The Studio C-41 Guide to the Nikon F Series
If there is a single camera system that changed the face of professional photography, that camera system is that of the Nikon F. Originally released in 1959 and started the trend of an adaptable and customisable camera system that could suit almost any situation and condition. It also changed many photographers’ views that maybe the SLR was better suited for professional and photojournalistic work and that Japanese optics were as good if not better than their German counterparts. The Nikon F series is vast, complex, and carries an excellent story. So in this article, we will break down the history of the entire F system from the original F to the modern F6.
- Pre-History (1889-1957)
- Nikon F (1959-1971)
- Nikon F2 (1971-1980)
- Nikon F3 (1980-2000)
- Nikon F4 (1988-1996)
- Nikon F5 (1996-2004)
- Nikon F6 (2004-2020)
- Choosing a Single-Digit Nikon
The Nikon F did not jump on the scene without a great deal of advancement within the photographic world. Rather it is a culmination of several other advances made across the world and spectrum of photography. While we could start with the inception of photography in its modern form, for the sake of time and writing, we’re going to start in 1889. Noted American inventor, Thomas Edison, employed an assistant, William K.L. Dickson. Dickson is credited with first decided to slit existing 70mm motion picture film stock in half to create the earliest forms of 35mm film. While the world continued to use larger film stocks, 35mm offered up the change for longer reels of film and smaller motion picture cameras. By the start of the 20th Century, some camera makers had started experimenting with 35mm film for still photography. Jules Richard’s Homeos camera being considered one of the earliest cameras to reach proper production that used 35mm saw release in 1913. While cameras were coming along, the optics were still in constant change and technology and understanding improved. In 1917 a small optical firm opened its doors for the first time in Tokyo, Nippon Kogoku. Nippon Kogoku would, within a year, build a state-of-the-art optical factory and, by 1921, begin production of various optical instruments such as microscopes and binoculars. In Germany, despite being crushed under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, noted optical company, Earnst Leitz GmbH, was looking towards the production of their first 35mm camera. Designer and inventory Oscar Barnack had started working on a small 35mm based camera before World War One (1913), a lover of nature; he also wanted something smaller and lighter than most cameras of the time. He also decided to run the film horizontally across the taking lens rather than vertically, as many of the period’s cameras were using. His prototype, the Ur-Leica (Leica standing for Leitz Camera), would see further refinement in the post-war and hit the market in 1925 as the Leica I. The Leica I became the first mass production 35mm camera and introduced the 36x24mm image format. Nippon Kogoku, in 1927, began the mass production of optical glass and used that to produce their first lens designed for photographic purposes, the Aero-Nikkor, in 1933. A year later, Eastman Kodak standardised the 35mm format with the 36x24mm image size, which we know today as the 135 formats; it also set the standard for sprocket hole size and spacing. The 135 format would lay the foundation for all future rangefinder cameras coming out of Germany. Ihagee would release the Kine Exakta in 1936, the first SLR to use 35mm film. World War Two proved devastating for both Germany and Japan, and in both cases, occupying forces decided to use the camera industry to rebuild the shattered economy. Japanese camera manufacturers looked to Germany for templates of new cameras. At the same time, Canon would use Leica cameras as their foundation (along with Nikkor lenses), Nippon Kogoku went with Zeiss Ikon Contax rangefinders. Nippon Kogoku selected Nikon’s name for their camera line, with the Nikon I being released in 1946. The Nikon I would be a far cry from their later offerings, using a modified Contax lens mount, a simple (and inexpensive) cloth shutter curtain and no flash sync, the real killer for success was the image format; the Nikon I used a 32x24mm frame size. The Nikon I hit the Japanese market in 1948, but these cameras were never sold outside the country due to the terms of the surrender and the fact the camera did not conform to the industry standard. While rangefinders remained popular, 35mm single-lens-reflex cameras were