My eyes flitted from one glittering storefront to the next, unsure of which to enter. For weeks I’d been craving a cannolo, a Sicilian pastry with a reputation only matched by its ubiquity. These simple tubes of fried dough stuffed with sweet ricotta filling are so common that friends have labeled them “baby’s first Italian pastry,” though this somewhat dismissive nomenclature most definitely belies the dessert’s deliciousness. Sure, a cannolo may be the safe choice, but it’s never the wrong choice. When in doubt, choose cannoli.
But here in Boston’s North End, a neighborhood steeped in Italian tradition (and secret recipes) I want to pick the best cannoli. There’s the tourist trap pastry shop, which at this time of year is packed to bursting with delightfully expectant europeans and out-of-towners ignorant to the fact that the singular noun form of cannoli is cannolo- how gauche. There’s the place the locals frequent, jammed with high school kids enjoying the freedom of long, hot summer nights. And there’s the new, American-style coffee shop that seems to earn only askance looks, but is actually quite excellent.
Of course, any choice is the right choice. While not all cannoli are created equal, it’s an easy treat to get right. After ten minutes of perusing the shops of Hanover Street I decide to put off this fateful decision for later in the night. My camera’s loaded with 400 speed film, and the sun’s setting. The cannoli can wait. In the meantime I’ve got film to burn, and tonight I’m shooting a classic Nikon SLR, the FE.
The 1970s and ‘80s were heady days for Nikon. A confluence of wise leadership, exceptionally ambitious internal development teams, and beneficial external market trends helped the brand enjoy a remarkably long period of impressive performance, and this span of time would see Nikon create some of the best 35mm film cameras in the world. Beginning with the F2 in 1971, it seemed that for the next two decades Nikon could do no wrong.
But while the success of their professional cameras had earned the brand a stellar reputation among pros, by the mid-1970s things had changed in the world of SLR photography. Amateurs and enthusiasts now populated the most lucrative segment of the buying public, and large, heavy cameras like the F2 were being outpaced by tinier models with more features. These smaller, often electronic machines (initially regarded as unreliable) were beginning to prove themselves as real workhorses. Olympus’ OM1, released in 1972, had shown beyond doubt that enthusiast shooters preferred a compact form factor, and the runaway success of Canon’s A series had irrevocably ushered in the era of electronic auto-exposure cameras for the masses. Nikon needed a camera to compete.
Enter the FM, a compact, all-mechanical, fully-manual 35mm SLR first released in 1977. This camera, an entirely new design made to incredible standards, was the first machine in what would become a robust and long-lived series of small, semi-professional SLRs. In time this range of size-conscious cameras would encompass six machines; the FM, FM2, FE, FE2, FA, and the FM3A all shared the same internal chassis and general design ethos. They were miniature, extremely capable, and masterfully crafted. And most important of all, there was a model for every type of photo geek.
Hot on the heels of the manual-only FM came the Nikon FE. Released in 1978, it’s a camera that’s much friendlier to advanced enthusiasts and new shooters primarily due to its ability to shoot in aperture-priority mode. But just because it was crafted with slightly less-versed shooters in mind doesn’t mean it was the lesser camera, on the contrary, it was as robust and exceptional as the FM before it, and the FE even offers certain features that are missing in any of the other cameras in the compact SLR series. With the FE, Nikon managed to create a camera that would be equally at home in the hands of a money-making photojournalist as it would be in the hands of a student stumbling through Photo 101, and it’s a camera equally adept today as it was in 1978.
But let’s get through the basics before we get too deep. The FE is an advanced, enthusiast level, F-mount, 35mm film SLR. Its electronically-controlled, metal-bladed, vertically-traveling focal plane shutter is capable of speeds from eight seconds to 1/1000th of a second with a mechanical backup speed of 1/90th of second, plus Bulb mode for long exposures. Flash sync speed is 1/125th of a second. An exposure compensation dial offers two stops of over- and under-exposure adjustment, and the self-timer lever doubles as an exposure lock lever. A stop-down lever allows for depth-of-field preview as well as stop-down metering when shooting with non-AI (auto indexing) lenses. ISO setting is selectable from 12 to 3200, there’s a multiple exposure lever, and a battery check light. Film advance and rewind are manually actuated, and there’s a film memo holder on the film door.
