Trying to Care About Film Photography with a Nikon EM

Trying to Care About Film Photography with a Nikon EM

1146 645 Josh Solomon

“No camera today?”

Distracted, I bit into my stale, half-eaten sandwich. It was hot, and I was sitting outside the local music venue, trying to get some fresh air after playing a show inside. I was also trying desperately to escape a bad cover of I Want You Back by the Jackson 5 being played by the band following mine. I swallowed hard as I heard the classic bass line being butchered, and stared straight through my friend’s concerned look.

“Sorry, what was that?” I asked. I took another bite of the sandwich.

“Where’s your camera? You usually have one around.” my friend across the table repeated, puzzled.

“Huh. I guess I left it at home or something.”

“That’s strange. You don’t seem too happy about it either.”

The sandwich left a weird aftertaste, as did the bloody murder of the Jackson 5 occurring inside the venue. I thought about it for a second.

“I don’t know. It’s alright. This cover sucks though.” I replied. My friend heard the singer screech out the first line of the chorus, scrunched up his face in disgust, and gave up on the conversation.

“Yeah, it’s the worst.”

I needed another distraction, so I took out my phone and opened up Instagram. I absentmindedly scrolled through my feed, right past all the #35mm shots of pouting young folks drenched in on-camera flash, the same pictures of another fancy collector’s Leica I will never own, and targeted ads for a Kodak x Forever 21 clothing line. Somehow, looking at all that felt about the same as listening to that cover. I tried to regain some perspective by looking at my own Instagram profile and noticed I hadn’t posted in a couple months. Not surprising.

As the song ended I decided to haul my music equipment to my car and go back home. When I arrived, I flicked on the lightswitch in my bedroom and saw my F3 on the nightstand, lying on its back like an overturned turtle. I didn’t just forget to bring it to the show – I hadn’t picked it up in months. I went to bed that night knowing I wouldn’t pick it up the next day, either.

I Don’t Care Anymore

A loss of inspiration isn’t a new or scary thing for me at this point – it comes with writing for the site. It’s known among our writing staff that shooting for work over weeks and months burns you out. This, however, feels different. Some days, I simply don’t care about film photography, which has never happened before. And that’s scary.

It was scarier, even, considering that there was a package supposed to be coming in the next morning. In an effort to break the slump, I sent a text to James a week prior to this fiasco asking if I could review a Nikon EM, a close cousin of my first camera, the Nikon FG. I hoped that by some miracle of psychological association, I’d remember what it would be like to shoot film for the first time. I’d be able to keep the flame alive through a review of the Nikon EM, and return to my regular cameras with renewed life and vigor.

Spoiler alert: none of that happened. The EM didn’t save me or break my slump. It did, however, show me why that slump was happening. It showed me that film photography has changed, but I haven’t really changed along with it.

Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 2008, the year I started shooting film. I was just entering high school, and I had fallen in love with the idea of shooting film to document my experiences there. I wanted something that could last, something physical, something with more soul than a Nikon D40. The small, attractive Nikon EM made my shortlist, as did the Nikon FG and Canon AE-1 Program. The EM was cheap, but could mount Nikon glass (which was supposed to be pretty good), and was simple enough for a freshman dork like me to operate.

It sounded like a no-brainer until I looked at other options. The FG was exactly like the EM, but it added a full-on program mode and a manual override, as did the Canon AE-1 Program. The EM looked like a simpleton’s machine compared to those two, so I eliminated it and let the FG and AE-1 Program duke it out. While I eventually chose the Nikon FG as my manual focus film camera, the EM kept following me around. I’d see it in camera repair shops, flea market stands, and thrift store bins all over town. This camera was obviously popular in its day, but never got its due – what happened?

What Happened

The story of the EM really starts with the story of the 1970s consumer SLR boom. The introduction of the Canon AE-1 sparked a wave of consumer-grade cameras which featured electronic auto-exposure aids which were left off of many professional grade cameras of the day. The market responded well to these amateur-oriented cameras, which prompted several manufacturers to come up with their own iterations of the format. 

