Nikon F6 – Camera Review

Well, this is it.

I shut the gold box for the last time and laid it into a bigger, blander box, a Priority Mail shipping label from Los Angeles to Boston its only decoration. I headed to the post office and reverently handed the package to a clerk, who unceremoniously stuffed it into a shopping cart and distractedly ordered me to have a nice day. I drove home, the familiar presence of a bulky, black camera sadly absent from my passenger’s seat.

The rest of the day was spent in a silent stupor – the muted shock which occurs when someone or something truly special is taken from us. I shifted between grief and remembrance, and wandered around the house aimlessly as the memory of a truly great camera still lingered in my brain.

It was just a few weeks ago that I discovered a benign looking package sitting on my front porch. Its presence was a little strange, as I hadn’t ordered anything, but I was mostly sure it wasn’t a bomb. When I saw that its origin was CP founder James, I immediately carried it into the house, grabbed some scissors, and sliced through the packaging. What greeted me from inside this innocuous box was another, prettier box. It was gold, and emblazoned with words I thought I’d never see in the flesh – Nikon F6.

I carefully pried open the box, and after sifting through a few bits of paper packaging, the cardboard mold of the F6 revealed itself. I took off the top cover and, somehow, I knew immediately.

Yes, this is it.

Nothing really prepares a person for the truly extraordinary moments in life, and this moment was no exception. I couldn’t believe I was getting the chance to shoot Nikon’s final professional film camera, the swan song of the analog era, and possibly the greatest film SLR ever made, the Nikon F6. But there it was, right in front of me, waiting patiently for its first roll of film.

But before I get to deep into this write-up, and to quell the chorus of readers who are certainly rolling there eyes at my excessively reverential tone, let me explain the reason for my shock and awe. The Nikon F6 is the last in a long, storied line of Nikon’s professional F-series of SLRs. This range of cameras has been the standard bearer in professional-grade SLR cameras for the latter half of the twentieth century. But what’s even more remarkable is that the F6 remains the very last professional 35mm SLR still in production in today’s age of DSLRs and mirror-less marvels (its competitors threw in the towel shortly after its introduction). So in a sense, the F6 is the final expression of 35mm camera technology, and by extension, the last holdout to make a case for 35mm film as a viable medium for real photographers.

But even though the F6 is among the most important cameras ever made, it’s also among the most peculiar. Think about it. It’s a brand new, professional-grade, state-of-the-art camera made for… film. This would have been normal in the past, of course, but at the time of its introduction in 2004 digital photography’s reign was firmly established. By that time, film had abdicated the throne for good.

Thinking of the F6 in this light, as an anomaly in the timeline of photography, makes picking up and using one even more special. One gets the distinct feeling they’re holding something that shouldn’t logically exist, but does anyway. And against all odds, a stray F6 decided to exist in my possession – even if only for a little while.

Being the camera geek I am, I immediately set out to explore any and all features of this remarkable machine. The F6’s spec sheet promises everything any shooter could want, including a 1/8000th of a second maximum shutter speed, a 1/250th of a second flash sync speed, Nikon’s incredible color matrix metering along with spot and classic center-weighted metering, full PASM mode selection, i-TTL wireless flash metering, 100% viewfinder coverage, built-in 5.5 FPS motor drive (8 FPS with the added MB-40 battery pack), 41 slots of custom settings, compatibility with all Nikon AF lenses including full VR capability, backwards compatibility with every Nikon AI lens (extendable to non-AI with a factory modification from Nikon), CF card data storage, AF tracking, and a thousand more functions that’ll somehow justify this ridiculous run-on sentence. Put simply, it’s capable. Really capable. Think, the most capable film camera ever made.

And after ten minutes of fiddling with the camera’s various controls it became exceedingly apparent that attempting to reach the limit of the F6’s capabilities would be a fool’s errand. And in a way, focusing on its long list of capabilities is missing the point. Features mean absolutely nothing without usability, and it was time to see if the F6 could impress beyond its extensive spec sheet.

