Nikon F2 Camera Review – Nikon’s Pro SLR Evolves

Nikon F2 Camera Review – Nikon’s Pro SLR Evolves

3000 1688 Josh Solomon

From its inception, the Nikon F2 has enjoyed a reputation rivaled by few and envied by many. The camera was designed to be nothing less than the perfect expression of the professional 35mm mechanical SLR format, and it achieved exactly that. It became the SLR par excellence of the 1970s and was standard issue for professional photographers for the better part of that decade. Remarkably, the F2’s glowing reputation has never waned since. By old-school professionals, camera repairmen, and camera historians, the Nikon F2 is still widely considered the greatest 35mm mechanical SLR of all time.

After spending quality time with one, I can say that the F2 has a more legitimate claim to that title than other great cameras. But the F2’s greatness didn’t just come out of nowhere; it was born from the proverbial rib of Nikon’s aging flagship camera – the Nikon F.

In the late 1960s, Nikon found themselves sitting comfortably on top of the photographic world. The release of the F a decade prior propelled Nikon to heights even they couldn’t have envisioned. But throughout the decade, other manufacturers began to embrace the SLR and make strides in the development of the format. Though the Nikon F still boasted an extremely high quality of build and the widest range of optics and accessories, smaller and slicker SLRs such as the Pentax Spotmatic and the Minolta SRT-101 represented improvements in SLR technology, introducing in-body TTL metering and more accurate average metering, respectively. The F was starting to show its age.

But even before the competition caught up, Nikon was making moves to stay ahead. Development of the F’s eventual successor started as early as 1965 to ensure that they would not be knocked off their perch.

Nikon could have accomplished this by simply adding a few bells and whistles to the F and selling it as the new and improved F2, but they didn’t. Instead, they spent nearly six years completely redesigning their professional camera system, hoping it would reach even greater heights than the original F. The new camera was to be manufactured to a yet unheard of standard of quality, boast an easier overall shooting experience, and retain full compatibility with the extensive Nikon lens and accessory system that had made the original F so successful.

Nikon wanted to address the lingering usability issues that had hampered the otherwise well-loved F. The new F2 design brief called for a hinged back in place of the F’s pesky removable back, a new mirror lockup system that did away with the F’s bizarre ritual sacrifice of a frame of film, and battery contacts which enabled the camera body to control and communicate with the metering head for easier operation. The new camera also featured a self-timer with delay time markings for extra precision, an updated metering head with a clearer metering display, and an integrated shutter lock/timed exposure lock around the shutter release collar instead of the film spool release on the F.

These improvements on their own would make the F2 a marked improvement over the F, but Nikon needed something that would cement their position at the very top of the professional camera world. Nikon’s ace-in-the-hole was the completely redesigned shutter mechanism, which could achieve a still-speedy 1/2000th of a second shutter speed as well as a nearly unheard of step-less shutter speed range from 1/2000 – 1/125th of second. Shooters obsessed with precision could choose an intermediate shutter speed like 1/800th or 1/300th of a second with ease.

To cap things off, Nikon paid particular attention to how the camera felt in the hand. The original F was a high-quality workhorse, but certain aspects of the design made it feel rough and unrefined, at least when compared to their main competition the Leica M system. The F’s boxy, geometrical aesthetic resulted in a less-than-comfortable grip, and combined with the odd placement of the shutter button made for awkward shooting. With the F2, Nikon pushed the shutter button forward to its rightful place and rounded off the corners beautifully, making the camera feel more natural in the hand and easier on the eye. And as the F2’s pièce de résistance, the advance lever was transformed from a rough all-metal meat grinder into a smooth, elegant plastic-tipped lever.

The all-new Nikon F2 was released in 1971 with a full complement of updated metering heads and accessories, as well as a range of lenses with updated coatings. The new camera system was quickly embraced by those looking for an upgrade to the aging F as well as those looking for the absolute best in a professional-grade camera. Though a slew of incredible professional grade cameras would try to to dethrone the F2 throughout the 1970’s, namely the Canon F-1, Olympus OM-1, and Minolta XK, none could reach the heights achieved by the F2. Professionals flocked wholesale to the new F2, and even pledged their allegiance to the camera after the introduction of its electronic successor, the F3.

