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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.