1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.
Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.
A few interesting points….
the models most popular with enthusiasts (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).
The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.
In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus commissioned companies like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).
On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Taos (NM) area with friends. One of them – a pretty good photographer – had decided to travel light and had left his full frame DSLR at home. He only had brought his smartphone, a brand new Apple 7 Plus. I had brought my Fujifilm X-T1 with the standard 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens. Along the day, we took pictures of the same scenes (natural and urban landscape for the most part), and at the end of the day, we compared our photos. Let’s use two pictures taken from the Rio Grange Gorge Bridge, on Route 64, a few miles from Taos, NM, as an example:
To our surprise, the pictures were virtually indistinguishable when displayed on a smartphone, an iPad Pro or a laptop screen. We did not expect the resolution to be differentiator (at 12 Megapixel, an iPhone 7 has more than enough resolution for pictures shared on social networks). The biggest surprise was the dynamic range of the iPhone 7 Plus, which appears to be better than the Fuji’s on a very difficult subject (black rocks, snow, sun reflections on the river).
At the top of that, the iPhone can publish photos in seconds after they’ve been shot (on iCloud or on the major social networks). The Fujifilm is relatively good at this exercise – for a conventional camera. But you still need to bring up WiFi on the camera (it becomes a WiFi access point), launch the Fujifilm app on a smartphone, connect the smartphone to the camera, and upload the selected pictures to the Photo application of the smartphone. Only then you can edit and share your pictures. Definitely not as fast.
Our goal was not to conduct an exhaustive scientific comparison – we were tourists and just shot landscapes under daylight. There are areas where a dedicated digital camera probably still has a marked advantage: action or wildlife photography, low light or night shots, for instance. And a dedicated camera has a viewfinder, and gives to the photographer a much greater ability to control the technical parameters than the Photo app of a smartphone. But the iPhone, now with a second short telephoto lens and a portrait mode simulating the shallow depth of field you would get with a 55mm f/1.2 lens on a dedicated digital camera, is getting closer to what a dedicated camera can do with every new generation.
One of the most remarkable changes brought by the advent of mirrorless camera systems (micro 4/3rds, Fujifilm X and to an even larger extent Sony E and FE) is the ability to mount and effectively use almost any old lens designed originally for a 35mm camera system.
With SLR and dSLR camera systems, it was pointless to try and mount lenses designed for another system, and very often, lenses from a previous generation of the same camera system:
SLRs and dSLRs have optical viewfinders – the photographer needs all the light he/she can get for focusing and composing the picture, and the cameras are therefore designed to work at full aperture with aperture pre-selection – which used to require rods and springs and cams, and since the Canon EOS mount opened the way, now requires electronics. There is no simple way to emulate the pre-selection mechanism of one SLR system with a lens designed for another one.
There are also physical limitations:
The adaptor designed as the interface between a lens of System A and a camera body of System B is more or less a cylinder with the female part of the mount of System A at one end, and the male part of System B at the other end. Such an adapter would necessarily have a depth of 5 to 15mm, which adds to the flange distance. Unfortunately, all digital single lens reflex cameras derived from 35mm SLR systems have a very similar flange distance (from 42mm for the Canon FL/FD mount up to 46.5mm for the Nikon F), and there is not enough room for an adapter (the adapted lens would sit too far from the camera’s film plane, and would not focus to infinite).
Mirrorless camera systems don’t have such limitations:
They have electronic viewfinders – and offer a clear and bright view of the subject even stopped down at f/16. If fact, most of the mirrorless cameras operate at stopped down aperture even with their native lenses.
The flange distance of mirrorless systems is much shorter (17 to 20mm for the most common systems), which leaves plenty of room (almost 30mm ) for the adaptor if you want to mount a lens designed for a SLR or DSLR system.
Thanks to their electronic viewfinders, mirrorless systems have multiple ways to assist the operator trying to focus manually (magnifier, zebra, focus peaking).
The use of CAD and CNC is now widespread and it’s easy and cheap to manufacture mechanical mount adapters: users of each of the big mirrorless camera systems have access to adapters for :
Most pre-AF era mounts for 35mm systems: (39mm and 42mm, Canon FL/FD, Konica, Nikon F, Minolta MD, Olympus OM, Leica M and R, Topcon, …)
Stranger or more exotic mounts (C mount, Adaptall, Holga, medium format cameras)
Even if it’s physically possible, mounting recent AF/all electronics lenses is generally pointless – not only you can’t set the aperture for lack of an aperture ring, but you can’t focus the lens because modern lenses are devoid of any mechanical connection between the focusing ring and the focusing mechanism of the lens. Unless a third party vendor develops an adapter which embarks the complex software required to translate the communication protocols of a lens of Brand A into something the body of Brand B will understand.
As far as I know, it has only been attempted with some level of success between a few lenses with a Canon or Sigma mount and a few Sony bodies (the A7R II or the A6300).
