The Ultimate film cameras

Ultimate: “last in a progression or series : final” (Source: Merriam-Webster)

Film cameras stopped selling in any significant quantity in the first years of this century – and the production of film cameras had almost completely ceased by 2008. But almost until the end, Canon, Minolta and Nikon kept on launching new models.

Most of those cameras were forgettable entry level models (their main justification was to occupy a lower price point than digital cameras), but a few high end models were nonetheless introduced.

The Canon EOS 3 (launched in 1998), the Minolta Maxxum 9 and the Nikon F100 (1999), the EOS-1v and the Maxxum 7 (2000), and last but not least the Nikon F6 (2004), were all at the pinnacle of film camera technology, and there will probably never be any new film camera as elaborate as they were.

Minolta+Maxxum+7+_+Dynax+7+_+Alpha+7+-+Meta35
Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

They did not sell in large numbers. But they kept their value remarkably well, much better than the autofocus SLRs of the previous generation, and than the first mass market digital SLRs that replaced them in the bags of photographers.

Today, if you exclude the limited editions models that Minolta and Nikon had sometimes added to their product lines, it seems that for each of the big three Japanese camera manufacturers, the most expensive film camera on the second hand market is always their most recent high-end autofocus model.

Let’s look first at models launched at the very end of the film era, between the end of 1998 and 2004:

(source: eBay “sold” listings, body only, for a used camera in working order – I did not include “new old stock”, “Limited Editions”, “as-is”, “please read” and “for parts” listings.)

Canon

  • EOS1-V                   $350 to $800         launched: March 2000
  • EOS-3                      $150 to $700         launched: November 1998

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

  • Maxxum 9             $200 to $470         launched 1999
  • Maxxum 7             $150 to $230         launched 2000

Nikon

  • F100:                        $200 to $400         launched 1999
  • F6 (second hand): $600 to $1,300      launched 2004

Canon_eos_1_v

And let’s compare them with cameras of the generation that came just before

  • EOS 1n                     $100 to $300        launched November 1994
  • EOS Elan II              $40 to $100          launched September 1995
  • Minolta 800si         $45 to $60             launched 1997
  • Nikon F5                 $150 to $300         launched 1996
  • N90S/F90x              $40 to $150           launched 1994
cameragx-6593
Nikon N90s (aka F90x) and Minolta 9xi – the unloved auto-focus cameras of the early to mid-eighties

The “ultimate” models sell for 3 to 5 times more than models that used to occupy the same place in the brand’s line-up, one generation before. Clearly for autofocus cameras, the most recent is also the most sought after, and the most expensive. A few reasons:

  • They have the highest usage value
    • Better performance – cameras of the ultimate generation are better machines – they focus faster and more accurately, the exposure is on the spot in more situations, under natural light and with a flash
    • Better compatibility with the current line of products of the brand (for example the Maxxum 7 accepts current Sony A lenses with ultrasonic motorization (Sony SSM lenses), and  the Nikon F100 can work with lenses deprived of an aperture ring (Nikon AF-S lenses). Older models can’t.
    • There is an expectation that the cameras will be more reliable (they’re more recent,  probably have been through fewer cycles, and their electronics components are most certainly better designed than they were in cameras of the previous decade).
  • Highest potential in collection
    • For bragging rights: “the most advanced film camera – ever”
    • For nostalgia: “the last film camera made by … Minolta”
    • Rarity: cameras launched in 1999 or in 2000 had a very narrow window of opportunity on the market – Nikon D1 launched mid 1999, the Fujifilm S1 Pro and the Canon D30 in the first months of year 2000 – and from there on the writing was on the wall. When the Maxxum 7 or the EOS-1V were launched in 2000, most enthusiast and pro photographers were already saving money for a future (and inevitable) Maxxum 7d or Canon EOS-1d. The last high end film cameras must not have sold in huge quantities.

How are the “ultimate” film cameras doing compared to the first digital models? 

