A Look Back: The Nikon D100

My last remaining Nikon D100 digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera stands tall in my home studio recently.
My last remaining Nikon D100 digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera stands tall in my home studio recently.
Like any camera, the Nikon D100 was able to make amazing images in the right hands and the right circumstances, as in this image of my lovely wife in December 2009.
Like any camera, the Nikon D100 was able to make amazing images in the right hands and the right circumstances, as in this image of my lovely wife in December 2009.

The first digital camera I used regularly was the Nikon D1H, a relatively low pixel count camera at just 2.6 megapixels. My newspaper bought it for me for primary news gathering, and though its limitations were obvious, so was its ability to replace film, and thus save money and streamline workflow.

I immediately loved shooting digitally. It wasn’t instant gratification that charmed me, but the idea that the process could get out of my way and let me do my job. I liked it so much that I started hunting for digital cameras of my own. The first one I bought was a Nikon Coolpix 885, a compact camera I hoped would become my snap shooter.

This image of a tree silhouetted against a pond at sunset was made with the Nikon D100.
This image of a tree silhouetted against a pond at sunset was made with the Nikon D100.

I still wanted more, though, so I watched for cameras to go on sale. In the summer of 2002, I bought a Minolta DiMage 7i, and at the end of 2003, I brought my first digital single lens reflex (DLSR) camera, the Nikon D100, when it was discontinued and marked down.

The D100 has Nikon's classic good looks, and features a magnesium alloy chassis to make it lighter and stronger. Note the "D100" logo in the military stencil style.
The D100 has Nikon’s classic good looks, and features a magnesium alloy chassis to make it lighter and stronger. Note the “D100” logo in the military stencil style.
A horse sculpture made from chrome car bumpers stands on the street in downtown Wichita, Kansas in November 2003. I photographed it with the D100.
A horse sculpture made from chrome car bumpers stands on the street in downtown Wichita, Kansas in November 2003. I photographed it with the D100.

The D100 was a contemporary of the Fuji S2 Pro, and the two have some characteristics in common. Both cameras were anticipated to be the digital replacement for the excellent Nikon F100 film camera, but fell well short in most respects.

One reason I decided to write this now is that a coworker moved from one area of the building to another, and in cleaning out her desk, found a D100 I “gave” her a few years ago to shoot ads, and to make a few images of her daughter playing basketball. As far as I was concerned, she could have kept it forever, but when she handed it back to me, I cleaned it up and put it into occasional service, and wow! The D100 was as bad as I remember, and especially glaringly bad compared to cameras just a generation newer like the D70.

My wife Abby explores the bamboo forest at the Oklahoma City in this image made with the Nikon D100 and the AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6.
My wife Abby explores the bamboo forest at the Oklahoma City in this image made with the Nikon D100 and the AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6.
  • Releasing the shutter results in a asthmatic click-pause, click-pause, click-pause. It almost seems like the camera has been deliberately hobbled to keep  it from competing with other Nikons of the era.
  • The viewfinder is quite small, and while I was able to use it in 2003, today my older eyes can’t quite discern if the autofocus hit or missed on my subject. It feels cramped and cheap.
  • The display on the back of the camera is 1.8 inches diagonal, which today seems like a joke, but it was the tech for its day. The Nikon D1H and D1X had two-inch displays, and cost thousands more.

    The exposure mode dial on the D100 was one it's worst features.
    The exposure mode dial on the D100 was one it’s worst features.
  • The true Achilles heel of the D100 is the exposure mode dial, which you have to move out of shooting mode to change basic settings like ISO and white balance. Failing to put it back into a shooting mode can result in a shutter pull, a missed shot, and a momentary baffled look until you realize what you’ve done.
  • JPEGs out of the camera are, and always have been, achingly soft, even with the sharpening option set to “high.” I presume this is due to the camera’s aggressive anti-aliasing filter. The next Nikon, the D70, had a much lighter anti-aliasing filter, and while it made sharper JPEGs, it also frequently displayed aliases in patters like plaid clothing or stadium seats.

    One positive about the D100 is the top display, which, though not particularly large, contains all the basic information I need.
    One positive about the D100 is the top display, which, though not particularly large, contains all the basic information I need.
  • Thus the only option for sharp images out of the D100 is to shoot RAW files. Doing so doesn’t slow the frame rate, but the buffer fills immediately, and the camera pauses while it writes the 10MB files to the card. If you turn on RAW file compression, it takes more than a minute to write each frame to the card, a glaring coding flaw. It’s not an option.
  • Color rendition with the D100 is excellent and accurate.
  • Certain lenses don’t get along with the D100s autofocus system. My AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8, for example, is one of my favorite lenses, but always front-focused on the D100.
  • Nikon got the battery right, using a modern, reliable lithium ion battery. The Fuji S2 Pro seems very primitive by comparison.
  • The D100 isn’t particularly good in the high-ISO regime, but it beats out the better-in-most-categories Fuji S2 pro. The D100 goes to ISO 1600, followed by Hi1 and Hi2 (3200 and 6400, respectively), but those are so noisy, they can only be used in a pinch.

    The D100's lens mount is the Nikon F-mount, and it will autofocus earlier Nikkor AF lenses.
    The D100’s lens mount is the Nikon F-mount, and it will autofocus earlier Nikkor AF lenses.
  • Build quality is good. The frame is magnesium, lightweight and well-crafted. Unlike its contemporaries the D1H and D1X, which suffered from an embarrassing tendency to shed their grip covers, the D100’s surfaces remain in good shape to this day.
  • The addition of the MB-D100 vertical grip makes the camera look and feel five times more impressive and professional. It doesn’t change anything about the cameras performance except to add an extra battery.
  • In the era of cameras with 50 or even 100 megapixels, the D100’s six million pixels seems like far too few, but I have a number of 13×19-inch prints from it that hold up very well, thanks to filling up the frame with my subject, and attention to post-production editing. It was often enough, but barely.
The battery grip takes the place of the battery in the handle of the D100 and allows the use of two EN-EL3 batteries. This does not improve the performance of the camera, but the combination of batteries stays charged longer. This accessory also has a vertical shutter release, which I use all the time.
The battery grip takes the place of the battery in the handle of the D100 and allows the use of two EN-EL3 batteries. This does not improve the performance of the camera, but the combination of batteries stays charged longer. This accessory also has a vertical shutter release, which I use all the time.
The D100's lens mount is the Nikon F-mount, and it will autofocus earlier Nikkor AF lenses.
The D100’s lens mount is the Nikon F-mount, and it will autofocus earlier Nikkor AF lenses.

