Nikon N90s/F90x – why almost nobody seems to like auto-focus film SLRs

When kids take a photography class in high school, the teachers typically recommend cameras like the Pentax K1000. If you Google “best learner camera for film photography”, most of the sites making the top of the list will recommend the Pentax K1000 (again), or cameras such as the Canon AE-1 (often), the Nikon FM, the Minolta X-700 or the Olympus OM family. All are manual focus cameras, all were launched in the seventies or in the early eighties,  and most of them only offer semi-automatic (some people call it “manual”) exposure.

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The Nikon FE2 of 1983 is objectively not as capable as the N90s (F90X) – but it’s more sought after. Nobody seems to like auto-focus SLRs from the early nineties.

 

James Toccio in his blog “Casual Photophile” is almost the only one to make the case that newcomers to film photography should start with a camera from the mid nineties, because with its multi-mode auto-exposure and reliable auto-focus system, it’s more similar to the current  digital cameras, and will yield much better results for an untrained photographer than a semi-auto/manual focus camera from the seventies (in: Casual Photophile – How to cheat at Film Photography)

James may have a point here. And if you look for a reliable, auto-focus multi-mode SLR with great performance and a large supply of lenses, the Nikon N90s is a very good choice.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very capable cameras to be had for next to nothing.

Unfortunately, if the value of a camera on the second hand market is any indication, most buyers disagree:  very good enthusiast-oriented auto-focus SLRs from the mid-nineties such as the N90s or the Minolta Maxxum 9xi seldom sell for more than $25.00, in the same ball park as the very primitive K1000, with more amateur-oriented auto-focus SLRs (such as Minolta’s Maxxum 400si or Nikon’s N6006) struggling to reach the $10.00 mark.

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The Nikon N90s was sold as the F90X in the most of the world (in fact, anywhere but in the USA). Note the trademark Nikon Red Stripe on the front grip –

The Nikon N90s

Nikon joined the auto-focus market shortly after Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000.  Its first auto-focus SLRs were slow to focus – even the flagship F4, but it did not matter much at the beginning, at least not until Canon launched the EOS-1, and showed what a good auto-focus camera should be able to do. From there on, Nikon had to play catch-up. It took them almost 10 years to do so (with the F5 & F100 bodies and the motorized AF-S lenses), and in the meantime, Nikon’s cherished pros kept on defecting to Canon in droves.

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The N90/N90S – In terms of design, uncomfortably seating between the analog Nikons (F, F2, F3, FM, FE) manual focus bodies,  and the modern auto-focus generation (F100, F6, D700, D800).

 

Launched in  1992, the N90 (named F90 in the rest of the world) was Nikon’s first real response to the EOS series. Officially, the N90 was designed for committed enthusiasts. But scores of pros also bought the N90, because it had the best auto-focus system Nikon could provide at the time. The  “N90s” aka “F90X” that rapidly followed was a level of performance above the N90 (improved auto-focus and weather sealing),  with a mission  to retain the pros who had fallen in love with the Canon EOS system until the launch of the F5.

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The aperture value is controlled by the aperture ring of the lens itself (and not by a second control wheel at the front of the grip as is the case with more recent SLRs or dSLRs)
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

    Size, weight, features and ergonomics

    Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

The N90s is a typical auto-focus SLR of the mid-nineties – with a black polycarbonate shell and high levels of automation:  auto-exposure with the conventional Aperture Priority, Shutter priority, Program and Manual (understand semi-auto) modes, Matrix, Weighted average and spot metering, and motorized film loading and rewind. Compared to its lesser amateur oriented siblings, the N90 has no built-in flash, but a better shutter (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250), a better viewfinder and runs on AA batteries (instead of the harder to find and more expensive lithium batteries).

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Nikon N90s – a single control wheel at the right of the top place – the main ergonomic difference with modern “Enthusiast-oriented” Nikon AF SLRs and dSLRs, which have two.

Apart from the build quality and the use of Nikon F lenses, the N90S has very little in common with the previous generation of “enthusiast” and “pro” cameras, the FE2 and the F3. While not as bulky as a modern full frame dSLRs (like the D810), N90s is larger than the FE2, as heavy as the F3, and very close to the D7500 in its dimensions and weight.

