I’ve a sort of on and off relationship with Pentax – a MX was my first serious camera a long time ago, and a *ist DS was my first dSLR in 2005, but they were replaced by non-Pentax cameras after a few years of service. I’ve bought a few Spotmatic cameras during the last decade, and I’ve not had much luck with them except for a late Spotmatic F. Recently, I gave it a go again, and I’ve just added no less than four Pentax manual focus SLRs to my collection: a P3, two ZX-Ms (an accident – two very low bids on eBay and both went through), and a Super-Program. So far, so good. They work and they’re pleasant to use. An opportunity to look at the last of the manual focus Pentax SLRs.
The K, the M and the A – a new line of lenses for each generation of camera
The 1975-1977 years were pivotal for Pentax. In 1975, they finally removed the m42 screw mount from life support, retired the 12 year old Spotmatic product line, and started fighting back.
Their first generation of bayonet mount cameras (the KM, KX and K2) was simply a refresh of their screw mount predecessors. The KM was a very close derivative of the Spotmatic F, and the K2 a limited upgrade of the ES2. Only the KX (an enthusiast oriented semi-auto camera) had no direct screw mount predecessor. The three models only stayed under the spotlights for one year, and as a consequence, did not reach large production numbers (approximately 750,000 cameras for the KM-KX-K2 trilogy – the only really successful model of this generation is the K1000, but it came to the market a bit later).
The K lenses were for the most part bayonet mount adaptations of the most recent SMC Takumars. They were simply known as Pentax SMC lenses: the “Takumar” name had been dropped (*)
The real innovation came one year later, with two genuinely new models, the MX and the ME, launched with a new generation of downsized M lenses known as the Pentax SMC M lenses. Very light and compact, with an up to date metering system and LED indicators in the viewfinder, they could both be fitted with a winder.
the semi-auto camera with a mechanical shutter, the MX, came when this type of camera was beginning to be a thing of the past for the amateur photographers, and it had to face the competition of the brand new Nikon FM (whose specs sheet looked pretty similar, and benefited from Nikon’s professional aura and build quality). Impressively Pentax still managed to sell more than one million of them.
the auto-exposure camera, the ME, was attacking the heart of the amateur market. Deprived of a conventional shutter speed knob and of a depth of field visualization lever, it was not an enthusiast oriented camera. Pentax rapidly started deriving even simpler models (the MV and MG) as well as a more elaborate variant (the ME-Super) to broaden its appeal on the market. It also provided the base over which the Super-Program and Program-Plus of 1983 were developed.
The ME and its derivatives were a sales success (approximately 6 million sold – to be compared with 10 millions of Canon AE-1 and AE-1 Program) between 1976 and 1987, but they were Pentax’s swan song.
The Super Program and Program Plus cameras that replaced them were technically competitive, but they were launched in a period when SLR sales were at their lowest, and they sold in much smaller numbers (approximately 1 million units total).
The Super Program and Program Plus (known in the rest of the world as the Super-A and the Program-A) offered programmed auto exposure with a new line of Pentax SMC A lenses, equipped with a new KA variant of the K mount with electrical contacts.
They were the last technically advanced manual focus SLRs from Pentax. Following Minolta’ successful introduction of the Maxxum series, Pentax made the transition to auto-focus cameras, and only kept on selling two manual focus cameras for learners and cost conscious amateurs, the K1000 (a stripped down version of the KM of 1975, with its roots in the Spotmatic of 1964), and the P30 (known as the P3 on the US market) a simple program-mode-only entry level SLR.
Both cameras were successful (more than 3 million copies sold for each of the two models), and had a long commercial life: the K1000 and the P30 were both retired from the market in 1997, to make room for the ZX-M.
Pentax’s last manual focus SLR, the ZX-M (on the US market, MZ-X in the rest of the world) was a manual focus version of the middle of the range ZX-50 autofocus camera of the time, with a so-so pentamirror viewfinder, and without a built-in flash. It was sold until 2004 and is one of the very last manual focus SLRs ever manufactured (**)
(*) The Takumar name did not stay unused for long – at least on the US market – it was given to a line of entry level non-SMC lenses – generally kit lenses, sold as Takumar-A lenses. Obviously they don’t benefit from the multi-layer lens coating of their SMC siblings.
(**) The Nikon FM3A was manufactured until 2006, and is definitely the last manual focus SLR from a major vendor. The Nikon F6, the Leica M-P and a few Lomo models are still in production, but the F6 is an autofocus SLR, the Leica M is a rangefinder camera, and Lomo camera are…Lomo cameras.
It’s a bit early to write Pentax’s obituary. But there’s no denying that the company (now a subsidiary of Ricoh) is a mere shadow of its former self.
From the mid fifties to the early seventies, the Asahi Optical Corporation was an innovator. They scored an impressive number of “first” :
First Japanese single lens reflex camera to enter production (Asahiflex – 1952)
First reflex camera with instant return mirror (Asahiflex II b – 1954)
First modern single lens reflex (SLR) camera, with a pentaprism at the center of the top plate, a winder arm and shutter speed knob on the right side, and a folding rewind crank to the left (the “original” Pentax of 1957). This was to be the model for all other reflex cameras for the next 20 years. The camera was so important for Asahi that the whole corporation became later known as “Pentax Corp”.
First SLR with Through the Lens (TTL) metering on the market (Pentax Spotmatic – 1964)
First automatic exposure SLR with an electronic shutter (Pentax Electro Spotmatic – 1971)
As a result, Asahi Pentax was a sales leader in the sixties and early seventies: for example, it was the first Japanese camera company to sell over one million SLRs.
Pentax lost its supremacy during the first half of the seventies
they stuck to the Spotmatic form factor until 1975
they stuck with stopped down metering on their line of bread and butter Spotmatic cameras until the launch of the Spotmatic F in 1973, and to the m42 screw mount until far too late. Because they had adopted a proprietary bayonet early on, Minolta and Nikon had been able to offer full aperture metering (a major comfort improvement for the photographer) since 1966, with Canon and Olympus following in 1971.
As a result, Pentax was out-innovated by new entrants: Olympus OM-1 (the first ultra-compact SLR and camera system); Fujica ST-801 and ST-901 (first use of Silicon metering cells and of LED displays in the viewfinder); Olympus OM-2 (first implementation of On The Film (OTF) real time flash metering).
The second half of the seventies was not better: Pentax was in reactive mode and started progressively being pushed to the bottom of the market :
Changes to their lens mount are always very risky for camera manufacturers. It may not bother the beginner or the amateur who are only going to shoot with the kit lens they bought with the camera, but it’s an invitation for enthusiasts and pros to reconsider their aleigence to the brand. Between 1971 and 1976, Pentax changed the lens mount of its cameras twice.
