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03-09-2014, 11:02 AM   #1
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What made for a good FILM camera?

This is a bit of a follow up on my other "history" thread (https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/58-pentax-beginners-corner-q/253463-pentax-camera-1970s.html).

What made one film camera better than another?

With digital SLRs, it's obvious why one camera can be better than another. Since the camera is doing everything once light comes in, there's a lot that can go wrong and a lot that can be done to make photos better. But film cameras aren't doing much processing, right? The whole rig was run from a single tiny battery that ran the metering system--which to me, seems like the only thing in there that is particular to the camera. A film camera, to me, seems like a box that directs light onto the film. At that point, the quality of film seems like it would determine most of the image quality.

I get that some cameras have more modes (Tv, Av, etc.) than others, but those are convenience features more than anything else (b/c everything can always be done in manual mode). Once autofocus came in, there was that, but even with DSLRs, we don't tout one camera as better than another solely because of autofocus systems (and in fact, it's probably pretty low on the list of camera-defining features).

So, I ask, what made Nikon cameras better than Pentax ones in the 1970s?

03-09-2014, 11:17 AM   #2
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The same thing that (at the same time) made Pentax cameras better than Nikon ones -- the imagination of users who believed that the camera was what made the picture.
03-09-2014, 11:24 AM   #3
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Nikon seemed to get a lot of mileage out of their cameras being credited in almost every photo we saw from the Viet Nam war. Though technically not even weather resistant, Nikons were subjected to bombs, dust, and muddy foxholes. Good thing ebay wasn't around then, or maybe used Nikons would have a reputation as unreliable due to hidden damage. My Pop took his Canon over there, but he was a Marine, not a LIFE Magazine photographer. He took some great photos and still uses the Canon today.
03-09-2014, 11:41 AM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by MadMathMind Quote
This is a bit of a follow up on my other "history" thread (https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/58-pentax-beginners-corner-q/253463-pentax-camera-1970s.html).

What made one film camera better than another?

With digital SLRs, it's obvious why one camera can be better than another. Since the camera is doing everything once light comes in, there's a lot that can go wrong and a lot that can be done to make photos better. But film cameras aren't doing much processing, right? The whole rig was run from a single tiny battery that ran the metering system--which to me, seems like the only thing in there that is particular to the camera. A film camera, to me, seems like a box that directs light onto the film. At that point, the quality of film seems like it would determine most of the image quality.

I get that some cameras have more modes (Tv, Av, etc.) than others, but those are convenience features more than anything else (b/c everything can always be done in manual mode). Once autofocus came in, there was that, but even with DSLRs, we don't tout one camera as better than another solely because of autofocus systems (and in fact, it's probably pretty low on the list of camera-defining features).

So, I ask, what made Nikon cameras better than Pentax ones in the 1970s?
I had a Pentax, not a Nikon, and it depends on when in the '70s you had in mind.

Today, we certainly don't consider the difference in AF between bodies to be trivial. For someone like me who mostly photographs still objects, maybe, but for wildlife, sports, etc. - even minor differences in autofocus performance can be huge. So yes we do tout one camera as better than another purely, or at least mostly, based on autofocus capability. It absolutely is a camera-defining feature for many people.

But you're completely wrong on other issues: flash sync speed was important, as were higher shutter speeds (pentax retained slower horizontal cloth shutters once many other cameras had moved on to generally faster vertical metal shutters.) Interchangeable focus screens, viewfinders/prisms, backs (bulk film backs, etc.), drive motors, etc. were all important. Just like today, you were buying into a system, and once nikon (and then canon) established a foothold in pro/system cameras, it became important to have one of them for compatibility. Professional services (equipment loans, faster repairs, etc.) also mattered.

03-09-2014, 12:58 PM   #5
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QuoteOriginally posted by tibbitts Quote
Professional services (equipment loans, faster repairs, etc.) also mattered.

Many professional photojournalists moved from Nikon 35mm rangefinders to the very similar Nikon F 35mm SLR after it was introduced.

