In my last article, I mentioned a shiny, little Nikon FG. The FG happened to be my very first 35mm film camera and remains one of my favorites today. Compact, light, and quite capable, it carried me through my photographic formative days in style. It’s the camera by which I measure every other camera, and I often find that most can’t match the sheer usability of this simple, modest machine.
But chat with photo geeks or poke around on the internet and you’ll soon find that the FG garners more than its fair share of detractors. As a forum lurker and occasional commenter, I noticed that recommending the FG to others or proselytizing its hidden sophistication would often prompt the naysayers to say nay. Mostly these rebukes came with the subtext that the superiority of the FE and FE2 dictate that the FG isn’t worth a look from any self-respecting shooter. My fond feelings toward the FG are so incongruous to the reputation it holds with most people that I’ve often wondered if I’m wrong. Do I love the FG only because it was my first camera? Am I ignoring the FG’s flaws out of nostalgia? Or are the naysayers wrong? Is it really as good as I think it is?
After years of shooting classic cameras I’ve finally come to a conclusion. The FG is one of the best amateur cameras on the vintage market, the only problem is it’s a Nikon. But before I extrapolate on my Theory of Inverse-halo Effect as it Relates to the Nikon Nameplate, let’s take a step back and consider the camera, unfettered by the reputation of its maker or the expectations of that maker’s fans.
On paper, the FG seems undeniably ho-hum. Its vertically-traveling, electro-mechanical Copal shutter operates at speeds from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second and adds a bulb mode for long exposures. The shutter offers the battery-averse a mechanical backup speed of 1/90th of a second, selectable by choosing the “M90” mark on the enormous shutter dial. Additionally we’re offered the option of shooting in Program and Aperture-priority auto-exposure modes. The FG boasts further luxuries in the shape of a self-timer on the front, film memo holder on the back, and exposure compensation on the top. ISO compatibility ranges from 25-3200, and can be extended up to 6400 via the previously mentioned exposure compensation. In lieu of an exposure lock, the FG includes a backlight compensation button which, when pressed, automatically overexposes the scene by two stops (snarky spec-sheet mutterings aside, this is pretty fantastic). The hotshoe contains contacts for full TTL flash metering capabilities with dedicated Nikon flashes, something only replicated in the later FE2 and FA. And finally, the camera also boasts an alarm which warns the user when the exposure speed is slow enough that camera shake may result in blurred images. Thankfully we can turn this annoying feature off.
I know what you’re thinking. Boring camera, right? Nothing special. You can get this same machine from Yashica, Ricoh, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, and Minolta. Sure you can. But the FG has a few tricks up its sleeve, and one of these tricks is pretty unbeatable.
Where the FG starts to shine is in the way its automated modes calculate exposures, and by the quality of its fantastic metering system. The FG’s through-the-lens wide-open aperture meter employs Nikon’s now-famous 60/40 center-weighted pattern, a pattern that has proven unflappable time and time again. It’s accurate, easy to manipulate, and easy to understand. This metering aptitude combined with the FG’s fantastic Aperture-priority and Program modes results in flawless exposures. In my time with the FG, I never once made a bad exposure shooting in auto-exposure mode (something that can’t be said for many other cameras) and whenever I had heavy backlight, the situation was easily remedied via the dedicated switch.
Where the FG continues to surprise is in its viewfinder. With 92% coverage, the viewfinder is quite large considering the camera’s tiny footprint. It also comes equipped with a focusing screen coveted by users of the FE series, the K2 screen. The K2 split-image and microprism screen is among the best of the Nikon focusing screens for one reason – it’s bright, and it helps the the FG become an exceptional performer in low light shooting situations. Further augmenting the FG’s abilities in night scenes are the camera’s super bright LED readouts for shutter speed and exposure readings. Better than needles and analog readouts in challenging light, the bright LEDs found here are often missing in many other, more expensive Nikons.
Of course, all of this would mean nothing if the FG was clunky to shoot. Fortunately, Nikon got the ergonomics right. The FG is a small machine, but it’s never uncomfortably small. It’s easy to grip in all cases, and even more so when one’s fitted the detachable finger grip. It’s one of the lightest SLR’s ever made, making it easy on the hands and neck, and its control interface will be immediately comfortable for any shooter, experienced or otherwise. The oversized, overhanging shutter dial makes exposure adjustment extremely quick, and the to-the-point design ethos keeps extraneous and unnecessary features from getting in the way of the process.
In the field, all of these qualities combine to make for a remarkably worry-free shooting experience, regardless of the user’s knowledge level. Don’t know anything about exposure and just want to take pictures? Set the lens to f/22, flick the dial to “P” mode, and go to town as if you were shooting a remarkably well-lensed point-and-shoot. Want to learn and discover the joys of shallow depth-of-field? Set the dial to “A”, open that lens up as wide as it goes, and revel in your salacious bokeh. Feeling confident enough to go manual? Pick a shutter speed and aperture, and rest easy knowing the LEDs in that viewfinder are going to tell you all you need to know. The FG can cover the lacking skill-set of the most ham-handed amateur, and augment the skill-set of the most exacting professional to equally fruitful result.
For all of its technological innovation and capability one would think that the FG would be pricey, but astonishingly, this isn’t the case at all. I regularly find FG’s selling for less than it costs to buy and develop a roll of film. Why so cheap? The FG was mass-produced as a consumer level camera, so there are tons of examples floating around garage sales and hiding in thrift stores. Without a doubt, the FG is one of best deals in Nikon manual focus bodies.