You can find D100s in good condition for less than $100 on sites like Ebay, but in all honesty, unless you just want to find out what it was like, the D100 is no bargain at any price.

The deciding, and somewhat contradictory, factor in the final analysis is that despite the D100s failings, I was able to make some amazing, remarkably sharp, clear photos with it.

It is difficult to imagine another camera making a better image than this, shot with the D100 at the White Rim Overlook at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
It is difficult to imagine another camera making a better image than this, shot with the D100 at the White Rim Overlook at Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Like any tool in the photographic toolbox, a camera’s job should be to get out of the way so we can move forward with expressing our vision, and the D100 didn’t do this particularly well. I attribute most of my success with it to patience and effort.

Despite the D100's deficiencies, I was able to shoot news and sports with this camera, like this image of the Konawa Lady Tigers claiming their OSSAA state championship trophy.
Despite the D100’s deficiencies, I was able to shoot news and sports with this camera, like this image of the Konawa Lady Tigers claiming their OSSAA state championship trophy.

It’s easy to forget that in 2003, zillions of people made great images with this camera, and its easy to toss it on the scrap heap of technology, but I am glad I got to shoot with it. I took my D100, for example, to shoot the Trinity Site, location of the first atomic bomb test, in 2006, and have no intention of returning. My images from that shoot, and many more with the D100, were entirely successful.

Despite the technological limitations of earlier digital cameras like the Nikon D100, it's hard to argue with an image as beautiful as this one at White Sands National Monument.
Despite the technological limitations of earlier digital cameras like the Nikon D100, it’s hard to argue with an image as beautiful as this one at White Sands National Monument.
1+

A Look Back: The Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro

The Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro was a leading digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera in 2002.
The Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro was a leading digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera in 2002.
Abby makes pictures with the Fujifilm S1 Pro, the S2's immediate predecessor. The cameras have a lot in common.
Abby makes pictures with the Fujifilm S1 Pro, the S2’s immediate predecessor. The cameras have a lot in common.

I never owned the Fujifilm S2 Pro, but my long-time friend Michael bought one just a year after it’s 2002 introduction, to replace his S1 Pro. My wife Abby and I borrowed the S1 Pro for a while during that period.

The S2 Pro is built on a Nikon N80 film camera body, a practice common during the period; it was a “Frankencamera,” stitched together from film hardware and digital guts. Many of us used cameras like this in the early 2000s; I used the Nikon/Kodak DSC 760 and the 720x.

Among many other things Michael has photographed over the years, he shot our 2004 wedding with the S2 Pro, with outstanding results.

Abby and I beam as we exchange vows at Utah's iconic Delicate Arch, photographed with the Fuji S2 Pro.
Abby and I beam as we exchange vows at Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch, photographed with the Fuji S2 Pro.

On a couple of occasions when Michael let men borrow it, I made some very successful images with it, including a couple of magazine covers.

Some thoughts…

  • Some reviewers claimed that the sensor in the S2 Pro wasn’t “really” a 12 megapixel sensor because it used six millions photo sites, arranged in Fuji’s own Super CCD diagonal configuration, and interpolated up to 12 megapixels. What this view misses is that all digital color images are made using some kind of interpolation. Fuji’s scheme in the S2 Pro seems to deliver a “real” 12 megapixel image.
  • The S2 Pro took two different kinds of storage media. There is a SmartMedia slot on top, and a CF/Microdrive slot below. I assume SmartMedia was supported because Fuji helped develop it, even though it was as good as dead even in 2002.
    The S2 Pro took two different kinds of storage media. There is a SmartMedia slot on top, and a CF/Microdrive slot below. I assume SmartMedia was supported because Fuji helped develop it, even though it was as good as dead even in 2002.

    The separate digital and film mechanisms mean separate battery systems. The digital side runs on AA batteries in a tray at the bottom, and the film side uses CR123 batteries in the grip, though for a while you could buy a bypass insert to skip the CR123s, with inconsistent results.

  • Even by 2002 standards, the autofocus system the S2 Pro inherited from the N80 was slow and inaccurate. I usually manually focused, and Michael eventually got so frustrated with it he replaced it with a Nikon D200.
  • Although it was touted as having decent high-ISO performance, I was disappointed by it, particularly that it could make noise bands at ISO 1600.
  • Like its contemporary the Nikon D100, the S2 Pro requires moving the exposure mode dial to change the ISO and the custom settings, inherited from its film ancestors, which interrupts workflow, particularly if you forget to put it back.
  • Color straight out of the camera might be the best of the era, a Fujifilm strength; accurate, saturated but not phony, good skin tones, though I found that auto and daylight settings both tended to be a little too cool, particularly for skin tones.
  • Sharpness was good as well, allowing true 12 megapixel enlargements.
  • The camera is smaller and lighter than some of its contemporaries, like the Kodak DCS 14n, but slightly bigger and bulkier than the Nikon D100. In my hands, everything about the Fuji seems small compared to the pro DSLRs I use every day.
  • The frame rate, write-to-card time, and response time to button pushes all lag, and slow me down. Sometimes that can be a bonus, since it can force you to be more conservative and more contemplative about your shooting, but I would never attempt to shoot sports, for example, with the S2 Pro.
This is a 100% crop of an image from the S2 Pro, which, as you can see, is sharp and has satisfying colors.
This is a 100% crop of an image from the S2 Pro, which, as you can see, is sharp and has satisfying colors.
Several cameras of this era made this mistake: having to take the camera out of a shooting mode to change vital settings like ISO.
Several cameras of this era made this mistake: having to take the camera out of a shooting mode to change vital settings like ISO.

Despite its slowness, I always liked shooting with the S2 Pro, and if I found one at a garage sale for $25, I’d buy it, but not for much more than that. It was a good step forward in the early years of digital photography, and Fuji obviously learned and grew from the experience (which Kodak, for example, did not), and has gone on to do great things in the field.

The back of the Fuji S2 Pro plainly shows the Nikon N80 heritage, with its cheaper plastic covering and small viewfinder eyepiece.
The back of the Fuji S2 Pro plainly shows the Nikon N80 heritage, with its cheaper plastic covering and small viewfinder eyepiece.
Michael ran the S2 Pro through its paces over the years, though it is mostly retired now. He made a lot of great pictures with it.
Michael ran the S2 Pro through its paces over the years, though it is mostly retired now. He made a lot of great pictures with it.

Special thanks to Michael for getting the S2 Pro out of storage and photographing it for me.

