Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ?


The facts


Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).


For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.


Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450


* No OM-3 or OM3 TI in excellent condition available – prices derived from eBay completed listings.


Nikon FM - Mechanical Shutter - It does not need batteries to operate. 1/1000s. Synchro Flash up to 1/125s

The reasons why


Buyers of film cameras belong to two non-mutually exclusive categories: collectors looking for rare, technically or historically significant cameras, and photographers looking for an alternative to modern all automatic digital cameras. Each category has different reasons for preferring cameras with mechanical shutters, which also happen to be manual exposure cameras.

  • Collectors


    One can only speculate when trying to understand what makes a camera valuable on the collectors’ market. Rarity and the perceived technical value of the camera are probably the two main factors driving the price of film SLRs on the second hand market. In the decade which saw the end of manual focus cameras (from 1980 to 1990), automatic exposure cameras sold in greater number than their manual exposure equivalent. Manual exposure cameras were already considered a specialty item, when automatic exposure SLRs were more mainstream, even for professional activities (Nikon F3, Canon T90). Even Leica users, who are among the most respectful of traditions, bought more automatic R7 than manual R6.2 in the nineties (29,500 vs 22,500 units produced).


    The case for the technical value is more difficult to make. Electronic cameras offering multiple auto-exposure modes were very elaborate, and could be considered more valuable technically than simpler manual exposure SLRs, but this technical sophistication is now seen as an unnecessary source of complexity and unreliability.


    The same way mechanical watches appeal to the collector who will ignore electronic time pieces, SLRs built around a mechanical shutter are generally more sought after than their electronic siblings. And when the manufacturer originally positioned the manual exposure camera as a high price/low volume item, the collectors go crazy about it. The Olympus OM-3TI sold for more than $1,500 when new, and only 4,000 were produced. No wonder that it’s extremely difficult to find now, and that it can reach prices in excess of $3,000.


  • Nikon FE2 - Electronically controlled shutter - it needs 2 silver oxide or one lithium battery to operate. 1/4000s - synchro flash up to 1/250s - backup mechanical shutter speed: 1/250s

  • Users


    I don’t know what is the proportion of buyers of film cameras who actually use them. I hope a lot of them do. Photographers may use film cameras as a way to learn the basics of photography, as a backup – in case the battery or the electronics of their dSLR goes on strike, or because they like the direct control over the aperture, shutter speed and focus provided by cameras built before the advent of all-electronic-all automatic SLRs.


    To my taste, aperture priority automatic exposure cameras are faster and easier to use their manual exposure equivalents – I miss a smaller proportion of potential interesting shots in auto exposure mode – and provided they benefit from some form of exposure memorization, automatic cameras will yield a higher proportion of good pictures than what I would get with manual cameras.


    But I recognize I may be an exception. Photographers generally have two issues with auto exposure cameras: their dependency on batteries, and their supposed absence of reliability of their electronic circuits as they age.


    When the battery of an auto exposure camera is dead, the camera will – in the best of the cases – limp on a single back-up mechanical shutter speed (1/60sec or 1/125s for most of the cameras, 1/250s for the Nikon FE2 or FA). The silver oxide batteries used in the eighties did not like cold temperatures, and auto exposure cameras were not ideal when attempting to shoot winter sports. But batteries are small, light and inexpensive, and keeping a set of fresh batteries in the camera bag is not too big of a constraint. Most cameras from the eighties can now use CR1/3n Lithium batteries, which have a very long (10 years) shelf life and are much more resistant to the cold than the silver oxide batteries commonly sold 30 years ago.


    Manual exposure cameras have a mechanical shutter which wears with time, but is supposed to be easier to service or repair than the electronic controlled shutter of automatic cameras. Electronic components do not always age well, and can not be serviced or repaired; if they fail, they have to be replaced, and since they are not available from the manufacturers anymore, a circuit failure makes the camera as useful as a paperweight. Unless the photographer has an alternate source of spare parts, of course. If you really like a particular model of automatic camera, the best solution is probably to buy an extra one (or two) for parts, just in case.


  • The reason for the exceptions


    Hybrid Shutter of the Nikon FM3a
    The Hybrid Shutter of the FM3a - It can operate as a mechanical or as an electronic controlled shutter - Source: Nikon's official web site


    There is no rule without a small list of exceptions. Two exceptions have to be mentioned.

