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.

Minolta+Maxxum+7+_+Dynax+7+_+Alpha+7+-+Meta35
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
Canon-T90-6226
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 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.

02-2017-camera-5848
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
cameragx-6594
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.

Image
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).

cameragx-6594
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).

Scanning 35mm film – is high-res scanning worth its cost?

Most photo labs propose scans in 3 resolutions: 1000×1500, 2000×3000, 4500×6700. The scans  are saved as jPEGs, with some labs also offering to save 4500 x6700 scans as TIFF files.

In theory, those resolutions correspond to an image of 1.5 Million points (1.5 MP), 6 MP, and 30  MP respectively. In general,

  • 1000x 1500 scans – when available – are virtually free (they’re included in the processing costs by some labs such as thedarkroom.com )
  • 2000 x 3000 scans cost roughly $5 for a full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or .50 per individual image scanned
  • 4400 x 6700 scans cost roughly $11 to $12 per full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or 3.00 per individual scan
  • 4400 x 6700 (TIFF) are the most expensive at $21 per full roll (oldschoolphotolab.com)

Storage constitutes an indirect cost – which doesn’t hurt until you run out of disk space, and have to upgrade your PC, your home NAS  or you online backup plan. But if storing 36 images at 1.5 Mbytes will not break your storage budget, 36 high res TIFF images represent almost 3 Gbytes. The exact size of a JPEG file is difficult to predict (JPEG is a lossy compression format), but in general, the file size of each type of scan falls within those brackets:

  • 1000x 1500 – JPEG -1.5 to 2 Mbytes
  • 2000 x 3000 – JPEG – 3 to 4 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 -JPEG – 12 to 16 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 (TIFF) – 80 MBytes / image

Scan_2000x3000_Piedmont
Atlanta Piedmont Park – Shot with Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105 f/3.5 – Fujicolor 400. Scanned at a resolution of  2000 x 3000 – the pictures of this roll are not really better than when scanned at 1000 x 1500 – probably a limitation of the lens (a 35-105 zoom of the seventies)
The tests

I wanted to have a few pictures I had taken a long time ago scanned, and I asked the lab to scan some images in 2000 x 3000, and some in 4400 x 6700. The pictures had been taken with a Minolta 7xi and the famous Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6-2.8 zoom, on Fuji Reala film (the 100 ISO “professional” color film Fujifilm were selling at that time). The pictures had originally been enlarged on photographic paper, and I expected the scans to be good.

I also had a series of images taken recently with a zoom from the early seventies, that had been scanned by the lab at 1000 x1500, that I asked the lab to rescan at 2000 x 3000.

Once the jPEGs were ready, I downloaded them in iPhone and iPad photo galleries, in Photoshop and Lightroom on a laptop, and on WordPress, in order to compare the perceived quality. A reminder of the resolution of a few devices compared to print.

  • iPhone 5 S Retina photo gallery : 1136x 640 (720,000 points) at 326ppi
  • 9.7 in iPad Retina Photo gallery:  2048 x 1536 (3,000,000 points)  at 266 ppi
  • Print 8 x 10: 2400 x 3000 points or 7.2 million points at 300ppi
  • the pictures of this blog are generally saved for the “Large” format proposed by WordPress, at 1024 x 680, corresponding to 600,000 points.

Paris – The Seine – scanned at 2000 x 3000. Minolta 7xi – Angenieux Zoom 28-70 – Fuji Reala film (1992). No visible difference in quality with the 4492 x 6700 scan (look at the details of the Eiffel tower compared to the glass house of the Grand Palais in the image below)
Conclusion

  • Scan at 1000×1500 or 2000×3000 ?
    • on an iPhone, on a 4×6 print, or in a blog supporting 1024 x 680 images (such as this one), there is no visible difference between 1500 x 1000 and 3000 x 2000 scans.
    • For all larger screen or print formats (9.7′ iPad Retina, laptop, 8×11 print, blogs offering to view images at native resolution)  the difference between a scan at 1.5 Million points and a scan at 7 Million points is very visible, unless the original is very poor (low lens resolution, very grainy film, subject slightly out of focus, operator shake at slow shutter speeds). It’s even more visible if you crop the image, even slightly.
  • Scan at 2000×3000 or 4400×6700 ?
    • on an iPhone, iPad 9.7′ Retina or on a 8×11 print – the difference is not really visible.
    • Above that (13 x 20 prints, for instance), the theoretical difference in resolution does not  necessarily translate into a difference in print quality: a 13 x 20 print  represents 24 million points at 300 ppi and the 6 million of points of a 2000×3000 scan should theoretically be overwhelmed, but practically the resolution of the film and of the lens play their part, as the technical limitations of the photographer (focus, shake) do. Large prints are often framed and hung on a wall, and you don’t look at a picture on a wall the same way you look at a 8 x 10 print you hold in your hand. And all technical considerations taken apart, with some subjects, images scanned at 2000×3000 may look as good as images taken at 4492×6770 – it depends on the contrast and quantity of fine details in the subject.

