Stefano Pasini

Why a Nikon 'F'?


Some friend asks me why do I love so much old Nikons, and especially the ‘F’. Surpassed by the pro film cameras that came when the electronics began to take care of focus and exposure, they are totally obsolete now that the world is digital; old 'single-digit' pro Nikons are just relics of a very distant past, they say. And why the 'F'? After all, this camera didn’t even introduce any absolute ‘first’ in the history of photography; the real innovators were others.



“A number of these features (of the ‘F’, Ed.) were first introduced by other manufacturers:

1903: The first 35 mm camera, "the Ambrosio Camera"

1925: Oskar Barnack's Leica mass-produces a 35 mm camera.

1936: The first 35 mm SLR with bayonet mounted interchangeable lenses, the Kine Exakta.

1949: The first camera with a pentaprism viewfinder, the Contax S.

1950: The first SLR with interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens, the Exakta Varex.

1954: The first camera with instant-return mirror, the Asahiflex IIb.

1956: The first SLR with an internally activated automatic diaphragm release, the Contax F.

…The Nikon F evolved from a rangefinder camera, the Nikon SP. In the trial model, based on the body of the Nikon SP, the mirror box was inserted in the central part. Only the three principal components, mirror box, pentaprism and bayonet mount, were newly developed, and the other components were virtually identical to those in SP/S3."


Other cameras are probably better and have style: I own several Hasselblads and Leicas, and they are superb. I also acknowledge the existence of many other wonderful machines that have a strong appeal on collectors, especially when they show a special character, like the fascinatingly unconventional Swiss machines built by Alpa, the photographic equivalent of Bristol’s brilliantly idiosyncratic Aerodynes.


 On the other hand, digital technology has progressed to such an extent that my Huawei phone incorporates a 12Mb camera designed by Leica that offers a superb performance with all the convenience of something that you always carry with you. Somebody therefore finds it amazing that I still occasionally take the trouble to use some of my old cameras or to update my own collection with the latest release of professionals DSLRs from Nikon, buying occasionally old lenses and ASLRs from afar.


Larry Burrows and his Nikons

Larry Burrows

Steve McQueen

Jim Clark

Brigitte Bardot


Asking why one loves old Nikons, however, show a basic non-understanding of the iconic value of these magnificent cameras. I'm not alone; the world loves early Fs with a vengeance, keeping the values of those ancient mechanical workhorses comparatively high while their contemporaries are worth pennies. Part of the fascination that exudes from a classic worn-out F is well illustrated by the pictures above and below, each one of them telling a story that a man of my age, grown during the turbulent Sixties and Seventies, cannot but love. The message that comes out of them is clear: the Nikon F was, and still is, the photographic icon of the Sixties and Seventies, exactly as a Leica was THE camera to own from the Thirties to the Fifties.


David Hemmings, from Blow-Up

Gina Lollobrigida


Wikipedia again:


"....A combination of design elements made the Nikon F successful. It had interchangeable prisms and focusing screens; the camera had a depth-of-field preview button; the mirror had lock-up capability; it had a large bayonet mount and a large lens release button; a single-stroke ratcheted film advance lever; a titanium-foil focal plane shutter; various types of flash synchronization; a rapid rewind lever; a fully removable back. It was well-made, durable, and adhered closely to the successful design scheme of the Nikon rangefinder cameras.

The Apollo 15 (NASA) Nikon F with FTn Photomic prism and motor drive, usable for extra-vehicular activity, was the first 35 mm SLR on the lunar orbit.

The Nikon F also had interchangeable backs and a viewfinder showing 100% of the image. Motor drives to advance the film, F36 (36 exposure) or F250 (250 exposure), were available, but required the replacement of the underside of the body. The F36 was not too dissimilar from the motor drive which was available for the SP…” puts it even better:


"...The Nikon F put everything together: rapid lever wind (with motor-drive option), instant return mirror, auto-diaphragm lenses, single shutter speed dial with a full range of speeds, interchangeable viewfinders and quick, easy bayonet-mount lens changing. Its nearest rival was probably the 1953 Praktina, but only when equipped with a motor drive (to get the instant-return mirror). The F was a boxy, brutal machine, but nearly indestructible and equipped from the start with a wide range of first-class lenses. Astonishingly they managed to progress from a coupled, clip-on selenium meter in 1959 to a through-lens meter built into the interchangeable pentaprisms, the original Photomic T-head of 1965."

