Nikon F – Start of a Legacy

The Nikon F is a unique camera in that it not only became an iconic camera, it started a legacy. It began a line of SLR cameras that are still being sold today and where each of the F professional cameras has been an iconic camera in its own right.  The Nikon F, a camera that only needs one letter for its name!

I have been a long-time Nikon user, I primarily started with the Nikon F5, so when I received the Nikon F I was not sure what to expect.  The F5 can be a fully automatic camera, not too dissimilar to the current crop of D series Nikons, which I have continued using, so I was not expecting to see many similarities, but I was surprised.  It somehow did feel like it was from the same range of camera, and the feeling emanated from the great build quality through to the modular design.

The Nikon F also changed the landscape of photography in a world where rangefinders reigned supreme, especially for the 35mm format. With this camera, Nikon cemented the concept where a photographer could see exactly what they were photographing through the lens.  At the time it was in direct competition against giants like Leica.  Since then Nikon F cameras have gone to war, been in the depths of the wilderness and even into space as NASA’s choice of camera for 35mm, and laughed at all the challenges.

I decided when I bought mine that I would get the standard eye level prism finder, which is funnily now gaining a lot of value as the Photomic finders are dying off due to age.  I also use the waist level finder which is handy for street photography.  Just on this it shows its adaptability without losing any of its ruggedness.

History

Nikon introduced the world to the Nikon F in April of 1959.  It was produced until 1973 when it was replaced by the F2.  When it was introduced, it did not have anything that was considered new, but was the most advanced camera to date as it combined a whole lot of new advancements.  With the Nikon F, the F-mount was introduced, which is still the current mount utilised by Nikon cameras nearly 60 years later!  While some people may criticize Nikon for sticking with the F-mount, as it does have some limitations, I love the fact I can mount modern lenses to older cameras and visa-versa.  In fact, the name F was selected after the designer of that bayonet mount, Mr. Fuketa.

The Nikon F was wildly successful, and adopted by many professionals.  With the 50mm f/2 lens as pictured in this article, in 1959 it sold for $US186.  While it was not the first SLR, it set Nikon’s reputation for decades.  It was made famous by the photographers that took it to the Vietnam war, including Don McCullin, where it saved his life by stopping a Khmer Rouge AK47 bullet which would have killed him.  Now that is one tough built camera!  There are even cheeky suggestions that Don could have then used the camera to knock out the shooter.

In the 1960’s NASA was looking for cameras to send into space, and the Nikon F, albeit modified to some extent, was selected and sent into space.  NASA and Nikon still have that association and from those initial missions, Nikons are still used by NASA and even on the International Space Station.

The Nikon F and later the F2 (which is a very similar body design) were considered such an appropriate camera for professionals, that there was a huge outcry when the F3 was introduced and it was partly electronic.  The Nikon F and F2 were the cameras you had when you needed something that did not need to be handled softly and just keeps working.  Time has proven the F3 a worthy replacement, and indeed has its own cult status, but this demonstrates the passion in which this camera created.

Camera Specifics

The Nikon F is a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, that is designed to be modular.  The pentaprism can be swapped out for a Photomic version with a meter or with a waist level finder.  The F can take any F-mount lens except the new “G” lenses which are devoid of an aperture ring.  When the Photomic finder is on, it will meter with any of the lenses.  The focusing screen can also be changed out to quite a selection of different types.  It is interesting to note that the pentaprism was removable because originally the camera began in design as a rangefinder.

The camera has a shutter speed range of 1 second to 1/1000th of a second, plus Bulb and Timed.  These are selected by a dial on top of the camera, which also has the speeds which are usually acceptable for hand held in green, the flash sync speed in red, and the others in white.  Aperture ranges are of-course set by the lens fitted.  Flash sync is limited to 1/60th of a second.  Next to the shutter speed dial is the shutter release, which does take a remote release, but an old-style version which works more like a plunger.  I had to order one specifically for the F and F2.  The winder is also on the top and is a one stroke wind, with the shot counter surrounding the wind gear.  The shot counter is a very attractive dial type and even lets you set a film length reminder.