Chris
03-09-2014, 02:11 PM - 1 Like   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by MadMathMind Quote
So, I ask, what made Nikon cameras better than Pentax ones in the 1970s?
See below...

QuoteOriginally posted by tibbitts Quote
I had a Pentax, not a Nikon, and it depends on when in the '70s you had in mind.
A lot happened during the decade with the various brands leapfrogging over each other trying to keep up in terms of features while also attempting to address the need to produce a compact product ala Olympus.

Nikon produced consistently excellent product during the 70s (if you ignore the EM). The same is true with Pentax except that Pentax began a decided consumer-grade slant toward the end of the decade. Does that make Nikon better? It is hard to say since both lines seem to have weathered the ravages of time fairly well with good representation on the used market today.

It would also be good to remember that it was not just a two horse race. The 70s started with many brands having significant market share and it ended the same way. The major changes were the ascendancy of Canon and the entry of Olympus along with a decline for Konica. Canon's release of the AE-1 introduced the concept of the solid and capable advanced consumer-grade SLR. Pentax, Minolta, and the rest of the industry followed that lead with the plethora of affordable, high-quality, automated-exposure SLR that characterized the early to mid-1980s.

It was not a simple picture.

All that being said, I can make a definite statement of opinion regarding my picks of desirable cameras for the decade (no particular order):
  • Any of Nikon flagship product
  • Olympus OM line
  • Pentax K-series
  • Pentax MX
  • Nikon FM
  • Nikon FE
  • Minolta XD series

Now that is done, why the silly questions regarding photo history? There are relatively few members of this site who were alive and doing photography during the 1970s and even fewer that were doing so as a pro. The classic cameras of the period are pretty well-defined and quite apparent with a bit of Google work. Relative market share is a little hard to determine, but then again, the memories of us "old-timers" are not exactly reliable either.

Steve

(...really would like a well-preserved FM or FM-2, despite currently owning a fairly pristine KX... )

---------- Post added 03-09-14 at 02:33 PM ----------

QuoteOriginally posted by tibbitts Quote
pentax retained slower horizontal cloth shutters once many other cameras had moved on to generally faster vertical metal shutters.
It was not quite so simple. Most metal shutters before 1980 max'ed out at 1/1000s, the same as horizontal cloth shutters of the time. The big advantage was higher flash sync (1/125s) and durability. The big disadvantage was noise and vibration. By the late-1970s, lighter and quieter all-electronic vertical metal shutters became available and were incorporated into most of the Pentax M-series bodies. By 1980, the only Pentax models having cloth shutters were the K1000 and MX.


Steve

Last edited by stevebrot; 03-09-2014 at 02:39 PM.
03-09-2014, 02:57 PM - 1 Like   #7
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There are two sides to making a camera better - better tools to make getting the shot easier and simply being better able to make better images. Many of the tools currently available on DSLRs for the former were present on film SLRs (shutter speed ranges, metering options, AF performance, exposure modes etc.). On a DSLR, the latter is down to the sensor and software processing, film SLRs were dependent on the film and how accurately the camera could align it with the desired film plane.

Pro cameras were more likely to be better made with tighter tolerances and bigger pressure plates to hold film flatter and in the right place. They were weather sealed, better made and generally more robust - features that pros preferred over automatic modes or AF. The Nikon F3 with an electronic shutter took ages to be accepted by pros, as did AF (it wasn't until the F4 that it became used by them). Contax used a vacuum pressure plate to keep the film as flat as possible.

The LX is a good example, apart from the 'system camera' arrangement, it has a bigger pressure plate, is weather sealed, has partial mechanical shutter speeds, is better built and much smoother in operation than (say) an MX. Its dials are bigger, clearer and move with more positive click-stops - all things pros appreciate when working quickly (or with gloves).

As an aside, every new generation of AF technology has promised that the improvements allow the user to 'never miss a shot, even fast action will always be in focus' - whether there is one AF point, five or fifty (and n 'cross-type' points)...