Therefore, the best candidates are lenses from the manual focus era (up to 1985), and the Nikon and Pentax autofocus lenses designed before Year 2000 – they all still have aperture rings.
Even if it is possible, mounting an old manual focus lens on a mirrorless body is not necessarily the best thing to do:
in spite of all the focus assistance mechanisms, it’s much slower to get the focus with an adapted vintage lens than with the native autofocus lens – adapted lenses are not a good fit for mobile subjects, unless you adopt old school focusing techniques (pre-focus, wait for subject to be at right distance, and shoot)
Older lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and are unnecessarily large and heavy when mounted on M4/3rd and APS-C cameras
Lots of older lenses were not that good in their heyday, and become really bad if mounted on a camera with a high resolution sensor. It’s true in particular for zooms and to a lesser extent for wide angle lenses.
As a conclusion, why mount old lens on a modern mirrorless body?
Because you can (of course)
If you already have the lens… Considering adapters sell for $20.00, it’s tempting to buy one to use your old lenses, as a stop gap until you buy a modern equivalent in the mirrorless system, or even permanently
All macro lenses are a very good fit because macro photography does not require to focus fast, and old macro lenses are still up to the task, when compared to their modern equivalents
If you want to experience really exceptional glass
Canon FD Aspherical or “L” lenses (50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2) for instance, or some of the gems that Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax and others have produced in the past…
If the modern equivalent does not exist…
a 55mm f/1.2 lens – it doesn’t exist for the Sony E/FE mount
a teleobjective with Defocus Control – only Nikon has them
a tilt and shift lens (only Canon and Nikon have them)
or exists but is crazy expensive
can an amateur afford the new Sony 85 f/1.4 FE GM?
As a result, old lenses of good reputation hold their value extremely well. Some of the Canon and Nikon lenses I mentioned above sell for more than $700.00 on eBay.
The Photokina took place in Cologne a few weeks ago. To a large extent, it was a Fujikina. Fujifilm announced a brand new medium format digital system, and presented a black and white version of their Instax Mini film. And they pre-announced a square (6cm by 6cm) version of their Instax Color film. And special editions (Michael Kors, Colette, ..) of their Instax instant film cameras. At the same time, Leica was showing a Leica branded Fujifilm camera (the Leica Sofort), a clone of the Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, with Leica branded black and white and color instant film.
Fujifilm has been in the instant film business for a very long time – with their own technology and through cross licensing agreements with Polaroid. Until April 2016 Fuji was still producing peel apart film compatible with Polaroid pack film cameras and backs, years after Polaroid themselves had ceased to manufacture instant film. As a sidebar, the conventional Polaroid film was called peel-apart film, because the photographer had to wait for the image to be processed, and then had to peel a sort of negative apart from the developed picture on paper. A more modern implementation of instant photography is the “integral” film, in which the picture itself contains all the chemicals needed for an automatic development of the photo.
Fujifilm’s integral film success story started at the end of the nineties, when they introduced the Instax Mini, a new small size instant film system in Japan (the Instax Mini image size is approx 6 x 4.5cm, and as a consequence the size of the cameras can be kept reasonably small). The system was adopted with enthusiasm by pre-teen and teen age Japanese girls, and Fuji has been very intelligently building on this initial success to convert foreign and older customers (first in Asia, and more recently in the West). In addition to the Instax Mini film, Fujifilm also introduced Instax Wide films and cameras. The Instax Wide image is larger than the Mini’s (twice the size at 10cm x 6cm), but the cameras are anything but pocket friendly.
The growth has been phenomenal (3.8 Million cameras sold in 2014, 5 million in 2015, and on target to 6 million in 2016).
Those volumes are far from being negligible if compared to the 40 million digital cameras sold in 2015.
More important still for Fujifilm’s bottom line, instant film photography is a repeat business: each camera consumes film, and a pack of Instax Mini film which costs approximately US$ 10.00 is only good for… 10 pictures.
On the instant film market, Fuji has only one competitor: The Impossible Project, aka TIP. TIP took over a Polaroid plant in the Netherlands when Polaroid left the film business, and started manufacturing their own integral films (they don’t have the original Polaroid recipes, their films are their own creations). I had tested their first black and white integral film just after they started their business a few years ago – and I had not been impressed. They have improved their products massively in terms of predictability and usability, and they’ve extended their product line to include color films and to support more models of Polaroid cameras; I’ve seen really beautiful pictures made with their current line of films. However, compared to Fujifilm, they remain a small scale operations with expensive products and a very limited distribution network. As opposed to Fujifilm, The Impossible Project can only propose one model to people who want to buy a new camera. Their customers still primarily use very capable but old SX70 and 600 Polaroid cameras – which are still abundant on the used market, but don’t have a reputation for aging gracefully.
