Friday, January 14, 2011

Choosing a film camera

UPDATED 3/3/11: added differences between N90 and N90S

A $35 full-frame camera?  Yes, it's possible - with film of course.
Unlike digital, the choice of a film camera body doesn't have a direct impact on the image quality so much as the size of the format (35mm, medium format, etc.) and type of film you use.
If image quality is paramount, then you're probably better off with a medium format camera.  Lately I've been drooling over the Fuji GA645 (including the variations thereof) and the Pentax 645N.  However, the cost of medium format (camera, lens, film, etc.) is too much for me to swallow at the moment.
Being practical, I chose primarily based on availability of lenses, and I wanted some cross-compatibility with my digital cameras, so I chose Nikon 35mm.  Thom Hogan compiled an excellent comparison between several Nikon 35mm SLRs:
If money were no object, the choice would have been easy: Nikon F6 - the ultimate 35mm SLR.  It has options and functions similar to the D2h or D2x, including the ability to use wireless flash and high speed sync flash.  Wow.  It may very well be the last Nikon 35mm film SLR to be built.
However, at this point my budget for film photography is still very limited because I'm not sure yet if I want to commit to it.  So these were other cameras I was looking at:
  • Nikon F5 - similar to the F6 but without wireless flash capability (even if you attach a commander-capable flash).  Also has a heavier and bulkier body than the F6.
  • Nikon F100 - similar to the F5 but with 96% viewfinder (instead of 100%), less sophisticated metering, slower continuous shooting rate, and a few other pro-level features.  See list here:
Well, my budget was even more limited than that.  Fortunately, there were even more affordable but still excellent cameras (albeit with plastic bodies).  These three are more-or-less comparable:
  • Nikon N90S (aka F90X) - similar to the F100 but with a 92% viewfinder.
  • Nikon N90 (aka F90) - similar to the N90S except that if you attach the battery grip, the vertical shutter release can't be used. Can only change shutter speed in whole stops while N90S uses 1/3 stops.  Has a slower AF than N90S.
  • Nikon N80 (aka F80) - similar to the F100 but with a 92% viewfinder, and only 1/125 sync speed.  It also cannot meter with manual focus AI and AIS lenses.  On the other hand, it has a built-in flash, whereas the F100, N90S and N90 do not.  It also has built-in exposure bracketing whereas the N90S and N90 require a databack to use the bracketing capability.  See list here:
  • The N80's built-in flash would have been useful.  Unfortunately I couldn't bear the 1/125 sync speed, so I looked for an N90S or N90.  I don't care about the battery grip -- adding one would have made the camera too bulky and film cameras only sip batteries anyway. 
The N90S and N90 are usually around $100 or so on ebay but I saw an N90S at in decent condition for $30.  However, still not being sure about getting a film camera, I decided to sleep on it.  When I woke up the next morning ready to buy it, it was gone. ARGH *!@#%@%.  Fortunately I later found on ebay an N90 with a small crack on the LCD for a buy-it-now price of $35 (same seller as the one that sold me the D70 in fact).  I didn't waste time ordering it.
BTW, for places to find film cameras, you can check ebay, Adorama, B&H, Amazon, or your local photo store.  The advantage of buying from your local photo store, Adorama or B&H is that you have better assurance of the camera's condition.  With ebay, check the seller's rating.  Note that some sellers don't really know what they're selling so you can't always depend on their appearance of honesty.  If you're more adventurous, you can try estate sales, government auctions, and pawnshops.
You may be wondering what kind of lens you can use with a film camera.  To begin with, you can't use lenses made for crop-sensor bodies (DX in Nikon parlance). 

Other than that, each body has different levels of compatibility with lenses - I just googled it.  With respect to the cameras above, the best lenses for them are Nikon AF lenses (AF, AF-S, AF-D, AF-I).  G lenses can also work but because they don't have an aperture ring, you won't be able to use aperture priority or manual mode.  It is still possible to control aperture using Program shift (and indirectly through shutter priority -- by choosing a higher shutter speed to force the camera to choose a wider aperture).  The other thing is that VR (vibration reduction) won't work on the N90S (or N90).  Manual focus AI and AIS lenses work with the N90S - you can meter with them, and the focus confirmation works.  On the N80, AI and AIS lenses won't be able to meter and won't have focus confirmation.
An inexpensive lens that's easy to find would be the Nikon 50 f/1.8D.  However, I wanted the wider angle that a full frame camera affords me, so I searched ebay for wider lenses.  Not surprisingly, the cost of the lens is generally higher the wider you get.  Lenses at 24mm were a bit over my budget, so I searched for lenses that could go as wide as 28mm, such as the 28-80 AF-D ( ), 28-80 G ( ), and 28-85 AF ( ).  I got lucky and found the 28-105 AF-D for the spectacular price of $75 on ebay.  I will post impressions of that lens soon.
If your mouth is watering at the extremely low prices of these camera bodies and the reasonable prices of some older lenses, I do want to emphasize that in my opinion film is probably more expensive in the long run due to the cost of film, development and scanning.  I'll blog about that, including what's involved after shooting, and what you can expect out of the process.


  1. Can't wait to learn more, especially about the "tonalities" which is why you started this whole experiment.

    I hope we can see pictures soon.

  2. I'm curious myself about the outcome of this experiment. I will probably have the photos scanned by mid-February. I will then do a comparison between the scanned film shots and similar shots with the d300.

    Best regards,


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