It was one year ago, while preparing to move to Germany, that I purchased my Nikon F100. I bought it in the hope that it would be all the camera I would ever need — a do-it-all, unflappable photographic companion.
When I’d first considered buying the F100, I had no real lens collection and I wasn’t married to any camera system. But even with dozens of cameras to pick from, I ended up back where my gut had been pointing all along, with the F100. It checked all the boxes. It had every capability I needed and more, gave me access to a wide range of Nikon glass and (most importantly) had an unbelievable, shockingly low price tag. I found one I liked and snapped it up, along with some AF-D lenses.
Over the next year I carried my F100 through Rocky Mountain blizzards, breathtaking canyons and deserts, rides on the Rhine and to North America’s highest sand dunes. It’s been baked on hundred-plus-degree days and frozen on zero-degree days. No other camera I’ve owned has been so thoroughly tested and stressed.
After all of that, it’s time to come to decide – Is the F100 truly a forever camera? And is it the kind of camera to recommend to most photographers?
What is the Nikon F100
There will be a lot of links to our reviews in this next paragraph. I’d click on every single one and allow them to cascade into new, delicious tabs full of wordy goodness, if I were you.
For decades, Nikon had a habit of bridging their professional single lens reflex camera releases with a lower-spec, enthusiast-level SLR camera. The N8008 bridged the gap between the Nikon F3 and F4, the N90 the gap between the F4 and F5, and in 1999 the Nikon F100 would link the F5 (released three years earlier) to the upcoming Nikon F6. Nikon’s bridge cameras often offered customers the opportunity to try the latest camera technology before it made it into a flagship for professionals. With the N8008 it was autofocusing and with the N90 it was a button interface replacing analog controls.
But the groundbreaking technology of the late nineties had nothing to do with film photography. The newest Nikon advancement would arrive on shelves that year in the form of Nikon’s first pro digital SLR, the D1. But that doesn’t mean the F100 wasn’t also a new direction for Nikon’s film cameras.
Specs and Features
With its integrated grip and eight AA batteries, the earlier F5 is legendary for its husky-jean wearing size and weight. Nikon would take a more refined approach with the F100, creating a camera boasting most of the professional features of the F5 without that camera’s wrist-snapping heft. The F100 is technically a high-end prosumer camera. But don’t let the designation fool you; this is a 100 percent professional ready body.
Do you want flexibility with shooting modes? The F100 has the full PASM smattering. Worried about accurate exposure? With the F100 you can use its ten-sensor 3D matrix meter, center-weighted metering with seventy-five percent emphasis on the viewfinder’s center circle, or its selectable five-zone spot metering.
Are you shooting sports or action and worried about missing focus? You won’t have to worry with a cross-ranged, five area autofocus system and choice of dynamic, close-subject priority, and single area autofocus modes. The high-speed focus tracking of the F100 is a perfect compliment to its 4.5 frames-per-second drive (which is upgradable to 5 fps with the MB-15 grip).
Do you like to shoot high-speed film with wide-open apertures at high noon? The F100’s metal shutter has a range from thirty seconds to 1/8000th of a second – just what’s needed to shoot Portra 800 at f/2 in the snow.
The F100 has an answer to nearly every question. Nikon packed in as many bells and whistles as they could into the F100. Bracketing shots in whole, 1/2 and 1/3 stops, multiple exposure capability, depth-of-field preview, red-eye reduction, timer with four settings, twenty-four built-in custom settings, and more.
All of this is housed in an almost entirely magnesium alloy body that is smaller in size and nearly half the weight of the Nikon F5. But even with less weight, the F100 feels mostly tight and well-built. It’s not weather proof, but weather resistant and it can handle most environments photographers will use it in. Button placement was well thought out, and auto-focus and metering point controls on the film door don’t get in the way of normal operation. Anyone familiar with modern Nikon DSLRs will feel right at home after picking up an F100. Its ergonomics are excellent.
So the camera has nearly every control and capability the modern photographer could possibly need all packaged in a tough, lightweight housing. In every way the F100 sounds like it should be an expensive camera. Fortunately for any prospective buyers, the opposite is true. On any given day, an F100 from Asia can be found for less than $200, and those from America and Europe are often available for less than $300. I bought mine for $145 in what must be the greatest deal on a piece of photographic equipment I’ve ever stumbled into.
A great deal, yes. But the F100 is not a perfect camera and you should know a few of its quirks before you pull the trigger on buying your own.
To start, the F100 is not an F5. It’s more of a Diet F5, and some of the characteristics that define the F5 are absent here. The most important of which is the matrix meter. The F100 has a ten-sensor matrix meter instead of the F5’s 1005-element meter. The F100 can only shoot five frames per second rather than the F5’s eight fps. The F100 lacks mirror lock-up and an eyepiece shutter, and its prism isn’t removable.
While the build quality of the camera is generally very high, it slacks a bit around the film door. One reader on a previously published story around my F100 noted that the plastic door latch is susceptible to breaking with rough use.
Lens compatibility is something else to consider. While the F4 and F6 offer almost complete compatibility with all of Nikon’s F-mount lenses – including matrix metering with manual focus lenses – the F100 does not. Matrix metering is possible with Nikon’s D- and G-series lenses only. And while the F5 could be modified to accept pre-Ai lenses, no such modification is possible on the F100. There were also issues with bodies made early in production suffering from a low-grade plastic rewind fork with a tendency to break.
I’m calling these shortcomings of the F100, but it also feels like I’m reaching for something bad to say about an otherwise exemplary camera. But is it exemplary enough to warrant buying one over an F5 or F6? With the F5 you’ll enjoy slightly better features, but with double the weight and double the batteries. With the F6 you’ll likely have the best 35mm film SLR ever made, but you’ll be paying ten times the cost of the F100.
It’s a testament to the F100 that it’s almost universally compared to Nikon’s other professional-grade cameras even though it’s technically not a professional camera. Nikon’s other sub-pro cameras, like the N90 and the N8008, can’t be compared to the professional SLRs that they were built around. But the F100 can and does hang with the best of them.
The F100 seems a perfect companion for almost every photographer. Working photographers looking to add film to their workflow wouldn’t encounter a learning curve with the modern F100. Beginners would be welcomed by the camera’s automated modes, and more learned shooters would be able to take advantage of its more advanced capabilities. It’s tough and advanced enough to provide years of memorable photos and at a price tag that doesn’t break anyone’s bank.
In all the time I’ve spent using my F100, it’s never let me down. Spanning thousands of miles, multiple countries, mountains, beaches, droughts and snowstorms, it has consistently delivered memorable, accurate images.
It still blows my mind that it comes so cheap on the marketplace. I’ve even remarked to my fellow CP writers that this much camera for that little money should be illegal. It’s downright disrespectful for a camera like the F100 to fetch less money than some overhyped point-and-shoots.
So we return to the big question; is the F100 a forever camera?
Obviously every photographer is different, and different shooters demand different things from their tools. But the F100 covers more bases than most other cameras and at a laughably low price point. Even if it doesn’t last forever, what’s another couple hundred dollars for a replacement?