The Unsung Heroes of 35mm Photography – Part I (SLRs) by Dan K
In this article Dan K follows up on his popular article Dan K’s Top 10 SLRs [https://www.japancamerahunter.com/2013/06/dan-ks-top-10-manual-film-slrs/]. This time, he explores the cameras that are unappreciated by collectors and neglected most reviewers, but remain outstanding choices for the budget-minded enthusiast.
It is easy to come up with a list of ‘camera legends’. Whether they sold in the millions, or were made by the handful, they were so revolutionary, high spec, or culturally significant that they remain widely discussed decades after they ceased production. However, I have always been fascinated by the unsung heroes. These are cameras that don’t make it into the top ten lists and but are cherished those with hands on experience.
Maybe you had a camera years ago that you really bonded with, that you may have lost, gave away, or traded in for an upgrade, but you never found another that made you quite as happy? THAT’s the sort of camera I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s an irrational sentimental reason, but there really were some great cameras that today’s photographer will still find rewarding.
Although I love to collect cameras, photography has become a lifestyle. I carry a camera on me at all times, as I like to take strangers’ portraits and tell the story of the streets of Hong Kong. Therefore, I usually prefer a small camera, which is lighter to carry and less imposing and less ‘professional looking’. I prefer to focus manually and I require an easy to focus screen and as high a magnification finder as possible. I dislike the whirring of a motor winder; a discreet lever advance is better. Given the fast snapshots that I take, auto exposure is useful, and I prefer aperture priority.
Other times, I find a solid mechanical camera with fully manual exposure to be refreshing. These cameras tend to be older and come from an era where reliability and bright, high magnification finders were of a high priority. This kind of SLR takes me back to basics. It makes me slow down and think about exposure and film latitude. Manual exposure remedies the mental slackness that comes from operating a more modern film or digital camera. I would recommend a camera like this if you are rediscovering film and fancy a bit of a challenge. My early photography was done with a camera that didn’t even have a meter. It taught me more than a whole series of seminars. One thing it taught me was that although I can do without one, I do prefer a meter! A simple centre-weighted meter takes the guesswork out, even if it’s not coupled to give auto exposure.
Either of these combinations of features are shared by some of the most sought-after cameras ever sold, costing hundreds of dollars. However, let me introduce you to a few prime examples overlooked by collectors that will likely set you back under a hundred dollars. The prices I have listed is what I’d expect to pay for a working and undamaged camera in less than mint condition and without a lens.
Olympus OM Mount
The Olympus OM system earned cult-like popularity for its small cameras and sharp lenses. With their bright, high-magnification, high coverage viewfinders, they are some of the easiest to manually-focus SLRs available to this day. If you ask around for recommendations, you’ll be directed to the more expensive ‘professional grade’ series: OM-1, OM-2/2n, OM-3 and OM-4. Almost everybody tells you to avoid the cheap, ‘consumer grade’ bodies with double digit model numbers. That’s reasonably smart advice, with the notable exception of the youngest model, the OM-40.
Olympus OM-40/OM-PC ($50). This body mounts all the same lenses and system components, but retains the same quality viewfinder and the creative exposure modes (Program and Aperture Priority with exposure compensation, plus full metered manual exposure). The camera also offers either centre-weighted metering or ESP (“Electro Selective Pattern”) which helps to compensate for back-light situations automatically. This is a feature not even available on the flagship models.
Minolta MC/MD Mount
I think that Minolta is the system that offers the best combination of good optics and camera bodies with great finders and an appropriate balance of automation and quality on a tight budget.
Minolta XE/XE-7 ($75). Minolta’s most famous and most collectible cameras are the professional SRT, XK and XM series. They are lovely but I find them to be big and heavy for everyday photography. I prefer the well-made but smaller XD and XE which were co-developed with Leica. Leica launched similar bodies (the R4 and R3 respectively) to mount the Leica R lenses. The XD and XE are far cheaper and mount the more affordable MD/MC lenses. Today, the versatile XD with shutter priority is more sought after, but I prefer the largely ignored but elegant XE. It is heaven to hold, a pleasure to use and light on the wallet.
Minolta X-500/X-570 ($65). Minolta went on to cheapen their product line with the XG and further broadened their customer base with the high-tech, light weight and compact X-700, which offers program mode and shutter priority. The X-700 was one of the bestselling cameras of the 1980s. They went on and on, stripping non-core features with the X-500 and X-300. As is often the case with cameras, stripping features can actually add to the ease of use, making for a better user camera. I feel Minolta hit the sweet spot dead centre with the X-500. The X-500 is one of my all-time favourite user cameras. With a magnification of 0.9x and coverage of 95%, the finder is on a par with even a very clean example of an OM-2, a camera famous for its ease of focus. Used with a normal lens and both eyes open, the camera almost fades from view leaving a black frame line around your subject. Feature-wise, the X-500 lacks program and shutter priority modes, but retains aperture priority auto exposure with exposure compensation and AE lock and adds a fully metered manual mode that shows both the selected shutter speed and the metered shutter speed. The camera even meters correctly when the DoF preview button is pressed. The flash system is capable of slow sync and can be used at any aperture. The X-500 is part of an extensive system of lenses and accessories; it even takes a 3.5 frames per second motor drive. The X-500 is just about as good as it gets, yet sells for junk prices.
