Minolta Maxxum 600si: the return of buttons and knobs

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The Minolta 600si – one switch for every function

The 600si was at the same time Minolta’s cheapest enthusiast auto-focus SLR, and the test bed for the ergonomics of the future Maxxum 9, 7 and 7d.

After the launch of the 700si – at a higher price point than its predecessor the 7xi, Minolta had a gap to fill in their line-up. And because they had taken heat about the user interface of their xi generation of cameras, they took the opposite route for the 600si.

The design of its interface was so well received that it served as a model for the high end Maxxum 9 and 7 launched at the end of the century. And its influence could still be felt in the Konica-Minolta 7d, and in more recent Sony digital SLRs.

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The Minolta 600si – it looks like a “pro” – but its very light construction feels very “consumer”

High level, the 600si is a cheaper variant of the 700si, somehow spec’d down technically, with a very different user interface and a lighter build. Instead of being designed with a modal interface (press the FUNC button to access a menu, and navigate the menu with the control wheels), the 600si is covered with dedicated knobs and rings to control the flash, the exposure mode, exposure compensation, and the drive mode. In addition to which a few rotating switches control the auto-focus setup and the metering modes.

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The Maxxum 600si’s mode control knob – it looks and feels really cheap.

The Maxxum 600si is clearly engineered to a price point. Compared to the 9xi and the 700si, some components are one notch below, with a shutter limited to 1/4000 sec, an auto-focus sensor analyzing 3 zones instead of 4, no LCD overlay in the viewfinder and no “creative Card” slot. Fortunately, the camera retains a steel bayonet and the good long eye-point viewfinder of the higher end Minolta cameras. Minolta had cut cost intelligently.

The camera’s body is made of shiny black plastic, and the knobs and dials – in a dark shade of mat gray, look and feel extremely cheap – a bit like those of the low quality electronic devices you find in dollar stores. I’m not aware of any reliability issue specific to the 600si, so it must be better than it looks, but back in 1993 I would never have paid $500.00 for such a sorry looking camera, when the 700si was selling for only $100 more.

As for the interface, I’m not necessarily sold on the “one knob per function” type of ergonomics – I shot hundreds of rolls with a 700si and I never felt that its interface was getting in the way. I also played with a 9xi recently, and provided it’s set up to your preferences, it’s perfectly fine too. What really matters is your ability to verify at a glance how the camera is set up. If the top plate LCD is informative enough, it may be simpler to read it rapidly and know everything about the camera’s setup, than have to check each knob and switch individually.

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Minolta 600si – the AF zones are engraved on the focusing screen

The viewfinder is informative (with a lit up green LCD at the bottom of the focusing screen) and displays a very useful scale in semi-auto exposure mode. Interestingly, the 600si also operates stopped down in semi-auto mode with adapted lenses (using a M42 to Minolta A mount adapter) and is somehow usable with old Pentax Takumar lenses – (focusing manually is difficult through – the focusing screen of an auto-focus camera is not designed for that).

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The Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens.

There is very little technical difference between the Maxxum cameras of  the “6 to 9 segment” (7xi, 9xi, 700si, 600si, 800si), which were sold for the largest part of the nineties.

  • Metering and auto-exposure had reached their final form with the 14 segment “honeycomb” pattern of the 7xi, which would be retained on all models until the final Maxxum of 2004.
  • They share the same 3  or 4 sensor setup for the auto-focus, and still rely exclusively on the in-camera motor. The final models of 1999 and beyond  (Maxxum 9 and 7)  would adopt a different sensor module, and only the Maxxum 7 would gain the ability to work with ultrasonic (SSM) lenses.
  • Lastly, they all share the same viewfinder (penta-prism, enlargement, high eye point). When comparing the viewfinder with similar Canon and Nikon cameras, it does not look as bright on the 600si, but we’re really nitpicking here.
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Minolta Maxxum 600si with the Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens. It works, but once in place, the adapter is extremely difficult to remove from the body’s bayonet.

What’s my pick in the Minolta family, today ?

The Maxxum 9 and 7 are in a category of their own. They have unique characteristics (the all metal construction and the 100% viewfinder coverage for the Maxxum 9, the user interface for the Maxxum 7 with its large LCD display on the film door and its ability to use current Sony and Zeiss SSM lenses). They are purchased by photographers who want the very best of Minolta SLRs. And they still command top dollar.

