CamerAgX

March 23, 2017

The most expensive manual focus SLRs of the 1980 generation

Film cameras are interesting objects. They appeal to collectors who will desire them for their historical importance, their pleasant esthetics, and for their scarcity, and to active photographers, who make their purchase decisions based on the feature set, the availability of good lenses, and the quality of the user experience.

The least desirable cameras (and therefore the cheapest) are characterized  by an abundant supply of working but unremarkable bodies with a meager selection of lenses, the most desirable by a limited availability of cameras in working order, combined with an interested set of features,  a pleasant user experience, and a broad selection of good lenses: in other words, cameras of great systems (Canon, Contax, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, for instance) that are scarce because they sold in small numbers, and/or because they did not age gracefully, with few of them surviving in working condition.

Let’s focus on the 4 Japanese brands I know best.

Canon

Manual focus Canon cameras were mass produced (Canon was the constant best seller except for a few years when Minolta took the lead), and generally reliable. Because the autofocus EOS product line is totally incompatible with the older manual focus cameras, users of autofocus Canon film cameras (and of modern digital EOS models) were not tempted to carry an old manual focus SLR in addition to their modern autofocus camera, and the offer of second hand manual focus cameras from Canon has always seemed to exceed demand. As a result, prices have tended to be low.

    • There is one glaring exception, the F-1, with nice copies proposed above $400.00 (Canon also produced limited editions to commemorate events like its  50th anniversary that command prices above $1,000). Another interesting Canon camera is the T90.

Canon T90 – LCD and control wheel – Source: Wikipedia

  • T90: the poster child of a second hand camera which checks all the marks, but is penalized by its lack of reliability:
    • On the plus side, it’s  very interesting from a historical point of view : it was designed with the input of Luigi Colani’ studio, and its ergonomics study is a precursor of the Canon EOS cameras and of almost all camera currently sold
    • Its sales volume was relatively limited  (for a Canon camera): it was an expensive high end camera, only sold for 2 years, when Canon had no autofocus camera to propose and was getting a beating from Minolta and Nikon on the marketplace.
    • The T90 was part of a very broad camera system, very popular with professional photographers. There is large supply of very good lenses, for cheap. Historical interest, relatively low sales volume, broad system – it should command high prices.
    • But on the other hand, the T90 did not age well: some of the components deteriorate if the camera is not used frequently, others have a limited lifespan, and Canon stopped servicing those cameras a long time ago – in fact, a lot of them display an “EEE” error and simply don’t work.
    • Therefore, there is not a strong demand for the T90. It commands prices starting in the $150.00 range for a tested model, which is less than what is asked for an  A-1 or even a AE-1 Program.

Fujica (the AX bayonet mount line) 

Fuji’s screw mount cameras sold in respectable numbers in the 1970s, and aged relatively well.  They were replaced in 1979 by a new generation of bayonet mount cameras  that did not sell very well and had reliability issues. A Fujica SLR such as the STX or the AX-3  in working condition is not as easy to find as a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FE, for instance, but at the same time it does not qualify as exceptionally difficult to locate. The truth is that those cameras don’t seem to be interesting collectors (lack of aura) or active photographers (lack of lenses). Except maybe for the AX-5.

  • AX-5 – it was the full featured top of line, and was proposed at prices higher than the Canon A-1 it was supposed to compete with.
    • On the Plus side, it’s really a scarce camera. At any given time, no more than two or three are offered for sale on eBay, worldwide
    • On the Minus side, it’s not a very “interesting” camera: it’s a me-too product largely inspired by Canon’s A-1, with a toned down and more “feminine” design
    • the whole Fujica “X” product line has a reputation for being fragile (electronics)
    • there is very limited supply of lenses (good or bad), and the ones you can find are seriously expensive.
    • the market of second hand AX-5 cameras is too small – and there is not enough sales volume to establish a price of reference: I’ve seen working copies proposed above $150.00 but actual sale prices seem much lower.

Nikon

Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector

Multi-Mode Automatic models tend to scare the active film photographers – they tend to prefer simpler models (here, the Nikon FA – which does not sell for more than the simpler FM2).

Very few Nikon cameras qualify as “scarce”. Nikon cameras generally sold in high volumes (within their class of products)  and are extremely reliable – a lot of them survived. Some of the cameras designed for professional photographers (the F3, the FM2) had production runs of almost 20 years. You will have to look for specific variants of a mainstream model such as the F3p or the F3AF to reach the level of scarcity that commands high prices (above the $1,000 bar). That being said, Nikon cameras of that vintage are very pleasant to use (they ooze build quality), they benefit from a huge supply of lenses and accessories (Nikon have been using the same bayonet mount since 1959, and the current flash system is downwards compatible down to the FE2 of 1983), and they take great pictures. They have a great usage value, but a limited collector’s appeal. A few exceptions:

  • F3: a regular F3 camera is becoming expensive – $200.00 to $400.00 for a nice one. The  F3P (a derivative for Press Photographers) sells in the $400.00 to $500.00 range, and the AF models of 1983 (with their dedicated viewfinder and lenses) can easily reach $1,200.00.
  • FM2 – the workhorse (or the perfect backup camera) of generations of Nikon photographers. Usable models are available below $200.00, while models popular with collectors (the FM2/T with a titanium body) start at approximately $500.00 to reach up to $1,500.
  • The FM3A was only produced for a few years, in small quantities. It’s a recent product with a high usage value (it’s an automatic which can also operate without a battery at any shutter speed) and it commands prices between $300.00 and $600.00.

Olympus

The Olympus OM-4 exposure controls – Source Wikipedia

In the 80s, Olympus had a line of low end “two digit cameras” (OM-10, OM-20, OM-30, OMG..) for amateurs and a line of single digit cameras (OM-2s, OM-4) for the discerning enthusiasts. The two digit cameras are extremely abundant, but unremarkable. The OM-2s and OM-4 are relatively easy to find, but are plagued by lousy battery management issues that limit their attractivity. At the end of their production life, the “single digit” cameras were upgraded to become “T” or Ti” models, which solved the electronics issues of their predecessors, and switched their brass top-plates for Titanium ones. Those T and Ti cameras are highly attractive for the active photographer (small size, unique light metering capabilities, broad system of lenses and accessories) and for the collector – they’re beautiful and are in limited supply. The OM-3Ti – the semi-automatic version- was produced in very limited quantities (6,000 units according to zone-10.com) and was selling at the same price as a Leica M6. The OM-4t and Ti had a long production run, but they were launched in the middle of the autofocus craze, when the large majority of the enthusiasts were busy converting their equipment to Minolta Maxxums, Canon EOS or Nikon N8008.

