Over the past few years, more people than I can count have asked me what “the best” film, film cameras, lenses, accessories and all manner of other weird and wonderful things to do with film photography are. I have opinions, of course, but they’re very difficult questions to answer because the answers are (almost) completely subjective.
It struck me, why not do what Hamish Gill did about his most often asked question and write a little something about it? So I did.
This little series will eventually cover the best and worst cameras from each decade covering the mid-1800s all the way up to the 2010s. I’m starting with the 1990s because it feels like an excellent transition point in our recent history: it saw the release of some of the most advanced film cameras ever made as well as the first spits and spurts of mass market digital cameras.
The list follows below but please allow me a bit of a preamble…
It’s no secret to regular readers that I’m a fan of most vintage film cameras – and more than a few which don’t yet deserve that term. The look, the feel in the hand and the variations and interpretations of solving common problems, what’s not to love? There’s beauty almost everywhere but let’s just say that I’m glad Polaroid’s particular vision of future technology below didn’t become reality.
Film cameras provide us with a living history which we can use to trace the development of design, aesthetics, technology, engineering and manufacturing capability across more than 150 years. These cameras are mirrors to the fashions, cultures, thinking and attitudes prevalent at the time of their creation, from the Art Deco Rolleicords of the 1930s to the utilitarian simplicity of 1970s Canon and Nikon SLRs all the way to the insanity that produced 1996’s Polaroid PDC-2000/40 you see above.
On a smaller scale, film cameras through the ages provide us with insights into how the minds of designers and artists clustered in different parts of the world interpreted solutions to the challenges of universal interface and ergonomics – it’s fascinating. What intrigues me the most is how that simple-ish challenge of running a strip of film through a camera has been addressed in so many different ways.
What follows is my take on the 10 “best” film cameras released during the 1990s. It’s not a countdown in the traditional sense and quite a bit more than the “listicle” the headline above might lead you to believe you were about to read.
In short, welcome to my love letter to 1990s film cameras.
The 1990s most obscure film camera: CONTAX AX
The CONTAX AX is probably the most unnecessarily innovative film camera of the 1990s and traces its chequered lineage back to the early a prototype camera shown at 1980’s Photokina.
Produced from 1996 until ~2005 when the Contax brand was officially shuttered, the Contax AX has a unique trick up its sleeve: it turns any manual focus lens that can be attached or adapted to its Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount into an autofocus lens. The trick? A moving film plane, or as Contax’s designers put it, a “camera inside a camera”. The net result is a chubby, heavy but surprisingly useable 35mm film SLR.
If it’s so good, why give it the “obscure” spot?
The camera was an also-ran in the autofocus SLR race. Nikon and Canon were already beating its AF performance with their previous-gen cameras and it was introduced to the market at over $800 more (in today’s money) than the objectively superior Nikon F5, which was released in the same year.
The Contax sold but not exceptionally well, as evidenced by the number of utterly amazing examples now on the secondhand market. The AX still be had for a song and it’s well, well worth it. Bodies in excellent condition regularly sell for US$200 and mint examples can be had for sub-US$500. If you’re interested in learning more about this curious technological folly, head on over to my extensive CONTAX AX review.
The most poorly designed film camera of the 1990s: Konica AiBORG
Only a handful of people know for sure if the name “AiBORG” was the result of a night of heavy drinking at a back street Tokyo Izakaya or if the marketing team were just fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What is known, however, is that (to me) the AiBORG has to be the most poorly designed camera of the 1990s.
Released in November 1991 at a whopping retail price of US$510 (nearly US$1,000 in 2020 money), Konica wanted the AiBORG to be big, really BIG. So big in fact, that the rented out the Meadowlands Stadium (now home to the MetLife Stadium) in New Jersey just to announce it. I’m guessing that wasn’t cheap.
Konica went on and on and on about its amazing features, how it made everything that little bit easier and how amazing the “futuristic, black, ellipsoidal” design was. In reality, it was a hot mess closer to the lovechild of Dark Helmet and a Goomba than anything else.
I had the joy of owning one for three days back in 2016, spurred on by Hamish Gill’s review back in 2015. It was a mistake. If you have three hands and incredibly dextrous fingers, you may well think that the AiBORG doesn’t quite deserve this spot but for the other 100% of people out there, I’ve no doubt it does.
The most well-designed film camera of the 1990s: Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti
Seen from the front, the Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti give the appearance of refined, if slightly bland compact 35mm cameras. Hold them and things start to change. They’re light but feel solid in the hand, the titanium skin feels good to the touch and the leatherette provides a decent amount of grip for a design that is essentially a small brick.