Enter 1979’s Nikon EM, Nikon’s very first attempt at a truly consumer-grade 35mm SLR. So out of character was this move that Nikon tried to instead market this camera as “suitable for women.” That really hurt to type. But, sadly, it’s true. In designing the EM as a “women’s camera,” Nikon was implying that cameras like the F2 and the FM were too advanced for women to use, which was then and remains now complete horseshit.

Obvious and deplorable sexism aside, the shift in design philosophy does result in the EM’s unique character. Nikon called in famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to design the EM, which resulted in a radically different look. Giugiaro gave the EM its simple, graceful lines, a small form factor, and a black leatherette covering not found on any other Nikon camera. Whereas the pro-grade F-series and advanced amateur FM-chassis cameras were examples of uncompromising industrial design, the EM took the more stylish route. It worked – the EM stood apart from the rest of the Nikon lineup, and inadvertently set an example for all Nikons to follow. Giugiaro himself even took what he learned with the EM and designed the Nikon F3, one of the most classically beautiful and functional SLRs ever made.

But what really separates the EM from the rest of the Nikon lineup is its method of operation. Aside from the included mechanical override/flash sync speed of 1/90th of a second, the sole method of exposure is aperture-priority autoexposure. That’s it. There’s nothing else. No manual mode, no program mode – just aperture-priority.

If it seemed too simple, Nikon provided a couple of paddles for those who thought the EM left them up the proverbial creek. The aperture-priority mode on the EM relies wholly on the strength of Nikon’s classic 60/40 center-weighted meter which, all told, is a pretty damn good way to expose film. The EM also features an ISO dial which ranges from ISO 25-1600, which can be used for exposure compensation, as well as a dedicated +2 EV button for quick overexposure in case of extreme backlight.

Those who think that the EM is still way too simplistic are in good company – Nikon thought so too. This can be deduced from Nikon’s treatment of the EM’s Nikon F-mount. The F-mount gave EM users access to the famed professional Nikkor lenses, a huge plus for anybody looking to try out Nikon’s vast catalog of lenses. Nikon, however, did not want to associate the EM with their professional grade offerings, and so developed the “Series E” line, a lower-grade line of lenses designed specifically for the lower-grade EM. Which might just be the most snobbishly Nikon move ever made.

The Series E line featured simpler coatings and more plastic than the Nikkor lenses, but their performance on average was comparable, if not just as good as their Nikkor brethren. The brightest star in the line was the Nikon Series E 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens, the EM’s kit lens. The Series E 50mm f/1.8 was an instant classic, offering signature Nikkor sharpness, contrast, resolution, and color rendition at an affordable price point. I’d even say that the Series E 50mm was the greatest standard kit lens in the consumer SLR class, and one that gave credibility to the EM in the Nikon lineup and the overall consumer camera segment.

The EM and Series E combination was truly powerful. It was portable, looked good, and could take stellar pictures. Above all, it was dead simple to use. Unfortunately, it might’ve been too simple.

Prior to the EM, Nikon built its name upon consummate quality and professionalism by any means necessary. The no-nonsense, all-metal, pro-spec Nikon F and F2 are prime examples of this function-first philosophy, as well as the advanced-amateur FE and FM series of cameras. The EM, however, is small, light, and features a lot of plastic. Granted, it still possesses a very sturdy aluminum chassis, but outwardly it just doesn’t inspire that same sense of awe that come from its cousins.

It is for this reason that the Nikon faithful shunned the EM, even though it sold pretty well. Nikon tried to save face with the even better and slightly rebranded FG, but eventually scrapped their compact consumer SLR line entirely towards the end of the 1980s. The EM’s reputation from this era has haunted the camera ever since, and it has never fully recovered.

What Happened After That

The EM’s somewhat bizarre reputation carried all the way through to the beginning of the film renaissance thirty years later. At that time, film had pretty much been presumed dead by the general public, but there were rumblings that it could possibly come back. Lomography and lo-fi photography with Holgas had been a thing for a few years, and gave credence to the idea that film could be cool again for the average person. And not only could it be cool, it could mean more in the digital age. It could symbolize a different way of processing life, one that could challenge the ephemeral nature of our brand new digital world.

That idea intrigued me, and it intrigued a lot of other people too. Interest grew for cameras that might’ve been forgotten during our transition from analog to digital. Some of these cameras were truly great in their time – one could find a pro-grade Canon F-1 or a Nikon F3 with a lens for well under $100 USD back in those days. And some others were simple, unassuming consumer-grade cameras, like the Canon AE-1, the Minolta X-700, and our Nikon EM, which were available at even lower prices.

