If you don’t have time to read this review of the Nikon FE, I can read this to you with the Photo Thinking Blogcast! You can find it on most podcast platforms or here.
I smell the acetate of camera fun,
Be it colour, or be it black and white,
I’ll load it all,
And shoot it day and night.
So now that we have established that I cannot write a rhyme to save myself, let’s talk about the Nikon FE. This compact Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera can produce very polarising opinions. Nikon must have done something right though, as the basic same body design was used from the late 1970s through to mid 2000s.
One of my favourite cameras is the Nikon FM2n, so I have been right at home using the FE. It is something which I appreciate with Nikon SLRs of the era. They had different functions, but with a good design ethos, are similar enough to allow customers to move within the different ranges.
More importantly, it is a camera that is easy to pick up, load some film, and go out and shoot. It’s a camera that projects itself as a plain, no-nonsense machine, but is a very capable camera underneath. The FE can do everything you need it to do, without features that complicate matters.
During 2023 I was keen to have an SLR which has a smaller form factor, is reliable but also would not limit me in its use. I also wanted to use something new, so that I can write this long-term review. I also had to consider, it was a camera I was going to take on a number of trips, including Vietnam, South Australia and even a winter festival in a town called Bathurst. The last one was unique for me, in that I was taking it to somewhere where the temperatures do drop to freezing during parts of the day in winter.
Another aspect is that it had to be a camera which has a mount that I have almost all focal lengths for, which is the Nikon F mount. Obviously, the quality of the glass has the most to do with the quality of the photographs, but to get them, it should be a camera which wants to make you want to use it.
By now, I have used the Nikon FE for about eighteen months. Considering it was a camera many swore not to use, because it has the scary early electronics, let’s see more about it and then how I got on with it.
- Nikon FM2n – Small and tough
- Nikon FG – Bite size
- Olympus OM-1n – Smaller is bigger
- Nikon F100 – The smaller professional
- Nikon F3 – Legend with a red stripe
- Nikon F4 – Evolution of the legend
- PhotoThinking SLR Reviews
Towards the end of the 1970s there was a design shift in the SLR market, specifically the advanced amateur market. More and more people were taking photography up, but the big clunky SLRs of old where not going to cut it. The movement to smaller SLRs was all started with Olympus and the M-1 (OM-1) which came out in 1972. Soon afterwards the other major manufacturers had small factor SLRs including Pentax with the MX and Canon with the AE-1.
Nikon was a little late in the game with the FM in 1977, their first compact body, replacing the Nikkormat FT3 as the advanced amateur mechanical model. A year later, in 1978, the FE was available to replace the Nikon EL2, which was the last of the Nikkormat line even though it did not carry the name. This started off the electronic series in the compact SLRs for Nikon.
The FE used the same basic body of the FM, which was a winner for Nikon. Various cameras continued with the same body for another twenty-nine years. With the FE, and its electromechanical shutter, it has the option of Aperture Priority shooting.
As per all of Nikon’s SLRs, it could be paired up with quite a few accessories, including motor drives (MD-11 and MD-12), a data back (MF-12) and speedlights (SB-10). In showing how confident Nikon were of the FE, the data back has a date range to 2100!
The Nikon FE came during a transition time, so it was built to be compatible with non-Ai lenses. This was, as is now, especially useful considering the dizzying numbers of non-Ai lenses available. By the time it was discontinued in 1983, Nikon must have felt that Ai lenses had enough of a footing and removed that ability from the FE2 which superseded it.
The FE2 did come with some new functions, including Through The Lens flash metering and faster shutter up to 1/4000thof a second.
The Nikon FE is a late 1970s manual focus SLR with the Nikon F Mount. It will take and fully function with any Nikkor or third-party F Mount lens from 1959 which has an aperture ring. This includes pre-Ai lenses and only excludes a few unique design lenses. The mount is metal, as is the body, in either chromed brass or, as per this example, in black.
An electromechanical vertical-travel metal-bladed focal plan shutter gives the camera a range of speeds from eight seconds to 1/1000th second, and Bulb. Flash X-sync is at 1/125th second, and non-battery dependant 1/90th second is available if it runs out of juice. Shutter speed is selected by a dial on the right of the top plate. It also has an option for aperture priority labelled AUTO, where the camera selects the speed based on the meter reading.
To operate the camera, including the meter, two SR44 or LR44 batteries are required. Metering is through the lens utilising a silicon photodiode light meter, with a 60/40 centre weighting. A match needle meter is in the viewfinder with a green needle indicating the current setting.
Also in the viewfinder is the aperture setting, which can be selected by the ring on the lens. It is viewed through a little window. The FE also was the first of the compact SLRs to have an interchangeable focusing screen.
Film speed is set via the dial on the left side of the top plate. This dial doubles as the compensation setting and has the film rewind lever too. On the opposite side is the advance lever which has a plastic tip on it.
The front of the camera has the lens release and the depth of preview button. The self-timer is also on the front. Underneath the camera is the battery compartment, tripod collar and the connections for the motor drive.
Accessories include the MD-11 and MD-12 motor drives, MF-12 databack and it was often paired up with the SB-10 speedlight.
I bought the Nikon FE about 4 years ago but had neglected to use it for a couple of years, mainly as I was busy filling out my Nikon SLR collection. Having previously used both the F3 and the FM2n extensively, I was keen to start using it. I am very happy I got to it. With plans for some travel and other occasions, I needed something that would become one of my mainly used cameras for an extended period.
