Thom Hogan has been on the Web forever, it seems. He’s a pro photographer, has a background in marketing and product planning, and he also teaches, I believe. He’s been publishing very detailed user guides for Nikon cameras for ages, and his collection of Web sites (www.bythom.com; www.dslrbodies.com, www.sansmirror.com) is always an interesting read, not only for users of Nikon equipment, but also for anybody who wants to understand the market forces shaping the photo equipment industry.
He has much more experience of Nikon cameras than I do, and my tastes have been – at least in part – formed by what I read in his books and Web pages over the years. So I won’t say “I’m right, he’s wrong”. Let’s be honest: if there’s such a thing as being right in photography, the odds that he is are much higher than mine. But sometimes I simply beg to differ.
Thom’s list includes some cameras that grace my personal collection, even if they’re not my preferred in Nikon’s range. The F90/N90 is extremely efficient, but a bit too automatic for me, and the F4 is really too heavy to be used anywhere but in a studio. I never used the F100 or a F5 (too modern for me – I tend to like my film cameras with a conventional user interface – you know, knobs instead of LCDs and control wheels).
A single control wheel, and the aperture value controlled by the aperture ring on the lens itself: the two major differences between the N90 and a modern Nikon body.
Nikon F4 with the MB-20 grip. The MB-20 grip is smaller than the MB-21, and was standard equipment in most of the world. In the US, the MD-21 was standard.
Which leaves us with the last entry of his list, the FM3A.
The FM3A is an evolution of the FM2/FE2 cameras, with a dual shutter control mechanism (electronic and mechanic) – which offers the best of what the FM2 (mechanical) and the FE2 (electronic with On the Film TTL flash control) can offer. I don’t own a FM3A, but two of its direct ancestors are at the top of my list: I use my old FM relatively often – because it’s a rugged camera and I know it’s going to work no matter what. The FE2 is a peach (it oozes quality, and it’s so pleasant to use) – one of the very best film cameras ever.
You can collect “classic” cameras for their beauty and for their importance in the history of the industry or a brand, but to me, a camera I can’t use to take pictures doesn’t qualify as a classic – it’s at best a “curiosity”.
In my opinion, early digital cameras are not really usable anymore, primarily because of their very limited dynamic range and very low resolution. If I brought one to cover a photo opportunity, I would most probably end the day disappointed and frustrated for having missed what could have been a great shot because of the technical limitations of the camera. Or I would have put it back in the bag, and used an iPhone instead. That’s why there is no early digital camera in my collection.
I recognize the importance of cameras like the D1h or the D100 in the evolution towards modern digital photography, but I will not add them to my collection. On the other hand, I believe that cameras like the D3 and D3X are still perfectly usable, but because they’re so big and heavy, I would ignore them, and buy their little brother, the D700 instead. Admittedly it’s still a big and heavy camera, but its performance is still exceptional, and with it I can use all the Nikon (and Nikon-compatible) lenses I own.
Because I’ve been using Nikon cameras for so long, I find the D700 very intuitive and rewarding to use, and even today, the quality of the pictures that the 12 Mpixel sensor produces is incredible (in particular in low light or high contrast situations).
It may be too early to add a D850 to a collection of classics, but it will most probably be the last enthusiast / pro DSLR from Nikon – the future is clearly mirrorless. They may launch a D6 for the Olympic Games next year (who knows) but I doubt they will keep on developing the D800 series beyond the D850.
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. They inaugurated a new type of laser etched focusing screen, and a new camera naming scheme based on numbers. Because they had the two lowest numbers in the hierarchy, they were often mistaken for low performance entry-level models.
It’s obviously a wrong perception: just consider the price of the N2020 – a few years after being launched, it was still more expensive than Minolta’s enthusiast oriented Maxxum 7000, in the same ballpark as the ground breaking Canon EOS 650, itself derived from the very high-end and very expensive Canon T90.
Like the Nikon F4 that would follow two years after (and contrarily to the Minolta and Canon auto-focus cameras), the N2020 retained conventional commands (shutter speed knob, aperture ring, ISO speed dial), and, as a true high-end Nikon, protected the photographers from unfortunate lapses of attention with all sorts of locks and flashing red LEDs.
