Three decades...Six (and-a-half ;-)) models...ONE platform. Approximately 4.5 million bodies sold. That makes the compact enthusiast/semi-professional manual focus line of Nikon SLRs the longest-lived chassis in the history of the marque, and arguably, the most successful. Spurred on somewhat by the success of the Olympus OM bodies but mostly by the groundbreaking Canon AE-1, Nikon's foray into the world of compact SLRs first bore fruit in 1977 with the FM, and ended up with an "old vines" distillation of body and flavor with the FM3A in 2001. But there was a lot of ground covered between those bookends. So which one will be right for you? Let's dig in :-)
Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed...
- Alexander Pope -
That is what it really comes down to. More than the optical performance, build quality, or outright cost (all of which can vary wildly) of any vintage aftermarket lens, it is your level of expectation that should determine whether you bother with them at all. If you are expecting OEM-grade (Original Equipment Manufacturer) performance and build quality out of something that was originally half-or-less of the cost, you are going to be disappointed. It is as simple as that. However, if you reasonably expect (oh come on, since when does that apply on the Interwebs ;-)) somewhat-lesser-but-still-capable performance from that $10 or $20 flea-market find, you may find yourself completely satisfied with a third-party alternative.
Well now. That took care of that in short order. Cheerio...
Okay...okay...okay. You know I can't leave well-enough alone. Read on if you feel the need for a long-winded, over-analyzed version of the above. Otherwise, just go out and keep snapping away with any cheap old light-sucker you find. After all, ignorance is bliss... ;-)
I don't know if Rodney Dangerfield was into photography, but if he was he must have used f/3.5 lenses, judging by the way he was always bugging his eyes out. Which would be understandable, because any half-baked photographer knows that f/3.5 is a raging vortex where photons go to die, leaving your eyes straining for the faintest trace of light. Not to mention the utter impossibility of achieving anything remotely resembling shallow depth of field (DOF) with such an infinitesimal iris. No proper lens jockey would be caught dead with such a miserable excuse for a photographic tool. So if you have any remaining shred of photographic self-respect, let me save you the trouble now of reading any further ;-).
The 1980s were the heyday of the quality, yet relatively affordable, automatic auto focus (AF) 35mm camera. Competition was intense between manufacturers, and they were constantly trying to leapfrog one another in features and capability. Every year saw some kind of improvement until about 1988 or so, when the inevitable "race to the bottom" really started to heat up. Within this era, the years from 1983 to 1987 were arguably the high-water mark for quality and innovation, and some ingenious engineering. In this article, we are going to key in on a quirky category of cameras that served as a bridge between the original, fixed-focal-length AF point & shoots and the first P&S zooms: the temporary titans of P&S technology..the twin-lens (or bifocal) AFs.
Updated May 4, 2020
The mid-1960s were heady days in SLRland. From 1964-66 all of the Big 4 Japanese manufacturers brought out new top-of-the-line enthusiast models: the Pentax Spotmatic (1964); the Nikkormat FT (1965); Canon's Pellix (1965) and FTQL (1966); and the object of our attention in this article...Minolta's SRT (1966). The feature all of these cameras had in common was: built-in through-the-lens (TTL) metering. We take it for granted now, but five decades ago this was revolutionary. Of the five models, the Pentax and Canons used stop-down metering (meaning that the photographer had to manually close (stop-down) the aperture on the lens to get an accurate reading and then focus at maximum aperture). The Nikkormat offered full-aperture metering (the lens remained at maximum aperture for the brightest view and ease of focusing while the meter reading was taken), but required the user to manually index the aperture ring every time that they changed lenses. Then came the SRT-101. Full-aperture metering and the aperture automatically indexed whenever you mounted a lens. No muss, no fuss. And all it took was:
Updated July 14, 2020
Maybe it has something to do with the application of the term "vintage" to items over 30 years old, but there is a dead space for most cameras (and many other manufactured goods) that are in the 15 - 25 year old range. Not elderly enough to evoke nostalgia, and far from the cutting edge of current technology, they languish in a veritable no-man's-land. The subject of this article, the F90(X), is in such a place today. If you are a 35mm bargain hunter, and are willing to look past its plebian polycarbonate pelt...your ship may just have come in :-).
