Since the publication of my original book, “Nikon Film Cameras, Which one is right for you?“, I’ve acquired a number of additional cameras and lenses which I describe and evaluate from personal experience in the newly released second edition, which recently went live on Amazon.
In addition to the extra hardware, I tracked the prices of a certain set of Nikon gear as offered by the two largest online retailers of secondhand 35mm equipment in North America from June 2018 to July 2019. As with the first edition, my intention is to inform young people who did now grow up with film photography and are looking to get into a first-class 35mm system on a budget.
The second edition presents detailed price analysis of the FM/FE series of cameras, the mechanical Nikkormats, and the F3, plus lenses including the 24/2.8, 35/2.8, 50/2, 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 85/2, 105/2.5, 135/3.5 and 135/2.8, with unmodified pre-AI and AI-compatible versions analyzed separately.
Those of us who spent most of our lives shooting with film have an obligation to share the benefit of our knowledge and experience with the younger generation. If our collective knowledge is lost, then analog photography will not long survive. This is my humble contribution to that effort.
Below is a section from the book in which I make the case for Nikon while describing some of the more commonly available alternatives. Let’s start with…
If you’re looking to get into analog photography for the first time, there are a number of good systems available on the used market you could buy into. Nikon has a few advantages, the first being availability. Since Nikon dominated the professional market for a solid two decades, there is a great deal of used manual-focus Nikon equipment floating around out there and it’s not hard to find. Second is the superb quality of Nikkor lenses. If you buy a prime Nikkor manual-focus lens you are purchasing a piece of optical artwork capable of superior image quality at a fraction of the cost of a comparable new lens.
Third, is lens compatibility. I cover this more extensively in the book but Nikon’s current DSLRs use the same basic lens mount introduced in 1959 on the original Nikon F. Fourth is Nikon’s extensive use of the Copal Square shutter, one of the most well-engineered photographic tools of the twentieth century. The vertically travelling, stainless-steel Copal Square shutter has passed the test of time with flying colors. My local repair tech says he bought a replacement shutter for a Nikon FM thirty years ago just to have in stock for repairs and he’s never needed it. “They just don’t fail,” he said.
There is a wide selection of superior cameras. Enthusiasts of other brands, particularly Pentax, can make the case that their preferred brand’s lenses are as good as, and in some cases better than Nikkor lenses, but none can credibly boast both better lenses and better cameras.
So, if not Nikon then…?
If you wish to make an informed choice you need to know what your other options are. So briefly, here is a reasonably accurate, if highly opinionated review of other 35mm SLR systems you might consider.
…was a bit of an also-ran until the introduction of the AE-1 in 1976, an event which marked the beginning of Canon’s dominance of the consumer market for about a decade. There are a great many inexpensive used manual-focus Canon lenses on the market for one simple reason. Unlike Nikon which has kept the original F-mount to this day, Canon completely changed their lens mount in 1987 thus rendering obsolete in a single stroke every lens they had sold up to that point.
My primary criticism of the FL-series and FD-series lenses is that they are larger and heavier than their competitors and the breech-lock lens mount can be tricky in the field. The old joke was that you needed three hands to change a Canon lens, one to grip the camera body, one to grip the lens and a third to rotate the breech locking ring. The New-FD lenses introduced in 1981 switched to a bayonet-style base like everyone else and were smaller and lighter without sacrificing optical quality.
The Canon FTb is one of the finest all-metal, all-mechanical “built like a tank” 35mm SLRs ever made, though it takes mercury batteries, if that’s of concern to you. The Canon A-series is possibly the most successful line of consumer-oriented SLRs in history. The A-1, AE-1 and AE-1 Program are fine cameras. The AT-1, AV-1 and AL-1 are not worth the investment in my opinion. The F-1, in any version, is an excellent camera but very difficult to find in good condition at a reasonable price.
If there is one company which can boast lenses comparable or superior to Nikkors it is Pentax. Originally known as the Asahi Optical Company, their Takumar and SMC lenses are renowned for optical excellence. While Pentax made some of the best lenses in the business, Nikon offered more and better high-end cameras. If you can find an LX in good condition at a good price, buy it and begin collecting K-mount lenses.
