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I have an Olympus OM-D E-M5. The number of options, multiple ways of doing the same thing, video recording, playback, etc. are making me crazy.

What is the closest thing, available today, to my (long time ago) Pentax, with its match needle metering and split prism focus?

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    In case anyone thinks I'm exaggerating the complexity, the manual is a 4.5 MB PDF consisting of 153 pages!! – FRANK POLAN Jun 7 at 20:58
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    Re: the manual being 153 pages. But if you only need a simple 1970 style SLR camera my gut feeling is that you don't need to read any of those pages. The difference between a 1970 SLR and what you need to know to turn on and flip it to manual mode is quite trivial. Most of the DSLRs manuals are aimed at a "jpeg point and shoit"- camera man. Why even bother reading about the different modes like portrait and landscape? – Andreas Jun 9 at 15:25
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    @Andreas yes, absolutely. Yes, there are many new things that you can do, but hardly any new things you must do. – hobbs Jun 9 at 16:00
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    Any good reason not to use the Pentax with the prism? I shoot only film and use a similar one. I like the old way of taking photos better. It’s still very fun and very popular – MicroMachine Jun 9 at 19:07

12 Answers 12

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There isn't. Once you have the basics needed to make a digital camera work, the incremental cost of additional features is very small, so there is a very strong incentive to cover at least the most common and popular features people expect — and a lot of competitive pressure. Even "retro" cameras like the Nikon Df have all the bells and whistles inside. (Well, and, outside, too: it has lots of buttons and dials and controls and a busy rear panel.)

Now, I've heard this kind of comment enough over the past decade or so that it's tempting to think that there might be market for such a camera. But so far, the companies with the actual market research haven't really dipped into the water. The only exception might be the Leica M10 (or other Leica digital models), but those operate in a slightly different marketing reality — they're luxury goods rather than consumer electronics or professional tools.

Your best bet really is to become comfortable with the camera you have, so you can easily access the things you want and ignore the others. All those multiple ways of doing things are there so you can find the one that works for you.

  • I'm putting a comment here and hoping the posters will see it. Most, except @mattdm missed the point of the question. (maybe I wasn't clear) I already knew how to work within the complexity of the camera. I was just wondering if there was a current camera that didn't have all the features I don't use. His answer was "NO" which is all I needed to hear :-) but thanks to all the rest of the responders. – FRANK POLAN Jun 9 at 19:15
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The closest thing might be the Epson R-D1 (only available pre-owned), a manual focus, manual shutter cocked digital rangefinder camera. Also, there are some similarly designed cameras from Leitz.

None of these are remotely optimal from a value for money perspective, not even at pre-owned prices.

  • Didn’t Kodak release a digital sensor in the form of a 35mm roll so as to convert any film camera to digital? I remember seeing it online but can’t remember if it was a real product or not? – Hueco Jun 7 at 14:27
  • Never worked in mass production IIRC. – rackandboneman Jun 7 at 14:41
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    @hueco As far as I remember it never rmade it in production. It was much hyped in the press and demo-ed at a few trade-shows in the US, but I don't think it ever made it into the shops. I kept a close eye on it back in the day as it would have been a very nice add-on to my Konica Minolta body. In hindsight I don't think they could have ever made it work as a generic mass-production replacement fit for any 35mm camera. The demo stuff they had were all fine-tuned specifically for the bodies they used to showcase it. – Tonny Jun 7 at 14:53
  • To work in an existing camera you essentially had to make a sensor the same formfactor as analogue film, i.e. as thin as the 35 mm film it replaces which is very thin. To my knowledge it was not possible at that time to manufacture such a sensor - it might be possible today. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 9 at 17:40
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen Many cameras have a pressure plate with a good amount of "give", so a couple mm would probably work. – xiota Jun 10 at 15:29
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Like you, I learned photography with an Olympus OM-1 in the mid-80s. Photography was simpler in that all-manual era: turn the focus ring until the focus screen looks right, pick your aperture or shutter speed, and set the other to expose correctly. Press the shutter button to take a picture. Repeat.

But not everything was better in the manual era. First, autofocus lets us follow fast-moving subjects. Image stabilization lets us hand-hold with longer shutter speeds. And digital gives us immediate review and sharing.

As suggested in your question, the simple camera interface got lost as features were added. Worse, manufacturers race to have more features than the competition. These features have to fit into a handful of dials, buttons and screens.