starting to take shape both in Japan and Germany. In 1949, Zeiss Ikon released the Contax S, an SLR that used a pentaprism finder for the first time. The pentaprism removed any issues with mirroring and inversions. What you saw in the viewfinder matched what your eyes saw. That same year, Nippon Kogoku released their second rangefinder, the Nikon M; it remained a Nikon I at the core but added flash sync and increased the frame size, but remained off-standard, the Nikon M remained a domestic camera only. In 1950, German camera maker, Ihagee, releases the Exakta Varex, a 35mm SLR that allowed photographers to swap out the prism finder with either a pentaprism or waist-level finder first in the camera world. The Nikon S hit the market in 1951. Nippon Kogoku had finally got their ducks in a row and released a rangefinder that could be exported. And the camera was a hit, with standard frame size, quality optics, flash sync and plenty of options for a winder, an external meter, plus quality construction. It also helped change many minds on Japanese optics, specifically that they could stand up to German optics. The development of photographic technology only sped up by 1954. The Ashaiflex IIb introduced an instant return mirror. Two years later, the Zeiss Ikon Contax F saw an automatic aperture where the lens aperture would close down to the set aperture when the shutter release is pressed. Around this time, the bayonet, rather than a screw mount, started to become popular among interchangeable lens SLRs; these mounts had been used for decades on rangefinders. In 1957, the Nikon SP hit the market, Nippon Kogoku hit its stride. The SP is held up as the ultimate Nikon rangefinder. The SP features a near-silent shutter, a universal viewfinder with a combined rangefinder with six illuminated frame lines for six different focal lengths and even a 3fps motor drive. The stage had now been set.
Nikon F (1959-1971)
While the rangefinder remained the popular camera among professionals, Nippon Kogoku began to see the value and growing popularity of the SLR. Taking nearly a century of development into account and using the Nikon SP as a foundation, Nippon Kogoku began to develop an SLR of their own. Designers removed the old lens mount and rangefinder section, building instead a new mirror box and including a new bayonet mount, the F-Mount. To ensure photographers had good optics, they also ported over five lens designs to the new lens mount. The Nikon F featured total customization, with two eye-level prism finders and two waist-level finders, fourteen focusing screens, and a motor drive. Nippon Kogoku also designed a 250-Shot magazine with a proprietary motor drive to run the massive film back. Photographers could also add a selenium exposure meter. The first major update to the F came in 1962 with the introduction of the Photomic finder, this allowed photographers to add a metered prism finder that uses a CdS cell, but was not Thru-The-Lens (TTL), but did allow for match-needle coupled metering. The meter connected to the lens via a ‘claw’ on the aperture ring. The next update came in 1965, the Photomtic T finder added TTL metering but remained similar in specifications to the original finder. The Photomic Tn came out in 1967 which swapped out for the classic centre-weighted metering using a 60/40 ratio (something that would stick with many Nikon SLRs for many years). The final update to the Nikon F came in 1968 with the Photomic FTn, this became the most common finder next to the un-metered prisms. The FTn prism would be a massive leap forward to make up for the new lenses being added to the Nikkor lineup. The FTn used the same centre-weighted metering but allowed photographers to set film speeds between ASA-6 and ASA-6400 and accept lenses with maximum apertures between f/1.2 and f/5.6 and minimum apertures down to f/32. The Nikon F would go into space aboard NASA spacecraft and introduce the idea of a system camera for a 35mm SLR. Of course, the Nikon F did have some troubles, first off, to load and unload film you remove the entire back of the camera, a throwback to the Nikon SP. There is also no standard hot-shoe, instead, there’s a set of contacts and rails over the film rewind knob, which requires proprietary flash units. The shutter release did not have the standard cable release socket. Over the course of their decade in service, the Nikon F went through several design changes, with five different film advance leavers, three accessory shoe insulators, six self-timer leavers, five mirror-box designs, and two rewind fork designs.
