Photography / Hands-on Review

Classic Camera Review: The Original Nikon Fs

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The Nikon F was introduced in 1959. Integrating a newly designed mirror box, pentaprism, and bayonet lens mount with existing components from Nikon’s popular SP rangefinder camera, Nikon’s engineers were able to design a pro-quality 35mm camera that could be used with lenses longer than 135mm without having to resort to a reflex housing, which has its own limitations. Nikon’s management and engineering team wanted a professional-quality reflex camera system that would surpass the limitations of rangefinder cameras and, hopefully, expand the company’s footprint within the growing post-war photo industry.

Why the letter “F”? According to legend, the letter “F” was the only prominent letter in the word “reflex” that was easy to pronounce in any language. “R” didn’t work, and “X” didn’t cut it for unknown reasons, leaving “F” as the model name for Nikon’s breakthrough camera system.

The Nikon F wasn’t the first reflex camera (SLR) to come to market—that title belongs to the Kine-Exacta, a German-made camera produced in 1936 that featured waist-level, inverted-image viewing, a viewfinder that would get progressively darker as you stopped the lens down, and a mirror that remained in the up position until you re-cocked the shutter. These issues were slowly resolved as prism finders, fully-automatic aperture control, and quick-return mirrors became the norm.

What made the Nikon F so special is that it was the first SLR that addressed all the drawbacks of SLR camera technologies of the day, and did so in the form of an SLR that thoroughly outperformed the competition. Equally significant was that the camera was designed to be part of what would quickly become a wide-ranging system of lenses and accessories designed to capture photographs under the toughest, most challenging working conditions.

The F was available with a choice of interchangeable prism finders, each of which provided 100% image viewing. In addition to the standard prism finder, Nikon offered a folding waist-level finder, a rigid, chimney-style waist level finder, a larger Sports Finder that enabled you to view the entire viewing field without having to press your eye up to the finder (a boon for eyeglass wearers), and a meter prism.

Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2018

Nikon F Photomic FT (1965) in black lacquer

The original Photomic meter prism was basically a prism finder with a built-in selenium meter that coupled to the camera’s shutter-speed dial. The original meter wasn’t TTL. It did, however, offer the user the choice of taking incident or reflected light readings. The Photomic T, which was introduced in 1965, was the first to offer TTL metering. The Photomic T was followed by the Photomic FTn, which introduced center-weighted metering to the world.

Nikon also offered a range of accessories for coupling Nikon F bodies with microscopes and telescopes for medical and astronomical imaging.

Photographs taken with Nikon F with 2.1cm Nikkor-O

Mounting lenses on a Nikon F is not always straightforward. If your camera has a Photomic metering prism, you must make sure the meter’s linkage pin is pressed to your right, and the lens must be set at f/5.6 to engage the pin linkage. In the case of the 2.1cm Nikkor-O, you must set the focus to infinity and the aperture to f/8 to mount it on the camera.

Photographs taken with Nikon F with 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor

Why are 64xxx-series Nikon Fs different from all other Nikon Fs?

When Nikon released the first Fs to the public, the camera wasn’t quite finalized. The first production run had serial numbers beginning with “64,” two of which are featured in this review. The first 100 units (#6400001 – #6400100) are of interest to collectors because, rarity aside, they had small, quirky details that differed from later production cameras, including cloth shutter curtains rather than the Titanium-foil shutter curtains found in model Fs with higher serial numbers.

The earliest Nikon Fs had “Nippon Kogaku” engraved on the top plate. Cameras made after 1965 had “Nikon” engraved in its place.
For the first year of production, the film advance levers on Nikon Fs had hollow undersides. Later models were flush top and bottom.

The word “Japan,” which typically appears in the middle of the bottom plate, is instead engraved on the camera back lock latch on the first few thousand production Fs.

The word “Japan” is engraved on the lock latch of the camera back on the first few thousand Nikon Fs, but was moved to the center of the bottom plate, where it remained throughout the balance of the camera’s production run.

Other traits unique to the first production run of Nikon Fs include film advance levers with hollow undersides and “Nippon Kogaku”—the name of Nikon’s parent optical company—engraved on the camera’s top plate instead of “Nikon,” which began appearing around 1965.

