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.