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.
A few interesting points….
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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)
Auto exposure Camera
R6.2: $ 999
R7: $ 550
FM: $ 190
FE: $ 170
FM2: $ 245
FE2: $ 199
OM-1: $ 150
OM-2: $ 190
OM-3: much more than $500 *
OM-4: $ 235
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
A large proportion of photographers wears prescription glasses – I know, I’m one of them – and almost everybody wears sun glasses occasionally. But surprisingly, until high eye point or high eye relief viewfinders appeared – on the Nikon F3 HP in the early eighties, photographers with glasses could not see the integrality of the scene – let alone the aperture or speed information on the LED displays surrounding the view of the scene- without having to move their eye balls up and down and left to right.
As far as viewfinders are concerned, some cameras are better than others, though. The quality of the viewfinder of a manual focus camera is influenced by three factors:
Coverage: It’s the percentage of the image captured through the lens which is going to be shown in the viewfinder. 100% coverage is desirable – but expensive to manufacture, and only top of the line cameras (the real “pro” models) show the integrality of the scene in the viewfinder. Most SLRs show between 85% and 95% of the scene. Point and shoot cameras, (more precisely the few P&S which still have an optical viewfinder) are much worse. The best of them, the Canon G11 only shows 77% of the scene that will be captured through the eye piece.
Magnification: If the magnification was equal to 1, an object seen through the viewfinder would appear to be the same size as seen with the naked eye (with a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera). The photographer could even shoot with both eyes open. If the magnification ratio is lower than 1, then the object will appear smaller in the viewfinder than seen with the naked eye.Magnification has an impact on composition and focusing. If the magnification ratio is very low (below 0.4) the image becomes so small that it’s difficult to compose the picture. Magnification is also a critical factor for picture sharpness on manual focus cameras: the accuracy of the focusing is directly related to what the photographer can see on the matte focusing screen, and the higher the magnification, the easier it’s going to be for him or her to focus accurately.On a 35mm single lens reflex camera, the magnification is measured with a 50mm lens, and varies between 75 and 95%. Full frame digital SLRs have viewfinders offering comparable magnification values. dSLRs with so-called APS-C sensors advertise very high magnification ratios, but after the crop factor of the small sensor is taken into consideration, the real magnification value lies between 0.46 and 0.62. Read Neocamera‘s article for more information about the real viewfinder magnification ratio of dSLRs.
Eye relief: “The eye relief of a telescope, a microscope, or binoculars is the distance from the last surface of an eyepiece at which the eye can be placed to match the eyepiece exit pupil to the eye’s entrance pupil.” (Wikipedia, eye relief entry).The longer the eye relief, the more comfortable the camera is going to be for a photographer wearing glasses, but the smaller the focusing screen is going to look.A photographer wearing glasses will need an eye point of approximately 20mm (depending on the dimensions of the frames and the thickness of the lenses of the glasses) to be able to see entire the viewfinder image, plus the exposure information without having to move his eye balls left to right and up and down. Camera manufacturers describe them as “High eye Point” or HP viewfinders.
A comparison between a few 35mm cameras
As is often the case with engineering, a good design is the result of a successful compromise between conflicting requirements. Most photographers desire a long eye relief, but at the same time want a magnification ratio high enough, so that they can compose their image with precision and focus accurately. With the F3, Nikon offered 2 versions of its standard viewfinder. The DE-2 of the original F3 had an eye relief of approximately 20mm, and a magnification of 80%; the DE-3 viewfinder of the F3 HP had a much longer eye relief (25mm) but a smaller magnification ratio of 75%. The market decided in favor of the longer eye relief and the DE-3 became the standard viewfinder of all subsequent versions of the F3. The advent of autofocus SLRs accelerated the trend towards longer eye relief and lower magnification ratios.
The experience confirms the figures. The Nikon F3 has by far the best viewfinder, followed by the tiny Olympus OM-1. The Nikon FM-FE-FA are far behind.
Nikon launched the F3 with a standard viewfinder (model DE-2) which offered 100% coverage and already had a relatively long eye point. The standard F3 can comfortably be used by photographers wearing glasses. A few years later, Nikon introduced another version of its flagship camera, the F3 HP, which was the first to offer a viewfinder with the very long eye point of 25mm (one inch). The long eye point came at the cost of a lower magnification (down to 75%) and an higher weight. The F3 HP was a sales success, and all subsequent F3 cameras would come from Nikon with the HP viewfinder (the DE-3).
