Posts Tagged ‘Part’

Gear of the Year: Barney’s choice (part 2) – Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11

30 Nov
Dan Bracaglia

In Part 1 of my Gear of the Year for 2020 I mentioned that the Fujifilm X100V has been in my hands almost all of this year. This article is about a very different piece of photographic equipment in my collection, which has also seen heavy usage this year. And an item which – while much less practical for the kind of day-to-day documentation to which the X100V is so well-suited – is no less enjoyable (in its own way) to use.

The story of how I ended up with a Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is a bit complicated, and starts with a very different kind of product: the Coolpix P950, which I reviewed earlier this year, at the height of the Washington state quarantine. Those several weeks of shooting with the P950 turned me on to the potential for a proper super-telephoto photography project, once non-essential travel restrictions were lifted.

And I knew exactly where to start – by the sea.

Re-reading WG.S Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn this summer (yes, sorry, this is going to one of those kinds of articles), one line really resonated with me. It’s a description of fishermen on the Norfolk coast, in England. Wondering about their motivation at a time when it is ‘almost impossible to catch anything from the beach’ Sebald concludes that they ‘just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness’.

I’ve always found it calming to look out at the ocean, and amid the seemingly never-ending chaos of this year, I’ve been bolting down to the Washington coast whenever time and local regulations allow, to put the world at my back for a little while.

The long telephoto project I originally had in mind was to be centered on the fishing boats that ply up and down the Washington coast. Unfortunately, it turned out that even with its excellent image stabilization, accurate framing with the Coolpix P950 was too difficult with such distant, bobbing targets, and the 16MP resolution was too unforgiving when it came to cropping. That’s where the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 came in.

The vignetting in this shot, and the others in this article, is optical. I don’t mind it (and haven’t corrected it) in images like these, but it’s one more thing that limits the usefulness of long mirror lenses for more conventional work.

1/2000sec|F11|ISO 800

The Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is a catadioptric lens, which works by ‘folding’ the light that comes into it using mirrors. This provides a long focal length without the need for a physically long lens barrel. The light travels the same distance inside a mirror lens as it would in a conventional telephoto, it just moves in a zigzag.

The biggest downside to mirror lenses in general is manual focus (in almost all cases – more on that in a minute) and a fixed, slow aperture, usually F8 or F11. This severely reduces the range of conditions in which they can be used. Typically, mirror lenses are also less sharp than conventional lenses, as well as being an absolute pain to focus through an optical viewfinder. They have a tendency to throw off AWB too, and let’s not forget the highly distracting ‘donut’ bokeh, created by the annular mirror.

In a world of high-resolution electronic viewfinders, magnified focus modes and fully electronic shutters, mirror lenses are more practical now than they’ve ever been

For all that, mirror lenses have a dedicated fanbase (and if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get into lunar photography, look no further). But there are a lot of good reasons why this lens costs $ 3,200 and this one can be found on the second-hand market for less than $ 500. And that’s an unusually expensive example of the type – most bog-standard 500mm F8 mirror lenses can be picked up used for around $ 100-200.

This image is a combination of two exposures taken from the same position, moments apart: one exposed for the moon, and one for the wispy clouds.

F11| ISO 1600 (multi-exposure)

Catadioptric lens technology hasn’t evolved significantly in decades (with the honorable exception of the Minolta AF Reflex 500mm F8, which remains unique among mirror lenses for offering autofocus) but camera technology over those decades has come on in leaps and bounds. And it turns out that in a world of high-resolution electronic viewfinders, magnified focus modes and fully electronic shutters, mirror lenses are more practical now than they’ve ever been. Which is why when a ‘Like New -‘ condition example of the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 popped up on KEH earlier this year I jumped on it immediately.

The British are famous for our sentimental attachment to the coast, maybe just because of its constant proximity – nowhere in the UK are you more than 70 miles from the sea. In the time it takes for me to get to Long Beach Washington from Seattle, I could drive almost the entire length of England.

1/3000sec|F11|ISO 1000

That last paragraph, by the way, was going to form the basis of an opinion article I was planning over the summer. Provisionally entitled ‘Thanks to Mirrorless Technology, There’s Still a Place For Slow Telephoto Lenses’, the air was taken out of the idea by Canon’s surprise release of the RF 600mm and 800mm F11 STM. But hey – I was right. It turns out that there is a market for lenses like that.

Earlier in this article I implied that the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is ‘enjoyable’ to use. That needs some qualification: I enjoy using it in the same way as I enjoy hiking up really steep hills. It makes me feel good afterwards, but often, when I’m actually engaged in the task, it’s a bloody nightmare. Oh, let me count the ways…

The Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 lets me get a perspective that would be impossible with any of my other lenses

First, the massive 108mm filter thread is non-standard, which means that there’s no simple replacement option for the fiddly threaded metal (!) cap, which takes ages to get on and off. Then there’s the enormously long focus ring. This is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, depth of field is so shallow at 1000mm you really do need a good, positive manual focus ring with fine-grained control. On the other hand, if you nudge the barrel of the lens (or the massive integral hood, which rotates with the focusing ring) or breath on it, or look at it wrong, you’ll throw off critical focus. And because the focusing ring makes up 70% of the length of the entire barrel (even more when the hood is extended) it’s almost impossible not to nudge it when handling or repositioning the lens. Finally, although smaller than a conventional 1000mm F11 would be, it’s still a big, fat lump of glass and metal that doesn’t fit into a camera bag alongside my other gear.

Ultimately though I don’t really care about any of those issues, because the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 lets me get a perspective that would be impossible with any of my other lenses and, yes, it’s a lot of fun.

From my favorite spot near Long Beach, looking out over the Pacific, the horizon line is roughly 10-12 miles away. Twelve miles is the official limit of territorial and international waters.

1/1000sec|F11|ISO 3200

I shoot my 1000mm F11 lens adapted on a Nikon Z7, with electronic shutter and a cable release, and always clamped to a sturdy tripod with a 10lb weight slung under it. I tried mechanical shutter and electronic first-curtain, but after a lot of experimentation I found that the former can create vibration issues at such a long focal length, and the latter can lead to uneven exposures at the shortest exposures.

With the setup I just described, I can get away with shutter speeds of around 1/200sec in still conditions. If it’s breezy, I’ll increase the ISO and decrease the exposure time accordingly. If the fully-electronic shutter introduces any distortion, I can’t tell. The subject matter would render it unnoticeable anyway.

Water spouts, created by whales breaching in the Pacific close to sunset. These little puffs of water were invisibly small to my naked eye.

