The Nikon FE2 – Great Film Cameras

The Nikon FE2 isn’t quite as well known as some of the other mid-range film SLRs Nikon has produced. It is quite similar to, but somewhat shaded by, the engineering miracle that is the FM3a with its hybrid shutter. The mechanical FM series also seems to better known than the electronic FEs. However, despite being occasionally overlooked, the FE2 is a fine film camera.

The FE and FM Series

Nikon FE2
The Nikon FE2 with 28mm Voigtlander f2.8 Aspherical SL II-S Colour-Skopar 

As one of Nikon’s semi-professional SLRs, the FE2 shares the same rugged, metal internal chassis and general design principles as its siblings, the FM, FM2, FE, FA, and FM3A.

The FM and FE formed part of Nikon’s four product lines of F, FE, FM, and EM. These targeted different classes of users and were designed to change Nikon’s brand image from a manufacturer of high-end SLRs to an “all-round manufacturer”, accommodating a wide variety of consumers from beginners to professional photographers.

While they look quite similar, the Nikon FE and FM cameras are quite different internally. The Nikon FE and FE2 both have an electronic shutter with aperture-priority automation, and the light meter uses needle matching in the viewfinder. The FM is all-mechanical (except for the light meter) and uses a “centre-the-LED” system.

the table below provides an at-a-glance comparison of the FM and FE Series. Note that the later FE10 and FM10, manufactured by Cosina, sharing the same designation but based on a different chassis and designed for a different market, have been omitted. For brevity I’ve used the term ‘automation’ to refer to shutter automation, of which these cameras either offered none or aperture priority. For other automation options such as shutter priority, programmed auto etc. you need the Nikon FA.

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalBoth
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
FE and FM Series (excluding Cosina manufactured models)

What Makes the FE2 So Good?

What struck me first about the FE2 is the how bright the viewfinder is. It is brighter than the FE and nearly as bright as the FM3A, with excellent close-to-100% coverage at 93%. The viewfinder is Nikon’s interchangeable Type K2 focusing screen with the useful split image rangefinder and etched circle that indicates the area of the centre-weighted meter.

The FE2’s feature I like most the intuitive needle-matching light meter, which is also used in the FE and FM3A (both of which are reviewed on this site). If you like a light meter, and I do, this analogue system is the most intuitive I have ever come across. It makes manual exposure so easy that I seldom use aperture automation.

The exposure lock works extremely well on the FE2, as the needle connected to the light meter locks once it is engaged. This isn’t the case with the FE – you just need to trust that it is engaged.

A fast maximum shutter speed is always a bonus for me, and the FE2’s operates at up to 1/4000-second shutter, which provides a lot of flexibility. This enables you to shoot with a wide aperture in bright conditions or use ISO 400 film on a bright day, which is advantageous if that roll is to be used in both bright and darker conditions.

The other features that make it a very capable everyday shooter for both beginners and advanced photographers are:

  • Aperture priority automation
  • 60/40 centre-weighted metering
  • Exposure compensation (1/3 stop per click)
  • Superb damping (so good mirror lock up was omitted)
  • 1/250 sec flash (the world’s fastest sync speed SLR then in 1983)
  • Choice of replacement viewfinders (replacement sets come with tweezers)

The FE2 Shooting Experience

Setting ISO Speed

The ISO film speed setting control is on the same ring as the exposure compensation control, on the right of the top plate, just like the Nikon FE. You depress the button to the right of the dial to set ISO and lift the ring to set the film speed. Lifting the ring feels both fiddly and slightly flimsy, compared to the smaller ring on the shutter speed button on the FM2n for example.

Loading and Unloading Film

Nikon FE2
Working boats and gear, Deal Beach, shot with the FE2 and TMax 400

Loading film is straightforward and much like other Nikon SLRs. Once you have slid the safety lock mounted under the rewind crank to disengage it, you can lift the film rewind knob.  Nikon revised the location of the safety lock between the FE and FE2 and it the later model handles better as a result.

Once you have raised the rewind knob completely the back of the camera back pops open and you can load the film in the usual 35mm fashion – ensuring the perforations along the edges of the film mesh with the sprockets. When the film is engaged with the spool, press the camera back until it snaps into place. Unloading is similarly familiar: depress the button on the bottom of the camera and turn the re-winding crank in the direction of the arrow until you feel the resistance in the crank drop.

Power On

To turn the camera on, you pull the film advance lever open (to unlock the shutter release) and half push of the shutter release. The camera automatically shuts off to save power after a few seconds. The power source is two readily available button alkaline LR44s, or one more specialist lithium 1/3N battery. The FE2 can shoot at at 1/250s when the batteries are drained but without the light meter.

Through the Viewfinder

Looking through the viewfinder, the aperture you have selected is displayed in a small window to the top of the frame. This is the Nikon Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) system. To the left there is a shutter scale that displays both the selected shutter speed and a light meter readout via a pair of needles. The second longer, thinner black needle is connected to the light meter. In auto-mode this needle indicates which shutter speed will be used, whilst the thicker, shorter green needle is set it A.

In manual mode, the green needle is set by the shutter speed dial and needs to be matched to the light meter reading shown by the other needle. You can adjust either the aperture or shutter speed to obtain a match. It’s a great system, and in good lighting I much prefer it to the LED system of the FM2n (or the F3).

Lenses

I prefer prime lenses to zooms on manual focus cameras, and as I like to travel light I generally carry a wide 24mm and a standard 50mm. If I am travelling light I’ll might just take the excellent 28mm Voigtlander shown in the photo above or a 50mm. My 50mm of choice is the f1.8 AI-s pancake. All the lenses I use with the FE2 are AI-s.

FE2 versus the FE

The FE2’s predecessor, the Nikon FE, is similar to the Nikon FM introduced in 1977 but the internals are electronic. Unlike the FE2, neither camera features a model number on the front of the camera.

Nikon FE2
Deal sea front from the pier, shot with the FE2 and TMax 400

Advantages of FE2 over the Nikon FE

The most apparent advantage of the FE2 over the FE is that the faster shutter. The titanium focal plane shutter is two stops faster at 1/4000s vs 1/1000s for the FE, with the FE2’s flash sync at 1/250 vs 1/125. The backup mechanical shutter, which I don’t expect to need to use, is also more usable at 1/250s vs 1/90s.

There are other refinements: the viewfinder is brighter than the FEs, the light meter needle is locked stationary when the exposure lock is applied, and the exposure compensation is in 1/3 stop fine-tuning increments. (The FE’s scale is in 1/2 stops). The camera back lock also has been re-positioned, making it easier to operate.

Advantages of FE over the Nikon FE2

The Nikon FE has a surprisingly long list of small advantages over its successor. They seem quite minor to me, at least, but some photographers prefer the FE. As much as I have enjoyed shooting with the FE, on balance I prefer the brighter, faster FE2.

  • Power Switch The FE’s power switch is very simple – just pull out the film wind handle. There’s an additional step on the FE2 – a half push of the shutter release. The camera automatically shuts off to save power. This seems to annoy some reviewers, but it doesn’t trouble me.
  • Legibility in the Viewfinder The shutter scale speeds are more larger and easier to read than on the FE2, as there are two fewer speeds to accommodate. I only noticed this in a direct comparison between the two, though – it is not as if the FE2’s display is illegible.
  • Battery Life This FE uses less battery power than the FE2 because its faster shutter needs stronger shutter springs and the batteries have to power the electromagnets to cope. All Nikons seem restrained in their battery usage, so this doesn’t trouble me either.
  • Compatibility with Non-AI Lenses The FE can use Nikon lenses going back to 1959, while the FE2 can’t use non-AI lenses.  I don’t have any non-AI lenses, most of mine are AI-s or AI.
  • Battery Test Light The FE has a dedicated battery test light, which the FE2 lacks. This is definitely a nice feature to have but I don’t have it on most of the other cameras I use.
  • Cost The FE is less expensive than the FE2.

Pre Frame 1 Metering

There is one difference between the FE and FE2 that you may see as an advantage either way, depending on your point of view. This is Pre Frame 1 Metering.

When you load a new film, the FE2’s light meter doesn’t operate until the counter on the film advance gets to frame 1. Before frame 1 (frames 00 and 0), the shutter always fires at its single manually operated shutter speed of M250 (1/250th of a second).

Nikon added this feature because if you have set the camera to auto and accidentally fire the shutter with the lens cap on or in a dim enough environment, the camera will set an extra long exposure – potentially tens of minutes long! This can be overridden by setting the shutter speed to a fast manual speed or the mechanical backup speed, M250.

The FE does not have this feature, so experienced film photographers can squeeze up to two more frames (frames 00 and 0) out of a roll of film, which they appreciate. These early loading frames are really designed to ensure by the time you get to frame 1, your camera is properly wound, and you don’t get partial frames, but they can be utilised for shooting in many cameras. They are numbered 00 and 0 to provide a reference number to reference them for prints, etc.

Discontinuation

The Nikon FE2 was officially discontinued in 1987. A quick glance at the Year-by-Year Camera Timeline on this site shows that the market was extremely dynamic at that time, with autofocus becoming established, along with the first glimpse of digital cameras and the emergence of the bridge camera.

  • 1985 Minolta introduces the world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the autofocus (AF) system built into the body – the Maxxum 7000 a.k.a. the Dynax 7000
  • 1986 The disposable camera is popularised by Fujifilm with the 35mm QuickSnap
  • The Canon T90 marks the pinnacle of Canon’s manual-focus 35mm SLRs
  • The Canon RC-701 becomes the first still video camera marketed, offering 10 fps (frames per second) high-speed shutter-priority and multi-program automatic exposure
  • 1987 Canon launches the EOS (Electro-Optical System), an entirely new system designed specifically to support autofocus lenses
  • 1988 The Nikon F4 is introduced as the first professional Nikon to feature a practical autofocus system.
  • The Fuji DS-1P, the first digital handheld camera, is introduced, though it does not sell
  • The first of the Genesis series from Chinon helps to define the category of 35mm bridge cameras

More detail on the battle between Nikon and Canon for Auto Focus Dominance can be found in a short separate article. Regardless, manual focus cameras quickly became a niche product and Nikon’s final offering was the FM3A, with its 1/4000 second hybrid mechanical/electronic shutter.

Afterword – The Nikon FE10

There is a later Nikon with an FE designation. However, it was not a successor model to the FE and FE2 as it was built on a different chassis and designed for a different market. The Nikon FE10 of 1996 is a manual focus, F-mount film SLR manufactured under license by Cosina. It has a rather unappealing ABS plastic body in champagne silver and black body and was designed as a low cost beginner’s camera based on Cosina’s C2/C3 SLRs.

As such is unlikely to appeal to FE and FE2 owners, but Nikon’s fingerprints can be seen all over the enhancements to the donor Cosina. Depth-of field preview, AE Lock and exposure compensation, to name just a few, are features that make it usable by more experienced photographers. As a result it has some positive reviews from those that appreciate its light weight and very low cost.

Conclusion

I really enjoy shooting with the Nikon FE2 – it offers a very similar experience to the FM3A, a favourite of mine. It is both easy and rewarding to shoot with, and as it’s less of a collector’s piece than the FM3A, it’s one you can take anywhere.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If have experiences to share with the Nikon FE2, please leave me a comment below. I’d be delighted to hear from you. And if you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on:

If you’ve any experience with the Nikon FE2, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

Early Auto Focus Cameras

Although I’ve shot with quite a few auto focus film cameras, I haven’t any hands-on experience of the early, historically significant, models from the 70’s and 80’s described in this post. I only dimly recall the point and shoots I used for family photographs in the ’80s and 90s, and the auto focus film cameras I have used since I got serious about photography all date from the 1990s or later. The earliest models I own are the excellent Contax T2 and the notorious Konica Aiborg (‘eye-borg’) both from 1991.

Early Auto focus
Contax My T2 and a friend’s G2 resting on the seat of his car.

I’ve sampled an autofocus rangefinder (Contax G2, 1996), a trio of point and shoots (Contax T2, 1991, Nikon 28ti, Fujifilm DL Supermini, both 1994), a 35mm mid range SLR (Nikon F100, 1999), and a top of the range SLR (Nikon F6, 2004). In medium format, I’ve used the Pentax 645 nII (2001) extensively.

The shooting experiences and results have all been good except for the Contax G2, the autofocus of which was possibly faulty and the Aiborg, which produced good results but was frustrating to handle.

This isn’t the story of those later AF models – though the Contax T2 makes an appearance at the end. Instead, this is a brief account of the pioneering autofocus efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. The article started as a paragraph in a review of the Nikon FE2 and developed a life of its own.

As I did my research, it became clear that this is also the story of the transition from SLR to compact cameras in consumer market and the rise of Canon as a dominant player in the photographic industry. It’s also clear I should get a Nikon L35F – it sounds excellent!

If you’re not familiar with the different types of AF systems, it’s worth reviewing the short description that follows.

Types of Auto Focus Systems

Active Auto Focus

Active auto focus systems measures the distance to the subject using waves of infrared light or ultrasonic sound and then adjusts the optical system for correct focus. This kind of AF can be used in poorly-lit environments, but only works on relatively close, stationary subjects. The familiar ‘AF Assist’ button found on many cameras uses an active AF system.

Passive Auto Focus

As the name implies passive auto focus systems use the same incoming light as the optical system and don’t beam sound or light waves on to the subject. Instead they make use of Contrast Assessment, Phase Detection or both.

TTL Auto Focus

TTL auto focus (Though The Lens) means that the system is integrated behind the photo-taking lens.

Contrast Detection

Contrast Detection (or Assessment) evaluates what the camera ‘sees’ and then moves the lens a fraction and then re-evaluates to determine whether there is more or less contrast. If contrast has increased, the system continues to move the lens in the same direction until contrast is maximised. If contrast decreased, it moves the lens in the other direction. This is repeated until contrast is at the highest level attainable.

Phase Detection

Phase Detection (PD) works on similar principles to a range finder by dividing the incoming light into pairs of images and comparing them. Mirrors and lenses, or a prism (beam splitter) are used to split the rays coming from opposite edges of the lens and a secondary lens system refocuses the rays onto the film plane.

When a point is in focus, the light rays coming from it will equally illuminate opposite sides of the lens and it is ‘in phase’. If the lens is focused in front of or behind the point in question, the light rays at the edge of the lens arrive in a different position ‘out of phase’.

The distance between the two images is then measured to see how far front-focused or back-focused the subject is. The camera then uses this information to instruct the lens which way to turn its focus and by how much. Phase detection AF is incredibly fast compared to contrast detection, and is well suited to moving subjects.

The Genesis of Auto Focus

The first auto focus patent for a ‘self focusing camera’ was filed in the United States back in 1931, by the prolific, yet largely unknown, Armenian-American inventor and entrepreneur LG Simjian (1905 –1997). Simjian held over 200 patents, mostly in optics and electronics and conducted pioneering development on the flight simulatorATM and teleprompter.

As a medical photographer he became interested in portrait photography which led to him to invent a self-photographing camera, the PhotoReflex. This, in turn, led him to his work on auto focus.

Patents were also filed in the 1940s and 1950s and both Canon and Nikon made reference to prototypes in the 1960s and 1970s, but the first camera equipped with AF to break cover came from Leitz (Leica) at the 1976 Photokina event in Cologne, and the company is usually credited with its invention.

1976 – Leica’s SL-2 Prototype

Leitz started patenting auto focus technology in 1960 and continued to develop their system over the next decade and a half. As Leica’s cameras became more sophisticated, their engineers recognised their light meter’s sensitivity to contrast. This developed into contrast detection: two LEDs on top of the viewfinder detected the highest contrast of a subject and a motor turned the focusing ring. The prototype was based on the Leica SL-2 and was named Correfot. An observer familiar with the prototype commented:

“It worked surprisingly well in low light. It wasn’t that fast because it took a number of gears for the motor to generate enough torque to turn the focusing ring, but at the time it didn’t bother me. We hadn’t seen anything like it. The motor housing was converted to hold six batteries that lasted only an hour. It was not something they could really market.”

Leitz, a conservative company, decided not to commercialise the system and sold it to Minolta.

1977 – Konica C35 AF

Konica’s point and shoot compact C35AF of 1977 was the first commercially viable auto focus camera. This used Honeywell’s Visitronic AF (VAF) system, a patented mechanical autofocus system that used light-sensitive detectors comparing the two images in its rangefinder.

The C35AF was an autofocus version of the Konica’s C35 automatic camera with a Hexanon 38 mm f/2.8 lens, a leaf shutter, built-in flash, and automatic exposure.

1978 – Polaroid SX-70

The first AF Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera arrived in 1978 in the form of the Polaroid SX-70 Sonar OneStep instant camera, which was equipped with an active sonar autofocus system. This is essentially the original Polaroid Land Camera, a true (folding) SLR, with a sonar autofocus bar grafted onto the body.

1979 – Canon AF35M

The Honeywell Visitronic used in the Konica C35 AF was the system of choice of most manufacturers offering AF until Canon’s CAF system arrived in 1979. This system quickly became the standard for autofocus cameras. The CAF equipped Canon AF35M of the same year (the first of the Sure Shot range) offered auto focus, auto exposure, auto wind on and auto rewind. Canon claimed it as the world’s first 35mm autofocus camera.

The stage was set for a contest for auto focus supremacy and the compact cameras, and Canon, had a head start.

1981 – Pentax ME-F and Chinon CE-5

Auto focus 35 mm Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) arrived in 1981 with the Pentax ME-F, which was based on the Pentax ME Super of 1979. This required the autofocus SMC Pentax AF 35–70 mm zoom lens equipped with a drive motor. It is easily recognisable by the bulky battery compartment below the lens.  The ME-F used through-the-lens (TTL) electronic contrast detection system but focused poorly and did not sell well.

In the same year Chinon produced the CE-5, a Pentax K mount SLR that used infrared with large heavy lenses with lens-mounted motors. In the words of the manufacturer:

Chinon “direct focus” electronics incorporated in the CE-5 match precisely to similar electronics in the optional 35 – 70mm zoom auto focus lens. Just depress the CE-5 shutter button to activate the 35 – 70mm AF lens; instantaneously the lens barrel rotates to the precise focus! This ingenious system even prevents accidental shutter release before the lens has completed focusing”.

1983 – Olympus OM-30 and Nikon F3AF

In 1983 Olympus introduced the OM-30 (OM-F in some markets), an updated version of the OM-G/OM-20), that could be used with an auto focus 35-70 mm lens which had a motorised focusing ring.

The camera offered three focus modes. With electronic autofocus mode, touching the release button focuses the lens ‘instantly’ (‘one touch autofocus’) with an electronic beep for focus confirmation. In electronic focus-aid mode, focus is obtained by rotating the lens focusing ring while watching LEDs. A tone sounds when the camera has obtained focus. Lastly there is ‘optical mode’, which is manual focus via a microprism/split image rangefinder and matte area.

Unfortunately, the auto focus mode was often inaccurate, slow and dependent on one zoom lens.  As it offered focus confirmation with other lenses Olympus also promoted it as ‘the first focus-confirmation SLR for a photographer as serious as you’.

Nikon introduced auto focus with the F3AF which was based on the F3, and utilised TTL contrast detection. The launch was accompanied by two new auto focus lenses with internal focus motors, an 80 mm f2.8 and a 200 mm f3.5. These lenses featured Nikon’s usual optical excellence but their AF performance was relatively poor and the offering wasn’t successful.

Nikon also introduced its first compact AF 35mm camera, the L35AF, which was well received due to its excellent f2.8 35mm lens and accurate AF. The same factors make it popular with film photographers today for whom it has some bonus features. There’s a 46mm filter thread, and through the lens metering; there are icons in the viewfinder that will tell you where it is focusing as you shoot, and it also has a manual setting for ISO to over-ride DX if you want to push or pull the film.

1984 – Compact Auto Focus on the Rise

Nikon was the last of the major SLR manufacturers to offer compact AF cameras with the L35AF. By the end of 1984, that model had outsold all of Nikon’s SLR bodies (F3, FA, FE2, FM2, FG, FG-20, and EM) combined in that same time period.

At the same point in time Japanese 35mm SLRs had only 33% of the worldwide market versus 67% for 35mm compact cameras. In 1977 market share was 57% in favour of SLRs.

During the 70’s and ’80s there had been a shift from metal bodied, manually operated mechanical SLRs to more compact, automatic plastic-bodied models. This was supported by the rapid advances in electronics, including the rise of the integrated circuit, which made both automation and miniaturisation easier. The SLR manufacturers targeted amateur photographers using rangefinders and thought they would upgrade to SLRs equipped with sufficient automation. As the market share figures above show, they were not successful and compact cameras became the norm for amateur photographers.

1985 – Minolta 7000 and Canon T80

The Minolta 7000, released in 1985, was the first SLR with an integrated autofocus system – both the AF sensors and the motor were housed in the camera body. It was the first AF SLR that could focus quickly, accurately, and operate in low light levels and made use of phase detection (PD) autofocus. Minolta also provided a wide selection of lenses and accessories and priced their new Alpha (A) mount camera at a relatively affordable price point for mid-level enthusiasts. It sold well.

Canon introduced the Canon T80 as its first autofocus 35mm single-lens reflex camera that same year. It looked like nothing that came before, or after it, for that matter. The T80 had a modified FD mount with signal transmission capability known as AC, and a linear CCD array for TTL image contrast detection. There were three AC auto focus lenses available: an f1.8 50mm prime and two zooms – 35-70mm and 75-200mm.

Learnings from the Canon T80

The T80 was discontinued just over a year after its launch. The effort wasn’t wasted though as Canon explained on the 30th anniversary of EOS:

Early Auto focus cameras
Canon T80 (Image credit: Mike Caine, Flickr, CC)

The idea of a fully-electronic mount is largely attributable to the experience we gained from developing the T80, an AF camera that used lenses with built-in motors. In the case of telephoto lenses, having the motor inside the camera made it difficult to achieve high-speed focusing. Coordinating the aperture drive was also a test of limits due to the complex mechanisms of both the camera and the lens. However, we persevered because we felt that the future of next-generation cameras hinged on the development of a new, fully-electronic mount.” 

In March 31 of that year Canon leaders and engineers from around the world met to discuss the development of a new system, known at the time as the “Entirely Organic System.”

1986 – Nikon F-501

Japanese industry analysts were predicting that the shipment of AF SLR cameras in Japan in 1986 would outstrip manual focus models. Nikon responded by hurrying to implement the ‘body-powered’ AF Nikon F-501 in April 1986 with TTL passive phase-detection autofocus and in the same year introduced new autofocus (AF) lenses.