Scanning at 2000×3000 is a good compromise for 35mm film, and my choice when I have film processed. It works fine with any support I use day to day (iDevice, laptop, 8 x 11 prints), is not too expensive and generally produces a visible difference with the 1000×1500 scans.

If I wanted to print a really great picture, an image compelling from an artistic point of view and almost perfect technically (fine grain film, sharp lens, subject in focus, no shake), I would have it scanned at the 4492 x6776 resolution, and saved as TIFF. It would give me no guarantee that the print would be great (there are so many variables), but it would give me the best chances of success.


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Paris – Scan 4492 x 6770 – Shot from the Pont Neuf -Minolta 7xi – Angenieux zoom 28-70 F/2.6 – Fuji Reala (July 1992)

What camera should I pick for the film renaissance? (Part I)

Film photography is enjoying a renaissance.

ektachromeThe most recent sign? At CES, earlier this month,  Eastman-Kodak announced they would re-launch Ektachrome film at the end of 2017, and their head of marketing even said they were considering manufacturing Kodachrome again (I have my doubts on this one, but it’s great news if it ever happens….).

So it looks like we’re going to have film. What about cameras?

There is (almost) no new film camera produced, and the second hand market is the only option for people who are new to film.

What matters in the perspective of contemporaneous use of old film cameras?

  • the lens selection (availability, affordability, quality),
  • the reliability,
  • the quality of the shutter (consistency, fastest speed) and of the metering system,
  • the availability and the cost of batteries,
  • and most important, the pleasure to use the camera.

You don’t use film for the immediacy of the result, or because of its cost effectiveness – you would use a digital camera or a smartphone if that was what you were looking for. You don’t use film if you want to be absolutely sure you’ve shot the picture you had visualized in your mind. The real-time trial and error process of digital (shoot, check the picture on the rear display, adjust a parameter, repeat until you get what you want) does not work with film. You have to think, proceed carefully, and you won’t know if “you nailed it” until you receive your processed rolls a few days later.

You shoot with film because it’s a different, slower, more deliberate experience. And using a nice camera you love, that works in unison with your mind and your eyes, is part of the pleasure.

Interestingly, you can now afford cameras that only the wealthiest among us would have dreamt of  when they were new. The hierarchy of the prices of the cameras on the second hand market has relatively little to do with the sticker they wore in stores 40 years ago.

Nikon F3 in CF-22 case
Nikon F3 – a very expensive pro camera when new, very affordable now

Today, the market of film cameras is to a large extend a collector’s market. It’s a paradox, but surviving copies of models which sold poorly – or did not withstand the test of time gracefully – are more difficult to find, and therefore tend to be more expensive than copies of the more common and reliable models of the major league Japanese manufacturers.  That’s very good news if you buy a camera  to use it, and not primarily as a collector item.

With even the most high end cameras of the Big Four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax) now selling in the $150 to $200 range, the spread of prices for cameras in working order is relatively narrow, and there is no good reason to buy a plasticky spec’d  down entry level model at $50 or $75 when you can get a really great camera for just $50 more.

The Big Four (and particularly Canon and Nikon) also have an advantage when it comes to the lens selection. If what you find on eBay is any indication, amateurs in the seventies bought their cameras with the standard 50mm lens, and sometimes bought a 135mm tele or a 70-200 zoom to extend their reach. Trans-standard zoom lenses (35-70) were not widely used. Only a few enthusiasts bought wider angle lenses (35mm or 28mm –  generally from independent manufacturers). And only pros bought ultra wide angle lenses.

As a result, and paradoxically, 24mm or 28mm lenses from Nikon or Canon (the brands of pros at that time) are more abundant (and significantly cheaper) than equivalent models from brands which were not bought in large quantities by pros and enthusiasts (Fujica, and to a lesser extent Olympus are a good examples).  Another reason to buy a camera from the so-called Big Four.

When it comes to film SLRs, there are three generations to consider:

pre-1975 :  with or without a photo-cell, cameras of this generation tend to have a limited usability.

