Camera Reviews

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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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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