If you remove the camera back of a 64xxx-series camera, you’ll also note six pending Patent numbers engraved to the left of the film pressure plate. The edges of the camera’s aluminum self-timer lever were notably sharper on early production cameras.

A Nikon F manufactured toward the end of the first year’s production run (early 1960)

The Nikon F remained in production for 14 years, with a total output of 862,600 units, and proved to be a success in terms of performance and acceptance among pros and enthusiasts alike. Nikon’s follow-up camera—the Nikon F2, began production in 1971, overlapping the final F production runs, and ended in 1980. That same year, the Nikon F3 was introduced—the first F with an electronic shutter, which remained in production for the next 21 years.

The F3 was followed by the F4 (1988 – 1996), Nikon’s first autofocus flagship camera, which was followed by the F5 (1996 – 2004), and the Nikon F6, which was introduced in 2004 and remains the last professional 35mm film camera made today.

Photographs taken with Nikon F with a 200mm Micro-Nikkor AI-S

The photographs taken to illustrate this story were captured using a trio of Nikon Fs, manufactured in 1959, 1965, and 1969. The lenses included a 2.1cm f/4 Nikkor-O ultra-wide, a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor, and a 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor. Films used included Rollei IR, Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak Portra 400, and Fujicolor PRO 400H. The film was metered using a Sekonic L-308 light meter and processed and scanned by LTI-Lightside, located on East 30 Street, in Manhattan.

The cameras and lenses used to illustrate this story include a black 1965 Nikon FT with a 50mm f/1.4 lens (center), a chrome 1969 Nikon FTn with a 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor (right), and a camera from the very first production run in 1959 with a 2.1cm f/4 Nikkor ultra-wide (left), which was introduced the same time as the original Nikon F camera system.

Have you ever owned a Nikon F? Better yet, do you currently own a Nikon F? If so, please share your thoughts on this iconic camera system.

25 Comments

The Nikon F was not cheap but if you bought one in 1959, you had the best SLR money could buy for 14 years.  Just change the prism and you had the latest.  If you bought an early F2, you had one of the top pro cameras for 9 years.  So much ingenuity and quality went into these cameras.

I purchased an Nikon F in Hong Kong in 1959 after seeing the introduction in Japan a month earlier. I used it on an around the world trip 1959-1960. It served me well for many years when I got a Nikon F2. I have been a Nikon user always. I currently use a Nikon d800 and a d850.  I noticed that the serial # plate on the Nikon F had been replaced when i had it cleaned many years ago. at the time I never checked when it was returned. the #is 7302403 which is wrong. it should be 640xxxx. All the camera details  confirm it was from the 1959 production. I looked in side and found that the casting # was 35/0. Is there any way of finding the original serial #. I am sure that when I had it serviced someone replaced the plate with the origin serial #. Any ideas?

I still have my Nikon FTn (along with an F2A, F3, F4 with all three battery packs and an F5) but haven't used it for a long time as now digital. I realised a long time ago, however, that the FTn was designed by someone with three hands who thought everyone else was the same: take the body in one hand, with another hold in the prism release button on the back with a ballpoint pen and with your third hand push in the lever on the prism and take it off!

I have every Nikon F that I used professionally.  The one I'm the most proud of is my 1965 Nikon F Photomic F (s/n 653635x) That my Dad gave me.  My Dad went to the Olympics and picked up this camera.  It was one of the cameras I learned on (the other was a Speed Graphic).  Currently my F Photomic F, FTn, F2, F3, F4, and F5 are retired (as I am) in my camera museum.  My Nikon F Photomic F is almost in mint state with some brassing on the ASA dial.  All of the accessories are in place and this one has  a Titanium shutter.  I also have the focusing screens for various Nikon F cameras for different assignments.  The Nikon F Photomic F has a one button release for the pentaprism unlock unlike the button and bat handle of the FTn.  The camera I used the most was my Canon New F-1 which I got because of a assignment to Turkey and I wasn't sure that I could get a battery for the F3.  The Canon New F-1 will allow me to shoot w/o a battery.  When I got back, I got an F3 (better metering).