As best as I can tell, only Leica ignores the feature race and delivers cameras with intuitive controls. I tried a Leica Q last month: it was a joy to use. But Leica isn’t for everyone. First, obviously Leica is too expensive for most people, even when purchased used. I found Leica's automatic white balance to be years behind the competition. And there are fewer lens options in the Leica product line.

At the other extreme, smartphone cameras have very intuitive controls. To my eye, picture quality from current smartphones seems comparable to most point-and-shoot cameras.

If you want the quality and versatility of DSLR or mirrorless, you’re back to the original compromise: many features to fit into a few controls. In terms of controls, I find the makes and models to be more alike than different.

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I've often asked myself the same question. The problem really isn't so much the availability of many options per se, but that the most important options (shutter speed, aperture, ISO and focusing) are difficult to access (bad user interface design). I've found the cameras in the Fujifilm X series to be good (but not nearly as good as my old Minolta SRT!) in this respect: most of them have a "real" shutter speed dial, and some models also have an ISO dial. The "electronic rangefinder" in the corner of the hybrid viewfinder of the X-Pro2 and the X100T/F may also be useful for manual focusing (but again not nearly as good as a traditional split prism, I would say). As for metering, the viewfinder displays the information (though not quite in the way a match needle system would) and can be customized to reduce clutter.

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    FWIW, I find an EVF with focusing aids (contrast peaking, zoom) to be far superior to a split prism for accuracy and speed. To each their own of course. – mattdm Jun 7 at 11:45
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Disclaimer I don't know how much of any of this you already know. It is not my intention to come across as insulting or condescending, but to provide as much information as practical.


Put the camera in manual mode, or one of the priority modes (aperture priority or shutter priority). These are the most "no-frills" modes you can get on modern cameras and leave most or all of the responsibility for setting the camera up to you.

The camera will likely have a metering display inside the viewfinder or on the rear LCD screen (likely both, if it has a rear screen). This tells you if, with your current camera settings, the scene will be over or under exposed compared to how the camera has metered the scene. If you use aperture priority or shutter priority, then instead of indicating over or under exposure, the camera instead lets you set either just the aperture or the shutter speed and will automatically adjust the other variable to get the exposure that the camera has metered (there's usually also an option to tell the camera to specifically over or under expose by a particular amount).

Also on the topic of metering, most modern cameras have multiple metering modes. You're probably already familiar with spot metering and center-weighted metering, but cameras typically also include something called "evaluative" metering (or another manufacturer-specific term). With this mode, the camera uses a computer algorithm to decide what the best metering is. Although it may give better results for novice users, most serious photographers avoid it because the results do not follow any predictable rules and are based on the manufacturer's programming. Set the camera to spot or center-weighted metering according to whatever you're more comfortable with.

Regarding focus, cameras typically do not have split prism viewfinders anymore (although I believe some third-party companies are offering a service to retro-fit particular models of cameras with split prism viewfinder screens). Most of the time it is expected that users will use autofocus mode. In this mode, the user selects one of a predefined set of points in the image which the camera will automatically ensure is in focus before taking the image. The camera will likely also have the option to focus using whichever point it prefers (again according to an algorithm decided by the manufacturer) and an option to track and "anticipate" focus during motion shots.

However it is possible to set the camera to manual focus mode and in this case the camera will indicate if the image is in focus (with a small margin for error) but will not perform any focusing by itself. Admittedly manually focusing an image in this way is somewhat difficult and most of the time I only use manual focus if the camera does not manage to focus correctly (e.g. bad lighting, awkward subject) or to make small adjustments to the camera's focus. I also tend to switch to manual focus mode right after autofocusing if I'm shooting multiple images without changing the scene, to prevent the camera from re-focusing and messing up the image.


The other main differences that you'll encounter with digital cameras compared to film cameras is ISO and white balance. Whereas with film these are both determined by the film that you put in the camera, digital cameras let you change the ISO on a per-picture basis (more on white balance later). Most modern cameras will have an option to change the ISO automatically to get the correct exposure (giving the camera a second variable to adjust when shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode), but this is often annoying and can lead to unpredictable results. Many photographers prefer to set the ISO manually and then leave the camera to adjust just the shutter speed or aperture. If you're coming from film, you'd probably want to set the ISO to match whatever film you would have used for an equivalent situation/environment/lighting/scene.

