Nikon N90s/F90x – why almost nobody seems to like auto-focus film SLRs

When kids take a photography class in high school, the teachers typically recommend cameras like the Pentax K1000. If you Google “best learner camera for film photography”, most of the sites making the top of the list will recommend the Pentax K1000 (again), or cameras such as the Canon AE-1 (often), the Nikon FM, the Minolta X-700 or the Olympus OM family. All are manual focus cameras, all were launched in the seventies or in the early eighties,  and most of them only offer semi-automatic (some people call it “manual”) exposure.

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The Nikon FE2 of 1983 is objectively not as capable as the N90s (F90X) – but it’s more sought after. Nobody seems to like auto-focus SLRs from the early nineties.

 

James Toccio in his blog “Casual Photophile” is almost the only one to make the case that newcomers to film photography should start with a camera from the mid nineties, because with its multi-mode auto-exposure and reliable auto-focus system, it’s more similar to the current  digital cameras, and will yield much better results for an untrained photographer than a semi-auto/manual focus camera from the seventies (in: Casual Photophile – How to cheat at Film Photography)

James may have a point here. And if you look for a reliable, auto-focus multi-mode SLR with great performance and a large supply of lenses, the Nikon N90s is a very good choice.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very capable cameras to be had for next to nothing.

Unfortunately, if the value of a camera on the second hand market is any indication, most buyers disagree:  very good enthusiast-oriented auto-focus SLRs from the mid-nineties such as the N90s or the Minolta Maxxum 9xi seldom sell for more than $25.00, in the same ball park as the very primitive K1000, with more amateur-oriented auto-focus SLRs (such as Minolta’s Maxxum 400si or Nikon’s N6006) struggling to reach the $10.00 mark.

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The Nikon N90s was sold as the F90X in the most of the world (in fact, anywhere but in the USA). Note the trademark Nikon Red Stripe on the front grip –

The Nikon N90s

Nikon joined the auto-focus market shortly after Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000.  Its first auto-focus SLRs were slow to focus – even the flagship F4, but it did not matter much at the beginning, at least not until Canon launched the EOS-1, and showed what a good auto-focus camera should be able to do. From there on, Nikon had to play catch-up. It took them almost 10 years to do so (with the F5 & F100 bodies and the motorized AF-S lenses), and in the meantime, Nikon’s cherished pros kept on defecting to Canon in droves.

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The N90/N90S – In terms of design, uncomfortably seating between the analog Nikons (F, F2, F3, FM, FE) manual focus bodies,  and the modern auto-focus generation (F100, F6, D700, D800).

 

Launched in  1992, the N90 (named F90 in the rest of the world) was Nikon’s first real response to the EOS series. Officially, the N90 was designed for committed enthusiasts. But scores of pros also bought the N90, because it had the best auto-focus system Nikon could provide at the time. The  “N90s” aka “F90X” that rapidly followed was a level of performance above the N90 (improved auto-focus and weather sealing),  with a mission  to retain the pros who had fallen in love with the Canon EOS system until the launch of the F5.

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The aperture value is controlled by the aperture ring of the lens itself (and not by a second control wheel at the front of the grip as is the case with more recent SLRs or dSLRs)
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

    Size, weight, features and ergonomics

    Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

The N90s is a typical auto-focus SLR of the mid-nineties – with a black polycarbonate shell and high levels of automation:  auto-exposure with the conventional Aperture Priority, Shutter priority, Program and Manual (understand semi-auto) modes, Matrix, Weighted average and spot metering, and motorized film loading and rewind. Compared to its lesser amateur oriented siblings, the N90 has no built-in flash, but a better shutter (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250), a better viewfinder and runs on AA batteries (instead of the harder to find and more expensive lithium batteries).

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Nikon N90s – a single control wheel at the right of the top place – the main ergonomic difference with modern “Enthusiast-oriented” Nikon AF SLRs and dSLRs, which have two.

Apart from the build quality and the use of Nikon F lenses, the N90S has very little in common with the previous generation of “enthusiast” and “pro” cameras, the FE2 and the F3. While not as bulky as a modern full frame dSLRs (like the D810), N90s is larger than the FE2, as heavy as the F3, and very close to the D7500 in its dimensions and weight.