Nikon F2 (1971-1981)
The users of the Nikon F spoke, and Nippon Kogoku listened. The Nikon F was far from a perfect camera and had many design issues owing to the design being based on the Nikon SP rangefinder. There was also the matter of electronic metering being added as an afterthought, not to mention the constant design change over the course of its service life. Designers considered all these things when designing the replacement for the F. The Nikon F2 released in 1971 kept many of the F’s good parts but produced an SLR that was more in line with other 35mm SLRs of the day. They maintained the system’s highly customizable nature and even allowed some level of backward compatibility with accessories for the F. The new F2 offered up a rounder body, traditional swing back for film loading and unloading and a far more comfortable film advance lever. They also designed the system to have metering from the start, moving the battery holder to the bottom of the camera and using the new (and less toxic) silver oxide battery. The on/off switch was with a partial pull of the film advance lever. The initial release saw two un-metered eye-level finders, the DE-1 and DA-1 and an unmetered waist-level finder, DW-1. But there was also a metered head, the DP-1, which carried over the same specifications as the Photomic FTn. An F2 equipped with a DP-1 finder is better known as the F2 Photomic. You could choose from thirteen focusing screens and make use of all F-Mount lenses. Again a 250-shot magazine was available, and the MD-2 motor drive with an additional power pack. Nippon Kogoku also attempted to use the F2 to drive an early attempt at an autofocus lens, but that stayed mainly as a prototype and was not widely available. There was also a high-speed version and special edition Titan (with Titanium elements). Nikon also maintained the proprietary accessory shoe. In 1973 the DP-2 metering head saw released that used LEDs instead of a match needle to help set the exposure, and known as the F2S. These first two metered heads continued to use a CdS cell. The next release, the DP-3, used the new Silicon Blue Cells. These cameras were F2SB. The F-Mount got an upgrade in 1977 with the introduction of the AI or aperture indexing. Nikkor lenses had always used a semi-automatic aperture indexing through the use of the now-iconic claw for a direct mechanical linkage; the new AI system used a follower on the lens mount proper (which was added to later SLRs, but not the F2) and a cutout in the aperture ring on the lens. Since they could not help older users update their camera bodies, they produced the DP-11 metering head to add that needed follower; the F2A returned to a match needle, which quickly changed with the DP-12 head that saw LEDs F2AS. While the F2 were mechanical cameras and fully manual, Nippon Kogoku designed a series of semi-automatic accessories that worked with the DP-2, DP-3, and DP-12 heads to turn your F2 into a shutter-priority semi-automatic exposure camera. But even before the F2 was halfway through its production cycle, the photography world was moving forward, especially with the introduction of semi-automatic exposure and electronics. They had toyed with this in their Nikkormat EL followed by the EL2 and Nikon FE; they maintained their fully manual professional cameras.
Nikon F3 (1980-2000)
Nippon Kogoku began designing their next professional SLR in 1974, but these early designs retained much of the design elements of the F2. The world also was moving on from the idea of heavy mechanical cameras. Companies like Canon, Minolta, and especially Olympus began to bring out smaller, sleek, and automatic cameras into the market. And the professional F’s had to start playing catchup. The problem remained that they had excellent camera engineers but lacked any real industrial design. For this, they turned to noted industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giogiano would design a now-iconic camera, compressing the design, removing the angles and opting for an all-black design. And most important, adding a red stripe. The new F3 would move the metering elements into the camera body and use an electronic shutter. This meant that the camera needed to have the power to function fully with only a single 1/90″ mechanical backup. Moving the SBC metering into the camera body allowed for smaller metering heads and allowed all finders to access metering. And the F3 also took advantage of the AI and AI-S lenses with the follower added to the lens mount. However, a small switch allowed the follower to be moved out of the way to let photographers mount their Auto-Nikkor (Pre-AI) lenses but reduced to stopped-down metering. The F3 offered up five different finders, the DE-2 and the far more popular DE-3 or “High-Point” finder; there was also the DA-3 action finder. And two waist-level finders, DW-3 and DW-4. Plus the usual plethora (twenty-three) of focusing screens, the MD-4 motor drive and a 250-Shot magazine. The camera would come primarily in black, but they did offer up a Titanium version in a champaign colour. A press version or F3P came with a modified DE-3 finder, the DE-5, that included a standard hot shoe. They also produced a high-speed version, the F3H, with a modified MD-4H designed to only work together and produced a blistering 13fps. Lucasfilms would take the F3H and MD-4H and make further modifications to bring it up to 30fps to film the minecart scene in The Temple of Doom. Despite many looking down their noses at the electronics of the F3, it opened up far more options for advances. The F3 became the first semi-successful autofocus camera from Nikon, the F3AF. A special finder, the DX-1, would help a lens figure out the focus distance then an internal motor in the lens would adjust the focus. Nikon only released two lenses initially, an 80mm and 200mm, as these were the ones most used by sports and action photographers with plans to release more. But the system never proved popular enough and became a dead-end. Kodak also got their hands on an F3 in 1991 and built their first commercially available digital SLR, the DCS-100, around an F3. The production of the F3 would continue until 2000, all while Nikon (as they became known in 1985) released two other successor cameras.
