But it has a good viewfinder and you can’t beat its simplicity.


  • if you love Nikon (and in particular if you’re using a full frame Nikon dSLR), go with the FM or the FE, or for a little more money, for the FM2 or the FE2. Avoid the EM, FG or FA – they’re too automatic, and don’t leave you enough control on your images. You can also pick an early autofocus camera like the N2020 (F501) and use it with manual focus lenses. It works very well.

Nikon FE2

  • If you love Pentax, don’t follow the crowd and don’t buy a K1000. Far too primitive (it’s a derivative of the Spotmatic F of 1973, itself derived from the original Pentax camera of 1957). Similarly, be prudent with Pentax cameras of the late seventies/early eighties: in my experience, they tend to be a bit fragile.
    The P3 from 1985 was not really designed as a learners camera (more as an affordable and easy to use manual focus camera) but it’s not artificially spec’d down and that would be my choice in the Pentax family. When the K1000 and the P3 needed a replacement, Pentax created a camera designed specifically for learners, the XZ-M and sold it until 2004. It’s a modern autofocus motorized camera with 4 exposure modes (PASM) – but without the autofocus system and the built-in flash. It’s built out of plastic therefore feather light, but Pentax also saved weight and money on the viewfinder which is narrower than the norm.
    The ZX-M is an interesting camera, but the P3 (P30 in the rest of the world) is probably a better choice. By default it operates in program mode, but the semi-auto mode works very well, the viewfinder is large, and the build quality is good (the camera were still made of metal at that time).

The Pentax P3 – a long production run – and one of the last mass market non motorized SLRs. It’s designed to work in Programmed Auto exposure mode, but if the aperture ring of the lens is not set in the A position, it becomes a semi-auto camera. It is the same camera as the P30 (Pentax used different model names for the US market).

  • Olympus – don’t go for the OM-1 – it needs 1.35v batteries which are a pain to find and use. Go for the OM-2 – it’s automatic, but you can use it as a semi-auto camera. Smooth as a peach, great viewfinder, ideal if you shoot in places where you can’t use a tripod or a flash. The best of both words. Later models are either plagued by battery management problems (OM-2sp, OM-4), or extremely expensive (OM-4ti).

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n
Olympus OM-2n and Olympus OM-2S program – the OM2n (left) is the one to pick

  • The Canon T60, Nikon FM10, Olympus OM-2000, Yashica FX-3 2000 and a few other Vivitar cameras were designed and manufactured by Cosina in the nineties to be sold as gateway and learners cameras under the label of the big brands – they’re not identical – but they’re built on the same technical platform. They all work OK as learner cameras, but the genuine Canon, Nikon or Olympus cameras are much nicer objects, much better built, and will provide more satisfaction (even if the results should be more or less equivalent).

Same lens mount – totally different cameras – Olympus OM-1 and OM-2000

  • Autofocus SLRs are cheap, and the early ones are dirt cheap. But if you use an autofocus SLR in full auto mode to shoot color print film and download the scans after the Noritsu and Fujifilm processing machines have played their magic on your negatives, how different is the experience going to be from shooting with a digital SLR? Admittedly, some early autofocus SLRs are still relatively simple and easy to use and will increase your success rate, but you won’t learn as much as with an older manual focus camera.

Come on. Shoot with film. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s a lot of fun.

Venice - gondoliers
Venice – Gondoliers in the sun set. Nikon FE2. Fujicolor 400 film




Pentaprism, Contax, Pentax and Pentacon

Who created the first 35mm camera, or the first 35mm single lens reflex camera?

Difficult questions. First, you would have to agree on what constitutes exactly a “real” 35mm camera, or a “real” 35mm SLR, and then, you would have to determine what really counts: is it presenting a prototype at a trade show, applying for a patent, launching a limited series production, or inundating the world with tens of thousands copies of a “game changing” camera?

It is generally recognized that with the Leica, Leitz created the first commercially successful 35mm camera in the early twenties, and but it was not until 1932 when they launched the Leica II that the rangefinder camera with interchangeable lens had found its “real” final form.

Foca *** / Olympus OM-1n
Foca *** with a Foca turret viewfinder (left) / Olympus OM-1n (right) The Foca, a French derivative of the pre-war Leica, is a good example of what a rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses looks like. With its pointy prism housing, the Olympus illustrates the typical SLR shape.

The Contax S

1932 is also the year when Zeiss launched Leica’s most serious pre-war competitor, the Contax.

Zeiss was at that time the largest manufacturer of cameras in the world. They had a long tradition of innovation and a great team of engineers; conscious of the limitations of the rangefinder formula, they kept on working on a better solution until, after the war, they finally presented the Contax S, one of (if not the first) modern 35mm single reflex lens camera.

With its pentaprism, its horizontal curtain shutter and its 42mm screw lens mount, the Contax S was very close to the typical 35mm SLR design, and should have been commercially successful.

