Olli Thomson

A Collection of Two

I’m jealous of those folks who post pictures of their analogue camera collections on Facebook and Flickr. I would love to be in a position to assemble an array of these wonderful old machines. Sadly, that’s not possible since I move house, and country, every two or three years. The thought of trying to pack and then transport a collection of sometimes delicate, sometimes valuable cameras half way round the world every few years is all the disincentive I need.

So I have to be highly selective. Everything I own has to fit in a carry on alongside my two digital cameras. Earlier this week, my latest, and probably final, film camera arrived — a Minolta XD with a Rokkor MD 50/1.7 lens. That makes four film cameras in total (sort of) and that’s my limit, though obviously there will now be more Minolta lenses in my future.

Time, then, for a survey of my modest collection.

First, the Nikon FM2n. This was the first film camera I bought when I chose to get back into analogue photography in 2017. This — or strictly speaking the FM which was the precursor of the FM2n — was also the camera I wanted when I was a teenager reading Amateur Photographer and browsing in my local photography store; wanted, but could never afford. So when I began my recent journey back into the analogue world, there was only one place to start. I found a late (1999) model FM2n in beautiful condition at KEH. While still cheaper than any DSLR it was among the more expensive film SLR’s. A moment’s hesitation happily coincided with the arrival of a 20% discount offer from KEH and I ordered the FM2n with a Nikkor 50/1.8 AI lens. Since it arrived I’ve added the Nikkor 24/2.8 AI and 35/2 AIS lenses.

What can I say? It was worth the wait, all forty years of it. This is a fantastic camera. I’ll never sell it (but never say never). In fact, I was seriously thinking of buying a second one as a back up. I haven’t yet; but I still might, even though they appear to be getting more expensive. A full review will follow.

Second, the Minolta XD. As well as my fully manual FM2n I also wanted an SLR with aperture priority auto mode since this is how I usually shoot. Here, I had almost too many options. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw the debut of many superb semi-automatic cameras — the Nikon FE2, the Olympus OM2 and OM4, any number of Minoltas and more. Buying another Nikon made sense, since by this point I had a set of Nikon lenses. Initially I leaned towards the FE2, the electronic companion to the mechanical FM2 with essentially the same design, handling and build quality. Eventually, though, my head was turned by the F3, Nikon’s top of the range professional SLR from 1981 and successor to the legendary F2.

The F3 — Nearly…but not quite

The F3 is a classic. Superbly built, almost perfectly designed and a joy to handle. In the end, though, after much back and forth I sold it. It was the ‘almost’ in that ‘almost perfectly designed’ that final made up my mind. The F3 came to market at a time when electronic technologies were appearing in an increasing number of consumer products. Among the electronic innovations of that time was the Liquid Crystal Display and Nikon decided to incorporate a small LCD in the viewfinder of the F3.

The critical word here is ‘small’. The F3’s LCD, which shows the chosen shutter speed and, in manual mode, the over and under exposure indicators is acceptable in bright conditions. However, as the light starts to fade so does the display At a certain point the symbols on the LCD are too small to be legible. Nikon clearly recognised that this was an issue because the designers incorporated a back light light to illuminate the display. That light, though, was manually triggered by depressing a button that was both tiny in size and poorly located on the prism. I’m sure there are many contented F3 owners out there who have never had any difficulty with this, or who have learned to live with it. For me it was deeply, perhaps irrationally, irritating and something I could not get used to and could not imagine I would ever get used to.

I did wonder, from time to time, if the designers at Nikon were, in their wisdom, trying to imbue the F3 with the Japanese aesthetic of acceptance of imperfection. In pursuit of the ultimate camera, they chose to incorporate this flaw to remind us of the perfection of imperfection, or the imperfection of perfection. Or perhaps this element of the camera was design by the Chief Executive’s idiot nephew, working as an intern that summer because nobody could think of what else to do with him. Whatever the reason, I reluctantly accepted that the F3 was never going to work for me and sold it on, certain that it would, before very long, find a home where it would be more deeply appreciated.

The F100 — Too much automation

Next, the F100. A much more recent design, dating from 1999, this was a highly automated film SLR that became the basis for Nikon’s first DSLR, the D1. It was a fine camera, based on Nikon’s professional grade F5, well specified and well built, but it quickly became clear to me that it was too highly automated. The F100 handles like a digital camera with push buttons and dials and even multiple custom functions. As good as it was, this wasn’t what I was looking for.

The FE2 — Perfect…except it didn’t work

I finally decided to try the FE2. I ordered one, in excellent condition, and it would have made a fine companion for my FM2n. Unfortunately, while the camera was in excellent mechanical and physical condition, its electronic condition left something to be desired. Specifically, there was a serious problem with the timing on the electronic shutter that rendered the camera unusable. It may have been something that could be easily fixed, but not knowing for sure how serious an issue it was I couldn’t risk it. Back it went.

Had it been working I would have kept FE2 and considered my SLR collection complete. I continued looking for a suitable FE2 but while browsing Used Photo Pro I happened across a Minolta XD. I matched it with a 50/1.7 Rokkor MD lens and placed my order.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Minolta. Back in my teenage years when I was fascinated by cameras Minolta had a reputation for innovative and technologically advanced cameras. This was the era of the XE7, then the XD7 (as I knew it in the UK) and the X700. Though I never owned a Minolta SLR back then, my first DSLR was a Sony A200. This, to my mind, was as close as I could get to owning a Minolta, Sony having bought out Minolta’s Photo Imaging unit in 2006. As much as anything, though, I just liked the name Minolta.

Minolta had a habit of giving their camera and lenses different designations in different markets. The camera that was the XD in Japan became the XD7 in Europe and the XD11 in North America. Strangely, even though I bought mine from a US based dealer I have the Japanese variant — the XD. Mine is also finished in black, which contrasts nicely with my chrome FM2n.

Everything appears to be working. I put a roll of film in it and took it out for some test shooting. The Minolta is a beautiful camera to work with, different from the FM2n in some ways, but equally adept at getting out of the way. The pictures looked fine. My quest is over. Yes, it means another set of lenses, replicating focal lengths I already have for my Nikon, spending more money, having more to carry round the world, but I only need three lenses (unless, of course, a real bargain turns up). As with the Nikon, a full review will follow.

So that’s my SLR collection — a collection of two, but I like to think of it as a collection of quality even if not one of quantity. In a future post I’ll cover the other half of the collection.

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