The Nikon F4 is the perfect camera for me, but it took a while to get there. Like most photo geeks, I long suffered from Gear Acquisition Syndrome, a disease that makes us think that our photography will jump to the next level if we only had that new, expensive lens, or a different camera body. We’ve written about this phenomenon before, and if social media is any indicator it’s an affliction with which plenty of people are familiar.
For me, GAS presented as a search for the perfect camera. I spent countless hours researching for a camera that could do everything I needed a camera to do, in the style I wanted it done. Three years and numerous misfires later (with my bank account begging for mercy) I started to wonder if the perfect camera even existed.
Then, a few months ago I finally found it.
After years of ogling and online stalking, I finally pulled the trigger on a Nikon F4. The company’s fourth flagship SLR seemed to check off all the boxes on my list. It’s tough and durable, boasts a wide array of creative controls and metering modes, and was built to define reliability. Even before running the first roll through it, the F4 was already feeling like the one. I was finding myself getting up from my desk and walking across the room just to hold it.
During travels through Central Europe over the next month, I was able to put the F4 through its paces in numerous challenging environments and wildly differing light conditions. Photographer error aside, this beast of a camera delivered on every single image. It also seemed to be pulling me out of the photographic malaise that had been haunting me for months. My curiosity about the camera quickly changed to amazement. It really was as good as I’d hoped. Research after that fact impressed me further, as I learned just how much effort went into making the F4.
What Makes an F4
Believe it or not, there was a time that manufacturers would put nearly a decade of work into the creation of a new camera. When Nikon debuted the F2 in 1971, engineers immediately began working on its replacement (the F3 didn’t release until 1980). The F3 was Nikon’s first flagship to offer electronic control and automatic operation. It would become one of Nikon’s most respected cameras (and one that Josh placed among the greatest cameras ever made.) The market agreed; the F3’s popularity would keep it on shelves for an astounding twenty years!
But before that success story had a chance to write itself, Nikon went about their business. As soon as the F3 went into production, work began on its successor. But development of new photographic technologies accelerated to breakneck pace in the 1980s, and Nikon quickly realized that it would have to approach development of the F3’s successor differently. Until the F3, each iteration of the F series had evolved and improved on its predecessor. But with the development of improved electronic light metering, ever more critical automation, and the brand new technology of autofocus, Nikon would have to build the fourth F from scratch.
With the F4, Nikon hoped to include four key features; multi-pattern metering, a high-speed shutter, faster flash sync, and automatic focusing. The F4 would come to have all of these components, but none of them were unique to it. High-speed shutters were released in the FM2 and N8008, a higher flash sync in the FE2 and Nikon’s Matrix Metering was first released in the FA. Minolta’s Maxxum 7000 was the first through the door with true autofocusing while Canon rebuilt its entire business around autofocus starting with its EOS 620/650 cameras. Nikon followed suit with the F-501 and the N8008.
Nikon wouldn’t be pioneering any of those capabilities with the F4, but they would be the first to gather them all in a single camera body. Also, they would include a brand new (and much brighter) finder screen, reduce shutter sound, and improve weather resistance. Nikon would get even further in the weeds to improve on its distance measurement technology and other basic performance issues that the company admitted it had overlooked while focusing on automated operation technology. The new F wouldn’t just have all of the latest features, but also improved basic components.
And the Nikon F4 has a lot of components; it’s made of 1,850 total body part numbers, has four CPUs, and runs software holding 43 million different types of operating conditions. That may not compare with the electronics of today’s professional cameras, but in 1988 it was unprecedented and groundbreaking. As was the F4’s spec sheet.
The Nikon F4 boasts the first electronically controlled vertical-traveling focal plane shutter capable of speeds from 30 seconds to 1/8000 plus bulb and time-set modes. It has a flash sync speed range from 1/60 to 1/250 of a second, an ISO range from 6 to 6400 (DX reading from 25 to 5000) and five exposure modes (manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, program and high-speed program). It’s capable of up to 5.7 frames per second, has mirror lock up, a multiple exposure function, and exposure compensation range of +/- 2 in 1/3 stop increments.
