I hadn’t been to Metamora since the late 1980s, and even then, my memory of the place was poor. So I was curious to see it again in early November when the various Indiana byway organizations, including the Historic Michigan Road Association, met there for our biennial conference. Metamora is a very small Indiana town, population less than 200 — but it is well known as a tourist destination for its shops and restaurants. It stands along three one-time major transportation corridors: the Brookville Road, the Whitewater Canal, and the Whitewater Valley Railroad.
I was testing a new-to-me old SLR, a Pentax ME SE, with my 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M lens. I’ll write a proper review of the camera after I’ve put a few more rolls through it. On this day, I shot Kodak Max 400 at EI 200. The camera’s meter seemed to be reading about a stop of overexposure, but the film’s wide latitude covered for it.
When you talk to other film-camera collectors about the Nikon N70, discussion quickly focuses on its infamous “fan” user interface. Most people don’t like it. But they miss its point. This advanced-amateur/semi-pro camera includes a pop-up flash that offers variable flash fill, flash bracketing, and red-eye reduction. Nikon called it a “built-in Speedlight,” referring to their family of versatile external flash units. Nikon designed the “fan” to ease access to all of the flash’s modes. Trouble is, then Nikon overloaded all of the camera’s functions onto it.
More about the “fan” in a minute. First, let’s talk specs. The N70 offers the same autofocus and metering as in the more advanced (and contemporary) N90s: wide and spot crossfield autofocus; and matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering. Matrix metering is linked to focusing. Its electromagnetically controlled vertical focal-plane shutter operates from 1/4000 to 30 sec. It reads the DX code on the film canister to set ISO from 25 to 5000. You can also manually set ISO as low as 6 and as high as 6400. It features programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority autoexposure. There’s even a camera shake warning in the viewfinder, and continuous film advance at either 2 or 3.7 fps.
It also features eight exposure modes, which the literature called “Vari-Programs” — portrait, hyperfocal, landscape, close-up, sport, silhouette, night scene, and motion effect. These are all things a skilled photographer can achieve without special modes, but the N70 was marketed to the amateur.
The N70 lets you set and save for later “quick recall” (or QR) three different combinations of film advance mode, focus area, focus mode, metering system, exposure mode, flash sync mode, and exposure compensation. To do this, select all of those settings as you want them, then press the IN button. Then rotate the dial on the back of the camera to select 1, 2, or 3 in the yellow QR window on “the fan.” To select a QR mode, press the OUT button and rotate the dial to select 1, 2, or 3 in the QR window.
Two CR123 batteries power everything. The camera won’t operate without them. List price was $842 in 1994 when the N70 was new.
The N70 was optimized for the then-new D-series AF Nikkor lenses. Earlier AF Nikkors and non-AF Nikkors generally work on the camera, but without some metering modes.
To load film, open the back, insert the cartridge, pull the film across until the leader is in the takeup area, close the door, turn the N70 on, and press the shutter button.
All right, let’s talk about that dreaded “fan” UI. It’s different for sure, but it’s not hard to use.
First, select the function to adjust. Press the Function button and rotate the dial on the back of the camera. When the arrow points to the function you want to adjust, release the Function button.
Then set the value for that function. Press the Set button and rotate the dial to cycle through that function’s options. When you find the option you want, release the Set button.
The challenge with “the fan” is that every function is at the same level, even ones you use all the time. For example, I like to switch between programmed and aperture-priority modes. A separate PASM dial would place this control out front where it’s easy to access. All of the options would be clear by inspection, too. On the N70, I have to do the Function/Set dance to switch modes. I also can’t see all of the modes unless I cycle through them while holding down Set.
But this doesn’t make the N70’s interface unusable. It’s just not optimal, and it takes a little getting used to. But it’s consistent and uncomplicated, and therefore learnable. People who hate it protest too much, I think.
By the way, if you like auto-everything SLRs, also check out my reviews of the Nikon N50 (here), N60 (here), N65 (here), and N90s (here). Also see my reviews of these Canons: the EOS 630 (here), the EOS 650 (here), and the EOS A2e (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
In Program mode, the N70 is a perfectly good point-and-shoot SLR. That’s almost exclusively how I used it. I mounted my 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6D AF Nikkor lens and loaded some Kodak Max 400. This is an old auto service station in Thorntown, Indiana.
I imagine most people who bought an N70 back in the day wound up using it at factory settings. I sure did. Here’s an alleyway in Lebanon, Indiana.
The N70 handled well. It’s almost as large and as heavy as my Nikon N90s, however, and I like that camera a whole lot more.
I photograph the entrance to the former Boone County Jail a lot, but always in black and white. It might surprise you to find that the door is turquoise.
I kept going with a roll of Kodak T-Max 100 I found forgotten in the freezer. I spent a partly sunny Saturday afternoon in Bloomington after having lunch with my children, all of whom live in or near that college town. Ohio State’s football team was in town to play the Indiana University team, and Kirkwood Avenue was full of fans. Many young women were walking around in these red-and-white striped pants.
The N70 is hardly an inconspicuous camera, but nobody seemed to care that this middle-aged man was out photographing people.
