It’s time to trim my collection of film cameras, and make room for newer entrants.
The Minolta Maxxum 9xi has to go – I like it but I can’t use it to its full potential unless I spend more money on a set of Minolta A lenses and, maybe, a flash. I already have 4 sets of lenses for as many different makes of cameras. That’s already one or two too many, I won’t add a fifth one.
The Olympus OM 2000 falls into the same category as my Nikon FM (a modern semi-auto SLR), and is also competing for my attention with an Olympus OM-2 and my beloved Nikon FE2 (which both have very good semi-auto modes). I know I won’t be using it and I need to find a better place for it.
The two cameras are currently listed on eBay. It took them for one last photo shoot …
One last round with the Minolta Maxxum 9xi
I don’t know what drove Minolta out of the photography market – the expensive (and ultimately lost) lawsuit against Honeywell over auto-focus patents, the APS format debacle, or their inability to get more than a tiny fraction of the “pro” market – but at some point they decided to throw the towel and sold themselves to Konica (forming Konica-Minolta). Two years later, Konica-Minolta stopped manufacturing film, and sold its photography line of business to Sony. It explains why current Sony a77 and a99 still work with the same Minolta lenses that the 9xi uses.
The Minolta autofocus SLRs designed for enthusiasts and pros were very pleasant to use and worked very well. The Maxxum 9xi is no exception. It falls very well into the hands, gets the exposure right, and does not impose an information overflow to the photographer. Being designed as a “pro” model, it’s very well made (better than the 700si, for instance) and still looks good (no panel gap, no sticky paint) after all these years. If you love the Minolta brand, or if you are an active Sony Alpha photographer, it’s a camera to have.
The Olympus OM 2000 is a Cosina-made semi-auto SLR, and has little in common with the rest of the Olympus OM family, except for its bayonet mount, of course.
It’s still an interesting camera – good looking, simple, with spot metering (in addition to the conventional weighted-average metering). A good introduction to the OM family of cameras, and a good backup for owners of an OM-3ti or OM-4ti who don’t want to risk damaging their expensive and sometimes temperamental camera in difficult situations.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Nobody’s going to argue that in the hands of a reasonably competent photographer, and in most situations, a recent “pro-level” digital SLR is going to deliver much better pictures than an amateur dSLR released 10 years ago. Resolution, Dynamic Range, Low Light Sensitivity, Color Accuracy are all going to be significantly better. And for a much smaller level of effort: scenes that used to require the photographer to shoot in RAW and spend 10 minutes “processing” each picture in Adobe Lightroom (or even worse, hours in Photoshop) can now reliably be shot in JPEG and uploaded directly from the camera to whatever social network or on-line photo gallery.
In the world of film cameras, it’s different. As long as the camera meets a few basic requirements: mount the lenses with precision, meter and expose with accuracy and consistency, maintain the film plane flat, inform the photographer of the decisions taken by its automatic systems, and let him adjust the parameters when necessary, there will not be much of a difference between the pictures created with a pro and an entry level camera. The pro camera will be faster, more accurate, more solid, more durable and will provide more control options to its user, but ultimately, the quality of the results will be a function of the quality of the lens, of the film, and of the skills of the photographer.
Which brings us to the mid-nineties. The big Four (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax) all have successfully converted their SLRs to autofocus, electronics and polycarbonate, and have persuaded most of the photographers to buy them. There are a few hold outs at the high end of the market who still buy and use manual focus semi-auto cameras built traditionally out of aluminum and brass or titanium (Leica R and M series, Nikon FM2, Olympus OM-3ti for instance), and “learners” or photography students, who are looking for cheap cameras to learn the basics of photography, and who generally end up buying entry level Pentax and Minolta cameras. Both manufacturers already have relocated the production lines of the K1000 and of the X-300 to China, and can propose them (body only) for less than $150.00. In comparison, Nikon’s FM2 is approaching $500.00, Olympus’ (automatic) OM-4ti sells for $1,000.00, and the semi-auto OM-3ti – produced in very limited quantities – is probably in Leica territory when you can get one (a semi-auto Leica R6.2 sells for $2,800.00 at Adorama in 1995).