The polycarbonate-bodied F-501 was the first successful auto focus SLR and offered automatic film loading and advance as well as a built-in motor drive. This provided single or continuous modes and a maximum film advance speed of 2.5 frames per second (frame/s) in continuous mode. Nikon adopted some design concepts from the camera in the  Nikon F4.

The new lenses relied on the autofocus motor in the camera body to drive the focus mechanism via a screwdriver on the lens mount and could communicate electronically with compatible AF cameras.

1987 – The All New Canon EOS System

Canon introduced its ‘built from scratch’ AF system, which used a new lens mount for lenses with its own AF motors – the EF. Breaking compatibility with Canon’s FD mount, the aperture and focus were controlled via electrical contacts, with motors in the lens itself. In Canon’s own words from the same 30th EOS anniversary interview with the leading engineers:

Before the EOS series was launched, our cameras featured the FD lens mount. However, a fully-electronic mount was essential in order to achieve a high level of AF technology with our wide variety of interchangeable lenses. To realise a high-precision AF that moves the focusing lens elements optimally according to the focusing distance or zoom position, it was a must for the lens to exchange information with the camera as well as to eliminate any mechanical error. This is why we chose to control the camera system by linking the camera with the lens via electrical communication. Through this, we were able to achieve high-speed and high-precision AF even at such super telephoto focal lengths as 600mm. What’s more the aperture was also electrically linked to enable smooth video shooting and playback, a feature that is taken for granted on cameras today.

The system was introduced with the Canon EOS 650 in March and within two months it was the best-selling SLR in Japan and Europe.

1988 – The Nikon F4 and the Second Generation of AF

The Nikon F4 was introduced in 1988 as the next generation in Nikon’s line of F series professional cameras and was the first professional Nikon to feature a practical autofocus system. The F4 offered outstanding backward compatibility as it could mount any of Nikon’s manual focus or AF lenses from 1959 onwards.

The second generation of AF SLRs also began to appear in that year, the Minolta 7000i and Nikon F-801 being the most notable.

1989 – Compact Auto Focus Dominates

Of the 818,000 SLR produced in Japan in 1989 Over 90% were AF models. The manual focus SLR era that had been dominated by Nikon was over. Canon was the SLR market leader and Minolta was in second place. However, Minolta’s lead over Nikon was only temporary and the company was soon overhauled. 

It wasn’t just manual focus SLRs that were declining. According to worldwide market share (CIPA figures) Japanese 35mm SLRs had only 15% of the market versus 35mm compact’s 85% in 1989. SLR dominance was effectively ended by auto focus compacts.

Post Script

The design of phase detection autofocus came from Honeywell and their patents of the 1970s. Honeywell sued Minolta for patent infringement and won, so all the camera manufacturers had to pay Honeywell for the rights to use phase detection autofocus.

 A 1991 court decision found Minolta guilty and Minolta paid Honeywell $127.5 million in back royalties, and for license rights to continue using autofocus technology. The world’s camera manufacturers paid Honeywell over $300 million for licenses to their autofocus patents.

Early auto focus cameras
George Thorogood, London 2023, shot with Contax T2. No removable lens, no problem.

The Contax T2

The earliest auto cameras arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, but as we are wrapping up the story in the early ’90s it seems reasonable to give the Contax T2 of 1991 a mention.

The T2 was one of a range of high-end compact cameras produced by Contax between 1984 and 2002. The manual focus T was introduced equipped with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 38 mm lens. The T2, used the same lens in an active autofocus system.

The T2 offered a high degree of automation, including auto focus and Program AE, coupled with a decent level of user control, including Aperture Priority exposure, manual focus and exposure compensation. Constructed of titanium and with a renowned lens, the T2 was a luxury model that has since become sought after and expensive.

It is rather too bulky to fit in any but the most capacious of pockets but it is very portable nonetheless. Its ideal for when you want a film camera with you and space and weight are at a premium. Those events where ‘professional cameras’ (those with removable lenses) are prohibited are also ideal for the T2.

The only real drawback to the T2, other than its cost, is that Program AE mode and Aperture Priority f2.8 share the same setting, so you can’t shoot wide-open unless the exposure level permits it.

Into the Digital Era

In the SLR market lens-mounted motors became the norm for auto focus, and in 1998, Nikon introduced AF-S lenses with their own ultrasonic “silent wave” motors built in, only a year before the launch of the digital Nikon D-1.

Nikon had the benefit of backward compatibility, but Canon had over a decade of experience with EOS by then and had gained a significant advantage. The two titans would continue to slug it out in a contest that was soon to enter the digital era, but they would be joined by electronics behemoth Sony, which acquired Minolta and its auto focus technology….

The Nikon F – Great Film Cameras

When I chose my first DSLR many years ago I chose a Nikon. Since then I’ve stayed with the brand into the Z mount era. When I went back to film in 2016 it was with a Nikon F3, and since then I’ve shot with most of Nikon’s pro and mid range film cameras, including the mighty F6, the engineering miracle that is the FM3A and the camera that took Nikon to market dominance in the SLR market – the Nikon F. This is its story.

Genesis of the Nikon F

The story of the Nikon F starts in the rangefinder era which began with the Leica I of 1925. A milestone in photographic history, the Leica I popularised the use of the accessory rangefinder. The Leica II and Zeiss Contax I with their built in rangefinders put the technology firmly on the map, and by the late 1930’s the low-cost Argus C3 rangefinder was the world’s best selling camera.

Nikon F
Portrait of an icon: the Nikon F cast a long shadow…

The Nikon I Rangefinder

Fast forward to post-war Japan. After WWII the Japanese camera industry was getting back on its feet. Nippon Kogaku K.K. (as Nikon was known until the late ’80s) introduced a 35mm rangefinder, now known as the Nikon I, which used a shutter and rangefinder mechanism based on the Leica II. However, the Nikon I bore a greater resemblance to the Contax rangefinder with a similar top focus wheel, removable film back, and a slightly modified Contax bayonet lens mount. It was launched in 1948 – about the same time as the Konica I rangefinder (also reviewed on this site).

By the late 1950s Nippon Kogaku (henceforth ‘Nikon’) was selling well engineered 35 mm rangefinder cameras such as the Nikon SP of 1957 (Nikon’s first professional camera) and the S3 of 1958 in competition to Leica. However, a limitation of the rangefinder was that telephoto lenses with a focal length of 135 mm or more required a cumbersome optional reflex box.

The Nikon SLR Development Program

Nikon F
A Nikon Ad from 1960

Single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) had the advantages of the reflex box integrated in the camera. Nikon recognised the future potential of SLR cameras and in 1955 launched a program for their development in parallel with their rangefinder models.

The trial Nikon SLR model was based on the body of the Nikon SP, with a mirror box inserted. Only the mirror box, pentaprism and bayonet mount were newly developed. The new camera was designed by Yoshiyuki Shimizu and his team, who sought to create a system camera that could be adapted to a wide range of photographic situations.

The Birth of Nikon F, 1959

in 1959 when Nikon launched the The Nikon F, SLRs had been available for years but had not gained great acceptance by professionals. This was due to their weight, reliability, and dim viewfinders, when compared with the professional standard – the Leica M3.

The SLR deficit

The deficiencies of most post WWII SLRs are described by Nikon’s Camera Chronicle:  “Before focusing, the user had to set the lens aperture to its maximum setting to brighten the viewfinder with shallower depth of field. After focusing, the user had to manually adjust the lens aperture to the desired setting. If he did not do this, the photo would be overexposed. When the shutter was released, the viewfinder became dark. The user couldn’t check composition and lost track of moving subjects. After the film was advanced to the next frame, the mirror returned to its original position. Only then did the viewfinder brighten”…… The Nikon F would change all that.

Five Features that changed the photographic landscape

With the Nikon F, Nikon introduced an SLR that could compete with the rangefinders, combining several concepts that had already been introduced elsewhere into one extremely versatile camera:

  • Interchangeable bayonet lens mount (Kine Exakta, 1936)
  • Pentaprism viewfinder (Contax S,1949)
  • Interchangeable Viewfinders and focus screens (Exakta Varex,1950)
  • Instant return reflex Mirror (Asahiflex IIb,1954)
  • Automatic diaphragm for wide open composition (Zeiss Contax/Pentacon F 1956)

Or was it six?

The Nikon’s F Titanium foil focal plane shutter added a true ‘first’, but it was the incorporation of existing important innovations in one camera that changed the camera landscape, making the SLR an attractive option for professionals.

You want more reasons?

For a professional considering the camera there were other factors that made it attractive. Firstly, the combination of the automatic diaphragm and instant-return mirror made it faster than competing SLRs. Secondly, it had the same acclaimed control layout as the high-end Nikon SP rangefinder. Thirdly, the viewfinder was relatively bright and evenly illuminated due to the Fresnel lens integrated into the focusing screen. Lastly, the Nikon felt solid but was relatively compact and not overly heavy as the body dimensions (except for depth) were quite close to those of the SP.

Nikon had, in one camera, eliminated most of the disadvantages of the SLR versus the rangefinder, leaving just its advantages apparent. The Japanese company also had two other very strong cards to play, both of which had their origins in Nikon’s engineering excellence – reliability and flexibility.

Reliability

Nikon ensured reliability by subjecting the camera tests of endurance, heat run, low temperature durability and vibration to ensure that it could withstand hard use under any conditions. The shutter endurance test was particularly tough with 100,000 cycles of repetitive action, conducted with the aid of its motor drive.

Nikon F
My 1970 Nikon F

The result was a camera so tough it became known as “the hockey puck” for its ability to withstand damage and resist mechanical failure. Accordingly it was selected for extreme missions such as space with NASA, combat (notably the Vietnam war) and exploration (Everest, in 1963).

Flexibility – The System Camera

The Nikon F was designed as a system camera, enabling its use with a variety of viewfinders, choice of focusing screens, motor drives, and other accessories. At launch, Nikon offered an extensive selection of lenses ranging from wide-angle to telephoto, including the fast 58mm f/1.2 standard lens.

Once again, the concept of a modular camera had existed prior to the Nikon F, but Nippon Kogaku improved upon it with an impressive array of options. The first camera to introduce the concept was the Leica I of 1930 which had a standardised interchangeable screw mount lens and an accessory shoe.

The F Mount

The Nikon F incorporated a new bayonet mount, the F-mount, which featured a large diameter and a short flange distance to accommodate a wide range of lens designs. Moreover, the F Mount’s design enabled extraordinary longevity and allowed Nikon to become the leader in lens/camera compatibility. The F-Mount accommodated advancements such as AI (Automatic Indexing, 1977) and AIS (Automatic Indexing Shutter, 1983) in and is one of only two SLR lens mounts (the other being the Pentax K-mount) which were not abandoned by their manufacturer to introduce autofocus. 

Four Historic Turning Points

Nikon F
Nikon F Schematic

Upon its release, the Nikon F received widespread acclaim for its design, durability, reliability, and flexibility. The camera’s significance extends beyond its technical capabilities, marking a turning point in the photographic industry, establishing three turning points in the history of photography:

  • Signalled the end of the rangefinder era and the rise of the SLR
  • Established the SLR as the camera of choice among professional photographers, especially photojournalists and those working in challenging environments.
  • Promoted Nikon to a leading brand in the photographic industry with Leica losing ground
  • Established the rise of Japan as the leader in the photographic industry, with Germany losing ground

Notable Users

The Nikon F had many users of note, such as renowned photographers David Douglas Duncan, Gordon Parks, Don McCullin and Bert Stern. NASA took an F into space; it became one of the key instruments documenting the Vietnam war, and the F is associated with possibly the most iconic photo shoot in history. Below are some of the highlights.

David Douglas Duncan and LIFE Magazine

In June 1950, David Douglas Duncan, (aka DDD) a renowned photographer at LIFE Magazine visited Nikon’s Ohi Plant with Fortune’s Horace Bristol. Guided by Nikon President Masao Nagaoka, they compared their Leitz and Zeiss lenses to Nikkor with Nikon’s projection inspection equipment, determined that the Nikkors were superior and bought M Mount Nikkor lenses for Leica.

When the Korean War broke out shortly afterwards, DDD went to the front line with two Leica IIIc’s equipped with a Nikkor lenses. Subsequently, he was joined by Carl Mydans, also from LIFE, who also visited Nikon and bought Nikkor lenses for his Contax rangefinder.

The two photographers took almost all of the pictures of the Korean War carried by LIFE with their Nikkor lenses, and won the “U.S. Camera Awards” of 1950. Subsequently, the Nikon rangefinder and it’s Nikkor lenses became popular with all LIFE photographers. Their reputation quickly spread throughout the US and the rest of the world and helped establish Nikon as a global brand.

NASA Missions

The Nikon F’s journey into space with NASA began with its modification for the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. This included reformulating adhesives, redesigning the battery chamber, and enhancing the durability of plastic parts. The film advance lever, shutter release, and film rewind mechanisms were also modified to facilitate ease of use by astronauts wearing gloves. Additionally, the (ISO) dial was re calibrated to match the the film emulsions developed for NASA missions.

The Nikon F in the Vietnam War

The Nikon F was adopted by many photojournalists during the the Vietnam War, which became one of the most photographed conflicts in history. I grew up with the Vietnam War on the news but realised how little I understood about it when I read Max Hasting’s Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. It is an astonishing story, and a tragedy on a truly epic scale.

The Nikon F’s robust design made it ideal for photographers working in the difficult and unpredictable conditions of Vietnam. It was subject to jungle humidity, dirt and dust, and the rough handling that came with working in a conflict zone. David Douglas Duncan, who we met earlier, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, Tim Page and Don McCullin all used Nikon F cameras during the Vietnam War.

It wasn’t the only tough camera of course, some Vietnam War photographers would take the Nikon F for normal/long lenses and a Leica for wide angle lenses.

One of the most famous stories about the Nikon F and the Vietnam war is how it saved a British Photographer’s life. In 1968, Don McCullin was documenting the Vietnam war for The Sunday Times Magazine. While stationed at Prey Veng he was spotted by a Cambodian solider who opened fire. McCullin had his Nikon F to his eye, and the bullet from the AK-47 struck the the solid brass top-plate of the Nikon, deflecting the round and saving his life

There are many other stories. I found an excellent account of a soldiers experiences in Lee Dudley’s Nikon F and the Vietnam War

Bert Stern, Marilyn Monroe and a Nikon F

Portrait photographer Bert Stern received a phone in June 1962 which resulted in one of the most famous celebrity photoshoots in history. Stern waited for hours for Monroe to appear in her Bel-Air Hotel, accompanied only by his Nikon F, but it gave him the opportunity to photograph her for next 12 hours and resulted in 2,571 photos. Marilyn Monroe would die only six weeks later, and the images, known as The Last Sitting, became iconic.

The Nikon F in the movies

The first of Nikon’s SLRs was quite the film star, as described in Michael Pritchard’s excellent book ‘A History of Photography in 50 Cameras‘.

Dennis Hopper with Nikon F’s

“The Nikon F reinforced its reputation and established itself as modern design icon through its starring roles in films such as Blow-Up, with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in London; Apocalypse Now with Dennis Hopper as a Photojournalist; and, later, with Clint Eastwood as National Geographic photographer in The Bridges of Madison County.”

Clint Eastwood’s Nikon F was eye catching in black with an chrome eye-level prism, but for me it has to be Dennis Hopper, festooned in Nikon Fs, as a crazed Photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse now that steals the show. I found Hopper’s role interesting enough to write an article on it: The Photojournalist of Apocalypse Now.

There are the other films the Nikon F plays a part in: Blow-Up (1966); The French Connection (1971); Diamonds are Forever (1971); Apocalypse Now (1979); Cannonball Run (1981); The Year of Living Dangerously (1982); The Killing Fields (1984); Full Metal Jacket (1987); Gorillas in the Mist (1988); Groundhog Day (1993); The Bridges of Madison County (1995); City of God (2002); Walk the Line (2005); Ford v Ferrari (2019).

Nikon F Hall of Fame

You can also peruse an excellent Nikon F Wall of Fame, featuring the likes of Mick Jagger, Sean Connery and many more.

Shooting with the Nikon F

The Nikon F still has some rangefinder DNA so loading film isn’t like other Nikon SLRs. I am not a big fan of the bottom-loading system, but if I was shooting regularly with the F, I’m sure I’d get used to it. Other than that, it’s remarkably straightforward.

Nikon F Brill Windmill
Man, Bird Windmill. Brill Windmill, shot with the Nikon F

Loading Film

To load film, you turn the lock on the bottom plate from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ and the camera’s bottom plate and the back cover come away as a single unit. Next, insert the 35mm film roll into the film chamber on the left side, and then thread the film leader onto the take-up spool on the right as normal.

You will need to set the ‘A-R’ ring around the shutter release button on the top plate to “A” (Advance), then wind the film on so that it passes under the take-up spool, ensuring the film meshes with the sprockets. After that, you can then replace the camera back and lock it by turning the lock to the “close” position. The shutter can then be cocked and released until the frame counter displays “1”. The counter resets itself automatically to two frames before zero when the camera back is removed, so it should just be two shots.

Speaking of which, the frame counter is located in the centre of the film advance lever. Opposite the frame counter is a reminder of the total number of frames – this is set manually using a tiny indicator pin on the dial.

On the bottom plate there is film-speed reminder which can be set manually to indicate colour or black and white film and to set a reminder of the ISO. One quirk is the flash sync, which consists of a pair of vertical contact points either side of the rewind knob for the F accessory hot shoe.

Shooting

After loading the Nikon shooting is extremely simple straightforward. With the eye level finder the Nikon F offers no light meter, and there’s no automation. You just set the aperture and shutter speed and focus. The viewfinder, unencumbered by a light meter display, provides a clear, bright view of whatever you are shooting. The maximum shutter speed is 1/000 if a second which is fine unless you are shooting with a large aperture on a very bright day.

Serial Numbers and Model Variants

Nikon F bodies were produced between March 1959 and October 1973. You can date your camera from the serial numbers. The earliest Fs are 640xxxx.

Nikon F
An early Nikon F with the Nippon Kogaku triangle logo

Early Nikon Fs can also be identified by a self timer with slanted serrations, a prism engraved Nippon Kogaku rather than screen printed, a back with patent pending numbers and marked ‘Made in Japan’ on the closing lock. Later models had this inscription on the baseplate near the tripod socket. Sometime in the 67xxxxx series the inscription on the top plate changed from the Nippon Kokaggu triangle to Nikon. This detail is shown left from an early (first 1000) model which at the time of writing was for sale at Grays ofWestminster.

The latest series was 745xxxx, and the very last model was 7451052. Based on that we can tell that around 745,000 cameras were shipped.

Nikon gave the 500,000th F to the photographer who had the biggest impact on the rise of Nikon, David Douglas Duncan.

The Nikon F ‘Apollo’

This is less exciting than it sounds, as the late model ‘Apollo’ variant of the Nikon F has minor cosmetic changes to match parts used on the F2 which was in production by that time. There is no actual link to the space program, other than time of manufacture. The Apollo updates are a plastic-tipped F2 type advance lever and self timer and stronger strap eyelets and start at 7335000. Later Apollos had an F2 type threaded PC connection also. Around 116,000 ‘Apollo’ Fs were produced.

The Nikon F Red Dot

In 1965 when Nikon introduced the first TTL metering finder, Photomic T, the top plate of the Nikon F was slightly revised and Nikon added a red dot in front of the serial numbers to designate the modified bodies. The red dot appears on body serial numbers 659xxxx to 66xxxxx (approximately). Bodies from 67xxxxx onwards incorporated the revision without the red dot. 

Motor Drive Models

The F36 motordrive was based on the system pioneered by Nikon’s S2 Rangefinder, the S36 and came from the factory matched and synchronised to a specific body. In this configuration the Nikon F offered offered 3 frames per second (fps). This was with the automatic mirror and diaphragm in operation and maximum speed could be increased to 4 fps with mirror lock up (MLU). There was also a 250 exposure version. In 1971 the F High Speed model delivered a 7 fps with MLU, and in 1976 a new High Speed model bettered this with an equivalent 9 fps for photographers at the Montreal Winter Games.

Finishes

There were two finishes available at launch: satin chrome metal/black leatherette and black enamel. The engraved letters, numbers and symbols are black-filled on chrome-plated bodies or white-filled on black-painted bodies. Well used black Nikon F bodies that display paint wear, particularly on edges of the covers are said to have become brassed, which was a badge of honour amongst professional photographers.

Black eye-level F’s are usually more expensive as they are less common and the association with black with professional photographers. In 2024 a mint copy like this is selling for a little over £1,000 on eBay.

The Photomic Head

The first Nikon F meters were clip on Selenium meters attaching to the top of the camera over the prism and shutter speed dial. Being Selenium meters, they did not need batteries.

The Nikon F with Photomic Head

The Nikon F’s “flag” Photomic meter head of 1962 introduced the F’s first built in light meter, ingeniously including the prism and meter in one unit.   Sadly it is bulky and asymmetric, and to my eyes ugly, but by placing the meter in the prism head assembly, Nikon was able to continually update its metering system at a relatively low cost.

In 1965 the Photomic T introduced TTL (Through the Lens) metering, in 1967 the Photomic TN followed with centre-weighted metering and 1968’s Photomic FTN displayed shutter speeds in the finder. If you are set on a Photomic the FTn has a greater film sensitivity range and a larger aperture coupling range in addition to the shutter speed display, so it makes the most sense.

I’m sticking to my eye level prism. As much as I like a built in light meter, the lines of the Nikon F are just too good to spoil with the Photomic. I have one on my F2 and it feels like a more acceptable trade off, but I just can’t take the ‘F’ off the F.

Purchasing a Nikon F

As with all classic or vintage film camera bodies the main consideration is the condition of the shutter. Whether a beater or a mint example, you want a Nikon F with a titanium foil shutter free of perforations, ripples, or little tears at the edges. If you are able to do a hands on inspection it is also worth checking that each of the shutter speeds trigger the shutter. Shutter speeds can of course drift and become inaccurate over time which is hard to detect pre purchase, but can usually be corrected (or at least improved) with a good CLA (Clean Lubricate and Adjust).

After that check for dark patches in the viewfinder which could be a sign of an ageing prism, which is de-silvering. This is a fairly common problem. Finders tend to be pricey for Fs so getting one with a good prism is important.

I have seen accounts that say the Nikon F does not have door seals – and others that say that it does but they are hard to see and never need replacing! Regardless, there are definitely mirror and prism cushions which can deteriorate, but there are kits available to replace them.

Successor – The F2

The Nikon F had a number of design issues originating from its evolution from the Nikon SP rangefinder, most notably the removable back. Another issue was that electronic metering had been added, rather than designed in from the start. Nikon listened to its user base and developed a successor, with an internal design mantra of “quicker and stronger.”