0

What’s Missing from Your 4K Camera

A huge selling point for cameras in recent years has been their video capability. This is a result of the megapixel war being over, and manufacturers perceiving the need to sell their products with some magic number. For a while it was “full HD” (high definition) video, but now it’s “4K.”

For those of you who don’t know, 4K doesn’t express resolution the same way “megapixel” is supposed to express resolution in a still camera; it represents the fact that the long dimension of the recorded and projected image is approximately 4000 pixels.

Cue the eager reviewer in Hong Kong or Istanbul or Las Vegas, talking about bit rates and autofocus and color styles and F-log. Cue millennial in skinny jeans and pretentiously-ironic Fedora, leaping from the railing in a parking garage in super-slow-motion, super-high-resolution. The reviewer’s voiceover says something like, “If it weren’t for the better XYZ in the PDQ, I could recommend this camera for it’s striking 4K video.”

What’s missing from all of these reviews? All of them? A script.

Essentially, 99.99% of all 4K video is demo reels that don’t tell any story of any kind. It’s another seriously misplaced priority in the imaging world.

Take the following video as an example: In 1992, I bought some surplus VHS video cassettes at the Ada Public Library. Three of them were called Best of the Fests, which were collections of films from film festivals. On one of those was a 1988 short film called Spartacus Rex. It was the best of the Best of the Fests, and I have been enjoying it and occasionally quoting ever since. It was made by Loch Phillipps and Caroline Skaife. It’s brilliant, not because it’s HD or 4K (I think it was 16mm actually), but because it has a script…

1+

My Ten Dollar Camera Collection

I made this image with an Olympus Camedia C-750 digital camera, which dates back to 2003. I was very happy with the result.
I made this image with an Olympus Camedia C-750 digital camera, which dates back to 2003. I was very happy with the result.

Long-time webizens know that the controversial Ken Rockwell has a lot to say. He is both revered and reviled on the web, but remains popular in any case.

One concept he explored years ago was “futuretrash,” the idea that technology is inherently inclined to advance so fast that almost all tech machinations will be obsolete in a short period of time, like months or just a few years.

The article is ten years old, but it’s just as relevant today, particularly after I half-jokingly got on Ebay and bought 22 untested old digital cameras for just $10. They arrived a couple of days later, and my wife Abby and I have been playing with them ever since.

Here are $5000 worth of digital cameras reduced to a $10 Ebay grab.
Here are $5000 worth of digital cameras reduced to a $10 Ebay grab.

The oldest camera of the bunch appears to be from 1998, a Kodak DC210 Plus. The front of the camera brags “MegaPixel,” and the web confirms that yes, it is a one megapixel camera. The web also indicates that this behemoth originally cost $899. No, I am not making that up; that’s almost $1400 in today’s dollars.

Abby holds the 20-year-old Kodak DC210 Plus digital camera. It actually works.
Abby holds the 20-year-old Kodak DC210 Plus digital camera. It actually works.

Just for the record, one of these cameras, a Nikon Pronea S, is a film camera from the APS era.

The price of digital cameras fell for years, in accordance with Moore’s Law, so by 2008, this camera had been replaced with much better, much cheaper technology. Still, even the newest and best of this batch of untested cameras must have cost at least $300. To get them all for just $10 says this: what was once valuable is now garbage.

About a third of these cameras work. Some of them take AA batteries, while some require proprietary batteries I don’t have. Most of them use the ubiquitous SD card, while a few take CF cards. Two of them take SmartMedia, which I don’ t have, and one requires an SD Picture Card, which was in it when it arrived. A Sony Cybershot had a Memory Stick in it.

But I didn’t buy them to take pictures. I certainly have enough modern cameras for that. I bought them to ponder what we really value in a capitalist/merchentilist society from the perspective of someone in my area of expertise. Are we really asking the human race to throw away college savings, mortgage payments, health care, retirement, and any number of other once truly valuable things so we could take 20 or 30 1.2-megapixel digital photographs of our niece’s graduation?

Flash forward 20 years to now, and the real reason these cameras are in a pile in a box at the bottom of the coat closet is this: we have been brainwashed to believe we need to take tens of thousands of photographs of our lives with increasingly complex and sophisticated tools (iPhones for example), instead of living our lives?

Hawken the Irish Wolfhound was so curious about my woods walk that he got tangled up in a vine alone the south fence.
Hawken the Irish Wolfhound was so curious about my woods walk that he got tangled up in a vine alone the south fence.

Yes, I see this all the time: people watching their children grow up on the screens of their phones. And I can’t be certain, but my guess is that only a tiny fraction of these images and videos are ever seen again.

So, Richard, photographer and photography instructor, what is your bottom line? Quality over quantity? That we should all be artists? That we should turn off our phones and smell the marigolds once in a while? All this and more. Life is worth living instead of watching, and while photography can be a powerful tool for recording our lives, it shouldn’t take the place of our lives.

I made this image of a thistle plant in our pasture last night with the 2005-era Kodak Easyshare Z740. Possibly regarded as inadequate by today's standards of technology, the image is, nevertheless, lovely.
I made this image of a thistle plant in our pasture last night with the 2005-era Kodak Easyshare Z740. Possibly regarded as inadequate by today’s standards of technology, the image is, nevertheless, lovely.
3+

Funniest Repair Ever

This is the Gorilla Glue that squished out when I reattached a thumb grip on my D700.
This is the Gorilla Glue that squished out when I reattached a thumb grip on my D700.

When I bought my D700, it was missing the rubber grip for the right thumb. Some weeks later one of my D200s died, and I stripped it for parts. The thumb grips aren’t the same, so I trimmed it with a scissors and glued it on, and it worked fine.

Ten days ago, though, it came unglued, so I decided to glue it back, only more aggressively than before. I put a fair amount of Gorilla Glue on the spot, pressed the rubber grip into place, and put a book on it to hold it down while it dried. Apparently, the pressure from the weight of the book caused the glue to ooze out at a couple of spots.

I laughed hard when I saw the result. Of course, I can just cut off the extra glue with a razor or sharp knife, but I’m halfway tempted to leave it on and tell people it’s some kind of an accessory, like the glue spots are pressure points or massage balls or something.

2+

Breaking Things Loose and Keeping Things Fresh

Black and white barbed wire: am I creating, or just brooding? Does it matter?
Black and white barbed wire: am I creating, or just brooding? Does it matter?

I talk all the time on this site and on my personal site about creativity.

“If I take one more picture of a leaf, I’m going to explode” ~R. E. in 2015, about a creative rut he experienced.