Nikon Film Cameras Nikon dSLRs
FE2 F3 N90/N90s D7500 D810
35mm film 35mm film 35mm film Digital – APS-C (DX) Digital (full frame – FX)
weight (g) 550g 760g 755g 640g 980g
height (mm) 90mm 101mm 106mm 104mm 123mm
width (mm) 142mm 148mm 154mm 136mm 146mm
  • Viewfinder
    In my opinion, the long eye point viewfinder of the N90 is one of the two reasons to prefer the camera to a FE2, the other one being its very accurate matrix metering. With a magnification of 0.78, a 19mm eyepoint and 92% coverage, it’s a good compromise between magnification (the image is large enough) and the eye point distance (at 19mm, it’s conformtable for photographers wearing glasses).
    It’s not as good as the high-point viewfinder of the F3, but much wider than the viewfinder of a conventional SLR such as the FE2 – and of course than the narrow viewfinder of APS-C dSLRs.It’s also very luminous, not as much as a modern full frame dSLR (such as a d700), but much more than its Minolta competitors of the nineties.All the necessary information is grouped on a green LCD display at the bottom of the screen.The only significant difference with modern Nikon cameras (and with Minolta cameras from the nineties) is that there is no LCD overlay to show information (such as the area of the image chosen by the auto-focus system) – considering there is only one central autofocus area, it’s not much of an issue.

 

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The information is grouped at the bottom of the screen – it’s less crowded than the viewfinder of a modern dSLR.
  • Shutter, metering and auto-focus system:
    The shutter is still at the state of the art (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250). Nikon’s matrix metering was considered the best in the nineties, and it’s still very good. You can trust it most of the time. The auto-focus (a single sensor, in the middle of the screen) is reactive, accurate, and works well in low light situations.
  • Lens selection and accessories compatibility
    Designed for Nikon’s “screw drive” AF lenses (Nikon AF and AF-D lenses), the N90 also works with AI and AI-S lenses – basically, anything sold by Nikon after 1977. The camera can also focus with modern Nikon AF-S lenses (the ones with the focus motor in the lens), and works in Program and Shutter Priority modes with lenses devoid of an aperture ring (most of the current Nikon AF-S lenses).It can’t work with them in Aperture preferred or Manual (semi-auto) mode, because there is no way for the photographer to directly set the aperture.It is not compatible with pre-AI lenses (unless they’ve been converted to AI, of course) and can not take advantage of the vibration reduction (VR) function of the recent lenses.
    The N90 was part of Nikon’s line of Enthusiast and Pro cameras, and many accessories (the remote control systems, for instance) are still inter compatible with Nikon’s current Enthusiast and Pro dSLRs. The flash systems are downwards compatible (you can use a recent Nikon flash on the N90, but the opposite is not true).
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Fifteen years separate those cameras. But the connectors (PC Sync, Remote) and the buttons (AF settings) are still at the same place.
  • Reliability
    The N90’s polycarbonate film door was initially covered with a sort of mat soft skin which has a tendency to peel.  Rubbing alcohol will take care of it, and will leave you with a shiny, naked camera. Apart from this somehow minor issue, it is a very solid and reliable camera.
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Nikon N90s – the film door was covered with a thin soft skin, which is peeling. It’s not specific to this copy – all N90 cameras suffer from this issue at various degrees.
  • Battery
    The N90 uses four AA batteries, which are cheap and easy to find, and do not seem to be depleting too fast.
  • Cost and availability
    I don’t have production figures for the N90. But the camera was a sales success, had a long production run, and has withstood the test of time pretty well. It is still easy to find. Supply apparently widely exceeds demand,  and the prices a incredibly low for a camera of such quality (if you’re lucky, $25.00 buys a good one).

Conclusion: why is this camera so unloved?

Objectively, the N90s is a very good film camera. It has a great viewfinder, you can trust its metering system and  its auto-focus. It is solid, reliable, and runs on cheap AA batteries. It’s designed to be used as an automatic camera, but lets you operate with manual focus lenses or in semi-auto exposure mode if you so wish. Why is it so unloved?

Because it’s a tweener. It’s far too modern for some, and not enough for others.

Its predecessor in the eighties, the FE2 and the F3, are simple cameras, with a single auto-exposure mode, average weighted metering and no integrated motor. They offer the minimum a photographer needs, and a few goodies at the top of that (shutter speed and aperture values displayed in the viewfinder, depth of field preview, exposure memorization). Nothing more.

The FE2 and the F3 are the cameras that a photographer will look for when he wants to work on his technical skills, as a pianist would do with his scales.

They will also appeal to photographers who believe that using a simple tool and following the deliberate process it imposes will help them create more authentic, more personal pictures.

