Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics
er·go·nom·ics | \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miks: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).
In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.
Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.
1. How do you hold this?
Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.
There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.
What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.
Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.
The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):
“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?
The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.
What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.
Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.
They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?
As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.
3. The pocketability conceit*
“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”
Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.
Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.
This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.
On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.
*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.
4. O Camcorder, where art thou?
My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.
One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”
The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.
In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.
5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone
About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.
For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:
…allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye
The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.
Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.
If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.
Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.
SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.
6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?
There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.
But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.
Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.
There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.
Funleader 18mm f/8 Caplens M-Mount
I’ve always thought of myself as a fun follower, not a fun leader. Well, someone had to try it, right? Two weeks and $179 later, I got a small package from China via City of Industry, California. I almost threw away the lens by mistake. The following will be a brief initial review of yet another interesting lens from China’s burgeoning camera lens industry (another example is the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 shift, reviewed previously).
Funleader is a somewhat obscure company. I actually saw the lens on a targeted Facebook post, making that pervasive surveillance useful to me for the first time ever. The company makes two versions of the Caplens and a drop-in conversion mount to put the 35 Contax G Planar on Leica M bodies. Everything appears to be designed by Mr. Ding (who is the counterpart of Venus’ Mr. Li).
The Funleader 18mm f/8 cap lens / Caplens / whatever is a follow-on to the company’s original 6-element ultrawide-in-a-cap. The difference for Leica M mount is that the lens can actually focus, which is a big deal because f/8 is not quite pan focus for an 18mm lens. The focusing mechanism on the lens is a little lever with a rotating cell. The focusing scale is marked 0.45m, 0.7m, 1m (with a click), 2m, and ∞. This lens is designed for Leica M mount, though in a future installment, I will plug it into a Sony A7r II and a6300 just to see what it does with those.
My assessment of this lens is that it is shockingly not bad. It’s pretty clear that this takes a direct shot at the MS-Optical Perar series of lenses costing five to six times as much (depending on what fetishized finish the Perar features). You’re not expecting the Funleader to compete with a ZM 4/18mm Biogon (which is still five times the price and ten times the thickness…). Let’s do the quick run-through.
Construction. The lens is solid aluminum, decently finished. Mechanical action is nice. All markings are engraved, or at least etched through the anodized finish. This includes the obnoxiously large “FUNLEADER” logo, but a little Sharpie marker will make that less visible. The lens comes with a rear lens cap, but it’s somewhat puzzling that there is no front cap (it would take a 36mm push on, notched for the focus lever). There are no filter threads. The lens weighs 40g, or about 1.3 ounces. It’s not much bigger than a body cap, hence, “cap lens.”
Focus. The lens is not rangefinder-coupled, though the mount will cause the camera rangefinder to read a little over 2m. If you can validate the correct focus-lever position on the lens so that the optical focus matches the RF, you will have at least one place where you can precisely focus. To do this, you need to use LiveView or an EVF. The 1m click stop on the lens is good for moderately close objects. But if you really want to be precise, you will crank it to ∞ outdoors and use an EVF indoors. Or focus-bracket. The Leica M EVFs can easily work with lenses at t/16, so this is no challenge. What might be a challenge is that indoors, you will be on a high-ISO marathon and that focus peaking may require some judgment calls. Fortunately none of those calls are difficult.
Aperture. The iris changes quickly and easily from f/8 to f/8 to f/8 and then back to f/8.
Sharpness. As noted, focus does make a difference, and it seems from looking at prior tests that the original Funleader Caplens (fixed focus) did not have a small enough aperture to cover all distances. Although the caplens is not critically sharp on infinite subjects (like a lot of wides, you are actually best advised to shoot close-to-mid distances), it does have enough bite to work. The following two pictures are scaled down to 3000×2000, but they will go large enough to see that the lens is actually more than passable. In fact, it’s embarrassingly good in some ways (but read on). There is little or no “smearing” at the edges, but where that appears in other Leica-mount lenses, it disappears by about f/8 anyway.
Near (M typ 240):
Far (Monochrom Typ 246)
Casual tests reveal sharpness consistent with at least the 10lp/mm metric shown for the lens if not also 30lp/mm.
Distortion. There is actually vanishingly little distortion at 1m and on. No sample picture is distortion corrected, or even cropped. This is not a symmetrical lens, at least not obviously, but it does have the same straight lines. Distortion is spherical, from the looks of it.