The Olympus OM-1 has an incredible viewfinder, with a very high coverage and a very high magnification. The viewfinder does not offer any exposure information besides the match-needle arrangement at the right of the image, and even if the eye point is rather short, the photographer has the impression he’s watching all of the scene. Subsequent OM models offered a little more information at the periphery of the viewfinder and a little less magnification, and in a world where hi-point viewfinders were becoming the norm, they were far less remarkable than the OM-1.
The Nikon FM, FE and FA provide more exposure information than the Olympus cameras (the selected aperture, in particular). Compounded with the very short eye relief (14mm), it makes it impossible for a photographer wearing glasses to see the whole scene and the exposure information at the periphery without some eye movements. While similar on paper to the other compact Nikon SLRs, the viewfinder of the Nikon FG fares worse than its stablemates in real life.
Rangefinder cameras work by different rules. Their viewfinder covers far more than what will be captured on the film, and very little exposure information is displayed in the viewfinder. Even if the Leica M offers an eye relief of only 15mm, a photographer wearing glasses will not have any problem visualizing the image in the viewfinder.
With a few exceptions such as the Canon G11, Point and Shoot digital cameras don’t offer optical viewfinders anymore. The G11’s may be used as a last resort in a very bright environment, (when using the LCD is not an option), but it’s very small and very unpleasant to use. Low end digital SLRs with small sensors (Four Thirds or APS-C) are equipped with very low magnification viewfinders, and have a very pronounced tunnel effect. Manual focusing is not an option, and composing an image with precision can be challenging. Mid-level dSLRS (like the Canon 7D or Nikon’s D90 and D300) have much better viewfinders, with relatively long eye relief (22 and 19.5mm respectively) and real magnification ratios of approximately 0.625.
Foca *** with a Foca turret viewfinder / Olympus OM-1n. The Foca is a French rangefinder camera from the late forties, and its viewfinder is unusable if you wear glasses. And hardly usable even without them.
Nikon F3 HP (DE-3 finder)
The camera that introduced Hight Point viewfinders to the public.
Nikon F3 with the standard DE-2 viewfinder
Not known. Probably 20mm
The original pre-HP viewfinder. Even with glasses one can easily see all of the scene and the little LCD display.
Not known. Probably 15mm
Incredible. How can such a small camera deliver such a large image? Short eye point, but since the viewfinder does not provide any exposure information at the periphery of the frame, not much of a problem.
Nikon FM, FE, FE2, FA
Not known. Probably 14mm
Short eye point, plenty of information at the periphery of the viewfinder. Not the best recipe for photographers wearing glasses.
The Nikon FA is the last major manual focus SLR launched by Nikon. An evolution of the FM2 and FE2 cameras, it shares with the latter most of its body shell, a very fast shutter (up to 1/4000sec., 1/250sec. flash sync speed) and a on the film (OTF) flash metering mechanism. It finally catches up with Canon’s A1 and offers the same four automatic exposure modes (aperture and shutter priority, program and semi-auto).
Its “Automatic Multipoint Metering” (AMP) – a world premiere – is its real claim to fame. Better known under names such as “matrix”, “evaluative” or “multi-segmented” metering, it is now the default metering system of every dSLR in production.
Launched in 1983, this conservatively styled camera with very conventional ergonomics had a relatively short sales career. It was made obsolete in 1985 when Minolta took the market by storm with its first autofocus SLR, the 7000 (Maxxum 7000 in the US). Minolta’s competitors, Nikon included, spent the best part of the following three years trying to catch up. The FA stayed on Nikon’s catalog until 1988, and was not replaced. Its semi-automatic sibling, the FM2n would be sold until 2001, when the FM3a, a sort of combination of the best characteristics of the FM2 and the FE2, was launched.
The metering system
Until the FA was launched, most of the cameras only offered some form of center weighted metering: the exposure sensor evaluated the luminosity of the whole scene, and because the sky is typically in the upper third of the frame, and the main subject of the picture in the center, it was designed to give more importance to the portion of the picture located at the center of the lower part of the frame.
