Why shoot film in 2017?

Last week-end, I tried a Nikon N90S that had just been delivered by UPS. The N90S does not feel very different from a conventional Nikon dSLR such as a D90 or a D7200. And instinctively, I started using it the same way I generally use a digital camera. Auto-everything, just compose the picture, press the shutter release, check the picture the LCD, adjust the exposure or the focus, and shoot again. Except that the N90s is a film camera. There was no LCD to check the picture. I won’t know if the camera nailed it until the film comes back from the lab. It could be weeks from now. And I started wondering why I had brought this camera, that wants to be used like a modern dSLR, but does not offer the convenience of digital.

It does not seem logical to shoot film:

– it’s expensive

– film is low ISO only (typically 100 to 800 ISO)

– there is a limited choice of film, and it’s difficult to find

– Film is not flexible – if you’ve loaded your camera with Kodak’s TRI-X, you’ll have 36 contrasty and grainy Black and White pictures. No magic switch or menu option will transform it into an Ektar or a Velvia on the fly.

– it takes days or weeks to get to see your pictures

– and most images are consumed on a smartphone or a computer monitor, or printed on a inkjet or giclee printer. Unless you enlarge your negatives in a dark room and only hang the prints on a wall, the images will have to be digitized at some point. So why go through the pain of using film, if you always end up processing digital images.

Most of the reasons given by the apologists of film are false pretenses:

Holga 120 CFN -Kodak color film.

Google “why shoot film” or check the Web sites of photo labs. You will often find the same reasons for shooting film. Most of them don’t resist  a close examination:

– “Film forces you to be picky because each image shot has a cost” – true, but nothing prevents you from being picky with a digital camera,

– “Film forces you to think and operate with method” – there is no possibility to check the picture immediately after it’s taken and adjust the parameters accordingly – trial and error does not work – you have to think hard and get it right. Again it’s true, but nothing prevents you from operating slowly and deliberately with a digital camera,

– “With a film camera, you’re not tempted to lose time looking  at your images on the LCD, you can focus on the subject and the next opportunity”.  True. But on a digital camera it’s simply a matter of discipline. Most digital cameras can be set not to display the image immediately after it has been shot, and nothing forces you to push the “play” button. (my digital cameras are set NOT to display the image which has been taken – but it came back to bite me a few times – when the images were not correctly exposed, and I only found about it when it was too late).

Venice – Bridge on the Rio de Palazzo o de Canonica – Shot with Nikon FE2. Scanned by a minilab. Jan. 2012

Some are true, but up to a point only…

You read frequently that in spite of all the film simulation modes (in camera or in Lightroom post processing), there is still something unique in the way film looks. Maybe. I’m not denying that some images originally shot on film look different. But I don’t know for sure if it’s the film, or something else. Because unless you use an enlarger and develop your prints in your own dark room, it’s likely that your workflow – and the processing chain of the lab who scan your film roll – are relying on digital technologies at some point. Minilabs and industrial labs have been printing from scans for years (even before consumers switched from film to digital), and that special film look you like so much may just be a product of the scanning software controlling the lab’s Fuji Frontier (or its Noritsu).

“Using film gives you access to cheap full frame and medium format equipment”  – True, you can get the “full frame” 35mm or  the medium format experience for less than $100. But the cost difference is not as high as it used to be (you can get a very  good second hand Full Frame dSLRs for $700), and digital medium format cameras, while still very expensive, will become more accessible when new cameras such as Fujifim’s GFX reach the second hand market and start pushing the price of older cameras downwards.

“Film can be stored for hundreds of years – and digital images are fragile”. True,  CDs and DVD may degrade over time, hard drives fail, and cloud storage only lives as long as the company offering the service stays in business. Digital imaging is based on short lived standards – will electronic devices of Y2050 still read today’s jPEGS, DNG and RAW files, will they mount the drives, the disks, the USB keys we store images on? . All those concerns are valid. Keeping digital images on the long run  will require work (moving images from an obsolete support or from a retiring on-line service to more current media, convert image files from old formats to newer formats). But it’s an archival issue, and archival of film also requires work – a shoebox can only get you so far.

Garden near Charleston, SC. Nikon FM, Nikkor 24mm AF.

What’s left? 

There still are plenty of reasons, good or bad, to shoot film…

– snobism,

– a desire to be  different,

– the refusal to fall for the latest and greatest electronic gimmickry,

– the love of film as a medium,

– the love of old cameras (mechanical devices made of aluminum, steel and brass) – there is no other way to use old cameras than to shoot film,

– love of old lenses,

– a preference for the way you had to work with those old film cameras (because you learned that way and you don’t mind showing your age…)

– the thrill of risking wasting a photoshoot  with cameras that are getting old and unreliable (not for me – I mostly use Nikons…),

– the unpredictability of results with old and inaccurate cameras and expired  film (basically, you let chance and mother nature be creative on your behalf)

– a search for authenticity and simplicity. Digital photography can be overwhelming (so many options, so many filters, so many plug-ins, so many ways to modify or improve the images, in the camera or on a computer, before and after shooting). Film is simpler. You load the film, your arm the shutter, you set the aperture and the shutter speed, you adjust the focus. You compose. You press the shutter release. And you’re done.


Panic in the sky – accidental double exposure on Olympus OM-2000. You would never get this image with a digital camera.