I’d argue that it was cheap consumer SLRs like the EM that epitomized the general feeling of a decade ago. They were a world away from the bland DSLRs of the day and, if some were to be believed, were capable of making images those newfangled digital machines couldn’t touch. Some of them might’ve been soccer mom cameras or dorky student cameras in another life, but that just made them cooler. If you could put a digital camera to shame with one of these uncool, outdated things then, well, that was even cooler.

But for a variety of reasons, the Nikon EM wasn’t cool. The years following saw vintage mechanical cameras like the Pentax K1000 come into style, and already-legendary purist cameras like the Leica M-series elevated to near-mythical status. Compared to those cameras the Nikon EM wasn’t mechanical enough, wasn’t masterfully made, didn’t let you have all the control you need to truly explore film photography. It just wasn’t pure enough. Most damning of all, you could get a more fully featured Nikon FG, FE, or FM for the same price. The EM was obsolete even by vintage standards, and nobody hyped it up.

Fast forward even further to the present day, 2019. Gone are the days of #keepfilmalive; the film renaissance has now passed into its gilded age. Point-and-shoots like the Olympus mju-ii, Yashica T4, and Contax T2 are coveted and flipped the same way limited-run sneakers are. Kodak now doubles as a streetwear brand, celebrities parade their cameras on late night talk shows, and social media’s #filmphotography tag is ablaze with millions (read: millions) of people shooting film around the world. In the span of about a decade, film itself has turned from being fashionable in the underground to being fashionable in the mainstream. 

But this is where film photography has started to lose me. Even though film is having “a moment,” I can’t help but feel there’s something missing. There’s an overbearing emphasis on the “aesthetic” of film photography, and it shows in the gear to the clothes to the images themselves. This is fine, but film photography is so much more than the tools we use or some vague, ill-defined “look” – it’s an art form, an organic, expressive medium capable of a great deal more than any one photographer can hope to accomplish or even understand. It deserves far more than to be exploited and marketed as any other trend or lifestyle brand that can and will be left behind in a few years’ time.

This all might sound like a curmudgeonly digression by someone who’s been doing this for too long, and I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking it is. I actually thought the same – until I tried to figure out how the Nikon EM fits into all of this. Because in 2019, the Nikon EM still isn’t cool, despite it being near perfect for these times. The fact that it still isn’t reveals something much more grave.

What Needs To Happen

If this era values looks, branding, and absolute ease-of-use, the Nikon EM is ideal. It’s a Nikon designed by the guy who designed the Nikon F3, the BMW M5, and the freaking DeLorean and is just as easy to use as any point-and-shoot with twice the capability. Add its purpose-built Nikon SB-E flash and MD-E motor drive and the camera can run circles around any point-and-shoot (or premium compact for that matter) without breaking a sweat.

But what really sets the EM apart is how its simple operation naturally educates a shooter about the fundamentals of photography. Anybody can learn how to manually focus and set aperture with it – they’re the only two things you can adjust. And because the EM operates solely in aperture priority mode, they can learn how the exposure triangle works by exploring different shutter speed and aperture settings without fear of screwing anything up. Best of all, the EM will reward the new shooter with some of the sharpest, most vivid photos they’ve ever shot thanks to its killer compact kit lens, the Nikon Series E 50mm f/1.8. If that isn’t enough to instill a passion for film photography, I don’t know what will.

Let’s not get it twisted; the Nikon EM has always been good at this. It’s been good at this for forty years. Yet after all this time it is still undervalued, still slagged off on forums for not being hardcore enough, and overlooked in favor of less-capable, less-reliable cameras-du-jour. 

This gives me a discouraging feeling in my gut. The fact that the community has actively ignored, devalued, and even berated a camera which could easily educate new shooters about the craft of film photography is telling. If the film photography community in 2019 can’t see the value in a camera like that, then what does that say about our community?

