iPhone X vs digital camera vs film

Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about  studio lighting.  And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.

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The iPhone X launch ceremony – Sept 12th, 2017

Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.

Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people

  • We always have them with us,
  • Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
  • With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
  • The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
  • did I mention selfies?

And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).

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Clearwater Beach, FL –  Sunset – Shot with an iPhone 7.
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Clearwater Beach, FL. Sunset – Shot with Fuji film X-T1 – which picture do you prefer?

As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.

Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:

  • No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
  • No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
  • No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
  • No macro lens
  • No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
  • No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
  • And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
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Peniscola, Spain – Fireworks – Fujifilm X-T1 – Something you can not capture with an iPhone, yet

Where does it leave us?

  • Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
  • Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
    Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
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Tour de France 2017 – Fujifilm X-T1. Another one I would not have tried to shoot with an iPhone

What about film?

  • So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
  • Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
  • To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
  • Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.

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Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2

 

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

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

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

How is it even possible?

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

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

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

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

42mm screw mount lenses

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

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

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

 

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

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

Not all 42mm screw mount lenses are created equal

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

Nikon lenses

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

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Pixco Nikon AI to FD adapter (bought on eBay)

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

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

Does it work? 

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

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

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

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

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

Does it make sense?

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

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

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

Other Canon bodies

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

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

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

 

 

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New Isola theme for CamerAgx

This blog had been using the same WordPress theme since the beginning, in 2009.

A change was overdue. Today, it’s been upgraded to a new theme, Isola. Clean, simple, more smartphone and tablet friendly, with more room for content. The menu and widgets are now tucked behind a button in the top bar. I also paid a few extra dollars to have the ads removed.

Nothing else is changing. If you love taking pictures, if you love old cameras, we’re in the same frame of mind and you’re welcome.

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Morning at the Beach – Peñíscola, Spain – Canon T90 – Canon 24mm f/2.8 FD – Kodak Ektar 100

Canon T90 – After a few rolls of film…

High level, the T90 is a top of the line manual focus and motorized SLR, with a long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure and metering modes, on the film flash metering, and a very fast (1/4000 sec) shutter. Besides auto-focus, the only major feature missing is matrix metering.

Canon T90 – the ergonomics of an EOS camera with an FD lens mount

Launched in 1986 (one year after the Minolta 7000), the T90 did not stay under the spotlights for a long time. A very innovative camera, it was probably expected to stay at the top of Canon’s line of FD mount SLRs for a decade, but the success of the Minolta 7000 (and the failure of their first auto-focus SLR, the T80) forced Canon to change their plans in a hurry. They decided to abandon the FD mount, and somehow derived their first two successful auto-focus SLRs (the EOS 650 and 620) from the T90. Less than 12 months after its introduction, the T90 had been relegated to a niche – a camera for well heeled enthusiasts and conservative pros refusing to throw away their FD lenses  to upgrade to the new auto-focus product line.

Designed for demanding photographers, the T90 had an impressive specifications sheet, and  very few real competitors in its heyday:

  • Nikon had nothing approaching its capabilities until the Nikon F4 and N8008/F801 were launched in 1988. But both were autofocus cameras with matrix metering, and sold for much more than the T90.
  • the Olympus OM-4Ti had similar capabilities for metering and its flash system was even more elaborate than the T90’s flash, but it was miles behind when it came to shutter performance and its short eye-point viewfinder was rather small for photographers wearing glasses.

Contax and Leica R cameras of the early to mid nineties also had approaching characteristics,  but when they came to the market, most of the photographers already had adopted auto-focus cameras, and the T90 had been retired for some time.

The T90 was also extremely expensive:

At approximately $500.00 body only in 1986, it was priced in the same ballpark as the Olympus OM-4T, which means it was:

  • more expensive than any other 35mm manual focus camera, except for modular professional bodies (Canon’s F-1, Nikon’s F-3 or Pentax’s LX), and of course the Leicas.
  • more expensive than any autofocus SLR camera, including Canon’s own EOS 650 and 620 – until the launch of the Nikon F4 and the EOS-1 at the end of the eighties.

Buying and using a T90 now

You may prefer a smaller, simpler, lighter and quieter manual focus camera, but if you want a long eye point viewfinder, multiple automatic modes, multiple metering options and support of Canon FD lenses, there is not much choice.

