Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon N90s

Church door

Sometimes a person needs to just get out and shoot for the joy and fun of it. At such times, a great choice is an auto-everything SLR and a zoom lens. You’ll be ready for pretty much anything you encounter. Especially when the body you choose is as robust and capable as the Nikon N90s.

Nikon N90s

I’ve had great luck with this camera every time I’ve shot it, no matter the film or lens I chose. Here I used the well-regarded 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor on Arista Premium 400.

Anthem

And here I used the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor that came in the kit with the Nikon N65 I used to own, on very expired and poorly stored Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400.

High West

Ken Rockwell calls this plastic-bodied zoom lens one of Nikon’s 10 best lenses ever. I marvel at that a little bit, as Nikon had to have made ten superior F-mount primes. But this lens turns out to be a good performer, sharp edge to edge anywhere in the zoom range.

Lebanon front door

It does have some barrel distortion at 28mm. The shot below shows it a little. That’s its major flaw. But I’m not much of a 28mm guy anyway. 35mm is as wide as I normally go, and the distortion is largely tamed when you zoom in that far.

Union Station

The lens also had some difficulty focusing close. I tried to capture some magnolia blossoms but the lens would only hunt. It also tended to wash out the image a little if the sun wasn’t directly behind me, as this shot of the Slippery Noodle bar shows. I’ve meant to go to the Slippery Noodle ever since I moved to central Indiana in 1994. They say they’re Indiana’s oldest bar, operating since 1850.

The Slippery Noodle

But this should be a referendum on the N90s and not on that lens. So let’s get to it: this camera is large and fairly heavy. Also, its controls don’t follow the modern “mode dial” SLR idiom. But I didn’t experience its weight as a problem. And those controls, specifically a bunch of buttons and one unlabeled dial, are not hard to discover and learn.

Lucas Oil behind the old houses

For example, I was pretty quickly able to figure out how to manually set ISO. The camera accurately read the DX coding on the Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 I had loaded, but I wanted to shoot it at EI 200. A few button presses and I was set. But on this cloudy-day photowalk Downtown along South Meridian Street I might have been better served leaving the film at 400. Meridian Street is the city’s main north-south drag, but some street reconfiguration in this area isolated a couple blocks and the lovely old homes on them.

South Meridian St.

The N90s gives you a lot of controls to keep track of. Apparently I set the camera to center-weighted metering the last time I used it, and forgot to reset it to matrix metering for this roll of film. I think that might have contributed to the problems in this shot of St. Elmo’s, a steakhouse operating since 1902. Pro tip: before shooting an N90s, press in the two green-dot buttons atop the camera for a few seconds to reset the camera’s settings.

St. Elmo's

But for this full-sun shot, everything worked perfectly. The Union 525 was originally a high school but is now a space where startup tech companies can begin to build their businesses. There’s quite a tech startup scene here in Indianapolis.

Union 525

The callery pear were in bloom this day. They smell like rotting shrimp.

Rolls-Royce

I’ve shot this camera often. See everything I’ve photographed with this camera in my Nikon N90s gallery.

A couple years ago I chose this N90s as my Nikon auto-everything body over the entry-level N60 and N65 I used to own. Those more basic bodies certainly demand far less of me than the N90s and could certainly have taken every photo you see in this post. But among these cameras the N90s was the only one built to last.

As I’ve been thinning this herd I’ve already decided that my main SLRs will be metal, (mostly) mechanical, and manual focus. I’ll never leave my first love, Pentax. And I have some truly great Nikon gear that will always have a home here. I might keep a Minolta and a Canon body in case I come upon an interesting lens for those mounts.

But I like the N90s. It’s a smashing companion to my 50/1.8 AF Nikkor and my wife’s 35/2 AF Nikkor lenses. With this zoom lens attached it’s a fine, but heavy, photo-walk kit. If in a few years I find I just don’t use it much, I reserve the right to change my mind — but for now…

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Nikon FA

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Nobody could alienate photographers as well as Nikon could in the 1980s. The company did it by leading the way with automation and electronic control. We take all of this for granted today, but then serious photographers were a traditional lot who shied away from anything not mechanical and manual in their cameras.

