The Film Camera to End All Film Cameras: A Long-Term Review of the Nikon F2

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. 

Build Quality

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

Accessories

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.

Lens Offerings

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

Conclusion

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?


 

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78 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

One of the greatest film cameras of all time.

James Madison's picture

Couldn't agree more!

Deleted Account's picture

The only thing I wish is that the flash sync matched the FM2n.

Robert Teague's picture

I had an F2, when it was new. Nice camera, but it's nowhere the level of the F6.

James Madison's picture

I suppose that depends what you're looking for. At a fraction of the price, the F2 packs a lot of value into a wonderful camera. The F6 is out of my range.

Randy Little's picture

f2 needs no batteries correct? mechanical shutter fully. No?

Christian Morrison's picture

F2 requires batteries for the light meter. We use LR44 batteries, it requires two.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

But are they not two completely different beast? If you were a pro back in the day, I could see the F6, But for most others the F2 Style of SLR would be more than great.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes the F6 is a great camera. I have the F line....F2a through F6. When I shoot in the field for 2 or more months at a time I always take the F2a. With back-up batteries and that's it. The price of the F6 is far out of reach for many people, so with that in mind I would imagine the F2 would a more attractive choice. But the F5 and 6 are top-notch.

Robert Teague's picture

I have the grip with the lithium battery, so no need for backup batteries. :)

James Madison's picture

There's no time like the present to pick another one up! haha

Matthew Lacy's picture

Broken Nikon Art & Photography doesn't sound as good.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

I would agree with James. I have 2 F2's now. I have a black and silver one. Both in pristine condition. I paid $350.00 for the black one a couple of months back. It came with a 28F/2.0 Ais ...Great prices.

Matt Williams's picture

The F2 is great.

Counterpoint to the Pentax/Minolta/Canon comment: the Minolta XK (aka XM or X-1). Built like a brick. They'd probably both be destroyed in a fight with each other.

James Madison's picture

And just when I thought I had heard of most SLR Minolta cameras, you bring up one I've never heard of. What and interesting camera!

Timothy Gasper's picture

I love the Minolta XK Motor. I am still trying to find one. I remember when they first came out. What a beautiful, professional and well advanced camera. They're just not found these days and if so....they are very expensive. Thanks for the memories.

Ole Åsheim's picture

I had a F2, but replaced it with F3 and FM2. Loved both of them more than F2. Not so heavy and better in all ways.

James Madison's picture

Better in all ways? That's a pretty serious claim! haha

Irma Prunesquallor's picture

Just a wee correction... AI - not AIS.

F2A and AS work with all AI lenses (and any Nikon lens with an aperture ring AI onward until well into the autofocus era). The AI-S designation is irrelevant to an F2, because the standard was not adopted until after the F2 went out of production. AI-S is basically just a small variation on manual-focus AI that guarantees them to work with auto-exposure cameras. I think that the first 'F' camera that cared about this was the F4.

I completely agree that the F2 was the joint-best 35mm film camera ever made, sharing first place with the Leica M6 TTL. More capable cameras (but much more complicated cameras) were made after both of them, but (in my hands anyway) these two are just about as near perfect as can be. It is a silly thing, but I can clearly remember the first time I held and used a Nikon F2 - and that was in 1974 (a decade before I owned one) - it must have made quite an impression!

James Madison's picture

I stand corrected. Thanks for the info!

I've never shot with an M6 TTL but I hear their wonderful cameras if you like rangefinders.

Tristan Zand's picture

I do agree with you, except maybe for the weight of the F2, and I do have a personal preference for the Leica M5 because of the modern ergonomics and more importantly for the spot TTL measure the M6 doesn't share.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

Excellent post and I stand corrected. Thank you.

John Card's picture

I still have my F2 Photomic and a few lenses. That was what I learned on, and the only thing I shot with from around 1980 until I eventually switched to digital. I should dust it off and put some fresh batteries in and see if it still works.

