Whether you already have a 35mm film camera or are looking to get one, the Nikon F2 is about as good as an SLR camera can possibly be.
If you’ve ever used a Nikon F2 before, you already know that it is rare to find such quality in a 35mm camera or even a digital camera for that matter. Once you get used to it, most alternatives just seem cheap or flimsy. I don’t mean to knock on other 35mm cameras – I still have a soft spot in my heart for a good copy of a Minolta X-370 (my first camera growing up) or a Pentax Spotmatic (my father’s camera from his time in the service). The Nikon F2, however, is on a level entirely on its own. They were made for nearly 10 years (1971-1980) before it was replaced by the F3; an electronic camera compared with the all mechanical F2.
To start, they’re pretty affordable and can be had for around $125-$150 for the body of the cheapest model. And yes, there is more than one model. There are 5 different “Photomic” models of the F2 which have a metering prism that use the original body: original, S, SB, A, and AS. Other editions were made as well but are far rarer and more expensive. Of the primary 5 models of the F2, the only difference between them is the metering prism. The biggest difference between the A and AS models and their earlier counterparts is that they only work with Ai-S lenses whereas the other lenses can work on all mechanical Nikon F mount lenses so long as they have the meter coupling shoe (a.k.a., “rabbit ears”) to communicate the aperture you’ve got the lens set to with the metering prism. Otherwise, the A model (using the DP-11 prism) and the original model (using the DP-1 prism) are the exact same prism which use a more primitive metering needle which can be a bit difficult see when there isn’t ample light coming through the top of the meter. Similarly, the AS (DP-12 prism) and the SB (DP-3 prism) offer the same performance metering using “+ 0 -” LEDs. The S model using the DP-2 prism is kind of the odd man out still using “+ > < -” LEDs.
As I mentioned above, the build quality of the F2 is superb. I would best just about anything that if someone was to shoot through a couple rolls using an F2 and then picked up a Pentax, Minolta, or Canon, you’d be disappointed. It’s such a solid, well built machine that feels unstoppable. So much so that a good friend of mine had one survive a house fire and it still works (see below). I kid you not. The only thing that could possibly be conceived as a weakness of the F2 is the mirror dampener. On my first F2, it was pretty brittle from years of not using and me changing out the focusing screen. It looked a little rough after but worked just fine from shutter speeds of 1/60th or faster for a 35mm lens. It used to be 1/30th but I think the loss of some of the dampener made it land a bit too hard at slower speeds.
Image of Burnt Nikon F2 Courtesy Of Matt Seal
This is the part where there is quite honestly more to talk about than I have room for. Just about everything you can think of can be changed out. Want a digital back that can print the time and a note on the film? They have that. Want to change out the focusing screen for something else? There are over a dozen to choose from (I personally prefer the “H” model which is a full screen of micro prisms). Want to add a hot shoe? Easily done. Want to have auto exposure? There’s a tool for that. Want to have an auto winder? You can get it.
Quite honestly, there are so many bells and whistles available with that camera that I’ve never even considered getting anything else for the camera aside from the focusing screen. The ability to change out the focusing screen is for sure one of my favorite attributes of the F2 – easily the most underrated. At the time when I had two copies of the camera (and original Photomic and the SB Photomic) I would pick up every focusing screen I came across just to see what I liked. If you have an F2 already but haven’t tried out other focusing screens, I highly recommend it.
I would think this can go without saying but just in case, Nikon glass is amazing. The most stereotypical lens that comes with an F2 is the 50mm f/1.4. That lens, however, is not particularly amazing. It’s exceptionally soft wide open and I don’t really think it has decent sharpness or micro contrast until f/2.8. As such, the lens that has lived on my F2 for the last several years is a 35mm f/2. Other lenses I have enjoyed using on my F2 include the 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S, 28mm f/2 Ai, 28mm f/2.8 Ai-S, and the Tokina 90mm f/2.5 AT-X Macro. All around, these lenses produce stunning images.
What I Liked
- Price. It isn’t as cheap as a Pentax K1000, Minolta X-370, Canon AE-1, or whatever other common cameras are readily available but it’s worth the extra cost
- Lens selection is amazing
- Shutter speeds range from 10 seconds to 1/2000th of a second
- Self-timer comes in clutch on vacations
- Depth of field preview can be really helpful
- The ability to change the focusing screen is an under rated benefit
- All manual operation means if you can meter yourself, you don’t need batteries
What I Didn’t Like
- Depending on whether you have the A or AS model or one of the earlier models, you may not be able to use all manual focus lenses
- It is considerably heavier than the majority of other common 35mm cameras
- I have found it to be too easily to accidentally leave the meter on and kill the batteries. It’s only happened twice but was very inconvenient both times
I firmly believe that the F2 is the best all mechanical 35mm you can get. It is so versatile, durable, and consistent that there is no SLR competitor for me. I already had a pretty significant Nikon all manual lens collection from my days of using my Sony a7 exclusively so I was able to have a lens selection ready to go the day I bought the camera but even if I didn’t, the lenses are not unreasonable and the majority of them are really solid glass.
Have you ever shot with a Nikon F2? What were your experiences? For you, how does it measure up to other 35mm SLRs?