Following the example of Canon and Nikon (who had commissioned the design and the manufacturing of their entry level manual focus / semi-auto T60 and FM10 to Cosina), Olympus launches the OM-2000 in 1997. Like its predecessors on the Cosina production lines, the OM-2000 is based on a platform originally developed for the Cosina CT-1, and somehow customized to Olympus’ requirements: unique to the OM-2000 are the Olympus bayonet, the gun metal color of the camera’s body, and the presence of a spot/average meter switch. It is generally sold in a bundle with a 35-70 f/3.5-4.8 lens, also made by Cosina. I did not test this lens and can’t comment on it.
The OM-2000 is not designed to be great, but cheap and simply good-enough. The outer shell is of polycarbonate, the film rewind and the self timer lever are fragile (I had an issue with the rewind knob – I applied too much force to it and ended up unscrewing it from there body), the metallic shutter tends to be loud, but the camera, though basic and unsophisticated (the LEDs in the viewfinder look a bit crude), is pleasant to use (large viewfinder, smooth commands) and with its nice color, makes a good impression. The shutter is fast (1/2000 sec, 1/125 synchro), the spot meter useful and easy to use (there is a reminder in the viewfinder).
Contrarily to the OM-2 whose mirror and shutter are very well damped (you can shoot at 1/15sec without a tripod in a museum, for instance), the mirror or the shutter of the OM-2000 tends to generate strong vibrations, some of the pictures I took with it show it clearly. My advice: avoid low shutter speeds unless the camera is firmly held in place.
As for the real value of this camera, it depends on your point of view. For a collector of the “real” Olympus OM series cameras, it’s not worth much. It has nothing to do with the renown single digit family of OM cameras (OM-1, OM-2, OM-3, OM-4). It can not share any of their accessories (winder, focusing screen) and can not take advantage of the TTL flash capabilities of the units designed for the OM-2 and its followers.
With a good lens (Olympus’ Zuiko lenses have a great reputation), a good film and a good photographer, it will take good pictures – and should serve its owner well. It’s not as solid as a Nikon FM2, it’s not as beautifully made as an Olympus OM-3, it vibrates more than an OM-2, but when new, it was a fraction of the price of those cameras, and now, it can be had for a few dozens of US dollars. If you’ve heavily invested in OM Zuiko lenses and in expensive OM Ti bodies, adding a cheap OM-2000 to your equipment list is a good insurance plan – you can use it when you don’t want to risk your precious OM-3Ti, and it can save your day if the electronics of your OM-4T decides it had enough.
With the right lens and a good photographer, simple film cameras can take great pictures. The OM-2000, while clearly not a true blood Olympus OM camera, maybe the cheapest and easiest way to shoot film using Olympus Zuiko lenses today.
They were launched at the same time (1972), and were both highly innovative. In different areas.
The Olympus OM-1, the first of a family of cameras which sold until the end of the twentieth century, was remarkable by its small size, its impressive viewfinder, its great built quality, and its very good ergonomics.
The Fujica ST801, although not a large or heavy camera by any means, looked bulkier and more primitive in comparison, but in 1972 it was very advanced technologically – the first to combine the use of Silicon diodes for metering with LEDs for the semi-automatic determination of the exposure in the viewfinder. And – with full aperture metering and a shutter capable of 1/2000sec exposures – it was the most elaborate of the screw mount cameras.
With the OM-1, Olympus introduced a whole new system (new bayonet, new lenses, new motor drives), as compact as the camera itself. The OM-1 was a starting point.
The ST801 could use any screw mount 42mm “universal” lens, but could only offer full aperture metering when equipped with a new range of Fujinon lenses, which added an aperture transmission mechanism and a locking pin to the standard 42mm mount. The screw mount standard was already at the end of its route when the ST801 was launched, and in 1979 Fuji was the last major camera manufacturer to abandon it for a new proprietary bayonet. The ST801 had no real successor, and the relative short production run of the Fujinon lenses explain why they’re so scarce now.
Back then: how did the two cameras compare?
Cost and Availability: Both brands were widely distributed, in brick and mortar stores and by mail order distributors. In 1977, the OM-1 was still the only high quality small size semi-automatic SLR, and as a result Olympus was in the position to extract a very significant premium for it. The OM-1n (with a f/1.8 50mm lens) was selling for almost $300.00 in 1977, when Nikon could only ask $270 for a Nikkormat FT3. The Fujica ST801 (which was at the end of its career) was selling for approximately for $200.00, in the same ballpark as the old SR-T models from Minolta. It was more expensive than the other screw mount cameras from Practika or Vivitar ($170.00) but significantly less than semi-auto cameras of the newer generation such as the Canon AT-1: $ 240.00 (all figures sourced from the Sears catalog of 1977 – courtesy http://www.butkus.org/).
Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics Figures can be deceiving. Only 135g and less than one centimeter separate the weight and the height of the OM-1 from the ST801. It’s not a huge difference (the ST801 was significantly narrower and lighter than the semi-auto cameras sold by Canon or Nikon in the early seventies), but the OM-1 looks and feels significantly more compact than the Fujica. It falls perfectly in the hands. The position of the commands is not conventional (shutter speed ring around the lens mount, aperture ring at the front of the lens, ISO selector where the shutter speed knob generally is) but extremely convenient for a photographer shooting with a semi-auto camera and a prime lens: the right hand holds the camera, the left hand operates the shutter and aperture rings, which are clearly separated by the large focusing ring. Advantage Olympus
Viewfinder – Even to this day, the viewfinder of the Olympus OM-1 is exceptional. There are very few manual focus SLRs with a finder feeling larger (I can think of the Nikon F3, but it’s a pro camera and it’s bulkier). Every time you bring the viewfinder of the OM-1 to your eye, you’re still impressed. The Fujica’s viewfinder is more informative, and was praised for being luminous when the camera was launched. But compared to the OM-1, it’s narrower and darker. Clear Advantage for Olympus
Shutter and metering system: Both cameras use a shutter with horizontal cloth curtains. The OM-1’s tops at 1/1000sec, the ST801 at 1/2000sec. It probably did not matter much in 1973 (when 64 ISO was the normal film sensitivity) but a faster shutter speed is a serious advantage today (400 ISO is the normal sensitivity for negative color and B&W film, and photographers looking for “bokeh” use very wide apertures). The OM-1’s metering system is very conventional (2 CdS cells, mercury battery, matching needle at the left of the viewfinder). The ST801 was the first camera to use Silicon photo diodes for metering, and LEDs. Advantage Fujica.
Lens selection: when the two cameras were launched, the Fujica had the advantage of accepting all the 42mm screw mount lenses manufactured not only by Fuji, but also by Pentax, Yashica, and literally dozens of other brands. Of course, metering was stopped down (only the new Fujinon lenses supported full aperture metering with the ST801). In comparison, Olympus was starting to build a new camera system. A few years later, the situation had evolved – the 42mm standard was being abandoned by all its major proponents, and Olympus had succeeded in imposing its OM system on the market – and the offer of lenses (from Olympus themselves or third party vendors) was abundant. Tie
Reliability: both cameras were launched at a time when the Nikon F, the Nikkormat and the Canon FT/QL were the gold standard for Japanese SLRs. In comparison, both the OM-1 and the ST801 must have looked small, light and fragile. Today, none of the cameras is known to be unreliable- they’re simple mechanical devices – but the oldest copies are now 45 years old. Tie
Scarcity: The OM-1 sold over 1 million units over a long period, and aged very well. A small and beautiful camera, it must have been handled with care by its owners – nice copies of the OM-1 are abundant on eBay, on Shopgoodwill.com, and in the stores of used equipment retailers. The Fujica ST801 – while not as easy to find as the OM-1, is still relatively common – you just have to be a bit more patient if you want to find a nice copy at a reasonable price. Advantage Olympus
Battery: The ST801 uses one 6v silver oxide battery (the same as the Canon AE-1), which is still easy to find. The OM-1 was originally designed for Mercury batteries, which have disappeared from the market a long time ago due to the health hazards represented by Mercury. Mercury batteries deliver 1.35 volts. The simplest option is to use the zinc-air batteries sold by pharmacists for hearing aid devices – they deliver the same voltage, are very cheap and ubiquitous, but have a limited life (a few months at most) once they start being used. Other options exist (like having the camera converted to the voltage of silver oxide batteries – 1.55v) but I don’t like the idea of opening the camera and soldering diodes on the circuitry that much. My take on it: live with the zinc-air batteries, or buy an OM-2. Advantage Fujica.
