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.
Step #1: What Are My Actual Photographic Needs?
This is the most important area and the one we probably spend the least amount of time thinking about ;-). I know I made my first choice of an SLR (a Minolta X-700) based on three things: 1) I saw it in Kodak's The Joy of Photography, 2) it looked cool, and 3) my Dad had a Minolta SLR years before. Not exactly a result of a careful examination of my actual needs ;-). Fortunately for me, the Minolta SR system was capable of meeting them as they grew. That did not stop me from adding Nikons later on, mostly as a result of getting caught up in equipment specs (another failure to address real needs at the time instead of wants: 1/4000 top shutter speed and 1/250 flash sync all wrapped up in that delicious titanium honeycomb shutter, ooooohh! That is not to say that having the greater capability was bad, but my reasons for wanting a Nikon so much were not the product of clear thinking. The lesson for me: emotions should not be the primary basis for decisions.
This is not to say that only a dispassionate analysis of needs is required. Photography is deeply rooted in emotion, and if you feel an emotional connection with your tools, your work generally will show it. But what is that emotional connection based upon? Looks, brand, specifications, what other people think, or...how the camera feels in your hands and whether it enables you to capture the emotions you want in your photographs. A camera system that feels good to use and has sufficient capability for you will net better results and give you more enjoyment than having some monster-specced beast that requires you to focus more on it rather than your subject. The best suggestion I can give is this: take...your...time...now to analyze your needs and research your options. Get different cameras and lenses in your hands! It can save you a boatload of time, money, and possible trouble later :-). Another suggestion: start your research by looking at the lens offerings of the different manufacturers. Keep in mind that lenses are the heart of any SLR system, so it is almost always best to give first priority to the lens system that best meets your requirements and then look for the body or bodies that will complement your lens choices.
So, how can you evaluate and prioritize your actual needs? Here are a few questions to start with, in no particular order so that you can prioritize them for yourself:
These are by no means all the questions you will need to consider, but it's a start. Pondering them in relation to one another, and not just individually is also important, for a decision made in one area will inevitably affect others. Bear this in mind too: there is no perfect system, so compromise is a necessity. But look at it as a challenge to build the best system for yourself, rather than focusing on minor inconveniences. Learning to adapt and overcome is a valuable skill for any photographer. Look for a setup that will put the least amount of obstacles in your way to accomplishing your photographic goals.
For many of us, older SLR systems represent a more participatory experience, simplified operation, and the feel of having a precision tool in our hands. We have to make the decisions, manipulate the controls, and oftentimes slow down and think more in the process. We are not so concerned about getting technically correct exposures, etc., because we have modern cameras to do that. Because there are decades-worth of models to choose from, it isn't difficult to find a level of automation that you are comfortable with. Here is a very brief and basic breakdown of eras:
The last thing anyone wants to do is waste money and time. So these two questions are a good start when investigating which system to choose. They should always be kept in mind when considering the other questions as we will see. Based on them, you will derive a minimum set of requirements for a system. About the only two genres which will immediately narrow down your choices between systems are: Sports and Wildlife. Why? Almost all other types of photography are covered by the basic focal lengths from around 20 - 200mm, which any of the Big 5 and most of the smaller manufacturers easily manage. But Sports and Wildlife are prime territory for big telephoto lenses, and there are really only two games in town when it comes to those: Canon and Nikon. There's a reason that National Geographic has heavily featured advertising from both for years ;-).
But this question looms large: Do you really want to use a vintage film SLR for Sports or Wildlife? Especially if it involves manual focus (MF), which takes a lot of time and skill to master to catch those action moments with sharp results? Older auto focus (AF) SLRs from the late '80s and early '90s are slower than modern DSLRs when it comes to AF speed, and nowhere close when it comes to subject tracking. Also, ask any professional sports or wildlife photographer who shot film if they prefer loading film to the nice big memory cards they now have. Its very unlikely ;-). This is not meant to discourage anyone, but it's one of those things requiring serious thought before making a commitment to a system. Remember too, as focal length goes up past 300mm, so do the lens costs, big time ;-). Bottom line: make sure the system you choose will be able to grow with you as you expand your photographic horizons.