Coming-of-age. If any term could be applied to Nikon's auto focus SLRs from 1986 to 1991, that one has to be at the top of the list. The transition to AF maturity coincided with Nikon's rise to second place in the overall SLR market to essentially form a duopoly with Canon as the other members of the then-Big 5 (Minolta, Olympus, and Pentax) slid further and further behind, and in Olympus' case, dropped AF SLRs completely. The irony in all of this was that Minolta had gotten the drop on everyone and dominated the first few years in AF SLR sales with their groundbreaking 7000 model. Canon brought out their T80 FD-mount SLR a couple of months after the 7000, and it wasn't even close to the Minolta. So much so, that Canon abandoned further FD-mount AF development and began a crash program to come up with a completely new mount and SLR system. It would be two years before they brought out the EOS 650. For Canon, that would turn out to be time well spent, as the EOS cameras rocketed them to AF SLR sales leadership in rather short order. Nikon got on the board in April of 1986 (over a year after the 7000 made its not-so-subtle entrance). While the F-501 did not surpass the 7000, it was the first true competitor to the Minolta and gave Nikon a toehold (and critically, a one-year head-start over Canon to get established in the market) until they could bring out their second generation enthusiast AF SLR in 1988. By the mid-'90s Nikon had clawed their way past Minolta and tried to maintain pace with Canon in market share (which didn't happen, but they did comfortably establish themselves in second place :-)). Let the retrospecting begin...
Welcome to the final installment of our "Choosing Manual Focus Lenses" series. In this article, we will look at the larger picture of lens sets in general and also check out a few options for specialty optics, such as macros and shift lenses.
Zoom lenses really started to come into their own by the late-1970s and became standard equipment with most SLRs by the mid-'80s. Versatility was the name of the game, with such optics sometimes enabling a photographer to replace up to 3 primes with one lens. However, this was not a free lunch; there were always compromises involved.
Welcome to Part 2 of Choosing Manual Focus Lenses. We will now delve deeper into the categories of focal lengths and the differences between them. As in the previous post, we will be looking at this in terms of vintage 35mm format manual focus (MF) lenses, but you can use the principles for more modern glass and other formats. WARNING - There may some numbers involved! (I'll try to control myself ;-))
Fun With Focal Lengths
In 35mm format: "Normal" lenses range from 40 - 58mm (with 50mm being by far the most common and was the basic kit lens offered with SLRs for years); Wide-angles go from about 28 - 35mm; Extreme wide angles from 15 - 25mm; Ultra-wide angles are less than 15mm; Telephotos from 65 - 300mm; and Super Telephotos are greater than 300mm. All of these categories are approximate, but you get the general idea. We will look at single focal-lengths and, in the next article, discuss how zooms combine several focal lengths into one lens and the advantages/disadvantages of doing so.
One of the most daunting experiences for an SLR owner can be deciding which lenses to choose to achieve their photographic goals. The sheer number of possibilities can seem overwhelming when trying to narrow things down to a manageable kit, both expense- and weight-wise. Further complicating matters is that what works well for someone else may be entirely different than what will be best for you. Choosing lenses goes beyond mere quantitative measurements. Your aesthetic sense of how you see the world around you, along with the genres of photography you pursue, and the conditions you will be working in all have a direct bearing on which lenses will be most suitable for you.
Too many of us have learned the hard way about which lenses are best suited to our needs and abilities. Trial and error does often eventually lead us to the right conclusions, but with a considerable amount of wasted time, energy, and MONEY. Could there be a better way?
