2nd Tier Superstars, Episode 1: Nikon AF

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.

Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration
(Mostly) Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration

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.

X10S3359
Spot the Difference. Nikon F801s and F601.

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

X10S3344
Spot the Difference, Redux. Nikon F801s and F801.

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.

X10S3346
Flash and Program Back. Well worth it.

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.

X10S3345
Hiding. The F601M is easily told apart from its almost identical sister because it has no flash.

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.

Review on 35mmc – Minolta Hi-Matic AF-2

Another review of mine is up on Hamish Gill’s amazing 35mm compact shooter site, the no-nonsensically titled 35mmc.com. The star: a $9.99 Hi-Matic camera.

Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements
Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements

Almost There – A Review of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL

Why oh why, you may think, is a blog dedicated to photography reviewing bags now? And not even photo bags? What has the world come to?

Simple: I have always liked bags, but I’ve never been a photo bag person. I think they’re generally meh-looking (too technical, too boring, too black nylon), and since I don’t do this professionally, I don’t want to be “that guy” who goes everywhere with at least two camera bodies and half a dozen lenses. So, for the most part, I don’t use photo bags. Instead, I stuff my camera du jour in whatever bag I’m using, and hope for the best. Will this remain so forever? Who knows; I’ve found more occasions where a dedicated photo bag may be desirable lately. Whether that is going to translate into me getting (and possibly reviewing) one is still up in the air.

This review came about because I saw something super interesting on Kickstarter a few months back: an everyday commuter messenger bag that could be transformed (hey, I’m a child of the 80s, I like that stuff) into a backpack. A weekender that functioned like an old-timey valise and still had an extra laptop compartment. Why not? So, a Kickstarter campaign, a few months, and a deduction from my credit card later, I had the thing in hand. And because I liked it well enough to test out all its idiosyncrasies, I ended up writing a review. Maybe there’s someone here who will find it useful.


I received my Venque Briefpack Utility XL as part of the Kickstarter delivery. First impressions matter, and this one was good: the Briefpack seems well put together, is very stylish in an unobtrusive fashion, and the fabric, metal clasps and leather accents all appear to be of such a quality that you never need worry about whether the bag will hold up to the rigors of a busy commuting life.

Venque front
The front of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL
The “XL” in the name of this pack is deserved. It’s big, almost like a small valise, yet it’s not unwieldy. Its size (given by Venque as 19″ x 15″ x 6.5″, roughly 48 x 38 x 17 cm) is significantly below typical airline carry-on restrictions. I immediately got the impression that the size of the bag was arrived at after a lot of deliberation. It serves me well on trips to the office without seeming ludicrously large even if I’m only bringing my laptop, a book and some papers. It can easily hold a change of clothes for the day (think gym or biking to work). It was also perfectly adequate in size when I brought it as my main bag on a recent two-week vacation. A trip with just carry on baggage, thank you very much every single European premium airline for not distinguishing yourself anymore from Ryanair by much anymore. I digress.

Venque open
A lot fits in here
It easily fits almost a week’s worth of t-shirts, and underwear, as well as an extra pair of pants, one or two extra shirts, a sweater, and a small ziploc bag of toiletries. The elastic straps in the compartment, held together by a solid looking half-metal half-plastic locking clasp, do a good job of keeping all your clothes organized. The clasp is another point where you feel like someone was paying attention. It uses plastic for the inner part, and metal for the outer one, and this seems to have been considered well in terms of quality vs. price point. The gist is that you’re truly packing a suitcase here, not stuffing clothes willy-nilly in a messenger bag.

The four inside compartments (three smaller ones on the top of the bag’s flap, and one larger one on the bottom) are also quite handy. For my trip, I used the upper compartment for additional toiletries, a small container of painkillers, and photo equipment: a small flash, some filters, cleaning cloth, etc.

The bag’s front pockets – two large and one small one on top of the right hand main pocket – are ideally sized for phones, keys, notebooks, a small camera, or glasses. I don’t always wear glasses, but I encounter situations often enough where they become necessary and thus typically keep a pair of regular glasses plus a pair of sunglasses in their cases in the left pocket with the leather flap, while my keys live in the small exterior pocket on the right, and a point-and-shoot camera, my wallet, and whatever else seems useful that day live in the larger front pocket on the right.

Venque Laptop Compartment
Laptop compartment
The back compartment easily holds my Macbook 13″, and has room to spare. It’s rated for 15″ laptops, and you should have no problem fitting one in. The padding is exemplary. I often cram my bags full, and then end up with laptop screens pressed too tightly onto keyboards. This, however, was never a problem with the Utility XL. Very nicely done, Venque. There are three holders for pens in this compartment as well, and three open compartments for phones, business cards, or possbly a cell phone, or a small notebook. There is also a zipper in the back that lets you store away power bricks, cables, and the like toward the middle of the bag. I found this to be a better solution to storing such things than putting them in a front pocket. Alternatively, this is also a good spot for valuables, such as a passport and travel documents if you’re in a place where you’re worried they might be stolen.