The ultimate film cameras are more expensive than corresponding digital cameras sold in the first years of the 21  century – remember, those were dSLRs with 6 MPixel APS-C sensors at best, with mediocre low light capabilities and a narrow dynamic range. They  have a relatively limited usage value today (a smartphone does much better in many situations).

canon_d30
Canon EOS d-30 from Year 2000 – a dSLR with a 3.25 million pixel CMOS sensor. Working copies can be found for $40 on eBay. (source: “Canon Museum”)

Are buyers of manual focus cameras also looking for the “ultimate”?
No. Not really.

Canon

  • T90                           $60 to $250             launched 1986
  • A-1                            $60 to $250             launched 1978
  • EF                             $90 to $140             launched 1973
Canon-T90-6226
Canon T90 from 1986 – far superior technically to the Canon A-1 from 1978 – but sells for the same price on the second hand market.

Nikon

  • FA                              $50 to $350            launched 1983
  • FE2                            $70 to $400            launched 1983
  • F3                              $120 to $1,000       launched in 1980
  • Nikon EL2                $60 to $275            launched 1977
Nikon FA with handgrip
The “ultimate” multi-automatic manual focus SLR from Nikon – it does not sell for more than a simpler aperture priority FE2

To my taste (and for many lovers of film cameras), manual focus film SLRs reached their peak sometime between 1977 and 1983 – before the massive introduction of electronics, motors and poly-carbonate led to the monstrosities such as the Canon T50. What contributes to the value of manual focus SLRs today?

  • Usage value
    • Models produced around the turn of the eighties still have a real usage value.
    • Buyers of manual focus cameras tend to value simplicity and direct control of exposure parameters over complexity and automatism – semi auto exposure cameras often sell for more than auto-exposure cameras.
    • They also value the beauty of machines built out of brass and steel, using cogs and springs rather than integrated circuits and solenoids.
    • The reliability of the electronics integrated in the final manual focus cameras is a concern – the electronic components did not always age well, and engineers made bad decisions (like soldering capacitors or batteries on printed circuits or using magnets instead of springs to control the shutter or the aperture).
    • Therefore, the very last manual focus cameras are often not as well regarded as the generation just before. In spite of being massively superior technically and much more pleasant to use, the T90 is not valued more than its predecessor the A-1 because of concerns over its excessive complexity and questionable reliability. Similarly, Nikon’s FA does not extract any premium over the simpler FM2 and FE2, because its embryo of matrix metering is perplexing. And I won’t mention the Canon T50 or the Pentax a3000, which can not stand the comparison with the AE-1 or the ME Super, if only for esthetical reasons.
canon_A-1
Canon A-1 (1978) – Source:  “Canon Museum” –
  • Potential in collection
    • Manual focus cameras from the big camera brands were often produced by the millions (Canon AE-1, for instance). Other models sold in smaller numbers but over a very long production run (Olympus OM-4t, Nikon F3, for example). The usual law of supply and demand applies, but generally speaking, rarity is not a significant factor in the value of most of those cameras.
    • Only special edition models in pristine condition can be expected to be worth more than a few hundreds dollars – for the foreseeable future.

 


cherokee--24
Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Should we start collecting digital cameras?

Collecting is different from hoarding junk.

I’m sure we all have a few compact digital cameras stored in a drawer somewhere, that we don’t use anymore because, let’s be honest, any decent smartphone will do a much better job at taking, editing and publishing pictures than a dedicated compact digital camera sold 10 years ago. It does not make us digital camera collectors. We’re simply consolidating our inventory of obsolete electronics before a future trip to the recycling center.

Samsung Digimax 35 (0.3 MP, 2001), Nikon Coolpix L14 (7 MP, 2007) , Sony DSC-T20(8 MP, 2007), Canon Powershot S400 (2003, 4 MP)  and the Palm Treo 600 (0.3 MP, 2004) in the fore plan. Are my old digital cameras collector items, or just drawer-ware?

Collecting implies an intent.

A collection tells a story. The collector assembles objects which are significant for him or her, because of their esthetic or sentimental value, or to satisfy some form of intellectual curiosity. He or she may hope that, over time, objects in his or her collection will gain value, but financial gain is not the primary motive (if it was, he or she would not be a collector, but simply a speculator, a scalper).