  • Probably because of the bad reputation of old electronics cameras, and specifically of potential reliability and maintenance issues (risk of sticky shutter failure, lithium battery soldered on the circuit board), it can be had for relatively little money (less than $100.00 for a very nice one on auction sites)
Canon T90 – the commands used less frequently are at the bottom of the camera’s back, and behind a door at the right of the body.

The user manual is fairly large for a camera of that era (126 pages) but apart from all the metering and exposure compensation options which can be fairly complex, the T90 is very simple to use, and benefits from very good ergonomics:

  • All the major settings are visualized on a single top plate LCD – very clear and very informative
  • The essential settings (exposure, metering) are accessed through two big buttons  and the control wheel.
  • Great viewfinder – very clear and fine focusing screen, just enough information, and for a photographer wearing glasses – like me –  it’s the perfect compromise between a reasonably long eye point and a reasonable enlargement level.

I did not like a few details  – the control wheel is vertical – I’m used to horizontal on Nikon or Fuji bodies –  in some modes, the viewfinder display is only active if the shutter release button is half pressed, and when you lift your finger from the shutter release to turn the control wheel with your index, the viewfinder display turns dark.

Canon T90 – Vivitar 135mm f/2.8 – Jules

Metering

  • Generally speaking, the camera is easy to use, but understanding the finesse of the metering options requires to go back to the user manual – and experiment.
  • The camera offers 3 metering modes, but on the T90 the center weighted average mode I’ve been using on manual focus SLRs since my formative years is not usable except in the most straightforward lighting situations: the “average” metering mode does not support exposure memorization, and the second best option to control exposure in complex situations on other cameras – switching to semi-automatic exposure  – only works with stopped down metering on the T90.

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    T90 – Very informative viewfinder. It combines a LCD bar graph display on the right with a LED display at the bottom. Here the camera is set to semi-auto mode – stopped down. Correct exposure – (cursor and triangle aligned on bar graph, “oo” message)
  •  As a result I kept the camera set to Partial metering  most of the time. Think of Partial as a form of spot, with a very large metering area at the center of the frame.  Partial metering has been available in Canon  SLRs since the early seventies (on the the FTb, for instance) and is still an option on current EOS digital SLRs. On the T90, this mode supports exposure memorization. By the looks of my pictures, it seems to treat equally the lower and the upper portions of the scene, often resulting in a slight under-exposure of the picture if a portion of the sky is included in the metering area.

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    T90 – Viewfinder when the camera is powered off. The “partial” metering zone corresponds to the largest of the circles at the center of the viewfinder.
  • I wanted to test the Spot, Multi-spot, and High Key /Low Key modes.
    The scenes I exposed in Spot ended up being exposed correctly.
    I played with Multi-spot and the Hi key/Lo key corrections, but shot very few pictures in those modes: those options leave the photographer totally in charge, but require time, as well as a serious knowledge of the theory of exposure (the 18% gray charts and all those sorts of things). To make the matter worse, the implementation of High Key/Low Key is not novice friendly: even the OM-4t is simpler: on the Olympus, the Hi and Lo buttons provide a constant level of correction +2 EV and -2 2/3 EV respectively. On the T90, it’s up to the photographer to adjust the correction, by steps of 1/2 EV. It’s more flexible than the Olympus, but the photographer will have to remember to push the HI button 4 times when shooting a white dog sitting on white sofa.
  • The main constraint, of course, is that film offers no immediate feedback. In order to learn how to take advantage of the advanced exposure modes, you  have to perform systematic tests, take notes, and when you finally receive the processed negatives, go through your notes and try understand what you did right and where you went wrong.  Who has the patience for that?
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8. Kodak Ektar. The beach in the morning – Peñíscola, Spain.