1/500sec|F11|ISO 4000

The project I’m currently working on with my 1000mm is a little different to the one I’d originally planned, and a lot more abstract. it’s shot mostly from a single overlook about 100 feet up over the Pacific coast near Long Beach WA, looking out roughly 10-12 miles to the clouds and patches of light which line the horizon, approximately at the boundary of International waters. Since I started working on this project I’ve added a Tamron SP 500mm F8 and a second tripod to my collection for those times when 1000mm is just slightly too long.

Maybe I’ll look back at the whole effort in a couple of years and think ‘well that was a waste of time’ (maybe you think so already – and I’m sure you’ll let me know) but if nothing else, turning my back on the world and concentrating on 1.3 degrees of distant, hazy somewhere else for a few days here and there has provided a much-needed exercise in creative meditation.

Next year’s post-vaccine project: A closeup look at crowds, all shot on a 14mm lens.

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Gear of the Year: Barney’s choice (part 1) – Fujifilm X100V

24 Nov

Please note: the images in this article are downsized from the original files. A link is provided below to our full samples gallery.

What a year. I thought 2016 was bad, but then 2020 barged in, ripped a room-clearing fart, handed 2016 its beer and went bananas. Hopefully you don’t need me to list the many horrors of the last 11 months, because I would prefer not to.

It’s surreal looking back now, but in the first six weeks of 2020 I flew roughly 15,000 miles, all of which was for work. The year began with the CES show in Las Vegas, then on to a video shoot in Texas, and another in California, followed by the launch of the Fujifilm X100V, in London. And that’s where this story begins…

…I don’t know why I did the dot-dot-dot thing there, this article is only one page long.

By early February, the novel coronavirus had been a blip on the outer edge of my mental radar screen for a while. In late January our video crew and I had shared some wry jokes about ‘flying now while we still can, ha ha…’, but it was the following month, at the launch of the Fujifilm X100V in London, that I started to sense a more general concern. Speaking to Fujifilm executives at the event (and, significantly in retrospect, those unexpectedly not at the event) it was clear that the situation in China (where Fujifilm has some manufacturing) had become grave, and in addition to the tragic human cost in Asia, COVID-19 was having a profound effect on production and supply chain logistics around the world.

The Fujifilm X100V was launched in February at an event in London. I added a few days to that trip to see family – my last opportunity to do so, as it turned out, for what may still be a long time.

1/60sec|F3.2|ISO 800

I was in the UK for a week, which included a few days spent with my family in London and the north of England. On the darkened plane back to Seattle, I remember wondering when I would see the old country again. Coincidentally, that was also the last outing for my much-traveled and now-expired European Union GB passport.

By early March things were getting serious all over the world (with DPReview’s adopted home state of Washington an early hotspot). Partly to scratch the itch of my own growing panic, I spent a few days researching the impact of COVID-19 on the photo industry. Alongside many reasonable, thoughtful comments on the resulting article are several that have since aged like fine milk.

Oddfellows Cafe in Capitol Hill, Seattle, boarding up after the WA lockdown was announced in mid March. Cafes, restaurants and many other businesses that were forced to close put boards up over their windows and encouraged local artists to decorate the storefronts.

1/420sec|F5.6|ISO 160

We all know what happened next. After March 16th 2020, I didn’t so much as hug another human being for more than 70 days. Things got weird.

Where does the Fujifilm X100V tie into all of this? Beyond the fateful coincidence of the timing of its launch in early 2020, it’s the camera that’s been in my hands almost every day for the past ten months.

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It was a preproduction X100V that I took on my trip back home to the UK in February, and which I used to take the last (for who knows how long) photographs of my sister, my nephew and my parents. I subsequently bought one, and my personal X100V was with me all through quarantine. I carried it with me on my daily permitted walks and bike rides through Seattle’s deserted streets, in that strangest, sunniest of springs, where normally busy neighborhoods looked like Edward Hopper paintings and everyone remarked on the sound of birdsong.

I also took a lot of mirror selfies, although in my defense it was a difficult time.

When I finally ventured out into crowds in late May and early June following protests after the killing of George Floyd, it was with X100V. When Seattle briefly became the focus of global attention following the establishment of the short-lived CHAZ/CHOP zone (a much smaller area than you might have been lead to believe, which began a mere block away from my apartment), I visited several times with the X100V, making sure that I had a personal record of what was going on. Even when the circumference of my world had shrunk to the handful of blocks around my front door, photography helped me feel somewhat connected.

Protesters gather near Cal Anderson Park in Seattle in early June – one of many protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

1/60sec|F8|ISO 320

Sheer anarchy! Members of the local community paint a mural on the road (now preserved) near the SPD East Precinct, later in June.

1/60sec|F5.6|ISO 800

The X100V is a near-perfect everyday camera because it’s small enough to tuck under a light jacket when I’m out walking or cycling, fast, very simple to use and delivers great pictures. The new lens in the ‘V’ with its two aspherical elements, is far superior for close work to the original version on the X100/S/T/F and it performs much better with the 28mm wide converter attached. The X100V is one of those rare cameras that does exactly what I need it to, without a lot of fuss. It’s as simple at that, really; a reliable companion in a most unsettling season.

A slightly misfocused grab-shot at a spontaneous celebration following the announcement that Donald Trump had lost Pennsylvania (and the 2020 presidential election) earlier this month. In the background to the left is Oddfellows Cafe. This may have been a technically better photo had I taken it with an ILC, but the X100V is the camera I had with me – which is the whole point.

1/60sec|F8|ISO 640

For all the documentation that I’ve done this year with the X100V, I do not describe myself as a documentary photographer. I know several photojournalists personally, and I could never do what they do, especially in the current political climate here in the US, where personal safety is of increasing concern for members of the media. The pictures I take are primarily for me, for the purposes of creative practice, memory and reflection. And while there was much that happened in 2020 that I wish I could forget (and it’s not over yet), there was certainly a lot to reflect on…

…I’m doing that dot-dot-dot thing again, which means I should probably stop before this all gets hopelessly introspective. I think we’ve all had quite enough of that this year.

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Roger Cicala: the difference between sample variation and a ‘bad copy’ (Part 2)

13 Nov
I compare a lot of lenses. They aren’t all exactly the same.

In today’s article we’ll look at variation versus bad copies a bit differently to last time. Plus, I’ll explain how people get three ‘bad copies’ of a lens in a row.

Variation versus bad copy frequency

Imatest type graphs are easier to visualize so I’m going to use those today. These graphs allow us to visualize center resolution (toward the top on the y-axis of the graph) and overall resolution (toward the right on the x-axis), with individual lenses plotted as dots. Don’t worry about the numbers on the X and Y axes, all you need to know is that the sharpest lenses are plotted up and to the right, and the softest are lower and to the left.