Nikon Film Cameras Nikon dSLRs
FE2 F3 N90/N90s D7500 D810
35mm film 35mm film 35mm film Digital – APS-C (DX) Digital (full frame – FX)
weight (g) 550g 760g 755g 640g 980g
height (mm) 90mm 101mm 106mm 104mm 123mm
width (mm) 142mm 148mm 154mm 136mm 146mm
  • Viewfinder
    In my opinion, the long eye point viewfinder of the N90 is one of the two reasons to prefer the camera to a FE2, the other one being its very accurate matrix metering. With a magnification of 0.78, a 19mm eyepoint and 92% coverage, it’s a good compromise between magnification (the image is large enough) and the eye point distance (at 19mm, it’s conformtable for photographers wearing glasses).
    It’s not as good as the high-point viewfinder of the F3, but much wider than the viewfinder of a conventional SLR such as the FE2 – and of course than the narrow viewfinder of APS-C dSLRs.It’s also very luminous, not as much as a modern full frame dSLR (such as a d700), but much more than its Minolta competitors of the nineties.All the necessary information is grouped on a green LCD display at the bottom of the screen.The only significant difference with modern Nikon cameras (and with Minolta cameras from the nineties) is that there is no LCD overlay to show information (such as the area of the image chosen by the auto-focus system) – considering there is only one central autofocus area, it’s not much of an issue.

 

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The information is grouped at the bottom of the screen – it’s less crowded than the viewfinder of a modern dSLR.
  • Shutter, metering and auto-focus system:
    The shutter is still at the state of the art (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250). Nikon’s matrix metering was considered the best in the nineties, and it’s still very good. You can trust it most of the time. The auto-focus (a single sensor, in the middle of the screen) is reactive, accurate, and works well in low light situations.
  • Lens selection and accessories compatibility
    Designed for Nikon’s “screw drive” AF lenses (Nikon AF and AF-D lenses), the N90 also works with AI and AI-S lenses – basically, anything sold by Nikon after 1977. The camera can also focus with modern Nikon AF-S lenses (the ones with the focus motor in the lens), and works in Program and Shutter Priority modes with lenses devoid of an aperture ring (most of the current Nikon AF-S lenses).It can’t work with them in Aperture preferred or Manual (semi-auto) mode, because there is no way for the photographer to directly set the aperture.It is not compatible with pre-AI lenses (unless they’ve been converted to AI, of course) and can not take advantage of the vibration reduction (VR) function of the recent lenses.
    The N90 was part of Nikon’s line of Enthusiast and Pro cameras, and many accessories (the remote control systems, for instance) are still inter compatible with Nikon’s current Enthusiast and Pro dSLRs. The flash systems are downwards compatible (you can use a recent Nikon flash on the N90, but the opposite is not true).
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Fifteen years separate those cameras. But the connectors (PC Sync, Remote) and the buttons (AF settings) are still at the same place.
  • Reliability
    The N90’s polycarbonate film door was initially covered with a sort of mat soft skin which has a tendency to peel.  Rubbing alcohol will take care of it, and will leave you with a shiny, naked camera. Apart from this somehow minor issue, it is a very solid and reliable camera.
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Nikon N90s – the film door was covered with a thin soft skin, which is peeling. It’s not specific to this copy – all N90 cameras suffer from this issue at various degrees.
  • Battery
    The N90 uses four AA batteries, which are cheap and easy to find, and do not seem to be depleting too fast.
  • Cost and availability
    I don’t have production figures for the N90. But the camera was a sales success, had a long production run, and has withstood the test of time pretty well. It is still easy to find. Supply apparently widely exceeds demand,  and the prices a incredibly low for a camera of such quality (if you’re lucky, $25.00 buys a good one).

Conclusion: why is this camera so unloved?

Objectively, the N90s is a very good film camera. It has a great viewfinder, you can trust its metering system and  its auto-focus. It is solid, reliable, and runs on cheap AA batteries. It’s designed to be used as an automatic camera, but lets you operate with manual focus lenses or in semi-auto exposure mode if you so wish. Why is it so unloved?

Because it’s a tweener. It’s far too modern for some, and not enough for others.

Its predecessor in the eighties, the FE2 and the F3, are simple cameras, with a single auto-exposure mode, average weighted metering and no integrated motor. They offer the minimum a photographer needs, and a few goodies at the top of that (shutter speed and aperture values displayed in the viewfinder, depth of field preview, exposure memorization). Nothing more.

The FE2 and the F3 are the cameras that a photographer will look for when he wants to work on his technical skills, as a pianist would do with his scales.

