The Nikon FM is All the 35mm Film Camera You Really Need

The Nikon FM is All the 35mm Film Camera You Really Need

2200 1237 Josh Solomon

My eyes drifted from one storefront to the next, my stomach grumbling in the late spring heat. For days I’d been craving a taco, a dish so common in my home city that they may as well grow out of the soil. But here in Los Angeles, a city steeped in Mexican tradition, I want to pick the best taco.

Sure, there’s chain restaurants for those unwilling to sit on a dirty curb, but the thought of those places makes my Angeleno body shudder in disapproval. A better choice would be a strip mall taqueria, where one can sit down and enjoy a taco while watching Liga MX soccer with the shop-owner’s relatives. And better still is the street-side taco stand or truck, where the quality of taco seems to increase proportionally with the shabbiness of the vendor. 

The truth is that wherever you get one in the City of Angels, tacos are always a good choice. I decide to make a trek down to my favorite taco truck, and get to work. My camera’s loaded with film, it’s golden hour, and I’m shooting a classic 35mm film SLR, the Nikon FM. 

But, hold on. Doesn’t this sound familiar? It should if you’ve been reading the site for a while. These first few paragraphs are a West Coast copy of the intro to James’ review of the Nikon FE. And there’s a very good reason for this similarity.

Besides the FE’s electronic innards, the FM and the FE are basically identical. The two share the same chassis and external dimensions, the same general controls and core specification, and the same overall design. Just take away the FE’s electronics and you’ve got an FM, right?

Well, yes and no. While cosmetically almost a carbon copy of the FE, the FM offers a distinctly different shooting experience.

Nikon history buffs will be quick to point out that it was the FM that preceded the FE. The FM, in fact, was the very first of Nikon’s many advanced amateur bodies, an illustrious line of cameras which terminates beautifully with the made-in-2001 FM3a. But even though the FM was the first of the line, it wasn’t Nikon’s first attempt at an amateur body. That distinction goes to the Nikkormat FT, Nikon’s amateur body from the 1960s. Although less-featured than the era’s F Photomic and F2 cameras, the Nikkormat series enjoyed popularity as a basic enthusiast-level camera through to the mid-1970s.

But the mid-70s brought with it a distinct shift in camera-making philosophy. Instead of making sparser, less-capable models for amateur shooters, manufacturers began utilizing the platform as a test-base for new technology. This policy soon turned into a camera technology arms race which would birth multi-mode and electronic masterpieces such as the Canon A-1 and the Minolta XD-11, among others. 

Consumers responded to these shiny high-tech wonders with enthusiasm, and the world saw an explosion of consumer-oriented SLRs, compact rangefinders, and even more compact point-and-shoots that often featured more bells and whistles than their professional counterparts. The amateur market quickly grew to be the most lucrative in the camera industry, with every manufacturer stabbing at their piece of the pie.

But Nikon didn’t have (and arguably still doesn’t have) quite the innovative, risk-taking streak of some other companies. Sure, the brand produced the landmark F and the near-perfect F2, but these cameras represented an extreme refinement of existing technology rather than anything wildly innovative. So when confronted with the task of developing a new line of cameras for amateurs, Nikon was faced with a choice – take a risk and follow the rest of the camera industry in developing a never-before-seen camera packed with lots of technology, or maintain the philosophy of reliability and professional-grade quality that had earned them their reputation. The latter choice brought with it the real possibility that they’d fail to sell their machines to new shooters, who often wanted flashing lights and fancy gimmicks.

They decided on a mid-position; to create a camera that would make the amateur camera more pro-like. Their new cameras would not be whiz-bang automated-everything gizmos, but simple, compact, and finely made cameras specifically tuned for the advanced-amateur segment. And the first of the line would be as simple as it gets – a compact, all-manual, fully-mechanical 35mm SLR called the Nikon FM.