It probably helped that I wasn’t the only middle-aged man, as the group at the table below shows.
The N70 performed well on this mostly cloudy day. If some of my favorite functions weren’t buried in “the fan” I might have done more with the N70 than leave it in P.
When people ask me how to break into film photography, I tell them to start with an auto-everything SLR from the 1990s or early 2000s. You can shoot in P mode just to get a feel for film, and when you’re comfortable, try more advanced settings. The trouble with the Nikon N70 is that it’s hard to discover those advanced settings, especially if you don’t know what you want to try.
If you’re interested in one of these late film-era SLRs, the Nikon N70 isn’t a bad choice. But you will probably be happier with one that has a proper PASM mode dial rather than this multi-step function selector interface.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.
A long time ago I bought a Yashica TL Electro, an M42-mount 35mm SLR built like a brick outhouse. When I got around to loading film into it, I found out that it was broken in a couple fundamental ways. I paid just five bucks for it, so I wasn’t broken up. But I’ve never forgotten it. Not long ago I came across its forebear, the Yashica TL Electro X, in very good condition. I scooped it up. This time I paid all of $35.
Upon its 1968 introduction, the TL Electro X was significant as the first commercially successful 35mm SLR with an electronic shutter. That allows the shutter to operate steplessly. Shutter-speed settings from 1/1000 sec. (top speed) down to 1/30 sec. all click into place, but you can leave the shutter-speed knob in between two speeds and the camera figures out the fraction of a second to use. Shutter speed settings of 1/15 sec. and slower do not click into place; the dial operates continuously in this range.
The TL Electro X was one of the first SLRs to use lights in the viewfinder, rather than a needle system, to indicate exposure. Two red arrows, → and ←, sit at the bottom of the viewfinder. Press the stop-down button, which is on the side of the lens mount panel, and when exposure is not right one of the arrows lights. When you see →, turn up the aperture or shutter speed until the light turns off. When you see ←, turn down the aperture or shutter speed until the light turns off. No lit arrows means you have good exposure. It’s intuitive; you turn the aperture ring or shutter-speed dial in the direction of the arrow until the arrow disappears.
Otherwise, this is a typical SLR of its period. It’s large, heavy, and solid. The shutter button is solid and sure. The winder, rewinder, and shutter-speed dial all require mild force to operate. By the late 70s, camera makers had figured out how to make SLR controls operate with a much lighter touch.
The TL Electro X was designed to take a 544 mercury battery, but those are banned. My camera came with a 28L lithium cell inside. The silver-oxide 4SR44 and alkaline 4LR44 batteries are the same size, and I hear they work fine in this camera.
Do you like classic SLRs like this one? Then check out my reviews of the Canon FT QL (here), the Minolta SR-T 101 (here) and SR-T 202 (here), the Nikon Nikomat FTn (here), the Nikon F2A (here), the Nikon F2AS (here), and the Pentax K1000 (here) and KM (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
I first loaded a roll of Kodak Max 400 into the TL Electro X, but set the ISO guide to 200. I like this film overexposed by a stop. Fulltone Photo developed and scanned the roll. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll.
The TL Electro X handled a little ponderously, but that’s not uncommon with large, heavy, stop-down SLRs of this era. The controls all took deliberate action, and of course the body is large and heavy. The 50mm f/1.7 Auto Yashinon-DX lens focuses smoothly but with more effort than I’m used to. I don’t like ponderous handling, but I accepted it as endemic to this kind of camera and kept on shooting.
The way the lens renders things through the viewfinder delights me; it’s such a classic old-lens look. But on the scans it was clear that the lens delivers mild barrel distortion. You can see it in the parallel lines of this photo. I corrected it on other photos where it was apparent — it was a +4 correction in Photoshop.
However, the lens is sharp and contrasty, and renders color well. It leaves a nice smooth background and a subtle but pleasant bokeh. It also focuses in reasonably close, to about six inches. I like that.
In my TL Electro X, the arrows are hard to see under very bright conditions. → is noticeably dimmer than ← and can be hard to see under any conditions. Also, I find the meter to call exposure good over a fairly wide range of settings. It didn’t inspire much confidence as I used the camera. Yet my exposures were generally fine when the images came back from the processor.
I kept going with a roll of Fomapan 200. Because I had more money than time, rather than developing this roll myself I sent it to Fulltone Photo. This isn’t the most interesting image from the roll, but it shows the sharpness and contrast I got. My younger son gave me both of these drinking vessels as gifts, one when he was not yet ten more than half his life ago, and the other for Father’s Day this year. The Father’s Day gift perfectly represents his offbeat sense of humor.
I coaxed a little bokeh out of the lens in this shot.
I coaxed a little more bokeh out of the lens on this photo of an ash branch.
This tire isn’t an interesting subject, but the silky sidewall texture sure is compelling.
I took the TL Electro X on a number of walks around my neighborhood and in downtown Zionsville. It’s heft made it less than an ideal companion when slung over my shoulder for a few miles.