They will also appeal to photographers who believe that using a simple tool and following the deliberate process it imposes will help them create more authentic, more personal pictures.

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The N90S next to its predecessor of 1983 – autofocus, matrix metering, large long eye-point view finder, modal interface on the left, manual focus, center-weighted metering, and analog interface on the right.

For those photographers, the N90 is already a modern (understand feature bloated) electronic camera. It is not too  dissimilar in terms of ergonomics, commands, auto-exposure and auto-focus performance to a recent entry level dSLR  – except that you shoot with real film instead of relying on a digital sensor and on film simulation algorithms. The technical difficulties of photography are to a large extent masked: you can shoot for a whole day in the programmed auto exposure mode, with matrix metering and auto-focus,  simply concentrate on the composition of the pictures, and still get mostly good results.

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Nikon N90s next to a Nikon D700. High end cameras have a built in flash now. It was not the case in 1991.

But the N90’s successor – the Nikon F100 – is even better at producing technically perfect pictures with little human intervention. Manufactured from 1999 to 2006, it is  closer technically to the high-end dSLRs that Nikon is selling today (general organization of the commands, meter and auto-focus performance, full support of AF-S and VR lenses).  The F100 is a better choice for photographers shooting not only with film but also with a full frame Nikon dSLR  – they can use the same lenses and rely on their muscle memory because the commands are so similar between the F100 and a high end Nikon dSLR.

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Nikon N90s (front) and Nikon D700 (back). The cameras had the same place in the Nikon hierarchy (just below the top of the line F4 or D3 bodies). With “only” 17 switches or buttons, the interface of the N90S looks simple in comparison to the D700’s.

It relegates the N90S to a narrow niche of film photographers who want the convenience of auto-focus and automatic exposure, the build quality and the viewfinder of a pro-camera, without having to pay to the roof for the ultimate film SLR.


More about the Nikon N90s

Thom Hogan’s review : http://www.bythom.com/n90.htm

The Casual Photophile’s review: https://www.casualphotophile.com/2017/10/13/nikon-n90s-camera-review/


cherokee--6
Cherokee – Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400.

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The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


I briefly introduced the D700 in a recent post from the perspective of a collector and regular user of Nikon film cameras. Let’s see now how this ten year old dSLR compares with recent mirror-less cameras.

Impressive image quality, impressive white balance, impressive auto-focus

I’m not equipped to test a dSLR, and, honestly, I lack points of comparison. So I will just share a few thoughts.

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The d700 – one button or dial per command – an informative top plate LCD, and hundreds of options in the menus

Firstly, for a photographer used to Nikon dSLRs (I’ve had a D80 as my primary camera for almost 10 years until I switched to a mirrorless system), the D700 is very easy to apprehend.

It’s a conventional motorized auto-focus single lens reflex. There are more knobs, buttons and switches than on an enthusiast camera, the menus offer more options and a much greater level of customization, but the D700 is a camera a nikonist  will feel immediately comfortable with, without having to spend too much time buried in the manuals.

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Nikon D700 – a pro-camera with a very useful built-in flash (it controls Nikon’s cobras remotely)

Secondly, it’s a big and heavy camera. More than three pounds if equipped with a light prime lens or a consumer-grade zoom, almost five if equipped with one of the  f/2.8 wide angle or trans-standard zooms that the pros love to use.

Thirdly, its performance is still impressive for a ten year old camera. Admitedly it’s only a 12 Megapixel camera, but when it comes to overall image quality, dynamic range, white balance, auto-focus speed and exposure accuracy, it still holds its rank compared to recent mirrorless cameras.

The D700 – still the ergonomics of a conventional auto-focus SLR

Use a modern mirror-less camera and a D700 side by side – and it’s immediately obvious that the D700 is much closer to Nikon’s last auto-focus SLRs of the film era than to a Sony A7 series or a Fujifilm X-T2. And I’m not even considering the size.

IMG_1255
An electronic viewfinder (here the Fujifilm X-T1). It shows the picture as “seen” by the image sensor, and as it will be exposed. Information (like the artificial horizon or the histogram) can be overlaid if the photographers so chooses.