I’ll be honest; my bias leans heavily toward simple, understated mechanical cameras. I often find the heavily automated cameras of the ‘90s and early ‘00s to be plasticky, unreliable, and needlessly over-complicated, especially when compared to the simple elegance of a Nikon F3 or a Pentax SV. Much to my surprise, the F6 steamrolled over every preconception I’d held about autofocus film SLR’s, and made me a true believer in the segment.

It’s easy to assume that the F6’s functions will be hidden beneath a mountain of annoying menus, like its DSLR brethren, because let’s face it, it looks like a DSLR. But despite its looks and extremely deep feature set, the F6 manages to present every function in a way that’s immediately understandable and comfortable to use. Every dial, button, and mode selector falls perfectly under the fingers. All essential functions (shutter speed, aperture, program mode selector, AE/AF lock, exposure compensation) revolve around one of the best feeling handgrips on any film or digital camera I’ve ever used. Additional functions, like bracketing, self-timer, multiple exposure, and mirror lockup, can easily be found on the left hand side of the camera, with ISO selection, custom settings, AF point selection, and general preferences being customizable through a simple menu on the back. At no point while shooting the F6 did I have to search for any function; they were all there with a push of a single, easy to reach button.

Another thing that typically bothers me when shooting autofocus SLRs is that they’re bulky, heavy, and unwieldy. The F6 is certainly bulky and heavy (2.15 lbs sans lens, to be exact), but the F6’s design is anything but unwieldy. The molded handgrip of the F6 does a great job of making sure that the camera never feels too heavy or uncomfortable in the hands.

This heft brought to mind the hallmark of every F-series camera – reliability. It’s a wonderful thing to never worry about your camera faltering mid-shoot, and with the F6, the thought simply never crossed my mind. The F6’s heavy, weather-sealed magnesium alloy body does a good job of housing the expensive and fragile electronics that makes it tick. And for the truly paranoid consumers among us who refuse to buy used, the F6 is still available new from Nikon, complete with a three-year factory warranty.

My final gripe with most autofocus SLR’s is that they just don’t have the special feel of a really vintage camera. They’re too clinical, too precise, and feel almost digital. This is true for the F6. But the thing about that is, it shoots better than any vintage camera I’ve ever used. It’s like cheat codes for photography.

Shooting situations that would be difficult and convoluted on older cameras become non-issues with the F6. The matrix meter handled every awkwardly lit scene, I could choose AF points without having to contort my fingers to reach the selector, and the viewfinder made sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. The F6’s AF speed may be the quickest and most silent among autofocus film SLR’s, ensuring worry-free, unobtrusive focus with every single shot. The shutter fires with close to zero shutter lag and with no vibration, ensuring that the blurred, low shutter-speed images common to many SLRs are completely nonexistent. Try that with your old Pentax K1000.

But even with all this functionality and technical ability, the F6 has something few cameras made in the present day possess – character. Yes, underneath all the complicated engineering, we find a lovable, trustworthy camera which immediately endears itself to its shooter. While I shot with the F6, I got the distinct feeling that I could approach the art of photography without fear, that everything was indeed possible. I got the feeling that wherever I went the F6 would never stop shooting, and that it would never stop giving me incredible images. In fact, while shooting it, I really did feel I came across the holy grail, the perfect camera.

And right when I realized this, my heart sank.

I knew that in a couple of days I had to return the F6 and say my final goodbyes to a machine I had come to love. And in a way, it’s almost inevitable that we all must say goodbye to the F6, and by extension, manufacturers’ support of 35mm. Let’s face it, not too many working photographers these days demand a completely new, professional-grade 35mm film camera. The F6 is a niche camera after all, no matter how beautiful and easy to shoot it is. It will be gone one day, along with the many other cameras that have gone before it.

There’s also the price to consider. The F6 retails on B&H for a whopping $2,449 brand new, a steep price for a camera that uses a largely outmoded format. This places it out of reach for many of the hobbyists who prefer film, and presents a still significant investment for professional photographers who, in 2016, are more likely to prefer digital sensors. And after posting pictures of the F6 around on social media, many of our readers reminded us that Nikon’s advanced-amateur F100 offers much the same shooting experience as the F6 at a much lower price point. This is true, but there is something to be said for obtaining a manufacturer’s top-of-the-line product. While the F100 certainly can hold its own against an F6 functionally, it falls short in reliability, support, and, if we’re honest (and a little bit petty), prestige. Is that worth a $2000 price difference? That’s up to the shooter to decide.

But if you’re in the market for a truly professional film camera and already have a collection of Nikon AF-S lenses, please, please do yourself a favor and get an F6. Owning one means owning one of the last great machines of the analog era and almost certainly the greatest of the autofocus era. We will probably never see a camera quite like this again, nor will we see a new professional 35mm SLR being manufactured again. It’s a camera that never should have been, but thankfully is.

My F6 is long gone now, but as I sit here and contemplate its position in film photography history and its place among all the cameras I’ve ever used, I can only think of one phrase – Yeah, that was it.

Want your own Nikon F6?

Buy it from B&H Photo

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    the6millionpman
    December 13, 2016 at 8:16 am

    I am genuinely surprised I wasn’t aware Nikon still manufactured this brand new, that’s commitment.

    • Reply
      the36seconds
      December 13, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      It really is remarkable, and long may they continue! Thanks for reading, as always 😀

  • Reply
    Neilson
    December 13, 2016 at 10:21 am

    I didn’t know that either! Another Nikon autofocus camera to consider is the N90s. They’re incredibly cheap now. A photographer I worked for in the 1990’s had 2 of them as backups for his F5. I bought one in 2000 and it still works well.

    • Reply
      the36seconds
      December 13, 2016 at 7:55 pm

      The N90s is a fantastic camera! Hopefully we can get our hands on one for a review some time.

  • Reply
    Huss
    December 13, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Nice review Josh. I love my F6 but one flaw with it is that it chews through batteries. Even rechargeable ones, which I now use. And if you store the camera w/o batteries (as one should) it forgets all the menu settings you programmed in quite a short amount of time. The menu diving to reset them is frankly tedious, as it is based in early 2000’s tech.
    It is nice that you can program it to remember uncoded old AI and AIS lenses and I think this is the huge deal with the F6, that makes it far superior to the F100. Forget the much better build, the much better AF, the better metering. The viewfinder and manual focussing ability in the F6 is better than any SLR I have ever used, manual or AF, film or digital. It really is incredible. And it is such a bummer that if Nikon can make the F6 – an AF slr – work so well with manual focus lenses, than why can’t they make a D750, D810 etc work just as well with manual lenses?
    One thing that makes the F6 more pleasant to use is to program the AEL button to hold the setting until you press it again. In the default setting it resets after an exposure.
    I was bummed with the 3D colour matrix metering because it does not work as advertised. It is meant to base exposure on what is in focus, but in actuality behaves like any avg scene meter. Anything with heavy backlighting will be underexposed. You can see this just by focusing on a back lit subject, make a note of the meter reading, then switch it to center weighted and watch the reading change, then to spot and watch it change some more.
    But it is super cool that you can change the weighting of the center weight metering pattern.

    Also, how about that plasticky super light 50 1.8g lens? It’s performance is stupendous! What a deal.

    Best regards
    Huss

    • Reply
      the36seconds
      December 13, 2016 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks for the thoughts Huss! Glad to hear you’re enjoying your F6. Kind of strange to consider that the F6 is just now starting to show its age. Perhaps an F7 will fix those issues? 😉

      And that 50 f/1.8G lens is one stellar performer!

