Nikon F – The Camera That Changed Everything

Nikon F – The Camera That Changed Everything

2200 1238 Josh Solomon

If there’s one camera that’s been a constant presence throughout my years as a photographer and writer, it’s the Nikon F. Nearly every research trail or trip to the camera show somehow ends with the F, and for good reason – it’s the granddaddy of 35mm SLRs. I’ve long known that the Nikon F is a great camera, but when James asked me to pen a retrospective on it, I had to wonder; is the F really that special?

Answering that question revealed a story and a history that no other camera can claim. It’s a story that reaches beyond the limited subjects of photography and engineering; it concerns war, philosophy, exploration of our planet and the space around it, and the pride of a country. It’s a story that’s worth telling.

Postwar Blues

The story of the F starts in the ruins of postwar Japan, 1946. The Second World War left the country broken and defeated, with two of its cities wiped off the face of the Earth and the fabric of its society ripped to shreds. As the nation tried to pick up the pieces, the world around it continued changing rapidly. Japan needed a plan to heal and a path to a better future.

That task was as daunting as it sounds. Domestic industry was crawling, and what little value the Japanese yen had was completely drained in the immediate aftermath of the war. The country was, in the words of former Nikon president Shigeo Ono, “reduced to bartering.” To make things worse, Japanese products of the era lacked the reputation for quality that American or European products enjoyed. Japanese goods were almost universally perceived to be clunky, poorly finished, and years behind their Western counterparts in quality and sophistication.

In response, the country implemented a series of government initiatives to boost overall productivity in order to restore value to their currency, produce sellable products, and rebuild their international image. They had to start somewhere, so they looked to their major wartime manufacturers first. One of these happened to be optics manufacturer Nippon Kogaku K.K., a company we know today as Nikon.

Nippon Kogaku had already carved out a good reputation for themselves domestically, producing precision optics for Japanese Leica copies in the prewar period and for manufacturing military optics during the war. The government quickly tasked the company with designing and manufacturing truly high-quality cameras and lenses for the domestic market and, more importantly, for export. 

The most notable of these early efforts was the Contax-inspired Nikon S-series rangefinders. These cameras were incredibly well-built and well-designed, and most notably showcased the prowess of Nippon Kogaku’s optics. Though derived from Zeiss lenses, Nippon Kogaku managed to improve on the German firm’s lens designs by incorporating a more durable hard-coating and mechanisms for closer focusing, and in certain instances increasing the speed of a lens’ maximum aperture. But despite the quality and workmanship of these early Nikkor lenses and cameras, the company largely flew under the radar of most shooters.

But the quality of Nippon Kogaku’s postwar cameras and optics did not go unnoticed for very long. The outbreak of the Korean War brought photographers Jun Miki and David Douglas Duncan together, both on assignment to cover the war for LIFE magazine. In one of the most unassuming yet important exchanges in photographic history, Miki asked Duncan if he could take his portrait with his Nikkor lens. When the quality of Miki’s lens amazed him, Duncan asked to be introduced to the manufacturer in order to outfit his Leica cameras with the new Nikkor optics. His new, Japanese glass delivered and fitted, Duncan went on to photograph his seminal photo essay, This is War! with Nikon lenses.

Following this and reports from other Korean War photographers, word of these new, high-quality Japanese cameras and lenses quickly spread through the world of professional photography. This attracted the attention of the New York Times, which reported on the new products in a 1950 article.

“The first post-war Japanese camera to attract serious attention in America has created a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proved superior to the German cameras they had been using.”

As could be expected, this claim was not taken lightly. The shooting public were fiercely loyal to their German machines, and didn’t readily take to the new Japanese kids on the block. Martin Forscher of the Eastern Optical Company remarked on this skepticism in the same article.

”I saw these lenses about a year ago and said at that time that I thought they were as good or better than Zeiss lenses, but people thought I was crazy. The importer who showed them to me sent them back because there was too much sales resistance.”