  • OM-3ti – proposed for any price between $1,200 and $4,000.
  • OM-4ti – proposed for any price between $250.00 and $800.00

Except for commemorative models (they often never leave the box they were shipped in), Leica SLRs models of all generations typically sell in the $200.00 to $800.00 range (the R4 are the cheapest, the R6.2 the most expensive). Contax models benefit from the aura of the Zeiss lenses, and sell in the same range as the Leicas.


Jules – French Bouledogue – Nikon F3 – Nikkor 135mm f/2.8 AI lens – Fujicolor 400

 

 

 

March 17, 2017

Added to the Pages menu….the Index of CamerAgX’s camera reviews

I probably should have done it much earlier….the Index.


 

February 9, 2017

Stopped down or full aperture metering – why it still matters for users of mirrorless cameras today

For a single lens reflex camera or a lens manufactured after 1975, full aperture vs stopped down metering is a non issue. But it was a key differentiator between 1965 and 1975. And if you’re considering mounting an old lens (manufactured before 1975) on a mirrorless camera, it may still impact you.

On a single lens reflex camera (SLR), the photographer composes the picture on a mat focusing screen, where the image formed in the lens is projected. This layout has all sorts of advantages, but the viewfinder tends to get too dark for focusing when the lens aperture exceeds F/8, and at smaller apertures (F/11, F/16), even composition becomes impossible.

Therefore, the best practice in the 50’s was to open the lens at the widest aperture, focus carefully, and then rotate the aperture ring to stop down the lens at the aperture needed to expose the picture optimally. It worked, but it was slow.  The process was easy to automate, and that’s what aperture pre-selection systems do.

Aperture pre-selection mechanism

Their goal : let the photographer compose and focus at full aperture, and then stop down at the last fraction of a second, when he/she presses the shutter release. Practically, the diaphragm stays wide open, until the shutter release mechanism  (through various cogs, springs and levers) activates a rod in the lens which closes the diaphragm to the aperture pre-selected by the user.

Two implementations

  • manual pre-selection : the lens stays stopped down after the picture has been taken. The pre-selection mechanism has to be re-armed by the photographer if he/she wants to return to full aperture; it’s a slow process (shoot, rearm the shutter, rearm the lens).

    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot

    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot

  • auto pre-selection: the pre-selection mechanism does not need to be re-armed after each shot. The lens returns automatically to full aperture after each shot (that’s why lenses from the 1960-1975 period are often labeled “Auto”). It’s transparent for the user, who can operate faster and with a better chance of catching the decisive moment.

    M42 Lens mount - this lens is designed for "auto" preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to stop down position.

    M42 Lens mount – this lens is designed for “auto” preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to force the lens to a stop down position.

Through the Lens (TTL) metering

Aperture preselection solved the problem of composing and focusing at slow apertures, but the introduction of CdS cell meters to evaluate the illumination of a scene Through The Lens (TTL) brought a new set of challenges: the camera needed to know how open the diaphragm was going to be when the picture is finally taken. There were two ways to do it:

  • after the photographer had set the aperture, he had to press a dedicated lever to stop down the lens, and only then would the camera evaluate the illumination of the scene. It’s stopped down metering.
    Technically, it’s the quick and dirty answer:  the metering system of the camera does not need to know the value of the aperture pre-selected on the lens. It just measures the light going through the lens when stopped down. The pre-selection lenses don’t need to be modified – they simply work. But it’s cumbersome for the user:

    • it’s a step back – aperture preselection had removed the need for the photographer to stop down the aperture before pressing the shutter release. Now it needs to be done again.
    • the viewfinder is darker during metering (the photographer loses contact with the action, he can’t adjust the focus, and it’s difficult to see needle of the meter) – you cannot compose or focus and adjust the exposure at the same time.
    • it’s a disaster from an ergonomics point of view. Even in the best implementations, the photographer has to maintain the lens stopped down by pressing or lifting a dedicated lever on the camera’s body, while trying to turn the aperture ring or the shutter speed knob to adjust the exposure. You need three hands for this type of gymnastics.

      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) - which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.

      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) – which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.

  • full aperture metering is transparent for the user. The diaphragm is stopped down a fraction of a second before the shutter curtains open and the picture is actually taken. The lens stays at full aperture all the time, including during the exposure determination.
    But for full aperture metering to be possible, the lens has to communicate the aperture pre-selected by the user to the metering system in the camera body, so that it can determine the right shutter speed/aperture combination.
    Most vendors chose to add a new dedicated lever inside the lens mount (this solution was chosen by Canon, Minolta, Olympus and Pentax).

    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i); Aperture simulator (ii): Source:pentaxforums.com

    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i);
    Aperture simulator (ii):
    Source:pentaxforums.com

    A few other vendors chose to simply modify the design of the aperture ring of the lens, and use it to transmit the aperture value to the camera’s metering system. At the beginning, Nikon used an external fork (the “rabbit ears”) screwed at the periphery of the aperture ring to communicate the pre-selected aperture to a pin connected to the metering system in the body.

    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork ("the rabbit ears") to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.

    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork (“the rabbit ears”) to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.

    Later, Nikon redesigned the aperture ring to add  a small protruding tab at its back, and this tab moved a sensor on the circumference of the body’s lens mount (Nikon Auto Indexing or “AI” lenses). Nikon’s system is similar (in its principle) to Fuji’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 universal mount of the ST801 (pictures below).

Fujinon lens - the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera's body.

Fujinon lens – the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera’s body.

Fujica ST 801: Fuji's version of the m42 lens mount has a ring at the periphery - the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. That's how the preselected aperture is transmitted.

Fujica ST 801: Fuji’s version of the m42 lens mount has a recessed, spring loaded rotating ring at the periphery – the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. Any change to the pre-selected aperture on the lens will be transmitted to the camera.

Mounting an old lens on a mirrorless camera

When the photographer is using an old lens through a lens mount adapter, the cameras  needs to work with the lens stopped down (only semi-auto and  aperture priority automatic exposure modes are supported). There are none of the inconveniences associated with stopped down aperture on a reflex camera: on a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder always shows the image as it will be exposed, and if the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are correctly set, the image will be perfectly legible in the viewfinder, even if the lens is set a f/11.

But the challenge is to force an old lens to operate stopped down:

  • lenses designed for full aperture operations and stopped down metering (typically the m42 lenses with auto-pre-selection and the Canon FL) have a slider to switch off auto-preselection and operate permanently at stopped down aperture, in a manual mode. When mounted on a mirrorless camera through a lens mount adapter, they need to be switched to “manual”.
     Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch - by default the operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.

    Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch – by default they operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.

    The "manual" mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.

    The “manual” mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.

