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 :-)
With only a two-and-a-half-year market life (Spring 1983 - Winter 1985), it might seem that the Zoom-Nikkor 50-135/3.5 AI-s was a failure (just over 31,000 produced) for Nikon. Adding to this perception is the fact that it never made the transition to auto focus (AF), as did its pseudo-successor, the much longer-lived AI-s 35-135/3.5-4.5 (almost 92,000 produced from 1984 - 98 in MF and over 282,000 produced from 1986 - 98 in AF form). But when we dig a little deeper, a fascinating (for a lens geek, anyways ;-)) tale emerges. What were the real reasons for the 50-135's untimely demise? Here is the story of a sleeper Nikkor lens...one that still performs surprisingly well in the current digital age.
Updated August 17, 2020
In an earlier article, we looked at the differences between the Nikon F3 & F4 and how they might affect your purchase and/or usage of either body. Not being able to leave well enough alone, I thought, "seeing as you can purchase an excellent F2 Photomic or Photomic A or a plain F3 for $250 - $300 USD, what if we tried the same sort of comparison between the F2 and F3?" I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh...right...we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka "Knights of the Order of F2" (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.
...waits 5 seconds...
Okay...now that the pitchforks, torches, burning effigies, and other accoutrements to a rational discussion are at hand, let's wind the clock back to 1980 and the seismic shift that occurred in the Kingdom of F.
"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"
- Jean-Baptisite Alphonse Karr c. 1849
or as it is commonly rendered en Anglais:
"the more things change, the more they stay the same"
As of the spring of 2019, this maxim still rings true in the photographic equipment world (and the larger world in general :-)).
***FAIR WARNING*** - This series of articles contains numbers (please, no), history (bleccch!), and eventually, analysis (make it stop!). 678 Vintage Cameras cannot be held responsible for drowsiness, general lethargy or any other sleep-inducing effects should you choose to continue. Parallels are about to be drawn between the digital and film eras, which will be an immediate turnoff for adherents of the "either/or" crowd, and therefore an utter and complete waste of such a person's time. (As opposed to the standard waste of a person's time that this space traditionally occupies ;-))
Now that we've got that out of the way (is it too early in the spring for crickets to be out and about?), let's see how a 170-year-old saying relates to events in the camera industry today. In this first portion, we will look at the present state of affairs and some underlying factors, and Part 2 will deal with the gory details of the Auto Focus revolution of the 1980s. (I swear I keep hearing crickets...)
In automotive circles, the "sleeper" has a long and roguish history. Take a plain-Jane car and throw some serious performance bits under the hood and prey upon the unsuspecting (bwahahaha). A frumpy four-door with a quiet (at least at idle) exhaust makes it even tastier :-). When it comes to old SLRs, there is no such post-purchase hopping-up per se, but there were enough models that followed the spirit of the sleeper as far as looks and features went to make things interesting. The bonus today is that you can snag one of these soporific snappers for a fair bit less than their more-celebrated contemporaries, while giving up very little (if any) outright performance. Now, if I happen to leave out your favorite flies-under-the-radar film-burner, don't get uptight. Feel free to mention my misses in the comments, and who knows, maybe we will have to do a sequel. So...in no particular order...
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful slip
that happened to three companies
who thought they were so hip...
In Part 1, we focused on Pentax, Olympus, Nikon, and Minolta, respectively, as the first companies to introduce production auto focus (AF) 35mm SLRs in the early to mid-1980s. Although Pentax was the first-mover (1981), and Olympus & Nikon followed two years later, it was not until the introduction of the trendsetting Minolta 7000 in February 1985 that the AF SLR truly came of age. This was borne out by the other three manufacturers' abrupt decision to adopt Minolta's idea of AF motor-in-body (MIB) design, abandoning their previous allegiance to the motor-in-lens (MIL) philosophy. These companies' next AF SLRs bore an uncanny resemblance to the all-conquering 7000, at least in the lens mount area ;-). Minolta appeared poised to dominate SLR sales for the foreseeable future, yet within three years, they would be toppled from the peak and by the time the early-'90s rolled around, they would be back in their familiar third-place sales position that they had held from the early-'70s onward. So, even being the first successful AF SLR manufacturer was no guarantee of being the long-term winner. How could that happen? This time, we will take a closer look at the reaction to the AF revolution by the then-biggest fish in the SLR pond.
In the land of manual focus SLRs circa 1984, things were looking grim. That old implacable foe, "market saturation", had once again surfaced from the depths of the eastern Pacific to wreak havoc on the sales charts of the Japanese manufacturers. Over a decade had elapsed since its previous appearance in the early to mid-'70s. The proliferation of affordable autoexposure SLRs, from 1976 onwards, had not only blunted that attack, but had then led to the greatest sales extravaganza for 35mm SLRs, EVER. But now, the denizen of the deep was back with a vengeance and taking names. Internal motors for film advance, LCD displays, and angular '80s styling were doing nothing to stem the tide. Only another big-time innovation was going to give the SLR makers a chance. Their trump card?
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 July 23, 2020
At first glance, the FE (along with its slightly-older sister the FM) is as nondescript a Nikon as there ever was. Its specifications are nothing out of the ordinary for a late-'70s enthusiast SLR: 1/1000 sec. fastest shutter speed, Nikon's venerable 60/40 centerweighted metering, sub-600 gram weight, and a seeming dearth of innovation. Looks? Nothing to see here people...move along...move along. Flanking the classic Nikon logo on the pentaprism housing are two virgin swathes of metal betraying no clue as to the identity of this wallflower. Only once you go to bring the camera to your eye is there the possibility of positive identification, that is, if your right thumb isn't already covering the tiny "FE" that precedes the serial number on the rear of the top plate. But don't sleep on the FE, there is more here than meets the eye ;-).
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
1992. Barcelona. Change is in the air. For three decades, challengers had risen and been vanquished. But now, for the first time, the adversary would gain the advantage. And Nikon F-series cameras would never be the same. From now on, instead of setting the pace, Nikon would be chasing, always keeping an eye on and trying to keep up with the new market leader. But how did it come to this? And what makes the F4 such a milestone camera in SLR history?
Google the above question and be prepared for a merry-go-round of answers and opinions across forums and blogs. It is not the intent of this article to find fault with anyone or incite riots ;-). It is, hopefully, to provide some clarity, which is not so easy, seeing as Nikon itself changed its position from "NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT!!", and "DO IT AT YOUR OWN RISK. WE are NOT responsible for any damage that may occur"...to "alright, it's okay, if you must". Logically, this raises doubts and questions, questions that I wondered about when I purchased my own F4. Why did Nikon change its position? What, if any, risk would I be taking by using lithiums in mine? This article is the result of my investigation of this issue. The conclusion I came to may or may not sound reasonable to you. I hope it will be of some help to someone :-).
Updated May 13, 2020
$250 - $350 USD. That's what it takes to have one of these beauties for your own nowadays (2020). For those of us who couldn't afford to own a pro-level camera back when the F3 & F4 were current, now is a golden opportunity to obtain a little slice of photographic history that is as usable as ever. If you have ever picked up one after holding a consumer-level body, there is simply no comparison (Yeah, they are that solid & heavy! Especially the F4! :-)). Even with F3 values rising again (and at a faster rate than the F4's), it still comes down to the attributes most important to you, the individual photographer, when making a choice between the two (if you can't have both, that is ;-)). It is the objective of this article to clearly delineate the differences between the F3 and F4 that could influence your decision-making process. So here we go...
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.