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Pentax Spotmatic SP – why was it a disappointment? (for me)

Some cameras are a source of disappointment. Because they carry a famous brand name, had the privilege of being “the first camera to do this or that”, and because they still look cool, you feel compelled to buy one, and you don’t like it. Or don’t trust it. You don’t use it, and you sell it.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – Pentax Super-Takumar 35mmf/2

I had all the reasons to like the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic. I’m sympathetic to the brand – my first reflex camera was a Pentax MX that I kept for 15 years and my first digital SLR was a Pentax *ist DS (what a name!). Pentax also tends to make relatively small cameras,  and I tend to prefer small cameras to large ones. And I had bought a very nice Super Takumar 35mm f/2 lens a few months before, to use on a mirrorless digital camera,  and wanted to see how it would behave on the camera it had originally been designed for.

Historically, the Spotmatic is important. It was the first SLR from one of the 4 major vendors to offer Through the lens (TTL) stopped down metering as early as 1964. (Topcon had launched the RE Super with TTL metering at full aperture in 1963, but it did not have the installed base and the market presence of Asahi Pentax and did not make the same impact).

The Spotmatic was not an automatic camera (it just offered semi-automatic exposure determination with a matching needle setup) and although spot metering was implemented on the prototypes presented initially to the press, the models sold to the public determined the exposure with an average metering system.

The Spotmatic was so successful on the marketplace that Pentax did not feel the need to mess with it – the model remained virtually unchanged until the Spotmatic SP II was launched in 1971. Which only brought cosmetic improvements.

The first significant evolution was the Spotmatic F (in 1973), the first model of the series to support full aperture metering, but it required new lenses with a specific mount (a proprietary evolution of the universal 42mm screw mount that Pentax had been championing since the fifties), that it shared with Asahi’s first automatic SLR, the Pentax ES. The Spotmatic F was short lived: in 1975, Pentax introduced the K series (KM, KX, K2) and the K bayonet mount, effectively retiring the Spotmatic line and the M42 lenses.

Why the disappointment? 

Maybe I’ve been spoiled. Or lucky. Or maybe Nikon cameras of the manual focus era were really superiorly built and exceptionally solid. But none of the Nikon SLRs have bought so far have shown any reliability issue, or any marked weakness.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the cloth shutter – one of the weak points of the camera

The first Spotmatic I bought was a SP500. It looked very nice on the pictures of the auction site, but when I received it, the shutter proved defective. Spotmatics have a textile horizontal shutter, and after the first curtain opens, the second curtain is pulled by two very narrow bands of textile. One was broken. Once you include shipping, the cost of the repair is probably in the $100.00 range. Much more than what the camera is worth. So it’s collecting dust.

The seller of the second Spotmatic I bought (the SP shown here) promised me it would work, and it does. It makes the right moves. The shutter fires at all speeds, the metering system seems relatively accurate with modern silver oxide batteries (good enough for print film, maybe not for slides), but it often takes two or three actions on the wind lever to arm the shutter, and the lever you have to lift to activate the metering (at the left of the lens flange) is very stiff and does not always come back into position after a picture has been shot (it did not on the SP500 either, so it’s probably a design feature).

Pentax Spotmatic SP. The base plate with the battery door.

I believe that those issues are related to the fact that the Spotmatic, like most of the cameras of its generation, is designed to let you compose at full aperture, but requires that you determine the exposure with the iris of the lens closed at the pre-selected value (you measure the exposure “stopped down”). I’ve yet to see a good implementation of stopped down metering (maybe Praktica cameras, I’ve never used them) . More often than not, it’s an ergonomics disaster: in the case of the Spotmatic, you have to hold firmly the camera with the right hand, use your left thumb to lift the metering lever (it’s stiff, you have to push hard and the upwards movement is not very natural), and use your remaining left hand fingers to adjust the aperture (stretch your fingers, you can do it) or the shutter speed (no, you can’t unless your fingers are as long as ET’s).

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the camera is compact compared to the monsters sold by Nikon or Canon during the same period, with a clean lines and a toned down design.

In the end, I did not trust the camera enough to bring it with me for a vacation in the  mountains. I don’t take pictures of brick walls and don’t shoot the same studio scene over and over. I use my cameras in the real life. At the risk of coming back without a picture if the camera decides it has enough.  I did not want to take the risk of missing a whole week of good picture opportunities because the camera had decided to misbehave. And I had no backup camera that could use the same lenses. So at the last minute, I removed the Spotmatic from my photo bag and replaced it with a Nikon FM.

Pentax Spotmatic SP with Asahi’s Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 lens

I like the Super Takumar 35mm lens very much though. Like most of the large aperture lenses of its generation, it tends to be a bit soft, but what a wonderful bookeh. It seems to work particularly well when mounted on an APS-C digital camera (where it becomes a 50mm equivalent).


What was the competition doing when Asahi Pentax was selling the Spotmatic? 

The Canon FT/QL and the Pentax Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) – which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.

Asahi had a head start. When they launched the Pentax Spotmatic in 1964, none of the other big vendors had anything comparable: most of them were offering cameras with an external cell, sometimes optional and removable (Nikon Nikkorex), sometimes integrated, with its own little lens on the left side of the camera body (Minolta S7). The Spotmatic would remain the sole camera from a major vendor with through the lens metering for two years.

  • Canon launched FT QL in 1966 (stop down TTL) with the FL mount. Canon would only adopt Full Aperture metering with the FTb and the FD lens series in 1971.
  • Nikon and Minolta implemented full aperture through the lens metering (Nikon without changing its bayonet mount, and Minolta with a new  version of its SR bayonet, introduced on the MC Rokkor lenses). The Photomic T viewfinder for the Nikon F and the Nikkormat FT were Nikon’s first implementations of TTL metering (launched at the end of 1965).  Minolta’s SR-T 101, released in 1966, had an interesting arrangement of two CdS cells in the viewfinder, that were used to provide some form of weighted average metering (Minolta called it “Contrast Light Compensation system”, or CLC).