  • Nikon lenses  – the diaphragm of the Nikon lenses is opened at full aperture when the camera is mounted on a Nikon camera (the camera side of the mount has a lever which forces the lens open), but is stopped down when the lens is removed from the camera, or  mounted on an adapter deprived of the full aperture lever.  Which is perfect if you’re mounting the lens on a mirrorless camera.
  • Canon FD – when the lens is removed from a Canon camera, the diaphragm command is decoupled (the lens stays at whatever aperture it was pre-set the last time it was on a Canon FD camera). The adapter needs to be designed with a pin that will force the lens to stop down  when mounted on the adaptor.
Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens - the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.

Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens – the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.

  • Fuji’s EBC-Fujinon lenses are highly regarded, but the brand’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 mount presents two problems for modern mirrorless camera users:
    • most of the lens mount adapters receiving m42 lenses do not leave room for the aperture ring’s protruding tab of Fuji’s lenses. The lenses cannot be fully screwed down on the adapter and as a consequence may not focus to the infinite,
    • Fuji’s lenses don’t have a “manual” position and cannot be forced to operate stopped down on their own (that function was provided by the Fujica camera itself, not by the lens). There are work arounds to both issues, some nice, some ugly, but a lens mount adapter designed specifically for Fujica m42 lenses still has to be developed.

New-York City - Central Park - Fuji XT-1 - Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter

New-York City – Central Park – Fuji XT-1 – Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter


February 2, 2017

What camera for the film renaissance (part II): SLRs from 1975-1985: my picks

Film is back. At least if Kodak and Ilford are to be believed.

To my taste, the best single reflex cameras (shooting film) were made in the 1975-1985 decade. Cameras sold earlier were a bit too limited (metering), too big and too quirky, and cameras made later are more autofocus robots. Not that I refuse to benefit from the advances of technology – it’s just that if I want to use the most technologically advanced camera I can afford,  I shoot digital.

The list of my picks is not a catalog. I’m writing about cameras and camera systems I’ve really used – and learned to know over the years on multiple photo shoots. This list does not include any camera from Minolta, Konica, Fujica, Leica, … because I’ve never owned and used the SLRs they were selling between 1975 and 1985.

Canon :

Canon FT/QL and A-1

Canon FT/QL and A-1 – the A-1 is clearly my preferred Canon camera in the FD mount family.

  • FT/FTb: the FT/QL  was launched in the mid 1960’s and the FTb that replaced it was produced until the launch of the AE1 in 1977. Both  suffer from the limitations of a camera from the sixties (they need mercury batteries, they have CdS meters, they’re large and heavy with dim viewfinders). The FT is a stopped-down-metering camera and works with the FL lenses, while the FTb offers full aperture metering with the FD lenses.
  • AE-1/A-1/AT-1, AV-1, AE-1 Program – they were the best selling cameras of their time, they were generally reliable, and there still are tons of them around here. Which one you pick is a matter of taste, they differ primarily by the type of exposure metering system they use. They all share a  textile shutter which must have been cheap to manufacture, but is limited to 1/1000 sec with a flash sync speed of 1/60.
  • They were mass produced and designed to a price point – they don’t exude the same quality feeling as a Nikon FE2 or an Olympus OM-2. Little things like battery doors are fragile. But the metering system can be trusted and they’re pleasant to use.
  • Of all the A series cameras, the Canon A-1 has the strongest personality,. It’s the  most capable, and the one I prefer.

    Canon A-1 - the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body

    Canon A-1 – the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body

  • The Canon AV-1 is typical of a time when camera makers believed that spec’d down cameras were easier to use and had a better chance of bringing  amateurs to serious photography. It’s as cheap as it can get, but there are much better options in Canon’s lineup for aspiring photographers.
  • They benefit from a wide selection of good and very good FD lenses,  still available on the second hand market at very affordable prices.

Nikon:

Nikon FE2 and F3 - my pick in the Nikon family

Nikon FE2 and F3 – my picks in the Nikon family

  • Nikkormat FT/FTn/FT2/FT3 – Initially launched in the mid 1960’s – it was regularly updated until the FT3 was replaced by the FM in 1977. It suffers from some of the limitations of a camera from the sixties (size, weight, CdS meters), but always supported full aperture metering, and  the most recent models ( FT2 and FT3) work with silver oxide batteries.
    Nikkormat FT-N

    Nikkormat FT-N

    • All Nikkormat are built like tanks and rock solid. If you can live with the weight (750g body only) and the very unusual position of the commands (shutter speed ring, film speed selector), the FT3 is still perfectly usable as an everyday camera.
    • It’s not necessarily the case for the earlier models (FT and FTn): the process to follow in order to mount a lens on the camera was progressively simplified by Nikon. It is really kludgy on the FT/FTn bodies: you have to follow a bizarre sequence to pair the lens with the metering system of the body – that’s the “indexing”.  With the FT3 and AI lenses, indexing has become transparent.
  • Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover - no plastic here.

    Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover – no plastic here.

    Nikon FM – Nikon’s first compact semi-auto exposure camera. Built like a small tank, it was often used as a backup camera by pros shooting in very taxing situations. It’s a modern camera (conventional ergonomics, LEDs in the viewfinder) but the commands are a bit stiff and the viewfinder seems small in comparison to an Olympus OM or even a Canon AE-1. The metal blade shutter is solid, but limited to 1/1000 sec. If you buy now, try and find an FM2. If I did not already own the FE2, I would try and find an FM3A. That being said, if I had to pick one of the cameras I own to bring to an extreme expedition, that would be the FM.

  • Nikon FE : Aperture Priority Automatic. Feels as old as the FM (slow shutter, small viewfinder). I would surely buy the FE2 for a very little more.
  • Nikon F3 : an all time favorite: great ergonomics, incredibly vast viewfinder, smooth commands, good shutter (1/2000 sec). Launched in 1980, it was produced for 21 years in parallel with the F4 and F5 that were supposed to replace it. The flash system is specific to the F3. All in all, a very pleasant camera to use, compact, rock solid, but also really heavy.
  • Nikon FE2 – an evolution of the FE, launched in 1982. It has the same small viewfinder as the FM and the FE. But apart from that it’s a winner: great build quality, great ergonomics, smooth commands,  great shutters (1/4000, sync @1/250), modern flash system. My favorite when I’m visiting a new place or a new country, and need to take a break from digital.

    Nikon FE2 - the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)

    Nikon FE2 – the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)

  • Nikon FA – an evolution of the FE2 with an additional shutter priority exposure mode and matrix metering. It’s already too complex in my opinion – the matrix metering is perplexing (you never understand what it’s doing) and because the camera is supposed to know better, there is no memorization of the exposure in auto mode.