Shots in the gallery above were made with the Nikkor HC 5cm f/2 and Nikon S2 rangefinder.

Skepticism and resistance to change proved to be the constant companion for Nippon Kogaku throughout the 1950s. Despite the quality of Nikkor optics and the consistently strong press reports they received, the professional market still belonged to Leica and Zeiss. No matter how good the lenses were and no matter how much better their cameras became, Nikon was still fighting Leica and Zeiss on turf those brands had held for a half-century. In other words, they were fighting a losing battle. 

But what if they didn’t have to fight on that turf? What if they changed the battlefield entirely? An interesting idea, and one for which Japan was more than ready.

A New Hope

The late 1950s ushered in a new era for the country and for Nippon Kogaku. The Japanese government declared that the post war rebuild was complete, and that the nation would move to implement a policy of sustained economic growth. This new, forward-thinking policy provided the inspiration that Nippon Kogaku needed to execute their plan to help Japan become an international economic power, as well as establish themselves as a world-renowned optical powerhouse.

At the heart of this plan was a simple but radical idea – abandon the popular rangefinder camera and develop on the relatively new single-lens reflex design. To that point in time, few manufacturers had toyed around with the format, notably Ihagee Dresden with the Kine Exakta in 1939 and Asahi Camera Co. with the Asahiflex in 1952, but these efforts failed to capture the imagination (and money) of professional photographers and the shooting public. Their mechanisms were complicated, delicate, and often cumbersome. Mirrors had to be manually returned after firing, viewfinders were dim, and the overall designs weren’t as effective or accurate as the German rangefinders that ruled the 35mm world throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Nippon Kogaku recognized the lack of quality competition in this new market segment, and quickly decided to take over. They sought to develop a completely new SLR, one that would solve all of the issues present in early SLR designs and make the SLR a viable tool for professional photographers.

Nikon looked to their veteran head engineer, Masahiko Fuketa, to spearhead the project. Fuketa had previously overseen the design of every Nikon camera up until that point, and the quality of his earlier designs proved he was up to the task. However, top brass at Nippon Kogaku recognized that a totally new camera design would also benefit from a fresh and unconventional vision. This came in the form of graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura, who was experienced in crafting Bauhaus and Espirit Nouveau inspired logos and advertisements for Japanese brands, including Nippon Kogaku themselves. The duo of the visually-minded Kamekura and the nuts-and-bolts Fuketa was an unlikely one, but one that was necessary to accomplish Nippon Kogaku’s lofty vision of producing a beautiful and functionally revolutionary new camera.

The aesthetic sensibilities of Kamekura imbued Nikon’s new camera with an artistic and philosophical dimension. It featured a simple lens mount housed in a rectangular mirror box and lens surround, topped with a triangular pentaprism. This design was described by Japanese broadcast company NHK as eerily similar to Zen monk Sengai’s portrait of the universe. The resulting design gave the camera a unique (and timely) balance of traditional Japanese design and forward-thinking modernity.

Kamekura’s input resulted in a handsome camera design, but he also understood that the design had to function. In his own words, “Design is like flying. You can fly free as a bird. But you’d better be able to get back to the runway.” The new camera prototype looked good, but it still had to fix everything that was inherently inferior in the SLR format. Engineer Fuketa got to work.

He and his team developed an entirely new instant mirror return mechanism, an auto-diaphragm stop down mechanism for open-aperture focusing, and an all-new removable and interchangeable pentaprism and focusing screen system which featured 100% viewfinder coverage. After all was said and done, Fuketa and his team did the impossible – they made the SLR work faster, better, and longer than their rangefinder competition.

But they weren’t finished yet. In order to put their new camera above the rest, Nippon Kogaku needed to build something of such high-quality that it would once and for all eliminate the idea that Japanese products were inferior to those from the West. To accomplish this, Nippon Kogaku imposed a series of rigorous (and some might say ludicrous) objectives for the new camera’s design. The new camera would have to withstand an endurance test of 100,000 actuations, a brutal shock and vibration test, and a temperature test which required the camera to work flawlessly at -20º C.