Pentax could not compete with Canon and Nikon in the “pro” market because they did not have a modular camera to offer until they launched the LX in 1980, and after they did, they lacked some of the specialized lenses and the support network that the pros required,
they were out-innovated in the heart of the enthusiast market: Canon with cheaper to manufacture and feature rich micro-processor driven cameras such as the AE-1 and the A-1, Minolta with multi-mode SLRs.
they had to face new competitors in the “amateur” segment of the market with Nikon and Olympus successfully entering the broader consumer market with cameras such as the EM and the OM-10 in 1979.
By the end of the eighties, Pentax had been relegated to the 4th position on the photo-equipment market, behind Canon, Minolta and Nikon. They had completed the transition to auto-focus SLRs, but were primarily known for their two remaining manual focus SLRs (the K1000 and the P3) and their water-resistant point and shoot cameras.
They survived until the advent of digital photography. Konica-Minolta’s deep troubles gave them one last chance of resurgence in 2003-2004. They recovered the #3 position on the market for a while. But after early successes – their first dSLRs, the *ist D and *ist DS were good cameras, technically on par with contemporary Canon and Nikon offerings – they did not (or could not) keep up with the pace of their competitors, and let their market share decline to the point where their presence is hardly noticeable today.
More about Pentax’s last manual focus cameras in a few weeks with reviews of the Super-Program (Super-A), P3 (P30) and ZX-M.
I don’t know what percentage of film cameras collectors actually use them. But the value of a camera is at least in part related to its capacity to be used … as a camera, and help the photographer shoot good, beautiful, interesting pictures. Without film, film cameras are little more than paper weights.
So if film was to become unavailable, the value of film cameras would change. I don’t believe it’s going to happen anytime soon – Kodak (Altaris) and Ilford (Harman) are still committed to film because it’s their core business, and Fujifilm will keep one or two film plants running, if only for sentimental reasons. The rebirth of the Polaroid instant film packs (the Impossible Project) and the success of Lomography are also showing that when the big players disengage, boutique producers step in and fill in the void.
So, let’s assume that film remains available and affordable, and that 35mm film cameras keep a certain usage value. And let’s forget about those commemorative editions, cameras with remarkable serial numbers or other gold plated models, that Leica (and to a lesser extent Nikon), release from time to time for avid collectors. They are destined to be kept forever in their original packaging and in a safe, with no concern for their potential usage value.
In the realm of cameras that actual photographers use to take pictures, Leica cameras hold a special place. They’re “classics“.
On eBay, the price of Leica’s rangefinders has been remarkably stable over the years, with the M5 and the M4 at the bottom of the ladder (around $800), followed by the M2 and M3 a bit above $1,000 (depending on condition, of course). The more modern Leica M (M6, M6 TTL, M7) are selling for two or three times more, reflecting their comparatively higher usage value.
Manual focus SLRs designed for enthusiasts or pros, and known to be at the same time simple to use and reliable have seen their value rise spectacularly (Nikon FM2, FE2, FM3a or F3, Canon AE-1, Pentax Super Program or LX), while more complex or less reliable models don’t attract the same high prices (Nikon FA, Canon T90). Those new classicswere launched between 1975 and 1985, a decade which is increasingly being seen as the golden age of film SLRs.
At the other end of the price scale, cameras that did not do very well on the second hand market a few years ago are doing even worse now. The list includes any entry level model from any manufacturer if it was launched after 1980, and almost any autofocus SLR except for the very last enthusiast and pro models, probably because of their good compatibility with the current digital offerings of their respective manufacturer (Nikon F100 and F6, Minolta Maxxum 9 and 7, Canon EOS-3).
Photographs don’t like that those cameras were built out of plastics, with a bizarre feature set (often deprived of useful functions – reserved for the “pro” models – and at the same time loaded with useless gimmicks and encumbered by unconventional controls). And many of them require expensive and hard to find single use Lithium batteries. They have little appeal for today’s would-be film shooters, and can be had for a few dollars, even from specialized stores.
“La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode”*
What’s hot? Any luxury compact (point and shoot) camera, with a titanium body and a lens with a famous name: the top of the top is occupied by Contax with the T2 and T3: the craze started with a few actors and celebrities in Hollywood posting pictures of themselves shooting with their T2 on Instagram), but similarly positioned models such as the Leica CM and Minilux or the Nikon 35ti also command big bucks (they’re all in Leica M territory).
Cameras like the Olympus XA, and even the Cosina CX-2**, which were far cheaper than the luxury cameras from Contax or Leica in the eighties, have also been contaminated – with sellers asking for hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a somehow basic camera.
As a conclusion:
Old classics hold their value, new classics are on the rise: if you buy one of those, you may not win big, but you won’t lose money if you decide to resell it after a few years.
Contax luxury compacts are reaching insane values. They’re nice cameras, with a great little Zeiss lens, and demand currently outstrips supply. But those luxury compact cameras (Contax’s and the others) rely heavily on electronics and generally can’t be repaired if a component goes bad. If you don’t have one already, you missed the boat, and I would not spend thousands of dollars trying to get one. You can also wonder how long will celebrities be seen playing with their T2, pushing demand and prices to the sky? Prices could very well go back to more normal levels in a few years.
There are still bargains to be found if you’re not obsessed with shooting with a “classic” : the Canon AT-1 has not reached the “new classic” level of the AE-1 and AE-1 Program, and sells for half the price. But in my view, it’s a better camera for an enthusiast photographer. Early Canon EOS cameras (650, 620) are solid, very pleasant to use (a T90 with matrix metering and without the bugs), and dirt cheap. An entry level camera from the mid eighties, the Pentax P3n, is at least as competent as its more expensive Super Program predecessor, but can still be had for next to nothing. Nikon’s partially motorized N2000/F301 (the manual focus version of the N2020/F501) is also a great buy. So is the Olympus OM-2. Future classics? I don’t think so. But great everyday cameras at a great price, for sure.
(*) “La Mode, c’est ce qui se démode” (Literally, “Fashion, that’s what going out of fashion” or “Fashion is made to become unfashionable”) – the aphorism is generally attributed to Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. Coco Chanel famously added that “Fashion fades, only style remains the same”.
(**) Cosina CX-1 and CX-2 – those cute and very small point and shoot cameras sold reasonably well in the early eighties. With their tiny wide-angle lens they were subject to severe vignetting but they offered more controls to the photographers than the other ultra-compact P&S cameras. A few years later, an almost identical camera was launched as the Lomo LC-A by the LOMO PLC in Saint Petersburg (Russia). The little Lomos were adopted enthusiastically by a group of photographers in Austria, and it started the Lomography movement. But that’s a whole other story.
The Olympus OM-2n – a “new classic” – in my opinion the best camera of the Olympus OM single digit series (OM-1,OM-2, OM-3, OM-4, OM-4ti) for everyday use. Photos shot a few years ago at the Universal Studios in Burbank, CA.
