Debate Between Manual and Automatic Cameras

This is post is not about film vs. digital for learning. This is going to be about something far more controversial, manual vs. automatic.

I don’t know about you, but I frequently get asked what camera to start off using.

I always assume the person asking is curious about digital cameras. However, from time to time people are looking for advice on a film camera. So that is what this post is going to be about.

Personally, I think shooting on film is a great way to learn how to be a photographer. However, there is a strong and valid argument for beginners to start on digital. It takes a lot of self-discipline to learn photography with film cameras these days. To be perfectly frank, I’m not certain if film is the best way to learn. in fact I’m not sure I can define what best means.

There was a time, I would lead people towards an all manual, mechanical camera. My first camera was a Yashica FX-3. A solid and simple manual film camera. For me, and many other photographers, this type of camera was the only way to start. For some it might be the best way to start.

My argument is to start with a good autofocus / auto-exposure camera. I spent a lot of years using the Canon EOS system. I really like the EOS cameras, film and digital. I think it’s a great platform for beginners. The auto-focus is rock solid and the metering is reliable. I’m a big fan of aperture priority and the Canon EOS is a great place to start.

I have been shooting with a Minolta and Nikon (early screw drive AF) lately, while I strongly believe that their auto-focus motors, just can’t beat the Canon EOS approach. In the late 80s and early 90s manufacturers had there focus motor in the body of the camera. Canon’s first autofocus camera, the EOS 650 out the motor in the lens. This approach catapulted Canon ahead of the pack. It was years before Nikon was able to catch up, but they did a great job in allowing the use of vintage lenses on to their newer bodies.

So I am not going to go into great depths on any systems, but I am going to go over the highlights with Canon EOS, Early Nikon AF, and Minolta Maxxum. I would love to talk about Pentax AF cameras, but I have zero experience with that system. I have yet to see an Olympus OM-707 / OM-77 in real life.

Canon EOS

Pronounced: ee AW s

My first autofocus was the Canon EOS 650, then the 620, then 630, Elan, Elan II, A2, 1, etc. I have had too many cameras to name. I really like this film camera system. One of my favorite cameras is the 10s, I like this camera a lot. The A2 was a great handling camera, but the top dial was unreliable.

I like that all of these cameras are easy enough to use. If you can use one, you can use any of them. The controls are all pretty much the same.

The earlier 650, 620, 630 and 1(the pro model) didn’t have a pop-up flash. Which I personally prefer, but if you wanted to do long exposure you needed a proprietary wired trigger (60T3 ). It worked fine though. Note: on the 650 you had to replace the GR50 grip with a GR20. Later cameras, allow for the use of an infrared remote. I prefer the wired remote for long exposure.

I haven’t even mentioned the EOS Rebel line. There are a lot of versions of these. I don’t usually recommend these, but if you get it for free, then why not.

The good:

  • Cameras are really cheap right now. (with the exception of the EOS-1 line and the EOS-3)
  • Autofocus is rock solid.
  • Meter is reliable.
  • Easy to get the hang of.
  • Fabulous lens selection.
  • Lenses completely compatible with current and past DSLRs.

The meh:

  • The battery is an expensive 2cr5 (some in the Rebel line use a 123 battery)
  • It has been noted that some cameras are prone to sticky shutters.
  • The lenses tend to be expensive. Even the cheaper kit lenses tend to be overpriced on the used market because the mount is still in use with current DSLRs.
  • No backward compatibility with Canon’s FL/FD series of lenses.

Minolta Maxxum

I have had little experience with this system over the years. A few months back a friend gave me a Minolta AF 50mm f1.4. I didn’t have a camera with it, so I found a 600si in excellent shape. It came with a Tokina 28-200 zoom lens.

I can tell you, that I didn’t like the camera at first, but the more I got the hang of it, the more I appreciate the system.

The AF is a screw driven system, with motor in the bodies and these tend to be very slow by modern standards. The quality of the glass is quite nice. Sony had since bought out Minolta and the upside, these lenses are still compatible with modern Sony DSLRs. Albeit, they still tend to be slower than their newer Sony made counterparts.

The lens system is not compatible with old cameras and vice versa. However, the lenses tend to be quite affordable, as do the camera bodies. The exception to that rule is the flagship Maxxum 9xi. Which tends to be very expensive.

Nikon

This is a difficult choice. While the optics of the Nikkor system is fantastic, it can be very confusing differentiating which lenses work with which body. Nikon had revamped their autofocus lenses so they could catch up with Canon EOS, and they did a fine job. With that said, if you want to get into Nikon film SLRs, then you may be in for a confusing ride.

The fun part is, almost every Nikon lens ever made can physically mount to any camera body. The early versions of cameras, used what came to be know as Non-AI lenses. Sometimes they will mount to some cameras. There are too many lenses and cameras to go into that.

If we stick to autofocus bodies, then we are in for a treat. There are a ton of options.

Most of these bodies use the screw drive version of autofocus. These lenses are plentiful and very good quality. While these cameras will mount AI and AI-s lenses, many of them will not be able to meter because most of them lack the AI tab around the lens mount. However most of them have a focus confirmation light inside of the view finder and the lens still operates normally when the camera is set to M.

I love the Nikon system, but there is a lot of compatibility issues with this system.

For instance, if you own newer DX Nikon digital camera, it probably can’t use the early screw drive AF lenses. And your autofocus G type lenses usually won’t work on an AF film camera. With exception of the Nikon F5 and F6 of course. I am also not certain about the F100 though.

Final thoughts

I have come to believe that manual cameras can be difficult for beginners to wrap their head around. There is a resurgence in film photography over the last few years. Mechanical and manual cameras have started to fetch higher prices in the market. These autofocus cameras don’t seem to be getting any love. Hell, even class point and shoot cameras like the Olympus Stylus Epic is more sought after than the classic Nikon N90s. That’s insane to me. I firmly believe if a beginner is too frustrated with the camera, they will quit film. These autofocus cameras with some of these advanced features and more advanced metering systems will enhance the enjoyment of film photography.

If you want to get in fresh to autofocus SLR, buy the highest model you can afford of which ever system you want to get into. If you already own a DSLR system, then stay into that brand. Just do research and you’ll be happy.

If you’re into mirrorless digital, then I would strongly recommend Nikon AF. This is because, their screw drive AF lenses have an aperture ring and you could still mount them via adapter to your current mirrorless. The G type AF lenses can also be mounted with a specific mirrorless adapter that has an aperture-choke on the adapter. So if you buy an F5 or F6 then those lenses could still be used on your mirrorless cameras in manual focus mode. Sure there are smart adapters, but they can be extremely finicky.

There are a ton of AF cameras out there, so it just takes some research.

A great place to find a camera is KEH.com. not an affiliate link

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