The Ultimate film cameras

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

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

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

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

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Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

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

Nikon

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

Canon_eos_1_v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Nikon

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

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

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

 


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

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The Pentax m42 lenses – meet the Takumars

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

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

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

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

Coating and Multi-Coating – what is it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they radio-active?

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

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

What to buy?

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

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


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

The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my short list of recommended cameras:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last word…of caution

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of 9

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

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

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

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

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

xi : eXpert Intelligence, fuzzy logic

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

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

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

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

Power XI zooms – automation pushed to the absurd

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

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

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

The fate of the xi series

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

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

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

Was the 9xi a “pro” camera? 

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

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

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

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


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

iPhone X vs digital camera vs film

Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about  studio lighting.  And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.

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The iPhone X launch ceremony – Sept 12th, 2017

Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.

Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people

  • We always have them with us,
  • Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
  • With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
  • The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
  • did I mention selfies?

And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).

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Clearwater Beach, FL –  Sunset – Shot with an iPhone 7.
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Clearwater Beach, FL. Sunset – Shot with Fuji film X-T1 – which picture do you prefer?

As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.

Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:

  • No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
  • No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
  • No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
  • No macro lens
  • No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
  • No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
  • And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
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Peniscola, Spain – Fireworks – Fujifilm X-T1 – Something you can not capture with an iPhone, yet

Where does it leave us?

  • Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
  • Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
    Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
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Tour de France 2017 – Fujifilm X-T1. Another one I would not have tried to shoot with an iPhone

What about film?

  • So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
  • Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
  • To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
  • Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.

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Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2

 

Mounting a Pentax 42mm screw mount lens or a Nikon F lens on a Canon T90

Mirrorless cameras have made us familiar with the concept of mounting old manual focus lenses manufactured many decades ago on a modern camera. A little known fact is that Canon’s T90 (their top of the line manual focus SLR in the eighties) can work in a full featured semi-automatic mode with Pentax screw mount AND Nikon F lenses, thanks to adapters which were at some point sold by Canon themselves.

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Canon T90 with Asahi Pentax Super Takumar (35mm f/2)

How is it even possible?

The Canon FD mount has one of the shortest flange to film distances of all 35mm SLRs at 42mm. On the other hand, the Nikon F flange distance is one of the longest, at 46.5mm (source:  Wikipedia – Flange focal distance). The “universal” 42mm screw mount (used by Asahi Pentax and the East German offspring of Zeiss until the mid seventies) is close to the Nikon’s flange distance at 45.6mm. Therefore, if a lens mount adapter can be made less than 4.5 mm thick, it will be possible to mount a Nikon lens on a Canon camera without losing the ability to focus to the infinite (and 3.6mm is the right thickness for a 42mm screw mount adapter).

The difficult part of course is to transmit aperture information to and from the lens – but if the camera is designed to work – at least in one specific mode –  without having to exchange information with the lens (semi-automatic exposure with stopped down metering and no aperture pre-selection, for instance), a very simple lens mount converter will be able to do the job.

Such adapters can be found on eBay for less than $10.00 (recent Chinese manufacturing). More surprisingly, it appears that Canon used to sell Canon branded, made in Japan adapters in the sixties (source: Cameraquest, Pacificrim).

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Canon Lens Mount Converters – from Canon’s 1969 System Equipment catalog (courtesy: Pacificrim.com)

42mm screw mount lenses

I recently found one of those 42mm screw mount to FD adapters, (it does not look like the genuine Canon item shown in the picture below, but it’s made in Japan) and decided to test it with a Pentax Super Takumar 35mm F/2 on a Canon T90.

The T90 is an interesting camera – while it does not offer a true semi-automatic metering mode at full aperture with Canon’s native FD lenses, it simply has to be set to stopped down metering to gain a fully functional semi-automatic exposure mode, non only with Canon FD and FL lenses, but also with “adapted” screw mount lenses.

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Canon Lens Mounter Converter P (Credit: origin of photography unknown)

 

The main mission of a lens mount adapter is to position the guest lens (the Pentax 35 mm f/2 in our case) so that its flange will sit at precisely 45.6mm from the film plane – as if it was mounted on an Asahi Pentax camera.

