In 1959, Nikon introduced their first SLR, the Nikon F. It was the beginning of the end for companies like Leica. Previously Leica had enjoyed a top spot among professional photographers, but the Nikon F, although not completely new, did combine several features, previously found individually in other cameras, all in one camera. The combination of which made the Nikon F a great success, and the start of a line of top professional cameras which would be number 1 for many years.
We take certain features for granted today, like a pentaprism and interchangeable viewfinders, a bayonet mount, or an instant return mirror, but none of these were common features for cameras back in 1959. And, to have these features all in one camera was revolutionary.
The other thing that Nikon did was to create a system – so the Nikon F was modular in design and there were several components that could be added to the camera to make it better for specific assignments. Not only attachments like motor drives, and various backs, but a set of exquisite lenses, rugged enough to take the wear and tear of a professional. This camera, because of it’s flexibility and ruggedness, saw quite a bit of use in Vietnam during the 1960s, and became a favorite of photojournalists covering the war.
I love the simplicity of the F, especially with the basic eye level viewfinder – no meter, just a plain, 100% view of your subject, with no distractions.
And, lastly, I think Nikon was able to put this together – the features, the system and lenses – with a lower price tag than other professional cameras of the day. I saw some references to the Leica M3 in 1958 costing $444. The Nikon F was originally priced at $186 with a 50mm f/2.0 lens. That’s a big difference.
Here’s some photos with my Nikon F (most likely manufactured toward the end of 1961) and Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 non-AI lens. I love the old Nikkor (pre-AI) lenses. They are solid hunks of glass and steel. They feel good in your hand, and operate smoothly.
No touch-ups were done to these at all. They are just as they came out – dust spots and all. I shot the very last one while waiting in line at my favorite taco truck. I set the f-stop, set the focus and took the shot without lifting the camera at all. It was nice, in the old days, to be able to actually take a shot now and then without actually looking into the viewfinder. It was always fun to see the result and to be surprised with how it looked.
If you have an older camera, perhaps without a light meter in it, take it out and be adventurous. You can bring a handheld meter (or load a metering app on your smartphone) if you’re a bit timid!