The new F2 of 1971 offered a rounder body, a swing back and a more comfortable plastic-tipped film advance lever. The F2 was also designed for metering from the start. The battery holder was moved to the bottom of the camera and the batteries were changed to more modern silver oxide cells, activated by an on/off switch that was changed to be a partial pull of the film advance lever.

The result was a mechanical SLR that is considered by many to be the finest ever produced. It is an improved and more practical camera but it does not have the same place in my affections as the Nikon F.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with shooting a Nikon F, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below. You might also find the following articles on this site interesting:

The Understated Genius of Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter – An Unfinished World

I have long enjoyed the photography of Saul Leiter and my admiration for his work was increased by visiting the “Saul Leiter: An Unfinished World” exhibition at MK Gallery, curated by Anne Morin.

Saul Leiter
A flyer for the exhibition shot on a bright yellow table at the MK Gallery

This exhibition mixes Saul Leiter’s colour and black and white photographs, paintings and commercial fashion photography. There is a comprehensive chronology printed on the wall but the exhibition “encourages encourages viewers to find their own relationships and paths through Leiter’s unfinished world.” Given Leiter’s work and the world-view that underpins it, this approach makes a lot of sense.

The title is equally apposite and befits a collection of ‘tiny fragments of an unfinished world’. This was his world view, “little pieces of images juxtaposed and conjoined, to form ever-expanding fields.”

Many of Leiter’s pithy quotes adorn the walls, which I found both helpful and inspiring. All in all, it is a fine and very worthwhile exhibition. A review in the Guardian called it a “glorious survey of an impressionist with a camera.” I completely agree with that assessment, but the exhibition unlocked something I didn’t expect – an encounter with the person behind the lens. To my great surprise I found Saul Leiter the person as inspiring as his work.

The Photography of Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter had no formal training in photography, but the genius of his work was recognised by the influential Edward Steichen, who included it in two important MoMA shows in the 1950s.

Leiter’s work is characterised by abstract form and bold composition. He did a great deal of very fine black and white work which makes much use of much shadow and blur, and I enjoyed it greatly. However, it is his colour slide photography that has had most impact on me.

I like it when one is not certain of what one sees. When we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden, we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.

The experience Leiter describes here is often that of the viewer of his photography. There are large expanses of negative space, sometimes enveloping a detail; abstract lines that resemble brush strokes; reflections, fogged glass; fog; shadows and silhouettes. Much of street photography has a documentary feel but Leiter’s takes it to another more abstract, impressionist dimension.

He often makes use of steamed up windows for their abstracting quality, uses snow as a flat white backdrop and blurs foreground objects . He sometimes used expired colour film, which could produce surprise colour shifts.

Street photography depends greatly upon chance encounters, but as the Guardian review of the exhibition noted, “He finds chance and arbitrariness because he is looking for these things, and uses all his artistry to bring them out.”

He has other recurring themes. In addition to the inclement weather, translucent materials and properties of light that help him him gently smear his palette he regularly returns to cars, buses, hats and famously, umbrellas.

Painterly Parallels

His work is painterly, with fans and critics seeing parallels to the work of great artists like Edward Hopper, Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. The parallel with Hopper strikes a chord with me. I have seen some of Hoppers’ work, most notably, Nighthawks, in The Art Institute of Chicago. There are similarities in both the colour palette and the emotional undercurrent, though it occurs to me that Leiter’s urban experience is more about introversion than the isolation Hopper is known for.

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2005: “Mr. Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself. His painter’s instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette.”

Harlem, 1960

One of the photographs that impressed me the most at the exhibition was one of his most famous photographs: Harlem, 1960. There is great description of the image in The arts desk: “A black man in a panama hat and beige jacket smokes a cigarette as he walks under the black awning outside a bar. There’s nothing to this chance encounter with a passer-by, except for an amazing synchronicity of colour. The man’s beige jacket matches the lettering on the awning announcing HOUSE, while his tie matches the red cab of the lorry parked behind him and the lettering on the vehicle advertising Walker’s Gin. A man in a black coat walking the other way frames the left side of the picture while a black dustbin frames the right side. The coup de grâce is the beige and red sign overhead that reads BAR and completes the colour composition.

Saul Leiter
Harlem, 1960 by Saul Leiter

If this were a painting by Whistler, the image might be called Harmony in Beige, White, Red and Black and it would have been artfully contrived. Leiter’s photograph, on the other hand, was completely unplanned. “I’ve never had a system or a project,” he insisted. “I don’t go out looking for things. I wander around with my camera, like a flâneur.” The paradox is that he responded to “unimportant things” spotted en passant, yet the viewer often has to spend time unravelling this split second of information.

The Unseen Saul Leiter

Much of his colour work was taken on slides. This enabled Leiter to project his photographs on the walls of his apartment, which was important to him as he couldn’t afford to have prints made at the time.

The MK Gallery bookshop had a copy of The Unseen Saul Leiter, which is a book of 76 Colour slides with several chapters of commentary. Most of the slides are Kodachrome, but some are Anscochrome or Ektachrome.  The images were taken mostly in the years 1948 to 1966, Saul’s first two decades of living and photographing in New York.

The book is important as, until it was published, the majority of Leiter’s images known to the public were those published in Early Colour, which largely introduced his extraordinary talent.

The origins of The Unseen book were an academic project. In 2017 the German scholar Elena Skarke approached the Saul Leiter Foundation because she wanted to write her dissertation on his work. She visited his studio (now the foundation’s headquarters) and decided to focus on the colour transparencies for her research.

Saul Leiter
My copy of The Unseen Saul Leiter, resting on a black bamboo table mat

The Unrecognised Pioneer of Colour

Saul Leiter was a pioneer in the use of colour photography. In the 1940s, when black and white photography was the norm for serious work he embraced colour, which he used in a completely unique way, often using a 150 mm telephoto lens in his colour street photography, the compressed view contributing to provided the painterly feel.

Colour Photography in the 1940s

At that time colour photography was the realm of ads and amateurs. Walker Evans, the famed documentary photographer of the great depression called colour photography “vulgar,” and he was far from alone in this sentiment.

One day I bought a roll of colour film and I took pictures. Then I got a small box with slides. I liked what I saw. I liked colour even though many photographers looked down on colour or felt it was superficial or shallow. – Saul Leiter

Colour Photography in the 1970s

The recognised pioneers of colour photography were William Eggleston, Helen Levitt and Stephen Shore, who gained recognition much earlier than Saul Leiter, becoming famous advocates for the medium in the 1970s. Sadly, Leiter barely made a footnote at that time.

For many years William Eggleston was recognised as the first photographer to use colour as a defining artistic choice. Happily that that view is fading and Leiter is getting the recognition he deserves – along with a better sense of perspective. After all, Alfred Stieglitz made and exhibited colour photographs using the Autochrome process in 1909.

Whilst I respect the work of all of those photographers, it has not had the same impact on me as Saul Leiter’s. He is in that very small group of photographers for me whose work is arresting in the true sense of the word – it stops you in your tracks. A few of those photographers have articles of their own on this site, including Cindy Sherman, Vivian Meyer, William Klein, Fan Ho and Brassaï.

Perhaps being left alone in relative obscurity helped him develop his unique and introspective world view. Geoff Dyer, in a review of his work in the Telegraph asked what it meant to be an ignored artist and asserted that “For Leiter – left alone to his colourful craft – it was the making of a master lensman.”

Zen Saul

Leiter was a thoughtful man with diverse influences. His library consisted of thousands of books and he was influenced by Japanese woodblocks and ink paintings as well as impressionist and post-impressionist painters.

During the research I conducted after the exhibition I came across an article by freelance photographer Belinda Jiao entitled Saul Leiter Street Photography Analysis: Techniques, Influences, Philosophy which shed more light on the influence of Japanese culture.

Love of Japan

I learned that he loved all things Japanese, which is a passion I share with him. The Ten Days In Japan I had in 2015 were wonderful. Belinda provides an illuminating quote from Pauline Vermare, the curator of the exhibition Photographer Saul Leiter: A Retrospective: there were etchings of paintings by Koryusai hung on his wall; among the heaps of collected items were Japanese calligraphy papers, vinyl records of Japanese musicals, and a massive library of books dedicated to Japanese literature, poetry, ceramics, ukiyo-e and Zen.

The same article describes the strong parallels between Leiter’s work and Zen Buddhism, which celebrates the living in the moment yet without attachment to earthly pleasures. It is also a shared characteristic also commonly found in Japanese ukiyo-e (translates into ‘Pictures of the Floating World’) prints, which has a strong emphasis on depicting the here-and-now, the banal fragments of being human.

The article also pointed out the correlation between Leiter’s choice of subject matter and those that feature regularly in ukiyo-e art – everyday life objects and elements of weather.

Although Leiter rejected the notion that he had a philosophy at all, the more you examine his work and its influences the more you appreciate his depth.

I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera.

Increasingly, I wonder if that quote is accurate, or whether it is just a reflection of Leiter’s lack of ego.

The Prophets – Impressionism & Les Nabis

Saul Leiter’s biggest influences in the art world were the post-impressionist artists Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, who were both members of ‘Les Nabis’, which means ‘the prophets’ in Hebrew. This was a movement that embraced bold colours, flattened and abnormal perspectives, combining late-Impressionism’s focus on light, Japanese-influenced lines, and Paul Gauguin’s striking use of colour.

The Cameras of Saul Leiter

It seems almost wrong to concern ourselves with the more mechanical aspect of his work, but to translate East Village light into the magic of his images Saul Leiter needed optics.

Leiter experimented with colour photography used slide film such as Kodachrome; he also enjoyed using expired film stock with its surprising and odd shifts in colour and his unusual perspectives often come from the use of telephoto lens. These are probably the most salient technical factors in his work. The cameras themselves tell us less, but I am always curious about which makes and models the great photographers used. We learn this from these entries in the timeline from the Unfinished World Exhibition:

1939 c. Is given a Detrola camera by his mother.

1948 Begins working with colour slide film. Works primarily with: Argus C3, Auto Granflex Junior, Leica and an early Rolleiflex.

1960-80 – Continues to do fashion photography which is published in Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Show, Vogue (UK), Queen and Nova. Photographs are also included in Life, US Camera, Photography Annual and Infinity. Travels to Mexico, France, Italy and Israel. Often uses a Leica M4 for commercial work in the 1970s and after; for street photography uses Leica CL, Minox 35EL and Canon A-1 and AE-1, among others.

2003 – Receives a grant of $10,000 from Olympus along with his first digital camera, an Olympus E-1. Proceeds to purchase many digital cameras including Leica and Lumix models.

By 2005 Leiter had taken his last shot on film, ending a sixty-year relationship and turned full time to digital photography, which he embraced with great enthusiasm.

Painting

Saul Leiter painted daily from his mid teens years until his death. In his formative years abstract expressionism was large and expansive, but Leiter’s paintings, which are most water-colours, are much smaller in scale. I found them interesting but they didn’t move me in the way his photography does.

His friend, the painter Franz Kline, once said to him: ‘If only you painted big, you’d be one of the boys.

Early Life

Saul Leiter (1923–2013) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, Leiter set out to become a Rabbi like his father but in 1946 he defied this family’s expectations and abandoned his studies. His interest in art led him to move to New York City in 1946, where he pursued painting and photography. His mother had given him a Detrola camera as a child, not knowing the instrument would help reshape his life

I got fed up with the whole religious world and all the preoccupations with purity and nobility and observance—I wanted to be free of those things.

In those formative years, eminent photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and abstract expressionist artist Richard Pousette-Dart (founder of the New York School of painting) encouraged Saul to pursue photography. It was through his friendship with Pousette-Dart that he recognised the creative potential of photography.

Fashion Photographer

His friends encouraged him to take up photography as a way to earn a living and he became a successful fashion photographer, with commissions for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Elle. Leiter’s fashion photography paralleled his personal work, imbued with his unique style – he photographed models soft-focused or behind glass.

I started out as a fashion photographer. One cannot say that I was successful but there was enough work to keep me busy. I collaborated with Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. I had work and I made a living. At the same time, I took my own photographs.

He preferred shooting in his home neighbourhood of New York’s East Village, where the vibrancy of the streets provided all he needed.

I take photographs in my neighbourhood. I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places. We don’t always need to run to the other end of the world.

Leiter never for self promotion or networking, and with little work and debts mounting in 1980s, he was forced to sell his Fifth Avenue studio. He continued his personal work from his East Village apartment, which he shared with artist Soames Bantry, his longtime partner who often sat for his photographs and paintings, and who died in 2002.

Recognition and The New York School

Although Edward Steichen exhibited some of Saul Leiter’s colour photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, for forty years afterwards they remained virtually unknown to the art world.

The concept of the ‘New York street photographer’ was born at the same time Leiter started working in the late-1940s. But Leiter wasn’t swept along by its momentum. He was not a conventional street photographer. He lacked the bleakness of Robert Frank or the knowing irony of William Klein which helped propel the popularity of their work and that label.

Saul Leiter may have faded entirely into obscurity if it weren’t for Richard Avedon, who, in 1992, recommended that his work should be included in the book The New York School: Photographs, 1936–1963. This led to other books and exhibitions.

Except for his inner circle, few saw Leiter’s personal colour work until towards the end of his life. Saul Leiter: Early Colour, a book of street photographs, was published to great acclaim in 2006 only a few years before his death in 2013. The instant success of Early Colour transformed Leiter’s life. His precarious finances improved with the increased print sales that followed the book.

The majority of his work, however was left unprinted, with tens of thousands of negatives and slides stored in boxes at his home.

Outlook

It strikes me that Saul Leiter’s outlook on life was deep but bright. He was introspective and contemplative but also cheerful. This is reflected in his photography, which often captures magic in the everyday. He saw what others didn’t and was upbeat where others weren’t. Though I never met the man, I feel an attachment to him that goes beyond his work.

It is not where it is or what it is that matters but how you see it

I see this world simply. It is a source of endless delight

A photographer’s gift to the viewer is sometimes beauty in the overlooked ordinary

 Photography is about finding things. And painting is different, it’s about making something

Afterword

While I am a photographer who works mainly in black and white I do use colour occasionally. If I am going to produce a colour image I prefer to use film and I have a great affection for the tones of Kodak Portra. Since the light of my encounter with Saul Leiter and his artistry I intend to review my colour work and see where that takes me.

When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism

What is Pictorialism?
Waterloo Place by Leonard Misonne (1899)

There is something magical to me about  pictorialist photography, particularly urban pictorialism, as shown here in Leonard Misonne’s accomplished example from 1899.  In addition to having the skill to take photographs with the cumbersome and slow equipment of the time, the pictorialist’s vision was realised through a complex end-to-end process that required yet more skill and talent. They had to be skilled in dark room manipulation, often made their own emulsions and embraced alternative printing methods.  Some even made their own paper.  So, there is much to admire about these photographers, but what exactly is pictorialism?

Summary – Pictorialism in 100 words

Pictorialism emerged in the late 19th century, driven by photographers’ desire to reinvent the medium of photography as an art form, emphasising beauty, tonality, and composition to elevate photography to the same level as painting. The Pictorialists used soft-focus, experimental techniques and processes, artisan chemicals and special papers to create their atmospheric images and increase their artistic impact. The movement was most active between 1885 and 1915. It waned with the rise of straight photography, which valued sharpness and documentary precision, but set the stage for future artistic photography and innovation in the field of photography.

But is it Art?

To explore the much asked question ‘what is pictorialism?’  we need to ask a more fundamental question that is central to the movement and its development.  That is, ‘is photography art’?

From its inception, when it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph there had been a debate about the nature of photography.   Was this new invention only capable of reproduction or could it transcend its machine origins and produce art?

In the early years of its development, photography was sometimes looked down upon as purely mechanical, but as early as 1853 the English miniaturist Sir William John Newton was championing the cause of photography as art.  Newton also suggested that photographers could make their pictures more like works of art by throwing the subject slightly out of focus and using retouching techniques.

Influences

Hill and Adamson

Photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had a strong influence on the development of Pictorialism. The partnership was formed in Edinburgh in July 1843, just four years after the invention of photography was announced. In the four years that followed they produced an extraordinary body of work that included portraits, landscapes and social documentary using the Calotype process.

The strong sunlight needed to produce a successful calotype meant that Hill & Adamson were required to work outdoors and one of their most important achievements was the portrayal of The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth, shot at Newhaven, a  small fishing village on the outskirts of Edinburgh.  The portraits are considered to be the first social documentary photographs and were compared by some critics of the time to those of Rembrandt.  Alfred Stieglitz would later describe Hill as “the father of pictorial photography” and would featured the duo’s photographs in his publications  and the galleries of the Photo-Secession.

Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron was also an important pictorialist influence whose pictures would be championed by Stieglitz in CameraWork (volume 41, 1913). Cameron’s photographs had a romantic and expressionist style and often used slightly blurred focus.  She considered her pictures art well before the pictorialist movement got underway and took inspiration from artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo.

When Cameron received the gift of a camera in December 1863 her husband was in Ceylon attending to the family’s coffee plantations, and her children were no longer at home. Photography became her focus and a link to the writers, artists, and scientists of her well-connected circle. Although she took up photography as an amateur with no knowledge and she worked at it with great energy and once she had developed her technique started to vigorously copyright, exhibit, publish, and market her work.  She developed close links to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).  IT was home to her first  exhibition in 1865 and home to her portrait studio in 1868.

Cameron was an outstanding portraitist, producing brooding head and shoulders shots of the famous men of her acquaintance including English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson and mathematician, scientist and photography pioneer Sir John Herschel.  Her work also consisted of theatrical tableaux from myth, the Bible, Shakespeare, and  the works of Coleridge and Tennyson.  Today, she is considered one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century.

Oscar Gustav Rejlander

Oscar Gustav Rejlander was one of the fathers of art photography, and a pioneer of photomontage.  Originally a painter, he rejected the contemporary view of photography as a scientific or technical medium and made photographs that imitated painting, inspired by the Old Masters.

It was a visit to Rome in 1852 that was the catalyst for his interest in photography. Shortly after his return, Rejlander took photography lessons with Nicolaas Henneman, previously an assistant of William Henry Fox Talbot, after which he adapted his artist’s studio in Wolverhampton for photography.  In 1857 Rejlander produced his masterpiece, a 31-by-16-inch image, by joining 30 negatives together. The Two Ways of Life was both technically ambitious and controversial, depicting an elaborate and moralising allegory of the choice between vice and virtue.  Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, using more than thirty negatives.  These were then combined into a single large print which demonstrated the aesthetic possibilities of photography.

The picture caused a sensation initially but became the lead example in a polarised public debate on art, photography and whether combining images was acceptable.

Lady Clementia Hawarden

Rejlander admired the work of another photographic pioneer, Lady Clementina Hawarden, whose work is sometimes compared to Julia Margaret Cameron’s, though to my mind it is very different.  Rejlander observed that ‘she aimed at elegant and if possible, idealised truth’.

As a Victorian woman, coming to photography in the late 1850s, Hawarden’s work was confined to her first-floor studio in her elegant Kensington home.  Her images pushed the boundaries of art and photography using a careful selection of props, clothing, and model poses using her daughters as her subjects were her daughters.  Their likenesses in her work were often reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite artists.

Hawarden’s photographs demonstrated technical excellence as well as innovation and she became an expert in indoor photography.  This expertise was recognised by two silver medals the Photographic Society of London.

Peach Robertson’s Pictorial Effect

Rejlander’s work also inspired Henry Peach Robinson, a British photographer who, like Rejlander, had previously trained as an artist.  He achieved fame with his five-negative print of 1859, Fading Away, depicting a young consumptive dying in her bed surrounded by her family.  Like Rejlander’s work, the tableau caused controversy due to the photograph’s artificial technique and morbid subject matter, with critics questioning whether a single picture from multiple negatives made photography untruthful.

Robinson, a member of the Photographic Society, published his manifesto Pictorial Effect in Photography in 1869.  The work, which gave the movement its name, included compositional formulas taken from a handbook on painting and made the case that rules created for one art form could apply to another.

Emerson and Naturalistic Photography

In the 1880s the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson proposed an alternative artistic vision for photography. He was a dedicated student of the arts, influenced and inspired by the naturalist school of painters, which included Jean-François Millet.  Millet’s rendered his landscapes and peasant scenes in low tones and with a softened atmosphere, but they were realistic enough for him to periodically face the charge of being a socialist.

Emerson’s vision was that photographs should reflect nature and be produced without artificial means. He believed that the tone, texture, and light of the scene were enough to make photography an art form.  This point of view became known as naturalistic photography after the publication of his treatise Naturalistic Photography in 1889, in which he outlined a system of aesthetics.  This treatise insisted that photography should show real people in their own environment, and avoid costumes, posed models  or backdrops.

Improvements in Technology

Emerson embraced the photogravure process which was refined by Karl Klíc, a painter living in Vienna, who patented an improvement on William Henry Fox Talbot’s earlier process.  The Talbot-Klíc process allowed for deeper etched shadows and the transfer of the negative image to a copper plate using gelatin-coated carbon paper.  It was published in 1886.

Pictorialist Steichen
Wind, Fire, Therese Duncan on the Acropolis, Athens by Edward Steichen (1921)

In 1888, the introduction of the point-and-shoot Kodak camera, together with printing as a service, greatly accelerated the popularisation of photography.  This only intensified the public debate about the role of the medium, which reached its peak by the end of the century.

You can read more about the development of photography in the articles From Chemistry to Computation or The Timeline of Early Photography.

As photography became popular serious amateurs, many inspired by Emerson’s ideas and images, began to explore the medium’s expressive potential.  This resulted in the first truly international photographic movement – The Pictorialism Movement.  The movement represented a shift of focus from Emerson’s Naturalism to the broader expression of photographers as artists.

What is Pictorialism?

The pictorialist photographers produced pictures that were the polar opposite of the output of point-and shoot.  They used soft focus techniques, a  range of darkroom techniques and alternative printing processes to produce beautifully rendered, skilfully composed, highly picturesque, atmospheric and often otherworldly images.  These were hand printed (usually on hand-coated artist papers) using artisan emulsions and pigments, making the production of an image much closer to the creation of a painting.

The movement sometimes goes under other names including “art photography”, “Impressionist photography”, “new vision, and “subjective photography.

Pictorialism was closely linked to influential artistic movements such as Tonalism and Impressionism, and the Pictorialists took inspiration from popular art, adopting its styles and ideas to demonstrate that photography was an artistic process.

The emergence of Pictorialism was also the product of the meeting of photography and art in practical terms.  Artists started to use photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings later, whilst some Pictorialists had been trained as painters.