The graph below shows plots from multiple copies of two prime lenses. Let’s call them ‘Red’ and ‘Green’. The Green lens is a fairly expensive, pro-grade optic. The Red lens is a cheaper, consumer-level prime. You’ll see that there’s one copy of each in roughly the middle of this graph, away from the main cluster at upper-right. I’d return both of these samples to the manufacturer. So would you – they’re awful.

Multiple copies of two lenses, the ‘Red’ lens and the ‘Green’ lens, plotted by center and overall sharpness. Two bad copies of each are obvious at the lower left.

But could you tell the difference between the best and the worst of the other copies, in that big cluster at upper-right? That would depend on the resolution of your camera, how carefully you pixel-peeped, which lens we are talking about, and honestly, how much you cared.

The Green lens shows less variation, which is about what we expect (but don’t always get) from a fairly expensive, high-quality lens. A perfectionist with a high resolution camera, some testing skill and enough time could tell the top third from the bottom third, but it would take effort.

The Red lens has more variation, which is typical for a consumer-grade lens. A reasonably picky photographer could tell the difference from the top third and the bottom third. None of the bottom third are awful; they’re a little fuzzier, a little more tilted, not quite as good when viewed at 100% magnification, and you might see issues if you made a large print.

With more variation, you get more ‘not as good’ lenses, but they’re still not ‘bad copies’

If you look carefully, though, the top third of the Green and Red samples are about the same. With more variation, you get more ‘not as good’ lenses, but they’re still clearly not ‘bad copies’; they’re just ‘not quite as good’ copies.

So why would we argue about these two lenses on the Internet? Because based on a graph like this, a lot of testing sites might say “Red is as good as Green and costs a lot less.” The truth is simply that the Red lens has more variation. Sure – a good copy of the Red lens might match a good copy of the Green lens. But you’re not guaranteed to get one.

A word about that yellow line and worse variation

There’s obviously a point when large variation means the lower end of the ‘acceptable group’ is unacceptable. Where that line lies is of course arbitrary, so I put an arbitrary yellow line in the graph above, to illustrate the point. Where the yellow line is for you depends on your expectations and your requirements.

The Subjective Quality Factor can theoretically decide when the low end of variation is not OK, and it can be used as a guide to where to place the yellow line. The key words, though, are ‘subjective quality’. Things like print size, camera resolution, even subject matter are variables when it comes to deciding when SQF is not OK. For example, the SQF needed for online display or 4K video is a lot lower than for a 24″ print of a detailed landscape taken with a 40 megapixel camera.

Every one of us has our own SQF; call it your PQF (Personal Quality Factor) and your yellow line might be higher or lower than the one in the graph above. Manufacturers have a Manufacturer’s Quality Factor (MQF) for each of their lenses, which is the famous ‘in spec’.

When your PQF is higher than the MQF, those lower lenses are not OK for you. They might be fine for someone else. Wherever a person’s yellow line is, that’s their demarkation line. These days, if they get a lens below the line, they go on an Internet rant. So now, as promised, I have explained the cause of 8.2% of Ranting On Online Forums (ROOFing). It’s the difference between MQF and PQF.

Put another way, it’s the difference between expectations and reality.

If you test a set of $ 5,000 lenses carefully enough, you may find some differences in image quality. The technical term for this phenomenon is ‘reality’.

It should be pretty obvious that people could screen three or four copies of the Red lens and end up with a copy that’s as good as any Green lens. I don’t find it worth my time, but I’m not judging; testing lenses is what I do.

Unfortunately, though, people don’t post online “I was willing to spend a lot of time to save some money, so I spent 20 hours comparing three copies and got a really good Red lens.” They say “I went through three bad copies before I got a good one.”

The frequency of bad copies and variation

Just so we get it out of the way, the actual, genuine ‘bad copy’ rate is way lower than I showed in the graph above. For high-quality lenses it’s about 1% out-of-the-box. This explains why I roll my eyes every time I hear “I’ve owned 14 Wonderbar lenses and they’re all perfect.” Statistics suggest you’d need to buy over 50 lenses to get a single bad one. The worst lenses we’ve ever seen have a bad copy rate of maybe 3% so even then, the chances are good you wouldn’t get a bad one out of 14.

Most of these ‘those lenses suck / I’ve never had a bad copy’ arguments are just a different way of saying ‘I have different standards than you’

What about the forum warrior ROOFing about getting several bad copies in a row? He’s probably screening his way through sample variation looking for a better than average copy. If he exchanges it, there’s a good chance he won’t get a better one, but after two or three, he’ll get a good one. So he’s really saying “I had to try three copies to find one that was better than average.” Or close to average. Something like that.

Semantics are important. Most of these “those lenses suck / I’ve never had a bad copy” arguments are just a different way of saying “I have different standards than you”. I get asked all the time what happens to the two lenses John Doe returned when he kept the third? Well, they got re-sold, and the new owners are probably happy with them.

Why are there actual bad copies?

In short – inadequate testing. Most photographers greatly overestimate the amount and quality of testing that’s actually done at the factory, particularly at the end of the assembly line.

Many companies use a test target of thick bars to set AF and give a cursory pass-fail evaluation. A target of thick bars is low-resolution; equivalent to the 10 lp/mm on an MTF bench. Some use a 20 lp/mm target to test, and 20 is higher than 10, so that’s good. The trouble is that most modern sensors with a good lens can resolve 50 lp/mm easily. This is what I mean when I say (as I do often) that you and your camera are testing to a higher standard than most manufacturers.

Why is there high variation?

Usually, it’s the manufacturer’s choice, and usually for cost reasons. Occasionally it’s because the manufacturer is living on the cutting edge of technology. I know of a couple cases where a lens had high variation because the manufacturer wanted it to be spectacularly good. They designed-in tolerances that turned out to be too tight to practically produce, but convinced themselves they could produce it. Lenses like this tend to deliver amazing test results, but then attract a whole lot of complaints from some owners and a whole lot of love from others.

What’s that? You want some examples?

This is not the bookcase mentioned below; that one is under nondisclosure. This is my bookcase. My bookcase has better optical books.

Service center testing

Years ago, we had in our possession a $ 4,000 lens that was simply optically bad. It went to the service center twice with no improvement. Finally, the manufacturer insisted I send ‘my’ camera overseas with it for adjusting. The lens and camera came back six weeks later. The lens was no better, but the camera contained a memory card with 27 pictures on it. Those pictures were of a bookshelf full of books, and each image was slightly different as the technician took test shots while they optically adjusted the lens.

This, my friends, is why we decided to start adjusting lenses ourselves. And yes – after offering to share those bookshelf images – I was eventually sent a replacement lens.

Non-adjustable lenses

Many lenses have no optical adjustments. They’re assembled, and then what you get is what you get. If in-factory QC detects a really bad one, it might be disassembled and the parts reused, in the hope that random reassortment gives a better result next time. Or it may just get thrown away; the cost of disassembling and reassembling may be greater than the saved parts.

