The Nikkormat FT is something of a contradiction unto itself. On the one hand, it is incredibly well-built, which would indicate that its designers spent considerable time and energy contemplating every nuance of the camera. On the other hand, its operation is hampered by numerous unusual quirks, which would indicate a contrarily lackadaisical design team. Because of this strange dichotomy, the Nikkormat can be both petulantly frustrating and deeply endearing.
The FT reviewed here is the first Nikkormat produced by Nippon Kogaku K. K. (Nikon) between the years 1965 and 1967. It was made in a time of great change in the photographic industry, and while it embraced some of the advancements of the era it also seems to have been a somewhat retrospective camera. With it, Nikon created a new tier in its product line; a simpler camera made for amateur photographers who may have been intimidated by the price or complexity of Nikon’s professional grade F and F2 SLR cameras.
One of the Nikkormat’s strongest assets is its looks. This is a very nice looking machine. With its all-metal construction and fully mechanical controls, it oozes retro charm in the age of plastic-fantastic DSLRs. It was originally available in black and chrome models, with the black now being the rarer of the two offerings. In chrome, the camera features a well-balanced mix of brushed and polished details, and every button and dial shows impressively sophisticated machining. It’s one of the more geometrically interesting cameras, with a pleasing mix of shapes and forms complementing a well-proportioned overall body size. When fitted with the accessory shoe, the back of the camera in particular becomes an alluring display of circles, lines, and angles.
The impressive build quality carries through to the little details as well. The battery compartment cover is a quarter-turn design, different from most cameras’ threaded covers which, over time, tend to become cross-threaded by careless owners. The film advance lever is a single machined piece of metal, eschewing the usual plastic embellishments found on many contemporary machines. The self-timer lever is similarly an all-metal design, and the frame count indicator window is a tiny, circular piece of rounded glass. It’s these high quality components that make the Nikkormat feel like a high-end machine, though it comes at the cost of lightness.
The FT is heavy. Coming in at 745g, single-handed use is virtually impossible. At the time of its release, this was noted by customers and reviewers, who cited the FT’s competition as being easier for travelers and far more wieldy. Then, as now, people were more forgiving of the camera’s weight due to the robustness of its build, as the FT proved to be remarkably durable both externally and internally. Internal components include a vertically traveling, metal-bladed shutter capable of speeds from Bulb to 1/1000th of a second. Flash X-sync comes in at 1/125th of a second. Interestingly, the shutter speed is selectable via a concentric ring positioned around the lens barrel. In theory this should make shooting a bit simpler, putting aperture and shutter control in the same general area. In practice, though, it’s decidedly odd and difficult to operate; another of the FT’s slightly peculiar (and slightly annoying) design elements.
The Nikkormat FT can be used without batteries, but batteries are required for its light-metering system to work. This system is a “center-the-needle” affair, using a CdS meter to read a full-frame average through the lens. The needle rises and falls to indicate exposure results against the camera’s current aperture and shutter speed setting. Interestingly the exposure needle is duplicated in a window on the top of the camera, allowing the photographer to take a reading without looking through the viewfinder. An additional quirk that some will find annoying is that the meter is only activated when the film advance lever has been pulled out to its “stand-by” position. This adds an additional step between getting a shot, though a possible benefit is longer battery life.
The light meter works well enough, but synching the meter to Nikkor lenses again demonstrates the quirkiness of this camera. Nikon’s designers couldn’t figure out a way to automatically synch the aperture setting on the lens to the body of the FT. As a result, it becomes necessary to manually synchronize the lens with the body every time a lens is mounted. This is accomplished by first setting the lens’ maximum aperture against the film speed scale on the camera’s shutter ring. Next, the meter coupling pin must be rotated to the far right, and the lens’ aperture must be set to ƒ/5.6. This aligns the lens with the camera’s meter coupling shoe. Once mounted, the lens’ aperture must be reset by scrolling from maximum to minimum aperture. Here again the camera’s design bumbles between the photo and the photographer. The whole process can be incredibly finicky and inconvenient, especially when compared with some of the FT’s contemporaries. Nikon fans claim that this strange procedure isn’t so much a design flaw, but more a reflection on the limits of 1960’s technology. Then again, if other manufacturers managed to devise solutions, why didn’t Nikon?
The viewfinder is nothing special, though it’s important to remember this is not a professional level SLR. Still, more informative viewfinders are always welcome. The exposure needle display is incredibly small, often being topped or bottomed out as the user dials in the proper exposure. After the exposure needle, all that’s visible is the selected shutter speed, necessitating continuous raising and lowering of the camera from ones eye to check aperture and make adjustments. Focusing can be difficult, as the machine lacks the popular split rangefinder area, but this can again be forgiven as the machine was never intended to be the best SLR in the Nikon range. A depth of field preview button is included, and placed intelligently to slight left of the shutter release button. Nice.
Availability of lenses is superb, with the FT accepting all Nikon F bayonet mount lenses equipped with a meter coupler, dubbed “rabbit ears” among collectors. With excellent examples being very affordable, and an extensive collection of higher range lenses for those willing to pay, the FT can satisfy the optical needs of any photophile. Additionally notable is the inclusion of a mirror lock-up lever, allowing the FT to be fitted with specialty lenses and specialized optical viewfinders. Indeed, the wealth of options around Nikon’s F mount can be so great that it’s very easy to become overwhelmed. While daunting, this is something of a nice problem to have.
It’s true that the Nikkormat FT’s previously mentioned issues will hamper the photographer. Early operation will be filled with moments of pause, frustration, and double-checking of settings, lever, and dials. Some will find the early going untenable, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a truly wonderful relationship. As familiarity grows, the process becomes more fluid, and eventually one shapes their habits to fit the camera. The mechanical precision and technical capability of the FT is instantly appreciated, and as the user builds a rapport with the machine, its little annoyances and quirks seem to morph into charming and accepted eccentricities. In spite of its shortcomings, the Nikkormat FT truly deserves its place amongst the ranks of the most sought-after and respected vintage SLRs.