Nikon’s transition to auto-focus
At the end of 1985, Nikon was apparently not certain that their (generally technically conservative) customers would enthusiastically embrace auto-focus, and they edged their bets. They first launched a manual focus version of their new body, the N2000 (*), and took their time to fine tune the auto-focus version, the N2020, finally presented in April 1986. They were not certain that the photographers would adjust to motorized film advance either, so they kept a conventional rewind crank. The N2000 and the N2020 could read DX coding, but still had a conventional film sensitivity selector. Just in case. This prudent approach extended to the design as well. Nikon did not go for a full poly-carbonate body with rounded edges, they kept an hybrid metal/plastic construction with a design language based on sharp angles. Do you start seeing a pattern here?
Yes, the auto-focus of the N2020 is primitive – with only 96 photosites (the following generation launched in 1988 with the N8080 and the F4 had a new sensor with 200 photo sites). Strangely enough, the auto-focus area at the center of the viewfinder does not feel as narrow as it does on the F4, but it’s far less sensitive in low light, making it almost unusable indoors.
By today’s standards, it’s more of a focus-assist system than a true auto-focus, but because there was a version of the same camera without auto-focus, the viewfinder retains the characteristics of manual focus cameras (92% coverage, 85% magnification, precise and relatively grainy focusing screen). It is still suited to manual focusing, even though the default focusing screen of the N2020 is deprived of a micro-prism ring. Other focusing screens (including the very sought after K type with a micro-prism ring surrounding a split image telemeter spot) may still be available – but as far as I know the model is specific to the N2020 and I could not find any on eBay.
The N2020 (in fact, mine is a “rest-of-the-world” F501) is the camera that I had brought with me – virtually untested – to a long trip to Israel, Jordan and France. The camera did not miss a beat, and fulfilled its mission brilliantly.
It does not exude from the N2020 the impression of quality that emanates from a Nikon FE2, a F3 or a F4, but it still feels less of an amateur photographer camera than the Nikon FG. Compared to the FG, it’s larger and heavier, and receives a faster shutter (1/2000sec) and an exposure memory lock button (more useful than the +2EV button of the FG). Like the current pro cameras from Nikon, it can be controlled via a wired remote. The back has a window showing the film cartridge, a film advance indicator, and a red LED warns the photographer if the DX sensitivity coding can not be read. Clearly not a body for the experts or the pros (roles that would be fulfilled in Nikon’s product range by the N8008/F801 and the high-end F4 respectively), but not a simplified or spec’d down entry level camera either.
If you don’t forget it’s a very early auto-focus camera, and don’t expect it to behave like a Nikon F6, it’s a pleasant camera to use. On the plus side:
the ergonomics – simple, easy to learn, no menus, no hidden functions, just conventional knobs and rings
the conventional Nikon average weighted metering – that is to say: accurate and predictable (at least as long as the cell is not blinded by the middle-eastern sun)
its relatively compact size
it works with any Nikon AI, AI-S, AF or AF-D lens without any limitation (the lens mount has all the sensors and pins of a true AI-S camera).
Exposure determination can be left to one of the three program modes, or controlled more directly by the photographer (aperture preferred auto-exposure and manual modes)
It runs on standard AAA or AA batteries (the AA battery tray was optional)
it’s reliable – it simply works, with no known mechanical or cosmetic issues.
Not everything is perfect: the viewfinder is informative, bright, but rather narrow, with a relatively short eye-point (the same as the FG or FM-FE), the winder is rather loud, and of course its auto-focus system dramatically lacks sensitivity in low light – it is almost unusable indoors if the scene is not lit like a studio. But it’s not too much of an issue today : even with its standard focusing screen, the N2020 is one of the few auto-focus SLRs that can still really be used with manual focus lenses – at least with wide angle lenses.
Today, early auto-focus cameras are dirt cheap, and this one is not different. Very nice copies can be had for $35.00 in specialized second-hand photo equipment stores, and will not fetch more than a few dollars on eBay or at Goodwill.
