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.