Updated July 17, 2020
Here is the final edition of our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series for manual focus SLRs. In Part #1 we looked at the Pentax M42 screwmount system. Pentax was the last of the "Big 5" (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus being the others) to adopt a bayonet-style lensmount, doing so in 1975. The K-mount has continued to serve (in modified form) into the digital era. For now we will confine ourselves to the manual focus film era. So let's get to it with our standard format of: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Updated Feb. 12, 2020
Greetings, and welcome to our fifth vintage SLR system overview, this time featuring Pentax (or Asahi Optical Co. as they were originally known). In this installment we will examine their first SLR system, which (aside from the Asahiflex models) utilized the M42 screwmount introduced by Zeiss in 1949. Over time, such was their success, M42 became commonly referred to as the Pentax screwmount. The M42 mount was used by Pentax for 20 years (1957-76) and today represents one of the most affordable and accessible SLR systems available to the vintage-focused photographer. In the second part of our Pentax overview, we will dig into the bayonet-style K-mount system introduced in 1975, and which is still used (in a modernized electronic form) by Pentax. As usual, we will break things down by: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Updated Nov. 18, 2019
It had been a slow afternoon. The kind of afternoon you read about in cheap detective novels. An empty bottle sat on my desk. As empty as a Maalox bottle could be after two too many Taco Bell chalupas.
"Why?", I asked myself, knowing full well what the answer would be.
Fortunately, before I could answer myself, the door swung open. In walked trouble, Nikonista, by the look of the yellow strap hanging out of her handbag with the big, black letters N...i...k...o...n on it. Your learn to pick up on such subtleties after a few years in this business.
Welcome to the fourth installment of our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" overviews! It features Olympus, one of the most influential Japanese camera manufacturers. We will work our way through: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing. But first...a little introduction :-).
Olympus first came to prominence in photography in the late 1950s and early '60s with their half-frame (18x24mm, which was half of the 35mm frame) Pen series of cameras specifically targeted at the Japanese and later, the European markets. They were designed to be affordable for the average worker and economical to operate while still providing decent quality for an 8x10 print. Olympus sold millions of Pens. Ironically, it was the refusal of Kodak to support the half-frame format in the USA that pushed Olympus into the 35mm arena. For a more in-depth look at this turn of events, see this article. Although Olympus was the last of the major Japanese manufacturers to get into the 35mm SLR game, they made quite the splash in 1972 when they finally joined the fray. The immense influence Olympus exerted on the photographic world was due, in large part, to the efforts of the brilliant designer Yoshihisa Maitani and his team of engineers. The creator of the Pen and OM series was always seeking to do something different, not just copy others, and this does much to explain the success of Olympus over a three-decade period with its film-based equipment. The OM series would do more to reduce the size and weight of 35mm SLRs than any other system. What is more interesting was the impact this had on the other, more well-established manufacturers (Canon, Minolta, Nikon, & Pentax) known as the "Big 4". By the late-'70s, that designation had to be changed to the "Big 5", due to the success of the OMs. So let's take a closer look at all the OM system has to offer.
Updated Nov. 18, 2019
The third article in our series "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" takes on the Nikon F-mount, arguably the most well-known, and definitely the longest-lived of all the 35mm SLR bayonet systems. After a brief introduction, we will break down our overview in this format: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) began to build their reputation in the early 1950's as one of the premier Japanese optics manufacturers. Fortune and Life magazine photographers Horace Bristol and David Douglas Duncan were working in Japan and they were introduced to Nikkor lenses for the Leica M39-mount and Contax cameras then favored by photojournalists. Within a few years, Nikon introduced their famed S-mount series of rangefinder cameras that set new standards for rugged reliability. With the success of the Asahi Pentax SLR of 1957, Nikon found itself at a crossroads, with two management factions forming: one wanting to stick with rangefinders, and the other pushing for SLR development. Eventually (and fortunately for Nikon) the SLR project went ahead, drawing much from the SP rangefinder design. The result was the Nikon F of 1959, a professional-oriented machine. A whole line of Auto-Nikkor lenses underwent rapid development in the early '60s, giving Nikon one of the most extensive offerings of the early Big 4 (Canon, Minolta, and Pentax were the other companies). Nikon also developed a large assortment of accessories to increase the performance and versatility of the F: interchangeable finders, focusing screens, motor drives, etc. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Nikon solidified its reputation as the first choice of photojournalists and widened its scope to include advanced amateurs, and by 1979, to the average consumer. By the early '80s, they had risen to second place in overall sales among the now-Big 5 (Olympus had elbowed its way in during the mid-'70s). That would be the high-water mark for the Nikon manual focus system (and all other MF systems), although Nikon would continue to produce MF bodies and lenses into the 21st century, which was longer than any other major Japanese manufacturer. So let's get it on...with Nikon.