We have the benefit of hindsight, and it’s easy to see what makes a particular model of film camera a better collectible than another one. I will group the criteria in three categories:

  • what the camera was in its early days: its technical significance, its build quality, its beauty, its performance, its cost, its rarity,
  • what it can do for you now: its usability (are film, batteries and lenses still available for that type of camera), its reliability over the long run, its ability to help you get great pictures, and the satisfaction you derive from using it,
  • the legend around it: is the brand prestigious, was this model of camera used to shoot a  famous picture, or used by a whole generation of war correspondents or reporters, did this particular item belong to a star or a famous criminal?

Obviously, by all three groups of criteria, a Leica M3 will be a better collectible than a mass produced, entry level, plastic bodied and unreliable APS camera from the late nineties.

Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20 (Photo: Valerie M.) A good digicam could take good pictures. A modern smartphone could probably do as well today.

What if we apply the same list of criteria to digital cameras?

  • what it can do for you now: that’s the biggest issue: older digital cameras are not as good as modern ones. A film camera has the benefit of being different from a modern digital camera with which it can not be directly compared (it’s a different user experience, a different workflow, and the output is somehow different), but an old digital camera can directly be compared to a modern one, and it’s not to its advantage: the resolution and the ability to shoot in low light are massively inferior, and the dynamics of the sensor is much narrower. And to add insult to injury, old digital cameras are also outperformed by smartphones in many casual shooting situations.
    Older digital cameras may not be as durable as film cameras – they’re full of electronics, and are generally powered by proprietary batteries that may not age well, and will require specific chargers, specific cables that, if lost, will rapidly become difficult to replace.
    Some of the most technically original (and therefore interesting) digital cameras like the Sigma cameras using Foveon sensors or the old Fujifilm S3 or S5 cameras using SuperCCD sensors require specific software to process or get the best of their raw files – but the software may not work with current or future versions of Windows and Mac OS.
  • what the camera was in its early days: it has to be put in perspective with what it can do now. Does it really matter that a Panasonic compact camera was considered the best compact camera for enthusiasts in the fall of 2005, when it’s in any case outperformed by an iPhone 7 Plus?
    By that measure, only a few cameras that made history technically are worth of attention : you can argue that the Nikon D3 changed the way we take pictures in low light and made flash  photography obsolete – and as a consequence deserves be part of a collection focused on important digital cameras. Similarly, cameras of an unusual design like the Nikon Coolpix 995 or equipped with a unique sensor that helps create different pictures (like the Sigma Foveon cameras) could become interesting curiosities.
  • the legend around it: I don’t think any digital camera has reached the legendary status yet.  Some cameras may be of special interest to collectors of equipment from a legendary brand – the first digital M camera from Leica, or the last digital camera made by Contax. But so far, I can’t see any digital camera that defines its generation, the way the Leica M3, the Nikon F or the Olympus OM-1 did in their heyday.

What digital camera would I collect?

Pinup and Naomi playing – The oldest jpeg file on my computer’s hard drive – taken in 2002 with a Samsung Digicam 35 camera. 640 x 480 pixels (0.3 Mpx). Does it  qualify as a collector, or as junk?

What is  important to me is not necessarily what’s important to you. To me, a camera has to be usable for casual photography, at home with my dogs, on a stroll in my neighborhood or while traveling. That’s why, when I shoot with film, I prefer cameras from the late seventies-early eighties to their ancestors of the fifties or sixties, too complex and too slow to operate for my taste.

In the world of digital cameras, I would not buy anything not capable of providing a good 8 x11 print, which places the bar at 6 Megapixels. I would also want the digital camera to be better at doing its job than a smartphone (if it was not, I would never use it and it would collect dust on a shelf):  it would need a viewfinder (optical or electronic), and would have access to focal lengths ranging from  24mm to 135mm. I’m not necessarily willing to invest in a whole new system: if the camera accepted interchangeable lenses, I would prefer some compatibility with the lenses I already own (through an adapter, possibly).

Lastly, I’d like the camera to represent a significant step in the evolution of digital cameras, and to have a few unique characteristics that would differentiate it from the mass of the me-too products of its generation.

