Friday, 8 June 2012

Are all cameras born equal?

One of my first memories of Amateur Photographer is of the test photographs taken of HQS (formerly HMS) Wellington moored alongside the Thames embankment that formed part of the review of every new camera that appeared on the British market. Enlargements to show the centre and edge definition at several apertures were shown. A shutter test was also made which involved a comparison of the stated speed with the measured speed. On my desk now is a November 1964 copy of the magazine containing the review of the Voigtlander Vitrona. The shutter speed was measured in milliseconds and converted to the nearest fraction of a second. The stated speeds for the Prontor 250 shutter were 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 second with measured speeds of 1/30, 1/56, 1/120 and 1/240.
The obvious question of whether a pre-tested camera was supplied for review by the manufacturer was never raised and as we pored over the results for different cameras each week, we were never given information on how much variation there was between cameras sold to the public or what the manufacturing tolerances were. In 2012, we are still not given that information. If you went into a shop in 1964 and bought a Voigtlander Vitrona off the shelf, how would its 50mm Lanthar lens perform compared with the one tested by Amateur Photographer? Would its shutter fire at 1/240 second?
The same sort of questions apply today. Are the manufacturing tolerances of cheaper lenses, for example, wider than those of the major manufacturers? In the absence of testing a larger sample of the same model, we just do not know. Are the tolerances of a major camera like my Nikon D700 or the D800 so tight that any differences between individual cameras are immaterial? Are ‘entry-level’ DSLRs more variable or still made to tight tolerances with cheaper materials and components?