I've been shooting on a Nikon F for six months now, and it has been one of the most pleasant experiences since I started inconveniencing myself with all this grainy film nonsense. As the 'first' of the modern professional SLRs – and perhaps my favourite 35mm camera – the F seems a logical place to start this photography blog. Sitting just shy of the 500 exposure mark, I've had the opportunity to develop some thoughts on this crisp - if unwieldy - lump of photographic history.
When the Nikon F arrived on the imaging scene in 1959, Nikon was confident that they had revolutionized the world of professional photography – and for good reason. Contemporary reviewers praised the brilliance of the camera's viewfinder, the clarity of its focusing screens, the precision of its construction, and the system's readiness for such a vast array of applications.
While Contax and other manufacturers had been developing the single-lens reflex concept for several years, the F was the first to bring the lessons of its predecessors together into one solid, reliable package. Fixed-lens cameras like the Contaflex, for instance, could boast great optics, but often still without automatic diaphragms – or even auto mirror returns in many cases. For the first time, the F combined a broad set of features that included a single-stroke film advance level, bayonet mount, depth-of-field preview, non-spinning speed dial, interchangeable viewfinders and focus screens, mirror lock-up, an unparalleled selection of compatible professional lenses, and a 100% viewfinder all in one package. Thanks to its removable back, this modularity went further with motor drives and other specialty accessories, including a 250-frame back for sport-shooters! Though certainly not immune to its own share of teething problems, the efficient and user-friendly Nikon F firmly established itself as the assignment photojournalist's stalwart companion for decades to come.
It was the viewfinder that sold me on the F the first time I held one. Having come from the adequate finder on the Nikon FE and the charming-but-dim Edixa, the F offered a bright and cavernous-feeling view of my surroundings. Removing the prism and trying the screen as a waist-level finder, I was again astonished to see something so bright, even despite the glare from the ambient light. I may have had an old Voigtländer Vito and the D7100 in my bag, but it was clear that this was something special.
I purchased my F from an antique market outside Waterloo. After trekking out to look and dream a handful of times, I decided I had to take the leap and sold my D60 to spring for it. The camera came with the mighty 50mm f/1.4 S, a tragically-forgotten roll of Kodachrome, and a Photomic FTn metered prism. These finders, like most others from the period, were designed for now-banned constant-discharge 1.35V mercury batteries, and thus did not incorporate the voltage-regulating circuitry necessary for modern alkaline cells (which begin at 1.5V and vary wildly over their lifetime). Without batteries, the finder had simply been assumed faulty, marked with a label reading '??', and presented 'as-is'. Fudging it with a pair of silver-oxide 675s and some aluminum foil brought it right back to life, however, and I knew I'd found a keeper. $250 was by far the most I'd spent on anything apart from my digital body, but it was clear that I'd regret not jumping when I had the chance.
Though no stranger to lumpy film cameras by this point, getting it out of the case for the first time I was amazed by the heft and modern-day absurdity of the thing. The FTn finder was a massive block weighing as much as the lens, with two metal claws that clamped it to a screw-on plate on the front of the camera. The Photomic brought the speed dial another inch above the body, necessitating a release of the right hand from shooting grip and a slightly awkward stretch of the wrist to adjust. The drop-off back similarly left me wishing I had a third hand, for it was immediately evident that the film-loading process could become a juggling act. The absence of a double-exposure lever meant that you had to manually eyeball and rewind the film, only to wind it to that frame once more and hope for proper alignment. Without any sort of shutter lock, this made itself quite apparent through the occasional accidental in-bag blank shot.
Above all, it was clear that its charm could also become a curse - this camera is heavy, something it makes sure to remind you at every given opportunity. Whereas cameras like the FE rest comfortably flat when slung to the side, the Photomic finder makes for a top-heavy camera that shifts its weight with every step. One remedy is to make the kit even heavier. The Vivitar 35-200 f/3-4.5 is long, heavy push/pull that really isn't tremendously pleasant unless mounted on a tripod, but at least it keeps the camera steadily nose-down. If you are someone who runs late to catch the bus, the F will punish you.
The F was a revolutionary design, then, but it was also easy to see the significance of many of the refinements and features that would be so casually taken for granted on later cameras.
One of the most interesting things about the F is the response it attracts. While there are other cameras that certainly draw more comments and curiosity, the F seems to catch the eyes of a more specific crowd of former users, sellers, and enthusiasts. Older photographers frequently light up when they see the F's distinctive shape, often prompting recollections of personal projects and exciting moments captured on Nikon's bricks. Shooting alone in Waterloo, a woman standing at a crosswalk recounted how she had learned to shoot as a teenager on her family's Nikon, sparking a hobby she went on to enjoy for many years afterwards. In another encounter, a man wandered over in a cafe to chat about how he remembered selling them as a teenager working his first job at a local camera shop. Retired photojournalists are particularly full of anecdotes about their time carrying the F. These stories always bring a smile, just as seeing one in use seems to bring a nostalgic moment of joy to those who take the time to approach me to share.
I could probably conclude this post with a clichéd comment on how I feel some sort of responsibility to carry the mantle and keep it doing what it was built for half a century ago, and I suppose there would be an element of truth to that. For me, though, the F is above all a bright and well-engineered window into the photography of days gone by. The aperture shuffle when changing lenses, the raising of that enormous finder to compose, and the characteristic crispness of the titanium foil shutter feel at once anachronistic and romantic; inconvenient as they may seem, the F forces the modern photographer to go through its tactile motions in a way that constantly reminds them of its unique beauty and charm. While I doubt it will ever be used capture another historic news image, the Nikon F is a wonderful reminder of how far we've come – and perhaps some of what we've forgotten. I look forward to burning through many more rolls with it.