As a conclusion
Like the F4 in the “pro” market, the N2020 is at the same time Nikon’s last “enthusiast” body with a conventional user interface, and the first of a long line of auto-focus and motorized SLRs.
Its conventional user interface is well thought and makes for a pleasant experience, and its high-magnification viewfinder is better suited than the F4’s for manual focus operations. The N2020 is also reasonably light and compact (half the weight of the F4 with its MB-21 grip), but of course you can’t compare a camera designed for amateurs with a high-end professional rig.
It would not be reasonable to buy a N2020 and expect it to deliver the performance of a more modern auto-focus SLR. With its simple and narrow auto-focus sensor, its limited processing power and its weak focus motor, it can’t even compete with a F4, let alone a N90s or any auto-focus film SLR manufactured in the mid to late nineties. But if you see it as a manual focus camera with a focus-assist system, it becomes much more enjoyable.
The manual focus E Series lenses are a very good fit for the N2020. Designed originally for the EM, the lenses are built out of plastic with a simplified optical formula (to save on weight and contain cost), but some of the E lenses (the 50mm f/1.8 or the 35mm f/2.5 for instance) are probably as good optically as the metal-built Nikkor lenses of equivalent aperture. Nikon’s first consumer grade (sliding aperture) 35-70mm auto-focus zooms have a bad reputation, but the 28-70 AF f/3.5-4.5 that followed a few years later is very compact and sharp – a little known gem.
With a manual focus prime lens or a small auto-focus zoom (like the 28-70 F/3.5-4.5 mentioned above), the N2020 will form a cheap, reliable, compact and highly capable set, to be used to learn the basics of photography, or as a second body for the occasions when a more expensive camera can not be risked.
(*) In 1990, Nikon did it again- they replaced the F301-F501/N2000-N2020 series with two cameras – one with an improved auto-focus system (the F601/N6006), one with manual focus (F601m, N6000).
I don’t want this blog to turn into a Nikon fansite. But Nikon related pages are now the most read: the Nikon D700 and FE2 entries have been the two most visited pages lately, leapfrogging the pages related to the Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6 zoom, which had been the readers’ favorite for years. And I can’t hide that Nikon film cameras are those I prefer, and that I’ve put my money where my mouth was.
Interesting things are happening at Nikon’s. On August 23rd, they will unveil a new full frame mirrorless digital system, launch a new lens mount and at least one lens.
The new lens mount will be typical of modern mirrorless cameras (short flange distance, and, I assume, no mechanical interface at all – autofocus and aperture control being all electric ), but its diameter will be unusually large – much larger in any case that the Sony E lens mount.
Over its 59 years of commercial life (so far), the Nikon F mount has gone through many revisions to support successively aperture indexing, automatic aperture indexing, matrix metering, auto-focus, silent wave auto-focus motors, and more recently, electronic diaphragm control.
Because Nikon has made a core business principle to guarantee at least a modicum of compatibility between its older lenses and its newer generation of bodies (particularly for high-end cameras sold to professionals), the new full frame mirrorless body will accept Nikon F lenses, via an adapter. But Nikon has not shared any detail about this adapter yet.
The adapter could be made simple, with no electrical contact and no mechanical linkage to the lens. Generally speaking, mirrorless cameras are not dependent on the automatic aperture pre-selection capabilities of the lens, so it’s likely that any Nikon F lens old enough to have an aperture ring will not only physically mount on the adapter, but will somehow work when the camera is set to semi-automatic exposure and manual focus mode. But recent lenses deprived of an aperture ring (or with an electronic control of the aperture) would not work with such a simple adapter. Which would go against Nikon’s tradition of preserving compatibility in priority for recent and/or expensive pieces of equipment.
The adapter could be made very complex. Sony supports Minolta/Konica-Minolta/Sony A mount lenses on its E Mount mirrorless bodies thanks to two models of adapters. The most complex of the two, the LA-E4, has its own autofocus motor in order to provide support and adequate AF performance for screw-drive autofocus lenses (which still constitute the majority of the Series A lenses offered by Sony today). Sony’s adapter also has a Phase Detection AF module, probably because its A series lenses were not designed for the contrast detection auto-focus system of its NEX mirrorless bodies.Nikon’s original AF and AF-D lenses (the screw drive lenses without an auto focus motor) could be supported using a similar setup if Nikon really wanted to, but I doubt they’ll have any appetite for such a solution (one of the reasons being that professionals have been buying AF-S lenses with a built-in auto focus motor for almost 20 years now – and probably don’t use many screw-drive auto-focus lenses anymore).
