Nikon’s first single lens reflex camera enjoyed a remarkably long production run. From April of 1959 to October of 1973 the Nikon F stood as one of the best cameras in the world. In September 1971 Nikon released their follow-up SLR, the Nikon F2, and while this camera brought a number of notable technical improvements, the original F wasn’t quite finished. For two years the two cameras would be manufactured and marketed side by side, and original Fs from this period eventually earned an enigmatic name – Apollo.
But why the name Apollo, what makes an F an Apollo F, and why should anybody care? The first two questions are pretty easy to answer. The last, not so clear.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were an incredible time for space exploration. NASA’s Apollo missions had been blasting intrepid astronauts away from our pale blue dot for years. In 1969, human beings had achieved the impossible when the first persons set foot on the moon, and by 1973 we were doing so with regularity. NASA even launched a laboratory into space, the romantically-named Skylab.
When Nikon was selected in the late days of the Apollo program to provide a compact camera system for astronauts, a special team at the famed Ohi plant quickly set to work developing a new variant based on the brand’s pro-spec F. Matte black paint, specialized solder, a reworked chassis, size adjustments to accommodate polyester-based films, enlarged control levers, and improved focusing mechanisms were just a few of the costly and high-spec adjustments required to turn the original F into a NASA-approved machine.
But while these few incredibly expensive and specialized cameras were actual Apollo mission cameras, the Nikon Fs that have since become known as “Apollo” Fs by collectors and dealers simply aren’t.
That’s right – there’s nothing to link the real Apollo cameras with the so-named production Fs, beyond the simple fact that the mass-produced “Apollo” Fs happened to be manufactured in the same period of time as the Nikon cameras that were used in the Apollo missions. In truth, Apollo Nikon Fs are nothing more than late model Fs made between late 1971 through to the end of F production in October 1973. They’re easily discerned from older Fs, as their bodies include the plastic-tipped Nikon F2 film advance lever and self-timer lever.
And that’s the end of the noteworthy differences between normal Fs and Apollo Fs.
It’s interesting, then, that people pay a premium for these cameras. From a certain point of view this desirability and the resulting increased cost is explainable, even if it has nothing to do with orbiting the moon.
First, by searching out and buying an Apollo F, buyers are getting one of the last Nikon Fs ever made. This brings notable benefits. First, there’s the probable assumption that a newer used camera is going to be less used than an older used camera. Case by case, this may or may not be true. But as far as general assumptions go, that’s not a bad one.
Second is the more demonstrable truth that during the fourteen year production run of the Nikon F, Nikon made numerous internal changes and improvements to the camera (this develop-on-the-fly methodology is most obviously evidenced in the early “red dot” Fs, which were modified by the factory after manufacture to use newer Photomic viewfinders). Many additional changes followed, and these improvements made over time certainly lend credence to the idea that a later F is a better F. Since Apollo Fs are among the latest ever made, do the math.
And then there’s collectibility. The simple fact that these Fs were only made for a couple of years makes them a limited product compared with the Fs of the previous twelve years (Apollo camera production numbers tally to somewhere around 116,000 units compared against the total number of regular Fs produced, which is around 745,000). Limited stuff typically costs more than commonplace stuff, and this is as true with cameras as it is with any object valued by collectors.
There are things to be aware of when buying an Apollo F. True Apollo Fs should naturally show a serial number corresponding to the dates mentioned (the. number should be higher than 7335000). Apollo Fs with a serial number indicating manufacture prior to 1971 are certainly counterfeit; a fairly common happening. The operation of converting an earlier F to a counterfeit Apollo F takes approximately eight minutes and can be done with a pointy, metal implement by even the most ham-handed do-it-yourselfer (as long as that do-it-yourselfer has a supply of F2 film advance and self-timer levers). As with all classic and special cameras, interested buyers should get their Apollo only from a reputable dealer and avoid the hassle.
Even if the story behind the odd nomenclature isn’t quite as amazing as we might wish (who doesn’t want a camera built for NASA?), shooters who decide to buy an Apollo won’t be let down. Sure, these cameras haven’t been to the moon and they don’t offer substantial improvements over other Fs, but they’re still exceptional machines that are capable of making incredible images. And the name’s kind of interesting, too.