The converter does not provides any mechanical linkage between the adapted lens and the camera, and it has no mechanism to force the lens to stop down to the pre-selected aperture when the photographer presses the shutter release. Therefore, it can only work with lenses with no automatic aperture pre-selection, or lenses where the aperture pre-selection can be switched off to force the lens to always keep the iris at the value shown on the aperture ring.

Not all 42mm screw mount lenses are created equal

Lenses deprived of such a switch can only be operated at their maximum aperture – which makes them mostly unusable. Lenses (such as the Fujinon screw mount lenses) designed to support full aperture metering add another constraint – they typically use a non-standard derivative of the 42mm lens mount (with a protruding pin in the case of the Fujinon) and can not be physically mounted on this adapter (I tried).

Nikon lenses

Nikon has been using the same F bayonet layout for 60 years, but had to go through many iterations of its lens mount to stay current (support of through the lens metering (TTL), introduction of program modes, of matrix metering, and many variants of autofocus).

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Pixco Nikon AI to FD adapter (bought on eBay)

Genuine and Canon-branded Nikon AI to FD adapters are rare and very expensive (I saw one selling for $150.00 on eBay under the name “MC-N Lens Mount Converter”). I bought  a Chinese one, for a fraction of the cost.

Being devoid of any aperture transmission mechanism, the converter is compatible with any Nikon lens AI, AIS, AF, AF-D lens, and I don’t see why it could not also accept pre-AI lenses.

Does it work? 

Yes. With the right adapter, a 42mm Screw Mount lens set in “manual” (no aperture pre-selection) will work on the T90 the same way a Canon FL lens (set in “manual”) would.

  • screw the adapter on the lens
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The screw mount to FD adapter.
  • Mount the lens on the Canon T90
  • Set the lens to “M”
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Asahi Pentax Super Takumar lens – it has to be set to “manual”
  • push the stopped down metering lever
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The stopped down metering / depth of field preview lever has to be pushed towards the lens.
  • turn the camera ON
  • set the Exposure Mode to “T” (for shutter priority exposure)
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Canon T90 – the settings for shooting stopped down in semi-auto exposure mode
  • turn the aperture ring or the control wheel (controlling the shutter speed) to adjust the exposure as if it was a Canon FL lens used stopped down (the “OP” message on the viewfinder’s LED panel means “Open the iris”, “CL” stands for “close the iris” and “oo”  for “you nailed it”.
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T90 – semi-auto mode – stopped down. Correct exposure – (cursor and triangle aligned on bar graph, “oo” message)
  • Of course, you operate stopped down – but it’s not so much of an issue:
    • the viewfinder of the T90 is very bright and the matt screen very fine, you can focus accurately up to f/8 if you shoot outside on a sunny day,
    • photographers are unlikely to mount slow lenses on the camera, or to shoot at F/16. They will most probably use the converters to mount old and ultra-luminous lenses on the T90, for the bokeh, and for the way the pictures shot with old lenses look.

With screw mount lenses, the T90 is as easy to use as any other semi auto camera, and exposure seems accurate (I obtained the same recommended aperture with the Pentax lens, the FL and the FD lenses, and on a Nikon camera I used as a benchmark).

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Canon T90 with a Nikon 50mm AF lens. It can be physically mounted but the exposure is off by at least 1 stop (compared to FL or FD lenses)

With Nikon lenses, I observed multiple issues: with some lenses, the aperture ring of the lens does not seem to control the aperture, and with some lenses, the exposure is off (1 to 1 1/2 stop) compared with FD, FL or Pentax screw mount lenses. I suspect it’s because the lever controlling the aperture on a Nikon lens is normally pushed to the preselected aperture by a spring loaded lever on a Nikon camera’s body. With this adapter, the spring loaded lever is missing.

Does it make sense?

Owners of 42 mm screw mount lens with manual preselection don’t have many options if they want to use their lens “natively” on modern cameras: Pentax stopped selling screw mount cameras in 1975, Fujica at the end of the seventies, and Cosina briefly sold a Voigtlander Bessaflex SLR in small volumes at the beginning of this century. Nothing recent or widely available. The best they can do is use adapters, to mount their lens on Pentax K SLRs and dSLRs, or of course on many mirrorless cameras. In that perspective, if you’re a T90 enthusiast and still own a few very good 42mm lenses it could  make sense to look for a 42mm to FD adapter.

