The Nikon F6 – Great Film Cameras

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.

Evolution of 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. 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 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

Nikon introduced the F3 in 1980 as their flagship electronically controlled SLR camera. 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. Professional photographers didn’t trust the F3’s electronics initially 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 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 that 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 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 camera settings 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.
  • It’s Nikon’s last and most advanced autofocus film camera

The Nikon F6 in Action

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.

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

Nikon F6
Lobster pots on Deal Beach, shot with a Nikon F6 in 2020

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.

I generally use the F6 with an f2.8 24-70mm zoom. I generally use primes on my other Nikon cameras particularly 35mm, 50mm and 85mm, but that zoom seems to be the perfect partner for the F6 and I continue to enjoy the results I get from that combination. If I do use a prime, I generally mount the 50mm f1.4 D shown in the picture of my F6 above.

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.

In December of that year 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. There is nothing on the market with the sophistication of the Nikon F6, however.

I’ve shot with the many other Nikon cameras, including the F, F2, F3, FM2n, FM3a, F100, 28ti, D40X, D300, D600, D800, Df and Z7, but the F6 is my favourite autofocus film Nikon. 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

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

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 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 FM/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 labeled 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.

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.

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.

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 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 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.

Comparisons

The FM3A is regularly compared to its predecessor, the FM2n, often to determine whether the FM3A is worth it, because the difference in cost between them is substantial. 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.

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.

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 head so 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 I have not found it interferes with my enjoyment of the camera.

Nikon FM3A Vs F3

Curiously, there has been quite a bit of debate on the internet on the FM3A vs 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 hotshoe 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 even stranger comparison, for me at least, is the comparison with the Leica M, particularly 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 again I am not sure of how useful comparisons are. Firstly rangefinders and SLRS are very different, and secondly 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 my Nikons!

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…

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)

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.

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