  • The manual Olympus OM-1 is less expensive than its automatic siblings, the OM-2 and OM2-s. It’s a camera of the early seventies, which was produced in the millions during a fourteen years production run, and needs batteries of a type outlawed in the US since the eighties. There are substitutes, but they come with limitations (see the article about batteries in Photoetnography.com). The OM-2 and OM-2s work with easy to find alcaline or silver oxide batteries.

  • The Nikon FM3a. Built as a limited series camera by Nikon from 2001 to 2006, the FM3A combines in the same body the mechanical components and the electronic circuits needed to operate as a manual, mechanical shutter camera, and as an automatic, electronic shutter SLR. The best of both worlds. Its unique characteristics combined with relatively low production numbers (for a Nikon SLR) explain its high value on the second hand market: at least $500 for a nice one, much more for like-new items in their original box.



    More


    A good source for second hand cameras: KEH


    Everything you need to know about camera batteries: photoethnography.com


    Casa Batlo (lamp) - Barcelona - Jan 2009 - Nikon FM

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

    Launched in 1983, the successor of the FE had a relatively short sales career, but a long legacy. It can be argued that the Nikon FM3a, sold from 2001 to 2006, is much more a descendant of the FE2 than of the FM2.

    Nikon FE2 - Shutter
    Nikon FE2 – The titanium blade shutter was the most advanced at the time of the camera’s launch, with a top speed of 1/4000 sec and a flash sync speed of 1/250 sec.

    In 1977, a few years after Olympus initiated the compact SLR revolution, Nikon presented the FM. Like the Olympus OM-1, the FM was a compact semi automatic camera with a mechanical shutter, which could be equipped with a motor drive. But contrarily to the OM-1, which still relied on a CdS light metering system and on mercury batteries, the FM used modern gallium photo diodes and silver oxide batteries. It also benefited from a vertical blade metallic shutter, and the exposure metering was relying on 3 LEDs instead of the more conventional match needle arrangement of the OM-1. Solidly built and reliable, the FM was very successful commercially, and the ancestor of a large family of models whose production only stopped in 2006.

    Nikon FE2
    Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 data back – the data back connects to the PC Sync of the camera

    The FE from 1978 is the automatic exposure version of the FM. It looks very similar to the FM, but instead of LEDs, it uses two needles to show the shutter speed selected by the photographer (semi-auto mode) and by the automatic exposure system (aperture priority auto mode). In 1982, the FM became the FM2, receiving a new mechanic shutter with titanium blades, which could reach 1/4000 sec and had a flash synch speed of 1/200 sec.

    IMG_1099
    Nikon FE2 – Auto Exposure Mode – the thin black needle shows the shutter speed selected by the metering system of the camera. Note the aperture value at the top of the viewfinder.

    One year later, the FE2 was launched. Its titanium shutter is an improved and electronic version of the FM2’s, with a X synch speed now reaching to 1/250 sec. The FE2 also benefits from a modern on the film (OTF) flash metering system (that the FM2 never got). The FM/FE range of products was extended the following year with the presentation of the Nikon FA, which added matrix metering (a world premiere), a programmed exposure mode and trade the brass prism cover of the FM/FE models for a polycarbonate one. Both FE2 and FA were discontinued in 1988. The FM2 lived longer, and was ultimately replaced by the FM3a, which merged the mechanical shutter of the FM2 with the electronics of the FE2.

    Using the FE2 as an every day camera

    Reasonably light and compact, the Nikon FE2 is very solidly built, and very nicely finished. Compared to a previous generation model like the FM, the FE2 has smoother commands. The viewfinder is typical from a pre-high eye point construction – the enlargement factor is high (0.86) for a good focusing precision, but the frame coverage is limited (93%), and the eye point is very short (14mm), which could be an issue for photographers wearing glasses. Even with thin glasses, it’s impossible to see 100% of the image projected on the focusing screen without having to move one’s eye ball right to left and left to right: you only perceive 90% of the focusing screen when you look straight into the viewfinder, which compounded with the rather limited frame coverage, ensures that you’ll have a wide safety margin on both sides of your prints.

    Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n
    Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n – The FE2 is a bit larger, but not significantly.

    The determination of the exposure is very conventional for a camera of its generation, with a center weighted measurement provided by two silicon photodiodes. In automatic mode, a needle indicates the speed selected by the exposure system of the camera on a large scale at the left of the viewfinder. The photographer has multiple ways to override the automatism: he can memorize the exposure (pushing the self timer lever towards the lens), apply a correction factor on the film speed selector (from -2 up to +2EV), or switch to semi-auto mode. In this case, a second needle – larger and transparent – appears in the viewfinder, showing the shutter speed selected by the photographer.

