The Nikon FE2 SLR

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.

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.