Falloff. Ok, there is tons and tons and tons of falloff on this little guy. Corners are 1-2/3 stops darker than the center. The M typ 240 metadata generator says variously that the exposures are f/8 or f/11 overall. M cameras compare on-sensor exposure with a small photocell eye. The measurement is not perfect, but it can often be very close.
Color shifts (Leica M cameras). This one suffers from the modified bandiera italiana effect, shifting substantially purple on one side and bluish-green on the other. The exact left-right balance seems to depend a bit on the angle between the light source and the lens. The color-shift effect is an artifact of Bayer sensors, complicated sometimes by the microlenses on Leica sensors. You knew that was coming. But it’s an issue on many lenses, particularly symmetrical wide-angle lenses. The “center” can be manipulated slightly by pushing the lens hard from side to side. On some M cameras, there is just enough tolerance to shift the lens on the camera bayonet slightly (the lens flange is slightly smaller than an M body mounting flange).
The color-shift effect should be correctible using Adobe Flat Field. If you even care enough to worry about it.
The Leica Monochrom cameras could care less. They are colorblind anyway. The color shift actually helps darken skies in b/w landscape shots (the picture above was actually taken in bright overcast).
These color shifts should not be as pronounced with film cameras, but film cameras would likely yield poorer sharpness due to the inability to check focus.
Performance on Sony A7R2. Since the optical part of this lens was originally developed for mirrorless cameras, it is not much of a surprise that it performs well with them. Some notes:
- The A7R2 viewfinder is capable of displaying images from f/8 lenses with no problem.
- It is a bit easier to focus with the A7R2 focus peaking than with the M cameras.
- The image stabilization function makes up for the slow maximum aperture. Image stabilization does not fix moving subjects.
- Sharpness is good across the frame. Focus looks correct with a Novoflex ($$$) M to Sony E adapter, and infinity focus may be affected if you use cheaper adapters that are “thinner.”
- Color-shift problems are fairly neglible. Vignetting is still there. The vignetting looks symmetrical, but the color shift makes it look a little lopsided.
Room for improvement. Funleader, if you are reading this, here are a couple of things that would make this lens more fun. These are not critical, but they would improve the user experience a bit.
- A front lens cap, rubber. This lens makes a camera pocketable, so why not protect the glass from the things people carry in their pockets?
- Depth of field marks (this would just need to be two tick marks on the rotating part of the lens).
- 6-bit coding (achievable through simple engraving of the back on the black version).
- An Adobe Lightroom correction profile.
- Wider flange. The lens flange is not quite as wide as an M-camera’s bayonet mount. It would be helpful to have more of a grip surface for mounting/unmounting, since Leica M cameras have very stiff bayonet springs.
- Some way to mount filters – magnetic ring on the front?
- Optional f/16, f/22, and f/64 Waterhouse disks to drop over the lens. When shooting in bright sunlight, it makes sense to stop down. It’s probably not practical to put an iris in a lens this small.
Initial Conclusion. The Caplens is an interesting and creative democratization of the MS-Optical Perar line of lenses, not so fast but a lot cheaper. The performance is surprisingly good, especially given the number of pans of the prior version in reviews. It’s not a 4/18mm ZM Distagon, and in color, it has some Lomo-ish (or 4,5/21 ZM Biogon) characteristics, but all in all, it’s a very nice lens for the money.
Three tired tropes of analog photography
Three questions regarding film photography bear some quick study and quick disposition.
Is the cost of film actually significant?
Everybody likes to complain about the cost of film. Every time prices make their annual 10% uptick (or as McKinsey types like to say, “uplift”), people complain that this will spell the end of their film use.
Yet they are still around to complain about it the next year.
You might find yourself chasing film that is a dollar less a roll. Today, TMY 135 (well, now 135TMY-2) costs 7.50 a roll for 18 rolls if commercially loaded — or $109 for enough raw film to load 18 cartridges (variable cost 6.05, plus 80 cents roll fixed cost for the first 18 cassettes you do (this is a function of their service life, which is 3 loadings). It is not entirely clear what bulk-loading gets you here – an opportunity for scratched film, the chance to expose a bulk roll while getting into the loader, losing consecutive frame numbers, and ending up with a cassette that is either missing DX codes or pops apart if you drop it. One thing it does not get you is an actual cost advantage, especially after you spend an hour or two cleaning and loading the cassettes for each 100 foot bulk roll.
But, yes, Kodak and now Ilford price bulk film high. So take it down a notch. Say you buy Ultrafine Xtreme (I’ll predict that when/if it comes back in 400, it will be $59 a roll). There, your variable costs drop to $3.33 a roll, for a total cost of $4.13. This is cheaper in dollars, no doubt, to the tune of $67 per 18 rolls of film.