But before someone yells “fanboy” or says “nay”, let me be the first to admit that the FG does have a number of drawbacks. Paradoxically, some of these drawbacks actually stem from the camera’s supposed selling points. Its minuscule size and weight are a boon to shooters who like to travel light, but it also means that the camera feels unbalanced with longer lenses, or blurs images when shooting below 1/60th of a second. The combined forces of mirror slap and shutter vibration, which are more manageable in heavier bodies, rip through the FG’s frail chassis faster than Emperor Palpatine’s Force lightning through a wiggling Luke Skywalker. Those with typically steady hands might find their special talents negated by the FG’s unbalanced mirror slap.
Its gloriously low price point demanded an economical design that sadly leads to a few glaring annoyances, as the camera omits certain features that hold it back from true greatness. It’s one of the only auto-exposure Nikon bodies that doesn’t feature an exposure lock, meaning that shooters who demand precise exposure control will almost certainly be let down by the FG. Nikon likely omitted this feature to prevent the FG from competing with the FE2, so while I understand the reason behind the design limitation I’m still chaffed. It’s a feature that’s sorely missed in this type of a camera.
Lastly, and most egregiously, the FG just isn’t as well-made as other Nikons. When compared to the indestructibility of the brand’s F-series or advanced amateur FE and FM bodies, the FG just doesn’t stack up. Its plastic body feels hollow and fragile, and it doesn’t inspire the same confidence gained from holding an all-metal, hand-assembled body. Its plastic film advance, while surprisingly smooth, can’t match the luxurious feel of an all metal film-advance rolling on self-lubricating ball bearings, and in my experience, FG’s are the most likely of the Nikon SLRs to suffer electronic breakdown.
But it’s only when we compare the FG to its immediate family that it comes up short. This makes sense. Comparing a consumer-level, plastic camera to the mechanical beasts Nikon is known for will naturally leave the FG wallowing in the dirt. But that doesn’t stop people judging it this way. After all, it is a Nikon, and comparing Nikons to Nikons is about as fair as it gets, right? I don’t think so. For the average photo geek, associations with Nikon’s typically excellent quality heighten expectations, and when a camera bearing the Nikon nameplate doesn’t live up to these expectations the result is vociferous disappointment. To many shooters, the FG’s shortcomings represent a betrayal of everything Nikon stood for, and for some this is unforgivable. But all this drama does beg the question, what went wrong with the FG?
The problem, it seems, was that with the FG, Nikon tried to assume an identity unusual to the brand and their acolytes. Let’s consider the Canon AE-1 Program, which can be seen as a direct competitor to the FG and a very similarly specced camera. In the decades that preceded the release of both cameras, relentless marketing had firmly cemented reputations for both Nikon and Canon. Warranted or not, the public regarded Nikon as the brand of the uncompromising professional, while Canon was seen as the brand for technology-loving amateurs. In part because of these reputations, buyers shopping for an amateur camera would naturally feel more comfortable choosing the AE-1P. If we look at the cameras through this lens we see that the FG just didn’t fit into Nikon’s identity, whereas the AE-1 Program makes perfect sense for Canon.
Apart from possible branding problems, Nikon’s relative conservatism compared to its competitors could have also hurt the FG. In the 1980s, Canon’s tech-savvy ethos paired especially well with consumer interest in hi-tech wizardry. The striking green “Program” proudly displayed on its logo and shutter dial jumped out at buyers while Nikon’s more stoic design philosophy likely left shoppers unimpressed. Let’s face it, “FG” hardly says “I can do things” the way “AE-1 Program” does. Nikon’s sophisticated, professional design cues may have made the FG seem like the boring choice.
But was all this really fair to the FG? To Nikon’s credit, they never advertised the FG as being an indestructible camera. They only advertised it as a do-it-all camera for the layman. It was the public perception of the brand that betrayed the FG, not the other way around. So if we cast aside prejudice fueled by brand recognition and instead take the FG for what it is, the FG is quite a good camera, and when we compare the FG to its immediate competition rather than its immediate family, the FG quickly proves itself to be one of the best choices for amateurs and enthusiasts alike.
With unclouded eyes it’s pretty easy to see this is the case. The FG’s semi-auto shooting mode is the artistically relevant Aperture-priority, preferred by many over the AE-1 Program’s Shutter-priority mode. The FG is smaller and lighter than Minolta’s X-700, and is more full-featured than the Olympus OM-10. It’s got a better metering system than the Pentax ME, and it’s viewfinder is almost as bright and massive as the professional-grade OM-1. And while compared to higher-spec Nikons it’s not as reliable, the FG compares very favorably to all the consumer-level cameras from competing brands. The FG doesn’t suffer from blown capacitors and squeaky shutters, it doesn’t randomly self-destruct its own light meter, and it doesn’t jettison its leatherette like a shedding snakeskin- it just shoots, and shoots, and shoots.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the most amazing aspect of the FG, and an asset that’s nearly impossible for any other maker to counter. It features a lens mount that’s downright legendary; Nikon’s F mount affords anyone shooting the FG the ability to mount a massive variety of Nikkor lenses. Every lens Nikon made from 1977 can be used on the FG, and a cheap conversion makes every so-called pre-AI lens made before 1977 mountable as well. Everything from the legendary 105mm f/2.5 to the super-speedy Noct-Nikkor can be mounted to the FG. What’s more, every single Nikon lens can be used with the FG’s fantastic program mode, something every other Program auto-exposure camera of the time could not accomplish.
And if that didn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.
The FG is an example of a camera that deserved a chance but never got one. But with so many modern shooters revisiting the world of film photography, the FG has another shot at the greatness it deserves. It’s a perfect first camera for a novice and can do a superb job as a backup body for more advanced photographers, too. So if you find one, spend the few bucks and give it the chance that others might not. You just might fall in love.