With film (digital is different in that regard) the photographer is working with a medium of fixed sensitivity (a 100 ISO film roll will have the same sensitivity from the first frame to the last one). Therefore, there are only two parameters that can be adjusted when trying to bring the right amount of light to the film: the shutter speed (how long will the film be exposed), and the aperture (how large of a hole is the iris forming to let the light go through the lens).
For a given scene, there will be more than one combination of shutter speed and aperture that will bring the same light energy to the film: for instance, a very short shutter speed and a very wide aperture (1/1000 sec and f/4.0) will be equivalent to a slow speed and a narrow aperture (1/60 and f/16). The photographer will have to pick the combination that suits the scene (short shutter speed/wide aperture for action scenes, longer shutter speed/narrower aperture for landscapes, for instance).
Most modern cameras pick the right shutter speed/aperture combination automatically in Program Mode.
In Shutter Preferred mode, the photographer has to pick the shutter speed, and the camera will set the aperture to a value that brings the right light energy to the film; in Aperture Preferred mode, the photographer picks the aperture, and the camera will select the shutter speed bringing the right amount of light to the film.
In semi-automatic exposure control mode, the photographer will pick the shutter speed and the aperture, and the camera will only indicate whether the camera is receiving the right amount of light, or not. Up to the photographer to adjust the aperture or the shutter speed until the camera is happy.
In older cameras, the camera communicates its recommendations with the needle of a galvanometer. When the needle is aligned with a target in the viewfinder, exposure is correct. It’s the match needle system.
In the mid seventies, manufacturers started replacing the relatively fragile needle mechanism with a bank of LEDs (sometimes color coded) or bar graphs. But the idea is the same. The camera simply indicates whether the image will be over, under or correctly exposed.
The beauty of this system is that it gives the photographer a lot of freedom – he/she can easily change the shutter speed/aperture combination, or set the exposure for a specific area of the scene and reframe the picture, or decide to override the exposure system of the camera and deliberately over or under expose. That’s why semi-auto cameras are great as learner cameras.
Automatic cameras can often operate in semi-auto mode, and some of them are better at that than genuine semi-auto cameras.
Lastly, the Manual mode. The word is often used as a substitute to “semi-auto”. But those are different things. In a semi-auto camera, the exposure meter (the CdS or Silicon cell) is connected to sensors on the aperture ring and on shutter speed knob. Therefore the camera can predict whether the film is going to receive enough light, and signal to the photographer (with the match needle or the LED) that the image will be over, under or correctly exposed.
On a fully manual camera, there is either no exposure meter at all (cameras of the fifties and earlier), or if it exists, it is not linked with the aperture ring and the shutter speed knob.
Modern cameras often have a PASM selector for the exposure mode (PASM stands for Program, Aperture Preferred, Shutter Preferred, Manual). In most of the cases, “M” really means semi-auto (think: meter assisted operation). But in a few cases, M really means manual – you’re on you own.
Not totally happy with the pictures you get from a smartphone? Do you want more reach, do you want to capture fast moving action, or on the other hand, are you looking for more control over the depth of field, over the exposure? Do you want the images to be really yours, instead of leaving software developers in Cupertino or Mountain View decide for you how the pictures you’re taking should look like? You need a “real camera” and you have to learn how to use it.
Obviously, nowadays, your first “learner” camera will be digital – digital accelerates the learning process – you can see immediately the result of changes in the settings, you can re-take the shot until the results corresponds to the scene you’ve seen with the eyes in your mind: remember, your eyes capture the information, but the processing is done in your brain.
But at some point, you may get tired of modern digital cameras as well. While not as automated as a smartphone, they still decide a lot of things behind the scenes (they set the focus, the exposure, they enhance the dynamic of the image, they sharpen) and it’s not always easy (or even possible) to take control back from them. Maybe you’re ready for something more demanding, but also more gratifying: film photography.
There are so many ways to shoot with film. If you don’t have the time (or the space) to deal with film processing, you can buy color film and have it processed and scanned by a lab – not exactly cheap (at least $0.50 per picture) but not too difficult.
If you want the ultimate silver halide experience, you can set you own dark room, and process film yourself (Black and White, let’s keep it simple). The difficulty will be to scan it – unless you go completely analog, buy an enlarger and make your own prints like they used to do in the old days.
But in any case, you’ll need one (or a few) cameras.
Almost nobody makes new film cameras anymore. So your camera will be an “old” one, bought on eBay, at Shopgoodwill, or from the stores specializing in analog cameras.
If you ask Google about learners film cameras, most of the articles they reference will suggest a manual focus camera from the mid seventies to early eighties – like the Canon AE-1, the Minolta X-700, the Nikon FM, or the Pentax K1000.
For a reason. Older cameras (let’s say pre-1975) are generally bulkier, have a more primitive exposure metering system (when they do have one at all) and require batteries which are impossible to find today. They often use textile (silk) in their shutter mechanisms, and tend to be fragile. On the other hand, most of the cameras sold after 1990 are not that different from the autofocus, motorized monsters we use today in the digital world.
why manual focus? The assumption is that if you shoot film, it’s because you’re not in a hurry and therefore can take the time to set the focus on your own. Personally I like to focus manually, it leaves me more time and opportunities to look at the image and consider the composition, the depth of field and the exposure.
Focusing manually lets you determine what part of the picture will be 100% in focus, and with the help of the aperture ring and of a depth of field lever, determine what will be out of focus and pleasantly blurred.
Using a camera with an easy to use semi-automatic exposure system (matching needle or LEDs), you can take all the time you need to determine the perfect settings, or in doubt, take multiple shots at different settings. You can also more easily compensate for the limitations of the metering system (average weighted metering can be easily fooled by a bright sky – but it’s also easy to understand how it’s being fooled and take countermeasures).
Interestingly, you don’t necessarily need a semi-auto camera – some automatic cameras like the Nikon FE are absolutely great when used in semi-auto mode (better than most native semi-auto SLRs).
one camera or more? considering you can get film cameras for a few dollars, why buy only one? Just remember that experience and muscle memory play a role – the more you shoot with a particular camera (or with cameras of the same generation and from the same manufacturer), the higher your chances of catching the “decisive moment” and get the picture of your life.
Lenses – not as cheap as cameras (at least, the good ones). You can buy prime lenses, you can buy zoom lenses (if they were released in the late eighties or later and come from one of the great camera manufacturers, they’re generally good enough). Canon, Minolta, Olympus have all abandoned their old FD, MD or OM mounts when they introduced their autofocus cameras, but Nikon and Pentax have been using the same family of bayonet mounts since 1959 (Nikon) and 1976 (Pentax). You have more options with those two brands even if the compatibility between different generations of camera bodies and lenses is somehow limited.