You might be thinking that this camera’s pretty bland. After all, its entire essence was just distilled into a single paragraph. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Not even close. The Nikon FE’s spec sheet and indeed its external appearance only hint at the greatness that lies beneath the surface. This camera is a true sleeper, one of the best cameras of the 1970s, and a machine that has the potential to be the only film camera some shooters ever need. Let’s take a closer look at what makes the FE so special.
Aesthetically speaking, it’s an unassuming camera. Lacking in garish flourishes and odd design cues, it’s a machine as reserved as they come. Back in 1978 this conservative approach to design no doubt had the FE struggling to differentiate itself within the massive field of Japanese SLRs. Put this camera next to a Pentax ME Super, Canon AE-1, or Minolta XD-11 and you’ll find little to set it apart visually. Available in both silver and black, the timeless geometry and modest proportions that may have bored people in the ‘70s now help the FE jump out from the crowd. Very few machines look this good today, and the Nikon in 2016 certainly makes a visual statement. There’s no mistaking that this is a classic, collectible film camera dripping with class and sophistication. Expect to catch photo geeks on the street peering intently to see what you’ve got, and don’t be surprised when people holding the latest DSLR want to chat about the vintage masterpiece hanging from your neckstrap.
If the FE is tantalizing to look at, it’s certainly exciting when you’ve got it in hand. Ergonomically, things are nearly perfect. Nikon’s years of experience crafting professional SLRs show, and rare missteps made in the implementation of previous cameras’ controls have been deftly avoided in the FE. What remains is a camera that’s among the absolute best in terms of usability and functionality.
The top plate sees a balanced layout of the most critical controls. Right of the pentaprism we find a large, dedicated shutter speed selector with an easily actuated Auto lock. Positioned perfectly fore of this is the shutter release (with threaded release cable socket). The film advance lever, which also serves as the camera’s ON/OFF switch, rests exactly where it should be, and when activated hangs intuitively proud of the main camera body. Left of the pentaprism we find the all-important ISO selector wheel with an incorporated locking exposure compensation dial. Atop this we find the film rewind lever and film back opener.
The front of the camera features a similarly sparse control layout. To the left of the lens we find the lens release button, while to the right we find a depth-of-field preview lever and a combination lever that controls both the self-timer and exposure lock (press to the left for exposure lock, swing to the right for self-timer). In use, this little lever is quite exceptional, allowing very fast exposure adjustment in time sensitive auto-exposure shooting situations. It should be noted, however, that when the exposure lock is activated the meter needle in the viewfinder still swings with the available light (though exposure is indeed locked).
There’s a few tertiary controls here and there, such as the multiple exposure activation switch that hides timidly under the film advance lever, and a small battery check light housed inconspicuously on the rear of the camera, but aside from these little embellishments there’s nothing here that isn’t necessary to take amazing photos. And that’s the core tenet of the FE. Nikon created a camera that has everything a photo geek could ever want and nothing unneeded. It’s a basic, yet exceptional camera, and the inclusion of an auto-exposure shooting mode makes it a much more useful machine for new shooters or photo geeks who don’t mind trusting circuitry to make a proper exposure.
Practically speaking the metering and auto-exposure system is flawless. The FE implements Nikon’s now-classic metering system whereby sixty percent of the exposure value is metered from the center of the frame with the remaining forty percent averaged in from the remainder of the image area. This center-weighted metering is incredibly accurate, and will only be fooled by the trickiest of lighting situations. For times like these, the 60/40 system is predictable enough that manipulation of the exposure value is a simple task. Frame the area of the image that you’d like to meter for in the center of the viewfinder, activate the exposure lock, recompose your image, and shoot.
The businesses-like viewfinder is bright and large, and of the fully-informative variety, showing enough information that it’s possible to shoot the FE without taking one’s eye from the finder. Focusing screens are interchangeable by the end-user, with the standard screen being the Type K. This features a split-image rangefinder circle surrounded by a micro prism focusing aid, and a larger etched circle to indicate the effective metering area of the previously mentioned center-weighted meter. The selected lens aperture is displayed in an optic window to the top of the image area, and to the left of the frame we find a shutter scale that displays both the selected shutter speed and a light meter readout via a separate needle. In auto-mode this swing needle indicates which speed will be chosen, while in manual mode it merely indicates a suggested speed.