    • Reply
      DTC
      December 17, 2016 at 4:10 am

      The battery life of the F6 can be improved considerably with a free firmware update from a Nikon service center (for Nikon USA models with serial numbers below 18000 something). Also using the optional MB-40 grip with 6 rechargeable AA batteries givs you even more battery life.

  • Reply
    Huss
    December 13, 2016 at 11:15 am

    p.s. while they are $2400 new, you can buy a mint/perfect condition one for way under $1K used. Make sure it is a USA model (it will have a small gold Nikon seal under the program flap) so Nikon USA does not give you grief if you need it serviced.

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    December 13, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Just a beautiful review of a beautiful camera. For what is the CF card data storage?

    • Reply
      the36seconds
      December 13, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      The data storage is for settings used for each image. I would imagine it would be useful for metadata for negative scans!

      • Reply
        Merlin Marquardt
        December 13, 2016 at 11:25 pm

        Are the settings for each image recorded automatically? No other film camera does that?

        • Reply
          Lawrence
          December 14, 2016 at 3:28 am

          Quite a few AF film camera store exposure setting and other metadata. Nikon N90, N90s, F100, F5, F6, Canon 1V, etc. There is also modern software to download and embed that data into your scans. Check out meta35.com

          • mmarquar
            December 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

            Thank you. Did not know that. Interesting.

  • Reply
    Jordi
    December 13, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    I have to agree that AF SLR’s are a really useful set of cameras and give a different experience to shooting. I have Medium Format which is slower and manual so for 35mm I appreciate an additional convenience. Coming from an OM-1 which I learned to shoot (slow and methodical) even trying Kodachrome. That one needs a CLA but on the meantime I got an F80 + 50mm 1.8D for less than $100. If an F80 is 80% of an F100 and an F100 is 80% of an F6… I’m happy. (Amusingly the F80 can accomodate a screw cable release which neither the F100 or F6 can!)
    (Midrange) AF SLRs are the bargain of the time, modern, convenient and can be found cheap. Following Neilson’s comment, I saw a kit with an F90 while looking for the 50mm, and it can be cheaper to look for a body with lens and counting the body as free.
    I got that F80 as a “battle body” even getting it into the sea, no fear, and it helped my photography.

    Doesn’t have the classy feeling or same type of enjoyment as a classic manual camera, granted.

    • Reply
      the36seconds
      December 13, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      Thanks for the thoughts Jordi! AF SLR’s are more capable than almost every vintage camera on the market, but they do lack the sort of pizzazz those old brass cameras have.

      Funny you mention the F80, we might just feature that one on the site pretty soon… 😉

  • Reply
    Huss
    December 14, 2016 at 11:20 am

    You can also set the F6 to print the exposure information on the negative between the frames. Kinda cool. I do that just because, but have not used the info for anything, and am not sure what I would use it for!

  • Reply
    Francis.R.
    December 14, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Fantastic how the camera helped you to grab those moments, those are the kind of shots that in some cases can be just a matter of luck with older cameras and digital ones when the controls and the autofocus can be not reliable. I’d love to have film camera with exif data, for now I am fighting with cell phone apps to get that data. xD

    • Reply
      mmarquar
      December 14, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      See comments above about meta35 for exif like data in a film camera. Link is http://www.meta35.com.

      • Reply
        Francis.R.
        December 14, 2016 at 8:10 pm

        Thanks very much for the link. Quite useful (y)

  • Reply
    Dino Brusco
    December 15, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Should you be interested, in Italy there’s plenty of lightly used F6 for a good price (ranging from 650 to 950 euros)

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      December 15, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      Who wouldn’t be interested in Italian cameras?! As if I needed any more reasons to want to fly to Italy. I visited there in 2012, and named my daughter after one of your cities. Salute, Dino.

  • Reply
    garygs
    December 19, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    You are correct in stating that the grip is amazingly comfortable. No other camera has a grip this nice.

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