No Accepted Definition

There is no accepted definition of Pictorialism.  The Britannica definition is “an approach to photography that emphasizes beauty of subject matter, tonality, and composition rather than the documentation of reality.”  This is helpful, though in addition to an approach it is also variously defined as a style, particularly of fine art photography, and as an aesthetic or international movement, including an art movement.   The Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago captures much of this in this description:

“The international movement known as Pictorialism represented both a photographic aesthetic and a set of principles about photography’s role as art. Pictorialists believed that photography should be understood as a vehicle for personal expression on par with the other fine arts. Responding to both the new Kodak camera “snapshooters” and formulaic commercial photographers, the Pictorialists proudly defined themselves as true amateurs—those who pursued photography out of a love for the art.”

Understanding Pictorialism

To understand Pictorialism it’s worth reviewing what Pictorialist pictures have in common.  Landscape photographer Sandy King (who still works with 19th century hand made photographic processes) offers an excellent description of its characteristics:

  • Only images which show the personality of the maker, generally through hand manipulation, can be considered works of art
  • An interest in the effect and patterns of natural lighting in the outdoor landscape
  • An impressionistic rendering of the scene, in which overall effect is more important than detail
  • The use of symbolism or allegory to reveal a message
  • The use of alternative printing processes: carbon and carbro, gum bichromate, oil and bromoil, direct carbon, and platinum.

A review of the techniques Pictorialists used to convert the camera into something closer to a paint brush is also enlightening.  These included dark room manipulation; the combining of multiple negatives; the use of artisan emulsions; alternative printing methods using gum bichromate and gum bromoil; the use of paint brushes and hand made paper.  In addition to giving the pictures their unique look, these techniques also ensured that no two prints looked identical, even if they came from the same negative.

Who were the Pictorialists?

Some of the most notable Pictorialists are Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946); Edward Steichen (1879-1973); Edward Weston (1886-1958); Paul Strand (1890-1976);  Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79); Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901); Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936); Robert Demachy. (1859-1936);  Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943); Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) and Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934).

You can find is a more comprehensive list of Pictorialist Photographers at the A-Z of Pictorialist Photographers on this site.

Women Pictorialists

As the A-Z list shows, many prominent Pictorialist photographers were women at a time when photography was largely male dominated. Female practitioners included Anne Brigman; Alice Boughton ; Julia Margaret Cameron; Imogen Cunningham; Mary Devens; Gertrude Käsebier; Adelaide Marquand Hanscom Leeson; Emily H. Pitchford; Sarah Choate Sears; Eva Watson-Schütze.

Pictorialist Clubs and Organisations

These photographers, who considered themselves artists, formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, The Royal Photographic Society, The Photo-Club of Paris and The Trifolium of Austria all of which promoted photography as fine art.  As part of the advocacy for the expressive power of the photograph these clubs and organisations produced lavish journals and exhibition catalogues featuring beautiful hand-made photogravures.

The Photo Secession

In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession, a society with the stated aim of seceding from the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph.  It was inspired by art movements in Europe, such as the Linked Ring.  Stieglitz described the aim of Photo-Secession as “to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavour to compel its recognition, not as the handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.”  He described its attitude as “one of rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely of exhibition authorities”.   The “membership” of the Photo-Secession was largely set by Stieglitz’s predilections.  The core members were Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Frank Eugene, F. Holland Day, and later Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The Photo-Secession actively promoted its pictorialist ideas through the influential quarterly Camera Work and the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (also known as the 291) which provided a place for the members to exhibit their work. Painter and photographer Edward Steichen and other notable artists were instrumental in developing the program of exhibitions at the gallery, which featured exhibitions by important European artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso that would influence artists across media around the world.

By 1910 Photo-Secession had become divided over the degree of manipulation of negatives and prints that was appropriate and divided.  In 1916 Käsebier, White, Coburn and others formed the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA) to continue promotion of the pictorialism. A year later Stieglitz formally dissolved the Photo-Secession, although it had not been active for some time.

The Decline of Pictorialism

The heyday of Pictorialism was from the 1880s to 1915.  Unsurprisingly for such a romantic movement it lost momentum after the World War I and was a spent force by the end of World War II.  It was superseded by the sharp focus of Modernism in Europe and the West Coast or Straight photography movement in the USA, the greatest exponents of which were Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Later Pictorialists and Neo Pictorialism

Pictorialism had all but disappeared by the 1920s, but some photographers persisted with it. Adolf Fassbender, for example, kept making pictorial photographs into the late 1960s.  In the 1990s the label neo-pictorialist was applied to some photographers influenced by the original movement.  An article in Vice describes the emergence of neo-pictorialism well:

“A century after the fight for legitimacy, photography is now cycling back to its beginnings with a rise in traditional and alternative processes through companies such as the Impossible Project and Lomography seeking to reclaim analogue photography and leave behind the freneticism and immediate gratification of a digital photograph—much in the same way that Pictorialists sought to slow down the photography of their time with an eye to the myriad possibilities of the medium.”

Photography as Art

The ideas of Newton, Rejlander, Robinson, and Emerson’s were not the same, but they were all pioneers for photography to be considered a legitimate art form.  This is a question that rarely crops up today, but for those who wish to ponder it I’ll take a proof point from many possible options.  In 2011 a grey image of the Rhine by German artist Andreas Gursky sold for $4.3m (£2.7m) at auction, setting a new record at the time.  The grey and featureless landscape was described by the artist as an allegorical picture about the meaning of life.  That sounds like art to me.

More About Early Photography

If you are interested in the history of photography, you might also might these articles interesting:

Revision History

This article was originally written in September 2015 and was thoroughly updated and revised in March 2024.

The Leica M3 – Great Film Cameras

When I went back to film in 2016, it was with an SLR, the Nikon F3, and the idea of shooting with a rangefinder had never occurred to me. During lockdown, I became curious about other kinds of cameras and acquired a couple of inexpensive rangefinders: an Agfa Optima 1535 and a Yashica Electro 35 GSN. Enjoying the rangefinder experience (albeit a highly simplified one) and getting some decent results from these very inexpensive cameras, I decided that I needed a proper rangefinder and found myself a Leica M3. It was made in 1962 but still looked brand new.

1962 Leica M3 with 50mm Elmar. The winding crank is an aftermarket addition.

Genesis of the M3

By the time the M3 was launched in 1954, Ernst Leitz GmbH of Wetzlar, Germany had already provided the photographic industry with two defining moments in the history of photography. The Leica I of 1925 had created the new ‘miniature’ 35 mm format and in 1930 the Leica II introduced interchangeable lenses and a built in rangefinder.

M is for Messucher

The ‘M’ in M3 comes from “Messsucher” the German word for “measuring viewfinder/rangefinder” which was the M3’s main feature: a ‘high-magnification’ (0.91x) single viewfinder/rangefinder eyepiece which placed the rangefinder focusing patch inside the viewfinder. Previous generations of Leicas, known as screw-mount or ‘Barnack’ Leicas, had separate eyepieces for focusing and framing.

I put ‘high magnification’ in quotes because there is no actual magnification, but the M3 is as close to 1:1 as you can get in the world of Leica rangefinders, where negative magnification is the norm. This is not the case with all manufacturers. Nikon’s rangefinders of the 1950s, such as the S2, for example, did offer 100% magnification.

3 Lenses

The ‘3’ in ‘M3’ referred to three sets of frame lines seen through its single bright viewfinder window, for three lenses: 50mm, 90mm and 135mm. These were automatically corrected for parallax.

Most of the M3’s features were not new, but like the Nikon F SLR of 1959, the Leica M3 combined a number of existing innovations in a superbly engineered package. The 1930s saw a great deal of innovation and saw the introduction of the newly standardised 135 film cartridge (Kodak Retina I, 1935) and affordable rangefinders (Argus C3, 1936). Many of the features that were improved (or in some cases perfected) in the Leica M3 came to market during this decade:

  • The Zeiss-Ikon Contax I rangefinder offered a bayonet lens mount in 1932
  • The Kine Exakta, the world’s first popular 35mm SLR had a film winder in 1936, though it was not the first model to introduce this.
  • The Contax II offered a combined range/viewfinder in 1936
  • Automatic parallax compensation arrived with the scale-focusing Minox of 1937

The World’s Best Rangefinder?

The Post Mill at Brill, shot with Leica M3 using a red filter

However, the Leica M3 was the first camera to feature true projected parallax-compensating frame lines for its 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. Even better, the right frame automatically appears in the viewfinder as the photographer mounts a lens of the corresponding focal length. This is known as auto indexing. Handily, the effect of using other lenses can be previewed using the manual frame selector lever located below the front finder window.

The M3 uses a horizontal cloth focal-plane shutter with a maximum speed of 1/1000 second and a maximum flash sync of 1/50. It is extremely quiet – nearly as quiet as a leaf shutter.

To describe the M3 just by its features doesn’t do it justice. It feels like so solid, with its top and bottom plates of chrome-plated brass, that its hard to image it has any component parts. One reviewer suggested the M3 should have its own element on the periodic table! To this day it is regarded by many as the finest rangefinder ever built. To some, it’s the finest camera, ever. Even today, in terms of design excellence and manufacturing quality it is astonishingly good,

Impact and Notable Users

For the professional or enthusiastic amateur photographer of the 1950s, the M3 offered the brightest and clearest view in the combined viewfinder/rangefinder, the best lenses available, a bayonet lens mount for quick lens changes, and a film advance lever for faster shooting. All this in a package weighing a little over 600g! This came at a price as the M3 cost about 50% more than the already expensive Leica III, but Ernst Leitz spared no expense in making the M3.

The reception of the Leica M3 was exceptionally positive, with photographers praising its build quality, reliability, and optical performance. It quickly became the camera of choice for many of the era’s leading photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, and David Douglas Duncan.

Variants

The Leica M3 was launched as a ‘double stroke’ (DS) model and updated to a ‘single stroke’ (SS) model in 1958. As this was the first lever wind-on model, Leitz was concerned about stressing the film and breaking it, so it split the winding into “double strokes.” This turned out to be unfounded. Mine is a later SS model, and I see no reason to prefer a DS, though some users consider the original mechanism superior.

Shooting Experience

Loading and Unloading

Horse at the ruins of Hampton Gay, shot with Leica M3

After the magnificent feel of the Leica M3, the loading experience is less impressive, as loading is a little slower than most 35mm models I have used. Leitz kept bottom loading from the Barnack era but with improvements. These included the addition of removable take-up spool to make the process of attaching the film leader easier by allowing it to be threaded outside the camera, and the addition of a rear door flap. When lifted, this flap provided enough access to ensure the film is correctly positioned over the sprockets and the pressure plate.

The rewind knob was also preserved, so there is no crank. To rewind the film, you move the lever on the front of the camera to ‘R’ (reverse), lift the knob out from the central advance indicator, and twist until the knob eventually resists. This is quite a slow process. I put an aftermarket crank on mine, which speeds up the rewind and doesn’t look too bad on the camera.

Through the Looking Glass

However, things improve significantly once that is over the way and you peering through that bright, clear uncluttered viewfinder. The frame lines on the M3 are limited to three and display one at a time – which is great. Newer Leicas have six and appear in pairs. The M3 is best suited to a classic 50mm lens and that’s what I use most.

Before I got an M6 TTL with 0.58X magnification and 28mm framelines I configured the M3 with an external viewfinder and it delivered good results. There are also 35mm ‘Goggles’ available, which I haven’t tried, but apparently you lose some of that magic viewfinder brightness.

Focusing, including critical focusing, is also much easier on the M3 than any other rangefinder I have used, including later Leicas like the M6 TTL. I’ve never had a blurred shot yet, which is definitely not the case with the other elderly rangefinders I’ve used.

Leica Lenses

The M3’s Elmar 50mm

Leica lenses are fabulous. My 1962 M3 came with a period-correct collapsible Elmar 50mm f2.8, which is the successor to the original Leica f/3.5 50mm Elmar of 1925-1961.

The Elmar was superseded by 50mm Summicron, Summilux, and Noctilux lenses in the 1970s.  By that time Leitz had sold just over half a million lenses, so there are plenty about. The tiny Elmar is finished in chrome. It is an excellent lens and looks great on the M3.

Summicron f2 50mm

I have also have a lightly faster f2 50mm Summicron-M in the form of the Type IV (11819) made from 1979-1993, which has a 39mm filter thread and a separate metal vented hood. It is very compact and astonishingly good. It is easy to recognise by its tapering, almost conical shape.

Leica M3
Summicron-M 50mm Type IV

The latest generation of this lens (APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0) has a much higher specification, which offers better correction of colour and aspherical aberrations, a floating lens element and built in lens hood. This version is much more costly at £7,200 at the time of writing, vs £1200-1500 for the 11819.

In addition to the finest optical performance Leica lenses are accompanied by what many refer to as the ‘Leica look’ – as described in this Art Photo Academy article.

What makes Leica lenses so different is their exceptionally high micro-contrast, i.e., an ability to register a nearly full variety of tonal variations between slightly darker and slightly brighter areas of very similar colours. It is the high micro contrast that is responsible for rich colours and smooth tonal transitions that all amount to the three-dimensional “feel”.

I have observed that phenomenon with Leicas, both with the digital Q2, and on film with the M3 and M6 TTL: some shots do have a noticeably more three-dimensional look than I see with pictures taken on other cameras.

Leica M3
Leica M3 with 50mm Summicron on Deal Beach

Adding a Light Meter

Though using the Sunny 16 rule is straightforward enough, and black and white film is very forgiving, I always have a light meter to hand in the form of the iPhone app myLightmeter Pro. Some photographers seem to regard the use of a light meter as a weakness, but that’s not my point of view. I usually estimate the light, take a meter reading and then set the shutter and aperture – it’s interesting to see how often you and the meter agree, and it helps develops your estimation skills. Also, given the M3 allows the shutter speed to be set between the marked speeds, a light meter reading can be beneficial in making the best use of the ‘in-between speeds’ as a form of exposure compensation. That’s a bit of a stretch for Sunny 16…

An accessory shoe-mounted external light meter is another option. I’ve used the Voigtlander VC Meter II, which uses ‘over and under’ LED exposure arrows controlled by aperture and shutter speed dials. There are other options, too. The DOOMO Meter D looks similar but has plus and minus LEDs, and their Meter S offers an OLED display screen. HEDECO also offer an OLED model, the Lime Two.

Adding a 28mm Lens and Viewfinder

1962 Leica M3 with 28mm Elmarit, external light meter and viewfinder

For landscape photography, the 50mm sometimes isn’t wide enough, so I added a Voigtlander external viewfinder and a 28mm Elmarit-M f2.8 lens. I picked up the E46 filter thread version (11809), which is the last non-aspherical (ASPH) version and has a plastic hood which blocks a little of the viewfinder. This is an excellent lens, with low distortion. It is small and light and less costly than either later versions ,though they are even smaller and take the E39 filter thread which isn’t visible through the viewfinder.

To use the Elmarit-M with the external light meter and 28mm viewfinder required the use of a one-to-two slot adaptor – I found one made by Voigtlander. The clean lines of the M3 were utterly compromised by the resulting Frankenstein’s monster, but it works perfectly well.

Close Focusing

One downside to rangefinders, which I have to say hasn’t affected me at all, is their design is not suited to close focusing – close up they get their beams crossed. Most M mount cameras focus down to 0.7m with the M3 needing a little more runway at 1m.

Leica M3
The ruins of Hampton Gay Manor House, shot with the Leica M3

The Successor, M4

Leitz shipped more M3s than any other M film camera, with over 220,000 units sold by the time production of the M3 model ended in 1966. Its successor model was the M4, which sold just 58,000 units. This was due to the declining market share of rangefinders and the rise of SLRs. It was not due to any deficiency in the M4, which offered several enhancements over the M3. These include an angled rewind lever, a self-resetting film counter and frame lines for 35, 50, 90 and 135mm lenses.

The M3 was the high watermark of rangefinders. Historically, that is certain. If we are speaking of models that is more open to debate but it still provides a very special photographic experience and exceptional results.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with shooting a Leica M3, I’d love to hear from you – please leave me a comment below. You might also find the following articles on this site interesting:

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

The Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie was introduced in 1904 as part of the the Folding Brownie series. This was Kodak’s least expensive folding roll film camera range with a more basic specification than their Kodak branded counterparts. The smaller B ‘Folding Pocket Brownie Model B’ was launched in 1907. Both models took 120 roll film.

Kodak No 2 Pocket folding brownie
Brill Windmill, shot with the The No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

If you are looking to obtain one, you should ensure that you don’t confuse either model with the 1910 No 2A Folding Pocket Brownie that took 116 film, which is no longer available. I have read that you can use 120 film in 116 cameras with an adaptor. This will apparently produce six very large (11 x 6 cm) images!

Like my No 2 Kodak Autographic Folding Brownie, I bought this folding pocket Brownie at a camera fair hosted by ImageX in Bicester, Oxfordshire. It came in its original cardboard box and was in excellent condition, the only sign of usage being on the handle. The red bellows look just like new.

When I opened the camera up I was delighted to find an original sticker inside. This was the original purchase sticker from Boots the Cash Chemist, showing a price of one pound one shilling, which had been there since purchase in 1911!

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
1911 price tag inside the camera

I paid rather more than that, but it was a very fair price for such a good example. Looking online afterwards I found a less well preserved model for just under £20.

Folding Cameras

Folding cameras originated in the 1850s, replacing the 1840s sliding-box design. The lens and shutter are attached to a lens-board which is connected to the body of the camera by light-tight folding bellows. When the camera is fully unfolded it provides the correct focus distance from the film.

Folding cameras dominated camera design until the 1930s and remained significant into the late 1940s. The design persisted into the 1970s in specialized cameras such as the Polaroid SX-70 Instant film camera, and the Speed Graphic press cameras. See the article Early Cameras, a Timeline on this site for more on early camera design.

Kodak’s Folding Cameras

Kodak produced numerous folding models from the 1890’s until the 1960s. The first was the Folding Pocket Kodak which was introduced in 1897.  The last was the Kodak 66, Kodak’s only post-war folder for 120 film rolls, which was manufactured in the UK between 1958 & 1960.

The Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
The No. 2 Pocket Brownie on Deal Pier. Gimbal head not required!

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie is a horizontal format folding camera.  Like larger large format models, the lens standard is pulled out on a track fixed to the wooden baseboard, which is fitted with a small focusing scale, which locks. It has an attractive set of red bellows (black after 1911) that can be set to three focusing positions: 100, 20, 8 feet.

The rectangular metal body has a leatherette covering a hinged back and two tripod sockets. There is a small ‘Brilliant’ finder fixed to the left side of the baseboard. A brilliant finder uses a combination of lenses and prisms to provide a bright image for composing the image. The finder on this model can be rotated through 90 degrees to allow the camera to be used in either portrait or landscape orientation.

The No 2 Folding Brownie uses a meniscus achromatic lens, the story of the which is the same design as The First Camera Lens, which is a subject of another article on this site. It uses the either the Pocket or Brownie automatic shutter.

Folding Brownie Vs Folding Pocket Brownie

The original No 2 Folding Brownie original had a wooden lens board and had a sliding latch on the back which was apparently unreliable. The Model B Pocket version abandoned the sliding latch and replaced them with had a pair of concealed buttons under the leatherette. The model name is printed inside the camera back and is also embossed into the handle on the top face. It is about 20% smaller than its predecessor.

Camera Controls

All the controls except the film wind on key are located on the lens barrel. The shutter (marked A on the diagram below) has five-blades and settings for I (Instant), B (Bulb) and T (Timed). The Instant setting was originally approximately 1/45 of a second, but likely to be slower in action. The shutter (C) is tripped from a small lever also on the lens barrel.

A typical Kodak control layout of the time

The aperture settings (marked B on the diagram) are marked 1-4. This refers to a simple numbering system used on simple Kodak cameras. This system can be confused with the U.S. Universal Scale System, (also called the “Uniform Scale System”) found on many pre-1920 cameras.   See the short article on Aperture Scales on this site for more on this.

According to About Lenses published by Kodak in 1922, the aperture settings for cameras with Meniscus Achromatic lenses are No.1 (f 11), No. 2 (f 16), No. 3 (f 16), No. 4 (f 22).

The film is advanced by a key which is marked with an arrow to indicate the correct direction. The frame number can be seen in a small circular red window on the back of the camera. The camera takes 8 exposures of 6 x 7 cm images on No. 120 film.

The No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie in Use

As usual with very old cameras, I kept my expectations from camera under control, but I didn’t experience any of the light leaks and the camera operated as expected.

A handheld shot of Deal sea front from the pier. Tripod required, but nice tone with ISO 25 film.

One film was shot handheld and one with a tripod. The tripod head I had with me was of the gimbal type, which limited me to shooting in portrait mode, but provided a lot of weight and so felt really solid. The handheld shots were all extremely blurred, so I suspect the shutter speed is well below its original 1/45 of a second. Based on the results I estimate it is now at about 1/15 of a second.

Opening and Loading the Camera

The camera is easy to open – you just press on the concealed buttons at rear upper corner of each side of the camera.  The back of the camera will open and drops down. At each end of the interior of the camera you can see a recess for holding the film spools.   Loading is also simple. To load the film you just need to pull up the axis pins, insert the loaded film and draw the film to the takeup spool. Remember to have the black side of the film facing the front and wind on using the key until the vertical arrow appears on the film spool. Close the camera and wind on until number 1 becomes visible in the red window on the rear of the camera.

Avoiding Film Fogging

I never load film in direct sunlight but you don’t need to work in complete darkness – subdued light is sufficient.

You might consider taping up the the red frame counter window on the back of the camera, whilst it is not in use. This helps prevent unwanted light getting into the camera and provides similar functionality to later frame counter windows that had covers to prevent light leaks and were only opened whilst the photographer was advancing the film.

Early film had low sensitivity to red light so a combination of the backing paper on the film, plus the red window, prevented film fogging. If you use Orthochromatic film (which is still available) this precaution is unnecessary as it is less sensitive to red light.

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
The Pocket Kodak on Deal Pier, mounted on a tripod with the frame counter taped up.

Framing and Focusing

Framing relies on the tiny (1.5 cm x 1.5 cm) ‘Brilliant’ finder mounted above the lens.  This creates a tiny representation of approximately what the camera is pointing at.  Peering down into this minute square of glass you will see a laterally reversed image.  

Focus is basic ‘scale focusing’ and is set via a notched scale on baseboard.  This has three pre-set distances that engage with a small catch, that is slightly fiddly to operate, though you probably won’t use it very much.  I mainly use the most distant of these (100 feet). 

Setting an Exposure

Given how forgiving black and white film is in terms of exposure latitude, I didn’t found it difficult to get an acceptable exposure. In any event the controls available to set an exposure are minimal. Set the to shutter to I (Instant) and the aperture to 1 or 2 and trip the shutter.

