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.

 

About Tokina’s 28-70mm f:2.6-2.8 AT-X Pro and its Angenieux ties

Nikon Glass Blog
Nikon Glass


The pages about the Angenieux 28-70 zoom lens have been the biggest hit of this blog so far.

Manufactured in relatively small volumes by a renown French company, this lens disappeared from the shelves in the mid nineties, only to resurface – slightly modified – as an AT-X Pro after Tokina bought the design. So says the legend, at least.

More about the Tokina AT-X Pro saga can be found in a page published in November by John Cazolis in his blog Nikon Glass. John explores the different versions of Tokina’s 28-70 zoom, and tests extensively the AT-X Pro 28-70mm f:2.6-2.8, which is considered the closest to the original Angenieux design.

There are always a few Tokina AT-X Pro 28-70 lenses for sale on eBay, but the first iteration of the Pro model – the one that John Cazolis recommends – is relatively difficult to find. Expect to pay between $200 and $300 for a nice lens in good condition.

[Edited April 2018: posted a new blog entry about the Tokina 28-70 lenses: The four Tokina 28-70 AF lenses and their Angenieux roots.And John Cazolis rewrote his Tokina 28-70 entry in  http://www.johncaz.net/home/tokina-at-x-pro-af-28-70mm-26-28. ]


joe_lake_powell
Joe – Skipper on Lake Powell (AZ) – Scanned from print – Minolta 700si – Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6 zoom (May 1994)

Innovative Metering – World Class Shutter – Conventional Ergonomics – the Nikon FA

The Nikon FA is the last major manual focus SLR launched by Nikon. An evolution of the FM2 and FE2 cameras, it shares with the latter most of its body shell, a very fast shutter (up to 1/4000sec., 1/250sec. flash sync speed) and a on the film (OTF) flash metering mechanism. It finally catches up with Canon’s A1 and offers the same four automatic exposure modes (aperture and shutter priority, program and semi-auto).

Its “Automatic Multipoint Metering” (AMP) – a world premiere – is its real claim to fame. Better known under names such as “matrix”, “evaluative” or “multi-segmented” metering, it is now the default metering system of every dSLR in production.

Launched in 1983, this conservatively styled camera with very conventional ergonomics had a relatively short sales career. It was made obsolete in 1985 when Minolta took the market by storm with its first autofocus SLR, the 7000 (Maxxum 7000 in the US). Minolta’s competitors, Nikon included, spent the best part of the following three years trying to catch up. The FA stayed on Nikon’s catalog until 1988, and was not replaced. Its semi-automatic sibling, the FM2n would be sold until 2001, when the FM3a, a sort of combination of the best characteristics of the FM2 and the FE2, was launched.

Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor
An impressive (and heavy) camera: the Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor drive.

The metering system

Until the FA was launched, most of the cameras only offered some form of center weighted metering: the exposure sensor evaluated the luminosity of the whole scene, and because the sky is typically in the upper third of the frame, and the main subject of the picture in the center, it was designed to give more importance to the portion of the picture located at the center of the lower part of the frame.

It worked for most of the cases. If the subject was back-lit and not centered, the photographer had to determine the exposure with the subject at the center of the frame, memorize the exposure settings, and move the camera to compose the desired picture.

Some high end cameras also had a second exposure metering system, which evaluated the luminosity of a much narrower portion of the scene, almost a spot in the middle of the viewfinder. But spot metering and exposure memorization are not always easy to use,  and are far from being idiot proof. The engineers at Nikon were pretty sure that with the newly unleashed power of integrated circuits, they could develop a new approach.

It was introduced with the FA, as the Automatic Multi Pattern (AMP) exposure system. The camera was equipped with a database containing the mathematical description of thousands of real world pictures taken by Nikon technicians, with the exposure value that had given the best results in each situation. The light meter was divided in five zones (a large central zone, two zones at the bottom left and right, two zones at the top, left and right also), and the electronic circuit would correlate the exposure value of each zone with other elements such as the focal length of the lens to define the characteristics of the scene, and associate it with one of the many typical pictures described in the database of the camera.

Nikon FA (knob controlling the exposure mode: matrix or center weighted)
Nikon FA: the small and unmarked knob controlling the exposure mode (matrix or center weighted) is on the side of the lens mount housing, at the top of this picture

The Nikon engineers were so sure of the superiority of their AMP that they did not even equip the FA with an exposure memorization button – which so far had been a standard feature on high end automatic cameras. They just installed a little unmarked on-off switch on the right side of the lens mount housing, that conservative photographers could use to set the camera in the conventional “average center weighted metering” of yesteryear.

More about Matrix Metering and the alternatives developed by other manufacturers in this article of CamerAgX.

The ergonomics

The beauty of most manual SLRs resides in part in the simplicity of their commands. Each knob, switch, lever has only one function. If you turn the aperture ring on a semi-auto camera, the pre-selected aperture will change. Similarly, if you turn the shutter speed knob , the selected shutter speed will change.

The introduction of a automatic exposure did not really change the ergonomics. On a camera with aperture priority automatic exposure, you just had to select the “A” position of the shutter speed knob to let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically, and similarly on a camera with shutter speed priority, positioning the aperture ring on “A” indicated that you were willing to let the automatism manage the aperture for you.

Developing simple ergonomics became more difficult with cameras that could alternatively operate in semi-auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and program auto exposure modes. Most manufacturers added a big four way switch on the top panel, which could be set in Program, Shutter, Aperture or Manual. But when the PSAM switch was set on P or A, the shutter value did not match what was shown on the shutter speed knob, as shown in the example below.

Nikon FM detail of the shutter speed knob
On a semi-auto camera (like this Nikon FM) the shutter speed knob and the aperture ring of the lens show the shutter and aperture settings that will be used to take the picture.
Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector
On the Nikon FA, the value displayed on the shutter speed will not necessarily be used to take the picture. The camera is set in “A” (aperture priority) mode and the shutter speed will be determined by the electronics of the camera.

