Film photography is enjoying a renaissance.
The most recent sign? At CES, earlier this month, Eastman-Kodak announced they would re-launch Ektachrome film at the end of 2017, and their head of marketing even said they were considering manufacturing Kodachrome again (I have my doubts on this one, but it’s great news if it ever happens….).
So it looks like we’re going to have film. What about cameras?
There is (almost) no new film camera produced, and the second hand market is the only option for people who are new to film.
What matters in the perspective of contemporaneous use of old film cameras?
- the lens selection (availability, affordability, quality),
- the reliability,
- the quality of the shutter (consistency, fastest speed) and of the metering system,
- the availability and the cost of batteries,
- and most important, the pleasure to use the camera.
You don’t use film for the immediacy of the result, or because of its cost effectiveness – you would use a digital camera or a smartphone if that was what you were looking for. You don’t use film if you want to be absolutely sure you’ve shot the picture you had visualized in your mind. The real-time trial and error process of digital (shoot, check the picture on the rear display, adjust a parameter, repeat until you get what you want) does not work with film. You have to think, proceed carefully, and you won’t know if “you nailed it” until you receive your processed rolls a few days later.
You shoot with film because it’s a different, slower, more deliberate experience. And using a nice camera you love, that works in unison with your mind and your eyes, is part of the pleasure.
Interestingly, you can now afford cameras that only the wealthiest among us would have dreamt of when they were new. The hierarchy of the prices of the cameras on the second hand market has relatively little to do with the sticker they wore in stores 40 years ago.
Today, the market of film cameras is to a large extend a collector’s market. It’s a paradox, but surviving copies of models which sold poorly – or did not withstand the test of time gracefully – are more difficult to find, and therefore tend to be more expensive than copies of the more common and reliable models of the major league Japanese manufacturers. That’s very good news if you buy a camera to use it, and not primarily as a collector item.
With even the most high end cameras of the Big Four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax) now selling in the $150 to $200 range, the spread of prices for cameras in working order is relatively narrow, and there is no good reason to buy a plasticky spec’d down entry level model at $50 or $75 when you can get a really great camera for just $50 more.
The Big Four (and particularly Canon and Nikon) also have an advantage when it comes to the lens selection. If what you find on eBay is any indication, amateurs in the seventies bought their cameras with the standard 50mm lens, and sometimes bought a 135mm tele or a 70-200 zoom to extend their reach. Trans-standard zoom lenses (35-70) were not widely used. Only a few enthusiasts bought wider angle lenses (35mm or 28mm – generally from independent manufacturers). And only pros bought ultra wide angle lenses.
As a result, and paradoxically, 24mm or 28mm lenses from Nikon or Canon (the brands of pros at that time) are more abundant (and significantly cheaper) than equivalent models from brands which were not bought in large quantities by pros and enthusiasts (Fujica, and to a lesser extent Olympus are a good examples). Another reason to buy a camera from the so-called Big Four.
When it comes to film SLRs, there are three generations to consider:
pre-1975 : with or without a photo-cell, cameras of this generation tend to have a limited usability.
- they are large, heavy and loud, and their ergonomics are sometimes bizarre.The metering system, when it exists, is using CdS photo cells and mercury batteries – CdS cells did not age well, and not all cameras accept the current silver oxide or zinc-air batteries as substitutes to mercury batteries.
- Those cameras are 40 to 50 years old. Their textile shutters are fragile and the springs and cogs that keep everything in motion have passed their prime. Some brands may be better than others at building cameras that resist the test of time (Nikon?), but generally speaking, cameras of this age are more curiosity items or collectors than tools for everyday use.
- Most of them (Nikon again is the exception) use lens mounts which have been abandoned a long time ago. The lenses you will buy for those cameras will be dedicated: the ability to mount them on modern dSLRs is next to zero.
They could be bought in 1971 – Canon FT/QL, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat. The OM-1 is so small and modern compared to the other two.
1975-1985: manual focus, semi auto or simple auto exposure, with average weighted metering and conventional ergonomics (aperture ring, shutter speed knobs). Still built primarily in metal. In my opinion it’s the golden age of film SLR cameras:
- They are simple, comparatively small and relatively silent
- They provide some assistance to the photographer (semi auto or simple auto exposure, average metering) but not too much: you still understand what the camera is doing, and why, and you can still easily over rule the automatism.
- abundant selection of lenses, generally cheap – Some lenses are even compatible with modern dSLRs cameras of the same brand or with mirrorless ILCs through adapters.
- On the downside, cameras from this generation saw the introduction of more electronics, and the initial implementations were not always reliable. Cameras with faulty electronics are not repairable. Test before you buy, or buy from a seller who has tested the camera with batteries.
1985-2000: autofocus, auto-exposure, electronic cameras with matrix metering, with ergonomics relying on LCD displays and control wheels.
- they generally use a bayonet of the same family as the one of their current digital equivalents. They use lenses that present some form of inter-compatibility with current digital cameras (100% compatibility with Canon, whose EOS mount did not change at all, compatibility with caveats for the other major vendors).
- Because of all the assistance mechanisms they have (autofocus, matrix metering, auto exposure programs reacting automatically to the movement of the subject to select an appropriate shutter speed), the rate of good pictures is going to be higher than with cameras of older generations.
- Reliability of those complex electronic beasts should not be too much of a concern – it either works, or not at all.
- On the downside, cameras from this generation tend to be fairly large and loud, they are battery hogs (and they use expensive disposable Lithium batteries), and they automate the picture taking process so much that some photographers may feel they’re not in control. And while some cameras of that generation are nice pieces of industrial design, they’re all made of plastic. Not to everybody’s taste.
To be continued: Part II – my picks for the cameras of the 1975-1985 period.