A common type of non-adjustable lens called a stacked lens; ‘element – spacer – element – spacer, etc’ with a front and rear retaining ring holding everything together. The usual method of correcting it is to loosen the retaining rings, bang the lens on a table a few times, and tighten it back up. That probably sounds ridiculously crude, but it sometimes works.

Many fully manual lenses (not those made by Zeiss or Leica) are non-adjustable, as are some less expensive manufacturer and third-party lenses.

Minimally-adjustable lenses

A number of prime lenses have only one or two adjustable elements. This is not necessarily a bad thing; adjusting one or two elements is a lot easier than adjusting six, so the technician is more likely to get things right.

One of my favorite lenses, both to shoot with and to adjust, is the venerable Zeiss 21mm F2.8 Distagon / Milvus. The front element of this lens is adjustable for centering and we’ve done hundreds of these adjustments over the years. The fun part is doing this adjustment lets you choose what type of lens you want. You can have razor sharp in the center with soft corners or you can let the center be a little softer and the corners much sharper. It’s a great example of adjustment being a trade-off, even for relatively simple adjustments.

MTF graphs of a Zeiss 21mm F2.8 Distagon, adjusted for best center sharpness (above), and optimal edge sharpness (below).

Consumer-grade zoom lenses (manufacturer or third-party) and prime lenses with apertures smaller than F1.4 tend to be minimally or non-adjustable. A fair number of better zooms and primes are minimally adjustable, too.

Lenses with many adjustable elements

More adjustments means less variation, at least in theory. It also, however, means when something is wrong it’s far more complex and time consuming to get the adjustments right. Time, as they say, is money and complex lenses can be rather hard to adjust.

I think the most we’ve seen is nine adjustable elements. These are usually top-of the line zooms, but we’ve seen six adjustable elements in some top-end primes. That’s something we never saw even five or six years ago.

So, what’s the key takeaway?

Let’s start with my definitions. A bad copy of a lens has one or more elements so out of adjustment that its images are obviously bad at a glance. Such a lens (assuming it is optically adjustable) can usually be made as good as the rest.

Variance, on the other hand, means some lenses aren’t as good as others, usually as a result of a number of small imperfections. A simple optical adjustment isn’t likely to make them as good as average. All lenses have a little variance. Some have more. A few have a lot. How much is too much depends on the photographer who’s shooting with them.

The Canon 70-200mm F2.8 RF has (give or take one, I’m not certain I recall all of them) 8 or 9 different adjustable elements.

Reducing variation costs money. The reality is the manufacturers are doing what works for them (or at least they think they are). There is a place for $ 500 lenses with higher variation and good image quality, just like there’s a market for $ 2,000 lenses with better image quality and less variation.


Roger Cicala is the founder of He started by writing about the history of photography a decade ago, but now mostly writes about the testing, construction and repair of lenses and cameras. He follows Josh Billings’ philosophy: “It’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”

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Roger Cicala: the difference between sample variation and a ‘bad copy’ (Part 1)

03 Nov
We fix a lot of lenses, but not all lenses can be fixed.

With the next two posts, I hope to end the seventh most common forum war; the ‘lens variation is a big problem!’ vs ‘I don’t believe it exists!’ argument. Like a lot of forum wars, it comes down to semantics: Variation and bad copies aren’t the same thing (actually they’re not really related at all), but people tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Even $ 2,000 lenses must have variation

Note that I said ‘must’. I didn’t say ‘might’ or ‘could’. I certainly didn’t say ‘shouldn’t at this price’. If you expect every copy of a lens to be perfect, then a dose of reality is in order – unreasonable expectations are a down payment on disappointment.

The key point is what amount of variation is acceptable.

Of course, I define ‘unacceptable’ by my standards. My standards are probably similar to 90% of your standards (and they’re higher than most manufacturer’s standards). A few of you will consider my standards either too low or too high. That’s reasonable. You and I might be looking at the same lens, but we’re doing different things with it, and probably doing them on different cameras. Later on, we’ll talk about the difference between ‘acceptable variation’ and a genuinely bad copy that I would consider unacceptable.

Why lenses must vary

Any manufactured part, from a washer on your kitchen faucet to a component in the Hubble telescope has some variation. Generally (up to a certain point – limited by the state of the technology) you can lower the variation of a part if you are willing to pay more. Why? Because entirely new machines or manufacturing processes may be required, and all of that costs money.

But just ordering more units means you can save money, right? Well yes – in very general terms, ordering larger quantities lowers per-unit costs, but in a fairly linear fashion. Doubling your order of something usually reduces the per-unit cost by some percentage, but certainly not by half. There is never a point where if you order a large enough quantity of an item you get it for free.

This is a 15 cm diameter, 1/10 wavelength optical flat, eyeglasses for scale.

As an example, we use optical flats to calibrate our test benches. The flats come in different accuracies: 1/4 , 1/10, or 1/20 wavelength of flatness. All of those are very flat indeed, and those accuracies cost $ 800, $ 2,200, and $ 3,800 respectively. There is no quantity I could buy that would let me get the 1/20 wavelength plates for the 1/4 wavelength price. And I can’t get 1/40 wavelength of flatness at any price. The technology simply isn’t available.

What varies in a lens? Everything. The screws, helicoids, plates, and spacers vary. Every glass melt is very slightly different, giving elements a very slightly different refractive index. Lens grinding introduces variation, as does the coating process. Even the shims that we use to adjust variance, they vary. And shims don’t come in infinite thicknesses, so if your thinnest shim is 0.01mm then +/- 0.01mm is your maximum attainable accuracy.

What can manufacturers do about this?

The first thing is tolerancing the design. Optical programs let the designers punch in various tolerances for parts, showing how a given variation will affect the overall performance of the lens. For the sake of argument, let’s say that one particular glass element is very critical and even a slight variation makes a big difference in how the lens resolves, while variation among other elements matters less. The manufacturer can pay to have that critical element made more accurately. They can also change the design to make the part less critical, but often only by sacrificing performance.

In addition, manufacturers can (notice I said ‘can’, not ‘always do’) place compensating elements in the lens, allowing for slight adjustments in tilt, spacing, and centering. Emphasis is on ‘compensating’, though: These adjustments compensate for the inevitable errors that accumulate in any manufactured device. They are not called ‘adjusted for absolute perfection’ elements.

The two most common types of lens adjustments: shims and eccentric collars.

Not all lenses are equally adjustable. Some modern lenses may have five to eight different adjustable elements. Many have two or three. A fair number have none at all; what you get is what you get. Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine you’re an optical engineer and you’ve been tasked with making an inexpensive lens. Knowing that adjustable elements are an expensive thing to put in a lens, what would you do?