Lately I’ve been social media friending a lot of photographers at bigger newspapers on the coasts. Their work is amazing and inspirational, but seems to flow from a different source: regattas, refugees, politics, enormous sports events, current affairs; they live in states that have counties bigger than Oklahoma, so it’s a different worldview just based on what we see every day. I look at their lives with some incredulity: how can you deal with millions of people, their noise, their traffic, their smell. I live in a town that has fewer people in it than the staff at the New York Times.

You can piss and pout all day about this not being original or groundbreaking, which it's not. It's an image I love of something I love. Done.
You can piss and pout all day about this not being original or groundbreaking, which it’s not. It’s an image I love of something I love. Done.

I caught a recent YouTube video from a channel called DigitalRev (“Rev” being “revolution” I guess) about photographic cliche’s to avoid. In it, he mentions just about every kind of photo. I’ve touched on this idea before, and it is this: in a world of literally billions of images being made every day, stop trying to reinvent the wheel and start trying to express yourself. It’s a subtle concept, but one worth merit.

Looking at the work of other photographers will make you chase your tail. It’s all been done to death. Don’t believe me? Do a web search for “Hong Kong at Night.” I’ll wait.

See? What can you add to that? Next, do a web search for “YOUR NAME in pictures.” Now, what can you add to that?

Finally, I know I’ve said this time and again, but it bears a lot of weight: you can’t buy mastery, you have to earn it. Trust me on this: when I take my pistol down to the pond and my first ten shots miss, there’s nothing wrong with my pistol.

Sometimes your camera can make you look great, if you're willing to let it. I made this exposure entirely by accident.
Sometimes your camera can make you look great, if you’re willing to let it. I made this exposure entirely by accident.

SaveSave

SaveSave

1+

A Camera Like a Sports Car

The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon's news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.
The Nikon D2H digital camera was Nikon’s news and sports flagship camera in 2003. I have three working D2Hs, and I get them out once in a while and make great images with them.

My wife Abby owns a 1986 Toyota MR-2 mid-engine roadster. She is its only owner. It’s not her main vehicle, and she doesn’t drive it very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than her current vehicle, a Nissan Frontier pickup.

But it does do one thing better: it’s fun to drive.

Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.
Abby has owned her Toyota MR-2 since she bought it new in 1986.

I tell you this because all winter I used my “SUV” cameras, matching Nikon D300S digital cameras, for everything, and when things started to get sunny and green, I decided to give them a break for a few days and shoot with the much older Nikon D2H cameras I have locked up in my office. I don’t use them very often: parts on it are worn out, its technology is a couple of generations old, and it doesn’t do very many things better than the new cameras.

But like Abby’s roadster, the D2H does something very well: it’s fun to shoot. It features perfect, lightning-fast autofocus and an effortless eight frames per second frame rate. Nobody needs the speed and handling of a sports car, but it’s fun. The D2H is also one of the best-built cameras and feels great in-hand.

It’s also fun to make really powerful photos with outdated cameras because it shows the “upgraders” that it really is the photographer, not the camera, making pictures.

I know at least one gearhead out there is going to want to chime in with, “but it’s only a 4.1-megapixel camera, Richard. What if you want to print big?”

  1. I always hear this talk from people who never actually make big prints.
  2. You need to come to my office and look at my big prints… 24×36 inch… and tell me which ones were made with the D2H. You won’t be able to.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn't the problem.
Want to get more compliments on your sports photos? Your first purchase should be a lens, followed by some training in how to use it. Your camera, whatever it is, isn’t the problem.

So what doesn’t the D2H do well? It doesn’t do well at ISO 1600 and above. It doesn’t have a big, luxurious viewfinder, and it doesn’t have a big, bright monitor on the back. Otherwise, though, this camera does pretty well for 15-year-old technology.

In the month since the end of the basketball season, the D2H has been my main camera for baseball and softball, sunny sky sports, giving the D300Ss a nice rest period, and allowing me to make great pictures and have great fun doing it.

What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
What makes an image like this work is attentive sports photography technique, and a decent lens, in this case my AF-S 300mm f/4.
3+

Nail in the Film Coffin

Two summers ago at Ada's annual July 4 celebration in Wintersmith Park, I ran into a photographer who was shooting with a beautiful Mamiya C220. No one in town can process the film for it, so unless he has a darkroom, processing is an obstacle. He was the only person I've seen with a film camera in the field in the past few years.
Two summers ago at Ada’s annual July 4 celebration in Wintersmith Park, I ran into a photographer who was shooting with a beautiful Mamiya C220. No one in town can process the film for it, so unless he has a darkroom, processing is an obstacle. He was the only person I’ve seen with a film camera in the field in the past few years.

I recently posted that Kodak Alaris was reintroducing a black-and-white film to their lineup, T-Max P3200, which I regard as a likely mistake. Substantiating this is a recent announcement by Fujifilm that they are ending manufacture of all black-and-white film in October.

I've got a fair share of film cameras sitting around, but I can't think of a single reason to buy film for them.
I’ve got a fair share of film cameras sitting around, but I can’t think of a single reason to buy film for them.

For the entire first half of my career, I shot film, and though digital was fairly primitive when it came along, I embraced it, and have exactly no desire to go back to film. Fuji apparently agrees with me, though for a very different reason: profitability. It’s clear that companies can’t make money selling 20 rolls of film to 20 moody millennials who think film is “edgy” or “hip,” so the film game is over.

If I had my way (and/or a Kickstarter plan), I might be inclined to find a way to integrate digital photography into the millions of wonderful old film cameras we all own and relish, but I have no urge to shoot film with them. It’s pretty apparent that no one else does, either, because no one ever asks me to teach them anything about the darkroom or film, and I almost never see anyone shooting film in the field.

The Shrinking World of Film...
I came across my next door neighbors last night, and they had an old film camera with a broken-off rewind knob, so they couldn’t remove the film to have it processed. We picked at it with a pocket knife to no avail, and I went on with my chores. Even if they get the film out and take it to Wal Mart or Walgreens (the last places in town that say they can process film), those businesses no longer have actual C41 processors, and will need to send the film to Dallas or Los Angeles or Hong Kong to be processed. Like them, I am curious to see what’s on the film, but have no reason or desire to shoot any more film.

But hey, if you think there is money to be made in making and selling black-and-white film, get some investors and make Fuji an offer for their Acros brand, or start your own. What’s that? Only a fool would try to make a living selling film in 2018? Ah.