Lomography (the promoters of Lo-Fi photography and makers of the Lomo, Holga, Diana and Belair cameras) have developed two lines of instant film cameras, one for the Instax Mini film, one for the Instax Wide, as well as add-on backs for the Holga, the Diana and the Belair. They offer more control to the photographer but they don’t have the reputation of being user friendly or to offer consistent results. More about it below.
Lastly, a cottage industry has been busy refurbishing old Polaroid cameras (for use with The Impossible Project’s film or with Instax), and converting old medium format cameras – in particular the Mamiya Press – to Instax film. For all sorts of reasons, Fujifilm recently stopped producing the conventional peel and apart instant film that many lovers of high quality instant photography were using. Since Fujifilm’s own Instax Wide cameras are rather basic, the best option for serious photographers is to convert old medium format cameras to accept Fuji’s integral film. At the moment, it’s a very limited market – the cameras capable of taking advantage of the size of the Instax Wide film are necessarily very large, heavy, and difficult to use, and the conversion is as expensive as the camera itself. But the release of the Instax Square film in 2017 will open the door for the conversion to integral film of smaller 6×6 and 6×7 cameras. If the Instax Square cartridge is designed like the Instax Mini, cameras with a deep interchangeable back will be the easiest to convert. It’s time to buy a good medium format SLR system before the prices go up.
A few weeks ago, I wanted to have a feel for the Instant film phenomenon, and I mounted an Instax Mini back (the Holga 120-IB) on the Holga 120 CFN I had brough with me to Rome a few years back. I bought the kit from a on-line store in Hong-Kong. It is composed of the back itself, a corrective lens to place at the front of the Holga’s lens, and an additional viewfinder. It’s very simple – there is no battery as the picture is processed and extracted when the photographer turns a crank hidden under the bottom of the back.
My first test was not devoid of issues: either the back was poorly assembled, or I did not insert the pack of film properly, but I could not extract the pictures from the camera with the crank as I was supposed to: after each shot, I had to go to a dark room, open the camera and extract the picture manually. I finally solved the problem, probably by brute force, and the back worked flawlessly with the subsequent packs of film. Then with the second pack of film, the shutter of the Holga decided to misbehave. I had to disassemble it and lube it. The third pack of film gave better results, but almost all of the pictures were over or under exposed: the exposure latitude of the Instax film is rather narrow, and nailing the right exposure is very difficult: don’t believe the specs sheet, the Holga only has one aperture (there is a sunny day/ cloudy day selector, but the aperture is F/13 in both cases) and the shutter is inconsistent and unreliable. Not the best recipe for success. Overall, it’s a frustrating experience as you feel you are wasting a good film in a poor camera.
But as always with an Holga, some of the pictures – while technically flawed – have an almost surrealistic quality.
More about Fujifilm’s instant photography adventures:
I started this blog in 2009. And wrote most of the entries between September 2009 and Sept 2010.
Between 2012 and 2015, I did not do much in terms of photography. I did not use my film cameras anymore – too cumbersome – forgot about my DSLR – too large, too heavy. I bought a Nikon V1 mirrorless camera – and got rid of it rapidly, very disappointed by the image quality. In fact, I spent the last four years taking pictures with my iPhone.
At the end of last year, while travelling for business, the desire to take better pictures than what an iPhone could do came back. I bought a $200.00 point and shoot Sony camera, and was so impressed by its technical abilities that I … returned it immediately to buy a second-hand Sony mirrorless camera – a rather scruffy NEX 6 with the tiny 16-50mm Power Zoom. I liked the NEX 6 so much that I decided to invest seriously in the Sony system. The week after I bought it, I returned the NEX to the vendor, and upgraded to a clean and shiny A6000 with a Sony-Zeiss prime lens. In the process, I sold my old Nikon DSLR and a few Nikon F mount lenses.
Unfortunately, I could never adjust to the ergonomics and idiosyncrasies of the A6000 (it’s made by engineers specialized in electronics under the guidance of marketing people, not by photographers). The sensor is really great, but I did not like the APS-C Sony zooms – too much distortion with the cheap ones, fear of quality control issues with the expensive ones. I did not like the cost of their prime lenses (the real good ones are very expensive), and had doubts about the commitment of Sony to its APS-C line of products – it’s all about the A7 and its full frame sensor nowadays. Looking for something totally different, I bought a Fujifilm X100. I liked it. A camera designed by photographers for photographers. Comforted by the experience, I decided to bite the bullet, and sold all my Sony equipment to pay for a second hand X-T1 and its 18-55 zoom. I positively love my Fujifilm cameras, and I should keep them for a long time.
With my passion for photography re-ignited, I’m re-activating this blog.
In the first entries, I’ll focus on what changed in the world of photography in the last 5 years – the rise of the smartphone, the disappearance of color film as a mass consumption product, and the parallel rebirth of true black and white and instant film à la Polaroid. Then I will go back to what constitutes the core of this blog – giving old gear a new life.