Now I'm in Fuji Land with a new X-H1.  It weighs less than my Nikon F Photomic F with 50mm lens and you don't need to manually advance to the next shot.

I had a pair of Nikon F prism bodies during my days as a poor student at RIT. Those things were tough. One day on a hike to a state park, I dropped one of the bodies 30 feet onto the rocks. Thought I was done, one camera down, but climbed down, picked it up, dented as can be, and it still worked. Many a times I dropped those things on the ice during those horrid winters up there, it was nothing. If the world were to end in a huge nuclear explosion, two things would remain: cockroaches and Nikon F bodies.

I purchased my first Nikon F2 camera in 1975 and I used it while I worked at United Airlines when I visited Hawaii about 25 Plus times in my 15 years working there on different islands. I used to bring about 30 rolls of film with me each time. These rolls have 36 pictures that I can take. I love that camera and I took good care of it and I still have it. I bought another one at a swap meet and I still have that one too. I purchased first Nikon Digital Camera in 2007 Nikon D300 and then in 2015 I purchased Nikon 1 J5 because the point-and-shoots did not take good picture always too blurry, so I carry this one with me all of the time with two extra batteries. I then purchased my newest camera Nikon D500 with the Nikon's AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Lens  and I love it. I wish I would have waited because I always wanted a full frame and the Nikon D850 is the only one and best one that I would have purchased. But now I am retired and I will not be able to afford that one now. But I love the Nikon D500 the best I have used and the Nikon 1 J5. The Nikon F2 camera is a great camera that took great pictures and I liked the manual opereation because I had complete control.

I am in my 51st year as a working Photojournalist.  I switched to Nikon (F) in 1969 when the diaphram blades in my Pentax' 50mm 1.4 Takumar developed a detent through use and could not close down to f22.  f16 and f22 were both the same exposure.  It had been purchased in 1967 and served me well as my first camera.  I have stuck with Nikon as my 35mm and now digital choice since.  I have been an NPS member from the start and will remain loyal to the brand. I still am able to use some of my vintage glass on the newest digital offerings.  I do have one camera on my wish list...if anyone from the Mothership is reading this......  Please make a new Nikon digital body with a square  36 X 36mm sensor.  All lenses have round glass and will cover.  I can toss my Hassy in the showcase with my old F's. No need to shoot vertical anymore during a sporting event.  No second set of controls on the grip. Internal H & V crops can be handled in the same manner as DX crop is on a full-frame body.  Current sensor technology as in the D850 would make it a 55+ megapixel unit.  The square format would delight art directors and editors.  A new larger shutter and prism would have to be designed but everything else would be off the shelf.  C'mon Nikon...This would set Canon and Sony into a tailspin and revolutionize the camera world just as it did in 1959!

Unfortunately, the square would be 30 x 30mm to fit inside the same circle as the 36 x 24mm rectangle. This is just a few millimeters larger than the 1" square sensors.

Brian, you have just vocalized my dream! YES, 36x36 wonderful! I am buying the 850 just for the ability to compose square. I doubt if Mr Nikon will listen but how right you are in stating such square format would revolutionize the industry! A total  winner!

I got interested in photography in the mid-60's watching an older gentleman use his Leicaflex. When I got a job in high school working at a burger joint, I saved all my money and bought a black FTn and a chrome FTn. Then I found my love was not of photography, it was the cameras themselves.

I sold one of my bodies to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring soon after high school and took my love of cameras with me to National Camera Repair School in Colorado. My wife still has the engagement ring and I'm sure after 46 years it is worth more than my old camera would have been. Alas, the second F is also long gone.

While working my first camera repair job after schooling, my mentor told me that the German camera engineers tried to impress people with how many small parts they could stuff into a small space. Yes, there was precision, but the cameras were somewhat fragile. The Japanese engineers, he said, tried to do the same job with the fewest crudely-made parts that they could. The F was a great example of that. They were rugged and heavy and it took a lot to break one!

Fast-forward to today. I'm still repairing cameras, albeit only digitals now, but I'm sure the Nikon F cameras will still be operable many years after the current crop of digitals have bitten the dust (as long as someone keeps producing 35mm film).