Considering that there is no significant cost difference between rest of the Maxxum models – which are all more than 20 years old and are all selling for a few dozens of dollars at most, I would not consider any of the entry or mid level models; I would also avoid the quirky 7xi, and would limit my choice to a few cameras such as the 9xi, the 600si, the 700si and the 800si.

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi (left) and the 600si (right). Two very different approaches of the ergonomics

The 600si may be spec’d slightly below the three other models, but it does not really matter for photographers shooting film today – those are ancient cameras in any case and nobody will complain if they don’t shoot 6 frames per second. Any of those four cameras is very pleasant to use, and will produce well exposed pictures. The choice is primarily about your preferences regarding the user interface, and about your expectations when it comes to perceived build quality. Personally, I’ll stay with the 9xi.

What was my pick in the Minolta family, back then ?

Interestingly, when those cameras were on the shelves of the photo stores in the early nineties, I did not even consider the 9xi.

My first pick was the 7xi and its 28-105 Power xi  Zoom. There is no doubt that the camera was making good pictures (autofocus and metering were top notch for the time) but it was eating its very expensive lithium batteries with an alarming regularity, the Power Zoom and the built-in flash popping up automatically were a pain, and there was no depth of field preview capability. I got rid of the Power xi Zoom after a few months, and replaced the 7xi with a 700si and its optional vertical grip 2 years later. With the grip, the 700si could run on conventional AA batteries. I liked the 700si a lot, and kept it until I switched from film to digital, in 2003.

When I bought the 700si, I never considered the 9xi (far too expensive, too big, too similar to the 7xi, with no way to support AA batteries that I knew of). And once I had the 700si, I was never tempted to “downgrade” to a 600si.


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Joe – Skipper on Lake Powell (AZ) – Scanned from print – Minolta 700si – Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6 zoom (May 1994)

 

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – back then and today (part II)

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a streamlined interface – unusual in the world of SLRs.

Back then

I introduced the Minolta Maxxum 9xi in a blog post a few weeks ago. The 9xi was a camera built to near pro quality standards, with a high end specs sheet (the fastest shutter on a 35mm camera, weather sealing, electric command of the depth of field preview), but its user interface and its internals were lifted from the 7xi, a camera designed for the average amateur more than the enthusiast photographer. It faced a difficult task:

  • In 1992, the lines had been drawn – pros and enthusiasts had already invested in their autofocus camera system, and it’s unlikely that a photographer having recently spent thousands of dollars in new autofocus bodies and lenses would have thrown everything away to enjoy the power-zoom gimmickery of Minolta’s new xi cameras.
  • It had a formidable competitor – Nikon’s N90. The N90 was positioned by Nikon as a prosumer camera, but this very serious and capable camera was often purchased by pros who needed a faster autofocus than what the F4 could provide, in a smaller and lighter body.  The N90 was a very efficient tool,  backed by a large range of lenses and an efficient pro support organization that Minolta did not have.
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Smooth lines, very few buttons in a nice bronze color, a card slot for extra functions.

Shooting with the Minolta  9xi today

The industrial design of the 9xi is unique (one of the most beautiful examples of “bio-design” in the world of cameras), and its build quality is significantly better than its lesser Minolta siblings (7xi, 700si and 600si). That being said, the 9xi suffers from the usual limitations of the autofocus cameras of the 90s:

  • It’s piece of black plastic
  • It’s a battery hog (and needs an expensive 2CR5 Lithium battery)
  • It’s not excessively heavy but it is really very large
  • It’s loud when the camera is “hunting” to focus
  • It can’t work with the most recent lenses or flashes from Konica-Minolta or Sony. To be fair, a similar limitation applies to most of the Nikon autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, which have no real-life compatibility with Nikon’s current AF lenses (the ones deprived of an aperture ring).
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Minolta 9xi – the most unconventional interface – a “func” button to call a menu, and a door where “creativity cards” can be inserted – the predecessors of scene modes.

Other limitations are more specific to the Maxxum xi generation:

  • the 9xi is controlled exclusively by a modal interface (a “Func” push button that you have to press once or twice to access different menus, two control wheels and a LCD, and almost no dedicated button).
  • hidden functions are only accessible by pressing a combination of buttons during the startup process. And they’re not always mentioned in Minolta’s documentation (I found out about one on them by reading the pages of a fellow blogger)
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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – “complex” commands hidden behind a door

The last remaining issue is the choice of lenses, and the impact on the second hand market of Sony’s price policy.

