Nikon F100 – The smaller professional
The Nikon F100 is the last of a long line of the second tier 35mm professional SLRs from Nikon. We’ll leave the semantics of that statement for later in the article. For now, I’d like to concentrate on why the F100 is very much in demand these days. I suspect it has a lot to do with being a nice balance between professional build and functions but in a more manageable form factor. And that it is not a truck that was made by Ford.
Readers of this site will know I am very invested into the Nikon system for both SLRs and DSLRs. What people may not know is that I was a long-term user of the Nikon F5, from wildlife photography in Africa, sports, news, documentary and even weddings. I do love that camera which has had thousands of rolls through it.
As such, the F100 was always going to make it into my collection. It is basically a smaller version of the F5, which these days makes it much more convenient. I wanted the power of the pro body, but without the pro body. With that in mind, the F100 was also perfect for some travel I had planned with the family.
The feel of the soft rubber moulded to a well designed grip quickly lets you know this camera means business. Everything is also controlled without the need to move from eye level. More so with auto focus lenses. Even aperture and shutter speed can both be adjusted without even letting go of the grip.
Best of all, apart from the pre-Ai lenses, I can use pretty much all lenses from Nikon since 1977 which are F-Mount. That includes the newer G lenses thanks to the aperture wheel.
There is a bit of talk in the photography community about cameras which let you concentrate on the photograph and not get in the way. The F100 is the perfect example of this, for modern complex cameras. There is a bit of set up to get it to work the way you would want it to, but after that it becomes very automated.
What really sets it apart is the forty years plus of experience Nikon had perfecting the scene dependant matrix metering system. This camera really knows how to meter in simple and tricky situations. Of-course, being a machine, it will never get everything, but it gets pretty close.
Even if you use slide film, which is notorious for its limited latitude to exposure, you can feel confident the F100 will do a decent job at determining the best exposure. This applies in most cases, but when it gets trickier this camera gives you full control back. It does this mostly with proper controls, not menu selections, so it feels very much like a traditional camera.
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While it may be used as a traditional SLR, it does not feel like it in the slightest. The rubber grip fits into the hand very well and definitely feels modern. Albeit it can be a bit sticky these days, as per a common complaint. The rubber seems to have a shelf life. It can deteriorate over time and effectively turns itself into a glue-ish substance. This seems to plague a range of SLR from the major manufacturers from the 1990s.
As mentioned, Nikon has a long history of both top tier and second tier professional cameras, let’s cover a little of that, find out about the camera and then my experience with it.
Nikon introduced to the world its version of the future of photography in 1959. While the Nikon F was not the first SLR produced, it had incorporated key features into one package. It is a fully modular system camera, where everything from the lens to the viewfinder can be swapped in and out.
In 1962, attempting the capture the less professional market, Nikon released the Nikkorex F SLR, which was actually built by Mamiya. This camera has the distinction of being the first production built SLR to use the Copal Square shutter. The Nikkorex F (Nikorex F in Japan) series was produced until 1966 when it was then replaced by the Nikkormat F from 1965.
This is where the line splits into two. In 1972 the electronic features started to be incorporated into this line with the Nikkormat EL. The mechanical cameras continued with the FM following the Nikkormat range, then with the FM2, FM2n. The FM3A finished the series as the final mechanical camera released in 2001.
The electronic range took off itself with the EL2, FE series, FA series eventuating with the F-601 (N6000 in North America) in 1990. A consumer range was also splintered out in 1979 starting with the EM, FG series and finally the F-301 (N2000 in North America).
In the midst of all this, auto focus came into the picture (and we can ignore the later APS SLRs for this article). This is where the lineage of the F100 starts to come into line.
Autofocus became a focus for Nikon (pardon the pun) in 1983 when a modified version of the F3, the F3AF, was released. From there the pro line progressed with the F4 through to the final F6.