That seems like a lot unless and until you start thinking about the rest of the process. Even if you priced your own labor at the aspirational minimum wage of $15, a day of shooting (call it four rolls of film – which would be optimistic for serious, non-pro photography) would incur:
- Eight hours of taking pictures ($120)
- Four rolls of film ($13.32)
- Chemicals for processing (call it $4)
- Two hours of processing the negatives ($30)
So in this calculation, which I think you’d agree is a best case, the choice between TMY commercially loaded and Ultrafine Xtreme is $16.68 out of $167.32, or roughly 10%. That assumes you get at least 3 uses from bulk cassettes and does not factor in the cost of a bulk-loader. Actually, it doesn’t factor in the 10 minutes it would take to bulk load the 4 rolls of film. But you get the picture. And if your day of sightseeing only yields one roll of film, you’ve saved maybe 2%.
Let’s move on to the bargain category where film is “almost as good.” Yes, Ultrafine is cheaper, but yes, you have to use more filtration on blue skies, which means that it is not quite as fast for landscape work. On some more primitive cameras, the sprockets sometimes rip out if you overstuff a film cassette. Even as a frequent Ultrafine user, I would comment that TMY is more than 10% better than Ultrafine, quantified however you want: true speed, negative toughness, ability to be pushed, sharpness, or fine grain.
Bulk loading is not the only place people seem to spin off into attempts at cost-savings. There seems to be a lot of pursuit of developing-world-quality film because it’s cheap. It’s great that [fictitious] Nemopan Stasi-Special Ortho 25 is back on the market, but remember, there was a reason Nemopan went out of business. It wasn’t just our hypothetical Nemopan that went out of business. A lot of top-quality companies like Agfa and Fuji also departed film manufacturing, leaving only two clear survivors. Oh yes, two survivors and a bunch of zombified brands trying to revive their glory days selling into command economies.
Is film at all helpful for risk management?
Get too close to APUG (whoops, Photrio), and you’ll get schooled about how digital is so much less archival than film. Just think, if there is that nuclear war, you can still see 35mm transparencies or prints (assuming, of course, they were not incinerated along with their owners). Or if for some reason every one of the ten hard drives you keep as backups failed to work. I would posit that if there were an event that wiped out all electronic devices, looking at vintage photos of any type would be a sixth-tier priority.
The archival superiority of film may or may not be true (having seen my share of faded film from the 1980s – I can’t say that it is), but what is definitely true is that film photography is risky. Every single thing in the film imaging chain involves a risk.
- You could fat-finger your bulk loading.
- You could drop a reloadable metal cassette and have the ends pop off.
- You could get mishandled, spooled down bulk film.
- You could absentmindedly open the camera midway through a roll of film.
- Your subject could blink.
- You could blow the exposure.
- You could shoot an entire roll at the wrong speed.
- You could set the wrong ISO on the meter.
- You could blow it in development. Or your lab could.
- You could ruin wet negatives.
- You could even get defective factory-loaded film.
These things have small but real probabilities, and the terrifying range of ways things can go wrong continues to broaden with the passage of time. Everyone who has shot film over more than a couple of years has had at least one of these things happen. By comparison, a much smaller number of people has experienced an SD card failure.
A failure with film – because it stores a latent image until developed later – generally means the loss of a lot of time and often situations that cannot be repeated. It could be a foreign vacation. It could be a client job. It could be your young family. Time only marches in a forward direction, and subjects don’t like to redo whole projects.
Risk is part of life. Risk is definitely part of film photography. That’s fine. We all know that. But there is little that advocates for compounding risks by doing important things with untested cameras, with sketchy old film, etc.
Is film cheaper than digital?
I will confess to having been in the past a big proponent of the argument that film is cheaper than digital. That was true, seventeen years ago, when a 35mm negative could deliver a 24mp (4000dpi) scan and digital cameras like a D2x cost $4,500, cropped lenses to 1.5x and got to 12.4mp. The math went something like this: a digital camera is super-expensive, and processing regular pictures is y dollars a roll. All of that was true if your film camera was a sunk cost, and yes, in 2004 costs, it would take a lot of $3 film plus $12 processing to hit $4,500 (so 300 rolls of film, more than most people who shoot in their entire life).
But as Gen-X Luke Skywalker would say, every single word I just said is wrong (today).
