Olli Thomson

The Sony Auto S4 and the Nikon FM4

My Konica C35 is approaching fifty years old. I know this because the black version of this model first appeared in 1969 and by 1971 it had been replaced by the updated C35 Automatic. I believe that the actual date of manufacture can be found under the film pressure plate, but I prefer not to take things apart without good cause. I also have a Konica Auto S3 and a Yashica MG-1 both from the mid 70’s, a Minolta XD from 1978, and a relatively new Nikon FM2n from 1999.

It’s remarkable that so many of these old cameras are still in working order. That they are so reliable means that those who prefer to work with film still have a wide choice of quality cameras and lenses at reasonable prices, unless they are looking for one of those models that have acquired a certain desirability and are priced accordingly. Steer clear of these and it’s still possible to pick up a good quality SLR from one of the famous names together with an excellent 50mm lens for $100. Decent rangefinders can be had for a lot less; my C35 cost $30. So, if you are considering a film camera, now is a good time to buy.

Yet, those who have been shooting film for a while (or those who never stopped) have noted that film camera prices are rising. The $100 bargain of today was a $50 bargain five years ago. Partly this is a result of demand. With increasing interest in film photography, more people are in the market for these cameras. It is also a result of supply, or the lack of it. We are buying these old cameras, not just out of nostalgia or the pursuit of ‘authenticity’, but because, for the most part, we have no choice.

When it comes to 35mm cameras, only Voigtländer, Nikon and Leica are still in that market. The cheapest of these, the Voigtländer Bessa R2M, costs $899. If you want an SLR the Nikon F6 will set you back around $2,500. For a Leica expect to pay $4,500. (I’m overlooking the cameras from Lomography and instant film cameras since both occupy a slightly different space from more ‘traditional’ film camera.)

It seems clear that the analogue revival will continue to push up demand and with no increase in supply prices will continue to rise. That unfashionable $100 SLR will be an unfashionable $250 SLR before long. Worse still, as time passes the supply not only fails to rise but, as these older cameras break or wear out, actually falls.

Right now, we can still get old or broken cameras refurbished or fixed, but there are a limited number of businesses working in this field and many of the individuals who have the requisite skills learned them in the pre-digital era. Eventually they will retire and who will take their place? And where will spare parts come from, particularly for those rarer cameras made in smaller numbers?

Increasing demand coupled with falling supply resulting in ever rising prices has the potential to halt, or at least slow, the resurgence of film photography. Now, there are undoubtedly people out there who would welcome such an outcome, those who like the idea of being part of an exclusive club of the cognoscenti. For most analogue shooters, though, this is one of the greatest challenge facing film photography.

There are a number of projects under way with the aim of creating new film cameras. The Reflex project hopes to deliver the first of its new SLR’s in the second half of 2018. Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter announced that he was working on the development of a new premium compact film camera, which should appear some time in 2019. The ELBAFLEX SLR project was announced in November 2017 but having failed to meet its Kickstarter goal it remains to be seen if it will ever appear.

It’s encouraging to see the beginnings of a new film camera industry, even if it is on a very small scale, but realistically for long term survival and growth we need something on a bigger scale. Specifically, we need one of the big names of the camera industry to get involved. That seems like wishful thinking and when Hunt appealed to the industry giants, offering to work with them to develop a new film compact, the response was not encouraging.

Perhaps with the continued, and growing, interest in film photography there might come a point somewhere down the line when that might change. These are businesses, and if the growth of the film community offers a potentially viable new market they should be interested. Who might take up the challenge? I hope it would be Sony. Sony’s creativity and demonstrable willingness to experiment in the camera market make it well placed to take on a project like this.

In my ideal scenario I would like to see two different cameras. The first, a traditional fixed lens rangefinder with auto, aperture priority and manual modes — imagine a Sony Hi-Matic or a Sony Auto S4, drawing on all that Konica Minolta heritage. The second, an autofocus zoom compact, perhaps with an electronic viewfinder.

As for SLR’s, after Nikon’s efforts with the DF, which seemed at least to recognise a desire for classic Nikons like the FM and FE, perhaps they could try again and do it right this time. It’s only twelve years since production of the FM3 ceased. The knowledge and the blueprints must still be there. Is it possible that some of the manufacturing plant still exists? Could Nikon perhaps create an FM4?

Realistically, I think it will only be possible to develop and expand the necessary supportive infrastructure — film manufacturing, developing, scanning and printing, servicing and repair — if a major player commits to film. I’ll not hold my breath but I hope that sometime in the next few years as the popularity of film photography continues to grow, aided perhaps by the current interest in instant cameras from Fuji and Polaroid and by the Lomography community, one of the big names will see the potential and step up. If that doesn’t happen then the current resurgence might ultimately be seen as a last hurrah rather than a new dawn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.