This match-needle system at first blush might seem a bit primitive compared to other classic cameras’ LED displays, but it’s actually very intuitive. In displaying two dynamic needles it’s possible to instantly and easily compensate for tricky lighting, or to shoot a stop or two over- or under-exposed by simply adjusting the shutter speed until both needles rest where the shooter desires relative to one another. If there’s a downside to the viewfinder it’s that there’s no indication that the exposure compensation dial is active, a feature that would be added in 1983’s FE2.
As the sun continued to dip below the tops of the towers in the distant financial district, the viewfinder showed its only other weakness. Dark shooting environments can make reading the displays a bit difficult, as they’re transparent and rely on available light for visibility. As the night wore on and eventually required 3200 ISO film, things became pretty tricky. The needles and speed scale blended into the brick backgrounds, and I found myself unable to rely on the aperture readout. A reminder that nothing is perfect.
Overall build quality is top level, and typical to Nikon’s line of compact SLRs. The chassis is made of a robust copper-aluminum alloy first introduced in the FM before it. Internal documents from Nikon indicate that extreme attention was paid to ensure that the electronics within the FE would be as reliable as an all-mechanical camera, but skeptical shooters worried that the FE’s electronic wizardry would fail in the field. These worries were quickly allayed as more and more shooters experienced the reliability of the FE, and time has shown that Nikon succeeded in creating a wonderfully durable machine. In my years of selling cameras I’ve never encountered a non-functional FE. That’s pretty amazing.
In my time stomping through back alleys and dipping into the basements of North End cigar shops, I never once worried about what would happen if I mishandled the FE. It’s a solid machine, and it provides a sense of easy assurance that whatever happens it’ll still keep shooting.
Dials, knobs, levers, and switches all actuate with mechanical certainty. Film advance is smooth as silk. Mirror slap is virtually nonexistent. Shutter sound is minimal. Shutter release is precise. This camera is just a pure joy to shoot, and the blending of mechanical components with electronic components creates a unique system by which we’re afforded the best of both worlds. Incredible precision grafted to technical ability- it rarely gets better than this.
Lens compatibility is nearly universal, and this ability to accept a vast majority of Nikon lenses is another area in which the FE trumps the other cameras in the range. While all of Nikon’s compact SLRs are able to shoot the brand’s newer AI and AIs lenses, only the FE features a small locking mechanism on the lens mount that, when activated, enables the user to shoot Nikon’s earlier non-AI lenses. Effectively this means that any Nikon F mount lens will work with the FE, and while these early lenses will need to be stopped down to gain a meter reading (or to shoot in auto-exposure mode), the fact that the FE can accept every Nikon lens made since 1959 is a real marvel.
This versatility opens for the shooter a world of choice in optics. Earlier non-AI lenses are typically less expensive than their newer AI or AIs counterparts, and are usually equal performers in the area of image quality. Additionally, access to more lenses means something much more important than price- that is, experimentation. The ability to shoot really old glass lets us try out long-lost lenses that we might otherwise skip, and ancient optics can imbue in our images a subtle, unique quality.
There’s a lot to like about the FE, and it all hints at a camera that’s nearly perfect. While later models in Nikon’s compact SLR range do certainly offer additional benefits, such as all-mechanical shutters capable of reaching speeds of 1/4000th of a second, brighter viewfinders, and other bells and whistles, the FE is still an amazing machine. It’ll do anything any shooter can reasonably ask of it, and it’s the most affordable of the range. While some of the more advanced compact Nikons can reach prices of around $400, An excellent FE will cost less than $100, which is mind-blowing.
What kind of shooter will love the FE? I see it being most at home in the hands of a real enthusiast shooter, or someone who hopes to become a real enthusiast. It’s exceptionally strong, reliable, and precise, and offers meter-assisted manual shooting that established shooters will love. With the flick of a dial it offers enough automation to allow new shooters to learn on a machine that’s truly remarkable. Factor in its incredible affordability and it’s difficult to imagine anyone regretting the choice to shoot an FE. In that way, it’s sort of like cannoli. No matter who you are, you’re going to love it. Stop thinking about it and get one.