White balance is handled a bit differently with digital instead of film and explaining this first requires explaining what raw images are. Any DSLR should be able to take what are called "raw" images, which unlike a JPEG image cannot be displayed directly by a computer. Instead, these images capture exactly the data that comes out of the image sensor in the camera, and need to be post-processed to produce an image file that you can view. Raw images are a bit like the image that you get on film before it's been printed onto photographic paper, and post-processing them is a bit like doing your own printing but without the inconveniences.

The camera should have an option to choose which format to save images in, and you should use raw format because this gives you the ability to process the photos to your own liking. By contrast, if you choose to save the images in JPEG format then the camera will automatically post-process the photo (again according to a manufacturer-decided algorithm) and you won't really be able to process it again yourself. (When you use raw format, the camera will still post-process the photo to display on the LCD screen if it has one, but the data that you get off the SD card is the raw image and once you've post-processed it it need not look anything like what you see on the camera's LCD.)

However, unlike film, when a digital camera takes a photo the white balance is determined at the post-processing stage rather than at the capture stage. The sensor in a digital camera has no concept of white balance, just different amounts of light hitting the sensor. So with digital, you'll set the white balance during post-processing. This has the added advantage of letting you change the white balance later on. The camera will likely still have an option to set the white balance (including, as always, an "automatic" option) but this only applies to the preview that you see on the LCD screen and if you've set the camera to save in JPEG format - if you save in raw format, it doesn't affect what you finally get.


TL;DR Use either manual mode, aperture priority mode, or shutter speed priority mode on the camera. Read through the manual and disable any other automatic features that you don't want. If you want better control over the final result, use raw image format and post-process the photos yourself.

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    Re: disclaimer - no problem. My concern is with all the options and ways of setting them. e.g. ISO is automatic in Auto/S/A/P/Scene/Art (with or without an upper limit) but fixed in Manual; 4 different versions of information (with modifications) shown in the EVF, etc. Frank P – FRANK POLAN Jun 7 at 13:09
  • Yeah regarding that firstly you should only use M (manual) mode, A (aperture priority) mode, or S (shutter priority) mode. These give you full control over the camera (in priority mode you set one variable and the camera chooses the other variable to get the correct exposure). P (program) mode lets the camera choose both the shutter speed and the aperture according to an algorithm so should be avoided if you want manual control. Ignore Auto mode, Scene mode, or any other modes really (except video mode if you want to get into shooting DSLR video but that's a separate topic). – Micheal Johnson Jun 7 at 21:24
  • Also you should be able to set the camera to always use manual ISO, at least in aperture and shutter priority modes (the camera will probably always use automatic ISO in auto or scene mode). – Micheal Johnson Jun 7 at 21:25
  • Never mind I read the manual for the camera and it doesn't seem to have that option. I also just realised that this is a mirrorless camera and not a DSLR. I imagine manual focusing is harder on an electronic display compared to an optical viewfinder. Personally I would recommend picking up whichever Canon or Nikon DSLR suits your budget if you're looking for another camera, they all have pretty much the same features (and ability to disable said features) and even the entry-level models have decent image quality (plus you'll have more options for lens upgrades in the future). – Micheal Johnson Jun 7 at 21:32
  • Also not sure what issue you're having with the viewfinder, according to the manual it seems to show the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure, and exposure compensation information that you would expect along with some additional status indicators. The additional status indicators can be ignored as long as you know where to find the aforementioned information that you need. – Micheal Johnson Jun 7 at 21:35
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I think part of your annoyance is due from having unrelated things get in the way. Contraintuitively that would imply that your best bet is getting a camera with lots of external controls. That way the controls you are not interested in don't get in your way.

To play this game to absurdity, if I take my venerable DSC-R1 and set it to "M" mode, I have one dial for setting the speed, a different dial for setting the aperture. I can move the focus switch to "manual" and then have one lens ring for setting the focus distance. I have manually linked zoom on the lens. I have one button for setting ISO (one setting is ISO auto using 160-400). I have one button for flash mode. I have one button for white balance. One for replay, one for exposure lock, one for self-timer, one for digital zoom, one for metering mode, one for display mode, one for setting the focusing mode which I can also push around for setting the focusing area. DSC-R1 controls

With that kind of button overdose (and an admittedly not quite fresh camera) you get to use those buttons you are interested in and can just ignore the rest for the time being.

The smaller and more sophisticated your camera gets, the more stuff has to run through the overwrought menus, often on fiddly controls. It doesn't help if 95% of your camera surface is covered in LCD screen. Of course, the "smart" solution to that is a touch screen, the user interface philosophy of putting your fingerprints where your eye is.

