Nikon F4 – Evolution of the legend
Editor’s note: I am trying out a new concept and introducing the Photo Thinking Blogcast. It is understandable that you may not have time to sit down and read a review on Photo Thinking which is a little long, so new reviews will be available as a companion podcast. This way you can listen to the review and then look at the photos in your own time!
PODCAST LINK: Photo Thinking Blogcast on Anchor.fm
It can also be found on all the usual podcast platforms, like Apple, Google and Spotify. It may take some time to replicate across the first time.
Close your eyes. Think of an army tank. Then think of how it would be as a camera and you have the Nikon F4, in the form of any of its variants. The beauty of this camera is that its design means it can handle nearly anything. Just like a tank.
I like my professional Nikon line of SLRs. As a long term user of Nikon in a somewhat professional capacity and for my own enjoyment, all Nikon SLRs are familiar and consistent in operation (Nikon F70 aside). The F4 was always going to be in my collection and being very familiar with the F5 my expectation was that it will be a less refined version of that.
That was a strange expectation, and one that did and did not pan out. The F4 is a lot more traditional with knobs and dials as compared to more push button functions on the F5. The F4 started the form factor for modern SLRs and DSLRs for Nikon. It also continued the systems camera design, but interestingly it is a ground up build compared to its predecessor the F3.
Professional SLRs tend to be systems cameras, which adds bulk, but also adds maximum flexibility. In fact, the Nikon F4 is so flexible that the different configurations also change its name, as per the one in this article which is designated the F4s. Nikon has a history of that, even though the base model doesn’t change.
Professional cameras have evolved over the years and the F4 came in just as electronics became more mainstream. Sure, the F3 has its electronics, but the F4 reinforced the idea they were here to stay. I mean, it has four computer CPUs driving it!
On occasion I like to use a beefy camera rather than a small and light one. This tends to be when I want something that will handle a variety of different situations without needing to take multiple cameras. Pros would use it for sports, wildlife, news and in extreme cases, war photography. This does not exclude its use on landscape or other types of photography, though you would find it rather clunky in a street photography setting, or at least I would.
That is also where the F4 is a contradiction in itself. Computerised and electronic products tend to get smaller than mechanical equivalents. Not only did the F4 get bulkier it got considerably heavier too. Add the use of easily obtainable AA batteries (something I applaud Nikon on), you really know you have it around your neck.
I’ve had the Nikon F4s now for about four years. I have used it in several scenarios, including some protest reporting, scenic photography, and general documentary photography. It has performed splendidly in every situation, as per its design.
Let’s dive into a bit of history of it, more about the camera itself and then how I fared with it.
- Extinction Rebellion Protests – with the Nikon F4s
- Nikon F – Start of a Legacy
- Nikon F2 – Ultimate Legend
- Nikon F3 – Legend with a red stripe
- Nikon F100 – The smaller professional
- Nikon FM2n – Small and tough
- Tale of two festivals, with two different camera bags
- Photo Thinking SLR Reviews
Following on from the F3 was always going to be a battle for Nikon. It was noted that when the F3 was introduced there was a lot of resistance to the electronics and the F3 had a bit of a slower uptake initially, as the F2 was still selling strong.
Nikon was already working on the next professional body when the F3 became popular in 1981/82, understanding they did not have the luxury of ten years of research and development previous models had. This was a real conundrum, as they also understood that the F4 would have to be built from the ground up if Nikon were to stay competitive.
So, what did they do? They went all in on electronics and computerisation. Keeping in mind how primitive the computer processing of the F4 might feel now, at the time though, it was state of the art. When it was released in 1988, that is 33 years before I put my fingers on the keyboard to write this article, the industry was at the crossroads of dial/knob functions moving to push button and LCD functionality.
Brining in a totally new concept of camera design is one thing, but with autofocus Nikon had to release a range of autofocus lenses. They had to do this while maintaining their legendary status as lens makers. The last models of manual focus lenses, the Ai-S range, are considered the pinnacle lens selection by many users.
This all had to be achieved in six years from the release of the F3. Building a new camera does not mean you drop everything that worked well on the old one, so they brought back Giorgetto Giugiaro. In the Nikon F3 review on Photo Thinking you can read how he came to the F3 design.
First thing he did (I have no real idea what was the first thing he did, but I can guess) is include the red stripe that was made famous on the F3. Then he ignored everything else and designed a camera which continued to be fully modular but was physically very different. This includes the finders and the grips, which innovatively had a vertical shutter release button added to them.
Whatever the Nikon team did first or last, the deisgn worked. In the following year, in 1989, the Nikon F4 was awarded European Camera of the Year and the Camera Grand Prix awards.