What camera would qualify? A few Nikon pro cameras from the mid 2000s (D1x, D3) because they pushed the boundaries of image quality and  low light capabilities and made the film SLRs and flash photography obsolete, their cousins from Fujifilm (a S5 Pro, maybe) for their original SuperCCD sensor and the unique images it captures, or the Epson R-D1, the first digital rangefinder camera, or one of the most original bridge cameras from Sony, the F828.

Your choice would be different. Up to you.


More about using old digital cameras today: Ashley Pomeroy’s blog – http://women-and-dreams.blogspot.com with interesting reviews of  the Fujifilm S series (Fujifilm S1 Pro, Fujifilm S3 Pro, Fujifilm S5 Pro) and its competitors from Nikon (Nikon D1, Nikon D1x).


Venice – Dec 2011 – Sony DSC-T20- (Photo Valerie M.)

Stopped down or full aperture metering – why it still matters for users of mirrorless cameras today

For a single lens reflex camera or a lens manufactured after 1975, full aperture vs stopped down metering is a non issue. But it was a key differentiator between 1965 and 1975. And if you’re considering mounting an old lens (manufactured before 1975) on a mirrorless camera, it may still impact you.

On a single lens reflex camera (SLR), the photographer composes the picture on a mat focusing screen, where the image formed in the lens is projected. This layout has all sorts of advantages, but the viewfinder tends to get too dark for focusing when the lens aperture exceeds F/8, and at smaller apertures (F/11, F/16), even composition becomes impossible.

Therefore, the best practice in the 50’s was to open the lens at the widest aperture, focus carefully, and then rotate the aperture ring to stop down the lens at the aperture needed to expose the picture optimally. It worked, but it was slow.  The process was easy to automate, and that’s what aperture pre-selection systems do.

Aperture pre-selection mechanism

Their goal : let the photographer compose and focus at full aperture, and then stop down at the last fraction of a second, when he/she presses the shutter release. Practically, the diaphragm stays wide open, until the shutter release mechanism  (through various cogs, springs and levers) activates a rod in the lens which closes the diaphragm to the aperture pre-selected by the user.

Two implementations

  • manual pre-selection : the lens stays stopped down after the picture has been taken. The pre-selection mechanism has to be re-armed by the photographer if he/she wants to return to full aperture; it’s a slow process (shoot, rearm the shutter, rearm the lens).

    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot
    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot
  • auto pre-selection: the pre-selection mechanism does not need to be re-armed after each shot. The lens returns automatically to full aperture after each shot (that’s why lenses from the 1960-1975 period are often labeled “Auto”). It’s transparent for the user, who can operate faster and with a better chance of catching the decisive moment.

    M42 Lens mount - this lens is designed for "auto" preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to stop down position.
    M42 Lens mount – this lens is designed for “auto” preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to force the lens to a stop down position.

Through the Lens (TTL) metering

Aperture preselection solved the problem of composing and focusing at slow apertures, but the introduction of CdS cell meters to evaluate the illumination of a scene Through The Lens (TTL) brought a new set of challenges: the camera needed to know how open the diaphragm was going to be when the picture is finally taken. There were two ways to do it:

  • after the photographer had set the aperture, he had to press a dedicated lever to stop down the lens, and only then would the camera evaluate the illumination of the scene. It’s stopped down metering.
    Technically, it’s the quick and dirty answer:  the metering system of the camera does not need to know the value of the aperture pre-selected on the lens. It just measures the light going through the lens when stopped down. The pre-selection lenses don’t need to be modified – they simply work. But it’s cumbersome for the user:

    • it’s a step back – aperture preselection had removed the need for the photographer to stop down the aperture before pressing the shutter release. Now it needs to be done again.
    • the viewfinder is darker during metering (the photographer loses contact with the action, he can’t adjust the focus, and it’s difficult to see needle of the meter) – you cannot compose or focus and adjust the exposure at the same time.
    • it’s a disaster from an ergonomics point of view. Even in the best implementations, the photographer has to maintain the lens stopped down by pressing or lifting a dedicated lever on the camera’s body, while trying to turn the aperture ring or the shutter speed knob to adjust the exposure. You need three hands for this type of gymnastics.

