I recently moved to a new home – half the size of the one I was leaving. In a big home, you have lots of storage, a basement, an attic, a large garage, rooms you never use, and you tend to keep stuff. Lots of old stuff. Like old computers.
But when you move, you can’t leave anything behind. You check all the hidden corners of your home, and you find your old iMac. Second generation, officially known as the iMac G4 700 MHz. And often nicknamed Sunflower, because of its very original shape.
I had bought it in 2002. My first Mac. My first Apple widget.
The machine did age very well. It had been solidly built, with good quality components. It boots, and makes all the right sounds and moves. You log-in, and find a desktop which is not really different from what you see on a modern Mac (this machine is running OS X 10.5 Leopard – the last OS X version to run over PowerPC processors). Your spirits are high. You’ve been reunited with an old friend.
On paper, the specs of an old iMac – a 700 MHz 32 bit processor, 512 MB RAM, WiFi, Firewire – are not totally ridiculous if you compare them with a recent entry level machine. A modern Macbook has a 64 bit dual core processor, generally running at 1.3 GHz, with the ability to burst at 3 GHz. It does not look like a huge difference. Admittedly, a modern laptop also has much more RAM (8 GB) and more storage (256 GB SSD as opposed to a 40 GB spinning drive). But in the real life, it results in a huge gap in speed.
The iMac is incredibly slow at performing tasks as simple as ripping a music CD. And the worst is not the speed, it’s the inability to do anything really useful with the machine because the hardware and OS X Leopard can’t cope with modern security protocols:
you can’t connect to a wireless LAN, because the iMac and OS X Leopard support at best WPA (original version) and not WPA2 which is the standard today.
you can’t browse any modern Internet site, because the browser does not support the recent encryption layers of https, and every site worth its salt defaults to https now.
you can’t access any of the on-line services requiring a fat client (the Apple Music store from iTunes, for instance) because nobody’s accepting connections from such an old thing (probably another TLS vs SSL issue)
Software from 2009 still works (things like Photoshop Elements 2 or Microsoft Word 2008) but obviously recent versions of popular software are written for Intel Macs, and don’t run over Power PC processors (not even software as basic as a browser).
Basically, it could work if you downgraded your home WiFi network to WPA (or even worse, WEP), and only browsed sites whose servers have not been updated since the end of support of OS X Leopard (in 2009, I believe). That’s a scary perspective.
So, what will happen with this Mac? I will donate it. To people who still have room in their large home, where it will join a burgeoning computer museum. Until they decide to downsize of course.
An anecdote – the iMac was the first Apple computer I bought, but not the first I used. In the early eighties, I even had the privilege of being trained on Apple SOS (nicknamed Applesauce, of course), the operating system of the Apple III. It makes me a true geek.
For the fans of all things Apple, and among all the bios of Steve Jobs, I recommend the excellent “Becoming Steve Jobs“, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.
The city, located in the desert between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, was a very prosperous trade hub in the Antiquity, but lost of its importance in the Middle Ages to the point it was uninhabited and totally forgotten until its ruins were rediscovered by an archeologist in the early 1800s. The city had been built at the far end of a narrow canyon, and is famous because of its temples directly carved in the walls of rock forming the canyon. It was recently used as the lair of the bad guys in Indiana Jones’ “Last Crusade”.
Getting there is not exactly easy – a long flight to Amman or Eilat, followed by a long bus drive through the Wadi Rum desert (of Lawrence of Arabia fame), followed by a walk under an excruciating heat. And at the top of that, the access fees are exorbitant. But the place is absolutely unique, and the end of the approach in the narrow canyon is really magic.
Petra is one of those places that always look good in pictures – and I absolutely wanted to bring back images I would be pleased with. So why did I bring to Jordan a 40 year old camera I had never used before?
Normally, before an important trip, you’re supposed to test the camera in advance: you change the batteries, you expose a roll of film, you have it processed, and you look at the pictures it produced very carefully, before you finally declare the camera fit for service.
That’s the process I followed, with a Fujica AX-3 I had earmarked for this trip. But it did not pass the test. When I downloaded the scanned images, only a few days before I was due to the airport, 30% of the images were severely under-exposed and I could not see a pattern (it looked like random). I had just moved to a new home, my trusted cameras were still in a storage facility and too difficult to access, so I decided to trust Nikon, and brought with me a Nikon N2020 (aka F501) I had just bought for a miser a few days before, and only briefly examined.
To be honest, it was not that big of a risk. I had bought the Nikon from a second hand camera dealer of good reputation. I live in the 21st century and I have a good digital camera, and can use an iPhone as a backup. I decided that on this trip, on a given day, I would shoot digital for a few hours, then switch to the film camera. This way, even if the Nikon severely malfunctioned, I was not going to come back with no image at all.
At the top of that, Nikon cameras from that era are reliable. From all the cameras I have used over the years, Nikons are the only ones that have never let me down:
Fujica and Pentax cameras from the seventies have all sorts of mechanical problems (with the shutter, in particular). Cameras from the early eighties also suffer from relatively troublesome electronics (capacitors, stabilization circuits).
I owned Minolta Maxxum and Vectis cameras and Minolta AF lenses in the nineties, and they were not trouble free when they were in their prime (the only lens that ever broke in my photo equipment bag was a Minolta Vectis zoom). I have no recent experience with those cameras, but time generally makes reliability worse, not better.
The Olympus OM cameras I’ve used have been solid and reliable, but some models (the OM-2 Spot Program in particular) tend to go through their batteries with an alarming voracity, which could be an issue on a long trip.
Canon A series tend to develop a well documented shutter problem over time. I can’t use my Canon A-1 until I have it fixed.
My Canon T90 has been flawless (and a pleasure to use), but the model has a reputation for being a ticking bomb (from a reliability point of view) because of issues with the magnets used to control the aperture, and because of capacitors and batteries soldered to the camera’s integrated circuits.
On the other hand, even Nikon cameras I bought in bulk in antique shows or from thrift stores have been easy to bring back in service – generally the only thing missing was a good battery. They have a very reliable shutter and an accurate meter, and no light leak issue. Some Nikon cameras develop some annoying issues (the rubber grip on modern Nikon digital cameras, the LCD display in the viewfinder of the F4), but nothing that would prevent you from taking good pictures.
As a conclusion
I received the scans a few days ago. The exposure was a bit off (over-exposed by 1/2 stop in average – it’s likely that the camera had not been calibrated by Nikon for such a luminous landscape), but nothing that could not be adjusted in Adobe Lightroom in a couple of seconds. There’s still life in those old cameras.
The N2020 (F-501 outside of the US) was Nikon’s first mass market auto-focus SLR. It was an upgrade of the N2000 (F-301 “in the rest of the world”), Nikon’s first SLR with an integrated motor.
On this trip, I used it as a manual focus camera, with a very compact Series E 35mm f/2.5 lens. The ergonomics is still very conventional (dials and rings instead of menus and LCDs), it simply needs four AAA batteries that you can find anywhere in the world, and it’s a pleasure to use.
More about the Nikon F501/N2020 in a few weeks.
I initially wrote that the building shown in my photos and drawn by Herge in “Coke en Stock” was the “Monastery”. It was wrong. In fact, it’s known as the “Treasury”. And it was neither a monastery or a treasury, but the mausoleum of King Aretas IV, who ruled the region in the 1st century AD.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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 ….
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)
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.
Fujifilm S5 Pro (source: KEH)
Sony Cybershop F828 – Source KEH
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.
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
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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)
Auto exposure Camera
R6.2: $ 999
R7: $ 550
FM: $ 190
FE: $ 170
FM2: $ 245
FE2: $ 199
OM-1: $ 150
OM-2: $ 190
OM-3: much more than $500 *
OM-4: $ 235
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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“.
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.
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.