I’m less convinced it makes sense for owners of old Nikon lenses to mount them on a T90.  Nikon lenses don’t like to be mounted on an adapter that does not control their aperture lever. And if you have old Nikkor lenses that you love, there is no shortage of good film and digital Nikon cameras which still accept them, and will offer full aperture metering and more auto exposure options than an adapted lens on the T90 .

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Canon FT with Nikkor AI lens – it’s not because it’s possible that you should do it.

Other Canon bodies

Any Canon body which can operate stopped down with Canon FL lenses can in theory work with the 42mm screw mount or the Nikon F adapter.

  • Canon AV-1: being an “aperture priority auto exposure camera,  it works stopped down with Canon FL lenses and adapted screw mount lenses.
  • Canon FT: a semi-automatic camera operating natively with FL lenses, it also works with adapted screw mount lenses.

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Plancy l’Abbaye – France – Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm lens – Kodak Ektar 100. I was surprised by the way the Ektar film rendered the colors – pretty different from the reality.

 

 

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Canon T90 – After a few rolls of film…

High level, the T90 is a top of the line manual focus and motorized SLR, with a long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure and metering modes, on the film flash metering, and a very fast (1/4000 sec) shutter. Besides auto-focus, the only major feature missing is matrix metering.

Canon T90 – the ergonomics of an EOS camera with an FD lens mount

Launched in 1986 (one year after the Minolta 7000), the T90 did not stay under the spotlights for a long time. A very innovative camera, it was probably expected to stay at the top of Canon’s line of FD mount SLRs for a decade, but the success of the Minolta 7000 (and the failure of their first auto-focus SLR, the T80) forced Canon to change their plans in a hurry. They decided to abandon the FD mount, and somehow derived their first two successful auto-focus SLRs (the EOS 650 and 620) from the T90. Less than 12 months after its introduction, the T90 had been relegated to a niche – a camera for well heeled enthusiasts and conservative pros refusing to throw away their FD lenses  to upgrade to the new auto-focus product line.

Designed for demanding photographers, the T90 had an impressive specifications sheet, and  very few real competitors in its heyday:

  • Nikon had nothing approaching its capabilities until the Nikon F4 and N8008/F801 were launched in 1988. But both were autofocus cameras with matrix metering, and sold for much more than the T90.
  • the Olympus OM-4Ti had similar capabilities for metering and its flash system was even more elaborate than the T90’s flash, but it was miles behind when it came to shutter performance and its short eye-point viewfinder was rather small for photographers wearing glasses.

Contax and Leica R cameras of the early to mid nineties also had approaching characteristics,  but when they came to the market, most of the photographers already had adopted auto-focus cameras, and the T90 had been retired for some time.

The T90 was also extremely expensive:

At approximately $500.00 body only in 1986, it was priced in the same ballpark as the Olympus OM-4T, which means it was:

  • more expensive than any other 35mm manual focus camera, except for modular professional bodies (Canon’s F-1, Nikon’s F-3 or Pentax’s LX), and of course the Leicas.
  • more expensive than any autofocus SLR camera, including Canon’s own EOS 650 and 620 – until the launch of the Nikon F4 and the EOS-1 at the end of the eighties.

Buying and using a T90 now

You may prefer a smaller, simpler, lighter and quieter manual focus camera, but if you want a long eye point viewfinder, multiple automatic modes, multiple metering options and support of Canon FD lenses, there is not much choice.

  • Probably because of the bad reputation of old electronics cameras, and specifically of potential reliability and maintenance issues (risk of sticky shutter failure, lithium battery soldered on the circuit board), it can be had for relatively little money (less than $100.00 for a very nice one on auction sites)
Canon T90 – the commands used less frequently are at the bottom of the camera’s back, and behind a door at the right of the body.

