Classic Cameras: In the Field with the Mighty Nikon F

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The letter “F.” It is one of the most powerful letters in all of photography. In the automotive world, BMW virtually owns “M.” In the tech world, Apple conquered the “i.” In 1959, when Nikon rolled out its first ever single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, the company took possession of “F” and it has been symbolic in the photography world ever since.

Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp

Nikon’s flagship SLR film cameras have all carried the F designation, followed by a number. The legendary camera that started Nikon’s professional line was simply called the “Nikon F.”

History

Like many camera manufacturers, Nikon was busy producing 35mm rangefinder film cameras in the decades leading up to the launch of the Nikon F. According to Nikon, the first 35mm SLR camera was the Kine-Exakta, built by Ihagee Kamerawerk, Steenbergen & Co., in Germany, in 1936. Light enters the camera lens and then reflects on the SLR camera’s reflection, or reflex, mirror and to a viewfinder—often through a prism at the top of the camera. Early SLR cameras did not have a mirror that returned to the reflecting position after shooting. Nor did cameras and lenses feature automatic diaphragm control that mechanically opened the lens aperture to its maximum when attached to the camera body. These two things made the SLR downright cumbersome when compared to its relatively athletic rangefinder compeers.

One advantage that the rangefinder did not have was the ability to work well with lenses with focal lengths greater than 135mm. For long-ranging telephoto-lens photography, the SLR was going to be the camera of choice.

 


Handling the Nikon F is similar to handling almost any film SLR. Photo ©John Harris

Nikon, although pleased with the performance and sales of its rangefinder cameras, embarked on a voyage to create a user-friendly, professional-quality SLR camera and specified four design ideas that can be viewed here.

To cut down on cost, the camera was to be heavily based on the mechanicals of Nikon rangefinders. In the original prototype Nikon F cameras, only the mirror box, pentaprism, and now-legendary Nikon F bayonet mount were designed specifically for the F. The rest of the camera was virtually identical to the SP/S3 rangefinder.

The letter “F” was chosen for the new model as “R” (for reflex) sounds objectionable to many non-English speaking photographers. “F” came from the F in reflex.

 

 


The beautiful “Caesura,” by Jessica Feldman, is an audio sculpture at the top of Marcus Garvey Park.

To overcome some of the drawbacks of early SLR cameras, the new Nikon F featured an automatic mirror return, auto diaphragm to open the attached lens’s aperture and provide the brightest possible viewfinder image, a depth-of-field preview button to stop the lens down, and a mirror lockup feature to reduce vibrations.

The Nikon F was unveiled to the world’s press in March, 1959, and it was introduced to America at the Photo Marketing Association show, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May of that year. Not only was the camera rolled out, but an entire line of lenses and accessories accompanied it—a comprehensive professional system right out of the gate. With adapters for non F-mount lenses, the combination of new SLR lenses and other Nikon glass gave the Nikon F a lens focal-length range from 21mm to 1,000mm on the first day it was released. No other camera-and-lens combination had anything close to that focal-length range available.

The community pool at Marcus Garvey Park

Nippon Kogaku K. K., Japan (now Nikon Corporation) made the F from 1959-1974. 862,000 were produced. The initial price (with NIKKOR 50mm f/2 S lens) was $329.50.

The F started a long lineage of the top-of-the-line Nikon film SLR cameras that included the legendary F2 (1971-1980), F3 (1980-2001), F4 (1988-1997), F5 (1996-2004), and the now discontinued F6 (2004-2020).

Impact

In 1959, the German-made rangefinder was the professional camera of choice. Japanese rangefinder cameras were very good, but photographers gravitated toward the legendary German quality and optics, despite their higher prices.


Another vantage of “Caesura,” by Jessica Feldman. The sculpture plays bells, horns, and audio clips from Marcus Garvey speeches.

Then came the Nikon F and the entire photography world quickly experienced a paradigm shift that continues to this day—nearly 60 years later. With the Nikon F, Japan became the world’s industry leader in photography and the SLR, specifically the Japanese SLR, became the choice of photographers around the world.

Just as the Leica rangefinder ushered in the world of 35mm handheld photography, the Nikon F ushered in the supremacy of the professional SLR camera.

Hands-On

If you have used or owned an older Nikon SLR camera, the F will feel immediately familiar in your hands. I have an FM3a that feels almost identical in size, weight, and density. The control placement is familiar, but was refined over subsequent generations of F cameras. If you used to shoot an F3, or for that matter, a digital Df, you won’t be all thumbs the first time you pick up the F.

Scenes from Marcus Garvey Park; the park interrupts 5th Avenue as you head north through Manhattan.

