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The "F" Starts (and Stops) Here...

By Stefan Adler

How many things in life can be truly labeled as "classic"? Items that can be defined as exceptional in both their inception, occurrence and "one-of-a-kindness"; People, events and breakthroughs that were unique and groundbreaking in their genre that they stand alone – far beyond anything else in the same category. Penicillin? Frazier/Ali? The Beatles? Given that criteria, surely the venerable Nikon F SLR camera stands in a class by itself. This eminently reliable and elegant camera holds a singular place in the annals of photography.

Nikon F Body with Eyelevel Finder

Let's put all this in perspective. In 1959, Ike was president, Castro was overthrowing Cuba, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as the 49th and 50th states. Barbie entered the scene, The Seven Mercury Astronauts ("The Right Stuff") were chosen and The Twilight Zone was introduced to American TV – cameras were, most likely, available with only a standard lens and that was pretty much it.

Historically, the post-World War II world saw the Japanese camera market take the lead in optical and body design. After all, the war had pretty much wrecked the German market for cameras and despite the fact that companies like Leitz produced an arguably superior body, the Japanese took camera design to the next phase. With American occupation soldiers bringing their Tokyo camera booty home, the Japanese economy was partially rebuilt with the goal of, ironically, conquering the States - with smaller, lighter and more user-friendly cameras.

Up until that time, if you were shooting at all, you were probably using some kind of a rangefinder, most notably Leica or even a larger 120 Rollei - both of which were slow working cameras that possessed a non-instant return mirror and non-automatic diaphragm. Rapid, motor driven photography didn't exist. Photographic metering was time consuming and often complicated to the uninformed through the use of stop-down metering. Polaroid (first developed in '47) was not as yet all that easily accessible to the layman. Enter the Nikon F…

In one fell swoop, the Nikon "F" camera revolutionized photography, taking it from a stop-down, crank-me-to-next-frame-so-I-can-get-to-max aperture world to a Titanium shuttered state of technology where it was possible to shoot and not be faced with the next frame being at the prior image's shooting aperture. The photographer now had a bright, clear view for the next shot made extant by the invention of the instant return mirror. The camera accepted both flash bulb sync as well as a traditional PC connection. Depth-of-field preview showed you where your plane of focus was. And, a primitive version of mirror lock-up provided long exposure capability. Waist and eye level finders were available as accessories as well as a unique sports finder that allowed the shooter to keep the camera at almost arm's length – with one eye on the finder while the other could preview the action in the field.

Nikon Waistlevel Finder - Model 3

Nippon Kogaku marketed this groundbreaking camera as being unique in its user-friendliness. Its automation represented unparalleled innovation – a new instant return diaphragm in an SLR system to compete with such rangefinder "classics" as the Nikon SP and Leicas. To add to this astounding Nikon package, the "F" could, for the first time in SLR photographic history, be motor driven - yielding enhanced opportunities for creating images and advanced capabilities for the sports and nature shooter. A separate, removable battery driven motor drive, the F-36, which by today's standards was slow, gave photographers a very hot 4-frame per second advantage over their competitors. By removing the camera's standard back completely and attaching the F-36, rapid, sequential firing was now possible.

In addition, the removable (non-metered) pentaprism (previously developed by Pentax) reversed the heretofore backwards viewfinder. This gave photographers a more accurate and recognizable frame to shoot within. No more wondering about left/right orientation. "Photographic dyslexia" was eliminated much the same a the Sabin vaccine eliminated polio in the early 50s. The image was now THERE. Moreover, no more stop-down metering where the photographer had to compose at full aperture, meter externally and then transpose the reading to the lens which was "stopped-down" to working aperture. The "F" now gave the shooter a faster, more controllable camera which just happened to be both rugged enough to drive in nails and intimidate anyone who saw it hanging around your neck.

As the "F" was further developed, improvements such as the Photomic metered prism with its Cds cell were added which revolutionized photography even more by offering "TTL" (Through-the –Lens) center-weighted metering. This creative approach forever linked a prism's meter to the shutter speed dial and aperture ring. The cherished son of the "F", the Nikon FTn, incorporated that feature but had as its real claim to fame to be the last "clunky" camera of its kind before the next "classic" the Nikon F2 - hit the market in 1971.

Despite the previous successes of Leica and other rangefinders, the "F" was really the first camera system to offer photographers a real "system" camera. With new wide and telephoto lenses to choose from, Nikon's lens roster gave shooters expanded perspective and opened newer approaches for their work. Time honored and coveted lenses such as the 21/4, 35/f2, 50/2, 105/2.5 and others including a 43-86/3.5 zoom now offered shooters more choices to meet their needs. Down the road, additional faster Nikon lenses entered the arena such as the 50/1.4. That lens brought the phrase "low-light shooting" to prominence. Further, with the advent of all these lenses, newer filters entered the "picture" to assist with image enhancement. UVs, Skylights, Red, Orange, Green, Polarizes and a camera bag full of others were now available in sizes to accommodate the new plethora of optics.

But Nikon didn't stop there. In response to the demands of pro shooters who needed more from their cameras, the "F" incorporated an interchangeable viewfinder system, user interchangeable focusing screens and a bayonet mount for faster and more secure lens mounting. These features, on top of the motor drive,which incidentally could be outfitted with a stunning 250-exposure back, took the "F" to a level of advancement heretofore unheard of.

Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of rangefinders, i.e. lens plane closer to the film plane for sharper image, a quieter shutter and lighter in design, the Nikon "F" rapidly became the choice of pros everywhere due to the expansiveness that these other systems didn't offer. An accessory Eyepiece Magnifier provided a 2x enhancement to the central part of the unit which came in handy when doing copy/flat plane work or nature photography. The Right Angle presented opportunities to "shoot from the hip". A Bubble Level, secured with the Flash Unit Coupler over the rewind knob maintain a parallel plane with the ground. For flash photography, the BC-7 unit, mounted atop the rewind crank, didn't need any cables as instant connection was established once it was attached. For those who preferred a unit that required a connecting cord, the BC-6 was the answer.

As a collectable, with the exception of, perhaps, a 1956 Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card, few items are as desired as a black, primo Nikon F with a standard, non-metered prism. However, other variations of the camera appeared which are equally coveted. The Nikon "Apollo" with its slight cosmetic changes hit the market in the early to mid 70s.
This version pre-dates the Nikon F2 and appeared in various personas. Subtle differences in the rewind and advance levers as well as the strap lugs and colored-coded shutter speed dial marked the Apollo as a collectable. Minor design differences in the self-timer lever, finder release button, sync socket and other details have given collectors something to discuss over the decades.

Nikon F Photomic FTN - “Apollo” Version

The "F" remains close to the hearts of old time pros and collectors who remember what it was like to hold an unequaled camera. No auto focus, no sensors, no media cards, no matrix or spot metering. Just a reliable, workhorse camera that could withstand a riot as well as the vicissitudes of an unpadded bag.

Nikon F cameras as well as a wide range of other modern and classic collectibles can be found in our Used Department. As is the nature of these types of items, our inventory is constantly is flux, so it is worth searching often.

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