    IMG_1100
    Nikon FE2 – Semi auto exposure mode. The fat blue needle shows the selected shutter speed, the thin black needle shows the shutter speed recommended by the metering system.

    In a very simple matching needle arrangement, the photographer just has to align the meter needle with shutter speed needle. The shutter speed knob is much smoother than on the FM (in the FE2 the shutter is controlled electronically), and surprisingly the camera is more pleasant to use in semi-auto mode than the FM. No wonder that Nikon derived the exposure control system of the FM3a from the FE2’s and not from FM’s.


    Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
    A very clean Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 data back – All the commands are grouped on the top plate – with the exception of the depth of field preview and the exposure lock levers, located at the right of the lens mount. A very simple and efficient layout.

    Conclusion

    Powered by two easy to find LR44 silver oxyde batteries, the camera also operates without battery at a speed of 1/250sec. Compatible with any AI, AIs and AF lenses, it’s still perfectly usable today.

    Less rugged than its FM and FM2 cousins (it has an electronic shutter and a potentially more fragile match needle metering system), it is more pleasant to use and can respond efficiently to a larger variety of photography opportunities. Like the FA and the FM3a, but unlike the FM2, the FE2 benefits from a modern through the lens (on the film or OTF) flash metering system, compatible with the flash units currently sold by Nikon.

    Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
    Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 back. The MF-12 back was designed for the FM/FE cameras, which did not have internal synchronization contacts for a data back inside the film chamber. Hence the need for an external synchronization cord. The FE2 could also use the MF-16 data back, which did not need the external sync cord.

    Its automatic exposure system is very easy to override, and does not get in the way. The matching needle system in the viewfinder is very informative, easier to read in the sun light than the LEDs of the FG, and than the small LCD display of the FA.

    With the F3, the FE2 is probably the most usable Nikon camera of the early eighties.

    How much for a Nikon FE2?

    The Nikon FE2 is a very good automatic exposure film camera, and its reputation has obviously an impact on its price. Specialized retailers like KEH sell it between $130 (Bargain) and $270 (Top Condition).

    As usual, prices are a bit lower on eBay, but the FE2 does not seem to sell for less than $100, with peaks up to $180 for very nice items.

    There are few alternatives to the FE2: the more recent FM3a is much more expensive (typically from $400 up to $700) and the FE, with its modest shutter and no OTF flash metering, is far more primitive and more difficult to recommend.


    Eight years later…

    I wrote this blog entry in 2009. Eight years later, after having tested and used many other SLRs from Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax, the FE2 is still one of my preferred cameras:

    • it’s simple – very few options and commands. You read directly on the rings and knobs how it’s set up (pretty easy – aperture, shutter speed, ISO – that’s all). Controlling it rapidly becomes instinctive – an extension of your eyes and hands .
    • with average metering weighted towards the center/lower half of the scene, and an easy to find exposure memorization lever – it’s easy to get the exposure right.
    • the focusing screen is very clear – almost as clear as the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera, but not at the detriment of precision – you can get the focus right, even with very luminous lenses. It’s a relatively short eye point viewfinder – if you wear glasses, you won’t see the borders of the focusing screen unless you really pay attention to it.  You just see the scene – you’re in the middle of it – it’s an immersive experience.

    More about the FE2


    Photography in Malaysia


    Tree trunk
    Tree trunk – Along the Nickajack Creek – Smyrna, GA (Nikon FE2, Nikon 50mm lens, Kodak CN400 film.

    Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ? (Intro)


    The facts


    Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).


    For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.


    Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

    Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
    Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
    Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
    Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
    Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
    Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
    Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450


    More after the jump

    Nikon FM: compact and rock solid, a good risk-all backup camera for Nikon users


    In the mid seventies, a new generation of SLRs hit the market. They were following the example set by the Olympus OM-1 and were much more compact than their predecessors. They also used less mechanical components and more electronics.


    The FM was Nikon’s response to the OM-1, and to similarly compact cameras from their main competitors. The FM outlived them all. The FM and its derivatives, the FM2 and the FM3a,  were sold for more than 30 years, and when the production of the FM3a was finally stopped, they were still in such demand that for a while used FM3a’s were selling for more than when their price when new.