This is a hugely important question, even within systems. It is a well-proven fact over decades of not-exactly-clinical testing that heavy SLR stuff all too often stays home in the cupboard or on the shelf, because we can't be bothered to pack it all up and then pack it all over the place :-). Going back to the example of wildlife photography for a minute, a 500mm f/4ish lens is probably the best balance of reach vs. weight/bulk. A manual focus version of the Canikon runs around 3 kg (6.5 lbs) give or take. Now add to that a suitable body - let's be kind to ourselves - and use a bare Nikon F3HP or Canon T90 body which adds another 0.8 kg (1.7 lbs). Oh, were you going to handhold that combo? Not for long...if at all ;-). Now we need a decent tripod and head. That will tack on at least another 2 to 3 kg (4.4 - 6.6 lbs). So we're pushing at least 5.8 kg (12.6 lbs) without any other lenses, backup bodies, flash, or a bag to put it all in. You have to be pretty committed to your craft to be willing to pack all of that around :-).
Okay, so that's a worst-case scenario. But having in mind the physical commitment it takes to haul around even a basic system is vital. A basic three-lens (28, 50, 135) prime kit + body will easily run 1.4 - 1.7 kg (3 - 4 lbs) for a typical early 1970s system, without a bag or any other accessories included. That may not sound like much right now, but how will your neck, shoulders, and back feel after 2, 4, or 8 hours of carrying such a kit around? Choosing the right kinds of straps and bags will play a huge role in how much you can comfortably carry for extended periods. That's a whole topic unto itself (which we'll get to another day :-)).
This definitely can help a person to narrow systems down. The hard part is deciding whether we need these features or not. Let's take AF first. You'll be looking post-1985 for sure (that might not be "vintagey" enough for some people ;-)). You have four basic systems to choose from: Canon EF, Minolta (now Sony) Alpha (A), Nikon F-mount AF, and Pentax K-mount AF. Right off the bat, if you already have one of these in DSLR form, you can pick up older film bodies for these mounts for a song, nowadays. The Canon and Minolta systems have very few incompatibilities when it comes to using the latest full-frame lenses on the oldest bodies. The older Canon EOS bodies interact with IS (Image Stabilized) EF lenses differently than more modern bodies, but it all works. You'll have to manually focus Sony SSM and SAM lenses with electronic focus confirmation, but they will otherwise work normally. The only trick with all 4 of these systems is that crop-sensor (APS-C) DSLR lenses will not be usable on 35mm (full-frame in digital speak) cameras for obvious reasons (the APS-C image circle is smaller than 35mm's) . Canon has made it physically impossible to mount EF-S & EF-M lenses on full-frame or 35mm bodies while the three other systems allow you to mount such lenses, but there isn't much point, unless you really want that cheesy '70s vignette-filter-look :-).
Nikon has more issues with compatibility in both forward and backward directions. Some of these merely relate to limited functionality, whereas others can cause damage to camera or lens. A helpful tutorial on this subject can be found here on Thom Hogan's filmbodies.com website. The only film AF bodies really worth using with modern Nikkor AF lenses, including "G" types (but not the latest "E" types), are the F6, F5, F100, F80, F75, and F65 (those last three are N-prefix bodies in the US). The situation with Pentax closely resembles that of Nikon. A very helpful article on K-mount compatibility can be found here at pentaxforums.com.
What if you have no stake in any current AF system? While you will want to research all four AF brands (and they will eventually be covered in this series under the individual brands), you will quickly find that Canon and Nikon AF gear is the most common and you would need very specific reasons to look at either Minolta or Pentax.
