dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

"Your Canon will freeze before you reach the first marker!"
"Then I'll see you in hell!"

Are mechanical cameras more reliable?

"You don't want a camera that is battery-dependent."

"When those batteries die, your camera will be a doorstop."

Oh yeah?

This perhaps the most-repeated mantra of the luddites. Baloney, and in my view, completely out of touch with reality. Electronic cameras are not inherently or practically inferior to mechanical ones under normal (or really any) conditions.

First, modern batteries are smaller and lighter, meaning that it is easier to carry spares. I just got back from the wilds of the Yucatan Peninsula where there was barely electricity in some towns, much less telephones or batteries of any kind. Was I scared of running the batteries out on my Digisix Hexar RF, and Fuji GA645? Hell no. The spare DL2032, CR2s and CR123s lithium batteries collectively weighed one ounce and took up no more space than a roll of 120 film.

Second, modern cameras are far more power-efficient, meaning that you get a lot more shots per set of batteries. In the old days, a Nikon MD-11 motor drive would do 30 rolls of film on 8 AA batteries. The MD-4 did 140 rolls of film at almost twice the same speed on the same set of batteries. The Hexar RF does 140 rolls of film on two lithiums which together are the size of 1 AA. The situation is even more egregious with cameras that take silver or mercury button cells. Those can go and go and go. Even when they die, many SLRs like Nikons, despite electronic shutters, have dead-battery speeds of 1/90 or 1/250 that you can use with the Sunny-16 rule. Leica M7s have 1/60 and 1/125 when you blow the batteries.

Third, film and processing dependence is much worse of a problem. A case in point: on the aforementioned trip to Mexico, I took 12 rolls of Kodachome in 135 and 20 rolls of TX120. The film alone took up as much space and almost as much weight as the cameras I took along, and it was nowhere near able to exhaust the batteries. In fact, when you think of the bulk of 140 rolls of 35mm film, it's just staggering. Then come the processing issues. If the country where you are doesn't have AA batteries, it probably also lacks indoor plumbing. If it lacks indoor plumbing, it might lack electricity. If it lacks both of those, it may also lack photo chemicals. If it lacks *any* of those three then there is no film processing of any type.

Fourth, cold-weather performance problems have been largely ameliorated by lithium cells, which are far less sensisitive to extreme cold.

"But batteries run out faster in cold weather," you cry — in vain.

The temperatures where lithium batteries fail are the same ones where lubricants in mechanical cameras begin to thicken and spring tension starts to go bad. The only way to make a mechanical camera truly reliable for prolonged arctic use is winterization, an expensive procedure that requires the complete disassembly and relubrication of the entire camera. Then you need to recalibrate shutter speeds for cold weather. Then when you get back to somewhere warm, you need to reverse the process.

If you are going somewhere really, really cold (colder than freezing), you may even be better off finding (or making) a remote battery pack for your electronic camera. With those, batteries are the biggest issue, and if you can keep them warm, the much smaller dependence on lubrication in an electronic camera may make it a cheaper and equally-effective option.

Finally, mechanical cameras are just as challenged -- if not more -- by water. There is persistent talk about the danger of having an electronic camera short in the rain. While no camera (except maybe a Nikonos) is totally waterproof, it is worth noting that when it comes down to it, there is really no advantage to the mechanical cameras.

— Both mechanical and electronic cameras have the same composition when it comes to the timing mechanisms. Mechanical cameras use brass, steel or zinc parts; electronic ones use integrated circuits and copper PCBs. The crucial similarity is that copper (a constituent of brass) and steel both rust within a week after being exposed to water or high humidity. While a mechanical camera that gets wet won't fail immediately, it may do so over time, even with a few drops of water inside.