To the old English ballad tune of "Three Drunken Maidens," from the Grit Laskin's CD, Unabashedly Folk: Songs and Tunes 1979-1985:

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS
(Grit Laskin)

Early Saturday morning, while strolling in the wood,
I chanced upon a lady who by the wayside stood;
And what, pray tell, would such a lass as you be doing here?
I've come to take some photographs, she said as she drew near.

Says me to her, I do declare, this is a fateful day,
For I have come to photograph, the same as you did say;
So I pulled out my Nikon-F and placed it in her hand,
She said that's quite a camera, you've got at your command.

Well, my camera so delighted her, that with more delay,
She let me see her camera case, wherein her accessories lay;
I'm sure, says I, you've got most everything that can be bought,
Just help me stretch my tripod before I take some shots.

Well, we photographed from haylofts, and up against the wall;
If you've not photographed on a Saturday night,
You've not photographed at all.
She had her shutter open wide, for daylight was all gone;
Likewise my naked camera lens, it had its filter on.

Well, this lady had experience with cameras, yes, indeed;
And I thought her exposures the best I ever seed.
Although she seemed to tire not as on and on we went.
Says I, we'll have to finish now, my film supply is spent.

Said she, I've had Minoltas, Yashicas and Rolleis,
Hasselblad and Pentax, likewise a Polaroid;
Miranda, Leica, Nikkormat, a Kodak and the rest;
But now I've had your Nikon-F, and surely it's the best.

@bawdy @camera
Copyright ©Grit Laskin

Thank you, Allan, for your wonderful retrospective trip down memory lane! Like Dennis Livesey's recollections below, in the late 1960's I also was a student on a limited income. My burgeoning love of photography got me a part-time job in one of the local camera shops in Sacramento. I spent a good deal of my time setting up and restocking merchandising displays for products from Hasselblad, Rollei, Mamiya, Pentax ... and especially Nikon. Maybe it was Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up" or the photo spreads in Life Magazine or National Geographic, but I lusted after a Nikon F in the worst way! At that time, the ebb and flow of troops involved in the Vietnam War meant a lot of R&R in Japan and lots of quality products available in the BXs both overseas and stateside. More and more, our camera shop began seeing whole camera systems coming in for resale on consignment because the purchasers had found them too complicated for their needs. As luck would have it, one day, in late 1969 or early 1970, I arrived at work to find we'd received a Halliburton case containing a gorgeous black-body Nikon F (Ser. #7101776) equipped with a black-lacquer Photomic FTn prism and Nikkor 55mm f1.2 lens. The case also contained a variety of focus screens, filters and tele-extenders along with 55mm f3.5, 28mm f3.5 and 105mm f2.5 lenses. The store's owner, knowing my desire to own a Nikon system, had quickly set the case aside for me alone. I only wish I could remember what the sale price was set at. Whatever it was, I apparently was able to move heaven and earth to come up with it because it's sitting right here in front of me today. While I have long since moved on to the benefits of digital, your article prompted me to dust off the old case and, as I opened it up, a flood of memories returned of family vacations lovingly preserved on film, of hikes and photography workshops and the do-it-yourself darkroom I set up in the bathroom so I could learn how to manipulate my results out-of-camera. Today, of course, we have amazing features and incredible power in the palm of our hand. Coupled with editing tools like Adobe Photoshop I can achieve results I only dreamed of in decades past. I guess I should have discarded my Nikon F system years ago, but, as Dennis said in his comments:  "I love how it feels; heavy, solid, precise, and ready to make the best possible image. With a camera of this quality, the limitation is not the camera, but the photographer." I couldn't have said it any better than that. Thank you again, Allan! Your article has made my day!

I still have a Nikon F with Photomic T meter and 55mm f1.2 lens that I bought while in high school in 1967. It is built like a tank and sounds like one, too, when hitting the shutter release. I also have a Leica M3, which is at the other end of the spectrum -- just a silky whisper when pressing the shutter. They are so different but much appreciated in their own ways. 

Aaahhhhh… Nikon F. Thank you for stirring up some fond memories.

I grew up in Miami in the 1950-60s and in my mid-teens, circa 1965, I got into documentary photography. Nikon F was the aspirational camera from earliest awareness. The early F’s, pentaprism only without a built-in meter, are the prettiest.

