The title of this article may be a strong statement, but the reason I stand by it is because this tank of a camera just feels indestructible. When you hold a heavy Nikon F you just feel like this monster could never be broken. That of course isn’t true. No camera is indestructible. Even the Nikon F sometimes suffers from stuck shutters and loose focal planes, but the reason I say it will outlive you is because it is an all mechanical camera that doesn’t depend on a battery or any kind of electronic whatsoever the way todays digital cameras and even most film cameras of the past do.
The History and Specs
In 1959, Nikon created their first Single Lens Reflex camera, the Nikon F. After the success of their Rangefinder line, they took the S3 along with the most popular features on the market at the time and turned it into an SLR. At the time SLR’s were slow and unpopular because the mirror would stay up after an exposure and wouldn’t come down until you advanced to the next frame. This changed with the Nikon F and the quick return mirror.
It also had a non-metered prism head viewfinder, and the body was very similar to its predecessor. If you put the S3 back to back with the F you’ll see the similarities right away.
The original prism head did not have a built in meter, but you could buy the Nikon meter that clipped on. These meters used selenium type cells and are hard to find still working today.
The Nikon F was made around the time when flash bulbs were mainly in use. When you pull up on the shutter speed dial and turn it, different colored dots and letters appear in the tiny window above it. Each dot and letter corresponds with a set of speeds on the dial making the Nikon F fully syncable with flash at all speeds. Electronic flash wasn’t developed until the end of production of these cameras, therefore most of the flash options are for the different types of bulbs that were around at the time and then one setting, FX, is for electronic flash.
The film counter includes a slider that reminds you if you’ve loaded a roll of 36 exposures or 20. The speed dial includes speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 full second and includes Bulb mode and Time mode for very long exposures if the 3-10 second self timer isn’t sufficient.
There is also a PC socket on the side where an electronic or bulb flash unit can be connected and cable releases that screw on to the shutter button are available as well.
Along with this new SLR came the new F-type bayonet mount that Nikon still uses today. At a time when the screw on M42 lenses were in popular demand, Nikon created their own efficient, and quick mounting lens system. I will be writing a blog in the future with more in depth details about the lenses because it is a topic worth its own article.
This camera was the choice of professionals at the time, and was often chosen as official equipment for newspapers and publishing houses, especially for journalists reporting on the Vietnam war. They would slap on a motor drive called the F-250 and shoot off 250 exposures of the horrors they witnessed. Don McCullin famously was rescued by his Nikon F when it took a bullet for him.
The Nikon F is a modular system that allows you to customize it to your needs as a photographer. With the push of a button you can release the viewfinder and the focusing screen to replace them with whatever type you prefer. There were 21 focusing screens made, some standard and some for specific uses like the grid lined one for architectural photography.
In 1962 Nikon introduced their first metered prism, the Photomic. This one is now called the flag finder because the on/off switch was a flag shaped switch that lifted up and down to reveal the electric “Eye”. It didn’t have through the lens metering. It metered through a tube mounted on the head in front of the CDs cells that powered the meter. This tube narrowed the meters sensitivity and it also came with a screw on incident light meter attachment. Later the flag was replaced with a push button on/off switch.
As the years went on Nikon improved their meter heads and modified the body of the Nikon F to take the different meters they developed over the course of the cameras production until 1974 when the F2 took over completely.
The modified bodies are recognized by the red dot the factory placed next to the serial number. These models are very desirable for collectors. I will also be writing a blog in the future about all of the meters that were made for this camera, and my experiences with them.
In 1971, Nikon made the F2 to succeed the F, but the original was still seeing a lot of success and continued to be produced for three more years. These final F’s given by Nikon (pun intended), were the coined “Apollo” versions. There is no known connection to the Apollo space program other than it existed at the same time as the camera, and Nikon had made a camera especially for the program in the past. Other than that, the Nikon Apollo is just a Nikon F that now donned a black plastic tip on the advanced lever and self timer like its younger brother the F2.