James Madison's picture

I would bet that it does! You don’t need batteries to make sure the shutter and advance work. If you end up getting some batteries and checking to make sure the meter works, circle back and let me know.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

Currently I have an F2 and an FA both Pristine. I also have an M6 and AE-1. The one I go for the most is the FA and then the F2....I have 2 gripes against the F2. One is the weight of it coupled with the 35F/2.0 Ais. The second issue is a love hate problem. When that shutter is released, it sounds like it is built. A tank. At times it is the coolest sounding camera on the planet and other times it sounds like war drums.

Larry Fasnacht's picture

Respectfully, but you're wrong. The FM3a is the best manual camera...ever. I can't tell you how many times the Auto DX feature has saved my bacon. Plus the match needle meter, the hot shoe, the one button -.7 flash exposure comp, the batteries last for years. Way better than any other manual camera.

Tristan Zand's picture

Respectfully, but you're wrong too. ;) I have an FM3a too, doesn't have the sensuality of the F2 thought it definitely a more modern beast. And sensuality in a cam, depending on your work, of course, is a big part of the results you get. Actually recycled my FM3a with an instant Magny for instant photography film, works fantastic for me there.

Deleted Account's picture

Totally different beast from an F2. The F2, along with the FM2n, is one of the great mechanical cameras. The FM3a is an awesome camera, but it's closer in DNA to the FE. If I want electronics, I'd probably reach for an F100, F5, or F6 instead.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

I hear you. I strongly considered both the F100 and F5 but in the end, I chose the FA. I am now on my second FA and the love affair I have with it is still going strong. Of all the SLR's I have ever owned that have eclectic help, only the Pentax ME Super has come close. Otherwise it is mechanical all the way. With light meters more accurate than ever (I phone) that makes difficult light easy. Having said that, 90% of the time I can meter just but what my eyes see.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I have many, I mean MANY Nikon cameras. The F2a is my favorite. I also have the MD2 motor drive and don't care about the weight. That stuff never bothered me. I prefer the A to the AS because I like the needle meter instead of the LED. It's just a personal preference. This camera is SO damn good. I am sure many of you know what I mean. Thanks for the article sir.

James Madison's picture

You prefer the needle metering? I had one of those for my first F2 but didn't care for it as much as I like my LED metering head.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I understand. There is a reason why I prefer the match needle. If I want to over or under expose a shot I can get a more precise 'estimation' of how much more or under I need by looking at the placement of the needle. I can't really get that with the LED.

John Dittmann's picture

I remember as a kid my grandfather would let me use his F2 to take pictures of different things- usually I was just mimicking what he had done. I remember even as a 5 year old the camera felt solid, and well built, and it was; I dropped it several times accidentally and it never stopped working.
When I bought my first Nikon DSLR I was shocked at how delicate and fragile it seemed. It was literally like comparing plastic to metal. I'm just a hobbyist, and on most weekends I spend a few hours out in the woods shooting with my DSLR, but when I get inspired to snap some "professional" looking pictures I still reach for my grandfathers F2

James Madison's picture

That's a great story and I'm glad to hear that you still use the camera. For old film cameras that once belonged to someone you care about, the sentimentality is unique in that the camera can provide you with the same experience they had - leaving you with a shared experience over a great distance or even after their gone. It's a wonderfully unique situation.

Scott Schuckert's picture

An F2 Photomic was my very first Nikon, back in 1972. Since then, I've gone through most of the Nikons available (and all of the pro bodies) but the F2, updated to F2as with a DP-12 finder is the only one I really miss. Preferably, with the 105mm f/2.5 mounted...

James Madison's picture

It was my first Nikon too! Albeit, I got mine more recently. Sounds like you don't have yours anymore, no?

Tyler Sawyer's picture

I promise I'm not trying to start a Canon-Nikon war (there are more than enough of those on the forums), but have you handled a Canon F-1/F-1n (pre-"New" F-1)? After nearly putting my head through a wall over failing electronically controlled SLRs, I decided to go full mechanical. Over the span of about 3 months, I managed to acquire a Minolta SRT-202, Two Canon F-1n's, and a Nikon F2A. While the Minolta has its charm, it is certainly more archaic in design than Canon & Nikon's offerings (which is amazing considering it's 5 years the original F2s Junior). Between the other two, however, I find myself gravitating towards the Canon. While they're both beastly units, I can't get over how stiff the DOF preview/stop down button is on the F2- not that that actually matters, since it also happens to be the only camera in my arsenal who's light meter is faulty. All of the controls on my F-1n, on the other hand, have just the right amount of resistance, and the metering is still accurate- even when using a Zinc-Air cell hearing aid battery (the original mercury cells were discontinued). Cosmetically, the F2A is near mint, but I'm going to have to give my banged up F-1n my vote for functionality and feel.

One cool thing that I really love about the Nikon, though, is the ability to utilize the timer as a long exposure control. *THAT* is a neat dual function that I wish I saw on more cameras!

I suppose in the end, my gripe has more to do with the finders than the camera itself. As far as the body is concerned, I love the heft and the sound of the shutter and the images that come out of it- but pick up an F-1 sometime and see if you don't wind up with a second love!

James Madison's picture

Oh, I've seen one and shot a couple frames with it. The model I saw was matte black and was one of the sexiest cameras I've ever seen. It handled great too. I got pretty close to buying it for those two reasons alone. In the end though, it wasn't meant to be.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

I have been pondering an F-1 fro quite the time now. Perhaps it is time. I have some great lenses for it and love the AE-1 s I already do have. I also have 2 A1. I have seen a couple of F-1 at camera shows, but they were beat up. E bay, hit or miss or simply priced way out of the market.

Brooke Willson's picture

I inherited an F2 from my nephew when he died, and sold my Canon F-1n, FTBn and lenses to embrace the Nikon. While the F2 was a great camera, the metering on the F-1 was better, the lenses just as good as the Nikkors, and the ability — with an adapter — to mount the flash over the prism instead of the rewind knob (like the F2) a serious improvement.

A few years later I sold the Nikons and embraced the Olympus system. Zuiko lenses were every bit as good as the Nikkors, and the OM bodies were infinitely more user friendly than the Nikons. The OM system was brilliant, completely integrated from camera to camera, and had the best macro components of anyone.

When I changed from film to digital, I went back to Nikon, but have just sold all my Nikon equipment and given my heart (and money) to Sony, which is years ahead of Nikon and Canon. But if Olympus were ever to abandon their silly 4/3 system and build a full frame mirrorless digital OM-4T, I’d buy in a heartbeat.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I love those old Canon F1's, A1, AE and the Minolta SRT's, Olympus, Pentax. Aahhh....those were the good ole days. Looking at the brochures, reading every single word intently and dreaming. Oh well....next.

Mike Vierzba's picture

I worked my way through college in a high end camera store. We had all the top end, middle and a few lower brands. Leica, Voitlaner, Exa, Pentax, Minolta, Canon, Hasselblad and Nikon, amongst others. As a result we saw more than our share of abused, damaged cameras. NOTHING stood up like Nikon F and F2. Drop an F2 in the lake - fix it. Drop a Leica M4, save the lens and pay your mortgage instead. Better value. Never seems the camera works right again. Brand new shiny - Leica etc. work great. Get a little mud on it and Nikon F and F2 just smile.

James Madison's picture

Ha! I can't say I've seen any used/abused Leica M4s but I agree about the tolerance for absue the F2 has. The F2 that survived a house (pictured above) still works, albeit the meter doesn't. But if you're hand metering, it still works like a charm.

Taylor Cubbie's picture

Great review!

James Madison's picture

Thank you!

Antoine R's picture

Great review James Madison ! One question : If I were to put a new Nikon AF-S E lens on it, would I be able to use the built-in meter for exposure? I understand I would be limited to shoot it wide open, that's fine with me and my usage (Tele in close-up portrait). Thanks!

James Madison's picture

You know... I've never once thought about that. Ever. Haha. This may be a question for one of the more knowledgeable commenters.

If I had to guess, I would say so. The F2 meter defaults to f/5.6 I think (it may be f/4... Without fetching mine and checking, I can't remember) at which point, you'd have to accommodate for the discrepancy between your open aperture and the standard aperture set in the meter. That shouldn't be difficult - you can just adjust the film speed to offset the difference (e.g., if your lens is 2 stops faster than the meter thinks, set the ISO 2 stops faster than the actual ISO you're shooting at).

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