To complete their vision, Nippon Kogaku planned to develop a full complement of new lenses that were compatible with both the new lens mount and the new auto-aperture system. Their previous efforts in rangefinder design served them well, and many of their earlier and much-lauded lenses appeared for the new system and its new lens mount. The 5cm f/2 and f/1.4 returned new and updated, along with the legendary 10.5cm f/2.5 and 13.5cm f/2.8. Fresh designs included the wide-angle 3.5cm f/2.8 and 2.8cm f/3.5 lenses, the latter which featured an all-new retrofocus design which made it usable on the SLR system. This incredible interchangeability of focal lengths immediately demonstrated the superiority of the SLR over the rangefinder. No matter what lens was mounted, the photographer saw exactly what his or her final image would look like, rather than a crude representation through a frame-lined viewfinder.

The new camera needed a name, and with this name Nippon Kogaku sought to match the simplicity and clarity of the camera they’d made. They called it the F. Some now say that the name derived from the first initial of Fuketa’s family name. Others say it stands for the “f” in “reflex”. Whatever the truth, once the big, bold F was engraved atop the signature triangular pentaprism, the camera was finished.

In March 1959, the public got their first glance of the F in a Japan-wide press tour, then in a US trade show in Philadelphia later that month. The early reaction was enthusiastic, especially in Japan. An Osaka department store demo in particular attracted 130,000 admirers over six days. The press was similarly enthused, with Asahi Camera declaring that the camera had basically solved every one of the SLR format’s major failings. By the time the camera reached Photokina in 1960, it had already made a name for itself. Orders through camera sellers and wholesalers were piling up by the thousands, and pressrooms everywhere quickly adopted the new machine. The modern SLR camera had finally arrived.

The F Strikes Back

The F quickly became the gold standard for professional cameras. Not only did it represent a huge leap forward in camera technology through the implementation of its many innovative features, but it combined this with an unheard of wealth of lenses and accessories, all built to a universally high standard of quality. The amount of care taken in its design and build made it clear – the Nikon F was the only camera to own for professional 35mm work. For the entirety of its production run, the Nikon F would consistently prove itself to be the most reliable, versatile, and effective photographic tool available.

In April, 1963 a group of American geographers set out to be the first Americans to scale Mt. Everest. They needed a camera that could withstand the extreme conditions of the Himalayas. Being that their previous expeditions featured the similarly reliable Nikon rangefinders, the new F seemed like a natural choice. It worked as advertised and served the Yanks all the way to the top of the world and back.

Later in the decade, the F’s reliability and durability would take on a truly mythical status by way of the Vietnam War. Its indestructibility and ease of use endeared it to war photographers such as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin, and that first Nikon fanboy David Douglas Duncan. Whether covered in mud and dirt, temporarily waterlogged during a trip across a river, or strapped to the outside of a helicopter flying through a hail of bullets, photographers could rely on the F to shoot without fail. It seemed the only way an F could be killed was by firing squad, and even then it would save your life. Just ask Don McCullin.

Being the most reliable camera on Earth might be enough for most cameras. Not the F. Nikon wouldn’t rest until its cameras had reached the final frontier. In 1971, it did. The F was chosen by NASA as their 35mm camera of choice for its quality and reliability, although not without some conditions. Nippon Kogaku would have to modify the camera heavily in order for it to be NASA approved, so the company’s engineers took it apart entirely and optimized key components to comply with NASA’s stringent requirements. What resulted was the Nikon F Photomic NASA edition, a heavily modified F Photomic which would successfully bring back photos from the Apollo 15 mission.