Modern mirrorless cameras have been designed to let the photographer not only frame but also visualize the image as it will be exposed directly on the big LCD monitor at the back of the camera, or in a high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

Sony and Fujifilm cameras have a large exposure compensation dial at the right of the top plate, just under the thumb of the photographer –  who can adjust the exposure values based on what is shown on the screen. The LCDs are now good enough to render accurately variations in exposure, contrast and image density  as the photographer plays with the settings, and in difficult lighting situations, it’s extremely helpful. What you see is really what you will get.

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The top plate of a mirror-less camera (Fujifilm x-t1). The exposure correction dial is large, and is easier to get to than the shutter speed knob. Note the Wi-Fi button, absent from the d700.

On the D700, the viewfinder, being optical, can not show the image as it will be exposed. And if the photographer plays with the exposure compensation settings, he will have to take one picture and then play it back to visualize what the corrections did to the images.

The D700 has a Live View mode, but it’s very primitive and can’t help with the exposure. It’s slow and relatively loud (the mirror first has to be lifted to clear the way to the sensor). The lens is locked at full aperture, and changes made to the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation) are not reflected on the LCD, and the depth of field can not be pre-viewed. Lastly, the LCD monitor is fixed, which further limits the usefulness of Live View – it still is difficult (acrobatic) to frame a picture with the camera close to the ground, or above the heads in a crowd.

IMG_1248
Live view 1.0 – it helps when working on a tripod (a detail of the image can be enlarged to facilitate focusing). But the LCD is fixed, and does not show the picture as it will be exposed.

ISO settings

The other difference is what you do with the ISO settings. The best cameras have reached such a performance level (almost no noise up to 6,400 ISO) that they can be left in Auto-ISO mode if the photographer so wishes. Instead of considering the ISO value as a constant and the shutter speed and the aperture as the variables (like in the old film  and early digital days), photographers can – for a given scene – set the aperture and the shutter speed to get the depth of field and the movement freeze they want, and let the camera adjust the ISO value to get to the right exposure. On cameras such the  Fujifilm X-T1 for instance, it is as easy to adjust the ISO value that it is to adjust the shutter speed, if you don’t want to rely on auto ISO. It’s not that the D700 could not be configured to react like a X-T1 (it supports Auto-ISO and you simply have to  press the ISO button on the top plate to  change the sensitivity with the control wheel), but it’s not a natural way to operate the camera.

Compact Flash reader and laptop required

Lastly, I have come to expect from a digital camera that it connects to a smart phone or a tablet over wi-fi, in order to edit and share jPEG pictures on the spot.

The D700 does not support Bluetooth or WiFi natively (it’s a camera from 2008). Eye-Fi cards (memory cards with a built-in wi-fi adapter) don’t exist in the Compact Flash format used by the D700. An  optional Nikon branded adapter is available (Nikon Wireless Transmitter WT-4), but it costs more than what I paid  for the camera. And when laptops have a slot for a memory card, that’s for an SD card, not for a Compact Flash.

For all practical purposes, this D700 will remain tied to a conventional PC  based workflow – and a traveling photographer will have to carry a laptop and a Compact Flash reader in addition to the camera (and find an Internet connection) if he/she wants to edit, publish or backup pictures while on the road.

Focusing with manual focus lenses

The focusing screen does not offer any of the focusing aids of a conventional manual focus camera (no micro-prism, no split image rangefinder), and no other focusing screen  is available from Nikon. When a manual focus lens is mounted on the camera, the auto-focus system is still providing information to the photographer (a green dot in the viewfinder when the lens is focused on the subject), and if the camera is installed on a tripod, you can use Live View and zoom into the image to check if the image will be in  focus. But you don’t have any of the fancy manual focus assist systems (Zebra, Focus Peaking, Digital Image Split) of modern mirror-less cameras.

IMG_1251 (1)
With a manual focus lens, the photographer can still chose the focus area (the black rectangle) and the green dot at the left of the LCD display indicates that the picture is on focus. No other focusing aid is available in the viewfinder.

That being said, the focusing screen is luminous, very fine, and the viewfinder is large (it’s a full frame camera, remember): when it comes to coverage and enlargement it sits somewhere between a N90 and a F3 HP. Getting the focus right with a wide-angle or standard lens does not seem too difficult, even without the focus assist modes.

IMG_1253
Nikon D700 – on a digital reflex camera, the photographer will see the image as it comes from the lens, but can not visualize how the sensor and the electronics of the camera will record it before the picture is taken (here with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D mounted on the camera)

Full frame digital – dSLR or mirror-less? 