Somebody handed me a four-pack of Kodak color negative film recently. Upon opening it up and taking the rolls out of their cans, it felt very familiar to handle them. I have a lot of latent knowledge from the early period of my career.
Somebody handed me a four-pack of Kodak color negative film recently. Upon opening it up and taking the rolls out of their cans, it felt very familiar to handle them. I have a lot of latent knowledge from the early period of my career.
3+

A Look Back: The Sony Cybershot DCS-F828

Welcome to another in my series of older cameras that were once great but have been relegated to the dustbin of photographic history. Here is the Sony Cybershot DCS-F828.

The Sony Cybershot DCS F828 digital camera poses for me in my studio today.
The Sony Cybershot DCS F828 digital camera poses for me in my studio today.

Introduced in 2003 and shipped in early 2004, this replacement for Sony’s DCS F717 all-in-one fixed-lens digital camera was very expensive when it was introduced, and plagued with problems. At the time, my bridge/travel/all-in-one camera was the excellent Minolta DiMage 7i, which was still going strong, so I passed on the Sony.

I made this beautiful image of autumn leaves with the Sony F828. I'm sorry to say that this success is the exception rather than the rule.
I made this beautiful image of autumn leaves with the Sony F828. I’m sorry to say that this success is the exception rather than the rule.

This class of cameras is known as bridge cameras, crossover cameras, or even walk-around cameras, and feature a permanently-attached, very-long-zoom-range lens. They are a favorite of mine and of my wife Abby because they are so easy to integrate into activities like travel, hiking, and family reunions.

The back of the Sony F828 features a lot of useful controls, though they are accessed by very small buttons and switches. The LCD monitor is only 1.5 inches diagonally.
The back of the Sony F828 features a lot of useful controls, though they are accessed by very small buttons and switches. The LCD monitor is only 1.5 inches diagonally.

I got my hands on the Sony F828 years after its heyday, for about a tenth of its original retail price.

Positives for this camera:

  • Mechanical zoom lens that allows tactile access focal length.
  • Distinct 7-bladed aperture that creates 14-point sunstars.
  • Well-balanced with a good in-hand feel.
  • Many of the important controls use buttons or switches on the camera/lens body rather than hidden in a menu.
  • It’s a great-looking, sexy camera that never looks like a toy.
It's always nice to see a camera with a true PASM exposure mode dial. The F828's is metal and easy to grip.
It’s always nice to see a camera with a true PASM exposure mode dial. The F828’s is metal and easy to grip.

Negatives about the F-828…

  • Despite the use of a Carl Zeiss optic, the Sony F828 remains littered with image quality issues.
    Despite the use of a Carl Zeiss optic, the Sony F828 remains littered with image quality issues.

    The zoom lens’s images are very prone to purple fringing. Apologists for this camera had to whitewash this flaw with phrases like “under certain circumstances” but the truth is that my Minolta DiMage 7i never once did this.

  • Shooting RAW files locks the camera for ten seconds, ensuring a missed follow-up frame, even in continuous shooting mode.
  • The JPEGs out of this camera have an odd purple undertone even with white balance set correctly. I expect this is a combination of purple fringing from the lens and Sony’s weird four-color “HAD CCD” with its RGBE layout, the E being “emerald,” but really meaning something akin to cyan.
  • The hinge between the camera part of the body and the heavier lens part of the body gets loose, and soon either requires partial disassembly to repair, or putting up with the lens flopping into a straight-down position when holding the camera by the grip.
  • There is a tiny switch to change between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD on the back of the camera. Every other bridge camera I’ve owned has an eye detector and switches this automatically, including the Minolta DiMage 7i that came out two years before the Sony.

    The left side of the Sony's body is like a Star Trek fan's wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.
    The 4color Super HAD CCD might be at the heart of the F828’s problems.
  • The Auto/Manual Focus switch moves too easily, sometimes resulting in the lens not autofocusing, with little indication in the viewfinder.
  • Although it will take both a CF card and Sony’s proprietary memory stick, the video frame rate is cut in half when shooting to the CF card, which I assume is to bully the buyer into purchasing the always-overpriced memory stick.
  • The menu system is a mess; some critical functions are accessed by pushing the “Menu” button, while others require setting the exposure mode dial to “Set Up.” Then within those dialogs are another mess. While this was common to cameras in the early transition from film to digital (and the migration of menus from film cameras to digital camera), I guess I expected more from a $1500 camera.
It didn't take me long to find examples of the Sony's F828's inclination to purple fringing, as seen in the extreme in this barn image; the holes in the barn should not be purple.
It didn’t take me long to find examples of the Sony’s F828’s inclination to purple fringing, as seen in the extreme in this barn image; the holes in the barn should not be purple.
Operation of the lens itself, a 7.5-51MM F/2.0-2.8, is smooth and precise; a pleasure to use.
Operation of the lens itself, a 7.5-51MM F/2.0-2.8, is smooth and precise; a pleasure to use.

A couple of years ago I half-decided to dedicate this relic to infrared photography, but a couple of weeks ago it killed a CF card, so now I only trust it as a conversation piece. I also don’t care much for Sony as a corporate entity – almost every Sony electronic I ever owned, tape decks, DVD/Blu-Ray players, and amps all died untimely deaths.

One thing the Sony F828 could do well was make gorgeous 14-point sunstars due to its lens having a seven-bladed aperture.
One thing the Sony F828 could do well was make gorgeous 14-point sunstars due to its lens having a seven-bladed aperture.
The left side of the Sony's body is like a Star Trek fan's wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.
The left side of the Sony’s body is like a Star Trek fan’s wet dream, covered in controls that are fun to imagine using.

I know, I know. Sony is at the head of the line in camera development at the moment, but I still don’t trust them. If they sent me a sample of their new mirrorless to shoot, I would, but it will take a lot of trust-rebuilding to ever make me a Sony customer again.

And the F-828? If you find one at a garage sale, offer $25 and have fun, but don’t count on this machine as an image maker.

The Sony F828, the Minolta DiMage 7i, and the Fujifilm HS30EXR are show together in my studio today. The Minolta is an old favorite, and the Fuji is my current favorite, but despite its potential, the Sony falls short.
The Sony F828, the Minolta DiMage 7i, and the Fujifilm HS30EXR are show together in my studio today. The Minolta is an old favorite, and the Fuji is my current favorite, but despite its potential, the Sony falls short.
2+

Judge, Jury and Executioner

An Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery staff member prepares to place ribbons on items I selected at their spring photography show.
An Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery staff member prepares to place ribbons on items I selected at their spring photography show.
It was a beautiful day for the short drive from my home to Sulphur, Oklahoma to judge a photography contest at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery.
It was a beautiful day for the short drive from my home to Sulphur, Oklahoma to judge a photography contest at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery.

