Nikon F100: 5 out of 5
Olympus E-1: 4 out of 5
Nikon D700: 3 out of 5
Olympus E-3: 2 out of 5
Olympus E-300: 1 out of 5
Yashica GSN: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: These numbers are a ranking, not a rating - and higher numbers are better.
The Long Version: I'm preparing a review of the Nikon F100, and without giving too much away, I'll admit that I'm absolutely in love with it. The shutter sound is part of what has captured me, so I wanted a recording of its action to include in my write-up. As my mother never said, in for a penny, in for a pound: I decided to record all six of my cameras that have mechanical shutters. I always read the conclusion first, so here it is: The Nikon F100 and Olympus E-1 quietly and pleasantly spank all of the others.
Click the play icon beneath the photos for that camera's sound, and some notes on my methodology and further thoughts are at the end of the review.
The Nikon F100 is a film SLR from 1998/1999. It appears here without the MB-15 grip that would boost it to 5fps; instead this recording includes a few single frames and two 4.5fps bursts. It was shot without film: it can eat an entire roll in only eight seconds. The recording meter stayed comfortably around -12 to -14dB.
The Olympus E-1 (reviewed) is a contemporary of the Canon EOS-10D, being released in 2003. It shoots at 3fps and has a twelve-shot buffer. During recording the meter peaked around -14dB, making it a touch quieter than the F100.
The Nikon D700 (first impressions) hardly needs an introduction; here it's being recorded with the MB-D10 grip and 8xAA batteries to shoot at 8fps. I used it to set my recording levels, with the prolonged shutter bursts measuring -3dB.
The E-3 (reviewed) is the replacement for the E-1, and was released in the fall of 2007, around the same time as the D300. It officially has an eighteen shot (raw) buffer, but a UDMA memory card expands on that. It's shooting three single exposures before shifting to 5fps, where the recording meter hit -7dB.
The second Olympus interchangeable-lens digital SLR, the E-300 is a consumer camera with a four-frame buffer that shoots 3fps. It dates from the end of 2004; in terms of metered sound levels, it's pretty much interchangeable with the E-3.
I included the Yashica GSN (reviewed) as something of a lark; it's a thirty-five-year-old rangefinder that has no business hanging out with this crowd. Its tripod position put the camera body (but not the shutter mechanism) closer to the recorder, but even with a little forgiveness, it was clearly the loudest of the cameras. Its shutter, which is heard first in this recording, is moderately loud at -8dB, but the sharp mechanical 'thwack' that starts the rewind action caused my recording meter to peak. This recording captures three shutter-wind cycles, and like the F100, it was shot without film.
Making the Recordings:
If I had a dedicated studio, it would have lights and translucent tables, not acoustical treatments. These were recorded in my bedroom, which I chose for its relative quiet and ample reverb-dampening surfaces. Then I positioned the camera and recorder about two feet from the sheetrock wall. (You win some, you lose some.) My Sony PCM-D50 had its microphones in XY stereo position, and were about four inches from the centre of the lens mount, positioned to the left. The Olympus cameras were mounted to the Sigma 150 Macro, while the Nikons were on the Sigma 180 Macro. Since they share a tripod collar with very similar positioning, I didn't adjust the tripod position during the recordings. (Like my mother actually did say, leave well enough alone.) The exception is the Yashica GSN, but that wasn't really meant as a serious part of the comparison anyway. The cameras were all set to manual focus and shutter-priority at 1/500s, proving that there actually is a use for that mode.
Conclusion, part Two; Or: To Make a Short Story Long:
I do have a sound meter that can measure both dBA and dBC, but the added complexity of using it wasn't going to add much to my inherently subjective conclusions. (Plus, I forgot about it.) My opinion is that the F100 has a more pleasant sound than the E-1, even though the Olympus measures slightly quieter. Similarly, I prefer the crisper sound of the D700 to the E-3, but neither would be my choice for photography where subtlety is required. For that matter, even the E-1 is much louder than the Leica M5 that I was able to play with last week, and the Micro 4/3 cameras are also a big improvement over SLRs. I was originally planning to record my Canon SX20, but it's so close to silent that it wouldn't be able to be heard with the gain setting that I needed for the other cameras.
The appreciation of sound, like vision, is subjective. I leave it to the interested readers to listen to the recordings and decide for themselves which camera they prefer. (For added entertainment, play several of them simultaneously.) As I mentioned in the introductory conclusion, this article is a result of my liking the sound of a legacy film camera, and even I expected this article to be pretty much irrelevant to anyone's camera choice. But the more I think about it, the more meaningful it seems. Certainly, I wouldn't expect anyone to choose between an E-1 and D700 based on the sound of the camera; there are a few more important differences. But any serious photographer who is using a digital camera more than four years old has either made a conscious decision to not use the latest-and-greatest, or has mentally turned a necessity into a virtue. I assume the same of anyone who has a toaster oven instead of a microwave, or who shoots with film instead of electronic capture - which brings me right back to the old Nikon F100 that started this thought process in the first place.
If someone is using a film camera, or a classic digital camera, it's almost certainly not for the image quality. So why not choose the camera with the best feel and sound? Photographs are strictly visual, but photography doesn't need to be.