Choosing the right film

Kodak produced a large number of different roll film formats with a variety of different negative sizes. 120 (or No. 2 film as it was originally called, as per the name of this camera) is the only one still being manufactured.   This is used extensively by medium format photographers, and readily available.  The Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie model produces 8 exposures measuring 6 x 9 cm, which are the largest that can be obtained with a 120 film camera.

Film Speed

Modern 120 film is very different to what was available in 1911, so is difficult to compare sensitivity accurately as these old films had different emulsions. Early twentieth century photographers had several measures of sensitivity available to them (such as H&D) but ISO was not one of them.

The ISO film speed system, or ISO speed, was standardised in 1987 by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO)unified the various film speed rating systems that existed before, such as ASA (American Standards Association) and DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung, the German standard).

I’ve seen accounts of an equivalent ISO range of 5-25 for Orthochromatic films, which were less sensitive to red light, and ISO 10-50 for Panchromatic Films. Both of these estimates are for the second decade of the twentieth century. The closest currently available Rollei Ortho 25 (which I used), but I found 100 worked fine, though the Rollei Ortho produced the best results.

Kodak No. 2 Folding Brownie
Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie with immaculate red belllows.

Pros and Cons of the Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie

Pros

  • Easy to load and unload
  • Simple to use
  • Light and portable

Cons

  • Only one ‘instant’ shutter speed
  • Slow shutter makes a tripod essential
  • Fiddly scale focusing control

Further Reading and Getting in Touch

If you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on

If you’ve any experience with the Kodak No 2 Folding Pocket Brownie, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

The Nikon FE SLR

The Nikon FE flew under my Nikon radar for many years. I regularly shoot with the FM3a, F3 and F6, and I’ve had a FM2/n in my collection for some years, but somehow I remained completely unaware of the FE. I am not sure why! When a very clean FM came up at a camera fair hosted by ImageX I examined it and saw from the serial number that it was wasn’t an FM at all – It was a Nikon FE. What exactly that meant was a mystery to me, but a few rolls of film and some reading later, I have got to grips with it.

The Nikon FE and FM – Major Differences

The Nikon FE is a semi-professional SLR model, manufactured from 1978 to 1983. The exterior is very similar to the Nikon FM introduced in 1977 but the internals are electronic. Neither camera features a model number on the front so they are easy to confuse.

Nikon FE
Nikon FE with 50mm f1.8 AI-s pancake lens

Whilst they look alike, the FE and FM are quite different in two important respects and a few details. The Nikon FE has an electronic shutter and offers aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure mode. The centre weighted light meter makes use of needle matching in the viewfinder. The FM is all-mechanical (except for the light meter) and uses a “centre-the-LED” system.

In other words, the Nikon FE is essentially a Nikon FM with an added electronic shutter and aperture-priority mode. This is reflected in Nikon’s Product Timeline which describes the FE as “a sister model of the Nikon FM (1977) with Aperture-Priority Auto [A] mode.”

I am familiar with both metering systems from the FM3a (needle matching) and FM2/n (LEDs). My preference is for prefer needle matching over the LEDs (except in low light) and I usually shoot in full manual. The system is so easy and intuitive I don’t need auto mode. It really is a just personal preference, however. Plenty of photographers find the LEDs simpler and less distracting, and they are certainly easier to read in low light.

FE vs FM – The Details

There are a few other differences between the two models:

  • Viewfinder Screen The FE has an interchangeable viewfinder screen, though the choice of replacements is limited to two (Types B and E, K comes as standard).
  • Battery Check Indicator The FE has a dedicated battery indicator LED on the back of the camera. The FM’s light meter LEDs stay on.
  • Mechanical Shutter Speeds The FE has two mechanical shutter speeds, 1/90 and B. The FM’s speeds are all mechanical.
  • Auto Exposure Lock The FE has an AE lock lever. The FM does not offer this feature.
  • Slowest Manual Speed The FE’s slowest manual speed is 8 seconds, compared to the FM’s 1 second.
  • Exposure Compensation The FE, offering an automatic setting, offers exposure compensation, although the combined ISO/Exposure compensation is quite fiddly and there’s no indication in the finder that it is active. The FM, being manual, does not offer compensation – all adjustment is manual.
  • Weight Nikon specifies 590g for the FE and 540g for the FM, making the FE slightly heavier.
  • Serial Numbers FE serial numbers begin with 3000001 (prefixed by FE), FM serial numbers begin with 2100001 or 2100020 (prefixed by FM).
Nikon FE
Deal beach shot with the Nikon FE (Ilford XP2 400)

The Semi Professional Series

The similarities between the two models are unsurprising as the FE followed the FM in a series of small, semi-professional SLRs: the FM, FM2, FE, FE2, FA, FM3A. All these models shared the same rugged, copper-aluminium alloy (duralumin) internal chassis and general design ethos. An at-a-glance comparison of the FE and FM cameras is shown in the table below:

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalBoth
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
FE and FM camera series (excluding Cosina manufactured FE10 and FM10)

Why the Nikon FE was Important

The Nikon FE was important to Nikon for two reasons. Firstly, the electronic Nikon F3 professional camera was already in the works and pro acceptance of electronic shutters was essential. These new shutters and the battery dependence they created were a major cause for concern for conservative pros. The Nikon FE had a popular reception and the positive press coverage it generated helped to overcome the negative sentiment towards electronic shutters that was current at the time.

Secondly, Nikon needed a competitive offering in the amateur/enthusiast market. At that time the market was shifting away from heavy mechanical camera bodies to more compact bodies with microprocessor electronic automation. Nikon a needed a camera to compete in that fast growing market segment. The Nikon FE’s electronic shutter allowed it to include automatic aperture priority and enabled Nikon to introduce it as a replacement for the older Nikkormat EL and Nikon EL series.

Oxford, shot with the Nikon FE (Ilford XP2 400)

Shooting with the Nikon FE

Batteries are ready available. You can use a pair of button alkaline LR44s or a single lithium Duracell 1/3N. I chose the later option.

Loading film is straightforward. Once you have slid the safety lock towards the rear of the camera you can lift the film rewind knob.  Raising the rewind knob completely pops the back of the camera back open. Load the film ensuring the perforations along the edges of the film mesh with the sprockets. When the film is engaged with the spool, press the camera back until it until it snaps into place.

The ISO film speed setting control is on the same ring as the exposure compensation control, on the right of the top plate. You depress the button to the right of the dial to set ISO and lift the ring to set the film speed. It works fine once you are used to it.

Looking through the viewfinder, the aperture you have selected is displayed in a small window to the top of the frame. This is the Nikon Aperture Direct Readout system. To the left there is a shutter scale that displays both the selected shutter speed and a light meter readout via a pair of needles. The longer, thinner black needle is connected to the light meter. In auto-mode this needle indicates which shutter speed will be used, whilst the thicker, shorter green needle is set it A.

In manual mode the green needle is set by the shutter speed dial and needs to be matched to the light meter reading shown by the other needle. You can adjust either the aperture or shutter speed to obtain a match. It’s a great system and in good lighting, I prefer it to the LED system of the F3 and FM2n. With needle matching I almost never use aperture priority as full manual seems so intutive.

The Next Generation

Nikon updated their compact SLR range with the release of the Nikon FM2 in 1982. The new model featured a much faster titanium shutter (1/4000th of a second vs the FM’s and FE’s 1/1000th), an enhanced light meter and an increased flash sync speed.

In 1983, Nikon introduced the Nikon FE2 with an improved shutter (same maximum speed but reduced shutter travel time) and improved damping. The following year Nikon updated to the FM2 as the FM2n, which took the improved shutter from the FE2. Later FM2ns adopted an aluminium shutter, presumably to reduce production costs.

Nikon FE Hampton Gay Manor
The Ruined Manor at Hampton Gay in 2024. Shot with the Nikon FE on Kodak TMAX 100

The FE Vs FE2

The FE2’s biggest advantage over the FE is a 4x faster shutter, but the FE does have a few advantages of its own.

  • Power Switch The FE’s power switch is very simple – just pull out the film wind handle. It’s a little more cumbersome on the FE2, the film advance lever has to be pulled open (to unlock the shutter release), followed by a half push of the shutter release. It then automatically shuts off to save power.
  • Battery Test Light The FE has a dedicated battery test light, which the FE2 lacks
  • Battery Life This FE uses less battery power than the FE2 because its faster shutter needs stronger shutter springs and the batteries have to power the electromagnets to cope.
  • Non-AI Lenses The FE can use Nikon lenses going back to 1959, while the FE2 can’t use non-AI lenses. 
  • Pre Frame 1 Metering The FE2 light meter doesn’t engage until the counter on the film advance gets to 1. Before 1, the shutter always fires at its single manually operated shutter speed – 1/250th of a second. The FE does not have this feature, which is designed to prevent long exposures with the lens cap on, allowing the user to take a shot or two before frame 1.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Intuitive needle matching light meter – especially useful in dynamic lighting conditions
  • Aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure mode in a small, lightweight package
  • Modern, automation equipped mount for non-AI lenses
  • Dedicated battery test light makes it easy to see battery status
  • Removable focusing screen provides some options
  • Inexpensive to buy

Cons

  • 1/1000 second maximum shutter speed can be a limitation in bright conditions (this can be overcome with filters of course)

Conclusion

I really enjoy shooting with the Nikon FE. It occurs to me that it is an ideal camera to get back to film with – suitable for beginners to experienced photographers. It isn’t going to replace the awesome FM3A in my affections, but it is a piece of Nikon history that is rewarding to shoot with, and, given its replacement value, one I am happy to take anywhere.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If have experiences to share with the Nikon FE, please leave me a comment below. I’d be delighted to hear from you. And if you are interested in classic or vintage cameras, there are articles on this site on:

If you’ve any experience with the Nikon FE, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

Vivian Maier and The White Bear

It’s hard not be distracted from Vivian Maier’s work by her life. As told in the 2015 documentary Finding Vivian Maier, the extraordinary stories of her life and the discovery of her work have contributed substantially to her posthumous status as a photographic legend.

Taking in the first UK exhibition of her work Vivian Maier: Anthology, in Milton Keynes, I was determined to avoid that.  Vivian Maier’s work demands our full attention. 

As Enigmatic as the Smile of the Mona Lisa

The challenge of admiring Vivian Maier’s work is that her life story is so unusual and her work so deeply entwined in it, that it is extremely difficult not to get lost in it.  Her experimental self portraits, frequently cast in shadow or captured in a reflection, contribute to this challenge.  Sometimes they are playful, often slightly mischievous and occasionally ghostly, but every glimpse draws you into the life of an extraordinary woman.  Her appearance is as enigmatic as the smile of Mona Lisa and it’s hard not be fascinated by her and dwell on her extraordinary story.

The White Bear

Not dwelling on Vivian Maier’s life story when looking at her work is so difficult that it reminds me of the famous test of the white bear.  As a boy, Tolstoy and his friends founded a club with the sole membership requirement of standing in a corner for 30 minutes and not thinking about a white bear.  This is called intentional thought suppression, and it is difficult to achieve. There is a book on the subject: White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts.

A Guardian review of Anthology argues that the exhibition of 146 images overcomes this problem, and I agree. ‘The extraordinary life story of the nanny who was secretly a street photographer can overshadow her groundbreaking images – but at the first UK show of her work they take spectacular centre stage’ was Sean O’Hagan’s summary.

The text that greeted me on the wall of the Anthology exhibition by curator Anne Morin described her life in just 75 words. 

Vivian Maier’s work was unknown to most people for the vast majority of her life. While working as a nanny in New York and Chicago for over 40 years, she photographed daily life on the streets. She produced over 140,000 images as well as film and audio recordings. Maier’s work came to light in 2007, just before her death, when her huge archive was auctioned off from a Chicago storage locker due to missed payments.

Vivian Maier: Anthology, Milton Keynes, June-September 2022, curated by Ann Morin

I’ll leave it at that.  Morin’s introduction, captured by my iPhone, then went on to describe her work.

Her images, mostly from the 1950s – 1970s, present a distinctive record of urban America. From carefree children and glamorous housewives to the homeless and poor, Maier’s pictures capture the highs and lows of everyday life. Street scenes with shop fronts, arcades and architectural images play with perspectives and patterns. Smouldering furniture, abandoned toys and tangles of electrical cables set the scene as families, workers and commuters go about their daily business.

Vivian Maier: Anthology, Milton Keynes, June-September 2022, curated by Ann Morin

The Exhibition

Up close to the large prints of the exhibition, Vivian Maier’s work made a huge impression on me.  I am reasonably well versed in the history of photography and have written about several of the greats that stopped me in my tracks: Fan Ho; William Klein;  Brassai and Cindy Sherman amongst them.  Artists sometimes have the same effect. Caravaggio, the original master of dark and light, is one who took my breath away. Maier is one of these – the kind of photographer who inspires you to pore over books of their work (I bought the Thames and Hudson retrospective).

What struck me about Vivian Maier’s work, particularly her square framed black and white street photography, is the unique combination of ‘how did she do that?’ composition, shot making excellence and an extraordinary probing empathy for her subjects.

The strange, rather detached, but still evident humanity that characterises Maier’s street photography work is arresting. In another Guardian review Adrian Seattle concludes with ‘We could talk of a compassionate eye but I’m not sure it helps or even if it is true. It was all the same to Maier and she didn’t flinch or pass by.’ The autobiography Vivian Maier Developed: The Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny by Ann Marks records that Maier was once described as an extraterrestrial by an acquaintance, and I think I understand why.  There’s that white bear again. 

Vivian Maier’s Cameras

Much of the exhibition shows images taken on the iconic 6 x 6 medium format Rolleiflex, for which Maier is most famous. A little online research revealed that, like many photographers of the period, she started out with a simple Kodak Brownie box camera. Maier acquired her first Rolleiflex in the early 50’s and over the course of her career used a Rolleiflex 3.5T, Rolleiflex 3.5F, Rolleiflex 2.8C and a Rolleiflex Automat.  The Rolleiflex is solidly made and weighty, with the 3.5F tipping the scales at over 1.2 Kg.

Vivian Maier
A Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera on show at the Anthology Exhibition

The Iconic Rolleiflex

The Rolleiflex is a twin-lens reflex camera (TLR) which has two lenses with same focal length, one above the other.  The bottom lens is used to take the picture, while the top lens is used for viewing the image.  The two lenses are connected, so that the focusing screen displays what will be captured on film.  Because the camera is held or suspended at waist level the viewfinder is often called a ‘waist level finder’.  That viewpoint is quite different, and subjectively often better than an eye level view, simply because it is lower.  

The viewfinder requires an angled mirror to reflect the image onto a matte focusing screen at the top of the camera, which the photographer looks down into. Unlike an SLR, in which the mirror moves out of the way when the shutter button is pushed, the mirror remains stationary. The advantage of this is that there is no ‘mirror slap’ or vibration from the mirror as it moves. This allows the Rolleiflex to shoot at lower shutter speeds hand-held. 

The first TLR model is not known for certain, but the London Stereoscopic Company’s “Twin Lens Carlton Hand Camera”, from 1898, is a good contender.  Mass adoption came later however, with the introduction of the Rolleiflex in 1929, developed by Franke & Heidecke in Germany. 

Other Rolleiflex Users

Vivian Maier is one of the most famous Rolleiflex photographers. Other illustrious users include Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, Imogen Cunningham, Robert Doisneau, Helmut Newton and Gordon Parks. Amateur users included celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Grace Kelly.

Post Rolleiflex

Post Rolleiflex, Maier embraced the freedom a 35mm camera can provide, wielding a much more compact Leica IIIc rangefinder, an Ihagee Exacta SLR, (star of Hitchock’s Rear Window) a Zeiss Contarex SLR and a few other SLR models. Maier mostly used Kodak Tri-X black and white film, which was introduced in 120 form in 1954, and from the early 70s onwards Ektachrome colour film.

Shooting with the Rolleiflex 3.5F

I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F Twin Lens Reflex (TLR).  It is a beautifully engineered camera and the view of the world is much improved through its ground glass screen. It really is magical. Achieving critical focus at wider apertures isn’t easy, however, and the Selenium light meter isn’t particularly accurate.  The maximum speed the leaf shutter can deliver is 1/500 of a second. When you first use a Rolleiflex the lateral inversion and odd viewpoint can make you dizzy.  Because of a balance problem, I’ve never quite conquered that.

To get the same beautiful waist-level view, but with a higher percentage of keepers and less dizziness, I have shifted my medium format allegiance to a Hasselblad 203FE, which is an SLR with a waist level finder.  I have no idea why such a similar shooting experience doesn’t affect my balance. However, in terms of both usability and keepers, the Hasselblad’s almost supernatural light meter, auto exposure, astonishingly bright acute matte viewfinder and 1/2000 second focal plane shutter make its complexity worthwhile.  Now and again I dust off my Rolleiflex and venture out with it, but as yet I have no images to cherish from those forays, but I haven’t given up.  

I have no idea what percentage of keepers Vivian Maier had – and at this point, whilst her vast body of over 100,000 images is still being curated, (there’s the white bear again) I imagine even the archive manager of the biggest collection, John Maloof, doesn’t have the full picture yet, but every image I’ve seen is superbly executed.   She clearly knew her craft very well indeed.  

Colour Photography

In Chicago in the early 1970s Maier switched to colour photography, shooting with a Leica IIIc rangefinder and various German SLRs. 35mm rangefinders and SLRs typically have eye level viewfinders and the change of viewpoint from waist level to eye level is a significant shift. Some of the work from this period seems to be as much about exploring colour as depicting the subject, and there are also less people and more objects, including found objects. I enjoyed the images, but my preference is for the earlier black and white square-framed Rolleiflex shots.

Vivian Maier’s Time Capsule

Much like opening up a time capsule, viewing her work makes you feel like a time traveller. Immersed in each piece of work, a glimpse into the life and times of a bygone era. Maier was ahead of her time; her images are timeless. Her empathic eye made her street portraits striking. Her images portray a great deal of affection toward her subjects. She had the knack for capturing the essence of her subjects. Vivian had a gift for entering the privacy of the people she photographed; her brilliance in reading human behaviour is undeniable. Like a movie trailer, her photographs leave us with more questions than answers. Cleverly timed. Always in the right place at the right time, with an intuitive sense of timing, effortlessly capturing moments of both high drama and sublime banality. It is not easy to make the mundane and everyday look extraordinary, but Vivian did with an expert sense of composition.

Vivian Maier: Anthology, Milton Keynes, June-September 2022, curated by Ann Morin

That sense of time travel is something only the greats can deliver. I had the same sensation when I came across the work of Brassai, who transported me to his dark and beautiful realm in 1930s Paris. Vivian Maier does the same for New York and Chicago from the ’50’s to the 70’s, delivering a head-shaking ‘how does she do that?’ experience, both in terms of her composition and crisp shot taking.

To be able to conjure up that sense of wonder and to transport us to another time and another place is a rare thing and I am grateful to the enigmatic woman who made it possible. And if that troublesome white bear sometimes intrudes, that’s a price worth paying.

The Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie

Kodak Autographic
Kodak No. 2 Folding Autographic Brownie

The Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie has couple of unique points of interest. The front plate is engraved with tiny text that describes the rather eccentric ‘Autotime’ system, and there is a stylus on the back to engrave notes on the negative using the Autographic feature.

It also has a good deal of ‘early camera’ DNA. Not only is the lens standard pulled out on a track fixed to the baseboard like a Victorian field camera, but the back is detachable, though it takes 120 roll film rather than a plate.  This makes it one of the most interesting cameras I have ever come across, which inspired me to research and write this article.

From the serial number (109947) engraved on the foot this particular Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie was probably manufactured in late 1916.

For cameras made between 1915 and 1919 you can determine the date of manufacture of this camera with reasonable precision from the design changes listed by serial number at brownie-camera.com.

Serviced by Kodak in 1953

I bought it at a camera fair hosted by ImageX in Bicester, Oxfordshire and when I opened the camera up I discovered a Kodak London service sticker from 1953, proving it had a very long shooting life.   Although the body shows quite a lot of wear and the aperture blades and shutter are slightly pitted, the camera is light-tight and in working condition – no doubt due to the care of attention of Kodak London.

Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic Brownie
‘Serviced by Kodak Ltd London 1963’

Kodak’s Folding Cameras

This model of Brownie is a vertical format folding camera.  Folding cameras originated in the 1850s, replacing the 1840s sliding-box design with leather bellows.   See the article Early Cameras, a Timeline on this site for more on early camera design.

Kodak produced numerous folding models from the 1890’s until the 1960s. The first was the Folding Pocket Kodak which was introduced in 1897.  The last was the Kodak 66, Kodak’s only post-war folder for 120 film rolls, which was manufactured in the UK between 1958 & 1960.

The non-box Brownies

The name ‘Brownie’ brings a low-cost box camera to mind, but Kodak manufactured several folding models in that famous and long-lived family of cameras between 1904 and 1926.  The Folding Brownie series were Kodak’s least expensive folding roll film cameras and had a more basic specification than their Kodak branded counterparts. The also offered fewer optional configurations.

The first folding Brownie was the No. 2 Folding Brownie, which was introduced in 1904, with a model B introduced in 1907 as the Folding Pocket Brownie.  These were the predecessors of the Autographic Brownies.

The No.2 Autographic Folding Brownie

Kodak Autographic Brownie
Kodak Advertisement for the new Autographic Brownie

The No 2 model in Kodak Autographic Folding Brownie series was produced from 1915-1926 for the type 120 Autographic film. The exact number of cameras manufactured of this type in that 11-year period isn’t known, but brownie-camera.com states that 540,000 were made before 1921. Kodak only made minor changes to the design during the production run.

The most notable of these changes is the early change from the square-ended box shape shown in the Kodak Advertisement. This was changed to a more to a more curved design in 1917 (from serial no 133,301 according to brownie-camera.com.) Another change that is useful in dating models is the shape of the foot, which was modified from an S-shape to a C-curve in 1919 (from serial no 133,301 according to the same source).

120 Roll Film Format – The Last Survivor

Kodak produced a huge number of different roll film formats with a variety of different negative sizes. 120 (or No.2 film as it was originally called, as per the name of this camera) is the only one still being manufactured.   The larger 116 and 130 film utilised by other Autographic Brownie models have both been discontinued.

120 film is still used extensively by medium format photographers, and readily available.  The No 2 Folding Autographic produces 8 exposures measuring 6 x 9 cm, which are the largest that can be obtained with 120 film.