On the Nikon implementation, the photographer also had to remember to set the aperture ring to the smallest aperture, and the indications in the viewfinder (a very small LCD display showing alternatively the speed or the aperture selected) did not really help.

The ergonomics of modern “all-electric” cameras are totally different. The aperture ring and the speed knob are gone, leaving room to an “electronic input dial” and to a large LCD. Not as intuitive and immediate as the knobs and rings or yesteryear, but far simpler than the complex combinations of knobs and switches of the Nikon FA.

Using a Nikon FA as an everyday camera

When it was launched, the FA was nicknamed the “techno-camera”. Positioned at the top of the FM-FE family of cameras, it came with an impressive specs sheet: matrix metering, multi-mode exposure automatism, very fast shutter, on-the-film (OTF) flash metering. Its detachable motor drive was reasonably fast (3.2 frames per second) and could power the camera (and save the precious LR44 batteries).
With the exception of the prism housing (in poly-carbonate), the camera is still built in metal, and is very nicely finished. If the complex electronics from the early eighties survived, the FA is still perfectly usable, and will take great pictures.

Should you buy a Nikon FA? That’s a matter of taste. More recent cameras (film or digital) provide the same technical features, but with their large LCDs and their electronic dials, they’re easier to use and less conducive to set up errors than the FA. The AMP metering of the FA is still relatively primitive – it did not reach the level of performance of today’s matrix metering, and it deprives the photographer of his control over the exposure. Switching to the center weighted mode does not really offer more control, unless the semi-auto exposure mode is used, because no exposure memorization mechanism has been provided.

The Nikon FE2 or the FM3a share some of the technical advances of the FA (the titanium shutter and the flash metering in particular), but their simpler ergonomics (match needle in the viewfinder, shutter speed knob and aperture ring always showing the actual settings) as well as their more predictable exposure metering make them a better fit for photographers who want to be in immediate control of the basic settings of the camera.

The value of the camera on the used market reflects this. In spite of its impressive list of specs, the FA sells for approximately the same price as the Nikon FE2 ($125 to $200 on eBay depending on the condition of the camera), below the FM2n (approx. $250) and far below the FM3a ($500 and above).

Nikon FA with handgrip

The hand grip (on the left) has to be removed to leave room for the MD-15 motor. As a consequence, this tiny accessory has often been lost and most surviving FAs don’t have it.


More about the Nikon FA

The Usual Suspects…

Nikon’s own words: Imaging Products-Nikon Family- Nikon FA and FE2

Photography in Malaysia (MIR) The Nikon FA
Ken Rockwell: The Nikon FA


American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400
American Petit LeMans – the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA – Kodak CN400

Nikons’s most advanced manual focus “ultra-compact” SLR: the Nikon FG


In 1972, Olympus launched the OM-1. Much smaller and lighter than any other single lens reflex (SLR), it opened the path for a new generation of more compact cameras. Nikon’s own FM (launched in 1977) was remarkably smaller than the Nikkormat cameras it was replacing, but still a tad bigger than the Olympus OM-1n. Built like a tank, it was not light, either.


It would take another model, deliberately designed for the beginners, the Nikon EM (1979), to finally beat the OM-1 at its own game (weight: 460g against 510g, width: 135mm instead of 136mm). Small and light, the EM had a plastic (polycarbonate) body over an aluminum chassis, an aperture-priority exposure control system, and very few ways to over-ride the automatism. A magic -2EV button could be used for back-lit scenes, and that was about it: there was no semi-automatic exposure mode. It could use all Nikon’s previous AI (auto-indexing) lenses, as well as a new series of cheaper lenses (the E-Series) launched for the occasion. The E-series lenses were smaller and less elaborate than the other Nikkor lenses, but some of them (like the 50mm f:1.8) gained a very good reputation over time. It has to be noted that the E-Series lenses were the first to use the AI-S version of the F mount. Geeks can learn more about the evolution of the lens mounts of SLRs in the pages published a few months ago in this blog. 50 years of lens mount evolution.

 

Nikon FG
Nikon FG


In 1982, Nikon extended their “ultra-compact SLR” range with the FG. It retained the platform, the dimensions and the shutter of the EM, but its electronics had been revised to incorporate two exposure modes, a semi-auto and fully automated program adjusting the aperture and the shutter speed. It also adopted the On the Film (OTF) flash metering system of the FE2. Not a pro camera yet, but not a beginner’s camera anymore.


To this day, the FG remains the smallest of the manual Nikon SLRs targeting the “advanced-amateur” market. A few “all-plastic” autofocus SLRs tipped the scales at 350g in the subsequent years, but Nikon’s digital reflex cameras are all bigger and heavier.


Shooting with the FG


The FG was available in two versions: “chrome” or black. Both had a small removable grip at the right of the body, and looked like smaller copies of the F3. After all these years, the FG is still a very nice little camera. Like the EM, it’s built around an aluminum chassis, and the body itself is in polycarbonate. The commands are simple and well organized. A single selector controls the shutter speed (for semi-automatic operation) and the type of exposure automatism (aperture priority or program). When the program mode is selected (after pressing a safety lock), the aperture ring of the lens has to be set at the smallest aperture. If the photographer forgets to set the aperture, the “overexposure” LED will flash in the viewfinder. The shutter is taken over from the EM and can not offer anything better than 1/1000 sec, with a flash synchro speed of 1/90. Incidentally the shutter still works at 1/90sec when the batteries are dead.


There are few other controls on the FG. A switch disables the warning beeps that the camera emits in multiple occasions, and a push button on the left side of the body can be used to open-up the exposure by 2 stops, to prevent under-exposure in back-lit scenes. There is no way to switch off the camera, and the best way to prevent battery drain is to leave the shutter speed selector on the manual 1/90sec setting when the camera is not in use.

 

Nikon FG - The commands
Nikon FG – The commands


The viewfinder is one of the places where savings were made. With 0.84x magnification and 92% coverage, its performances are similar to the FM or the FE’s, but remarkably inferior to the exceptional OM-1, which in spite of being so compact, still combines a magnification of 0.92x with 97% coverage. At the right of the viewfinder, the photographer will find a scale representing the shutter speeds, with one or many (up to three) red LEDs showing the actual shutter speed and/or the ones recommended by the metering system. Red LEDs, as usual, happen to be invisible when the camera is used in a bright environment.