Legacy

But perhaps the F’s greatest feat is found in its legacy. From 1959 to 1971, the F single-handedly established SLRs as the preferred method of making images. After the F, all professional photo systems would use the SLR format, and Leica and their rangefinder would see years of decline (that nearly ended in bankruptcy when the German brand finally decided to chase the SLR dream – a different story for a different day). The F was the camera that put Nippon Kogaku in the conversation as one of the top camera and optics manufacturers in the world, and the brand has stayed there ever since.

The F also accomplished Nippon Kogaku’s goal of giving Japanese products a better reputation in the international marketplace. It represented a watershed moment for Japanese design and engineering, and set the tone for all products to come out of Japan thereafter. Former Nikon president Shigeo Ono once remarked, “These cameras soon became used worldwide. It was a proud moment. The Japanese people felt a bit stronger.”

Fifty-nine years later, the F still holds up; these cameras still work flawlessly. Its ease-of-use endears it to photo geeks of all skill levels, its F mount lenses make jaw-dropping images, and its simple elegance and clarity of design still turns heads today. It’s one of the rare cameras that can truly be called timeless. For the work it produced and its impact on photography, the Nikon F deserves no less.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
55 comments
  • Though rugged, the cameras were clumsy and difficult to use. I hated them.

    • To each his own, for sure, and I respect your opinion, but I have to ask… What could possibly be clumsy about a Nikon F? There’s a shutter speed dial on the top and an aperture ring on the lens. There’s a 100% coverage viewfinder to look through, and the film advance is smooth as silk. Like I said, I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just not finding the truth in your statement. Is it just because it’s not a Leica M?

      • The 100% viewfinder was poorly thought out. Slide mounts and commercial photofinishing cut into the image slightly. The back has to be removed to load the film. The meter is stuck on top with pins! The lenses must be indexed to meter properly. The camera is a joke!

        I use Leicaflexes (SL and SL2). My SL is unique: It has the SL2 eyepiece and meter; it also has the chrome shutter-speed dial and film speed knob from the standard.

        • The 100% Nikon F viewfinder was NOT poorly thought out. Professionals took into account the amount that would be lost by slide mounts and rarely used commercial photofinishing. The user-changeable viewing screen was very well received. Prior to that, changing a viewfinder screen was expensive and difficult. The motor drive was also very well -received. Prior to the F-36 motor, I think only Leica had a motor drive, although they did have the Leicavit, which I always loved.

          • No, the 100% viewfinder was a disaster. I once worked for an industrial photography studio that had an appliance company for their client. They used Nikon equipment. I shot several rolls of Ektachrome one time (using the F2) of some refrigerators, and they yelled at me because I framed them too tight. You had to ‘guess’ how much to allow for the slide mounts? Insane! The interchangeable finders were stupid as well. When Leitz brought out their Leicaflex cameras, they decided not to offer removable prisms or interchangeable screens (even though there was a prototype), because:

            1) Interchangeable screens have inherently more play in seating, potentially affecting focus accuracy.
            2) The screen they developed was so good it hardly needed to be changed.

            The Nikon F line was, and remains, a disaster. The camera sucks!

    • Funny that this was my first impression too – after a teacher showed my his Nikon F2.
      At this time I was playing around with a Canon AE-1 and some FD primes I bought used
      in a time the most people switched to EOS and other autofocus cameras.
      At one of my first photoshootings the Canon refuses to work because the batterie was empty
      and I forgot to take a replacement with me.
      Well today the easiest way to make some pictures is to grab the smartphone and start the app – klick.
      Without power we are screwed (right ?) while this old clumsy Nikon (or other difficult to use mechanical cameras)
      still work and catch out memories………

  • Fascinating story. Thanks.

    • I worked for Marty Forscher. I don’t think he ever worked for Eastern Camera Company. I think that’s a misquote from Nikon’s Official History.

  • The Nikon F was a great camera in its own right but the F2 took it to the level of perfection.

    • I’d have to agree here. As soon as we get an F2 in we’ll give it the treatment!