6 X 9 is a less common format than 6 x 7 (e.g. the hallowed Pentax 67), 6 x 4.5 (e.g. Mamiya or Pentax 645 models) or 6 x 6 (e.g the legendary Rolleiflex). Some examples of 6 x 9 cameras include the Fuji GW690 series, Zeiss Super-Ikonta C, Plaubel 69W ProShift, Royer Teleroy and Agfa Record III. Some technical and field cameras can also take 6 x 9 film backs.

The Kodak Autographic System

Kodak was researching a way to allow the photographer to enter their own notes onto a negative when Henry Jacques Gaisman’s invention came to the company’s attention. ‘Jack’ Gaisman (1869 –1974) was a prolific inventor and the founder of the AutoStrop Company, a safety razor manufacturer.  His patent was purchased for the sum of $300,000.  It was such a large amount at the time to as to be newsworthy and the purchase was covered in the New York Times. Gaisman reputedly filed over one thousand patents including those related to swivel chairs, men’s belts, and carburettors, as well as razors and cameras.

The Kodak Autographic System uses a narrow slot covered by a light-tight hatch.  To write a note, the user lifted the hatch, which revealed the film’s paper backing.  A stylus held by a clip on the back of the camera next to the hatch was used to make a notation on the paper backing.  The hatch was left open for a few seconds, depending on the prevailing light, which exposed the marked area and burned the note in.  The text entered would appear in the margin of the processed print

Kodak’s autographic films (which were designated by an ‘A’ after the film size designation) made use of thin carbon paper sandwiched between the film and the paper backing. 

Other Autographic Models

There were two other models of Folding Autographic: the No 2A for the slightly larger 116 film, and the No 2C for 130 film, which produced the largest negatives. Kodak sold autographic backs as upgrades for their existing cameras.

Kodak Advertisement showing an annotated negative

Autographic Advertising

The Kodak autographic was hailed in the original 1915 advertisement as ‘The biggest photographic advance in twenty years’.  Kodak also promoted the Autographic with the slogan shown in the advertisement below: ‘Any negative worth the making is worth a date and title’.

Despite Kodak’s promotional efforts the system was never popular. It was discontinued in 1932.

You can read Kodak’s account of the benefits of autographic photography, from the 1915 ‘Kodaks and Kodak Supplieshere.

Lens Options and Shutter Variants

There was a choice of two lenses.  The higher end lens option is a rapid rectilinear which was widely used in more expensive cameras. The other is a very simple achromatic lens.   They are easy to distinguish as the glass elements the achromatic lens are behind the shutter and the aperture.

Information on the focal length of either lens is hard to come by, but I have seen a reference to 98mm and a maximum aperture of f/7.9.  Given the crop factor of a 6×9 image the 35mm equivalent is approximately 42mm, which is what I would expect from the shots I have taken.

Both lenses made use of the quirky and not particularly accurate Kodak ball bearing shutter until it was replaced in the last two years of manufacture by a Kodex shutter.

Shutter speeds are limited to 1/50 seconds and 1/25 seconds plus B (Bulb) and T (Time) for long exposures.   In keeping with the rest of the camera, the shutter speed selection scale is rather eccentric with the B and T modes set between the ‘instant’ speeds.  

The Autotime System

The Kodak Autographic System isn’t the only Kodak innovation on the camera. Setting the correct exposures was originally performed using the Kodak Autotime system, an early, and rather incomplete, automation system.

Aperture Scale Kodak

Using Autotime, the photographer selects the shutter speed to match the lighting conditions. The 1/50th second speed is marked “Brilliant” 1/25th “Clear” and guidance for “Gray”, “Dull” and “Very Dull” is marked in between. These make use of the slower, and manually, controlled Bulb and Time settings. Aperture selection using Autotime is via a choice of subjects marked at the bottom of the shutter dial.  These are “Portrait/Near View”, “Average View”, “Distant View”, “Clouds/Marine”.

The Autotime Patent

Autotime was patented in 1908. It was not a Kodak invention, nor was the idea fully implemented as it lacked the mechanically geared linkage between aperture and speed settings suggested by the inventor, Frank S. Andrews.   I can find little about the visionary Mr Andrews except in this article on the Autotime scale. The concept was well ahead of its time, and it was not until the 1950’s that the coupling of aperture and speed settings was resurrected by Kodak in the Retina range of 35mm cameras.  

The Autotime Scale was eventually abandoned along with the Autographic feature. 

The 1-4 Aperture Scale

Below the Autotime labels are the numbers 1-4. These are from a simple 1-4 scale often used on low cost Kodak cameras. This can be confused with the U.S. Universal Scale System, also called the “Uniform Scale System”, often used on simple cameras prior to 1920. See the article Aperture Scales on this site for more on this.

The 1-4 numbers on this camera represent f/8, f/16, f/32, and f/64.

The No2 Kodak Autographic Folder in Use

My example has the simple lens option so my expectations from camera weren’t high, but I was pleasantly surprised by the results. I didn’t experience any of the light leaks that often plague cameras of this vintage, presumably because the bellows were replaced during the 1953 service – they are in excellent condition. The focus was reasonably sharp and the exposures fairly accurate.

Kodak Autographic
The Ruined Manor at Hampton Gay, shot with a 1916 Kodak No 2 Folding Autographic

Framing and Focusing

Framing isn’t easy as it relies on the tiny (1.5 cm x 1.5 cm) ‘Brilliant’ finder mounted above the lens.  This creates a tiny and approximate representation of what the camera is pointing at.  Peering down into the minute square of glass the photographer sees an image that is laterally reversed just like a viewfinder in a Rolleiflex, but much, much smaller!  It is usable, though getting the horizon level isn’t easy.

Focus is very basic ‘scale focusing’ and is set via a scale on baseboard.  This has just two pre-set distances that engage with a catch on side of the lens standard.  I’ve only ever used the most distant of these (30m or 100 feet). I’ll get round to trying to shoot some portraits at some point and try out the 2.5m/8 feet setting.

Setting an Exposure

Setting an exposure isn’t difficult as there aren’t that many usable options! I always use 1/50th of a second as the 1/25th is a bit slow without a tripod, and I avoid setting the aperture wide open as this is likely to be when the rather unsophisticated lens will produce the softest image.  This gives me a fixed shutter speed and a choice of 3 apertures, which I select after consulting the light meter on my iPhone.  Given how forgiving black and white film is in terms of exposure latitude, I haven’t found it difficult to get a reasonably accurate exposure.

The shot above left was taken on a cloudy day with Kodak TMAX 100. I had to crop it as the horizon wasn’t straight. It is by no means a great shot of a wonderful location, but it does prove the Kodak to be surprisingly effective. I have a gallery of shots of the manor and you can also read about the story of the ruined manor and the lost village of Hampton Gay.

The shot below right was taken with same film from the first roll I shot from the pier in Deal, Kent. The shot is reasonably sharp and the image is uncropped as I managed to get the horizon straight. There is a dark patch in the centre of the sky, though I am not quite sure what caused it. This was evident in a couple of other shots from that roll. There are several galleries on Deal on this site.

Kodak Autographic
Deal, Kent from The Pier

Avoiding Film Fogging

Care needs to be taken of the red frame counter window on the back of the camera, which displays the frame counter numbers on the backing paper of the film. Early film had low sensitivity to red light so a combination of the backing paper on the film, plus the red window, prevented film fogging. Modern film is sensitive across the whole spectrum of light, so taping up the window whilst it is not in use helps prevent light getting into the camera.  I haven’t experienced any fogging by removing the low tack tape I use to view the film counter when winding on, so it doesn’t present a real problem. This is similar to later frame counter windows that had little covers to prevent light leaks and were only opened whilst the photographer was advancing the film.

Some reviewers have developed workarounds for winding on ‘blind’ with the tape applied throughout but I haven’t found that necessary.

Loading and Unloading

Loading the camera with film isn’t especially difficult – I used this YouTube video to help me the first time round. I have found that my camera won’t wind on past frame 8, but I work round that by unloading the camera in darkness, and haven’t lost any frames as a result.

Getting in Touch and Further Reading

If you’ve any experience with the Kodak No 2 Autographic Folding Brownie, please leave me a note in the comments – I’d love to hear about it.

If you are interested in the history of photography, you might enjoy these articles on this site.

The Nikon F6 – Great Film Cameras

The Nikon F6 was the last of the line of Nikon’s professional SLR film cameras, and perhaps the most technically refined and advanced 35mm film camera ever made. It is the film camera I taken most pictures with. This is its story.

The Launch of the Nikon F6, 2004

The Nikon F6 was announced at Photokina 2004, along with the digital Nikon D2X. As Thom Hogan observed at the time, the launch of a new pro SLR surprised a few people, but it really shouldn’t have; Nikon delivered the F6 eight years after the F5, which was the standard interval between pro film bodies at that time.

Perhaps what caught those people out was how far digital photography had already come by 2004. The world’s first digital SLR, The Kodak Professional Digital Camera System, had been introduced 13 years previously in 1991. It was based on the Nikon F3. The LCD screens on the back of digital cameras we take for granted arrived in 1995. By 1999, five years before the F6 appeared, the first fully integrated digital SLR designed from the ground up, The Nikon D1, had been launched. In 2002 Contax shipped the first full-frame DSLR, which was followed by Canon’s popular version, the EOS-1Ds. In the same year the Minolta Dimage A1 became the first digital camera to stabilise images by shifting the sensor. Digital photography was not new in 2004.

Nikon F6 with 50mm f1.4 lens

Roll forward to another trade show – CES 2017 and the president of Fujifilm’s North American imaging division provided a clue as to why Nikon launched the F6 in 2004. “The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film” he said. Film sales were already in decline by 2004 but post-peak demand was still impressive.

According to the same source, by 2017 film sales had dropped to a low point of 2% of that peak before rebounding. Happily, film sales have been growing modestly since then, with film specialists like Analogue Wonderland now selling over 200 types of film stocks.

The Nikon F Mount Pro SLRs

As its name suggests, the F6 is the sixth of Nikon’s F mount pro bodies. The “F” came from the F in reflex. The F6 evolved from the legendary Nikon F, introduced in 1959 (and also reviewed on this site). The F had a huge impact on the camera market, introducing the era of the professional SLR at the expense of Leica and Zeiss rangefinders. It was not the first SLR, but is often thought to be as it brought the innovations and features of earlier models into a single body.

The Evolution of the F6

The Nikon F evolved from Nikon’s rangefinder cameras, the first of which was introduced in 1947. The SP and S3 rangefinders required the addition of an optional reflex housing for telephoto lenses with focal lengths of 135mm or greater. Hence the need for an SLR camera, and the Nikon F was born.

In the original prototype Nikon F cameras, only the mirror box, pentaprism, and bayonet mount were new. The rest of the camera was virtually identical to the SP/S3 rangefinder.

Strong industrial design has always been a feature of Nikon’s pro SLRs – the lead designer of the Nikon F was Yusaku Kamekura, a leading figure in post-World War II Japanese graphic design, whose work included the 1967 Summer Olympics logo.

At its launch, the Nikon F introduced a comprehensive professional system. This provided a choice of lenses and accessories far beyond what had been available previously with rangefinders. By 1962 Nikon’s lens range extended from 21 mm to 1000 mm, and the F-mount would go on to support one of the largest collection of optical lenses ever created.

Mechanical Perfection – the Nikon F2

The Nikon F2 continued what the F had started, becoming standard issue for professional photographers for the most of the 1970s. It is still widely considered to be one the greatest 35mm mechanical SLRs of all time. In addition, the F2 also offered a choice of 10 viewfinders throughout its product cycle to suit every possible imaginable photographic situation. This unique modular approach continued until the introduction of the F6.

The Electronic Nikon Fs: F3-F5

Nikon introduced the F3 in 1980 as their flagship electronically controlled SLR camera. This was the camera that got me back into shooting with film, the story of which (and the story of the F3) you can find in the article Back to Film with the Nikon F3.

Giorgetto Giugiaro, a renowned Italian automotive and industrial designer, who has designed more great cars than just about anybody, designed the exterior. It was Guigiaro who introduced the grip and the red accent that would become a feature of the range. Initially, professional photographers didn’t trust the F3’s electronics but time proved the F3 to be reliable. With pro adoption Nikon were able to cease production of the F2.

With the F4, introduced in 1988, Nikon brought multi-pattern metering, a high-speed shutter, faster flash sync, and automatic focusing in a camera which had been designed from scratch. Just as with the original F, Nikon did not pioneer the new features, they would be the first to gather them all in a single camera body. 

The tank-like F5 of 1996 offered a more sophisticated matrix metering system, faster autofocus with better sensor frame coverage, higher continuous shooting capability and exposure bracketing. It was the biggest and heaviest of the range (including the F6), weighing in at a hefty 1,445g including its 8 AA batteries. I know photographers who really like the F4 and others that are stalwart F5 users but I’ve never gravitated to either of them and prefer either the earlier F3 or later F6.

Enter the Dragon

Bluebell Railway Line Nikon F6
Railway engineer shot with a Nikon F6 and AFS 24-70mm f2.8 lens in 2022

In 2004 the range culminated in the F6, which remained in production until late 2020. Giugiaro was once again responsible for styling the F6, as he had done for all the Nikon F bodies since the F3, and it closely resembles the Nikon D2 DSLR. An F6 review in Casual Photophile gushes at the F6’s awesome specs in a way that resonates with a fellow camera geek:

The F6’s spec sheet promises everything any shooter could want, including a 1/8000th of a second maximum shutter speed, a 1/250th of a second flash syncspeed, Nikon’s incredible color matrix metering along with spot and classic center-weighted metering, full PASM mode selection, i-TTL wireless flash metering, 100% viewfinder coverage, built-in 5.5 FPS motor drive (8 FPS with the added MB-40 battery pack), 41 slots of custom settings, compatibility with all Nikon AF lenses including full VR capability, backwards compatibility with every Nikon AI lens (extendable to non-AI with a factory modification from Nikon), CF card data storage, AF tracking, and a thousand more functions that’ll somehow justify this ridiculous run-on sentence.

Should I buy a Nikon F6?

Like many photographers, I thought long and hard about whether I should buy an F6. An F6 is not an inconsiderable purchase, especially compared to the F100 I already owned, which was giving me excellent results at a fraction of the cost of Nikon’s last flagship film camera. The F6 is also larger and heavier at 975g vs. 785g without batteries.

In the end I found plenty of reasons to buy an F6:

  • It is very rugged, featuring magnesium alloy construction, weather-proofing, a pro film transport and a Kevlar shutter rated to 150,000 releases. Weather proofing is particularly important to me.
  • The autofocus is faster and the matrix meter superior to the F100’s
  • The long production run should mean the camera remains serviceable for some time
  • It has a built-in data facility to display and store the camera settings for your film shots without a bulky data back. These settings can be also printed between frames on negatives which is really handy when you are trying to work out why a particular shot did or did not expose correctly.
  • Unlike the F5, the Nikon F6 supports matrix metering in “A” and “M” mode with Nikon Ai and AiS manual focus lenses. This means it works with almost any Nikon F-mount lens made since 1977.
  • The F6 is compatible with the latest generation of Nikon flashes and supports Nikon’s Creative Lighting System.
  • The F6 accepts a wide range of batteries. The body will take CR123A or DL123A cells, whilst the optional MB-40 accepts AAs or a rechargeable EN-EL4.
  • Film loading and unloading is simple and intuitive. To load, just switch it on, pull up the rewind knob and the back opens. There is no additional button to worry about. Slide in the film, pull out the leader to the mark and close the back. The film auto rewinds after the last frame. If it doesn’t rewind automatically (which has only happened once to me) it is easy to get the camera to try again with the dedicated buttons.
  • It’s Nikon’s last and most advanced autofocus film camera

The only disadvantages I’ve found are the F6’s appetite for batteries, which is considerable, and its size and weight relative to other film cameras, such as the Nikon F3, Nikon FM3a or Nikon F100. No matter, unless I am really counting the grams I am probably going to take the F6. I’ve certainly shot more frames on it than any other film camera. For some more sample shots head over to the Nikon F6 Gallery.

The Purchase and First Impressions

I bought my F6 at Grey’s of Westminster, largely because of their after sales service. Once I had been using the camera for a little while, mostly shooting in Deal, Kent, I found a few more advantages over the F100, a camera I really enjoy using.

Straight out of the box the F6 has that top-of-the-range look and feel. Its smoother command dial operation and the embossed logos were immediately apparent. When setting up the F6 up I found the custom settings menu to be far easier and less cryptic than the F100’s codes. The F6 makes use of the rear LCD panel to use words rather than just numbers.

The F6 in Action

As I started shooting I found the grip felt better in my hand, whilst the AF-on button is angled up on the F6 to a position I find to be perfect for back-button focusing, which is how I prefer to shoot.

Ergonomically, the F6 is close to perfect. I also discovered that I preferred how the F6 displays exposure compensation, which I use frequently.

It really is a great film cameras and a joy to use. I’ve read some gripes about the autofocus sensor coverage being too small. The F6 uses the same autofocus module as the D2X APS-C DSLR, so the autofocus sensors cover a smaller area of the frame, but that has never troubled me. Some also decry the discontinuation of removable finders, but replaceable viewfinders make the camera more difficult to weather proof effectively so that decision makes perfect sense to me.

F6 Battery Consumption

As an all electronic film camera if the F6 runs out of battery power the shoot is over. There are no manual options to fall back on – unlike the amazing FM3A. I find that the F6 is good for about 15 rolls in good weather and perhaps as low as 10 during the winter, which isn’t great, but manageable. I always carry a spare set of CR123 batteries with me, which is not much of a hardship. You can use AA batteries using an accessory, but I have never gone down this route. For more information on battery consumption and options there is a good write up on the F6 project.

Nikon F6 with the massive 400mm f3.5 Ai-S lens

Lenses for the F6

I generally use the F6 with the 24-70mm f2.8 AFS G ED, which gives me a lot of flexibility. I tend to use primes on my other Nikon cameras particularly 35mm, 50mm and 85mm AF-D lenses, but the 24-70mm zoom seems to be the perfect partner for the F6 and I continue to enjoy the results I get from that combination. A yellow filter is always on the front if I am shooting black and white. If I do use a prime, I generally mount the 50mm f1.4 AF-D shown in the picture of my F6 at the top of this article. Recently I’ve been shooting with the excellent 135mm f2 DC (Defocus Control). The longest lens I’ve used with the F6 is the manual focus Ai-S Nikon 400mm F3.5 ED-IF shown here.

The End of the Line for the Nikon F6…

In July 2020 Nikon issued a recall of all F6s manufactured and/or sold after July 22, 2019. The recall was due to some components containing levels of a plasticiser called dibutyl phthalate which potentially exceeded the value specified in an EU regulation. The F6’s demise looked imminent and so it proved. It was was discontinued in October 2020 and an era ended.

Throughout its production the F6 was manufactured at the Sendai Nikon factory in the Tōhoku region North of Tokyo, which produced its first SLR in 1979.

In December 2020 Emulsive published an article titled The Nikon F6 is Dead! Long live the Nikon F6, which served as the camera’s obituary:

The F6 represented the pinnacle of 35mm film camera functionality and usability. It embodies everything Nikon knew about making robust, reliable, and supremely usable cameras.

..but not for Film

You can still buy new film cameras. There are plenty at the lomography shop, the large format camera has been reinvented by The Intrepid Camera Company and Leica continue to ship M rangefinders, even re-issuing the M6 in 2022. However, I know of nothing that comes close to the sophistication of the Nikon F6. The Contax G2 was a very advanced electronic rangefinder, and beautifully made, but I never gelled with it for a variety of reasons and sold mine.

Medium format is even more difficult to get close to an F6 spec. The autofocus Pentax 645 nII and the sophisticated manual Hasselblad 203FA probably come closest – at least in my experience.

I’ve shot with quite a few Nikon cameras, including the F, F2, F3, FM2n, FE, FM3A, F100, 28ti, D40X, D300, D600, D800, Df and Z7, but the F6 is my favourite. For manual focus I’d go with another engineering marvel, the FM3a or the F3. If I weight is a consideration, and the weather is likely to be good, I’d take the excellent F100.

For those interested, selected F6 specs are below, together with links to the full Nikon specs and original brochure.

Nikon F6 Specifications

Nikon F6
  • Shutter: Electronically controlled vertical-travel focal-plane shutter with built-in Shutter Monitor, 1/30 to 1/8,000s; Bulb in M mode
  • Viewfinder frame coverage: Approx. 100%
  • Finder magnification: Approx. 0.74x with 50 mm lens set to infinity at -1.0m-1
  • Focusing screen: B-type BriteView Clear Matte Screen II, interchangeable with six other optional focusing screens
  • Exposure control: Programmed Auto with Flexible Program, Shutter-Priority Auto, Aperture-Priority Auto, Manual
  • Exposure compensation: With exposure compensation button; ±5 EV range, in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 steps
  • Auto Exposure Lock: with AE/AF-L button
  • Autofocus: TTL phase detection, Nikon Multi-CAM2000 autofocus module, approx. EV –1 to EV 19 (ISO 100)
  • Focus modes: Single Servo AF and Continuous Servo AF, and Manual
  • Focus tracking: Automatically activated in Single Servo AF or Continuous Servo AF
  • AF Area Modes: Single Area AF, Dynamic AF, Group Dynamic AF or Dynamic AF with Closest-Subject Priority selectable
  • Exposure metering: Three built-in exposure meters — 3D Color Matrix, Center-Weighted and Spot
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing: Number of shots: 2-7; compensation steps: 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV steps
  • Self timer: Electronically controlled; timer duration: 10 seconds
  • Automatic film loading: automatic or manual film rewind
  • Film speed setting: DX or Manual selectable (manual setting has priority over DX detected film speed); DX: ISO 25-5000, Manual: ISO 6-6400 in 1/3 steps
  • Flash control: TTL flash control by combined five-segment TTL Multi Sensor with single-component IC and 1,005-pixel RGB sensor; i-TTL Balanced Fill-Flash with SB-800/600; Film speed range in TTL auto flash: ISO 25-1000
  • Power source: Two CR123A or DL123A batteries; The optional MB-40 accepts eight AA batteries or a Nikon EN-EL4
  • Dimensions: (W x H x D) 158 x 119 x 77.5mm (6.2 x 4.7 x 3.1 in.)
  • Weight: (body only without batteries) Approx. 975g (34.4 oz.)
  • You can find the Original Nikon spec sheet here and brochure here

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with shooting with the F6, please leave me your thoughts below, I’d love to hear from you. For more about historic and classic cameras, you might also enjoy these articles on this site. Nikon’s timeline can be found here.

The Nikon FM3A – Great Film Cameras

The Nikon FM3A (often written as FM3a) is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made, and as a 21st century manual focus film SLR, somewhat of a throwback. It was introduced in July 2001 when the shift to digital cameras was well underway. The model was the last of Nikon’s semi-professional line of compact 35 mm film SLRs and one of the brand’s last film cameras; only the autofocus F6 SLR of 2004 and Nikon’s limited edition rangefinder swan song, the SP of 2005, came later.