Film – I know it’s fashionable to use bad film (expired stock, film engineered to look like stock from the 60s, not to mention monstrosities like pre-scatched film …). I believe my images deserve better than that and I buy the best film I can find. The choice is up to you.
So, what camera?
This list is about cameras I know – for having burned at least a few rolls of film with them, and which meet my definition of a learners camera. There are other good manual focus cameras that make great learning tools (the Minolta X series for instance) but I never tested them, and interesting cameras (Nikon F3, Canon A-1 or T90, the rangefinder Leicas, the Contax ST) that are a bit too complex and expensive to make it to this list.
I did not include any Fujica, Contax or Mamiya SLR in this list, a learner will need a set of lenses (a couple of wide angle lenses, a short tele, maybe a zoom) and they tend to be difficult to find (and expensive) if you leave the usual gang (Canon-Minolta-Nikon-Olympus-Pentax).
if you love Canon, you can go with the AT-1 (instead of the AE-1 or the AE-1 Program): it’s half the price, and easier to use in manual (semi-auto) mode. All right, it needs an easy to find battery to operate. But it has a good viewfinder and you can’t beat its simplicity.
if you love Nikon (and in particular if you’re using a full frame Nikon dSLR), go with the FM or the FE, or for a little more money, for the FM2 or the FE2. Avoid the EM, FG or FA – they’re too automatic, and don’t leave you enough control on your images. You can also pick an early autofocus camera like the N2020 (F501) and use it with manual focus lenses. It works very well.
If you love Pentax, don’t follow the crowd and don’t buy a K1000. Far too primitive (it’s a derivative of the Spotmatic F of 1973, itself derived from the original Pentax camera of 1957). Similarly, be prudent with Pentax cameras of the late seventies/early eighties: in my experience, they tend to be a bit fragile.
The P3 from 1985 was not really designed as a learners camera (more as an affordable and easy to use manual focus camera) but it’s not artificially spec’d down and that would be my choice in the Pentax family. When the K1000 and the P3 needed a replacement, Pentax created a camera designed specifically for learners, the XZ-M and sold it until 2004. It’s a modern autofocus motorized camera with 4 exposure modes (PASM) – but without the autofocus system and the built-in flash. It’s built out of plastic therefore feather light, but Pentax also saved weight and money on the viewfinder which is narrower than the norm.
The ZX-M is an interesting camera, but the P3 (P30 in the rest of the world) is probably a better choice. By default it operates in program mode, but the semi-auto mode works very well, the viewfinder is large, and the build quality is good (the camera were still made of metal at that time).
Olympus – don’t go for the OM-1 – it needs 1.35v batteries which are a pain to find and use. Go for the OM-2 – it’s automatic, but you can use it as a semi-auto camera. Smooth as a peach, great viewfinder, ideal if you shoot in places where you can’t use a tripod or a flash. The best of both words. Later models are either plagued by battery management problems (OM-2sp, OM-4), or extremely expensive (OM-4ti).
The Canon T60, Nikon FM10, Olympus OM-2000, Yashica FX-3 2000 and a few other Vivitar cameras were designed and manufactured by Cosina in the nineties to be sold as gateway and learners cameras under the label of the big brands – they’re not identical – but they’re built on the same technical platform. They all work OK as learner cameras, but the genuine Canon, Nikon or Olympus cameras are much nicer objects, much better built, and will provide more satisfaction (even if the results should be more or less equivalent).
Autofocus SLRs are cheap, and the early ones are dirt cheap. But if you use an autofocus SLR in full auto mode to shoot color print film and download the scans after the Noritsu and Fujifilm processing machines have played their magic on your negatives, how different is the experience going to be from shooting with a digital SLR? Admittedly, some early autofocus SLRs are still relatively simple and easy to use and will increase your success rate, but you won’t learn as much as with an older manual focus camera.
Come on. Shoot with film. It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s a lot of fun.
Who created the first 35mm camera, or the first 35mm single lens reflex camera?
Difficult questions. First, you would have to agree on what constitutes exactly a “real” 35mm camera, or a “real” 35mm SLR, and then, you would have to determine what really counts: is it presenting a prototype at a trade show, applying for a patent, launching a limited series production, or inundating the world with tens of thousands copies of a “game changing” camera?
It is generally recognized that with the Leica, Leitz created the first commercially successful 35mm camera in the early twenties, and but it was not until 1932 when they launched the Leica II that the rangefinder camera with interchangeable lens had found its “real” final form.
The Contax S
1932 is also the year when Zeiss launched Leica’s most serious pre-war competitor, the Contax.
Zeiss was at that time the largest manufacturer of cameras in the world. They had a long tradition of innovation and a great team of engineers; conscious of the limitations of the rangefinder formula, they kept on working on a better solution until, after the war, they finally presented the Contax S, one of (if not the first) modern 35mm single reflex lens camera.
With its pentaprism, its horizontal curtain shutter and its 42mm screw lens mount, the Contax S was very close to the typical 35mm SLR design, and should have been commercially successful.
But at that time, the Zeiss factories were in the Russian occupation zone (soon to become the German Democratic Republic) and all sorts of issues slowed down the roll-out to production: the Contax S only started to be mass produced at the very end of 1949. The launch of the Contax S also coincided with the start the Cold War – products from communist countries were not always welcome on the more affluent markets of the West – and to make the matters worse, the East German entity of Zeiss lost the rights to the Contax name in 1956. After considering multiple options (including apparently the “Pentax” name), the East Germans rebranded their cameras “Pentacon” (a portmanteau for Pentaprism and Contax) and the Contax S line of SLRs was abandonned.
Why is a pentaprism so important, that Zeiss and (later) Asahi changed the name of their cameras to include “Penta”?
Composing a picture on a piece of ground glass located behind the lens is nothing new (plate cameras have been following that model forever), but the image is reversed top-bottom and left-right, which makes the composing process very slow and totally unsuitable to candid photography.
If a mirror inclined at 45 degrees is placed behind the lens, and the image projected on a piece of ground glass, it is not reversed top/bottom anymore, but is still reversed left/right. The photographers has to shoot from waist level, after having used a magnifying glass for focusing. It’s workable, but not the best formula for action shots, journalism or simply spontaneous family photographs.
Nikon F3 with its HP Viewfinder
Nikon F3 with the viewfinder removed
the (huge) prism of the Nikon F3’s viewfinder
The pentaprism addresses all those issues – and as we all know from experience with SLRs, the image is fully redressed, focusing is easy, and eye-level composition makes action photography intuitive even for beginners.
Asahi Optical Co
Asahi started manufacturing lenses in Japan in 1919, and launched the first Japanese 35mm single lens reflex camera – the Asahiflex – in 1952. It was inspired by the pre-war German Praktiflex, but brought some improvements: it had two finders: a waist level through the lens viewfinder (for focusing) and a smaller eye level optical viewfinder to be used when taking candid snapshots.
