A hybrid media concoction. Curated by Torsten Kathke
For someone who never intended to pursue an academic lifestyle, I’ve lasted remarkably long doing that. I've also dabbled in screenwriting.
I recently completed my PhD in American History at LMU Munich with a dissertation on the nineteenth-century US Southwest.
My current project on popular non-fiction books dealing with the crises of the 1970s led me to Washington, DC in 2013, and since October 2014, I can usually be found in Cologne, Germany.
Für jemand, der eigentlich nie studieren wollte, mache ich das schon recht lange. Wenn die Sterne günstig stehen schreibe ich auch Drehbücher.
Anfang 2013 habe ich meinen Doktor in Amerikanischer Kulturgeschichte an der LMU München abgeschlossen. In meiner Dissertation ging es um den US-amerikanischen Südwesten des späten 19. Jahrhunderts.
Mein derzeitiges Projekt dreht sich um populäre Gegenwartsdiagnosen aus der Krisenzeit der 1970er Jahre, und hat mich 2013 nach Washington, D.C., und seit Oktober 2014 nach Köln geführt.
When I travel for work, I still try to sneak in a few pictures here and there on the way. Usually, I bring along my Fuji X100S, as it is small enough and good enough to document most things. I hardly leave the house, however (and certainly not the country) without a film camera. I don’t like bringing big heaps of luggage, though, so most often that camera is a rather small one.
On a recent conference trip to Portugal and the UK, I really tried to keep the weight of gear down and brought only my Rollei 35T. The Rollei is the first film camera I ever bought, in 2013, and I recently had it repaired and readjusted and some parts exchanged because it had not functioned satisfactorily and sat unused for a while. The viewfinder had lost its luster and become quite dim, and some screws were obviously no longer originals, so the camera needed a makeover. The camera repair shop also adjusted the light meter so the camera can now be used with common 1.5V batteries, and no longer relies on the 1.35V mercury cells that have been phased out because of environmental concerns.
View Over Coimbra
Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
A Bell in the Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
Palms at the Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
Houses Across from the Botanical Gardens, Coimbra
I still have an original yellow filter and a lens hood, and thus equipped I threw the camera in my bag with a roll of the sadly gone Kodak BW400CN loaded. Scale focusing (i.e. guess focusing) the Rollei is a learned skill, and one I seem to have unlearned to quite a significant degree in the years I hadn’t used the camera. The pictures that did turn out, however, are reward enough. The lens is sharp and gives a wonderfully vintage street photography feel. Looking at the results, I feel transported to another time, another way of living and thinking and photographing.
Film photography is fun for its surprises. These surprises come in the form of pictures, mostly. Pictures you see for the first time after hours, weeks, years when they are finally developed and printed or scanned. You wait and you receive.
But surprises also come in different ways. A few months ago, I retweeted a Twitter message and was subsequently picked to receive a yellow plastic Holga camera by Paul James.
This took me by surprise and since I had never owned one, I was delighted. A few days later I held the package in hand: the camera, some film, a flash, and a fisheye converter lens. This promised to be interesting.
I took the camera on a quick trip to Munich on which I’d also taken my Leica. The Leica stayed mostly in the bag. The Holga came with me as I re-explored my old hometown.
The fisheye had no corresponding viewfinder so I needed to guess what would be in the image. For the most part, this worked better than expected.
As I finally was able to pick up the developed film yesterday, I was again surprised in a pleasant way, although I noticed that my Holga, as Holgas tend to, had a light leak. This is one part of the Holga aesthetic I’ve never been all that happy with, so for future outings I’ll be sure to bring some dark gaffer’s tape to put over the upper left corner.
Thanks, Paul, for the unexpected and inspiring gift. Hopefully it will lead to more happy surprises.