While the design set the standard for decades afterwards, Nikon being conservative, also ensured that it did not disadvantage current users of their cameras. The F4 maintained the F mount and can use all lenses from 1959 through to the Ai, Ai-S, AF and even the newer AF-D and AF-S lenses. They never foresaw G or VR lenses, so these new lenses cannot be used properly on the F4, though they will mount and work well in only Program or Shutter Priority modes.
The excitement of the F4 was huge, people backordered them months in advance and paid a considerable amount for a camera to secure one. From its release in 1988, depending on which battery/grip combination you chose, you got either the F4, the F4s or the F4e, with the latter being the biggest grip.
The F4 was sold until 1996 when the F5 was released. Interestingly the F3 was still being sold new and continued until 2001. Another interesting fact is that Nikon dropped the configuration based naming with the F5, as well as the option of a different grip, showing the design’s popularity.
The F4 made a mark in camera history, and I will quote wildlife photographer B. Moose Peterson on his thoughts of this camera, “Of all the Nikon Pro bodies, the F4 is by far the most magical”.
The Nikon F4 is a 35mm Autofocus Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera released in 1988, though the first batches were built by 1987. It is built with a solid aluminium alloy die cast chassis. This was used to ensure it can handle the rigours of professional work. It is a rugged camera which withstands corrosion and remains rigid. It incorporates a Nikon F mount for access to the Nikkor SLR family of lenses and any third party lenses with that mount.
Form factor of the F4 is like what you would expect from a modern SLR. It has a big chunky grip on the right hand side, with moulded finger positions. A thin red stripe runs from top to bottom of the grip. It is available in all colours as long as like the Model T Ford, it is black. Classic Nikon and F4 logos are on the front, with the former on the viewfinder and the latter just to the left of the grip at the top.
The F4 has 1,850 body parts with 4 coreless motors, which illustrates how complicated the camera is but functions as one single unit. To do this it has a network built into the camera with up to 7 CPUs and software which is designed to handle 43 million scenarios.
The built quality extends right into the shutter, where of the eight blades, four are made of epoxy resins reinforced with carbon fibres. The others are made from a light and durable aluminium alloy. This is all handled with a shutter balancer which compensates and absorbs vibrations, with shutter bounce prevented by a braking system. Basically, this means the camera can shoot at high speeds with very minimal vibrations.
Speaking of the shutter, the speed range available for selection on the F4 are from 1/8000 of a second to 4 seconds, plus Bulb and Time for longer exposures. 1/125 of a second is available on the ‘X’ setting for flash sync but only in Manual and Shutter priority shooting modes. In the automatic exposure modes, the shutter speeds are stepless up to 30 seconds.
Bringing us back to the camera body, the shutter selection dial is on top of the camera on the right hand side. It also incorporates a viewfinder illumination switch. It’s within a group of buttons and dials which sit in that section, including the combined exposure compensation dial and program selection dial with a selector lever. Exposure compensation range is from -2 stops to +2 stops, with click stops every third of an exposure. The dial can only be moved when a locking button is depressed on it.
Program options are the usual Manual control, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program where the camera makes all the decision for you except focus. For lenses without a CPU, it will default to Aperture Priority though. It is worth noting it does have a secondary Program mode labelled PH. This stands for Program High-Speed and is for when you require it to meter for a fast shutter speed, for instance on a long telephoto lens shooting sports or wildlife.
Right behind these two dials is a lever which has a button locking it called R1. It is half of the motorised film rewind function control. Along with a switch which is located on the back at the top left corner, called R2, you can initiate the rewind of the film. Both have to be activated to get this function working, to avoid accidental rewinds.
Further to the right of R1 is the multi-exposure lever. It does exactly what it states, allows you to shoot without the camera advancing the frame. Further still to the right is the frame counter which is in a classical half-moon shape within an oval window. No LCD on this baby.
In front of this collection of dials, buttons and levers on the right side is the shutter release button which is totally electronic. No remote plug here as that is located on the battery grip. Around the shutter release button is the film advance selector, which allows for Single shot, Continuous High Speed, Continuous Low Speed, Continuous Silent and Self Timer. When used with the MB-21 Battery Pack, as per the model in this article, the continuous modes will shoot 5.7, 3.4 and 1 frame per second respectively, though they may be impacted by the focus type selection mode.
Exposure metering is actually performed in the viewfinder prism itself. This means that when you swap out for a different viewfinder prism, it does change the exposure meter itself too. On the DP-20 finder, which is on this camera and was the standard finder, it can be pulled off by first releasing a locking switch on the left of it. It can then be replaced easily with another one.
The finder has a window on the top which allows for the LCD inside to be illuminated. On the right side of it, there is a dioptre control which allows for adjustment from -3 to +1. In front of this is the dial to select exposure mode and allows selection of Spot, Matrix and Centre Weighted metering. It is worth noting that centre weighted metering is at 60/40 balance. An eyepiece cover is also available on the back which brings together two red blades, to ensure the photographer knows when they are shut and are not going blind. This makes sure no stray light enters a long exposure. A handy compensation window is also near the front right of the finder.
On the left of the camera is the film ISO dial, which has the manual rewind crank incorporated. The ISO range the camera can handle is ISO 6 to 6400. It can also read DX coding on the film canisters and when this is used it ranges from ISO 25 to 5000 only. Adjusting the film speed requires that the lock button is depressed to allow the dial to be rotated. The manual rewind crank is also used to open the camera back for film to be inserted by pulling it up.
Moving to the front of the camera there are quite a few more controls there. Right under the F4 printed on the camera is the depth of field preview button, which closes the aperture to the selection for exposure. This allows the photographer to better visualise the start and end points of focus. Also on that same button is the mirror lock up switch, to be used for long exposures to minimise any vibrations.
Under this button are the exposure lock and the focus lock buttons, knows as AE-L and AF-L respectively. The exposure lock button also has a switch to allow the camera to lock both the exposure and focus at the same time, otherwise you may need to get very dexterous. Directly on the opposite side is the lens release button to allow you to unmount the lens. The lens mount, the Nikon F mount, is a bayonet type with an auto focus coupling built into it.
Autofocus is controlled by the camera on the F4, with appropriate lenses which have an AF coupling. The autofocus mode is selected by a switch just under the lens release button. Three modes are offered, Manual, Single Servo and Continuous Servo autofocus. With all three an indicator in the viewfinder will confirm focus.
To activate the autofocus the shutter release button is to be depressed softly or halfway. A single point of focus is offered in the F4 which is indicated in the viewfinder in the centre. For Single Servo autofocus the camera will only try and focus once and will only fire the shutter while focused. When not in focus, a cross will appear in the viewfinder and arrows in which direction required will be indicated.
With Continuous Servo it will continually attempt to focus but will fire the shutter regardless except in Continuous Low Speed film advance mode. In this combination it will also automatically activate focus tracking, where the computer will try and determine the position of a moving object based on the direction it is moving in. The focus indicator in the viewfinder does not appear in this mode.
Loading film is super easy with the F4. Insert a film cartridge on the left side and pull the film across to the right where the red marker is. Close the back and press the shutter button. The camera does the rest. Note the DX code reader (series of electrical contacts) on the left side.
The finder carries a lot of information, and I mean a lot. It is split into two camps of information, the top and bottom. Top left is a split LCD with the left being the exposure compensation value and the right the frame counter. In the middle of the top is a direct view of the aperture value. On the right hand side is a series of LED indicators which let you know if you are in focus and which way you need to adjust to be in focus if you are not. There is also an indicator to let you know if exposure compensation has been activated and if the flash, if a TTL flash is connected, is ready.
On the bottom there is one longer LCD strip which displays the exposure metering mode, the shutter speed, if either the exposure or focus locks have been activated, and the shooting mode selected. In amongst all that is also information on whether exposure is correct, according to the metering mode, and how off it is through a graphic with +/- on either end in thirds of stops.
In the middle of the screen area, there are some markings around a split prism area, depending on the screen installed on the camera. On the standard one, there is a couple of brackets indicating the focus area, a 5mm diameter circle indicating the spot metering area and a 12mm diameter circle indicating the centre weighted metering area.
This now leaves us with the battery grip. The Nikon F4 is known by a variety of names dependant on the battery pack attached. If the standard MB-20 is on, it is considered just an F4. If the MB-21 is attached, like this one, the camera is called the F4s. When the biggest of the packs, the MB-23, is attached it is known as the F4e which allows it to be attached to an external battery pack. There is one more less known F4, called the Nikon NASA F4, used on the 1991 Space Shuttle. This had a digital back with an 8Mpx CCD sensor, which was only monochrome.
Specifically on the MB-21, it takes six AA batteries. They are inserted in the bottom and the grip area of the pack. This is what raises the shooting speed to 5.7 frames per second. It also has a battery check function through a button and some LEDs at the bottom of the camera. It caters for both nickel–cadmium batteries which can be recharged or single use batteries. There is a switch inside the battery pack which has to be selected for the camera to know what types.
As I mentioned up top, I’ve had the Nikon F4s now for about four years now. At some point I imagine this was a professional’s tool and it does have some battle scars to show for it. I bought it mainly to continue my collection of professional Nikon SLRs and it proudly sits on the shelf between the F3 and the F5 when it is not being used.
When it first arrived, I pulled it out the box expecting something like the F5 I used to use a lot. The shape was similar, but the feel is so different. No soft rubber coating on this bad boy. It has a smooth and hard surface. Both cameras are all business though. The weight was very familiar, but for some reason the F4 feels heavier. I then put in six double AA batteries.