You glance at the top plate and it’s then that you notice the dials. Oh my God, the dials. It’s all about those dials. Here’s a quick video from Sandeep:
The video shows:
- Focus in P mode (Auto-Program) – left dial.
- A mode (Aperture Priority) aperture adjustment – right dial.
- Exposure compensation – bottom middle dial.
- AF override (manual focus) – left dial
The focus dial moves in steps between the numbered distance settings and their half positions. Note the panel on the left is lit red. The camera was recorded with no film loaded. The red light means that the camera is not able to fire the shutter.
The Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti are among the most advanced 35mm compact cameras ever made, released in 1994 and 1993 respectively. They were designed to last and built with uncompromised performance in mind – according to Nikon;s marketing materials. Built around almost flawless Nikkor lenses the cameras includes programmed auto and aperture-priority shooting modes, a built-in panoramic mode, custom functions and Nikon’s advanced 3D Matrix metering (previously limited to Nikon’s AF SLRs).
The dials, which were designed to resemble those on a fine chronometer show a multitude of relevant information: aperture, focus distance, exposure compensation, long exposure counter, battery status, film counter and much more. Nikon could have taken the easy route and just added an LCD to show all of this but they didn’t, they went the extra mile and the result is both beautiful and easy to read. It’s the kind of display that you only need a fraction of a second to read at a glance once you get accustomed to it – just like the chronometers that inspired it.
The 35Ti and 28Ti have both retained their prices over the years with better consistency than most other premium compacts. Approximately US$1200 when brand new (~US$2100 in 2020), the 35Ti still commands at least US$600 for a camera in good condition, with mint examples regularly reaching US$1000. The 28Ti demands much higher prices but if you’re patient, deals can be had.
The most ubiquitous film camera of the 1990s: the 35mm compact camera
This “award” should really go to a single camera but it would be unfair to single just one out considering the huge range and variation of functions, quality and of course, price. So, that leads me to crown ALL 35mm compact cameras as the kings and queens of the most ubiquitous film camera of the 1990s.
It felt like absolutely everyone had one, from cheap and nasty “free focus” Practicas, to Vivitar Wide and Slims, the Olympus MJU, the Ricoh GR1/s/v and the Contax T2. My personal favourite has to be the GR1 series, especially the GR1s and GR1v but that’s just me. There are SO MANY in between and it’s almost impossible to single one out. Unless someone reading this has units sold data for me, they’re all getting a nod.
Ray Rapkerg put together an extensive test of 12+ 35mm compact cameras here on EMULSIVE just a little while back. If you’re looking to learn more about them and how they perform in real life, head on over.
The best 35mm SLR of the 1990s: Nikon F100
This is where things are going to get a little divisive. As a self-proclaimed Nikon fanboy, you might expect it to be a Nikon…and well, you’d be right. It’s the Nikon F100 but bear with me for a second and I’ll explain why.
The 1999 Nikon F100 was the pinnacle of prosumer SLR film cameras – not just those made by Nikon, all of them. It was to the 1996 Nikon F5 what the 1994 Nikon F90X/N90S was to the F4. The F100 represents everything Nikon knew about making cameras at that time and although used as a back-up body from new by a few pro photographers I know, the camera has gone on to be recognised for what it really is: the best Nikon camera for nearly any conceivable application other than the F6. Controversial I know but how many times have you seriously used interchangeable viewfinders on your camera in the field? Be honest now.
Options included battery choices plus battery grip, remote shutter release, finder accessories, interchangeable screens, the ability to use Nikon lenses from as far back as 1977 as well as most Nikon lenses made today, a databack…the list goes on. Sure, it’s not as “pro” as the F5 but it does the same job for about 60% of the weight and is only 30 grams heavier than its predecessor.
Price-wise, it was a moderately expensive camera at the time, some US$2,100 converted for today’s money. Body only deals today range from US$150 to US$400 depending on which part of the world you live in and if you’re on the fence and can pick one up for cheap, I strongly recommend it as an introduction to the Nikon lens system.
There’s more on the F100 over with Shoot Film Co’s Mike Padua in this video review. Check it out!
The best 35mm rangefinder of the 1990s: Contax G series
I mean it has to be, right? Released two years apart, 1994 for the G1 and 1996 for the G2, these cameras were the pinnacle of autofocus 35mm film rangefinders. Yes, the Leica Ms are “better” for some people but come on: AUTOFOCUS and a variable magnification viewfinder that goes wider and longer than any Leica ever made.