  • No “pro” lens was available when the 9xi was launched. The issue finally started being addressed by Minolta in 1993, but the brand was always one or two steps behind Canon and Nikon when it came to adopting new technologies (such as the ultra-sonic motorization for the auto-focus).
  • Because Minolta was a brand only marginally popular with professional photographers, the f/2.8 pro zooms and the fast prime lenses never sold in huge quantities – probably a tiny fraction of what Canon and Nikon sold (*).
  • Sony’s current A series bodies still are 100% compatible with Minolta’s screw-drive lenses, and Sony’s current lens line up of full frame lenses is only addressing the very high end of the market. In other words, they’re very expensive. Therefore, there is a steady demand for cheaper lenses,  and the second hand market does not have enough of the old Minolta prime lenses and of the old “Pro-zooms” to fulfill it.
  • High usage value, steady demand, relatively limited availability: the price of Minolta’s auto-focus lenses tends to be high on second hand market today.
  • The only really affordable lenses on the second hand market are consumer level zooms, and Minolta has a mixed record in that area – some of their zooms were good, but some of their entry-level products were really bad, much worse mechanically and optically than the entry level products of Canon or Nikon. Do your homework and pick carefully.

Comparing the 9xi with Nikon’s N90.

If you read the manual (and the forums), set the camera to your preferences,  forget about the Power xi gimmickry and mount a conventional auto-focus lens, the 9xi’s behavior will not be that different from the prosumer body of reference, Nikon’s N90. Their interface could not be more dissimilar (the Nikon has one clearly identified button for each function),  the Nikon looks more compact (even if it is only marginally smaller) and it works with AA batteries, but the performance of the cameras is comparable, and the photographer will have access to the roughly same set of functions.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very different interface design approaches. The photographers of the nineties obviously preferred Nikon’s.

Both cameras fall pleasantly into the hands of photographers, even if I tend to prefer the two control wheels of the 9xi to the single one gracing the top plate of the N90.

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The Maxxum 9xi – there is an LCD overlay on the focusing screen. It’s contextual (here, it shows the selected focusing zone at the center) and not very legible.

The eye point length and the enlargement of the viewfinders are also comparable, and perfectly adequate for photographers wearing glasses. There is a LCD overlay at the top of the focusing screen of the Minolta, to provide contextual information, such as the auto-focus point selected by the camera or the metering area selected by the photographer. It also shows the exposure scale when the camera is operating in semi-auto exposure mode. Unfortunately, the information is difficult to read in low light, and the LCD overlay could be one of the reasons why the viewfinder is not as bright and contrasty as in the N90. By a wide margin: the difference is really striking.

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Almost no buttons to control the Maxxum 9xi – the two control wheels do everything. A reminder of their respective functions is displayed at the top viewfinder when you press the Func key.

The Maxxum 9xi has no built-in flash, but in the early nineties no “pro” camera had one. That’s one of the reasons to prefer the 700si or 800si bodies: their built-in flash can be used to command other Minolta flash cobras wirelessly.

Buying a 9xi today? 

Committed users of full frame Sony A series cameras (A850, A900, A99) will probably be more interested in the more recent Maxxum 7, which supports all current Sony lenses, including the SAM and SSM lenses with ultra-sonic motorized focus. The Maxxum 9 – the “pro” SLR from 1999 is also an interesting pick for users of Sony’s full frame digital bodies because of its outstanding build quality and its 100% coverage viewfinder, even if it’s not natively compatible with the new SAM or SSM lenses (some cameras have been retrofitted with an updated circuit board by Minolta’s customer service organization). The Maxxum 7 and 9 are the ultimate Minolta cameras and command a much higher price on the second hand market than the generations that came before.

For photographers just interested in setting a foot in the Minolta autofocus system, the 9xi is an interesting pick. Considering the low cost of all Minolta auto-focus SLRs on the second hand market today (except the Maxxum 7 and 9, of course), it makes little sense to settle for an entry-level model designed for beginners or amateurs such as the 3xi or the 400si. Go for a “pro” model for the same price.

The 9xi performs better than the previous generation of Minolta auto-focus cameras (7000, 9000, 8000i), it offers a few important features which are missing on the 7xi (depth of field preview, bracketing, programmable function button, ability to use a AA battery grip). It lacks their built-in flash and its interface is more cryptic, but it is better built than the 700si and 800si  that followed without being inferior in terms of features or performance (**).