In two critical areas, the Asahiflex was not as advanced as the Contax S: it did not have a pentaprism viewfinder, and it used a narrower 37mm screw mount.
Asahi’s first major innovation came two years later with the introduction of the instant return mirror on the Asahiflex IIb (1954). The IIb was without equivalent for a while, but the step forward it represented was nothing compared to Asahi’s next giant leap, with the “Pentax” of 1957. The first (mass produced) Japanese camera with a pentaprism, it combined for the first time in a compact, elegant and well made camera the instant return mirror, the film advance lever, easy film loading with a hinged back, and the 42mm screw mount.
The Pentax line of cameras sold by the millions and became the model that all other manufacturers would copy in the subsequent years. The Pentax name became so well known that the Asahi Optical Co. decided to sell all its products (including its line of medical equipment) under the name Pentax, before it finally changed its own name to Pentax Corporation in 2002.
It is widely assumed that “Pentax” is also a portmanteau for Pentaprism and Contax. According to Wikipedia, the name was purchased by Asahi from the East German Zeiss company just before the launch of the original Pentax SLR in 1957.
Today, the single lens reflex formula is on its last breath – superseded by mirrorless cameras where the pentaprism has been replaced with a high resolution LCD – the Contax brand is dormant, and Pentax, as a subsidiary of Ricoh, is in life support with a line of three rather old dSLRs and no plan to launch a mirrorless system.
By far the most comprehensive source about Pentax cameras, as well as early SLRs of all makes: Pentax-slr.com
A compact point of shoot camera from the late eighties, the Contax T2, is currently red hot, selling for obscene amounts of money (well above $1,000). We’re observing here the manifestation of a new trend – a few film cameras have suddenly reached stardom – and make you pay dearly for them – while the mass of the point and shoot and SLRs from the nineties still languish in the $5.00 bargain bin.
In the world of manual focus SLRs, Contax bodies and Contax Carl Zeiss lenses, while not exactly cheap, can still be had for a small fraction of the cost of this T2.
Zeiss and its sub brand Contax have a very long history – Carl Zeiss founded the company that bears his name in 1846 in Jena (Germany) and Zeiss launched their first Contax camera in 1932.
In the seventies, Zeiss signed a licensing agreement with Yashica (the Japanese company subsequently became part of the Kyocera group). Contax and Yashica never said much about the role split in their joint venture, and most of what we know is an educated guess. High level, the “Contax” branded cameras of the Yashica/Kyocera era were designed and manufactured in Japan with some input from Zeiss. The F.A. Porsche studio (*) was in charge of the industrial design of some models. Yashica and Contax SLRs shared the same bayonet lens mount, and Contax cameras could be paired with Contax as well as cheaper Yashica branded lenses.
The “Contax Carl Zeiss” lenses were named after famous Zeiss lens designs (Distagon, Planar, Sonnar, ..) and benefited from Zeiss’ excellent multi-layer coating. Some of them were made in Germany, but the majority were manufactured in Yashica’s Japanese plants.
Because of their Zeiss and Porsche lineage, their beautiful industrial design and their advanced technical content, the Contax cameras of the Yashica era could be sold as premium products, for much more than what Yashica could have extracted from their own line of SLRs.
In Contax’s product range, the top of the line was always occupied by a camera of the RTS family, and the bottom by derivatives and successors of their original entry level camera, the Contax 139Q (137 MA, 137 MD, 159MM, 167 MT). There was room in between for what we would now call a line of “prosumer” cameras.
Contax’s middle of the range cameras were a motley crew of SLRs addressing the needs of different niches – the S2 and S2b were semi-auto mechanical cameras, the RX had “a focus assist” system, the AX was an autofocus SLR designed for manual focus lenses (the lens had to be set to the infinite, and the film chamber was moving to adjust the focus).
Among them, my pick, the Contax ST, was launched in 1992. It’s a somehow simplified and less bulky derivative of the RTS III, a full featured, motorized, manual focus camera with a large viewfinder, a bit like the Canon T90 from 1986. Its unique selling proposition was that the film pressure plate was made of ceramics rather than steel or aluminum (hint: the CERA in KYOCERA stands for Ceramics). I’m not sure that this ceramics pressure plate brought any real benefit to the photographer, but it spoke to the imagination.
Of course, at the time the camera was launched, all major manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Pentax) had followed Minolta’s example and converted their whole SLR range to autofocus, so the manual focus ST is a bit of the odd man out.(**)
Very first impressions
It’s a beautiful, very traditional SLR which exudes quality, with no autofocus, no modal interface, no menus, no control wheel, no matrix metering, no lithium battery, and a limited use of plastics.
The ST feels dense (heavy, but not too much) and falls very well in the hands. The commands are conventional, with an aperture ring on the lens, and a large shutter speed knob and an exposure compensation dial on the top plate. Almost all controls (except for the shutter speed and exposure compensation knobs) are secured by locks (like they are on a Nikon F4). There is only a tiny LCD (view counter and ISO display) at the right on the top plate.
For the anecdote, the body of today’s Fujifilm X-T3 looks very much like a small Contax ST, at the 2/3 scale, that is. Even the location and logic of the commands is strikingly similar – with the emphasis given on exposure compensation over any other control – you don’t need to search any longer where the designers of Fujifilm got their inspiration from.
The viewfinder is exceptional. Combining a high enlargement (0.8) and a long eye point (I don’t have the figure, but by comparison with other cameras, it’s really long), it offers a cinematic view of the scene. But at the same time, it’s old school – it’s graced with red LEDs, and the focusing screen does not seem to be one of those ultra fine and ultra luminous Acutemate or BriteMate laser etched screens – as a result the image is a bit darker than what you would see on a Nikon FE2, for instance (not by much, maybe 1/2 stop). The ST is also one of the few manual focus cameras with a continuously adjustable dioptric correction – all in all one of the best viewfinders of its time.
Lesser Contax SLRs have a rubberized skin. that degrades over time – it’s not the case for the STs – they still look pristine 28 years after leaving the assembly shop.
The lens mounts and lens mount adapters
Contax and Yashica had abandoned the 42mm screw mount in 1975 with the introduction of the Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount on the Yashica FX-1 and Contax RTS.
The original Contax Carl Zeiss lenses belong to the AE series. The design of the lenses was modified in 1985 to support the Program mode and the Shutter priority modes introduced on the 159MM – therefore the modified lenses are part of the MM series (for Multi-Mode). The two versions of the lenses are inter-compatible – you just don’t get the Program mode or the Shutter priority mode if you mount an AE lens on a body like the ST.