The Nikon F is my favorite SLR. I love many Single Lens Reflex cameras, but the F is my first love. I first saw it on the Vintage Camera Collectors Facebook page in 2019 and it was love at first sight. I had never seen a modular camera before, and I just had to have one.
My first Nikon F had the Photomic T meter head, but the meter was dead. I was very ill at the time and bed bound, so I mostly just held it as you can see in the picture above taken while in bed.
As I’ve explained in a past blog I have used photography as a therapeutic pursuit to help improve my mental and physical health, and the Nikon F has been my companion and tool for this the whole time.
I started out with the dead Photomic T mounted on the camera, and used a handheld Sekonic meter for my exposures, but the process was too slow, and soon the collector in me took over. I had to try out each type of metered head, and accessory I could afford. The whole process was proving to be the greatest distraction for the horrible things I was going through at the time.
After a couple of returns on Ebay, I eventually found a properly working Photomic T. I will be selling my non-working one along with one of my Nikon F bodies very soon so hopefully someone out there can get it working again.
I also have purchased the the original Photomic with the on/off switch. I took a chance on it. The owner wasn’t sure if it worked, but I decided to buy it because it was a good price and came with two really good Nikkor lenses and an older body. When I received it (you can watch the unboxing here) I was disappointed to find it didn’t work, but I can’t afford to buy a working one right now so for now I admire it in my collection for what it is. I have enjoyed the lenses though.
Out of all of the viewfinders I have tried on my Nikon F, I would have to say my favorite one to use is the Photomic FTn. I really enjoy using the original non-metered prism head because it is light and simple, but as I’ve stated, I really like having a built in meter that is reliable, and the FTn is just that. The FTn was the latest modification to the meters Nikon put out for the Nikon F before production stopped, therefore it is the best out of the bunch.
I eventually bought the Nikkor 35-200mm zoom lens because my main type of photography is nature and I need to be able to zoom in to get shots of birds. This setup with the Photomic FTn meter, and this heavy lens proved to be a lot on my arms that were still very weak, but it has proven to be a good exercise and I lug this camera with me on my walks in the morning. I am still on the lookout for a lighter option. If you can recommend one that is compatible with the Nikon F please leave it in the comments below.
The meter can sometimes be a hindrance when trying to get a shot set up quickly because you look through the viewfinder and turn the aperture ring on your lens or turn the speed dial on the top of the meter until it registers correctly inside your viewfinder. Then sometimes I have found myself feeling around and fumbling to find the shutter speed dial and the shutter button while holding your composition in sight through the viewfinder. Its a small issue and just takes a little getting used to.
I soon found that the Nikon F has a pretty loud and abrasive mirror compared to other 35mm SLR’s. This added to the shaking of my hands has been a challenge because I tend to take photos in the dim lighting of my backyard early in the morning. A lot of my shots end up blurry when I am using the heavy zoom lens. I have slowly improved my technique for this and I am still learning.
I have very poor eyesight, even with my glasses on, so I tried several of the different types of magnifiers and special finders to see which one helped the best. First I tried the eyepiece magnifier, but that didn’t help me much in the type of photos I take. I also found the view to be too small.
Next I tried the right angle finder, but that wasn’t any help to my eyesight. I think I misunderstood its purpose. It did prove useful when I was doing still life photos on a tripod that was positioned below me.
Finally, I purchased the Action Finder when I found one on Ebay for a very low price that I couldn’t pass up. This one is really nice to use. The viewfinder is very big and bright and allows you to look from 2 inches away from the actual viewfinder. I really enjoyed using this one. The only downside for me again was the non-metered part. I just really hate using a handheld meter when I am trying to get a quick shot of a bird flying through my yard.
The Nikon F has been the camera I have used the most in my entire life, and I will probably always have one. I am even studying an old technician course to learn to be able to repair these cameras and others so they can be around for a long time.
I highly recommend any photographer try out one of these cameras. They are beautiful, reliable, and it is a war veteran that deserves our respect. Okay enough of my gushing.
For more of my review on the Nikon F check out the companion video to this blog on my YouTube video and subscribe for much more to come.