The Contax G1 took a lot of flack for its slow and occasionally unreliable AF system. Given that manual focus with this camera is non-standard, I can understand how it might have irked some people but I’ve never really had an issue with it – although the same “dial” approach does frustrate the living daylights out of me on the original mechanical Contax rangefinders.
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When 1996’s Contax G2 came out, customers had only two questions:
- Why didn’t you just release this first and be done with it?
- Is the AF fixed?
Yes, literally only two questions. Oh, perhaps also one about the new 21mm f/2.8 Biogon and if it could be used with the G1 (the answer is not without modification but if you get a “green label” G1, it will).
While I can’t say the first question was answered satisfactorily, the second most certainly was. AF on the G2 was faster, more accurate and suffered less from back/front focus than the G1. That’s not to say the G1 is a dud buy. It’s a perfectly wonderful camera in real-use but the call of the G2 – especially the black finish – is strong. Further reading over on Japan Camera Hunter.
The best medium format SLR of the 1990s: Contax 645
You’re expecting me to say “Hasselblad”, aren’t you? I honestly wish I could but it’s impossible to do so in good conscience. This particular title HAS to go to the mighty Contax 645. Given that this is the third CONTAX placing in this list, you might be forgiven for thinking this article is some kind of Contax love-in but I didn’t plan for it to turn out this way, I’m just writing each section as it comes and to be fair, Contax was on its game in the 1990s…for the most part.
Back to the Contax 645 and what can I say? It’s a truly amazing piece of kit. Hands down probably the best autofocus medium format film SLR ever made. The Contax 645 (released in 1999), nearly has it all: autofocus, autoexposure, aperture priority, auto wind-on, a max 1/4000 second shutter speed, interchangeable film backs and of course: Zeiss lenses.
Honestly, I’m surprised that Hasselblad didn’t get there first – it took them another three years to bring their version to market in the form of the H1 aka Fuji GX645 but that particular story is best left for the 2000s issue of this series.
The Contax 645’s bragging rights today come from its use by many, many famous photographers – and a glut of wedding photographers – of the late 90s and early 2000s including Jose Villa and Greg Finck.
There’s further reading to be has over with Bellamy on Japan Camera Hunter.
The best medium format rangefinder of the 1990s: Mamiya 6 MF
Who would have thought that new medium format rangefinder film cameras would be so prevalent in the 1990s? there were SO MANY CHOICES including numerous valiant attempts by Fujifilm with their GA645 series and other variants.
Thinking about it, it makes sense. The excesses of the 1980s had given way to a general rise in salaries and disposable income across the globe, international travel became accessible to more people and travel cameras were most definitely in vogue.
Some of these cameras – like the updated Fuji GW series and GSW670, 680 and 690s – were designed with tour groups and group photos in mind. Compact but not exactly discrete. Others like the Mamiya 6 MF, were designed to be light, compact travel companions. Again, this is a subjective opinion and no doubt some of you are screaming at your screens that the camera here should be the Mamiya 7 or Mamiya 7II which, fair enough, was a contender but the finicky need for external finders just to use its newer wider-angle lenses just seemed a bit off to me.
The Mamiya 6 MF has three lens options – all of which collapse into the body – and they’re really all you need:
- Mamiya 6 G 50mm f/4 L (appx 25mm equivalent on full-frame 35mm film)
- Mamiya 6 G 75mm f/3.5 L (appx 45mm equivalent on full-frame 35mm film)
- Mamiya 6 G 150mm f/4.5L (appx 90mm equivalent on full-frame 35mm film)
Sure, a wider option would have been nice but as a travel kit, it’s near-on everything you need for most environments and situations. Not convinced, Charlie Tadlock wrote an excellent review of the camera, along with his thoughts on why he believes the Mamiya 6 MF is the best medium format camera ever made. Get out the pitchforks.
The best “things-yet-to-come” camera of the 1990s: Sony DSC-F505
Look, I know EMULSIVE is dedicated to film and traditional photography but I’d have to be an idiot to discount digital cameras. To clarify, I don’t. There’s no escaping the fact that digital photography in all its forms has been responsible for one of the greatest democratisations of technology in all human history – probably save for the invention of writing and universal education but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Many manufacturers tried their hands at digital photography in the 1990s, a few of them were dipping their toes into photography for the very first time – hello Nintendo, Apple and Sony – but Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Kodak and other names had been developing technologies for years – in some cases since the late 1970s – so it’s reasonable to expect something like 1991’s Kodak DCS 100 or 1999’s Nikon D1. Right? Wrong. It’s this Sony.