It worked for most of the cases. If the subject was back-lit and not centered, the photographer had to determine the exposure with the subject at the center of the frame, memorize the exposure settings, and move the camera to compose the desired picture.
Some high end cameras also had a second exposure metering system, which evaluated the luminosity of a much narrower portion of the scene, almost a spot in the middle of the viewfinder. But spot metering and exposure memorization are not always easy to use, and are far from being idiot proof. The engineers at Nikon were pretty sure that with the newly unleashed power of integrated circuits, they could develop a new approach.
It was introduced with the FA, as the Automatic Multi Pattern (AMP) exposure system. The camera was equipped with a database containing the mathematical description of thousands of real world pictures taken by Nikon technicians, with the exposure value that had given the best results in each situation. The light meter was divided in five zones (a large central zone, two zones at the bottom left and right, two zones at the top, left and right also), and the electronic circuit would correlate the exposure value of each zone with other elements such as the focal length of the lens to define the characteristics of the scene, and associate it with one of the many typical pictures described in the database of the camera.
The Nikon engineers were so sure of the superiority of their AMP that they did not even equip the FA with an exposure memorization button – which so far had been a standard feature on high end automatic cameras. They just installed a little unmarked on-off switch on the right side of the lens mount housing, that conservative photographers could use to set the camera in the conventional “average center weighted metering” of yesteryear.
The beauty of most manual SLRs resides in part in the simplicity of their commands. Each knob, switch, lever has only one function. If you turn the aperture ring on a semi-auto camera, the pre-selected aperture will change. Similarly, if you turn the shutter speed knob , the selected shutter speed will change.
The introduction of a automatic exposure did not really change the ergonomics. On a camera with aperture priority automatic exposure, you just had to select the “A” position of the shutter speed knob to let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically, and similarly on a camera with shutter speed priority, positioning the aperture ring on “A” indicated that you were willing to let the automatism manage the aperture for you.
Developing simple ergonomics became more difficult with cameras that could alternatively operate in semi-auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and program auto exposure modes. Most manufacturers added a big four way switch on the top panel, which could be set in Program, Shutter, Aperture or Manual. But when the PSAM switch was set on P or A, the shutter value did not match what was shown on the shutter speed knob, as shown in the example below.
On the Nikon implementation, the photographer also had to remember to set the aperture ring to the smallest aperture, and the indications in the viewfinder (a very small LCD display showing alternatively the speed or the aperture selected) did not really help.
The ergonomics of modern “all-electric” cameras are totally different. The aperture ring and the speed knob are gone, leaving room to an “electronic input dial” and to a large LCD. Not as intuitive and immediate as the knobs and rings or yesteryear, but far simpler than the complex combinations of knobs and switches of the Nikon FA.
Using a Nikon FA as an everyday camera
When it was launched, the FA was nicknamed the “techno-camera”. Positioned at the top of the FM-FE family of cameras, it came with an impressive specs sheet: matrix metering, multi-mode exposure automatism, very fast shutter, on-the-film (OTF) flash metering. Its detachable motor drive was reasonably fast (3.2 frames per second) and could power the camera (and save the precious LR44 batteries).
With the exception of the prism housing (in poly-carbonate), the camera is still built in metal, and is very nicely finished. If the complex electronics from the early eighties survived, the FA is still perfectly usable, and will take great pictures.
Should you buy a Nikon FA? That’s a matter of taste. More recent cameras (film or digital) provide the same technical features, but with their large LCDs and their electronic dials, they’re easier to use and less conducive to set up errors than the FA. The AMP metering of the FA is still relatively primitive – it did not reach the level of performance of today’s matrix metering, and it deprives the photographer of his control over the exposure. Switching to the center weighted mode does not really offer more control, unless the semi-auto exposure mode is used, because no exposure memorization mechanism has been provided.
The Nikon FE2 or the FM3a share some of the technical advances of the FA (the titanium shutter and the flash metering in particular), but their simpler ergonomics (match needle in the viewfinder, shutter speed knob and aperture ring always showing the actual settings) as well as their more predictable exposure metering make them a better fit for photographers who want to be in immediate control of the basic settings of the camera.
