April 6, 2003
Weekly Column By
Two Nikons and a Minolta
The Nikon F100, Minolta Maxxum 7, and Nikon N80
Over the years, I've seen an amazing number of photographs. Not only do I seek out books, look at magazines, and prowl the internet, but I see a great deal of amateur, student, and enthusiast photography up close and personal. Over the years, at my various jobs, people have regularly sent me or brought me examples of their work to look at and comment on.
The only conclusion a thinking person can draw from seeing all this work is something I've said many times: "Cameras don't take pictures, photographers do." I've seen good work made by all kinds (and I mean all kinds) of cameras, and I've seen awful work made by all kinds of cameras too, even the very best ones. Sometimes especially the very best ones.
One fellow (he was a doctor, but don't hold it against him that he happened to embody a cliché — I've seen some great work by doctors too) sent me some slides of his family. He was a little mystified as to why they weren't better, because he had invested in an unobtanium, Gila-monster-skinned M6 (or whatever it was — I'll get three e-mails telling me I'm a fool because everybody knows the unobtanium M6 has a body covering of Llama tongue, and that it's the King Bumptious Commemorative version that has the Gila monster skin) and a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical Type 1. Total cost: less than that of a Mercedes-Benz, though not by much. The slides he sent were nondescript snapshots. I've literally seen better work done with point-and-shoots. (Did you know there are some pretty good photographers out there using point-and-shoots? You won't run into them on the internet, but they're out there.) For starters, they weren't focused very well. His cover letter asked, "Can you tell these were taken with a Leica lens?" Answer: no, but I can sure tell they weren't made by a very skilled photographer. Similarly, I've seen amateur photographers with F5's and zoom lenses the size of Stinger missile launchers who are almost too self-conscious to raise their pride and joys to their eye. They are supremely ready to not take pictures.
Counterexamples crop up regularly too. I got a super portfolio once from a single mother out West. As I usually do, I asked what camera she used. It was an old Pentax she got at a pawnshop, she said, and she "didn't know the number." Whew. Okay. Puts us gearheads in our place.
So just bear this in mind. The camera doth not the photographer make.
Now we're going to completely ignore all of the foregoing and talk about cameras, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. The hard part's over.
In about 1995, I conceived a year-end feature for Photo Techniques magazine that I wrote for the next five years called "World's 25 Best Cameras," in which I presented idiosyncratic little capsule reviews of great cameras and ranked them. It was purely a fun feature, designed to boost newsstand sales, which it did.
I think it was in about 1999 (or was it 2000?) that I put the Nikon F100 at the very top of the list, Numero Uno. I immediately heard by air, sea, and land from the Brotherhood of F5 owners whose feelings I had wounded. Hadn't I ever used the F5? Didn't I know that so-and-so and this-and-such? Well, yes, I did. It's just that a loaded F5 weighs more than some 4x5s, and if I'm going to spend that much money and carry that much weight, I want a bigger neg. No offense, though. I know many people use and like the F5. It's just that it reminds me of an ancient cartoon in which Popeye destroys his entire house trying to kill a fly — all that, and all you get is a leetle 35mm postage-stamp negative? Seems like overkill.
I tried an F100 for three weeks or so a couple of years back, compliments of Nikon USA, and I still think it's about the best film camera money can buy. Yes, nits are pickable — nits are always pickable — but it's an incredibly well-designed camera with a formidable feature set that really nails some of the necessary compromises in terms of size, weight, cost, and build quality. And it's the cheapest camera that takes the world's largest system. (Whoa, easy, Canon fans: the F100 takes manual-focus Nikkors. Used any FD lenses on your EOS-3 lately?)
I'm afraid I'm not going to launch into the happy litany of all the F100's myriad features and capabilities. If you want that, there are 18 separate reviews listed on www.nikonlinks.com, and if that's not enough to ruin your eyesight, there are 243 user reviews at www.photographyreview.com and 200 more at www.camerareview.com. My overriding subjective impression, however, was of a camera that simply disappears after a while. Well, actually, my first impression was of lightning-fast autofocus: with the prime lenses I was using with it, there's this near-instantaneous little zip sound and the thing is focused. This works so well that it just disappears after a few days of use — you focus automatically and so you stop thinking about focusing. There's nothing to distract your attention back to what the camera is doing.
If you're interested in those nits I mentioned, Ken Rockwell does a good job of enumerating all of them here And the best online review is probably Thom Hogan's, here. Thom Hogan literally wrote the book on the F100.
I've learned to my surprise recently that some younger people are unacquainted with the term "sleeper." In the present context it means either something that is not immediately successful but becomes so after some time has passed, or something that is really good despite not being well known as such.
A good case in point is the Minolta Maxxum 7.