Other than the professional system LX your high-end K-mount camera choices are a bit limited, though the KX is a worthy competitor to Nikon’s FM. The attraction of Pentax is the ready availability of inexpensive K-mount lenses which, in addition to being optically unrivalled, are small and light. Indeed, with the introduction of the M-line of compact cameras in 1976 Pentax largely obsoleted Olympus’ main competitive advantage. If you are of the “the camera is just a box, the lens makes the image” school of thought, Pentax may be right for you.
I have just one request. Do not buy a K-1000. The K-1000 is the stripped-down entry-level consumer version of the KM, which itself was merely a Spotmatic converted to K-mount and positioned below the top-tier KX. Back in the 70s the KX was sold at high-end camera stores which catered to professionals. The K-1000 was sold at K-Mart to bargain shoppers and art students. Back then there was a major price difference between these two models. Not today. Spend a little extra time and look for a nice KX.
A word of caution: By the late 70s the K-mount had become the standard for aftermarket manufacturers seeking a slice of the bottom end of the market. Ricoh was a step-down but not a bad second choice; they made extensive use of the Copal Square shutter. I owned an XR-1 which was the best plastic-body second-tier 35mm SLR I’ve ever used. If you’re serious about getting into analog don’t waste your money on the inferior offerings of Cambron, Quantaray, Focal, Albinar, Vivitar or any of the other off-brand distributors. And don’t buy their schlock lenses either.
Disclaimer: In case any of these brands are still in business, let me be clear that I’m referring to products sold over thirty years ago.
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Prior to the introduction of the K-mount in 1975 Pentax used the M42 screw mount originally invented in East Germany and popularized by Pentacon’s Praktica line of 35mm SLRs. Incidentally, I believe that Pentacon cameras were the only line of consumer products of any kind produced in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe (behind the Iron Curtain, as we used to say) and successfully marketed in the capitalist West. If you are looking for oh-so-cool “swirly bokeh” or “bubble bokeh” and other super-groovy optical defects, then this is the system for you. Indeed, the M42 mount, which is also referred to as the universal screw mount, universal thread mount, Pentax screw mount, and Praktica screw mount offers the possibility of two very different classes of lenses in one system. On the one hand you can collect the bokeh-monsters of East Germany (Carl Zeiss Jena, Meyer Optic Goerlitz, Pentacon), the Soviet Union (Helios, Zenit) and the early offerings of Mamiya, Yashica, Rikenon, Fujica and others plus the tack-sharp no-nonsense Pentax Takumars.
The major disadvantage of an M42 system is the need for stop-down metering, assuming you can find a camera with a working light meter. The Pentax Spotmatic is easily the best choice for an M42 body today: all-metal, all-mechanical, superior build quality, plus easy to find on the used market and there are still a few technicians around who know how to fix them. Although the Spotmatic was designed to use mercury batteries its meter employs a bridge circuit which is less sensitive to voltage fluctuations and works well with alkaline replacement batteries without the need for modifications.
…made their name in the 1960s with the SRT-series of 35mm SLRs. There were several models in the series all built on the same chassis with variations in terms of viewfinder information, focusing screens, mirror lock-up, etc. These cameras took mercury batteries and may need to be modified to accept 1.5-volt cells.
If you have access to a technician who fixes them then buy the best SRT you can find and get it overhauled. You now have a tank-like workhorse which will outlive your grandchildren (though the same could be said for the Canon FTb or Pentax Spotmatic).
The camera sold as the XD in Japan, XD-11 in North America and XD-7 in Europe is regarded by many as Minolta’s best auto-exposure, electronic-shutter SLR. It was the first camera from any manufacturer to offer both aperture and shutter-priority automation and the last Minolta SLR with a metal body.
After the XD, Minolta went all-plastic. Of those, the ones to have are the XG-M, X-700 and X-570. Most of the other plastic Minoltas have a major flaw: the light meter does not operate in manual mode. Pair one of the better plastic bodies with the 45mm f/2 pancake lens and you’ve got a very light, compact and capable setup. If you do any portrait or figurative work, get the Rokkor 58mm f/1.4; you will not be disappointed. For detailed information about Minolta manual-focus equipment have a look at a website called, “The Rokkor Files”.