Today is my birthday. Today I’m keeping it simple. Today I took a long walk in the woods and brought my Fuji X100s set to its NPH400 simulation mode (except for “Pole” which was shot using the Velvia simulation). These pictures are a selection. They are posted here either straight as the camera saw them, or with minor edits for contrast, color, or exposure
We all have our favorite mediums. We draw in ink, we write with Blackwing pencils, we take pictures. In my case, I often take pictures on film. While I can appreciate the contrasty look of black-and-white Tri-X or the soft tones of Fuji 400H, the one type of film I have always loved and continue to love inordinately is slide film.
When I was but a wee kid in ye olde 1990s, this began as a cost-saving measure. Where I lived there were several places where you could drop off film, but they all, to varying degrees, made you order prints with development. On a pocket money budget, every film became a big monetary decision. Once, I had to walk back home from the supermarket photo counter because I hadn’t realized they wouldn’t let you pick the prints you liked but made you buy all 36 from a roll instead, and I didn’t have enough money.
Slide film was the solution. It was a bit more expensive, but it didn’t cost you anything in photo prints. Instead, you could get by with a small plastic tabletop lightbox (duly purchased) and a diminutive slide viewer. If I wanted to see my slides in all their glory, I had to pull out my dad’s fold-out silver screen and the old slide projector.
Later, I would bring slide film along with me in an auto-everything point-and-shoot camera (the Fuji DL190, if you must know, finally purged from my possessions when it became clear that digital photography was both cheaper and more practical) on vacations and school trips. I mostly shot Fujichrome, and when I began film photography again in earnest a few years back, that’s what I returned to. I now shoot either Fuji Provia 100 or the very similar Agfa Precisa 100CT. Colors are true but vibrant, and grain is all but nonexistent if you don’t zoom in very close.
After a long sabbatical from film scanning, I recently started again, processing finally all the many slides I shot in 2016. Every time, seeing the colors and tones of slide film makes me happy. It makes me feel like I chose correctly when I picked a camera to bring and a film to slip into it. It makes me feel like I’m back where I belong. Back to my favorite medium.
It’s the beginning of the year, so naturally, people have tons of New Year’s resolutions. I chose not to make one. In my latest piece for Fstoppers, I I talk about why a 365-day photo project in particular may not be the best resolution to make.
After Gütersloh, I had another trip planned pretty much immediately. It was off to Marbach am Neckar, near Stuttgart. While Stuttgart is industrial, bustling, and often gray, Marbach has a distinctly rural and homey feel to it. And it is the home of an institution to which I was now traveling.
The Deutsches Literaturachiv resides in Marbach. It is tasked to collect works by German authors (and quite a few others as well) and make them usable by the public. This is where I was headed after alighting a regional train at the quaint Marbach train station one sunny day in late summer. Dragging behind me a carry-on sized rolling suitcase, I decided to walk up the hill where the archive is situated. Passing by a small park, I saw a sign out for a photo studio that wasn’t open every day – small town antics – and that offered passport photos on special. Since I had an appointment back in Cologne to get a new passport issued, I followed the sign to a small door in a backyard building.
Two photographers, one female, one male, were at work there in a small studio that reminded me of the one that had existed at the screenplay agency and film production company I had worked at for a year in Munich a decade and a half ago. It was a bit dark, it was cozy, and it appeared to make use of repurposed furniture that once had lived in a more machine-shop-like setting. After getting my passport pictures taken (on a battle-scarred Canon 5D with a 70–200 1:4L zoom lens, if you must know), I meandered on and soon found the archive. It is perched atop the Schillerhöhe, a bluff that houses a park with Friedrich Schiller’s statue. It is surrounded by museums and Marbach’s Stadthalle, where there is an event space and a restaurant for hungry tourists coming off a long day in the museums, or for locals from the neighborhood who just want a drink and a meal.
