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

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

Canon-T90-6566
Canon T90 with Asahi Pentax Super Takumar (35mm f/2)

How is it even possible?

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

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

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

canon_sales_catalog_1969_lens_adapters
Canon Lens Mount Converters – from Canon’s 1969 System Equipment catalog (courtesy: Pacificrim.com)

42mm screw mount lenses

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

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

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

 

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

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

Not all 42mm screw mount lenses are created equal

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

Nikon lenses

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

Canon-T90-6586
Pixco Nikon AI to FD adapter (bought on eBay)

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

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

Does it work? 

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

  • screw the adapter on the lens
Canon-T90-6585
The screw mount to FD adapter.
  • Mount the lens on the Canon T90
  • Set the lens to “M”
Canon-T90-6571
Asahi Pentax Super Takumar lens – it has to be set to “manual”
  • push the stopped down metering lever
Canon-T90-6574
The stopped down metering / depth of field preview lever has to be pushed towards the lens.
  • turn the camera ON
  • set the Exposure Mode to “T” (for shutter priority exposure)
Canon-T90-6570
Canon T90 – the settings for shooting stopped down in semi-auto exposure mode
  • turn the aperture ring or the control wheel (controlling the shutter speed) to adjust the exposure as if it was a Canon FL lens used stopped down (the “OP” message on the viewfinder’s LED panel means “Open the iris”, “CL” stands for “close the iris” and “oo”  for “you nailed it”.
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T90 – semi-auto mode – stopped down. Correct exposure – (cursor and triangle aligned on bar graph, “oo” message)
  • Of course, you operate stopped down – but it’s not so much of an issue:
    • the viewfinder of the T90 is very bright and the matt screen very fine, you can focus accurately up to f/8 if you shoot outside on a sunny day,
    • photographers are unlikely to mount slow lenses on the camera, or to shoot at F/16. They will most probably use the converters to mount old and ultra-luminous lenses on the T90, for the bokeh, and for the way the pictures shot with old lenses look.

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

Canon-T90-6576
Canon T90 with a Nikon 50mm AF lens. It can be physically mounted but the exposure is off by at least 1 stop (compared to FL or FD lenses)

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

Does it make sense?

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

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

Canon-T90-6591
Canon FT with Nikkor AI lens – it’s not because it’s possible that you should do it.

Other Canon bodies

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

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

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

 

 

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Pentax Spotmatic SP – why was it a disappointment? (for me)

Some cameras are a source of disappointment. Because they carry a famous brand name, had the privilege of being “the first camera to do this or that”, and because they still look cool, you feel compelled to buy one, and you don’t like it. Or don’t trust it. You don’t use it, and you sell it.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – Pentax Super-Takumar 35mmf/2

I had all the reasons to like the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic. I’m sympathetic to the brand – my first reflex camera was a Pentax MX that I kept for 15 years and my first digital SLR was a Pentax *ist DS (what a name!). Pentax also tends to make relatively small cameras,  and I tend to prefer small cameras to large ones. And I had bought a very nice Super Takumar 35mm f/2 lens a few months before, to use on a mirrorless digital camera,  and wanted to see how it would behave on the camera it had originally been designed for.

Historically, the Spotmatic is important. It was the first SLR from one of the 4 major vendors to offer Through the lens (TTL) stopped down metering as early as 1964. (Topcon had launched the RE Super with TTL metering at full aperture in 1963, but it did not have the installed base and the market presence of Asahi Pentax and did not make the same impact).

The Spotmatic was not an automatic camera (it just offered semi-automatic exposure determination with a matching needle setup) and although spot metering was implemented on the prototypes presented initially to the press, the models sold to the public determined the exposure with an average metering system.

The Spotmatic was so successful on the marketplace that Pentax did not feel the need to mess with it – the model remained virtually unchanged until the Spotmatic SP II was launched in 1971. Which only brought cosmetic improvements.

The first significant evolution was the Spotmatic F (in 1973), the first model of the series to support full aperture metering, but it required new lenses with a specific mount (a proprietary evolution of the universal 42mm screw mount that Pentax had been championing since the fifties), that it shared with Asahi’s first automatic SLR, the Pentax ES. The Spotmatic F was short lived: in 1975, Pentax introduced the K series (KM, KX, K2) and the K bayonet mount, effectively retiring the Spotmatic line and the M42 lenses.