Derived from the EM and largely built in plastic, the FG is obviously not in the same league as the FE2 or the F3 when it comes to build quality. The articulated winding lever is not as smooth as the F3’s (which is mounted on roller bearings) or the FE2’s, which gives the impression of being mounted on a bronze bearing. The camera has the reputation of being prone to a scary shutter lock (nothing dramatic – set the shutter dial to Manual 1/90sec , and everything goes back in order). To me, it looks more like a “bug” than anything else.

Olympus OM-1 and Nikon FG


In a few words, the FG is a strange combination of relatively advanced features (multi-mode exposure automatism, on the film flash metering) with a base which is derived from an entry-level camera. In particular in its black version, it looks very competent and professional, which could lead to some disappointment. Because of its small size and its serious looks, it’s easy to believe that it’s a pro camera, comparable to its FM2 and FE2 stablemates, or to the Olympus OM-2.


Nothing could be more wrong. The Nikon FM2 and FE2 are equipped with an exceptional titanium or aluminum shutter, with flash sync speeds up to 1/250sec and a maximum speed of 1/4000 sec. The shutter of the FG is much more limited, and its top speed of 1/1000 sec is a serious limitation on a bright sunny day now than 400 ISO seems to be the universal film sensitivity, in black and white as in color.


The FM2, FE2, OM-1 or OM-2 were cameras built for demanding amateurs or professionals; a small size was one of the design objectives of their manufacturers, but it came second to build quality.


The second hand market recognizes those facts: a nice FE2 costs at least $ 125, with the FM2 and some late Olympus models crossing the $250 barrier. Well received on the market when it was launched, the FG is still abundant on the second hand market and a very nice one can be found for approx. $50.00. A nice compact SLR for casual photography.


More about the Nikon FG


Nikon’s own words about the FG
Photography in Malaysia: the “bible” for the amateurs of Nikon cameras. Check the Nikon FG pages.


The Nikon FG - a light SLR for mountain hikes
The Nikon FG – a light SLR for mountain hikes

The world through a plastic lens? A few pictures in Rome with the Holga 120 CFN


When your good friends learn that you still shoot film, and write about it, they understand they have a unique opportunity to get rid of all the – let’s be polite – worthless photo equipment they don’t use anymore and you end up with Kodak Brownies or Instamatics by the bucketload. And if your brother in law is really facetious, he brings you a brand new Holga from one of his trips in China, and since it’s a Christmas present and everybody in the family is intrigued, you buy film and start using it.

Holga 120 CNF
Holga 120 CNF


That particular camera comes in a big orange box with the rest of the “Starter Kit”. Reading the user manual, you get confirmation that the camera is “extremely low tech, and will eventually wear out”. Major design flaws are presented as unique features – the dreaded manual mentions “leaks of light, unvoluntary multiple exposures, loose connection between the film and the take up spool” among the desirable characteristics of the product. Looking for some comfort, you check a little square format book at the bottom of the box. It’s a nice paperback of 192 pages, showing 300 images taken with Holga cameras. Not something Leica or Nikon would be proud of, but interesting pictures nonetheless.


The camera’s design is very basic. It accepts 120 format roll film, has a plastic wide angle lens (60mm, F:8 or F:11) with 4 possible focus settings, and a shutter which offers a unique and unspecified speed. The camera comes with 2 user interchangeable back plates, one will give you 6×6 cm negatives with some vignetting, the other one 6×4.5cm negatives, probably with less vignetting (I don’t know, I only shot with the 6×6 plate). The “CFN” Holgas also come with an electronic flash, equipped with a turret of 4 filters (Red, Blue, Yellow and transparent) for special effects.


Using the Holga


The Holga 120 CFN needs 120 film – of course – and since Holgas are supposed to be enjoyed for their shortcomings, color film should be preferred (the plastic lens is prone to chromatic aberrations which would not be visible with black and white film).


Finding color film in 120 rolls proved very difficult. If 35mm film is still easy to find (even in supermarkets or in the little stores attached to many hotels), the same can not be said for 120 roll film. Only stores dedicated to professional photographers still have a few references. I bought a few rolls of Kodak’s Portra 400 NC film. Loading the camera is a difficult task, but in all honesty I’m not used to roll film and I would also have suffered with a more high end camera.


Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (120 film adapter removed)
Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (the 6x6 back plate has been removed - the two AA batteries power the electronic flash ).


In the street, the camera attracts lost of attention. People notice the bright red color (Holgas are also available in black, kaki and in a unique blue and yellow combination), and are intrigued by the cheap aspect of the camera. It looks like a toy, and people are surprised to see an adult using it.


The camera has very few controls and is easy to use, with a decent viewfinder and relatively smooth commands, and provides a user experience very similar the “boxes” that Kodak used to sell before the launch of the Instamatic cameras.


The results
Having the rolls processed proved as difficult as buying the film in the first place. Costco and the proximity drugstores don’t process anything larger than 35mm film, and the rolls had be sent to a professional lab (some of them charge up to $20.00 per roll). When you receive the pictures, you discover the “Holga paradox”: you’re not attracted to the almost “normal” images, but by the most severely flawed. The pictures with the fewer technical faults are just bad (with vignetting and all sorts of aberrations), while some of the images plagued with the worst of the problems (involuntary multiple exposures, light leaks) have a surrealist quality that the most creative of the photographers would struggle to get from a digital picture processed in Photoshop.


Holga, what for?


“Normal” photographers are supposed to spend thousands of dollars in the equipment which will help them produce pictures as perfect as possible from a technical point of view – in focus, sharp, with the right exposure, no vignetting, no distortion, and no chromatic aberration.

Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN
Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN - This is one of the pictures with the fewest defects.
Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles
Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles


Deviations from the norm of the technically perfect picture are supposed to be voluntary, in order to convey an emotion or a message. They’re not supposed to have been brought randomly by a poorly designed camera.


