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.