First, in 2021, the idea of “film” as distinct from “digital” is specious. Since the early 2000s, almost every commercial output from color film has been digital. Minilabs have not used optical printing for decades now. Every negative gets scanned to become a print, even ones destined for chemical photo paper. Likewise, the home audience has to convert negatives or transparencies to digital to make them visible to any stranger other than magazine readers, gallery visitors, or slide-show watchers. Actually, getting into a print publication or a gallery almost always requires digitization for submission or curation.
Second, the sunk-cost equation has reversed. The “film is cheaper” argument was last effectively made before 2008, when camera phones started to stand in for point-and-shoot cameras. Today, a camera phone takes better pictures than any Canonet ever did, and those pictures are immediately ready for use on the internet. And nearly everyone in the developed world owns one. The “demise of digital,” as some would trumpet, is really more about the disappearance of lower-end digital cameras as separate appliances. If every phone is a digital camera, production is actually up year after year after year. In this context, entering film photography is the extra-cost exercise, usually starting with a film camera that — due to the magic of attrition — has become really expensive.
Finally, the price-to-performance equation firmly favors digital over 35mm. Labs don’t give away full-resolution scans with photo processing. That means you end up doing it yourself. A high-end 35mm film scanner pulls 4000dpi, or let’s call it 24 megapixels. If it’s a Nikon, you actually get almost that much useful information. A good film scanner costs about $2,000. To that, you can add from 4-8 dollars a roll for film and about an hour of scanning time per roll. A 24mp camera will set you back $400-1,000 these days, no extra cost. Want 42mp – which exceeds what anyone without a Flextight or drum scanner can do? How about $1,300?
You just can’t make the argument that film is “cheaper” with a straight face anymore. Fun, relaxing, and a change of pace – but not economical.
DX labels: you’ll thank me on your wedding night!
Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.
Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a
man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!
I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.
Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.
*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.
** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.
You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.
The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.
Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.
Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.
Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.
You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.
Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.
Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.
Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.
Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.
Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.
You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.
You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.
Lomo LC-A 120: same disillusion, bigger package
When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:
I think I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree / Blah blah blah. Bullshit / I hate Robert Frost /
It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.
The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.
The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.
Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.
With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.
Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).
Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.
Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:
You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.
Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.
Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:
You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.
Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.
Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.
The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.
Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.
The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.
I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.
But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.
Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.
You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.
Cameras like this are bought by fools like me / But only F&H can make a Rollei.
The 51.6% solution
This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.
I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.
Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.
Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…
Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.
So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.
For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.
But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:
- Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
- CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
- LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
- Reading glasses.
So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:
- At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
- At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
- At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
- From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.
If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).
Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.
Konica 35/2.0 L/UC Hexanons
This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.
How did these things get started?
The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.
The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:
This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.
F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.
In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:
- At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
- The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
- The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
- The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.
The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.
Handling versus Leica lenses
Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.
The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”
The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.
The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.
The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,
Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.
On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.
The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.
Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces
Well, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.
Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].
Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.
Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.
The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.
The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.
*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones.
End-stage Nikon manual focus
There must have once been an awkward moment when Homo sapiens neanderthalensis saw a gangly baby Homo sapiens sapiens and wondered, for the first time, what the future would be like. The Neanderthals basically merged into the surviving human line (or were eaten — the explanation seems to vary now) — and essentially disappeared. But not before giving Europeans those nettlesome brow ridges and occipital buns.
Neanderthal shock happened sooner in the Canon world than it did for Nikon. Canon released its last mainline* manual-focus camera (the T90) in 1986. Canon did not then engage in a merging of genes but instead a lens-mount genocide. FD lenses faded fast as EOS came to rule the jungle. Nikon took a few more years to get there in 1990 with its last manual focus camera, though that camera lingered for five years on the market — and Nikon never really gave up on the F-mount. Well, not immediately. Like Neanderthals, some degree of interbreeding was available, but all that fur began to repel people after a while. All of this was 23 years ago now.
By the way, when the last newly designed Nikon MF SLR went out of production, this was dominating the disco:
Nikon would in 2001 release the FM3a, but like the contemporaneous Beatles 1 album. It was just a rehashed FE2 with a new shutter. And that was so long ago that kids born then are old enough to vote. If you were an adult excited about the release of the FM3a, you’ve probably just passed out of the “18-35” demographic, if not past the “uncool 44” milestone. But don’t worry – Nikon has your back with retro-rerun cameras like that, the S3 and SP. Because it’s more fun to reminisce with cameras that were shiny and new (the first time) before you were born.
* By mainline, I mean serious and mass-produced. Yes, Canon made a craptastic T60 and Nikon made (or branded…) the FM10, but these were cameras for developing markets or students.