 

If you are a photographer accustomed to shooting modern digital SLR cameras, or even film cameras produced over the past three decades, you will find that the pentaprism viewfinder of the F is where you feel like you have definitely taken a step into the past. The viewfinder is huge. It is bright. And, it is completely devoid of anything in the way of exposure needles, focus confirmation dots, glowing digital stuff, etc. There is nothing obscuring your view save the central focus split-prism and its surrounding circle. I do not know if the age of the camera is the culprit, but there was a nostalgic analog haziness to the viewfinder image on my loaned F that gives the feeling of viewing the world through a tiny version of a large-format camera’s ground glass.

So, there are no exposure needles to match up inside the viewfinder. Actually, there are no exposure needles to match up anywhere on the F that I was given. Later versions of the F, like the F Photomic and Photomic FTn, were equipped with light meters, but this earlier version has nothing to measure light. Forget cycling between spot, matrix, and center-weighted metering, or seeing something (anything) in the viewfinder to indicate exposure. Those days hadn’t arrived yet when this F was manufactured.

The pool house, chessboards, and rows of seats at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater

 

Also, nothing in the viewfinder indicates your aperture and shutter speed. Shutter speed is read on the dial and aperture is read on the lens.

For exposure info, I carried my Sekonic L-358 light meter on my outings.

I did cut my photographic teeth with film, but I had never been out shooting without a built-in meter on a camera, so that was a totally new experience. “Sunny f/16 rule!” said my old-school photographer father. Martine Franck, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wife, said, in an interview for The New Yorker, that she did not use a light meter. “I think I know my light by now,” she stated.


 

 

 
Grand trees at the top of the park near where the fire tower used to stand; “Caesura,” a bike rack, and steps

 

Well, growing up with the crutch of an in-camera light meter, I realized that I have given very little thought to my light—especially in the daytime. Apparently, I don’t know my light. I’m much better at guessing exposures at night, because during night photography exposure is much more in my conscious thought.

Another noticeable step into the retro world was the sudden inability to shoot wide-open in daylight. Opening my 50mm all the way to f/1.8 with the Porta 400 film would have pegged the non-existent analog shutter speed needle at the 1/1000 of a second mark. This is the fastest shutter speed allowed by the Nikon F. The mirrorless camera I have been shooting of late switches to an electronic shutter that pulses the pixels for a “shutter” speed of 1/32000 of a second, allowing you to shoot in broad daylight at very wide F-stops. Oh, how quickly we adapt to modern technology!

None of this is to say that the Nikon F is devoid of “technology.” In addition to mirror lockup, the camera has depth-of-field preview, a self-timer, and a handy ISO reminder dial at the bottom. So, a pinhole camera it is not. 

 The Marcus Garvey Playground
 

Because the camera is an SLR, shooting the F only takes you back so far. You still have the “modern” conveniences of 35mm film, an optical viewfinder, a mechanical shutter, and other niceties. You can also hang almost any modern or classic Nikon F-mount lens on the front of the F. I shot a couple of Nikon 50mm lenses, the Nikon AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm F/2D, the Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED, and the Zeiss Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZF.2 lens.

The nostalgia of the Nikon F hits you when you look through the empty viewfinder and you see the letter “F” proudly engraved onto the pentaprism viewfinder and you realize that this is where it all started.

The Photos

Located in Harlem in the path of 5th Avenue between 120th and 124th Streets, Marcus Garvey Park covers just over 20 acres of land on the island of Manhattan. Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was a Jamaican immigrant and political leader who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), as well as the Black Star Line, a merchant shipping company that helped return diaspora of Africa back to their native lands. Originally the Mount Morris Park, the site was re-named for Marcus Garvey in 1973.

The Marcus Garvey Park features a community pool, amphitheater, playgrounds, a baseball field, ball courts, and more. 

94 Comments

...my lifelong love of Nikons started with an F... then another F... then a couple F2s, then a couple F3s.  The latter are still my favorite film camera; I shot many dozens of air-to-air assignments with them and my 1.8 85mm. Loud and heavy with a motor drive and good glass, but they never, ever let me down. Still shooting Nikons, 800 series with battery grips... a bit heavy compared to mirrorless but like the Fs, F2s and F3s they never, ever let me down. 

My first camera was my dad’s 1961 Nikon F!! I loved that camera so much!! Unfortunately, the shutter mechanism broke and could not be repaired and I inever got to keep it on a shelf for all the memories I had learning photography and my very first photo job when I was in high school! I keep searching for a similar one for sale when I get nostalgic and will buy one some day. I miss the simplicity of that camera. I often fight with autofocus with modern cameras to get the photo I want, and was faster with manual focus on that Nikon F at sporting events than I am with my current autofocus camera. Thanks so much for posting this! It brings back so many memories!