1983’s Nikon FA was, and is, the most technologically advanced manual-focus camera Nikon ever introduced. Yet it didn’t sell all that well compared to Nikons more-mechanical, more-manual cameras. Perhaps its high price (within spitting distance of the pro-level F3) helped push buyers away. But certainly its high advancement did.

Nikon FA

The FA offers both programmed autoexposure and Automatic Multi-Pattern (matrix) metering controlled by a computer chip. Its vertical titanium-bladed, honeycomb-patterned shutter operated from 1 to 1/4000 second. It synchs with flash at 1/250 sec., which was pretty fast for the time. Two LR44 or SR44 batteries power the camera. Without those batteries the Nikon FA can’t do very much.

IMG_4407 rawproc.jpg

The FA also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure. And it hedges against your poor judgment with Cybernetic Override — if the FA can’t find accurate exposure at your chosen aperture or shutter speed, it changes that aperture/shutter speed to the closest one at which accurate exposure is possible.

IMG_4408 rawproc.jpg

Also, if you don’t want to use matrix metering, you can switch to center-weighted by pressing and holding a button on the lens housing, near the self-timer lever.

Typical of Nikons of this era, it was extremely well built of high-strength alloys, hardened gears, ball-bearing joints, and gold-plated switches. It was mostly assembled by hand.

This FA was a gift from John Smith to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras. John has my tastes pretty well pegged at this point! I was in a black-and-white mood when I tested this FA, so I dropped in some Fomapan 200. Given the FA’s compact size, I figured the 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens would look balanced on it, and I was right.

I like this little clock. I got it at Target for my office at work four jobs ago. But I don’t have an office anymore, so it announces the time to nobody in my seldom-used living room. I keep thinking there’s a good photograph to be made of it on my bookshelf. I’m not sure this is that good photo. I’ll keep trying.

Clock on the bookshelf

The FA’s winder glides on silk, and when you fire the shutter the mirror slap is surprisingly gentle. My finger always hunted to find the shutter button when the camera was at my eye, though. That surprised me, as I’m used to everything falling right to hand on Nikon SLRs.

Vertical blinds

You have to pull out the winder to turn on the camera and make it possible to press the shutter button. I wasn’t crazy about this, especially when I turned the camera to shoot portrait, as the winder would poke me in the eyebrow. Because I’m right-handed I tend to rotate my camera so the shutter button is up top, where it’s easy for my right finger to reach. When I rotated it so the shutter button was on the bottom, the winder stopped poking me, but the button became awkward to reach.

Shutter

An LCD in the viewfinder reads out your shutter speed. When it reads C250, you know you just loaded film and haven’t would to the first official frame yet. Every shot until then gets a 1/250-sec. shutter, like it or not. I have other Nikons from the same era that do some version of this and it frustrates me every time. I hate wasting those first few frames! And while I’m talking about the LCD panel, it reads FEE when you’re in program or shutter-priority mode but the lens isn’t set at maximum aperture, which is necessary for those modes to work.

P30 Alpha

The matrix metering on my FA was accurate enough, but I suppose there are just some challenging light circumstances it just couldn’t navigate. A little flash would have helped a lot when I photographed my No. 3A Autographic Kodak.

Folding camera in the shadows

I shot most of my test roll around the house, but also took it to work a few times and made lunchtime photo walks around Fishers. Someone in my building drives this lovely Fiat 500c.

500c

The Nickel Plate tracks run alongside the building I work in, and I often walk along them on my strolls. This platform and awning are fairly new, and are largely for show as trains don’t travel this track anymore.

Fishers Station

I wrapped up the roll in my garden after a rain.