On the other side of the top is the rewind crank, which is surrounded by the flash mount.  The Nikon F does not have a shoe mount, and utilises this quite unfamiliar mount for the flash, at least to me.  As always, there is adapters for the Nikon F and I was able to purchase an adapter shoe mount which sits on top of this mount.  If only I used flash more often!  One consideration with this design is that when you finish a film, to rewind it back into the canister, you need to remove the adapter and flash, otherwise this is not possible.

On the front of the camera is a lens release, a self-timer and a depth-of-field preview button.  Of-course the famous F-mount is dead centre.  The camera has an attractive Nikon name plate up top.

Behind the camera is only one button to unlock the finder when you want to change it over.  The back completely also comes off to load film.  It is held in place with a lock which is disengaged when twisted under the camera.  Once unlocked, the whole back and bottom of the camera slide into your hand.  The film cartridge is inserted into the left side and wound to the right, where the spool is fixed into the camera (unlike some others where it falls out).  Under the camera is also a film speed reminder dial, but this is not connected to the metering when the camera has a meter attached.

The shutter curtain in the Nikon F was quite advanced for its time.  The titanium shutter cloth, ensured that the sun did not burn into it, like the problem the S series had and in fact the S2 was later adapted to the same shutter cloth upgrading its reliability.

As mentioned, there are many components apart from the pentaprism, which can be swapped out. This includes different backs, motor drives and even a bulk shooter setup, which allowed a back with 250 exposures to be attached.  Of-course there was also many accessories that were produced, including cases and bags.  I have the hard case, which is in amazing condition, but being so bulky would never take it out.

My copy of the great Nikon F is dated at around 1967 as best as I can deduce.

The Experience

The first thought I had when I received my Nikon F was “Wow!”.  Sounds very simplistic, but it is a camera that just brings out that response.  Being from a time when there was so much emphasis on quality rather than feature bloat, you hold the camera and feel like you are holding something significant.  Nikon was not the only company with this mindset in the 50s/60s, as Leica was also at their top of their game with the M3 and M2, but Nikon had brought in many advanced elements into one camera with a continued quality.  Ironically this probably means that the Nikon F was the camera with the feature bloat at the time.

My first task was to load the film.  So, I unlocked the bottom, and what feels like half the camera comes out in my hand!  The loading is quite easy though, so in I load in some HP5+ and slip the back/bottom back on.  I then wind on, and that is the exact moment I suddenly feel the presence and history of the camera come flooding into my hands.  I can feel how a camera like this could stop an AK47 bullet.  How it can withstand the rigours of space flight.  How it has taken some of the most iconic photos of the 20th century like Eddie Adams’ photo of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem.  I can also see how the camera built its reputation on how it was reliable and needed little repair or maintenance.

I head out feeling little like a photojournalist of old and walk the streets of Sydney making pictures of a lot more mundane subjects than the Vietnam War.  As I use the camera I start to get a real attachment to it.  The dials are where they need to be, the same with the buttons.  While it is not ergonomically shaped, it is very comfortable to use.  It just fit into my hands.

I initially used the Nikkor 50mm f/2 Auto “pre-Ai” lens the camera would have been sold with back in the 50s.  While the f/1.8 and f/1.4 versions would make it even brighter, I found the finder to be quite big and bright, with absolutely nothing to distract me.  I have since used the other lenses, plus the 35mm and it gets even better.  I do like the fact there is not even a needle in there and it is just a matter of concentrating on making the picture.

The noise the shutter makes, is of course the distinctive SLR sound, with the mirror slap.  With the Nikon F, it is a very mechanical sound, as are the SLRs from that era.  It is a very satisfying sound, knowing that everything worked exactly how it should have.

What I did find with this camera is that it is very adaptable.  One day I used it for some street shooting and the next for some landscape work with tripod and remote cable.  In all cases, it performed well.

While image quality is obviously linked to which lens is on the camera, and I am sure I’ll have some lens reviews soon, the way the camera performs needs to allow the lenses to achieve their best results.  The Nikon F did so and then some, but I suspect this also must do with how simple the camera is in today’s terms.  Set your aperture on the lens, select a speed, in my case using sunny-16, and fire.

I probably have not used this camera as much as I should, as I also have the whole line of Nikon Fs through to the F5, but it is not a camera I leave on the shelf too long, it deserves to be out making pictures and deserves the right respect.  As such, if you have a Nikon F in your hands, put some film in it and take it out into its element.

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