As I’m writing this article (early 2018), the cheapest way to shoot “full frame” is to use second hand dSLRs such as the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700.

Shooting with conventional dSLRs with an optical viewfinder still has its benefits: the optical viewfinder is much easier on the eyes in bright light, the autofocus of dSLRs is still faster and more reliable, and the battery life far superior. If you compound that with  Nikon’s decades of experience serving the most demanding professional photographers, and a line of auto-focus lenses built over 30 plus years, you understand why their dSLRs still win comparative reviews when opposed to mirrorless cameras (check DPReview‘s end of the year Buying Guides: Nikon D7500 – best camera under $1,500Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000Nikon D850 – best camera over $2,000).

DPReview may still prefer dSLRs to mirrorless system cameras, but there’s no denying that  mirrorless cameras bring unique advantages: you can use indifferently the electronic viewfinder or the LCD monitor to compose your pictures, and you will visualize how the picture will be exposed before you shoot. I had never used the exposure compensation dial on any camera before,  because I never knew if I had to set it to +.5 or -.5 or whatever to get the exposure I wanted – I simply used to switch the camera to the manual exposure mode. On a mirrorless camera, exposure compensation becomes extremely easy to use because you see what it does in real time, not after the fact.

Although most mirror-less cameras systems have a very rich offering of native lenses, they are also very good bearers of old (manual focus) lenses, and they generally tend to be smaller and lighter than dSLRs.

IMG_1258
Non-CPU lenses (namely manual focus AI and AI-S lenses) can be preconfigured in the camera – the camera will base its matrix metering exposure on the actual focal length and the actual aperture of the lens – which should make it more accurate.
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Nikon D700 – when a manual focus lens is pre-configured in the camera, its actual F aperture value is displayed on the LCD (instead of the number of stops above full aperture).

Nikon and Canon are both widely rumored to be launching full frame mirror-less systems in the coming months. Because they’re late entrants on this market, Nikon and Canon can’t be content with “just average” cameras – you can expect their future mirror-less systems to raise the bar of performance to a level not yet reached by Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony. If they manage to preserve a good level of compatibility with their traditional dSLRs systems, many of their faithful customers will rapidly add one of the  new mirrorless models to their equipment bag. And it’s likely that the DPReview’s Buying Guides will put forward very different winners at the end of this year.

As for the D700,

it’s a very satisfying camera to use. Like the Nikon F3 in the world of film, it’s a unique opportunity for an amateur photographer to shoot with a tool built for professionals, but still of a manageable weight, size and complexity.

I don’t use my F3 that often, but taking pictures with a camera of such a build quality, with such a great viewfinder is an experience I enjoy from time to time. I suspect the D700 will follow the same path – I’ll shoot with a smaller and lighter APS-C mirrorless camera more often – when traveling in particular – but will go back to the D700 when I need to shoot digital, but still want to use my old Nikkor lenses and enjoy the true Nikon SLR experience.


How does a d700 compare with an entry-level APS-C dSLR such as the Nikon d3400, which can be had more or less for the same price? 

  • only  d700s with hundreds of thousands of actuations sell in the same price range as a new d3400. The d700 is a very solid and reliable camera, but buying a used d700 is riskier and could lead to high repair costs.
  • compared to the d3400, the d700 is a large and heavy camera, which will need larger, heavier and much more expensive full frame lenses.
  • the d700 is an old camera – it still requires to be used in a traditional workflow (Compact Flash cards instead of SD cards, no Bluetooth, no WiFi). Not that the d3400 fares particularly well in that regard – it also lacks WiFi, and neither the d700 or the d3400 have an articulated lcd monitor on the back of the body.

On the other hand,

  •  The choice of lenses is  limited on the d3400 (no wide-angle prime lens, only zooms). No such issue with the d700.
  • If you’re planning on using lenses of the film era (AI, AI-S, AF and AF-D lenses), the d700 is also a much better pick: it can meter with any of those lenses, it can auto-focus with conventional “screw-drive” auto-focus lenses, it does not “crop” the image, and its large viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.

d3400_d700_compare

  • regarding image quality, DXOmark, – for what it’s worth – rates a d3400 at 86, and a D700 at 80. Not everybody agrees with their methodology, but in their world  the d3400 with a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor and a dynamic range of 13.9 EVs is rated higher than a d700 with a full frame 12 Megapixel sensor and a dynamic range of 12.2 EVs. Interestingly, the d700 still leads in the high ISO race – they consider it’s usable up to 2,300 ISO, while a d3400 will peak at only 1,200 ISO. The benefit of the full frame imaging sensor, and of its relatively low pixel density.