I want to emphasize that optical adjustments in a modern lens are not there so that the lens can be tweaked to perfection; the adjustments are compensatory. There are trade-offs. Imagine you’re a technician working on a lens. You can correct the tilt on this element, but maybe that messes up the spacing here. Correcting the spacing issue changes centering there. Correcting the centering messes up tilt again. Eventually, in this hypothetical case, after a lot of back-and-forth you would arrive at a combination of trade-offs; you made the tilt a lot better, but not perfect. That’s the best compromise you can get.

Because many people think of distributions as the classic ‘bell curve’ or ‘normal distribution’ let’s get that particular wrongness out of the way. If you evaluate a group of lenses for resolution and graph the results it does NOT come out to be a normal distribution with a nice bell curve.

Frequency graph of two lenses. For those of you tired of reading already, this graph sums up the rest of the article. The black lens is going to have more variation than the green one. Neither the black nor green graphs are at zero over there on the softest end, bad copies happen to either one, but not frequently.

As common sense tells you it should be, lenses have a very skewed distribution. No lens is manufactured better than the perfection of theoretical design. Most come out fairly close to this theoretic perfection, and some a little less close. Some lenses are fairly tightly grouped around the sharpest area like the green curve in the graph above, others more spread out, like the black one. The big takeaway from that is you can’t say things like ‘95% of copies will be within 2 standard deviations of the mean.’

The Math of Variation

Don’t freak out, it’s not hard math and there’s no test. Plus, it has real world implications; it will explain why there’s a difference between ‘expected variation – up to spec’ and ‘unacceptable copy – out of spec’.

There are several ways to look at the math but the Root Sum Square method is the one I find easiest to understand: you square all the errors of whatever type you’re considering, add all the squares together, then take the square root of the total.

The total gives you an idea of how far off from the perfect, theoretical design a given lens is. Let’s use a simple example, a hypothetical lens with ten elements and we’ll just look at the spacing of each element in nm. (If you want to skip the math, the summary is in bold words a couple of paragraphs down.)

If we say each element has a 2 micron variation, then the formula is ?10 X 22 = 6.32. If I make a sloppier lens, say each element varies by 3 microns, then ?10 X 32 = 9.48. Nothing dramatic here, looser control of variation makes higher root sum square.

The important thing happens if everything isn’t smooth and even. Instead of 10 elements worse by 1 micron, let’s make 1 element worse by 10 microns. I’ll do the math in two steps:

? (9 X 22) + (1 X 102) = ? (36 + 100) = ?136 = 11.66

The summary is this: If you vary one element a lot you get a huge increase in root sum square. If you spread that same total variation over several elements, you get only a moderate increase in root sum square. That is basically the difference between a bad copy and higher variation.

If you have just one really bad element the performance of the lens goes all to hell

The math reflects what we see in the real world. If you let all the elements in a lens vary a little bit, some copies are a little softer than others. Pixel peepers might tell, but most people won’t care. But if you have one really bad element (it can be more than one, but one is enough) the performance of the lens goes all to hell and you’re looking at a bad copy that nobody wants.

More real world: if one element is way out of wack, we can usually find it and fix it. If ten elements are a little bit out, not so much. In fact, trying to make it better usually makes it worse. (I know this from a lot of painful experience.)

What does this look like in the lab?

If you want to look at what I do when I set standards, here are the MTF graphs of multiple copies of two different 35mm F1.4 lenses. The dotted lines show the mean of all the samples; these are the numbers I give you when I publish the MTF of a lens. The colored area shows the range of acceptability. If the actual MTF of a lens falls within that range, it meets my standards.

Mean (lines) and range (area) for two 35mm lenses. The mean is pretty similar, but the lens on the right has more variation.

For those of you who noted the number of samples, 15 samples means 60 test runs, since each lens is tested at four rotations. The calculations for variation range include things about how much a lens varies itself (how different is the right upper quadrant from the left lower, etc.) as well as how much lenses vary between themselves and some other stuff that’s beyond the scope of this article.

So, in my lab, once we get these numbers we test all lenses over and over. If it falls in the expected range, it meets our standards. The range is variation; it’s what is basically inevitable for multiple copies of that lens. You can tell me I should only keep the ones that are above average if you want. Think about that for a bit, before you say it in the comments, though.

The math suggests a bad copy, one with something really out of whack, doesn’t fall in the range. That’s correct and usually it’s not even close. When a lens doesn’t make it, it REALLY doesn’t make it.

A copy that obviously doesn’t meet standards. The vast majority of the time, one of these can be adjusted to return to expected range.

We took that copy above, optically adjusted it, and afterwards it was right back in the expected range. So an out-of-spec copy can be fixed and brought back into range; we do that several times every day.

But we can’t optically adjust a lens that’s in the lower 1/3 of the range and put it into the upper 1/3, at least not often. Trust me, we’ve tried. That makes sense; if one thing is way out of line we can put it back. If a dozen things are a tiny bit out of line, well, not so much.

I know what you’re thinking

You’re thinking, ‘Roger, you’re obviously geeking out on this stuff, but does it make one damned bit of difference to me, a real photographer who gives zero shirts about your lab stuff? I want to see something real world’. OK, fine. here you go.

A Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR II lens is a really good lens with very low (for a zoom) variation. But if you drop it just right, the 9th element can actually pop out of its molded plastic holder a tiny bit without causing any obvious external damage. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it always pops out about 0.5mm, which, in optical terms, is a huge amount. This is the ‘one bad element’ scenario outlined in our mathematical experiment earlier.

Below are images of the element popped out (left) and popped back in (right) and below each image is the picture taken by the lens in that condition. Any questions?

On top you see the 9th element ‘popped out’ (left) and replaced (right). Below each is the picture of a test chart made with the lens in that condition.

So, what did we learn today?

We learned that variation among lenses is not the same thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ copies. Some of you who’ve read my stuff for a long time might remember I used to put out a Variation Number on those graphs, but I stopped doing that years ago, because people kept assuming that the higher the variation, the higher their chances were of getting a bad copy, which isn’t true. You see, bad copies are – well, bad. Variation just causes slight differences.

I’m going to do a part II that will go into detail with examples about how much you should expect lenses to vary, what the difference is between variation and a genuinely bad copy, and why some people act like jerks on forums. Well, maybe just the first two.

As a bonus, I will tell you the horrifying story of how manufacturers optically adjust a lens that’s really not optically adjustable. And for a double bonus I will show how variation means that there are actually two versions of the classic Zeiss 21mm F2.8 Distagon.