Literaturmuseum der Moderne 1
Literaturmuseum der Moderne 2
Literaturmuseum der Moderne 3
Marbach House 1
Marbach House 2
Kollegienhaus 3 / Interior
Marbach Lines 1
Marbach Lines 2
Marbach House 2
Literaturmuseum der Moderne 4
Literaturmuseum der Moderne 5
Bike and Flag
I checked in at both the archive and the Kollegienhaus. The Kollegienhaus is a purpose-built modernist Bauhaus-y building with small apartments for researchers. That done, I put only the most necessary tools – laptop, phone, a notepad and some pens – in my backpack tote and began work at the archives. When I came back after a long day of staring at archival materials and note-taking, I dropped off my laptop, grabbed my camera, and went exploring. I repeated this on every day when the weather was agreeable to my doing so, and walked away with half a dozen or so exposed rolls of Fuji Superia 200, my preferred film for 2016 on account of the fact that I’d gotten a good deal on about six recently expired bricks of it at the end of 2015.
Though not my favorite, Superia 200 is definitely not a bad film. It has colors that to me say “1990s.” This is perhaps because Fuji Press 800, a preferred photojournalist’s film stock from the decade stems from the same Superia family, and therefore I remember those years that way. It is grainy, but not unpleasantly so, at least when exposed correctly. It doesn’t have the punch of Fuji Velvia, Provia or Kodak Ektar, but it is also not as subdued as the Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro ranges of portrait film. It is clearly a summer film or a film to be used with flash. In low light, you’ll often miss that one stop of extra wiggle room that a 400 film would offer. Then again, if the light is there, why not go for even less grain and ISO 100 slide or negative film? It’s an in-between film, and while that makes it lack in versatility, it certainly worked well for the task at hand.
The first two days found me wandering about Marbach, buying groceries, listening to podcasts on my phone, and documenting my surroundings with the Nikon 24–50 1:3.3–4.5 zoom that I had forced myself to bring as my only lens for the week. I had brought my then newly-bought used Nikon F80 (known as the N80 in North America because, well, I have no earthly idea why) with its extra battery holder attached. While light, this was a nicely grippable setup. The F80 certainly feels cheaper and less durable than the F100 or my standby Nikon AF SLR, the F801S, but it has all the features I could possibly need for a travel camera, including a custom function that will let you display LCD frame lines for composition in the viewfinder. No other serious film Nikon has this handy feature. My only gripe with the camera was that I kept losing the little rubber eyecup, and eventually couldn’t find it again after walking around a grocery store looking for food that came in small portions, as I was only going to be there for a week.
My week in Marbach was pleasantly lonely: it was summer, I had a task, I was in a picturesque place, and I could enjoy evenings off exploring with a camera in hand. It had to end eventually, but afterward, new travels awaited.
After a conference this past weekend, I found myself with an extra Sunday in Kiel. An active harbor by the bay and a brilliant fall’s day called for a walk of exploration.
I set out armed with 5 rolls of slide film, a Nikon F80 with two lenses (the 28 f/2.8 AF and the 50 f/1.4 AF). These slides will still have to be processed and scanned, but I also decided the activity in the port area was a good test for FilmicPro on my iPhone 6s.
I shot everything at 4K/75Mbps in Cinemascope mode (except for a short clip where FilmicPro strangely reverted to 720p, which is why I output the clip in 720p).
I decided to put in a few photos and threw it all together in iOS iMovie on the same phone I shot it with.
Essentially, it’s nothing more than a quick test/vacation video, but I was impressed enough by the FilmicPro/iMovie combination that I decided to post it here.
And, hey – I can always watch ships as they go sailing.
These past years I’ve done a lot of traveling. Most of it has not been for pleasure, but for work. The kind of work I did (and do) requires research in archives in both Europe and the US. Even the best archive closes at some point in the afternoon or evening. This leaves one stranded in a strange city, alone, without much to do. These have been great opportunities for photography.
I am starting off my “Archive Days” series (which will dip into the past to pick out pictures from earlier trips, as well as add future journeys) with a post from one of the lesser known, not especially sought out corners of Germany: Gütersloh.