    Compact, reasonably light and rock solid, the FMs were often used as backup cameras by professional photographers until they stopped using film a few years ago.

     

    Nikon FM
    Nikon FM – it accepts pre-AI lenses, AI, AIS, AF and AF-D lenses.

     The FM is a mechanical, manual focus, semi-auto camera. It leaves you total control over your images, and does not change the aperture/speed combination you selected on its own. No need to memorize the settings in backlit pictures. But total control comes at a cost: speed of operations in a rapidly changing environment. It’s a nice camera for landscapes, travel, street photography, but more recent autofocus cameras will deliver better results for sports and action photography.

     
    The flash control system is also old school – the camera exchanges very little information with the flash unit, and the photographer has to set the shutter speed and the aperture by himself, using guide number tables: there are obviously better cameras to shoot indoors.


     

    The FM as a photographic tool


    By modern standards, the FM is a bit of a disappointment. On the one hand, it feels very well built and solid, and it can be carried around everywhere because of its (relative) small size. The Olympus OM1 or the Pentax M series are still smaller, but don’t feel as robust.  Like the other semi automatic cameras with mechanical shutters, the FM also works without batteries. The light meter does not use a galvanometer (no needle) but a series of bright red LEDs are the right of the viewfinder screen: there are very few parts that can break on a FM.


    On the minus side, the mechanical commands are firm, and the advance film lever doubles as a shutter release lock: you can only use the light meter and press the shutter release if the advance film lever is pulled out of the body (by an angle of approximately 45°). It’s not very practical, and slows down the operations. I missed more than a few snapshots because the lever was pushed flush with the camera body, in the off position. I guess you can get used to it, but it’s not ideal. (the Nikon F3 does not have this issue; the film advance lever does just that).

    Nikon FM / Olympus OM1n
    Nikon FM / Olympus OM1n – the smaller prism cover make the OM-1 look smaller.


    The Olympus OM1 was the forerunner of a new generation of very compact but still very capable SLRs. Coming a few years later, the FM is not as compact as the OM1, but not that much larger. It’s heavier, though. Its electronics (the light meter, the rest of the camera is mechanical) aged very well, the batteries it needs are still easy to find, its mechanical components are solid and it’s compatible with any Nikkor lens built between the early sixties and the last few years.

     

    Nikon FM - Shutter
    Nikon FM – Metallic shutter. Clearly a camera from the seventies.


    The FM has a mechanical metallic shutter. Its fastest speed is 1/1000sec, with a  maximum flash synchronization speed of 1/125 sec. The different versions of the FM2 and the FM3a have much faster shutters, built in aluminum or titanium, with a maximum speed of 1/4000s and a flash synchronization. speed of 1/200 (early models) or 1/250.

    Nikon FM
    Nikon FM –  depth of field preview lever and self-timer at the right of the lens.


    The FM holds a special place in the Nikon product range: it’s one of the few Nikon cameras (the only other compact SLR to share this characteristics is the FE) which is compatible with the pre-AI lenses as well as the modern AI, AIS and AF lenses. The other members of the family – FM2, FE2, FA, F3A – are only compatible with the AI, AIS and AF lenses; trying to mount an older pre-AI lens can damage the camera.

    That’s the reason why the FM is sometimes referred as the Rosetta Stone of Nikon cameras

     

    Summary


    The Nikon FM is a simple, compact, rock solid and reliable camera, with a decent viewfinder and an accurate light meter. It’s not very fast to operate and not always pleasant to use because of firm commands and of the protruding film advance lever, but it can take advantage of a huge variety of lenses, built by Nikon over a period of almost 50 years. The FM2/FE2 are a bit smoother, the automatic FE and FE2 are also faster to operate, but the F3 beats them all, with its very soft commands, its good ergonomics and its large viewfinder.


    The last FMs were produced in the early eighties, and good ones are still easy to find. They command lower prices than the much more sought after FM2’s and FM3a’s. A very nice one from a reputable seller will not cost you more than $150, and not so nice ones can be bought for less than $70 on eBay.




    Charleston - July 09 - Nikon FM - Nikkor 24mm
    Charleston – July 09 – Nikon FM – Nikkor 24mm



    More about the Nikon FM


    The best site of reference about the Nikon FM: Photography in Malaysia


    The site has not been updated recently, but it contains very detailed information about the Nikon cameras and lenses manufactured until the F5.