I bought my first camera around 1977. Upon the advise of my father, and a fellow ham, I decided upon a Nikon FE 35mm SLR. I bought it at 47th Street Photo in NYC. Back then, the camera makers didn’t offer a bundle with a ‘kit’ lens included, the camera bodies and lenses were sold separately. Nikon had recently come out with their introductory model, the Nikon “EM”, along with the ‘Series E’ lenses. These were low cost entry level equipment, using a lot of plastic instead of metal in their construction. The series E lenses had good glass, no serious compromises here, they lacked the coupling shoe, so they would only work with the newer ‘AI’ cameras (which the ‘FE’ was). 47th Street Photo offered a kit bundle with the FE, which included the series E 50mm F1.8 lens, a cleaning brush with air bulb, a battery for the camera, and a roll of film.
A few years later, Nikon introduced their model FA camera that featured some advanced metering modes (‘matrix’ metering, and programmed automation). This camera looked like a nice upgrade from the FE, and I eventually bought one when a local camera store had them on sale. My FE was a black body, but the FE that was on sale had a silver body. You’d think that the silver body cameras would be more in demand, and command a higher price, but most professional photographers prefer the black body cameras, and those are the more expensive models.
I slowly added to my lens collection, getting the Nikon 70-210 F4 series E zoom telephoto, and the 105mm F2.8 ‘Micro’ lens with the matching extension ring. This latter lens is a close focusing lens that closes down to F32 for greater depth of field. It was the perfect lens for photographing model railroad layouts. I also had my fathers Nikkor 28mm f2.8 wide angle lens on a semi-permanent loan. He rarely ever used it, so he let me hold on to it for my own use. I returned it to him years later after I sold off my Nikon equipment.
Auto focusing 35mm SLRs came out in the mid to late 1980’s, and was standard equipment by the 1990’s. Auto focus cameras required getting a new set of AF lenses, but the older manual focus lenses would work on the newer AF cameras, without auto focus. I resisted upgrading to an AF camera as I had a nice selection of non AF lenses, and could not justify the expense of starting from scratch. I could focus the camera rather quickly, and accurately enough not to need the auto focus feature, though I could see where it would come in handy.
The 21st century marked the beginning of the decline for film with the introduction of digital cameras that were no longer ‘toys’. I went through two Olympus ‘point and shoot’ digital cameras, the first with a 1 megapixel sensor, and the second a two mega pixel. The latter camera had a zoom lens. They were small cameras that could fit in the pocket, yet produced decent images in strong light. They did suffer with high magnification, and low light conditions due to their small sensors and low resolution. I later bought an Olympus C5050, a small 5 megapixel camera. I also got a telephoto adapter lens to fit the camera, and an external flash. The image quality was now good enough to replace my film SLR’s for many occasions. This camera made it obvious to me that digital was the future of photography.
I wanted to get one of the new digital SLR’s to replace my Nikons, but again this would mean getting new lenses. In 2008, Sony had purchased Minolta’s camera line, which included their Maximum DSLR cameras. There were many Minolta auto focus lenses from their older film cameras which fit their digital camera bodies, and would also fit the new cameras that Sony was now selling. I could find a suitable used Minolta auto focus zoom telephoto lens to fit the 10 megapixel Sony A200 camera cheaper than one for Nikon’s similarly priced entry level DSLR. A kit bundle including the A200 and a wide angle to portrait zoom lens fit my budget after selling my two Nikon bodies and lenses. (I still regret selling my 105 F2.8 Micro Nikkor though). I also found a used Minolta flash that would work in semi-automatic or manual mode with the Sony A200.
The A200 served me well for a few years while my daughters were in the High School marching band. However digital camera technology was quickly advancing with the newer cameras having faster auto focus, and higher resolution sensors. Olympus had introduced their 4/3 sensor equipment at the time I had bough the A200, and now they had morphed that into the mirror less Micro 4/3 system.
Panasonic was a partner with Olympus, selling their own brand of cameras. They were now selling a DSLR like mirror less body, the G1, and a hybrid video / still version, the GH1. Both were introduced at 12 mega pixels. I was impressed with the light weight and small size of these cameras, enough to trade in the Sony for the Panasonic Lumix G3 when it came out. Now at 16 mega pixels, the G3 was lighter and easier to carry then the larger APSC sized DSLRs. At this time I had ‘discovered’ KEH, and their cache of used equipment. I was able to find a 40-200mm Panasonic zoom telephoto and an Olympus flash that would work with the G3. Due to the smaller sensor, and the resulting 2:1 ‘crop factor’, the 200mm telephoto will give the same magnification as a 400mm lens on a ‘full frame’ 35mm camera.