Minolta SRT-102/SRT Super ($80). My favourite budget mechanical body that uses MC/MD lenses is the SRT-102. It is a formerly professional body with a big bright finder that displays chosen aperture and shutter speed along with exposure in the finder.
Canon FD Mount
Most Canon FD lenses are fairly good and don’t cost much. However, the only lenses in the FD system that I would consider excellent are the professional-grade ‘L-lenses’. Unfortunately, those are far out of the reach of anyone on a tight budget. The remaining lenses are serviceable, but I haven’t any that I consider inspiring.
Canon AE-1 ($70). I used to use an AE-1 Program, a great camera that many people learned on in the 1980s and even 1990s. However, the shutter noise drove me to the brink of madness. It makes a “pew-pew” noise like a laser blaster from the Star-Wars movies. The AE-1 (non-program) lacks only the Program mode and sounds like a regular SLR. It is shutter priority though, so I’d use it in metered-manual exposure mode.
Canon EF ($75). The EF is another excellent, though relatively unknown Canon camera. Perhaps it doesn’t help that it’s easily confused the Canon’s later (EOS) EF mount. Make no mistake, this is a manual-focus FD mount camera. In fact, it is essentially Canon’s rugged, top of the line F-1 but with a consistent vertical travel electronic shutter. It does lose a couple of important features that marks it as less than a professional camera, lacking an interchangeable finder and the facility to take a motor winder. Not that I have ever bought an alternate finder or a motor drive for my F-1. My EF has a big bright finder with a split image surrounded by a micro prism ring. If you like the F-1, you as well might consider buying the EF instead and save your money for better glass.
Canon FTb ($60). If you prefer a mechanical camera, the FTb is another consumer version of the F-1. It is tough and rugged, but with no exposure information in the display and a circle-and-needle style of light meter.
Canon EF Mount
Canon EOS 620 ($30). I actually own the EOS 650 (pictured above), Canon’s first model in its successful modern EOS line, but the similar EOS 620 was released just two months later and adds some lesser-used features that are worth having, considering they’re both only cost about $20-$30. Yes, it’s motor-advanced and auto-focus, but it is an inexpensive way to add film capability to an existing EOS DSLR system. While the biggest reason why someone might consider an early EOS body is they’ll work perfectly with Canon EF mount autofocus lenses, with a suitable adaptor ring, they will also work with Leica R, Nikon F, Minolta MD, M42, and various MF lenses. This is one way to have one body but open yourself up to using lenses from many makers in many mounts. If this is your plan, I’ll warn that some lenses, such as Leica M and Canon’s own FD mount lenses, aren’t mountable with a simple adaptor, and most EOS finder screens have neither split image, nor micro prisms and their ground glass can’t show the depth of field narrower than f/4, so they aren’t easy to focus manually. Nevertheless, a Canon DSLR user couldn’t ask for an easier camera to transition to. I also have an EOS 1V-HS and once owned an EOS 3, but unless I was planning to photograph sports, I always reach for my EOS 650 because it’s small and light and gets the job done. I’d look for these in bargain bins or at flea markets, only because the postage may cost more than the camera.
Nikon F(AI) Mount
Of all the manual focus lens systems that I own, I’ve invested most in Nikon lenses. They offer a very complete system with optics in the same league as Leica R and Contax. There are lenses in this series at all price points.
Nikon EM ($50). The EM was marketed as an entry-level camera and while it looks cheap and plasticy, it’s really a robust and capable body with a high magnification finder. The smallest and lightest Nikon F-mount body, it pairs well with the 50mm 1:1.8 Series E plastic pancake, a lens that performs far above its low price point. Together they slip into my hip pocket but the speed of operation and the images they produce are a match for even my FM3A and 45mm/2.8P. The price difference is an order of magnitude. Nikon stripped the feature set to its bare bones, but if you know a few tricks, there is not much you can’t do. It still has a shutter speed range of 1s to 1/1000s, plus Bulb and a battery-independent mechanical back-up speed/ flash X-sync of 1/90 second. With the batteries removed, ‘Auto’ mode fires at a fixed speed 1/1000s, so without batteries you still have two manual speeds (one slow, one fast). For what is otherwise a full-time AE, an EV compensation dial would have been helpful, but there are at least three work-arounds: (1) a +2 stops backlight-busting button (2) you can alter the film speed setting and (3) use M90 speed and adjust the exposure with the aperture dial. The finder and screen won’t equal the outstanding Nikon F1 or F2, but it’s comparable to a F3, FM and FM3A. In summary, you won’t find a smaller, simpler, or cheaper body that mounts AI lenses, but it kept everything that matters on a Nikon camera.
Nikon FG ($100). The FG is the EM’s successor, and represents a major upgrade, with program mode and fully metered manual at all speeds from 1s to 1/1000s and +/-2 stops of exposure compensation in half stops in addition to the EM’s +2stop backlight button. However, at around $70-$100, it’s more than twice the market price of an EM and you could almost have an FE or even an FM for the money.
