|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?