Hi s f,

Thanks for the kind words on the article! Keep an eye out for an F...you can get non-working examples pretty inexpensively if you want a paperweight, and functioning ones do come on the market as well...but for higher prices.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Brings back memories.  I still have my Nikon FTn with the F1.4 50 mm lens that I acquired in the late 60s to replace my Minolta SR1. I also have a a Nikkormat FE2 and an older meter-less Nikkormat along with a 28mm, 105mm and 200mm lenses. These cameras were used to photograph 100s of high school proms as well as normal family activities with a hiccup. 

Hi Howard,

Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences! Do you still have that gear?

Best,

Todd

I have an F2 with an auto focus attachment that takes a 225SZ battery.  Are they available anywhere?

Hi Chuck,

In the world of the WWW, I figured I could just search for that battery type and get you a link. Unfortunately, I can't find anything!

I don't want to stop you from digging, but we definitely don't have any at B&H! Sorry!

Best,

Todd

nikon f ftn - mirror will not unlock. has f-36 winder attached.

Where are you located, john?

Sounds like an issue for a repair center, unfortunately.

Just found my grandfathers F and F2, both seem to be in great condition, but I really dont know for sure.  Can B & H check and let me know if anything is needed and or repair it there?  I luckily work a few blocks away from the store...

 

Hey Evan,

You can swing by our Used Store at the Superstore and see if they can help. In general, we don't handle customer's cameras due to liability issues, but they might take a look. Also, there is a repair center 2 blocks north that will be able to handle repairs, if needed.

One way to see if they work is to buy a roll of film and make some photos!

Sounds like a terrific find! Buy some film and go shooting!

Thank You, I will definetly bring them in to see if they can take a look for me.  I am sure that they will need a battery for the light meter, and I certainly need film.  I also found a DS-12 EE Aperture Control Attachment for the F2.  The battery is completly dead (afterall it is from the 70's) so I wonder if you carry a battery for that as well.

Hey Evan,

We have batteries and film! Hopefully we have what you need! Find Brent or Chris at the Used Store and tell them I sent you!

Cheers!

I think you have sold me on buying a Nikon F. I just found one in great condition, in a little shop in Japan. It will be a perfect brother to my F3.

Awesome, Nathan! Have that little shop send me a commission check ASAP! Thanks!

Enjoy the F!

Got my F while serving as a medic in Vietnam in 1968; a brick of a camera and a real workhorse,  Weighs a ton expecially when carting around its multiple lenses but a great and reliable camera.  I still use it, along with my FE.  Nice to see Kodak is bringing back Ectachrone!

Awesome! Thank you for your service, Tom! And, thanks for dropping by!

Bought one Nikon F Photomic FTn, a couple years ago at B&H, and it's my favourit camera. Use it with a 28/3.5, 50/1.4, 135/2.8 and 200/4 all non-ai lenses. A truly pleasure to use, though i have several digital cameras, and it makes me slow down a little and thinking about the process more carefuly.

Nice find at the B&H Used Store, Jose! Sounds like a pretty sweet setup you have. Keep shooting film!

I don't know why, considering the age of the article, that this is appearing in my Facebook feed. But I do enjoy reading these Classic Camera series. Although I am a "Canon guy" with an A-1, New F-1, and 5D III, I enjoy reading about other manufacturers. It's like Chevy versus Ford; I've a Chevy guy, but I have owned two Fords, both Mustangs, one was a 66.

Hey Ralph,

Sometimes our social media guys get nostalgic...and some articles age well! 

We will be working on more Classic Camera articles soon. I found a near-mint Pentax K1000 at a garage sale for $5 and will be taking that for a spin sometime this spring!

Thanks for reading...again!

Thanks Todd,

Tell the social media guys to keep up with the nostalgia. I think I read this article, but it was 6 months ago.

Ralph

Thanks, Ralph! I hope the article was even better the 2nd time!

I have two F2 Photomics I purchased in the 1970's.  They're in excellent condition.  Some of my best pictures were taken with those cameras.  I Love them!  Though I have several Nikon DSLR's I switched over to Fujifilm.  I currently have 2 Fuji X-T1's , an X-Pro1 and an X-T10.  All my Fuji cameras were purchased from B&H by the way.  Fuji's are my main cameras as I don't even bring the Nikons anymore.

Hey David,

I am shooting Fujifilm these days as well, but still have a couple of Nikon film SLR cameras. Don't get rid of your F2 Photomics! Keep shooting film from time to time...it is magical!