  • they are large, heavy and loud, and their ergonomics are sometimes bizarre.The metering system, when it exists, is using CdS photo cells and mercury batteries – CdS cells did not age well, and not all cameras accept the current silver oxide or zinc-air batteries as substitutes to mercury batteries.
  • Those cameras are 40 to 50 years old. Their textile shutters are fragile and the springs and cogs that keep everything in motion have passed their prime. Some brands may be better than others at building cameras  that resist the test of time (Nikon?), but generally speaking, cameras of this age are more curiosity items or collectors than tools for everyday use.
  • Most of them (Nikon again is the exception) use lens mounts which have been abandoned a long time ago. The lenses you will buy for those cameras will be dedicated: the ability to mount them on modern dSLRs is next to zero.

They could be bought in 1971 - Canon FT/QL, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat. The OM-1 is so small.
They could be bought in 1971 – Canon FT/QL, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat.  The OM-1 is so small and modern compared to the other two.

1975-1985: manual focus, semi auto or simple auto exposure, with average weighted metering and conventional ergonomics (aperture ring, shutter speed knobs). Still built  primarily in metal. In my opinion it’s the golden age of film SLR cameras:

Nikon FE2 - Canon A-1 - the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties
Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties
  • They are simple, comparatively small and relatively silent
  • They provide some assistance to the photographer (semi auto or simple auto exposure, average metering) but not too much: you still  understand what the camera is doing, and why, and you can still easily over rule the automatism.
  • abundant selection of lenses, generally cheap – Some lenses are even compatible  with modern dSLRs cameras of the same brand or with mirrorless ILCs through adapters.
  • On the downside, cameras from this generation saw the introduction of more electronics, and the initial implementations were not always reliable. Cameras with faulty electronics are not repairable. Test before you buy, or buy from a seller who has tested the camera with batteries.
Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 - Control Wheel vs conventional ergonomics
Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 – Exposure Mode Selector and Control Wheel on the left vs conventional ergonomics on the right.

1985-2000: autofocus, auto-exposure, electronic cameras with matrix metering, with  ergonomics relying on LCD displays and control wheels.

Minolta A Mount on a 700si body (1993)
Minolta 700si body (1993) – a good autofocus camera. The photographer is in control.
  • they generally use a bayonet of the same family as the one of their current digital equivalents. They use lenses that present some form of inter-compatibility with current digital cameras (100% compatibility with Canon, whose EOS mount did not change at all, compatibility with caveats for the other major vendors).
  • Because of all the assistance mechanisms they have (autofocus, matrix metering, auto exposure programs reacting automatically to the movement of the subject to select an appropriate shutter speed), the rate of good pictures is going to be higher than with cameras of older generations.
  • Reliability of those complex electronic beasts should not be too much of a concern – it either works, or not at all.
  • On the downside, cameras from this generation tend to be fairly large and loud, they are battery hogs (and they use expensive disposable Lithium batteries), and they automate the picture taking process so much that some photographers may feel they’re not in control. And while some cameras of that generation are nice pieces of industrial design, they’re all made of plastic. Not to everybody’s taste.

To be continued: Part II – my picks for the cameras of the 1975-1985 period.


Paris, Place de l'Hotel de Ville (City Hall) - Nikon F3 - 24mm Nikkor AF
Paris, Place de l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall) – Nikon F3 – 24mm Nikkor AF

 

The Minolta Vectis S-1: APS done right?


I don’t have this camera anymore. I’m afraid it ended its life in the trash can – not economically repairable – a few years ago. But I used it for years, I liked it a lot, and it’s too bad that no digital SLR available today is as light and portable as the Vectis S-1 was.(*)

The gun metal version was sold in Europe.
Minolta Vectis S-1 – The gun metal version was sold in Europe, but not in the US.


Launched in 1996, it was the only SLR system designed from scratch for the APS format. It inherited the best features from the Minolta mid-range 35mm cameras of its time, and exploited the new functionalities of the APS format to its full advantage. Built around a new, specific and very modern mount, the Vectis cameras and lenses were far more compacts than conventional 35mm SLRs, and than the APS SLRs developed by Canon and Nikon.


Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) need a moving mirror, and the moving mirror needs room, which imposes a flange focal distance of approximately 45mm on 35mm cameras (44mm for the Canon EF, 46.5mm for the Nikon F mount). The diameter of the mount, on the other hand, is closely related to the size of the film (it’s roughly equal to the diagonal of the film – 44mm for the Nikon F mount, for instance). Both Canon and Nikon decided to make their APS cameras compatible with the large range of 35mm lens they had been selling for 10 years or more, and designed their APS SLRs around the same dimensional constraints (flange focal distance, mount diameter) as their standard 35mm offerings. Logically, the cameras could not be significantly smaller than their 35mm counterparts.


On the contrary, Minolta took the risk of making the Vectis S-1 totally incompatible with its own 35mm lens system – and opted for a shorter focal flange distance (38mm) and for a smaller mount diameter, without any mechanical linkage between the camera body and the lens. The body and the lens could be made much smaller, but Minolta had to develop a whole range of new lenses, and ended up supporting two totally incompatible product lines.

