The Nikon F’s mostly metal construction is solid, dependable, and beautifully simple. It’s built like a tank. This is not a camera that leaves doubt in one’s mind about how long it’ll last or whether it’s on the verge of failure. It delivers each time, every time.
Many cameras of the 1950s and 60s feature cloth shutter curtains that tend to become brittle or develop pinholes over time. But the Nikon F was built properly from the beginning. It features titanium foil shutter curtains that are not nearly as prone to deterioration as those made of cloth. If a Nikon F requires service, the shutter curtains, if they were not abused, are two parts that probably don’t need much attention.
But overall, take the advice John Wade offered in his book Retro Cameras: The Collector's Guide to Vintage Film Photography: beware those examples that saw a lot of action in the hands of a professional. Nikon designed the F as a professional camera, after all, and many photographers worked them hard on a daily basis.
In a nutshell, the experience of handling and using the Nikon F is a joy.
Film Loading and Transport
It’s easy to load film into the camera. The procedure is simple: take the back cover off, drop a 35mm film cartridge into the left-hand chamber, pull the film leader across the camera body, and insert it into the take-up spool on the right. Make sure the film sprocket holes line up with the teeth on the film transport post. I often don’t even need to burn through an exposure by advancing the film with the back cover off and watching the action to make sure the film is loaded correctly. Instead, I can get away with popping the back cover on without such a check. Film loads predictably and unambiguously every time.
The film advance lever has firm yet smooth action. Hearing and feeling the “tick-tick-tick” sound of the film advance lever ratchet action is a joy in itself. Other older cameras don’t have the same smoothness that the Nikon F offers.
Camera Body Skin
Rather than having a leather or leatherette body covering, the Nikon F features one made of a plastic material with an easy-to-grip texture. Although true leather may feel nice, I have actually come to prefer plastic. With it, there are no worries about scratching or gouging a softer, more easily damaged material. The plastic body skin has a very durable feel, and it’s able to withstand the hold of my sweaty hands when I’m out and about on a warm day.
The first Nikon F I came to own, a Questar-modified example that was built around 1971, included a Photomic FTn metered viewfinder. When I returned to film photography by means of that camera, I appreciated having the ability to meter light straight through the lens.
But as time went on, I sought the ability to shoot without a light meter or, at the very least, become less reliant on one. My regular user Nikon F, one built around 1965, has a plain prism eyelevel viewfinder. Its smaller size makes the camera not only simpler to use but also lighter to carry. I also think it just looks better, too.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Nikon Fs with plain prism viewfinders command significantly higher prices than those equipped with Photomic light meter viewfinders. Purchased on their own, plain prisms in good shape are increasingly expensive and can be hard to find. Even those with clear signs of deterioration or abuse are listed for ridiculously high prices.
Whether one considers the plain prism viewfinder or the Photomic light meter viewfinder, all of them—and Nikon repeatedly pointed this out in its marketing literature—have long enough eye relief to accommodate those who wear eyeglasses. This is a really big deal for me. One of the first things I do when I encounter a camera that I’ve never handled is to bring it up to my eye and see how the viewfinder feels. Do I have to press the camera into my eyeglasses in order to see everything? I have to with some cameras. With the Nikon F, however, I have no problem seeing the entire frame even with my glasses on.
The viewfinder focusing screen shows the entire frame as it will appear on the negative. Many other SLRs have viewing screens that offer less than 100% coverage. Not the Nikon F. What you see is what you will get on your negative.
Exposure Time and Aperture Settings
Many cameras from the mid-1950s and before use the old shutter speed system: 1/5 sec., 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, etc. The Nikon F was introduced late enough to feature modern shutter speed markings, which other manufacturers had also started to adopt by the late 1950s. Along with bulb and time, it includes settings from 1 second to 1/2 sec., 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, etc. up to 1/1000 sec.
The shutter speed dial clicks nicely into place for each setting, and it’s easy to read. The same goes for the aperture ring on each lens.
It’s hard to believe that, upon pressing the shutter button, a chain of actions ensues in the blink of an eye: the lens aperture closes down, the reflex mirror flips up, the shutter curtains open and close to make the exposure on film, the reflex mirror returns to its downward position, and the lens aperture opens back up for bright viewfinder focusing.
When the camera’s shutter fires, it gives off that classic mechanical “clack-clack” sound that smartphone cameras can only mimic. But with the Nikon F, it’s the real thing. The sound is rather audible, and it will often draw attention from passers-by on the street, but it’s very smooth and satisfying to hear.
I also like the little black dot that sits in the middle of the shutter speed dial. When it is directly across from the black dot that demarcates the selected shutter speed to the left of the dial, it indicates that the shutter is cocked and ready to fire. After releasing the shutter, it moves to a downward left position. Cocking the shutter by working the film advance lever spins that little black dot around again, thus indicating that the shutter is ready to fire again.