    Nikon FA with motor drive - an impressive rig.

    Nikon FA with motor drive – an impressive rig.

  • EM, FG
    – plasticky entry level cameras with limited shutter performance – abundant but not recommended. Buy an FE2 instead.
Nikon FG - More looks than substance

Nikon FG – More looks than substance

  • Nikon FM2 and FM3A – The FM2 is an evolution of the FM with a better shutter, while the FM3A is an evolution of the FE2, with a shutter working in two modes: electronic when the camera is set in aperture priority auto-exposure mode, and purely mechanic (no battery needed) in semi-auto mode. Compact, light and solid – the cameras to bring with you in the most extreme expeditions. The FM2 is somehow affordable, but the FM3A is a recent camera, produced for a short time in relatively limited volumes, and tends to be expensive.

All Nikons benefit from a huge selection and an abundant supply of good lenses, with some form of upwards and downwards compatibility (they’ve been using the same bayonet mount since 1959). Similarly, flash compatibility with current systems is also maintained for most bodies (FE2 and more recent)

Nikon F3 with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.

Nikon often offers some form of compatibility between bodies and lenses from different generations. Nikon F3 works perfectly with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.

The Olympus OM series

When they launched the OM-1, Olympus tried to position it as a camera for reporters, and managed to sell a few copies to leading American newspapers. But at that time, the press photographers did not buy their equipment, they received if for free from the newspaper, and had little incentive to treat their gear carefully. The little Olympus failed the tests, and the press photographers returned to  their Nikons – not as sexy but built like the proverbial tanks. Or so goes the legend.

In any case, if the Olympus cameras were not widely adopted by reporters, they found a following with scientists, researchers or ethnographers, who liked the compactness of the camera bodies and the quality of the lenses.

In the subsequent years, Olympus developed two lines of products – the “one-digit” OM cameras  OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 for the enthusiasts and the professionals, and the “two-digit” OM-10, OM-20 and so on for beginners and amateurs. Let’s focus on the single digit cameras.

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n. I loved the OM-2s Program until I started shooting with the OM-2n. So simple. A favorite.

  • Olympus OM-1 – it must have made quite an impression in 1971. It is incredibly compact, has a giant viewfinder, a very well thought ergonomics, and feels like a precision instrument. Its shutter is a bit limited today (1/1000 sec) and it requires mercury batteries which are not  available any more.  I would buy an OM-2 instead.

    Olympus OM-1n MD - a very clean copy.

    Olympus OM-1n MD – a very clean copy.

  • OM-2 – same body and general layout as the OM1, but with aperture priority auto-exposure mode and modern silver oxide batteries. It was also the first SLR with a modern TTL flash metering system. It’s a pleasure to use: the commands are precise and smooth, the mirror and the shutter don’t vibrate (I’ve shot at 1/15 sec without a tripod). There is no exposure memorization in auto mode (but it’s easy to switch to semi-auto). Another of my favorites – when I know I’m going to shoot in low light without a tripod- in exhibits and museums for instance, that’s the one I bring with me.
  • Olympus OM2-S Program/OM-3/OM4 – close derivatives of the OM1/OM2 –  with a new body and an improved metering system. Unfortunately this generation of cameras  was plagued by battery drain issues. And because it provides more information at the periphery, and offers a dioptric corrector, the viewfinder gives the impression of being smaller.  The  OM3t/OM4t  addressed the electronics issues of their predecessors, and are sought by fanatics of the zone system because of all the possibilities of the metering system (spot and average metering, exposure for high lights, low lights). Nice tools for passionate photographers.
  • Olympus OM-2000 – the ugly duckling of the family, this semi-auto camera was designed and manufactured by Cosina. It shares the OM lens mount of the family, but has nothing of the grace of a “one-digit” OM. It’s a bit plasticky, the LEDs in the viewfinder are crude, but it offers spot and average metering like its siblings – and it simply works. The ergonomics are conventional, and the metallic vertical shutter is completely different from the  horizontal textile shutter of the other OM bodies (flash sync 1/125, 1/2000 sec).
    Olympus OM-2000 - Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series

    Olympus OM-2000 – Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series

    Olympus OM-2000 - the Spot metering selector

    Olympus OM-2000 – the Spot metering selector

    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 - nothing in common (an OM motor drive can not be attached to the OM-2000)

    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 – nothing in common (an OM motor drive cannot be attached to the OM-2000)

  • The Olympus “Zuiko” lenses have a great reputation, but the selection and the second hand availability tend to be narrower than with Canon or Nikon: OM cameras were bought more by amateurs and enthusiasts than by pros, and in smaller numbers.  Olympus used to offer 3 models of lenses for the same focal length, and the slowest f/3.5 lenses are by far the most common. The lenses opening at f/2.8 or f/2  are rare, and very expensive.
  • the slow textile shutter is a limitation to all OM cameras (1/60 flash sync for all models, 1/1000 sec for OM1, OM2 and OM2 SP)

Pentax

Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens

Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens

  • the original Spotmatic – launched in 1964, received a limited refresh in 1971 and was updated more significantly in 1973 (to become the Spotmatic F, with full aperture metering and a new set of lenses). The Spotmatics form a nice line of cameras (innovative when they were launched, relatively compact and well finished), and they were produced in large quantities. But they’re too old to be considered in this category. They were replaced by the first K bodies (KM, KX, K2) in 1975, when Pentax introduced the K bayonet mount. The KX and K2 had a short life (replaced by the MX and ME in 1977), but the K1000 (a simplified version of the semi-auto KM introduced in 1976) would be manufactured until 1996, and would become the camera most recommended for “learners”.
  • the Pentax MX was my first serious camera,  a long time ago. It was a very compact and modern semi-auto camera in its heyday – with a nice and robust metal casing. Its closest competitor (technically) was the Nikon FM (but at that time Nikon cameras were more expensive than anything but a Leica, and I could not afford it). I kept the MX for fifteen years,  but the camera was not that reliable now that I think about it: I had issues with the frame counter, the timer, and a faulty stabilization circuit in the metering system that could not be fixed sealed its fate. I liked the lenses, though (the 35-70 zoom was very good).
  • the ME, ME Super were even more compact than the MX, offered aperture priority exposure but were not as enthusiast friendly as the MX. There was no speed knob but touch buttons to change the shutter speed, and no depth of field preview. The Super A/Super A Program were probably the most enthusiast friendly of that generation – but I never used them and can’t comment.
  • There is a good lens selection under the Pentax brand. Prices tended to be moderate when they were new, and it’s still the case today. Pentax tried to impose their K bayonet  as the new “universal” mount. They did not completely succeed, but many second tier vendors adopted the K-mount (Cosina, Ricoh, Vivitar and the usual distributor labels) and third party good quality lenses are abundant and affordable.
  • I did not mention brands like Contax, Fujica, Leica  or Minolta. Not that I don’t like their cameras, but I’ve never really used the manual focus SLRs they were manufacturing in those years.

