Finally getting back to SLR’s

I’ve had my share of mood swings. At some point I was only into rangefinders and swore never to touch an SLR again. I’ve never owned Nikons before though. A while back, I got a chance to buy a very reasonably priced Nikon FE body and thus I’m back at the SLR game again. 

Because Ken Rockwell already has an excellent review of the Nikon FE and I don’t want to copy-paste the most obvious specs from Wikipedia, I’ll be giving my very informal and liberal impressions of the camera.


Even though I like rangefinder cameras very much, I really wanted to have at least one SLR in my collection. I’ve previously owned few Olympus and Canon SLR’s. They’ve all been great cameras but somehow not completely satisfying. There’s always some quirk that puts me off. For a long time I though there wasn’t such a thing as a perfect camera. That was of course before I got my Leica. That’s when I realised such cameras do indeed exist. The problem was how ever, which SLR would provide the same feeling. I decided to look into Nikons. I didn’t have any particular model in mind, but when a friend told me he had a spare FE, I saw a good opportunity to finally get acquainted with the brand. My only specifications boiled down to the age of the camera. I mostly like 1970’s SLR’s and preferably mechanical shutters. Nikon FE is as 70’s as they go, but with electronically controlled shutter. But what the hell, I’m not going to be nit-picky about it. I like all kind of cameras. At least it features an aperture priority shooting mode, which is a nice chance of pace as opposed to my usual manual shooting routine.

At some point in my life, I was completely fanatic about shooting only manual, but at the moment I don’t mind too much. Automatic shooting mode is sometimes really nice to have, even though it’s not my favourite method. The only thing I’d really appreciate, would be a half-press operated AE-lock on the shutter button. If the camera has automated exposure modes, it’s absolutely critical that the metering can be chosen selectively and locked in. Nikon FE does indeed have an AE-lock, but it’s ergonomically very awkwardly positioned, not to the shutter button, but to the self-timer lever, that must be pushed towards the lens. There’s no indication in the viewfinder either, to indicate which shutter speed has been locked in. It works, but could be better refined. As long as I have the control to choose where to meter from, I don’t mind shooting at auto.

Size and ergonomics

Nikon FE isn’t the biggest SLR, but definitely not the smallest one either. For my taste it’s a bit beefy, because I’m a stubborn rangefinder shooter, who really appreciates an easy carry. My Leica M6, even though quite heavy, travels very nicely around my neck. It kind of disappears during the day, like wearing a wrist watch. Nikon FE is one or two steps less carriable and I’ll have to make a conscious effort on picking it up and dragging it along. That is to say, it is not going to be my first choice as an every day carry.

Ergonomics are how ever just fantastic. This is exactly the button layout that I want. Even though I enjoy the shutter speed collar on the Olympus OM system, I can’t help but admitting that I like the traditional shutter speed dial on the top plate.

My only complaint as a Nikon newbie is the dreaded shutter lock mechanism. I really don’t need a shutter lock usually in any camera and Nikon has the most annoying one of them all. The film advance lever locks the shutter when pressed back to it’s position. The camera will fire only (when cocked, of course) and the advance lever pulled out from the body, so that it sticks out enough for your thumb to fit between. It’s going to take me a long time to get used to this…

Build quality

Whenever a camera is as sturdy as this, reviewers describe it being built like a tank. I wasn’t planning to use the same description yet again, but there’s no other way of saying it… it is built like a tank.

How ever, the build quality isn’t nearly as nice as you’d expect from a well made camera. It certainly feels more rugged than most similar Canons, but the fit and finish is pretty far from super-precision machining. On a scale of 1–10, I’d say it deserves 8. (On this scale Leica M3 would be 10 and Canon AE-1 about 5.) The camera feels kind of solid, but then again some parts gives in under your grip and there’s some amount of play, panel gaps etc. I’m sure it would still work after being run over by an actual tank, but at the same time it’s the kind of camera that almost sounds like a percussion instrument of some sort, when you shake it. My lens of choice (Nikkor 35mm f2 AI-s) shares the same feature. In a way very solid, but everything feels very rattly and loose, like holding a maraca. The emphasis in the engineering and build has clearly been durability and reliability. It isn’t meant to be pretty. When you hold this camera and think who would use it, a war photographer instantly comes to mind.

The lens

As mentioned, I acquired Nikkor 35mm f2 AI-s lens to go with the body. Man, what a beast it is! It may not give the nicest sounding clicks and the focusing ring is loose as heck. There’s basically no resistance while turning it and it feels more like a ball-bearing than a focusing helicoid. It felt funny at first but I immediately realised just how fast a lens like this is to focus. Nikon has again prioritised functionality and usability over how nice something feels or looks.  

The lens also happens to render absolutely beautiful images — I mean really, really beautiful images. So much artistic potential. The hilarious thing is the price. I saw one at Kamerastore.com with the price tag of 115€. Unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is the fact that I managed to trade it for my hideous Yashica T3, which I got for free some time ago.

The lens isn’t perhaps as small as I would like, but that’s again my inner rangefinder proponent talking. It certainly isn’t the biggest either. But man do I love the rendering!

Being able to focus as close as 0.3m also feels extremely refreshing and liberating after shooting only rangefinders for a while. As you may know, rangefinder lenses typically can’t focus closer than 0.7—1m, which is sometimes a huge bummer.

Sample images

After giving such high praises to the lens, I think some sample images might be in order. These photos are shot with this particular setup on Ilford Pan F+ 50 at EI 25, with a red filter. Developed in D-76 and scanned with the crappiest Epson scanner available (V330). This is black and white photography at it’s best. Beautiful images straight from the development tank — no tweaking or photoshopping needed. I can’t even begin to describe how much satisfaction I get from organic results like these.

Conclusion

There’a about million things I could mention about the camera, but I’m keeping this post short and sweet. After all, I’m quite new with the camera and I don’t want to pretend like I know everything about it. I really just wanted to give you my first impression about it and get back with another post after being acquainted with it properly. It’s not a perfect camera, as it usually tends to be. There are some really good and bad things about it, but all in all, I think this is at the moment pretty much the closest thing to a SLR camera that I really want to use. I’m excited about it and very inspired to shoot with it. For the most parts, I like how the camera works, it’s well designed, though out and build. The viewfinder is nice and clear and you can just feel how capable it actually is, just by holding it.