Thanks for sharing and thanks for shopping at B&H!

I saw a chrome Nikon F body, without finder head, for sale on eBay and about 12 miles from my home. Although in working order, the mirror had some damage at the bottom, there were a couple of pieces missing. I took a lens with me and found no difference from an undamaged mirror. I made a low offer, and the guy accepted. Later I discovered a shabby but usable waist level finder on a dealers website, so bought it. Over the past 5-6 years I have used this camera with a 35mm f2 O lens for street photography. I bought a Weston Master V meter and a small canvas bag for carrying films, Filofax and pens for notes etc. I have the camera suspended on my lower chest and glacé down at the screen. When I see my shot, I glance away while pressing the shutter button. I've recently purchased an F36 motor drive unit that fits in place of base and back. No battery pack so motor is inoperative. However, it does help to keep the camera steady when firing the shutter. So far I have had no problems at all with my little setup. Nobody has approached me or challenged me or quizzed me about what I'm doing. I do however, move away when I've taken a shot. Film is Ilford XP2 Chromogenic, meter set to 500 iso and shutter speed set at 500 to freeze movement.

Sounds like an awesome setup, Toby! Thanks for sharing your tale. Keep on shooting the F!

l acquired a Nikon F photo F Photomoc T in the early 60's. It came with a 50mm f1.4 and a leather case. Everything about the camera was special. I feel much the same way now about the current Fuji X system cameras. Is it because of the retro type style, or something more intrinsic? I don't know! The tools of photography unlike other artforms are special. 

Hey Barry,

Do you still have your F? I suppose some painters have a favorite kind of brush, sculptors may have a favorite power tool, etc, etc...but when you make art with art (fine mechanical cameras, beautiful musical instruments, etc, etc), it certainly raises the art form and the experience of creating it.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Thirty-plus years ago I took two Nikon FTns on months-long archaeological expeditions to the desert of eastern Jordan (the nearest source of water was four hours away), the Zagros Mountains in western Iran, Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, and the central highlands of Peru (11,000+ feet above sea level), with a side excursion into northwestern Pakistan and an incursion into central Mexico, and the machines still click along, heavy, angular, uncool to the nth degree, but completely dependable. Pictures as sharp as a tack (vital for scientific work) that are still being analyzd by the experts, and all with that je-ne-sais-quoi that marks the products of a superior camera system. I use Hassys (both analog and digital) for display work and a Lumix for fun, but when I want serious, no-bullshit 35 mm work I still use the Nikon Fs, the hissing of steam notwithstanding.

Quite a testimonial, David! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience with the F!

Curiously, I just bought a Nikon F this weekend to make use of some old AI and AI-converted lenses that were kindly given to me a few weeks ago. So on Saturday I was out on my main street with this camera and a 50mm f/1.4. What a treat it was to use, so functional and solid. I did carry a light meter with me (my camera has the standard eye-level prism) to help because like you, and most of us I suspect, I am not used to photographing without some kind of light meter. Developed my first roll that evening, a B&H supplied Kentmere 100, and was thrilled with the results. Will be using this camera a lot in future - despite already owning a bevy of Canon EOS film and digital equipment. Thanks for you article!

Congratulations on your purchase, Richard! Old mechanical things are truly a pleasure to use, especially ones made with such precision and care.

Thanks for reading and sharing!

  Those loder lenses still fit

All my older lenI just saved this to file as a PDF.  I have two Nikon F's, one with just the prism and one with the Photomic FTN, that I brought back from my second tour in Viet Nam.  I used those cameras heavily and added lenese to them as my need and finances allowed.  I ws sitting up in Sedona AZ one day with one in my hands when someone wandered by and complimented me on my antiques.  Those cameras are indistructable tanks.  I have added assorted bodies over the years and have retired older bodies to the safe.  Right now I am using a D750, a D610 and a D7200.  I am using both the new lenses of the digital age and a number of my older film day lenses.  Those old lenese are great and are somewhat less bulky and lighter than the new series.  Some of the older leneses are auto-focus.  The newer lenses allow manual focus adjustment while still set for auto and VR so I use them when needed for that purpose.  Those old lenese still fit amd work with the new cameras, that "F" mount was and is great.

 

 

Thanks for sharing, Joel. Yes, one great think about the Nikon F system is the extensive lens compatibility and the fact that even the older lenses are really really great.

Thank you for your service and thanks for reading!

My first Nikon was the F301, but I always desired the F3.

I have one now, plus an FM and still the 301, along with the D2 and D3..

The F3 is still without doubt one of the best cameras ever built and I'm still as much in love with mine as the day I bought it..