Holgas don’t follow the rule. They’re not “normal”, and they’re not what “normal” photographers would be looking for. Their results are totally unpredictable. When nothing went really wrong, the results are dull. It’s only when they are massively flawed that the pictures start being surprising and interesting.


Using a Holga reminded me of the “Exquisite Corpse” creativity method used by the Surrealist movement at the beginning of the XXth century. With a Holga you will rely on chance to create something new and different. Using the bright red Holga, I started believing that chance could be an artist on its own right. And you end up loving that little camera for that very reason.



More about Holga cameras


Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...
Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...


A few decades ago, photographers in Austria discovered the “Lomos” (copies of Cosina point and shoot cameras made in the USSR), and liked the – flawed – pictures made by those very imperfect little cameras so much that they launched the “lomography” movement. They started distributing the “Lomos” in Austria and Germany, and progressively added other cameras from Eastern Europe and China to their catalog. Lomos and Holgas are now widely distributed, and can also be purchased directly from the Lomography web site, where a red Holga 120 CFN can be found for $75. That’s a lot of money for such a low tech object. Bargain hunters can also find Holgas on eBay, for far less.


Cynics will say that the initiators of the Lomography movement found a way to get rich selling Soviet surplus to the rich photographers of the West, and philosophers that they showed that chance and chromatic aberrations could be more creative than would be artists obsessed with technical perfection.


Holga links


The Holga blog: a blog about film photography, Holgas, Toy Cameras, 6×6 TLRs, Polaroid – “LO-FI” photography at its best.
The Holga group on Flickr
Cameras from (formerly) communist countries: does not include Holgas, but the original Lomos, Dianas & Lubitel cameras, among other things.


Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN
Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN

Single Lens Reflex or Rangefinder Camera? A few days with a Leica CL


I was back in Paris for a few days at the end of last year, and since there was still room in my equipment bag, I pulled my old and battered Leica CL from a drawer and took it with me. A good opportunity to check whether I could get acceptable results out of it this time.


I never was a rangefinder guy. When I started being interested in photography, semi-automatic Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) were already the norm, and Leica an expensive brand of obsolete cameras. My formative years were spent with a Pentax MX, and I’ve always found natural to see the world on the matte focusing screen of a reflex camera. But I was intrigued by the Leica legend, and one day, purchased a Leica CL. Over the last 15 years, I used it rarely, but being light and compact, it could find a slot in my equipment bag from time to time.

 

Leica CL with its two lenses
Leica CL with its two lenses

The CL was a sort of entry-level rangefinder camera, designed by Leitz in Germany and built by Minolta in Japan from 1973 to 1976.


From a technical point of view, it is a miniature M5, and very advanced for a Leica of its time. A semi-auto camera with through the lens metering, it used a mechanism very similar to the system used in the much maligned M5’s.


After the CL and the M5 were abandoned in the mid seventies, Leitz reverted to fully manual cameras with no metering capabilities, and aficionados had to wait for another 10 years before a semi-auto rangefinder camera was proposed again by the German firm.


With its M bayonet mount, the CL could use the 50 mm lenses of its bigger brothers, but Leitz had also designed two lenses specifically for the CL, a 40mm Summicron (F:2) and a 90mm Elmar (F:4).

Using the Leica CL


A true Leica, it also used a focal plan textile shutter (1/2 sec up to 1/1000 sec). The rangefinder has a short base and is not as accurate as the M6’s, but is good enough for the 90mm Elmar.

A class at the Louvres Museum- Jan.2010. Paris
A class at the Louvres Museum- The CL is small and silent, and nobody paid attention to me or to the camera.


With its mechanical shutter, the CL only needs a battery for metering, and uses it sparingly. Mine still has the mercury battery I bought it with, but I suspect it must be at the end of its life, because the recommendations of the metering system were so bizarre that I decided to forget about it and apply the “sunny 16” rule. With a battery in working order, the determination of the exposure is very simple (a match needle at the right of the viewfinder).


On the CL, the image in the viewfinder is large and clear. The viewfinder has a greater field of view than the 40mm lens normally mounted on the camera, and projected bright lines show to the photographer what the actual picture will look like. There is little difference between the respective field of views of the viewfinder (similar to a 35mm) and of the 40mm lens, but the bright frame projected of the 90mm lens will seem minuscule at the center of a viewfinder, whose enlargement factor does not change. Disconcerting, but not dramatic.


What really requires adaptation is focusing. On a manual focus Single Lens Reflex camera, the image of the subject is projected on a matte ground glass, and the photographer can see immediately whether the image is in focus or not. Similarly, with tele-zooms used at large apertures, the effects of the reduced depth of field are easily visible, and the photographer can visualize what will be in focus, and what will be pleasantly blurred.

The back of the Leica CL
The back of the Leica CL – Note the viewfinder at the top left corner of the body, leaving ample space for the nose of the photographer


On a rangefinder camera, the finder does not provide any feed-back when it comes to focusing. Every element of the image seems in focus: it’s very easy too forget to set the focus, and very difficult to predict the depth of field.


The coupled rangefinder is materialized by a small window at the center of the viewfinder. It’s extremely accurate, but the focusing ring on the small lens is narrow and rather stiff, and you get the impression that you could have reacted much faster with the large focusing ring of the 50mm lens of your SLR.


I guess it gets better with experience, but it’s very frustrating for a beginner.


If you can get over the idiosyncrasies of the viewfinder, the Leica experience is very rewarding. The camera is virtually silent, and being small and black, gets totally unnoticed. The pictures are sharp, with a lot of micro-contrast, and give the impression of being of higher quality than the images taken with most of the SLRs (provided you could master the focusing system). Your success rate will be lower than with a manual SLR, and far lower than with a dSLR of the latest generation, but when the images are good, they’ll be very good.


Buying a rangefinder camera


Rangefinder cameras are markedly different from SLRs, and will not produce good pictures without some serious practice. The first attempts will be frustrating, and there is no point in spending a lot of money in a Leica M9 if you discover after a few days that you’re totally allergic to this style of cameras.