      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) - which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.
      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) – which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.
  • full aperture metering is transparent for the user. The diaphragm is stopped down a fraction of a second before the shutter curtains open and the picture is actually taken. The lens stays at full aperture all the time, including during the exposure determination.
    But for full aperture metering to be possible, the lens has to communicate the aperture pre-selected by the user to the metering system in the camera body, so that it can determine the right shutter speed/aperture combination.
    Most vendors chose to add a new dedicated lever inside the lens mount (this solution was chosen by Canon, Minolta, Olympus and Pentax).

    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i); Aperture simulator (ii): Source:pentaxforums.com
    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i);
    Aperture simulator (ii):
    Source:pentaxforums.com

    A few other vendors chose to simply modify the design of the aperture ring of the lens, and use it to transmit the aperture value to the camera’s metering system. At the beginning, Nikon used an external fork (the “rabbit ears”) screwed at the periphery of the aperture ring to communicate the pre-selected aperture to a pin connected to the metering system in the body.

    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork ("the rabbit ears") to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.
    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork (“the rabbit ears”) to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.

    Later, Nikon redesigned the aperture ring to add  a small protruding tab at its back, and this tab moved a sensor on the circumference of the body’s lens mount (Nikon Auto Indexing or “AI” lenses). Nikon’s system is similar (in its principle) to Fuji’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 universal mount of the ST801 (pictures below).

Fujinon lens - the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera's body.
Fujinon lens – the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera’s body.
Fujica ST 801: Fuji's version of the m42 lens mount has a ring at the periphery - the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. That's how the preselected aperture is transmitted.
Fujica ST 801: Fuji’s version of the m42 lens mount has a recessed, spring loaded rotating ring at the periphery – the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. Any change to the pre-selected aperture on the lens will be transmitted to the camera.

Mounting an old lens on a mirrorless camera

When the photographer is using an old lens through a lens mount adapter, the cameras  needs to work with the lens stopped down (only semi-auto and  aperture priority automatic exposure modes are supported). There are none of the inconveniences associated with stopped down aperture on a reflex camera: on a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder always shows the image as it will be exposed, and if the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are correctly set, the image will be perfectly legible in the viewfinder, even if the lens is set a f/11.

But the challenge is to force an old lens to operate stopped down:

  • lenses designed for full aperture operations and stopped down metering (typically the m42 lenses with auto-pre-selection and the Canon FL) have a slider to switch off auto-preselection and operate permanently at stopped down aperture, in a manual mode. When mounted on a mirrorless camera through a lens mount adapter, they need to be switched to “manual”.
     Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch - by default the operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.
    Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch – by default they operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.

    The "manual" mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.
    The “manual” mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.
  • Nikon lenses  – the diaphragm of the Nikon lenses is opened at full aperture when the camera is mounted on a Nikon camera (the camera side of the mount has a lever which forces the lens open), but is stopped down when the lens is removed from the camera, or  mounted on an adapter deprived of the full aperture lever.  Which is perfect if you’re mounting the lens on a mirrorless camera.
  • Canon FD – when the lens is removed from a Canon camera, the diaphragm command is decoupled (the lens stays at whatever aperture it was pre-set the last time it was on a Canon FD camera). The adapter needs to be designed with a pin that will force the lens to stop down  when mounted on the adaptor.
Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens - the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.
Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens – the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.
  • Fuji’s EBC-Fujinon lenses are highly regarded, but the brand’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 mount presents two problems for modern mirrorless camera users:
    • most of the lens mount adapters receiving m42 lenses do not leave room for the aperture ring’s protruding tab of Fuji’s lenses. The lenses cannot be fully screwed down on the adapter and as a consequence may not focus to the infinite,
    • Fuji’s lenses don’t have a “manual” position and cannot be forced to operate stopped down on their own (that function was provided by the Fujica camera itself, not by the lens). There are work arounds to both issues, some nice, some ugly, but a lens mount adapter designed specifically for Fujica m42 lenses still has to be developed.