The value of the camera on the used market reflects this. In spite of its impressive list of specs, the FA sells for approximately the same price as the Nikon FE2 ($125 to $200 on eBay depending on the condition of the camera), below the FM2n (approx. $250) and far below the FM3a ($500 and above).
The hand grip (on the left) has to be removed to leave room for the MD-15 motor. As a consequence, this tiny accessory has often been lost and most surviving FAs don’t have it.
Few cameras have more obscure and incestuous origins than this one.
At the beginning of the Sixties, Mamiya was ready to launch its first 35mm SLR, the Prismat, and following a suggestion of its US importer, agreed to develop and manufacture a version of the camera for Nippon Kogaku, the maker of the already famous Nikon F. The Nikkorex F was launched in 1962, at half the price of the model F. Nikon expected that the new camera would penetrate the amateur phographer market and increase the sales potential of the Nikkor lenses. Nikon learned quite a few things in the process, and put that experience to good use when they launched the Nikomat in June 1965.
In 1964, Ricoh presented the Singlex, which was very similar to the Nikkorex F, F mount included. It is unclear whether Ricoh was just relabeling cameras made by Mamiya, or whether they had bought the plans and the tooling after Nikon and Mamiya had lost interest in their joint venture. In any case, Ricoh was one of the main manufacturers supplying Sears-Roebuck with private label cameras, and the Singlex was rapidly incorporated to the Sears catalog under the Sears SL11 moniker.
Technically, it can be argued that the Ricoh and Sears cameras were not using the real “F” mount, but only a very close variant: Nikon’s bayonet mount is using lugs to help position the lens on the body (3 body-side lugs imbricated with 3 lens-side lugs). On the Ricoh and Sears bodies, one of the lugs was shorter than Nikon’s , leaving room for a larger lug on the lens side. As a consequence, a Nikon lens with its “small lug” could be mounted on the Ricoh and Sears camera bodies, but the “big lug” Rikenon lenses shipped with the cameras could not be mounted on a Nikon body.
In 1967, Ricoh and Sears replaced the Singlex and the SL11 with new models designed and built by Ricoh. They did not use the Nikon F mount, but the ubiquitous 42mm screw mount, and were equipped with a TTL CdS exposure meter. It seems that Ricoh and Sears designated the new models with the same Singlex and SL11 names as the models they were replacing, at least for a while. The cameras were also sold as Ricoh Singlex TLS and Sears SLS or TLS in the subsequent years. As we can see, using confusing product references is not a recent practice.
How to spot a Sears SL11?
Using the Sears SL11
The big difference between film and digital photography is that the body of a film camera does not play such an important role as the body of a digital camera in the final quality of the picture. If the photographer is technically competent and has enough time to set up the camera, any Single Lens Reflex with no light leak and an accurate shutter will give good results, provided a good film and a good lens can be used.
With a recent Nikon fast prime lens and fine grain film, the SL11 will not be as convenient to use as a modern film SLR (no exposure metering, no autofocus), but if the subject is static or cooperative, there will be little difference as far as the pictures are concerned.
The SL11 is a fairly large and heavy camera – it’s larger than the Nikon F and with its standard 55mm lens, it tips the scale at more than 1.2 kilos. I’ve also held a Nikkorex F in hands, and both cameras share the same matte aluminum finish, which seems very difficult to keep clean in the long run (dust and grease seem like ingrained in the camera’s outer shell). The body shell of the Sears model is not exactly similar to the Nikon’s, but the SL11 is absolutely identical to the Ricoh Singlex, with the exception of a Sears label pasted on the prism cover; Ricoh’s name is engraved on the back of the camera, so that there s no doubt on its origin.
As can be expected from a camera designed in 1962, no exposure meter has been incorporated, and the photographer will have to rely on his experience, on a hand exposure meter or on the Sunny 16 rule to determine the right aperture/shutter speed combination. The camera and the lens support Nikon’s automatic aperture pre-selection, and the diaphragm stays at full aperture until the shutter release is pressed. As a consequence, and surprisingly for a camera that old, the viewfinder is very bright.
In the field, the camera surprises with a very sensitive shutter release, and the very high demultiplication of the focusing ring of the lens seriously slows down the operations. As expected, the shutter is rather loud. The lens is still very good. There is some flare in back-lit situations, but at mid aperture (f:8 or f:11), it produces razor sharp pictures.
