6 Legacy Camera Features We Miss (And A Few We Don’t)

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A modern Nikkor lens compared to legacy and manual lenses that features aperture rings and marked focus rings.

A modern Nikkor lens compared to legacy and manual lenses that features aperture rings and marked focus rings.

Over the years, camera and lens technology has improved significantly. You’ve heard me say it, but the cheapest gear on the market today still far exceeds the abilities of that which was used by Ansel Adams, Dorthea Lange and any number of well known photographers of yesteryear. For the most part, these improvements are for the better. Certainly no one could complain about the improvements in autofocus or digital technologies. But there are a few design features that we do miss. Maybe they haven’t disappeared completely, but they are now considered premium features. Below is our list of these features that we’d like to see featured much more commonly.

Camera Features We Miss:

  • Aperture Ring – The aperture ring was a ring on your camera that you used to set the aperture. Some rangefinder cameras still have them – like the Leica and the Fujifilm cameras, but the aperture ring has been mostly eliminated from the market. On some systems, like Canon and Nikon, you can still use these legacy lenses featuring the aperture ring, but you are forced to lock it down so that you can control the aperture on the camera body. Surely the new body-controlled aperture does not hinder our ability to take great photos. But there is something about that aperture ring that we really miss. It’s the fact that you can’t feel where you’re aperture is set anymore. With my old film camera, my 50mm lens has two finger indentations on the aperture ring. And I know exactly what it feels like when I’m at f/22 vs. f/1.8, and at any point in between. I can’t do that with my D7100. Perhaps that is part of the reason why the Fujifilm cameras have become such a big hit: Those that love it probably owned an aperture ring camera at some point.
  • Marked / Fixed Focusing Ring – Take a look at your newest lens and rotate that manual focus. It continues spinning forever, doesn’t it? That wasn’t always the case. As recent as 10 years ago, even autofocus lenses had a fixed focus ring. That is to say that the ring only rotated so far and it’s rotation was locked down to the focusing distance. This allowed manufacturers to mark focusing distances on the focusing ring. The feature is considered old technology in part because autofocus is so fast and so advanced and also because there is a lot to be gained mechanically by allowing that ring to float freely. But we lose the focusing distance marks on the entry-level and some mid-range lenses (most advanced lenses have a distance window). This makes it difficult to practice zone focusing techniques.
  • Interchangeable Focusing Screens – If you’re new to photography and have only shot with an entry-level or mid-level camera, you probably don’t even know what a focusing screen is. Your SLR has one, but it’s just a piece of ground glass so that you can see what you’re doing. Back in the day when cameras were mostly manual focus (and even in the case of some early auto-focus cameras, which were slow), you had your choice of focusing screens. My favorite was the split-image spot with microprism ring. There was a circle at the center with a horizontal line through it. If a subject was out of focus, vertical lines wouldn’t line up in that circle, so you adjusted until they lined up. The microprism ring would also show slightly darker if the subject wasn’t in focus. It was a brilliant application of simple physics, but it worked. These days, only high end digital cameras allow you to swap out the focusing screen – at least without voiding warranties. We miss the days when a decent focusing screen was standard.
  • This is a high quality pentaprism.  Imagine recreating this with mirrors.

    This is a high quality pentaprism. Imagine recreating this with mirrors.

    Pentaprism (as a standard) – if you’re shooting with an SLR, you need some sort of way to view the scene so that it’s upright (the lens flips the image onto the focusing screen). That is the job of the pentaprism which flips it around so you can truly understand the scene. But the pentaprism is a solid chunk of high quality glass; it’s heavy and it’s expensive. So it is often reserved for higher end cameras. In lieu, many entry level cameras now use a pentamirror. The technology is similar, but instead of a solid chunk of glass, there’s a series of mirrors and a lot of void space. Sure, it’s lighter. But it’s not nearly as bright and it doesn’t render colors as perfectly. It seems petty, but one of the nice advantages of my recent camera upgrade was that I have finally returned to having a pentaprism. It’s much easier to see what I’m doing, especially in the low-light situations that I often find myself in.

  • Mechanical Frame Counter – Here’s one that we can pretty much chalk up as gone forever: Mechanical frame counters. Film cameras used to employ a very simple spring mechanism that simply advanced the number by a frame as the film physically passed through a wheel. It never reset until you opened the back of the camera to remove your rewound film. Even if your battery was dead (assuming your camera even needed one), you knew what frame you were on and had a pretty good idea of how many frames you had left. Of coruse it stands to reason that with hundreds, if not thousands, of frames available, it’s a somewhat useless feature on digital cameras. But I have a camera sitting here that I haven’t used in a couple of weeks; the battery is dead and the memory card has some photos on it. There’s no way I can tell how many shots I have on it without charging the camera battery or popping the card into my computer. Silly, I know…but I do wish we still had the mechanical frame counter.
  • Mechanical Shutter Release – The shutter buttons on older cameras used to have a screw hole. That was where you would screw in a shutter release cable. The cable was simple: A long tube with a steel cable with a button at the end. Pushing the button would physically trigger the shutter release. It didn’t give you too much distance from the camera, but it was dependable: Batteries were not necessary, especially not expensive button type batteries. It just worked.

Camera Features We Don’t Miss:

Of course there are a few things that we don’t miss. Good riddance to these features:

  • Single-use Flash Bulbs – They could come singular or they came in the form of strips or cubes. But flash bulbs used to only burn once or twice. And they weren’t very powerful either. Back in the day, they were expensive – almost as expensive as film – and it really slowed you down. So we praise the modern technology for better flashes.
  • Manual Advance – My old Canon AE-1 was manually advanced film. I don’t know how many times I missed a shot simply because I forgot to advance or didn’t advance far enough (don’t ask me how that happened). A worthwhile – and expensive – upgrade was the auto-advance bottom. But it wasn’t long before cameras of all makes featured auto-advance as a standard. It saved time, it saved your film and it was one less step in your shooting process to worry about.
  • Screw-driven Autofocus – Autofocus used to be controlled by the camera body. More advanced Nikon bodies still support the system but only to maintain support for legacy lenses. Most modern lenses have an internal focusing system which is much quieter and much faster than legacy systems. But the old type of focusing depended on a screw-drive on the body itself (on the mounting ring). It was noisy and slow. We don’t miss that extra noise or the time it added.

 

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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