Nikon F4: is its auto-focus that bad?

The F4 is at the same time the last Nikon pro-camera with conventional/analog controls, and the first offering most of the functions that modern bodies have made us familiar with (auto-focus, matrix metering, PASM multi-automatism, motorized film advance and rewind). It was also the last Nikon camera to enjoy (for a few years) an undisputed supremacy on the professional market.

In 1988, auto-focus was still in its infancy. Minolta had launched the Maxxum 7000 in 1985, and Nikon had followed with their first auto-focus SLR, the F501 (N2002 in the US) one year later. The F4 was the first implementation of  auto-focus on a professional SLR.

Compared to what was available in 1988, the F4’s auto-focus was not bad at all, but the arrival of the Canon EOS-1 one year later made it look slow and primitive, and today, the performance of its auto-focus system is what makes photographers think twice before using or buying an old F4.

Nikon_F4-7475
Nikon F4 – an analog user interface with an incredible number of locks (counting 5 just in this pictures)

The F4 is built around Nikon’s second generation auto-focus module, the “Advanced AM200”. Its single horizontal AF zone is composed of 200 CCD sensors, and the focus zone is very small  (probably 3mm wide and 1mm high – if the engraving on the viewfinder’s focusing screen is any indication). The module is shared with other Nikon auto-focus SLR bodies of the same period (F801/N8008, F601/N6006 for instance) but the F4’s auto-focus motor is stronger and the use of a 8 bit microprocessor makes the whole setup faster than on lesser cameras.

On the viewfinder’s focusing screen, at the place where the split image rangefinder would be on a manual focus camera, the AF zone is signaled by two small brackets engraved on the glass of the focusing screen. The markers of AF area are very difficult to see if the subject is poorly lit, and it can be difficult to visualize exactly where the camera is focusing (on modern cameras the active auto-focus zone is often surrounded by red LEDs. Nothing of that sort here).

Nikon_F4-7460
Nikon F4 – the type “E” focusing screen. the auto-focus zone indicator is etched into the glass. Note how small it is compared to the overall surface of the screen.

So, is the auto-focus really that bad?

The F4 was famously launched at the Seoul Summer Olympic games.  Today, nobody would use a F4 to shoot sporting events with long tele-zooms, but in all fairness, with lenses of shorter focal distance,  the auto-focus is reactive and accurate. Its biggest weakness in my opinion is not its slowness, or that it tends to hunt if the scene is poorly lit. It’s that the AF zone is so narrow that you really have to pay attention to what part of the scene the AF sensor is pointed at. You can not simply point the camera loosely towards the subject, and expect the auto-focus system to locate it somewhere in the central area of the frame. You have to aim precisely at it, right at the center of the focusing screen, let the system focus on it, then keep the shutter release button half pressed  (to lock the focus) and re-frame your picture. In that sense, it’s more a focus-assist system (Nikon write about an “electronic rangefinder” in their user manual) than an auto-focus system as we know it now.

The N90S (F90X outside of the US) that came a few years later (1994) benefits from an auto-focus system of a newer generation: it still has a single zone auto-focus module, but it’s much wider (7 x 3mm), and is shaped like a cross (it can focus on subjects presenting vertical lines as well as  horizontal lines), even in low light and with slow (f/5.6) lenses.

The user experience is very different. The camera easily finds the subject even if not perfectly centered in the frame, and it focuses rapidly and accurately, even on mobile subjects moving erratically. In that regard, the N90S is already a modern camera.

Using the F4 as a manual focus camera

A common opinion in the forums is that you should simply forget about the auto-focus system, and use manual focus lenses on the F4. Even if it’s technically possible – the F4 accepts almost any manual focus lens ever made by Nikon (with very few limitations) – I’m not sure it’s a great idea: the viewfinder of the camera has not been designed for that.

