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I wrote this page back in 2004 when 35mm film cameras were prolific.
Please take the rest of this page as an historical treat. The only thing I changed in 2007 was the recommendation for the D70 to a recommendation to the better and less expensive D40, both digital cameras.
Today film users know who they are, and long live film!
Digital or Film?
Today I suggest digital cameras for most people, and specifically the inexpensive D40 which I use daily. Film cameras are for people who don't shoot much and don't mind the inconvenience of film. For most subjects for most amateurs digital cameras give better results. If you haven't seen how incredibly good 12 x 18" prints made from the D40 for $2.99 each look from Costco then you need to do this before you poo-poo digital as I love to. Digital looks better because your colors will usually be right on, unlike with prints made from negative film.
If you are doing landscape or posed, non-action photography, are very careful and use slides or transparency film then film can give better results than digital. However if you're doing this you'll be better off with a larger format than 35mm film.
I have a whole page on the important differences between digital and film here.
Presuming you're set on a 35mm film camera here goes.
Overview of 35mm Film Cameras
Unlike the past 40 years, as of 2005 all the Nikon AF film cameras (N55, N75, N80, F100 and F6) have the same important features. In 1975 cameras were still all mechanical, which meant that someone had to machine and assemble every little feature into the camera, so cameras with all the features you needed cost much more money.
As of 2005 all cameras are electronic and controlled by computer. Therefore features exist in firmware, not hardware. It costs no more to include all the features you need in every camera, and therefore even today's cheapest cameras have every feature you might need.
More expensive cameras add more mechanical durability and more knobs to allow advanced users more ability to manipulate the camera's settings. Ultimately all cameras today, regardless of cost, can make the same quality photos.
Your choice will be guided by how much, if any, override you need to make to the camera's default settings, how fast you want it to run, and how much physical abuse you plan to dish out.
FOR BASIC PHOTOS
If you just want great photos and don't want to mess with settings then get the N55 or N75. If all you want to carry is one camera the N55 is it and has a built-in flash. If you want to use an external flash or lenses that cost more than the N55 itself you may prefer the N75. The N75 can use the $300 and up AF-S lenses and adds TTL control of external flash.
FOR BACKUP TO ANOTHER CAMERA or in DANGEROUS SITUATIONS
Get the N75. The N75 offers all the features and flexibility of larger cameras in a dinky package. It's inexpensive and lightweight making it easy to carry along as a spare and cheap enough to make it a no-brainer if you destroy it.
FOR BUDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS or as a SECOND CAMERA
If you're a serious amateur photographer by all means get the N80. It offers all the features and flexibility anyone needs at a reasonable cost and is well enough built to serve frequent amateur use. The N75 also works well, just that it might be a little on the dinky side if you intend to use it all the time, as in shooting 30 rolls every month.
The F100, my favorite, is also excellent, except that it costs three times as much, eats through batteries quickly and weighs a lot more. It has faster autofocus for action, so if sports is your focus or if you're tough and rich consider it, otherwise the N80 is perfect. Today I most often use my D70, which simply is a digital version of the N80. I've made over 16,000 shots on my D70 in several months and it holds up just fine.
FOR AMATEURS TURNING PRO
HA! Made you look. Every amateur including myself has thought ourselves in this spot at one time or another. We use this "eventually turning pro" excuse to justify buying expensive cameras.
Every pro will tell you that the cheapest camera works fine. More expensive cameras just may make it a little easier. A pro needs to make money by keeping his expenses low, so they use things like obsolete old used cameras and throw them away if they break. I can't bless any business justification to be buying expensive gear in anticipation of future work. TIP: Many pros don't even own cameras. They simply rent what they need for a job and bill the rental to the client.
If we play the fantasy then get the F100. It's my favorite 35mm camera and has loads of durability and functionality to last you for years. Forget the older F5 which doesn't work as well but costs and weighs more. Likewise the new F6 will tempt you, but it costs too much to make sense for business use where by definition you need to turn a profit. AFTER you start making money at photography you may be able to get an F6 if your volume justifies it.
FOR FULL TIME PROFESSIONALS
Of course pros know what they need, but if you're curious, get some F100s. The less expensive cameras lack the durability for shooting dozens of rolls a day for years on end. I found the F5 less easy to use and too darn heavy even when it was the same price as the F100.
We'll have to wait and try the F6 before making any judgments.
The Nikon FM-3a (replacement to the FM2n) is a very durable manual focus camera. It's probably more durable than any camera save for the F5 or F6 and costs one third as much. The brand new FM-3a is a great camera if you need solid.
WHAT THE SPECS MEAN
Read about FLASH SYNC SPEED here
TOP SHUTTER SPEED
Having a 1/2,000 or 1/8,000 top speed is meaningless because no one ever uses those speeds. 1/500 to 1/1000 stops anything I shoot, like spray from water skiers or dirt-bike rooster tails. One should switch to a slower film for better color and quality before going above 1/1000 for shutter speed.
The newest AF-S lenses do not autofocus on many older AF cameras or today's N55. You have to focus them by hand! Watch out on cameras like the N60, 8008 and others if you want to use AF-S lenses, because with many of them you'll only get manual focusing with AF-S lenses. Luckily all the other the current cameras are fine. Don't ask me here, just look at the sales brochures or instruction manuals or try it yourself in a camera store if you are curious about a particular model.
SHOULD YOU SPEND MONEY ON CAMERAS OR ON LENSES?
If you have a limited budget, save your money for your lenses and get a cheap camera. The results are the same from any Nikon camera model, but the differences between lenses can be significant.
For instance, if you want to spend $1,300 then you are much better off with an N80 ($450) and superior 80-200mm f/2.8D AF ED IF ($850) than buying an F100 ($980) and a crappy 70-300mm f/4-5.6D AF ED ($275).
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