As you know by now if you've been reading these columns for a while, I'm not the biggest fan of Wunderplastik cameras. I can get nightmares remembering the horrible, creaky Canon A2, or the Nikon N70 with its user interface from engineering hell, or all those tiny cookie-cutter "entry-level" SLRs that have all the heft and solidity of the cars, planes, and tanks that men of my generation used to put together with Testor's plastic cement when we were boys, from boxes marked Monogram or Revell. So when I was leaving my friendly local camera emporium a couple of weeks back and a green salesguy held out a Maxxum 7 with that "I'm enamored" glow on his face, I'm afraid I dismissed it pretty quickly. "Too many buttons for me," I said. Later.
Well, it seems like every year or two I need to be reminded of the first law of reviewing: YOU CANNOT GUESS. Things are not always as they appear. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it is often required to make an accurate appraisal. My first fleeting impression? Wrong-oh. Although it's lighter and cheaper than the F100, the Maxxum 7 is, quite simply, another candidate for the title of world's best film camera.
Although there's nothing terribly appealing about it at first blush, it turns out it's just a blast to shoot with. For fun factor, it ranks about as high as any Wunderplastik camera I can name. Two of the main reasons: it has the brightest, cleanest finder you have ever laid eyes on, and it has wonderful, superfast, super-positive autofocus. Minolta claims that the Maxxum 7's autofocus is the world's fastest. I'm not in a position to dispute or confirm that claim, but let's just say I can believe it.
Yeah, it has lots of buttons. However, Minolta's engineers are wise: they have actually made the camera pretty easy to use without making excuses for the fact that they went ahead and packed the thing with pretty much every nifty bell and whistle you can name as well as a generous handful you never heard of before. This is not the box for people who get off on Spartan simplicity, but, let's face it, lots of guys like cool features and can actually read instruction manuals.
But the overall impression I get of the Maxxum 7 is the way, like a good dog, that it begs to be taken out for exercise. It's very pleasing to use. Indoors or out, the finder is so clean and clear I found myself enjoying looking at stuff through it. And just when you think you're up to speed on all it can do, you'll discover another really delightful little capability it has. Go ahead, throw some sticks for it to fetch — the Maxxum 7 will run till you drop. Really nice camera, especially if you keep in mind that quip I made in the last paragraph about the instruction manual. Don't miss trying this one out.
Poor Little Limp-Along
After all I've said so far, what can possibly be said in favor of the little Nikon N80? In what way won't it be trounced by its bigger brother or the more expensive Maxxum?
I've got to admit up front that if the Maxxum 7 is a race car, the N80 is a Honda Accord. The N80 is slower, darker, smaller, duller, and dimmer. Its nicely implemented ergonomics seem almost basic when stepping down from the Minolta.
And some of the online reviews for this thing are truly hoot-worthy. In the last issue of my print newsletter, The 37th Frame, I wrote a "rant" called "Writing Internet Camera Reviews: A Guide for Idiots" in which I took off after some of the more entertaining peculiarities of this new literary genre. Well, virtually all of those foibles are foisted on the poor N80 somewhere or other on the ether. Some people complain that the N80 is too expensive. For them, some gentle advice: shut up; is not. Others go on and on about how the N80 isn't an F100. Clue for them: that's why Nikon makes both. Some deride the little N80 for being made of plastic, for not being more rugged and he-man. All I can say is, if you had a more he-man wallet, then you wouldn't be stuck with such a girlie camera, eh boys? [Muttley snigger.]
I'm probably the only guy in the world who actually likes the build of the N80. It's got a friendly, grippy surface that feels good to me. I find it light but still adequately solid. It feels like what it is: just a tool to take pictures with. If you happen to be one of those who feel it's not quite rugged enough, fine — go wear it out. (I will now hear from 18 people who got lemons that didn't work or failed in the field. Ah, the price of making generalizations.)
What the baby Nikon's got to offer is this: it's got the smoothest, softest shutter this side of an RF. I wonder if the N80 would even measure as being quieter than the Maxxum 7, which itself is on the quiet side, but I can tell you that the N80 is subjectively a lot quieter because the noise is softer, less sharp, less obtrusive. Then there's shutter vibration. Although few cameras actually vibrate in your hands, when the N80's mirror flips you just can't feel a thing. This inspires confidence, at least in my small brain. It pleases me, every time. Finally, if you like small, light cameras, which I do, the N80 is extremely comfortable. It fits like a good pair of jeans.
So, no, the N80 is not a candidate for best 35mm ever made. It does have more shutter lag than the F100, it does have a dimmer, lower-mag finder than the Maxxum 7, and it won't impress your friends. But that can be a good thing, too. It's unobtrusive, handy to carry, easy to use, and quiet and polite when it goes off. Ergonomically it's special because it's nothing special: it will just do most everything you want with no fuss or distractions and without requiring a lot of training and memorization.
In short, put a light prime on this thing and you've got one heck of a nice little street shooter.
Assuming you can actually shoot pictures, that is. Maybe those who can't should compensate by getting that super-exclusive jewel that's been hand-hewn from a single billet of spacecraft alloy by wizened Chinese artisans of the type that used to spend half a generation carving one jade figurine. You know, the one with the cool Coelacanth-skin body covering.
Just keep in mind, though, "The camera doth not...."
— Mike Johnston
Next week: The highs and lows of the EOS-10D.
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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.