Wet hosta leaf

It was here that I discovered a fault in my FA: you can wind it as many times as you want after a shot. I wonder how that gets broken on a camera.

Hosta

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Nikon FA gallery.

The Nikon FA is a delightful little 35mm SLR. Its compact size, light weight, high capability, and smooth operation make it a fine choice to take along wherever you go. And my quick eBay research reveals that working bodies go for far less than other contemporary Nikon bodies such as the better-known FM2. But that camera lacks the FA’s matrix metering. So why pay more for an FM2, especially now that we’ve all come to embrace the electronics in our cameras?

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Nikon N8008

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I did not need another auto-everything 35mm SLR. But in what is probably my greatest guilty pleasure, which says something about my buttoned-down life, I really enjoy them. I’m no less devoted to my first love: all-manual, all-metal SLRs! Yet I was deeply tempted when I came upon this Nikon N8008 body at KEH for $13.

Nikon N8008

I resisted. But that afternoon KEH emailed me an offer of 12% off used gear and I was a goner. Twenty dollars shipped for a body that cost $857 new. Pennies on the original dollar! Now is the time to buy these higher-end auto-everything film SLRs. And the N8008 (known as the F-801 in most of the rest of the world) was higher end, as it rested just below the pro-grade F4 in Nikon’s pecking order.

Nikon N8008

Befitting its station, its specs are solid. They begin with a big, bright, high-eyepoint viewfinder, which means you can see through it perfectly even when you’re wearing glasses. It offers both matrix and 75% center-weighted metering. Its shutter operates from 30 seconds to 1/8000 second and it takes film from ISO 6 to 6400 (and it reads the film’s DX coding). It syncs with flash at 1/250 second. And common AA batteries power it all.

Nikon N8008

It offers all of the modern modes: manual, programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority. But as you can see, it was designed before the mode wheel became idiom. You expect that from a camera made from 1988 to 1990. To set mode, you have to repeatedly press the Mode button and look at the LCD. It works fine and isn’t cumbersome. It just takes a minute to adjust to it.

The N8008 also offers depth-of-field preview, allows multiple exposures, and boasts a self timer that can take two shots in succession. And its focusing screens exchange. Three screens are available, including the matte Type B screen that shipped with the N8008. You could also get the gridded Type E screen and the microprism Type J screen.

This camera also takes most F-mount lenses. Nikon lens compatibility requires a secret decoder ring (Ken Rockwell keeps his up to date) but with a few exceptions and caveats (pre-AI lenses won’t mount, AF-S lenses won’t automatically focus, AF-G lenses work only in programmed or shutter-priority mode, the latest AF-P lenses won’t focus) you can use your legacy lenses on the N8008.

I considered mounting my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor to this camera just to test that compatibility. The moment passed quickly, a fleeting shadow. I reached instead for my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor, a “gelded” lens that has no aperture ring. The N8008 drives this lens beautifully in P (program) or S (shutter-priority) modes. Even though Nikon shipped this lens with bajillions of its entry-level film SLRs, don’t underestimate this solid performer.

I loaded some fresh Kodak Tri-X and went to work at home, right next to my easy chair. I’d just finished a finger of whiskey. Photograph drunk, Photoshop sober?

Empty whiskey glass

I stepped back and zoomed out, revealing this lens’s one major fault: barrel distortion at the wide end. I reduced the effect in Photoshop.

Illuminated whiskey glass

These well-made auto-everything SLRs appeal to me, I think, because I can get high-quality images with almost zero thinking. That’s not to say I don’t like thinking. I get full joy from shooting my manual-exposure, manual-focus cameras. But sometimes it feels good to let the camera do all the work for you, all the while leaving you confident of good results. And with the N8008, I could have full control if I wanted it.

I never wanted it on this test roll. Good thing, as the gelded lens sharply limited my options. But on a stroll down Zionsville’s Main Street I didn’t much care. I twisted in my zoom level, pressed the button halfway to focus, and then pressed the button the rest of the way to get the shot. With a loud zip, the camera wound to the next frame and I was ready to go again.