Detour into how Nikon’s product strategy: so many cameras
It would not be a Machine Planet article without a detour into some kind of editorial, and here is one: digital cameras did not usher in the age of meaningless upgrades and gimmicks designed to excite camera buyers into “one more body.” Film SLRs were the greatest feature-chase of them all: the lenses and the film are the ultimate determinants of performance on a film camera; everything else is metering, motor, and in some cases autofocus.
Consider that in 1980-1985, Nikon fielded five prosumer cameras based on the same platform (FM, FE, FM2, FE2, and FA), at the same time it fielded three based on an intermediate architecture (EM, FG, and FG-20), and a next-generation intermediate (N2000/F-501). All of these variations revolve around binary features/exclusions: needle meter or not; matrix metering or not; internal motor or not; program mode or not. And you thought Sony had a short attention span?
To be fair (why start now?!), by the sunset of Nikon’s manual focus cameras in 1995, post-processing was out of the reach of most people. Photoshop was at version 3 and barely able to handle the tasks it routinely handles today (it also fit on 5 Mac floppies…); scanners were insanely expensive; and if you had a bad slide, you were out of luck. If you had a bad negative, you were mostly at the mercy of Candice at Fox Photo to maybe run that one neg through the Fujitsu at N-N-N-3 instead of N-N-N-N (this person actually existed, was roughly my age, and was quite cute).
Even when Nikon made the jump to autofocus, this proliferation continued, with performance carefully meted out between models that used the same AF module (consider that the N50, N70, N4004, N5005, N6006, N8008/s, and F4 used the same module – with outcomes so different, you have to wonder what they were holding back.
But what was going on with the lenses?
Nikon’s lenses had a more tortured history that got off to its first wrong turn when Nikon started releasing metered prisms. That would have been the time to revise the mount to include aperture information (relative and maximum). Almost the entire subsequent drama of Nikon lenses was a product of trying to fix that: prongs, AI, AI-s, CPUs. When the Photomic metered prism came out in 1962, Nikon already knew that it was enough of a market force that it could have moved to a meter coupling in the body without losing its user base. For six long years, Nikon’s meter prisms required the user to set the maximum aperture of the lens on the meter, manually.
Actually, that didn’t just stop in six years. In 1968, Nikon introduced the FTn finder, with its semi-automatic indexing: mount the lens; turn the ring right, turn the ring left, done. The kludginess of this solution was only more glaring when companies like Konica were releasing lenses that could transmit maximum aperture information with a pin on the back of the lens (as opposed to a poky thing screwed onto its aperture ring) and using irises that were consistently linear, so as to allow automatic control of the iris. Granted, shutter priority did not predominate as a single-factor autoexposure method, but the point was that Nikon was well behind the curve. By 1971, Canon’s pro bodies had moved the meter cell to inside the body and were transmitting relative aperture position invisibly.
Nikon’s Aperture-Indexing (AI) lenses did away in 1977 with the prong, song, and dance because they fit cameras that only needed to know how many stops the selected aperture was away from wide-open. If anyone knew what the max aperture of the lens was, it was the user – not the camera. AI was in a way a step backward from the FTN, since it was only a system for transmitting relative apertures. And AI-only bodies turned out to be the full-employment act for repair people and machinists – because mounting an old lens on an AI body, absent modifications to the lens, the mildest of which was a new aperture control ring, would cause damage. AI ushered in a tiny doubled aperture scale, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) that some cameras could display in their viewfinders via a wedge prism, like the F2AS, F3, FA, F4, and F5.
The next iteration, AI-s (1981) brought Nikon almost up to date. It finally added a maximum aperture indexing pin to lenses (as well as a pin that transmitted the focal length to the camera. The only camera to fully implement this scheme was the FA, for its program and shutter-priority modes. There were three implementations of AI-s:
- The FA used the full AI-s protocol for AI-s lenses, going open loop when shooting AI-s lenses (because it knew the maximum aperture, focal length range, and stop-down rate) and selected a program based on focal length. It went closed-loop when shooting AI and AI-converted lenses. By “closed loop,” I mean the camera reads the scene, stops down, takes another reading, and finally fires.
- The FG and its replacement the N2000/F-301 all used a similar open/closed-loop setup, except these cameras could not read the focal length via the pin and thus only used one program (or one selected by the user)
- The N2020/F-501 would act like an N2000/F-501, but it could switch to P-Hi from P-Auto when a CPU-equipped lens with a longer focal length was mounted.