Home of the giant Bertelsmann media company – owners of, among other things, Random House, Alfred Knopf and Doubleday publishers, as well as most of the RTL group of tv and radio stations – Gütersloh is not home of much else. This does not make it a boring place to photograph however. Here, I found a strange, industrial charm as I ventured out with a Nikon F801s, Fuji Superia 200, and a Nikon AF 50/f1.4.
2013 was all about getting back into film photography for me. Going into 2014, I did mostly documentary and urban photography in my new surroundings on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill. Having moved back to Germany, 2015 was the year of my 52rolls project. It was a blast, but difficult to keep up shooting and scanning and editing and writing up essays to go with each and every one of the 52 posts for that year. On the digital front, 2015 was the year I began seriously feeding my Instagram account, helped along by a new iPhone.
So, now that we’ve already left January behind: What is my plan for 2016?
For one, I am settling into a style of documentary/ urban/ cityscape/ street/ whathaveyou photography. Perhaps a bit inspired by Stephen Shore, perhaps a bit taken with Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Berenice Abbott, and Luigi Ghirri. But really, none of that too much, and clearly not at anything resembling that level. I’ll be true to it, though, and see where it takes me. In slide, negative color film, or in black and white, or even in digital here and there.
Then, I also want to try some more instant photography. I have two instant cameras, and they should see some more use. And portraits. And flash. And portraits with flash. There’s always something to be learned there.
And then there is Super 8. It’s kismet that Kodak announced a new push for Super 8 filmmaking at CES 2016 with their Yves-Behar-styled new camera, slated for late this year. 2016, after some efforts in 2015, will be my year to get to grips with Super 8.
For one, I’ll shoot it as movie film. In black and white (Tri-X in my Minolta XL-401, provided that camera works well after I managed to get it running again last week) and in color (likely Kodak 50D or 200T in my Minolta XL-64 which I also need to test out, having just modded it to run at 24 frames per second).
But I will also attempt something else. Something that I have been thinking about for months. I will take still photographs with Super 8 film. That might seem like an incredibly bad idea, considering people disparage miniature format photography for its subpar image quality, and many don’t even give 35mm full consideration. Medium format and 4×5, that’s where it’s at for many of my photography friends. And sure, having shot some larger film, I understand the appeal. The detail you get is amazing. The pictures have a whole different kind of presence. It’s magical.
But that’s why I’m running the other way. I realized again, when hearing one photographer say that he doesn’t like 35mm because he finds the pictures he takes with it boring, that there’s a chance to do something different here. If photography is about visuals, then the visual of a grainy Super 8 frame will be radically at odds with large format beautiful pictures. It will be something much more normal, democratic, ephemeral.
Project 36X will start on my 36th birthday. I will shoot for 360 days, close enough to a year-long project. And when I’ve shot a whole roll of Super 8, its 15 meters of film will hold 3600 images. The numerology works out well here, and that’s nice, but the idea isn’t tied to it. What I am interested in is the sheer abundance of pictures on one roll of film. It should fit pretty well into these digital times in which we’re rediscovering vinyl and film and fountain pens. The subject matter? Whatever I can get in front of my lens. I have 3600 images to make, after all.
How do I intend to do this? I bought a Minolta XL-601 camera last year as my first foray into Super 8. I tested it with film, and it works. I’ve subsequently bought two more Super 8 cameras, so I don’t desperately need this one to be a movie camera. It has a frame by frame setting, it takes two AA batteries, and it has both auto and manual exposure. I have modded it (very non-intrusively and reversably with mostly gaffer tape, a screw drivers and a permanent marker pen) to be a still frame super 8 camera that I can bring with me anytime.
March 21st is my birthday. That’s when the project begins. Many things can go wrong with something like this. I’ve tried to prevent some of them to happen before even starting, but nothing is perfect. In the worst case scenario, I will have shot 3600 frames and will have nothing to show for it. That would be bad. But that’s part of the challenge: to do a lot of work and not be sure how, or if it will turn out. As the Dorothea Lange quote goes, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If I have images to show at the end of the year, that’s great. If something goes wrong and I don’t, I will still have learned to see a little better.