Nikon FM3a
Nikon FM3A with 45mm f2.8 pancake lens

The D1X, an improved version of Nikon’s first DSLR, the D1, was already out by the time the FM3A was launched. The retro looking FM3A sat on shelves in camera shops around the world next to the hulking digital flagship and autofocus film cameras such as the F5 and F100. Increasing digital camera sales, low sales volume and the increasing costs of such a mechanically sophisticated unit put paid to the FM3A in January 2006. This left only the Nikon F6 and the Cosina manufactured Nikon FM10 in Nikon’s 35mm film SLR line. 

Nikon built the FM3A for serious amateur photographers who wanted a a high quality camera with full manual control. Personally, I am grateful for that. It may be a camera out of time, but it is an outstanding piece of engineering: compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with.

Evolution of the F/FE Series

The first model of the mechanical Nikon FM series, the FM was introduced in 1977. Along with the electronic FE of 1978, the FM replaced the mechanical Nikkormat FT series and electronic Nikon EL series.

In 1983 Nikon introduced the mechanical FM2 with a honeycomb-pattern titanium curtain shutter that enabled a top shutter speed of 1/4000 sec and 1/200 sec for flash sync. The flash sync speed increased to 1/250, (identifiable by the flash sync speed labelled in red). This was a huge step forward compared to the FM’s 1/1000 sec. and 1/125 sec. The electronic Nikon FE2 followed later the same year. In 1989 the titanium shutter was replaced by an aluminium version – the FM2n – this is the version I have of the FM2.

The Table below shows the FM and FE series at a glance.

 FMFEFM2FE-2FM-2nFM3A
ShutterMechanicalElectronicMechanicalElectronicMechanicalHybrid
AutomationNoneApertureNoneApertureNoneAperture
Max. Shutter Speed (Sec)1,0004,000
Flash Sync (Sec)1/1251/250
Lens Compatibility Since19581977
Introduced197719781982198319842001
Discontinued198219831984198720012006
The FM and FE Series of SLRs (excluding the later Cosina FE10 and FM10)

Development of the Nikon FM3A

Development started in December 1998. Engineers from Mito Nikon (a Nikon production facility that had originally created the Nikkormat of the 1960s and later the F3, FM2n, F4, and others) joined forces with their counterparts at the Ohi Plant. The Ohi facility was the source of Nikon’s first cameras and early models such as the Nikon rangefinders and the Nikon F. Top engineers from these two facilities came together to form a project team.

Nikon FM3A
The FM3A, Deal Beach

The FM3A’s predecessor, the manual all-mechanical controlled ‘New FM2‘, had been a best-seller since its introduction in 1984. It was popular amongst experienced amateurs and some professionals, and offered shooting even when the battery was exhausted. At that time Nikon could see also increasing demand for the aperture-priority AE. The project team needed to produce a design that would reconcile these conflicting requirements. Eventually, in order to address the simultaneous availability of aperture-priority AE and battery-free shutter operation, the team decided to adopt a hybrid shutter design.

The hybrid shutter design meant that the shutter had to operate with two control systems. This resulted in a larger, more complicated shutter mechanism with more component parts. As the FM3A was the successor to the New FM2, a larger camera body was not acceptable, meaning the larger shutter unit had to be mounted in the limited space available.

It was extremely difficult to develop a reliable shutter unit with such a complicated mechanism in such a limited space, and in the early stages the project team thought that the highest speed of 1/4000 second would be unattainable. However, after much development work the design was successfully realised. It really was a heroic effort.

Launch and Packaging

The Nikon FM3A was introduced in February 2001 at the PMA show in Orlando, Florida. Prior its introduction, Nikon customers had to choose between the mechanical FM model with manual exposure control or the electronic FE with aperture priority mode that wouldn’t work without batteries.

After the FM3A became available photographers had the best of both worlds with a hybrid shutter that allows both electronically-controlled auto-exposure shooting and full manual control without the need for batteries. The hybrid shutter was an innovation for the FM3A. though the FM3A adopted the traditional exposure meter with indicator needle, which had been continuously applied from the Nikkormat EL released in 1972.

When the FM3A went on sale in July 2001 the shift to digital photography was in full swing. Nikon had released the digital SLR camera D1 in 1999 for professional use and in the same year as the FM3A was released Nikon put the D1X and D1H on the market. Just at the time when digital cameras were going to the mainstream, Nikon consciously chose choice of launch a manual SLR camera. It was a brave move, and one that many photographers applauded then – and now.

The FM3A came in all black and silver and black. For the silver version there was a matching Nikkor 45mm pancake lens available at launch, which is shown in the picture above. The FM3A could make use of a range of accessories such as the Nikon MD-12 motor drive, the MF-16 databack and the various TTL flashes.

The Pancake Lens

In July 2001, the manual focus Nikkor 45 mm f/2.8P AI-s pancake lens went on sale simultaneously with FM3A. It was a lightweight Tessar design just 17 mm deep and weighing only 120 g. The lens consisted of 4 elements in 3 groups with a 7-blade circular diaphragm. Initially the finish was matched to the silver FM3A model, with a black finish added that November. A CPU in the lens enables programmed, aperture-priority, shutter-speed priority, and manual exposure modes. The CPU also enabled it to function with Nikon’s autofocus cameras. It pairs really well with the camera, but my preferred lens is the 50mm f1.4 – which is what I used with the sample shot shown below.

What Makes the Nikon FM3A a Great Camera?

Brill Windmill Nikin FM3a
Brill Windmill shot with a Nikon FM3A and a 50mm f1.4 lens

The Nikon FM3A is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made. Its compact size, large bright viewfinder, ergonomic controls, excellent analogue light meter display and accurate focusing split image focusing screen make it a pleasure to use. The absence of the normal SLR blackout is an added bonus.

The focusing screen is actually the brightest standard screen of any manual-focus Nikon. This is Type K3 Focusing Screen, the interchangeable focusing screen that comes as standard. The K3 is ‘a matte/Fresnel screen with a split-image rangefinder spot surrounded by a microprism ring and a 12mm centre-weighted area reference circle’. It is optimized for f/2 lenses – faster lenses won’t get any brighter. I’ve found it very easy to use. Nikon introduced two alternatives along with the K3, the E3 matte screen for close ups, and the B3 etched screen with horizontal and vertical lines. The B3’s lines are useful for composition, architectural photography or multiple exposure operation.

The meter is predictable, accurate and extremely easy to use via needle matching. It uses a 60% centre-weighted pattern but also provides a welcome and well-placed AE lock button on the back for manual adjustments. There is also a film window, which was a new feature for the FM series.

The build quality is exceptional. The top and bottom body covers are each drawn from a sheet of brass; the shutter release and film wind cap are lathe-turned, whilst the shutter and film advance actions run on self-lubricating bearings. The film transport mechanism is very tough and makes use of hardened metal gearing.

An Engineering Marvel

Under the covers the Nikon FM3A’s hybrid shutter is one of the most advanced SLR shutters ever built – a marvel of compact mechanical engineering built to such a high standard that it can shoot at 1/4000 of a second without battery power. This is a feat most other mechanical shutters just can’t match, topping out at 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second. Adding batteries powers the the electronically controlled shutter for aperture priority shooting, the excellent analogue light meter, exposure lock, and DX film coding. Batteries also enable the TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash – the only manual-focus Nikon to have this feature.

The camera weighs in at 570g, only a little more than the king of compact SLRs – the Olympus OM-1 (510g). At 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm it also compares well against the OM-1’s diminutive 136 x 83 x 50 mm form factor.

I enjoy using the analogue light meter, which is preferable to the one on my F3. The two needles, one matched to your settings and one to the light measured by the meter, are clear and easy to see. That analogue instrument is also far more durable than LEDs. When the inevitable electronics apocalypse claims many of my cameras the FM3a (along with the F and F2) will just keep going…

Drawbacks

Beyond the difficulty of viewfinder visibility in low light, there is very little to say against the FM3A, other than it was, and a remains pricey camera. It has a fixed pentaprism so it isn’t quite as versatile as the F Series cameras with their interchangeable finders, but you can change the focusing screen if you want to. Some also find the locking device on the exposure compensation dial annoying, and it certainly isn’t strictly necessary, but it doesn’t trouble me much.

Comparisons with Other Cameras

The FM3A Vs the FM2n

The FM3A is regularly compared to its predecessor, the FM2n often to determine whether the additional investment for the FM3A is worth it. Both cameras feature an all-mechanical vertically-traveling focal plane shutter capable of taking 1/4000th a second exposures but the FM3A adds electronic aperture priority mode. Both are also very light, but the FM2n comes in a tad lighter at 540g versus 570g. You can shed a few more grams if you go for the FM2/T which makes use of titanium top and bottom plates to get to a very trim 515g for a tough, metal camera.

FM3A
One of the many Temples at Stowe, shot with the Nikon FM3A

The most obvious difference to the FM3A is the FM2n’s -o+ LED metering display (a bit like the Leica M6 TTL’s), which is quite different to the FM3A’s analogue twin needle display. The needles are great in normal lighting conditions, whereas the FM2n’s is better in low light. I enjoy shooting with both, but I think the FM3A’s makes for a more engaging shooting experience. The price difference between the two models is even more acute with the black FM3A as it commands a premium as a collector’s item. I went for silver FM3A and a black FM2n, which gives me the best of both worlds.

Nikon FM3A Vs FE2

The FM3A is also regularly compared to the FE2. There a lot of similarities between the FM3A and the FE2, such as the needle matching finder and the 1/4000 maximum shutter speed. These are the differences as far as I can see, not all of which favour the FM3A, depending on your perspective. The FM3A has:

  • Fully mechanical operation at all speeds without the need for a battery. FE-2 has 1/250th or B.
  • DX film speed encoding
  • A different placement for the Auto Exposure (AE) lock button
  • A film window to display the film in the camera
  • Metering that works immediately after you load the film – no waiting for frame 1
  • No rewind knob lock (aka camera back interlock)
  • A chrome plated brass lens mount instead of the stainless steel used on the earlier cameras.

Nikon FM3A Vs F3

Curiously, there has been quite a bit of debate on the internet on the FM3A vs the F3, though the current Nikon F pro body at the time of its launch was the F5. A frequently asked question seems to be which one is tougher and more resilient. I have both and they both seem pretty tough, though the F3 seems to have an Achilles heel when using a flash mounted above the rewind knob. There are several reports that if a mounted flash is bumped reasonably hard, the chip which controls exposure functions under the rewind knob can crack, rendering the F3 largely inoperable. 

The F3HP has the hot shoe above the prism which fixes that problem, but if you are looking for the toughest possible camera I would take an F2 or original F ‘hockey puck’. I am not sure how useful the comparison is, but the main differences between the F3 and FM3A is that the F3 is heavier and larger, uses LEDs in the viewfinder, offers an interchangeable prism and pro accessories and is slower for flash sync (1/80 versus 1/250) and shutter speed (1/2000 versus 1/4000).

Comparison with Leica M

An odd comparison, for me at least, is one with the Leica M6. In some cases this occurs as part of a search for an SLR that feels as good as a Leica, in others I think it is just a comparison of late model film cameras – the M6 TTL was introduced in 1998, the FM3A in 2001. I shoot with both Nikon and Leica cameras – digital and film, but I am not sure of how useful comparisons are. Rangefinders and SLRs are very different, and Leica takes a unique approach to building cameras and lenses – which is reflected in the cost. I really enjoy shooting with both the M6 TTL (a 0.58 model) and M7 (a 0.85), but I don’t have to worry about finder magnification with the Nikons.

Discontinuation

Unlike the FM2 that was a best-seller for 16 years, the FM3A had a shorter production life. In January 2006, five years from its introduction, production of FM3A was discontinued along with the F100, F80 and other major film cameras. Nikon’s discontinuation was necessary to allow the firm to concentrate its resources on the digital cameras.

Nikon FM3A Specifications

  • Shutter: Vertical-travel, metal focal-plane shutter: 8 to 8 to 1/4000 sec step-less aperture-priority auto. Bulb, 1 to 1/4000 sec manual with mechanical control (all settings available without batteries in manual)
  • Viewfinder frame Coverage: Approx. 93%
  • Viewfinder Magnification: Approx. 0.83x with 50-mm lens set to infinity
  • Focusing screen: K3 type (split prism-image microprism type, Clear Matte Screen IIa) standard, B3 type and E3 type optional
  • Viewfinder information: Shutter speed, exposure meter indication, shutter indication, direct aperture value, exposure compensation mark, ready light
  • Exposure Compensation: ±2 EV in units of 1/3 EV
  • Auto Exposure Lock: AE lock button 
  • Self-timer: Mechanical, countdown time of approx. 4 to 10 seconds
  • Flash sync speed: 1/250
  • TTL flash Compensation: Compensation to -1 EV activated with the TTL flash compensation button
  • Automatic DX film recognition
  • Film-check window On rear of camera
  • Power Source: One 3-V lithium battery (CR-1/3N type), two 1.55 V silver batteries (SR44 type), or two 1.5 V alkaline batteries (LR44 type)
  • Dimensions (W x H x D): Approx. 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm / 5.6 x 3.5 x 2.3 in.
  • (camera body only)
  • Weight: Approx. 570 g / 20.1 oz. (camera body only, including battery)

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Large, bright viewfinder
  • Exceptional build quality, including brass top and bottom plates and a chrome plated brass lens mount.
  • Easy manual focus using the split-image focusing patch and micro-prism focusing ring (standard K3 screen)
  • Accurate and intuitive needle matching metering
  • Fast (1/4000th second) hybrid shutter, which works even without batteries
  • Compact and light weight
  • Very large choice of lenses, including one designed for the camera (45mm pancake).
  • Extremely well featured, including AE lock, TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash and film recognition window

Cons

  • Price – especially in pro black!
  • Viewfinder visibility in low light
  • Exposure compensation lock?

Conclusion: Future Proof Pleasure

The FM3A is an outstanding piece of engineering that will last long into the future. It is compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with. For me, along with the F, F2 and F6 it is one of Nikon’s greatest cameras. It makes an appearance on a few greatest ever and favourite film cameras lists too, though I think the FM2 shows up just as regularly.

Thoughts and Further Reading

If you have experience with the FM3A please leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear from you, and if you interested in classic cameras you might also enjoy these articles on the site:

For more about historically important cameras, visit the year by year timeline.

The Ruined Manor in the Lost Village of Hampton Gay

Hampton Gay Manor

The village of Hampton Gay has largely disappeared, leaving only an isolated church and the picturesque ruins of an Elizabethan manor house. The remaining inhabitants reside in the farmhouse and cottages that line the last few yards of single track road; a mile long, single track spur that connects to the road from nearby Hampton Poyle and Bletchingdon.  Once you pass though the pedestrian gate into the fields you can see the outlines of where Saxon dwellings once were from the humps in the grass.

Finding Hampton Gay

Hampton Gay is an ancient spot and much of the surrounding farmland on the nearby circular walk undulates as a result of the use of the mould-board plough in medieval times.  The best way to see it is to walk from Thrupp, a small village just north of Kidlington, and along the canal to Shipton-on-Cherwell.  There you turn right across a bridge over the river Cherwell and arrive at Hampton Gay after a few minutes walk. It can also be reached by on a circular walk from the excellent Bell pub in Hampton Poyle.

By car you’ll need to take the single-track spur road. There are a few passing places but there is a blind bend just past Willowbrook Farm, so please drive slowly and carefully.

Map of Hampton Gay 1833, Ordnance Survey
A 19th Century Ordnance Survey Map showing Hampton Gay and Hampton Poyle

I’ve been visiting and photographing the ruin for many years with all kinds of cameras; a 1916 Kodak, a Rolleiflex 3.5F, a Leica M3 and late model film cameras such as the Nikon F6 and Hasselblad 203FE, as well as one or two digital models. The aspect of the ruins changes greatly according to the season and the light, which makes it well worth a return visit. You can find my photography galleries from those visits at the links below.  Most of the shots are in the main gallery with smaller selections in the following two.   

  1. Main Hampton Gay Gallery
  2. Film Gallery
  3. Tilt Shift Lens Gallery

Village origins

The de Gay family were tenants of the two estates in Hampton Gay in the 12th and 13th centuries – the village name combines their surname with the Old English for a village or farm.  The de Gays donated and sold land from the estate to various religious orders including the ill-fated Knights Templars, the Abbey of Osney, just outside Oxford’s west gate, and the Convent at Godstow.

The manor house at Hampton Gay

All the land owned by religious orders at Hampton Gay were forfeited after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The crown sold the land into private ownership and in 1544 it was purchased by John Barry, a wealthy glover turned sheep farmer from Eynesham.  After John died, the manor passed to his son Laurence and then to his grandson Vincent, who built the Manor – probably in the 1580s. In 1682 the Barrys mortgaged the manor and then sold it to Sir Richard Wenman of Caswell and in 1691 his widow Katherine sold the manor to William Hindes.  The story of the Barry family at Hampton Gay from the the 16th to the 20th century is an interesting one that I’ve researched. You can read their story here.

Engraving by JC Buckler

The Manor remained in the Hindes family until until 1798. It changed hands again in 1809 and 1849, and in 1862 was bought by Wadham College, Oxford. The full list of owners over the years can be found here.

The Manor House was constructed to the classic Elizabethan E-shaped plan with gabled wings and a crenellated central porch.  The vertical line of the E was the main hall, and the horizontal end lines the kitchens and living rooms. The  central line was the entry porch.

As late as 1870, the building was still largely original including oak panelling, though it had been neglected. By 1809 it was reported to be a ‘Gothic manor’ in a neglected state and in 1880s the house was divided into two tenements which were jointly occupied by a farmer and Messrs. J. and B. New, paper manufacturers.

The Fire at the Manor

In 1887 it was gutted by fire and has never been restored.  

Some images of the manor before the fire survive. The architect John Chessell Buckler (1793-1894) recorded many historic buildings in great detail, especially in Oxford and Oxfordshire. This included a fine drawing of the Manor at Hampton Gay in 1822 The original is now in the Bodleian Library. There is also a steel engraving by Joseph Skelton in Skelton’s Oxfordshire.

Return of the Barrys

The manor returned to the Barry family in 1928 when Wadham college sold the ruin to Colonel S.L. Barry of Long Crendon, a descendant of the Barrys who built it. Colonel Barry (1873-1943) was a highly decorated soldier who served in the Boer War and World War One. His military appointments and civil posts included membership of His Majesty’s Bodyguard and The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms, Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Justice of the Peace for Buckinghamshire, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Lord of the Manor of Long Crendon, Bucks, and Hampton Gay, Oxon. Colonel Barry’s papers (now deposited at the Oxford History Centre) reveal that during the 1920s and 1930s he compiled research notes, photographs and transcribed deeds, covering the history of the manor and its ownership.

Two mills and three fires

There has been water mill at Hampton Gay on the River Cherwell since the 13th century.  It was a grain mill until 1681 when it was converted into a paper mill. The nineteenth century was a particularly eventful time for the mill.

Ruined Manor at Hampton Gay

In 1812 continuous paper making equipment was installed. Between 1863 and 1873 it underwent reconstruction, but two years after that work was completed it was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt and then re-roofed in 1876. By 1880 it had both a water wheel powered by the river and a steam engine and was capable of producing a ton of paper per day.  It closed in 1887 after a second fire.  That same year, a third fire consumed the manor house. After the fire at the manor, the owners sold the mill and its remaining stock to pay the rent. Some time after 1887 it was demolished. Some remains and waterways still remain.

The train crash

There were rumours that the manor was deliberately burned down for the insurance. More imaginatively, others claimed it was the result of a curse related to one of the worst train accidents to take place on the Great Western Railway.  On Christmas Eve 1874, a Great Western express train from Paddington was derailed on the nearby Cherwell line.  Thirty-four people died in the accident and sixty-nine were injured.

Among those coming to the aid of the victims was Sir Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston, from nearby Blenheim Palace. The paper mill was used as a temporary mortuary, and the church a refuge against the bitter cold until a train arrived to take the injured to the Radcliffe Infirmary and the other survivors to Oxford hotels.  According to the story, the residents of the manor house refused shelter to the victims and the curse was retribution for this.

The inquest

Hampton Gay Manor House was used to hold the inquest which opened two days after the accident. The bodies of the accident victims were held at the paper mill for identification and the wreckage was also examined. After the inquiry moved to Oxford the inquest found a tyre failure and braking problems to be the cause.

The agrarian revolt

Hampton Gay is known for its villager’s part in the unsucessful agrarian, or Oxfordshire rising, rising of 1596.   The Barrys enclosed land at Hampton Gay for sheep pasture. The villagers, unable to till the land for their own produce, faced starvation and many joined a revolt.  The plan was for the villagers to come together to murder Barry and his daughter, but this was foiled when the village carpenter turned informant.  One of the ringleaders from the village received the barbaric sentence of being hanged, drawn and quartered.  Subsequently, the Government recognised the cause of the rebels’ grievance and the Tillage Act of 1597 enabled the land to be ploughed and cultivated once again.

The church of St. Giles

The church of St. Giles now stands in picturesque isolation not far from the ruin of the manor house. It has never had electricity and is lit by candle light.  Evidence of its existence dates to 1074 and it was granted to Oseney Abbey by the de Gay family about century later.

Hampton Gay Manor
The Church of St. Giles

By the time of the dissolution it fallen into disrepair after which it became a free chapel, funded by the owners of the Manor.   It was completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century in Georgian style by the owners and re-modelled in the nineteenth century using the Early English Gothic and Norman revival styles.  Nothing remains of the medieval building  except the cross on one of the gables and the reused battlements of the square tower.  One of St. Giles’ two bells is from the mid-13th-century and is one of the oldest in the country.

Fluctuating fortunes

Hampton Gay’s population has fluctuated over the years in line with its fortunes.  In the fourteenth century it had between nine and twelve taxpayers.  In the fifteenth century it was exempted from taxation because there were fewer than ten resident householders.  The Compton Census recorded twenty-eight adults in 1676.   The population increased during the late 18th century – in 1811 there were seventeen families crowded into thirteen houses. The peak was reached in 1821, with eighty-six inhabitants, After the fire and mill closure in 1887 the population fell to thirty and by 1955 there were only fourteen parishioners.  Hampton Gay ceased to be a separate civil parish in 1932 when it was merged with Hampton Poyle.

