Innovation is a big deal. Companies that invent new products are amazing. Unfortunately for these trailblazers, innovation doesn’t always lead to glory. The last century is peppered with examples of “firsts” being forgotten. While no one remembers the very first MP3 player, everyone recognizes Steve Jobs’ iPod, right? Yes, sometimes it’s best to sit back, observe the competition, and use their experience to create something greater than anything anyone’s seen before. This is what happened with the Nikon F, and while Nikon’s first SLR doesn’t hold the distinction of being the first SLR in the world, it’s the one that many people remember as being “first”.
The reason? The F succeeded in combining all the best features of those SLRs that had come before it into one amazing machine. Drawing on innovations made by the likes of Exacta, Leica, Contax, and Asahi, the Nikon F was a camera that changed everything. It immediately earned a reputation for being the best SLR ever made. Even today it retains this distinction for many seasoned photographers.
But does this camera from 1959 truly surpass anything that came before and after, or is this a case of unbridled nostalgia?
To understand why the F was so important is to remember a time when photography was a world of compromise. Limitations in technology and manufacturing created a landscape in which no single camera came without significant sacrifice. The best cameras of the times (rangefinders) had numerous practical irritants and the best of them (German models) were prohibitively expensive for many would-be shooters. Lesser-priced cameras unappealingly lacked features, sported fixed lenses, had terrible viewfinders, or were simply poor quality. For years, camera makers would develop cameras that solved one particular shortcoming while completely ignoring scores of other issues. The stage was set. The world was ready for a game-changing camera built for professionals.
Nikon’s F was the first to solve nearly every drawback associated with 35mm SLR film cameras. At the time of its release, one Japanese publication soberly reported that the “Nikon F has implemented almost all requirements placed on 35mm SLR cameras.” (Asahi Camera, 1959, September). This conservatively worded review, tinged with the low expectations for Japanese 35mm cameras, hints at Nikon’s brave new world of Japanese superiority. With the F, lens apertures no longer remained stopped down after shooting, mirrors returned automatically to their rest position, and viewfinders could be swapped out to fulfill the requirements of every possible shooting scenario. A lockable mirror, incredible lens lineup, motor drives for shooting up to four frames-per-second, expandable film backs up to 250 exposures, titanium foil shutter blades, and generally bullet-proof construction effectively signaled Nikon’s intent to become the best camera manufacturer in the world.
Suddenly, German makers such as Leica and Zeiss were playing second-fiddle to a Japanese company. The Nikon F made rangefinders obsolete, and its impeccable design and construction had buyers questioning why Zeiss’ machines were so expensive. In just a few years the F system expanded to encompass a lens lineup that featured everything from 21mm to 1000mm focal lengths, numerous light meter prisms, and film backs to cover nearly every professional and consumer-grade film format. The F had arrived, and it wasn’t going anywhere for the next fourteen years.
The Nikon F will always have its place in history, the question that remains is whether or not the F is relevant today. The short answer is that no camera collection is complete without one. But the F is a pro-grade camera that begs to be used, and to keep it on a collector’s shelf is nearly criminal. So what will the average photophile find in the field?
The F is a fully mechanical camera. There are no circuits to degrade, no flashing LED’s, no batteries to leak, and no contacts to corrode. Its controls are simplicity itself, with the top plate brandishing a shutter speed dial, film advance lever, shutter release button, advance/rewind switch, and a film rewind knob. The rear of the camera features the prism release button for swapping out prisms. The front sees inclusion of a self-timer lever, mirror lock-up switch, depth-of-field preview button, and lens release button. On the bottom is a film-back lock, tripod mount, and ASA/ISO reminder dial.
Out in the wild the F is extremely capable, with very few drawbacks. The “hockey puck,” as it’s been colloquially referred to, comes in at around 850g and is one of the heaviest SLRs around. This can be forgiven when one considers this weight is registered by a machine that’s among the most durable ever produced. Still, film-junkies who are featherweights or travelers may consider shooting a smaller camera. Get past the heft, however, and the shooter will find one of the most mechanically pleasurable experiences around.