Other lens options
Contax Carl Zeiss Lenses in C/Y mount are rather expensive, even now. There are three alternatives if you don’t want to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a lens:
Yashica lenses: Some models have a very good reputation (the prime lenses in the ML series, generally) – they were manufactured in the same plants as the Carl Zeiss series, but were not built to Zeiss specs and did not benefit from Zeiss lens treatment. People who have tested them next to Contax lenses say the color rendering and the micro contrast are different (which makes sense – each lens manufacturer has its “signature”). Other series of Yashica lenses (DSB, YUS) are not necessarily that good – do you research.
Third party lenses: very few independents offered lenses in the C/Y mount. Tamron and Vivitar had C/Y adapters for their respective universal mount systems. But does it really make sense to mount a Tamron or a Vivitar lens on a Contax camera?
Last but not least, you can also mount older 42mm screw mount lenses (from Yashica, Contax or other defenders of the Universal mount such as Pentax) thanks to an adapter proposed by Yashica. You can still find those adapter rings on eBay.
The elephant in the room – made in Japan or in Germany?
There is no doubt where the bodies were manufactured – my ST proudly bears its “Kyocera-Japan” signature. The Contax Carl Zeiss zoom (the 28-85 f/3.3-4.0) that came with the camera was also made in Japan (no mention of Kyocera, though).
In the early years of the Zeiss / Yashica collaboration, a lens could originate from the German workshops of Zeiss or from the Japanese factories of Yashica (even for a given model – some were produced simultaneously in Europe and in Asia). Over the years, the manufacturing activities were increasingly concentrated in Japan. I did not find any evidence that lenses made in Asia were better or worse than the lenses made in Europe – and I don’t think it matters: they were all designed and manufactured to Zeiss’s specs with Zeiss’s T* multi-layer coating.
Buying Contax cameras and lenses today
In the nineties, Contax cameras were positioned and priced as premium products, a big notch under Leica, but in the same ballpark as Nikon’s or Canon’s Pro cameras.
Today, their high-end bodies hold their value very well even if Leica R products remain more expensive.
The Contax magic percolates to Yashica ML lenses and to certain Yashica bodies (like the FX-3 Super 2000), which are also sold at a premium, for products of a second tier brand, that is. The 21mm and 28mm wide-angle lenses are particularly sought for, selling for at least $350.00.
The least expensive Contax SLRs are the entry level models (139, 137, 167) at less than $100.00 for a nice copy. Really sought after models like the RTS III, the S2 (the semi-auto camera) or the Aria (a compact SLR, the last camera in the Contax manual focus line and the only one with matrix metering) typically sell in a $350.00 to $600.00 bracket. The rest of the products (ST, RX, RTS I or RTS II) sell for approximately $150.00.
But be cognizant that in order to enjoy the full Contax experience, you’ll need Contax Carl Zeiss lenses. It’s very difficult to find anything (even a very common Planar 50mm f/1.7) at less than $150.00, and really interesting lenses (the 21mm wide-angle for instance) can cost well over $1,000.
More about the Contax ST and the Vario-Sonnar 28-85mm f/3.3-4.0 in a few weeks, after a few rolls of film.
The Contax brand has been dormant since 2005, and there is relatively little information about their products on the Web.
(*) Porsche used to be a family business. And everybody in that family seemed to be named “Ferdinand”. Because it was a family business, the eight grand-sons of Ferdinand Porsche, (the engineer who had founded the company and designed the original Beetle) ended up working at the Porsche car company under the direction of Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, who had taken over the business from his father Ferdinand after WW2. When the conflicts between the most talented of the cousins reached dangerous levels, Ferry asked them to leave. Ferdinand Piech, who had designed the engine of the 911, left to start a new career at Audi, and ended his professional life as the chairman of the Volkswagen Group. The other cousin, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, who had designed the body of the original 911, started his own design studio. And one of the first clients of the studio was… Contax.
(**) – Contax launched its first autofocus film SLRs (the N1 and the NX) in 2000 with a new lens mount and a new series of lenses – roughly 15 years after anybody else. And followed up with the first full-frame dSLR in 2002, the Contax N Digital. The products did not sell well and were rapidly withdrawn from the market, and Kyocera left the photography market for good in 2005. The Contax brand has been kept dormant ever since.
The lens mount of the Contax N, N1 and Nx of the early 2000s was totally different from the C/Y mount of this ST. From an engineering point of view, the new lens mount was so close to Canon’s EOS that conversion jobs were possible. You can read a test of a converted lenses in Optical limits
My everyday camera is an iPhone 11 – it’s a smartphone, of course, but it’s also a great camera – really – I like the ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent) and its incredible capacity at making nice portraits or group photos in relatively poor lit scenes. But the iPhone 11 still has a few inherent limitations – its longest focal length is equivalent to a 26mm lens in a 35mm film camera (on the wide side even for a wide-angle, then), and the sensor is so small that even with the best digital signal processing, the best picture enhancement algorithms and a dose of “semantic image analysis”, it’s still not that great when there is really not much light.
Enter my latest acquisition, the Fujifilm XQ2, an ultra-compact point and shoot camera launched in 2015. It’s an old camera by digicam standards, and with a sensor area of 0.58cm2, the XQ2 it’s a sort of tweener. Its sensor is twice the size of the 1/2.3in chip you could find in an entry level digicam, but half the size of the 1 Inch sensor of the current gold standard of ultra-compact digital cameras, the Sony RX100. Using a smaller sensor made the XQ2 smaller (marginally) and cheaper (massively) than the RX100, but took its toll on image quality in poorly lit scenes.
The size of the sensors of small digital cameras is often expressed in Inches. An iPhone 11 has a 1/2.5in sensor, a Sony RX100 has a 1in sensor, and the Fujifilm XQ2 sits in between with a 2/3in sensor.
The “Inches” do not represent the actual size of the sensor – the figure is derived from the length of a video tube that would capture an image of a similar size in an old TV camera: for instance, a 1in video tube captures an image with a diagonal of 16mm, so a silicon chip with a 16mm diagonal will be advertised as a 1inch sensor, even if it’s much smaller than one inch in any of its dimensions (*).
Obviously, there is more to image quality than the sole sensor size – but all things being equal, any time the area of the sensor doubles, its ability to deliver noise free images at high ISOs improves by the same factor: if a 1in sensor (area of 1.16cm2) delivers noise free images up to 800 ISO, a 4/3rd sensor (area of 2.25cm2) will deliver noise free images up to 1600 ISO.
In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the realm of very small sensors: a so called full frame camera (Sony A7, Canon RF, Nikon D850 or Z6, ..) has a sensor which has 30 times the area of the sensor of an iPhone, and 12 times the area of a 1in sensor.