More about the differences between stopped down and full aperture metering in another page of this site.


Horace, French Bulldog – Shot with the Pentax Super Takumar 35mm f/2 mounted on a Fujifilm X-T1.

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Olympus OM-1 or Fujica ST-801?

They were launched at the same time (1972), and were both highly innovative. In different areas.

The Olympus OM-1, the first of a family of cameras which  sold until the end of the twentieth century, was remarkable by its small size, its impressive viewfinder, its great built quality, and its very good ergonomics.

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Olympus OM-1n MD – a very clean copy. A triumph of industrial design.

The Fujica ST801, although not a large or heavy camera by any means, looked bulkier and more primitive in comparison, but in 1972 it was very advanced technologically – the first to combine the use of Silicon diodes for metering with LEDs for the semi-automatic determination of the exposure in the viewfinder. And  – with full aperture metering and a shutter capable of 1/2000sec exposures – it was the most elaborate of the screw mount cameras.

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Fujica ST801 with a Pentax Super-Takumar lens – the camera is compatible with almost any 42mm screw mount lens (with stopped down aperture)

With the OM-1, Olympus introduced a whole new system (new bayonet, new lenses, new motor drives), as compact as the camera itself. The OM-1 was  a starting point.

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Fujica ST801 – the lens mount flange is surrounded by a recessed and spring loaded rotating ring. The little pin on the rotating ring is pushed by the tab at the periphery of the lens.

The ST801 could use any screw mount 42mm “universal” lens, but could only offer full aperture metering when equipped with a new range of Fujinon lenses, which added an aperture transmission mechanism and a locking pin to the standard 42mm mount. The screw mount standard was already at the end of its route when the ST801 was launched, and in 1979 Fuji was the last major camera manufacturer to abandon it for a new proprietary bayonet. The ST801 had no real successor, and the relative short production run of the Fujinon lenses explain why they’re so scarce now.

Back then: how did the two cameras compare?

  • Cost and Availability: Both brands were widely distributed, in brick and mortar stores and by mail order distributors. In 1977, the OM-1 was still the only high quality small size semi-automatic SLR, and as a result Olympus was in the position to extract a very significant premium for it. The OM-1n (with a f/1.8 50mm lens) was selling for almost $300.00 in 1977, when Nikon could only ask $270 for a Nikkormat FT3. The Fujica ST801 (which was at the end of its career) was selling for approximately for $200.00, in the same ballpark as the old SR-T models from Minolta. It was more expensive than the other screw mount cameras from Practika or Vivitar ($170.00) but significantly less than semi-auto cameras of the newer generation such as the Canon AT-1: $ 240.00 (all figures sourced from the Sears catalog of 1977 – courtesy http://www.butkus.org/).
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics
    Figures can be deceiving. Only 135g and less than one centimeter separate the weight and the height of the OM-1 from the ST801. It’s not a huge difference (the ST801 was significantly narrower and lighter than the semi-auto cameras sold by Canon or Nikon in the early seventies),  but the OM-1 looks and feels significantly more compact than the Fujica. It falls perfectly in the hands. The position of the commands is not conventional (shutter speed ring around the lens mount, aperture ring at the front of the lens, ISO selector where the shutter speed knob generally is) but extremely convenient for a photographer shooting with a semi-auto camera and a prime lens: the right hand holds the camera, the left hand operates the shutter and aperture rings, which are clearly separated by the large focusing ring. Advantage Olympus
Fujica_viewfinder
Fujica ST801 – viewfinder (shutter speed on a disk on the left, 5 LEDs on the right)
  • Viewfinder – Even to this day, the viewfinder of the Olympus OM-1 is exceptional. There are very few manual focus SLRs with a finder feeling larger (I can think of the Nikon F3, but it’s a pro camera and it’s bulkier). Every time you bring the viewfinder of the OM-1 to your eye, you’re still impressed. The Fujica’s viewfinder is more informative, and was praised for being luminous when the camera was launched.  But compared to the OM-1, it’s narrower and darker.  Clear Advantage for Olympus
  • Shutter and metering system: Both cameras use a shutter with horizontal cloth curtains. The OM-1’s tops at 1/1000sec, the ST801 at 1/2000sec. It probably did not matter much in 1973 (when 64 ISO was the normal film sensitivity) but a faster shutter speed is a serious advantage today (400 ISO is the normal sensitivity for negative color and B&W film, and photographers looking for “bokeh” use very wide apertures). The OM-1’s metering system is very conventional (2 CdS cells, mercury battery, matching needle at the left of the viewfinder). The ST801 was the first camera to use Silicon photo diodes for metering, and LEDs. Advantage Fujica.
olympus OM1 viewfinder
Olympus OM-1 – viewfinder with the matching needle on the left
  • Lens selection: when the two cameras were launched, the Fujica had the advantage of accepting all the 42mm screw mount lenses manufactured not only by Fuji, but also by Pentax, Yashica, and literally dozens of other brands. Of course, metering was stopped down (only the new Fujinon lenses supported full aperture metering with the ST801). In comparison, Olympus was starting to build a new camera system. A few years later, the situation had evolved – the 42mm standard was being abandoned by all its major proponents, and Olympus had succeeded in imposing its OM system on the market – and the offer of lenses (from Olympus themselves or third party vendors) was abundant.  Tie

And now

  • Reliability: both cameras were launched at a time when the Nikon F, the Nikkormat and the Canon FT/QL were the gold standard for Japanese SLRs. In comparison, both the OM-1 and the ST801 must have looked small, light and fragile. Today, none of the cameras is known to be unreliable- they’re simple mechanical devices – but the oldest copies are now 45 years old. Tie
  • Scarcity:  The OM-1 sold over 1 million units over a long period, and aged very well. A small and beautiful camera, it must have been handled with care by its owners – nice copies of the OM-1 are abundant on eBay, on Shopgoodwill.com, and in the stores of used equipment retailers. The Fujica ST801 – while not as easy to find as the OM-1, is still relatively common – you just have to be a bit more patient if you want to find a nice copy at a reasonable price. Advantage Olympus
Olympus OM-1 (above view)
Olympus OM-1 – the commands layout is unique (large on/off switch, knob for the film sensitivity, a ring on the lens flange for the shutter speed, and the aperture ring at the far end of the lens).
  • Battery: The ST801 uses one 6v silver oxide battery (the same as the Canon AE-1), which is still easy to find. The OM-1 was originally designed for Mercury batteries, which have disappeared from the market a long time ago due to the health hazards represented by Mercury. Mercury batteries deliver 1.35 volts. The simplest option is to use the zinc-air batteries sold by pharmacists for hearing aid devices – they deliver the same voltage, are very cheap and ubiquitous, but have a limited life (a few months at most) once they start being used. Other options exist (like having the camera converted to the voltage of silver oxide batteries – 1.55v) but I don’t like the idea of opening the camera and soldering diodes on the circuitry that much. My take on it: live with the zinc-air batteries, or buy an OM-2.  Advantage Fujica.
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Fujica ST801 – the battery door at the left of the viewfinder – and 1/2000sec on the shutter knob. For the rest, a conventional layout of the commands
  • Lens selection: In my opinion, the ST801 only shines with lenses supporting full aperture metering. Except for the most common focal lengths (50mm, 135mm and the 43-75mm zoom) Fujinon lenses designed for the Fujica ST series are difficult to find, and seriously expensive when you can locate one. A more cost effective option is to use Tamron Adaptall lenses – Tamron developed an Adaptall Mount Adapter specifically for the Fujica ST cameras – the mounts are still available at a very moderate price, and the Tamron lenses are less  expensive than Fujinons. Olympus OM Zuiko lenses have an excellent reputation. They were often offered  in three versions representing three price points (slow aperture, medium aperture, fast aperture) for every major focal length category. Today, while the faster lenses are rare and expensive, the slower ones are still easy to find and comparatively cheap, much more so than the Fujinons. Big advantage for Olympus.
Fujica ST 801 (launched in 1972) and zoom Fujinon-Z 43-75mm (launched 1977). The Z-43-75 was the first zoom bundled with a SLR (the AZ-1) and is easy to find. It’s a very good lens – if you can live with a minimal focusing distance of 4ft (1.20m)

Conclusion:

  • The usage value of the two cameras is the same – both are good semi-auto exposure cameras. the Olympus has the better viewfinder, a significantly wider lens selection on the second hand market, and it looks and feels more modern. The Fujica’s  metering system and its shutter are better, and it works with a myriad of screw mount lenses.
Olympus OM-1 – the lens release and the depth of field preview buttons are on the lens, not on the camera’s body
  • You can argue that the Fujica line of SLRs reached its peak in 1972, with the ST801.  The subsequent screw mount models (ST901, AZ-1) were designed with amateurs in mind (auto exposure cameras without any semi-auto mode), and the last screw mount Fujica cameras were budget models priced just above Practika cameras from communist East Germany. This whole line of cameras and lenses met its end in 1979 when Fuji switched to its new X bayonet.
  • If you consider the whole system, spending your cash on Olympus makes much more sense. The OM-1 is the first member of a large family. It’s a nice camera of high historical importance, but in the OM system, there are even better choices: the OM-2 and the OM-4t.  In semi-auto mode, the OM-2  works exactly like an OM-1. It also operates in Aperture Priority auto-exposure mode, offers a pioneering flash metering system and accepts silver oxide batteries. If you wanted to spend a lot more money, the OM-4t with its 1/2000sec shutter, its very elaborate metering system and its titanium top plate would be my recommendation.  It was sold until 2002, and is often considered the pinnacle of 35mm manual focus SLR design.

More about the other Olympus OM cameras in CamerAgX: the OM-2 Series, the OM-2 S Program

More about the  Fujica screw mount line of cameras in CamerAgX:

As usual, MIR is a very good source of information about cameras of the seventies and eighties: Olympus OM-1 and OM-2

Hilton Head – 2010 – Shot with an Olympus OM camera.

 

Should we start collecting digital cameras?

Collecting is different from hoarding junk.

I’m sure we all have a few compact digital cameras stored in a drawer somewhere, that we don’t use anymore because, let’s be honest, any decent smartphone will do a much better job at taking, editing and publishing pictures than a dedicated compact digital camera sold 10 years ago. It does not make us digital camera collectors. We’re simply consolidating our inventory of obsolete electronics before a future trip to the recycling center.

Samsung Digimax 35 (0.3 MP, 2001), Nikon Coolpix L14 (7 MP, 2007) , Sony DSC-T20(8 MP, 2007), Canon Powershot S400 (2003, 4 MP)  and the Palm Treo 600 (0.3 MP, 2004) in the fore plan. Are my old digital cameras collector items, or just drawer-ware?

Collecting implies an intent.

A collection tells a story. The collector assembles objects which are significant for him or her, because of their esthetic or sentimental value, or to satisfy some form of intellectual curiosity. He or she may hope that, over time, objects in his or her collection will gain value, but financial gain is not the primary motive (if it was, he or she would not be a collector, but simply a speculator, a scalper).

We have the benefit of hindsight, and it’s easy to see what makes a particular model of film camera a better collectible than another one. I will group the criteria in three categories:

  • what the camera was in its early days: its technical significance, its build quality, its beauty, its performance, its cost, its rarity,
  • what it can do for you now: its usability (are film, batteries and lenses still available for that type of camera), its reliability over the long run, its ability to help you get great pictures, and the satisfaction you derive from using it,
  • the legend around it: is the brand prestigious, was this model of camera used to shoot a  famous picture, or used by a whole generation of war correspondents or reporters, did this particular item belong to a star or a famous criminal?

Obviously, by all three groups of criteria, a Leica M3 will be a better collectible than a mass produced, entry level, plastic bodied and unreliable APS camera from the late nineties.

Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20 (Photo: Valerie M.) A good digicam could take good pictures. A modern smartphone could probably do as well today.

What if we apply the same list of criteria to digital cameras?

  • what it can do for you now: that’s the biggest issue: older digital cameras are not as good as modern ones. A film camera has the benefit of being different from a modern digital camera with which it can not be directly compared (it’s a different user experience, a different workflow, and the output is somehow different), but an old digital camera can directly be compared to a modern one, and it’s not to its advantage: the resolution and the ability to shoot in low light are massively inferior, and the dynamics of the sensor is much narrower. And to add insult to injury, old digital cameras are also outperformed by smartphones in many casual shooting situations.
    Older digital cameras may not be as durable as film cameras – they’re full of electronics, and are generally powered by proprietary batteries that may not age well, and will require specific chargers, specific cables that, if lost, will rapidly become difficult to replace.
    Some of the most technically original (and therefore interesting) digital cameras like the Sigma cameras using Foveon sensors or the old Fujifilm S3 or S5 cameras using SuperCCD sensors require specific software to process or get the best of their raw files – but the software may not work with current or future versions of Windows and Mac OS.
  • what the camera was in its early days: it has to be put in perspective with what it can do now. Does it really matter that a Panasonic compact camera was considered the best compact camera for enthusiasts in the fall of 2005, when it’s in any case outperformed by an iPhone 7 Plus?
    By that measure, only a few cameras that made history technically are worth of attention : you can argue that the Nikon D3 changed the way we take pictures in low light and made flash  photography obsolete – and as a consequence deserves be part of a collection focused on important digital cameras. Similarly, cameras of an unusual design like the Nikon Coolpix 995 or equipped with a unique sensor that helps create different pictures (like the Sigma Foveon cameras) could become interesting curiosities.
  • the legend around it: I don’t think any digital camera has reached the legendary status yet.  Some cameras may be of special interest to collectors of equipment from a legendary brand – the first digital M camera from Leica, or the last digital camera made by Contax. But so far, I can’t see any digital camera that defines its generation, the way the Leica M3, the Nikon F or the Olympus OM-1 did in their heyday.

What digital camera would I collect?

Pinup and Naomi playing – The oldest jpeg file on my computer’s hard drive – taken in 2002 with a Samsung Digicam 35 camera. 640 x 480 pixels (0.3 Mpx). Does it  qualify as a collector, or as junk?

What is  important to me is not necessarily what’s important to you. To me, a camera has to be usable for casual photography, at home with my dogs, on a stroll in my neighborhood or while traveling. That’s why, when I shoot with film, I prefer cameras from the late seventies-early eighties to their ancestors of the fifties or sixties, too complex and too slow to operate for my taste.

In the world of digital cameras, I would not buy anything not capable of providing a good 8 x11 print, which places the bar at 6 Megapixels. I would also want the digital camera to be better at doing its job than a smartphone (if it was not, I would never use it and it would collect dust on a shelf):  it would need a viewfinder (optical or electronic), and would have access to focal lengths ranging from  24mm to 135mm. I’m not necessarily willing to invest in a whole new system: if the camera accepted interchangeable lenses, I would prefer some compatibility with the lenses I already own (through an adapter, possibly).

Lastly, I’d like the camera to represent a significant step in the evolution of digital cameras, and to have a few unique characteristics that would differentiate it from the mass of the me-too products of its generation.

What camera would qualify? A few Nikon pro cameras from the mid 2000s (D1x, D3) because they pushed the boundaries of image quality and  low light capabilities and made the film SLRs and flash photography obsolete, their cousins from Fujifilm (a S5 Pro, maybe) for their original SuperCCD sensor and the unique images it captures, or the Epson R-D1, the first digital rangefinder camera, or one of the most original bridge cameras from Sony, the F828.

Your choice would be different. Up to you.


More about using old digital cameras today: Ashley Pomeroy’s blog – http://women-and-dreams.blogspot.com with interesting reviews of  the Fujifilm S series (Fujifilm S1 Pro, Fujifilm S3 Pro, Fujifilm S5 Pro) and its competitors from Nikon (Nikon D1, Nikon D1x).


Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20- (Photo Valerie M.)

A final word about the Fujica “X” cameras of the eighties

When new, the Fujica AX cameras did not make a huge impact – the attention of the press and of the buying public was focused on the cameras of the big four, and on the duel between Canon and Minolta.

Fujica AX-3, AX-5 and AX Multi Program

There is not much information on the Internet about those cameras (and even fewer pictures), and since I’ve been enough of a fool to buy a few of them recently, I’ll go through a quick comparison of three models – with plenty of pictures.

Fuji launched the “X” bayonet mount in 1978-79,  with 4 models:

  • Fujica ST-X – a close derivative of the semi-auto ST605 of the previous m42 screw mount generation, updated with the new bayonet and full aperture metering. Designed for a low price point, with a shutter speed limited to 1/700 sec., it shares very little with the AX models (except for the bayonet, of course)
  • Fujica AX-1 – if it was a car, we could say that it shares its platform (or chassis) with the other Fujica AX cameras. Designed for people with no interest in the technical aspects of photography, it offers a simplified set of controls, and only works in a fully automatic program exposure mode, with no manual or semi-manual override.
  • Fujica AX-3 – a conventional “enthusiast” SLR, with all the functions needed by a knowledgeable photographer (aperture priority automatic exposure, semi auto and manual modes, depth of field preview, aperture and selected shutter speed information in the viewfinder). The AX-3 is a good surprise – it’s a compact and light camera, with well thought ergonomics  (an embryo of  control wheel replaces the conventional shutter speed knob) and all commands grouped on the top plate. All the features a photographer will need (depth of field preview, AE Lock, semi-auto mode in addition to the aperture priority auto exposure) are present and easy to find. It’s one of the easiest cameras to use without a manual. The compactness and light weight of the camera come at the cost: the viewfinder. It’s informative: shutter speeds with corresponding LEDs on the left, periscopic view of selected aperture on top, but a bit dark, with a short eye point and a strange barrel distortion if you wear glasses. The viewfinder is worse than what you find on Canon cameras of the same vintage, and than its Fujica predecessors (such as a the ST801).
  • Fujica AX-5 – the top of line, it adds a shutter priority mode and a program to the AX-3. The aperture and the shutter speed information are displayed in two columns on the left of the viewfinder, which is a bit confusing at first. The Fujica AX-5 was analyzed in detail in the comparison with the Canon A-1 recently added to this blog.    In my opinion, it draws a bit above its weight. The underpinnings of the camera (shared with the AX-1 and the AX-3) are more suited to a beginner’s or an enthusiast’s model, and the AX-5 feels (and probably is) too small and fragile to compete with the Canon A-1, and too limited technically (its shutter speed can’t exceed 1/1000sec, the viewfinder is the same as the AX-3’s) compared to the multi-automatic cameras that Nikon or Pentax proposed in the last years of its sales career.

In 1983,  Fujica cameras were rebranded as “Fuji”, and the the STX-1 was replaced with the STX-2 (the same with a black body, a 1/1000sec shutter and exposure information provided by LEDs instead of a galvanometer’s needle).

The Fuji AX Multi Program – here with the 43-75 f/3.5-4.5 zoom. The body shell is in plastic.

The three AX cameras were discontinued, replaced by the AX-Multi Program, a derivative of the AX-1, supposedly designed for people totally ignorant of the basics of aperture and shutter speed determination. To make their life easier, it offered 3 different program auto exposure modes, and no manual or semi-auto mode. Having 3 programs (one normal, one for action scenes, one for landscapes) was not a bad idea, but the execution was sure to alienate the very type of user the camera was trying to reach:

  • the 3 programs were not designated by a symbol corresponding to the intended use (normal, sports, landscape), but by obscure initials (P, DP, HP) and the possible aperture/shutter speed combinations were only documented on a diagram printed on the back of film loading door.
  • there was absolutely no indication of the shutter speed in the viewfinder – a single LED was supposed to blink when the shutter speed was too low, but what constituted “too low” was never clearly defined, and the camera could take pictures at 1/30sec with a tele-objective without a warning for the photographer.
  • There was not even the +2EV push button proposed by many simplified cameras to help photographers with back-lit scenes.
  • The camera used many more plastic parts than its predecessors, and was shouting “cheap” very loud.
The three programs (DP to maximize the depth of field, HP to maximize the shutter speed, and the default P) are described by this diagram on the back of the film door. Not very beginner friendly.

The AX-Multi Program was one of the many over simplified SLRs launched at the beginning of the eighties. The sales of SLRs had been going down for a while, and the camera makers, seeing that potential buyers were attracted by easier to use point and shoot cameras, tried at first to make the SLRs less intimidating by removing controls – but by doing so they did not make their  cameras more “intelligent”, they just deprived photographers of ways to override the basic automatic systems when they were obviously off the mark.

The fantastic success of the Minolta Maxxum 7000 proved that cameras had to be made more accessible to the public at large not by removing features and  controls from the photographer, but by adding better automatisms that made it easier to get good pictures, even in the most difficult situations.

For Fuji, the writing was on the wall, and they left the SLR market in 1987.


The viewfinders:

Fuji AX-3. The viewfinder shows the selected shutter speed. The aperture value is displayed at the top (not visible on this picture).
Fujica AX-5 – The viewfinder shows the aperture value (left column, yellow LED) and the selected speed (right column, red LED).
Fuji AX Multi Program Viewfinder – the LED only shows which one of the three programs is being selected.

 

The top plate

The top plate of the AX Multi Program is simplified – the three programs (DP, P, HP) are the only choice left to the user

 

The AX-3 and the AX-5 share the same command layout. The AX-5 represented here is in Program mode (Automatic Exposure on the control wheel, and diamond position on the lens)

The bayonet mount

The mount on the AX-5 is almost identical to the AX-3’s. A tiny sensor is added at the bottom right of the flange.
The mount is almost identical to the mount on the AX-5
The bayonet has been simplified on the AX Multi: the aperture value selected on the lens can not be transmitted to the body.

The FM and DM lenses

Fujinon 50mm DM (on the left) and FM (on the right). They look the same but the aperture ring of the DM has an extra position for the shutter priority and program modes (marked by the orange diamond). It is protected by a push button lock.
The X-Fujinon FM was bundled with the STX-1 and the AX-3, the DM with the AX-1, AX-5 and AX Multi Program.

One last picture…

Fujica AX-5 with the X-Fujinon 43-75mm zoom. The zoom is identical to the screw mount model sold with the AZ-1. Good lens but with a very long minimal focusing distance (1.2m or 4 ft)

More information about the Fujica “X” system on CamerAgX

User manuals and catalogs for the Fujica cameras (and many other cameras of the same vintage) on butkus.org

A thank you note to The Casual Photophile – for telling me how to take pictures of the inside of a viewfinder – the answer? use an iPhone.

Tamron’s Adaptall interchangeable lens mount

Two Tamron “Custom  Mount Adapters” and a Tamron Adaptall lens in the middle. The lens can receive Adaptall and Adaptall 2 mount adapters.

Lenses with interchangeable mounts were developed primarily to solve the inventory management problems of the photo equipment retailers of the late 50s.

After Asahi launched their “Pentax” single lens reflex camera with interchangeable lenses in 1957, German and Japanese camera makers jumped on the band wagon and started releasing their own lines of SLR bodies and lenses.

They formed two camps – vendors like Mamiya, Petri, Ricoh, Fujica, Chinon, Yashica followed the example of Asahi and Practika and adopted the 42mm “universal” screw mount – with the promise of inter compatibility between brands. On the other hand, Canon, Exacta, Leica, Minolta, Miranda, Nikon, Topcon and a few others brands each decided to develop their own proprietary bayonet mount.

Those were the early days of the SLR, and the pace of progress was fast. Manufacturers had to revise their lens mounts every few years, in order to support new features such as the automatic diaphragm, full aperture metering and various exposure automatism implementations.

Imagine the nightmare for a retailer – having to stock expensive lenses for each variant of each of those mounts.

There was an opportunity for an inventive manufacturer to produce a line of universal lenses designed to be fitted with the lens mount adapter needed by the customer at the last minute, in the store, when he was ready to buy. The retailer could serve almost any customer need with only one copy of each universal lens, and one lens mount adapter per camera brand.

Tamron Adaptall lens and the Adaptall 2 lens mount – pairing or unpairing the two parts is not easy – it’s not something you want to have to do in the middle of a photoshoot.

Of course, the photographer buying one of those “universal” lenses could also play Lego himself – and use his lens with camera bodies of different manufacturers (if he happened to be transitioning from one camera brand to another one, for instance).

Tamron is widely credited for being the first to market such a solution in the late 50s (with their T mount lenses), but Soligor and Vivitar also adopted the T mount and developed their own lines of lenses.

In order to keep up with the increasing complexity of the lens mounts, they regularly launched new lines of adapters and matching lenses : Tamron with the Adaptamatic (in 1969), Adaptall (in 1973) and the Adaptall 2 (in 1979), Soligor and Vivitar with the T4 and the TX system.

Two Tamron “custom mount adapters” on the camera body side – left: Pentax KA (with the electrical contacts); right: the Fujica AX Bayonet

The progressive generalization of automatic cameras with multiple auto-exposure modes made the lens mounts much more complex and delicate. The growing use of electronics and the autofocus revolution of the mid 80s presented technical challenges of increasing difficulty that could not be overcome at a reasonable cost. And the concentration of the autofocus SLR market into a handful of players (Canon, Minolta, Nikon and Pentax) made inventory management easier for the retailers. As a result, the interchangeable lens mount system was gradually abandoned by its manufacturers in the 90s.

Today, does it make sense for a photographer using manual focus SLRs to buy interchangeable mount lenses ?

  • Canon and Nikon users should not be too concerned: their cameras were often used by professional photographers who had to invest in a large set of good lenses to stay competitive. Today, Canon FD and Nikon F lenses are abundant (and therefore comparatively cheap) on the second hand market, in any focal length.
  • but photographers using cameras of other manufacturers are not that lucky: the original buyers of those cameras were primarily amateurs, and the 50mm standard and the 135mm tele-objective seem to be the only lenses that they bought 40 years ago. They are the only ones easy to find on the second hand market today. When an OEM wide angle or a short tele-objective lens shows up on eBay, its  price rapidly reaches insane levels.
  • For those photographers using cameras from second or third tier manufacturers, Tamron or Vivitar lenses are an interesting alternative: the interchangeable lens mounts are still easy to find and cheap (some of them New Old Stock), and the lenses are more abundant and not as expensive as most OEM lenses.
  • Zoom lenses from the 70s and early eighties generally have a bad reputation, and those with interchangeable lens mounts are not better than the rest. But some prime lenses from Tamron are very well regarded, and constitute interesting purchases on their own merit (the Tamron 90mm f/2.5 Macro lens in particular)
  • Users of digital mirrorless cameras have an extra option – some vendors propose direct Adaptall to mirrorless adapters (for the most common mirrorless mounts: Sony, Fujifilm and Micro 4/3). Since mirrorless cameras don’t need to control the aperture of the lens to operate in some of their automatic modes, the adapter does not need to provide any linkage between the camera’s mount and the lens. It can be extremely simple – and cheap.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-mount

http://www.adaptall-2.com

http://www.tremyfoel.co.uk/photography/Adaptall/TamronAdaptallInfo.html

http://mattsclassiccameras.com/lenses/adaptall-2-system/

and specifically for the Fujica X bayonet (manual focus SLR bodies: ST-X and AX-1, AX-3, AX-5): tamron adaptall 2

https://www.photo.net/discuss/threads/t-mounts-t-t-2-t-4-tx.245015/


View of the Atlanta skyline – Fujica AX-5 – Tamron 28mm f/2.5 lens. Kodak Ektar.