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The N90S next to its predecessor of 1983 – autofocus, matrix metering, large long eye-point view finder, modal interface on the left, manual focus, center-weighted metering, and analog interface on the right.

For those photographers, the N90 is already a modern (understand feature bloated) electronic camera. It is not too  dissimilar in terms of ergonomics, commands, auto-exposure and auto-focus performance to a recent entry level dSLR  – except that you shoot with real film instead of relying on a digital sensor and on film simulation algorithms. The technical difficulties of photography are to a large extent masked: you can shoot for a whole day in the programmed auto exposure mode, with matrix metering and auto-focus,  simply concentrate on the composition of the pictures, and still get mostly good results.

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Nikon N90s next to a Nikon D700. High end cameras have a built in flash now. It was not the case in 1991.

But the N90’s successor – the Nikon F100 – is even better at producing technically perfect pictures with little human intervention. Manufactured from 1999 to 2006, it is  closer technically to the high-end dSLRs that Nikon is selling today (general organization of the commands, meter and auto-focus performance, full support of AF-S and VR lenses).  The F100 is a better choice for photographers shooting not only with film but also with a full frame Nikon dSLR  – they can use the same lenses and rely on their muscle memory because the commands are so similar between the F100 and a high end Nikon dSLR.

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Nikon N90s (front) and Nikon D700 (back). The cameras had the same place in the Nikon hierarchy (just below the top of the line F4 or D3 bodies). With “only” 17 switches or buttons, the interface of the N90S looks simple in comparison to the D700’s.

It relegates the N90S to a narrow niche of film photographers who want the convenience of auto-focus and automatic exposure, the build quality and the viewfinder of a pro-camera, without having to pay to the roof for the ultimate film SLR.


More about the Nikon N90s

Thom Hogan’s review : http://www.bythom.com/n90.htm

The Casual Photophile’s review: https://www.casualphotophile.com/2017/10/13/nikon-n90s-camera-review/


cherokee--6
Cherokee – Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400.

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The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


I briefly introduced the D700 in a recent post from the perspective of a collector and regular user of Nikon film cameras. Let’s see now how this ten year old dSLR compares with recent mirror-less cameras.

Impressive image quality, impressive white balance, impressive auto-focus

I’m not equipped to test a dSLR, and, honestly, I lack points of comparison. So I will just share a few thoughts.

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The d700 – one button or dial per command – an informative top plate LCD, and hundreds of options in the menus

Firstly, for a photographer used to Nikon dSLRs (I’ve had a D80 as my primary camera for almost 10 years until I switched to a mirrorless system), the D700 is very easy to apprehend.

It’s a conventional motorized auto-focus single lens reflex. There are more knobs, buttons and switches than on an enthusiast camera, the menus offer more options and a much greater level of customization, but the D700 is a camera a nikonist  will feel immediately comfortable with, without having to spend too much time buried in the manuals.

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Nikon D700 – a pro-camera with a very useful built-in flash (it controls Nikon’s cobras remotely)

Secondly, it’s a big and heavy camera. More than three pounds if equipped with a light prime lens or a consumer-grade zoom, almost five if equipped with one of the  f/2.8 wide angle or trans-standard zooms that the pros love to use.

Thirdly, its performance is still impressive for a ten year old camera. Admitedly it’s only a 12 Megapixel camera, but when it comes to overall image quality, dynamic range, white balance, auto-focus speed and exposure accuracy, it still holds its rank compared to recent mirrorless cameras.

The D700 – still the ergonomics of a conventional auto-focus SLR

Use a modern mirror-less camera and a D700 side by side – and it’s immediately obvious that the D700 is much closer to Nikon’s last auto-focus SLRs of the film era than to a Sony A7 series or a Fujifilm X-T2. And I’m not even considering the size.

IMG_1255
An electronic viewfinder (here the Fujifilm X-T1). It shows the picture as “seen” by the image sensor, and as it will be exposed. Information (like the artificial horizon or the histogram) can be overlaid if the photographers so chooses.

Modern mirrorless cameras have been designed to let the photographer not only frame but also visualize the image as it will be exposed directly on the big LCD monitor at the back of the camera, or in a high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

Sony and Fujifilm cameras have a large exposure compensation dial at the right of the top plate, just under the thumb of the photographer –  who can adjust the exposure values based on what is shown on the screen. The LCDs are now good enough to render accurately variations in exposure, contrast and image density  as the photographer plays with the settings, and in difficult lighting situations, it’s extremely helpful. What you see is really what you will get.