Black Dog Books

I did, however, fall pray to one pitfall of easy-peasy shooting: I shot indiscriminately. Lots of uninteresting photos was the predictable result. This post shares almost all of the photos I think have any merit from this 36-exposure roll.

Brick Street Inn

Here Margaret stands between our two Fords in the parking lot at work. I used to work not far from her workplace, a large suburban church where she’s in charge of buildings and grounds. She wears dresses on Mondays to remind her co-workers that she’s a woman after all, as otherwise it’s jeans and T-shirts because a Director of Facilities never knows when she’ll find herself cleaning up after a sick child or crawling around a failed baptistry heater.

Margaret on Dress Monday

My sons have always been curious about my cameras. When they were very small I used to get the boxes down from my closet and we’d play with them together, cameras strewn across the living room. As I got serious about my collection again in my 40s and began to shoot my cameras more, my sons often asked if they could shoot them too. Frankly, I wasn’t always thrilled to say yes. They showed no real interest in exposure and focus, so explaining it to them got us nowhere. I took to setting the camera for them, but they were often impatient as I read the light and guessed distance and all. But a camera like the N8008 is perfect for kid use, even if that kid just turned 18. It requires no explanation beyond “press the button halfway so it can focus and then the rest of the way to get the shot.” My son did that perfectly while we waited for dinner at a Perkins one evening.

Me, taken by my son

Finally, I took the N8008 along the day I visited this abandoned bridge. It’s the one that cemented my love of exploring the old roads, because finding abandoned infrastructure is strangely exciting.

Abandoned US 40 bridge near Plainfield, IN

The N8008 is not without its flaws. It’s a little heavy for all-day use. The loud winder was annoying. Autofocus is slower than on a modern camera. But so bloody what? I don’t shoot sports anyway. This camera worked great, full stop.

But I still own a Nikon N90s, also a wonderful auto-everything 35mm SLR. One does not need both cameras. One does not need a hundred cameras stuffed into every nook and cranny of one’s house, either, but that’s where one is despite ongoing efforts to thin the herd.

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Photography

Nikon Nikkormat EL

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Why didn’t Nikon just call its non-pro line of cameras Nikons from the start? As they eventually learned, everyday people would pay for the cachet of the Nikon name. Yet Nikon insisted on calling its lesser SLRs Nikkormats (or Nikomats in Japan) in the 1960s and much of the 1970s.

Those Nikkormats became more and more sophisticated over time. By 1972 Nikon had developed its first camera with an electronic shutter and automatic exposure, and gave it a Nikkormat name. Here it is, the Nikkormat EL.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

Large and heavy, the Nikkormat EL offered a reasonable complement of features. Its shutter operates from 4 to 1/1000 sec. It offers depth-of-field preview, mirror lockup, and a self timer. A stubby 6-volt 4LR44 (aka 476A, A544, and PX28A) battery powers it all. It goes in a slot behind the lens mount, under the mirror. Use the mirror lockup lever (left of the lens mount) to move the mirror up. Then lift the battery cover and insert the battery. I thought I’d have trouble seating the battery in that tight space but I snapped it right in with my index finger.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

The Nikkormat EL’s viewfinder is fairly big and bright and features an easy-to-read match-needle system for the aperture-priority autoexposure. There’s no on-off switch; to activate the meter, pull the winding lever back. The EL’s focusing screen offers a central split-image rangefinder ringed with a microprism. It works beautifully. The white button left of the viewfinder checks the battery. Press it in with your thumbnail. If the battery is good, the amber light glows.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

With this Nikkormat Nikon moved closer to the classic 1970s SLR idiom by moving the shutter speed selector to a dial atop the camera, next to the wind lever. (Early Nikkormats placed the shutter speed selector on a ring around the lens mount.) And as you can see, the EL takes films from 25 to 1600 ISO.