More information about cameras of the 1975-1985 era

There is an abundance of Web sites, blogs and forums dedicated to film cameras of the 1975-1985 era. They tend to come and go.

A very good source of information on Nikon, Olympus and Canon cameras has been around for years: Photography in Malaysia (MIR)


Piedmont Park - November 2016 - Canon A-1 - Canon FD 35-105

Atlanta – Piedmont Park – November 2016 – Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105

January 29, 2017

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

 

January 22, 2017

How much did SLR cameras cost in 1985?

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.

Price of Cameras - 1985

Price of Cameras – 1985

A few interesting points….

Minolta Maxxum 7000 - source Wikipedia

Minolta Maxxum 7000 – source Wikipedia

  • 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.


Charleston, SC - Shot in 2009 - Nikon FM - Kodak CN400

Charleston, SC – Shot in 2009 – Nikon FM – Kodak CN400

July 13, 2010

Underwater adventures – digital cameras make more sense


I recently had the pleasure to spend one week snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean. True to my calling, I had decided to bring a film camera, and purchased a Nikonos V on eBay a few weeks before the departure.


The Nikonos V


Nikonos V

The Nikonos V (source: eBay)


The Nikonos V, launched in 1984 and sold until 2001, is an underwater viewfinder camera with interchangeable lenses. It can operate at depths of 50m (150ft), beyond what is considered the limit for recreational scuba diving. Some lenses were specifically designed for underwater use, but the “standard” lens (a 35mm W-Nikkor) could also be used above the water, for white water sports or for photography in all sorts of very humid environments. A special “camouflage” version was even manufactured by Nikon for war correspondents following conflicts in some remote jungle.


Technically, the Nikonos V – which is a viewfinder camera – is more or less aligned on the Nikon SLR bodies of the mid eighties: Through The Lens (TTL) exposure, aperture priority automatic shutter, and – importantly for an underwater camera – Through the Lens flash metering. I uses the same W and U/W Nikkor lenses as the previous Nikonos bodies, and provides no focusing assistance to the photographer, who has to guess the distance between the camera and the subject, and set the lens accordingly.


I could not test the Nikonos V in its element. The one I bought on eBay happened to have a defective metering system, and the seller did not know enough about the camera to understand it did not work as it should have. I returned it and go my money back, but I was back to square one, with no camera for my vacation.


Lesson #1: if you really want to buy a Nikonos V, buy it from a store specialized in underwater equipment. You will pay more (a good Nikonos V costs between $250.00 and $350.00) but the seller will be able to certify that the camera really works, and has not suffered from an unplanned bath of salt water in the past.


The Nikon Action Touch


Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)

Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)


When I bought the Nikonos V, I decided I needed a backup camera. I found (on eBay again) an old Nikon Action Touch, an autofocus Point and Shoot from the eighties, designed for use in depths of 10 ft (3 meter) or less. I had read good reviews of the camera, and since I could have it for less than $8.00, the risk was minimal. I tried it in a swimming pool. It seemed to work. On the first dive in the ocean, it died. Salty water had found its way in the film chamber, making the camera unusable.


Lesson #2: old waterproof cameras do not necessarily stay waterproof over time, and a dip in a swimming pool can not be compared to a dive in the ocean.


Lesson #3 is to take the claims of the manufacturers regarding the water resistance of their products with a grain of salt (no pun intended). Cameras manufacturers now use the IP code (International Protection Rating) to define the water resistance of their products in different circumstances (sprays, water jets, immersion, for instance), but the performance of older cameras was more loosely defined, and important safety margins have to be taken.


The Canon Powershot D10


Canon D10 (source: Canon)

Canon D10 (source: Canon)


With two old film cameras out of commission, I had to admit that underwater cameras do not age well, and that buying a new digital Point and Shoot camera was the safest solution if I wanted to bring back at least one picture from my trip. The Canon Powershot D10 was the winner of a dpreview test last summer. It is rated “IP8X” equivalent at 10m (33 ft), making it appropriate for beach activities and for snorkeling. The Canon D10 is a typical middle of the range digicam – with a 12 Mega Pixel sensor, a 35-105 equivalent zoom, and 18 different “special shooting modes”, including “underwater” and “beach”. Selecting a special shooting mode is the only thing the photographer can do: the camera will take care of the rest. It does a good job at it – most of the time – but the inability for the photographer to really control the exposure parameters can be frustrating in complex lighting situations (sunsets, for instance).


Rated for depths up to 10 meters, the Canon D10 can not be used for scuba diving, but can be brought along when snorkeling. Its “underwater” special shooting mode is very good at finding the right color balance, but the shutter lag is typical of a point and shoot camera (far to high), the autofocus reacts too slowly – or not at all, and pictures of mobile subjects are very difficult to take. The LCD monitor has to be “on” all the time, which drains the battery rapidly. That being said, a good diver should be able to bring back decent pictures of relatively static subjects located in shallow waters.


Lesson #4: even dpreview comparative test winners can not overcome the limitations of their middle of the range point and shoot origins. Waterproof digicams are small and light, and will be faithful companions of white water or snorkeling adventures. But they offer little control over the pictures and are limited to a few feet of depth, which explains why dedicated diver-photographers use high-end digicams or SLRs, that they protect with massive (and often massively expensive) underwater housings.


What good diver-photographers do


While on vacation, I had the pleasure to meet Dr Alain Feulvarc’h – he’s an MD, a passionate diver and amateur photographer who was volunteering as the scuba-doctor of our little group.


He was not on the boat to teach underwater photography, but he shared a few tidbits of information: like most of the diver-photographers, he’s using a digital SLR enclosed in a metal underwater housing, and equipped with a very wide angle (10mm) lens. He also uses a 100 mm macro for close ups. Most pictures are taken with a flash (one strobe at least), and at close distance from the subject. He does not rely on the automation capabilities of the camera, and operates in manual mode. Underwater photography is a fairly complex activity, and using digital technologies improves the learning curve dramatically. I was surprised to see that even underwater, some photographers took the time to check the histograms of their images, and to adjust their settings accordingly; this trial and error process would be impossible with film.


You can watch Dr Alain’s stunning pictures on Flickr.


Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon D10

Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon Powershot D10 - The star fish was lying on the sand, at a depth of 2m. (6 ft) approximately. It was well lit and static, and the camera had no difficulty capturing its image.




