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The Digital Nikon EM

I keep saying it and I’m about to repeat myself, so try not to yawn too obviously: I love my Nikon EM. It’s small, light, basic and does everything I need in a camera. Unfortunately, it’s a film camera and, while I love film, I find myself without much time to process it these days. If it isn’t a digital shot, it’s unlikely to appear as a finished print this side of xmas.

So what I really, really want right now is a digital Nikon EM-alike.

Let’s look at the principle reasons I like the EM:

  • Weight (460g; add 135g for a 50mm Series E lens).
  • Size (5.3 x 3.4 x 2.1 inches).
  • Basic features: aperture priority is all I want. (Full manual exposure adds another dial; exposure compensation on the EM can be achieved by adjusting the ISO dial.)
  • Pairs well with small prime lenses: I mainly use the 50mm.
  • Instant operation: bring it up to your eye and it’s ready.

To find a digital equivalent to all this, I think you have to start with a DSLR. Compacts are smaller, lighter, quieter and more versatile (note the latter is not a prime requirement), but they all fail the “instant operation” clause. You have to turn the camera on, often by holding a tiny button down for a short period, wait for the lens to extend and the LCD to initialise, then wait for autofocus and any shutter lag. In addition, while I’m not one of those who desperately wants a compact with a large sensor for improved image quality, it is nice to be able to utilise shallow DOF (a key ingredient of many of my EM shots), and that means an SLR with fast lenses.

Previously, specifying a DSLR would immediately have blown the size/weight requirement away. However, there are now some low end DSLRs available that almost match the EM’s specification (and if they lack advanced features…well, so does the EM). The Olympus Four Thirds SLRs are usually acknowledged to be the smallest, but unfortunately the system still lacks a selection of prime lenses. The Pentax K100D errs on the larger, heavier side but gives you access to the entire range of Pentax primes going back several decades; if I didn’t already have a modest investment in a Nikon system, I’d seriously consider it.

Staying with Nikon, there’s the D40, which measures 5 x 3.7 x 2.5 inches and weighs 471g (I think without the battery - why give weights without battery when it’s not an option?), which is remarkably close to the EM. Its featureset is limited compared to the higher models but overkill compared to the EM; fortunately, centre-weighted metering and aperture priority are still there, albeit as two options among many. That leaves lens choices.

The obvious candidate for a normal lens is the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM DC, which has the added advantage of complementing the D40 perfectly (it has an internal focus motor, which the D40 lacks). Unfortunately, this fat boy measures 3 x 2.3 inches and weighs a whopping 430g, practically doubling the weight of the camera to nearly the same as a D200 pro body. Nevertheless, it’s not unfeasibly large and it would be well worth considering if you want to retain autofocus capability while still having a manual focus option.

The alternative to the Sigma is a Nikkor 35mm f/2 AF, which would have to be manually focused on the D40 (so what? the EM is a manual focus camera too) but at least retains metering ability. It would also be much lighter (200g).

Apart from that, I already have a Nikkor 24/2.8 AF-D lens which makes an adequate 35mm on a DX body and wouldn’t require precise focusing at moderate apertures, and a 50/1.8 AF-D (75mm equivalent). Both lenses contain an autofocus mechanism which is useless on the D40, so sadly they’re not quite as small and light as true manual focus lenses. Unfortunately, metering with older Nikon lenses requires a manual linkage that is missing from all the consumer bodies. If accepting the added hassle of metering manually, one could use a set of manual focus lenses instead that fit in a pocket (e.g. the Series E line that were released to partner the EM).

So now we’ve got a small DSLR with a fast prime lens, in as small a package as possible and possibly with a moderate weight penalty. It’s not pocket-sized, but you can probably carry it around all day without feeling too lumbered. Despite that, we’ve gained all the advantages of digital shooting (selectable ISO, image review, more shots per “roll”, deletion, etc.).

Costing it up, the D40 is currently about £270 new or perhaps £200 secondhand, and the Sigma is £280-ish new or £200 secondhand from a dealer. That’s around £400 minimum (over four times the typical price of an EM kit); about the same price as one of the “niche” compacts such as the Ricohs, but with far more capabilities and fewer limitations. Obviously, it won’t be as nice to shoot as the EM because, well, we’re in a different world now and that past is gone. But at least we’re finally starting to recover some of what was lost.