In other words, if you struggled through this article, hopefully the next one will be enough fun that you think it’s worth it. Delayed gratification and all that…


Roger Cicala is the founder of He started by writing about the history of photography a decade ago, but now mostly writes about the testing, construction and repair of lenses and cameras. He follows Josh Billings’ philosophy: “It’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”

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DPReview TV: How to start a YouTube channel Part III – should you shoot in a studio or in the field?

24 Sep

Have you ever dreamed of starting your own YouTube channel? In this video, we discuss the pros and cons of working of shooting from a studio vs. shooting in the field.

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  • Introduction
  • Studio: Advantages
  • Studio: Disadvantages
  • Field: Advantages
  • Field: Disadvantages
  • Field: Conclusion

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The $20 film camera challenge part 2: Saved by the Minolta Maxxum 5 – Aaron Gold

19 Sep
Aaron ended up picking up a Minolta Maxxum 5 and 28-80mm kit lens for under $ 20.

Read: The $ 20 film camera challenge part 1: the hunt

A quick recap: In part one (see link above), I proposed a $ 20 film camera challenge, the goal being to find a working film camera for less than twenty bucks, shipping included. The search was fascinating: I found lots of point-and-shoot compacts, several intriguing vintage cameras and a surprising number of autofocus SLRs. I had been trolling the waters of low-end Minoltas and was just about to make an offer on a Maxxum 3xi and a zoom lens, when I saw… the camera.

Too good to be true?

It was a Minolta Maxxum 5, a camera that, quite frankly, I had never heard of. It came with what I assume was its kit lens, a Minolta AF 28-80 F3.5-5.6 painted in matching silver. The lens hood was present but the lens cap was missing. The seller was here in the Los Angeles area, so shipping was only six dollars.

Asking price: $ 12 or best offer.

The description didn’t indicate if it was working, just the standard Ebay ‘Used’ boilerplate, which does include the phrase ‘…is fully operational and functions as intended.’ I figured that was my out if the camera turned out to be broken.

The asking and shipping price were already within my $ 20 budget, but I am the son of a used car salesman, so I had to try to do a little better. I sent the seller a $ 10 offer, and it was accepted!

A high-feature camera for a super low price

While waiting for my new cheap camera to arrive, I fired up Google to figure out exactly what I’d just bought. I learned that the Minolta Maxxum 5 came out in late 2001 (well after I’d tuned out the 35mm SLR market, which explains why I’d never heard of it). The Maxxum 5 was part of that market’s last gasp. It sat in the middle of Minolta’s lineup, but the features sure made it look like a high-end camera to me. It was as if Minolta was shoveling every feature they could into their 35mm SLRs as film was on its way out the door. Retail price for the body was $ 403, which is $ 587 in today’s dollars. I wasn’t able to find any contemporary ads, but I imagine at the time, you could get it with the 28-80mm for just a bit more dough.

The Maxxum 5 was part of the 35mm SLR market’s last gasp. It sat in the middle of Minolta’s lineup, but the features sure made it look like high-end

I’ll spare you a laundry list of the Maxxum 5’s features, because it’ll waste too many words and no one will care, but the highlights include 14-segment exposure metering, off-the-film flash metering, 7-point switchable autofocus, and a shutter speed range of 30 sec to 1/4000 sec. It has a depth-of-field preview (yay!), 3-exposure auto-bracketing, and – especially important to me – automatic and manual ISO settings. (I bulk-roll my film, so if the camera has no DX override, I’m stuck.) And the film advances at the lighting-fast rate of three frames per second.

I stopped paying attention to the 35mm SLR market in the late 90s (after all, how could I need anything better than my Canon EOS Rebel 2000?), and frankly I was amazed at the Maxxum 5’s features and configuration options. Cripes, I thought to myself as I skimmed the 127-page manual, who needs a Nikon F100 when you can get one of these?

A sample from the Maxxum 5, shot on Ilford HP5+.

The realities of my sub-$ 20 camera

Two days later, my camera showed up, and it looked brand new. The lens cap was missing, but there was a UV filter installed, and the glass underneath was spotless. It still had batteries and they had just enough juice to turn on the camera on and fire the shutter. Everything seemed to work – but would it take decent pictures?

I loaded up a new pair of CR2 batteries and some film. I started with a roll of deep-discount Ultrafine Xtreme 100, then splurged on a roll of Kodak Ektar, and followed up with my old favorite, Ilford HP5+. It’s worth noting that these three rolls of film together cost more than I paid for the camera.

It’s worth noting that three rolls of film together cost more than I paid for the camera

Shooting with the Maxxum 5 is good fun. The body and lens barrel are made of plastic, as were many SLRs of the era, and the upside is a light weight. With a strap, cap, and no film, it weighs 612g (21.6 oz), a little heavier than my Sony a6000 and quite a bit lighter than my Pentax ME Super. The autofocus is quick and accurate and there’s minimal shutter lag. Aside from the clicks and whirrs of the autofocus and winding motors, the experience wasn’t entirely unlike shooting with my a6000 – no surprise, I suppose, since the Minolta is, technically, the Sony’s not-too-distant ancestor.

But were the photos any good?

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When I developed my B&W and picked up the color film from the lab, I was rather pleased with the results. I shot primarily in aperture-priority or program mode, and the Minolta’s built-in meter nailed the exposure on pretty much every shot. As for image quality, well, it’s what you would expect from a kit lens: reasonably sharp, but I’ve seen better. Actually, I’ve seen better from other Minolta AF lenses, which are ridiculously cheap – you can get some damn fine Minolta lenses in the $ 10 to $ 40 price range. (I was tempted to fit them to my new Maxxum 5, but that would go against the spirit of the challenge.)

The more I shot with the Maxxum 5, and the deeper I delved into its features, the more I realized that it is, by far, the most comprehensive, feature-rich film camera I own

The more I shot with the Maxxum 5, and the deeper I delved into its features, the more I realized that it is, by far, the most comprehensive, feature-rich film camera I own. Not bad for something that cost me sixteen bucks!

Yes, you can get a great camera for $ 20 – or less

I set out on this little experiment to see if it was possible to find a decent camera for less than $ 20. I was pretty sure the answer would be yes, but I never expected to find such an advanced camera in such good shape. Did I just get lucky? At $ 16, maybe a little. But it only took me a few days of shopping to unearth this gem, and as I speak there are a bunch more Maxxum 5s on eBayfor $ 30 or less. And I have no doubt there are even better bargains to be found.

Who’s going to take the $ 20 Film Camera Challenge next?

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DPReview TV: How to start a YouTube channel Part II – should you write a script, an outline or just wing it?

11 Sep

Have you ever dreamed of starting your own YouTube channel? In this video, we show you three different ways to plan and script your show.