More about underwater photography


The excellent Photo.net published an interesting Underwater Photography Primer more than 10 years ago. At that time film photography still reigned supreme, but most of the principles exposed in the article still hold true.


The pictures of Alain Feulvarch are on Flickr (aka Alain76 on Flickr)


The characteristics of the Canon Powershot D10 are on Canon’s official site.


The Nikonos family on Photography in Malaysia‘s web pages


And for geekiest of us all, the detailed description of the IP ratings


March 22, 2010

Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ?

Filed under: Gear, Leica Cameras, Nikon Cameras — Tags: , , , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 11:03 pm


The facts


Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).


For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.


Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450


* No OM-3 or OM3 TI in excellent condition available – prices derived from eBay completed listings.


Nikon FM - Mechanical Shutter - It does not need batteries to operate. 1/1000s. Synchro Flash up to 1/125s


The reasons why


Buyers of film cameras belong to two non-mutually exclusive categories: collectors looking for rare, technically or historically significant cameras, and photographers looking for an alternative to modern all automatic digital cameras. Each category has different reasons for preferring cameras with mechanical shutters, which also happen to be manual exposure cameras.

  • Collectors


    One can only speculate when trying to understand what makes a camera valuable on the collectors’ market. Rarity and the perceived technical value of the camera are probably the two main factors driving the price of film SLRs on the second hand market. In the decade which saw the end of manual focus cameras (from 1980 to 1990), automatic exposure cameras sold in greater number than their manual exposure equivalent. Manual exposure cameras were already considered a specialty item, when automatic exposure SLRs were more mainstream, even for professional activities (Nikon F3, Canon T90). Even Leica users, who are among the most respectful of traditions, bought more automatic R7 than manual R6.2 in the nineties (29,500 vs 22,500 units produced).


    The case for the technical value is more difficult to make. Electronic cameras offering multiple auto-exposure modes were very elaborate, and could be considered more valuable technically than simpler manual exposure SLRs, but this technical sophistication is now seen as an unnecessary source of complexity and unreliability.


    The same way mechanical watches appeal to the collector who will ignore electronic time pieces, SLRs built around a mechanical shutter are generally more sought after than their electronic siblings. And when the manufacturer originally positioned the manual exposure camera as a high price/low volume item, the collectors go crazy about it. The Olympus OM-3TI sold for more than $1,500 when new, and only 4,000 were produced. No wonder that it’s extremely difficult to find now, and that it can reach prices in excess of $3,000.


  • Nikon FE2 - Electronically controlled shutter - it needs 2 silver oxide or one lithium battery to operate. 1/4000s - synchro flash up to 1/250s - backup mechanical shutter speed: 1/250s

  • Users


    I don’t know what is the proportion of buyers of film cameras who actually use them. I hope a lot of them do. Photographers may use film cameras as a way to learn the basics of photography, as a backup – in case the battery or the electronics of their dSLR goes on strike, or because they like the direct control over the aperture, shutter speed and focus provided by cameras built before the advent of all-electronic-all automatic SLRs.


    To my taste, aperture priority automatic exposure cameras are faster and easier to use their manual exposure equivalents – I miss a smaller proportion of potential interesting shots in auto exposure mode – and provided they benefit from some form of exposure memorization, automatic cameras will yield a higher proportion of good pictures than what I would get with manual cameras.


    But I recognize I may be an exception. Photographers generally have two issues with auto exposure cameras: their dependency on batteries, and their supposed absence of reliability of their electronic circuits as they age.


    When the battery of an auto exposure camera is dead, the camera will – in the best of the cases – limp on a single back-up mechanical shutter speed (1/60sec or 1/125s for most of the cameras, 1/250s for the Nikon FE2 or FA). The silver oxide batteries used in the eighties did not like cold temperatures, and auto exposure cameras were not ideal when attempting to shoot winter sports. But batteries are small, light and inexpensive, and keeping a set of fresh batteries in the camera bag is not too big of a constraint. Most cameras from the eighties can now use CR1/3n Lithium batteries, which have a very long (10 years) shelf life and are much more resistant to the cold than the silver oxide batteries commonly sold 30 years ago.


    Manual exposure cameras have a mechanical shutter which wears with time, but is supposed to be easier to service or repair than the electronic controlled shutter of automatic cameras. Electronic components do not always age well, and can not be serviced or repaired; if they fail, they have to be replaced, and since they are not available from the manufacturers anymore, a circuit failure makes the camera as useful as a paperweight. Unless the photographer has an alternate source of spare parts, of course. If you really like a particular model of automatic camera, the best solution is probably to buy an extra one (or two) for parts, just in case.


  • The reason for the exceptions


    Hybrid Shutter of the Nikon FM3a

    The Hybrid Shutter of the FM3a - It can operate as a mechanical or as an electronic controlled shutter - Source: Nikon's official web site


    There is no rule without a small list of exceptions. Two exceptions have to be mentioned.

  • The manual Olympus OM-1 is less expensive than its automatic siblings, the OM-2 and OM2-s. It’s a camera of the early seventies, which was produced in the millions during a fourteen years production run, and needs batteries of a type outlawed in the US since the eighties. There are substitutes, but they come with limitations (see the article about batteries in Photoetnography.com). The OM-2 and OM-2s work with easy to find alcaline or silver oxide batteries.

  • The Nikon FM3a. Built as a limited series camera by Nikon from 2001 to 2006, the FM3A combines in the same body the mechanical components and the electronic circuits needed to operate as a manual, mechanical shutter camera, and as an automatic, electronic shutter SLR. The best of both worlds. Its unique characteristics combined with relatively low production numbers (for a Nikon SLR) explain its high value on the second hand market: at least $500 for a nice one, much more for like-new items in their original box.



    More


    A good source for second hand cameras: KEH


    Everything you need to know about camera batteries: photoethnography.com


    Casa Batlo (lamp) - Barcelona - Jan 2009 - Nikon FM

  • March 3, 2010

    Innovative Metering – World Class Shutter – Conventional Ergonomics – the Nikon FA

    Filed under: Gear, Nikon Cameras — Tags: , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 1:45 am


    The Nikon FA is the last major manual focus SLR launched by Nikon. An evolution of the FM2 and FE2 cameras, it shares with the latter most of its body shell, a very fast shutter (up to 1/4000sec., 1/250sec. flash synchro speed) and a TTL flash metering mechanism. It finally catches up with Canon’s A1 and offers the same four automatic exposure modes (aperture and shutter priority, program and semi-auto).


    Its “Automatic Multipoint Metering” (AMP) – a world premiere – is its real claim to fame. Better known under names such as “matrix”, “evaluative” or “multi-segmented” metering, it is now the default metering system of every dSLR in production.