I will only know if everything has worked out at the end of the year, after I’ve sent in my roll of Super 8 to be developed and scanned. I’m hoping to get single frame, high quality (4K or thereabouts) scans that I can then go through, edit, color grade, and generally mess with. But until then, I won’t have anything to show for. It’s quite a gamble, and it’s an admittedly strange project to undertake.
I am anxious to see what will happen. Time to order some film.
In December 2014 I decided to apply for Urban Hafner’s 52rolls project. I would commit myself to shooting (at least) 52 film rolls in 2015, develop them or have them developed, scan them, edit them, and put them up on the blog at 52rolls.net with little essays I would write for each.
To my own surprise I kept up with it – mostly, though I fell behind in scanning and posting, completing the project only a month after 2015 had already finished. I did it. I’m done now. I won’t do it this way again. Before I go, however, I wanted to share a few thoughts, and 52 of my favorite images – one from each roll – of 2015.
What will I do now? I may shoot 52 rolls of film again this year, but I won’t keep up with scanning, editing and writing. The 52 rolls community has been great, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. So I’ll keep checking the site, comment here and there, read up on what others have been doing. And mostly, enjoy the pictures they make. When I say I won’t do it this way again, that doesn’t mean I am ruling out ever doing such a project again, or even doing it again on 52rolls. If I do, though, the focus will be different. I may concentrate on specific techniques. I may shoot single images, or much shorter films.
Keeping up with shooting a roll of 36 or more pictures each week is just very hard to do. The fact that I set myself the task to not only shoot, scan and edit the images, but also to write up an essay – a mood piece if you will – for each roll, something that wasn’t part of the official project description, but something that I challenged myself to do, didn’t make it easier. But I did it. I created 52 photo essays. All along, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, but I did that.
52 rolls enabled me to give shape to ideas. Ideas that I might not have known I had. It gave me a chance to escape into a world I had not seen before, and won’t see again in quite the same way. A world, however, that I am now aware exists, in some fashion, right where I may step any moment. It freed me from thoughts of the content of my content, of the need to know how articulate what I was trying to say before I had said it. It made me creative by making me create. To do it again once more, though, would feel repetitive. Limitations are good. You can accept them, or fight them, or stretch the envelope of what they may allow. But they give you a frame. 52 rolls was my limitation.
It’s a cliché, but I learned a lot. Not in the “never knew about this, oh my god, totally new” sense. But in the experiential, learning by doing sense. I learned to produce a very specific type of content in a (somewhat) efficient manner. Looking back, I haven’t learned how to quickly edit a roll of shots to favorites yet. There are too many pictures posted on 52rolls. Some I love, some I like, some I wonder why I put them up. But up they are because I was still figuring out which ones would make the cut. I still am trying to do that, but I am more selective now. That takes more time, however, and time was precious doing 52rolls. So maybe one takeaway here is to learn how to limit how much I shoot and edit. My least favorite part is throwing away shots.
All in all, it was a lot to do. But you can’t do the things you can do if you won’t commit to the ones you may not be able to complete. In the end, it comes down to a question contained in a song by the stars of one of my early rolls for this project: “Was it all worth it, giving all my heart and soul / Staying up all night?” I gave it my all, and I stayed up much too long too many times. I certainly wasn’t as social as I could have been. I could have done a million different things with the free time that was taken up by 52rolls. For the clear and unequivocal answer, though, one simply needs to listen to the music until the end: “Yes, it was worth it.”
In 2016, I have a lot on my plate work-wise, so there will be even less time for photo projects than there was in 2015. It’s fun work, but it is work that involves much thinking, writing, and doing. And time. What time I have I will dedicate to continue learning, trying, and expanding the boundaries of my abilities. I dabbled in Super 8 last year, and I will do more with that in 2016. There will be an ongoing project involving that format. Other projects I have in mind or that are already in motion involve moving and still images, analog and digital, as well as sound, words and what have you. Stay tuned.