A camera without a built-in exposure meter is too slow to use to my taste, but this one is an interesting curiosity. Compatible with any Nikon lens made in the last 50 years, provided it has an aperture ring, it will find a place in the equipment bag of a “Nikonist” between a FE2 and a D300, for a film roll of nostalgia.
The predecessor of the SL11: the Nikkorex F and Nikon’s own version of its history, reported by Kenji Toyoda.
Kenji Toyoda went to the source and talked to the Nikon engineers who worked on the development of models such as the FM, the FE or the FA. For Nikon, they’re “the best of the rest”.
As explained above, Ricoh and Sears kept on using the Singlex and SL11 names after they abandoned the original design of Mamiya. The user manual of Ricoh Singlex TLS of 1967 is still available.
The Sears labeled version of the camera is also shown here as the Sears SLS.
In 1972, Olympus launched the OM-1. Much smaller and lighter than any other single lens reflex (SLR), it opened the path for a new generation of more compact cameras. Nikon’s own FM (launched in 1977) was remarkably smaller than the Nikkormat cameras it was replacing, but still a tad bigger than the Olympus OM-1n. Built like a tank, it was not light, either.
It would take another model, deliberately designed for the beginners, the Nikon EM (1979), to finally beat the OM-1 at its own game (weight: 460g against 510g, width: 135mm instead of 136mm). Small and light, the EM had a plastic (polycarbonate) body over an aluminum chassis, an aperture-priority exposure control system, and very few ways to over-ride the automatism. A magic -2EV button could be used for back-lit scenes, and that was about it: there was no semi-automatic exposure mode. It could use all Nikon’s previous AI (auto-indexing) lenses, as well as a new series of cheaper lenses (the E-Series) launched for the occasion. The E-series lenses were smaller and less elaborate than the other Nikkor lenses, but some of them (like the 50mm f:1.8) gained a very good reputation over time. It has to be noted that the E-Series lenses were the first to use the AI-S version of the F mount. Geeks can learn more about the evolution of the lens mounts of SLRs in the pages published a few months ago in this blog. 50 years of lens mount evolution.
In 1982, Nikon extended their “ultra-compact SLR” range with the FG. It retained the platform, the dimensions and the shutter of the EM, but its electronics had been revised to incorporate two exposure modes, a semi-auto and fully automated program adjusting the aperture and the shutter speed. It also adopted the On the Film (OTF) flash metering system of the FE2. Not a pro camera yet, but not a beginner’s camera anymore.
To this day, the FG remains the smallest of the manual Nikon SLRs targeting the “advanced-amateur” market. A few “all-plastic” autofocus SLRs tipped the scales at 350g in the subsequent years, but Nikon’s digital reflex cameras are all bigger and heavier.
Shooting with the FG
The FG was available in two versions: “chrome” or black. Both had a small removable grip at the right of the body, and looked like smaller copies of the F3. After all these years, the FG is still a very nice little camera. Like the EM, it’s built around an aluminum chassis, and the body itself is in polycarbonate. The commands are simple and well organized. A single selector controls the shutter speed (for semi-automatic operation) and the type of exposure automatism (aperture priority or program). When the program mode is selected (after pressing a safety lock), the aperture ring of the lens has to be set at the smallest aperture. If the photographer forgets to set the aperture, the “overexposure” LED will flash in the viewfinder. The shutter is taken over from the EM and can not offer anything better than 1/1000 sec, with a flash synchro speed of 1/90. Incidentally the shutter still works at 1/90sec when the batteries are dead.
There are few other controls on the FG. A switch disables the warning beeps that the camera emits in multiple occasions, and a push button on the left side of the body can be used to open-up the exposure by 2 stops, to prevent under-exposure in back-lit scenes. There is no way to switch off the camera, and the best way to prevent battery drain is to leave the shutter speed selector on the manual 1/90sec setting when the camera is not in use.
