Friday, January 30, 2015

Complicated-Looking Point & Shoots...

So, the intense battles among the Japanese camera manufacturers for SLR market share in the 1970s resulted in a saturated market. Lots of people wanted to take pictures, but the SLR camera, festooned as it was with dials and knobs and buttons, was off-putting to somebody who wanted to take pictures of their kid's birthday parties and the occasional vacation picture at the beach. On the other hand, point-and-shoot cameras were one-and-done affairs; sell one of those, and that's it, whereas if you sell an SLR, you're opening the customer up to repeated purchases of lenses and flashes and accessories...

This led to an interesting offshoot in the evolution of SLRs: Simple, practically point-and-shoot, SLRs marketed to beginners. While modern DSLR cameras certainly can be, and are, marketed to beginners, they typically retain the ability for full manual control. These older film ancestors were... different in that respect.
The Nikon EM, introduced in 1979, was a departure from traditional Nikon SLRs, which had been tank-like, all-metal things. The EM was smaller, lighter, and less expensive than usual, containing a large amount of plastic in its construction. The body's lines were sculpted by Italian industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, better known for the Lotus Esprit, BMW M1, and DeLorean. Internally, it was conceptualized as an "SLR camera for women".

The top of the camera, instead of the usual array of knobs, had a dial for setting the film speed and a simple selector for auto exposure, a manual 1/90th second exposure (the flash synch speed, but would also work in case the batteries went tango uniform) and Bulb, for using a cable release.

The shooter still had to dial in the aperture, but the camera would pick the shutter speed, and beep politely to let you know if the required exposure time would be 1/30th of a second or longer, which could cause blur from camera motion. The camera used the entire array of standard Nikon "F-mount" lenses, thus serving as a gateway drug to further Nikon purchases.

In 1983, Canon released the T50. This camera goes several steps further than the EM in the easy-to-use department. For starters, it has a built-in motor drive, so film loading and advancing is automated, but you still have to rewind manually at the end of the roll.

The T50 uses Program mode for all shooting: Set the aperture ring on the lens to "A" and the camera handles all the aperture and shutter speed chores. All you have to do is drop the film in and manually set the ISO, focus, and watch out for the blinking "P" in the viewfinder, which lets you know if a shot is no bueno.

These cameras are generally available for a song and the best part is that they use Canon's FD mount. Unlike the Nikon F, when Canon went to autofocus SLRs, they completely changed their lens mount (from the FD to the EF) and the orphaned lenses are dirt cheap. By way of illustration, I picked up a 70-210 Macro and a 100-300, both in excellent condition with front and rear caps, for $100 shipped. For the pair.

Minolta's Maxxum 3000i, released in 1988, is entirely automated. Drop the film in and it loads itself, reads the DX code on the canister to set film speed and is ready to go. It's an autofocus and the lens mount is still in use as the Sony "α" mount. If the Nikon EM was a synchromesh manual gearbox and the Canon T50 was a paddle-shifted twin-clutch manual, this is an actual automatic transmission.

The top of the camera is practically devoid of controls. There's an off-on switch, a button for the self-timer, and a button that selects "Hi Speed" mode, which is basically a shutter-priority mode that selects the fastest shutter speed to stop action.

All in all, it's about the least-intimidating film SLR I'm ever seen. No wonder this Lomographer loved it; it fits in with the Lomo "just shoot" ethos perfectly.