I hope you will follow some of what I plan to do in the future as well. On this blog, on ictusoculi.com, which is my creative outlet on the web, or elsewhere. I’m @ictusoculi on both Twitter and Instagram. Whether online or in real life, come meet up with me. I’ll be happy to see you.
Until then, stay safe. Keep looking and seeing.
Note: A version of this has been cross-posted on 52rolls.net as my last post for the project.
In this inaugural entry for Second Tier Superstars (check out this post to see what the concept is all about), we’ll be taking a look at some autofocus Nikon SLRs from the late 80s and early 90s.
Nikon Autofocus SLRs
Nikon is behind many of the world’s most iconic cameras, and images. A preferred professional’s choice since at least the 1970s, their machines have been there and back again numerous times. They’re also the only manufacturer that kept some semblance of compatibility between the cameras and lenses they made from the all mechanical manual focus era to the digital autofocus SLRs of today. While identifying whether a Nikon lens will work with a specific camera isn’t always straightforward, there’s enough overlap to share a fair amount of lenses between your DSLR and a manual focus Nikon from thirty or forty years ago.
So, what kind of Nikon should you buy? Essentially, there’s two camps here. The one says to get something old school, like an F2, F3, FM2, or the like. Something that has dials and wheels and may even be all mechanical, meaning that when you run out of batteries in the jungles of an unnamed exotic locale, or when all things electronic have long died because of the cold in Antarctica, it will keep ticking. The other is more interested in keeping the usability much the same as with the digital camera they already own, and may even want to use some of their expensive lenses of the newest generation with the old film camera they bring for fun. They will suggest an F100 to you, an F5, or, if you have the money to still buy a film camera in current production, an F6.
Camp 1 definitely has its merits. I’ve had electronics on old cameras fail while far from home, and without a backup camera that means you’ll either scramble to have the one you have with you repaired or replaced, or you go back to snapping pictures on your iPhone. But electronics have become pretty reliable, and the older, mechanical cameras also will likely need some attention by a camera shop before you can use them with impunity. And Camp 2 is right in many ways as well. If you want full compatibility and no compromises and you have the dough, go for it! But here, we’re interested in more modest machines.
The Top Tier
If we’re stepping down a bit, it may be helpful to ask what the top tier of comparable cameras is. For Nikon autofocus, your options essentially are, in chronologically ascending order: F4, F5, F100, F6. The single digit F cameras for Nikon were always the cameras they wanted to sell to professionals. They were state of the art, rugged, heavy, and very very good. The F100 snuck into this listing because it is still relatively expensive at around €200 upwards, and because in technological terms, it sits somewhere between the very specialized F5 and the currently still made and expensive F6.
Second Tier Options
So what are your options just below? Again, chronologically: The F801, F801s, F90, F90x, F80. Below that are many more cameras to consider that are not bad either, such as the F501, F401, F601, F70, etc. But the five listed above are a good representation of what you may be considering if you’re serious about taking pictures on film. Each and every one of these cameras will let you take great pictures. Each has their quirks, and each has their advantages.
My recommendation comes at the intersection of handling and feel of the little machine, capabilities, and reliability. Again, this will be very subjective, but it will be based on careful weighing of all these factors. You may come to a different conclusion, but maybe I can still offer a little help with this write-up.
If you’re thinking about Nikon AF cameras, and handling and feel is important to you, you’ll undoubtedly hear about the F501. It was Nikon’s first camera with integrated autofocus (after an abortive detour with the F3AF, which made the lenses do the autofocusing). It sold millions, and it is a good camera even today. It sits between the two generations of cameras. It has a lot going for it. You can switch out the viewfinder. It takes easy to get AAA or AA batteries. It has automatic film wind. And it doesn’t feel like a plastic piece of junk, it’s still well made. But it also lacks features, like a depth of field preview button (these let you see what in your final image will be sharp and what will not), and it is getting long in the tooth, so it’s not all that reliable anymore. I have one that I had to clean thoroughly before it woke from its decades-long sleep, and it still constantly underexposes two stops. If you have a working one lying around somewhere, though, there’s no need to get rid of it.