Of course, with closed-loop exposure, the only value of AI-s is purely informational; the FA and FG/N2000 systems don’t really need to know maximum aperture to work. And when it comes to “Program” operation for AI lenses, is it really programmed in the sense of a neat little graph – or is it shutter speeds programmed against apertures stopped down against the maximum?
A tale of two cameras
Nikon’s technological peak came with the FA, pretty much the most sophisticated camera anyone had ever seen. Four (count ’em!) exposure modes – Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual, all powered by two MS-76 cells. Matrix metering with any native AI lens. Program shooting with any AI-s lens. LCD display in the viewfinder. And… it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, developing a reputation for having flaky electronics and poor matrix metering. Or so people say.
In 1990, the successor to the FA, the N6000, hit the scene. The N6000 kept most of the FA feature set but swapped in some new features. Incoming ones included:
- A 2 fps internal motor drive to replace the bulky MD-15
- Auto film loading
- Power film rewinding
- Auto bracketing
- Slow and rear-curtain flash
- DX code reading
- Automatic balanced fill flash
- An “analog” (graphic) over/under-exposure display that pops up in manual mode
- Exposure mode indicator in the viewfinder
You could argue that the N8008 was the successor to the “technocamera” FA, but the N8008 was an autofocus camera. Or you might have argued the F4, which is a cross between an F3, an MD-12, and an FA. The departures with the N6000 were somewhat less notable:
- Elimination of interchangeable focusing screens (which were apparently not a popular feature of the FA)
- A new reliance on CPU lenses (AF and AI-P), which allowed the correct aperture to show in the viewfinder without an ADR display
- Loss of program mode for AI-s lenses (due to CPU dependency)
- Loss of matrix metering for AI-s lenses (same)
- Loss of a mechanical shutter speed
- Loss of 1/4000 sec on the shutter
- Change from MS-76 button cells to the somewhat less common CR223A/CR-P2.
But for all intents and purposes, this was “it.” Although Nikon continued to sell (not make) the F3 into the mid-2000s, the only newish manual purpose-built manual focus design was the FM3a, which is little more functionally than an FE2 with a shutter that could also be governed mechanically. It also followed a six-year period in which the N6000 was off the market.
On Earth-399, Nikon made manual focus cameras from 1959 to 2270. But that is also the universe in which “George Washington freed the slaves… Abraham Lincoln was regarded as the father of his country… and George Custer became president of the Indian Federation.” (“Superman… you’re DEAD… DEAD… DEAD,” 1971).
First in/last in (F3AF/F3)
Nikon had always managed to be both early and late to the AF party. The Nikon F3AF emerged in 1983, just three years into the F3 era. In fact, it came onto the scene at the same time the DE-3 High Eyepoint finder came out (this is the thing that makes the F3 into the F3HP, the most popular variant). The F3AF was the first camera to use electronic contacts to control lens focus, using a contact system that is eerily similar to current Nikon lenses – but with a motor-in-the-lens implementation that most people came to associate with Canon. The manual focus version of the F3 proved wildly more popular and became one of the longest-running Nikons in history, with a 20-year run. That is catalog time, not necessarily production time. When it was time for the F4, Nikon was playing catchup with Minolta and Canon on AF, whose amateur cameras were upping the stakes.
The forgotten Nikons (N2020/N2000)
In 1984-1985, just after the F3AF, Nikon made another pair of cameras, one with AF and one without. These were the N2020 (F-501) and its value-engineered little brother, the manual-focus N2000 (F-301). These were essentially a motorized version of the FG. According to lore, the N2000 was a last-minute decision from the accountants. That’s believable since it allowed the company to drop the FG and make two cameras on a common set of tooling. But it cannot actually be true, because the N2000 was the first of the two cameras to be released – and by a year.
Rather than the interchangeable screens of the N2020 (B/E/J), the N2000 had a fixed K screen (split prism plus micro prism collar), a LED shutter speed display (but no AF indications), and no automatic selection between programs (on the FA, this had required a post on AI-s lenses; on the N2020, it required a CPU to tell the camera the focal length). Common to both cameras, though, was a traditional control layout, a coreless drive motor for film advance, auto-loading, an exposure compensation dial, DX coding, plus pretty much everything the FG had – save the +1.5EV backlight button (the N2000/N2020 had an AE lock button that served much the same purpose). One mystery is why the N2020 was typically sold with an AAA battery holder rather than the N2000’s AA – since it is fairly obvious that the battery chamber was designed around AA. The smaller batteries required a special inset tray. But on the plus side, they do shave some height and weight off the assembled body. And the N2000/2020 is a pretty heavy body.