At worst, I begin to worry that much of this film/analog renaissance isn’t about all the noble things that I thought it was about. Maybe it isn’t about holding onto something real and tangible in a nebulous, shapeshifting, alienating world. Maybe it’s actually just another stage for the painfully hip to flex their hipness, an arena for the disgruntled purist to slag off the less-pure, or a vehicle for this weird, indeterminate, social media-based “film aesthetic” that looks like how a bad Jackson 5 cover sounds. And maybe it’s all just a misguided exercise in nostalgia, turned around and marketed to suckers like me who still think it’s meaningful.

When I think about it this way, it’s no wonder I leave my camera at home these days. But maybe I’m listening to the wrong thoughts. 

The fact remains that I genuinely enjoyed shooting the EM, regardless of whether or not it highlighted my disillusionment with certain sections of the film photography community. There’s still that familiar sense of wonder I get watching life happen through its big, bright viewfinder and shuffling around the plasticky dials of its lens. There’s still that feeling that one could make something amazing, something really meaningful from this forgotten piece of plastic flotsam from the 1980s.

Thankfully, the book isn’t closed on the Nikon EM. It’s not hard to imagine a young person or a new shooter picking up an EM today for pennies and kindling a love for film photography that could last a lifetime. For more seasoned photo geeks, the EM could serve as a welcome retreat from the trend-driven landscape of modern film photography. I can’t say the EM got me over my own film-related hang-ups, but it at least helped me figure out what they were. 

Who knows, I might even pick it up and take it out with me tomorrow. You know, just for fun.

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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
  • Fantastic article! I agree that this camera is too often overlooked by those looking for the next trend in film. The Nikon EM is more capable, more reliable, and ridiculously cheaper than “prestige” point and shoots by Contax, Ricoh, and others. I’ve been championing these merits of the EM since 2015! :

  • “But maybe I’m listening to the wrong thoughts.”

    Haha! Been there, done that!

    But seriously, Nikon’s attempt to market this camera to women may have worked as planned.

    My love of shooting film got rekindled in 2010 after the passing of my stepfather. He was a pro photographer with his own studio in Lausanne, Switzerland whose works were twice featured on the cover of “Photo” magazine in France. He was often hired to photograph and document multi-million dollar art collections for their owners, including art glass by Baldwin and Guggisberg (is there anything more difficult than shooting glass objects?).

    When he passed he left me an Alpa 9d with a number of lenses, a Sinar 4″x5″ and a whole bunch of Nikons, including two F3’s, a couple Nikkormats, and a wide assortment of Nikon’s best glass.

    One of the Nikons was an EM, and now that I think about it, it may very well have belonged to his wife, who was a well known Parisian artist, actress, model, and socialite who was the subject of both of his Photo Mag cover shots. I have boxes of slides of Paris, Switzerland, Corfu, and Greece that she shot while they traveled the Mediterranean by VW bus and sailboat. Some of them are quite good shots in their own right and are family keepsakes.

    I am going to ask some family members about this because you’ve really piqued my interest. Thanks for the timely article!

  • Great article. Have two of these.

  • Enjoyed reading this. The EM is a such a nice camera. My first camera was a Minolta SRT101 and like the EM simple to use. Maybe I put the F3 down and pick up the EM/SRTs to relive the feelings from 50+ years ago.

  • This article is superb.

  • What a lovely article — part personal essay, part explanation of the EM in its historical context, part experience report. So well done. Bravo!

  • “When I think about it this way, it’s no wonder I leave my camera at home these days. But maybe I’m listening to the wrong thoughts.”

    Maybe so. What are your reasons for shooting film cameras? I know that, in my case, I sold some great and very expensive digital cameras and kept my 35 year-old F3 (among other cameras) because I simply prefer the way that film renders images. I don’t particularly care whether or not that’s trendy. Film just suits my particular taste in photography. That film photography has again become popular is gratifying, and I’m particularly happy that this current bubble has kept film makers in business and resulted in the resurrection of some old favorites (Ektachrome!).

    But there is another issue at play here: We are debating the merits of a 40 year-old camera. I happen to like the Nikon EM, and I’ve owned at least four of them in various stages of disrepair. I would wholeheartedly recommend the EM to a beginner or someone (like me) who just wanted a lighter film body–with the caveat that this middle-aged camera might one day (very soon and without warning) die.