Auto exposure (where the camera sets either aperture or shutter speed or both) first debuted in shutter priority (the photographer sets the shutter speed) form in the late '60s on Konica SLRs, and aperture priority (the photographer sets the aperture) came on the scene in 1971 (Pentax Electro Spotmatic). Program (where the camera sets both aperture and shutter speed) was introduced in 1978 (Canon A-1). By the mid-to-late '80s most advanced amateur SLRs featured all four primary exposure modes (P, A ,S ,and M). Auto exposure ostensibly allows the photographer to concentrate more on composition and react more quickly in certain situations. It is no substitute, though, for understanding exposure and how its parameters relate to each other. A great tool to use when the situation requires it.
Auto winding really took off with the Canon AE-1 in 1976. Until that time motor drives were mainly the preserve of the professional. With the AE-1 an affordable, easily attachable exterior winder became a staple of the accessory lineup for all brands. Konica struck again in 1979 with the FS-1 and auto winding went internal. Again, by the late '80s almost every model, from consumer to professional, featured internal automatic film advance and rewind. The biggest drawback to external & internal winders until the early '90s and the debut of Canon's EOS Elan was noise. For those wanting to be discreet, having a manual advance lever was a necessity. The detachable winder or motor drive gave the best of both worlds until the Elan came along. Auto winders generally are more compact and will give 2 to 2.5 fps (frames per second) film advance. Motor drives (aka "film burners") are heavier, offer higher frame rates, and are usually more rugged. They can be a valuable accessory if your photographic needs require it.
Flash was a manual affair (requiring manual calculations with a dial or scale) until the 1970s when the first automatic flash units appeared featuring a sensor that would limit the flash duration according to a pre-set aperture value set on the camera and flash unit. TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering was introduced by Olympus in 1976 with the OM-2. It was a far more precise method of balancing flash exposures. The late '80s and '90s brought about ever-more sophisticated flash systems. If flash plays an important role in your photography, you may find early to mid '90s SLR systems a real step forward in capability.
Here we start to really get into how you relate ergonomically to a camera system. The nice thing is that, although the basic layout of SLRs follows a general pattern, there are numerous choices as to the finer details. Which means you can usually find something that works for how your brain and hands are wired. For example, manual focus Canon, Minolta, and Olympus lenses all focus counterclockwise toward infinity and the numeric values on the aperture increase from left to right. But, whereas Canon FD and Minolta SR/MD lenses have the aperture ring at the rear of the lens, the Olympus OM Zuikos and Canon FL (pre-FD) lenses have it at the front (per Leica M lenses). Nikon and Pentax lenses, on the other hand (pun intended), focus clockwise toward infinity and the numbers on their rear-mounted aperture rings increase from right to left. For some people this makes a difference, for others, they could care less. If you have more than one system (a common occurrence due to the highly virulent Gear Acquisition Syndrome - otherwise known as having GAS) similar lens haptics can make it easier to move back and forth between systems. It's totally up to you. There are also different focus and aperture ring tensions to choose from between brands and often between different lens generations within a brand because of changes in materials or construction. Body layout also plays a massive role in comfort and ease of use, which is why getting a variety of bodies & lenses of the same and different brands in your hands is so important. Bottom Line: A camera that gets in your way is a camera you will find reasons not to use, whereas the opposite also holds true...there are cameras that just make you want to get out and use them :-).
Now for perhaps the biggest consideration for most of us...Cost. Some generalities:
Step #2: Analyzing Which System(s) Will Best Meet My Needs
All of the Big 5 SLR systems can meet the basic needs of a photographer. They all feature comprehensive lens sets but some are more extensive (e.g. Canon & Nikon have more large-aperture, super telephoto, and specialty options). The same goes for flash and accessories. In following articles we will extensively examine each system in this format: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, and 5) Reliability and Servicing. Happy hunting! :-)
Up Next: the Minolta SR/ MD System
Suffers from a quarter-century 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.