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The Nikon F.
Ah, the Nikon F. The gran-daddy of it all. Much has been said about this camera. It wasn’t the first SLR (the Kine-Exakta was ), but it was the first that was actually any good. In fact, in many ways, it was still better than a lot of cameras that came out way later. This camera was what almost killed Leica.
Coming out in 1959, it introduced the world to the F-Mount that Nikon still has trouble letting go of today. Yes, this means you can technically use a modern AF-D lenses on the F, but there’s a gazillion compatibility issues with the more modern lenses, so it makes you wonder why even stick with this mount when most manufacturers have evolved so much since the F came out. (to put it in perspective, Canon is on their fourth mount since the F came out. And Pentax is the only one to use a vintage mount with their K-mount, and they’ve sorted the compatibility issues a lot better)
Nikon was mainly known for their rangefinders and optics, that was said to be on par with the Germans with Leica and Contax (hint: it’s close but not quite. Germany: 1, Japan: 0) So it makes sense that the F was basically a Nikon SP rangefinder with a prism on top. Go compare the top and bottom plates of the two, they’re almost identical. This means the F shares the flaws of the SP, like the antiquated loading procedure that involves taking the whole back off. Its like taking the tire off your car to fill it with air.
There’s also the awkward shutter button near the back of the top plate, and the lack of a meter unless you get the absolutely gargantuan Photomic prism. Seriously, it rivals the weight that kids today have on their shoulders to keep film photography alive.
But the operation is almost as smooth as the Leica M3. The lenses were great, as after all, optics was what Nippon Kogaku was known for before cameras and it fixed issues that previous SLRs had. For example, the automatic mirror return mechanism. Yes, previous SLRs had you return the mirror back down manually! Hard to believe these days. Then there is the auto diaphragm stop down mechanism so you can focus with the aperture open constantly. Yes, the lens won’t stop down at f16 so you have to focus in the dark.
And of course, this was the camera that created the reputation for Nikon’s being indestructable tanks. Take it through a river! Go to the Arctic! Get shot at in the battlefield! Chances are the camera will survive, even if you don’t. Never been serviced since it left the factory? There’s a chance that its completely fine still. There’s probably a Nikon F buried in a minefield in Laos that you can dig out and still shoot.
Its a very good camera that I can still recommend, no doubt, but if anything, the F is more well known for its legacy. Compared to contemporaries (the Pentax SV and Minolta SRT-101 comes to mind), it is probably the best of the professional SLR market of the era. Its probably the one that has aged the best, as it feels just as good and efficient to use as SLRs made 25 years after. But as good as it is, there is room for improvement, which is where the the sequel comes in with the F2: Electric Boogaloo.
The Nikon F2.
In my opinion, the Nikon F2 with its original DE-1 standard prism finder, is the single greatest mechanical SLR ever made. Yes, you heard me. I do not care about what you have to say, or what you have to counter with, because you will be wrong.
“But what about the Olympus OM-1?” Nope, shutter speed ring is weird for the sake of being different. “There is Nikon’s own FM2, though!” Yes, it’s great, I own one, but they cheaped out in on certain components and it doesn’t feel as good. “The Pentax K-1000 is the camera that introduced people to photography!” Yes, and it turns people off photography too. Its too basic, and the only reason people love it is because its their first. Its like your high school girlfriend/boyfriend. It was great at the time, but in hindsight, you shouldn’t have trusted them with your pictures.
The Nikon F2 is like the son of the OG granddaddy of it all, the Nikon F, in that yes the F was already quite good (it still is) as a self made tycoon, but the F2 is like that handsome Harvard educated, renaissance man of a son of the tycoon being groomed to take over the company. It is what other cameras aspire to be. Just look at the way the leatherette curves over the prism. Feel the way the advance lever moves the perfect distance. Listen to the back door spring open like its excited to have you insert a roll of film to shoot.
Sure, there are some oddities and compromises you have to make. If you want to use a shutter release button, you will need a nipple attachment like those found on old screwmount Leicas. There is no hotshoe, so if you want to use a flash you either have to attach a grip with a sync cord cable or get a slide on attachment over the rewind lever. And if you get the original standard DE-1 prism, it lacks a meter. If you want a meter, you will have to get an F2 with the Photomic prism which adds to the bulk. But this means that you can figure out the best setup for yourself. For example, the F2 with the standard prism pairs nicely with the superb 55mm f/3.5 Micro-Nikkor as it’s a light walk around setup. But the F2 Photomic goes well with the 55mm f/1.2 as a low light monster, in size and capability!
Comparing it with two of its chief rivals, the original Canon F-1 and Minolta X-1/XM/XK, the F2 just feels so much smoother and inviting. Both those cameras have distinct advantages over the F2. The F-1 has a light meter built into its standard prism without having to resort to massive prism housing. The X-1 has autoexposure with aperture priority modes. All three are system cameras which means they have a gazillion accessories to make your camera yours. But the X-1 has an electronic shutter and the F-1 just doesn’t feel very good. That last part is arbitrary, I know, but the F2 just feels luxurious in comparison! And despite that, you can get an F2 for cheaper these days because they’re a lot more common than the F-1 and ultra rare X-1.
The viewfinder has 100% coverage. The self timer is continuously variable, which means you can set it anywhere from 2 seconds to 10. You can use any Nikkor F-mount lens with an aperture ring, made from 1959 until recently without worrying about any AI nonsense. Most F2s that haven’t been thrown out of a helicopter still work without needing major servicing today. It has interchangeable finders with an improved reflex mirror, which means if you want a metered prism (one of those chunky Photomic ones), a waist level or even magnifying ones there are multiple different ones. It has a relatively fast top shutter speed of 1/2000th! What more do you need?
My favourite part is of course, how good it feels to use. You do not know what you are missing, people! You can tell me all you want about how the F3 feels smoother to use, or how refined some of the Leica SLRs are, but the F2 offers a nice balanced feel between refinement and tank. It’s like a Toyota Land Cruiser; yes, most people will be driving it to Nordstrom or the private school parking lot, but it will also conquer mountains and deserts with ease.
One of my personal holy grail cameras happen to be an F2 T. It’s a F2 that is made of titanium built for arctic expeditions. The black textured finish is so beautiful, it makes your hair stand up. Nikon engineers apparently tested it by hurling it down the stairs repeatedly. I’m not going to the Arctic anytime soon (one day!) it would sure feel good to own one of only a few thousand F2 Ts in existence. I did recently acquire a black F2 with the standard prism, just because of how much I love of it.
The Nikon F3.
Many people will tell you that the F3 is one of the greatest cameras ever made. Professionals swore by them. It is easy to see why. It has aperture priority with an impressive 80/20 center weighted metering system. It has a sleek design by famed automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro that introduced the red stripe that modern Nikons still have.
A few things made professional photographers wary of it when it first came out. Its electronic shutter was still unproven back in the days of its release. Not sure one could wade through a river with an F3 like you could with an F or F2!
Nikon went all out on the F3 like it was their last camera. Everyone raved about how the super smooth advance lever has 11 (!) ball bearings! It’s so smooth that it makes you doubt that you loaded your film correctly. The grip fits and feels perfect in your calloused hands (because of course, you’re a pro and those hands have seen things). The large, HP (high-point) prism has the huge viewfinder so you can see through it with goggles on (because evidently they even had forensic teams and lab scientists in mind when designing the F3). This is an almost effortless camera to use because it doesn’t want to be in the way of the photographer, it simply melds with them.
Having used one, I have no doubts about the fact that it takes good photos. The relatively well dampened shutter and controls feel like quality that is unmatched by other Nikons of the era. But let’s be frank, it is not the greatest film camera ever made. Its good, but greatest??? Give me a bloody break.
I will compare it to two of its chief rivals. The Canon New F-1 and Pentax LX. All three of these cameras share some similar features. They are modular systems, they have aperture priority with a top shutter speed of 1/2000th and they let you access some spectacular lenses. The Canon is a bit bigger and the LX smaller, but all three are equally hard to fix due to over engineering. But there are two things both those cameras do better than the F3. No, that those camera did right!
First, is the fact that the F3 only has one mechanical shutter speed in case the battery dies. It’s 1/90th. What can you shoot at that speed besides portraits? Let’s think about it, when will it be most likely for you to have the batteries die on you? The Amazon rainforest? The Gwangju Uprising in South Korea? When you’re running around or shooting in shady areas – I have a feeling you don’t want to shoot at 1/90th only in those situations. Not only that, the only way to trigger said mechanical shutter speed is with a lever by the lens! In comparison, both the New F-1 and LX have mechanical shutter speeds for every speed above the flash sync speed.
Then comes the Achilles heel for the F3, in my opinion. Like, I can’t even fathom what they were thinking! Was it sake appreciation week? Do professional photographers have some natural night vision that I’ve yet to develop? Because the viewfinder display is bloody awful. What is the point of the high point prism if you can’t even see what settings the camera is on? Even my $20 Casio watch has a better LED display. The worse thing about this is that Nikon had already developed some spectacular viewfinder displays in the FM, FE and even the F2AS. Stick with the needles and + and – signs, for God’s sake. The LX and New F-1 did, and not only are they significantly brighter and bigger, they make goddamn sense! Oh, Nikon did put in a little light up button, but it’s so tiny, hard pressed and they don’t even work half the time, you might as well just shine a torch through it. For f*ck’s sake. I know people who love the viewfinder, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. But I can’t handle it. Just, no.
Ooo but you gotta preserve that 100% viewfinder coverage! But the viewfinder magnification is an abysmal 0.8x. Even the Pentax MX has 0.97x. Well ok, it’s not abysmal, but it just fine if nothing special. This might all seem very petty criticisms, but expectations are simply greater since this is the top of the line, professional camera from Nikon!
They made many versions of the F3. Probably the most known outside of the F3HP is the titanium F3/T. They made them both in black and the rarer champagne version. More robust and 20 grams lighter, it even has conformal coating on all the internal electronics for more protection. But if I were to get an F3 of any kind, it would probably be the F3P, with the P standing for Press. I wished they made an FM2 with the features of the F3P, because knowing what I do with my cameras, I could use them! The F3P, besides having a titanium prism with a hotshoe, also has extra weathersealing with O-Ring gaskets, rubber shutter button that’s waterproof and also bigger and taller! Its basically the perfect film camera for Raincouver short of getting a Nikonos underwater camera (minus that stupid viewfinder urgh!) And there were models like the F3H which was a high speed monster that lets you do 13 frames a second and the F3AF which was their first attempt at autofocus in an SLR. (Sadly Minolta did it better.)
Don’t let all of this deter you from getting an F3. They are still incredibly capable cameras that was only discontinued in 2001, long after even the F4 was discontinued. I remember thinking when I was using it that maybe I’m a bit too prejudiced towards it. It is the last professional, manual focus Nikon after all. But darn it, its so close to being perfect!
The F series of cameras continued into the autofocus era with the F4, F5 and the F6, the last of which was only discontinued October of last year and is widely considered the pinnacle of 35mm film camera technology. If you would like to consider getting one of the above cameras, we always have at least one of them at any given time, as they are relatively common. The cameras in the pictures above are all for sale, as of October 2021.