Nikon_D700-7267
Max – Nikon D700 – Nikon 135mm f/3.5 AI – 1600 ISO – 1/60 sec.

 

Nikon D700 – an everyday camera and a future collectible?

A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.

Judging by  the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.

Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.

Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?

The sweet spot? 

I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.

And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.

But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?

Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:

– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was  huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.

– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser,  I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making  nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the  light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography  was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.

A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, auto-focus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.

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Nikon D700: the sensor and the user interface of a Nikon Professional camera in a (relatively) compact and light body.

When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.

380,000 Shutter Actuations

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Volkswagen Badge for 100,000 km Source: AlexWoa World of Accessories (eBay)

Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).

Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5)  reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).

In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way,  this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.

The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car

In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.

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Nikon D700 – I had to change the rubber grips – but the overall condition of this camera is remarquable considering it shot 190 pictures every business day for 8 years.

To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe:  the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the auto-focus mechanism of the top of the line D3 –  in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.

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Nikon D700 – One button for every function, locks on the rings – a true “pro” camera by Nikon’s standards

Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.

What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of  Nikon film cameras?

The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:

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Nikon F90X (N90s in North America) next to a D700 – the two cameras are 15 years apart, but they were designed for the same target audience of serious enthusiasts and pros who don’t want or need the very top of Nikon’s Profesionnal line.

Lens Compatibility

One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.

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Nikon D700 with Nikon Lens 50mm Series E – Aperture Preferred Auto Exposure and Semi Auto Exposure are offered on AI-S and AI lenses.

Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.

Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.

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Nikon D700 with 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor – as long as the lens supports Aperture Indexing (upgraded pre-AI lenses, and AI, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S lenses) it will work with the camera.

The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.

With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes:  they don’t  have the micro chip and the data bus of their auto-focus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.

Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support unmodifed pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).

Compatibility with other accessories

In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of   “prosumer” and professional  equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80 (which is a more consumer oriented camera).

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Nikon D700 (left) next to a F90X from the mid nineties – the remote control connector is still the same.

Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.

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The D700 shares the same round viewfinder accessory mount as the other “high-end” Nikon cameras (here a F90X on the right)

How much? 

On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.

The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still  have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.

A follow up to this blog entry: The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


More about the D700

Links:

Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time

Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility

Interesting reviews of the D700

http://ricksreviews.org/nikon-d700-review-2016-perspective/

https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-d700

Through the F Mount: a comparison of the D700 with the D4


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My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.

Semi Auto SLRs for beginners: Pentax Spotmatic F or Nikon FM ?

The Pentax Spotmatic F and the Nikon FM were probably never on the shelves of photo equipment stores at the same time – when Nikon launched the FM in 1977, Pentax had stopped selling their Spotmatic line of cameras and their m42 screw mount Takumar lenses one year earlier, and were promoting the more compact MX (semi-auto) and ME (automatic) SLRs and their new bayonet lens mount instead.

Logically, the Spotmatic F should be compared with cameras such as the Canon FTb, and the FM with the Pentax MX. But shooting with the Spotmatic F and the FM side by side is a good way to measure the progress made in usability and performance in a just few years.

  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics
    Looks can be deceiving. The two cameras are roughly the same size and both weight approximately 600g, but the Spotmatic looks taller and feels heavier.
    The ergonomics and the organization of the commands are very similar. Both cameras offer semi-automatic exposure – the Spotmatic F needs the SMC Takumar lenses (sold after 1971) to offer full aperture metering, while the FM needs Nikkor AI lenses (sold after 1977) or older lenses modified for Aperture Indexing to provide the same capability.
Spotmatic_NikFM-1
Pentax Spotmatic F and Nikon FM – almost exactly the same footprint – surprising…

The shutter of the FM has metallic blades traveling vertically, while the SPF uses a conventional horizontal textile shutter, with a slower electronic flash sync speed (1/60 sec instead of 1/125 sec), and – in my experience at least – a more questionable  reliability after a few decades of use.
Lastly, the FM can be equipped with a motor drive, which enables continuous film advance at 3.5 frames per second.

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Pentax Spotmatic F and Nikon FM – a very similar organization of the commands
  • Viewfinder
    That’s where the progress made in a few years is the most…visible. The focusing screen of the FM has a much finer grain, it’s significantly more luminous, and thanks to the combination of a split screen telemeter and a ring of bright micro prisms, focusing is much easier and therefore faster than on the Spotmatic.
    The viewfinder of the FM is also more informative –  it shows the selected aperture and shutter speed.
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Pentax Spotmatic F – just the matching needle for the exposure on the right, and a small area of micros prisms at the center

On the other hand, I could not have imagined that getting the focus right on the Spotmatic F would require such an effort – even with relatively luminous lenses – the focusing screen is dark, and there is no split screen telemeter to help the photographer when the micro-prism ring is not working. Cameras from the late seventies-early eighties are so much better in that regard – that alone is a reason to shoot with the Nikon FM rather than with the Spotmatic.

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Nikon FM – 3 LEDs to help with the semi-auto exposure, a split-image and a ring of micro prisms at the center, a disk showing the shutter speed on the left – a fine and luminous focusing screen.
  • Metering system
    The metering system of the Spotmatic F is derived from the first Spotmatic, and like almost all the cameras from the late sixties and early seventies, it’s build around a CdS cell and communicates the exposure value to the photographer with the needle of a galvanometer. CdS cells tend to react slowly to changing lighting conditions (they have memory) and the needle of the Spotmatic is not very precise. Move the aperture ring one stop up or one stop down, and the needle hardly moves. It’s accurate enough for negatives. Not sure it would be precise enough for slide film.
    The Nikon FM has a much faster GASP cell (they were all the rage in the late seventies, they were supposed to be better than Silicium cells – the Pentax MX had such a cell too). The right exposure is communicated to the photographer through a set of three red LEDs. The setup is very reactive, and more accurate than the needle of the Spotmatic F.
Spotmatic_NikFM-5
The big black lever with the white arrow is used for depth of field control with Full Aperture Metering lenses, and for metering on conventional m42 screw mount lenses
  • Battery
    The Spotmatic F still came with Mercury batteries (which have been outlawed in the western world for decades). But it’s very tolerant with the non-Mercury-based replacement batteries available today in every drugstore. The FM works with conventional 1.5v Silver Oxide batteries. They also are widely available.
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The rotating lock on the shutter release, and the red dot showing that the shutter has been cocked and the camera is ready to fire.
  • Reliability
    The Spotmatics are easy to repair – there are still  a few specialists who can service them in the US, and based on my personal experience, they’re not going to be out of work any time soon: it seems that the Spotmatics need more tender love and care than more recent cameras.  On the other hand, the FM inherited from the robustness and reliability of its older brothers in the Nikon family. Even if it was not considered a “pro” camera in its heyday, it was very often used by professional photographers (war correspondents in particular), as their primary cameras when light, compact and very solid gear was needed, or as a backup camera – in case their big Nikon F2 (or later F3) got into trouble.
Spotmatic_NikFM-8
Typical view of the film chamber of a Spotmatic – textile shutter, and the label of a Pentax service center (maybe somebody should start collecting those labels).
  • Scarcity and price
    Both cameras belonged to the best selling category of their time – semi-automatic exposure SLRs designed for enthusiast amateurs and professional photographers, they were sold by leading manufacturers with a wide distribution network, and hundreds of thousands (Spotmatic F) or even millions (Nikon FM)  were manufactured.  Lots of them have survived. The Spotmatic F is older, and finding a good copy is more difficult than locating a good FM. There is relatively little demand for the FM (less than for the more recent FM2 with its 1/4000 sec shutter or for the Cosina-manufactured FM10) and supply visibly exceeds demand, which reflects on prices: the FM tends to be cheaper than the Spotmatic F on eBay ($25.00 vs $50.00 for a camera in working condition).
Spotmatic_NikFM-15
Same overall size for the camera bodies, but the Pentax lens’ diameter is narrower than the Nikon’s and makes the camera look taller
  • Lens mount and lenses
    The Takumar lenses of the Spotmatic have an excellent, and in my experience, deserved reputation. The “entry level” 55mm lens I used with the Spotmatic F produces contrasty pictures, and the older Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 produces creamy pictures with a fabulous bokeh (it also works very well with mirrorless cameras).
Spotmatic_NikFM-10
The internals of the Pentax ES mount – Pentax added a lever to transmit the pre-selected aperture value and a pin to lock the lens in position.