    • Completely agree- I have an F and an F2 (as well as a Leicaflex SL). The F2 is easily the best of the 3. The comment above suggesting how incredible the SL- I’ll take issue. Yes, a nice camera but a limited one, and Nikon viewfinders are contrastier. My main beef of the SL is mirror slap. Ironic that the same company that produced such quiet and vibrationless machines as the M3 also made the SL.

      • The F2 (especially the AS variant) fixed the major flaws in the F – the afterthought metering (my F is old enough that NONE of the metered prisms will mount to it without having the camera body machined) and the cumbersome removable back. I think of the two, I’d probably rescue the F2AS from a house fire before the F.

  • Fantastic article, love how you put all this in historical/societal perspective to explain how the F was born and how the SLR took over the rangefinder cameras with new standards of how a SLR does look like…. Fantastic legacy with the further siblings of the F (the F6 is the only 35m camera that is still produced now if I’m not wrong?) and the FE/FM cousins of the 70’s…. and to not forget the F-Mount, still in use today with a such huge range of fantastic lenses….

    In a way, it’s interesting to see how the DSLR market of today, led by Nikon and Canon is struggling to not be overtaken by the mirrorless cameras from Fuji or Sony (which made it’s place in the photo market by acquiring all of Minolta’s camera technology, by the way…) … kind of step forward of the same nature as in the 50’s-60’s?? Both Canon and Nikon are finally entering the mirrorless market this year, apparently…

    • Thanks so much! The F-series is probably my favorite series of cameras, and i’m glad I got to do a deep dive into the one that started it all. We’ve done a piece on the F6 as well – definitely one of my favorite cameras from a user’s perspective: https://www.casualphotophile.com/2016/12/12/nikon-f6-camera-review/

    • Stéphane:

      You wrote:
      > the F6 is the only 35m camera that is still produced now

      Leica still produces the MP, M7 and M-A. As a smug sidenote, those are Rangefinders. Who in the late 50s believed that especially THEY will survive for 60 years now?

      • sorry, I forgot that these 35mm Leica’s are still produced! But I added a “?” to my sentence and asked if I wasn’t wrong, so thanks to have corrected me on this point! 🙂

  • F is one of a few cameras that I don’t love or like but still greatly respect. It puts me in awe. Encountered it only twice, but that was more than enough. It’s a sculpture, not a camera. And yet it does its job perfectly!

  • William Sommerwerck April 28, 2018 at 6:38 am

    My first “professional” camera was a Photomic F, later replaced with the center-weighted FTn. One of the things I liked about Nikons was their excellent finish — all other Japanese SLRs were really cheap-looking. Then I started working for Bendix Field Engineering, and had to travel. Whoops. Nikons were much too big. So I replaced my Nikon with the only other truly great 35mm SLR.

    I now use digital cameras. They raise clumsiness to a new height (or depth), which isn’t helped by their rotten user manuals and poor technical support. I often wish electronic photography had never been invented.

    I have a Canon EOS-1v film body, It was manufactured up until a few years ago; I don’t know if it still is.

    • William, you have piqued my interest. What is the “only other truly great 35mm SLR?” you referred to?

      I know this is contentious, and I’m sure we’ll get other commenters positing what they believe to be the “only other truly great 35mm SLR” really is. Is it the OM-1? Canon F-1? Nikon F3? I must know!

  • Merlin Marquardt April 28, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    This is a great article about a great camera. I have a chrome Nikon F with Photomic finder. The meter in the finder does not work. I also have a waist level finder. I still have yet to use the camera, as I am not used to using a camera without an intrinsic meter. On a technical note, the third of the three links to the Nikkor lenses leads to a page with a page not found message, but the message contains a typographical/grammatical error. The word “your” should be “you’re”.

    • All of the Nikon F meters worked via wire “brushes” swiping over a carbon strip. Wear was very fast. You could not get just the strip as a repair part, you had to buy an expensive brass toothed ring with the strip already mounted.

  • I have two F’s and I really loving using them. Probably I have ‘better‘ cameras, but once in my hands, I ‘feel‘ the great history as descibed in that woderful article. Thanks!

  • This is a well written piece on the Nikon F! Very enjoyable read!

    I have owned two Nikon F cameras and couldn’t get along with the film back. Prefer a hinged back. That led me to the Nikon F2 and a love affair. The F2 took the F to the near perfect camera level: well built mechanical body that accepts an amazing menu of Nikkor lenses and the ability to upgrade finders to the ultimate F2…the F2AS. A serviced F2 is just simply a joy to use! I’ve written over and over about my F2s here: http://www.fogdog-photography.com/fogdog-blog/2016/4/22/why-the-nikon-f2-is-my-favorite-camera-i-think

    • The removable back was a solution to the motor drive coupling problem. All the Nikon motor drives to that point worked via the take-up spool. I guess it could have been done another way, but this was simplicity itself.

  • Merlin Marquardt April 28, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Thank you.

  • Needs to be an article done on the F2 its the most indestructible camera I have ever owned. I have owned the f2,f2as, f3, f4, f5, f100, canon eos 1n briefly and a hand full of leica Ms and the f2 is for sure the most overbuilt over engineering one. all this being said I would love the Apollo version of the F.

  • This is really a stellar article. I just enjoy the writing on this site so much. I do love my F’s and luckily we have a tech nearby that does great work on them. If only I weren’t so addicicted to my Contax 139q (which I bought after reading Jame’s review) I might use them more. The Contax and pancake lens is just so easy to grab and carry….and the auto mode works great. I guess I am getting old and lazy! Thanks for a great read with my coffee.

  • A brilliant review of a landmark camera. This is Casual Photophile at its best.

    • I agree 100%. I understand that not every article on every site needs to be chock full of historical accuracy, but these are my favorite posts. The “5 Best Hasselblads for under $1000” type posts don’t interest me much.

  • Thanks so much Jim!!

  • Great article! Its always good to see more reviewers putting some historical context behind cameras, especially those like the Nikon F with a great story to tell! If its not obvious by now, I love his part of the hobby. We all know the Nikon F is/was a great camera and makes for good pictures, so that stuff is boring to read about, but to hear about how it came to be, now THAT’S what I like! 🙂

  • There is one glaring omission from this excellent article — the effect that the Leica M3 had on the struggling Japanese camera industry. I was 16 when the M3 was introduced and remember clearly the stir that it made in the market, Every other rangefinder suffered in comparison. Just as Nikon, Canon and Pentax were gaining a small level of acceptance Leica raised the bar. I would imagine that one of the major reasons that the Japanese industry started to develop a SLR was that they could not compete with the M3. There is still uncertainty as which company developed which part (instant return mirror, automatic diaphragm, improved viewfinder).

    As a side note: I own both a F and F2 in fully working condition, but I prefer the Pentax LX.

    • Good point – the story of the M3 is an excellent counterpoint to story of the F! Perhaps we should give the M3 the treatment as well, as tall an order as that is.

  • Andrew Karlson May 2, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Thank you for such an excellent article! It was truly informative to receive so much insight into the context around the camera, especially one so shaped by basically all the major events of the mid-20th century. It really is amazing that a consumer object would be such a historical linch-pins, but perhaps this just illuminates how we take cameras for granted nowadays.

    • Your point #1—–> NO
      Your point #2——> NO

      Did you really shoot a product shot on 35mm???

      • That’s what they wanted, for slide shows I guess. Most of the work was done with a view camera.

      • 1) Interchangeable screens have inherently more play in seating, potentially affecting focus accuracy.
        2) The screen they developed was so good it hardly needed to be changed.