    Launched in 1983, this conservatively styled camera with very conventional ergonomics had a relatively short sales career. It was made obsolete in 1985 when Minolta took the market by storm with its first autofocus SLR, the 7000 (Maxxum 7000 in the US). Minolta’s competitors, Nikon included, spent the best part of the following three years trying to catch up. The FA stayed on Nikon’s catalog until 1988, and was not replaced. Its semi-automatic sibling, the FM2n would be sold until 2001, when the FM3a, a sort of combination of the best characteristics of the FM2 and the FE2, was launched.

    Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor

    An impressive (and heavy) camera: the Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor drive.


    The metering system


    Until the FA was launched, most of the cameras only offered some form of center weighted metering: the exposure sensor evaluated the luminosity of the whole scene, and because the sky is typically in the upper third of the frame, and the main subject of the picture in the center, it was designed to give more importance to the portion of the picture located at the center of the lower part of the frame.


    It worked for most of the cases. If the subject was back-lit and not centered, the photographer had to determine the exposure with the subject at the center of the frame, memorize the exposure settings, and move the camera to compose the desired picture.


    Some high end cameras also had a second exposure metering system, which evaluated the luminosity of a much narrower portion of the scene, almost a spot in the middle of the viewfinder. But spot metering and exposure memorization are not always easy to use , and are far from being idiot proof. The engineers at Nikon were pretty sure that with the newly unleashed power of integrated circuits, they could develop a new approach.


    It was introduced with the FA, as the Automatic Multi Pattern (AMP) exposure system. The camera was equipped with a database containing the mathematical description of thousands of real world pictures taken by Nikon technicians, with the exposure value that had given the best results in each situation. The light meter was divided in five zones (a large central zone, two zones at the bottom left and right, two zones at the top, left and right also), and the electronic circuit would correlate the exposure value of each zone with other elements such as the focal length of the lens to define the characteristics of the scene, and associate it with one of the many typical pictures described in the database of the camera.

    Nikon FA (knob controlling the exposure mode: matrix or center weighted)

    Nikon FA: the small and unmarked knob controlling the exposure mode (matrix or center weighted) is on the side of the lens mount housing, at the top of this picture


    The Nikon engineers were so sure of the superiority of their AMP that they did not even equip the FA with an exposure memorization button – which so far had been a standard feature on high end automatic cameras. They just installed a little unmarked on-off switch on the right side of the lens mount housing, that conservative photographers could use to set the camera in the conventional “average center weighted metering” of yesteryear.


    More about Matrix Metering and the alternatives developed by other manufacturers in this article of CamerAgX.


    The ergonomics


    The beauty of most manual SLRs resides in part in the simplicity of their commands. Each knob, switch, lever has only one function. If you turn the aperture ring on a semi-auto camera, the preselected aperture will change. Similarly, if you turn the shutter speed knob , the selected shutter speed will change.


    The introduction of a automatic exposure did not really change the ergonomics. On a camera with aperture priority automatic exposure, you just had to select the “A” position of the shutter speed knob to let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically, and similarly on a camera with shutter speed priority, positioning the aperture ring on “A” indicated that you were willing to let the automatism manage the aperture for you.


    Developing simple ergonomics became more difficult with cameras that could alternatively operate in semi-auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and program auto exposure modes. Most manufacturers added a big four way switch on the top panel, which could be set in Program, Shutter, Aperture or Manual. But when the PSAM switch was set on P or A, the shutter value did not match what was shown on the shutter speed knob, as shown in the example below.

    Nikon FM detail of the shutter speed knob

    On a semi-auto camera (like this Nikon FM) the shutter speed knob and the aperture ring of the lens show the actual shutter and aperture settings that will be used to take the picture (in this example 1/500sec, F8)

    Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector

    On the Nikon FA, the value displayed on the shutter speed knob will not necessarily be used to take the picture. In this example, the camera is set in A (aperture priority) mode and the shutter speed will be determined by the electronics of the camera.


    On the Nikon implementation, the photographer also had to remember to set the aperture ring to the smallest aperture, and the indications in the viewfinder (a very small LCD display showing alternatively the speed or the aperture selected) did not really help.


    The ergonomics of modern “all-electric” cameras are totally different. The aperture ring and the speed knob are gone, leaving room to an “electronic input dial” and to a large LCD. Not as intuitive and immediate as the knobs and rings or yesteryear, but far simpler than the complex combinations of knobs and switches of the Nikon FA.


    Using a Nikon FA as an everyday camera


    When it was launched, the FA was nicknamed the “techno-camera”. Positioned at the top of the FM-FE family of cameras, it came with an impressive specs sheet: matrix metering, multi-mode exposure automatism, very fast shutter, on-the-film (OTF) flash metering. Its detachable motor drive was reasonably fast (3.2 frames per second) and could power the camera (and save the precious LR44 batteries).
    With the exception of the prism housing (in polycarbonate), the camera is still built in metal, and is very nicely finished. If the complex electronics from the early eighties survived, the FA is still perfectly usable, and will take great pictures.


    Should you buy a Nikon FA? That’s a matter of taste. More recent cameras (film or digital) provide the same technical features, but with their large LCDs and their electronic dials, they’re easier to use and less conducive to set up errors than the FA. The AMP metering of the FA is still relatively primitive – it did not reach the level of performance of today’s matrix metering, and it deprives the photographer of his control over the exposure. Switching to the center weighted mode does not really offer more control, unless the semi-auto exposure mode is used, because no exposure memorization mechanism has been provided.


    The Nikon FE2 or the FM3a share some of the technical advances of the FA (the titanium shutter and the flash metering in particular), but their simpler ergonomics (match needle in the viewfinder, shutter speed knob and aperture ring always showing the actual settings) as well as their more predictable exposure metering make them a better fit for photographers who want to be in immediate control of the basic settings of the camera.


    The value of the camera on the used market reflects this. In spite of its impressive list of specs, the FA sells for approximately the same price as the Nikon FE2 ($125 to $200 on eBay depending on the condition of the camera), below the FM2n (approx. $250) and far below the FM3a ($500 and above).


    Nikon FA with handgrip

    The handgrip (on the left) has to be removed to leave room for the MD-15 motor. As a consequence, this tiny accessory has often been lost and most surviving FAs don't have it.


    More about the Nikon FA


    The Usual Suspects…


    Nikon’s own words: Imaging Products-Nikon Family- Nikon FA and FE2


    Photography in Malaysia (MIR) The Nikon FA


    Ken Rockwell: The Nikon FA


    American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400

    February 6, 2010

    Sears SL11 from 1964 – a relabeled Ricoh SLR with a Nikon F mount.