Metering is handled through one of three modes – Matrix, center-weighted and spot metering, with an EV range of 0-21 at ISO 100. Nikon’s matrix metering was still in its infancy, and the F4’s version of it used a five-zone system. It’s not as impressive as the systems found in the F5, F6 or F100 but still the best on-board meter in any camera made before the nineties.
Its TTL Phase Detection system packed in one whole focus zone, which was common for the day.
The Nikon F4 came standard with the removable Multi-Meter Finder DP-20 Pentaprism. The meter mode selection lever is positioned on its side, along with diopter control, a hot shoe, and an additional exposure compensation dial for fine tuning when using one of the F4’s ten interchangeable focusing screens. The B-type BriteView screen was standard on most F4s and was much brighter than the F3’s screen.
In designing the housing for this massive pile of parts and technology, Nikon chose Italian designer Giorgetto Guigiaro. Guigiaro’s portfolio includes dozens of cars, motorcycles, firearms, wristwatches, farming tractors, computer prototypes for Apple and the promenade for the Italian city of Porto Santo Stefano. He even designed Marille pasta, which in Italy elevates you to royalty. Most importantly for Nikon, he had previously designed the F3, EM and L35AF cameras.
Guigiaro believed in the mantra “Form follows function,” that every part of a product must serve a useful purpose. That’s a tall order with a camera. These machines have to provide comprehensive controls in an often restrictive form. Against the odds, he created an ergonomic masterpiece with the Nikon F4.
This is the last of the professional SLRs with dedicated knobs and levers instead of dials and menus. It’s the first with shutter releases on both the vertical and horizontal grips, and the first F-series camera to lose the film advance lever. While rewinding is electronically driven, film can also be rewound manually to save battery power. Some functions, like the vertical shutter release, shooting modes, and the ISO dial have levers to protect accidental use. Autofocus and exposure lock buttons are millimeters from the fingers that will flick them.
Some of the greatest cameras feel like they were designed outward from the photographer’s hand. The F4 is one such camera. It feels absolutely perfect to hold. Dense is an optimistic descriptor of the F4, with “brick like” being another.
There’s no getting around the F4’s weight — which seems to be a real sticking point with many of the camera’s critics. At 1,280 grams, the F4 is more than 500 grams heavier than the F3 and is 80 grams lighter than the also-beastly F5. And that’s all without batteries. You’ll have four AA batteries if using the MB-20 battery pack, six if using the MB-21 and eight if using the MB-23. (Also worth noting, the camera becomes the F4s with the MB-21 and the F4e with the MB-23.)
The Nikon F4 debuted exactly thirty years ago this month, in September 1988, and it carried a price tag of $2,500. That’s a whopping $5,316 in 2018 dollars. That makes the F4 more expensive than any camera in Nikon’s current lineup except the D5 (here again we should consider the true value of film cameras in 2018). Flagship cameras have always carried punishing price tags, but they also come with the absolute best reliability and performance. In 1988 no 35mm SLR could even come close to competing with the F4. It won all the major awards that mattered at the time and proved itself as a masterful imaging machine.
By the dawn of the 1990s, the F4 wasn’t the grand slam Nikon expected it to be. Part of the reason was Canon’s release of the EOS 1 in 1989, which was lighter and had a better autofocusing system than the Nikon F4 even though it too had a single focusing zone. Professionals were all-in on autofocus, and photojournalism and sports work demanded the best AF system possible. Canon had bet everything and changed its entire brand direction on autofocus. Now it was paying off.