The F2’s dominance of the professional market during the 1970s has since cemented its place among the greatest cameras ever, but has also placed it in a precarious situation. It’s easy to overvalue cameras that were successful in their day, doubly easy when they come with what seems like an outsized reputation perpetuated by fanboys in hardcore film photography circles. Pride comes before the fall, as they say.

But that’s the thing about the F2 – there is no fall. It really is that good.

It’s a bold claim, but I can’t find any reason not to make it. Without hyperbole, the F2 may just be the most impressive camera out of the many fine cameras I’ve tested for this site so far, and that list includes the Leica M2, the Nikon F6, the Rolleiflex 2.8, plus the F2’s successor and my personal favorite, the Nikon F3. It should be noted that all of these cameras are often called “the best ever,” even by me, but all of them have flaws that make them unsuitable for certain types of shooters (give the articles a read if you want to find out what those flaws are). Though the F2 is no different in that it has one, maybe two flaws, it stands as the only camera I can recommend for any level and any type of shooter. Allow me to explain.

Even after forty-odd years of service, the F2 can still run with the best of them. Its top shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second still covers most situations, and the step-less shutter speed mode remains incredibly useful. Its multiple metering heads means backwards compatibility with pre-AI lenses with the DP-1 through DP-3 heads, as well as full AI compatibility and vastly improved metering with the DP-11 and DP-12 heads. The DP-12 head in particular turns the F2 into the F2AS, widely considered to be best F2 shooter. It adds to the F2 a bright LED metering display and a metering range that extends down to EV -2 for easy low-light shooting. The DP-12 head won’t make the F2 outshoot a modern autofocus camera like a Nikon F6 or a Canon EOS-1v, but it does make it one of the best choices for shooters who swear by mechanical cameras.

The F2 also beats any camera, past or present, when it comes to quality, feel, and ergonomics. Though it’s a professional camera designed for rough-and-tumble shooting, it manages to bring build quality that borders on luxury. Every component on the F2 is masterfully made. The shutter button has a satisfyingly positive mechanical action, the shutter dial clicks into its detents with easy authority, and the advance lever’s throw is short and features possibly the smoothest action of any 35mm camera. The body’s curves also make it comfortable to grip, which makes managing the F2’s heft easy.

And one of the most noticeable things that separates the F2 from the crowd is that it doesn’t sacrifice functionality for the sake of this quality. The luxury is not there for show; it’s part-and-parcel of what makes the F2 so easy to work with. The smooth, straightforward operation of all of its controls makes the act of shooting an all-manual camera both easy and pleasurable. The reward is twofold; not only can it get out of the way of the demanding hardcore shooter to ensure they get the exact image they want, it can also be an object to be marvelled at by the casual enthusiast and collector.

The only thing that works against the F2 is its famously large size and weight (840 grams, without lens – that’s almost two pounds!). It’s a seriously hefty and bulky camera, especially with the taller metering prisms and bulky Nikkor lenses. This is not a camera for those who throw a camera in their bag on a day trip, nor is it a camera for those who wish to stay inconspicuous. This is a large, loud, and proud camera, and prospective buyers should consider if such a camera fits their own philosophy towards shooting.

Considering the weight, the F2 makes sense as a primary camera for hardcore shooters and Nikon enthusiasts. Both will enjoy its broad compatibility with every Nikkor manual focus lens, and real Nikon nerds will have a wealth of F2 accessories to collect. The F2 also makes sense as a beginner’s camera with its simple, uncomplicated control layout and endless room for expandability and customization. Beginners who do choose the F2 can also rest assured that they may never have to buy another film camera again.