About halfway through the roll of Fomapan, I grew weary of this camera’s ponderous ways. I shot images of whatever to just get it over with. That’s my main beef with 1960s SLRs — most of them are fatiguing to use. During the 1970s, camera makers figured out how to make all-manual cameras lighter with smoother, easier controls.
But I have to hand it to this Yashica TL Electro X — it’s built like a tank, and will probably work even after I don’t anymore.
Speed Graphic Nikon F50, 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor Kodak Max 400 2021
A longtime camera collector and professional photographer retired several years ago and sent me a box of cameras from his collection that he no longer wanted. Some of them were broken in some way while others worked, either fully or well enough to test. I’ve shot several of them now, and their reviews are up on this site.
This one is a Miniature Speed Graphic, manufactured somewhere between 1939 and 1946, and it takes 2×3 sheet film. I’m sure that if I invested the time to figure it out, I could get wonderful photographs from it. I have decided to let it look glorious on my fireplace mantel instead. SLRs and TLRs have captured my heart.
Inexpensive films aren’t as inexpensive as they used to be. Not that long ago, several films could be had for under $3 a roll. Sadly, those days are over. But plenty of films cost less than $10 per roll, several cost less than $5 per roll, and one or two get close to that magic $3 per roll.
I use these five relatively inexpensive films all the time and recommend them!
Kosmo Foto Mono
This classic ISO 100 film offers rich blacks with managed contrast and fine grain. It’s similar to Foma’s Fomapan 100, which is also sold as Arista EDU 100 and Lomography Earl Grey 100. When you buy Mono you support a small business run by a pillar of the film community. Available from most online film retailers (and at the Kosmo Foto site itself) in 35mm and 120.
Fujifilm Fujicolor 200
This might be the ultimate cheap and cheerful film. I’ve shot way more Fujicolor 200 than any other film — when you test as many old cameras as I have, you need an inexpensive film that performs well and consistently. It has a classic look with well-saturated color and fine grain. This film has great exposure latitude; it’s hard to over- or under-expose it. I often shoot it at ISO 100 on purpose because it brings out extra color richness. Available from online film retailers as well as many drug and big-box stores, in 35mm only.
Foma Fomapan 200
Fomapan 200 is my go-to inexpensive black-and-white film. (I like shooting at ISO 200!) It’s also sold as Arista EDU 200. It offers managed grain, good tonal range, and moderate contrast. Some say that this is best shot at about ISO 125. I’ve found that to be true when I develop it myself, but when I send it out to a lab I always get great results at box speed. The labs must have some magic that I lack! Available at most online film retailers in 35mm and 120.
Kodak UltraMax 400
For some, this is the ultimate cheap color film. I still reach for Fujicolor 200 first, but I’ve never been disappointed by UltraMax 400’s warmth, managed grain, and bold color. It also offers tremendous exposure latitude, making it very hard to misexpose a shot. I like UltraMax 400 slightly more than Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400, which costs about the same. I find this film to be especially long-lived — several rolls of the UltraMax 400 I’ve shot were ten years expired, and most of it behaved like new. Available at online film retailers and sometimes in drug stores, in 35mm only.
Ultrafine eXtreme 100
The Ultrafine eXtreme films are the least expensive black-and-white films I know of. Its ISO 100 version is a classic-grained film offering great definition and sharpness with fairly high contrast. Available at Photo Warehouse in 35mm and 120. Stock is limited as of this writing; keep checking their site for availability.
Other inexpensive options
I didn’t include any lower-priced ISO 400 black-and-white films here because I’ve not shot any of them (yet). But based on the performance of the Foma Fomapan and Ultrafine eXtreme films I have shot, I feel good recommending their ISO 400 offerings.
You can sometimes find a good bargain on Kodak Gold 200 (example images here) and Kodak ColorPlus (example images here). Gold offers well-saturated color and fine grain. ColorPlus is a real throwback, offering a classic Kodak look from years gone by. Some say it’s the old Kodak VR200 film formula from the 1990s.
I mounted my 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens to the F3 for this outing. Despite its noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end, I really like this lens. It’s small and light, and its zoom range gives me good flexibility.
We met our granddaughter and her mom in downtown Zionsville, where there were gourds and pumpkins for sale. Here are three of Margaret’s kids, our “granddog” Obie, our granddaughter, and her mom.
We see our granddaughter most Sundays now, and it’s been lovely. When the weather’s nice enough we meet in town or in a park.
The used bookstore was open this day, running a clever promotion where they wrapped books in kraft paper, wrote what the book was about on the front, and sold them as book blind dates.
I finished the roll around the house. As the weather has grown chillier I’ve gone out less, but I’ve still wanted to make photographs. That means looking for new subjects, or new angles on old subjects, at home.
The 35-70 focuses from about 13 inches. I enjoy zooming this lens to 70mm and moving in close.
Our last gas grill gave up the ghost last season after just three years of service. That’s the way of $250 gas grills. I didn’t want to blow another $250 that way so I bought a little Weber charcoal grill instead. It’s more hassle to grill on charcoal but the flavor is better. Anyway, I’m pleased that I was able to capture this fire so well.