The user manual is fairly large for a camera of that era (126 pages) but apart from all the metering and exposure compensation options which can be fairly complex, the T90 is very simple to use, and benefits from very good ergonomics:

  • All the major settings are visualized on a single top plate LCD – very clear and very informative
  • The essential settings (exposure, metering) are accessed through two big buttons  and the control wheel.
  • Great viewfinder – very clear and fine focusing screen, just enough information, and for a photographer wearing glasses – like me –  it’s the perfect compromise between a reasonably long eye point and a reasonable enlargement level.

I did not like a few details  – the control wheel is vertical – I’m used to horizontal on Nikon or Fuji bodies –  in some modes, the viewfinder display is only active if the shutter release button is half pressed, and when you lift your finger from the shutter release to turn the control wheel with your index, the viewfinder display turns dark.

Canon T90 – Vivitar 135mm f/2.8 – Jules

Metering

  • Generally speaking, the camera is easy to use, but understanding the finesse of the metering options requires to go back to the user manual – and experiment.
  • The camera offers 3 metering modes, but on the T90 the center weighted average mode I’ve been using on manual focus SLRs since my formative years is not usable except in the most straightforward lighting situations: the “average” metering mode does not support exposure memorization, and the second best option to control exposure in complex situations on other cameras – switching to semi-automatic exposure  – only works with stopped down metering on the T90.

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    T90 – Very informative viewfinder. It combines a LCD bar graph display on the right with a LED display at the bottom. Here the camera is set to semi-auto mode – stopped down. Correct exposure – (cursor and triangle aligned on bar graph, “oo” message)
  •  As a result I kept the camera set to Partial metering  most of the time. Think of Partial as a form of spot, with a very large metering area at the center of the frame.  Partial metering has been available in Canon  SLRs since the early seventies (on the the FTb, for instance) and is still an option on current EOS digital SLRs. On the T90, this mode supports exposure memorization. By the looks of my pictures, it seems to treat equally the lower and the upper portions of the scene, often resulting in a slight under-exposure of the picture if a portion of the sky is included in the metering area.

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    T90 – Viewfinder when the camera is powered off. The “partial” metering zone corresponds to the largest of the circles at the center of the viewfinder.
  • I wanted to test the Spot, Multi-spot, and High Key /Low Key modes.
    The scenes I exposed in Spot ended up being exposed correctly.
    I played with Multi-spot and the Hi key/Lo key corrections, but shot very few pictures in those modes: those options leave the photographer totally in charge, but require time, as well as a serious knowledge of the theory of exposure (the 18% gray charts and all those sorts of things). To make the matter worse, the implementation of High Key/Low Key is not novice friendly: even the OM-4t is simpler: on the Olympus, the Hi and Lo buttons provide a constant level of correction +2 EV and -2 2/3 EV respectively. On the T90, it’s up to the photographer to adjust the correction, by steps of 1/2 EV. It’s more flexible than the Olympus, but the photographer will have to remember to push the HI button 4 times when shooting a white dog sitting on white sofa.
  • The main constraint, of course, is that film offers no immediate feedback. In order to learn how to take advantage of the advanced exposure modes, you  have to perform systematic tests, take notes, and when you finally receive the processed negatives, go through your notes and try understand what you did right and where you went wrong.  Who has the patience for that?
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8. Kodak Ektar. The beach in the morning – Peñíscola, Spain.