Why the disappointment? 

Maybe I’ve been spoiled. Or lucky. Or maybe Nikon cameras of the manual focus era were really superiorly built and exceptionally solid. But none of the Nikon SLRs have bought so far have shown any reliability issue, or any marked weakness.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the cloth shutter – one of the weak points of the camera

The first Spotmatic I bought was a SP500. It looked very nice on the pictures of the auction site, but when I received it, the shutter proved defective. Spotmatics have a textile horizontal shutter, and after the first curtain opens, the second curtain is pulled by two very narrow bands of textile. One was broken. Once you include shipping, the cost of the repair is probably in the $100.00 range. Much more than what the camera is worth. So it’s collecting dust.

The seller of the second Spotmatic I bought (the SP shown here) promised me it would work, and it does. It makes the right moves. The shutter fires at all speeds, the metering system seems relatively accurate with modern silver oxide batteries (good enough for print film, maybe not for slides), but it often takes two or three actions on the wind lever to arm the shutter, and the lever you have to lift to activate the metering (at the left of the lens flange) is very stiff and does not always come back into position after a picture has been shot (it did not on the SP500 either, so it’s probably a design feature).

Pentax Spotmatic SP. The base plate with the battery door.

I believe that those issues are related to the fact that the Spotmatic, like most of the cameras of its generation, is designed to let you compose at full aperture, but requires that you determine the exposure with the iris of the lens closed at the pre-selected value (you measure the exposure “stopped down”). I’ve yet to see a good implementation of stopped down metering (maybe Praktica cameras, I’ve never used them) . More often than not, it’s an ergonomics disaster: in the case of the Spotmatic, you have to hold firmly the camera with the right hand, use your left thumb to lift the metering lever (it’s stiff, you have to push hard and the upwards movement is not very natural), and use your remaining left hand fingers to adjust the aperture (stretch your fingers, you can do it) or the shutter speed (no, you can’t unless your fingers are as long as ET’s).

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the camera is compact compared to the monsters sold by Nikon or Canon during the same period, with a clean lines and a toned down design.

In the end, I did not trust the camera enough to bring it with me for a vacation in the  mountains. I don’t take pictures of brick walls and don’t shoot the same studio scene over and over. I use my cameras in the real life. At the risk of coming back without a picture if the camera decides it has enough.  I did not want to take the risk of missing a whole week of good picture opportunities because the camera had decided to misbehave. And I had no backup camera that could use the same lenses. So at the last minute, I removed the Spotmatic from my photo bag and replaced it with a Nikon FM.

Pentax Spotmatic SP with Asahi’s Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 lens

I like the Super Takumar 35mm lens very much though. Like most of the large aperture lenses of its generation, it tends to be a bit soft, but what a wonderful bookeh. It seems to work particularly well when mounted on an APS-C digital camera (where it becomes a 50mm equivalent).


What was the competition doing when Asahi Pentax was selling the Spotmatic? 

The Canon FT/QL and the Pentax 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.

Asahi had a head start. When they launched the Pentax Spotmatic in 1964, none of the other big vendors had anything comparable: most of them were offering cameras with an external cell, sometimes optional and removable (Nikon Nikkorex), sometimes integrated, with its own little lens on the left side of the camera body (Minolta S7). The Spotmatic would remain the sole camera from a major vendor with through the lens metering for two years.

  • Canon launched FT QL in 1966 (stop down TTL) with the FL mount. Canon would only adopt Full Aperture metering with the FTb and the FD lens series in 1971.
  • Nikon and Minolta implemented full aperture through the lens metering (Nikon without changing its bayonet mount, and Minolta with a new  version of its SR bayonet, introduced on the MC Rokkor lenses). The Photomic T viewfinder for the Nikon F and the Nikkormat FT were Nikon’s first implementations of TTL metering (launched at the end of 1965).  Minolta’s SR-T 101, released in 1966, had an interesting arrangement of two CdS cells in the viewfinder, that were used to provide some form of weighted average metering (Minolta called it “Contrast Light Compensation system”, or CLC).

More about the differences between stopped down and full aperture metering in another page of this site.


Horace, French Bulldog – Shot with the Pentax Super Takumar 35mm f/2 mounted on a Fujifilm X-T1.

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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

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