Shoot or Shelve

My recent experiences with my Nikon F80 film SLR got me thinking about the hobby of collecting cameras versus actually using them. Here are some thoughts:

  • Collecting cameras has a lot more in common with collecting watches than it does with collecting Nippon china or silver thimbles. Both cameras and watches have moving parts that must be maintained if you want to use the object you collected.
  • Probably the same definitions apply to cameras as anything else. Collectibles are less than 25 years old, vintage more than 25, and antiques more than 100 years old.
  • There is a clear demarcation line between film and digital technology. No sane person would collect early digital cameras unless we are talking about rare prototypes. Film cameras provide more of an opportunity to display and use your collection successfully.
  • A camera collection is going to take up a lot of space if you really get into it.
  • You can choose to shelve (in which case the item doesn’t have to work) or shoot (in which case it does.) Appearance will be a big factor in shelved cameras. Light leakage and seals will be important in shooting cameras, as will shutter performance and film availability.
  • I think it’s important to have a theme and a budget in mind. It’s quite different to collect Nikon SLRs versus 100-year-old Kodak folding cameras.

Just as an example, let’s look into the topic of Nikon film SLRs. There are a number of sub-categories – even in this relatively specialized area. And we can look into the possibilities of storing them on a shelf versus getting out there and using them.

Early Nikon Pro Cameras (F, F2, Maybe F3)
These workhorses were the go-to cameras for news and sports photographers in the 60s and early 70s. Really advanced amateurs may have had them too. A Nikon F was the camera of choice for the research lab where I worked in 1969.
As a collectible: These aren’t that rare – close to 900,000 Nikon Fs were made. That said, the pros gave them hard usage so one in great condition could be pricy. The earliest models and ones with a black body fetch premium prices.
As a shooter: You gotta be old school. Some of the earliest models don’t even have a light meter. They are heavy beasts as well. The best glass for them is Nikon primes. Zooms weren’t that great back then.

Mid Grade Nikons for Advanced Amateurs (FM, FE, FM2, FE2)
These are late 70s early 80s cameras and Nikon made them for a lower-priced demographic. They over-engineered them though. When I was deciding on Nikon vs Canon in the early 1980s, Nikon seemed to me to be heavier, more robust and better built. I must admit though that Canon had superior technology. Nikon was always very conservative, and hence when Canon had full program exposure capability Nikon cameras had only auto shutter speed. Nevertheless, the FE served me well for 20 years.
As a collectible: Lots of these around at decent prices. The FE makes a great display camera, especially in the chrome finish.
As a shooter: If you like manual focus, film load, film wind, and exposure these are for you. The FM and FE models are ideal for aspiring photographers taking a course at high school or college. My son-in-law has mine and maybe my grandkids will use it someday.

Later Nikon Pro Cameras (F4, F5, F100)
Arguably the greatest film cameras Nikon made – huge, weather-sealed, built like tanks. They feature all the toys from the 80s and 90s – automatic everything from exposure to motor drive. The F4 has more knobs, the F5 more pushbuttons.
As a collectible: They are sold at a considerable discount these days, but displaying a brute like this is like having a mastiff in the house. F100 is a bit cheaper and smaller.
As a shooter: Can’t go wrong if you don’t mind the weight and bulk. I’d bring along a younger assistant though.

One of a Kind – Nikon FM3a
This jewel of a camera was made in small batches at the end of the film era. It is basically similar to the FM2 series but lovingly crafted for the manual user. Paired with the right Nikon glass it would rival a Leica for snob appeal and performance,
As a collectible: Very expensive still but its value is holding up. If I had to choose one modern film Nikon to collect and display this would be the one.
As a shooter: It probably doesn’t work all that much better than an FE2, but it has a few refinements that appeal to the purist. Those who love analog luxury will love it.

Plastic Fantastic Nikons – F/N 75, F/N 80, F/N 90
Oh, there are a lot of these models from the 80s to the early aughts. They are an N series in the USA, and an F series elsewhere in the world. These were Nikon’s consumer offerings at the end of film, and they anticipated the design of digital cameras that followed. They are surprisingly capable – matching the pro line in everything except durability and weatherproofing.
As a collectible: Unloved, unpopular, unwanted. They can be found for next to nothing these days. They are ugly ducklings really. No investment value at all.
As a shooter: They are wonderful for someone who is discovering film after a decade or two of digital shooting. They have auto film loading, ISO detection, film advance, programmed exposure, and some of them work with the latest AF-S and VR Nikon lenses. They have one major flaw and that is the rubberized plastic coating. Sometimes it can get sticky to the touch after some years. But if you can get past that, Bob’s your uncle if you want to turn back the clock to 2000.

In summary, no I do not anticipate collecting cameras as a hobby. I’ve had some great ones, and I continue to use a camera whenever I can. I intend to keep both my film and digital Nikon systems and use them both. Digital is my preferred way to go, though.

I haven’t got into lens compatibility as that is a minefield. If you want to make sure you can use just about every lens Nikon ever made. get an F4 or F5. Don’t blame me if you throw out your back carrying it around.

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