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 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 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.