New-York City - Central Park - Fuji XT-1 - Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter
New-York City – Central Park – Fuji XT-1 – Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter

How much did SLR cameras cost in 1985?

1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially  successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.

Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.

Price of Cameras - 1985
Price of Cameras – 1985

A few interesting points….

Minolta Maxxum 7000 - source Wikipedia
Minolta Maxxum 7000 – source Wikipedia
  • the models most popular with enthusiasts  (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
  • Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
  • Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders  (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).

The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.

In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of  low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their  manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus  commissioned companies  like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).

On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.


Charleston, SC - Shot in 2009 - Nikon FM - Kodak CN400
Charleston, SC – Shot in 2009 – Nikon FM – Kodak CN400

Underwater adventures – digital cameras make more sense


I recently had the pleasure to spend one week snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean. True to my calling, I had decided to bring a film camera, and purchased a Nikonos V on eBay a few weeks before the departure.


The Nikonos V


Nikonos V
The Nikonos V (source: eBay)


The Nikonos V, launched in 1984 and sold until 2001, is an underwater viewfinder camera with interchangeable lenses. It can operate at depths of 50m (150ft), beyond what is considered the limit for recreational scuba diving. Some lenses were specifically designed for underwater use, but the “standard” lens (a 35mm W-Nikkor) could also be used above the water, for white water sports or for photography in all sorts of very humid environments. A special “camouflage” version was even manufactured by Nikon for war correspondents following conflicts in some remote jungle.


Technically, the Nikonos V – which is a viewfinder camera – is more or less aligned on the Nikon SLR bodies of the mid eighties: Through The Lens (TTL) exposure, aperture priority automatic shutter, and – importantly for an underwater camera – Through the Lens flash metering. I uses the same W and U/W Nikkor lenses as the previous Nikonos bodies, and provides no focusing assistance to the photographer, who has to guess the distance between the camera and the subject, and set the lens accordingly.


I could not test the Nikonos V in its element. The one I bought on eBay happened to have a defective metering system, and the seller did not know enough about the camera to understand it did not work as it should have. I returned it and go my money back, but I was back to square one, with no camera for my vacation.


Lesson #1: if you really want to buy a Nikonos V, buy it from a store specialized in underwater equipment. You will pay more (a good Nikonos V costs between $250.00 and $350.00) but the seller will be able to certify that the camera really works, and has not suffered from an unplanned bath of salt water in the past.


The Nikon Action Touch


Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)
Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)


When I bought the Nikonos V, I decided I needed a backup camera. I found (on eBay again) an old Nikon Action Touch, an autofocus Point and Shoot from the eighties, designed for use in depths of 10 ft (3 meter) or less. I had read good reviews of the camera, and since I could have it for less than $8.00, the risk was minimal. I tried it in a swimming pool. It seemed to work. On the first dive in the ocean, it died. Salty water had found its way in the film chamber, making the camera unusable.


Lesson #2: old waterproof cameras do not necessarily stay waterproof over time, and a dip in a swimming pool can not be compared to a dive in the ocean.


Lesson #3 is to take the claims of the manufacturers regarding the water resistance of their products with a grain of salt (no pun intended). Cameras manufacturers now use the IP code (International Protection Rating) to define the water resistance of their products in different circumstances (sprays, water jets, immersion, for instance), but the performance of older cameras was more loosely defined, and important safety margins have to be taken.


The Canon Powershot D10


Canon D10 (source: Canon)
Canon D10 (source: Canon)


With two old film cameras out of commission, I had to admit that underwater cameras do not age well, and that buying a new digital Point and Shoot camera was the safest solution if I wanted to bring back at least one picture from my trip. The Canon Powershot D10 was the winner of a dpreview test last summer. It is rated “IP8X” equivalent at 10m (33 ft), making it appropriate for beach activities and for snorkeling. The Canon D10 is a typical middle of the range digicam – with a 12 Mega Pixel sensor, a 35-105 equivalent zoom, and 18 different “special shooting modes”, including “underwater” and “beach”. Selecting a special shooting mode is the only thing the photographer can do: the camera will take care of the rest. It does a good job at it – most of the time – but the inability for the photographer to really control the exposure parameters can be frustrating in complex lighting situations (sunsets, for instance).


