Another Look at the Nikon FE

I’ve been shooting a great deal with medium format lately. I’ve been trying to see how much image quality would improve with medium format, specifically 6×6 and 6×7. It can be better, but the size and weight of the equipment I have to carry around is getting more and more difficult as I get older. Still, I think it’s a worthy experiment to see what I’m capable of carrying, and how much better the quality can be – compared to 35mm or digital. With modern digital cameras being so good, I don’t think the quality of medium format film is better. There was a point 20 or so years ago, when digital just couldn’t match the resolution of film. The sensors just weren’t good enough. Today it’s very different. Large format may be able to produce quality to match the resolution of today’s 40 megapixel plus sensors, but I don’t think medium format can.

I think on my next trip I will take a medium format camera and film, but I’ll also take a 35mm film camera to walk around town with. That brings me to the question of which one. I hope this discussion will be helpful, especially if you’re thinking about getting a first film camera.

I’ve been thinking lately about the Nikon FE. I’ve compared it in the past with the FM, and the FE2. But is the FE still a good choice for walking around with, and general film photography?

Here’s a good article by Ken Rockwell explaining the Nikon FE in quite a bit of detail.

The FE has some definite weaknesses, compared to other similar cameras. It’s a bit older than the some, like the FE2, the FM2, the OM-4 to name a few. The newer bodies do have the advantage of time on their side. It’s generally better to get a newer camera if possible because parts do wear out. The older something is, the more likely it is to break or wear out. That being said, I will say that I’ve had very good luck finding Nikon FE cameras in good shape, that still should have many years of use in them. Here’s a few of the FE’s strong points.

First, even though this camera is from 1978, it has an electronic shutter – by today’s standards, a simple one, but it works, and my experience is that it works well, even after 43 or so years. The FE2 electronics were better, and newer, but the FE does work well the way it was made.

Second, this is a very beautiful camera, and it feels great in my hands. It’s very smooth feeling, and sounding. The fastest shutter speed is only 1/1000th of a second, but that doesn’t require as much tension on the shutter as the FE2. The shutter on the FE is much softer and quieter than the FE2 shutter – which, can shoot at up to 1/4000th of a second (which was pretty amazing for 1983). So there’s a reason for the higher tension shutter – but I just like the sound of the FE shutter better. And, honestly, for the kind of shooting around town, I don’t need the speed of the FE2. The Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 shutters are closer to the FE’s sound.

Third, the price of the FE on the used market is very desirable. I found a couple recently on eBay, in near mint condition, for under $100. That’s a great deal for this kind of camera. That’s pretty close to what an OM-1 will cost – and I love the OM bodies. However, the FE takes standard batteries, has an aperture priority auto mode, and (my opinion) is built a little better than the Olympus. I hate to even say it because I used an OM-1 for years, and loved it. However, an OM-1 is generally a bit older, and the batteries aren’t made anymore, and… well, I think the FE is just a better way to go if you’re thinking you want to shoot some film.

This isn’t really a fourth point, but just an interesting feature. The FE was introduced at the point when Nikon was updating their lenses, so the FE was capable of mounting the older lenses as well as the newer ai lenses. A nice little feature if you happen to find an older, non ai, lens at a garage sale or something. It will mount just fine and you can meter in stopped down mode with the older lenses on the FE.

Now, no matter what I say I like, or what I think sounds good, or feels good, it really comes down to how the photos look from the FE? I actually like the way the camera meters, and the selection of lenses Nikon made that work with the FE is impressive.

Anyway, here’s a few photos I’ve taken with my FE, so you can get a feel for what it can do. Generally shot on Kodak Portra film (160 or 400) using my 50mm or 24mm lenses (my favorites).

I’ve just been thinking about how nice this little camera is. If you’re thinking about a first film camera, I’d check out the Nikon FE. It’s a very simple, manual focus, 35mm film camera. It offers some nice features, like electronic shutter, exceptional choices for quality lenses, aperture priority auto exposure mode, and besides all that, it really looks good!