In the real life
I’ve already sang the praise of the iPhone’s camera – it’s truly impressive – in particular when the images are viewed on a smartphone screen. The larger the screen (or the monitor), the less convincing the images, as the effects of the digital zoom (and of aggressive noise reduction) become more visible. The images are pleasant, but very saturated and borderline loud. [images of the horses above]
The XQ2 (under the standard film simulation mode) delivers more subdued images, closer to the output of a conventional camera. In my experience, the XQ2 manages scenes requiring a high dynamic range better than the iPhone, even if it’s not as good as a camera with an APS-C sensor like the Fujifilm X100T. [pictures of the French Bouledogue taking the sun].
The big difference of course is the focal range of the lens(es). With its ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent on a full frame camera), the iPhone lets you create dramatic landscapes. But its longest focal length is a short 26mm (equivalent), and most of the pictures involve a modicum of digital zoom. Which is costly in terms of image quality.
The XQ2, on the other hand, can zoom optically up to 100mm, which is very useful when you want to isolate a detail, or a human being in a wide landscape, without needing to crop the image.
The iPhone particularly shines at night – the images it creates are more dramatic than the images of the XQ2 – even if on a large monitor, they show more noise artifacts. In comparison, the XQ2 uses a more aggressive noise reduction algorithm, and the images lack details and have a distinct artificial look
As a conclusion
Honestly, at the beginning, I was a bit disappointed with the output of the Fujifilm XQ2. The images shot on an iPhone are more dramatic, more spectacular, almost brash. And the ultra-wide angle lens has no real equivalent in the world of dedicated amateur cameras, and the iPhone’s night landscapes are spectacular. The iPhone’s camera is incredibly easy and intuitive to use, you just have to pinch and point to adjust the framing and the exposure.
Because it’s a conventional camera, the XQ2 is not as easy to use (no touch screen) and its default output is less pleasing, but more in line with the expectations of seasoned photographers, looking less artificial. The camera can be operated with one hand – the iPhone can’t – and proposes more control options.
Practically, the big difference is the reach of the XQ2’s zoom – 100mm vs 26mm (equivalent) on the iPhone. In both cases you can use a digital zoom to bring you closer to the subject, but the quality suffers rapidly . To get to the field of view of a short tele-photo lens (100mm), the iPhone will have to rely on a 4 x digital zoom and will in fact crop a very small section of the image at the center of the sensor, while the XQ2 will still use the full 12 Million pixels of its sensor. And if you don’t mind the loss of quality, a 2.5 crop factor will allow the XQ2 to emulate a 250mm lens.
Lastly, and paradoxically for a photographer like me who had been taught that cameras were precious objets to be treated with the utmost care, I would not be afraid to risk the XQ2 in situations where I would not dare expose my phone. On the second hand market, the XQ2 is far less expensive than a new iPhone 11 (by a factor of 5, maybe). It’s also less important for my professional and personal lives than my iPhone – I would be sad to lose it but it would not have the same consequences as losing or destroying my phone.
Will I keep this camera? Yes. Will I use it? Yes.
Because it’s very light and ultra-compact, it’s not a big burden to carry it around.
Of course the iPhone is more convenient – it’s smaller, you always have it with you and it’s the go-to device when you only have 2 seconds to locate a camera and shoot.
But the XQ2 is a real camera, far better than the iPhone at capturing and isolating remote subjects. Because it’s dedicated to the task of taking pictures, its ergonomics make it easier to hold and to set up than a smartphone, and its output is more similar to what a real camera (film or digital) would deliver.
Last by not least, the availability of an OEM underwater housing, specifically designed for the XQ series, and good for a depth of up to 40m (130 ft), is the cherry on the cake. I don’t know if I will ever dive with it, but it came with the camera and could always be used to protect it from the rain or mud projections on the surface of the earth.
(*) For the anecdote, this nonsense of expressing the size of a sensor in relation to the length of a video tube from the 1950s is not unique to the photo industry – we’re still using Horse Power (HP) as a unit of power for the engines of our cars because in 1782 James Watt (the inventor of the high pressure steam engine) had found it convenient to express the capabilities of his machines as an equivalent to a source of power that everybody had experience with: the horse.
More about sensors: a good overview (written in 2013 but still pertinent):
Cameras designed and manufactured before 1975 very often use coin shaped Mercury Oxide batteries to power the CdS cell in charge of metering – the most common being the PX625 aka PX625 / PX13 / MR9 Mercury Cell.
The chemistry of those 1.35 V. batteries is based on mercury oxide. The sale of mercury batteries was banned in 1996 because of their toxicity and environmental unfriendliness, and, unfortunately for the owners of camera of the early 70s, there is no perfect substitute. For all of their drawbacks, mercury oxide batteries had two big advantages – they delivered a constant 1.35v tension across their lifespan, and if not used, they kept their charge for a very long time (at least 10 years).
The most common cameras using the PX625 battery were launched between 1970 and 1975: Pentax Spotmatic F, Olympus OM-1, Leica CL, Leica M5, Nikkormat FTn, Canon FTb and Canonet GIII QL, … . The battery looks like 3 coins of different diameters stacked above one another, and is rather large and thick (Diameter: 15.6 mm. Height: 5.95 mm).
Older cameras (like the original Pentax Spotmatic, for instance) use a smaller button (or pill) shaped Mercury Oxide battery, and more recent models (practically any camera designed and launched after 1975) use silver oxide or lithium batteries in many shapes and forms.
alcaline – (LR9 or V625U) – this battery has one big advantage – it’s the same shape and dimensions as the PX625 – but it has two limitations – its nominal voltage is higher at 1.5v; and it loses voltage progressively, which makes it unfit to provide power to the meter of a camera, unless some voltage compensation circuit is built into the camera. The meter of some cameras will not work at all (Leica CL), and for most other cameras the metering will be unreliable.
Silver oxide – it delivers a constant voltage across its lifespan, and can last for a few years when not in use. But unfortunately, its voltage is significantly higher at 1.55v, which again will promise unreliable metering results unless the camera or the battery container itself is designed with a voltage compensation circuit. There are three options:
the S625PX – I believe it’s been discontinued – it had the same shape as the mercury PX625 battery, but delivered 1.55v – it will only work as a substitute for a PX625 if the camera has a built-in voltage compensation circuit,
a silver oxide “386” battery (a “button” cell), inserted into a adapter with its miniaturized voltage reduction circuit – the adapter is rather expensive ($35 to $40.00). It would be an ideal solution for photographers willing to use the camera regularly- but there are fakes on Amazon (products without the voltage reduction circuit presented has products with). Only buy from a seller you trust.
a Silver oxide 386 battery (a “button” cell), inserted into a adapter without any voltage reduction circuit – some of the “adapters” are as simple as a rubber gasket – again, it will only work if the camera has a built in voltage compensation circuit.