Nikon finally got the clue when it updated this camera for 1977: it became the Nikon EL, the first Nikon SLR without removable prisms and focus screens. The Nikkormat line was allowed to die quietly.

This EL was placed on permanent loan in the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras by John Smith, who generally buys his gear in top shape. The EL is said to be prone to electronic gremlins, but this one works fine.

I dropped some Fujicolor 200 in, mounted my 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens, and got to shooting. I love to do close-up work and the Micro-Nikkor enables it so well. Yet it’s a fine lens for shooting things at greater distance. These are the reading glasses I keep on my desk at work.

Cheaters

And here’s a gripping photo for the annals of all-time greats: the cruise-control switch on my Toyota. I love it that the Micro-Nikkor lens lets me contemplate details like this.

Cruise Control

These batteries came out of a flash unit for my Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. They have to be 50 years old, and true to their marketing, they hadn’t leaked. However, in especially dim indoor light, either the meter didn’t read accurately or the long shutter speed was off, because the exposure was terrible. Photoshop helped make something usable out of the frame.

Marathon Batteries

I shot most of this roll around the house. Last year I moved my irises to a sunnier spot, and this year they rewarded me by blooming in the spring and in the autumn. It was refreshing to see a splash of purple and white among the fall colors! Unfortunately, first frost came before the plant finished blooming, which did the remaining flowers in.

Autumn Irises

We had some striking light one evening, so I went out to photograph it.

Strange Evening Light

This light lasted just a few minutes, before the setting sun and the clouds rolling in obscured it. How often do we get light like this but forget it because it is so fleeting?

Strange Evening Light

Finally, showing that I had nothing but fine art on my mind while testing this camera, here’s my Toyota with a load of sod in the back. Some of the grass I planted in the front yard after the sewer connection project had died, and I had lots of bare spots out back after having all those dead trees removed. My Toyota has become an old beater, so it’s just right for dirty hauling jobs. Its plastic floor is easy to clean.

Wagon Full of Sod

For more photos, check out my Nikon Nikkormat EL gallery.

Metal, mostly mechanical 35mm SLRs are my favorite kind of camera, and aperture priority is my favorite way to autoexpose, so of course I enjoyed shooting with the Nikkormat EL. I didn’t enjoy shooting it any more than any of the other mostly mechanical 35mm SLRs I own, though. I suppose it says a lot about the general goodness of SLRs from the 1970s that a camera as capable and well made as this one doesn’t rise above the rest.

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Camera Reviews, Photography

The year of the Nikon F2

I’ve learned so much from you film photographers whose blogs I follow and who follow my blog. I don’t remember which of you said it first — was it Mike Connealy? — but more than one of you suggested that you’d become a much better photographer if you’d just stick to one camera. I thought about that idea often. I love shooting different cameras, but I also want to get better at making pictures.

So I decided that in 2014 I would primarily use one film camera. I wouldn’t rule out buying a new camera here and there and putting a test roll through it, and I would still use my digital camera for all the things it’s good for. But for film shots, I’d use one camera for almost all of them, and I’d put extra time and energy into shooting with that camera.

I chose my Pentax ME to be the camera. I liked its smaller size and lighter weight. I love its aperture-priority shooting. And I have fine collection of SMC Pentax lenses for it.

But then John Smith threw a monkey wrench into the works. First, he sent me a Nikon F2A and said, “Some were born to shoot the F2; we will see if you are among them.” I had a great time with that F2. John declared me so born, and sent me another F2, this time an F2AS — and one that had been overhauled to new operating condition by Sover Wong, the world’s foremost F2 expert. And then he sent me a smattering of AI Nikkor lenses to go with it.

Nikon F2AS

I immediately abandoned my Pentaxian plans and became a Nikonian for 2014. And then I watched my work steadily improve all year. My composition and use of light both got a lot stronger, both through deliberate repetition and through trying to emulate some of the things I see in your photographs. Also, freed from the hindrance of constantly fiddling with new cameras, I found myself more and more using the F2AS well without thinking. I was able to think entirely about my photographs; my hands increasingly automatically worked the F2AS to get the look I wanted.