The keywords here are 'boxy', 'brutal' and 'indestructible'. Not charming, perhaps. Great design Guru Stephen Bayley remarks that '..a hard and grumbling Porsche 911, the famous Neunelfer which Enzo Ferrari said came from a manufacturer not of racing cars, but of missiles...has the winning looks that weapons also enjoy. And weapons are rarely charming. No-one...has ever said, ‘What an absolutely charming rocket-propelled grenade launcher you have there.’ Indeed, the F cannot be described as 'charming', its ruthless efficiency being directly comparable to that of a weapon. Thus, it is not suprising that combat photographers were among the first professional users of the F and made it famous. It was clear that the F was the only camera that could be used on the battlefield as a practical alternative to the classic Leica M3 but was even better being cheaper, sturdier, more reliable and offering, as a reflex, the possibility to fit lenses from 6mm to 2000mm. It was a combat photographer’s perfect companion, one that you can trust when you are at war (and Larry Burrows, Kent Potter, Keisaburo Shimamoto and Henri Huet, when they were shooting pics in Cambodia, sneaking through the Ho Chi Minh trail or trying to survive in Khe Sahn, were part of that war, no question: they were killed together when a NVA missile downed their helicopter). Moreover, Vietnam was a nasty war fought in a muddy, damp climate that was Hell for any sophisticated equipment; that the F did withstand the abuse of the jungle so well is the best tribute to the perfection of its design.


 Pictures from the Vietnam swamps conveyed many complex messages, but one was clear: the Nikon F was the best camera in the world, the most advanced, comparatively cheap (at least for professionals/celebrities standards), reliable, and shooting great pics too.


Bruce Springsteen

Candice Bergen

Oddity: a Nikon F branded 'Nikkor' for the German market

Clockwise from upper left: the original Selenium 'Clipometer' for the early F, the first version of the Photomic, the Photomic 'T' and at last the 'Ftn'

A Nikon S3,above, compared with a 'intermediate' 1972 F, below


The original (1959) meter-less F became at once the most instantly identifiable camera in the world, a global icon. The proportions of a prism-equipped 1959-72 example are impeccable: its morphing from a Japanese copy of a pre-war rangefinder Contax, in the iterations of the S, S2, S3, S4  and SP series, reached a peak of rare formal perfection when that beautifully simple prism was dropped on its top and an instant-return, lockable mirror covering 100% of the frame was conveniently placed beneath it. Make no mistake: the 'S' rangefinder dynasty, on which the 'F' was based, was extremely well-designed and manufactured with a careful attention to detail (they earned themselves an excellent reputation during the Korean War, being able to work also in the freezing temperatures that were common there) so the foundations for the new reflex of Nippon Kogaku KK were above reproach, but what was developed out of them was positively astonishing.  The subsequent adaptation of an integrated TTL metering system to this incredibly versatile body brought us no less than 4 different Photomics, each one adding character and presence to what can easily be considered the most famous reflex camera of all times.

Assorted celebrities with their F: Linda McCartney, Marc Bolan, George Harrison, Muhamad Ali, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Dennis Hopper...


The 'jet set' rapidly decided that the F was THE camera to have. Famous actors, the most beautiful women in the world, movie directors, the best racing drivers ever, all of them shared the use of a Nikon F for their pictures, making of this camera an icon of fashion that conveyed a message at the same time of technical efficiency, strength, elegance, rugged beauty and timeless value that not many other cameras have rivalled. Steve McQueen used an F with a long lens on the set of ‘Le Mans’, Brigitte Bardot took pictures of her pets and lovers in St Tropez with a 200 mm on a chrome F, Jim Clark had one fitted on his helmet racing a F1 Lotus, Michelangelo Antonioni decided that David Hemmings had to snap pics of Veruschka and Vanessa Redgrave with his chrome F while Larry Burrows repaired his Nikons on the landing gear of a combat helicopter, in Vietnam.


 No other camera can match this level of iconicness, apart (perhaps) Hasselblad and Leica. Think again: Rolleiflex? Too common in the cheap beach photographers’ booths. Contax? Its lustre was lost in the Maelstrom of WWII, what followed was meaningful only as an admirable template for the early Nikon S/SPs. Exakta? Splendid cameras, but nobody knows that they should be used upside down to operate their controls properly, and when you do that you unavoidably feel a bit ridiculous. Praktina? It could have been a winner, as its project was astonishingly advanced in 1952, but the version directly comparable to a F, the 1960 'IIA DA', cost (body, prism finder, split-image rangefinder, ASB Pancolar 2/50 mm) DM611, not much less than a Nikon; then the Communist government decided that it was 'too expensive' and the shoddy manufacturing level of DDR did the rest. Linhof? Cathedrals of Teutonic efficiency, but hardly portable (come on, you can't go skiing in Cortina with a Master Technika at your neck...) and therefore are very ‘private’ cameras. Asahi 6x6, Olympus, Minolta XM, Bronica etc? Forget it.


And forget also Canon. They tried hard to displace Nikon in the professional field, and, in a purely utilitarian sense, they probably succeeded. But as an object of fascination and respect, they can’t prevail. A Nikon F has the winning, invincible aura of Le Mans, NASA, Apollo missions, the moon landing while at the same time being the pride and joy of Mick Jagger, Brigitte Bardot, Cassius Clay, Marilyn Monroe, Graham Hill, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Paul McCartney…. And Vietnam, of course. If a sophisticated reflex camera can survive taking spendid pictures in an environment so hostile, it must be great. The picture of Taizo Ichinose's Nikon F with a North Vietnamese bullet hole in its back sends a message way stronger than hundreds of Canon ads. (Sorry folks!)   


