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Saturday, July 5

Talking Gear: Is the Nikon F90X the analogue DSLR?

F90X, 35mm f2 AF-D, Rollei Retro 100 developed in Rodinal.

A couple of things prompted me to write this post about Nikon's much under-rated F90X (N90S): one was an email from a reader asking what I thought the best SLR would be for someone brought up on digital and the other was the feeling of liberation I enjoyed using the camera for my recent Tri X/Acurol-N test.

Manual everything cameras are great, particularly if you want a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of film photography. Having to set all the controls yourself means that you have to understand them and once you have that basic knowledge you can tackle just about any subject and quickly get to grips with any camera.

But if you've been used to the instant gratification and feedback of digital, loading up a Pentax MX, for example, and having to do everything the hard way, possibly with less than stellar results until you get the hang of it, could be somewhat off-putting. Nothing is more likely to push you back into your digital comfort zone than a series of poorly exposed or blurred negatives. After all the effort at the taking stage and then developing the film, you end up with nothing to show for it.

F90X, 85mm f1.8 AF-D, Rollei Retro 100 developed in Rodinal
(cropped from the 35mm negative)

So when I got the recent email asking for a camera recommendation, I found myself looking for an alternative to the usual Olympus OM1/MX. Step forward the F90X. I've had mine for a few years having bought the body for about £25 at the bottom of the film camera market. I already had a few Nikon AF lenses I used with my D700 so it really wasn't much to get me up and running with a film-based AF system.

These cameras make great secondhand buys. Not only are they very reliable but you can still pick them up for not much more than about £35 on Ebay, sometimes even cheaper. In the early 2000s they were an expensive item costing around £600-700 is my memory serves well. They're plentiful on the secondhand market and vice-free apart from the rubber covering which has a tendency to part company with the camera back. That's purely cosmetic, though, and if cleaned off leaves behind some nice, shiny black plastic so it's not too ugly.

What's so special about the F90X? It's basically a DSLR without the poxels (ha ha! - that was a typing error but maybe it was a Freudian slip?) and an LCD screen and I reckon if you can operate a digital SLR then you can get up and running without too much bother. They feel very much alike in everyday use lacking only the LCD screen on the back.

It's got a great matrix meter that can cope with all but the most unusual lighting conditions, guaranteeing the analogue newcomer some good negs. If you were to put a colour print film in the camera and use matrix metering you'd get 36 well-exposed frames almost all the time. The autofocus is fast and accurate although a trifle noisy and the viewfinder is quite good - not as nice as, say, an F3's but better than most DSLRs.

If you can load a film - and even that's easy as all you do is pull the leader across the film gate to a red index mark and close the back - then you're away. And once you have the confidence to snap away with film with complete success (from a technical point of view) it's easy then to buy a manual Nikon camera to learn the craft from the ground up.

Those of us who have been around the film world for a long time take analogue cameras pretty much for granted but we should never underestimate the learning curve involved for someone unfamiliar with real photography. Witness this exchange I stumbled across on an obscure forum devoted to people with INTPComplex - a personality identified by one of the following: introversion, intuition, thinking, perception. Many people with this complex are very clever and yet… (my bold)

Guy A: I'm interested in buying my own camera so I don't have to keep renting from the school, but I'm not sure what's most suitable for my purposes and don't know where to start, so I'll have a talk with the instructor and maybe the local camera repair guy to check out used cameras. 

This is all before my time and is a good subject to talk about with older people. Apparently film photography is really out of vogue now except among hobbyists (and this is not cheap), students, pro photographers and some "serious" artists. 

What's your experience with film photography (shooting/processing/printing/retouching)? If you know anything about this, what cameras should I look into buying (used)? 

Guy B: I wouldn't get one with a crank, you know, where you have to wind the film after every shot you take. They're obviously a pain in the neck. – If you like the camera you've borrowed from your school, maybe get the same model?