I am so happy I did this!

For 2015, I plan to leave black-and-white film in the F2AS, and color film in the F3HP John also sent me, and use them as my go-to cameras. I’ll resume buying cameras, too — even though my interest in collecting has waned, I can’t ignore that my camera posts are enormously popular. I’m also going to revisit some old favorite cameras — first among them being my old (and well loved) Pentax ME, just to see how it feels to me now.

Here are some photos from my F2AS that appealed to me today as I reviewed the work I’ve done this year.

Agfa Clack

Agfa Clack. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Ilford Delta 400

St. Paul's Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom-Nikkor, Ilford Delta 400

Expired

Expired. 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor, Kodak Gold 400 (very expired)

On the Monon Trail

On the Monon Trail. 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom-Nikkor, Kodak Tri-X (expired 2002)

Old cars under an awning

Old cars under an awning. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X (expired, cold stored)

1950 Hudson Commodore

1950 Hudson Commodore. 50mm f/2 AI-Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X Pan (expired, cold stored)

Lady Ornament

Lady Ornament. 50mm f/2 AI-Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 400

Grape hyacinth

Grape hyacinth. 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Main Street, Casey, IL

Main St., Casey, IL. 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 Zoom-Nikkor, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Lavender

Lavender. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Ektar 100

Evening light at Oldfields *EXPLORED*

Evening light at Oldfields. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Ektar 100

Margaret

Margaret. 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Farmall *EXPLORED*

Farmall. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Superia Xtra 800

In transition

In transition. 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Velvia 50

Red tree parking lot *EXPLORED*

Red tree parking lot. 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Velvia 50

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Camera Reviews, Photography

Nikon Zoom Touch 400

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This camera sucks.

Nikon Zoom Touch 400

My mom used this awful camera for about 20 years to record family events. Mom, I’m really sorry you had to suffer with this piece of crap for so long.

The Nikon Zoom Touch 400, which was known as the TW Zoom 35-70 in some markets, was introduced in 1990 to attract buyers who wanted features like autofocus, zoom, and red-eye reduction in a point-and-shoot camera from a respected maker. The Zoom Touch 400 packs a f/4-7.6 35-70mm zoom lens. It’s powered by one shockingly expensive CR-P2 battery.

Unfortunately, Nikon totally phoned this one in. Let’s start with the rubbery, blubbery shutter button. You press it, and at some point the camera realizes it and fires, but there’s little correlation between those two actions. I always felt like I was fighting with the camera to get the picture.

And then this camera’s lens is simply unimpressive. At 35mm, there’s tons of distortion and softness around the edges.

Shed

This shot of my neighbor’s house shows the distortion and edge softness too. Plus, the autofocus system couldn’t figure out what to focus on.

Blurry house

Even when the scene is simple, the autofocus system sometimes decides that nothing is the subject. A quarter of the photos I took with this camera turned out entirely blurry like this.

Blurry bush

I had better luck when I zoomed in. This flamingo is in my neighbor’s front yard, and it’s pretty sharp in this photo.

Flamingo

The moral of this story is always to zoom in a little with the Zoom Touch 400. I did that when I shot this gravestone, which is in the cemetery across from Bethel United Methodist Church near my home. The foreground detail is good and the background is pleasingly out of focus.

Stone

The best part of using this camera was finishing the roll of film that Mom left in it. I didn’t find that film until I opened the camera, and so unfortunately I fogged a few frames. But this photo turned out. It tells me that the last time Mom used this camera was on a visit to my house in about 2008, before Sugar, the Rottweiler, passed away.

Found

See more photos, if you dare, in my Nikon Zoom Touch 400 gallery.

If you come upon one of these in a junk store for a dollar, forget it.

Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

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