1st and 2nd Generation Autofocus Cameras

Discussion in 'Modern Film Cameras' started by jdm_von_weinberg, Dec 13, 2012.

  1. The state of the art in 1st and 2nd generation autofocus SLRs

    WARNING: Heavy Musing Ahead! If taken internally may cause nausea, headaches, and rashes.

    I'm a bachelor, my kid is off to school, and my pets have died. This pretty much defines freedom - as Janis said in "Bobby McGee" (well Kris, but Janis said it better).

    Looking back, I am somewhat nonplussed to find that I have got to this stage. It was just one lens to start with. Then ...

    Well, anyhow, although my heart may still belong to my beloved DDR cameras (from the "workers' and peasants' state"), I had got interested first of all in the history of EOS Canon cameras. That led to a long chain of reports on the Canon forum and later on Modern Film Cameras. At the very end I have listed links to these 'reports' and the early AF cameras more generally for anyone crazy enough to be interested in the series. I admire our colleague Eric Skopec who has actually published a book on his work with the Canon FD cameras (search for, but a link to Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Canon-Manual-Focus-SLRs-Collectors/dp/1463674686 ), but I confess I follow the idea of Ecclesiastes 12:12

    "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."​

    I spent my life in the "publish or perish" environment, and am still working on some professional projects, so I'm keeping my camera work strictly for fun, spiced up with the occasional flame war here on Photo.net. Even more than in academe, the heat of the argument is generally inversely proportional to the actual importance of the subject. ;)

    So where are we? "We" assuming that there is anyone still with me on this one.

    I have now looked at a lot of old autofocus cameras and the manual cameras that preceded them. I may not have the expertise of Herbert Keppler who was able to say:

    "I am not shilling for autofocus camera makers. I'm simply stating my conclusions after having used most manual-focusing cameras for many years on an almost limitless number of subjects. And I've now tried every different AF SLR system with almost every sort of autofocus lens." (Popular Photography 1988-12).​

    Still if you look at my history of posts here, I think you have to admit I should have some basis for judgment. So what follows here is a short and opinionated discussion (perhaps the actual discussion, unlike the introduction, will be fairly short - you can always hope).
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  2. Huh?
    First of all, what happened?

    In the late 1970s, the early AF "point and shoot" cameras began to appear (e.g., the Konica C35 AF, more history at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autofocus ). The mechanisms varied considerably, but were often active systems in which infrared or sound waves were bounced back from the subject (like radar or sonar). Some active systems persist as auxiliary systems for low light focusing. However, the most common systems are passive ones, comparing different parts of the light coming in from the object to be focused on.

    These passive systems were adopted for most of the AF SLRs that followed. In the early to mid-1980s, the first AF SLRs came out - from the Pentax ME-F (1981). to the Nikon F3AF (1983), at long last, the Canon T80 (1985). As I have noted before, these are what I call "goiter" systems, since the motor to actually focus the lens was attached in a sort of swelling on the side of the lens. However, these first generation AF SLRs were pretty much obsoleted overnight by the release of the Minolta Maxxum 7000 in 1985.

    This is where I came in. After shooting the early Canon EOS cameras, I became curious about how they compared to their predecessors, especially the Maxxum that everyone seemed to agree was a revolutionary leap beyond the earlier ones. I mentioned that I was looking on eBay for one in a thread here, and Ralf Jakoel offered me one, gratis (given what happened afterwards, should I thank him? I think yes). It's a sad cameraholic that doesn't have a friend to offer him a camera, when he's down and out. :)

    I shot the Maxxum and was surprised at how "adequate" the AF system was. It surely wasn't up to the latest systems of the 21st century, but it wasn't as far off as you might suppose from the 25 years of development since then.

    You may have noticed that the Minoltas are not really with us anymore, although Sony carries on the tradition. I was curious, so I started looking for other early AF SLRs from the late 1980s to the beginning of the new century. My main criterion for acquisition was that I could find them cheap. Mostly, I got a decent representation of the class while rarely spending more than the cost of a fancy pizza (a rationalization to my inner self in deference to my late wife's - "Do you really need another …").

    The catch with these early AF cameras was that for the successful/surviving series, the AF lenses still work on many new cameras today, so a cheap body, does not mean cheap lenses. However, the advent of plastic-bodied AF SLRs somewhat coincided with the development of inexpensive plastic short zoom lenses (typically, say, 35-70mm sort of range). Enough of these fit into the one-to-two pizza cost to make my project (as it was becoming) practical.

    Well. the list below tells the story of the "slowly I turned, step by step...inch by inch.." history ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slowly_I_Turned ).