Nikon’s now defunct One series (J1 to J5 viewfinder-less cameras and V1 to V3 SLR like models) could accept F mount lenses thanks to an adapter. With the FT1 adapter, auto-focus lenses with a built-in auto-focus motor (AF-S lenses, with or without an aperture ring) are fully supported (all auto-exposure modes, vibration reduction and auto-focus, of course).
Older auto-focus lenses (the AF and AF-D lenses) can be used in all the auto-exposure modes but don’t auto-focus. Lastly, AI and AI-S manual focus lenses will only be usable in Manual or Aperture Priority Auto Exposure modes.
Nikon FT1 adapter (Nikon F to Nikon One lens mount adapter) – the adapter is seen from the front (where the F lens will be mounted). Source: Adorama
My bet is that the new adapter will offer the same functions as the FT1. It will fully support any lens introduced in the market since the last years of the XXth century (AF-S, AF-S G, VR, AF-P), and with reduced capabilities, most of the older lenses.
Will there be a penalty in terms of auto-focus performance for users of AF-S lenses ?
That’s the real question.
First answers on Aug. 23rd…
Update: Aug 24th, 2018
So.. Nikon had a busy day yesterday: they launched a new Z series of bodies with 2 cameras, the Z6 and the Z7, 3 lenses of a new S series, and a F to Z adapter.
In the picture above, the Nikon F to Z adapter looks very similar to the FT1 adapter – no built-in auto-focus motor, no auto-indexing mechanism to support full aperture metering for AI or AI-S lenses, but “a mechanical actuator to operate the aperture on the lens you mount to it” (according to DPREVIEW)
As I expected last week, lenses released during the last 18 years (AF-S, AF-S G, VR, AF-P) are fully supported, and the VR lenses gain 5 axis image stabilization in the process.
Older lenses (AF, AF-D) will not auto-focus but will still access all the auto-exposure modes of the Z bodies. Older manual focus lenses will mount but will have more limited exposure control capabilities.
For more (and in particular an opinion about the auto-focus performance), you can check DPREVIEW’s very interesting first take on the F to Z adapter.
The city, located in the desert between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, was a very prosperous trade hub in the Antiquity, but lost of its importance in the Middle Ages to the point it was uninhabited and totally forgotten until its ruins were rediscovered by an archeologist in the early 1800s. The city had been built at the far end of a narrow canyon, and is famous because of its temples directly carved in the walls of rock forming the canyon. It was recently used as the lair of the bad guys in Indiana Jones’ “Last Crusade”.
Getting there is not exactly easy – a long flight to Amman or Eilat, followed by a long bus drive through the Wadi Rum desert (of Lawrence of Arabia fame), followed by a walk under an excruciating heat. And at the top of that, the access fees are exorbitant. But the place is absolutely unique, and the end of the approach in the narrow canyon is really magic.
Petra is one of those places that always look good in pictures – and I absolutely wanted to bring back images I would be pleased with. So why did I bring to Jordan a 40 year old camera I had never used before?
Normally, before an important trip, you’re supposed to test the camera in advance: you change the batteries, you expose a roll of film, you have it processed, and you look at the pictures it produced very carefully, before you finally declare the camera fit for service.
That’s the process I followed, with a Fujica AX-3 I had earmarked for this trip. But it did not pass the test. When I downloaded the scanned images, only a few days before I was due to the airport, 30% of the images were severely under-exposed and I could not see a pattern (it looked like random). I had just moved to a new home, my trusted cameras were still in a storage facility and too difficult to access, so I decided to trust Nikon, and brought with me a Nikon N2020 (aka F501) I had just bought for a miser a few days before, and only briefly examined.