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I use FujiFilm X-Series mirrorless cameras, which is also suggested by Kahovius. They are fully featured. However, once default preferences are set, they do not have to be altered, and it is easy to use them as basic manual cameras.

  • They are modeless. There are no PASM1 modes. Basic exposure settings can be changed at any time. Some models do have an auto switch for newcomers to the system who may not understand modeless operation.

  • Depending on the model, shutter speed, ISO, and metering may have dedicated dials on the body. White balance and film simulation are accessible via the Quick menu.

  • Native lenses have full-time manual override. Aperture can be set via a ring on many lenses (XF "R" lenses). OIS and AF/M are controlled with switches on the lens.

  • Manual lenses may be used with stop-down metering, as Robert Mathieson suggests. Focus assist includes peak highlight and digital split image.

Other options:

  • Yashica Y35, recommended against by MicroMachine, has a limited feature set that qualifies it for consideration. It has fixed focus and aperture. No LCD. Shutter speed does not appear to be adjustable. It uses fake film cassettes to set aspect ratio, ISO, and other settings. Six cassettes are available, but not all are provided with the camera at purchase.

  • Epson_R-D1, suggested by rackandboneman. It has a 6.1MP APS-C sensor. Current price on an auction site is ~$1200. Wikipedia states:

    An unusual feature to note on the R-D1 is that it is a digital camera that has a manually wound shutter with a rapid wind lever. The controls operate in the same way as film-based rangefinder cameras.

  • Leica M10, suggested by mattdm. It has a 24MP full-frame sensor. Focusing is manual, but it does have auto exposure. Over $5000 on an auction site.

  • Nikon Df, suggested by Patrick Hughes. Although its design is inspired by classic SLR cameras, it is fully featured.

  • Phone cameras, mentioned by Greg Glockner, tend to have a limited feature set. Operation is typically fully auto.

  • Medium format cameras with digital backs may offer a limited feature set, depending on the attached body.

  • Early Kodak DSLRs were modified Canon and Nikon film SLR cameras. I'd expect them to have features equivalent to the body they were based on. However, they may be more advanced than you'd prefer.

  • Early digital cameras and modern toy cameras lack many features. Depending on the model, they may offer fixed focus, no LCD, and only a single exposure mode.

  • As many have noted, many cameras offer a Professional mode with simple operation. Those who want a bit more control may consider the Amateur or Student modes. Otherwise, the Micromanagement mode may suffice. Manual focus can usually be selected independently of the mode.1

  • A film SLR camera, as MicroMachine suggests, would have the same limited feature set today as it did when it was still made. If you need digital, many labs will scan film for you after processing.


1 Many cameras have several operating modes, sometimes referred to as PASM modes. They are Program, Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv), and Manual. Some people joke that P is for Professional because the camera is ready for anything in P mode. Some say a professional camera is needed to trust P mode. Yet others wonder why anyone would spend a few grand on a camera and not use P mode. Only micromanagers prefer M(anual) mode.

  • +1 but I suggest explaining the Professional/Amateur/Student/Micromanagement mode joke, because while I find it amusing we get people here who won't get the joke (some of whom won't be fluent in English) and that's going to just add confusion. – mattdm Jun 11 at 0:51
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You do not need to explore all the features of any modern camera.

Just set up your camera to one mode and forget about it.

An old camera has 4-6 things.

Camera

  1. ISO setting.

  2. Shutter speed.

  3. Metering mode.

Lens

  1. Aperture.

  2. Focus.

  3. Zoom.

You can define some of them more or less and forget them, for example, metering mode. You also can stick to one priority. I almost always stick to aperture priority or manual mode on the studio.

The autofocus feature will save you time because it is a lot faster. You can not use modern lenses to manually focus, because you do not have a focus screen and because they are a lot more sensitive to angular rotation.

  • The Olympus OM-D E-M5 mentioned in the question is a (really quite nice) mirrorless digital camera. – mattdm Jun 7 at 18:37
  • Oh. I thought he was posting the old film model he had. – Rafael Jun 7 at 19:29
  • no, complaining about his current one I think. It's a 2012 model pretty well reviewed, including, ironically, accolades for the controls. – mattdm Jun 7 at 21:14
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Nikon Df kept to mostly mechanical controls and that's kind of nice. There are, of course, menus and the LCD screen with all the extended options, but for everyday use you never have to touch that at all.