Lens selection: In my opinion, the ST801 only shines with lenses supporting full aperture metering. Except for the most common focal lengths (50mm, 135mm and the 43-75mm zoom) Fujinon lenses designed for the Fujica ST series are difficult to find, and seriously expensive when you can locate one. A more cost effective option is to use Tamron Adaptall lenses – Tamron developed an Adaptall Mount Adapter specifically for the Fujica ST cameras – the mounts are still available at a very moderate price, and the Tamron lenses are less expensive than Fujinons. Olympus OM Zuiko lenses have an excellent reputation. They were often offered in three versions representing three price points (slow aperture, medium aperture, fast aperture) for every major focal length category. Today, while the faster lenses are rare and expensive, the slower ones are still easy to find and comparatively cheap, much more so than the Fujinons. Big advantage for Olympus.
The usage value of the two cameras is the same – both are good semi-auto exposure cameras. the Olympus has the better viewfinder, a significantly wider lens selection on the second hand market, and it looks and feels more modern. The Fujica’s metering system and its shutter are better, and it works with a myriad of screw mount lenses.
You can argue that the Fujica line of SLRs reached its peak in 1972, with the ST801. The subsequent screw mount models (ST901, AZ-1) were designed with amateurs in mind (auto exposure cameras without any semi-auto mode), and the last screw mount Fujica cameras were budget models priced just above Practika cameras from communist East Germany. This whole line of cameras and lenses met its end in 1979 when Fuji switched to its new X bayonet.
If you consider the whole system, spending your cash on Olympus makes much more sense. The OM-1 is the first member of a large family. It’s a nice camera of high historical importance, but in the OM system, there are even better choices: the OM-2 and the OM-4t. In semi-auto mode, the OM-2 works exactly like an OM-1. It also operates in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, offers a pioneering flash metering system and accepts silver oxide batteries. If you wanted to spend a lot more money, the OM-4t with its 1/2000sec shutter, its very elaborate metering system and its titanium top plate would be my recommendation. It was sold until 2002, and is often considered the pinnacle of 35mm manual focus SLR design.
Film cameras are interesting objects. They appeal to collectors who will desire them for their historical importance, their pleasant esthetics, and for their scarcity, and to active photographers, who make their purchase decisions based on the feature set, the availability of good lenses, and the quality of the user experience.
The least desirable cameras (and therefore the cheapest) are characterized by an abundant supply of working but unremarkable bodies with a meager selection of lenses, the most desirable by a limited availability of cameras in working order, combined with an interested set of features, a pleasant user experience, and a broad selection of good lenses: in other words, cameras of great systems (Canon, Contax, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, for instance) that are scarce because they sold in small numbers, and/or because they did not age gracefully, with few of them surviving in working condition.
Let’s focus on the 4 Japanese brands I know best.
Manual focus Canon cameras were mass produced (Canon was the constant best seller except for a few years when Minolta took the lead), and generally reliable. Because the autofocus EOS product line is totally incompatible with the older manual focus cameras, users of autofocus Canon film cameras (and of modern digital EOS models) were not tempted to carry an old manual focus SLR in addition to their modern autofocus camera, and the offer of second hand manual focus cameras from Canon has always seemed to exceed demand. As a result, prices have tended to be low.
There is one glaring exception, the F-1, with nice copies proposed above $400.00 (Canon also produced limited editions to commemorate events like its 50th anniversary that command prices above $1,000). Another interesting Canon camera is the T90.
T90: the poster child of a second hand camera which checks all the marks, but is penalized by its lack of reliability:
On the plus side, it’s very interesting from a historical point of view : it was designed with the input of Luigi Colani’ studio, and its ergonomics study is a precursor of the Canon EOS cameras and of almost all camera currently sold
Its sales volume was relatively limited (for a Canon camera): it was an expensive high end camera, only sold for 2 years, when Canon had no autofocus camera to propose and was getting a beating from Minolta and Nikon on the marketplace.
The T90 was part of a very broad camera system, very popular with professional photographers. There is large supply of very good lenses, for cheap. Historical interest, relatively low sales volume, broad system – it should command high prices.
But on the other hand, the T90 did not age well: some of the components deteriorate if the camera is not used frequently, others have a limited lifespan, and Canon stopped servicing those cameras a long time ago – in fact, a lot of them display an “EEE” error and simply don’t work.
Therefore, there is not a strong demand for the T90. It commands prices starting in the $150.00 range for a tested model, which is less than what is asked for an A-1 or even a AE-1 Program.