Guy A: I can't tell with the school cameras (vivitar V3800N) 'cause with some I've used I've had problems with the crank; the film not advancing (heh). Maybe they've been abused by some students, but they seem like decent machines and I'm not having significant problems learning with them.
Without the crank, how do you know the film is advancing? This might be a stupid beginner's question, but what film cameras are out there that don't have the crank?
Guy B: After the crank, analog cameras used to have tiny motors to make the film advance automatically. They were a lot easier to handle, particularly when taking a lot of successive shots (naturally). They also rolled up the film automatically once it was full, thereby reducing any chance of accidentally overexposing the film when opening the camera. – I'm afraid I can't recommend any particular model, though, since it's been quite long that I've used one of those.

I found that quite illuminating and a reminder that an OM1 might not always be the best choice for beginners. So what of the F90X? It handles like a DSLR, gives good, consistent results with comparative ease, is easy to feed with film and it's cheap. Is this the perfect camera then for a digital photographer wanting to dip his toe in the water? Can't think of a better one. What about you?

You might also like:

Tri X/Acurol-N: Final Shots


Madis McLembrus said...

Why Nikon F90X? There is a myriad of 1990's era film autofocus SLR's out there, from Pentax, Minolta, Canon etc. All of them (except the lowest end models perhaps) will fit the bill nicely.

Jürgen Hermann Krause said...

I just read the headline and said immediately: no! The Nikon F100 (and presumably the F6) is! Years ago I owned a F90X, it was my second camera besides my workhorse F4 (and an F3, but the F3 has manual focus). I sold the F90x when digital overtook. My F3 died, but I still have my F4s. Now I'm doing more film photography again, from 35mm to 4x5 inch. Recently I bought a F100 because it can handle my expensive AF-S lenses. Don't get me wrong, I love manual shooting, I have an Nikon FM2 and an Olympus OM-2n too. But the gear I use depends on the intended image and the situation in which I will get to take that image. So, after picking up the F100 it immediately felt like my digital Nikons, but just with film and without a display. I like my FM2 just as much as my F100. In the end it's the picture that I'm after, not the gear. Years ago I liked the F90X too, but I choose the the F100 over the F90X, simply because the F100 is the better camera. Finally cameras are only tools. So, now I can read your article and I'm curious about it. Best, Jürgen

Bruce Robbins said...


The F100 probably is a better camera but you can't get a good one for £35.

Rick Scheibner said...

And on the Canon side of things, there's always the Elan series. I own an Elan 7, but there are others. Basically, if you're familiar with the EF/EOS system, you'll be up and shooting film in no time. It's kind of a gateway drug from digital to film.

Joe Iannandrea said...

It's a bit of a shame, but I think you're right: for most people these days a DSLR-like camera is the right way to start shooting film. I say a shame because I think the automation a camera like the F90x provides is really just a stand-in for the guidance of someone reasonably experienced. While we bemoan the disappearance of once common emulsions, to someone just starting out with film some simple mentorship is likely the real scarce commodity.

I have an F80 that I think would feel even more familiar the F90x to someone who grew up digital, but although I've found myself in the happy position of having both my young teens showing an interest, it's not the camera I'm having them use. Instead they're learning to use an orphaned Minolta XG-1 I took in some years back but hadn't had much use for until now. (I thought I'd just give it to the first one who showed an interest, but it's both of them at once.) With someone around who knows what they're doing (or who can at least fake it pretty well in my case) their success rate can stay high enough to maintain interest while simple acts like turning an aperture ring or feeling the film go through the camera while rewinding bring a much more tactile dimension to learning. I think this not only helps with the understanding process, each of these little acts brings a greater sense of involvement and thereby reward.

That's assuming things go right of course. I have to wonder at how many XG-1s, OM10s, ME Supers etc. fail to ignite a passion in those whos hands they wind up in for want of a bit of knowledgable guidance. Yes, there's the internet now, but a how to video is one thing, someone who can look at your results and show you where you could do better next time is another. Some may be lucky enough to find someone like this still. For the rest, let's hope the supply of used F90x's stays strong.

zeitguy said...

The problem with the Nikon family for entry level is that decent glass is still expensive even if you can get a bargain on the film body. I would recommend Minolta Maxxum for entry level AE & AF...that was the company Leica partnered with, remember.

But I would actually recommend manual focus and manual exposure for entry level to anyone I could spend the time to teach. Much better foundation for comprehending the part focus and exposure play in quality photography.