Nikon F4 (1988-1997)
Despite having a non-starter with the F3AF, Nikon would in 1986 produce their first commercially successful autofocus camera, the F-501 (N2020), in 1986. Like the Nikkormat EL beforehand that introduced the idea of a semi-automatic electronic camera to the Nikon family, the F-501 autofocus would be moved to the professional SLR in 1988 with the F4. Nikon designers began working on the F4 in 1985 with two wildly different designs; the resulting F4 changed the shape of Nikon professional SLRs forever. Again, using the designer Giugiaro to create a beautiful camera that carried some of the best ergonomics still lauded today. Nikon F4 and adding autofocus, F4 introduced the idea of evaluative or matrix metering first pioneered in the Nikon FA. A TTL Phase detection system drove the autofocus system in the AM200 module and an internal screw-drive autofocus motor. This is the move that orphaned the F3AF system, which would not mount or work on anything other than an F3AF. While the F4 would be designed for autofocus lenses, these retained that AI and AI-S system for aperture indexing, and the camera would readily accept the older manual focus lenses and retained the capacity for stopped-down metering with pre-AI lenses with a release switch to move the AI follower out of the way. While the camera maintained all mechanical and manual controls and dial, the metering heads added in more LCD screens. The primary prism head for the F4 was the DP-20 which allowed for matrix metering, the DA-20 action finder could use only spot or centre-weighted metering, and the two waist-level finders (DW-20 and DW-21) used only spot metering. While the F4 had an internal film advance, Nikon offered up three different grips. The MB-20 used only four AA batteries and provided a top speed of 4fps. The MB-21 upped the number of AA batteries to six and upped the top speed to 5.7fps it also added a vertical shutter release. The far larger MB-23 used the same specs as the MB-21 but included using the MN-20 battery pack. Nikon offered up ten different focusing screens, but only two had a split-screen finder to help with manual focusing. All the improvements in electronics allowed Nikon to include several new databacks that, in some cases, unlocked some notable features. The MF-22 back acted only as a date, but the far more advanced MF-23 offered some exciting features. The MF-23, in addition to imprinting the date, would also imprint frame numbers, exposure data (EXIF) between the frames. It also allowed for ultra-long exposure, auto-bracketing, focus freeze, and an interval timer. The MF-24 is an MF-23 but includes a 250-shot magazine. You could get a 250-shot magazine without an MF-24. Nikon only offered up a single variant, the F4s Professional, the only difference being it added two different shutter speeds, 1/350″ and 1/750″. NASA also used a highly modified F4 to build the world’s first all-digital image capture, the Electonic Still Camera (ESC), that would fly on the Space Shutter; fifteen bodies were modified, three complete systems were made.