    So where are the new cameras? If film itself is indeed is enjoying a renaissance, then where are the film camera makers with new film cameras could help to further bolster a film rebound? Other than instant film cameras, there have been very few new 35mm cameras proposed (except from kickstarter-type projects). Why?

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment! Lots of good points. To your point that the EM will die very soon – one could say that of just about every electronic camera ever made, including the F3! I’m of the opinion (as is James) that the unreliability of most electronic cameras is mostly overstated, and that the repairability of such cameras is much more likely than is commonly reported.

      As for new cameras, i’d be very surprised if new film cameras were going to be made by any major manufacturer not named Leica. Even though I do believe we are going through something of a film renaissance, the numbers still pale in comparison to film’s heyday. It might just not be worth it. Sucks for us, but at least there’s some reasoning for it.

      As for why I personally shoot film, that answer lies beyond the scope of a comments section, but i’ll take a stab at it. I think the allure for me is that it’s completely tangible in a world and society that is becoming more intangible. It’s an outdated process, but still manages to contain a beauty that we can still connect to and understand more readily than digital processes. The results (and the signature ‘look’), I think spring forth from those basic ideas, and I think it’s important that we keep those ideas alive by doing things like shooting film.

  • Those shots are excellent. I love em’.

  • Great article. I’ve always avoided the EM because of the lack of manual controls. But then i shoot an FA almost exclusively in aperture priority!
    I’m an idiot! (Although i love the FA)
    The forgotten cameras like the EM and others that CP often write about is what keeps photography interesting and fresh for me. (And affordable!!)
    I’d love to read another review from you of more “uncool” cameras. I think it’s important to remember that YOU decide what is truly cool, not Instagram.
    Keep writing!
    Keep shooting!

  • I guess I don’t follow you here Josh. I shoot with anything and everything and do not understand the lament that the EM is not cool. Guess what people thinking that something is cool has done? Pushed the prices of a ticking timebomb Contax T2 to over $1000. Made a Pentax K1000 cost up to 5 times as much as the way better Nikkormat etc etc
    Cool cameras are for suckers if that is what attracts them to that camera. Brainstorm a project, pick up whatever lump has film in it, go out and shoot.

    • Hi Huss!

      I think you might’ve actually followed me all the way to my point! In using the word “cool” with respect to the “uncool” EM, I was implying that the criteria for “cool” is arbitrary and detrimental, and points to how messed up priorities have gotten in some sections of the film photography community (particularly on social media). The EM is an interesting case because it fits nearly perfectly that (ultimately arbitrary) criteria, and yet remains undervalued, which proves how flawed that idea of “cool” is and why we should be skeptical of it (as we both are).

      It also highlights why we should be worrying about other things like, you know, actually making good images. The EM is fantastic at helping people learn how do that which, incidentally, is pretty “cool” in my book.

  • Oh man, I am in that funk right now. I printed up some shots of my daughter I took last spring with my Yashica the other day. Incredibly happy with how they came out. It was at that point that I realized that she is wearing a hoodie and sweat pants! How long had that film been sitting in my fridge? I have not really taken any photos of any consequence on film in over 6 months. Why? After some thought, I find myself grabbing my first gen, beaten up RX100 and heading out the door. It is not cool. It is dented and scratched. It is, however, just easier.

    It is not that I do not have things that I could photograph. I do. It is not that I have an ‘uncool’ camera. I have plenty of good ones. In fact, one of them is supposed to be cool but I absolutely cannot stand it (Canonet GIII). Lately, I just feel like it is a hassle. I consider unloading my film gear often. Ive never carried through but I consider it often.

    I took my daughter to the zoo the other day and brought my Zeiss Ercona 1 6×9 folder with me. That was a great experience and I will see how those come out. Next weekend is an automotive concours and I am planning on bringing nothing but some rolls of film and my Bronica ETR. Try to rekindle the love.

  • Thank goodness we are now enlightened enough to know that a woman and a man are the same thing! Progress is grand.

    • As it relates to camera design, marketing a camera as “suitable for a woman” on the grounds that it’s simple and easy to use is obviously sexist, whether you like to admit it or not. Men aren’t smarter than women, nor are men more capable of operating complex gear. Nikon made a mistake in marketing this camera this way in 1979. We shouldn’t continue the mindset that caused this mistake in 2019.

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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