Only very expensive systems will latch on to an eyelid as the focus point in a face, e.g.. Cheaper systems simply focus on nearest point within AF zone. Saddling a beginner with that frustration is not a kindness.

The satisfaction a student gets from success is inverse to the ease of achieving it. No technology changes that aspect of engagement.

The best deals on manual cameras whose lenses haven't been overly cannibalized by micro 4/3 converts seem to be Pentaxes, and Konicas. Fujinons and Yashicas offer good quality if you can find them in good working condition. I have many Minolta, Canon and Nikon manual and AF / AE including the Nikon N70 and N90. Once I got my Nikon F4s I rarely used anything else for 35mm film.

The Minolta X700 and Nikon F are my favorite for teaching because of the bright viewfinders...which makes a huge difference for someone learning to pre- visualize the final photo.

Canon T70 and T90 are comparable to the Nikon N series and still work with FD lenses. Those Canons are in the $30-90 range and meet your criteria for entry level AF/AE. But, again, the quality FD glass is being snapped up. ...leaving a lot of Quantum, Vivitar and Promaster lenses available at the bottom of the food chain, for both Nikon and Canon mounts.

More than anyone cares to know these days.

John Carter said...

I agree with Madis, my favorite is the Pentax P3n: AE, and complete manual E with dials (no screens), great viewfinder with split image, the only negative is DX only.

Stefan Eisele said...

I completely agree with Jürgen, that the F100 delivers an almost indistinguishable handling from any of the Nikon D-Line semi- and professional cameras - I also own one model to make use of newer Nikon G-Lenses. However, I still feel one of the very basic pleasures film can offer is missing - manual film winding.
For me manual film winding is a show-case of what makes film different from digital - it slows down, it is touchable, it is real and in some sense it puts one into almost direct contact with the picture one takes - in all it just feels great!

In that sense, I would conclude, the best camera to start film photography with, should be one to manually wind.

If metering is a concern (eventhough negative film is very forgiving) I would also support the point to best have multizone metering. So, even if it is not a low priced camera and neither a low price system, my perfect camera to start with would be the Nikon FA.

It offers all the automated metering you might want (fully auto, aperture & shutter priority and fully manual). It is compatible to a huge variaty of lenses - also very cheap ones, From my experience it is a rugged camera, still rather small, batteries last long and the "user experience" is very good. Unlike modern cameras the automated shutter doesn't stop after 30 seconds - it goes for minutes and still provides the correct exposure. What I like particulary about Nikon's is the off/on switch that is linked to the winding lever, which also prevents accidental pictures when the camera is in a bag. The only thing that could be better is changing the film. This is much better solved in the old Contax cameras of that time.
Despite some very minor flaws, the Nikon FA for me is the perfect camera to start with.

Joe Iannandrea said...

There's another thing that bugs me about auto-rewind that Stefan doesn't mention - close to half of the juice in a set of batteries is soaked up due to this one function. My F80 in particular seems to go through a pair of CR123 batteries every 8-9 rolls or so. Given the fact a new pair costs in the neighbourhood of $20(Can) I guestimate it costs me almost a buck just to have a film rewound for me.

That said, having practically grown up in a camera store, I've seen enough stripped sprockets and "liberated" knobs to know that manual rewind on a 35mm camera can be a tripping point for beginners. And this was back in a day when the only alternatives to the complexities of 35mm cameras were things like 110 cartrige film or the Kodak Disc. I'm still for Bruce's original premise that, at least in the absence of the competent guidance of an old person, the F90x would be the ideal instrument to get a digital shooter started on the weaning process, though with a nod to several worthy alternatives depending on budget, availablility etc.

Anonymous said...

It offers all the automated metering you might want (fully auto, aperture & shutter priority and fully manual). It is compatible to a huge variaty of lenses - also very cheap ones, From my experience it is a rugged camera, still rather small, batteries last long and the "user experience" is very good. Unlike modern cameras the automated shutter doesn't stop after 30 seconds - it goes for minutes and still provides the correct exposure. What I like particulary about Nikon's is the off/on switch that is linked to the winding lever, which also prevents accidental pictures when the camera is in a bag. The only thing that could be better is changing the film. This is much better solved in the old Contax cameras of that time.