Welcome to our second system overview, this time featuring the Canon FL/FD system, in our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series. Following a brief introduction we will break things down via the format of 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Canon was an early entrant into the SLR market in 1959 (the same year as Nikon) with its Canonflex model in what it called the R-mount. Compared to its competitors Asahi Optical Co. (Pentax), Chiyoda Kogaku (Minolta), and Nippon Kogaku (Nikon), Canon got off to a slower start in SLRs as far as sales went. This was due to a couple of factors: 1) Canon remained focused on the rangefinder market as the others went pretty much all-in on SLRs, and 2) the Flex and its immediate descendants the RP, and R2000 were quirky machines with a bottom plate-mounted film advance trigger which was rangefinder-derived. The R-mount, with its breech lock lens coupling, did serve as the basis for the succeeding FL and FD mounts, although it used different internal controls for aperture functions. With the final R-mount camera, the heavyweight RM (1962), Canon went more mainstream with the control configuration and it was their first SLR with a built-in meter. They still remained fourth in sales, however, because they trailed the other three manufacturers in camera/lens automation.
Updated Jan. 26, 2021
Welcome to the first system overview in our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series! We will proceed through the Big 5 Japanese SLR makers, first looking at manual focus (MF) systems and then auto focus (AF). We will now take an in-depth look at the manual focus "mind of Minolta". Following a brief introduction we will use our usual format of 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing to break things down.
Minolta was the second major Japanese manufacturer to offer a pentaprism SLR with an instant-return mirror behind Asahi Optical Company and their Pentax (1957) model. They introduced their SR & Auto Rokkor (the "auto" stood for the automatic opening/closing of the lens diaphragm) lenses and the SR-2 camera body in 1958. Minolta quickly became the sales leader among the SLR makers and dominated the amateur market in the early 1960's. There was a strong engineering mindset at Minolta and they were not afraid to innovate throughout the next four decades. Various attempts to break into the professional market over the years always seemed to fail market-wise, but Minolta's attempts served to push the boundaries of what a professional SLR could be. The amateur market seemed to be the place where Minolta found its sweet spot. Minolta was also one of the two major manufacturers that made their own glass (the other was Nikon) for their lenses, thus exercising control over the entire lens-making process. Sadly, by 2006, strategic missteps brought about the end of Minolta as a major player in the SLR world, with the camera division being sold to Sony. But there are still treasures to be found in the old Minolta Mine. Let's get digging!
System - a group or combination of...interacting elements forming a collective entity
Collins English Dictionary
Having the concept of "system" clearly in mind goes a long way in making a good choice of any SLR, whether it's vintage film or a brand new digital setup. The camera body on its own, sophisticated as it may be, is of no use without lenses. Other accessories - such as flash units, motor drives, and multi-function backs - increase the capability and versatility of the SLR. Oftentimes, we get caught up in the brand name, appearance, and/or specifications of the SLR body, to the neglect of the rest of the system which will play such a critical role in our photography. The vintage SLR user is spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting a system. We have the Big 5 - Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax - along with a smattering of smaller but still-capable candidates like Contax/Yashica, Fujica, Konica, and Topcon, among others. Which system best fits your needs and wants is obviously a personal decision. How to help you to identify and prioritize your needs is the objective of this article. It will be followed by a series of system overviews for each member of the Big 5.
In 1962, Nikon decided to take the plunge into the amateur enthusiast SLR market with a new model, the Nikkorex F. From 1959 to this point, they only had the solitary, professional-oriented, Nikon F in their SLR lineup. The price of the F put it out of reach of the average 35mm photo enthusiast. In the meantime, Minolta and Pentax were cleaning up in the sales department in the amateur market, with Pentax having approximately four times and Minolta ten times the overall sales of Nikon in the whole interchangeable lens SLR market in 1962. This would prove to be a very consequential decision by Nikon, one that would impact their growth for decades to come. And not just in camera body sales. However, the Nikkorex F would fail to achieve Nikon's goal of successfully breaking into the enthusiast market. So it was back to the old drawing board...