A long-time-ago photography student, Royce Gideon, invited me to judge a photography show at Artists of the Arbuckles Art Gallery in Sulphur, Oklahoma. I had no idea what to expect since photography is consistently inconsistent, but I had high hopes.

I drove down Thursday morning and had a look, and found myself in the midst of a some fairly amazing work. (I won’t show their work up close or say who won, since they are not my images. If you want to see them, go to Sulphur. It’s a nice little town.)

The judging process was pretty straightforward, as the staff made notes and placed the ribbons on the pieces for me. I discussed the merits of each winner and they took that down as well.

A reporter from the Sulphur Times-Democrat interviewed and photographed me.

One significant observation: more and more photographers are getting their prints on metallic steel about the thickness of a license plate. It makes for a handsome presentation.

Overall, I was impressed with the work and glad I could participate.

Photographer Royce Gideon makes notes about some of the image on display at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery Thursday.
Photographer Royce Gideon makes notes about some of the image on display at the Artists of the Arbuckles Gallery Thursday.
1+

The Love of Teaching

My students and I had an excellent session last night.
My students and I had an excellent session last night.
During the golden hour we were able to use this nice edge light.
During the golden hour we were able to use this nice edge light.

As the years have passed, I find that there are few things I love as much as teaching photography.

It’s fun and interesting, and, like last night, full of “ah ha!” moments for all involved.

The team makes pictures under a pear tree.
The team makes pictures under a pear tree.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, we got a very nice, subtle, rounded edge light.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, we got a very nice, subtle, rounded edge light.

Last night we had a great golden hour, followed by an even better blue hour, followed by a fun indoor existing-light session.

We then finished the night with some after-dark light painting with flash and flashlights.

We all had so much fun we actually ran ten minutes long.

My crew takes time to set up under a pear tree. It yielded the best photographic fruits.
My crew takes time to set up under a pear tree. It yielded the best photographic fruits.
As we stayed out during the blue hour, we came across this tree and used it as a compositional element to create strong leading lines. We were very happy with it.
As we stayed out during the blue hour, we came across this tree and used it as a compositional element to create strong leading lines. We were very happy with it.
0

An Odd Move for Kodak

While it's certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak's P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.
While it’s certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak’s P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.

Kodak Alaris, the film and paper division of the bankrupt Great Yellow Father, Kodak, announced recently the reintroduction of Kodak P3200 35mm film. I consider this an odd move – and probably a mistake – because this film, first introduced in the 1980s, was a solution to the problem that existing films weren’t adequate for very low light situations.

Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that's hard to fix.
Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that’s hard to fix.

In 1985, I was working for the Associated Press and, by November, a newspaper, and with the inherent need to cover sports in very low light – football, basketball, volleyball – found myself trying to figure out all the schemes my fellow news shooters and I were using to get existing films to act with more sensitivity to low light. We shot Kodak’s Tri-X, a great film in the 1960s and 1970s, but long in the tooth by the 1980s. We used all sorts of tricks and schemes to get more sensitivity out of Tri-X, from snake oil products like Crone-C developer additive, to relatively obscure chemistry like Accu-Fine and Diafine, to time and temperature experiments with possibly my favorite black-and-white developer, HC-110. None of it got Tri-X above about ISO 2000.

Technology needed to step in, and Kodak needed to bring it.

Enter Kodak T-Max P3200, a very high speed film that could be “push processed” into the ISO stratosphere, which I did all the time. I used Kodak’s T-Max developer and regularly exposed this film at ISO 6400. It was a game-changer. For more than a decade, I relied on this film for imaging, especially sports, in all manner of low-light, almost-no-light venues.

Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It's a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.
Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It’s a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.

Then in 2001, my newspaper bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D1H. From almost exactly that day, my use of P3200 stopped. Color film lingered a while longer, but by the end of 2004, I was done with film.

My wife Abby likes to tell me that her photography was reinvented by digital, and she could finally express herself without the hassle of film – processing, printing, archiving, and especially paying for film and prints.

I, too, was very happy when I could leave film behind and shoot my low-light stuff digitally. Digital solved every problem with film: toxic silver-based chemicals, grainy images, time-consuming printing and/or scanning, and, possibly most significantly, a very limited number of frames.

Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.
Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.

Sure, a good print or scan from a P3200 negative is good, but the same shot with a modern DSLR is amazing by comparison.

Also, think about what almost always happens to a film frame in the latter day: it gets scanned to make it digital, and from there makes its way to a print, a publication, or a web site. It does not get printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, which, in the end, is the only true path to analog photography. Adding film to a digital workflow is like recording your phonograph albums to 8-track tape then ripping those tapes to MP3.

I can almost get interested in a super-low-ISO, super-fine-grained film for fine art, but on the grainy end? Did we not just spend a trillion dollars to get rid of grain and noise?

Also, if you thought dust on your digital sensor was a problem in the early 2000s, you are in for an unpleasant surprise: the cleanest negatives from the cleanest darkrooms have a ton of dust on them, and every speck shows up when you scan.

So what might Kodak be hoping with this move? To light a fire under a previously unknown revenue stream? To be the next big retro thing? To pander to the 1% of millennials who both regard film as edgy and retro and are actually willing to use it? Kodak certainly showed us how to navigate a corporate juggernaut right into the ground, and this idea seems like more of that same thinking.

I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
0

A Look Back: a “Tank” of a Camera, the Nikkormat EL

My all-metal, tough-as-nails Nikkormat EL sits in my studio. It is heavy, blocky, and reliable.
My all-metal, tough-as-nails Nikkormat EL sits in my studio. It is heavy, blocky, and reliable.
Mounting a lens on old Nikon cameras required aligning a claw with a post, then rotating the lens to its smallest aperture, then it's largest aperture, to "index" the lens with the camera.
Mounting a lens on old Nikon cameras required aligning a claw with a post, then rotating the lens to its smallest aperture, then it’s largest aperture, to “index” the lens with the camera.

In the months and years following my first year at a full-time newspaper internship, I had a pretty clear idea about what kind of photographer I wanted to be. I wanted to be in the trenches, shooting football games in the rain, house fires in the middle of the night, perp walks on the courthouse steps, and the crowd going wild when the three-pointer hits at the buzzer.

