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...
Pentax ME super - The diminutive dimensions and push-button shutter speed adjustment of the ME super are an immediate turn-off for some analog aficionados, and it has thus been relegated far behind more-popular Pentaxes (such as the evergreen K1000 and the fully-mechanical, manual exposure-only MX) as far as perceived desirability goes. But what do you actually get if you are willing to look under the hood? Here are a few highlights:
Okay, so those are some decent features, but there has to be a catch or two, right? Right. Here you go:
Honorable Mention - For the sake of thoroughness, the progenitor of the ME super, the plain ME, offers an even lower profile among photographers. Lacking the manual mode (no push buttons, even) of the super, the aperture-priority-only ME also made do with the earlier Seiko MFC shutter (8 - 1/1000 sec. + Bulb & 1/100 sec. flash sync.), and it used a more basic LED display (only one color - red) in the viewfinder. It did, however, sport a metal top plate, 0.97x versus 0.95x magnification in the viewfinder (same as the MX, but with 92% coverage like the super), and mechanical backup setting of 1/100 sec. + Bulb. Regular-octane MEs can be had for a song and if you are primarily an aperture-priority shooter, it could be a viable alternative to the super.
Between the original ME (around 1.6 million in four years) and the super (around 2.3 million in seven years), Pentax punched out nearly four million copies in 11 years, making for easy pickings today on the used market. The combination of a great viewfinder, shutter, and meter, all wrapped in a tidy package, makes a compelling case for these petite Pentaxes.
Minolta XD-5 - As a general rule with Minoltas, having a "5" in the model number designated a somewhat stripped-down version of their top-end enthusiast body (which often used "7"). In 1979, two years after introducing the original XD (aka XD-7 in Europe & XD-11 in North America), Minolta brought out the XD-5. So where did Minolta trim features with little brother?
The remarkable thing is just how minor the deletions were. This is not to understate the convenience and speed advantages of the full-information viewfinder displays and handiness of the eyepiece shutters on the higher-end XDs. But overall, especially given the current prices for XD-5s, you are getting an awful lot for your money. Here is a list of what you still get:
Honorable Mention - The generation-older XE-5. If you prefer full-size, heavy metal SLRs, the XE-5 occupied the same slot in Minolta's lineup in its day as the more-compact, 200 gram-lighter XD-5. It used the same superb Copal-Leitz shutter as its top-end XE siblings did, and oozes quality in its construction and operation. The XD-5 offers: snappier focusing, a better meter, multiple exposures, shutter-priority mode, and all in a smaller package. But you can snag an XE-5 for half the money and if you prefer the larger form factor, it's a no-brainer :-).
Nikon FM & FE - If ever there were a couple of cameras that epitomized understated appearance coupled with some serious under-the-hood performance, this brace of Nikons fits the bill. With nothing but the classic Nikon script embossed on their prism housings, Nikon's first foray into more-compact SLRs sported some of the most sano styling ever seen on any of their ilk. No model designation on the front of the camera, just the tiniest of scripts beside the serial number that spends most of its time under your right thumb. Their overall size and weight are decidedly middle-of-the-road for late-'70s SLRs, so that also served to add to the wallflower impression. And today, their specifications pale in comparison somewhat (upon cursory examination) to their monogrammed FM2(N) & FE2 offspring, further submerging their profile. With nearly identical layouts, you have the choice of a fully mechanical shutter and manual exposure (FM) versus an electronically-controlled shutter with aperture-priority and manual exposure modes (FE).
But what do they lack compared to their more-advanced progeny? Not much on the whole, but possibly enough to swing you toward the newer versions if they will meet an actual need on your part:
At first glance, you might think it would be a given to go with a second-gen version. But here are a couple of things to bear in mind:
Now comes the hard part. FM or FE? Because the FE (1978) was introduced a year after the FM it had the benefit of some improvements adopted within that interval. Such as:
For me, it is easier to make fine exposure adjustments with the match needle display of the FE versus the 3 - diode display of the FM, which can be anywhere from 1/5 to a full stop worth of difference when two LEDs are lit at the same time. This is not super-critical, merely a matter of personal preference. As a side note, the FM did use GPD cells for metering versus the SPDs of the FE. It seems that Nikon was of like mind with Pentax in using GPDs in the late 1970's, but by the time the FM2 came along, they had also ditched them for SPDs. Again, in the real world, both work equally well. On a final note, electronically controlled shutters do tend to maintain their accuracy for longer than mechanical shutters do. But, either way, both are very capable and it really will come down to your own priorities and preferences.