Contax-Yashica C/Y Mount
Contax made some of the most deservedly lauded manual focus lenses in the history of photography. The lenses can be expensive, but you can buy cheaper Yashica lenses and build them around one or two top-rate portrait lenses. Note that of all the camera brands shown here, a Contax is the least likely to have a free lens bundled with a body. The lens pictured below cost me $360 and it’s considered one of the cheaper Contax lenses.
Yashica FX-3 Super ($90). C/Y stands for Contax/Yashica and the two brands are sisters. The Yashica FX-3 is a basic SLR with a simple +/O/- meter, but without the Contax brand cachet. It reminds me of a Nikon FM2 in many ways: it has a low vibration, fully mechanical vertical travel metal shutter and split prism focussing. Of course it’s all plastic, so it’s not built like an FM. Unusual for a camera of this class, it offers mirror lock up. Also consider the FX-3 Super which activates the meter through a half press of the shutter release, or the FX-3 Super 2000, which extends the maximum shutter speed to 1/2000s. The Super 2000 is most sought after, but the middle model is a good user. I have had some trouble getting a Super 2000 to work with earlier Yashica C/Y mount lenses, so be sure to try out lens and body combinations before buying. I have not experienced this problem with Contax bodies.
Contax 139Q ($90). I’m not a huge fan of Contax bodies, at least the top models. I find them big and heavy and dominated by technology, for example the RTSIII with vacuum ceramic back plate and the incredible AX that autofocuses with manual lenses. My favourite is the mechanical S2/S2b, but that hardly qualifies as a cheap body. The 137MA, 137MD and 167MT are cheap enough, but are motor-advanced. My favourite Contax body at any price is the 139Q.
Pentax PK Mount
Pentax made highly regarded lenses and jewel-like small camera bodies; I own a MX, LX and ME Super, but these are over budget. However, there are a few models available at a modest budget.
Pentax K-1000 ($60). By comparison to the smaller Pentax models, K-1000 is a WWII-era Soviet tank, but like a T-34, it’s loved most of its users. A mechanical camera with minimal controls and a simple meter, it just does what it is supposed to; nothing more, nothing less.
Pentax MG ($60). The K-1000 is popular, but if I am to carry a camera around with me, I’d want something small and lightweight. The MG fits the bill. It’s not too dissimilar to my much more expensive MX or ME Super. However, cost savings were made by severely stripping the camera’s capabilities. Unlike the MX, the MG has an electronic vertical travel shutter. Unlike the ME, the MG’s slowest shutter speed is 1s. The biggest handicap is that the user can only select between Aperture priority auto exposure, fixed 1/100s manual exposure and bulb. It’s not a big handicap it you’re a fan of Pentax lenses and an all-metal body, but I personally prefer the cheaper Nikon EM if this is the style of camera operation is what you want.
M42 screw-mount lenses are a great choice for someone looking to build up a bag of three or four high quality prime lenses on a very tight budget. Many manufacturers have made lenses in M42 and while the lenses and cameras tend not to be the most modern, they can certainly take a great picture.
Fujica ST-801 ($50). This camera has a fantastic high magnification finder. I’ve never seen brighter. Focus in low light is a breeze. The rest is simple and mechanical. It shows shutter speed and LED meter in the finder, but there is no auto exposure. Fujinon EBC lenses are my favourites and you don’t even need to do stop-down metering when used in combination with a Fujica body. The ST-801’s top shutter speed is a fast 1/2000s, but the flash sync is slow at 1/60s.
Pentax Spotmatic F ($50). The early model Spotmatic SP that I own has only a ground glass and micro prism spot for focussing and a darkened area to indicate the meter area and no exposure information in the finder, but I find it delightfully easy to use and very solidly built. Like the Fujica, it is a larger camera.
By now, you’re probably overwhelmed by choices. If I have a personal favourite, it’s probably the Minolta X-500 shown in my self-portrait, but people’s financial circumstances and shooting preferences differ, so I recommend you first choose the lens system that suits your budget and expansion needs, then decide whether a mechanical camera, or an electronic body with auto exposure is best and finally try out the camera before spending your hard-earned money. If you still cannot decide, just buy anything on this list and one 50mm or 35mm lens and you can always sell on once you know what attributes you like and what you don’t. It’s better to have any old camera than none at all.
This list, though long, is far from complete. Photographic history abounds with unsung heroes. Treat it as a starting point in your quest. I am sure readers have their own favourites that they can share with us in the comments below. For our collective education, please state the make and model and also why that particular camera stands out from the also-rans. Also, while I love a good SLR, there are other ways to enjoy 35mm photography. I will soon publish my articles on the topic of budget fixed lens rangefinders and compact cameras on Japan Camera Hunter; check back often!
About The Author
Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer. He celebrated his return to film by collecting just about every quality camera and lens that he could lay his hands upon. Along the way he has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film cameras and film processing. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovers and a generous helping of gear-porn.
Text and images © Dan K. All rights reserved.