The Nikkormat wears a 1960s-era 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. The yellow hue of the front element indicates it was single-coated, but over the years I found that this lens was very sharp, and very tough.
The Nikkormat wears a 1960s-era 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens. The yellow hue of the front element indicates it was single-coated, but over the years I found that this lens was very sharp, and very tough.
The Nikkormat EL kept it's battery in an unusual spot, in a chamber under the reflex mirror.
The Nikkormat EL kept it’s battery in an unusual spot, in a chamber under the reflex mirror.

To do all these things, I needed tough cameras with big, fast lenses. I started with a Nikon FM in 1982, and slowly added to my system. On the occasions when I had a little extra money, I often hit the pawn shops at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where E-1 soldiers tended to blow all their pay on payday, then pawn what they bought two weeks later when they needed to make rent.

In the 21st century, it's weirdly unsettling to look at the back of a camera and not see a monitor. Pushing the white button on the back of the Nikkormat EL lit up the orange button, indicating the state of the battery.
In the 21st century, it’s weirdly unsettling to look at the back of a camera and not see a monitor. Pushing the white button on the back of the Nikkormat EL lit up the orange button, indicating the state of the battery.
This is a relic that many modern photographers might not even recognize: a selectable X-sync vs FP-sync flash setting on the shutter speed dial of the Nikkormat EL. FP-Sync triggers the flash slightly early to allow a flash bulb to reach it's full output.
This is a relic that many modern photographers might not even recognize: a selectable X-sync vs FP-sync flash setting on the shutter speed dial of the Nikkormat EL. FP-Sync triggers the flash slightly early to allow a flash bulb to reach it’s full output.
The mirror lock-up lever is situated above the lens release. It allowed use of optics that protruded into the body of the camera, and also allowed access to the battery under the mirror box.
The mirror lock-up lever is situated above the lens release. It allowed use of optics that protruded into the body of the camera, and also allowed access to the battery under the mirror box.

At several points in my camera shopping I came across nice Nikkormat cameras. Nikkormat was Nikon’s 1960s and 70s effort to manufacture less-expensive Nikons for amateurs, mostly by limiting their features. By the late 1970s, Nikon and Nikkormat had largely merged, and most Nikkormats had a fair amount of features.

All the cameras made by Nikon during that era were built like tanks: steel frames, brass mounting rings, real glass pentaprisms, engraved and painted markings. It was a golden ago of camera-making for most camera makers, including Nikon.

The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 sits next to the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.
The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 sits next to the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.
The shutter speed dial on the EL includes aperture-priority automatic. This feature was later quite common in many Nikon cameras, including the FE, which replaced the EL.
The shutter speed dial on the EL includes aperture-priority automatic. This feature was later quite common in many Nikon cameras, including the FE, which replaced the EL.

At one time or another I owned…

  • This is an odd little accessory that I used on some old Nikon cameras, a "soft touch" shutter release extender. It gave the shutter release a better feel and made it easier to find with your index finger.
    This is an odd little accessory that I used on some old Nikon cameras, a “soft touch” shutter release extender. It gave the shutter release a better feel and made it easier to find with your index finger.

    Nikkormat FT, the original 1965-design without auto aperture indexing. I eventually sold it after discovering a significant focus calibration error.

  • Nikomat (brand name sold only in Japan) EL chrome top. I often carried this as my second-camera, usually with a wide angle lens on it, when I would be in the field all day, like at the annual Fourth of July festivities. It died, and I gave it to someone (I don’t remember who.)
  • Nikkormat EL. For years this camera had a place in my bag, and it remained healthy into the digital era. It has an auto-winder, which is slow and bulky, and is difficult to hold due to a lack of handgrip. In 2002, I handed it to Jamie for our hiking trip to Utah. She had a great time using it, and ended up keeping it in her collection on permanent loan. I borrowed it this week to photograph, but I consider it hers.
Jamie makes pictures with the Nikkormat EL in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002. Since then, this camera has been in her possession, which pleases us both.
Jamie makes pictures with the Nikkormat EL in Arches National Park, Utah in November 2002. Since then, this camera has been in her possession, which pleases us both.
Your host shoots with a Nikomat EL. I later gave away that camera.
Your host shoots with a Nikomat EL. I later gave away that camera.

The Nikkormats were Nikon’s last effort to create something that was both well-crafted and affordable. Starting in 1981, Nikon introduced the Nikon EM, their first SLR that was mostly plastic, and in keeping with an overall trend in camera manufacturing, never made anything like the Nikkormats again.

Despite being heavy and awkward to hold, the AW-1 autowinder for the Nikkormat EL was well-made and dependable.
Despite being heavy and awkward to hold, the AW-1 autowinder for the Nikkormat EL was well-made and dependable.
0

A Look Back: the Rare Pentax Auto 110

The Pentax Auto 110 sits in my hand, illustrating just how small this SLR camera really is.
The Pentax Auto 110 sits in my hand, illustrating just how small this SLR camera really is.
Jamie and her husband Ian, along with a friend of theirs, pose with some of their collected cameras, including the Pentax Auto 110, in 2012.
Jamie and her husband Ian, along with a friend of theirs, pose with some of their collected cameras, including the Pentax Auto 110, in 2012.

Five years ago, one of my best friends, Jamie, received an unusual gift, a Pentax Auto 110 SLR (Single Lens Reflex) film camera, and brought it to me to size it up.

To say that this camera is “rare” is a double-edged sword: from my perspective, this camera is rare enough that Jamie’s is the only one I have ever seen. However, with Buy It Now prices on eBay hovering between $40 and $150, it’s obvious that quite a few were manufactured. My guess about this combination is that many cameras were sold and few were actually used to make pictures.

Photographers who remember the 1970s recall that the 110 film cartridge was one of Kodak’s efforts to reinvent film. Supposedly responding to a perception that roll film was difficult to load and manage, Kodak brought out the 110 cartridge in 1972.

The Pentax Auto 110 was a neat-looking little camera, show here with its lens and film removed.
The Pentax Auto 110 was a neat-looking little camera, show here with its lens and film removed.
Jamie holds her Pentax Auto 110 five years ago. She lent it to me this week to photograph.
Jamie holds her Pentax Auto 110 five years ago. She lent it to me this week to photograph.

Almost all of the cameras made for 110 were slim point-and-shoot cameras with fixed focus and exposure, relying on negative film’s latitude for exposure control. Many of them used flash cubes, which would fill a room with blinding light.

110 film frames are officially half the size of 35mm frames, so with the state of film in the 1970s, it was difficult to get decently detailed images with such a small film area, which is why 110 remained an amateur format.