In the days of manual focus cameras, manufacturers had to make focusing as easy as possible for the eyes of the photographer, and as result, they used to design viewfinders with a high level of magnification (0.9X) and they spec’d focusing screens to be as precise as possible, even at the cost of looking at bit dark and coarse. As soon as auto-focus systems became the norm, manufacturers adopted viewfinders with much lower magnification factors (0.7X), in conjunction with much brighter and smoother focusing screens, which had a more limited ability to show small differences in focusing. [more about the evolution of the viewfinders of SLRs over time]

The F4’s default viewfinder (the DP-20) and its default focusing screen (the BriteView Type “B”) are typical of an auto-focus camera. The DP-20 is a long eyepoint / low magnification viewfinder (22mm and 0.70X respectively), and the “Type B” focusing screen is bright but not very precise. The Type B provides none of the focusing aids you  find on a manual focus camera (no micro prism, no split image rangefinder).  It’s difficult to set the focus with the naked eye when you can’t or don’t want to use the auto-focus system.

IMG_1612
Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the top LCD is shown (number of remaining pictures on the left, aperture in the middle, green dot for the focus. The grid of the “E” focusing screen is somehow visible.

Optional focus screens optimized for manual focusing were available from Nikon and from third party vendors (Nikon’s Type “K” and Type “P” focusing screens have a ring of micro prisms around  a split image rangefinder spot, the Type “J” just has a central micro prism focusing spot). Equipped with such a focusing screen, the F4 could be used as you would use a F3 or a FE2 – with the additional benefit of matrix metering. Those focusing screens are pretty scarce now, and are sometimes offered for more than $150.00 (they’re specific to the F4 – you won’t be able to focus accurately with a focusing screen designed for the F, F2 or F3).

IMG_1610
Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the botton LCD is shown (showing the metering mode – Matrix – the shutter speed, the aperture and the exposure mode: Program)

On the F4 I bought, the Type B focusing screen had been replaced with a Type E. It’s a variant of the Type B with horizontal and vertical lines etched in the glass. If I mount a manual focus lens on the camera, I just use the auto-focus system as an electronic rangefinder – when the big green dot is on in the viewfinder, it’s focused. This “electronic rangefinder” is as good as a split image rangefinder – you just have to trust it.

More in a few weeks, with my take on compatibility, reliability and ….

Nikon_F4-7463
Nikon F4 – with the viewfinder removed, the small LCD display on the left does not show the same information: here the exposure mode. The green dot on the right shows that the focus has successfully been set by the camera (the auto-focus module and the microprocessor are in the camera’s body, as well as the spot metering system – only the matrix and the average weighted cells are in the DP20 viewfinder).

Early Nikon AF cameras and their AF modules

On a camera, the overall performance of the auto-focus system (and the quality of user experience) depend on much more than just the AF module.

  • An auto-focus system is composed of hardware (the AF module with its CCD sensors, the microprocessors) and of software (the AF algorithm). It is  part of an even larger system (the camera itself with its other subsystems and its lenses) with which it has to integrate smoothly.
  • As an example, an explanation of the AF performance improvements between the F90 (N90 in the USA) and the F90X (N90s in the USA), both equipped with the same CAM246 AF module (from a very interesting blog entry in 678vintagecamera.ca :”Improvements over the F90 included faster AF speed and tracking. Nikon claimed a 2x increase in CPU speed, a 25% faster AF lens drive speed over the F90, and a new AF algorithm.”Same AF module, dramatically improved performance thanks to hardware and software improvements. (source: https://www.678vintagecameras.ca/blog/forgotten-film-warrior-the-nikon-f90x-aka-n90s)
Nikon AF Modules (1986-1995)
Name of the AF module Number of AF Points Shape of the AF zone Number of AF Pixels in the module Nikon cameras equipped with the module Launch year of the camera
no name  1 horizontal  96 horizon. F501  1986
AM200  1 horizontal 200 horiz.  F401 1987
Advanced AM 200 1 horizontal 200 horiz. F801, F4, F601 1988, 1990, 1991
 CAM246 1 horizontal + vertical 172 hor; 74 vert; F90, F90X  1992, 1994
Multicam 1300 5 multiple horizontal +vertical 1300 F5, F100 1996, 1999
Nikon_F4-7472
Nikon F4 – with the standard DP-20 viewfinder and the MB-20 grip (4 AA batteries)

 

Nikon D700 – an everyday camera and a future collectible?