The N2000 is a camera with a level of elegance that we forget about: a large, bright, spartan viewfinder, a normal control layout, and a certain fluidity of shooting. Motor drives can be very important if you are left-eye dominant. Plus normal batteries that you can buy anywhere. Plus it has nice, sharp edges. It’s just not a camera that has the simulated chrome that is so popular with “the kids today.” And yes, by simulated, meaning that pretty much every “chrome” camera post-1980s has plastic covers.
But what about the N6006/N6000?!
The N6006 is something of a hidden gem in the Nikon line; it has most of the things you like about the N8008 (sans 1/8000 top speed, AA batteries, and high-eyepoint finder) in a smaller package. It is actually pleasant to shoot, though it does carry the stigma of using 223 lithium batteries. That might have actually made a difference a few years ago, when you could walk into a drug store and buy CR123As and 2CR5s, but today, all lithium batteries are more Amazon than the corner store.
The N6006 is one of many Nikons that share the AM200 AF sensor array (the others being the N4004/F-401,N5005/F-401s, N8008/N8008s/F-801/F-801s, and the F4. As you might have surmised from the AF performance differences in these bodies, CPU speed and motor torque are huge determinants of speed. The F4 is tops in both CPU and motor power, and the N4004 has the smallest brain and smallest muscles. The N6006 and N8008 are mid-range, and the N8008 has a more powerful motor.
The little brother, the N6000, loses some functionality compared to its AF twin: no spot metering (because that comes from the AF module), no built-in flash (spite?), and a slightly smaller LCD display (that omits the AF confirmation dot, obviously…). But all the same, it is much smaller and lighter. Oddly, it still does support (or for P and S, requires) CPU lenses. As an adjunct for occasional manual focus with otherwise-AF lenses, it is fine; in fact, examples of the N6000 sell for less than the price of any manual-focus-friendly interchangeable screen for any SLR or DSLR. So I would ask, are you better off…
Nikon SLR Accessory Finders
An action finder can be really useful for situations where it is hard to look into the viewfinder – like when you are wearing a space helmet. Or oversized Italian sunglasses. This is a picture I took with my DA-20 on a recent vacation.
This article  came about because everything I have seen about accessory viewfinders seems to have been cut and pasted from manufacturers’ literature. This article will (hopefully) help you determine whether you should use one or more of these. Remember: Nikon sold one accessory finder for every 1,000 F-series bodies. Although this is a convenient excuse for why the F6 has a fixed prism, it also should tell you that most people learn to live with the standard pentaprism that came with their camera bodies.
Action Finders: DA-2, DA-20, DA-30
The action finders are all huge and heavy (so not for wimps), but they give you some flexibility – like not having your camera jammed in your face.
In an SLR system, eye relief and magnification are closely related concepts. The higher the eyepoint, the greater the distance the entire frame can bee seen from the eyepiece. The greater the eye relief, the lower the magnification. The Nikon action finders are designed around an eye relief of 61mm (2.5 inches); the magnification is 0.6x. Contrary to popular myth, an action finder does not produce a big, “TV-like” image. It simply lets you see the whole viewfinder from a little bit further back.
Can you use an action finder all the time? Yes and no. Because it lowers magnification, the action finder makes it a little more difficult to use telephoto lenses. If you are relying on focusing screen aids (such as split-image rangefinders, microprisms, etc.) or autofocus, the lower magnification won’t have much impact. If you use groundglass focusing, life gets a little harder.
Do you need the expensive rubber eyecup? Yes. Beware of all the action finders missing this useful part. Your eyeglasses are not in danger from the action finder eyepieces; rather, the rubber eyecup keeps your eye at roughly the right distance from the viewfinder.
Every viewfinder really has only one eyepoint: the eye position where the whole viewfinder is visible. Nikon’s high-eyepoint pentaprisms are designed to focus when eyeglasses are pressed up against the eyepiece.
This means that diopter correction is relatively simple: you just pick the correction lens (or setting on an F4, F5 or F6) that works in one position. You may notice that you use different viewfinder corrections for glasses and contact lenses with the same prescription; part of this is the difference in distance from the camera’s viewfinder system.
With an action finder, your eye could be anywhere in the range from right against the eyepiece to the magic 61mm from it. Although this does not seem like a very big range, your eye works very hard to see the focusing screen as the distance increases and diminishes – much the same way that a camera lens needs to extend or retract much more when it is focusing on a close object. The rubber eyecup keeps your eye at the “right” distance: the one where the average eye can focus comfortably. If you don’t use the eyecup and press your eye up to the finder, you might find your eyes a little bit fatigued after a while. Unfortunately, the usual solution for this problem is absent: the action finders have no built-in adjustment and there are no accessory diopters.
