A Grand Progression

I hadn’t looked at my Nikons for quite a while, until about a week ago. I was taking some photos with a few Nikon film cameras from the 70’s through the 2000’s – the FE, FE2 and the FM3a. Then I began thinking about some of the other Nikon film cameras in my collection, so I decided to unpack one of my other favorites, the F2A. The F2A, released in 1977, used a new version of the F mount. The “Rabbit Ears” clip on the Nikon lenses of this era were done away with. A new method was utilized to link the lens to the body – without the awkward linking of the “Rabbit Ears” on the lens with the matching pin on older Photomic heads. The F2A will work in full auto mode with new AI lenses, but will only work in stopped down mode with previous (non-AI) lenses. That’s good for me because most of my Nikon lenses are AI. I have a few non-AI that I use with my older F2s and my Fs. I don’t own any Nikon bodies that use newer lenses than the AI/AI-S, so I don’t own any newer lenses.

One of the things I like about the F2A is how the DP-11 head works. Metering with the DP-11 Photomic head utilizes a needle in the viewfinder, unlike the F2S (DP-2 finder), F2SB (DP-3 finder), and the F2AS (DP-12 finder), which all use LEDs. I just prefer the needle you line up to get your exposure right. It’s probably just me. The FM and FM2 have LEDs as well, and that’s one of the things I don’t like about them (but that’s for another discussion).

I especially like all F2 bodies because they’re simple, yet complete. It’s a classic example of a professional camera. I have to be clear about something – and I think I’ve said this before. I think the F2 line of SLRs was probably the pinnacle of Nikon’s photographic accomplishments. I’m sure the F3 was a nice camera, but in my opinion, the late 80’s and 90’s are years when Canon started to gain market share and take business away from Nikon because their technology was just better (my opinion) especially in the area of autofocus lens technology. In more recent years, I think Sony has giving both Canon and Nikon a real run, technologically. I’m not sure Nikon will ever reach what they accomplished with the F2. I’m sure if you’ve used Nikon bodies for a while, you may disagree. That’s good. Brand loyalty is not necessarily a bad thing, with cameras at least.

So, that being said, what was so great about the Nikons of this era? I think longevity is a big part of it. The quality of these cameras was really unmatched. Nikon used a kind of grease (I’m not sure what) that doesn’t ever seem to dry out. Here’s an writeup on the F2 by Ken Rockwell. Nikon, it seems, was able to build quality at a very reasonable price. That was probably their biggest distinguisher, and probably why they took so much business away from Leica. When I unpacked my F2A today, I wasn’t sure how it would be, how it would work. It’s been a couple years since I’ve even looked at it. It worked just as nicely as it ever did. The shutter, although it’s likely seen quite a bit of use in it’s lifetime, still sounds smooth and beautiful at all speeds. The F2 mechanical shutter is built to last – for professional use. It may lose a bit of accuracy over time, but it just keeps on going. Fortunately, I haven’t had many problems with my Nikons. I did try to get the shutter checked on one of my old F bodies because it was off at the slower speeds – which I know can be a problem. When the repair shop looked inside, they said is was very corroded and the shutter would probably need to be replaced. I decided not to spend money replacing it – and instead found another F body to buy for not too much money. The finders and the lenses tend to be a bit pricey – but Nikon F (and F2) bodies are not too expensive. The F is fun to play with and it is quite old now. It was a revolutionary camera – but as far as shooting, the F2 is much more enjoyable to use. The F is a bit awkward – and the position of the shutter release is different; at the back of the camera instead of the front like newer SLRs. It’s also a bit boxy and harder to hold. But it is fun to shoot with.

An F (top) and an F2 (bottom), both without finders attached. You can see the similarities in the tops of each.
Looking at the fronts of the F (left) and F2 (right) you, again, will see that both are very similar.

One of the other things I like about the Nikon F2 is how the Photomic heads work. I try to make sure my bodies and heads match – in other words, I matched the serial numbers (use this handy serial number reference) from the body with the head that was made in that year – that’s really not a big deal if you just want to take photos, you can use any F2 body you have, and attach the Photomic head you like best. That was actually a nice feature for photographers in the 1970’s since they could upgrade their camera to the latest features by just buying a new head. I’m just picky as a collector, and want to make sure my stuff matches – like antique car collectors that want to be sure everything on their car is an authentic stock part from the year the car was built.

The inside of the viewfinder of an F2A is just plain beauty. Nothing fancy, but everything you need. All information is displayed off screen at the bottom of the viewfinder – so as to not block your image at all. For focusing, you see a split image center spot, surrounded by a microprism ring, surrounded by another circle of finer matt than the rest of the screen. The focusing screen is very bright, especially with an f/1.4 lens. At the bottom, the current f-stop, shutter speed, and meter needle are displayed. What else do you need?

F2A Viewfinder Example

Another couple pieces of information about the F2. All the Photomic heads allowed you to set exposure while looking down from the top – so you could adjust exposure without putting the camera to your eye. This works great for taking photos inconspicuously on the street, or on the bus, subway, etc. Here’s another interesting thing – and I don’t know any other camera that allowed this as a manual setting. Shutter speeds between 1/90th and 1/2000th were continuous. So, if I need to adjust the shutter speed between 1/125th and 1/250th, I can. I can set the shutter speed dial between and it will set a speed in between the 2 (maybe 1/200th). The speeds that work this way are colored green on the shutter speed dial. There was also a way to set shutter speeds, manually, all the way to 10 seconds.

Every professional in the 70’s used a Nikon F2 – or at least that was my perception. I used an Olympus OM-1 in college, and for my freelance work with the Associated Press, and I still love the OM cameras. I have several in my collection, however the Olympus cameras didn’t hold up like a Nikon F2. As much as I would like to believe they did, and Olympus made some amazing cameras, they just aren’t built like the Nikon F2. You can find used F2 bodies that look like they’ve been through a war – and many have been – and you can cock the shutter and press the release, and they just work. There were cameras – Olympus for one – that had newer technology, and that helped sell to some professionals, but the F2 was so well built (and the F, for that matter) that professionals just kept using them, year after year.

I include the FE2 and FM3a in my photo at the top of this article because, besides the F2, they are a couple of my favorites, and they have F2 DNA. The FM3A is really the end of the FE, FM line of cameras, and combines a fully manual shutter of the FM/F2/F with the electronics/auto exposure of the FE2. I like shooting with it because I love the metering of the FE and FE2, plus I like the idea of not needing a battery to run things aside from the meter. Funny that Nikon came out with this camera way late in film camera history – about 2001. But it was a very strange release. Very few were made, and because of that, they generally bring a high price on eBay just because they are relatively rare, and relatively new for a film camera. I just like using the FM3a because mine is in very nice condition. Aside from the F2 (and F), the FE, FE2, and FM3A are my favorite Nikons, even though they aren’t pro level cameras.

Maybe you’re asking, “Is there a downside to the F2A”? Well, yes – I suppose you could say that it’s size and weight are downsides. All F2 bodies are very solid and all metal. They’re also a bit larger than the FE, FE2, or the FM3a type bodies. However, size and weight are not always negatives. I suppose I don’t enjoy carrying the F2 when I could carry and FE2 or FM3a – both much lighter and easier to carry – but the larger size and weight actually makes it a bit easier to hold the camera steady. Each person will have to decide this kind of thing for themselves.

So, enough of my camera philosophy, I’m going to take some photos with my F2A (and likely with my FE2 and FM3A as well) and see what they look like. It’s amazing that the F2A was released in 1977, which would make it 44 years old as I write this, and mine still works without a problem!