    Filed under: Gear, Nikon Cameras, Weird cameras — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 11:49 pm


    Few cameras have more obscure and incestuous origins than this one.


    At the beginning of the Sixties, Mamiya was ready to launch its first 35mm SLR, the Prismat, and following a suggestion of its US importer, agreed to develop and manufacture a version of the camera for Nippon Kogaku, the maker of the already famous Nikon F. The Nikkorex F was launched in 1962, at half the price of the model F. Nikon expected that the new camera would penetrate the amateur phographer market and increase the sales potential of the Nikkor lenses. Nikon learned quite a few things in the process, and put that experience to good use when they launched the Nikomat in June 1965.


    In 1964, Ricoh presented the Singlex, which was very similar to the Nikkorex F, F mount included. It is unclear whether Ricoh was just relabeling cameras made by Mamiya, or whether they had bought the plans and the tooling after Nikon and Mamiya had lost interest in their joint venture. In any case, Ricoh was one of the main manufacturers supplying Sears-Roebuck with private label cameras, and the Singlex was rapidly incorporated to the Sears catalog under the Sears SL11 moniker.


    The Sears SL11 with the standard Rikenon 55mm lens

    The Sears SL11 with the standard Rikenon 55mm lens


    Technically, it can be argued that the Ricoh and Sears cameras were not using the real “F” mount, but only a very close variant: Nikon’s bayonet mount is using lugs to help position the lens on the body (3 body-side lugs imbricated with 3 lens-side lugs). On the Ricoh and Sears bodies, one of the lugs was shorter than Nikon’s , leaving room for a larger lug on the lens side. As a consequence, a Nikon lens with its “small lug” could be mounted on the Ricoh and Sears camera bodies, but the “big lug” Rikenon lenses shipped with the cameras could not be mounted on a Nikon body.


    In 1967, Ricoh and Sears replaced the Singlex and the SL11 with new models designed and built by Ricoh. They did not use the Nikon F mount, but the ubiquitous 42mm screw mount, and were equipped with a TTL CdS exposure meter. It seems that Ricoh and Sears designated the new models with the same Singlex and SL11 names as the models they were replacing, at least for a while. The cameras were also sold as Ricoh Singlex TLS and Sears SLS or TLS in the subsequent years. As we can see, using confusing product references is not a recent practice.


    How to spot a Sears SL11?

    The Sears label on the pentaprism housing. The Sears retained the accessory holder of the Nikkorex.

    The Sears label is glued on the pentaprism housing. The Sears SL11 retained the vertical accessory holder of the Nikkorex, at the left of the mount.

    The Copal metal shutter

    The Copal metal shutter. Mamiya was the first camera manufacturer to use a vertical Copal shutter. Nikon and Ricoh kept it in the Nikkorex and the Singlex.

    Made by Ricoh

    On the back of the body, the name of Ricoh is engraved. There are some traces of glue. A Sears label may have covered Ricoh's name originally.


    Using the Sears SL11


    The big difference between film and digital photography is that the body of a film camera does not play such an important role as the body of a digital camera in the final quality of the picture. If the photographer is technically competent and has enough time to set up the camera, any Single Lens Reflex with no light leak and an accurate shutter will give good results, provided a good film and a good lens can be used.


    Marietta-the wall of the train station

    Marietta, GA- The wall of old the train station. The shutter release of the SL11 is very sensitive, and this picture was taken accidentally. The camera took the decision for me and I tend to like the result.


    With a recent Nikon fast prime lens and fine grain film, the SL11 will not be as convenient to use as a modern film SLR (no exposure metering, no autofocus), but if the subject is static or cooperative, there will be little difference as far as the pictures are concerned.


    The SL11 is a fairly large and heavy camera – it’s larger than the Nikon F and with its standard 55mm lens, it tips the scale at more than 1.2 kilos. I’ve also held a Nikkorex F in hands, and both cameras share the same matte aluminum finish, which seems very difficult to keep clean in the long run (dust and grease seem like ingrained in the camera’s outer shell). The body shell of the Sears model is not exactly similar to the Nikon’s, but the SL11 is absolutely identical to the Ricoh Singlex, with the exception of a Sears label pasted on the prism cover; Ricoh’s name is engraved on the back of the camera, so that there s no doubt on its origin.


    As can be expected from a camera designed in 1962, no exposure meter has been incorporated, and the photographer will have to rely on his experience, on a hand exposure meter or on the Sunny 16 rule to determine the right aperture/shutter speed combination. The camera and the lens support Nikon’s automatic aperture pre-selection, and the diaphragm stays at full aperture until the shutter release is pressed. As a consequence, and surprisingly for a camera that old, the viewfinder is very bright.


    In the field, the camera surprises with a very sensitive shutter release, and the very high demultiplication of the focusing ring of the lens seriously slows down the operations. As expected, the shutter is rather loud. The lens is still very good. There is some flare in back-lit situations, but at mid aperture (f:8 or f:11), it produces razor sharp pictures.


    A camera without a built-in exposure meter is too slow to use to my taste, but this one is an interesting curiosity. Compatible with any Nikon lens made in the last 50 years, provided it has an aperture ring, it will find a place in the equipment bag of a “Nikonist” between a FE2 and a D300, for a film roll of nostalgia.



    More about the SL11 and its cousins


    The Sears SL11 with a Nikon 24mm AF lens. It simply works.

    The Sears SL11 with a Nikon 24mm AF lens. The SL11 is compatible with any Nikon lens provided it has an aperture ring.


    The common ancestor: the Mamiya Prismat NP.
    Ron Herron’s site is totally dedicated to Mamiya 35mm cameras.


    The predecessor of the SL11: the Nikkorex F and Nikon’s own version of its history, reported by Kenji Toyoda.
    Kenji Toyoda went to the source and talked to the Nikon engineers who worked on the development of models such as the FM, the FE or the FA. For Nikon, they’re “the best of the rest”.


    Nikon’s official Web site offers a very detailed history of the most important cameras of the company: More about the history of the Nikon cameras – the legendary and the other ones : Nikon Imaging Products


    A few sites have a pages dedicated to the twins of the SL11:
    – the Ricoh Singlex (first model).
    – another source of information for the Singlex and the Nikkorex F : Richard de Stoutz and his Nikon F collection.


    As explained above, Ricoh and Sears kept on using the Singlex and SL11 names after they abandoned the original design of Mamiya. The user manual of Ricoh Singlex TLS of 1967 is still available.
    The Sears labeled version of the camera is also shown here as the Sears SLS.


    Marietta, GA - Jan. 2010

    Marietta, GA - Jan. 2010 - Sears SL11 with Rikenon lens (55mm f:1.4)-Lodak CN400

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