A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.

Judging by  the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.

Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.

Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?

The sweet spot? 

I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.

And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.

But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?

Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:

– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was  huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.

– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser,  I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making  nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the  light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography  was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.

A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, auto-focus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.

Nikon_D700-7242
Nikon D700: the sensor and the user interface of a Nikon Professional camera in a (relatively) compact and light body.

When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.

380,000 Shutter Actuations

volkswagen_badge_2
Volkswagen Badge for 100,000 km Source: AlexWoa World of Accessories (eBay)

Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).

Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5)  reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).

In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way,  this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.

The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car

In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.

Nikon_D700-7249
Nikon D700 – I had to change the rubber grips – but the overall condition of this camera is remarquable considering it shot 190 pictures every business day for 8 years.

To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe:  the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the auto-focus mechanism of the top of the line D3 –  in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.

Nikon_D700-7247
Nikon D700 – One button for every function, locks on the rings – a true “pro” camera by Nikon’s standards

Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.

What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of  Nikon film cameras?

The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:

Nikon_D700-7225
Nikon F90X (N90s in North America) next to a D700 – the two cameras are 15 years apart, but they were designed for the same target audience of serious enthusiasts and pros who don’t want or need the very top of Nikon’s Profesionnal line.

Lens Compatibility

One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.

Nikon_D700-7260
Nikon D700 with Nikon Lens 50mm Series E – Aperture Preferred Auto Exposure and Semi Auto Exposure are offered on AI-S and AI lenses.

Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.

Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.

Nikon_D700-7262
Nikon D700 with 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor – as long as the lens supports Aperture Indexing (upgraded pre-AI lenses, and AI, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S lenses) it will work with the camera.

The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.

With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes:  they don’t  have the micro chip and the data bus of their auto-focus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.

Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support unmodifed pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).

Compatibility with other accessories

In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of   “prosumer” and professional  equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80 (which is a more consumer oriented camera).

Nikon_D700-7258
Nikon D700 (left) next to a F90X from the mid nineties – the remote control connector is still the same.

Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.

Nikon_D700-7256
The D700 shares the same round viewfinder accessory mount as the other “high-end” Nikon cameras (here a F90X on the right)

How much? 

On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.

The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still  have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.

A follow up to this blog entry: The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


More about the D700

Links:

Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time

Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility

Interesting reviews of the D700

http://ricksreviews.org/nikon-d700-review-2016-perspective/

https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-d700

Through the F Mount: a comparison of the D700 with the D4


dogs-Xmas--6078
My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.

A photo scanner for $12?

ION iPCS2GO - the iPhone 4 and the 4x6 drawer are in place
ION iPCS2GO – the iPhone 4 and the 4×6 drawer are in place

$12.00, really?

I was at Barnes and Noble’s the other day, when I saw this ION iPICS2GO pseudo-scanner in the bargains bin. Not really a scanner, though. It’s a sort of light box. There is no lens or imager inside. It’s just a stand where the iPhone actually taking and processing the pictures will be set.

Coupled with an iPhone, it can scan 3×5 and 4×6 prints, and, more interestingly, 24×36 negatives or slides.

The iPICS2GO was boxed, so I could not see it. But it was only $12. And even if it was a piece a junk, it was worth trying.

Unboxing

The whole thing is rather bulky (the size of a toaster), but it looks solid and well built. The negative holder and the 4×6 print holders are made of plastics of good quality and will not damage the originals, and the iPICS2GO will just needs four AA batteries to work. The print or the negative being scanned is lit by LEDs, which seem efficiently color corrected.

There is an iPICS2GO app on Apple’s app store, that you can download for free and use to control the camera of the iPhone. Although Apple’s built in Camera and Photos applications will give the same results if you “scan” a 4×6 print, you will need the ION application to enlarge and invert the 24×36 negatives. You could do it with Photoshop, but if you had a laptop and Photoshop, you would probably also own a real scanner and would not be interested in this product.

The core audience

As mentioned earlier, the iPICS23GO is not a scanner on its own. But paired with an iPhone 4, it forms a cheap and portable scanner, and its bundled application makes it easy to edit and share the scanned images, via e-mail or through Facebook. I can imagine a situation where you visit old friends or relatives, and they end up opening the proverbial shoe box where their favorite Kodak prints are stored. You scan a few pictures for immediate consumption on the iPhone, or share them around via email or on Facebook.

In this situation, the results are pretty good. IN order to benchmark the iPICS2GO, I scanned a 4×6 color print (the picture had been taken by a good 24×36 camera 10 years ago) with the ION box and with the real scanner of an all-in-one photo printer from Canon. Both images were transferred to a Mac, uploaded in Photoshop, and printed again. The Canon scan is a bit better (wider tonal range), but not that much. If the goal is just to casually look at old pictures on a smartphone, share them on Facebook or even print them again (4×6 prints, please, nothing larger), the ION iPICS2GO fits the bill.

4x6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO "scanner"
4×6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO “scanner”

Scanning negatives, on the other hand, is a much more difficult challenge.

The app does a good job at converting the negative into a positive image, whose quality is acceptable as long as you look at it on the iPhone (the original 24x36mm negative has a diagonal of 43mm; the screen of the iPhone has a diagonal of 3.5in, or 88mm – Th enlargement ratio is roughly 2:1). But don’t try to export it to a PC, or even worse, to print it. As soon as you enlarge it, the quality becomes unacceptable, as can be seen on close-up (below, on the right).

Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)
Close up of the image created by the ION app (size: 376x240 points at 128ppi on an iPhone)
Moderate enlargement of the central part of the negative

I have to admit that the ION iPICS2GO is much better gadget than I expected. If your goal is to take snapshots of your favorite prints every now and then in order to have them always with you on your iPhone, it’s perfect. You can also email your images or post them in Facebook directly from the ION app.

On the other hand, if the only source document you have is a negative, don’t expect miracles. In the best case, the resulting image will be somehow acceptable as long as you look at it on your iPhone. Beyond that, it’s hopeless. If you love the picture, bring the negative to a minilab.

But in any case, an old picture reborn on an iPhone is better than any image forgotten in a shoe box.


Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4x6 print on a flatbed scanner
Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4×6 print on a flatbed scanner

The original images were shot in France in “les Gorges du Verdon”, a small scale version of the Grand Canyon, in 2001. I don’t remember which camera I was using.

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

  • An alternative to eBay? shopgoodwill.com


    eBay has been here for 15 years now. Buyers and sellers had ample time to learn all the tricks of the trade, and if reasonably careful, they face little risk of a really bad surprise.


    A significant percentage of the sellers on eBay are professionals, or experts in their field. Others have been using a product for years and can write about its history. Most know the value of the products they’re selling, and how to attract the attention of their audience. They take good pictures of the items they want to sell, and because they want to preserve their hard earned feed-back, they won’t provide blatantly misleading product descriptions.


    But if the risk is somehow limited, the odds of scoring big are also getting pretty slim. With more than 200 million registered users, 2 million new auctions a day, and all sorts of search and reporting options, eBay is as transparent as a market can get. If the seller did his home work and followed the rules of the game when posting his listing, more than one buyer will notice, a small bidding war will take place, and the final price of the item will be very similar to the average of what similar items sold for during the weeks preceding the auction.


    Shopgoodwill.com – the online auction site of Goodwill Industries – is a much smaller marketplace. Founded in 1999, it “provides a safe and secure venue for Goodwill® member organizations to sell donated items through an online auction“.


    The photography related auctions of the day
    The photography related auctions of the day


    On Shopgoodwill, the cameras and lenses presented for auction have been donated, and the people describing the products know very little about their past. Most of them are not specialists of photographic equipment, either. They do not want to raise false expectations, and will stay extremely conservative in their assessments. In the best case, they will write that the product “appears to be in a good condition” or that it “appears to be working”, but all items are sold as is.


    The item descriptions are sometimes very generic (“Nikon Camera”) or written by someone who can’t tell the difference between a filter and camera (“Hoya 49mm camera made in Japan”). The quality of the pictures of the items improved significantly lately, but they are still low res, and it’s often difficult to find out what’s really being sold.


    While not as large as eBay, the number of potential buyers is far from small, and the odds are that a rare and valuable item will be discovered by more than one buyer. I’ve seen a few Leica cameras for sale on Shopgoodwill, and they all fetched good prices. But I’ve also seen nice vintage cameras stay unnoticed.


    So where is the fun? Shopgoodwill is like a garage sale or a flee market. Tonight 27,000 film cameras were listed on eBay. Less than 300 were listed on Shopgoodwill. You have relatively few items to look at, and you can go rapidly through the list of cameras or lenses being auctioned. The product descriptions are not always very good, but lovers of old equipment will raise to the challenge and put their geekiness to good use, with the hope of discovering a true gem.


    Example of a listing on Shopgoodwill.com


    Buying a camera or a lens at Shopgoodwill is a bit of a gamble. The intentions of the sellers are undoubtedly good, but their expertise is somehow limited, and the buyer will know little about the true condition of the item he’s bidding for. I never had the guts to buy a really expensive camera or lens on Shopgoodwill, and I never spent more than $30 on an item.


    The camera I bought (a Praktica camera sold under the “Cavalier” name in the US) was cosmetically nice, and ended up working after some TLC, in spite of its old age. I also bought a lens, on a separate occasion. Although a bit dirty, it was in good general condition, and proved to be a very nice item once cleaned. A good experience overall. Try your luck too; it’s for a good cause.



    More about Shopgoodwill.com
    The presentation of the Shopgoodwill site by Goodwill Industries
    A review of Shopgoodwill by Time: 50 best Websites 2009: Shopgoodwill.com



    Olympus OM-1 / Praktica LTL - The Praktica (sold as a Cavalier in the US) was bought on Shopgoodwill.com.

    A new 90mm lens from Voigtlander. Nikon and Pentax compatible

    voigtlander 90mm f:3.5 SL II announced
    The Voigtlander 90mm f:3.5 SL II, as presented on CameraQuest's Web site.


    Voigtlander is an old brand of German origin, now belonging to Cosina.


    Cosina is a Japanese contract manufacturer – their 35mm cameras were adopted and sold successively by Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Contax and Zeiss, and they are one of the few companies still producing 35mm film cameras today. A few years ago, they started manufacturing manual focus prime lenses, available in the Canon EF, Pentax K and Nikon F (AI-S) mounts under the Voigtlander brand.


    The lenses made for Nikon cameras had one limitation, though. While perfectly compatible with manual focus SLRs, they did not have the electronic chip and the electrical contacts needed to communicate with recent autofocus bodies. Like Nikon’s own AI-S lenses, they could be mounted on mid-level dSLRs like the Nikon D80 or D90, but they were not recognized by the camera, which disabled its exposure metering circuit and forced the photographer to use a hand-held exposure meter, or to rely on the analysis of the histogram, after the picture was taken. The lens mount of higher end Nikon models such as the D300 or the D700 still has the pins, levers and springs needed to be fully AI-S compatible.


    The new generation of Voigtlander SL II lenses has the right chip and the right electrical contacts, and is now compatible with any Nikon autofocus SLR or dSLR (the photographer still has to focus manually, of course).