    So I will move directly (murmurs of "how can he say that? ?") to the bottom line.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  3. Lesson 1 AF

    They all work, even pretty well.

    I used the automatic "program" feature on all of these, but I did take care, as any halfway sentient being should, to confirm what the automatic focus was doing. Autofocus is not used properly if it is mindless. A workman needs to understand his tools.
    The only first generation camera in my sample, the Canon T80, was intact the slowest and least efficient AF system. But the surprise is not that it was more primitive than the others. No, the surprise was that with intelligent use (insofar as I was capable of the same), every picture I took with it on a gray, cloudy day was in sharp focus (OK, one accidental shutter release was not).
    The reason the Maxxum 7000 hit the others as hard as it seems to have, was that it broke into that 1st generation market with a camera that anticipated the others to come in the second generation. There is to be sure a lot of mythology involved here. There can be little doubt that Minolta was not alone in the direction it took. But Minolta actually got onto the market first, and I see little reason to doubt that - at the least - they pushed the others to respond much more quickly than they had intended to. Those generation 1 models may have been proof of concept efforts, but I doubt, for example, that Canon issued one camera working one way in April,1985 while anticipating that they would have to move to a whole new system in early 1987.

    The second generation models--for example, the Canon EOS 650 and the Nikon N2020--were clearly slower in attaining focus than the later EOS 630 and the Nikon N8008s, but not so much as you'd think. For that matter, the two later cameras mentioned would only be scorned today by persons whose image-making strains the limits of light and speed.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  4. Lesson 2 Overall Utility

    In my sample, the Canon T80 used lenses that only autofocus on that Body, but there are still some people today who like and use the camera for its "user interface" and other features (e.g., Gordon Yee toward the end of my post on the T80). The Nikon N2020 lenses are still usable as AF lenses on any Nikon that still screws. It is notable that Nikon does seem to be in the process of abandoning the in-camera lens motor in favor of the system pioneered by Canon in the EOS series. The popularity of the Nikon 8008s is very great for those who still shoot film, as is also the case for the later Nikon AF cameras like the N80, N90, and N100 models. All the Canon EOS cameras are still eminently usable for film shooting and EF lenses will fit on the EOS 650 just as well as they do on the latest digital model. The story of the other marques is sadder. Pentax is still with us, ironically as a part of Ricoh. Minolta is still lingering in the form of some Sony models. Yashica has bit the dust. But the early AF cameras themselves are still good, and often astonishingly inexpensive film shooters. Whats more, the fact that they are nearly all PLASTIC (OMG) and electronic as much as mechanical means that they are all pretty much in like new condition. As Keppler put it in 1988:

    "Be ready for a few shocks when you start examining the new AF SLRs. The shocks may strike you at first as distinctly unpleasant. Remember the beautifully crafted metal camera bodies and finely finished lens barrels? Most are gone, nearly all replaced with high-impact resistant plastics-often glass fiber-reinforced polycarbonate. It 's efficient, rugged, and much less subject to dents and scratches.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  5. For some of these cameras, the camera with a basic 30-something to 70-something plastic zoom cost me less than US$10. The rest mostly cost less than $30 for lens and body, and for some lenses, still usable on digital bodies, I had to pay as much as $50. (I'm not including shipping here).

    This was a cheap collection, involving "pizza-level" purchases, for the most part, and was a lot of fun. Of course Ralf Jakoel and Tim Holte made this process even cheaper by donating the Maxxum and the N8008s to me. Thanks again. Ain't the people here on Photo.net swell? !

    I confess, I was disappointed in one sense. I had expected when I started wandering down this path that the differences among the different methods and systems would be dramatic. However, after the Maxxum - a revolutionary camera - most of the other developments were evolutionary (quantitative, rather than qualitative, that is). They got better, for sure, but we have still not seen recent developments that, IMHO, are of the same significance as that between the Maxxum and its predecessors.

    Herbert Keppler summed it up pretty well back in 1988:

    "In these days, technological advances in autofocus, metering, and electronic control will continue to keep newer models coming to the market at an alarming rate, so inevitably even those now buying state of-the-art autofocus SLRs may find newer models superseding these in a few years. What to do? It's up to you and your pocketbook."​

    Here's the list I promised.
    1. For my reports on EOS film cameras, see http://www.photo.net/canon-eos-digital-camera-forum/00WyuM -> scroll to the end for a list of the other EOS posts.
    2. Here is the list of AF SLR reports:

    Canon T80 1985 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00b6gu
    Minolta Maxxum 7000 1985 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00YGy4
    Nikon N2020 (F-501) 1986 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00aezw
    Canon EOS 650 1987 http://www.photo.net/canon-eos-digital-camera-forum/00Vlot
    Canon EOS 620 1987 http://www.photo.net/canon-eos-digital-camera-forum/00Vv2v
    Yashica 230-F 1987 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00axyS
    Pentax SF-1 (SFX) 1987 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00aqKC
    Canon EOS 630 1989 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00YFVd
    Nikon N8008s AF (F-801s) 1991 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00abnh
    Nikon N80QD (F80D) 2000 http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00al2w
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  6. Thanks for staying with me, assuming that you did. :(
  7. Thanks, JDM! Impressive contribution. Think of the calories saved by buying cameras and not pizza. :)
    A camera such as the N90s has as many features that just about anyone actually needs. The other improvements since then mainly enable a faster rate of film consumption.
  8. A nice bunch of history. Back in 1988 I bought my wife a Minolta Maxxum 7000, and even though others had caught up somewhat, there wasn't much to beat it at the time, and certainly it was a bargain at the price. One of the interesting things I always found about the original Maxxum was that it departed so completely from almost every other model, not only using a new lens system, but with controls that resembled no earlier camera. Once you were used to the way it worked, it turned out to be a very nice machine to use, and it was well made. And, of course, it had Minolta's usual highly functional internal meter. The problem she had with it was that, although it worked very nicely and fairly quickly with its default 50 millimeter lens, with even a good fast zoom it hunted, and with a slow zoom it basically did not autofocus at all. It gobbled batteries on autofocus, and was fairly hungry even used manually.
  9. Oh, by the way, not relevant to cameras at all, but I must admit a small pet peeve with regard to the music referred to. No big fan of Janis Joplin here, but not ordinarily anti either. However, I always disliked her "Me and Bobby McGee" rewriting. Kris Kristofferson threw in a bit of irony and commentary on being down and out, with the truism "Nothing ain't worth nothing, but it's free." Joplin turned this rather clever line into a silly hippie manifesto by changing it to the untrue "Nothing ain't worth nothing if it ain't free."
    OK, off high horse, back to cameras.
  10. Thanks for publishing your results here...and not perishing. I lived through those times and remember all the heated banter over AF. Being a hard case, I refused to even consider AF till the mid-1990's. I just preferred twisting those Nikkors and FD lenses by hand and could do it quickly and accurately. Ah, to have young eyes and fast reflexes. While I was impressed with AF, I still held on to, and used, my MF gear, almost in defiance.
    Today, with older eyes, I am facing the fact that I may actually need AF. A bitter pill on one hand, oh mortality, but with a silver lining due to all the advances that now make AF systems such a joy to use. Today, I celebrate that which I once dissed.
  11. I'm surprised not to see the Olympus OM77 in the list since it is a mainline company. I'm left wondering if you are aware of the existance of the Chinon CP9 (or was it named CP9AF ?) which I believe was Chinon's last SLR.
    leo_tam|1 likes this.
  12. I lived through those times​
    Interesting that you should say that. That made me realize that I pretty much missed everything from the Ramadan War to the late 1980s by either being out of the country or out of my mind (in the midst of massive midlife crisis). Perhaps my subconscious was trying to find out what happened? That may also explain why I prefer Janis Joplin's version of Bobby McGee. :)
  13. I read it all the way to the end. Very nice. Thanks for undertaking the survey and writing up the history and your impressions.
    The earliest AF camera I used, I think, was the Canon EOS Elan in the early 1990s. But a friend of my wife's says she has an old Nikon N2020 (I think that's the model she said) that I can have, so I'll give that a try when I get the chance.
  14. Great article, JDM. Maybe a version could prepared for the photo.net articles section?
    We should give a shout-out to Norman Stauffer of Honeywell, the inventor of auto-focus. All of the early patents are his. The work was done right here in Colorado, too!
  15. I don't know where you see $10 film cameras? A cursory look at the Maxxum 7000 and Pentax SF1 on ebay, they start at $70 and up. A EOS 650 with 50mm lens has 7 bids and is up to $103.
  16. Brian, I bought many of these in the last six months for the sort of prices I indicated. Are you sure you're looking at prices actually paid? Any one can ASK anything they want, but usually few are sold at those kinds of prices. Note that the Pentax AF-1 and some of the others are with the lenses, hence you can see the body alone should be around the $10 mark. I admit that I am careful what I bid on and how much, but I can't imagine paying those prices for a EOS 650 unless the 50mm lens was the very pricey mark 1 version. On many of these offered with lenses the actual bidding is for the lens, not the body.