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The top plate of a mirror-less camera (Fujifilm x-t1). The exposure correction dial is large, and is easier to get to than the shutter speed knob. Note the Wi-Fi button, absent from the d700.

On the D700, the viewfinder, being optical, can not show the image as it will be exposed. And if the photographer plays with the exposure compensation settings, he will have to take one picture and then play it back to visualize what the corrections did to the images.

The D700 has a Live View mode, but it’s very primitive and can’t help with the exposure. It’s slow and relatively loud (the mirror first has to be lifted to clear the way to the sensor). The lens is locked at full aperture, and changes made to the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation) are not reflected on the LCD, and the depth of field can not be pre-viewed. Lastly, the LCD monitor is fixed, which further limits the usefulness of Live View – it still is difficult (acrobatic) to frame a picture with the camera close to the ground, or above the heads in a crowd.

IMG_1248
Live view 1.0 – it helps when working on a tripod (a detail of the image can be enlarged to facilitate focusing). But the LCD is fixed, and does not show the picture as it will be exposed.

ISO settings

The other difference is what you do with the ISO settings. The best cameras have reached such a performance level (almost no noise up to 6,400 ISO) that they can be left in Auto-ISO mode if the photographer so wishes. Instead of considering the ISO value as a constant and the shutter speed and the aperture as the variables (like in the old film  and early digital days), photographers can – for a given scene – set the aperture and the shutter speed to get the depth of field and the movement freeze they want, and let the camera adjust the ISO value to get to the right exposure. On cameras such the  Fujifilm X-T1 for instance, it is as easy to adjust the ISO value that it is to adjust the shutter speed, if you don’t want to rely on auto ISO. It’s not that the D700 could not be configured to react like a X-T1 (it supports Auto-ISO and you simply have to  press the ISO button on the top plate to  change the sensitivity with the control wheel), but it’s not a natural way to operate the camera.

Compact Flash reader and laptop required

Lastly, I have come to expect from a digital camera that it connects to a smart phone or a tablet over wi-fi, in order to edit and share jPEG pictures on the spot.

The D700 does not support Bluetooth or WiFi natively (it’s a camera from 2008). Eye-Fi cards (memory cards with a built-in wi-fi adapter) don’t exist in the Compact Flash format used by the D700. An  optional Nikon branded adapter is available (Nikon Wireless Transmitter WT-4), but it costs more than what I paid  for the camera. And when laptops have a slot for a memory card, that’s for an SD card, not for a Compact Flash.

For all practical purposes, this D700 will remain tied to a conventional PC  based workflow – and a traveling photographer will have to carry a laptop and a Compact Flash reader in addition to the camera (and find an Internet connection) if he/she wants to edit, publish or backup pictures while on the road.

Focusing with manual focus lenses

The focusing screen does not offer any of the focusing aids of a conventional manual focus camera (no micro-prism, no split image rangefinder), and no other focusing screen  is available from Nikon. When a manual focus lens is mounted on the camera, the auto-focus system is still providing information to the photographer (a green dot in the viewfinder when the lens is focused on the subject), and if the camera is installed on a tripod, you can use Live View and zoom into the image to check if the image will be in  focus. But you don’t have any of the fancy manual focus assist systems (Zebra, Focus Peaking, Digital Image Split) of modern mirror-less cameras.

IMG_1251 (1)
With a manual focus lens, the photographer can still chose the focus area (the black rectangle) and the green dot at the left of the LCD display indicates that the picture is on focus. No other focusing aid is available in the viewfinder.

That being said, the focusing screen is luminous, very fine, and the viewfinder is large (it’s a full frame camera, remember): when it comes to coverage and enlargement it sits somewhere between a N90 and a F3 HP. Getting the focus right with a wide-angle or standard lens does not seem too difficult, even without the focus assist modes.

IMG_1253
Nikon D700 – on a digital reflex camera, the photographer will see the image as it comes from the lens, but can not visualize how the sensor and the electronics of the camera will record it before the picture is taken (here with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D mounted on the camera)

Full frame digital – dSLR or mirror-less? 

As I’m writing this article (early 2018), the cheapest way to shoot “full frame” is to use second hand dSLRs such as the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700.