Takumar lenses with the m42 screw mount are abundant on the second hand market, as are third party lenses – but they have to be operated stopped down. Full aperture metering is only possible with the more recent (1971-1975) S-M-C Takumar lenses with their modified m42 lens mount (they can easily be found on the second hand market), but there is next to no offer from third party vendors.Only Tamron seems to have offered lenses supporting  full aperture metering on the Spotmatic F. I’ve tried a 28mm f/2.5 wide angle and a 35-70mm f/4 Tamron Adaptall lens, and they both seem to lack contrast compared to Pentax or Nikon original lenses.

The Nikon FM was launched the same year as the “AI” version of the Nikon F bayonet mount, and as usual with Nikon, some level of compatibility exists with prior and subsequent versions of the lens mount.

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Nikon FM with an AI (or AI-S) lens.
  • The “FM” is one of the “most compatible” of the Nikon bodies –  it’s sometimes called the Rosetta Stone of Nikon cameras-  and it can be used (with various restrictions) with lenses made from the very beginning of the F mount (1958) until today: Nikon still have AI manual focus lenses in their catalog, and some of their current auto-focus lenses can also be mounted on the FM, provided they have an aperture ring and a mechanical diaphragm control mechanism.
Spotmatic_NikFM-12
Nikon FM with a non-converted pre-AI lens – the grey metallic tab has to be lifted (you press the shiny mushroom like button below it)
  • The offer of second hand lenses (Nikon branded or compatible) is also abundant.

Conclusion

When working with old cameras, we all place the bar of the required level of performance at different positions – it’s a function of our experience, and of the type of scenes we tend to shoot.

The Spotmatic F, although a very good camera in its own right, is too much of an antique for me. Its base design is rooted in the sixties (if not earlier) – it’s the last evolution of the m42 Pentax line. Focusing is the biggest issue – you really have to pay attention to it, and it slows me down to the point I feel I’ll miss too many opportunities when I shoot mobile subjects. It still has a real usage value (on relatively static subjects) and can draw from a large supply of very good lenses, but it’s an antique first and foremost.

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Big birds – Thompson Park – Mableton – Pentax Spotmatic F – Super Takumar 55mm f/2. Fujicolor 400. Great camera for relatively static subjects.

Only 4 years younger, the Nikon – although not that different on paper – feels like a more modern camera (lower profile, much better focusing screen, more precise exposure determination). I expect it to be more solid and more reliable too. Like the SPF, the FM is compatible with earlier versions of the brand’s lens mount, but unlike the Pentax, it’s also compatible with the manual focus and with some of the auto-focus lenses still sold by Nikon today.


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American White Sheperd – Nikon FM – Nikon 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF zoom. Not sure the dog would have left me enough time to get the focus right on the Spotmatic.

When kids ask me to let them use an old camera to learn the basics of photography or for an art project at school, I pick the FM with a Nikkor E Series lens – it’s a cheap and very efficient combo and I’m confident they won’t break it.

And the FM – along with its aperture-preferred auto-exposure sibling the Nikon FE2 – is also the camera I bring with me when I need a break from modern, computerized digital cameras – without sacrifying the results.

One last word: the Nikon FM10 has very little in common with the rest of the FM and FE series – it’s a camera manufactured by Cosina, at a time when all manufacturers believed they needed a sub $150.00 manual focus/semi-auto SLR in their product line. The FM10 shares its chassis and its kit lens (except for the lens mount, of course) with the Olympus OM-2000 and with other cameras manufactured by Cosina, and is not a “true” Nikon.


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American White Sheperd. Nikon FM-Nikon 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF zoom.

The Ultimate film cameras

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

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

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

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

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Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

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

Nikon

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

Canon_eos_1_v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Nikon

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

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

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

 


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

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The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my short list of recommended cameras:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Minolta 600si
  • Minolta 9xi
  • Nikon N90s
cameragx-6594
The “prosumer” cameras of the early to mid eighties – they can be yours for $15.00 to $25.00 now, with a (good) zoom included.

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

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

One last word…of caution

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

How is it even possible?

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

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

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

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

42mm screw mount lenses

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

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

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

 

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

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

Not all 42mm screw mount lenses are created equal

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

Nikon lenses

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

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Pixco Nikon AI to FD adapter (bought on eBay)

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

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

Does it work? 

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

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

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

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

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

Does it make sense?

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

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

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

Other Canon bodies

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

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

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

 

 

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