    Here a few of the prices I've paid for these. The list below gives some of the prices I've paid. Some were bought from KEH. but most on eBay:
    Canon EF-M
    Canon EOS 620
    Canon EOS 630
    Canon EOS 650
    Canon EOS 700
    Canon T70 + 50mm f/1.8
    Pentax AF-1 + Takumar F 28-80mm
    Yashica 230AF +35-70mm
    robertgiles likes this.
  17. As for covering other AF cameras, my choice was influenced by two factors, among others -
    • that they fall into my cheap criterion, which also implies fairly common.
    • and some bias toward marques that 'bore fruit' so to speak.
    As for the rest - I am only one person. If you have a camera that you think should be covered - that's what "modern Film Cameras" is all about. I do not have a patent on this sort of story.
    I hesitated to post the following rather large article, but anyone who has made it to this point might actually find it interesting.
    Here is a list of the AF cameras that were current in late 1988. It is the AF Directory from the December 1988 issue of Popular Photography.
  18. Very interesting reading.
    Like other, I "used to" be able to easily manually focus (MF). Now with middle-age eyes, it becomes more difficult, and I appreciate the AF.
    But having been brought up on MF, it does not scare me to use MF in situations when the AF does not work or not work well. In situations, like birds inside of a cage where the AF tries to focus on the cage itself, not the birds, I don't think anything of switching to MF.
  19. These passive systems were adopted for most of the AF SLRs that followed. In the early to mid-1980s, the first AF SLRs came out - from the Pentax ME-F (1981). to the Nikon F3AF (1983), at long last, the Canon T80 (1985). As I have noted before, these are what I call "goiter" systems, since the motor to actually focus the lens was attached in a sort of swelling on the side of the lens.​
    I'm curious if anyone here has recently used one of these 'zeroth generation' AF-SLRs in AF mode? (we should also include the OM30/OM-F, and probably mention the T80's non-AF predecessor the AL-1, which had focus confirmation). I remember seeing the OM30 and ME-F advertised at the time, but never got to try either. Are the AF systems fast enough to be usable, or are you basically better off with manual focus..?
  20. Well, the T80 is really the first in the Canon line. It pretty well followed the methods earlier developed in the AL-1 (in my report on the T80, I have a picture showing the similar silvering of the mirror in the T80).
    The Nikon F3AF is a little more expensive (recent asking prices for lenses and body well over a $1000, although the only sold one was around $800). It is, needless to say, outside my "cheap" category and it is difficult to translate into "pizza equivalents".
    The Pentax ME-F would be doable at 2-3 pizza sales, but honestly I'm going to leave it to someone else to explore. There's a project for you, Richard! :)
    I'm going to be going back to my much more manual cameras for a while.
  21. I always liked the ME-Super, so an ME-F (which an advert at the time called the 'Me Super Duper'!) would be fun to try. The OM30 seems to be a lot more common here in the UK, though, and also at the 3 Pizza (= round in a London pub) level. Not so the matching AF zoom, unfortunately. I guess a lot of people just bought the OM30 as an OM20 with focus confirmation.
  22. I can stand spending the money for a few pizzas, but not so sure comparing to rounds at a pub might not inhibit my buying cameras.
    Steering a road between AA and CA, hmm....
  23. Sometimes value and price are connected, sometimes they aren't. I've acquired 4 Maxxum 7000 bodies over the last year, and a Maxxum 9000. The AF on the nearly-giveaway-priced 7000 is significantly better than on the "pro" 9000, yet the latter sells for more. Or at least tries to sell for more. :)
  24. I wasn't as done as I thought.
    Here is my report on the "world's first production AF camera", the Konica C35 AF:
  25. Still one more post, one after the other......
    This on the first Canon SLR AF lens - the Canon FD 35-70mm f/4 AF
    which worked on most later model FD cameras.
  26. As I said, I am not planning to go on to review the early AF camera, the Pentax ME-F, at least not any time soon.
    However, in case anyone is interested in a detailed contemporary account of that camera - here is Modern Photography's March, 1983 "Inside Your Camera Series #33" review.
    It's a 656KB pdf file.
  27. You mentioned DDR cameras. Have you seen the Praktica AF system? Well it wasn't really a system, just one B-mount lens. A Prakticar (made by Sigma) 55-200mm, which had the AF motor and sensor in the lens, some batteries too, 3 AAA if I remember correctly. AF activated with a half press of the shutter button, but there was nothing stopping you pressing the shutter all the way down before it focussed. Beeped when focussed. Speed was OK.
  28. Presursor report (Canon AL-1 "Quick Focus") at http://www.photo.net/modern-film-cameras-forum/00cmRJ
  29. Visiting the scene of the crime again, I got the original crossed-x Maxxum and tried it out again:

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