    A few days before the PMA, Cosina presented the APO-Lanthar 90mm f:3.5 SL II Close Focus lens (yes, that’s its name), a compact close focus lens. It targets a small niche of photographers who still want to buy new manual focus equipment. With a maximum aperture of F:3.5, it’s pretty slow compared to Nikon’s 85mm f:1.4 prime, and will not compete in the “portrait lens” category. With a magnification ratio of 1/3.5, it’s not a macro lens either. It’s available in Nikon and Pentax mounts, but non in Canon’s EF.


    A product for a niche within a niche, obviously.


    More about the Voigtlander APO-Lanthar 90mm f:3.5 SL II Close Focus


    Cameraquest: the distributor of Voigtlander SLII lenses


    Viewfinders: coverage, magnification and eye relief

    Eye Relief
    Eye Relief

    A large proportion of photographers wears prescription glasses – I know, I’m one of them – and almost everybody wears sun glasses occasionally. But surprisingly, until high eye point or high eye relief viewfinders appeared – on the Nikon F3 HP in the early eighties, photographers with glasses could not see the integrality of the scene – let alone the aperture or speed information on the LED displays surrounding the view of the scene- without having to move their eye balls up and down and left to right.

    As far as viewfinders are concerned, some cameras are better than others, though. The quality of the viewfinder of a manual focus camera is influenced by three factors:

    • Coverage: It’s the percentage of the image captured through the lens which is going to be shown in the viewfinder. 100% coverage is desirable – but expensive to manufacture, and only top of the line cameras (the real “pro” models) show the integrality of the scene in the viewfinder. Most SLRs show between 85% and 95% of the scene. Point and shoot cameras, (more precisely the few P&S which still have an optical viewfinder) are much worse. The best of them, the Canon G11 only shows 77% of the scene that will be captured through the eye piece.
    • Magnification: If the magnification was equal to 1, an object seen through the viewfinder would appear to be the same size as seen with the naked eye (with a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera). The photographer could even shoot with both eyes open. If the magnification ratio is lower than 1, then the object will appear smaller in the viewfinder than seen with the naked eye.Magnification has an impact on composition and focusing. If the magnification ratio is very low (below 0.4) the image becomes so small that it’s difficult to compose the picture. Magnification is also a critical factor for picture sharpness on manual focus cameras: the accuracy of the focusing is directly related to what the photographer can see on the matte focusing screen, and the higher the magnification, the easier it’s going to be for him or her to focus accurately.On a 35mm single lens reflex camera, the magnification is measured with a 50mm lens, and varies between 75 and 95%. Full frame digital SLRs have viewfinders offering comparable magnification values. dSLRs with so-called APS-C sensors advertise very high magnification ratios, but after the crop factor of the small sensor is taken into consideration, the real magnification value lies between 0.46 and 0.62. Read Neocamera‘s article for more information about the real viewfinder magnification ratio of dSLRs.
    • Eye relief: “The eye relief of a telescope, a microscope, or binoculars is the distance from the last surface of an eyepiece at which the eye can be placed to match the eyepiece exit pupil to the eye’s entrance pupil.” (Wikipedia, eye relief entry).The longer the eye relief, the more comfortable the camera is going to be for a photographer wearing glasses, but the smaller the focusing screen is going to look.A photographer wearing glasses will need an eye point of approximately 20mm (depending on the dimensions of the frames and the thickness of the lenses of the glasses) to be able to see entire the viewfinder image, plus the exposure information without having to move his eye balls left to right and up and down. Camera manufacturers describe them as “High eye Point” or HP viewfinders.

    A comparison between a few 35mm cameras

    As is often the case with engineering, a good design is the result of a successful compromise between conflicting requirements. Most photographers desire a long eye relief, but at the same time want a magnification ratio high enough, so that they can compose their image with precision and focus accurately. With the F3, Nikon offered 2 versions of its standard viewfinder. The DE-2 of the original F3 had an eye relief of approximately 20mm, and a magnification of 80%; the DE-3 viewfinder of the F3 HP had a much longer eye relief (25mm) but a smaller magnification ratio of 75%. The market decided in favor of the longer eye relief and the DE-3 became the standard viewfinder of all subsequent versions of the F3. The advent of autofocus SLRs accelerated the trend towards longer eye relief and lower magnification ratios.

    Subjective results
    The experience confirms the figures. The Nikon F3 has by far the best viewfinder, followed by the tiny Olympus OM-1. The Nikon FM-FE-FA are far behind.

    • Nikon launched the F3 with a standard viewfinder (model DE-2) which offered 100% coverage and already had a relatively long eye point. The standard F3 can comfortably be used by photographers wearing glasses. A few years later, Nikon introduced another version of its flagship camera, the F3 HP, which was the first to offer a viewfinder with the very long eye point of 25mm (one inch). The long eye point came at the cost of a lower magnification (down to 75%) and an higher weight. The F3 HP was a sales success, and all subsequent F3 cameras would come from Nikon with the HP viewfinder (the DE-3).
    • The Olympus OM-1 has an incredible viewfinder, with a very high coverage and a very high magnification. The viewfinder does not offer any exposure information besides the match-needle arrangement at the right of the image, and even if the eye point is rather short, the photographer has the impression he’s watching all of the scene. Subsequent OM models offered a little more information at the periphery of the viewfinder and a little less magnification, and in a world where hi-point viewfinders were becoming the norm, they were far less remarkable than the OM-1.
    • The Nikon FM, FE and FA provide more exposure information than the Olympus cameras (the selected aperture, in particular). Compounded with the very short eye relief (14mm), it makes it impossible for a photographer wearing glasses to see the whole scene and the exposure information at the periphery without some eye movements. While similar on paper to the other compact Nikon SLRs, the viewfinder of the Nikon FG fares worse than its stablemates in real life.

    Rangefinder cameras work by different rules. Their viewfinder covers far more than what will be captured on the film, and very little exposure information is displayed in the viewfinder. Even if the Leica M offers an eye relief of only 15mm, a photographer wearing glasses will not have any problem visualizing the image in the viewfinder.

    With a few exceptions such as the Canon G11, Point and Shoot digital cameras don’t offer optical viewfinders anymore. The G11’s may be used as a last resort in a very bright environment, (when using the LCD is not an option), but it’s very small and very unpleasant to use. Low end digital SLRs with small sensors (Four Thirds or APS-C) are equipped with very low magnification viewfinders, and have a very pronounced tunnel effect. Manual focusing is not an option, and composing an image with precision can be challenging. Mid-level dSLRS (like the Canon 7D or Nikon’s D90 and D300) have much better viewfinders, with relatively long eye relief (22 and 19.5mm respectively) and real magnification ratios of approximately 0.625.

    More about it

    Luminous Landscape – Mike Johnson’s “Understanding SLR viewfinders”

    Neocamera: Viewfinder of digital cameras

    Foca *** with a Foca turret viewfinder / Olympus OM-1n. The Foca is a French rangefinder camera from the late forties, and its viewfinder is unusable if you wear glasses. And hardly usable even without them.
    Model Coverage Magnification Eye Point Comment
    Nikon F3 HP (DE-3 finder) 100 % 75% 25mm The camera that introduced Hight Point viewfinders to the public.
    Nikon F3 with the standard DE-2 viewfinder 100 % 80% Not known. Probably 20mm The original pre-HP viewfinder. Even with glasses one can easily see all of the scene and the little LCD display.
    Olympus OM-1 97% 92% Not known. Probably 15mm Incredible. How can such a small camera deliver such a large image? Short eye point, but since the viewfinder does not provide any exposure information at the periphery of the frame, not much of a problem.
    Nikon FM, FE, FE2, FA 93% 86% Not known. Probably 14mm Short eye point, plenty of information at the periphery of the viewfinder. Not the best recipe for photographers wearing glasses.