Living in Miami, one could buy Nikon gear from a Nassau shop. Travelers from the Bahamas would be mules to carry in the gear tax-free. I think all the pros in Miami bought Nikon gear from Nassau, and photographers working in Vietnam would stock up in Tokyo.

I started my career in the photo department of National Geographic right after I graduated college. When I arrived in 1972, National Geographic was 95% a Nikon shop. A photographer’s kit would minimally be three to five Nikon Fs and lenses 20mm to 300mm. We packed this stuff, along with 20-roll bricks of Kodachrome and Ektachrome, into Halliburton cases of varying shapes. If you wanted more gear…no problem. To the best of my recall, nearly every National Geo photographer was working with Nikon Fs. The rare exceptions were Jim Stanfield, Sam Abell, and I think Bill Allard, who recognized the superiority of Leica optics on for Leicaflex. But Leicaflex was not as durable or flexible as the Nikon system.

I also shot Leica M4 cameras, and eventually a few of my colleagues also used Leicas alongside Nikons. Most of the time I had two Leica M and one Nikon around my neck or in my bag. My Leicas were devoted to lenses 21 – 50mm, Nikon for 85 – 135mm.

I worked my gear hard and it got banged up and worn out pretty regularly. I upgraded to Nikon F2 and then F3/titanium as they came onto the market. In 1987 an exploding cannister of tear gas fired from a shotgun hit a nearly-new Nikon F3/titanium hanging over my chest. I survived without too much damage, but the Nikon body caved in and lens was destroyed. Cameras can be expensive shock absorbers.

I left National Geographic in 1991 and have not attempted to take a serious photograph since. But I still get excited when I see and touch those marvelous 35mm machines of the 1970s.

In 2013 powerHouse Books published Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990. Many of the images I made with Nikons, most with Leica M4s.

While I was on a WESPAC cruise towards the end of Vietnam I bought a black body F model Nikon FTn with a f55 1:1.2 lens in the Philippines for around $325.  This amounted to about a months pay for me at the time. I shot a lot of Kodak Tri-x with it learning how to shoot.

Today I’m buying up many of those early 70’s Nikkor multicoated lenses I couldn’t afford in my youth and mount them on my Sony a7’s.  Yeah I have a few Sony G and GM lenses but those old Nikkors hold up really well against them.

My old F body is long gone, lost in a home burglary.  Maybe one of these days I may pick up a F4 and get back into shooting film again.  They were and are very nice cameras and amazing lenses.  I'm having a lot of fun with them on my Sony's

While serving in an Army Evac Hospital in Vietnam in 1969-70 , I brought my first SLR in the PX , choosing the Pentax Spotmatic , which served me very well . But I always thought maybe I made a mistake not getting that Nikon FTN ... in black enamel . Decades later I found a lovely specimen in black ; that led to other black models of the FG, FE , FE2 , and my favorite , the F2 AS ... with the 50 1.2 lens . I am blest . Still have my Spotmatic and a further collection of rangefinders as I couldn’t find the Yashica Electro 35 in the ‘Nam PX either and had to quench that long ago lust . They all are such lovely machines . My F2 AS has film in it now as does the Konica Auto S2 on my shelf . But the Nikon DSLR’s are the horses I ride now . And it amazes me looking at the slides I have from that Spotmatic , what one could do in fully manual  . Thank you for this wonderful article . 

I inherited #6467437 from my dad, now gone. And I'm at the point where I'm no longer shooting film (tho I also have an FM2 with external motor drive should I need).  Seems like a shame to have this tucked into a drawer. Any idea what these cameras are worth? Mine's a little scratched up, the result of my years in news photography. (I think I also have a meter pentaprism buried somewhere.)