Another reason why I prefer using a plain prism viewfinder: it doesn’t obscure that little black dot. The shutter speed dial extension on Photomic viewfinder, on the other hand, does.
As you’re going through a roll of film, the frame counter accurately displays what exposure you’re on. This might not sound like much, and one might assume this should always be the case on all cameras. But some older cameras like my Questar-modified Praktina FX have dreadful frame counters that lose their accuracy as you advance through a roll. My Nikon F, on the other hand, points squarely at each frame counter number all the way to 36. There’s no ambiguity about what film roll exposure I’m on. The counter also resets itself when the camera body back is removed.
Over the course of its long production run from 1959 to 1973, Nikon manufactured well over three-quarters of a million Nikon F camera bodies. They were made in large enough numbers that there are several good examples on the used camera market at any one time. That ubiquity also translates into a greater likelihood that you’ll find a qualified repair technician to do a CLA (i.e., cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment) if one is necessary. Many used camera dealers even offer examples that have already been serviced and are ready to shoot.
A huge universe of quality, durable Nikkor lenses exists. Judging from my casual survey of the second-hand market, many if not most seem to have stood up well to the test of time. Although many suffer from hazy or fungus-covered optics and well-worn housings, many others remain crystal clear with good glass, optical coatings in excellent condition, and lens housings in great cosmetic condition.
Like the camera bodies they attach to, these lenses were also manufactured by Nikon in large numbers. They are plentiful on the market with lots of good examples to choose from at prices that are a fraction of what lenses for modern digital cameras cost. And since Nikon made them at the highest standard, they make great lenses to use with an adaptor on modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
True to its nature as a system camera, the Nikon F enjoys a vast number of available accessories. Indeed, there are too many accessories out there if one is trying to keep the ever-present temptation to buy and collect in check.
In the end, cameras exist primarily to make photographs, and the Nikon F excels at this. Here is a small sample of the work I’ve accomplished with my Nikon F:
In spite of the preponderance of benefits the Nikon F brings to the film photographer, nothing is perfect. I’ve found it to have a handful of flaws:
- The foam mirror shock pad and light seals are prone to deterioration. It’s not uncommon to find an example with foam pads that are turning to dust. But replacements are readily available.
- On the vast majority of Nikon Fs, neck strap lug eyelets are apparently made of soft brass and are prone to wear. This often makes me a bit paranoid. When I carry my camera around, I tend to hold it in my hand more than let it hang from the strap around my neck out of fear that the continual metal-on-metal grinding between neck strap lugs and eyelets will further advance the wear that the eyelets already have.
- The camera back fully detaches from camera instead of being hinged like the back of the Nikon F2. Especially when I’m out in the field, changing film rolls can be a bit awkward especially when I don’t have a convenient place to set the back of the camera body.
- Since shutter speed only goes up to 1/1000 sec., sometimes I feel a little cornered when I’m choosing exposure settings. With ASA 400 film loaded into my camera on a bright sunny day, I’m often forced to keep my aperture stopped down and my shutter speed on the fast side when I’m shooting subjects bathed in bright sunlight. My workaround is simply to use slower but finer-grained ASA 100 or 200 film, which I generally prefer using anyway.
There is nothing quite like the Nikon F. Its quality construction, sure handling, wide availability, and limited number of minor drawbacks make the Nikon F’s reputation as the “it” camera of its era well deserved. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in film photography with a classic camera.
- Nikon History as presented by the company itself.
- Nikon F instruction booklet (butkus.org).
- Official Nikon F Reflex Manual published by Amphoto in 1960 (requires free Internet Archive account to access).
- The Complete Nikon System: An Illustrated Equipment Guide by Peter Braczko (requires free Internet Archive account to access).
- Handy list of all Nikon film SLRs (Wikipedia).
- Nikon F Trilogy by Uli Koch.
- Nikon F Collection and Typology: an incredibly useful website by Richard de Stoutz featuring his equally incredible Nikon F collection. His list of Nikon F serial numbers and production dates is especially helpful for dating particular examples.
- Richard de Stoutz, Matthew Lin, and Pacific Rim Camera all have informative articles on mirror lock-up modified Nikon Fs including the Questar-modified Nikon F.
- Pacific Rim Camera’s excellent guide and reference library.
- Mike Eckman’s extensive writeup on the Nikon F.
- “Nikon F – The Camera That Changed Everything” by Josh Solomon (Casual Photophile).
- “Classic Cameras: In the Field with the Mighty Nikon F” by Todd Vorenkamp (B&H Photo and Video).
- “The day the world stood still: Nikon F” (vintage-photo.nl).
- Jake Horn’s review of the Nikon F.
- Nikon F review on 5050travelog.com.
- Ken Rockwell’s review of the Nikon F.