Rated for depths up to 10 meters, the Canon D10 can not be used for scuba diving, but can be brought along when snorkeling. Its “underwater” special shooting mode is very good at finding the right color balance, but the shutter lag is typical of a point and shoot camera (far to high), the autofocus reacts too slowly – or not at all, and pictures of mobile subjects are very difficult to take. The LCD monitor has to be “on” all the time, which drains the battery rapidly. That being said, a good diver should be able to bring back decent pictures of relatively static subjects located in shallow waters.


Lesson #4: even dpreview comparative test winners can not overcome the limitations of their middle of the range point and shoot origins. Waterproof digicams are small and light, and will be faithful companions of white water or snorkeling adventures. But they offer little control over the pictures and are limited to a few feet of depth, which explains why dedicated diver-photographers use high-end digicams or SLRs, that they protect with massive (and often massively expensive) underwater housings.


What good diver-photographers do


While on vacation, I had the pleasure to meet Dr Alain Feulvarc’h – he’s an MD, a passionate diver and amateur photographer who was volunteering as the scuba-doctor of our little group.


He was not on the boat to teach underwater photography, but he shared a few tidbits of information: like most of the diver-photographers, he’s using a digital SLR enclosed in a metal underwater housing, and equipped with a very wide angle (10mm) lens. He also uses a 100 mm macro for close ups. Most pictures are taken with a flash (one strobe at least), and at close distance from the subject. He does not rely on the automation capabilities of the camera, and operates in manual mode. Underwater photography is a fairly complex activity, and using digital technologies improves the learning curve dramatically. I was surprised to see that even underwater, some photographers took the time to check the histograms of their images, and to adjust their settings accordingly; this trial and error process would be impossible with film.


You can watch Dr Alain’s stunning pictures on Flickr.


Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon D10
Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon Powershot D10 - The star fish was lying on the sand, at a depth of 2m. (6 ft) approximately. It was well lit and static, and the camera had no difficulty capturing its image.



More about underwater photography


The excellent Photo.net published an interesting Underwater Photography Primer more than 10 years ago. At that time film photography still reigned supreme, but most of the principles exposed in the article still hold true.


The pictures of Alain Feulvarch are on Flickr (aka Alain76 on Flickr)


The characteristics of the Canon Powershot D10 are on Canon’s official site.


The Nikonos family on Photography in Malaysia‘s web pages


And for geekiest of us all, the detailed description of the IP ratings


Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ?


The facts


Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).


For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.


Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450


* No OM-3 or OM3 TI in excellent condition available – prices derived from eBay completed listings.


Nikon FM - Mechanical Shutter - It does not need batteries to operate. 1/1000s. Synchro Flash up to 1/125s

The reasons why


Buyers of film cameras belong to two non-mutually exclusive categories: collectors looking for rare, technically or historically significant cameras, and photographers looking for an alternative to modern all automatic digital cameras. Each category has different reasons for preferring cameras with mechanical shutters, which also happen to be manual exposure cameras.

  • Collectors


    One can only speculate when trying to understand what makes a camera valuable on the collectors’ market. Rarity and the perceived technical value of the camera are probably the two main factors driving the price of film SLRs on the second hand market. In the decade which saw the end of manual focus cameras (from 1980 to 1990), automatic exposure cameras sold in greater number than their manual exposure equivalent. Manual exposure cameras were already considered a specialty item, when automatic exposure SLRs were more mainstream, even for professional activities (Nikon F3, Canon T90). Even Leica users, who are among the most respectful of traditions, bought more automatic R7 than manual R6.2 in the nineties (29,500 vs 22,500 units produced).


    The case for the technical value is more difficult to make. Electronic cameras offering multiple auto-exposure modes were very elaborate, and could be considered more valuable technically than simpler manual exposure SLRs, but this technical sophistication is now seen as an unnecessary source of complexity and unreliability.