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  • Introduction
  • Scripting
  • Outlines
  • Riffing
  • The wrap

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Part II: Lensrentals investigates the Canon EOS R5’s heat emission

10 Sep
Image credits: Photos published with kind permission from Lensrentals.

Following up on the Canon EOS R5 teardown, Lensrentals has published a follow-up piece investigating the heat emission of the Canon R5.

Before digging into the investigation, it’s worth covering some basics. Electronics in cameras produce heat while operating and to ensure full, uninterrupted operation, heat must be controlled. You can remove heat from critical areas in a camera ‘by conduction (flowing through nearby materials), convection (circulating through gas or fluids), and radiation (which mostly occurs at high temperatures).’ Based on his experience tearing down the Canon EOS R5 with Aaron Closz, Roger Cicala knows that the R5 is tightly sealed, which is great for keeping water out of a camera but not ideal for releasing heat from inside the camera. This means that convection, circulating heat through air, ‘doesn’t play much of a role.’

Cicala avoids discussions about chip operating temperatures, the thermal flow of different substances in a camera, firmware cycles and the like, as they are not his area of expertise. Instead, he focuses on the basic issue of how heat generated by the operation of a fully assembled Canon R5 camera exits the camera. At some point, especially when doing an intensive task such as recording 8K video footage, the camera will overheat and the heat either needs a suitable exit path or the camera needs to shut down. You can learn more about different usage cases and how long the R5 can operate being shutting down by checking out our Canon R5/R6 overheating test.

Lensrentals’s initial testing methodology involves using a Canon R5 camera running version 1.0 firmware recording 8K video to a CFx card. The camera was then run until it reached a temperature cut off while the team used industrial thermometers to monitor the heat of the camera and see where heat was exiting the R5.

With a lens attached, with all covers closed and with the LCD folded against the camera body, the R5 ran for 18 minutes on a table before getting a temperature warning. Lensrentals found that the hottest part of the camera was the back behind the LCD with a temperature of 43°C / 109°F. The thumb rest was slightly cooler at 40°C / 104°F and the bottom plate around the tripod socket 38°C / 100°F. The test was run again with the LCD moved to the open position and the camera was a few degrees cooler but was unable to record for a longer duration.

Next, Lensrentals ditched the thermometers in favor of a FLIR IR camera. Cicala has long suspected that the lightweight material used for camera chassis and shells aren’t good conductors of heat. With a removed R5 shell as the test subject, it turns out Cicala’s assumptions were right. He says, ‘The shell material doesn’t spread heat especially well…Obviously, it does pass heat out of the camera to some degree, but it sure doesn’t act as a heat sink or anything.’ Cicala continues, ‘Even exposed to air, it was over 10 minutes before [the shell] cooled down to room temperature. This kind of poses the question that if heat isn’t getting out of the shell very well, then how does the heat get out?’

With the FLIR IR camera, the team redid the original recording test, and lo and behold, the warm spot found by the thermometer is immediately evident in the FLIR IR image. Cicala overlaid an image from the R5 teardown and no surprise, the hot spot is located above the camera’s processor and SDRAM cards.

Cicala is careful to point out, ‘This is NOT an image with the back off. It’s an image of inside of the camera overlaid on the heat image to correlate location.’ Image credit: Lensrentals, 2020

The front of the camera showed a bit of warmth and the top of the camera remained quite cool. Cicala wondered if the heat from inside the camera might rise through the air inside and reach the top plate, but as the teardown showed, there’s very little empty space inside the R5. The viewfinder also acts to block some heat transfer.

When taking apart the Canon R5, Lensrentals noted that there’s a heat sink connected to the metal tripod plate. The FLIR IR image shows that the bottom of the camera does get quite warm. In the image below, captured at thermal cut-off, you can see the metal screws that go into the tripod plate heating up. The tripod socket itself, for some reason, remained quite cool.

As the camera heats up to the point where it needs to shut off, heat is showing in the FLIR IR images in numerous places. The metal lugs for the camera strap get very hot, the front of the camera is now quite hot, especially around the lens mount area, and the area near the card slot door also heats up considerably. The hottest spot of the camera during testing proved to be the CFx slot itself, at nearly 48° C.

After upgrading the R5 to firmware version 1.1, recording times before cut-off increased, but so did the operating temperatures of the camera. Of interest here is that the I/O ports connected to the main PCB itself got ‘quite hot,’ but the ports attached to the sub-board didn’t seem to heat up much at all. The image sensor itself also quite hot, nearly 50° C. An anonymous friend of Lensrentals read the internal temperature from a raw image captured during the temperature testing. That image showed an internal temperature of 61° C, which is hotter than the CFx card slot, meaning that somewhere inside the camera is hotter than the hottest temperature Lensrentals measured during testing.

After testing, Lensrentals has a few interesting conclusions. Heat does not leave the R5 very well, and it seems to exit primarily via metal parts of the camera body. Further, the camera is hotter inside than at its hottest exit points. Cicala writes, ‘If [the R5] doesn’t get heat out very well, it certainly can’t be expected to cool down quickly after it turns off from overheating. Cooling the outside of the camera should help a bit, but it’s not going to be very efficient.’

There are some steps you can take to possibly help the camera stay cooler, such as leaving the LCD opened away from the back of the camera, opening the HDMI port cover (remember, this port is attached directly to the main board), and saving to SD cards when possible, which is of course not possible when recording 8K video. However, Cicala doubts that these steps will make a significant difference. Perhaps more effective steps would be to remove the lens, open the shutter and open the memory card doors will help. These aren’t steps you necessarily should have to take in order to use a camera the way you want to.

More enterprising individuals may opt to try minor modifications. Cicala says, ‘Some people intend to do more aggressive things to extend recording time. It would certainly be possible, with some minor modifications, to connect the metal heat sink plates to the outside world. You might do so by just exposing the bottom tripod plate and attaching a sink to that. Of course, you lose weather sealing, but it would be simple to try.’

Maybe removing the weather sealing and opening parts of the camera would help, but to really fix the overheating issue, someone will have to figure out a way to improve heat transfer from inside the camera, as there appears to be a thermal bottleneck deep within the R5. Cicala provides a humorous image as to what a ‘redneck 8K video camera’ might look like after modifications.

For many more images and to read Cicala’s full speculation about whether the Canon R5 can be ‘fixed’ and whether it even needs fixing in Canon’s eyes, read the full article on the Lensrentals blog.

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DPReview TV: How to start a YouTube channel Part I – the gear you need to get started

29 Aug

Have you ever dreamed of starting your own YouTube channel? In this video, the first in a series, we talk about the basic gear you’ll need to get going – all for under $ 1000.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to get new episodes of DPReview TV every week.