The F3 action finder (DA-2) meters the same way that the F3 standard one does – it doesn’t. On the F3, centerweighted ambient metering and centerweighted TTL flash are measured by a sensors in the camera body. The body of the finder is made of brass. The eyecup is rectangular and snaps on over a large rectangular plastic frame on the back.
The F4 action finder (DA-20) gives you a choice of centerweighted or spot metering via a switch on the side of the prism (like the DP-20). The DA-20 outer housing is plastic. It features a normal TTL hot shoe (no locking pin). The DA-20 has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. The DA-2 provides an abbreviated viewfinder information display (the lower display is actually part of the DP-20, not the F4 itself)
|Exposure mode||Small window (left)||ADR window (center)||Focus ind.|
|P or P HI||“P” + auto-selected shutter speed||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|S||Auto-selected aperture||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|A||“A” + auto-selected shutter speed||Aperture set on lens||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
|M||Shutter speed + reading of how off from normal exposure (e.g. +2.0)||Aperture set on lens||Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)|
One variation of the DA-20 (which I assume was made for underwater work – and which I stupidly returned to KEH) has a built-in illuminator for the lens aperture ring. It comes on whenever the meter is on, so watch your batteries.
The F5 action finder (DA-30) gives you matrix (not 3D or color), centerweighted or spot via a similar switch to the one on the DP-30 (standard F5 finder). Its body is made from a crinkle-painted l.ght alloy. It has a locking hot shoe. Given its functionality, I suspect the DA-30 shares its electronics with the DP-20 (the F4’s standard finder). The DA-20 also has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. You get all of the same viewfinder information that you get with with the DP-30 (standard F5) prism.
Magnifying Finders: DW-4, DW-21, DW-31
Magnifying finders are fun. They eliminate the light loss from the pentaprism and give you a magnified (6x) view of the whole focusing screen. Distortion is very low. These have very low eyepoints and are designed to be used without eyeglasses (precisely why the Nikon magnifying finders have correction from +3 to -5 diopters built in. Once you press your eye all the way in, it’s a revelation. These have three (by my count) multicoated elements.
Magnifying finders are very useful with standard groundglass focusing (D-screen) and with astrophotography (M-screen). You can actually use them for anything with the sole exception of (1) situations where you need to keep the camera high (at eye level) and (2) situations where you lose track of left-to-right movement. The latter is related to the fact that all magnifying finders reverse the view left to right.
The DW-4 (F3) gives you centerweighted ambient and TTL flash metering. The DW-21 (F4) and DW-31 (F5) give you spotmetering for ambient and for flash. The F4 and F5 magnifying finders require the oddball SC-24 TTL cord, which plugs into an eight pin connector on the back of the finder. I am not sure why the first flash needs eight pins, since the hot shoe only has five pins (three dedicated, one hot shoe contact, one shoe). The SC-24 terminates in a standard Nikon TTL hot shoe.
Magnifying finders (and waist-level finders) seriously impede taking vertical shots.
Waistlevel Finders: DW-3, DW-20, DW-30
First it killed the Rolleiflex. Now it’s killing me. 35mm SLRs started with this type of finder; thank heavens it didn’t survive in the mainstream. The pentaprism displaced the waist-level finder – and the fact that a pentaprism shows everything correctly, right-side up and correct left-to-right, and not brightness, carried the day.
Today, the waistlevel finder has only three real uses: shooting above crowds, shooting from low angles, and shooting on a copystand. The DW-3 (F3), DW-20 (F4) and DW-30 (F5) are essentially the same thing: just a popup hood through which you look at the top of the naked focusing screen from a foot or more away. This makes manual focusing difficult and pretty much defeats any focusing aid in your focusing screen. Things are better with the autofocus cameras.
Each has a small 5x magnifier that provides a small, highly distorted view of the center of the focusing screen. While this is sufficient for copy (and some macro) work, it is pretty unpleasant for general use. This is no different from a standard Rolleiflex TLR viewfinder. The only reason people tolerated it on Rolleis was that in the olden days, medium format pentaprisms were so dark as to be useless.
Metering and TTL flash are similar to the magnifying finders. The F4 and F5 versions use the same TTL connectors that the magnifying finders do.
The principal virtue of the waist-level finder is that it is cheap, simple, compact, and lets you do a couple of unique things. If you don’t do those things, skip this type of finder.