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I would recommend getting an old manual prime lens on a dumb adapter and manual focus with manual aperture. Almost any prime lens will feel like an upgrade. You will need to set the camera to 'work without lens' and enable focus peaking or set a button to magnify for focus (my preference) as there is no split screen and set the camera on A or M. On my OMD-M1 you can also set the viewfinder to display S-OVF look, to simulate an optical viewfinder (the display will be dark if the exposure is dark or blown out if it is too bright) and to not display all the pointless information. If it reappears you need to press the 'info' button to clear the viewfinder. I also like to show a grid as it looks like the E screen in my Nikon FA.

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There used to be. The Olympus E-1. I loved it dearly for its simplicity and would still be using it today if it hadn't been stolen out of our basement back then. It's a shame they don't just re-fit that design with a modern sensor and bring it back. Not one button too little, not one button too much. If you're interested in spite of the meagre 5MP, try to get the 25mm f2.8 (~50mm) and the venerable 12-60mm F2.8-4.0 (~24-120mm). There were nice wide-angle and telephoto zooms, too, but even pre-owned, not sure if they could be bought anywhere nowadays.

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    Hmmm — interesting. Although I'm not the person who asked the question, I'm not quite sure it really fits the bill. Even though it's simple compared to many cameras today, there sure are a lot of buttons and dials and options when put beside the Pentax K1000. And I think it's really more a matter of "most features they could actually enable in 2003" than it is of intentionally minimalist design. In any case, welcome to Stack Exchange. Hope you stick around and share more of your expertise! – mattdm Jun 9 at 16:53
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As an E-M5 user myself, coming from a digital compact and a film compact before that, I think the trick is to know how to manage the complexity of the device. What you should aim for is a configuration that lets you work with only the relevant controls, hopefully those you find intuitive, maybe from previous experience.

Some hints on configuration and settings

In order to avoid the notorious Olympus menu system, it is widely recommended that you enable the Super Control Panel. Normally, in shooting mode, this panel appears when you press the OK button on the back of the camera. It then shows lots of icons and indicators and allows you to change the behaviour of the camera. You can fairly quickly change things like ISO, white balance, and even assign some of these things to buttons.

To set up Super Control Panel, go into the menu, navigate to the "gears" (Custom Menu), into section D (Disp/.../PC), into Control Settings, into whichever mode you tend to use (P/A/S/M is maybe most interesting), into Live SCP, and choose On.

Choosing a shooting mode

Others have mentioned choosing aperture priority (A), shutter priority (S) or manual (M) modes. Although A and S modes provide control over the appropriate variable (aperture and shutter speed), they also provide exposure compensation. However, if ISO is set to Auto, things can get rather confusing: the camera readily elevates the ISO when this may be undesirable. Meanwhile, P mode behaves mostly like A or S mode depending on how it is set up.

What may be most intuitive is M mode. You use one dial for the shutter speed (for me, the front one) and one for the aperture (for me, the back one). If Auto-ISO is not set up for this mode or not chosen, you get the traditional control over exposure. If it is set up and chosen, the camera automatically meters and corrects the exposure. Some may debate the point of having Auto-ISO in any manual mode, but the idea is to have control over the principal exposure characteristics whilst delegating metering to the camera.

To set up Auto-ISO in manual mode, go into section E (Exp/.../ISO) in the Custom Menu and change the ISO-Auto setting to All. This merely makes Auto available in manual mode, and you still have to choose it if you want it. Otherwise, just choose a fixed ISO and control the exposure using the available controls.

Focusing

There is also the matter of focusing. You can find settings via the Super Control Panel to control this, but for me I find the S-AF MF setting most useful. This employs single-point autofocus when half-pressing the shutter button, but allows manual focus fine-tuning using the lens ring control while the button is half-pressed. (I also have a button configured to choose manual focus exclusively for occasions where I might want to release the shutter button for a while.)

You can make the camera magnify the image when manually focusing, which can be helpful. In section A (AF/MF), change the MF Assist option to On. How much the image is magnified seems to be controlled by operating the touchscreen control that appears on the right side of the screen when a focus point is selected on the touch screen. This is one of Olympus's more bizarre design choices.

Final thoughts

In my manual mode configuration, shooting mostly involves operating the two dials and the shutter. Occasionally, I override the ISO setting chosen by Auto. When focusing, I more often use the focus ring when I suspect that the autofocusing hasn't isolated the subject appropriately. With only a handful of controls and settings to think about, the camera has become considerably more enjoyable to operate, in my experience.

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