If Nikon’s aim was to make a bare-bones camera, they succeeded. At first blush, the camera is completely unremarkable. It has a vertically-traveling focal-plane shutter that tops out at a decidedly average-for-the-times 1/1000th of a second, and has a similarly commonplace flash sync speed of 1/125. The camera also possesses a depth-of-field preview lever as well as a self-timer lever that doubles as a mirror lockup; nothing new there. Its viewfinder covers a good-enough 93% of the frame at a healthy 0.86x magnification. And to round it all out, the FM features Nikon’s old reliable 60/40 center-weighted light meter, with a metering range from ISO 12-3200. 

Bored? Me too. But don’t go to sleep just yet – the FM has at least a few creature comforts that make the camera a little more interesting.

LEDs in the viewfinder signify over or under-exposure, which is massively helpful in low-light conditions when compared to the more traditional match-needle system of some other cameras. For the creatively inclined, multiple exposures are possible through a small knob next to the advance lever. Electrical contacts on the bottom allow for the FM to be attached to its MD-12 motor drive for 3.5 FPS shooting, perfect for sports and fast action. 

Still somewhat bland, I know. While these features are nice, they don’t really set the FM above or apart from any of its contemporaries. But dwelling on the FM’s technological inadequacies misses the point. 

With classic Nikon, it’s almost never about raw specs – it’s about the execution. And it can be argued that the Nikon FM is among the most beautifully executed 35mm cameras ever made.

Let’s start with the design. At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, this thing is near to perfect. It’s neither too big nor too small, free of quirks and unnecessary flourishes. Every knob, dial, and lever is perfectly placed and thoughtfully sized. Not only does this make the FM incredibly easy to handle, it makes it easy on the eyes. Its minimalism begets one of the most uncomplicated, clean camera designs out there. And considering that the universally lauded FM3A employs a virtually identical design, it’s easy to call the FM timless.

Its good looks and thoughtful design are bolstered further by its impressive build quality. The advance lever snaps backward to turn on the light meter with a delightful positivity, the enormous shutter dial clicks with an affirmative snap for every speed, and the shutter release fires with a satisfyingly smooth and well-dampened action. And to top it all off, the advance lever sports one of the shortest throws of any camera, almost begging you to burn through third-six frames as fast as possible.

To cap it all off, the FM is one of the most universally compatible Nikon F-mount cameras available, even fitting downright ancient pre-AI lenses. A flip-up tab on the metering ring enables safe mounting of these lenses (not available with any of the later compact chassis F mount SLRs), with the tradeoff being that you’ll have to stop down in order to meter with these pre-AI lenses. This adds an extra step to the shooting process, but the prospect of using a classic Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 or a Nikkor-P 105mm f/2.5 with an FM is more than worth the added effort.

Out in the field, the FM offers a satisfyingly pure shooting experience. There’s nothing complicated about shooting an FM; just meter, adjust your settings, focus, compose, and shoot. The camera makes no qualms about who it’s being shot by or where it’s being shot – it just works, and works wonderfully in every situation. Even though it’s an advanced-amateur camera, it shares the same indestructible and adaptable qualities that made the professional F-series so popular.

That being said, the FM isn’t a forgiving camera. It’s a fully-manual camera after all, and doesn’t feature any gimmicks beyond the built-in light meter. For shooters who enjoy the slower shooting style that manual SLRs require, the FM is as good as it gets. But for those who prefer the quicker, rapid-fire style of shooting afforded by auto-exposure-equipped cameras, it will seem unnecessarily cumbersome and slow. For these shooters, the electronic FE and its aperture-priority auto-exposure mode may be a better option.

These speedy shooters may also have a bone to pick with the shutter lock on the FM, which is directly tied to the advance lever. The advance lever must be popped out to standoff position for the shutter to be unlocked, which adds a bizarre extra step to the FM’s otherwise simple shooting process. This may have seemed like an ingenious idea at the time, but it makes grabbing quick shots that much trickier. It must be noted, however, that you can get around this issue by buying an early serial number FM – these models do not require the extra flick as their shutter lock is activated by a collar on the shutter release, a la the Nikon F2.