Normally I would not choose something new, but I had time to try it out. Using it during the try out period convinced me this was up there with the other two cameras, and having proven its reliability, it became a mainstay for about eighteen months.
When I compare it to the Nikon FG, which I had previously used, it is quite comparable in size. A little bigger only. That has made it quite easy to put it into a bag, whether work or travel. I generally have the 50mm f/1.4 on it, with the 35mm f/2.8 and 20mm f/4 handy. Another lens I love to put on is the legendary Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 Ai.
Using the camera is a pleasure with the match needle metering in the viewfinder. Metering is very easy to see in most lighting conditions, and on occasion I am happy to put it into Aperture Priority. Not surprisingly with Nikon’s history on making well metering cameras, it is generally accurate. With the 60/40 weighting, I do expect it to be fooled by the sky occasionally, but otherwise the results are really good.
After using it a few months, I took the FE to Vietnam on a family holiday. In combination with my son who brought the FM2n. Unfortunately, the holiday was a bit of disaster and it rained from the moment we landed until the last day, and it was not even the wet season. I was really pleased I had a well-made camera with me, it did not skip a beat, even when at one point my camera bag flooded at the bottom.
As it was raining a lot, I mainly used Ilford HP5 Plus. I didn’t think Kodak Portra 400 would do much, though I did run some through even at night pushing the film by a couple of stops. Considering most of my shooting on that trip was in lower light conditions, I did not seem to have an issue with focusing. The FE performed wonderfully.
At no point did I feel taking it with me was a chore or that it got in the way of the day. I also found the controls to be quite intuitive. It really just did what it was supposed to.
I found an opportunity to shoot one of the early morning food markets, after a visit to a fishing boat marina. I was worried in lower light that I would have an issue, even when pushing HP5 Plus to 3200 as the market is quite dark. Normally I would not even get concerned using a rangefinder down to 1/30 second, but with the mirror movement I thought maybe I was pushing the FE too far.
I did not need to be too concerned, if I kept the lens to a shorter focal length, of 50mm or less, it was fine. Some of my favourite photos are from that market on that trip. The FE was in its element, with many of the stall holders playing up to having their photo taken.
Later in the year I took a trip to South Australia for some business, and the FE was an easy choice. Photographing the small town was fun, with a few side trips to the coastal areas. My wife and I had some free time, so I was happy to snap away and even capture some of the countryside on our travels.
One part I really enjoy about the Nikon FE is the ability to use it in a very wide range of environments. Whether cold and wintery, hot and summary, low light or bright light. With it well made and a decent range of shutter speeds it can be used with confidence. It is not weather sealed, so that is something to be aware of.
During the Winter here, in July there is a winter festival in a town called Bathurst, roughly three hours from Sydney. One Friday night at 4:00pm, after a tough week at work I decided that I was going there to decompress (in reality my wife suggested it). By 5:00pm I was on my way, having booked a motel a few minutes earlier.
With no time to dwell on what to take, I quickly threw the Nikon FE, Voigtlander Vitessa L and Fuji GS645S into the bag, with some Portra 400, FP4 Plus and HP5 Plus. The 35mm cameras were for day to day, and the 6×4.5 camera for the final day where I wanted to visit Mount Panorama, a well-known racing track in Australia.
During the festival there was a skating rink, performances and at night, mixed entertainment, and rides. A thought struck me as I had the FE slung over my shoulder. While every time I pulled out the Vitessa to photograph any people, they noticed. No one batted and eyelid when it was the FE. Something to be said of a camera which is standard looking.
If there is one thing I have to complain about the FE, it is the eyepiece ring. My camera had lost it long ago and I was able to source a new one with some rubber on it, as I sometime pull the camera to eye with my glasses on. This was lost pretty quickly as it seems to unscrew itself quite easily. A better method of keeping it on might have been an improvement, though this is a very small gripe.
While this camera is unlikely to be my main camera in the manual SLRs, it fits in really well with the F3 and FM2n. In fact I find the combination of the FM2n and the FE that my son and I had in Vietnam was perfect. We got to share lenses and they were similar enough for both of us to use.
Is the Nikon FE something I would recommend? The answer is yes to almost anyone looking for a manual focus SLR. It is a camera which suits a beginner through to a more advanced shooter. The fact it able to use pre-Ai lenses, means a new shooter has access to lower priced, but premium glass for it.
I have found it reliable, tough, convenient and continues to produce the results. The prices of them is starting to climb a bit, but if you find a Nikon FE at a reasonable price, verify it works and go for it.
In Camera Review Blog No. 74 – Nikon FE, Alex Luyckx writes about this camera and how he feels it is a great camera in the Nikon lineup.
On Down the Road blog, Jim Grey reviews the Nikon FE, and summarises it in the first sentence, he so likes this camera. He does then go into much more detail to describe it.
Over on 35mmc, in the article Nikon FE Review – Returning to Film with a Fun, Compact, Affordable and Easy SLRwritten By Daniel Sigg, he tells us how the Nikon FE helped him back into the world of film. The is also a whole wealth of other articles if you go to the Nikon FE list.
One of my favourite writers, Peggy Marsh has written how she loves the Nikon FE!