I won’t address all the autofocus film cameras Nikon has ever made, there’s just not the space here (and I haven’t used every single one). One camera I want to address, however, because it is so similar to the F801s, is the F601. The F601 is the first Nikon SLR I ever bought. I bought it used, and it works fine. But it shouldn’t be your first choice. For one thing, it takes an odd battery. That’s ok when you have the battery, and some extra ones as backup, but it’s not a great out of the box experience. If you don’t mind the weird battery, keep reading, I have another camera choice for you later on. The F601 also has an odd firmware bug that throws up an error (the display reads “fEE” in that case) that’s usually an indication you are trying to use the camera in program mode and that you haven’t set the lens to the correct, highest aperture. Except the F601 sometimes will do this even when you have set the lens correctly. I tried it with several lenses, and I ended up missing shots because it randomly thought it couldn’t use them. There’s one more thing: the film door. It breaks. You don’t want that. I could be mistaken, but I think you don’t want that.
The Winner Takes It All
So, which camera should you get? To my mind, the Nikon F801s. In the second tier, the F801 and F801s are very similar, but the F801 has slower and less reliable autofocus, and lacks spot metering. This mode is great for portraits (you switch the camera to spot metering, focus and meter for the face, and the most important thing in your picture will be perfectly exposed every time) so that makes the F801 less useful. The F90 and F90x are nice upgrades to the F801 series in terms of autofocus. They can also be used with big battery grips which will enable faster shooting, balance bigger lenses, and totally make you look like a badass. If that’s a necessity or not, I leave up to you. So why do I not recommend the F90 and F90x? It’s because they don’t reliably meet criterion number five.
In the 90s, Nikon and other camera and lens manufacturers experimented with new, or just different plastics that twenty years later turn out to have an annoying side effect: they disintegrate. You will have trouble finding an f90(x) with its film door perfectly pristine. The rubbery covering is very likely to be gummy, sticky, or flaky. In some rare cases, this annoyed the original owner enough so they got some isopropyl alcohol and removed the excess goo in a very messy process. If you come across such a “cleaned” F90, by all means, buy it. It has what the F801s has, plus the extra advantages described above. But since most of us are either buying online, or don’t have tons of time to ascertain how sticky the camera is, I can’t recommend these cameras here.
This column is about getting a camera that has a good chance of working after you got it and put some batteries in it, and then start taking pictures. If you’re the crafty type, you may enjoy refurbishing cameras. In that case you’ll have a great, cheap camera in the F90 series. But for those of us who just want to go out and shoot, it’s not the best choice.
Glass is Forever
If you see an F801s at a reasonable price point with a lens, go for it. Just make sure you buy a Nikon lens, and not a third party one. Not that those are always bad, but they sometimes have compatibility issues, and once again, we’re trying to buy something that will work out of the box here. If the camera you have set your sights on has any standard zoom, or a 50mm lens, you should be fine for a start. However, many better quality cameras are likely to be sold without a lens, or “body only”. That won’t do you much good. What now? There are literally hundreds of choices at all price points.
Your first lens should be standard zoom, a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF or similar. Don’t pay too much attention to comments on the internet about how such a standard zoom isn’t any good. All the pictures in the gallery above were taken with this lens and the F801s. You’re starting out, and for many people, this was their only lens and it did just fine. These lenses are useful, small, cheap, and they have very pleasing bokeh (the out of focus areas of the image, or what a lot of people mean when they say an image looks “professional.”) Branch out with primes (lenses that don’t zoom), such as Nikon’s still produced and fully compatible 50/f1.8 AF-D, or a 70–200/f4.5–5.6 AF if you like to take portraits and pictures of things that are a bit farther away. After that, the sky’s the limit.