All minor flaws considered, the FM is one of Nikon’s masterstrokes. It’s a perfectly designed, finely built, and compact mechanical camera that can handle any shooting situation in any environment. A camera with this sort of superlative talk would normally bring with it an insane price tag, but this isn’t the case. Nikon produced these cameras by the droves, which means that prices of perfect FMs on today’s market are quite low. 

As somebody who regularly shoots a Leica M2 and a Nikon F3, the FM makes both of them seem needlessly overpriced, and I often wonder why I don’t just sell them both and buy more lenses for the FM. When a basic camera can be done this well and at this price, why complicate things?

And while sitting on a dirty curb with tacos in hand, I mulled that very question. In my quest for the perfect food I’d walked past artisanal pizza shops, entirely too expensive vegan restaurants, and absurdly fancy coffee shops, all of which sold food which, while certainly healthful and tasty, just wouldn’t satisfy me the way a perfectly made street-side taco can. In that way, the FM’s exactly like a taco. It’s simple, sure, but it hits the spot every single time.

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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
34 comments
  • Well, thanks for the G.A.S. 😉

    But no, I’m a Takumar and Spotmatic guy so no problem.

    Very nice review and well written too

    • I have to agree with Frank: well written review. No mention though why you have a Carl Zeiss lens attached to it.
      If I craved a pre-autofocus Nikon, I would search for a Nikon FG. Until then, I will stay with my Pentax and Canon slrs.

    • Spotmatic + Takumar is a match made in heaven!

  • Merlin Marquardt May 11, 2018 at 8:39 am

    Wonderful article.

  • Recently found a black model with a nikkor 50 for $15 at goodwill, incredible camera. Too bad there no pictures in this article with that planar lens 😮

  • Francesco Melis May 11, 2018 at 10:28 am

    Beautiful article about a very underestimated camera that I thinkit would be easily the only camera I need. I find particularly amazing its performances in daily light for travel or portrait photography: its viewfinder is really bright and makes precise focusing very easy. Some flaws I’ve found in the normal use are related to the lightmeter, which sometimes gives wrong readings in low light situations and some practice is needed in managing the shutter setting in order to obtain the correct value. However, I find the rewind lever movement the smoothest in all the mechanical cameras I’ve shot so far. Great camera indeed!

  • William Sommerwerck May 11, 2018 at 10:57 am

    One of the reasons my first 35mm SLR was a Nikon F was the finish. All other Japanese cameras were really cheap-looking. Nikons looked like quality products. Does anyone know why Nikons had a clean “satin” finish?

  • The thing about the Nikkormats is that they were built to a heavier (higher?) standard than the FMs. The FM really came about because of the miniaturization trend started by the Olympus OM-1, and really climaxed with the tiny Pentax M series. I wouldn’t call either the Nikkormats or the FMs as amateur level cameras – they were adopted by lots of pros as really solid bodies that weighed less than F/F2/F3 cameras. And were much much more expensive than ‘amateur’ cameras like the Pentax K1000.
    The FM really is the SLR equivalent of a Leica M, but the FM2 is just so much better, just because of the extended shutter range to 1/4000 sec. Using ND filters kinda sucks with SLRs as they obviously make the VF darker but the FM2 minimizes the need for one due to those 2 extra stops of exposure.

    You’re right Josh, whenever I pick up my FM(2) I always think there really isn’t need for anything else if all I cared about was just to go outside and take pics. I also think that the wind mechanism feels much better than the loose floppy levered feeling on the F3.

    Another fun and informative article!

    Best regards
    Huss

    • The FM exists in a weird spot that encompasses both amateur, advanced-amateur, and professional, and I think that was part of the secret to its success. It was built well enough for pros to use it as a backup body but it was still compact and (compared to pro models) affordable enough for hardcore enthusiasts. They really knew they niche and went for it on this camera.

      Lots of mentions of the FM2 in the comments, and mostly because of that 1/4000th of a second shutter! I prefer the FM purely because of the metering tab and the collar lock on the early FM’s. Would love to get an FM2 year of the dog edition someday though…

  • I used to have one in the exact same silver finish, its really beautiful in person. I sold the FM off as i use the FM2n more for the extended higher shutter range. A pity the FM2n (and FE2, and FM3a) don’t have the flip-up tab for the option of using non-ai lenses which the FM does, and that makes it much more versatile in the lens choices department. Another good thing i remember – maybe its just my imagination – i find the advance lever and shutter release mechanism of the FM to be a tad smoother than the FM2n.

