The Olympus OM System
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.
The history of Kodak is a very human one with examples of ingenuity, tenacity, and decisiveness, alongside of arrogance, complacency, and fallibility. Much has been written about the brilliance of George Eastman in creating a mass market for photography and his company's subsequent mastery of that market for a century. More recently, the bulk of analysis has focused on the fall of Kodak from dominance and the underlying causes. 130+ years is not a small field of study by any means, so let's examine just a 25-year slice of Kodak's life that will illustrate how Kodak transitioned from a proactive, anything-but-complacent juggernaut to an increasingly reactionary player in the photography market. The period from 1963 to 1988 is a fascinating one as it contains the best and worst of Kodak.
With a major SLR slump under way, the early-to-mid-1980s were the golden age of the compact AF (auto focus) 35mm camera. Many snapshooting consumers, who had been sucked in by the snake-oil promise of SLRs that did everything for you, now turned to what they had really needed all along: relatively affordable compact AF models. Innovations were coming fast and furious, and widespread cost-cutting had yet to enter the picture. All of the major (and most of the smaller) manufacturers had at least one high-quality entrant in the hotly-contested 35mm f/2.8 category. By the late '80s, however, the bean-counters and the public's clamor for zoom lenses ensured the demise of the capable, yet economical, AF compact. But let's go back to the boom days of...
The Nikon F System (Manual Focus)
Updated Jan. 9, 2021
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 going with Nikon.
The Canon FL/FD System
Updated June 30, 2021
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.
The Minolta SR System
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!
Choosing a Vintage SLR System
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.
1966 brought twin model introductions from Minolta that would lay the foundation for their next decade of rangefinder cameras. The nearly identical Hi-Matic 7s and 9 both featured Minolta's new CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) metering, which would serve as the top-of-the-line exposure measurement system for Minolta SLR and rangefinder cameras until the introduction of the AE-S Finder (1976) for the professional XK/XM SLR followed by the introduction of the enthusiast-oriented XD in 1977. Let's take a closer look at the Hi-Matics and the 7s in particular...
Updated Aug. 30, 2021
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...
Updated Aug. 26, 2021
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 two years, the third only five. 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 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.
Updated Apr. 27, 2022
Domination of the mid-to-late 1960's sales charts. Millions of devoted fans. As influential on SLR development as a certain group of four blokes were on rock 'n' roll during the same period. We can only be talking about one camera...the Pentax Spotmatic (or Spottie to its ardent admirers), the first true superstar SLR.
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?
Minolta was one of the most successful SLR manufacturers throughout the 1960s. With their SR and SRT series of cameras and Rokkor lenses they were consistently among the top 2 in SLR sales by the Big 4. (Pentax was the other market leader. Canon and Nikon were the two junior members as far as sales went.) They had sold more than 400,000 SLRs per year from 1966 through 1970. Nevertheless, they (as did the other members of the Big 4) realized that the market for fully-mechanical, manual-exposure SLRs was starting to reach a saturation point. And competition between the Japanese companies was heating up now that they had collectively pushed the German camera makers into irrelevance in the SLR market. Electronically-controlled SLRs would be the new weapons in the battle for market supremacy during the 1970s. The Big 4 had all begun development of these in the mid-'60s and now the fruitage of that labour began to appear: the Pentax Electro Spotmatic & ES (1971); the Nikkormat EL (1972); and the Canon EF (1973). Although Minolta would be the last to introduce their challenger in 1974, the XE-7 (XE-1 in Europe & XE in Japan) would turn out to be the best-seller among these first-generation electronic SLRs.
Updated May 1, 2021
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?
Updated Sept 13, 2022
Minolta was one of the early players in the SLR market with the introduction of their SR-mount in 1958, only a year behind Asahi Optical Company's Pentax (which used the existing Praktica M42 screwmount), and a year ahead of the Nikon F-mount. More commonly known as the MD mount (which is really the designation of the fourth-generation lenses) the SR was a very advanced bayonet design for 1958 that required no internal changes for its 40+ year lifespan and thus avoided the compatibility problems suffered by most other concurrent mounts as they had to modernize or adopt completely new designs to offer auto-exposure capability and other new features. In 1985, when Minolta introduced its new Alpha (A) mount which permitted auto focus, the SR-mount was not immediately discontinued, but it was the beginning of the end, and by the mid-2000s it was an orphan. Which means great things for the bargain hunter. Orphaned mounts are in lower demand, generally, and therefore, it is less expensive to obtain lenses and accessories for them. Minolta glass is of excellent optical and build quality and equally at home on classic film SLRs or adapted for modern mirrorless digital cameras. So let's take a look at some of the best bargains around in vintage Minolta lenses.
This is the first installment of our Best Bargain Lenses series in which we attempt to sift out the truly best-bangs-for-your-buck in the legacy lens world. We are starting with the Pentax K-mount (bayonet) because of increased interest in vintage Pentax glass since the release of the new K-1 full-frame (35mm format) DSLR. You will find that most bargains lie in the focal lengths between 28 to 200mm and at moderate apertures (e.g. f/3.5 or f/4 for wide angles and telephotos and f/1.7 to f/2 for normal lenses). The beauty of these unassuming optics goes beyond their low prices; because of their smaller maximum apertures they were able to use simpler (most of the time) optical constructions, which saved weight and bulk and yet gave excellent performance. So let's start the party with the original series of Pentax K-mount lenses: the SMC Pentax models which were manufactured from 1975 to 1977 (offering the best build quality before cost-cutting entered the picture with the M- & A-series). As we go through we will consider each lens in context with its predecessor in M42 screwmount and successor in SMC-M. Prices are current as of 2016 and are an average cost for lenses in very good to excellent condition.
Updated June 11, 2022
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 20, 2021
$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...
Updated Jan. 7, 2022
In 1976, Nikon found itself at a crossroads with its F-series of professional bodies. The F2 was at the peak of its domination of the market, with 125,000 sold in that year, the greatest annual total achieved by a single F model ever. Compare that to 36,000 Canon F-1s and around 8,000 Minolta XK/-1/Ms and clearly Nikon was sitting pretty with the mighty, mechanical F2. The problem was in coming up with its successor, the F3.
The reason for this struggle was that Nikon had to try and balance its desire to make significant strides with the F3 and yet not alienate its customer base of professionals, a group not known for rapid acceptance of change ;-). Especially change involving more reliance upon electronics (where are you going to get batteries in the middle of a fire-fight in the jungle, or what happens if you miss a deadline because of a dead camera?). So here was the challenge: Maintain high reliability and quality while: 1) incorporating automatic operation, 2) making the camera easier and cheaper to build, and 3) convincing pros that it was worth upgrading to. Nothing to it, right? So how did Nikon do? And is the F3 for you?
Updated Aug. 30, 2021
When Nikon introduced the F2 in the autumn of 1971, its predecessor, the Nikon F, was still in high demand. In fact, 1970 had seen the highest ever level of production for the F, with over 100,000 units made. Nikon had intended to cease F production with the deployment of the F2, but demand for the F proved so great that two years elapsed before they were able to discontinue it for good. That is quite a testament to the popularity of the F and is also indicative of the tendency of professional photographers to stick with what is familiar and trusted. A similar thing had happened with the F itself when Nikon wanted to cease production of its rangefinders in 1959. Demand by photographers doubtful of the newfangled SLR and comfortable with their rangefinder cameras caused Nikon to keep them in limited production until 1965. Now history was repeating itself. So how could the F2 possibly compete with its already legendary forebear? By being a better camera, that's how. How much better? Let's find out...
Updated July 25, 2019
Nikon has been in the SLR business since 1959. Which means there are plenty of choices as far as selecting a vintage camera body goes. Nikon initially marketed mostly to professionals. But in 1962 they entered the amateur market as well, and by 1979 they had three descending tiers: professional, enthusiast, and consumer which they maintain even today. Let's kick it off with the granddaddy of them all...the SLR that put Nikon on the map.
The Canon AE-1: A New Kind of SLR
1976. A watershed moment in the history of the SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera. The year when, depending on your point of view, camera design and manufacturing quality began its slide into a pit of oblivion, or ushered in a new era of affordability and convenience, opening the doors of SLRdom to a whole new audience. Or maybe, like me, you can feel a bit of both ;-). Either way, the camera responsible is none other than the Canon AE-1, the best-selling film SLR of all time.
To appreciate the impact that the AE-1 had on 35mm photography, it serves us well to remember the context of its arrival and subsequent domination of the market. Prior to the AE-1, SLRs had been the choice of professionals (particularly photojournalists) and enthusiasts, people who were not interested just in snapshots, but in the craft and art of photography. Having control over the different parameters of exposure was very high on their list of priorities and the SLR gave them that, as well as access to a wide variety of lenses and accessories. For the average consumer, whose top priorities are convenience and affordability, that was waayy too much camera for waaayyy too much money! Thus the conundrum Canon was facing by 1974: a small, nearly-saturated enthusiast SLR market versus a huge consumer (mass) market that up to this point was untouchable for reasons of cost and convenience. What could be done?
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.