I’ve just recently upgraded to a Panasonic Lumix G85 camera. While still a 16 mega pixel camera, it now has in body image stabilization (the G3 relied on image stabilization built into the lens), 4K video, a better image processor, and weather sealing. The newer camera is a bit larger and heavier than the older one, but it has a better grip. I also replaced the 18-42mm zoom lens that came with the G3 with the current 12-60mm zoom.
The newer lens is weather sealed, and has a longer zoom range. The in body image stabilization will work with older manual focus lenses mounted on the camera. My old Spiratone 400mm F6.3 manual telephoto lens works on this camera, with an effective 800mm focal length. I also have the matching 2x telephoto adapter for this lens, which gives an effective 1600mm focal length with the 2x crop factor. The cameras image stabilization enabled me to shoot photos of airplanes in route to the Fort Lauderdale airport hand held at 1600mm with this lens!
The transition from film to digital has been an evolutionary process. Along the way, we’ve seen the shift from photographers using a large collection of fixed focal length prime lenses to a small set (1-3) of zoom lenses. In the early days of zoom optics, the breed was considered inferior to a fixed focal length lens, but today this isn’t a concern. With optics now designed by computer ray tracing techniques, lens design is today more of a science than a black art.
Another change has been the shift to variable apertures on zooms, instead of a fixed F stop during the focal length change. This is a cost cutting ‘feature’, allowing for sharp optics at a price range within a beginners budget. Today, many of the kit lenses have a higher minimum F stop than what we used in the film era. The common 50mm prime kit lens sold with a film camera was usually an F1.8 or F2, today the zoom sold with most cameras opens up no wider than F3.5, and that at the widest zoom setting. The reason for this is once again price, but with the higher ISO settings available on digital cameras (ASA 1600 or higher vs 400 on film) the need for a fast prime lens isn’t as great.
Still there is one drawback, today’s slower lenses mounted on an APSC or Micro 4/3 sensor sized camera don’t have the narrow depth of field that one could get in the film era. You need a fast lens to blur the background. To get the effect given by an F1.8 lens on a full frame camera when using Micro 4/3, you’ll have to find a suitable F1.2 (or faster!) lens. There are some manual F0.95 prime lenses being made today for Micro 4/3 for those needing the narrow depth of field, but they come at a cost! Still, except for this one case, lenses for Micro 4/3 are usually less expensive then their full frame equivalents.
One nice thing about Micro 4/3, is the ability to mount old manual lenses with an adapter. This is why I’m kicking myself for selling that 105mm F2.8 micro Nikkor! I could use it for close up photography. I did manage to find a ‘bargain’ grade 55mm F3.5 micro Nikkor at KEH. With the 2x crop factor the lens does give me the same magnification as the 105mm did on my full frame 35mm film camera, and I don’t need the speed. (I usually shot the 105mm at F32 back in the day.) Lens adapters for M4/3 are made to fit almost every lens made by Nikon, Canon, etc. Some of the older auto focus lenses can even auto focus on M4/3 with a suitable adapter, though this will be on a case by case for specific cameras and lenses.
A special kind of lens adapter is one having built in optics to lengthen or shorten the effective focal length of the adapted lens. An adapter that reduces the effective focal length will also reduce the effective F stop as far as depth of field is concerned. Except for the high price of these adapters, this is a solution to the availability of fast primes to get the desired background blur.
Background blur is one feature advantage of full frame cameras over Micro 4/3 and APSC sensor cameras. Another feather in the hat for full frame is low light performance. Both M4/3 and APSC seem to have peaked at the 20-25 mega pixel plateau while Full frame cameras can reach 45-60 mega pixels. However, both the Nikon Z5 and Z6, and the Panasonic S5, S1, and S1H are only 24 mega pixels. Why? To maximize low light performance. Full frame sensors at this pixel density have larger pixel cells to capture more light per pixel. Unless you are shooting an image that will be blown up to a wall sized mural you don’t need more than about 25 mega pixels.
Both Nikon and Panasonic are now making full frame mirror less cameras. Their first ventures into this product have been at the high end professional level. Both have recently introduced new lower cost cameras closer to the entry level category. The Nikon Z5 body is priced at $1400, while Panasonic’s S5 lists for $1999. While both of these are far less expensive than earlier full frame offerings from these makes, they are still about double what I’d want to spend on a new camera body. Also lenses for both the Nikon Z mount, and Panasonic’s L mount, are still quite expensive. Perhaps in a few more years we will see true entry level product in the full frame mirror less camera market.
Until then, I’ll stick with my current camera. At the 16 mega pixel level I probably have a little better low light performance than the newer 20 mega pixel M4/3 cameras (Panasonic G95 and G9), and more than enough resolution for what my needs.