In the second tier, or what eventuated as being categorised as the prosumer range, the F-501/N2020 was made available in 1986. Effectively this range was cameras which had similar functions to the professional line, but not as much heavy duty performance or weather resistance.
From there this line had new cameras released thick and fast. Nikon released the F-801/N8008 in 1988, F-801s/N8008s in 1991, F90/N90 in 1992, F90X/N90S in 1994 and finally the F100 in 1999. Notice how the hyphen got dropped in 1992?
There was the F80/N80 in 2000, but at least for myself, I see this as a consumer camera. This is my argument that the F100 was the final second tier SLR for Nikon. The FM3A was by then already a niche product. There is further debate by some that the F6 technically was a prosumer camera, as the professionals had moved to digital by 2004, and that the F5 from 1999 was the final professional camera.
The Nikon F100 is a 35mm SLR with professional grade functionality for 1999. It is often referred to as a smaller F5. The F100 has a non-changeable viewfinder, so is not a full system camera like the top professional range. The body is made out of magnesium, keeping the weight down considerably.
Nikon’s F-mount is on the F100, so it can mount most F-mount lenses from 1977 onwards. This includes Ai, Ai-S, AF, AF-D, AF-S and G lenses. Pre-Ai lenses cannot be mounted and would cause damage. Invasive fisheye lenses also are not to be mounted as they will break the mirror.
The non-autofocus (AF) lenses will function as expected, but the matrix metering will only work on AF lenses. For these it will be centre weighted or spot metering only. Non-AF lenses will also not show the aperture on either LCD.
Don’t try and use the DX crop sensor lenses, as they will work but the vignetting will be quite severe.
One of the key features of this camera is Nikon’s matrix metering, first implemented in the Nikon FA. This evolved over the 16 years between the camera models and incorporates thousands of scenes. In the F100 it uses a ten-segment light sensor. When using flash, it also incorporates the distance information when Nikon AF-D, AF-S and G lenses are mounted.
Autofocus is achieved through Nikon’s Dynamic Autofocus system. What this means is that when focus is locked on a particular focus point, of which the F100 has five, it can track the subject across them. That ensures that a subject is tracked even when moving through the frame. For nature or sport photography this is very important function.
By default, the autofocus is triggered by half depressing the shutter release button. A custom function allows for this to be changed to back button autofocus, which splits the focus function from the metering. It allows for autofocus to be triggered by pressing the AF-ON button with the right thumb. This is one of the first things I customised when I got the camera, or any of my Nikon AF SLRs or DSLRs which have this option.
Film is advanced through an internal electronic motor drive and boasts 4.5 frames per second. If the motor drive hand grip (MB-15) attached, this goes up to 5 frames per second. A DX reader has been placed in the film chamber which can read the code and determine the film’s box speed.
The camera is covered in a rubberised material and sculptured with a built-in hand grip. It has the iconic red stripe on it. This material has been known to age badly depending on how it has been stored.
The top of the camera is where the bulk of the controls for the camera can be found. On the front of the grip there is a wheel which is controlled by the right index finger. When an AF lens is set to the minimum aperture, this wheel is used to change the aperture. It is context sensitive though, where it can be used to change other functions too.
Behind this is the on/off switch, which surrounds the shutter release button. The switch also has an option to turn on the backlight for the LCD panel. Further back is the Mode button. By depressing this button and using the back wheel the camera can be set in Program (auto exposure for both aperture and shutter speed), Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority or Manual modes. Next is the Exposure Compensation Button which can be adjusted up to 5 stops either way.
The main LCD is the main feature on the right side. It holds a lot of information and worth digging into the manual for this, as too much to cover here. The key information is the aperture, shutter speed, compensation settings, metering bar, custom function indicator, battery level, mode, flash setting, focus point and frame number/empty indicator. Phew, that is a lot!
On the side of the viewfinder is the metering setting switch, which can be changed by depressing the unlock button in the middle of it. Options are matrix, centre weighted and spot metering. Centre weighted is based on a 12mm diameter circle in the centre. Spot metering is 4mm, based on the focus point selected.
