Single lens reflex cameras (SLRs) began arriving on our shores from post-war Japan during the mid-1950s. Though reflex viewing systems have been around since the first camera obscura was introduced, in 1676, consumers had to wait until 1936 when Exacta introduced the Ihagee Kine, the first consumer 35mm SLR. Other companies soon joined the party. In 1959, Nikon raised a number of eyebrows when it introduced the Model “F”, a camera that set the standard for quality camera gear to this very day. Six years down the line, Nikon introduced the Nikkormat FT, which quickly became known as the “poor man’s Nikon F.”
The Nikkormat FT was soon replaced by the FTn, followed by the FT-2 and, finally, the FT3. Each model featured progressive improvements to the metering systems and the addition of a hot shoe, along with a number of internal tweaks.
Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2017
Poor man’s Nikon or not, Nikkormats soon became as popular as the Nikon F and its replacement camera—the Nikon F2, in 1971, and deservedly so. The dye-cast aluminum Nikkormat bodies are as solid as the Nikon F-series cameras, and though Nikkormats have fixed prism housings (the prisms on F-series cameras could be swapped out for dedicated meter prisms, waist-level finders, and sports prisms), they accept most Nikon F-mount lenses, flashes, and other Nikon accessories.
Rather than a removable camera back, which was needed to facilitate Nikon F motor drives, Nikkormats featured conventional hinged doors. They also had improved film advance levers with plastic tips that made them more comfortable to use.
The Nikkormat FT-2, which was introduced in 1975 and available in chrome or black, features an all-metal, multiple-blade Copal Square S focal plane shutter with a shutter-speed range of 1 to 1/1000 of a second.
The layout of the camera controls on Nikkormats is totally unconventional. Rather than a shutter-speed dial, Nikkormats feature a concentric shutter speed ring located along the base of the lens mount. ISO settings are selected using a sliding dial at the bottom portion of the mount assembly.
Nikon F-series cameras had a top flash sync of only 1/90 of a second. The vertical-travel Copal Shutter in the Nikkormat had a top sync speed of 1/125 of a second which, while not a dramatic increase in sync speed, was nonetheless warmly welcomed by studio photographers.
Other features found on the FT-2 included a permanent hotshoe, located on top of the prism housing, and a single sync port for flash (X) and flashbulbs (M)—earlier models featured separate X and M ports.
A new feature that would become a long-time standard for Nikon cameras was a new Type K focusing screen that had a 3mm split-image rangefinder with a 1mm micro-prism collar for fine focusing, surrounded by a 12mm etched circle that indicated the central portion of the camera’s 60/40 center-weighted metering system (60% of the light reading is taken from the central third of the image field and the remaining 40% is taken toward the edges of the frame).
One of the quirks of swapping lenses on Nikkormats (and Nikon Fs) has to do with prepping the camera’s meter linkage and the lens aperture ring prior to attaching the lens.
You must first set the smallest lens aperture against the ISO scale (located on the shutter speed ring). After that, you have to cock the meter coupling pin (located on the lens mount) all the way to the right, set the lens aperture to f/5.6, and only then can you attach the lens to the camera. And yes, you have to repeat this little dance every time you swap lenses. (For the record, it’s a quicker and easier procedure than it sounds).
In use, the Nikkormat sits firmly in one’s hand. Film can be advanced in a single stroke of the film-advance lever, or in a series of short strokes. The camera’s center-weighted metering system activates when you advance the film lever enough to uncover the red dot on the camera’s top plate. The meter remains on as long as the film-advance lever is pulled out. Always tuck the film advance lever flush to the camera body when not in use to prevent battery drain.
Viewed through the viewfinder, your chosen shutter speed (surrounded by the preceding and following shutter speeds) is indicated on the bottom of the frame. You set the exposure by rotating the aperture ring until you center the needle between the plus/minus exposure indicators located on the right side of the viewfinder frame.
Conversely, you can set the aperture and adjust the shutter speed ring until you get a balanced exposure. In addition to the meter settings in the viewfinder, you can also set your exposure using a secondary exposure setting indicator, located on the top deck next to the film rewind knob. The only exposure controls on Nikkormats are the shutter speed and aperture rings—Nikkormats predate Program, Aperture, and Shutter-speed modes.
Other controls found on the top deck of the Nikkormat include a small, glass-covered frame counter and a depth-of-field preview button. The self-timer is located on the front left side of the camera.
To illustrate my Nikkormat FT-2 review, I headed down to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, where I went about taking pictures along the docks where commercial fishing boats tie up after a day at sea. I’ve taken pictures there countless times over the years, and I’ve never come away disappointed with the pictures I’ve taken of the fishing boats, the docks, and all of the colorful details one can find along the way.
I used four vintage Nikon lenses on the camera: a 28mm f/3.5 NIKKOR-H, a 50mm f/1.4 NIKKOR-S, a 135mm f/3.5 NIKKOR-Q, and a 200mm f/4 Micro-NIKKOR. For film, I used Kodak Portra 400 color negative film, which was processed and scanned by a local lab. Being a bright, sunny day, my exposures were 1/1000of asecond @ f/11.
Nikkormats are easy to come by and reasonably priced. There’s also a plethora of used Nikkor lenses available for the camera, at equally reasonable prices, many of which can be found at the B&H Photo Used Department. Nikons and Nikkormats were built for the long run, and that’s why there are so many of them in use decades after they were first introduced.
Have you ever shot with a Nikkormat? If so, which one? And if not a Nikkormat, do you have a favorite classic camera that you like to use? Let us know—we’d love to hear about it.