Camera Classics

Here in the US we have the Motor Trend channel on most of our cable systems. One oft-found program on that channel is live coverage of the Barrett-Jackson auto auctions. 

The talk on that show is pretty incessant about classic cars, in particular, cars that are drivable and collectable, and which may have increasing value (or at least hold value well). Obviously, this is about nostalgic demand. Brand new cars have technologies and capabilities not in those older models.

Are there such things as classic cameras?

No doubt. Classic lenses, too. 

I'm going to go a bit further in this article and make my selections not just about collecting, but rather collecting and using (at least casually, or on occasion). In other words, cameras that you might actually take out of your gear closet and use from time to time, just for the kicks.

I'm going to restrict myself today to Nikon cameras, as they're the ones I know best, the ones that I best understand the continuing demand for, and ones that tend to be easy to collect.

Clearly we still have classic film SLRs from Nikon. Most of the older era film SLRs would be deemed some level of collectable today. I'm going to stick with modern era cameras, though, which basically starts with the F4. Funny thing is, most of the prosumer and pro film SLR Nikons are still being used by people today, and many of them are pure bargains for film shooters. Here's my collectable and usable list of Nikon film SLRs:

  • N90s
  • F4
  • F100
  • F5
  • FM3a

Each of those have a different personality and a different riff on the Nikon button+dial interface (other than the FM3a, which is all dial). Of the bunch, the F100 is probably the one that feels the most usable and modern to me. (Note: the even more modern F6 is still available new, so doesn't get on this list.)

With DSLRs, things change a bit, as Nikon was clearing in a learning curve mode (and still is). While the D1 would certainly be collectable due to it being regarded as the camera that kicked things off, it's not really usable, which takes it off my list. After much debate with myself—fortunately I won that debate—here's what I came up with as truly collectable and usable for the weekend enthusiast:

  • D1h — not a lot of pixels (2.5mp) and with a limited dynamic range compared to today's cameras, but these cameras were built like a brick and last nearly forever. Used wisely, they still can produce good results; you just can't blow those results up to large prints without seeing the lack of resolution. The D1x doesn't qualify here because of its odd pixel arrangement, which makes it really tough to post process well.
  • D70 and D100 — these two 6mp cameras were really the crux of Nikon's rapid DSLR adoption by customers, and even today when I look at many of my images from these cameras, I'm impressed at far Nikon got so fast in the DSLR era. The same limiting DR as the D1h, basically, but for scenes that you can squeeze into that range and expose correctly, very nice results that print in moderate sizes reasonably well. The D100 is the more durable of the two, plus you have to the GLOD (green light of death) issue on D70's, which I don't think Nikon fixes any more. 
  • D2x — at base ISO and 12mp, this would be the pre-D3 camera I'd collect and play with. There was definitely something very good about this first CMOS sensor DSLR at base ISO. 
  • D3 — the D3 took us into new realms (full frame and low light). I still encounter D3 and D3s users today. Of all the cameras I mention here, this is probably the best of the bunch—along with the D3x, next—in terms of image quality and performance. Nikon was extremely proud of this camera at launch, and they should still be extremely proud of it today. Brilliant in every way. (Extra credit goes to the Kodak Pro 14n, which got to 14mp and full frame first. Definitely a collectable if you can keep it working.)
  • D3x — the absurdly high price killed this beast of a camera. It was really the first time we Nikon users got into the high pixel realm (of the time) and it did so with with very nice results. Just as with the D3, the D3x is still very usable today, and I still find a few pros using one.
  • D300 — a low cost near-D3? I'm aboard. So were a lot of Nikon users. Sadly, DX sensors improved considerably since then (well over a stop). So low light of wide contrast scenes are where this camera will struggle compared to current ones. Still, we're talking about a 12-year old camera that still feels pretty modern and high-end. It's just that its sensor has fallen behind the times. (Extra credit goes to the D90, which pioneered DSLR video.)
  • D700 — D3 goodness in a D300-like body. While not quite the performance beast the D3 was, this camera is probably the best blend of a collectable and usable older Nikon DSLR at the moment. I still see plenty of users carrying one in their bags. That said, in terms of actual numbers, the old D700 is basically about as good as the current D500 in terms of sensor.

Many of the cameras I just mentioned are holding value decently now—though considerably under their original pricing—and should continue to do so. There's one potential fly in the ointment here you need to be aware of: Nikon is no longer repairing these cameras, claiming a lack of parts (though if you go on eBay and search Nikon D3 parts you're going to find pages of them). Thus, we've entered the era for all the cameras I mention where you may not be able to get them repaired, and that tends to be reflected in their pricing.

Technically, we could keep going and start adding D4 and D5 generation cameras to the list, but that's a story for another day (hint: the Df is likely to be collectable and usable). Right now I'm looking back to the last decade or earlier and trying to come up with a list of the older cameras people might consider worth collecting and using. 

Why no D200? The sensor, basically. I like the form factor and controls, but the sensor is temperamental and not fully up to the standards of the D2x and D300; I'd collect and use one of those first. 

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