Lenses

  • I tend to shoot a lot with wide angle lenses (24mm, 28mm), but I need longer focal lenses from time to time, and don’t like carrying too many lenses at the same time.
  • Trans-standard zooms are supremely convenient. But in the mid-eighties, very good trans-standard zooms – lenses that could be at the same time sharp, distortion free, compact and reasonably fast (f2.8-4 for instance), simply did not exist. Nikon introduced their first 35-70 f/2.8 AF zoom with the F4 camera, Canon only launched a 28-70mm F/2.8-4L auto-focus zoom in 1988, and neither of them are light or compact.
  • Therefore, the options in the FD mount are limited: no “L” zoom, a few sliding aperture entry level zooms, a huge 35-70 f/2.8-3.5 from the early seventies, and two large and heavy constant aperture zooms, the 35-105 f/3.5 and the 28-85 f/4. I bought the 35-105 f/3.5 a while ago and did not like the pictures it delivered at all (maybe it was a bad copy – on the forums the lens has the reputation of being the best of its class when it’s in top condition).  I’m not inclined to buy the 28-85 f/4, which looks very similar to the 35-105 and is not as highly rated.
  • I will have to explore the world of independent lens makers, or bite the bullet and buy a sliding aperture Canon zoom – the 35-105 f/3.5-4.5 may be better than its reputation.
  • As mentioned above, the T90 does not offer full aperture metering in semi-auto exposure mode. But its semi-auto mode is very well implemented if you accept to work with the lens stopped down. Interestingly, the T90 not only supports older Canon FL lenses, but, with adapters sold by Canon in the sixties and seventies, it also accepts 42mm screw mount lenses,  Exacta, Leica Visoflex and even Nikon F lenses. I could find one of those screw mount adapters recently, and there are a few very luminous Pentax screw mount lenses that I’d like to try on the T90.
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Ilford FP4 film. Peñíscola, Spain

My conclusions:

I’ve never really been into Canon cameras – and I only started using Canon SLRs recently because I was given a few bodies and lenses. Logically, I should have felt little affinity with the T90: it is pure Canon DNA, combining some characteristics originating in the FTb and AE-1 generations with the ergonomics of modern EOS cameras. But the truth is that I love this camera. It’s one of the most satisfying film cameras to use, with no real equivalent:

  • The Canon A-1:
    • the A-1 is a good camera, but I like the T90 much better (better viewfinder, better shutter, better ergonomics, better build quality, more metering options for the day I want to think hard about the exposure).
  • The Nikon SLRs of the mid eighties
    • Nikon has no equivalent to the T90. The F3 is a heavy, conventional, aperture preferred auto camera, with a viewfinder even larger than the T90, but far less informative; it’s rock solid and will quietly get the job done, but it feels much older than the T90. Another generation.
    • Compared to the T90, the FE2 is a simple, light and compact camera  with a very fast shutter. Like the F3, it only offers aperture priority auto-exposure in conjunction with center weighted average metering, and in most situations, it’s going to be good enough. Its viewfinder is very bright, it offers one of the best implementations of semi-auto exposure I know of, but with its very short eye point, it will force photographers wearing glasses to look left and right to see the entirety of the focusing screen.
  • The Olympus SLRs:
    • Even if it has some characteristics in common with the OM-4 (the multi-spot and hi-key/lo key metering modes or the flash control options), the T90 looks like the polar opposite of the OM-4. The design and the ergonomics of the OM-4 are deeply rooted in the early seventies. On the other hand, the T90 introduced a way of interacting with a camera still followed today by Canon, Nikon or Sony for their top of the line dSLRs.
      I’ve not been convinced of the usefulness of the multi-spot and hi-key/lo-key modes of the T90 – too slow, too complex, not better than operating with spot metering on a good semi-auto camera – and I suspect that my opinion would not be very different if I tested those features on the OM-4. But if you don’t use those metering modes, why bother with an OM-4? An OM-2 or an OM-2 Spot Program will do a similar job, and are simpler and cheaper cameras.

If you consider the camera’s characteristics – its specs sheet – it is very telling that the closest Minolta or Nikon cameras – motorized, with a  long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure options, multiple metering options including Spot –  came a few years after the T90 (with the Maxxum 8000i or the N8008/F801). But with auto-focus and matrix metering, they clearly belonged to another generation and offered a different user experience.

Despite the apparent similarity of their ergonomics, shooting with the T90 is to a large extent the opposite of shooting with a modern auto-focus/matrix metering  SLR or dSLR. The T90 leaves you in charge of the focus and the exposure. Focusing is not very difficult (the viewfinder is large and bright), but getting the exposure right requires some effort – in particular because Canon decided to limit what the photographer could do with Average metering. The T90 is a camera for perfectionists, who believe that with the right set of tools and some effort, they can get better images than what a modern auto-everything camera would give them.