[Sample shots in the gallery below were made with Kodak Ektar 100]

The only shooters who wouldn’t be well suited to the F2 are those who already have a primary system. I’ve heard of shooters who keep an F2 as a mechanical backup camera to the auto-exposure F3 or F4, but I can’t imagine carrying all those bodies and lenses being good for anybody who likes having a functioning shoulder. The F2 is a camera that deserves to be the centerpiece of a camera bag, and its weight practically demands it.

For this reason, the F2 doesn’t personally dethrone the F3 and FM combo I use for nearly all of my work. My shooting style is married to the F3’s aperture-priority mode and I can’t justify carrying the F2 over the FM as a mechanical backup, even if the F2 kicks the snot out of the FM in terms of sheer quality. That said, I actually did consider abandoning my old tried-and-true combo for this F2. It’s as classically perfect as a camera can get, and I suspect that for other shooters choosing that over a newfangled electronic machine is an easy choice.

All things considered, the Nikon F2 still ranks as one of the finest, if not the finest 35mm SLR out there for both users and collectors. I can’t think of a better camera for a hardcore shooter, a collector, or anybody who simply enjoys using vintage cameras. “The best 35mm film camera” might be a title that’s far too hyperbolic and too subjective, but if there’s a camera that deserves the title, it might just be the F2.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
29 comments
  • Great review of a great camera.

  • I am surprised it has taken you guys this long to review this gem. This is my all time favorite camera. it is my go to camera when I am not sure what will happen. It has survived a camping/kayak trip that the coast guard got involved with, it has been on several trips to Central America, I lost it in the snow once, and it has even fallen off a mountain and been ok. everything on it works perfect even the meter. I have the f2a version and it makes my fm2 feel like a toy. The only camera I can think of that I own that matches it in build quality is my Leica M3. its that good that I compare it to my Leica. I bought this camera when I got out of college in 2012 to replace my Nikon f3 that the meter and shutter speeds stopped working properly. I was frustrated with the the electronics in the f3 soI went for the all mechanical f2a. paired with a lighter pancake 50mm 1.8 its an amazingly versatile travel camera. I usually have one of 4 lenses on it. a 50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.2, 28 2.8 ais, and a 105mm 1.8 ais. If it has one fault its the weight and size. but still way smaller than a f5 or f4e/f4s.

  • Thank you for this write up! I have a Nikon F2, and it is by far, my favorite SLR for all of the reasons you mention. The weight of this machine, and the sound of the shutter are self gratifying; not to mention Its reliability and build quality are what attracted me to it in the first place. There’s just something remarkable about these vintage film cameras.

  • You’ve finally reviewed the F2! I love this camera so much, I own all of the variants; F2 Photomic, F2S, F2SB, F2A and F2AS. Even have black and chrome versions of several. I know…it’s an addiction! I do want to add that if your F2 ever needs service, Sover Wong in the UK is the Nikon F2 guru. Send him your F2 and it comes back almost as if new. He even does really useful mods! Again…nice review and a GREAT camera!

  • The Leicaflex cameras had continuous shutter speeds long before the F2 appeared.

  • So glad I found your site. I have a recently purchased F2 with the plain non-metered prism that had a recent CLA. Very smooth in operation and even the shutter does not seem all that loud. Every time I get Leica envy I take out the F2. A perfect cure.

  • I have an F2 that I got because it was attached to a lens I wanted. Turns out the lens is mediocre, but the F2 is pretty sweet. TBH, I don’t use it that often, maybe because the meter is “twitchy” but it’s fun when I do. I still prefer the original F though. It just feels better to me, but it could be because it’s got a regular non-metered prism on it which makes it smaller… which makes me think I should get the DE-1 for it.. hmm…

  • As has already been mentioned, the Leica M3 (and by inference other models designed for use with the add-on Leicameter) and SL2 have a stepless shutter and go one better than the F2 in going from 1/60 to their respective maximum speeds (1/1000 for the M3 and 1/2000 for the SL2) but also offer some amount of control over the slow speed range. As the SL2 shutter is a direct competitor the the F2’s it has to be seen as superior.

  • I own two F2s, an F2A and an F2AS. The F2AS got the full Sover Wong treatment and it is a joy and a gem. The F2A is currently awaiting being Soverized.