Nikon F5 (1996-2004)
If you have seen the two different options for the initial designs of the Nikon F4, once will look oddly familiar to Nikon’s next release in the professional SLR line, the Nikon F5. The F5 radically changed many things that the users of the professional F’s once offered. While the earlier versions had slowly slipped into single version configuration, the F5 sealed that up with a single big body. The F4 acted as a bridge between the old and new; the F5 embraced electronics with knobs, dials, screens, and menus like no other. It also took on the idea that all exposure functions are controlled from the camera with command dials. An idea first introduced with the F-401. The single integrated body offered up any photographer the blistering specifications of the F5 with a top shutter speed of 1/8000″ and 8fps burst. Nikon included their new Multi-CAM1300 autofocus module and their latest 3D Colour Matrix Metering system. To access this advanced metering system, photographers could use either the stock DP-30 finder or DA-30 action finder. Surprisingly Nikon offered up two waist-level finders, the DW-30 and DW-31, but these were limited to centre-weighted or spot metering only. Nikon also killed off the possibility of adding a 250-shot magazine. While the camera would mount AI and AI-S lenses, they could only work with Centre-Weighted and Spot Metering, and there was no option to mount pre-AI lenses. There were two databacks, the MF-27, which allowed date, frame, and EXIF imprinting, and the more advanced MF-28 that acted similar to the MF-23 with a range of features unlocked, such as 9-frame auto-bracketing, exposure up to 1,000 hours, and interval shooting. Nikon would use the base of the F5 to build their first professional digital SLR, the D1. And these days, you can still see the design of the F5 right into the D5.
Nikon F6 (2004-2020)
The Nikon F6 is an interesting beast, built when most professional photographers had transitioned to digital; the F6 offered up that same rich shooting experience as most Nikon digital SLRs but continued to use traditional 35mm film. The F6 is the film camera for primarily digital shooters. It was introduced after the discontinuation of the F5 in 2004 and aimed less at professionals but more at a luxury market. The F6 included many of the same advances Nikon had in their digital cameras, such as the Multi-CAM2000 autofocus module and the latest 3D Colour Matrix Metering. It also allowed for Colour Matrix Metering with all lenses, including AI and AI-S glass. The F6 could not mount pre-AI lenses. The F6 offered up minor modifications; it removed the integrated grip, allowing photographers to choose to add an MB-40 grip. The F6 also stored EXIF data that could be kept to a Compact Flash card using an MV-1 data reader. The film back offers up all the advanced features that the MF-28 offered to the F5, and your camera could accept seven different focusing screen. It also has the infamy of being the final 35mm SLR to be made by Nikon and was cancelled in the fall of 2020.
Choosing Your Single-Digit F
Now that you have an idea of the different choices out there from the professional Nikon F line, what things should you consider when purchasing such a camera. The Nikon F line dates from 1959-2020, and there are many different things to consider when choosing to purchase such a camera. Despite being a long-lasting camera system, even some of the oldest options are still spectacular cameras. That said, there are always a few things to look at when deciding to purchase a professional Nikon F. Like any camera system, the first thing you need to look at is your existing lens kit. Now the Nikon F-Mount has changed somewhat since its inception in 1959, notably being the AI(-S) in 1977 and Autofocus, and within the realm of AF, there is the original AF-D, AF-G, and AF-E. But Nikon also included in many cases backwards compatibility within all their lenses. If you have a large selection of Pre-AI lenses, it will probably be best to stick to the Nikon F, F2, F3, and F4 cameras. If you run with more AI and AI-S lenses, any professional F’s are a good option, including the F, F2, F3, F4, F5, and F6. Make sure that before using these AI/AI-S lenses when you’re working with older metering heads that require direct coupling (the claw), which are not available on all these lenses, the 50mm f/1.8 pancake and all Series E lenses. You will lose some functionality in the F5 and F6 notable the 3D Colour Matrix Metering, but the F6 does allow for Colour Matrix Metering. If you run with AF lenses, things get a little more sticky; All AF lenses are also AI-S lenses, which means that you can, in theory, use them on later F2 (F2A and F2AS) along with F3, F4, F5, and F6. But with the F2A, F2AS, F3, and F4, you want to stick with AF and AF-D lenses, as these retain a manual aperture ring so you can continue to use the lens fully and properly with these cameras as they are either manual (F2A, F2AS), aperture priority (F3), or full PSAM but rely on manual controls (F4). Now the AF-G have that aperture ring removed, which means you are limited to the F5 and F6 for total control. You can mount and use AF-G on the F4, but you’ll be limited to Program and Shutter-Priority mode. The newest lens type from Nikon AF-E or Type E (Not Series E) use an electronic aperture, and things are unclear if these will work on film bodies but don’t count on compatibility.