Fujica (the AX bayonet mount line)
Fuji’s screw mount cameras sold in respectable numbers in the 1970s, and aged relatively well. They were replaced in 1979 by a new generation of bayonet mount cameras that did not sell very well and had reliability issues. A Fujica SLR such as the STX or the AX-3 in working condition is not as easy to find as a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FE, for instance, but at the same time it does not qualify as exceptionally difficult to locate. The truth is that those cameras don’t seem to be interesting collectors (lack of aura) or active photographers (lack of lenses). Except maybe for the AX-5.
AX-5 – it was the full featured top of line, and was proposed at prices higher than the Canon A-1 it was supposed to compete with.
On the Plus side, it’s really a scarce camera. At any given time, no more than two or three are offered for sale on eBay, worldwide
On the Minus side, it’s not a very “interesting” camera: it’s a me-too product largely inspired by Canon’s A-1, with a toned down and more “feminine” design
the whole Fujica “X” product line has a reputation for being fragile (electronics)
there is very limited supply of lenses (good or bad), and the ones you can find are seriously expensive.
the market of second hand AX-5 cameras is too small – and there is not enough sales volume to establish a price of reference: I’ve seen working copies proposed above $150.00 but actual sale prices seem much lower.
Very few Nikon cameras qualify as “scarce”. Nikon cameras generally sold in high volumes (within their class of products) and are extremely reliable – a lot of them survived. Some of the cameras designed for professional photographers (the F3, the FM2) had production runs of almost 20 years. You will have to look for specific variants of a mainstream model such as the F3p or the F3AF to reach the level of scarcity that commands high prices (above the $1,000 bar). That being said, Nikon cameras of that vintage are very pleasant to use (they ooze build quality), they benefit from a huge supply of lenses and accessories (Nikon have been using the same bayonet mount since 1959, and the current flash system is downwards compatible down to the FE2 of 1983), and they take great pictures. They have a great usage value, but a limited collector’s appeal. A few exceptions:
F3: a regular F3 camera is becoming expensive – $200.00 to $400.00 for a nice one. The F3P (a derivative for Press Photographers) sells in the $400.00 to $500.00 range, and the AF models of 1983 (with their dedicated viewfinder and lenses) can easily reach $1,200.00.
FM2 – the workhorse (or the perfect backup camera) of generations of Nikon photographers. Usable models are available below $200.00, while models popular with collectors (the FM2/T with a titanium body) start at approximately $500.00 to reach up to $1,500.
The FM3A was only produced for a few years, in small quantities. It’s a recent product with a high usage value (it’s an automatic which can also operate without a battery at any shutter speed) and it commands prices between $300.00 and $600.00.
In the 80s, Olympus had a line of low end “two digit cameras” (OM-10, OM-20, OM-30, OMG..) for amateurs and a line of single digit cameras (OM-2s, OM-4) for the discerning enthusiasts. The two digit cameras are extremely abundant, but unremarkable. The OM-2s and OM-4 are relatively easy to find, but are plagued by lousy battery management issues that limit their attractivity. At the end of their production life, the “single digit” cameras were upgraded to become “T” or Ti” models, which solved the electronics issues of their predecessors, and switched their brass top-plates for Titanium ones. Those T and Ti cameras are highly attractive for the active photographer (small size, unique light metering capabilities, broad system of lenses and accessories) and for the collector – they’re beautiful and are in limited supply. The OM-3Ti – the semi-automatic version- was produced in very limited quantities (6,000 units according to zone-10.com) and was selling at the same price as a Leica M6. The OM-4t and Ti had a long production run, but they were launched in the middle of the autofocus craze, when the large majority of the enthusiasts were busy converting their equipment to Minolta Maxxums, Canon EOS or Nikon N8008.
OM-3ti – proposed for any price between $1,200 and $4,000.
OM-4ti – proposed for any price between $250.00 and $800.00
Except for commemorative models (they often never leave the box they were shipped in), Leica SLRs models of all generations typically sell in the $200.00 to $800.00 range (the R4 are the cheapest, the R6.2 the most expensive). Contax models benefit from the aura of the Zeiss lenses, and sell in the same range as the Leicas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – 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 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.
– plasticky entry level cameras with limited shutter performance – abundant but not recommended. Buy an FE2 instead.
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)
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-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.
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).
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)
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.
1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.
Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.
A few interesting points….
the models most popular with enthusiasts (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).
The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.
In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus commissioned companies like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).
On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.