        These are true, whether you like it or not. The German way of thinking is different from the Japanese. Leitz did develop a prototype Leicaflex with interchangeable prism, but they decided against it (for the reasons given above). The main reason for such a system is to allow changing screens. But if your screen doesn’t need to be changed, you don’t need to have the removable prism. So, that’s what they did. Leitz did offer a plain matte screen for the motor drive cameras on special order. This was explicitly stated by them in their sales literature. I remember this. Also, you’ll note that there is no ‘black sponge’ in the camera around the focussing screen (to act as a shock absorber to the mirror). This was because Leitz developed a special cam system that damped the motion of the mirror. As a result, the Leicaflex had no mirror vibration. Leitz simply had better engineering.

  • Josh: You describe yourself as a ‘student’. If you are going to write articles like this you must learn much more about the history you are attempting to describe, because you simply don’t know from personal experience. I do. The Leicaflex was aimed more at competing with the Zeiss Contarex, I believe, than with the Nikon F, which Leitz probably laughed at, as they should have. The camera, though becoming increasingly popular, was inferior in every way to both the Zeiss and Leitz products. Unless you have worked with these (German) cameras, you simply don’t know. There is no comparison whatsoever. The Japanese camera industry was given access to patents ‘liberated’ from the German photo industry by the Allies.

    If you are going to set yourself up as an ‘expert’ commentator, you really need to do a lot more homework.

    • The Leicaflex came out five years after the F. Also, no one mentioned the Leicaflex except for you. Calling the F inferior to Zeiss and Leitz products (which I assume you mean rangefinders) is entirely a matter of opinion. If the F was inferior it wouldn’t have been successful. As it stands, it was far more successful than any of Leica’s SLRs (which in conjunction with the M5 nearly finished the company).

      I should add that I don’t actually care about this argument in any way, and I’m only chiming in here because I’ve noticed a distinct trend with your comments. While we encourage everyone to comment whatever they like wherever they like, it seems you’re not happy unless we’re talking about Leica in glowing terms only.

      Lastly, I’ll add that if you think we’re doing a bad job on the site we will try hard to improve.

      • The Zeiss Contarex came out in 1959, I believe. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contarex

        From an engineering standpoint, there is no comparison between the Leicaflex and the Nikon F, even though the features were somewhat lacking (primarily, the meter was not TTL). This is not a matter of opinion. The Nikon’s meter (a contraption attached to the top of the camera with clips) has turned out to be unreliable. My Leicaflex cameras are over 40 years old and still going strong! Some of the ‘features’ touted in your article are actually weaknesses in the design. As I mentioned earlier, Leitz decided not to offer interchangeable screens/finders because the screen was so good that others were hardly needed. I worked with the Nikon F back in the 1960s before I bought myself a nice Leicaflex SL and a 90mm 2.8 lens. I was still in college then.

        The Nikon F was basically the same as the rangefinder S camera, with a mirror box and prism. The Nikon rangefinders were based on the Zeiss cameras:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikon_S-mount

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikon_I,_M_and_S

        ‘The camera design was strongly inspired by the German Contax and Leica cameras.’

        As pointed out above, the Leica M3 was such a fantastic product that Nikon/the Japanese decided not to try to compete with it, and moved to SLR production. But the Nikon F was basically the same inside and the S, with a mirror and prism, and new mount.

        When you actually have to work with the thing, you can see how ‘jerry-rigged’ the whole thing was:

        Changing film requires removing the back.
        Changing lenses requires indexing the lens when using the Photomic meter prism.
        The 100% finder is a disadvantage when shooting slides and when printing negatives on many enlargers and photofinishing printers.

        • Leica SLRs were conservative to the point of atrophy. The company were never serious about them in the way they were about rangefinders, and it’s hard to think of a single innovation. In the end Leica gave the problem to Minolta and adopted a badge engineering approach. I didn’t know any professionals who used Leica SLRs, though I’m sure there were one or two. My plain prism Nikon F is the only camera I regret selling. The F2AS I subsequently owned was not as instinctive, and I sold the camera shortly afterwards. The F gave 1960s pro’s a workhorse that functioned with a myriad of accessories, and many were in regular use until the advent of digital. They were iconic in every sense and almost bankrupted Leica as a company, who gave up on professional cameras to cater for the amateur bespoke market. I say this as a Leica and Nikon owner.