    When you mentioned the “shutter lock is activated by a collar on the shutter release” i believe its the one with the knurled collar like pictured here, later versions came with a smooth collar.

    Anyhow, nice article as usual! Thanks!

  • I often wonder what would have happened if I bought Pentax ME Super or Nikon F or Canon A1 back in 2011 instead of Olympus OM-1. But then I remember that having a hassle-free shutter dial around the lens mount grants me ability to switch it without removing my eye from the viewfinder and I stop thinking about above mentioned nonsense. Aye, Nikkormat had it first, but it’s not half as sexy as OM.

    • The FM shows the shutter speed you pick in the viewfinder (also the aperture) so you don’t have to remove your eye from the viewfinder.

  • my fm2 is my most used camera. I am not afraid of putting it through its paces. I still think my f2sb is made a little better but love taking this camera on camping trips.

  • Many cameras have come and gone in my photographic life, but I’ve always hung on to my FM2n. 🙂

  • Pedro de Almeida May 11, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    God, how I have tried to love the FM series … but can’t. Last year I bought a FM3A as a dream mechanical SLR but could not countenance the damned design flaw of pulling out the film advance lever to activate the shutter. It would stick into my forehead every time I turned the body counterclockwise to compose vertically. It also delays getting ‘the shot’ as I found that my natural inclination was to push the lever in when the camera was at rest hanging off my shoulder and so when a moment arose quickly I would press the shutter … but nothing happened due to the lock. Another missed shot. So I sold it and got an early model FM without this lever activation design as noted in this review. And yet … I found that the viewfinder was just too inferior.

    Moving from a Leica M system to Nikon F and Pentax 67 (sold my M2, M6 and lenses in order to finance two more affordable systems that offer me more versatility and because the Ms became a money pit) I thought that one of the main advantages of SLRs is 100% coverage in the viewfinder which has made my compositions more exacting and far superior than I could ever achieve with the Leica Ms. Also, while no one should doubt that the FM series chassis are robust, they still feel toy-like in the hand, well, for me at least. This is not to denigrate what might be a very fine camera for many as evidenced by this review, but instead I just offer this little story whose conclusion you may already have guessed: I settled on a F2AS. Yep, that’s the one for me! The thing is better built than any M and the shutter is far, far less delicate than the M’s cloth curtain. Love my tank.

    • I’ve noticed that it often comes down to FM/FM2n or F2AS among die-hard Nikon shooters! The brighter focusing screens and the build of the F2 is enough reason to put it over the FM. I personally prefer the FM because I use it as a light backup body for my F3 and as a casual shooter. Having an F2 as a backup body would be wonderful, but i’m not sure my shoulders would hold up under the weight of two vintage pro-spec Nikons!

  • Hans-Peter Linz May 11, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    My first Nikon was a Nikon FM. I bought it 1980 when i was 15 years old. I studied many catalogues from Pentax, Olympus and many other brands. But the FM was my dream camera. I also was in love with the Pentax MX but the Nikon offered a faster flash syncro speed. I still remember the smell of it when i unboxed it – i was so happy. Now I am 53 and still shoot with Nikon. The old FM is gone but i bought an FM2 and use it for travel photography with three lenses: 28, 50 and 105. Perfect for me. Less is more.
    Thank You for that great review and many greetings from Trier/Germany.
    hp

  • Excellent article. I have the FE which enables me to use pre-AI lenses including the wonderful 24mm 2.8. I also have an FM2n for the manual experience and the led metering which is great for low light. You can’t go wrong with any of this series.

  • Great read!! Even if I don’t have a FM, but the FE and FM3a, I absolutely love the design and simplicity of use of these cameras! Perhaps a FM will join my collection one day…

  • Your reviews are a breath of fresh air.

