Bringing an untested 40 year old camera in the Wadi Rum desert

Last month, I visited Petra.

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”.

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Petra – the approach through the canyon. (Petra, Jordan – Kodak Ektar 100 – Nikon N2020 – Nikon Series E 35mm lens)

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?

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Petra – at the end of the canyon you finally discover the “Treasury” (Petra, Jordan – Kodak Ektar 100 – Nikon N2020 – Nikon Series E 35mm lens)

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.

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Petra – the “Treasury” – (Petra, Jordan – Kodak Ektar 100 – Nikon N2020 – Nikon Series E 35mm lens)

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.
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Nikon F501/N2020 – Source: it.wikipedia

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.


Treasury, Monastery?

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.

And I watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” again – in the movie, the “Treasury” is not the liar of the bad guys, it’s the place where the Holy Grail and its guardian reside.

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Petra’s “Treasury” has inspired many authors – here in Herge’s Tintin series (“Coke en Stock” in the original French, “Red Sea Sharks” in English).