    If pressed hard to strip down to just one camera, it would be very challenging not to choose one of my F2s. Especially after being Soverized, my F2AS will likely keep working flawlessly long after I’m no longer alive.

  • When shooting the F2 in a social/public gathering, would it be recommended to leave the light meter in the on position, rather than turning it on and off each time to take a picture if there would be a short time between shots?

    • I think that’s down to personal preference. I’d probably leave the light meter on to monitor any changes in lighting, but if the scene’s lighting doesn’t change you can shoot using the same settings. If you’re shooting a film with good latitude you can even set your F2 to a close-enough ballpark setting and shoot away.

      • Thanks. My concern was more about the effect of turning it on and off multiple times, perhaps unnecessarily. Such a robust camera; I’m probably just overthinking it.

  • yes, this is an awesome camera
    my favorite is still the F4, but this F2 is a gem 🙂

  • Thanks again for a great review job.

    That F2 thing is definitively more than a camera. It is one of the most remarkable mechanical machines for taking pictures. There was and will be nothing comparable in the future – forever.

    I tend to say, it’s a piece of art.

    Stefan

  • Can’t wait to use my F2AS that I just bought two days ago in $100 in online shop. James can you recommend Nikon lens especially in AI or AIS for my F2AS?

  • I loved my F2. I first learned to shoot with a Minolta SRT101, moved to the OM-1 when it came out but started my photojournalism career with the F2. That body along with a backup body like my beloved FM2 and four or five fast lenses in a large Domke bag were what you needed to look like the gonzo pro we all thought we were. Over time I eventually sold it for an F3. Of course, like all of us from that era of newspaper shooters I have all kinds of back problems. Still a working pro I shoot digital as that’s what my clients want. Over the years I sold off a lot of my film gear. (regretfully) But I still have my F3 and FM2. That FM2 eventually became my favorite body. Some of the best journalism work I produced came from that little but mighty body.

  • WOO! I am another lover of the the F2 (I have 3). I can’t think of a more robust camera, photographed protested and military training events with one, and the only things I have against it is the sound of the shutter…It can turn heads…not like shooting a Leica. My F2AS is one of my daily carry cameras along with my Fm2, and after I got it serviced in Japan, it came back near as quiet as the Fm2 (and smelling like stale cigarettes). The smell was a little unfortunate, but the former Nikon employees did an amazing job of aligning a mirror to stop a back focus problem. 28mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, and 105mm f/2.5 make up my failsafe kit.

    Sometimes the noise of the mirror-slap is too much, but mine have served me well over the years.

  • I’m late to the party here, but that’s okay. I’ve used various Leica M and Leicaflex SL/SL mot/SL2mot/ and most of the R cameras. After ALL that – I now have a very clean ’75 F2/MD-2 – (I also had an F3HP with motor) etc., etc. The F2 is an excellent piece of kit – it IS well built, solid and amazingly well thought out system camera.
    It is NOT the easiest to handle or use SLR; that award would have to go to the ‘Flex SL2. It is easier to use and the meter is better and easier to use – it was, to my experience the best Leica that Leica ever designed. BUT – the Nikon F2 is the better camera even if I feel a bit hand-cuffed by it’s meter. While the F2 has intermediate speeds from 125 to 2000, the SL2 and SL had intermediate speeds from 1 to 2000 (so did the Leica M5)
    The F2 had the most well thought-through system that somehow they designed envisioned into the future – and that is the truly amazing legacy of the F2. I grew up with my father’s SM Leica system and while I truly have Leica in my blood – I know a better system and camera when I use one. The somewhat maddening part of the F2 for me are the metered viewfinders – the useabillty didn’t really improve that much (even though the visual and sensitivity did) but that’s getting into nit-picking territory.
    To think that Leica actually had prototypes with changeable finders early in ‘Flex development and presented an auto-focus prototype at Photokina in ’75 was impressive in promise(s) but not in reality – Nikon proved they really had or knew how to move forward and develop their tech. The rest is impressive history.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon