CamerAgX

February 2, 2017

What camera for the film renaissance (part II): SLRs from 1975-1985: my picks

Film is back. At least if Kodak and Ilford are to be believed.

To my taste, the best single reflex cameras (shooting film) were made in the 1975-1985 decade. Cameras sold earlier were a bit too limited (metering), too big and too quirky, and cameras made later are more autofocus robots. Not that I refuse to benefit from the advances of technology – it’s just that if I want to use the most technologically advanced camera I can afford,  I shoot digital.

The list of my picks is not a catalog. I’m writing about cameras and camera systems I’ve really used – and learned to know over the years on multiple photo shoots. This list does not include any camera from Minolta, Konica, Fujica, Leica, … because I’ve never owned and used the SLRs they were selling between 1975 and 1985.

Canon :

Canon FT/QL and A-1

Canon FT/QL and A-1 – the A-1 is clearly my preferred Canon camera in the FD mount family.

  • FT/FTb: the FT/QL  was launched in the mid 1960’s and the FTb that replaced it was produced until the launch of the AE1 in 1977. Both  suffer from the limitations of a camera from the sixties (they need mercury batteries, they have CdS meters, they’re large and heavy with dim viewfinders). The FT is a stopped-down-metering camera and works with the FL lenses, while the FTb offers full aperture metering with the FD lenses.
  • AE-1/A-1/AT-1, AV-1, AE-1 Program – they were the best selling cameras of their time, they were generally reliable, and there still are tons of them around here. Which one you pick is a matter of taste, they differ primarily by the type of exposure metering system they use. They all share a  textile shutter which must have been cheap to manufacture, but is limited to 1/1000 sec with a flash sync speed of 1/60.
  • They were mass produced and designed to a price point – they don’t exude the same quality feeling as a Nikon FE2 or an Olympus OM-2. Little things like battery doors are fragile. But the metering system can be trusted and they’re pleasant to use.
  • Of all the A series cameras, the Canon A-1 has the strongest personality,. It’s the  most capable, and the one I prefer.

    Canon A-1 - the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body

    Canon A-1 – the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body

  • The Canon AV-1 is typical of a time when camera makers believed that spec’d down cameras were easier to use and had a better chance of bringing  amateurs to serious photography. It’s as cheap as it can get, but there are much better options in Canon’s lineup for aspiring photographers.
  • They benefit from a wide selection of good and very good FD lenses,  still available on the second hand market at very affordable prices.

Nikon:

Nikon FE2 and F3 - my pick in the Nikon family

Nikon FE2 and F3 – my picks in the Nikon family

  • Nikkormat FT/FTn/FT2/FT3 – Initially launched in the mid 1960’s – it was regularly updated until the FT3 was replaced by the FM in 1977. It suffers from some of the limitations of a camera from the sixties (size, weight, CdS meters), but always supported full aperture metering, and  the most recent models ( FT2 and FT3) work with silver oxide batteries.
    Nikkormat FT-N

    Nikkormat FT-N

    • All Nikkormat are built like tanks and rock solid. If you can live with the weight (750g body only) and the very unusual position of the commands (shutter speed ring, film speed selector), the FT3 is still perfectly usable as an everyday camera.
    • It’s not necessarily the case for the earlier models (FT and FTn): the process to follow in order to mount a lens on the camera was progressively simplified by Nikon. It is really kludgy on the FT/FTn bodies: you have to follow a bizarre sequence to pair the lens with the metering system of the body – that’s the “indexing”.  With the FT3 and AI lenses, indexing has become transparent.
  • Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover - no plastic here.

    Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover – no plastic here.

    Nikon FM – Nikon’s first compact semi-auto exposure camera. Built like a small tank, it was often used as a backup camera by pros shooting in very taxing situations. It’s a modern camera (conventional ergonomics, LEDs in the viewfinder) but the commands are a bit stiff and the viewfinder seems small in comparison to an Olympus OM or even a Canon AE-1. The metal blade shutter is solid, but limited to 1/1000 sec. If you buy now, try and find an FM2. If I did not already own the FE2, I would try and find an FM3A. That being said, if I had to pick one of the cameras I own to bring to an extreme expedition, that would be the FM.

  • Nikon FE : Aperture Priority Automatic. Feels as old as the FM (slow shutter, small viewfinder). I would surely buy the FE2 for a very little more.
  • Nikon F3 : an all time favorite: great ergonomics, incredibly vast viewfinder, smooth commands, good shutter (1/2000 sec). Launched in 1980, it was produced for 21 years in parallel with the F4 and F5 that were supposed to replace it. The flash system is specific to the F3. All in all, a very pleasant camera to use, compact, rock solid, but also really heavy.
  • Nikon FE2 – an evolution of the FE, launched in 1982. It has the same small viewfinder as the FM and the FE. But apart from that it’s a winner: great build quality, great ergonomics, smooth commands,  great shutters (1/4000, sync @1/250), modern flash system. My favorite when I’m visiting a new place or a new country, and need to take a break from digital.

    Nikon FE2 - the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)

    Nikon FE2 – the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)

  • Nikon FA – an evolution of the FE2 with an additional shutter priority exposure mode and matrix metering. It’s already too complex in my opinion – the matrix metering is perplexing (you never understand what it’s doing) and because the camera is supposed to know better, there is no memorization of the exposure in auto mode.

    Nikon FA with motor drive - an impressive rig.

    Nikon FA with motor drive – an impressive rig.

  • EM, FG
    – plasticky entry level cameras with limited shutter performance – abundant but not recommended. Buy an FE2 instead.
Nikon FG - More looks than substance

Nikon FG – More looks than substance

  • Nikon FM2 and FM3A – The FM2 is an evolution of the FM with a better shutter, while the FM3A is an evolution of the FE2, with a shutter working in two modes: electronic when the camera is set in aperture priority auto-exposure mode, and purely mechanic (no battery needed) in semi-auto mode. Compact, light and solid – the cameras to bring with you in the most extreme expeditions. The FM2 is somehow affordable, but the FM3A is a recent camera, produced for a short time in relatively limited volumes, and tends to be expensive.

All Nikons benefit from a huge selection and an abundant supply of good lenses, with some form of upwards and downwards compatibility (they’ve been using the same bayonet mount since 1959). Similarly, flash compatibility with current systems is also maintained for most bodies (FE2 and more recent)

Nikon F3 with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.

Nikon often offers some form of compatibility between bodies and lenses from different generations. Nikon F3 works perfectly with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.

The Olympus OM series

When they launched the OM-1, Olympus tried to position it as a camera for reporters, and managed to sell a few copies to leading American newspapers. But at that time, the press photographers did not buy their equipment, they received if for free from the newspaper, and had little incentive to treat their gear carefully. The little Olympus failed the tests, and the press photographers returned to  their Nikons – not as sexy but built like the proverbial tanks. Or so goes the legend.

In any case, if the Olympus cameras were not widely adopted by reporters, they found a following with scientists, researchers or ethnographers, who liked the compactness of the camera bodies and the quality of the lenses.

In the subsequent years, Olympus developed two lines of products – the “one-digit” OM cameras  OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 for the enthusiasts and the professionals, and the “two-digit” OM-10, OM-20 and so on for beginners and amateurs. Let’s focus on the single digit cameras.

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n. I loved the OM-2s Program until I started shooting with the OM-2n. So simple. A favorite.

  • Olympus OM-1 – it must have made quite an impression in 1971. It is incredibly compact, has a giant viewfinder, a very well thought ergonomics, and feels like a precision instrument. Its shutter is a bit limited today (1/1000 sec) and it requires mercury batteries which are not  available any more.  I would buy an OM-2 instead.

    Olympus OM-1n MD - a very clean copy.

    Olympus OM-1n MD – a very clean copy.

  • OM-2 – same body and general layout as the OM1, but with aperture priority auto-exposure mode and modern silver oxide batteries. It was also the first SLR with a modern TTL flash metering system. It’s a pleasure to use: the commands are precise and smooth, the mirror and the shutter don’t vibrate (I’ve shot at 1/15 sec without a tripod). There is no exposure memorization in auto mode (but it’s easy to switch to semi-auto). Another of my favorites – when I know I’m going to shoot in low light without a tripod- in exhibits and museums for instance, that’s the one I bring with me.
  • Olympus OM2-S Program/OM-3/OM4 – close derivatives of the OM1/OM2 –  with a new body and an improved metering system. Unfortunately this generation of cameras  was plagued by battery drain issues. And because it provides more information at the periphery, and offers a dioptric corrector, the viewfinder gives the impression of being smaller.  The  OM3t/OM4t  addressed the electronics issues of their predecessors, and are sought by fanatics of the zone system because of all the possibilities of the metering system (spot and average metering, exposure for high lights, low lights). Nice tools for passionate photographers.
  • Olympus OM-2000 – the ugly duckling of the family, this semi-auto camera was designed and manufactured by Cosina. It shares the OM lens mount of the family, but has nothing of the grace of a “one-digit” OM. It’s a bit plasticky, the LEDs in the viewfinder are crude, but it offers spot and average metering like its siblings – and it simply works. The ergonomics are conventional, and the metallic vertical shutter is completely different from the  horizontal textile shutter of the other OM bodies (flash sync 1/125, 1/2000 sec).
    Olympus OM-2000 - Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series

    Olympus OM-2000 – Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series

    Olympus OM-2000 - the Spot metering selector

    Olympus OM-2000 – the Spot metering selector

    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 - nothing in common (an OM motor drive can not be attached to the OM-2000)

    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 – nothing in common (an OM motor drive cannot be attached to the OM-2000)

  • The Olympus “Zuiko” lenses have a great reputation, but the selection and the second hand availability tend to be narrower than with Canon or Nikon: OM cameras were bought more by amateurs and enthusiasts than by pros, and in smaller numbers.  Olympus used to offer 3 models of lenses for the same focal length, and the slowest f/3.5 lenses are by far the most common. The lenses opening at f/2.8 or f/2  are rare, and very expensive.
  • the slow textile shutter is a limitation to all OM cameras (1/60 flash sync for all models, 1/1000 sec for OM1, OM2 and OM2 SP)

Pentax

Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens

Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens

  • the original Spotmatic – launched in 1964, received a limited refresh in 1971 and was updated more significantly in 1973 (to become the Spotmatic F, with full aperture metering and a new set of lenses). The Spotmatics form a nice line of cameras (innovative when they were launched, relatively compact and well finished), and they were produced in large quantities. But they’re too old to be considered in this category. They were replaced by the first K bodies (KM, KX, K2) in 1975, when Pentax introduced the K bayonet mount. The KX and K2 had a short life (replaced by the MX and ME in 1977), but the K1000 (a simplified version of the semi-auto KM introduced in 1976) would be manufactured until 1996, and would become the camera most recommended for “learners”.
  • the Pentax MX was my first serious camera,  a long time ago. It was a very compact and modern semi-auto camera in its heyday – with a nice and robust metal casing. Its closest competitor (technically) was the Nikon FM (but at that time Nikon cameras were more expensive than anything but a Leica, and I could not afford it). I kept the MX for fifteen years,  but the camera was not that reliable now that I think about it: I had issues with the frame counter, the timer, and a faulty stabilization circuit in the metering system that could not be fixed sealed its fate. I liked the lenses, though (the 35-70 zoom was very good).
  • the ME, ME Super were even more compact than the MX, offered aperture priority exposure but were not as enthusiast friendly as the MX. There was no speed knob but touch buttons to change the shutter speed, and no depth of field preview. The Super A/Super A Program were probably the most enthusiast friendly of that generation – but I never used them and can’t comment.
  • There is a good lens selection under the Pentax brand. Prices tended to be moderate when they were new, and it’s still the case today. Pentax tried to impose their K bayonet  as the new “universal” mount. They did not completely succeed, but many second tier vendors adopted the K-mount (Cosina, Ricoh, Vivitar and the usual distributor labels) and third party good quality lenses are abundant and affordable.
  • I did not mention brands like Contax, Fujica, Leica  or Minolta. Not that I don’t like their cameras, but I’ve never really used the manual focus SLRs they were manufacturing in those years.

More information about cameras of the 1975-1985 era

There is an abundance of Web sites, blogs and forums dedicated to film cameras of the 1975-1985 era. They tend to come and go.

A very good source of information on Nikon, Olympus and Canon cameras has been around for years: Photography in Malaysia (MIR)


Piedmont Park - November 2016 - Canon A-1 - Canon FD 35-105

Atlanta – Piedmont Park – November 2016 – Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105

January 29, 2017

What camera should I pick for the film renaissance? (Part I)

Film photography is enjoying a renaissance.

ektachromeThe 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.

Nikon F3 in CF-22 case

Nikon F3 – a very expensive pro camera when new, very affordable now

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.
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:

Nikon FE2 - Canon A-1 - the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties

Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – the cameras of the enthusiasts in the late seventies-early eighties

  • 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.
Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 - Control Wheel vs conventional ergonomics

Canon A-1 and Nikon FE2 – Exposure Mode Selector and Control Wheel on the left vs conventional ergonomics on the right.

1985-2000: autofocus, auto-exposure, electronic cameras with matrix metering, with  ergonomics relying on LCD displays and control wheels.

Minolta A Mount on a 700si body (1993)

Minolta 700si body (1993) – a good autofocus camera. The photographer is in control.

  • 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.


Paris, Place de l'Hotel de Ville (City Hall) - Nikon F3 - 24mm Nikkor AF

Paris, Place de l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall) – Nikon F3 – 24mm Nikkor AF

 

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