If you’re looking for a well built auto-focus film cameras with matrix metering, it’s perfectly adequate. The user interface is not to everybody’s taste, but when you get used to it, it works.

As mentioned above, finding good lenses at a good price is a challenge.  And you can not mount any generic electronic flash on the camera. The 9xi (like all the Minolta, Konica-Minolta and Sony bodies until the A99 and the A6000) uses a proprietary Minolta accessory shoe. There are adapters, but they add to the budget and are a pain to use.

As usual for cameras which did not sell in huge numbers and have no particular claim to fame, there is no widely accepted price for the 9xi. Prices are all over the place, with some specialized stores in Japan asking for up to $800.00 for a nice 9xi, and the online store of a well know charity effectively selling them for less than $15.00.


(*) I noticed the same phenomenon when I was trying to find lenses for my Fujica AX-3 and AX-5 cameras a few months ago – wide angle prime lenses and luminous trans-standard zooms are extremely difficult to find, and reach prices in Leica or Zeiss territory. Brands like Fujica, which were not addressing the professional market, and catered primarily to price conscious amateurs,  had a few high end lenses in their catalog for the prestige, probably developed for a few friends of the brand, but they were never widely distributed and are now extremely rare.

(**) To a large extent, the 700si was a Maxxum 9xi under a more conventional looking  (and cheaper to build) body shell,  with a few extra buttons and switches. With the 700si, Minolta got rid of the weirdest aspects of the 7xi, and made  some of the features previously present on the 9xi (but undocumented) easier to configure.  With an informed use of the boot process (restart the 9xi while pressing a few specific buttons), there are very few of the 700si new features that are really missing on the  9xi.


More about the Minolta Maxxum series:

A site simply named: Fotographie : https://www.mhohner.de

Reviews of different Minolta autofocus cameras by Henk Jammes:

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-700si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-800si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9.html

A blog from Panagiotis Giannakis :  pansfilmcameras with reviews of the Maxxum 9xi, 7000i, 9000 and 5 among other things.


Instead of posting pictures of my dogs, I went back to the archives and found pictures taken in the mid nineties when I was shooting with a Minolta 700si (the closest cousin of the 9xi). My main lens was the Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6, but I also used (rarely) the Minolta 50mm f/1.7, the famed beer can (AF 70-210 f/4) and a 35-200 xi power zoom. I liked the camera except for its bulk and weight, and ended up using a Minolta Vectis S-1 for my mountain hikes.

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Gjende Lake (Norway). Scanned from print – Minolta 700 Si (Aug. 1996)
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Another lake in Norway (Bygdin, probably). Scanned from print. Minolta 700si – Aug 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Pentax Spotmatic F

The “standard” Asahi Pentax Spotmatic is a camera I would have loved to like. I was attracted to its small size, its nice finish and its pleasant design.  The Spotmatic was a camera of high historical significance –  the first mass market SLR with Through The Lens (TTL) metering and a best seller in the sixties (the first Japanese SLR to sell in excess of one million units). Last but not least, my first reflex camera and my first dSLR were both Pentaxes and I’ve always had an affinity for the brand. All good reasons to add a Spotmatic to my ever expanding collection.

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Pentax Spotmatic F – on the outside, the “F” engraved on the top plate is the most visible difference with previous Spotmatic models

The first one I bought, although superb on the pictures, had a broken shutter. The second one had a capricious rapid wind lever, a shutter release with an enormous lag, a very stiff exposure meter lever, and a meter of uncertain accuracy. I did not trust it and never loaded a single roll of film in it. Those little cameras, as cute as they were,  did not seem to have been built like the Nikon SLRs of the same vintage (two of the three cameras I bought recently had the sticker of a camera repair shop  in the film chamber).

But I kept on reading nice things about the Spotmatic, and I decided to give it another try. A last chance. This time my pick was the final camera of the Spotmatic family, the full aperture metering Spotmatic F.

Full aperture metering, at last

With the model “F” launched in 1973, Pentax finally brought full aperture metering to its line of semi-automatic cameras, more than seven years after  Minolta and Nikon had opened the way with the SRT 101 and the Nikkormat, and two years after Canon, Olympus and Fujica had finally  adopted full aperture metering.