  • Introduction
  • Camera
  • Lavalier microphone
  • On-camera microphone
  • Tripod
  • Memory cards
  • ND filter
  • Your basic kit

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The $20 film camera challenge part 1: the hunt – Aaron Gold

21 Aug

Lead image: Dan Bracaglia. All other images: courtesy of Ebay and used with permission.

Not long ago, I was poking through a film camera forum where someone mentioned they were looking to ‘dabble’ in film – and they were about to spend $ 700 on a Leica. I choked on my Mountain Dew, mercifully missing the laptop screen.

$ 700 might be reasonable by digital standards (or perhaps even by Leica standards), but for a 35mm camera it’s a king’s ransom. I’ve been railing against the (mis)conception that film is prohibitively expensive, and one of the pillars of that argument is the low cost of equipment. In today’s film world, you can buy some shockingly good cameras for ridiculously low prices.

I’ve been railing against the (mis)conception that film is prohibitively expensive, and one of the pillars of that argument is the low cost of equipment

Maybe it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

I emailed Dan Bracaglia, my editor at DPReview. ‘Let’s do a $ 20 Film Camera Challenge. We’ll get some DPR staffers and maybe a few prominent film bloggers. Everyone gets a $ 20 budget, including shipping, to buy a working film rig and see what kind of pictures it makes. Whaddaya think?’

‘Great idea,’ Dan wrote back. ‘You go first.’

I know marching orders when I see them, so it was time to fire up eBay and see what I could find.

Option 1: Point and Shoot

I figured my best budget option was a compact point-and-shoot camera, even though I’m not the biggest fan. Not that there’s anything wrong with them – in fact, for those new to film, they highlight a strange tenet: When it comes to film, the quality of the camera has little impact on the quality of the images. It’s the lens, not the guts of the camera, that determines how sharp the image is. That’s why 35mm point-and-shoot cameras were so popular: Even the most inept photographer could get decent results.

If a compact is what you want, the $ 20 camera hunt is both a gold mine and a mine field. There are a trillion of these cameras out there, and aside from a few really advanced models that sell for crazy money (Nikon Ti, Olympus XA, anything from Contax or Leica, and don’t even get me started on the Olympus mju II), you’ll find a lot of them under $ 10 before shipping. Not all are great, but a lot are good.

The Perils of P+S

The problem is that the good point-and-shoot cameras are in the same price range as the really crappy ones. These include “focus free” or “fixed focus” cameras from Argus, Vivitar, LeClic, and even Kodak, Olympus and Minolta. They don’t have a moving lens element, but instead rely on a small aperture to get everything more-or-less in focus. And then there are the plastic-fantastic toy cameras of the sort given away free with magazine subscriptions. They’re the ones that are styled to look like 35mm SLRs but obviously aren’t. They’re good for Lomographers, but not for those who want sharp photos.

I thought seriously about a compact; a cool power-wind P&S might be a nice addition to my collection. But then I realized that I already have one, a weatherproof Pentax Zoom 90WR, that I still haven’t gotten around to trying.

Also, I was starting to realize that $ 20 could buy something even niftier.

Option 2: Let’s go retro!

One of the things I’m eager to add to my collection is an antique 35mm camera, and I was surprised at how many I found in my price range. As a former resident of Rochester, New York, I’ve been keeping half an eye out for an old Kodak, and I found lots that were in or near my price range: Ponys, Signets, Automatics, even a couple of Retinas (though I didn’t expect those to stay under my budget once bidding began). There was a Canon Canonet, advertised as working, though I understand the selenium meter cells go bad and can’t be replaced. I also saw an East German camera called a Beriette for $ 19.99 with free shipping. Several of these classics made my short list.

I couldn’t believe how many beautiful old cameras were available for such cheap prices

Buying a vintage camera takes a bit of legwork, most importantly including research to figure out if there’s an instruction manual available online or on eBay. With shipping taken into account, a lot of the cameras went above my budget – but only by a few bucks. I couldn’t believe how many beautiful old cameras were available for such cheap prices.

Option 3: Go with what I know: the SLR

As my sorted-by-price listings hit the $ 10 range, I started seeing interchangeable-lens single-lens reflex cameras, the kind I know best. I knew I (probably) wasn’t going to score a Nikon FM for twenty bucks, but I saw plenty of lesser-known and less-loved cameras, mostly newer and more automatic, well within my budget. I saw some lovely old Sears cameras, which are really rebadged Ricohs. I also found some real horror shows, like a Pentax MG (above) in ‘like-new’ condition that looked like someone had hacked away at the lens mount with a Dremel tool.

The challenge with cheap SLRs on eBay is that a lot of sellers have separated the camera body from its lens. If I was looking for a body that was compatible with lenses I already owned, hitting my budget would have been ridiculously easy – but the rules Dan and I had established dictated that I must purchase a complete working rig. An SLR isn’t much good without a lens, and matched sets were proving tough to come by.

And then it occurred to me: If the sellers were splitting up cameras and lenses, why couldn’t I do the same thing? By shopping for my camera and lens separately, I might be able to hit my budget.

Minolta to the rescue

I needed a brand with good lenses that sold cheap, and one name kept coming up: Minolta. Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Minolta produced a line of consumer-level plastic-bodied SLRs that they advertised the daylights out of on television. They also had a partnership with Ritz Camera stores, one of which seemed to be installed in every US shopping mall. I already owned a couple of Maxxum cameras, including a 400si I bought for $ 12 as a parts camera that turned out to work perfectly. Minolta’s older AF zooms were great lenses that sold cheap. Could this be my answer?

My prospects for Minolta’s entry-level SLRs looked good. I saw plenty in the $ 10 to $ 15 range, shipping included

My prospects for Minolta’s entry-level SLRs looked good. I was looking at the 300si and QTsi (“Cutsie”), auto-only cameras that are effectively point-and-shoots with detachable lenses, as well as the 3xi which has manual and Av/Tv modes as well. I saw plenty in the $ 10 to $ 15 range, shipping included. Matching lenses, primarily 28-80 and 35-70 zooms, were around the same price. I found a seller – a camera store, as it happened – that had a 3xi for $ 10 and a lens for $ 12, both with free shipping. I was all set to email and ask if they would sell me the two for $ 20, all-in.

But just before I did, I scrolled a little bit farther down, and I found… IT.

The $ 20 camera of my dreams!

It was an SLR with lens, a model I hadn’t heard of, and it wasn’t just a glorified point-and-shoot – in fact, from what I could tell, it had a feature set to rival my Nikon N8008. And it was within in my $ 20 price range. Like, way within in my price range.

I made an offer. That offer was accepted, and my less-than-$ 20 film camera was on its way.

Would it work? Would it be any good? How much did it cost me? And what the hell kind of camera did I buy, anyway? I’ll answer all those questions in part two. Stay tuned!

All Aaron’s $ 20 film camera finds

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