The viewfinder is one of the places where savings were made. With 0.84x magnification and 92% coverage, its performances are similar to the FM or the FE’s, but remarkably inferior to the exceptional OM-1, which in spite of being so compact, still combines a magnification of 0.92x with 97% coverage. At the right of the viewfinder, the photographer will find a scale representing the shutter speeds, with one or many (up to three) red LEDs showing the actual shutter speed and/or the ones recommended by the metering system. Red LEDs, as usual, happen to be invisible when the camera is used in a bright environment.
Derived from the EM and largely built in plastic, the FG is obviously not in the same league as the FE2 or the F3 when it comes to build quality. The articulated winding lever is not as smooth as the F3’s (which is mounted on roller bearings) or the FE2’s, which gives the impression of being mounted on a bronze bearing. The camera has the reputation of being prone to a scary shutter lock (nothing dramatic – set the shutter dial to Manual 1/90sec , and everything goes back in order). To me, it looks more like a “bug” than anything else.
In a few words, the FG is a strange combination of relatively advanced features (multi-mode exposure automatism, on the film flash metering) with a base which is derived from an entry-level camera. In particular in its black version, it looks very competent and professional, which could lead to some disappointment. Because of its small size and its serious looks, it’s easy to believe that it’s a pro camera, comparable to its FM2 and FE2 stablemates, or to the Olympus OM-2.
Nothing could be more wrong. The Nikon FM2 and FE2 are equipped with an exceptional titanium or aluminum shutter, with flash sync speeds up to 1/250sec and a maximum speed of 1/4000 sec. The shutter of the FG is much more limited, and its top speed of 1/1000 sec is a serious limitation on a bright sunny day now than 400 ISO seems to be the universal film sensitivity, in black and white as in color.
The FM2, FE2, OM-1 or OM-2 were cameras built for demanding amateurs or professionals; a small size was one of the design objectives of their manufacturers, but it came second to build quality.
The second hand market recognizes those facts: a nice FE2 costs at least $ 125, with the FM2 and some late Olympus models crossing the $250 barrier. Well received on the market when it was launched, the FG is still abundant on the second hand market and a very nice one can be found for approx. $50.00. A nice compact SLR for casual photography.
More about the Nikon FG
Nikon’s own words about the FG
Photography in Malaysia: the “bible” for the amateurs of Nikon cameras. Check the Nikon FG pages.
The automatic bodies of the early seventies still required some input from their users: they could only determine the shutter speed (or the aperture in the case of Canon cameras) after the photographer had set an aperture (or a shutter speed) compatible with the film speed, the intensity of the light and the characteristics of the scene (portrait, action shots, macro, and so on).
If the aperture set by the user was too low or too high, a matching shutter speed could not be selected by the camera and the picture was hopelessly under or over exposed.
Similarly, if the photographer let the camera select a very slow shutter speed with a long tele-lens, the picture would be blurry and unusable. Trained photographers knew that. But a better automatic exposure solution had to be found for the photographers who did not want to be bothered with technical details.
Inspired by the program modes already available in point and shoot cameras, Canon launched the A-1, a new SLR with programmed exposure modes in 1978. Practically, it meant that the auto exposure system of the body had to simultaneously command the shutter speed and the aperture of the diaphragm.
Canon did not have to change anything on the FD mount, which had been created for full aperture shutter priority exposure.
Nikon introduced the “AI-S” generation in 1979 when the mount was modified to support a linear command of the diaphragm. The first Nikon cameras to take advantage of the AI-S lenses and to offer a program mode and shutter priority were launched in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Because the camera body was informed of the focal length of the objective, it could choose automatically between two aperture-speed combinations when configured in program mode, one for wide angle and normal lenses, and one for lenses of 135mm and longer .
Still trying to catch up with Nicanolta, Pentax adopted a brand new bayonet mount, the K mount, in 1975. The first K mount, however, did not support shutter priority or program modes. Electric contacts would have to be added with the KA declination of the K mount in 1983 to make it possible. Its close derivatives are still used today on Pentax DSLRs.
The state of the art between 1971 and 1985
Pentax: Aperture priority automatic cameras launched in 1971 with modified 42mm screw mount lenses supporting full aperture metering.
Change from the 42mm screw mount to a new Pentax K bayonet in 1975 (automatic pre-selection, full aperture metering, transmission of the pre-selected aperture value from the lens to the body);
Shutter priority and program mode introduced in 1983 with the KA version of the K mount.