More about Full Aperture and Stopped down metering

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Pentax Spotmatic F – this one is a US market model sold by Honeywell. This Super-Takumar lens is an exception – it has the full aperture capable ES mount.

On the outside, nothing had changed. The same compact dimensions, the same pleasant design with the “Pentax touch” – such as a red indicator showing that the shutter is cocked.  The only major difference inside was of course that the “F” was a full aperture metering camera.

The Spotmatic F is still compatible with normal 42mm screw mount lenses with aperture pre-selection (Pentax Auto-Takumar, Super-Takumar, as well as hundreds of lenses sold by competitors), but full aperture metering requires the use of the new Super-Multi-Coated (S-M-C) Takumar lenses. Introduced with the Pentax Electro-Spotmatic of 1971 (the first aperture priority automatic exposure SLR with an electronic shutter), the S-M-C lenses remain backwards compatible with the 42mm standard, but add a prong to transmit the value of the pre-selected aperture from the lens to the camera body  (this variant of the 42mm universal mount is sometimes named Pentax ES).[*]

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Pentax Spotmatic F – with a Super Takumar lens – with this lens the “F” operates like a normal Spotmatic

The Spotmatic F had a short sales run, but a very long legacy. It was superseded after less than 2 years by the new line of Pentax K bodies (KM, KX and K2).

To a large extend, the K bodies were a limited refresh of the Spotmatic design – modified to support the new K bayonet mount and silver oxide batteries;  the KM in particular was extremely close technically to the Spotmatic F. All three models were rapidly replaced with a new line of more compact cameras (the MX and ME), but the K1000 (a simplified version of the KM introduced in 1976) remained in the catalog until 1997.

Using the Spotmatic F

It’s a compact camera (much smaller than the Canon FTb or the Nikkormat, almost the same size as a Nikon FM), but it’s surprisingly heavy at approximately 650g without the lens. The fit and finish are in line with Pentax ‘s tradition, which means very good, even if not at the level of Nikon.

  • Viewfinder – it’s correct for a camera of that vintage, but is clearly not as bright and clear as the viewfinder of the Olympus OM-1, or of cameras that came to the market only a few years later (Nikon FM , for instance). And it’s lacking the split-prism present in its more modern rivals (the viewfinder only shows a small ring of micro prisms. Getting the focus right is not as easy as it should be).
    The relatively long eye point makes it usable by photographers wearing glasses – they will just have to be aware that if they want to frame precisely, they will have to look up, down, left, right. As mentioned earlier, focusing is sort of OK with a fast, full aperture capable lens. But with standard m42 lenses, metering is stopped down, and when an aperture narrower than f/5.6 is selected, the focusing screen becomes too dark for  composing (the right sequence is compose, focus, lift the metering lever, adjust the exposure, press the shutter release).
  • Metering – the Spotmatic F is a conventional semi-auto camera, with the needle at the right of the viewfinder. Full aperture metering is more comfortable, but  the Spotmatic F can also be used with older Super-Takumar lenses (or any m42 lens), stopped down. The Spotmatic F I bought was in very good shape, and the stopped down lever (at the left of the lens flange) moves very smoothly; it makes a faint “click” when it reaches the stopped down position.
  • Battery: Another difference with earlier Spotmatics is that the “F” used PX625 Mercury batteries, larger than the diminutive RM640 battery used previously.  Of course Mercury batteries can not be found anymore, but the Spotmatic has the reputation of being very tolerant with all sort of batteries – mine is apparently fitted with an Alcaline-Manganese battery, a PX625a,  and the metering is still spot-on.
  • Lens selection: only Pentax lenses sold after 1971 benefit from the modified lens mount supporting full aperture metering on the Spotmatic F (there are exceptions here and there – for more information check this page: https://cameragx.com/2017/10/26/the-pentax-m42-lenses/). In my opinion, the main reason to buy a Spotmatic F (over an older SP or a SP II) is full aperture metering – even if standard m42 lenses are perfectly usable.
    So, what are the options?

    • buy a Pentax Super-Multi-Coated lens, but the selection is limited to prime lenses, and the product line stopped being updated in 1975;
    • or find a third party lens compatible with the modified Pentax mount (Tamron Adaptall lenses come to mind – there is a specific Adaptall mount for the Pentax ES series, and Tamron offered Adaptall lenses until the end of the XXth century).

All in all, the “F” is a pleasant, compact, well rounded camera. The viewfinder is a bit of a let down, but compared to what was available in 1973 from the other big vendors (Nikkormat, Canon FTb, Minolta SR-T), the “F” more than holds its rank: it is less bulky than any of the other three, and is simpler to use than the Nikkormat. Of course, the Olympus OM-1 was much more compact, the Fujica ST801 was more advanced technically, and both had a better viewfinder – but if you absolutely want a m42 screw mount camera from the early seventies, it’s a very good pick.

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Fall colors – Mableton, GA – Pentax Spotmatic F – Super-Takumar 55mm f/2- Fujicolor 400

Should you buy a Spotmatic F? 

When you buy a single lens reflex camera, you buy into a system. If you’re committed to m42 screw mount lenses, the Spotmatic F is a very good choice. It’s a simple, easy to use semi-auto camera, it offers the comfort of full aperture metering, its Takumar lenses have an excellent reputation, and almost any m42 lens can be mounted on the camera.

But you also have to consider that for the Pentax m42 system,  the end was close when the Spotmatic F was launched:  this camera is the best and final iteration of the Pentax m42 family, a system with its roots in the late fifties. The lens selection was frozen forever in 1975, and there is no upgrade option beyond the “F”. It may not be an issue for you if you’re happy with the technology of the SLRs of the early seventies, and don’t want to have anything to do with programmed auto-exposure, spot metering, fast shutters, long eye point viewfinders, acute matte focusing screens, TTL flash systems and good trans-standard zooms.

In 1973, manual focus SLR systems had not reached their peak yet –  a few pretty good cameras and more than a few pretty good lenses would still be launched during the following 15 years. For a photographer interested in investing in a manual-focus camera system, there may be better choices than the m42 system, starting with Pentax’s own K bayonet SLRs of 1975 and beyond.

How much?

Spotmatic cameras (of any type) in perfect working condition are definitely not members of my league of the $5 cameras. The Takumar lenses are relatively abundant and have a great reputation, which contributes to Spotmatic’s high usage value. It’s been more than forty years since the last Spotmatic was manufactured, and they seem to require more care and maintenance than equivalent cameras from other brands. Although they were manufactured in large quantities (3.6 million over a 12 year production run) the supply of good copies is starting to dry, driving the sales price up.

The Spotmatic F is not as common as the older stopped down Spotmatics (approximately 600,000 units were sold in 3 years), and it is slightly more expensive.  Expect cameras in perfect working order to be in the 50.00 to $75.00 bracket.

[*] no rule without an exception – the Super-Takumar lens that came with this particular camera is using the “ES” version of the m42 mount, and supports full-aperture metering. It was Pentax’s entry-level kit lens  in the early seventies, and probably to keep its cost in check, Pentax deprived it from the “Super-Multi-Coating” treatment.


More about the line of Pentax Spotmatic cameras:


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Fall colors – Mableton, GA – Pentax Spotmatic F – Super-Takumar 55mm f/2- Fujicolor 400

 

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The Ultimate film cameras

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

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

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

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

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Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

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

Nikon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canon

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

Nikon

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

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

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

 


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

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The Pentax m42 lenses – meet the Takumars

The Asahi Optical Corporation (known for its Asahi Pentax and Pentax cameras) was founded by a gentleman named Kumao Kajiwara. The brother of the founder was a painter of some fame named Takuma Kajiwara, and in his honor, Asahi named its lenses “Takumar”. We’ve seen stranger things in the past: in the thirties, Leica had named a line of lenses “Hektor”, for Oskar Barnack’s dog, and in 1901, Daimler cars had been re-branded  “Mercedes” after the daughter of their main car dealer on the Cote d’Azur.

Takumar lenses still enjoy a very good reputation, and some of them are highly sought after and sell for hundreds of dollars.

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Pentax Spotmatic SP with a 35mm f/2 Super-Takumar lens

With most vendors (Canon or Minolta, for instance), the different generations of lenses are named for their mount (a Canon FL lens has a so called FL mount and works stopped down, while a Canon FD lens has the so called FD mount that enables full aperture metering).  No such thing with Pentax. The name of the lens (Super-Takumar as opposed to Super-Multi-Coated Takumar or SMC Takumar) relates to the coating of the lens. The most recent lenses (Super-Multi-Coated or SMC) are generally the ones with the updated lens mount supporting Full Aperture metering, but there are exceptions both ways. The only way to determine for sure that a Pentax screw mount lens can meter at full-aperture is to have a good look at the mount.