Zinc-Air batteries have three big advantages – they’re used for hearing aids and are sold in every drugstore/pharmacy in the US, they release the same voltage as mercury batteries; and the voltage remains constant over the life of the battery;
You can buy a Zinc-Air button cell and insert it in the battery compartment of the camera (it may work with some cameras). A more reliable solution is to buy a PX625 substitute assembled by a few vendors who integrate third party zinc-air cells in a container shaped as the original PX625. The best know product is the so called “WEIN Cell” but there are alternatives available on Amazon.WEIN cells are packaged in individual blisters, and are cleanly assembled. They fit physically in all the cameras I tested. When the WEIN cells were more expensive than they are now, I had bought “compatible” cells from Exell on Amazon – they worked, but didn’t look as nicely finished and assembled as the WEIN cells – and could not fit in the battery compartment of a Leica CL. Currently, the “compatible” cells are more expensive than the original WEIN. So why bother?A Zinc-Air batteries are powered by oxidizing zinc with oxygen from the air. Therefore, the shell of the battery has small vents that let the air enter the battery. Batteries are stored and shipped with a removable membrane that “seals” the vents and deprive the battery from the air’s oxygen. To activate the battery, you remove the membrane – but once the zinc-air reaction has started, the life of battery is limited to a few weeks at best. Some people remove the battery from the camera after each photo shoot and reseal them, but I’m not convinced that it really helps extend the life of the battery.
As a conclusion…
The WEIN cell worked on every camera I tested. It’s a relatively expensive solution if you want to use cameras designed for Mercury Batteries on a daily basis: because of the short life of the battery once you’ve activated it, you will have consumed a significant quantity of batteries by the end of the year.
If you’re absolutely determined to use a Leica CL or a Leica M5, I’m afraid there is no real substitute to WEIN cells. That being said you could also shoot with a Minolta CLE or a Leica M6, the experience would not be very different, and those cameras rely on Silver Oxide batteries (*). Up to you.
(*) – I did not find a more modern substitute to the Canonet using silver oxide battery. The models that immediately followed (the Canon A35F and A35 Datelux) were sold well into the eighties, and still used a mercury battery. Cameras launched after the A35 are motorized autofocus compact cameras – a totally different experience. If you like cameras in the style of the Canonet, Zinc-air cells are in your future.
I’m not a professional tester of IT equipment. And this blog is primarily about film photography. But I can’t avoid addressing the issue of digital image storage: unless you develop your film in a dark room, use an enlarger and get large prints the good old way, the images on your film will be digitized at some point, will be consumed digitally, and will have to be stored and archived on digital media. Because Adobe Lightroom is more flexible than the proverbial cardboard shoebox.
Over the years, I’ve been using consumer grade storage systems from brands like Buffalo and LaCie, until I settled on a Network Attached Storage system (a NAS) from Netgear. The RN104, that I purchased in 2014, fulfilled his duties honorably until last year, when it started to misbehave: the disks got corrupted (probably because of an unstable supply of power) and I had to restore the data from a backup on Amazon Glacier. More recently a power spike (probably due to a bad connection between the external power brick and the NAS enclosure itself) fried the motherboard and gave me an opportunity to reconsider my allegiance to Netgear, and to consumer grade NAS in general.
What I’m asking is pretty simple: I don’t want to store Terabytes of images on a single laptop equipped with a single drive – I want to store my pictures (RAW and jPEG) on a device accessible by the computers (PC, Mac, iPad) connected to my wireless LAN. That device has to be local – I’m using Lightroom to catalog, upload, edit and print my images, and a broadband connection would be far too slow if I used some form of cloud storage as the primary location of my pictures. That perfect device should also act as a Time Machine target for the backup of my Macs. And of course, because hard drives are inherently fragile, I want the device to offer some form of disk redundancy – ideally, it should be also be able to backup its data on a low cost, on-line archival service.
Most of the recent NAS devices (from Netgear and from competitors) meet those basic requirements. They can also stream video (they take care of decoding) and, because their OS is generally based on some Linux distribution, they can be used as multi-purpose servers (not only as file servers, but also as application servers to run Drupal, Joomla, php, or Python applications, for instance). I have no use for those features and they’ve not been part of my evaluation criteria.
So, what I’m looking for?
solidly built (case, power supply, connector)
with removable drives – that can be moved to a SAN enclosure of the same family, without losing configuration or data (in case the original enclosure dies, or a capacity upgrade is necessary)
with good data protection (RAID 5 or better)
The Netgear RN104 met the requirements for the most part:
most of the issues I have encountered with my old RN104 have been power supply and power supply connector related – with dreadful consequences for the data on the disks and ultimately for the chassis itself.
until the big crash last year, the NAS was configured with RAID-X, the proprietary implementation of RAID in Netgear’s devices. With RAID-X one disk is reserved for parity, the other disks store data (it’s more or less equivalent to RAID 4). With Raid-X, volumes are easy to expand, but if you lose more than one disk, you’re dead in the water.
the Western Digital RED 1TB disks that I bought separately for it (the Netgear chassis can be purchased diskless) proved flawless
When the RN104 chassis finally died, I considered buyinga Sinology or Qnap enclosure, but I would have had to reformat the drives and restore everything from the Amazon Glacier backup, again. Sinology and Qnap are well considered on the marketplace, but seem to use the same type of external power supply brick as the Netgear, and maybe even the same dreaded power connector. Unfortunately, chassis with a built in power supply are much more expensive.
Ultimately, buying a new Netgear NAS device appeared to be the lesser evil. The RN214 unit I bought accepted my old Western Digital drives and recovered its configuration automatically from them. It was on line in less than 15 min after I had received it. Performance seems to have massively improved during the last 5 years. The new units have a quad core ARM processor at 1.4 GHZ and 2GB RAM, as opposed to a single core processor at 1.2 GHz and 512 MB RAM for old model. The power brick and the connector are the same, but being new, everything clicks reassuringly and I hope they will age better than their predecessor.
The operating system is the same as before (Netgear 6.10), the unit accepts the same additional applications (plus a video streaming app that could not have worked on the old unit). As before, the unit can connect to a few external cloud storage services to backup its data (but not to Amazon Glacier, unfortunately) and the Web user interface is reasonably pleasant to use. I did not have to configure this unit (the config information is stored on the disks and moves to a new enclosure when you swap the drives) but my recommendation would be to read the manual carefully if you want to configure a unit from scratch (the factory defaults are not always the best, in my opinion).
I paid $250.00 for the diskless unit (it’s discounted at the moment). Netgear also offers models pre-populated with disks. There is a good warranty on the hardware, but tech support is only available as an extra-cost subscription (storage issues can be vexing, hard to diagnose and time consuming to fix, and I understand Netgear can’t offer free support on a device sold for a few hundred dollars). But Tech Support won’t get your data back if your disks are too badly corrupted, so a good backup is your best friend.