The bullet-riddled Nikon Fs of Taizo-Ichinose (left) and DonMcCullin (right)


So the Nikon F with its simple prism became one of the great icons of the Sixties. It also had, since its birth, the advantage of being born as the fulcrum of an enormous system endowed with dozens of lenses and accessories, its reflex body and large bayonet mount allowing the use of extreme lenses ranging from 6 to 2000 mm, while at the same time introducing ‘specialist’ tools like the 200mm 'Medical' with its anular flashlight, the ‘PC’- 'Perspective Control' (first seen in 1962), the 500mm catadioptric 'mirror' tele, the legendary 1:1 ‘Noct-Nikkor’, the special macros and other superb optics that only a top-quality reflex like the F, with its 100% focusing screen and mirror, could use effectively. You also could also fit those pioneering, cumbersome but irresistibly fascinating F36 or F250 motors, 360-frame backs, special finders, focusing screens... All this meant that when you bought your first Nikon F, you felt like you were already part of a very important family; you had all that was needed to become one of the worlds’ top professional photographers.


There is also another reason why the first F was such an iconic camera. While it was in production, Nippon Kogaku KK had very clear ideas about the classification of his cameras, keeping its less expensive cameras at an arm’s length from the sacred professional machines. There were very good reasons to keep this difference: the professional machines had interchangeable screens, finders, prisms, motors and so on, therefore they were expensive and aimed squarely at the professional, or at least to the very wealthy, customers. So Nippon Kogaku reserved the ‘Nikon’ logo for the pro cameras only: if you said that had a Nikon it was superfluous to add that you had an ‘F’, any mistake was impossible, and this created at once a very special status symbol. It was a sort of reverse name-dropping, you didn’t have to mention that you had an ‘F’: owning a 'Nikon' you were unmistakably part of the privileged élite of the owners of the best pro reflex in the world, period.


Meanwhile, Nippon Kogaku did not renounce to the production of machines with fixed prisms and screens that, thanks to this simplification, could be considerably less expensive. These were marketed as Nikomat, Nikoflex, Nikkormat, Nikkorex, Nikonet and so on, to keep things clear and gratify the owners of the F. Then, in 1977, the unthinkable happened and the logo ‘Nikon’ appeared on a simpler, cheaper reflex with fixed prism: the ‘FM’. It was undoubtedly a fine machine, but for many enthusiasts its name was sacrilege; from then on the ‘Nikon’ name appeared on a myriad of cameras, either analogic or digital, point-and-shoot or mirrorless digitals, the only distinction between pro and amateur cameras being that the firsts still carry as a medal of honor a ‘single-digit’ designation (F2, F3, F4, F5, D1, D2, D3 etc) while the cheaper machines have two- or three-cyphers numbers or fantasy names. I'm not sure where the 'J1-J5' and 'Z7' series fit in this classification....


We have already admitted that the F didn't innovate camera technology. (Though titanium shutter curtains were an absolute 'first' and Nikon was, for years, the leader in the use of this sophisticated metal in the camera industry.) Most of its more important features had been introduced before, but it was the first time that all the technical advances so smartly introduced by Zeiss, Leitz, Contax, Praktina and Exakta were put together in a single, extremely well-thought package, a rugged, good-looking SLR that was at the same time a thing of superb mechanical/optic quality and (comparatively) affordable, with a MSRP of $186 in the USA with prism and the 50mm f1,8 Nikkor lens.


 Expensive? Yes, of course, but then you must compare it with the superbly manufactured rangefinder Leica M3, offered in USA (MSRP with the lens more closely comparable to the 50mm f1,8 Nikkor, the Summicron 50mm f2,0) of $447…and, yes, the M3 was superbly crafted, had the most exquisite shutter and the most luminous rangefinder, but in a moment rangefinder cameras became positively old-fashioned, compared to the modern professional Japanese reflex.


 The success of the F was immediate and is confirmed by a staggering production total of no less than 862,600 bodies from 1959 to 1971. Mind you, its successor, the mildly improved F2, sold 816,000 units in a shorter production run, from 1971 to 1980, while the following flagship of the Nikon professional range, the excellent F3, was introduced in 1980 and lasted 21 years with a production total of 751,000 bodies.


The capabilities of the F shone in an era dominated either by cheap cameras, half-cooked Eastern Europe projects or extremely expensive and sophisticated Leicas. It was perfectly integrated in a system that was astonishingly complete and at the same time perfectly organized to care for every professional’s needs. That's how you create a legend: professionals and customers went at it hammer and tongs; and the competitors understood it all too late.


With Federica and a Nikon F, Rifugio Tondi di Faloria, winter 1990

A long-standing love... With Federica and a Nikon F, Cortina, Rifugio Tondi di Faloria, winter 1990

Nikon Main
My favourite images taken with Nikon or Leica cameras
   I am (also) looking for an Alpa 6 camera....