I got my first Nikon FTn in 1970 and routinely used it with the 24mm, 50mm f1.4 and 80-200mm Nikkors, shooting hundreds of rolls of film on several photography staffs. The F was a superb tool, with an excellent feel and superb ergonomics. The need to remove the base plate to change the film canister was a bit of an annoyance, as was the need to waste a frame to lock up the mirror, but other than that, I had no complaints. The few finder was sharp and clear, and I was pleased that dust could be cleaned from the views screen, unlike cameras with non-removable finders. The F was rugged beyond any reasonable expectation; I remain grateful to Nikon engineers for that.  The best thing about the Nikon F was the fact that it could take a motor drive, which meant never missing a critical shot. Since my original F, I shot with the Nikon F2 Photomic, F2AS, F3HP, F3Af, F4s, F5, D1x, D2sx, D3, D4 and now the D5. The F2 and F3 series were just tweaks on the original F. The F3Af was too slow to deliver good autofocus, but the F4 succeeded, and the F5 was even better. The D-series delivered progressively better digital images, but I still miss the simple elegance of the original F.

I too inherited a Nikon "F" from my father.  It was one of the first 22,000 made.  Purchased in New York in April of 1960 when my father was there on business.  The lens with this camera was a 5.8CM f1.4 Nippon lens. 

I started to use this camera in late 1975 and has been in my possession ever since.  Though I have gone 100% digital starting in late 1999, I have not parted with and have absolutely no plans on parting with this piece of history.  When I have it in my hands now, I can still see my father using this camera to take pictures.

One day, probably late next year lord willing, I will dust it off, buy a roll of actual film film and shoot a roll for old times sake.  I want to remember once again what it was like to use a handheld light meter to expose each shot, manually focus through the split focus screen and see how the pictures come out with the single coated Nippon lens.  It should be a far cry from the use of a current DSLR.

Great article thank you. Brings back great memories. I have a Nikon F2AS Photomic in mint condition, does anyone know the value with a Nikkor 1.4 lens

Thank you for the excellent review of the Nikon F cameras.  I still have mine and occasionally use it for scientific photography when a digital camera is not suitable.  It is an excellent instrument. 

As for the earliest reflex cameras, Graflex made several models in the 1920s or earlier.  I have the 4x5 revolving back model.  You sight and compose on a waist-level finder with an attached hood to block ambient light.  When you trip the shutter, the mirror swings up and a focal-plane shutter exposes the film.  The mirror does not return automatically; it remains up until you reset the camera.  I used to use the Graflex to take portraits, especially of kids.  If I used a regular view camera they would inevitably move between the time I had composed the frame and when I had loaded the film holder, etc.  The Graflex avoided that delay. 

 I have three NIkon F cameras: #6400598, #6452091, #6861651. Also two "Tick Mark" lenses: 5cm f2 #520228 has & 13.5cm f3.5 #721048. Great cameras. While working at a camera shop, I got my first one at the shop's cost. Did lots of sports photography for newspapers. I used and still have a Nikkor  85-250mm zoom #159054. This is the initial model where the zoom and focus are two separate controls. Took some work to get football shots with the runner coming towards me! Later models of this zoom combined zoom and focus into a single control. Great gear; but today, I prefer to shoot digital.

In addition to Allan Weitz's excellent comments on early Nikon F's differences, the grooves on the self-timer lever of my serial #6400598 are etched at a slight diagonal rather than parallel to the lever on my later models.

I so wanted to have a Nikon F in the '60's and '70's.

The movie "Blow Up" showed it as cool.  All the Vietnam War photographers all used them.  A Life magazine staffer who was the first professional photographer I ever meet had Halliburton cases chock full of F's and lenses. Green with envy I was!

But being the pro camera it was, it came with a pro price tag and on my meager student budget, there was no way.

So the next best thing was a new Nikkormat FTN and a used 50mm f/1.4. I was in the Nikon system!

For the next 25 years I was a Nikon man, getting an FM and a bag of 6 Nikkor lenses. But still no F anything.

Then opportunity struck in 2008. With the onslaught of digital, the market price sank on film cameras. I therefore was finally able to pick up my student dream camera, a beautiful closest queen F from 1972. While the meter needs adjustment, the rest works perfectly.

I love how it feels; heavy, solid, precise, and ready to make the best possible image. With a camera of this quality, the limitation is not the camera, but the photographer.

I hope someday to be worthy.

I still have my 60's and 70's Nikon F's and a bunch of lenses. Every once in awhile I get them out and shoot some film through them and have some fun. I enjoy it when I do that, but it also brings to the forefront how good our modern equipment is.  The new digital camera technology is nothing short of amazing.

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