More about the T90:

Cameraquest: https://cameraquest.com/t90.htm


Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Fujicolor 400. “La Maison aux Bambous”, Vinay, France

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CamerAgX – The three most popular blog entries of the past quarter

The three most popular blog entries over the last quarter

Angenieux 28-70 f:2.6 Angenieux 28-70mm f:2.6 AF

Nikon FE2 The Nikon FE2: one of the very best manual focus SLRs ever.

 

Eye Relief Viewfinders coverage, magnification and eye relief

 

The three most popular recent blog entries

 The Fujica film cameras – the best screw mount SLRs ever?

 Canon A-1 or Fujica AX-5?

Canon FD to Fuji X adapter, and Canon FL 55mm Old lenses on new gear – manual focus lenses on mirrorless cameras

 

 


Charleston – July 2009 – Nikon FM Nikkor 24mm

 

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The Canon T90 – first impressions

The Postal Service just delivered a Canon T90 at my door step. I opened the box, inserted batteries, mounted a lens, and swiched it on. The T90 is a disconcerting camera, and I was in for a few surprises.

Why a T90? 

Recently I’ve been looking for a manual focus camera with a larger viewfinder than my Nikon FE2, and a bit more feature rich than the austere Nikon F3. I wanted to play with more metering options (spot, multi-spot, highlight, shadows) than what the FE2 and the F3 have to offer. And at the same time, I did not want to spend money on a new family of lenses, which excluded Contax, Leica, Minolta and Pentax, and limited my choice to Canon, Nikon and Olympus. I could have splurged on an Olympus OM-4T, but $200.00 is a minimum for a working copy in so-so condition sourced in Japan, and the beautiful ones are many times more expensive. Nikon had no manual focus SLR that interested me (I have used the FA and the FG in the past and did not like them, and the N2000 and N6000 are just mid level autofocus cameras deprived of autofocus).  That left us with Canon, and the T90.

The T90 is a very interesting piece of hardware. It’s at the same time a formidable precursor of all the Canon high-end EOS film and digital cameras to come, a shameless copy of the Olympus OM-4 (metering system, OTF flash), the most elaborate of the Canon manual focus reflex cameras, and an evolutionary dead end. It was launched in February 1986, one year after the Minolta Maxxum 7000, and was only manufactured for a few months, leaving the spotlights in favor of the new EOS autofocus product line, presented in March 1987. It is often seen as a test bed for the ideas successfully implemented in the EOS cameras. It’s a way for Canon to finish a long chapter of its history on a bright note, and for its faithful customers, one last opportunity to spend a lot of money on a high-end camera supporting the FL and FD lenses.

A lot has been written about the T90, its genesis and its legacy. There are countless descriptions and reviews of the T90  on the Internets. I listed a few links at the end of this post. I won’t write the nth review here. Today, I’ll share my first impressions, trying to understand how the camera can fit with the way I take pictures. And later, after my  summer vacation, I’ll come back with more definitive conclusions.

LCD display on the right side of top plate, control wheel, shutter release and spot metering buttons at the top of the grip. The ergonomics of a modern camera.

The first impression: it looks and feels like an EOS camera…

The T90 is a camera full of paradoxes. It looks and feels like a modern EOS camera (polycarbonate body and rubber covered grip, LCD display on the right of the top plate, control wheel), and when you bring the camera to your eye, you see the same very bright and smooth focusing screen that you would see through the same long eye-point viewfinder in a more recent autofocus SLR. But press the shutter release lightly, and …

  1. The image in the viewfinder stays blurry. Of course, it’s a manual focus camera…But intuitively, for a fraction of a second, because the camera looks and feels like an EOS, I had expected it would find the focus for me (*)
  2. You press the shutter. It’s LOUD. Really LOUD. More than a non-motorized film SLR of the previous generation, more than a modern dSLR, and of course, much much more than a mirrorless camera. In all fairness, it should be compared to the few motorized SLRs of the same period capable of shooting  4 frames/ second. I remember the racket when I was shooting with a motorized Nikon FA. It was screaming much louder than the T90.(**)
  3. And it’s heavy. Almost 900g with the batteries. You don’t expect that much weight from a camera with a plastic body.

It’s also very large (in the modern dSLR world only the EOS-1d and the Nikon D5 are larger), but because the FD lenses are much smaller than the huge f/2.8 autofocus zooms that the pros mount in their EOS-1d and D5 today, it does not look as big and intimidating.

…but it’s not an EOS-like camera

It’s a manual focus camera. With no matrix metering. In that sense, it’s a camera of the past, already outdated when it was launched. Like the Olympus OM-4, it’s an attempt to put the photographer at the center of the exposure determination process, when the market was rapidly going in the opposite direction and adopting “evaluative multizone” and “matrix” metering.

The default metering mode – center-weighted average – does not permit you to lock the exposure, and unless you’re willing to operate in full manual exposure mode, you need to switch to the  “partial” (large spot) or “spot” (the really tiny spot at the center of the viewfinder) modes as soon as you want to gain a modicum of control over the exposure of your image.

The “partial” setting lets you lock the exposure values as long as the shutter release button is half pressed, and the elaborate multi-spot, highlight/shadow and exposure memorization functions are only paired with “spot” metering. It should give you enough control over the exposure without ever having to switch to the manual exposure mode.

The manual and semi auto modes are weird, but stopped down aperture is surprisingly useful

The other reason to use the T90 in auto exposure mode is that the manual mode is weird. It’s really a manual mode (not semi-automatic), unless you operate with stopped down metering.

  • If you operate the camera at  full aperture (with a Canon FD lens unlocked from the “A” position), the LED display in the viewfinder only shows the recommended aperture value. But it does not give you any indication about the current aperture value, and there is no + or – sign in the viewfinder to tell you whether your image is currently over exposed, under exposed, or just right. The meter of the camera operates as a hand held light meter would, and it looks as if the meter is not coupled to the shutter and aperture commands of the camera. It may work in a studio, but it’s far too slow in the street.
  • However, if you press the “stopped down” lever at the left of the T90, a full featured semi-automatic mode becomes available. Which is fine if you shoot with FL or FD lenses at a wide aperture, but unusable at F/11 and beyond – the viewfinder becomes too dark. It’s frustrating to have to operate FD lenses stopped down, but using FL lenses is surprisingly pleasant. One last gift of Canon to its faithful customers.

Not everything is perfect though: the manual and stopped down modes come with all sorts of limitations, and the camera displays weird error messages if the aperture ring and the depth of field lever are not set as the camera would expect. I don’t know if the limitations are related to programming of the CPU of the camera, or whether they are flaws inherent to the FD mount, or a combination of both. Obviously the all-electric EF mount of the EOS series is a more flexible design.(***)

Canon T90 with a Canon FD 50mm f/3.5 macro lens. Thirty years later an EOS 1d does not look that different.

The Canon FL and FD lenses: they used to be cheap…

When Canon launched the EOS system in 1987, the FL and FD lenses – which are absolutely non-compatible with the EOS cameras, immediately lost most of their resale value. After the T90, Canon only launched one camera using FD lenses: the T60, in 1990. But it’s a rebadged Cosina semi-auto camera (a precursor of the Olympus OM-2000), not a true Canon. So for a very long time, FL and FD lenses – that could only be used on cameras last manufactured in the mid eighties – remained in the “orphan equipment” category, and were cheap, much cheaper than manual focus Nikon lenses, that could (and still can) be used on many current Nikon dSLRs.

The rise of mirrorless system cameras (Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fuji), and in particular of the full frame A7 series from Sony has given a new lease of life to manual focus lenses, and to Canon FL and FD lenses in particular. As a result, fast (wide aperture) Canon FL and FD pro and high end lenses have become seriously expensive (as usual, sliding aperture trans-standard zooms remain on the cheap side).

Canon used to propose a very large selection of FD lenses, with different maximal aperture and different qualities of glass in each category (from the ultra-wide angle to the super-tele), but they seem to have neglected the trans-standard zoom segment:  they never offered a constant wide aperture or pro-quality “L” lenses in that focal range, and  the T90 was never bundled with a zoom, but simply with the conventional 50mm f/1.4 prime lens.

Interestingly, the T90 is a good bearer of FL lenses (the semi-automatic exposure mode only works with the lens stopped down, there is no benefit  using FD lenses if you only want to shoot in this mode), and thanks to an adapter (and to the short flange distance of the FL/FD family), it also supports 42mm screw mount lenses.

More to come in a few weeks…


(*): and it happened repeatedly this week. I never had experienced such a thing before (my Nikon FE2 also has a very bright focusing screen, and I often use it with Nikon autofocus lenses, but I never found myself waiting for the camera to focus on its own).

(**): it’s not as loud when operated in stopped down mode. The iris command mechanism is probably the loudest sub system in the camera.

(***): there has been a lot of speculation on why Canon decided to ditch the FD lens mount in favor of a totally new EF mount in 1987. Some  say that the FD mount was too expensive to manufacture, that it was too small and could not be made solidly enough out of plastic, some say it was too small (diameter) and did not leave enough room for the electrical contacts needed for future evolutions, some say it was too small and made the design of ultra-luminous (or ultra-wide angle) lenses too difficult. Some say that the aperture control mechanism of the FD mount was too kludgy and made basic features offered by competitors, such as depth of field preview and semi-automatic exposure too difficult to implement on multi-automatic cameras such as the A-1 or the T90.


Links:

User reviews of Canon bodies and lenses: Canon Classics http://www.canonclassics.com

An interesting take on the design of the T90: http://www.massmadesoul.com/canont90 (and good links too)

The Canon T90 Performance Book. It was sold for $9.99 by Canon dealers: http://satnam.ca/cameras/Canon%20t90_performance_book.pdf

Easy to read reviews of the T-90 and other T-series cameras by Lewis Collard: http://lewiscollard.com/cameras/canon-t90/

In depth description of Canon’s R, FL and FD lens mounts: http://tinkeringwithcameras.blogspot.com/2008/03/canon-lens-mounts-from-r-to-fdn.html

And as usual, MIR’s exhaustive analysis: http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/classics/canont90/index.htm


Canon T90 on a tripod and black dog.

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The Olympus OM-2000 – not a true blood Olympus, but a cheap and convenient bearer of Zuiko lenses

Nobody’s going to argue that in the hands of a reasonably  competent photographer, and in most situations, a recent “pro-level” digital SLR is going to deliver much better pictures than an amateur dSLR released 10 years ago. Resolution, Dynamic Range, Low Light Sensitivity, Color Accuracy are all going to be significantly better. And for a much smaller level of effort:  scenes that used to require the photographer to shoot in RAW and spend 10 minutes “processing” each picture in  Adobe Lightroom (or even worse, hours in Photoshop) can now reliably be shot in JPEG and uploaded directly from the camera to whatever social network or on-line photo gallery.

Olympus OM-1n MD (left) and Olympus OM-2000 Spot (right). The OM-1 was launched in 1972, the OM-2000 in 1997.

In the world of film cameras, it’s different. As long as the camera meets a few basic requirements: mount the lenses with precision, meter and expose with accuracy and consistency, maintain the film plane flat, inform the photographer of the decisions taken by its automatic systems, and let him adjust the parameters when necessary, there will not be much of a difference between the pictures created with a pro and an entry level camera. The pro camera will be faster, more accurate, more solid, more durable and will provide more control options to its user, but ultimately, the quality of the results will be a function of the quality of the lens, of the film, and of the skills of the photographer.

OM-1 and OM-2000 – the organization of the commands is very different (the shutter speed ring is between the lens and the body on the OM-1, and classically on the top plate for the OM-2000. The film sensitivity is set on with a knob on the top plate (OM-1) and in a window in the shutter speed knob (OM-2000)

Which brings us to the mid-nineties. The big Four (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax) all have successfully converted their SLRs to autofocus, electronics and polycarbonate, and have persuaded most of the photographers to buy them. There are a few hold outs at the high end of the market who still buy and use manual focus semi-auto cameras built traditionally out of aluminum and brass or titanium (Leica R and M series, Nikon FM2, Olympus OM-3ti for instance), and “learners” or photography students, who are looking for cheap cameras to learn the basics of photography, and who generally end up buying entry level Pentax and Minolta cameras. Both manufacturers already have relocated the production lines of the K1000 and of the X-300 to China, and can propose them (body only) for less than $150.00. In comparison, Nikon’s FM2 is approaching $500.00, Olympus’ (automatic) OM-4ti  sells for $1,000.00, and the semi-auto OM-3ti – produced in very limited quantities –  is probably in Leica territory when you can get one (a semi-auto Leica R6.2 sells for $2,800.00 at Adorama in 1995).

OM-1 (bottom) and OM-2000 (top). The OM-2000 does not accept a winder or a motor. A totally different bottom plate denotes a fundamentally different internal architectures. Note the “made in Japan” engraving.

Following the example of Canon and Nikon (who had commissioned the design and the manufacturing of their entry level manual focus / semi-auto T60 and  FM10 to Cosina), Olympus launches the OM-2000 in 1997. Like its predecessors on the Cosina production lines, the OM-2000 is based on a platform originally developed for the Cosina CT-1, and somehow customized to Olympus’ requirements: unique to the OM-2000 are the Olympus bayonet, the gun metal color of the camera’s body, and the presence of a spot/average meter switch. It is generally sold in a bundle with a 35-70 f/3.5-4.8 lens, also made by Cosina. I did not test this lens and can’t comment on it.

OM-2000 – the SPOT/Average metering selector. When SPOT is selected, a LED acts as a reminder in the viewfinder.

The OM-2000 is not designed  to be great, but cheap and simply good-enough. The outer shell is of polycarbonate, the film rewind and the self timer lever are fragile (I had an issue with the rewind knob – I applied too much force to it and ended up unscrewing it from there body), the metallic shutter tends to be loud, but the camera, though basic and unsophisticated (the LEDs in the viewfinder look a bit crude), is pleasant to use (large viewfinder, smooth commands) and with its nice color, makes a good impression. The shutter is fast (1/2000 sec, 1/125 synchro), the spot meter useful and easy to use (there is a reminder in the viewfinder).

Contrarily to the OM-2 whose mirror and shutter are very well damped (you can shoot at 1/15sec without a tripod in a museum, for instance), the mirror or the shutter of the OM-2000 tends to generate strong vibrations, some of the pictures I took with it show it clearly. My advice: avoid low shutter speeds unless the camera is firmly held in place.

Vertical metal shutter – 100% Cosina. 1/2000th second and X-Sync at 1/125th second (the fastest of any Olympus OM camera).

As for the real value of this camera, it depends on your point of view. For a collector of  the “real” Olympus OM series cameras, it’s not worth much. It has nothing to do with the renown single digit family of OM cameras (OM-1, OM-2, OM-3, OM-4). It can not share any of their accessories (winder, focusing screen) and can not take advantage of the TTL flash capabilities of the units designed for the OM-2 and its followers.

Olympus OM-2000 – pull the wind lever to activate the meter and unlock the shutter (no separate on/off switch on the OM-2000)

With a good lens (Olympus’ Zuiko lenses have a great reputation), a good film and a good photographer, it will take good pictures – and should serve its owner well. It’s not as solid as a Nikon FM2, it’s not as beautifully made as an Olympus OM-3, it vibrates more than an OM-2, but when new, it was a fraction of the price of those cameras, and now, it can be had for a few dozens of US dollars. If you’ve heavily invested in OM Zuiko lenses and in expensive OM Ti bodies, adding a cheap  OM-2000 to your equipment list is a good insurance plan – you can use it when you don’t want to risk your precious OM-3Ti, and it can save your day if the electronics of your OM-4T decides it had enough.

Olympus OM-2000 – Viewfinder – 3 LEDs + o – to set the exposure. When the camera is set in Spot, a fourth round LED is lit at the bottom.

With the right lens and a good photographer, simple film cameras can take great pictures. The OM-2000, while clearly not a true blood Olympus OM camera, maybe the cheapest and easiest way to shoot film using Olympus Zuiko lenses  today.


06-2017-OM2000-14
On the beach in the morning – Florida – Olympus OM-2000 – OM Zuiko 135mm f/3.5 – Kodak Ektar 100

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