  • Agree, another very nice review. I like my FM, and the meter is very accurate. My F3 is not exposing correctly and the repair would be more than the cost of a “new” unit, so today I have my FE on me at work. I work slowly with the FM and the FE is better for quick grab shots.

  • I’ve used many film cameras for the past decades and Nikon FM is the only one that I keep until today. I use a 50mm Nikkor lens on it.

    Thanks for your nice review. Greetings from Los Angeles, CA.

  • It’s a nice camera, but the Nikkormat/Nikon EL was I think a better camera overall.

    • Hello Enver,
      when it comes to technical improvements and practical use the Nikon FE (successor to the Nikkormat EL)
      and Nikon FM (successor to the Nikkormat FT3) seems to have some advantages.
      When it comes to quality of build the Nikkormats are way better I would even say a level up !
      In my photographic journey I first did not trust old electronic cameras from the first generation
      but with the Nikkormat EL this instantly changed. Still own one beaten up body that works like a swiss clock !

      In general I think that the hype about mechanical “only” cameras is much overrated and if you take a look at Ebay
      you almost get a Nikon F4 for the same price than for a Nikon FM2 !
      Run into a less used Nikon F4E for just 165.- € incl. shipping and taxes from Japan which is incredibly but maybe
      the effect that people who start film listen to some folklore they read in photography forums ?

  • The Nikon F4 was in my opinion a monstrosity. What the FM/FE cameras offer is faster motor drives compared to the Nikkormat/Nikon EL. But the handling and build of the EL cameras is far superior, I think.

    • Hello Enver,
      I really have to laugh when you say the Nikon F4 is a “monster” – at last with the Nikon F4E you are right !
      But seriously do me a favor and compare it to a Nikon F2 with MD3 or Nikon F3 with MD4 – not even talking
      about one of these Leicaflex you can mount a motordrive too…….

      I am a sucker for old manual glass and the Nikon F4 is the last pro Nikon you even can mount pre-AI lenses,
      change viewfinders, change shape & size (from F4 to F4s to F4E) and use Matrixmetering with AI objectives !

  • One solution to the shutter lock problem other than buying an early FM is to have the camera modified so that it no longer works. As I use my left eye to look through the viewfinder & wear glasses, the standard set up isn’t great for me, which is one reason why I have an F3 as well (the huge viewfinder is lovely to use – allowing for the metering readout). Newton Ellis in Liverpool carried out the modification work a few years ago and it is still working well. With their modification the meter still needs the wind-on lever pulling out to make it work, but for an all manual camera this isn’t such a hardship to my way of thinking. Wondering if anyone else has had this done, as I understood at the time that this was a fairly normal modification to have made.

    Great article as ever!

  • Interestingly I came across both this and your article on the Leica M2. I used to shoot with the Nikon FM but had put it aside as b&w was become an expensive hobby (I don’t have my own lab to develop & print). Recently I was lucky enough to obtain a Leica M2 and couldn’t resist giving it a go. The first films with a rangefinder were hard, even taking shots with the lens cap on! I have now got used to it and am enjoying it. So, comparing the two, I would say that the Leica is harder to use, requires more technical knowledge and skill, but is also less cumbersome and ultimately more enjoyable as it almost enables you to to feel when the photo is right, it enables you to express yourself. That being said for the casual amateur the Nikon is probably a better choice as it does some of the work for you (light metering…) and is more reassuring. You need to learn to dominate the Leica not be afraid of it. That is just my personal experience and now I have an expensive hobby gain; thanks Leica!

  • Renato F Valenzuela May 17, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    The first SLR I ever used was my dad’s FM. It started an obsession. I liked it so much when I graduated high school I asked for an FE10 as a gift. My aunt saw I was into cameras so she gave me her FG. Next thing I knew I inadvertently became a Nikon fanboy and the g.a.s. ensued. N80, D50, D700, D7000 and eventually an F3. I preferred the FM above all of them. Sold my F3 as of tonight. Wanted something fully mechanical and battery independent. Been shooting with the OM-1n for the last couple months and haven’t looked back.

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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