Sony had been playing with digital photography since the 1980s with cameras like the Mavica MVC-C1 but it was 1999’s 2.1MP DSC-F505 that put digital photography into the hands of consumers with money to burn.
The camera was released at a flat US$1000 – about US$1,500 in today’s money – but it was pretty much essential to buy a Sony MemoryStick as the included 4MB stick could only store 8 photos at the max 1600x1200px resolution. A 120MB stick would set you back antoher~$550 in today’s money. Not cheap and a sign of the endless accessory upgrades to come.
So why does this camera meet the criteria for “The best things-yet-to-come camera of the 1990s”? Well, I’m focused on Sony as a company. While traditional film camera companies would fight it out – some to the death – over the coming decade, Sony was out there happily cranking out model after model after model of consumer cameras, all the while, evolving and perfecting their digital sensor technology.
Everything changed in 2006 when the company – though collaboration with and ultimately purchase of Konica Minolta – released its first SLR, the A100, then the A700 in 2007. In 2008 the company would release three DSLRs at the same time, followed by a sixth camera in three years, the 24.6MP A900.
The new cameras were a hybrid of film and digital technology and in some ways, you might say that the now fully-absorbed Minolta’s futuristic aspirations from previous decades were part of the allure of these new digital pro/prosumer cameras – an AF SR that detects the camera being brought to the eye and triggers AF hunting based on the position of the eye? Yes please.
As of late 2019, Sony pulls in ~50% of the global revenue share for digital sensors (~70% for smartphones). That’s more than double its nearest competitor, Samsung. It’s not an easy situation to find yourself in. Do the math and you realise that Sony’s market share for end-user products is nowhere near that, which means they risk cannibalising their own product market share by selling sensors to other manufacturers: Phase One, Fujifilm, even some Nikon some cameras use them.
And that’s why this little Sony camera gets the spot. A small consumer camera with a Zeiss lens sitting at (nearly) the very beginning of their road to world domination in digital photography.
Check out the Sony DSC-F505 review from 1999 over on DPR (yes, 1999!) for more.
The 1990s described in a single film camera
Ah, I love it when things come full circle. Again, this was not planned, I can’t stress that enough. Here’s how I got here:
The 1990s were a period of rapid change. It seemed that the world couldn’t throw off the weight of the 1980s fast enough. Social and political change was afoot across the globe: the fall of the Iron Curtain, David Hasselhoff singing on the Berlin Wall in 1990 and the end of the CCCP a year later. Things were BUSY.
We had teen idols pretending to be bad boys, we were still reeling from the Milli Vanilli scandal and the internet was about to become a thing. Everyone between the ages of 12 and 30 was watching Friends and then there was Jurassic Park, The Big Lebowski, The Matrix, Fight Club, Terminator 2, Romeo and Juliet, Clerks, Casino, Titanic…the list goes on. Music was all over the place: Tupac, Mariah Carey, The Fugees, Weezer, a crazy Acid/House/Rave scene in the UK, the bloody Spice Girls, Chemical Brothers, a NEW UK invasion, Biggie, Britney Spears and yes, Eminem. Seriously, I’ve barely scratched the surface but the takeaway is this: there was an explosion of genres and flavours in nearly every single field of human creative endeavour.
As someone very much awake during the decade, I often struggle to rationalise the fact that the beginning of the decade was some 30 years ago now. I have wasted my life 😉
…and that’s where the Contax AX comes in.
Much like the decade that spawned it, the camera was a hodge-podge of many different, potentially incompatible things slapped together that – unfortunately – just didn’t quite work as far as cameras went. I love mine and I enjoy using it but I’m happy that I paid low three figures vs the original list price.
Looking at the camera now and thinking about what it represents just makes me think of the 90s – it’s over-engineered, over-designed, overly heavy and overly endearing. It might not have been the camera I would have picked up or even wanted back then but it’s certainly got a very welcome spot in my collection today.
Like those of my clan – the last of Gen X – who went from children to adults during that decade, the Contax AX doesn’t really know what it’s supposed to be. It’s got a list, it knows it can do stuff and it’s looking around for help but adulting is hard and it doesn’t really know if it wants to do this, that or just nothing at all. It’s pretty chill and quite happy to watch all the cameras that came before and after it get into fights while it has a beer and wonders what happened to that Tamagochi it had in high school.
Just do me a favour, just don’t call it a boomer.
And there you have it, my take on a “best camera” list. It’s not perfect but none are, to be fair. I’ll be covering more decades over the coming months and if you have any preferences on which one I should tackle next, please let me know in the comments below. If there’s a specific category or type you’re after my take on, please also let me know in the comments below.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little interlude. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in a bit.
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