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Take a stress pill: dual memory cards

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The Nikon Z7 is undoubtedly a quantum leap in Nikon’s camera evolution, essentially putting the best features of the Dxx series into a mirrorless body. Yet there is the inevitable complaint: “No dual card slot? Only one? No pro camera is like that!”

Pardon me, but plenty of pro cameras have been like that – and not just pro digital cameras in some benighted past (n.b., an era ending maybe 4 years ago). Consider the D2x and D700. Anyone want to call those “not pro” cameras? How about the flagships of the EOS fleet for a stretch?

In an era where film ruled the waves, it’s not like you could put two films into the same camera simultaneously for “backup.” And back then, pictures were scarcer and more valuable, and your chances of losing a shot due to a light leak, film defect, or development failure were astronomically high compared to anything that could befall a digital outfit.

So let’s move to digital. What is the measured malfunction rate of properly kept, brand-named CF, SD, or XQD cards? Hint: it’s astronomically low compared to the failure rate of the cameras that use them (SanDisk posts an MTBF of 1 million hours, or 114 years). Here are things that are far more likely to happen:

  • Dying (which is all but guaranteed within the MTBF cited)
  • Being killed in a car crash
  • Being hit by lightning
  • Finding a lost cousin on some genealogy site
  • Winning Powerball

The threat of a bad flash card bringing down the system is simply not a real thing for most people. Dropping a camera, having a battery burn out, or suffering some physical mishap is far more likely. Even being in a car accident is more likely. And for that matter, why wouldn’t “any responsible pro” bring an extra car? An extra photographer?

I suspect that many of the people complaining about this issue — if not simply fronting to front — are semi-pros who scraped up every last dime to buy one really good camera to shoot wedding pictures. Fair enough. Maybe they had a bad experience with a counterfeit card once. Abused a good one. Ran one into the ground. It’s also possible to screw up the file system of a card by failing to respect buffers that are still clearing or repeatedly using without ever doing an in-camera format.

But this group is not positioned to speak for all pros (i.e., make the statement that “no pro would…”). Real pros in every field use redundancy – and it’s not limited to using two cards in the same camera (which does nothing if your camera is the single point of failure). Redundancy could include:

  • Using smaller cards to reduce the “all eggs in one basket” effect. 32Gb is fine. Smaller media is one of the reasons that film was safe; 36 frames on a roll of film is small.
  • Rotating between cards over the course of the shoot (the nice thing about EXIF is that Lightroom can combine shots from multiple cards into exactly the right order).
  • Using two cameras and two cards, which means you will never be high and dry.
  • Beaming your images in real time using wireless (a Toshiba Flashair is great for this, though there is no XQD version yet).
  • Downloading one card to your laptop while shooting a second card.

When you consider the other options, thinking that two cards in a camera would get you off the hook seems a little odd, does it not?

Maybe the whole “multiple card slot” thing is a product of general societal economic insecurity. Or a “mine is bigger than yours” mindset. But any way you slice it, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense for most people.

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End-stage​ Nikon manual focus

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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

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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.

Introduction

This article [2007] 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.