Shooting with conventional dSLRs with an optical viewfinder still has its benefits: the optical viewfinder is much easier on the eyes in bright light, the autofocus of dSLRs is still faster and more reliable, and the battery life far superior. If you compound that with  Nikon’s decades of experience serving the most demanding professional photographers, and a line of auto-focus lenses built over 30 plus years, you understand why their dSLRs still win comparative reviews when opposed to mirrorless cameras (check DPReview‘s end of the year Buying Guides: Nikon D7500 – best camera under $1,500Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000Nikon D850 – best camera over $2,000).

DPReview may still prefer dSLRs to mirrorless system cameras, but there’s no denying that  mirrorless cameras bring unique advantages: you can use indifferently the electronic viewfinder or the LCD monitor to compose your pictures, and you will visualize how the picture will be exposed before you shoot. I had never used the exposure compensation dial on any camera before,  because I never knew if I had to set it to +.5 or -.5 or whatever to get the exposure I wanted – I simply used to switch the camera to the manual exposure mode. On a mirrorless camera, exposure compensation becomes extremely easy to use because you see what it does in real time, not after the fact.

Although most mirror-less cameras systems have a very rich offering of native lenses, they are also very good bearers of old (manual focus) lenses, and they generally tend to be smaller and lighter than dSLRs.

IMG_1258
Non-CPU lenses (namely manual focus AI and AI-S lenses) can be preconfigured in the camera – the camera will base its matrix metering exposure on the actual focal length and the actual aperture of the lens – which should make it more accurate.
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Nikon D700 – when a manual focus lens is pre-configured in the camera, its actual F aperture value is displayed on the LCD (instead of the number of stops above full aperture).

Nikon and Canon are both widely rumored to be launching full frame mirror-less systems in the coming months. Because they’re late entrants on this market, Nikon and Canon can’t be content with “just average” cameras – you can expect their future mirror-less systems to raise the bar of performance to a level not yet reached by Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony. If they manage to preserve a good level of compatibility with their traditional dSLRs systems, many of their faithful customers will rapidly add one of the  new mirrorless models to their equipment bag. And it’s likely that the DPReview’s Buying Guides will put forward very different winners at the end of this year.

As for the D700,

it’s a very satisfying camera to use. Like the Nikon F3 in the world of film, it’s a unique opportunity for an amateur photographer to shoot with a tool built for professionals, but still of a manageable weight, size and complexity.

I don’t use my F3 that often, but taking pictures with a camera of such a build quality, with such a great viewfinder is an experience I enjoy from time to time. I suspect the D700 will follow the same path – I’ll shoot with a smaller and lighter APS-C mirrorless camera more often – when traveling in particular – but will go back to the D700 when I need to shoot digital, but still want to use my old Nikkor lenses and enjoy the true Nikon SLR experience.


How does a d700 compare with an entry-level APS-C dSLR such as the Nikon d3400, which can be had more or less for the same price? 

  • only  d700s with hundreds of thousands of actuations sell in the same price range as a new d3400. The d700 is a very solid and reliable camera, but buying a used d700 is riskier and could lead to high repair costs.
  • compared to the d3400, the d700 is a large and heavy camera, which will need larger, heavier and much more expensive full frame lenses.
  • the d700 is an old camera – it still requires to be used in a traditional workflow (Compact Flash cards instead of SD cards, no Bluetooth, no WiFi). Not that the d3400 fares particularly well in that regard – it also lacks WiFi, and neither the d700 or the d3400 have an articulated lcd monitor on the back of the body.

On the other hand,

  •  The choice of lenses is  limited on the d3400 (no wide-angle prime lens, only zooms). No such issue with the d700.
  • If you’re planning on using lenses of the film era (AI, AI-S, AF and AF-D lenses), the d700 is also a much better pick: it can meter with any of those lenses, it can auto-focus with conventional “screw-drive” auto-focus lenses, it does not “crop” the image, and its large viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.

d3400_d700_compare

  • regarding image quality, DXOmark, – for what it’s worth – rates a d3400 at 86, and a D700 at 80. Not everybody agrees with their methodology, but in their world  the d3400 with a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor and a dynamic range of 13.9 EVs is rated higher than a d700 with a full frame 12 Megapixel sensor and a dynamic range of 12.2 EVs. Interestingly, the d700 still leads in the high ISO race – they consider it’s usable up to 2,300 ISO, while a d3400 will peak at only 1,200 ISO. The benefit of the full frame imaging sensor, and of its relatively low pixel density.

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Max – Nikon D700 – Nikon 135mm f/3.5 AI – 1600 ISO – 1/60 sec.