The Pentax was an effort to cash in on the ubiquity of the 110 format, but came along just as the format was dying. The Pentax was nicely made and nicely accessorized. I got this list of lenses for the Auto 110 from Camera-wiki.org

Pentax Auto 110 lenses

  • Pentax-110 18mm F2.8 Wide-angle lens, 6 elements in 6 groups, filter Ø30.5mm
  • Pentax-110 24mm F2.8 Standard lens of 6 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø25.5mm
  • Pentax-110 50mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 5 elements in 5 groups, filter Ø37.5mm
  • Pentax-110 70mm F2.8 Telephoto lens of 6 elements in5 groups, filter Ø49mm
  • Pentax-110 20mm—40 mm F2.8 Zoom lens of 8 separate elements, filter Ø49mm
The Pentax 18mm f/2.8 for the Auto 110 sits next to the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, roughly its latter-day digital equivalent. Though the 18mm was sold as a wide angle, it really isn't very wide.
The Pentax 18mm f/2.8 for the Auto 110 sits next to the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, roughly its latter-day digital equivalent. Though the 18mm was sold as a wide angle, it really isn’t very wide.
Believe it or not, this tiny camera could be fitted with an auto winder, using the fitting shown here on the bottom of the camera.
Believe it or not, this tiny camera could be fitted with an auto winder, using the fitting shown here on the bottom of the camera.

The camera is so miniature that it feels like a toy in my longish hands. The viewfinder is large and clear, with a split-image focus aid in the center. The lens mounts in the same direction as most SLRs (lefty loosey righty tighty), and focuses in the same direction as my Nikon lenses. Focus is smooth, but the focus throw is a little long. Exposure is set entirely by the camera (Program mode), with ISO being set by the film cassette. That’s a shame, since the driving force of a great camera is allowing the photographer to run the show. The Auto 110 has no manual exposure mode, and doesn’t even have exposure compensation.

Despite the issue of lower image quality due to small film area, the 110 cartridge was not without its charms. It required no feeding into a slot, and didn't require rewinding. Also, if you took the cassette out of the camera in the middle of the roll, it would only expose (and ruin) one frame, the rest of the film protected by the cassette.
Despite the issue of lower image quality due to small film area, the 110 cartridge was not without its charms. It required no feeding into a slot, and didn’t require rewinding. Also, if you took the cassette out of the camera in the middle of the roll, it would only expose (and ruin) one frame, the rest of the film protected by the cassette.

I know we owe a lot to Pentax, particularly for the K1000 and its role in teaching a generation of broke college students how to run an all-manual film camera, but the Auto 110, despite its innovation, came at the wrong time in history and with the wrong feature set. Still, it’s neat for Jamie to have it in her collection.

The Pentax Auto 110 sits in front of a full-sized DSLR, the Nikon D700, showing its petite size.
The Pentax Auto 110 sits in front of a full-sized DSLR, the Nikon D700, showing its petite size.
0

A Look Back: The Olympus XA

The compact, rugged Olympus XA was a great choice in the film era for anyone who wanted a fair amount of image quality in the smallest possible size.
The compact, rugged Olympus XA was a great choice in the film era for anyone who wanted a fair amount of image quality in the smallest possible size.

For many years of the later film era, Japanese camera maker Olympus specialized in building very compact 35mm film cameras. Hardware like the original OM-1, for example, was thought to be the smallest you could practically manufacture an SLR camera.

The Olympus XA is pictured with an Olympus FE-5020 and the full-size DSLR, the Nikon D700.
The Olympus XA is pictured with an Olympus FE-5020 and the full-size DSLR, the Nikon D700.
To save space, Olympus created one small switch with three functions, self timer, battery check, and +1.5 exposure compensation. If you needed additional exposure compensation, you had to change the ISO, fooling the camera into + or - exposures.
To save space, Olympus created one small switch with three functions, self timer, battery check, and +1.5 exposure compensation. If you needed additional exposure compensation, you had to change the ISO, fooling the camera into + or – exposures.

Also from this company were the point-and-shoot class of cameras, which, without the need of a pentaprism for the viewfinder, could be made smaller still. One such camera I coveted was the excellent Olympus XA.

I had one for years, and in spite of my fanciful imaginations about the kinds of pictures I would make with it, I actually shot very few images with the XA.

The XA uses a two-window rangefinder focus system, creating the faint yellow image in the center of the finder: double-image is out of focus, and making the images come together is in focus.

I sometimes carried my Olympus XA on ski trips in a coat pocket. As you can see, it made sharp images in unchallenging light.
I sometimes carried my Olympus XA on ski trips in a coat pocket. As you can see, it made sharp images in unchallenging light.
Aperture on the XA is selected using this small slider on the front face of the camera.
Aperture on the XA is selected using this small slider on the front face of the camera.

Exposure is controlled using aperture priority, meaning you pick the aperture, and the camera selects the shutter speed based on how much light it sensed and the film’s ISO rating.

In hand, the XA is not particularly easy to use. The focus lever, just below the lens, is tiny and hard to reach with the camera to the eye.  The aperture selector is out of sight unless you point the camera toward you. The ISO dial requires a fingernail to operate.

The XA features a 35mm "prime" (non-zoom) lens, which buys it more quality for less size, and allows a decently large f/2.8 maximum aperture. A 35mm lens for 35mm film equals a slight wide angle.
The XA features a 35mm “prime” (non-zoom) lens, which buys it more quality for less size, and allows a decently large f/2.8 maximum aperture. A 35mm lens for 35mm film equals a slight wide angle.
This is the film rewind lever on the XA. In the film era, you could turn this in the direction of the arrow on top of it (clockwise viewed from above) to feel if there was film inside, and you could see it rotate in the opposite direction when you advanced the film to the next frame.
This is the film rewind lever on the XA. In the film era, you could turn this in the direction of the arrow on top of it (clockwise viewed from above) to feel if there was film inside, and you could see it rotate in the opposite direction when you advanced the film to the next frame.

The clamshell design is a good form factor. When it is closed, the camera is smooth and well-protected from pocket stuff like keys.

All this is put together to achieve true pocketability . The XA is so small, in fact, it had a wrist lanyard instead of a strap. It’s likely the XA is the smallest you can make a camera that will hold a roll of 35mm film.

I like to imagine that if I had a digital conversion kit, I would use this camera, but the truth is that I have an Olympus point and shoot that I almost never use. So the XA remains an amusing but unutilized item in my collection.

You can see from this image of the open back of the Olympus XA that it is just barely able to ingest a roll of 35mm film.
You can see from this image of the open back of the Olympus XA that it is just barely able to ingest a roll of 35mm film.
0