Canon FTb & FTb-N - When it comes to popularity among classic mechanical SLRs, the Canon FTb trails its more-lionized Pentax (Spotmatic & K1000), Olympus (OM-1), Minolta (SRT-101), and Nikon (Nikkormat FTn & FT2) contemporaries. It could be that Canon's four-decade plus run of sales leadership also makes for a bit of fatigue on the part of prospective SLR purchasers who are not only looking for performance, but also character. Especially during the 1990s did Canon become the poster child (somewhat deservedly) for capable but soulless machines. The fact that they killed off their FD lineup over 30 years ago, coupled with the enormous success of their EOS SLRs, has also served to put such cameras as the FTb further out of sight and out of mind. But if you were to actually compare one to its aforementioned rivals, what would you conclude? That's for you to answer :-). Here's what I have found:
The FTb-N was the final incarnation of a design that started out in 1966. Eight years of fine-tuning and fettling produced a very refined and capable machine that also seems to retain character and identity (for me, at least :-)). The FTb-N gained a shutter-speed readout in the viewfinder, plastic-tipped advance lever, a re-designed F1-style self-timer/MLU lever, and finer knurling on the shutter-speed dial for better control. The damping of all of the controls is excellent, and the whole unit has a cohesive, quality feel. While designed to use an obsolete 1.35V mercury cell to power the meter, FTbs can be easily converted to use modern 1.55V silver oxide cells with modest soldering skills. If that is too tall an order, you can always use a handheld meter, or Sunny 16 :-).
Canon punched out around 1.8 million FTb/FTb-Ns so they remain plentiful on the used market. You can grab untested bodies for $50 USD fairly regularly. Fully-tested, meter-converted examples will run in the $150 USD region. They can be still be worked on by any qualified independent repair person. If you have been thinking about a Pentax K1000 or Spotmatic, Minolta SR-T, or a Nikkormat FTn, do yourself a favor and check out an FTb-N, you may just find that it checks off as many or more boxes. Not to mention that there is plenty of bargain FD glass out there to throw in front of one ;-).
Contax 139Q/Yashica FX-D Quartz - Slipping away from the Big 5 for the first time, brings us to the equivalent of Acura/Honda (feel free to substitute any other 2-tier car company ;-)) in the SLR world. Nowhere was this overlap more apparent than with these two models. The Contax debuted first in 1979 with the Yashica following 18 months later. Nowadays both cameras are under-the-radar deals (the Contax RTS family was more-hyped) with the Yashica especially being viewed as nothing much to write home about. In reality, a similar situation to the Minolta XD-7/-11 vs. XD-5 exists:
Obviously, to differentiate the two cameras, the 139Q had to have some advantages over its younger, less-elegantly-styled sibling. Such as:
The 139Q was positioned to compete with Nikon FEs and Minolta XDs, while the FX-D was slotted versus Canon AE-1s, Minolta XGs, Pentax ME supers, and the like. No other models in the two lines ever converged so closely again, as Yashica was pushed further to the consumer end and Contax sought to preserve its higher-toned image. Today, both pull off the sleeper motif very effectively, due to their disintegrating leatherette coverings. That serves to push their profiles even lower (nothing that a new covering in your choice of color and texture can't fix ;-)). You can grab the Yashica for about half the cost of the 139Q, if you can live with the feature deletions. Both cameras feel lovely in my hands and are very responsive once you get on to the metering procedure. Something to watch for on the 139Q is sticky shutter-release magnets, especially on serial numbers below 150xxx. Fortunately, they can be cleaned with modest repair skills. The FX-D does not seem to suffer from this issue as much, probably due to its later introduction as a shroud was fitted to protect the magnets from lubricant splatter during 139Q production. Even though the Yashica shipped with its own name-brand lenses (another case of underrated capabilities), there is nothing stopping you from slapping some of that famed Carl Zeiss C-Y mount glass in front of the lowly FX-D. And who is going to be able to tell the difference in your pics ;-)?
Pentax SP1000 - This K1000 predecessor and stripped-down version of the original Spotmatic could be just the ticket for someone who prefers a slower pace and enjoys the feel of a simple yet precision instrument. Like the K1000, there is no self-timer, it sports the classic Pentax "center-the-needle" metering display, and the simplest of control layouts. But the SP1000 has a couple of advantages over its progeny:
Of course, lens changes and stop-down metering take a bit more time, but that might even be preferable for certain users :-). Even though the SP1000 was designed for 1.35V mercury batteries, thanks to Pentax' bridge circuitry, a modern silver oxide 386 cell is a drop in replacement (albeit with an o-ring to center it in the chamber), with no meter re-calibration needed. Another point in the SP1000's favor is build quality. It is pure early-'70s Spotmatic, which is to say rock-solid. Now, the early K1000s were pretty much the same, but the final 15 years or so of K1000 production saw repeated cuts to build quality to keep the price at entry-level. By the 1990s, they were a far cry from their forebears when it came to quality. As for the SP1000, there were about 250,000 made from 1974-77, and you can often find them with an excellent 55/1.8 or 55/2 Super or SMC Takumar lens attached. The trick is not to pay K1000-level prices for one ;-). One thing to bear in mind is that if you like to use flash, the SP1000 has no built-in hot-shoe. It requires the attachment of a removable cold-shoe and a PC-sync cord to power the flash unit. A point for the K1000 :-).
So, could one of these somnolent SLRs slide their way into your hands? If you value results more than panache, do yourself a favor and take one for a spin. You may be pleasantly surprised (and have more moolah for another lens or a trip further afield than usual). I think I need a nap now ;-).
Various User Manuals @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/index.html
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.