The Leica CL is one of the cheapest options for a photographer who would like to try rangefinder cameras. Good Leica CL are rather easy to find in the US or in Europe. Even in a pristine condition, they never cross the $1,000 threshold, and nice items can be found between $300 and $600. In Japan, the CL was sold as a Leitz-Minolta camera, with no other difference with the “Leitz only” CL than the logo.


A few years after the production of the CL was stopped, Minolta launched the CLE, an automatic exposure version of the CL, and the first camera to propose On the Film (OTF) flash metering. There is no semi-auto or manual mode. The CLE contains much more electronics than the CL, and it can not be repaired if the main circuit decides it had enough. The CLE is much more difficult to find than the CL. Expect to pay $600 for a nice one, and thousands for collector editions.


Full size M series Leica are either more primitive (no exposure metering) or more recent and significantly more expensive than the CL. Even in poor condition, a Leica M6 can not be found for less than $1,000. Cosina is still producing a line of rangefinder cameras, sold under the Voigtlander brand, and available with Leica M lens mount as well as less common mounts such as the Nikon and Contax rangefinder mounts. Amongst all the the rangefinder cameras from Voigtlander, the Bessa R3M is the closest to the CL (it accepts the same 40 and 90mm lenses), and can be found between $400 (used) and $600 (new).

Leica CL - The shutter is not armed
The light chamber of the Leica CL – In this picture, the shutter is not armed. As a consequence, the CdS sensor of the exposure meter is not deployed.
Leica CL -Armed shutter
The shutter is armed; the CdS sensor of the exposure meter is deployed. It will retract when the shutter release is pressed, just before the shutter opens.


References and links


A specialized source for rangefinder cameras (Leica, Nikon and modern Voigtlander): http://www.cameraquest.com/leicacl.htm


Canal St Martin - Paris - Located between the Gare de l'Est and the Bastille, the canal was a favorite set of the French film makers in the thirties. Using a Leica with B&W film seemed appropriate.
Canal St Martin – Paris – Located between the Gare de l’Est and the Bastille, the Canal was a favorite set of the French film makers in the thirties. Using a Leica with B&W film seemed appropriate

50 Years of Lens Mount Evolution: Part VI of VI


The last 10 years – digital cameras and image stabilized lenses


The massive adoption of digital cameras has not led – so far – to a dramatic change of the design of the lens mount of the cameras. Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony (aka Konica Minolta) did not design specific lens mounts for digital cameras, even if they designed specific series of lenses adapted to the smaller size of the digital “APS-C” sensors.


Panasonic GF1 and G1
Panasonic GF1 and G1 - the most radical development in interchangeable lens cameras since the Contax S and the Leica M3 (Photo courtesy of DPReview)


Only camera makers which had been absent from the 35mm Autofocus SLR market and had no installed base to please had the liberty to start from a clean slate. In 2003, Panasonic and Olympus launched the “Four Thirds” format, combining a relative small size sensor with a large all-electric mount. Last year, Panasonic finally presented the Micro Four Thirds G1, a camera with an electronic viewfinder and interchangeable lenses (EVIL), the first digital camera to really depart from the conventional SLR design of the Contax S of the late forties.


Why did the camera manufacturers keep the same bayonet mount for digital?


When the first digital SLRs from Nikon and Canon were presented in 2000, large imaging sensors were so difficult to manufacture and therefore so expensive that the camera makers settled for a form factor smaller than the 36x24mm dimensions of 35mm film (23.7mmx15.6mm for Nikon, 22mmx14.9mm for the Canon EOS-D30).


This form factor was dubbed “APS-C“, because it was close to the dimensions of an APS picture, shot with the “Classic” image format (25.1×16.7mm) of the APS cameras. The sensor being smaller than a 35mm negative (the diagonal of 35mm film is 1.5 times larger than the diagonal of an APS-C imager), the camera makers had an opportunity to design a new series of smaller bodies and lenses, but they all decided to stick to their legacy lens mounts and to design digital SLRs at least as large as their film counterparts.


Being the undisputed leaders of the film camera market, Nikon and Canon in particular had no interest in starting a new incompatible product line, at the risk of alienating their large user base; it would have leveled the playing field, and offered an easier entry in the dSLR market to companies like Panasonic or Sony. Nikon and Canon also wanted to limit the cost and the technical risk of going digital by reusing most of the components of their film cameras in their first generations of dSLRs. And they may have anticipated that one day, with the help of Moore’s law, cameras using full size digital sensors would become affordable for their professional and enthusiast customers, making their large F or EF bayonets more relevant than ever.


For a few years, however, dSLRs with APS-C sensors were the only game in town. Canon and Nikon both developed specific lenses for their small sensor bodies. Canon decided to modify the EF mount so that the EF-S lenses designed for the small sensor cameras can not be mounted on full frame SLRs or dSLRs. Nikon did not change the F bayonet – small sensor DX lenses can also be mounted on full frame (or FX) bodies, but being designed for the APS-C sensor size, they do not cover the full format of the FX sensors and the image is automatically cropped.


The Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats


In 2003, Olympus and Panasonic launched the “Four Thirds” format. At that time, Canon had already started producing the first full frame 35mm digital camera (the EOS 1D), and was preparing much more affordable 35mm digital SLRs like the EOS-5D for the enthusiast photographer market. A large sensor was still complex and expensive to manufacture, but getting high quality pictures out of it would prove much easier than with a small sensor, in particular in low light situations.


The Olympus Four Thirds system was based on design decisions completely opposed to Canon or Nikon’s . The sensor size chosen for Four Thirds cameras is very small (its diagonal is only half of the diagonal of a 35mm sensor), but at the same time the lenses and bodies are designed around a large diameter bayonet mount (44mm, the same as Nikon’s F), with a relatively long focal flange distance (38mm). When the system was designed, it was believed that a large diameter lens and a long focal flange distance were required to get optimal results from the imaging sensor, but the Leica M8 and M9 have since proven that it was not the case.