Before I talk about the weight there is something all F4s users rarely talk about out of embarrassment, and I am going to break that. Reattaching the battery pack is probably the worst design Nikon could have ever done. After four years of owning and using this camera, I still struggle to get it on.
It requires turning a key which is also used to unlock it from the camera to be in just the right position for it to slot in while you are holding two pieces of camera, usually with a lens attached! Not only that, you also have to have it the right way around, otherwise the key will not fold back into position. I nearly threw the damned thing across a field at one point. What were they thinking?
Once I could get the battery pack back on, and uttered more than a few expletives, you really know you have a camera in your hands or around your neck. This thing is heavy. Luckily after using big cameras for many years this does not worry me.
I quickly mounted the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF and marvelled at how nice it looked through the viewfinder. The LCDs are all working and not leaking on this copy, so I have chalked that up as a big win.
Normally when I have a camera that I would like to get to know, I tend to use it continuously for several weeks or months, this was a bit different with the F4s. Due to the nature of its size and form factor I have used it on and off during those four years. It’s not a camera I can easily pop into my work bag, with laptop and other accessories. So, in essence it reinforced that this is not an everyday carry camera unless you are a professional using it in that capacity.
Understanding that about the camera I started to look for professional type of situations. That included the annual kite festival in Sydney. I remember it was a very hot day and Bondi Beach was perfect that day, there was wind, sun and just a great sense of fun within the crowd. I mainly used the 50mm and a longer telephoto zoom lens for that day and I even experimented with a roll of old Agfa Precisa CT 100 I found at the back of the fridge.
Since then, I have used it for some protests, mainly around the climate issues, landscapes, and some general photography. Even a day trip to Taronga Zoo with my visiting sister and nephew. I have also mixed up the lens combinations to see how it works with both modern and older lenses. I also tried several different films with it, including E6 slide. Looking back on it now, I see that throughout this period I have tended to favour Kodak Ektar significantly, which is not that surprising.
The camera feels very natural. I love the fact there are dials and levers rather than LCD/button combinations. It is very easy and quick to do almost everything on this camera apart from reattaching the grip. The autofocus is not considered super fast these days, but I suspect back in the days it was being sold it was adequate. I do say adequate as it is not lighting up the highway from its speed.
The impressive part of the autofocus is that it doesn’t hunt very often. I have read that it can autofocus even where the light is at EV -1. To equate that to the exposure triangle, for an ISO 100 film, that would be equivalent to 4 minutes at f/8. That is nothing to be sneezed at. Needless to say, the majority of my photos came back nice and sharp.
For manual lenses, the indicator is very helpful. With a split prism in the centre, it is also quite easy to focus these too.
I do tend to shoot mainly in aperture priority mode except in situations where I would jump in and adjust. The F4s is quite a wonderful camera to do that on. Very easy to set the exposure compensation with that decent sized dial. When I swapped to manual mode, it is quite easy to see what the camera thinks the exposure should be and the shutter speed dial is easy to grab hold of and adjust.
The metering feels very accurate when using the camera. Only the most backlit situations do I have to intervene.
The proof is in the processed film and every time I have got my film back from the lab, I have been suitably impressed by the exposed frames. Not really surprising as this is a professional grade SLR, but it is still a nice feeling.
The only little gripe in terms of exposure I have is on some of the photos I took at the zoo. These were taken during the midday sun. In that situation some of the highlights were blown. To be fair though, Sydney in the middle of summer and the middle of the day is some of the harshest light you could possibly shoot in, and I was shooting Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film. A film with only a little latitude. I suspect that with a negative film it would have been more controlled, but still difficult to get the full tonal range.
The viewfinder is also well set up on the F4. Information is well laid out and easy to read. Everything I need to determine whether I am exposing correctly and if I have hit focus is there. I can see which mode I am in for both focusing and metering, and I can even see the frame number. There is not much more I could need in the viewfinder from a camera of this vintage.
In terms of handling, while heavy, it is an easy camera hold. The grip is well designed and fits in the hand well. Only the AE-L and AF-L buttons were a little hard for my fingers to reach easily. Once my mind got used to where they were, it was easier, but I haven’t got the longest fingers.
After using the Nikon F4s for four years, I can recommend this camera to anyone interested in shooting an early professional electronic SLR. It is not for everyone, as it is heavy, but on the same note it can handle pretty much anything you throw at it. Not once did I feel it missed a beat, but they do have a reputation where the LCDs bleed or stop working. In that sense the Nikon F4s can be a bit of a gamble, but when it does what it was designed to do, it is superb.
Alex Luyckx from Classic Camera Revival has written why the Nikon F4 became one of his most used cameras for a period of time in CCR Review Nikon F4.
Over at Casual Photophile they a great retrospective review in Nikon F4 Review – Thirty Years Old This Month.