If you don’t have time to read this review of the Nikon FG – Bite size, I can read this to you with the Photo Thinking Blogcast! You can find it on most podcast platforms or here.
The Nikon FG appeared in height of the compact SLR popularity in the early 1980s. A camera so small it requires a grip attachment to make is holdable. Surprisingly for such a small package this is a full featured SLR. It also has access to one of the most wide spread catalogue of lenses, with the Nikon F mount.
I sometimes get caught trying to decide between a compact camera or a camera with full controls. The Nikon FG somewhat bridges that gap. Paired up with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E lens, a semi-pancake style lens which punches way above its weight, it forms a compact yet functional package.
It is the kind of camera which seems to split opinions between users of both the Nikon system and the wider SLR user community. I think everyone enjoys a smaller SLR but the FG has a few things which seem to irk a few people. For instance, the advance lever is a bit strange. It has a design which allows for a ratcheting movement so that it can be advanced in a few small strokes, but it is the hinged lever which feels weird. It is not quite clear what Nikon was trying to achieve with this apart from maybe making it flush with the back.
Obviously, there were some trade-offs to make the camera small. Taking a step back helps you realise that it is actually quite an achievement to put it all in that package. But the FG is not all about its size. It exists to help make photography easy for everyone to use. While the more adventurous will use the manual mode, the FG offers both Aperture Priority and full Program Auto Exposure.
Putting all that together, it does mean it is a camera, with the right lens, is very easy to grab and take with you for a nice day of shooting. Nothing about the camera is prohibiting, it even is lightweight.
I’ve carried the Nikon FG around with me on and off since late last year. It has continuously allowed me to produce some good results. Putting it into my work bag, with laptop and other work related items, has been easy and no fuss due to the size. Read on below for a bit about the camera and how I got on with it, though my feelings for it may not be what you expect.
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In 1972 Olympus brought a disrupter into the SLR industry by releasing a smaller package with full functionality, being the M-1. Quickly renamed to the OM-1 due to potential litigation. A few years later Pentax joined the party and released the MX, which just showed there was a push for smaller SLRs in the late 1970s.
Nikon, in an effort not to be outdone released the Nikon EM in 1979. It is also where they introduced the 50mm f/1.8 E, which they bizarrely decided was not worthy of the Nikkor labelling. As we know now, this lens is a good performer and only the build quality is a little lower. It is now 40 plus years later and they are still around, so it was really not that bad anyway.
The EM itself was not a fully functional SLR. It is used primarily in aperture priority mode, as there is no shutter speed selection option. Not really a competitor for the OM-1 or MX, but it signalled Nikon’s intentions at that point.
Now, considering Nikon was worried about marketing image, it was even more bizarre the approach they took with the EM. They marketed it towards women, assuming incorrectly that women wanted or needed a simpler camera. I think they now look back at that not with “it was how it was then” but “man, we really stuffed that one up”. Hopefully with some embarrassment.
The EM lasted for about four years. In 1982 Nikon got a little more serious and released the Nikon FG. Unlike the EM, this camera has full controls without sacrificing anything significant in terms of size and weight. It continued to be paired up with the E range lenses as a cheaper alternative than the Nikkors.
The FG was sold for four years until 1986. Unlike its predecessor it was not replaced with a different camera completely, but an upgrade in the FG20, which was released in parallel a couple years before that in 1984. This was the last of the budget entry level cameras until the autofocus cameras started to make real headway in the late 1980s.
The Nikon FG is a 35mm SLR camera. It has the famous Nikon F mount giving it access to the wide range of Nikkor and Nikon E lenses. Both silver and black models were sold. Being one of the lower end of the range for Nikon, the body consists significantly more plastic than other models. This makes the body quite light.
Regarding the F mount, the lenses the FG can successfully mount are the Ai, Ai-S, AF and AF-S lenses. AF lenses will not autofocus as this is a manual focus camera. G lenses will not work, firstly as they do not have an aperture ring, secondly the mechanism for indexing is different. Pre-Ai lenses will also not function unless they are Ai converted.
The shutter is an electronic-mechanical Copal. As such it requires batteries, two SR44/LR44 type batteries, to operate the full selection of speeds, though it can operate at 1/90th second mechanically as a last resort. M90 must be selected though. Shutter speeds available in normal operation range from 1 second through to 1/1000th second.
Metering is centre-weighted, and it performs the final reading after the aperture has stopped down, but before the mirror flips up. The exposure reading is processed by a micro-computer within the camera, which allows the camera to have both Aperture Auto Exposure and Program Auto Exposure modes. In the latter, the camera decides both aperture and shutter speed for you, in the former it is only the shutter speed based on selected aperture.
Further to exposure selection, there is also exposure compensation available allowing for +/- 2 stops with increments in between. The final part of exposure, the film speed, has options from ASA 12 through to 3200. All the exposure settings, apart from the aperture ring are on top of the camera. Some do have a lock on them, for instance the Auto Exposure settings require a button to be pressed to release from them.
Also on top is the film advance lever, the film rewind, the shutter release button which has a thread for a remote cable and the frame counter under a little window. The film advance is ratcheted, so it can progress the film in small increments. The lever itself is double jointed, so that is folds neatly against the camera when not in use.
A final item on the top plate is a lever for the camera audio warning. When on, and the camera is on either Aperture or Program Auto Exposure, and the metering system feels that the scene is out of range for the camera, it will sound an audible warning. The only other control on the camera is the self timer on the front.
The viewfinder has a magnification for a 50mm lens of 0.84x. It covers 92% of the frame, the screen type is the standard K-type provided by Nikon. There is a centre split prism with a 12mm diameter. Exposure information is displayed with LEDs against a vertical speed scale. Triangle/arrow LEDs indicate over and under exposure. There is a lightning/thunderbolt symbol to indicate if the flash is ready.
The flash itself is connected via the hot shoe on top of the viewfinder prism. A flash sync cable connection is not available. Nikon released the FG as the first of its amateur SLRs with TTL for flash exposures.
Loading film is by opening the back by pulling up the rewind lever. It travels from left to right.
In true Nikon style, the FG was released with a full complement of accessories, including a motor drive and importantly, a small hand grip which screws into the right hand side of the camera.
I went through a phase where I wanted smaller and smaller SLRs. It was something to strive for, seeing how well the manufacturers could make them functional rather than fiddly. When I started on the Nikons, I first tried the Nikon EM, which straight away I found is more of an interchangeable lens oversized compact, as only offers aperture priority auto exposure. In any case, it proved to have light leaks (should fix that one day), so I moved to its evolution, the Nikon FG.
Finding the FG with full control over all functions was quite a highlight. When I first picked it up, I realised very quickly that without the handgrip it is a camera that would be very difficult to hold properly. The actual grip itself is very well crafted in that it sits perfectly under the fingers of the right hand.
I attached the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E lens to the camera and put it to my eye. Quite surprising is the nice and bright viewfinder on a budget model. It is not something I expected. After loading up a couple of batteries, I played with the camera a little and came across the advance lever which seems to split people. It is a bit strange and not a very natural movement. I am not too concerned about the rachet, more so the double jointed feeling it gives you.
Nevertheless, I was quite excited to try it out. I loaded some Ilford HP5 Plus into it. Sydney had been experiencing a long period of rain late last year and early this one. It has meant that the usual sunshine that is the normal here was not there, so I rated it at EI 800. I took the camera with me during the day at work and when I had a moment for my daily break, would walk across the city.
The camera was very easy to take. While not as featherweight as a compact, it fits in nicely into my laptop/camera bag. I like to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, so having that metering option works very well, but I do like to have full manual control a lot of the time too. Speaking of the metering, the FG does have a very good meter. It has the famous Nikon metering, and based on my results, I have to say it is very accurate.
All my negatives have come back with most frames well exposed and with negatives which have been quite easy to scan. If I put my old darkroom hat on, they are at the right density for working with in there too.
After a few rolls of HP5 Plus, I tried out the camera with some colour on quite a few occasions, both with Kodak Gold 200 and Adox Color Mission 200. In one case I went through a whole 36 frames in a few hours at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. With all the bright colours around, it was great to give Gold 200 its chance to do what it was designed for.
The viewfinder is nice and uncluttered and the meter on the right side quite easy to ready with the LEDs. It basically shows you your current selected speed selection, and the one it believes you should be set to.
With all the things it does right, you would think that this is a camera I would look forward to use and seek it out of my collection. This is where I struggle to explain my feelings for this camera. It does not excite me. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very functional, accurate and well thought out camera. It is also quite well made, within the constraints of being a budget camera. I don’t have much to fault it, but it still excites very little, you could say I find it a bit boring. Maybe I have been spoilt with a large collection.
The Nikon FG is a very capable camera in a small package. It can produce results as good as any other Nikon in the right hands. Construction is quite good, though keep in mind it is not pro-spec materials. The film advance is probably my biggest annoyance, but if that is the worst of it, that is not a big complaint.
Would I recommend the Nikon FG? Yes, I would, for both new and experienced users. I must add, though, that I personally find it lacks the excitement factor for me. But that is very much a personal view. So, if you are after a capable camera that just does what it is supposed to, allows you to take good images, then give it a go.
Alex Luyckx shot with two dying FGs, and while he agrees with my view on the nice match up with the 50mm Series E lens, disagrees with my view that the handgrip is useful. You can read it here: CCR Review 15 Nikon FG
Over at Casual Photophile, Josh Solomon reminisces how the FG was his first SLR and what he thinks of it these days. You can read it here: Nikon FG – Camera Review
For an interesting take on going against the grain of dis-likers, Aaron Gold at PopPhoto writes: Classic film camera review: Nikon FG, the SLR that irked everyone (but me)