The F4, Thirty Years Later
But it’s no longer 1988. The question is whether or not the F4 is a camera suited to 2018. Thirty years after its release, the Nikon F4 is more valuable than ever. The biggest reason is lens compatibility. The F4 can shoot every lens (manual focus and autofocus) made by Nikon since 1959. It even provides Matrix Metering with manual-focus AI and AI-s lenses. There are some caveats to that, however. Without on-board aperture control, G-series lenses have to be used in shutter priority mode. The only thing truly lost on the F4 is vibration reduction, which hadn’t yet been developed.
This kind of compatibility gives Nikon shooters carte blanche to pick from nearly every Nikon lens ever made. This is a true gift considering the brand’s legendary line of new and old lenses. That pure compatibility and matrix metering support won’t be as easy for F3 or F5 shooters. Canon users have it even worse; Canon fans must choose between EF and FD mount systems.
As I set out on my Central European F4 journey, I remembered the camera’s purported weaknesses. These are its autofocusing speed and accuracy, and its excessive weight. I was anxious to see whether these failings so commonly squawked about on the internet would prove true or false.
It’s true that the autofocus is loud and can take its time in low light. But life really isn’t that hard with a single focus point, as anyone who’s used a manual-focus camera can attest. If AF is struggling, just switch the F4’s focus dial to M and you have an incredibly advanced manual focus camera with Matrix Metering.
What can I really say about the weight? Yeah, the Nikon F4 is a pretty heavy camera. If your daily shooter is something like the Olympus XA, using the F4 will be a shocking experience. And even with the light-by-comparison MB-20 and D-series lenses the Nikon F4 will still be a handful. But what should we expect from a camera made of 1,850 parts? It’s got four coreless motors, and four late-eighties CPUs. All this is packed into a die-cast aluminum chassis built to handle the worst punishment. Cut the thing some slack!
Okay, if you don’t like heavy things, you probably won’t like the Nikon F4. If you’re a masochist like me and prefer heavy cameras without camera straps, welcome to the intersection of photography and personal fitness.
Like bokeh, styling is a completely subjective concept. But some designs are more polarizing than others, and somehow the F4 seems to fit in that camp. Yes, it’s the late-eighties and Don Johnson is still driving a Ferrari Testarossa on Miami Vice. The F4 sports similar styling on the side of the pentaprism, but aside from that, aesthetically there’s not much to complain about.
Because the F4 sits at the epicenter of a massive shift in popular photography, it’s frequently overshadowed by the flagships that bookend it. That’s unfortunate, since it has features that make it a better machine than either the F3 or F5.
The F3 is smaller, lighter and has undeniably great construction. But the F4’s spec sheet blows it out of the water. The F5 has an improved autofocus and 3D Matrix Meter, but it’s otherwise largely similar to the F4 but without the F4’s groundbreaking pedigree, analog controls, and interchangeability. The F4 succeeds as a camera for the very reason it’s overshadowed by others; as a camera between two eras, it has the best DNA strands from each. It’s a large, powerful camera capable of nearly anything, with deep roots in an era when individual cameras had their own identity.
It’s an understatement to say that I loved shooting the F4. There’s nothing I didn’t like about it. Its viewfinder is what I wish my eyes made me see. It’s shutter sounds like the perfect mix of a paintbrush and a haymaker. It’s thirty years old, looks five, and seems ready for fifty more. Its ridiculous weight makes me laugh the same way I do when I see Rocky Balboa cut the Russian for the first time in Rocky IV. Just like the Italian Stallion, my F4 can take punch after punch and still deliver results.
It was those results that made what felt like infatuation turn into something else. No matter what I threw at its meter, the F4 gave me exactly what I wanted. Results were even better when I wasn’t going out of my way to trick it. Here, finally, was a camera that was giving me in print the composition I saw in my head.
Now, for the first time since buying my very first camera, I no longer feel that pang for more and better gear. Instead, I’m so content with what I have that the cameras on the shelf are sweating in fear. They have cause to be concerned — I can honestly say that everything else could be sold off as long as I keep my Nikon F4. I know that it can’t be the camera for everyone, but it’s the perfect camera for me.