On the positive side, the relatively large dimensions imposed by the Four Thirds mount gave the engineers more freedom to design high quality lenses with very fast apertures, but on the negative side the body & lens combination could not be made significantly smaller than the more conventional APS-C cameras of their competitors. To add insult to injury, the relative small size of the sensor proved a handicap in low light situations (all things being equal, small sensors are more subject to noise than larger ones), and steered most of the enthusiast photographers away from Four Thirds cameras. Four Thirds only got traction on the low end of the market.


Size comparison: Nikon 18-55 DX, Olympus 14-42, Panasonic 14-45 Micro 4/3
Size comparison: Nikon 18-55 DX (APS-C), Olympus 14-42 (Four Thirds), Panasonic 14-45 (Micro Four Thirds) - Image courtesy of DP Review


Failing to make a significant impact on the mid-level dSLR market, and completely barred from the professional market dominated by new full frame cameras with extraordinary low light capabilities, Panasonic and Olympus decided to create a new niche for themselves, and launched Micro Four Thirds cameras. Using the same sensor as the “Four Thirds” dSLRs, the Micro 4/3rd cameras have abandoned the reflex mirror chamber and the pentaprism viewfinder of conventional dSLRs for an electronic viewfinder. They are designed for a much shorter focal flange distance (approx. 20mm instead of 38mm, and the mount diameter is also smaller (32mm approx. instead of 44mm).
As a result, the body+lens combination is much more compact than any other dSLR on the market. It’s still difficult to predict how this new category of cameras will fare in the future, but they finally bring something new to the table.


Image Stabilization

The migration from film to digital is without a doubt the most significant evolution of photographic equipment in the last ten years. Image stabilization gained acceptance during the same time, and is now a feature expected by amateurs using digicam as well as enthusiasts and pros using expensive large aperture teles. The objective of image stabilization systems is to compensate automatically the involuntary movements of the photographers, and to produce sharper pictures even at slower shutter speeds.


Canon, Nikon and Panasonic adopted relatively similar systems, all based on the controlled movement of optical modules installed inside the lenses. Minolta, Pentax and Olympus opted for in-camera systems compensating the movements of the photographer by moving the image sensor itself. Apparently both systems produce good results. In-camera image stabilization systems do not require any change to the lens mount, but in-lens systems need to be managed from the body, and require a few more electric contacts. Most of the current lens mounts are all-electric now, and adding a few contacts is an easy done job.


The state of the art in 2009


Pentax: Progressive introduction of the KAF3 version of the K bayonet mount, with autofocus motor in the lens. The majority of the lenses in the product line still need an autofocus motor in the camera body.


Canon: No change to the EF mount of the EOS cameras. Starting with the Rebel and the 20D cameras, Canon used a specific variant (EF-S) of the mount for lenses dedicated to the APS-C format. Canon dSLRs all work with EF lenses, but only the Rebel and 20D, 30D, 40D and 50D cameras can use the EF-S lenses.


Minolta, Konica Minolta and Sony: Progressive introduction of SSM lenses, with the focusing motor inside the lens. The majority of the lenses in the product line still need an autofocus motor in the camera body.


Nikon: Multiple variants of the F mount were used during the last 15 years:
– AF-D: no mechanical difference with the AF mount, the D lenses transmit the focusing distance value back to the body for 3D Matrix Metering
– AF-I: focusing motor in the lens – used for tele-lenses between 1992 and 1996;
– AF-S lenses: ultra-sonic (“Silent Wave”) autofocus motor built into the lens. Most of Nikon’s zoom lenses are now AF-S, and the conversion of prime lenses has started a few years ago.
– The new PC-E (perspective control electromagnetic) lenses now use an electromagnetic diaphragm command. All the other Nikon lenses still use the mechanical stop down mechanism introduced with the F mount in 1959.


Olympus & Panasonic started promoting the Four Thirds format in 2003. Four Third lenses use an all electric bayonet mount. The Micro Four Thirds are more compact, and use 11 electrical contacts instead of 9 for regular Four Third lenses. Thanks to the very short focal flange distance of Micro Four Third cameras, it is easy to develop adapters for Canon EF, Nikon F, Olympus OM or Leica M or R lenses.


Gull in Essaouira (Morroco)
An exception on this blog: a digital picture (Nikon D80) taken in Essaouira - Morroco

50 Years of Lens Mount Evolution – Part IV of VI


Programmed exposure


The automatic bodies of the early seventies still required some input from their users: they could only determine the shutter speed (or the aperture in the case of Canon cameras) after the photographer had set an aperture (or a shutter speed) compatible with the film speed, the intensity of the light and the characteristics of the scene (portrait, action shots, macro, and so on).
If the aperture set by the user was too low or too high, a matching shutter speed could not be selected by the camera and the picture was hopelessly under or over exposed.
Similarly, if the photographer let the camera select a very slow shutter speed with a long tele-lens, the picture would be blurry and unusable. Trained photographers knew that. But a better automatic exposure solution had to be found for the photographers who did not want to be bothered with technical details.

Nikon FA - the commands for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM)
Nikon FA (1984) – the command for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM) is in front of the shutter speed knob


Inspired by the program modes already available in point and shoot cameras, Canon launched the A-1, a new SLR with programmed exposure modes in 1978. Practically, it meant that the auto exposure system of the body had to simultaneously command the shutter speed and the aperture of the diaphragm.


Canon did not have to change anything on the FD mount, which had been created for full aperture shutter priority exposure. 


Nikon introduced the “AI-S” generation in 1979 when the mount was modified to support a linear command of the diaphragm. The first Nikon cameras to take advantage of the AI-S lenses and to offer a program mode and shutter priority were launched in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Because the camera body was informed of the focal length of the objective, it could choose automatically between two aperture-speed combinations when configured in program mode, one for wide angle and normal lenses, and one for lenses of 135mm and longer .

Nikon F mount - AIS on the Nikon FA
The AI-S variant of Nikon F mount, shown here on the Nikon FA. Compared to the lens mount of the FE2, the FA’s is using three more sensors: a small pin above the lens lock – which informs the body that the lens is of the AI-S type, a larger sensor inside the reflex chamber (right of the picture, in the middle) which is used to transmit the focal length of the lens to the body, and a slider at the bottom of the reflex chamber, used to transmit the maximum aperture of the lens to the body. The use of mechanical sensor had reached its limits. It was time to adopt electrical contacts instead.
Nikon F mount - AI on the Nikon FE2
For reference, the much simpler design of the AI mount (Nikon FE2). The stop down lever controlling the diaphragm is on the left side on the picture. You can still find it on current Nikon digital cameras.


Still trying to catch up with Nicanolta, Pentax adopted a brand new bayonet mount, the K mount, in 1975. The first K mount, however, did not support shutter priority or program modes. Electric contacts would have to be added with the KA declination of the K mount in 1983 to make it possible. Its close derivatives are still used today on Pentax DSLRs.


The state of the art between 1971 and 1985


Pentax: Aperture priority automatic cameras launched in 1971 with modified 42mm screw mount lenses supporting full aperture metering.
Change from the 42mm screw mount to a new Pentax K bayonet in 1975 (automatic pre-selection, full aperture metering, transmission of the pre-selected aperture value from the lens to the body);
Shutter priority and program mode introduced in 1983 with the KA version of the K mount.


Canon: The FD breech mount introduced in 1971 was ready for the Shutter priority cameras launched in 1973 (Canon EF) and for the program mode (Canon A1, 1978).


Minolta: MD declination of the SR Mount (one pin added for the support of the Shutter priority mode) to support the Shutter priority mode in 1977.


Nikon: Aperture priority cameras available since 1971 (Nikon EL) with the manual indexing F mount. Launch of the AI version of the F mount in 1977 to improve the ease of use. Progressive adoption of the AI-S declination of the F mount in 1979 to prepare for the arrival of cameras offering a program mode (Nikon FG, 1982) and a shutter priority automatic exposure (Nikon FA, 1984).


Olympus: the OM mount was introduced in 1971, and was ready to support programmed exposure from the beginning.



More about the lens mounts


Photography in Malaysia: information related to the F lens mount


American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400
American Petit LeMans – the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA – Kodak CN400 – Processed by Costo. Cropping and minor adjustments in Lightroom 2

Nikon F3


Nikon’s F3 was the “pro” camera of the early eighties, but it kept on selling until 2001. A dwarf compared to current mid-level digital SLRs, not to mention monsters like an EOS 1DS or a D3. Incredibly simple to use compared to anything digital sold these days. Aperture Priority Automatic or Semi-Auto exposure. Center weighted metering. That’s all. It worked. And it still works today.

 

Nikon F3 - cosmetically not perfect - it simply works
This Nikon F3 is far from perfect cosmetically – but it works

Consider all the changes that took place in the SLR design between 1980 and 2001. Multi mode exposure, spot and matrix metering, integrated motors, autofocus, DX coding, the F3 had none of that, but it outlived two or three generations of newer-better-faster pro bodies from Nikon or Canon. The F3 had the elegance to hide its real technical advances under a classical skin, and to let the photographer communicate his instructions through smooth and oversized controls. Of all the pre-autofocus SLRs of Nikon, the F3 is the most pleasant to use, and probably the one which will yield the best results.

The F3 is an exception in the Nikon F lineup. It’s compact, smaller than its predecessors, and way smaller than its successors, the F4 and F5. In fact, its size is very comparable to that of the FM, itself hardly bigger than the yard stick of compact SLRs, the Olympus OM-1. The F3 is also easy to use, without the idiosyncrasies of the F and F2s with their Photomic finders and manual aperture indexing, and without the myriads of commands of an F4 or the menus and submenus of an F5.

 

Olympus OM-1n / Nikon F3
Olympus OM-1n / Nikon F3 – The F3 is larger, of course, but not that much. Compact and not very loud, it can be used for street photography, among other things.

The F3 is much more modern and usable in everyday life than a semi auto camera like the FM: its commands are larger and smoother, and the automatic exposure system is faster to operate; thanks to the center-weighted metering and a memory lock button, it does not deprive the photograph of his control on the exposure . When a flash is needed, the FM still requires the user to concern himself with Guide Numbers. The F3’s flash system is modern: following the path opened by the Olympus OM2, the SPD (silicon) cell is housed under the main mirror, and provides On The Film flash metering. But the Nikon engineers avoided loading the F3 with complications like multi-mode auto-exposure or multiple metering patterns. The F3 has few commands, and they’re so easy to understand that no manual is needed.

 

Nikon F3 (above)
Nikon F3 – a view of the commands – add the exposure memory lock and the backup shutter release on the front, you have them all.

All the commands are generously sized, and very smooth to operate (the film advance mechanism is mounted on ball bearings). The view finder is wide, bright and clear, making focusing easy. After a few years of production, Nikon replaced the viewfinder with a high eyepoint (HP) model, which could be used more easily byglass wearers. The viewfinder is the only part of the camera which is really larger than what you would find on contemporary advance-amateur SLRs.


Of course, the F3 is not perfect. It may be compact, but it’s heavy (approx. 750g). Its OTF flash system may have been advanced for its time, but the shutter only syncs at 1/60sec, and none of the viewfinders of the F3 system has a standard flash hot shoe: the F3 requires a specific flash adapter, to be inserted at the top of the rewind lever. But if I had to own and use only one film camera, that would be the F3, without any hesitation.

viseur Nikon F3
Nikon F3 and its DE02 viewfinder at the front – Note that the exposure metering system and the LCD showing the selected shutter speed are on the body, not on the removable viewfinder (the little windows at the front of the viewfinder are aligned with the LCD and the aperture see through when it is in position on the body)


How much for a Nikon F3?


The price of an F3 is extremely variable. The F3s were produced over 21 years, and some of them could be fairly recent, when others could have been used and abused since the early eighties. F3s were built like tanks, but they were used as their everyday work horse by legions of professional photographers, and they may have had a rough life.


Old and scruffy models in perfect working condition – like the 1983 model represented on those pictures – can be had for a little more than $70.00. Nicer and more recent models with the HP viewfinder and a motor drive will cost you at least $300.00. Beyond the standard F3 and F3 HP, Nikon also produced many derivatives of its flagship camera, for specialized applications or to test new technologies like the autofocus system they showed in 1983. Some of them are relatively rare collector items and will command a much higher price.



Nikon F3 in CF-22 case
Nikon F3 in its CF-22 case. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the F3 had to show some italian bravado. The body design is classical, but the leather everready case is bright red.


More about the Nikon F3


Photography in Malaysia – the Nikon F3
Shutterbug: the Nikon F3 (2007)


Lunch Break - Quais de la Seine. Paris. April 2009
Lunch Break along the Seine. Paris-April 2009. Nikon F3 – Nikkor 24mm AF

The Minolta Vectis S-1: APS done right?


I don’t have this camera anymore. I’m afraid it ended its life in the trash can – not economically repairable – a few years ago. But I used it for years, I liked it a lot, and it’s too bad that no digital SLR available today is as light and portable as the Vectis S-1 was.(*)

The gun metal version was sold in Europe.
Minolta Vectis S-1 – The gun metal version was sold in Europe, but not in the US.


Launched in 1996, it was the only SLR system designed from scratch for the APS format. It inherited the best features from the Minolta mid-range 35mm cameras of its time, and exploited the new functionalities of the APS format to its full advantage. Built around a new, specific and very modern mount, the Vectis cameras and lenses were far more compacts than conventional 35mm SLRs, and than the APS SLRs developed by Canon and Nikon.


Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) need a moving mirror, and the moving mirror needs room, which imposes a flange focal distance of approximately 45mm on 35mm cameras (44mm for the Canon EF, 46.5mm for the Nikon F mount). The diameter of the mount, on the other hand, is closely related to the size of the film (it’s roughly equal to the diagonal of the film – 44mm for the Nikon F mount, for instance). Both Canon and Nikon decided to make their APS cameras compatible with the large range of 35mm lens they had been selling for 10 years or more, and designed their APS SLRs around the same dimensional constraints (flange focal distance, mount diameter) as their standard 35mm offerings. Logically, the cameras could not be significantly smaller than their 35mm counterparts.


On the contrary, Minolta took the risk of making the Vectis S-1 totally incompatible with its own 35mm lens system – and opted for a shorter focal flange distance (38mm) and for a smaller mount diameter, without any mechanical linkage between the camera body and the lens. The body and the lens could be made much smaller, but Minolta had to develop a whole range of new lenses, and ended up supporting two totally incompatible product lines.

Lighthouse of the Pointe St Matthieu (near Brest, France)-by default APS cameras shot in APS-H format (16x9 proportions)


One could debate endlessly about who did the right thing, Minolta or Canon-Nikon. Minolta’s risky strategy did not pay off – the sales of the Vectis cameras proved disappointing, Minolta lost its independence and had to merge with Konica. But Canon or Nikon’s more prudent approach did not work either, altough they did not lose as much money with APS as Minolta did. Learning from the experience, Canon, Konica-Minolta and Pentax all decided to retain their 35mm mount on their new dSLRs with APS-C sensors. Only Panasonic and Olympus, with no legacy of 35mm AF SLRs, decided to use a smaller form factor with their Four-Thirds and Micro-Four-Thirds formats.

Minolta Vectis S-1 (rear view). Courtesy of www.collection-appareils.fr


The design of the S-1 was very innovative in two important areas: it was not using the conventional central pentaprism, but a series of mirrors leading to a viewfinder implemented at the very left of the body – leaving space for the nose of the photographer, and the camera, its lenses and its accessories (such as the external flash) were all weatherproof, forming a compact, lightweight and reasonably rugged system that could even be brought in mountain expeditions.


The rest of the camera was in line with the advanced-amateur class of products of the time (P, A, S, M modes, Matrix and Spot metering, passive autofocus) and took advantage of all the new functionalities brought by the APS format – the ability to pre-select one of three print formats when taking the pictures being the most important. Some compatibility existed between the accessories of the 35mm cameras of the manufacturer (Maxxum or Dynax) and the Vectis: the flash system and the remote control could be used indifferently on both lines of cameras.


The user experience was very pleasant. Minolta cameras of the AF era have always been very pleasant to use, and the Vectis was no exception, provided you put the right lens on the body.


Unfortunately, the kit lens – a 28-56mm f:4-5.6 zoom, was not something Minolta should have been proud of. Poorly built, if proved fragile, and the quality of the pictures it produced was far from impressive. Mine broke rapidly, and I replaced it with a much better 22-80mm lens, which was correctly built, and could produce great pictures – with the right film in the body. APS’ promoters had decided that 200 ISO would be the “normal” sensitivity, but APS used a smaller negative than 35mm, and the quality of the enlargments from 200 ISO film never convinced me. The 100 ISO film, on the contrary, was very good. On a good bright and sunny day, with a good lens and 100 ISO film, APS could compete with 35mm.


My Vectis was defeated by one of design flaws of APS: the fragile automatic film loading system. A tiny piece of plastic broke in the camera, preventing the film door to open. Having it repaired was not an option. I sold the lens, and trashed the camera.


Today, the Vectis S-1 still has fans, ready to pay prices in excess of $150 for a camera. I liked mine as long as it worked, but with 100 ISO APS film now unavailable, I would not spend my money trying to get another one.


Good camera, flawed format. RIP.


(*): Edited in July 2017: the Vectis S1 tipped the scales at 365g, and the fragile 28-56 kit lens added 110g. With film and battery, the whole set was probably was below 500g. Today – in 2017, the remote heir of the Vectis, the Sony A6000, weights 20 grams less (at 345g). The Sony 16-50 Power Zoom also weights 110g.

 

More about the Minolta Vectis S-1
camerapedia.org: la page du Vectis S-1
collection-appareils.fr (site in French)


Portsall harbour low tide (near Brest, France)
Portsall harbour at low tide (near Brest, France)

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