    • Thanks for your insight! From now on I’ll make sure to do the responsible thing and preface every review by mentioning how worthless everything is in comparison to Leica! I’ll also make sure to age in a hyperbolic time chamber so my articles can finally become legitimate. Thanks again! Couldn’t have done it without you.

      • LOL. I’m just surprised that anyone would extol the Nikon F for anything other than its ruggedness. I’ll give it that. The semi-silvered mirror meter system introduced by Leitz in 1968 with the Leicaflex SL was far more advanced than the ‘stuck-on-the-top meter/prism of the F and F2. Nikon finally caught up to this with the F3, in 1980. It was the first Nikon F model to have an internal metering system.

        I know the Nikon F was popular. I just never understood why, because I did use this model for a couple of years when I was in college, before I got my own equipment.

      • Josh: Sometimes ‘internal engineering’ is more important, though less visible. That’s what we have here. The Nikon F is, no doubt, and important camera, and it was widely adopted by pros. The Topcon Super D cameras, though, were more advanced in many ways, and were adopted by the US Navy. Sometimes it’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time. The promotional strength of the Nikon distributor has to be a factor.

  • Kjell Arne Ramstad May 4, 2018 at 12:34 am

    The history can never be changed. The F is on the top and will stay forever. A few may say it’s not deserved. Whatever…

  • I enjoyed this perspective article quite a bit.

    Arguing about what manufacturer/system/etc… is all pretty bizarre. It misses the point entirely; any of these lines mentioned in these responses are obviously (by their market and published success) great photographic instruments. Should we next argue over who the greatest composer is? (I’d bet Beethoven could out-arm wrestle Mozart).

    While I have no doubt that the “artistic” or “technical” quality of the image has little to do with which brand or model of fine instrument is used, I wonder if how the weight, the sound, the balance, the camera’s demand for time to set up the exposure and focus etc…influence the image. I find that using an F (Photomic or pentaprism) is particularly enjoyable in that sense. I think I make different (not better, though) images on that basis.

  • Thank you Enver Hoxha for mentioning the lack of rubber around the mirror of the Leicaflex. I had noticed this myself three days ago when taking the lens mount off my SL. I’ve had my SL for seven months and last week the red tab on the lens release broke off. I spent a couple of days using a stout pin to release the lens, then decided to take the lens locking pin and spring out altogether. This was very easy, just six screws that were not stuck fast and came out without a struggle. There are some internal spring clips that provide a measure of resistance when mounting or removing the lens, so there’s no danger of the lens dropping off. I’m going to buy a second SL next week, as it has the red plastic tab, I’m going to take that off as well before it breaks.

    • Get the ones with the metal lens release button.

      The Leicaflex mirror had a cam in it that accelerated the mirror very quickly at first, then brought it to a halt just before the exposure was made. It has therefore no ‘mirror slap’, and thus there was no need for the sponge. Also, it enabled the camera to release the shutter very quickly, so the lag was the shortest of any SLR ever made. Leitz tried to make it as much like a rangefinder in performance as possible.

      • Dear Enver,
        I really have to admit that you know what you are talking about
        but success of a product does not always have to do something
        with put the best possible inside right ?
        We both know how Contax sucked with their SLR and Leica almost
        got bankrupt with the Leicaflex and M5 right ?
        I owned some M and R gear for a while and in my experience
        this expensive “little princesses” coulndt take the same rough shit
        like my Nikon stuff.
        So why a pro or amateur should pay five times as much
        while you dont see it at the pictures ?

        The M is still going strong as a system but compared to SLR it sucks.
        Need a less expensive street camera with just a 50mm like H.C.B used ?
        Get a Nikon S2 for less money but more fun !
        Still works like a swiss clock while the three M3 I owned had to be serviced…..

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon