Do you need a modern SLR? I've written so much about
Canon EOS versus Nikon AF that sometimes it is possible to
lose sight of the fact that many folks have perfectly functioning systems from
the 1970s. What is it like to step back in time?
For my evaluation, I borrowed a Nikon F2A from
Jon Robichaud. The F2A is what a
working photojournalist would have had in 1977.
What do you lose stepping back 20 years?
Stepping back 20 years from a modern SLR to the Nikon F2A, you lose the
low-contrast low-sharpness slow cheap zoom lenses; I used a Nikkor 50/1.4 on
the F2A, allowing me to take pictures in light that is 1/8th as bright as the
light required by a modern yuppie with his f/4 zoom.
surprises at the photo lab; the F2A shows you 100% of the image in the
viewfinder and has a convenient depth of field preview button
fun getting down on your stomach for low-angle shots; the F2A lets you remove
the viewfinder for wasit-level composition (you also have a choice of viewfinders
for different kinds of work/metering)
vibration from mirror slap; the F2A has a mirror lock-up button
the terror of running out of battery power; except for the meter, the F2A
will function perfectly without batteries.
Well, you get the idea. The F2A has a lot of useful features that most modern
cameras do not have. There are some who think it is the best camera that Nikon
The first thing you notice is that the F2A holds your film like a vault.
Nobody ever opened up the back of one of these guys by mistake. You turn a
beautifully machined flip-out key on the bottom to flip the back open. You pull
the leader out and slip it into a take-up spool which has a small grabber for the
frame notches. It is the most positive film loading system that I've used on a
35mm camera, not counting modern autoloading systems. If you're completely
inexperienced with the camera, this could take you an extra 30 seconds over
loading a modern AF SLR.
Old cameras don't have "little windows" in the back so that you can see what
kind of film is in there; the F2A has a metal holder for the cardboard edge of a
35mm film box. So if you want to be reminded that you've got Tri-X in there, you
just insert the Kodak box top.
With any 35mm camera,
there are only three settings that affect the picture you get on film: shutter
speed, lens aperture, and focus. The F2A has three easy-to-find wheels to control
these settings. In the DP-11 viewfinder, you can verify that all three are set
correctly. The camera shows you the lens f-stop (optically piped through from the
top of the lens), the shutter speed (mechanically coupled from the shutter speed
dial), and you can see whether or not your image is correctly focussed. A meter
needle with +/- markings shows you whether or not your exposure agrees with the
center-weighted meter's recommendation.
Note: Compare this to
my review of the
Canon Rebel G in which I discuss the misery that comes from Canon cheaping
out and giving you two wheels to control the three important settings.
You turn the meter on and off by pulling the film advance lever out a bit
(almost all old Nikons work this way). Oh yes, the film advance lever. You get
into the habit of winding the camera after every picture. It takes about
one-third of a second.
The camera is heavy but not really bigger than
my EOS-5 wonder bodies. It is big enough that
you don't need a vertical grip or winder to hold it comfortable horizontally or
The controls are simple and direct. If you want to use the self-timer, you
don't look for icons and leetle buttons, you pull the self-timer down and press
the button that is revealed when you do so. If you want 2-seconds, you only pull
it to the 2-second mark.
Taking a Picture
With an F2A and
a 50, here's how you take a picture... You think about how big your subject
should be on film. Because you don't have a zoom lens, you deliberately move your
body back and forth until the subject has the right size in the viewfinder. You
look for something that is close to 18% in tone and in the same light as your
subject. You point the camera at it and set shutter speed/aperture based on
the meter's recommendation about how much light is available
your idea about how much depth of field you want (the aperture will affect
this; at f/1.4 the background will be out of focus, at f/22 it will be
your belief about how fast the subject and the camera will be moving (you
need a shutter speed of 1/60th or faster to handhold a 50mm lens). The shutter
speed is selectable from 1 to 1/2000th seconds plus B and T. An amazing thing
about this mechanical horizontal-travel shutter shutter is that you can set
intermediate speeds between 1/80th, the flash sync speed, and 1/2000th.
After making these decisions, you try to work with your subject without
revisiting them for awhile. You concentrate on the composition, the expression
(if your subject is a person or a dog), and maybe bracket your exposure a bit if
you want different moods on slide film. You can periodically glance at the meter
to make sure that you haven't knocked the exposure way off.
Using flash on an old Nikon F is
absurdly painful. There is no hot shoe on top. In fact, there is no shoe at all.
You generally have to stick an adapter (AS-1) over the rewind knob and plug the
flash into that. You can also use the PC-cord socket, for which there is
mercifully no X/M switch to get stuck on the wrong setting (M for flash bulbs);
this is an easy way to lose pictures with an old camera. Fastest sync speed is
1/80th of a second, so the F2 isn't a great camera for fill-flash.
Once you've got a Vivitar 283 or similar auto-sensor flash hooked up, how easy
is it to use? Trivial. You use a wheel calculator on the flash to determine the
correct aperture for your film speed, set the lens to this aperture, and then
snap away. What about fill-flash? Just set the calculator wheel on the flash as
though you were using faster film (for fill that is 1-stop below ambient when
you're using ISO 100 film, tell the flash the you've got ISO 200 film).
How are the results from these old-style flash systems? Many people think that
they work better than modern cameras that meter flash exposure through-the-lens.
Neither is really as good as the way P&S cameras calculate flash exposure or
the way the new Nikon D system works (these get subject distance from the lens
and use the fact that the flash is of known power output; they don't rely on
light returning from a subject and hence work equally well if the subject is
wearing dark or light clothing).
Nifty features on the F2 in particular
Things that suck about the F2 in particular
Helpful things to remember when using old SLRs
The Bottom Line
included in a modern camera is simply useless in most situations; after a few
shots, you don't even notice that you're winding film in an F2 (you can attach an
accessory winder if you like, but they are heavy and bulky). The fancy meter
systems in modern cameras are OK, but if you're doing a serious photo project
they aren't of much use. Autofocus is great for sports, dogs playing, etc., but
you can do quite well with an manual focus system if you're willing to pick your
battles carefully. Prefocus and then wait to trip the shutter when the subjects
cross the plane of sharp focus.
Prime (i.e., non-zoom) lenses from the 1970s can be of excellent quality. If
you have or inherit an extensive manual-focus system, you should get the bodies
professionally cleaned and adjusted and then enjoy the system for another decade
or two. After that, we'll all probably just be using high-resolution video
cameras and picking out interesting still frames.
Buying a Classic Camera System
Definitely the best
system to own is Nikon. That's because they haven't changed their lens mount. You
can use all the new lenses on old cameras and old lenses on new cameras. Also,
because Nikon was the market leader among professional photographers, there is a
wide selection of used gear available. The downside of Nikon is that used gear
tends not to be especially cheap. A lot of those old lenses will work fine on the
latest N90 or F5 so why should people dump them?
A friend of mine worked for National Geographic for many years on assignment
in Japan, South America, etc. He used and still uses his Canon FD system.
Supposedly the best bodies in this line are the T70 and T90, which have a lot of
modern AF body features minus the AF. Old Canon gear can be moderately cheap
because none of it works on the EOS system.
The Minolta system was more of a consumer favorite (I think in the
early/mid-1970s their SRT-100/101/102 line was the most popular SLR produced).
They made some excellent MD lenses, though, and these again can be cheaper than
their old Nikon equivalents because MD lenses won't work on Maxxum cameras.
The Olympus OM-1, OM-2, and OM-4 cameras plus Zuiko prime lenses are
excellent. Olympus seems to have given up on the SLR system business, but some
retailers still have new Olympus MF lenses and bodies to sell.
Where to buy an older SLR system
If you want an F2, probably your best bet is to send email to
Jon Robichaud. He seems to have
quite a few and buys and sells them frequently. You can try the
retailers on my "where to buy" page. You can try
photo.net classifieds. You can scout
your local want-ads. Budget at least $150 for each body and $50 for each lens if
you are going to have stuff cleaned and adjusted.
My Personal Choice
My personal choice in
a classic 35mm SLR camera system? Brand-new Canon EOS bodies and lenses! I'm
short of time and long on money and I can't afford to have a camera or lens fail
on me in some subtle mechanical way that doesn't become apparent until 20 rolls
of slides come back from the lab. If I drop a body, I want to be able to buy a
new one in a medium-size town or have B&H Photo FEDEX me one.
The photos on this page are all from two test rolls that I burned with the
F2AS that John lent me. For authenticity, I put a roll of Tri-X through the
camera. To test the 50/1.4's color rendition, I used a roll of modern slide film:
Kodak Elite 100. The images shown were the best of the lot.