Contax S – (second series from 1950). Courtesy of – the best source of information about early SLRs (not only Pentax)

But at that time, the Zeiss factories were in the Russian occupation zone (soon to become the German Democratic Republic) and all sorts of issues slowed down the roll-out to production: the Contax S only started to be mass produced at the very end of 1949. The launch of the Contax S also coincided with the start the Cold War – products from communist countries were not always welcome on the more affluent markets of the West – and to make the matters worse, the East German entity of Zeiss lost the rights to the Contax name in 1956. After considering multiple options (including apparently the “Pentax” name), the East Germans rebranded their cameras “Pentacon” (a portmanteau for Pentaprism and Contax) and the Contax S line of SLRs was abandonned.

Why is a pentaprism so important, that Zeiss and (later) Asahi changed the name of their cameras to include “Penta”? 

On the ground glass of a plate camera, the image is reverse (top/down, left right) – image courtesy of

Composing a picture on a piece of ground glass located behind the lens is nothing new (plate cameras have been following that model forever), but the image is reversed top-bottom and left-right, which makes the composing process very slow and totally unsuitable to candid photography.

If a mirror inclined at 45 degrees is placed behind the lens, and the image projected on a piece of ground glass, it is not reversed top/bottom anymore, but is still reversed left/right. The photographers has to shoot from waist level, after having used a magnifying glass for focusing. It’s workable, but not the best formula for action shots,  journalism or simply spontaneous family photographs.

Nikon F3 with the pentaprism viewfinder removed: the image formed on the focusing screen is reversed laterally.


Left is right, right is left and of course the Coke and Powerade labels are also reversed

The pentaprism addresses all those issues – and as we all know from experience  with SLRs, the image is fully redressed, focusing is easy, and eye-level composition makes action photography intuitive even for beginners.

Nikon F3 – The view of the same scene from the eye-level pentaprism viewfinder

Asahi Optical Co

Asahi started manufacturing lenses in Japan in 1919, and launched the first Japanese 35mm single lens reflex camera – the Asahiflex – in 1952. It was inspired by the pre-war German Praktiflex, but brought some improvements:  it had two finders: a waist level through the lens viewfinder (for focusing)  and a smaller eye level optical viewfinder to be used when taking candid snapshots.

In two critical areas, the Asahiflex was not as advanced as the Contax S:  it did not have a pentaprism viewfinder, and it used a narrower 37mm screw mount.

Asahi’s first major innovation came two years later with the introduction of the instant return mirror on the Asahiflex IIb (1954). The IIb was without equivalent for a while, but the step forward it represented was nothing compared to Asahi’s next giant leap, with the “Pentax” of 1957. The first (mass produced) Japanese camera with a pentaprism, it combined for the first time in a compact, elegant and well made camera the instant return mirror, the film advance lever, easy film loading with a hinged back, and the 42mm screw mount.

The original Asahi Pentax camera from 1957 (source: official Pentax Web site).

The Pentax line of cameras sold by the millions and became the model that all other manufacturers would copy in the subsequent years. The Pentax name became so well known that the Asahi Optical Co. decided to sell all its products (including its line of medical equipment) under the name Pentax, before it finally changed its own name to Pentax Corporation in 2002.

Pentax Spotmatic F from 1973 (left) and Nikon FM from 1977 (right). More than 15 years after its launch, the design of the “original” Pentax was still the model that all camera manufacturers were following

It is widely assumed that  “Pentax” is also a portmanteau for Pentaprism and Contax. According to Wikipedia, the name was purchased  by Asahi from the East German Zeiss  company just before the launch of the original Pentax SLR in 1957.

pentax ap_top_plate
Asahi Pentax – the top plate of the original model (1957) – source: eBay

The Pentax Spotmatic F on 1973 – still true to the model defined by the “original” Pentax of 1957

Today, the single lens reflex formula is on its last breath – superseded by mirrorless cameras where the pentaprism has been replaced with a high resolution LCD – the Contax brand is dormant, and Pentax, as a subsidiary of Ricoh, is in life support with a line of three rather old dSLRs and no plan to launch a mirrorless system.

Sic transit…

More about

By far the most comprehensive source about Pentax cameras, as well as early SLRs of all makes:

Asahi Optical Historical Club 

The official corporate history of Pentax (the Ricoh-imaging-co Web site)

The Asahi Pentax original (AP) from 1957 – CameraQuest

From a Pentax to another Pentax…

Big Birds – Mableton, GA – Pentax Spotmatic F. Lens Pentax Super-Takumar 55mm f/2

Cumberland Island National Seashore (GA) –  Some of the islands of the national park are limited to 50 visitors/day and have to be vacated before sunset. Pentax *ist DS – Lens Pentax 18-55mm

Cumberland Island National Seashore (GA) – The Cumberland forts were built by the British in 1733 to protect their most southern colonies from the Spaniards. The forts were abandoned after the final defeat of the Spaniards at the Battle of Bloody March in 1742. Pentax *ist DS. Lens Pentax 18-55mm