Wednesday, August 08, 2018

In Praise of the Nikon F

First released in 1959, the Nikon F became the dominant SLR among professionals due to its ruggedness, reliability, full complement of accessories, and ease of use.  The modular approach with different viewfinders allowed Nikon to upgrade the metering system without having to revamp an entire camera. The Nikon F was discontinued in 1974, after being replaced by the F2 in 1971. Fifteen years is a long time, and while the F was certainly not the only Nikon SLR produced over that span, it remains an iconic SLR. Over 860,000 Nikon F bodies were produced in that time, and I wonder how many are still working today. My guess is that most of them do.

The Nikon F was the first Japanese SLR to have:

  • 100% coverage in the viewfinder
  • Mirror Lockup
  • Interchangeable focus screens
  • Full Pro system from day 1 (a huge range of lenses on day 1)
  • 250 exposure back
  • electric motorized winder that could be attached to the body
  • titanium foil shutter

I'm not going to provide an exhaustive history of the Nikon F, as it's certainly covered elsewhere on the web and in various publications.  For some great resources, check out the following two books:

  1. The New Nikon Compendium. Stafford, Hillebrand, & Hauschild. 2004. Lark Books, NY. 415 pp. ISBN-1-57990-592-7
  2. Nikon F Nikkormat Handbook of Photography. Cooper and Abbott. 1968. Amphoto. (ring bound with 14 chapters + index).

and web sites:

Okay, back to my story. I first held a Nikon F around 2000-2001, when I was moving a bunch of equipment around where I worked at the UM Museum of Zoology.  A Photomic F belonged to a curator who had used it extensively in Australia in the late 1960s, and through the 1980s.  The worn leather bag held the camera and 3 lenses - 50mm f/2, 55mm micro-Nikkor, and the 200mm f/4, as well as an M extension tube.  That was my first contact with the camera, and while I thought the Nikon F with the Photomic finder was ungainly, the view through the lens was fantastic.  Plus, what was with the funky twist and turn when I mounted the lens?  Compare the Nikon twist with the predominant M-42 mount that was available in 1959, and one can see how much better it was.  The "Nikon twist" - was to index the lens to the maximum aperture, which all of the non-AI lenses required with the Photomic finders on the F and F2, as well as the Nikkormats (until the FT-3).  AI lenses - Auto-Indexing, which came later, was achieved with a small tab on the base of the lens that engaged a matching cam on the lens mount. If you had a plain prism or waist-level finder on the F, you did not have to index the lens. 

I found that old camera to be a challenge, but I was already a Nikon fan, having been the recipent of an N-50 and lenses from my mentor, Bill Brudon.  I eventually was given a Nikon F by someone that was cleaning out his accumulation of "stuff." It too, was a Nikon F with the Photomic finder.  Later, I bought an F2 which I used for quite a while. 

Over the years since, several Nikon Fs have come my way.  While the metered Photomic finders may have had problems, the bodies did not. My daughter also liked the Nikon F with a plain prism.  It was simple, less heavy than the Photomic version, and just looked awesome.  No meter? No problem, sunny-16 or a hand-held meter.

For a while, I divested myself of any Fs and then earlier this year, this lovely Nikon F with a nice plain prism found me.  I'm keeping this one.  It is a superb example of the iconic camera.  Plus, with a 50mm f/2 Nikkor-H lens, it's a lot of fun to shoot with. 

Using a Nikon F with the plain prism is as basic as you can get.  No meter, only the aperture ring on the lens, the shutter speed dial, and the shutter button, and film advance. It is very similar to using a Leica M2 in that aspect.  The Titanium-foil shutters of the Nikon F seem to last forever, unlike the cloth and rubber shutters found on the Pentax Spotmatics. 

The only area where the F is lacking would be in using a flash.  Because the finders are removable and interchangeable, the flash contacts are over by the rewind crank.  To use a flash connected directly to the camera with a hot shoe, you need the AS-1 flash adapter, which works with any flash with a standard hot shoe.  The original Nikon F flash adapter is a cold-shoe, and you connect to the X-sync PC socket on the body with a short cable.  You can also use a flash attached to a flash holder that screws onto the tripod socket, which also requires a PC cord.  The big potato-masher flashes of years past were connected this way. Flash sync is 1/60 sec, slow by today's standards. 

You may also be a bit confused on how to rewind the film, as there is no release on the bottom of the camera.  The collar that surrounds the shutter release button is rotated to "R" to rewind. Make sure it is rotated back to "A" to advance the film.  If you want to use a cable release with the F, you'll need to find a Leica-style cable release, or an adapter that screws onto the collar to allow a standard cable release to fit.  These are minor quirks that F users are familiar with.

If you have a Nikon F with the metered prism, such as the Photomic, you'll have to use hearing-aid batteries (zinc-air), because the meters required mercury cells. Of course, you can use Alkaline cells, and if you are using C-41 film, it probably won't make much of a difference in your results.  In addition, due to the age of the finders, they may not work at all, or be unreliable.  This is why I prefer the plain prism finder.

I took my F along on a trip to Collingwood, Ontario last month.  Sometimes I used a hand-held meter, sometimes I used sunny-16, and trusted my instincts.  I shot a couple of rolls of film, one of them being Fomapan 100, which I developed in HC110-B.  Here are a few images from that roll. 

I found the camera to be a joy to use, and its robust yet ergonomic construction just invites one to use it.  There is no chintzy feel to this camera whatsoever.   In fact, it could stop a bullet.    I only need mine to stop time for a fraction of a second.  It does that quite well.

1 comment:

Bill Smith said...

Mark, you're preaching to the converted, I own four of them, a pair of meter heads (Tn, and FTN) and two early production eye level prism F's. It's pretty easy to see why the Nikon F became a favourite of photojournalists in the 1960s and pretty much kneecapping the German camera industry in the process.