At the back of the LCD is the back wheel used for the adjustments, but when shooting allows for selection of shutter speed. Shutter speeds available are from 1/8000thof a second to 30 seconds and Bulb. Time is also available. The shutter is an electronically controlled focal-plane shutter.
Across to the other side are the buttons to control bracketing, flash and selecting the ISO. All are adjusted using the wheels. Bracketing can be either 2 or 3 frames and in thirds of stops. Flash allows selections, which can work with the Nikon Lighting System. ISO options available are 6 through to 6400, and an option to default to the film DX code.
At the bottom of these buttons is the drive selection, which has options for single shot, slow continuous, fast continuous, self timer and even double exposure.
At the front of the camera there is two buttons alongside the lens mount. One for depth of field preview and the other to release the lens from the mount. There is also a switch in front which allows selection of the autofocus options. These are single, continuous and off.
At back of the camera is the CSM, or custom selection button. Again, this is many pages in the manual, but will allow you to set the camera up to work the way you want it. For instance; the back button AF function I like. Next to it is the Lock button. In conjunction with the wheels, this allows either the aperture or the shutter speed to be locked while in manual mode. This differs to the priority modes, as it does not adjust the exposure.
Also, at the back is the AE-L/AF-L which will lock in the exposure metered when in either of the priority modes or program mode. This is even when you re-frame. It is especially useful for spot metering. Finally, there is an AF-ON button used for back button AF. It can also activate the autofocus when it has been switched off.
Further down is the autofocus mode selector. It can either be a single focus point or dynamic autofocus. If dynamic is selected, a primary point is chosen, and the camera uses all of them to track that subject.
Under the camera is the tripod socket and the battery compartment. The F100 is powered by four AA batteries. Connection to the battery drive is also under there.
The viewfinder is bright and covers 96% of the frame. Five focus points are indicated with the “[ ]” markings. The selected focus point is highlighted in red when single focus point is selected.
At the bottom of the viewfinder is the LED panel. Information shown without removing your eye includes focus indicators, metering system, exposure lock, shutter speed, shutter speed lock, aperture lock, aperture, exposure mode, metering bar, exposure compensation, frame counter and flash ready indicator. Again, a lot of information, but allows full control at eye level.
When I got the Nikon F100 it was almost like coming home after being away for a while. As a long time user of the F5, in both personal and professional instances, it just felt so familiar. The functions were all pretty much where my muscle memory went to. It also fit straight into my hand and luckily this one does not suffer the sticky grip syndrome.
I enjoy a lot of the older more manual cameras, I have quite a few of all types including SLRs in my collection. This does not mean I do not appreciate technological advances in photography. In terms of film photography, the F100 is right up there. Between the metering system, world class autofocus capability and compatibility with a range of lenses which can be described as top quality, it ticks all the boxes.
As I mentioned up top of the article, I had a trip planned with Noelle, my lovely wife, to Newcastle, a coastal city north of Sydney. What better time to try it out, especially as she is very patient when I do bring a camera. In the bag it went, with some film.
The first film that found itself in the film chamber was some Ilford HP5 Plus, pretty much my mainstay black and white film. I set the ISO to 320, as I per my normal settings. When we arrived, we dumped the bags into the hotel room and walked out along the water.
It was really nice to shoot, especially as I was using a very modern 50mm lens, the 1:1.8 AF-S G Nikkor. Focus was super fast, and toggling between the five focus points was quite easy. It was a nice way to finish of the day before a really nice dinner (of which the camera stayed in the room!).
The next morning I picked up the F100 as we headed out and was really surprised, but pleased to see a beautiful fog had descended on Newcastle. I excused myself for a few minutes as we were already on the pier and shot a few frames of the gorgeous scene. Again, the F100 was great to use and allowed me to frame up quickly and finish off that roll. I joined Noelle for a hearty breakfast with what felt like a job well done.
That was until later when we went to see a few sites. As the film was finished, I opened the back in really sunny conditions (fog was gone) and saw the shiny back of the film sitting there. Not the best way to start with a new camera, by forgetting to roll the film back into the cartridge. I only recovered a couple of the fog shots.
The rest of the trip was less eventful, and I even shot some Kodak Portra 400. A couple of weeks later the Sydney Camera Market was on, and my friend Andrea suggested we take our cameras and shoot the wonderful low Sydney winter sunlight afterwards. At the market I picked up one of my favourite films, Fujifilm Press 800.
Andrea and I went out into the central Sydney area and had a great day shooting. I alternated between Kodak Double X and the Press 800 film. The F100 was great in the way it handled the contrasty metering situations. It was able to read the scene and not get fooled with the back lighting as much as other cameras I use.
These were some of the first times I have used the F100. Since then it has been on a family holiday to Port Macquarie up the east coast of Australia and any number of photo shoots with me. Each time it has performed without fail and without a hiccup. I especially enjoy having all the controls easily accessible. There is nothing on the camera which needs me to remove it from my eye.
The viewfinder is nice and bright, and the LCD at the bottom easily readable in any lighting conditions. Focusing is a breeze where the focus point lights up brightly in red when engaged. In Dynamic autofocus mode this is not the case and that is a little annoying. It would have been nice to see which one is picking up the focus in that mode.
One of the main things that I found to break the flow of using the F100 is that it does not show the aperture in either the viewfinder or top LCDs with non-AF lenes. With a lot of classic Nikon cameras, I have a collection of Ai and Ai-S lenses. I like to use them on occasion and it is disruptive having to check on the lens. To further infuriate in that situation, the front of the camera covers the mount area so I need to angle it to see.
In terms of image quality, the F100 is obviously dependant on the Nikkor or compatible lenses. Regarding function to support this, the metering is very good indeed. I have had hardly any photos with exposure issues, apart where I may have tried to be a bit too “creative”. The big test was when I have used slide film, and it did not let me down.
Specifically, I used the F100 for a series of sunrise photos in Port Macquarie on Fujifilm Provia 100. This is a beautiful fine grade positive film which does not have a lot of latitude. The results I got surprised me again on how many were well exposed.
Another aspect I have enjoyed with the F100 is the weather sealing. It is quite nice to not have to worry about a bit of rain or sea spray on the camera, within reason. Weather sealing is quite well made and the camera is tough. With the magnesium body it is quite light though.
There are a few known durability issues, which include the rewind fork can be broken as it is made of plastic. The door latch is another one that is reported occasionally. My copy has not experienced either of these issues.
The Nikon F100 has been a consistently used camera for the few years that I have had it. I have shot it in the rain, at beaches, in the city and even at family events. It has not let me down once and is a very well designed camera. The prices for this camera have climbed the last few years, there is a reason for that. Check for the couple of issues mentioned above if buying to make sure it is in good shape. Otherwise it is a camera I would wholeheartedly recommend.
Bill Smith, from Classic Camera Revival Podcast, posts some examples of using his Nikon F100 (and with the same lens I like on it, the Nikkor 28-105). You can read these at: New camera alert Nikon F100 and in Uxbridge and Nikon F100.
At Casual Photophile, Jeb Inge gives us his view on the Nikon F100 in Nikon F100 Review – The Ultimate 35mm Film SLR Value.
Kosmo Foto founder Stephen Downling covers the F100 in Nikon F100 review.
Great review of the F100. I haven’t managed to find one yet at a price I can afford, it I have had an N75 for several years (strictly consumer level, but small and light and good for travel), and picked up an N90s recently I’m enjoying. Someday!
Thanks Kevin! The N75/F75 is no slouch, and the N90s/F90x is a superb camera in itself. It is a very underrated camera, there’s a lot packed into it.