Lighthouse of the Pointe St Matthieu (near Brest, France)-by default APS cameras shot in APS-H format (16x9 proportions)


One could debate endlessly about who did the right thing, Minolta or Canon-Nikon. Minolta’s risky strategy did not pay off – the sales of the Vectis cameras proved disappointing, Minolta lost its independence and had to merge with Konica. But Canon or Nikon’s more prudent approach did not work either, altough they did not lose as much money with APS as Minolta did. Learning from the experience, Canon, Konica-Minolta and Pentax all decided to retain their 35mm mount on their new dSLRs with APS-C sensors. Only Panasonic and Olympus, with no legacy of 35mm AF SLRs, decided to use a smaller form factor with their Four-Thirds and Micro-Four-Thirds formats.

Minolta Vectis S-1 (rear view). Courtesy of www.collection-appareils.fr


The design of the S-1 was very innovative in two important areas: it was not using the conventional central pentaprism, but a series of mirrors leading to a viewfinder implemented at the very left of the body – leaving space for the nose of the photographer, and the camera, its lenses and its accessories (such as the external flash) were all weatherproof, forming a compact, lightweight and reasonably rugged system that could even be brought in mountain expeditions.


The rest of the camera was in line with the advanced-amateur class of products of the time (P, A, S, M modes, Matrix and Spot metering, passive autofocus) and took advantage of all the new functionalities brought by the APS format – the ability to pre-select one of three print formats when taking the pictures being the most important. Some compatibility existed between the accessories of the 35mm cameras of the manufacturer (Maxxum or Dynax) and the Vectis: the flash system and the remote control could be used indifferently on both lines of cameras.


The user experience was very pleasant. Minolta cameras of the AF era have always been very pleasant to use, and the Vectis was no exception, provided you put the right lens on the body.


Unfortunately, the kit lens – a 28-56mm f:4-5.6 zoom, was not something Minolta should have been proud of. Poorly built, if proved fragile, and the quality of the pictures it produced was far from impressive. Mine broke rapidly, and I replaced it with a much better 22-80mm lens, which was correctly built, and could produce great pictures – with the right film in the body. APS’ promoters had decided that 200 ISO would be the “normal” sensitivity, but APS used a smaller negative than 35mm, and the quality of the enlargments from 200 ISO film never convinced me. The 100 ISO film, on the contrary, was very good. On a good bright and sunny day, with a good lens and 100 ISO film, APS could compete with 35mm.


My Vectis was defeated by one of design flaws of APS: the fragile automatic film loading system. A tiny piece of plastic broke in the camera, preventing the film door to open. Having it repaired was not an option. I sold the lens, and trashed the camera.


Today, the Vectis S-1 still has fans, ready to pay prices in excess of $150 for a camera. I liked mine as long as it worked, but with 100 ISO APS film now unavailable, I would not spend my money trying to get another one.


Good camera, flawed format. RIP.


(*): Edited in July 2017: the Vectis S1 tipped the scales at 365g, and the fragile 28-56 kit lens added 110g. With film and battery, the whole set was probably was below 500g. Today – in 2017, the remote heir of the Vectis, the Sony A6000, weights 20 grams less (at 345g). The Sony 16-50 Power Zoom also weights 110g.

 

More about the Minolta Vectis S-1
camerapedia.org: la page du Vectis S-1
collection-appareils.fr (site in French)


Portsall harbour low tide (near Brest, France)
Portsall harbour at low tide (near Brest, France)

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The APS Film Format

Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
135 (24x36) and APS format cartridges
135 (24×36) and APS format cartridges. The APS cartridge is more “intelligent” than the conventional 135 film container. An icon at the bottom of the cartridge shows the status of the film (new, partially exposed, totally exposed, processed) and a magnetic strip at the back of the film records the camera’s setup and the user’s preferences, in particular the form factor of each print (APS-C, H or P)


In 1991, Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Minolta and Nikon started working on a new film format, designed to address all of the supposed shortcomings of the 135 (24x36mm) format and bring a new lease of life to film before its replacement by digital technologies.


The development of the new format took longer than expected. The APS film format was officially launched in 1996, but the industry tried to force higher prices on consumers and botched the commercial launch.


Digital cameras became viable earlier than when everybody had anticipated, and as early as 1998, the camera manufacturers had come to the conclusion that the APS format was a lost cause.

 

The most emblematic APS camera, the Canon Elph (known as the Canon Ixus in Europe) was superseded by the first Digital Elph in Year 2000. In 2002, all the cameras manufacturers had reverted to 24x36mm or gone digital, and APS was dead.

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