— An electronic camera may experience a complete failure, but since typically fewer of its moving parts can rust (titanium, carbon fiber and plastic in modern cameras don't suffer much from exposure to water) and since electronics often dry out and work again, you are not necessarily out of business from a few drops of water. Moreover, electronic components are typically well-shielded, either passing under the solid top plate or being on the bottom. In the Nikon F3 and F4s, the electronics are largely buried in the body. Getting them wet would probably destroy a lot of other things first, just as they would on ye olde M6.

Get into complete drenching (especially with salt water), and either type of camera is toast unless you get the camera EMS in, stat.

Turning the tables.

Since many people love bashing electronics, I will now present some arguments agitating against all-mechanical cameras.

First, electronic cameras are more accurate exposure-wise. To make an electronic shutter accurate to within 1/10 of a stop, all you need is a quartz or lithium-niobate oscillator that can release the second shutter curtain after a predetermined amount of time (some multiple of the number of cycles). These crystals are stable over time and as a result, shutter performance is pretty stable over years and years, subject to very minor degradation in the tiny amounts of lubricants used in them.*

*Electronic shutters come in two varieties: one with the main mechanism driven by a spring but governed electronically and one with the main mechanism driven by a motor and governed electronically.The former type has somewhat more sensitivity to spring tension.

To make an all-mechanical shutter accurate to 1/3 of a stop, you need to keep a complex mechanical system lubricated, tensioned and adjusted properly. There is both a main spring tension and shutter-slit settings to contend with. If the former is out of adjustment, all speeds will be off. If the latter, the speeds above the flash synch speed will be. This mechanism is affected by temperature and position.

If you want a more concrete way to think about the accuracy issue between mechanical and electronic, consider that the mechanism in a $10,000 Rolex certified chronometer (+6/-4 sec/day is the maximum allowable for a chronometer) is still less accurate than a $1 quartz throwaway (+/-2 sec/day) and has to be cleaned to keep even that level of accuracy. The situation is more extreme with mechanical shutters, which lack the complex oscillator, governor and temperature compensation systems of good mechanical watches (camera shutters -- all of them are toys compared to fine watches). The difference in the shutter context (at a 1 second setting) is 1.3 seconds mechanical versus 1 second quartz, rather than a difference of 2, 4 or 6 seconds in an 86,400 second day.

To get any level of exposure accuracy with a camera, you still need a light meter. Selenium is nice and battery-free, but it is environmentally hazardous and fairly useless in low light. So you then get a CdS or SPD meter with.... ta da... a battery. Some people may say, oh, yeah, I can use Sunny-16 - but that gets you 1 stop accuracy, maximum. Most people I know are paralyzed when a camera, even with a full range of mechanical speeds, exhausts its meter battery,

Second, electronic cameras are more reliable over time with less maintenance. Mechanical shutters rely on spring tension to do their work. When you are talking about 1/30 sec and slower speeds on a mechanical shutter, you also have to worry about a miniature clockwork geartrain. This geartrain has lubricants which with oxidation slow down and eventually gum up. This is why Leicas, for example, need tuneups every 10 years, and why you find most old leaf-shutter cameras gummed-up. CLAs are expensive, invasive procedures. For a Leica, they can easily top $300; for a leaf shutter, $75 to 150 is normal. The typical 13-week turnaround time on a good Leica CLA almost makes it necessary to have two of then. It's not much better that most repair shops take a minimum of 4 weeks to service any mechanical shutter. I have gotten rid of probably 40 mechanical cameras because by the time they went through the obligatory CLA (sometimes to get them to work at all), I had forgotten I owned them. It took three trips to a repair shop to debug all of the problems I had with my M3. Now it works perfectly... I think.

That is not to say that electronic shutters never fail. Sometimes the capacitors that power the motors pushing some elecrtronic shutters fail. Even electronic shutters whose basic drive is by spring tension still have some lubrication issues. But the incidence and severity of failures is much less, and electronic shutters do not have built-in maintenance periods. Ever hear of anyone sending an SLR in for repair periodically? From my observation, SLRs only get sent in if they (1) die or (2) their foam seals disintegrate.

The simplest proof of reliability is Darwinian selection. Many photojournalists moved to electronic shutters with the Nikon F3 in 1983 and have never looked back. The F3 (whose shutter design is essentially an electronically-controlled, titanium version of the Leica rubberized cloth shutter) has a MTBF of 150,000 exposures between failures. The F4s, which followed it, has a similar cycle and is all electronic (it also had a self-calibration function) and ditto for the F5. You are lucky with an older Leica — allegedly more reliable — if you get anywhere near that before the shutter speeds drift off (to be fair, you shoot a lot slower with a Leica).

Third, failure modes in electronic cameras are mostly obvious, but failures can be invisible and disastrous with mechanical cameras. When an electronic camera dies, it dies. Ditto for the shutters - they generally quit altogether. I have had occasional intermittent failures, but nothing that caused me to lose any sleep.

Mechanical cameras, reputed to be more reliable, can have invisible (and tragic) failure modes that can go undetected for a roll of film or perhaps longer. Here are some, just from my personal experience, that did cause me to lose some sleep.

Leaf shutter - intermittent failure to open on exposure. One shot in about every twenty. On a 6x9cm camera with 8 shots per roll of film, disastrous. Does not exhibit itself until after the shoot.

Leaf shutter - first shot after 24 days of rest hangs and severly overexposes due to almost-invisible amount of oil on shutter blades. Does not exhibit itself until the pictures are developed.

Leaf shutter - shutter has V (self-timer), X and M settings, all tripped by the same lever. Lever is accidentally pushed 1/2mm into V and returns - looks like it is in X synch (which would have been no problem). Notoriously unreliable self-timer mechanism hangs up shutter, which still cocks, clicks and releases film transport mechanism (on 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 and 1/500 settings) as if it were working properly; however, shutter blades do not open. Camera exposes (or more precisely fails to expose) 18 rolls of film. Holy shit, Batman. This is a failure that simply doesn't happen with electronic shutters, because the self-timer is completely divorced from the shutter mechanism.

Focal-plane shutter - bottom tape of shutter curtain detaches from spool mid-roll, leaving a triangular opening that fogs an entire roll of film. To be fair, this can happen to Nikon F3s, Canon AE-1 and Leica M7s, all of which have electronic shutters with similar cloth curtains.

Focal-plane shutter - (Contax style) speeds off. Way off. No warning except the nicely-blown highlights in the finished pictures.

I have not suffered from the most common complaint, failure to cap (when a focal plane shutter does not remain closed as it is cocked), but there are enough horror stories out there to believe in their existence.

Finally, electronic cameras can have a lot of worthwhile features. While a few people claim that it is better to use a Weston Master with an M4-P, I would say that at that point you might as well be using an only slightly-more-cumbersome medium-format camera to take the shot. In the 35mm world, aperture-priority autoexposure and autowinding are good things with little downside. Sometimes even autofocus is pleasing. I find it difficult to understand why you would choose, say a Nikon FM3a over an FA, when the FA has two additional exposure modes, matrix metering, closed-loop exposure correction, and a more sophisticated motor drive. When you balance the low likelihood of the silver button batteries failing (and assuming you are not carrying extras - the FA still has 1/250 with dead batteries) against what you lose in features, it seems a little strange to wear the hairshirt.

In the medium-format world, battery-enabled automation makes for faster and more pleasant shooting. It takes less than a second to grab a shot with a Fuji GA645; with a Zeiss Super Ikonta A, you can't even focus, wind the film, and cock the shutter in three times that period. You have to lower the camera, open the ruby window, wind the film until you see the frame number, close the window, cock the shutter, focus if necessary, reposition your finger on the release and shoot. That's a really big deal when you are traveling.

In the final analysis, I am unable to conclude that mechanical cameras are any worse than electronic ones. A lot has been said about x, y or z extreme conditions, but not even those types of arguments are that compelling. I would recommend choosing the camera that fits your needs, not what may or may not fit your darkest fears.