…is unique in that its OM-system is the brainchild of one man, Yoshihisa Maitani, an engineering genius who was passionate about his work. An appreciation of the motivation behind the OM system requires an understanding of a bit of the history of 35mm photography. The original 35mm Leicas of the 1920s and 30s were small and light. A Leica III-series rangefinder with a collapsible Elmar lens could easily fit in a coat pocket. By 1970 SLRs with internal light meters had replaced meterless rangefinders. While this increased the capabilities of the 35mm camera, it did so at the cost of bulk and mass.
The Minolta SRT-101, Canon FTb, Pentax Spotmatic, Konica Autoreflex and the Nikkormat were each about the size and weight of a brick. Mr. Maitani sought to re-engineer the 35mm SLR from the ground up with the goal of creating a light, compact SLR as solid and reliable as the big, bloated competition. He succeeded brilliantly. His OM-1 took the photography world by storm in 1972. Here was a small, light and ergonomically intuitive SLR which sacrificed nothing in terms of functionality and reliability.
The all-mechanical, manual-exposure OM-1 was joined by the electronic, aperture preferred OM-2 in 1975, the first SLR to offer off-the-film-plane metering during flash exposure. These cameras were complemented by the highly regarded Zuiko suite of lenses and accessories. Though Olympus never came close to challenging Nikon’s dominance (neither did anyone else), their equipment was first-rate and constituted quite a serious entry into the professional market. Not too shabby for a company previously best known for its half-frame tourist cameras. My primary criticism of the Olympus OM system is that it offered only one all mechanical, manual exposure SLR, the OM-1.
All other OM-system cameras had electronic shutters and were completely battery dependent. To make matters worse, the OM-1 was designed to use mercury batteries to power the light meter (the OM-2 and subsequent models used 1.5-volt silver oxide batteries) and the viewfinder displayed no information other than a meter needle and index mark. Think of the OM-1 as a miniaturized and ergonomically superior Nikkormat. By the late 70s Olympus’ compact size advantage had diminished. Pentax introduced its M-series and Canon introduced the A-series in 1976. The following year Minolta introduced its XG-series and the massive Nikkormat was replaced by the lighter, compact FM. If you’re the sort of person who values individuality and enjoys being different simply for the sake of being different, but you don’t want to sacrifice quality and reliability, then the Olympus OM-system may be right for you.
The last major competitor is Konica, the company which produced the first auto-exposure SLR (the Auto-Reflex with external light meter) and the first auto-exposure SLR with TTL metering, the Autoreflex T. All Konica SLRs offered shutter-preferred auto exposure with full manual control available.
Of all the SLRs produced by Konica, the Autoreflex T3 is the one to have. It offers improvements over its predecessors while retaining all-metal construction. It’s successor, the Autoreflex T4, incorporated plastic body panels and was smaller and lighter. All the plastic-body Konicas suffer one major drawback: the leatherette covering shrinks and peels over time, no matter how carefully the camera has been stored. All Autoreflexes utilize the vertically travelling, stainless-steel Copal Square shutter, require mercury batteries and use CdS metering cells.
The Autoreflexes are unique in that they used a purely mechanical auto-exposure system with no electronics of any kind. The shutter will fire on all speeds without a battery. Konica’s Hexanon lenses are exceptionally sharp and are regularly referred to as “legendary” in photographic literature. I owned a T2 and T3 which had been converted to accept 1.5-volt batteries. These are large, massive cameras. They functioned beautifully, and I never had any problems with them.
Konicas are not nearly as common on the used market today as the other brands reviewed here. If you invest in a Konica SLR system, you’ll likely have the only one in your analog meet-up group. So, if you’re the sort of rugged individualist who likes his cameras big and heavy and you don’t mind putting extra time and effort into hunting for equipment, Konica may be for you.
Finally, there is one factor which few people talk about but which you may wish to consider in selecting a 35mm system: the availability of repair technicians, or lack thereof. Lenses don’t require much maintenance. Cameras, on the other hand, need to be serviced and maintained.
The number of qualified technicians who know how to fix these old cameras is diminishing rapidly. If there is a good repair technician in your area, find out which are his favorite cameras to work on. Then go out and buy two or three of them and have the tech overhaul them from top to bottom. If you can afford it, this is a very worthwhile investment.
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