    The same way mechanical watches appeal to the collector who will ignore electronic time pieces, SLRs built around a mechanical shutter are generally more sought after than their electronic siblings. And when the manufacturer originally positioned the manual exposure camera as a high price/low volume item, the collectors go crazy about it. The Olympus OM-3TI sold for more than $1,500 when new, and only 4,000 were produced. No wonder that it’s extremely difficult to find now, and that it can reach prices in excess of $3,000.


  • Nikon FE2 - Electronically controlled shutter - it needs 2 silver oxide or one lithium battery to operate. 1/4000s - synchro flash up to 1/250s - backup mechanical shutter speed: 1/250s

  • Users


    I don’t know what is the proportion of buyers of film cameras who actually use them. I hope a lot of them do. Photographers may use film cameras as a way to learn the basics of photography, as a backup – in case the battery or the electronics of their dSLR goes on strike, or because they like the direct control over the aperture, shutter speed and focus provided by cameras built before the advent of all-electronic-all automatic SLRs.


    To my taste, aperture priority automatic exposure cameras are faster and easier to use their manual exposure equivalents – I miss a smaller proportion of potential interesting shots in auto exposure mode – and provided they benefit from some form of exposure memorization, automatic cameras will yield a higher proportion of good pictures than what I would get with manual cameras.


    But I recognize I may be an exception. Photographers generally have two issues with auto exposure cameras: their dependency on batteries, and their supposed absence of reliability of their electronic circuits as they age.


    When the battery of an auto exposure camera is dead, the camera will – in the best of the cases – limp on a single back-up mechanical shutter speed (1/60sec or 1/125s for most of the cameras, 1/250s for the Nikon FE2 or FA). The silver oxide batteries used in the eighties did not like cold temperatures, and auto exposure cameras were not ideal when attempting to shoot winter sports. But batteries are small, light and inexpensive, and keeping a set of fresh batteries in the camera bag is not too big of a constraint. Most cameras from the eighties can now use CR1/3n Lithium batteries, which have a very long (10 years) shelf life and are much more resistant to the cold than the silver oxide batteries commonly sold 30 years ago.


    Manual exposure cameras have a mechanical shutter which wears with time, but is supposed to be easier to service or repair than the electronic controlled shutter of automatic cameras. Electronic components do not always age well, and can not be serviced or repaired; if they fail, they have to be replaced, and since they are not available from the manufacturers anymore, a circuit failure makes the camera as useful as a paperweight. Unless the photographer has an alternate source of spare parts, of course. If you really like a particular model of automatic camera, the best solution is probably to buy an extra one (or two) for parts, just in case.


  • The reason for the exceptions


    Hybrid Shutter of the Nikon FM3a
    The Hybrid Shutter of the FM3a - It can operate as a mechanical or as an electronic controlled shutter - Source: Nikon's official web site


    There is no rule without a small list of exceptions. Two exceptions have to be mentioned.

  • The manual Olympus OM-1 is less expensive than its automatic siblings, the OM-2 and OM2-s. It’s a camera of the early seventies, which was produced in the millions during a fourteen years production run, and needs batteries of a type outlawed in the US since the eighties. There are substitutes, but they come with limitations (see the article about batteries in Photoetnography.com). The OM-2 and OM-2s work with easy to find alcaline or silver oxide batteries.

  • The Nikon FM3a. Built as a limited series camera by Nikon from 2001 to 2006, the FM3A combines in the same body the mechanical components and the electronic circuits needed to operate as a manual, mechanical shutter camera, and as an automatic, electronic shutter SLR. The best of both worlds. Its unique characteristics combined with relatively low production numbers (for a Nikon SLR) explain its high value on the second hand market: at least $500 for a nice one, much more for like-new items in their original box.



    More


    A good source for second hand cameras: KEH


    Everything you need to know about camera batteries: photoethnography.com


    Casa Batlo (lamp) - Barcelona - Jan 2009 - Nikon FM

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


    A product for a niche within a niche, obviously.


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


    Cameraquest: the distributor of Voigtlander SLII lenses