Coating and Multi-Coating – what is it about?

When it comes to the optical lenses used with cameras, flare is the enemy. And reducing light reflections also improves the contrast (the images look sharper). That’s why lens coatings were developed.

A coating treatment is engineered to block the reflections in a given wavelength. Multi-coating treatments block reflections in a wider range of wavelengths.

Lens coating was a process unknown to the public until Pentax and Fuji started using it as a differentiator in their advertising campaigns in the early seventies (it had been invented before WWII in Germany and had long been considered a military secret).

The 42mm Pentax lens series  – an over-simplified summary…

Auto-Takumar: 42mm lens mount, with aperture pre-set: the photographer has to cock the spring loaded aperture mechanism of the lens after each shot, and will compose and focus at full aperture. The lens will automatically stop down to the pre-set aperture when the shutter release is pressed. The pre-Spotmatic cameras of the late fifties-early sixties (Model K, Model S) came with Auto-Takumar lenses.

Super-Takumar: 42mm lens mount. Automatic pre-selection lens for stopped down metering cameras. They were released in the early sixties and their long sales run more or less corresponds to the Spotmatic’s. The aperture pre-set mechanism does not need to be cocked by the photographer anymore. And the lenses benefit from some form of single layer coating.

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The mount on two Super-Takumar lenses: on the left, the Pentax ES variant of the m42 screw mount with the prong transmitting the aperture value to the camera (generally found on S-M-C and SMC lenses) , on the right a Super-Takumar with the conventional m42 mount.

Super-Multi-Coated Takumar: Introduced with the Electro-Spotmatic of 1971, they provide full aperture metering on the ES, the ES II and the Spotmatic F cameras – the lens mount was modified and now transmits the pre-selected aperture value to the camera via a prong (because it made its first appearance with the Pentax Electro-Spotmatic, this variant of the m42 Universal mount is sometimes named Pentax ES mount).

Super-Multi-Coated Takumars remain compatible with the cameras with stopped down metering like the original Spotmatic and the  Spotmatic II (although compatibility issues arise when mounted on cameras of other brands and with some modern lens mount adapters). Obviously, they get their “Super-Multi-Coated” name from Pentax’s multi-coating.

SMC Takumar: Minor cosmetic differences with the “Super-Multi-Coated” Takumar. Same full aperture metering capabilities and same Pentax ES mount. Introduced with the Pentax ES in 1972.

To the despair of Zeiss and Nikon who had been manufacturing multi-coated lenses for years without letting it known, Pentax  decided to use “multi-coating” as a marketing differentiator – and using a short acronym such as SMC probably helped convey the message to the consumers.

In any case, Pentax’s SMC multi-coating was more than a marketing ploy: when Popular Photography tested the multi-coated lenses of Pentax against their competitors, the SMC coating proved to be the best by a wide margin.

The bayonet mount lenses launched with the KM, KX and K2 bodies of 1975 are simply named SMC Pentax.

Are they radio-active?

Some of the high-end (F/1.2, F/1.4) Super-Takumar  are radio-active- as are other ultra-luminous lenses from other vendors like Canon. Because the optical glass contained Thorium. The use of Thorium was banned at a later stage because of the harm it could do to the workers in the glass foundries.

I’m not an expert in this field – what I’m reading is that the lenses are not very radio-active (they would veil the film if they were), and that unless you grind the lens, and ingest or inhale the dust, you should be safe. (more about the issue: http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/consumer%20products/cameralens.htm).

What to buy?

The Super-Takumar are probably the most common of all (thanks to their long production run), but even the shorter lived S-M-C and SMC Takumars are easy to find. Lenses compatible with the “universal” m42 mount abound, but there are very few third party lenses compatible with the Pentax ES variant. If you want a lens that does not exist in the Pentax SMC line-up (a trans-standard zoom, for instance), Tamron Adaptall lenses are the best option.

More about the Pentax 42mm lenses: http://www.klassik-cameras.de/Pentax_Takumar_e.html


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Horace – French bulldog – shot with Pentax 35mm f/2 lens (attached to a Fujifilm X-T1)

The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my short list of recommended cameras:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last word…of caution

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

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

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