Since we chose the F801s, you will be able to use all of Nikon’s newer lenses on it, as long as they cover the full frame (Nikon lists those as “FX” lenses). Some (the “G” series) will not work in all modes because they lack a ring for selecting aperture, but you will still be able to use them in shutter and program automatic modes. Some (the “AF-I” and “AF-S” models) will not autofocus on the F801s, but you can still manually focus them, as you would on an old school Nikon.
Accessorize and Expand
Once you have your lens needs covered and if you have money left over, buy another lens, or buy a backup body (having one for normal or wide lenses and one for tele, for example, is a great “set” to own). Maybe buy another F801s as a backup, a program back MF-21, or a Nikon SB-24 flash to go with it. Or a remote cable; the F801s takes an early proprietary Nikon type.
The program back can be switched out for the normal back door of the F801s without any tools and in a matter of seconds, and it lets you do tons of useful, fun, not useful, and downright weird things with exposure. If you miss those red numbers in the bottom of the frame that showed you when exactly a picture was taken in the 90s, you can do that here with the program back. You can also program long exposures, time lapses, and even a “trigger trap” that will let you focus the camera in a specific spot and have it triggered when something moves there. If you like taking pictures of animals, such as birds in a nest, or want to set up your camera unsupervised in the woods somewhere to catch a bear stealing honey, this is kind of great. It’s probably useful for many other things as well. I’m thinking of setting it up with my F801s and a telephoto lens to catch planes coming in for landing at the airport.
Since the F801s does not have a built-in flash, you may want to get one. The SB-24 is a great choice because it’s versatile, powerful, and relatively cheap. It works with the F801s in a fully automatic mode that won’t have you worrying if you set it up correctly.
If you still don’t know what to do with your money, you seem to have so much of it that you probably didn’t need to start looking for a camera in the second tier. If you still ended up with an F801s, don’t feel like you ended up with second best just because it’s second tier. I’m not in the investment portfolio advice business, but maybe you want to grab dinner with that money, or maybe you want to buy some more film. Yes, that’s it: buy film!
The Hidden Gem
The “hidden gem” is a category I didn’t envision when thinking up this column, but it somehow forced itself on me. It’s what I call a camera that almost fits into the second tier, but not quite because of some criteria, some odd quirk that many people don’t like, or has just been plain forgotten about for no discernible reason. But it’s not strictly a third-tier camera either. It’s the one that got away, the one that finished fourth in the Olympics. For this installment, the hidden gem is the Nikon F601M.
The F601M is disqualified from this lineup because, pure and simple, it is not an autofocus camera. It’s great, however, because it is not an autofocus camera but still works like one. Since Nikon’s manual focus lenses (from the AI generation onward) are all compatible to some degree with this generation of cameras, you may have picked some up. You may have grabbed a Series E 50/f1.8 at a flea market somewhere, or been given a couple of old zooms or a wide angle or portrait lens.
The F601M is essentially an F601 with the autofocus and the built-in flash taken out. Instead of autofocus it has a nice, bright viewfinder with a split prism focusing field in the middle. Line up its two halves on the point you want sharpest in your image, and you’re done. It’s easy focusing for situations in which the autofocus fails, or in which you don’t want to use it for other considerations.
That said, there are three downsides to the F601M that may put you off it. For one thing, it does not have a depth of field preview button. And it takes an odd, hard to find lithium battery instead of something more common like the AA batteries the F801 and F801s need to work. And lastly, like the F601, it has a reputation for losing film door hinges. This can be repaired, but that repair will cost you more than the camera, so I wouldn’t buy one on which the door isn’t guaranteed to be ok. Nikon realized at some point that the door hinges on this series were a bit subpar. When the cameras were sent in for repair, new, solid hinges were installed instead. If you get one with this repair already done, you don’t need to worry about the door ever again. If you can live with these limitations, it makes a great companion to the F801s.
That’s it for episode 1. I hope you got something out of it. If you have suggestions for future superstars I should take a hard look at, put them in the comments, or throw them at me on Twitter, @ictusoculi.
TL;DR: Buy an F801s (a.k.a. N8008s) with a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF lens.