Now that we have the mess that is the Nikon lens system cleared up, we can start looking at the cameras. As I mentioned earlier, every model of the professional Nikon SLR series is excellent. I have had the privilege of shooting every camera in the system. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. To make your life easier I’m going to walk through these in chronological order. The original Nikon F, despite being first released in 1959, remains a solid camera option today, if you have a lot of pre-ai lenses and don’t mind the idea of full-back removal for film loading, then the Nikon F is a good choice. But these cameras are starting to get a little old and are running into mechanical issues. Thankfully they are easily repaired by a skilled camera technician. The biggest thing you’ll find is that the Nikon Fs that have an unmetered head will cost more than the ones with metered heads. Now the metered heads are using old sensors and technology and often will not work, and even if they do work, getting your hands on a proper battery is impossible these days. The Photomic heads (T, Tn, and FTn) all use mercury cells. You can use modern cells if you like or have them modified by a technician. Some techs can even update the head to accept a modern cell and install an SBC cell to replace the CdS cell. If you want something a little more modern that can still use your pre-ai lenses is a Nikon F2, like the F, the unmetered versions are far more expensive than the ones with the metered heads. Thankfully the F2 takes modern cells and despite their age, many metering will still work. The oldest metered head, the DP-1, is the least expensive, with the DP-12 (F2AS) being the most expensive. Again, any F2 remains a solid mechanical camera and are still easily serviced by a trained technician or specifically Sover Wong who remains the world’s F2 Master. The one unique part of the F and F2 is that you can easily swap out metered heads and accessories to turn your F2 Photomic into an F2AS or an F2SB with a dead metered head into a simple F2. In both cases, the special editions will always command a higher price on the used market.
If you’re more in line with electronic cameras and desire some form of auto-exposure then maybe the Nikon F3 or F4 are more in line with your photography. The oldest of these two is the Nikon F3, these will accept both AI(-S) lenses and Pre-AI lenses. But also you don’t need to use lenses with the claw to meter. Despite their age, the F3 remains a solid and iconic camera, most radio sound effects for cameras are either the Canon AE-1 or the Nikon F3 with MD-4 motor drive. But the F3 were also heavily used and many are starting to feel their age far more than older mechanical ones. And given that they have far more electronic components make them a little harder to repair these days. But the F3 does give a classic look and can be had at a fairly inexpensive price. You will want to look for models equipped with the High-Point prism finder and also keep an eye out for LCD leaks as the shutter speed is displayed on such a screen inside the viewfinder. Now, if you’re the type who uses a hybrid of autofocus and manual focus lenses then the F4 is probably the best to both worlds. It retains all the functions for both an autofocus and manual focus lens, allows for some level of support from even the modern AF-G lenses and adds in matrix metering. The autofocus will be slow compared to modern cameras. You will probably want to look for either a stock F4 or F4s as they allow for stock support of AA batteries. But also note that the grips can be swapped out along with prism finders.
The last two models to consider are the most modern of the professional SLRs, the F5 and F6. If you are a digital shooter than these are the cameras that will give you the best experience. The F5 being a little older maintains full support for manual focus and autofocus lenses and total use of AF-G lenses. The F5 is the least expensive of the two operations and has dropped in price since the news of the cancellation of the F6. The F6 will give you a completely digital experience and many of the technologies that went into digital SLRs are included even the menu system will respond similar. If you want to get the best bang for your buck, save up your money and purchase an F6, you might even be able to find new-in-box options. But if you want something with a lot more heft then maybe the F5. Either way the best place to pick up your used Nikon Fs is through our partner KEH. They offer excellent prices and well graded used equipment. And they can also add on period appropriate lenses if you’re looking to build a system from the ground up.