Dials click into their detents with clinical precision. The film advance lever offers one of the most satisfying actions of any camera. The stroke is simply perfect, and the sound of the film spool ratcheting and the shutter locking into its ready position is uniquely satisfying. The shutter release button depresses with exceptional fluidity, and crucial controls are placed in intrinsically logical locations. The depth-of-field button is especially well-located, sitting directly under the average shooters right index or middle finger.
This is the kind of camera that, within moments, feels completely natural to shoot. The F is one of those rare machines that never gets in the photographer’s way.
The F was the first full-featured SLR system, and this extended to include numerous available viewfinders. Finders equipped with light-meters, called Photomic Finders, are easily attainable, as are the batteries for these meters. The early models use independent, external metering, while later models use through-the-lens metering. This advanced TTL system favored a 60% center-weighted metering, a metering method so excellent that Nikon would continue to use it for decades.
Today, unfortunately, the functionality of these light-meters is often degraded, which has led to working light-meter prisms being highly valued. The frequency of Photomic finders being non-functioning has also led to an increased value being placed on the prisms that feature no light-meter. These include the waist-level and eye-level pentaprism finders.
Looking through the viewfinder of a Photomic-equipped F reveals no information beyond a tiny light-meter needle. This needle, when the aperture and shutter speed have been set to yield a proper exposure, rests in the center of a small, rectangular window. On top of the Photomic Finder is another needle for presetting exposure. It works well-enough, though personal preference will dictate whether the photographer uses a Photomic or a standard finder coupled with an external light-meter (or perhaps the sunny 16 rule). In any case, the viewfinder is one of the F’s weakest links. Lacking in information that some of its contemporaries put at-the-ready, it’s spartan for sure.
One of the major hallmarks of the Nikon F system was the outstanding line of lenses produced. The F-mount bayonet lens mount system allowed quick and easy swapping of an incredibly robust range of lenses. Optical characteristics, quality construction, and innovations in lens design were then, and are now, of the highest caliber.
F-mount lens production continues to this day, and comprises the largest collection of optical lenses ever created. It has the highest degree of backward and forward compatibility of any lens system in the world, with countless vintage lenses being compatible with Nikon’s modern, professional-grade DSLRs. Some F-mount lenses, like the 58mm ƒ/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, have achieved legendary status, and are considered among the best lenses in the world from any manufacturer of any era.
Aesthetically the Nikon F is a classically styled machine. It wields a clarity of design that’s entirely businesslike. There’s nothing extraneous about it. Only the bare essentials are here, and they’re rendered in a way that is clear, concise, and purposeful. The Photomic Finders can be polarizing, with some considering them to be large, unwieldy masses slapped on top of an otherwise elegant body. This point is valid, though use of a pentaprism or waist-level finder can mitigate it for those who are prohibitively appalled by the Photomics.
This full-metal camera comes in choice of black or chrome finish. In black, the F looks intensely professional, and is perfect for the wannabe photojournalist or street shooter. Chrome models are nicely finished in a contrasty pattern of satin silver and black. On both versions, the dimpled, black trim is of the most resilient found on any vintage camera, and won’t degrade like many of the leatherettes found on similar machines. Muscular and refined, the F is a camera that will draw looks of intrigue and admiration in an era of plastic, bubbly DSLRs.
With all this technical achievement, exceptional design, and modern usability there’d be reason enough to shoot an F, but that’s not the whole story. The very best cameras are the ones with that strange, intangible factor that inexplicably draw a photographer to shoot it over and over. The F is such a camera. There’s just something about it. Even when people have no idea what they’re looking at, they can sense it; they can tell it’s something special.
The F turns heads and opens doors to often-fantastic conversations. People will ask what it is, how old is it, does it still work, and if they can hold it. Others will suddenly blink in wide-eyed recognition, and relive a time 44 years ago when they used an F to shoot a trip to Europe, or the first years of their child’s life. Others will quietly wonder if their F is still stored somewhere in the attic, and resolve to dig it out when they get home.
This camera does everything any shooter could ask of it. From covering wars, to photography in lunar orbit, the F has never met a challenge it couldn’t handle. It’s impeccably built, shoots beautifully, and will operate forever. The F mount optics are second-to-none, and the range of expandable accessories is unmatched by its contemporaries. The F is a machine that was made by obsessive engineers for the most exacting photographers, and they succeeded in creating something that no one dreamed could be possible. So is the F Nikon’s best 35mm SLR? In short, yes it is.