A strange occurrence

I updated this article, adding the Hampton Gay photo gallery, in June 2020.  That week I came across a post that mentions a photographer observing something out of the ordinary at the ruin.  I found that was curious and a little spooky, as I had seen exactly the same thing a few days previously, but never before.  It was a heavy piece of black cloth, like a curtain, hanging from a second floor window and moving in the wind.  It was only in view for a few seconds and I wasn’t able to photograph it, though the other photographer did.  The black cloth later revealed itself to be a tarpaulin.

Renovation attempts

There have been several proposals to renovate the Manor.  The earliest of these came in 1901 from the distinguished architect T.G. Jackson, famous for his remodelling of Victorian Oxford and whose work includes the iconic Bridge of Sighs.

In 1975 Jiri Fenton, of Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology, purchased the building from Colonel Barry’s daughter. His intention was to restore the Manor as a thank you to the nation for providing him a home when he fled the Nazis in 1939.  His attempts failed due to “crippling inflation and Government red tape”, according to the Oxford Mail.

The Manor with English Longhorn 2022, showing the fallen chimney

In 2010 Christopher Buxton, whose company Period and Country Houses restored and sub-divided English country houses, submitted plans to create a five-bedroom home within a concrete envelope that would support the original walls.  He had also submitted plans four years previously, but neither plans proceeded.  

2023/2024 Restoration

The winter of 2021 saw a noticeable decline in the fabric of the Manor with the large chimney stack on the West side of the building falling some time between late January and early April 2022. However, on a visit in May 2023 I observed scaffolding being erected and over the course of 2023 much work was done to stabilise the ruins. At my last visit in March 2024 the scaffolding was gone and the building was back to its ruined splendour.

The surroundings are also changing, with renovation of one of the old outbuildings and construction of new stone buildings. The work has been done sensitively and looks to be of a high standard but the surroundings of the manor no longer have the aspect of deserted parkland they once had.

Hampton Gay Today

The village of Hampton Gay is enjoying a resurgence in traditional (organic and natural) small scale farming.   Manor Farm (whose ownership includes the ruins) and Willowbrook Farm are both passionate advocates for this and their efforts have boosted the population of the hamlet. 

The Manor in March 2024

Manor Farm keeps a herd of English Longhorns who graze in the fields adjacent to the manor and sometimes on the banks of the Cherwell. Though the large curved horns that frame their faces make them look fearsome they are actually rather docile. The breed has a fascinating history. It became endangered until rescued in 1980 by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Since then, Longhorns have made a dramatic, and welcome, comeback. 

Hampton Gay remains one of the most picturesque spots in Oxfordshire, set in a landscape that is ideal for country walks.  The Bell in the nearby village of Hampton Poyle is an excellent hostelry to stop at for food en route or afterwards. There are three circular walks from The Bell, one of which goes to Hampton Gay. The walk is described as a ‘stroll across the meadows to an isolated church and ruined 16th-century manor house.’ and takes about 2 hours.

William Klein and The Zero Degree of Street Photography

© William Klein
Dance in Brooklyn 1955 © William Klein

I came across the work of William Klein when browsing though photography books in a book shop.  It didn’t take many turns of the pages for me to decide to buy the book (Photofile, Thomas & Hudson) and learn more about the man and his photography.  I found his raw, ironic, high contrast and grainy street photography vibrant, often strange and compelling.

The anti-photograph

William Klein came to the notice of the world in the 1960s after he was talent spotted by the art director of Vogue who saw an exhibition of his early abstract work and offered him a job on the spot.  Klein had studied painting in Paris but was untrained as a photographer and considered himself an an outsider – lacking any respect for the photographic technique he didn’t possess.  In later years he ascribed this to a contrarian instinct: “Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”

Fashion photography is traditionally highly polished, and his untutored, highly dynamic and ironic approach was revolutionary.  Vogue subsequently financed a street photography project in New York where Klein, encountering culture shock after his time in Paris – which he feared would soon wear off – went “in search of the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography”.  To get there he employed “A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens…” and adopted the role of  “a make-believe ethnographer”.

Life is good…

The resulting book ‘Life is Good and Good For You in New York’ (1955)  became a prize winning route to celebrity, though no American publisher was willing to publish it (and didn’t for 40 years), considering it unflattering to the point of being anti-American.  Instead it was first published in Paris, Klein’s adopted home.  He followed up with books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo all in the same inimitable, rebellious style.   Despite his success he became restless and turned to film making.  His first film was Broadway by Jazz, described here in an article in the Financial Times in 2012:

Broadway by Light is often described as the “first pop film”, and to watch it now is still an exhilarating 11-minute roller-coaster ride through the neon of Broadway and Times Square. Klein invented his own kind of visual jazz – violent, vulgar, seductive and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match. The camera moves ceaselessly in and out of the alphabet of signs as the bulbs bloom and fade into abstract blobs of pure colour: Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Rock Hudson, The New York Times. Fascination. Continuous till 4am. Orson Welles said it was the first film in which “colour was necessary”.

Klein only returned to photography in the 1980s, where his pioneering role was recognised.  Since then he has won many more awards and become known for his graphic design work, which applies bold slashes of paint to the enlarged contact sheets he had marked up in pencil years before.

The Street style of William Klein

In his street photography William Klein likes to get into the thick of things; filling the frame with the chaos of the city.  He mixes and moves with his subjects, embracing a wide lens for close up shots and motion blur in a way no one has before.  As he said: “sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened, I’d rush into crowds – bang! bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance. Other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.”  An article in the  Independent in 1998 sums up his approach:

In Klein’s New York people press themselves up against the lens, dancing around the photographer, pulling faces, pretending to shoot each other, or the photographer, with toy guns. It is the kind of photography that is impossible to do today: people are no longer delighted to be snapped in the street, do not dance or horse around in Harlem on Easter Sunday for a photographer. They were intrigued by this white guy with his beautiful French wife.

William Klein
“Moves + Pepsi”, Harlem © William Klein

His preference for the wide angle lens came from the “contradictions and confusion” that it revealed, and enabled him to include many subjects in his innovative composition.  Of the blur he said: “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is part of life“.   His prints use extreme contrast and grain complete the visceral effect.  The combined effect is perfect for street photography, as this post in Streethunters from 2015 describes:

Perfection. We all strive for it when it comes to photography. Perfect exposure. Composition. Tack-sharp images. But, street photography isn’t about perfection. At it’s core, street photography is about capturing life. And life is far from perfect. William Klein, in his own way, mastered imperfection within street photography and became a trailblazer.

Klein’s maverick work has an immediate impact but is difficult to interpret. This is apparently by design.  In what has become my favourite William Klein quote he said: “My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.”  Or maybe not as, in an interview in 2013, when asked which is the most gratifying medium he chose film on the basis that “people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue….What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.”

Many photographers have been inspired as much by his attitude as his photographs, which is why you will see so many William Klein quotes in posts and articles about his life and work.  More artist than photojournalist, his lack of respect for the established order, his raw technique and the way he interacts with his subjects make him  one of photography’s great sources of inspiration.

Wet Plate Photography – Alcohol, Ether and Gun Cotton

Ruined Manor Hampton Gay

Wet plate aka gun cotton photography

Wet plate photography was not easy.  The wet-plate collodion process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.

These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the a BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn McCabe.  The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century.  The program surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.

Roger Fenton

I was familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, with the exception of Roger Fenton.  I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer.  Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot.  Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855. 

Wet plate photography
Roger Fenton’s Wagon

Wet Plate Photography in The Crimean war

Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format wet plate photographic equipment (see image, right).   The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera.  Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.

Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking.  They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.

The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary.   In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life.   He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery.  He died only a few years later in 1869.

Large format film photography

Large format film images, particularly those created using wet-plate photography, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this.   However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it.  The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) is a long exposure (40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter) shot in windy conditions. It is sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production.   I’ve shot the manor with a few medium format cameras (6X6 and 4.5) but at some point I’d love to shoot it with a large format, preferably glass plate, camera.

Fox Talbot and Early Photography

Fox Talbot Early Photography

Fox Talbot at dawn

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Science, silver and sunlight

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

Inventors and pioneers

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

Continue reading “Fox Talbot and Early Photography”

Back to Film with the Nikon F3

V and A Museum Knight's TombIt’s been a while…

Before I went back to film with a Nikon F3 in 2016,  my previous film camera was a Canon IXUS, from the late ’90s – a point and shoot compact which took APS film. My photos from that time date from before I actively studied photography and the shots aren’t the best.  My APS films were developed on standard machines, not the specialist ones they had been designed for, which further compromised the results.  So my journey with film photography journey really started with the Nikon F3..

A Fortunate Find

Whilst staying with friends in Stockholm in 2016, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several Nikon F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives.

The Nikon F3 model I picked out showed signs of wear and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was quite taken with it and bought it on impulse.

An Early Model

This was my first Nikon film SLR. A bit of research revealed that the F3, the successor to the legendary Nikon F (also reviewed on this site) and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras. It was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001, despite being superseded by the autofocus F4 in 1988.

That’s a long run – especially as according to the MIR site, work on the F3 started back in 1974, barely three years after the debut of the Nikon F2!  The formal design process started in 1977 and a prototype was ready by late 1978, which is when NASA came knocking for an automatic exposure control camera for the Space Shuttle.

A check on the serial number showed my F3 was an early model from 1981, not the more common HP (High Eyepoint) variant introduced in 1982. The HP model is identical to its predecessor except for the finder (DE-3), which allowed those wearing glasses a better view of the entire frame. This became standard on the F3, which became known as the F3HP.

Finder Tradeofs

I don’t wear glasses when shooting, preferring to use a diopter, and in this case that’s an advantage, as the trade off the HP model makes to make the whole viewfinder visible from slightly further back is fractionally lower magnification. The F3 is also slightly lighter than the HP variant as the finder HP finder weighs a little more, though the HP finder has slightly improved rubber sealing. Unless you wear glasses, there isn’t much in it.

Five Finders

The F3 has five finders (all interchangeable) to choose from: eye-level (DE-2), eye-level HP (DE-3) waist-level (DW-3), sport (DA-2), and high-magnification (DW-4). The F3 also offered a right-angle viewing attachment (DR-3) and an Eyepiece Magnifier (DG-2). I’ve stuck with the DE-2 my F3 came with.

F3 Exotics

Beyond models based on finder variants there are several more exotic models of the F3. The best known, is the F3/T titanium model, which not much lighter than the regular F3 but quite desirable.

There was also a ruggedised F3P Press/Professional model, the F3 AF autofocus model and the weighty F3H F3 High Speed, a motorised speed demon that could shoot at 13 frames per second.

The autofocus Nikon F3 AF, which became available in 1983 with 2 autofocus lenses, was Nikon’s first entry in the world of AF technology. The Nikon F-501 arrived in 1986, and the Nikon F4 in 1988. 

The F3 Electronics Controversy

Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries.  Electronic shutters and dependence on battery power for anything more than a light meter was initially resisted amongst Nikon professional shooters. Their initial response was to remain loyal to their fully mechanical F2s and eschew the F3.

This controversy apparently continued for years and may still continue. As one blogger wryly commented as recently as 2019: “I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh…right…we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka “Knights of the Order of F2″ (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.”

The fears of Nikon pros at launch turned out to be unfounded as the F3 was demonstrated itself to be just as bulletproof as as the F and F2. Nikon was committed to increasing reliability – as an example the F3’s shutter was designed to last an incredible 150K actuations, increased from 100K for the F and F2. However, to give photographers more confidence in the new technology Nikon built in a backup mechanical shutter into the F3 that operates at 1/60 sec.

In practice, the F3’s batteries last a very long time (compared to my Leica M6 TTL for example) and the tiny LR44s are easy to carry as spares. I also have an F2 with a Photomic head, and it is excellent, but my F3 gets used more.

The F3’s Horizontal Shutter

Another issue that the professionals weren’t keen on was the slow flash sync speed. The F3 has a horizontal travel shutter which, given the 3:2 aspect ratio of film, takes longer to operate than a vertical travel shutter. The 1/80 second maximum sync speed was the same as that of the F2, but well below the semi pro models (FA, FM2, FE2) with vertical travel shutters, which offered 1/250 second. The F3 was the last of the Nikon Pro cameras with a horizontal shutter – the F4’s went the other way.

Longevity versus Mechanical Cameras

Over time electronic components can be the Achilles heel of older film cameras and initially I thought the Nikon F3’s LCD which displays the shutter speed might be a weak spot. The display in the viewfinder, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR), is just a display window so is not subject to deterioration, but LCDs don’t always age well. They can become harder to read over time and eventually stop working entirely. Nikon predicted they would only last about seven years or so with pro usage! 35 years after leaving the factory my well used F3’s LCD is holding up perfectly well. The F3’s manual controls also mean that the camera can still be used without the LCD display, although not with automation.

The last point to consider in the electronic vs mechanical Nikon stakes are that electronic shutters usually maintain their accuracy over time better than mechanical shutters.

F3 Surprises

One surprise to me about the F3 was that it was styled by an Italian design legend: Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man who styled the Ferrari 250 GT Bertone, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Bertone, and much else. 

Another surprise was that there were Space Shuttle versions of the F3. These had large magazine backs of different capacities and various other modifications for use in space. It wasn’t the first Nikon in space however, as modified Fs were used aboard Apollo 15 and Skylab.

Upgrades and Repairs

Before I could shoot with my new purchase I needed to get it serviced and replace the missing motor drive coupling cover.  Reading a little more, I learned that my camera was fitted with an unusual focusing screen, a plain matte screen which lacked the usual split image rangefinder spot.

The F3 is highly modular. It’s 5 interchangeable viewfinders could be paired with 15 interchangeable focusing screens. These vary from the standard central split-image microprism rangefinder screen to those for very specific use cases such as close ups, astro and architectural photography.

Mine was fitted with a Type D, which is used for close ups and with long lenses.  I called Greys of Westminster and ordered the more usual Type K type rangefinder screen, a new coupling cover and a -2 diopter.

It’s easy enough to remove the F3’s finder to change the screen. Sliding the grooved buttons on each side of the finder back towards the eye piece releases the front of the finder which can then be lifted out and removed.

All that remained was to take the body into my local camera shop, imagex, who sent it away for a much needed service, at a very reasonable cost of £69.

Adjusting to the F3

It wasn’t difficult to get used to the controls of the F3.  They are simple and the dials on the top plate of were familiar looking, as I was shooting with the  retro styled digital Nikon Df at the time, and the F3 only offers aperture-priority automation and manual operation.

I did fire the shutter accidently with the backup mechanical release lever (‘what does this lever do? doh!’) to the right of the lens beneath the ‘exposure memory lock’ button (AE-L on modern cameras).

LCD Display

The LCD shutter speed window in the finder isn’t especially bright and can be hard to read at times.  There is button to light it up but its exceptionally hard to press and gives so little additional light that its not worth the effort. I actually prefer the needle matching system of the FM3A, FE and FE2, though that is even harder to read in low light.

80/20 Centre Weighting

An adjustment I thought I might need to make was to get used to the heavily centre-weighted metering system, apparently a request from Nikon Pros looking for greater precision.  Metering is TTL and reads the light over the whole focusing screen, but nearly all (80%) of metering sensitivity is set to the central 12mm, whilst the rest of the screen gets the remaining 20%. 

Nikon accomplished this weighting in an unusual way; by putting thousands of tiny little pinholes in the reflex mirror. These allow exactly 8% of the light to pass through the mirror and onto a metering cell. This didn’t make it’s way into subsequent models; the F4 reverted to 60/40. weighting.

In practice the heavy centre weighting can be useful, and certainly hasn’t presented a problem, even when I forgot about it, but that maybe because I shoot with very forgiving black and white negative film.

The F3 was the first in the F series to put the meter in the camera body. Previous models, which had the meter in the prism, featured 60/40 centre-weighted metering. This is also the case with the last of Nikon’s film cameras, the rather wonderful FM3A.

One little control that isn’t at all obvious is the Multiple Exposure Lever on the far right of the top plate. This enables you re-cock the shutter without advancing the film.

First Outing with the Nikon F3

Once the camera was back from service I bought some Ilford HP5 400 film and headed for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I shot some of the statues in various galleries, whilst I also visited the excellent Paul Strand photographic exhibition.  Initially I kept looking at the back of the camera to see what I had shot, only to be greeted by cardboard film type insert on the camera back.   My first keeper is shown above – I really liked the grain and the tone of film and I was hooked.

From the Nikon F3 Onwards…and Backwards

Since I bought the F3 I have acquired several other Nikon film cameras, including the mighty F6 and the hybrid mechanical/electronic marvel that is the FM3A, all of which you can read about in detail on this site from the preceding links.

I’ve also gone back to the start of the F series with a late F from 1970 and an F2 from 1975, both of which are excellent cameras. I particularly like the way you can see rangefinder DNA in the F’s baseplate, which evolved from the Nikon SP rangefinder. The prototype for the F was built on an SP model, adding the distinctive mirror box and pentaprism of the SLR, and a new lens mount, the F mount. The letter F comes from re-F-lex.

F3 Film Nikon
A scene from the Faroe Islands, shot with the Nikon F3

Though some of my photographer friends love the later Nikon F4 and F5, I have never taken to either of them – preferring either the earlier F, F2 or F3 manual focus cameras or the final F6 model. 

I’ve taken the Nikon F3 with me when I’ve travelled, including some fairly harsh environments like the Faroe Islands, and it performed very well. I thought about taking my FM2n on that trip, as it is lighter, but the more rugged F3 inspired more confidence.

The Go Anywhere F3

The Nikon F3 remains one of favourite manual Nikon film cameras. Unlike other more expensive classics, such as Leica M6 or Nikon FM3A, which most photographers (including me) fret about in use, my F3 presents no worries at all. It is extremely rugged, affordable to service (or replace), and easy to use.

I bought it slightly beaten up and it’s so tough I am comfortable taking it anywhere. I have 50mm and 28mm (Voigtländer) pancake lenses to keep the form factor to a minimum – the F3 and both pancake lenses easily fit into a small camera bag. It is versatile: the shutter is fast (up to 1/2000 second), and though I haven’t needed them to date, there is a PC connection (though a flash requires an adaptor), and it will take a standard cable release. It takes great pictures. What more could you ask for?

The Timeless Quality of Black & White Photographs

Why Timeless?

Timeless Quality of Black and White
A black white image with that timeless quality

Black and white images often possess a timeless quality that is more difficult to achieve with colour images. This is largely because colour provides more visual clues as to when a photograph was taken.

Variance in the colours themselves can sometimes suggest a specific era –  the difference between the colour renditions of the 1970s for example, and today are often clearly discernible; this is due to differences in colour processing, which have changed significantly over time.

Printed colour images may also be subject to varying degrees of instability as they age, which is also helpful in dating them.

The Advance of Colour Film

The first permanent colour photograph was taken in the 1860s using the colour separation, a method which required shooting three separate black and white photos using three different coloured filters. These were then projected together to create a colour image.

By the first decade of the twentieth century colour separation using the Autochrome process which used millions of tiny colour filters made of potato starch spread over the surface of a plate of glass was available.

In the 1930s multi-layered colour film was developed, the first of which was Kodachrome.  The 1960s saw the development of instant photographs by Polaroid, and in the 1970s the C-41 chromogenic colour negative process replaced the C-22 process that Kodak had introduced in the 1950s. For more on the history of photographic processes, see the article on this site ‘From Chemistry to Computation’

It was not until the 1970’s that colour photography became the form of photography. Monochrome photography continued but in niche markets such as fine art.

The Advent of Digital

With the advent of digital photography the clues provided by film have disappeared, but colour is also an element of fashion which inevitably gives a better sense of when the picture was taken.  Regardless of changes in fashion, colour provides a level of detail absent from black and white pictures – there is just less information for us to process, making a picture more difficult to date.   This is helpful in many genres of photography but is especially so for travel, street and portrait photography.  Whilst we know the approximate date we took our pictures, if when these photos were taken is difficult to discern, it seems to imbue them with additional value.  Why this should be a virtue is largely attributable to the notion of the ‘classic’ – something long-standing that does not date with age.  Synonyms of the word classic give us a clue to the value implied by the term: simple, elegant, understated, uncluttered, restrained, time-honoured, timeless, ageless, abiding, enduring and immortal.   Portrait photographer Anne Geddes made the point well when she said: “The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.”

Photographing souls

Another aspect of timelessness, although more subjective, is that many photographers consider black and white photography promotes a stronger emotional connection with people.  Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s quote on this is well known: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!

Souls being more durable and important than clothes (to all but the fashion industry!) this quality naturally creates a more timeless photograph.

The Weight of History

Another factor is that because black and white photography preceded colour, many of the pioneers of photography from Adams to Weston including many pioneering women, shot in black and white . Monochrome images were dominant beyond photography’s formative years – leading the way for the first 120 years or so of photography’s history. This resulted in a huge number of iconic black and white images and creates a significant pedigree and a degree of nostalgia for what is now a genre rather than a technology.

The accompanying photo is of Newcastle based photographer Irena Childers and was shot in Garth Park, Bicester, as part of a camera club shoot.  It is a digital shot but it strikes me that the picture could have been taken at any time between from 1950 and the present day. This only became apparent when I performed the mono conversion with Silver Efex.  The colour version just didn’t have the same timeless quality…

The Walls of Ávila

Avila SpainThis is the oldest picture I have taken on this website. It was taken on 110 film in 1987.   A colleague at work was attending a film class and was asking around for pictures he could use in class.

I had visited Ávila whilst in Madrid as a guest of a friend who had moved out there and this was the best shot I could find.  I was amazed by what he did with it.  He cropped it, converted it to monochrome and added some additional grain.   At the time I just took snapshots, so this was a revelation to me.  I consider this my first decent picture and my first step into black and white photography – a medium I have come to love.  I still like the image; the absence of anything else in frame, the slightly brooding sky, the way the walls stretch off into the distance and of course the subject itself, the mighty, pristine walls are what make the picture work.

Ávila, the ‘City of Saints and Stones, was founded in the 11th century to protect the Spanish territories from the Moors.  It is the capital of the province of the same name in Castile and León in North West Spain, 110 km from Madrid and separated from the capital by the Guadarrama mountain chains. It is 74 km from Segovia.  At 1,126 meters above sea level, it is the highest provincial capital in Spain and sits on the top of a rocky outcrop in the midst of a barren, stone covered plain.

The medieval walls were built between the 11th-14th centuries and are astonishingly well preserved and the most complete fortifications in Spain.   They stretch for 2.5km, stand an average of 12 metres in height, enclose area is 31 hectares (77 acres) and have 9 gates.  The Old Town of Ávila has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, largely due to the walls which are its most impressive monument but also for its 12th Century cathedral and Romanesque churches. I want to go back and shoot Ávila at night, as it is beautifully illuminated – apparently it is the largest fully illuminated monument in the world.