And film work is still my favourite pastime.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Simon. And, thanks for reading! The F3 is definitely one of the all-time greats!

Bought my meterless F used in 1981. Still have it and still use it. But I also enjoy my FE which is very modern compared to the F. Either way I roll with Nikkor 28/2 Ai, 50/1.4 Ai'd and a 105/2.5 AiS. Film bliss.

There is nothing like film, Kivis! Thanks for reading and sharing!

Tom over the past 40 years I have owned and used every F model produced. Although my Nikon F was stolen from inside a graduate school office (the only camera ever taken from me) I must have been too naive at the time. Most of my published  work was done with a F2 and some with a F3. Fearing failing eyesight I invested in F4, F5 and F6 mainly for their autofocus. While today I mainly use the D3 series and a Df, I still enjoy shooting film with an F2 or F3. And I still use the F4, F5 or the perfect machine F6 if the situation requires it (autofocus, dirty environment, fast action, film). Yes the D3/D3s would handle all that, but they are digital bricks (the F4/F5) are film bricks. All are totally reliable in almost any situation. My wish is that Nikon would make a digital camera using the F6's body design. For me the F6 is the ultimate in ergonomic design. You have to hold one to know what I am talking about (the F2/F3 are not far behind).

Tom thanks for using Marcus Garvey Park, an interesting oais in a wonderful neighborhood.

 

Hey Bill,

Looks like you are a true F man! I personally think the F4 is the best looking SLR ever made...I really love the design of it!

Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences!

Oh, there are two "D's" in Todd...not one "M." :)

I still have, and use regularly, my FTN I bought from my dad in 1977. I still shoot film, and don't own a digital camera. Despite having to find a replacement viewfinder (mine wore out) it works wonderfully. I enjoy using film, and with everyone going digital, there  is a lot of nice glass out there for reasonable prices. The price of film and developing is up there, but I still have fun. Thanks for a great article.

Awesome, Sam. Thanks for sharing your experience and reading. And, thanks for keeping film alive! There really is no substitute. 

The Nikon F and Statehood came to Alaska the same year:  1959.  I was a wildlife biologist there who used a Kodak Signet and Kodachrome 10 to record important landscapes and natural history observations.   I needed a camera with greater capabilities, but I was skeptical about the quality of a Japanese camera only 14 years after the end of WWII so I invested in EXA/EXAKTA equipment.  But 9 years later I bought a Nikon F and 55mm Micro-Nikkor lens ($2,800 body only in today’s dollar!) and never looked back.  Although I had to estimate exposures by eye and experience my Dad got me a GE DW-68 meter which helped me learn more about light.  I finally got a Nikkor 135mm in 1970 ($2,800 today), and a Nikkor 35-70 zoom in 1979 ($1,550 today) and went through Photomic TN and FTN meters.   The F was my workhorse and performed flawlessly in many demanding environments, at temperatures between 68 degrees below zero and 124 degrees, in snow, rain, ocean spray, and sand storms.  Its size, ruggedness and fit meant that it could go anywhere easily.  Although I graduated to an F3 in 1986, and finally went digital when the D800 came along, I can’t sell the F:  it would be like selling one of my family.  It gave me so much.

Great stuff, Tom. Thanks for sharing. Definitely hold on to the F and take it out for a walk ever once in a while! Thanks for reading!

The Nikon F is the only camera I would risk buying unseen on an auction site, such as ebay. Their reputation for ruggedness and reliability (Photomic metering heads excepted - buy a hand held meter) ensures that you will receive a working camera. I have and use a pair of plain prism F bodies and a Nikkormat FT2 body (for the flash shoe of needed) together with 35/50/85/105 lenses in my portrait photography business. Often on location, at the clients request, i know I can rely on my kit. Metering is by Weston Master with Invercone attachment. People are amazed that I don't have to plug anything into the mains the night before. Afficionados of vintage Nikob need to know about: Grays of Westminter. 

Thanks for reading, David! Keep shooting the classics!

Also, check out B&H's Used Store for the occasional beautiful F!

I shot with the Nikon F3 when learning photography in college.  Know working at Photo Tech we see people every week getting their old Nikons restored and serviced because of articles like yours.  These pieces are workhorses and can outlast today's equipment 30 times over.  The old glass is so sharp and repairs on these cameras are still possible in most cases.  The Nikon technicians work diligently to get the cameras back to specifications and working order.  Thank you for sharing your experiences.

The F3 is a fantastic machine, Paul. One of the photographers who most influenced my photography was an F3 user. I always wanted one, but never got one...I was too young and the camera was too expensive when I was only earning a weekly allowance!

Thanks for reading and writing in!

 

 

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