With the longest-lived current 35mm SLR bayonet-mount (introduced in 1959), Nikon has a vast catalog of manual focus lenses in a sometimes dizzying array of variations. This can make choosing the right one for you seem daunting. Hopefully, we can help you to find the most suitable candidates for your Nikon lens (Nikkor) arsenal. In our first Nikkor article, we looked at the best bargains in single focal length (prime) lenses. In this follow-up we will attempt to peruse the bargain bin for zoom lenses. "Bargain" is relative in this case to other Nikkors in the same general focal length range ;-). Nikkors generally have higher prices than other Japanese brands of vintage glass because the mount is still current and because of Nikon's reputation as the "choice of pros" over a period of many decades.
The mid-1970s were a time of major transition in the SLR industry. The biggest changes involved the downsizing of camera bodies (initiated by Olympus), the general electrification and computerization of many functions (most notably with the Canon AE-1), and the inevitable de-contenting and cost-cutting that came with increased competition between all manufacturers for market share. Perhaps no series of SLRs demonstrated being caught in this no-man's land more than the first three models Pentax released with its brand-new K-mount bayonet in 1975. Two models would survive only three years, the third only six. Yet, ironically, the fourth model, introduced in 1976, would go on to be one of the most successful and iconic of all SLRs and would be in production for well over 20 years. Fortunately for vintage camera lovers, any of these K-series SLRs can still be enjoyed and are serviceable even today. So let's take a look at the tragic trio of the KM, KX, K2, and the student camera extraordinaire, the K1000.
In their never-ending quest to automate the operation of the SLR, the Japanese manufacturers first targeted auto exposure in the mid-1960s. Auto exposure (AE) initially meant that the photographer had only to set one exposure parameter (shutter speed or aperture) and the camera would automatically set the other. What became known as "shutter priority" (with the user setting the shutter speed and the camera choosing the complementary aperture), was the first AE mode to appear in cameras. It was the easiest to design and could be completely mechanical (no electronic controls) in operation. Konica (one of the smaller and more innovative SLR makers) was the first company to market a practical focal-plane shutter-priority SLR. Nikon began AE research & development in late 1964. It would be five years, though, before they had their first prototype and eight years before they brought an AE-capable SLR to market. So what took so long?
"Endling" - an individual that is the last of its species.
-The journal Nature-
Updated Feb. 6, 2021
Meet the last great manual focus Minolta...the XD (XD 11 in North America/XD 7 in Europe). Steady on, now! Wasn't the X-700 (1981) an award-winning camera with a more extensive and capable system of accessories?! Yes...yes it was, and it sold very well (2.1 million copies versus 750,000 XDs)...and lived a much longer life...and it has TTL flash...and a real motor drive...yadda, yadda, yadda. Just pick up an example of each and stroke the film advance lever. Case closed. Well, not really closed...I'm just getting warmed up ;-). Now the objective of this article is not to denigrate the X-700. (That would be rather unappreciative, seeing as it was my first real camera, it got me hooked on photography, and it is a good camera.) But a funny thing happened when I was looking for a backup body, back in 2000. I chanced upon a black XD 11 at my local pusher...I mean camera store, and for $50 less than I had paid for the X-700! Fast forward 16 years, and the 11 is still with me while the X-700 was sent down the road a few years back. Why?
Updated October 19, 2020
With the longest-lived 35mm SLR bayonet-mount (1959-), Nikon has a vast catalog of manual focus F-mount lenses in a sometimes dizzying array of variations. This can make choosing the right one for you seem daunting. Hopefully, we can help you to find the most suitable candidates for your Nikon lens (Nikkor) arsenal. In this first article, we will search out the best bargains in single focal length (prime) lenses. "Bargain" is relative in this case to other Nikkors in the same focal length ;-). Nikkors generally have higher prices than other brands of vintage glass because the mount is still current and because of Nikon's reputation as the "choice of pros" over a period of many decades.
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.