To be honest, it was not that big of a risk. I had bought the Nikon from a second hand camera dealer of good reputation. I live in the 21st century and I have a good digital camera, and can use an iPhone as a backup. I decided that on this trip, on a given day, I would shoot digital for a few hours, then switch to the film camera. This way, even if the Nikon severely malfunctioned, I was not going to come back with no image at all.
At the top of that, Nikon cameras from that era are reliable. From all the cameras I have used over the years, Nikons are the only ones that have never let me down:
Fujica and Pentax cameras from the seventies have all sorts of mechanical problems (with the shutter, in particular). Cameras from the early eighties also suffer from relatively troublesome electronics (capacitors, stabilization circuits).
I owned Minolta Maxxum and Vectis cameras and Minolta AF lenses in the nineties, and they were not trouble free when they were in their prime (the only lens that ever broke in my photo equipment bag was a Minolta Vectis zoom). I have no recent experience with those cameras, but time generally makes reliability worse, not better.
The Olympus OM cameras I’ve used have been solid and reliable, but some models (the OM-2 Spot Program in particular) tend to go through their batteries with an alarming voracity, which could be an issue on a long trip.
Canon A series tend to develop a well documented shutter problem over time. I can’t use my Canon A-1 until I have it fixed.
My Canon T90 has been flawless (and a pleasure to use), but the model has a reputation for being a ticking bomb (from a reliability point of view) because of issues with the magnets used to control the aperture, and because of capacitors and batteries soldered to the camera’s integrated circuits.
On the other hand, even Nikon cameras I bought in bulk in antique shows or from thrift stores have been easy to bring back in service – generally the only thing missing was a good battery. They have a very reliable shutter and an accurate meter, and no light leak issue. Some Nikon cameras develop some annoying issues (the rubber grip on modern Nikon digital cameras, the LCD display in the viewfinder of the F4), but nothing that would prevent you from taking good pictures.
As a conclusion
I received the scans a few days ago. The exposure was a bit off (over-exposed by 1/2 stop in average – it’s likely that the camera had not been calibrated by Nikon for such a luminous landscape), but nothing that could not be adjusted in Adobe Lightroom in a couple of seconds. There’s still life in those old cameras.
The N2020 (F-501 outside of the US) was Nikon’s first mass market auto-focus SLR. It was an upgrade of the N2000 (F-301 “in the rest of the world”), Nikon’s first SLR with an integrated motor.
On this trip, I used it as a manual focus camera, with a very compact Series E 35mm f/2.5 lens. The ergonomics is still very conventional (dials and rings instead of menus and LCDs), it simply needs four AAA batteries that you can find anywhere in the world, and it’s a pleasure to use.
More about the Nikon F501/N2020 in a few weeks.
I initially wrote that the building shown in my photos and drawn by Herge in “Coke en Stock” was the “Monastery”. It was wrong. In fact, it’s known as the “Treasury”. And it was neither a monastery or a treasury, but the mausoleum of King Aretas IV, who ruled the region in the 1st century AD.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Digital – APS-C (DX)
Digital (full frame – FX)
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 confortable 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $1,500, Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000, Nikon 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.
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.
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.
A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.
Judging by the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.
Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.
Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?
The sweet spot?
I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.
And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.
Fujifilm S5 Pro (source: KEH)
Sony Cybershop F828 – Source KEH
But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?
Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:
– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.
– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser, I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.
A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, auto-focus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.
When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.
380,000 Shutter Actuations
Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).
Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5) reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).
In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way, this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.
The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car
In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.
To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe: the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the auto-focus mechanism of the top of the line D3 – in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.
Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.
What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of Nikon film cameras?
The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:
One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.
Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.
Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.
The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.
With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes: they don’t have the micro chip and the data bus of their auto-focus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.
Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support unmodifed pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).
Compatibility with other accessories
In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of “prosumer” and professional equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80 (which is a more consumer oriented camera).
Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.
On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.
The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.
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.
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.)
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
F100: $200 to $400 launched 1999
F6 (second hand): $600 to $1,300 launched 2004
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
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).
Are buyers of manual focus cameras also looking for the “ultimate”?
No. Not really.
T90 $60 to $250 launched 1986
A-1 $60 to $250 launched 1978
EF $90 to $140 launched 1973
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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”.
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.
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.