Lenses

  • I tend to shoot a lot with wide angle lenses (24mm, 28mm), but I need longer focal lenses from time to time, and don’t like carrying too many lenses at the same time.
  • Trans-standard zooms are supremely convenient. But in the mid-eighties, very good trans-standard zooms – lenses that could be at the same time sharp, distortion free, compact and reasonably fast (f2.8-4 for instance), simply did not exist. Nikon introduced their first 35-70 f/2.8 AF zoom with the F4 camera, Canon only launched a 28-70mm F/2.8-4L auto-focus zoom in 1988, and neither of them are light or compact.
  • Therefore, the options in the FD mount are limited: no “L” zoom, a few sliding aperture entry level zooms, a huge 35-70 f/2.8-3.5 from the early seventies, and two large and heavy constant aperture zooms, the 35-105 f/3.5 and the 28-85 f/4. I bought the 35-105 f/3.5 a while ago and did not like the pictures it delivered at all (maybe it was a bad copy – on the forums the lens has the reputation of being the best of its class when it’s in top condition).  I’m not inclined to buy the 28-85 f/4, which looks very similar to the 35-105 and is not as highly rated.
  • I will have to explore the world of independent lens makers, or bite the bullet and buy a sliding aperture Canon zoom – the 35-105 f/3.5-4.5 may be better than its reputation.
  • As mentioned above, the T90 does not offer full aperture metering in semi-auto exposure mode. But its semi-auto mode is very well implemented if you accept to work with the lens stopped down. Interestingly, the T90 not only supports older Canon FL lenses, but, with adapters sold by Canon in the sixties and seventies, it also accepts 42mm screw mount lenses,  Exacta, Leica Visoflex and even Nikon F lenses. I could find one of those screw mount adapters recently, and there are a few very luminous Pentax screw mount lenses that I’d like to try on the T90.
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Ilford FP4 film. Peñíscola, Spain

My conclusions:

I’ve never really been into Canon cameras – and I only started using Canon SLRs recently because I was given a few bodies and lenses. Logically, I should have felt little affinity with the T90: it is pure Canon DNA, combining some characteristics originating in the FTb and AE-1 generations with the ergonomics of modern EOS cameras. But the truth is that I love this camera. It’s one of the most satisfying film cameras to use, with no real equivalent:

  • The Canon A-1:
    • the A-1 is a good camera, but I like the T90 much better (better viewfinder, better shutter, better ergonomics, better build quality, more metering options for the day I want to think hard about the exposure).
  • The Nikon SLRs of the mid eighties
    • Nikon has no equivalent to the T90. The F3 is a heavy, conventional, aperture preferred auto camera, with a viewfinder even larger than the T90, but far less informative; it’s rock solid and will quietly get the job done, but it feels much older than the T90. Another generation.
    • Compared to the T90, the FE2 is a simple, light and compact camera  with a very fast shutter. Like the F3, it only offers aperture priority auto-exposure in conjunction with center weighted average metering, and in most situations, it’s going to be good enough. Its viewfinder is very bright, it offers one of the best implementations of semi-auto exposure I know of, but with its very short eye point, it will force photographers wearing glasses to look left and right to see the entirety of the focusing screen.
  • The Olympus SLRs:
    • Even if it has some characteristics in common with the OM-4 (the multi-spot and hi-key/lo key metering modes or the flash control options), the T90 looks like the polar opposite of the OM-4. The design and the ergonomics of the OM-4 are deeply rooted in the early seventies. On the other hand, the T90 introduced a way of interacting with a camera still followed today by Canon, Nikon or Sony for their top of the line dSLRs.
      I’ve not been convinced of the usefulness of the multi-spot and hi-key/lo-key modes of the T90 – too slow, too complex, not better than operating with spot metering on a good semi-auto camera – and I suspect that my opinion would not be very different if I tested those features on the OM-4. But if you don’t use those metering modes, why bother with an OM-4? An OM-2 or an OM-2 Spot Program will do a similar job, and are simpler and cheaper cameras.

If you consider the camera’s characteristics – its specs sheet – it is very telling that the closest Minolta or Nikon cameras – motorized, with a  long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure options, multiple metering options including Spot –  came a few years after the T90 (with the Maxxum 8000i or the N8008/F801). But with auto-focus and matrix metering, they clearly belonged to another generation and offered a different user experience.

Despite the apparent similarity of their ergonomics, shooting with the T90 is to a large extent the opposite of shooting with a modern auto-focus/matrix metering  SLR or dSLR. The T90 leaves you in charge of the focus and the exposure. Focusing is not very difficult (the viewfinder is large and bright), but getting the exposure right requires some effort – in particular because Canon decided to limit what the photographer could do with Average metering. The T90 is a camera for perfectionists, who believe that with the right set of tools and some effort, they can get better images than what a modern auto-everything camera would give them.


More about the T90:

Cameraquest: https://cameraquest.com/t90.htm


Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Fujicolor 400. “La Maison aux Bambous”, Vinay, France

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