John.
03-09-2014, 03:37 PM   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by MadMathMind Quote
So, I ask, what made Nikon cameras better than Pentax ones in the 1970s?
Maybe you can start by explaining why you believe the Nikon cameras were better than Pentax ones in the 1970's . . .

03-09-2014, 05:55 PM   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by stevebrot Quote
It was not quite so simple. Most metal shutters before 1980 max'ed out at 1/1000s, the same as horizontal cloth shutters of the time. The big advantage was higher flash sync (1/125s) and durability. The big disadvantage was noise and vibration. By the late-1970s, lighter and quieter all-electronic vertical metal shutters became available and were incorporated into most of the Pentax M-series bodies. By 1980, the only Pentax models having cloth shutters were the K1000 and MX.


Steve
As we both pointed out, it definitely does depend on what part of the '70s the question was about. I believe the two cameras professional system cameras of most of that era, the F2 and F1, had 1/2000th-sec metal shutters, while many other cameras maxed out at 1/1000th. However if I recall both those cameras had poor x-sync speeds.
03-10-2014, 11:56 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by LesDMess Quote
Maybe you can start by explaining why you believe the Nikon cameras were better than Pentax ones in the 1970's . . .



Steve
03-10-2014, 12:29 PM - 1 Like   #11
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Good answers all... if we talk about the 70s essentially we're talking mechanical and then electronic SLRs. One good concept to keep in mind is the social history of technology: an area could be very variable in performance, but through standardization of calculations etc becomes more even, more 'democratic' in that the difference between the best and the average becomes smaller and possibly less important. E.g. there comes a point where every 50mm lens is at least very good...

So: shutter performance and consistency (and long term reliability): more expensive or 'pro' cameras usually did better

Lens performance and availability: Similar situation as today, only there was more variability in quality
If the thing had electronics, how reliable and flexible were they? More money should give you more adjustability and reliability, but not necessarily...
Technical Innovation has carried weight in the market for a long while: Pentax with the Spotmatic got the first mover spot with TTL; Konica had it with auto exposure; Olympus with small size....

Some period magazine reviews to see what was being tested (and therefore also sold to us as features/performance points!)






---------- Post added 03-10-2014 at 04:03 PM ----------

Ah, here's what I was thinking about, and it is a Ricoh camera review to boot! This is what made a camera back when
No fooling: Modern Photography March 1978 Equipment Reviews
Ricoh XR-2 camera review 1979
Nikon FE review 1979
Olympus OM2n review 1979
Pentax MX review 1979
Canon A-1 review 1979


You can see some of the differences between cameras right there...
03-10-2014, 02:28 PM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by MadMathMind Quote
So, I ask, what made Nikon cameras better than Pentax ones in the 1970s?
It depended upon your purpose. As someone mentioned, there were things like faster flash sync speeds, motor drives, bulk film backs, interchangeable viewfinders...not to mention repair services aimed at the needs of professionals...that often made Nikons the choice of newspaper and sports photographers. But on the other hand, you're right that film cameras of that era were just light-tight boxes to expose film. The image quality depended a lot more upon the type of film used and the lenses. Pentax lenses were just as good, if not better, than any other brands so for many folks (me, included), Nikons weren't "better" cameras...they were just more modular, I guess you could say.
03-10-2014, 04:51 PM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by Nesster Quote
Good answers all... if we talk about the 70s essentially we're talking mechanical and then electronic SLRs. One good concept to keep in mind is the social history of technology: an area could be very variable in performance, but through standardization of calculations etc becomes more even, more 'democratic' in that the difference between the best and the average becomes smaller and possibly less important. E.g. there comes a point where every 50mm lens is at least very good...

So: shutter performance and consistency (and long term reliability): more expensive or 'pro' cameras usually did better

Lens performance and availability: Similar situation as today, only there was more variability in quality
If the thing had electronics, how reliable and flexible were they? More money should give you more adjustability and reliability, but not necessarily...
Technical Innovation has carried weight in the market for a long while: Pentax with the Spotmatic got the first mover spot with TTL; Konica had it with auto exposure; Olympus with small size....