The Utility XL works well for most things, but maybe because it’s such a jack-of-all-trades, you don’t get everything you possibly could get in a commuter messenger bag or backpack proper. The large size and the lack of a water bottle sleeve, for example, grow out of the fact that the XL is so versatile. You can’t go smaller and still carry all that stuff, and by attaching a bottle holder you’d either lose a handle, or have a water bottle dangling precariously on the underside of the bag when in backpack mode. I’m completely fine with these tradeoffs.

There are some other things that I find somewhat confounding, though. Basically, it comes down to straps and zippers.

Venque Backpack
The Venque in backpack mode, with those long long straps
The Venque’s straps in backpack mode are of good quality and comfortably padded, but they are simply too long. They can be adjusted, but I never could get them tight enough so the bag was flush with my back. Biking especially was unnerving, the XL kept dangling about. This is also a problem when you’re walking for more than just a few minutes, as in airport terminals or through cities. I.e., pretty much whenever you’d prefer backpack mode over shoulder carry mode. Granted, this is a question of how tall you are, and of your body shape. But as a male of 180cm / 5’11” with a slim, athletic build and size medium for most shirts, it doesn’t feel like I should be out of the ordinary for Briefpack XL buyers. This issue could be solved either by shortening the straps (something that could be done aftermarket by a third party if desired) or by offering a cross-body strap of the type found on hiking backpacks. This would pull the contoured backpack straps towards the middle of the chest and thus make the bag sit closer to your back.

Venque in backpack mode - sideways
Backpack mode – sideways
The supplied strap for carrying the XL messenger bag style is also comfortably padded. The padding covers most of the strap, but the “one size kinda fits all” approach also meets its match here. If you want to carry the bag not directly at your side, but slightly askew – which I’ve found is the most natural way to carry most messenger bags – the padded part pretty much covers all of your chest, but doesn’t reach all the way across your shoulder. A strap with an adjustable foam pad would have been preferable here. If you want to, it’s easy enough to attach pretty much any strap with a clasp, though you might be compromising the XL’s sleek aesthetics.

Venque in backpack mode - top
Backpack mode – top
Lastly, the zippers are a bit of a mixed bag. There are three kinds: small internal zippers (I had no problems with these), small external zippers in the back, and larger zippers for all the various pockets.

The two small external zippers, under which are hidden the backpack straps when not in use, as well as a loop that lets you attach the XL to a larger piece of luggage in order to easily wheel everything through an airport or train station, don’t need to take much abuse. Still, they feel a little too rough for a product that otherwise appears premium in every way. On my XL, both zippers have an unfortunate tendency to open slightly just from rubbing up against my body when I am carrying the bag on my shoulder. In addition, one of them looks like it is permanently pulled apart a bit, and there is a noticeable “hump” you can feel whenever you open or close it. They will probably hold up just fine, but you will be reminded of the fact that they could be better quality every time you use them. Clearly, your mileage will vary on how much importance you attach to this.

The external zippers are well-dimensioned and they stay closed when you want them to. The zippers on the front pockets are a bit badly placed, but otherwise function well. The ones on the larger compartments, however, initially opened and closed a bit too roughly. One-handed opening of a compartment while wearing the bag wasn’t as smooth as I would have expected. Here’s hoping this will continue to improve with use.

The offending zipper
The offending zipper
So what’s the verdict? On the one hand, the XL is very versatile, sturdy, and good-looking. If you’ve been searching for the one bag that does it all, that’s good for a day at the office, a weekend away or a one-week trip even, if you’re packing light, this is the best design at this price point I’ve come across. Other makers, such as Swiss company Qwstion, may have comparable offerings (like their similar-looking Weekender, Overnighter or 3 Day Travel Bag), but you’ll either easily pay in excess of $100 more for the most expensive one from that line-up than you would for the XL, or you forego the XL’s size. On the other hand, if a bag that is touted as being both a backpack and a messenger bag is lacking in either of these modes, you may just be better off with a dedicated bag in your preferred style. Venque’s own Milano, Hamptons and Amsterdam models may be a better bet for many who already own dedicated weekenders, duffels, or other short term travel bags.

In terms of functionality, fit, and finish, the Venque is almost there. It’s almost the bag you want, but not yet quite. Maybe the production run after the Kickstarter deliveries will have solved some of these niggling problems. I hope so. The XL is already pretty close to what it could be.

The back of the bag
The back doesn’t look too bad either
Want the TL;DR?

This is essentially a three-out-of-five star bag that’s really closer to 3.5 stars, and with a few improvements could be even better. While I don’t love it unconditionally, I like it and will continue to use it.