Canon: The FD breech mount introduced in 1971 was ready for the Shutter priority cameras launched in 1973 (Canon EF) and for the program mode (Canon A1, 1978).
Minolta: MD declination of the SR Mount (one pin added for the support of the Shutter priority mode) to support the Shutter priority mode in 1977.
Nikon: Aperture priority cameras available since 1971 (Nikon EL) with the manual indexing F mount. Launch of the AI version of the F mount in 1977 to improve the ease of use. Progressive adoption of the AI-S declination of the F mount in 1979 to prepare for the arrival of cameras offering a program mode (Nikon FG, 1982) and a shutter priority automatic exposure (Nikon FA, 1984).
Olympus: the OM mount was introduced in 1971, and was ready to support programmed exposure from the beginning.
Nikon’s F3 was the “pro” camera of the early eighties, but it kept on selling until 2001. A dwarf compared to current mid-level digital SLRs, not to mention monsters like an EOS 1DS or a D3. Incredibly simple to use compared to anything digital sold these days. Aperture Priority Automatic or Semi-Auto exposure. Center weighted metering. That’s all. It worked. And it still works today.
Consider all the changes that took place in the SLR design between 1980 and 2001. Multi mode exposure, spot and matrix metering, integrated motors, autofocus, DX coding, the F3 had none of that, but it outlived two or three generations of newer-better-faster pro bodies from Nikon or Canon. The F3 had the elegance to hide its real technical advances under a classical skin, and to let the photographer communicate his instructions through smooth and oversized controls. Of all the pre-autofocus SLRs of Nikon, the F3 is the most pleasant to use, and probably the one which will yield the best results.
The F3 is an exception in the Nikon F lineup. It’s compact, smaller than its predecessors, and way smaller than its successors, the F4 and F5. In fact, its size is very comparable to that of the FM, itself hardly bigger than the yard stick of compact SLRs, the Olympus OM-1. The F3 is also easy to use, without the idiosyncrasies of the F and F2s with their Photomic finders and manual aperture indexing, and without the myriads of commands of an F4 or the menus and submenus of an F5.
The F3 is much more modern and usable in everyday life than a semi auto camera like the FM: its commands are larger and smoother, and the automatic exposure system is faster to operate; thanks to the center-weighted metering and a memory lock button, it does not deprive the photograph of his control on the exposure . When a flash is needed, the FM still requires the user to concern himself with Guide Numbers. The F3’s flash system is modern: following the path opened by the Olympus OM2, the SPD (silicon) cell is housed under the main mirror, and provides On The Film flash metering. But the Nikon engineers avoided loading the F3 with complications like multi-mode auto-exposure or multiple metering patterns. The F3 has few commands, and they’re so easy to understand that no manual is needed.
All the commands are generously sized, and very smooth to operate (the film advance mechanism is mounted on ball bearings). The view finder is wide, bright and clear, making focusing easy. After a few years of production, Nikon replaced the viewfinder with a high eyepoint (HP) model, which could be used more easily byglass wearers. The viewfinder is the only part of the camera which is really larger than what you would find on contemporary advance-amateur SLRs.
Of course, the F3 is not perfect. It may be compact, but it’s heavy (approx. 750g). Its OTF flash system may have been advanced for its time, but the shutter only syncs at 1/60sec, and none of the viewfinders of the F3 system has a standard flash hot shoe: the F3 requires a specific flash adapter, to be inserted at the top of the rewind lever. But if I had to own and use only one film camera, that would be the F3, without any hesitation.
How much for a Nikon F3?
The price of an F3 is extremely variable. The F3s were produced over 21 years, and some of them could be fairly recent, when others could have been used and abused since the early eighties. F3s were built like tanks, but they were used as their everyday work horse by legions of professional photographers, and they may have had a rough life.
Old and scruffy models in perfect working condition – like the 1983 model represented on those pictures – can be had for a little more than $70.00. Nicer and more recent models with the HP viewfinder and a motor drive will cost you at least $300.00. Beyond the standard F3 and F3 HP, Nikon also produced many derivatives of its flagship camera, for specialized applications or to test new technologies like the autofocus system they showed in 1983. Some of them are relatively rare collector items and will command a much higher price.