When you hold a heavy Nikon F you just feel like this monster could never be broken. That of course isn’t true. No camera is indestructible. Even the Nikon F sometimes suffers from stuck shutters and loose focal planes, but the reason I say it will outlive you is because it is an all mechanical camera that doesn’t depend on a battery or any kind of electronic whatsoever the way todays digital cameras and even most film cameras of the past do.
The History and Specs
In 1959, Nikon created their first Single Lens Reflex camera, the Nikon F. After the success of their Rangefinder line, they took the S3 along with the most popular features on the market at the time and turned it into an SLR. At the time SLR’s were slow and unpopular because the mirror would stay up after an exposure and wouldn’t come down until you advanced to the next frame. This changed with the Nikon F and the quick return mirror.
It also had a non-metered prism head viewfinder, and the body was very similar to its predecessor. If you put the S3 back to back with the F you’ll see the similarities right away.
The original prism head did not have a built in meter, but you could buy the Nikon meter that clipped on. These meters used selenium type cells and are hard to find still working today.
The Nikon F was made around the time when flash bulbs were mainly in use. When you pull up on the shutter speed dial and turn it, different colored dots and letters appear in the tiny window above it. Each dot and letter corresponds with a set of speeds on the dial making the Nikon F fully syncable with flash at all speeds. Electronic flash wasn’t developed until the end of production of these cameras, therefore most of the flash options are for the different types of bulbs that were around at the time and then one setting, FX, is for electronic flash.
The film counter includes a slider that reminds you if you’ve loaded a roll of 36 exposures or 20. The speed dial includes speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 full second and includes Bulb mode and Time mode for very long exposures if the 3-10 second self timer isn’t sufficient.
There is also a PC socket on the side where an electronic or bulb flash unit can be connected and cable releases that screw on to the shutter button are available as well.
Along with this new SLR came the new F-type bayonet mount that Nikon still uses today. At a time when the screw on M42 lenses were in popular demand, Nikon created their own efficient, and quick mounting lens system. I will be writing a blog in the future with more in depth details about the lenses because it is a topic worth its own article.
This camera was the choice of professionals at the time, and was often chosen as official equipment for newspapers and publishing houses, especially for journalists reporting on the Vietnam war. They would slap on a motor drive called the F-250 and shoot off 250 exposures of the horrors they witnessed.
A not so fun fact on the life sustainability of the Nikon F: So the time is 1968 and a photographer by the name of Don McCullin had seen it all in the thick of the Vietnam war. He was stationed at Prey Veng and the situation was more than bleak. He had seen all different forms of death in ways that haunted his dreams and realities, and he had been lucky to survive it to capture it. On this particular day, he went out to document the severity of his environment with his trusty Nikon F in hand, not knowing that death was waiting for him around the bend. A Cambodian solider quietly sized him up, prepared his AK-47 and shot the man point blank. However, God had other plans, and McCullin’s camera stopped the bullet that would have been certain death for him. This solid camera ultimately saved his life, so that can continue to capture photographer today at eighty-six years young! In respect of vintage cameras and everything analog, I can’t help but love what he said about the rise of digital photography. “Digital photography can be a totally lying experience – you can move what you want. The whole thing can’t be trusted really.”
The Nikon F is a modular system that allows you to customize it to your needs as a photographer. With the push of a button you can release the viewfinder and the focusing screen to replace them with whatever type you prefer. There were 21 focusing screens made, some standard and some for specific uses like the grid lined one for architectural photography.
In 1962 Nikon introduced their first metered prism, the Photomic. This one is now called the flag finder because the on/off switch was a flag shaped switch that lifted up and down to reveal the electric “Eye”. It didn’t have through the lens metering. It metered through a tube mounted on the head in front of the CDs cells that powered the meter. This tube narrowed the meters sensitivity and it also came with a screw on incident light meter attachment. Later the flag was replaced with a push button on/off switch.
As the years went on Nikon improved their meter heads and modified the body of the Nikon F to take the different meters they developed over the course of the cameras production until 1974 when the F2 took over completely.
The modified bodies are recognized by the red dot the factory placed next to the serial number. These models are very desirable for collectors. I will also be writing a blog in the future about all of the meters that were made for this camera, and my experiences with them.
In 1971, Nikon made the F2 to succeed the F, but the original was still seeing a lot of success and continued to be produced for three more years. These final F’s given by Nikon (pun intended), were the coined “Apollo” versions. There is no known connection to the Apollo space program other than it existed at the same time as the camera, and Nikon had made a camera especially for the program in the past. Other than that, the Nikon Apollo is just a Nikon F that now donned a black plastic tip on the advanced lever and self timer like its younger brother the F2.
The Nikon F is my favorite SLR. I love many Single Lens Reflex cameras, but the F is my first love. I first saw it on the Vintage Camera Collectors Facebook page in 2019 and it was love at first sight. I had never seen a modular camera before, and I just had to have one.
Aly Chiarello is a photography afficionado who reviews vintage cameras and the latest film. You can check her out At Aly’s Vintage Camera Alley!