Some period magazine reviews to see what was being tested (and therefore also sold to us as features/performance points!)






---------- Post added 03-10-2014 at 04:03 PM ----------

Ah, here's what I was thinking about, and it is a Ricoh camera review to boot! This is what made a camera back when
No fooling: Modern Photography March 1978 Equipment Reviews
Ricoh XR-2 camera review 1979
Nikon FE review 1979
Olympus OM2n review 1979
Pentax MX review 1979
Canon A-1 review 1979


You can see some of the differences between cameras right there...
Thanks for wading in here Jussi. On each of these '70s threads, I was thinking of your archive of scanned reviews and advertisements. Thanks in particular for sharing the Ricoh XR-2 review. It provides an interesting window into the level of technology and build quality that typified even the 2nd tier cameras of the time. I had to chuckle a little when the reviewer waxed eloquent in regard to the XR Rikenon 200/4. As many of us know, the Rikenon is the Pentax-M 200/4 in Ricoh clothing. Yes, Pentax and Ricoh worked closely on many things back in those days.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/28796087@N02/5396996587/


Steve

(...extremely fond of my XR-2s...)

---------- Post added 03-10-14 at 04:56 PM ----------

QuoteOriginally posted by TaoMaas Quote
there were things like faster flash sync speeds
Except that the Nikon F2 sync'ed at the blinding speed of 1/80s, though to be fair, the FM and FE both sync'ed at 1/125s, the same as of most Ricoh SLRs of the same time period.* I think the Canon F1 sync'ed at 1/100s.


Steve

* courtesy of the vertical metal Copal shutter, standard for the Nikkormat and most Ricoh SLRs since the mid-60s

Last edited by stevebrot; 03-10-2014 at 05:09 PM.
03-10-2014, 07:43 PM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by Nesster Quote
Some period magazine reviews to see what was being tested (and therefore also sold to us as features/performance points!)






---------- Post added 03-10-2014 at 04:03 PM ----------

Ah, here's what I was thinking about, and it is a Ricoh camera review to boot! This is what made a camera back when
No fooling: Modern Photography March 1978 Equipment Reviews
Ricoh XR-2 camera review 1979
Nikon FE review 1979
Olympus OM2n review 1979
Pentax MX review 1979
Canon A-1 review 1979


You can see some of the differences between cameras right there...
Thanks for the magazine scans!

QuoteOriginally posted by stevebrot Quote
Except that the Nikon F2 sync'ed at the blinding speed of 1/80s, though to be fair, the FM and FE both sync'ed at 1/125s, the same as of most Ricoh SLRs of the same time period.* I think the Canon F1 sync'ed at 1/100s.
All the cameras with a horizontal shutters had relatively low sync speed compared to the vertical shutters. All the pro bodies of the era used horizontal curtains with slow sync speeds - 1971 Canon F-1 is 1/60, 1981 Canon New F-1 is 1/90, Minolta XK is 1/100, Nikon F is 1/60, Nikon F2 is 1/80, Nikon F3 is 1/80 and the Pentax LX is 1/75.

Olympus made the special F280 flash and it can sync with the Olympus OM4Ti up to 1/2000 even though it also has a horizontal traveling curtain.
03-22-2014, 10:14 AM   #15
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I used to read two American photography magazines in the early 80's. I cannot remenber which it was but one of them disassembled the cameras in their tests to show the quality of the mechanics of the time. One of the differences between a pro grade camera and its consumer sibling was pointed out was in the choice of the materials. Nylon gears in the amateur camera; metal in the pro. The amateur camera was rated soemthing like somewher between 1000 to 5000 films the pro cameras were rated at least 10 times as much.

I still use my MX I bought in the late 70's and I do not think my IST* will give me as much service.
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