Scanning 35mm film – is high-res scanning worth its cost?

Most photo labs propose scans in 3 resolutions: 1000×1500, 2000×3000, 4500×6700. The scans  are saved as jPEGs, with some labs also offering to save 4500 x6700 scans as TIFF files.

In theory, those resolutions correspond to an image of 1.5 Million points (1.5 MP), 6 MP, and 30  MP respectively. In general,

  • 1000x 1500 scans – when available – are virtually free (they’re included in the processing costs by some labs such as thedarkroom.com )
  • 2000 x 3000 scans cost roughly $5 for a full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or .50 per individual image scanned
  • 4400 x 6700 scans cost roughly $11 to $12 per full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or 3.00 per individual scan
  • 4400 x 6700 (TIFF) are the most expensive at $21 per full roll (oldschoolphotolab.com)

Storage constitutes an indirect cost – which doesn’t hurt until you run out of disk space, and have to upgrade your PC, your home NAS  or you online backup plan. But if storing 36 images at 1.5 Mbytes will not break your storage budget, 36 high res TIFF images represent almost 3 Gbytes. The exact size of a JPEG file is difficult to predict (JPEG is a lossy compression format), but in general, the file size of each type of scan falls within those brackets:

  • 1000x 1500 – JPEG -1.5 to 2 Mbytes
  • 2000 x 3000 – JPEG – 3 to 4 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 -JPEG – 12 to 16 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 (TIFF) – 80 MBytes / image

Scan_2000x3000_Piedmont
Atlanta Piedmont Park – Shot with Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105 f/3.5 – Fujicolor 400. Scanned at a resolution of  2000 x 3000 – the pictures of this roll are not really better than when scanned at 1000 x 1500 – probably a limitation of the lens (a 35-105 zoom of the seventies)
The tests

I wanted to have a few pictures I had taken a long time ago scanned, and I asked the lab to scan some images in 2000 x 3000, and some in 4400 x 6700. The pictures had been taken with a Minolta 7xi and the famous Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6-2.8 zoom, on Fuji Reala film (the 100 ISO “professional” color film Fujifilm were selling at that time). The pictures had originally been enlarged on photographic paper, and I expected the scans to be good.

I also had a series of images taken recently with a zoom from the early seventies, that had been scanned by the lab at 1000 x1500, that I asked the lab to rescan at 2000 x 3000.

Once the jPEGs were ready, I downloaded them in iPhone and iPad photo galleries, in Photoshop and Lightroom on a laptop, and on WordPress, in order to compare the perceived quality. A reminder of the resolution of a few devices compared to print.

  • iPhone 5 S Retina photo gallery : 1136x 640 (720,000 points) at 326ppi
  • 9.7 in iPad Retina Photo gallery:  2048 x 1536 (3,000,000 points)  at 266 ppi
  • Print 8 x 10: 2400 x 3000 points or 7.2 million points at 300ppi
  • the pictures of this blog are generally saved for the “Large” format proposed by WordPress, at 1024 x 680, corresponding to 600,000 points.

Paris – The Seine – scanned at 2000 x 3000. Minolta 7xi – Angenieux Zoom 28-70 – Fuji Reala film (1992). No visible difference in quality with the 4492 x 6700 scan (look at the details of the Eiffel tower compared to the glass house of the Grand Palais in the image below)
Conclusion

  • Scan at 1000×1500 or 2000×3000 ?
    • on an iPhone, on a 4×6 print, or in a blog supporting 1024 x 680 images (such as this one), there is no visible difference between 1500 x 1000 and 3000 x 2000 scans.
    • For all larger screen or print formats (9.7′ iPad Retina, laptop, 8×11 print, blogs offering to view images at native resolution)  the difference between a scan at 1.5 Million points and a scan at 7 Million points is very visible, unless the original is very poor (low lens resolution, very grainy film, subject slightly out of focus, operator shake at slow shutter speeds). It’s even more visible if you crop the image, even slightly.
  • Scan at 2000×3000 or 4400×6700 ?
    • on an iPhone, iPad 9.7′ Retina or on a 8×11 print – the difference is not really visible.
    • Above that (13 x 20 prints, for instance), the theoretical difference in resolution does not  necessarily translate into a difference in print quality: a 13 x 20 print  represents 24 million points at 300 ppi and the 6 million of points of a 2000×3000 scan should theoretically be overwhelmed, but practically the resolution of the film and of the lens play their part, as the technical limitations of the photographer (focus, shake) do. Large prints are often framed and hung on a wall, and you don’t look at a picture on a wall the same way you look at a 8 x 10 print you hold in your hand. And all technical considerations taken apart, with some subjects, images scanned at 2000×3000 may look as good as images taken at 4492×6770 – it depends on the contrast and quantity of fine details in the subject.

Scanning at 2000×3000 is a good compromise for 35mm film, and my choice when I have film processed. It works fine with any support I use day to day (iDevice, laptop, 8 x 11 prints), is not too expensive and generally produces a visible difference with the 1000×1500 scans.

If I wanted to print a really great picture, an image compelling from an artistic point of view and almost perfect technically (fine grain film, sharp lens, subject in focus, no shake), I would have it scanned at the 4492 x6776 resolution, and saved as TIFF. It would give me no guarantee that the print would be great (there are so many variables), but it would give me the best chances of success.


Scan_4492x6770_Paris-22
Paris – Scan 4492 x 6770 – Shot from the Pont Neuf -Minolta 7xi – Angenieux zoom 28-70 F/2.6 – Fuji Reala (July 1992)