Nikon F – A Classic SLR, But Is It Worth Using Today?

In 1965 the Nikon F was the envy of photojournalists everywhere. I have to clarify things a bit. The 35mm film camera was not considered the camera to use if you were shooting studio models, portraits, advertising layouts, or landscapes. The 35mm negative is way too small to produce the quality needed for a full-page advertisement in Look magazine. However, if you were a journalist and were traveling with photo equipment, this was your baby. The Nikon F was rugged, a full system camera, and not much larger or heavier than the Leica you used to carry.

When shooting 35mm film, you have to understand, you will have grain, and your images likely won’t be as sharp, or detailed as medium or large format images (or digital images for that matter). That’s just the way it is. The 35mm negative is relatively small. That fact alone is one of the Nikon F’s biggest reasons for success. But first, let’s explore some history.

Before we had the internet, and cell phones (with cameras), we relied on journalists traveling the world photographing wars and uprisings and anything else that was “newsworthy”, and then “wiring” their photos to the news agencies that would publish them in print for the whole world to read. In the late 70’s I did freelance work for the Associated Press. I was in college, and I was just learning how all this worked. I was fortunate enough to have some of my photos wired to newspapers around my state. At the time I was living in Pittsburgh and took photos of local politicians speaking and other local happenings. One of the photos I remember taking was a photo of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s a copy of my photo.

It was exciting for me to take a photo of someone famous – in Pittsburgh in the 70’s nothing much exciting happened. I took this photo with a 35mm SLR camera (I could only dream of owning a Nikon F back then). I believe I was shooting Tri-X, and there is grain, and it is contrasty – but for printing in a newspaper, that was good. If I were shooting digital at 35 megapixels with a modern camera, the image printed in a newspaper would have looked the same as the photo I took back in 1978. Newspapers weren’t printed at a very high resolution, so high image quality would have made no difference. My ability to jump into a situation, get a photo, develop the negatives, make an 8×10 print, and wire it around the state, the country or the world in a matter of minutes was critically important, and did make a difference. I think this photo of Mrs. King took me maybe 5 minutes. Then this event was over, and I ran up to the AP office, developed my film, found the best image, printed and wired it. It took less than an hour to get the image out. In today’s journalism culture, images are taken with a phone and sent to the office, to be used in any number of ways, almost instantly. In the 70’s we weren’t all connected like today.

So, now that you have a tiny bit of context, and understand the sweet spot the Nikon F filled, maybe we can think about its value today.

I collect old cameras – so it’s of value to me just to own one. As a collector, the mechanics of these cameras and how they worked – and still work – is amazing. So, that’s something, but what if I want to take photos with one of these dinosaurs of photography?

Whenever I talk about film to other photographers, I feel like I’m treated poorly. I feel like they don’t regard film photography as good enough, or that the quality is poor, or it’s just a waste of time. Maybe there’s some bit of truth in what they’re saying, but I sure don’t consider it a waste of time. In fact, if you’re serious about studying photography, and becoming a better photographer, I think it’s critically important to understand the history of photography (and art in general). It makes it easier to understand the history if you can understand the techniques used by earlier photographers.

So, there’s one benefit of using the Nikon F – it will help you understand photography as an art better if you understand film and how film works. That’s true of more cameras than just the Nikon F. So, is there something special about the F? Something that makes it worth my time and effort to specifically take photos with a Nikon F?

First, the Nikon F is an amazingly simple piece of equipment. It’s totally mechanical (except for the light meter in the Photomic finder) and it’s extremely reliable. I have a few F bodies, and all work either perfectly, or have only minor problems. I will say the one thing I have experienced that damages these mechanical cameras most is excessive moisture. The inner workings of these cameras can take a lot of use without damage, but moisture seems to be the one thing that will do the most damage. Naturally, dropping a camera into the ocean would be a problem, but what I’ve noticed is many of these cameras that have spent a great deal of their life in tropical climates. Without protection from the humidity and the moist weather conditions, they can become very corroded inside. They may still operate relatively well, but I’ve tried to have work done to get shutter speeds accurate (the low speeds are usually the problem) and it’s virtually impossible or not practical if there’s too much internal corrosion. So, if you do look for one of these cameras, try to find one that hasn’t spent too much time in the jungle! Some sellers are very good at cleaning them up on the outside, but when you open them up you see something completely different.

Second, besides being very simple, the Nikon F is a precision instrument. It’s interesting that camera makers, and Nikon in particular, made such precise instruments, but built them to withstand heavy use, and even abuse. Other optical devices, like microscopes and telescopes are precision optical instruments, but most could never take the beating Nikon F cameras have been put through and remain usable. That’s another thing about the Nikon F that’s amazing – it’s toughness and durability.

And, ultimately, to be worth using, the Nikon F should be capable of producing decent images. Well, is it? Let’s take a look at some…

Many of these example photos might be what you would consider landscape or architectural. Keep in mind, for purely artistic or journalistic/documenting purposes, this camera might be well suited. However, as far as image quality, and high resolution, this camera is not made for that. Small format film will not provide the sharpness and resolution that digital will, but that’s not always a negative. I don’t think digital can duplicate film grain or film colors/shades exactly. Modern films provide better dynamic range than older films did – and that’s a good thing, but the qualities of film are just different than digital can provide. You can still shoot film and get some very nice landscape and portrait photos by using medium or large format film, but that’s for another post.

Now, you might ask if I’d use one of these cameras… well, I would. I like, at least to have the ability, to use every camera I collect. Now, some make it harder than others, but the Nikon F is very simple, and many have shutters that are still accurate today without any repairs or adjustments, and can be found relatively inexpensively online, from thrift shops, or in estate sales. I would definitely use this camera when I’m hiking or in the city taking some shots in the street. Like I mentioned at the start of this post, if you’re looking for high resolution and high-quality images – like for portraiture or landscapes, well this might not be the right tool. However, for casual photos of people or scenery, you can get some very nice images with the Nikon F.

If you ever find one, and it’s not too expensive, I’d say give it a try. Chances are, if you find one someplace, it will still be working just like it was back in the 60’s.