My Favorite Budget Film Camera to Date: Fstoppers Reviews the Nikon FE

The Nikon FE is the perfect blend of a lightweight construction that still feels sturdy and has perfect functionality with my favorite camera feature: aperture priority mode. I never thought I’d find a 35mm camera that I’d use more than my F100 or F2, but here we are. 

This review is the first of what I hope will be a relatively long list of reviews of budget film cameras. With the prices of film cameras going up and up by the day, the selection of budget-friendly cameras has continued to dwindle to a point where there are just a fraction of choices compared with even just a couple of years ago. As such, I am trying to reacquaint myself with the going rate of cameras today and to offer a resource for others looking to get into film photography for the first time. 

One feature-rich camera that has maintained its budget camera status while packing loads of quality is the Nikon FE. Compared with the original F, F2 (review here), and all the way up to the F6, the FE is substantially lighter while still boasting a sturdy-feeling construction. The aperture priority mode is not the most advanced but very capable in all but the most extreme conditions, where the subject was small and off-center and the scene was backlit. In all honesty, I can’t think of a single instance in which I would shoot a scene like this short of testing the internal metering by pushing it to extremes.  

The Nikon FE was released in 1978 and was made through 1982, when it was replaced by the Nikon FE2 (made from 1983-1987). The chassis of the camera, made from an aluminum-copper alloy, was mostly the same for many other camera models all the way up to 2006 with the Nikon FM3A — a real testament to the sturdy construction and durability of the Nikon FE. Topping out at only 1/1,000 of a second, it’s two stops slower (versus 1/4,000 s) than its successor, the Nikon FE2. With that said, the FE is fully capable of using just about every vintage Nikon lens (non-rangefinder lens), whereas the FE2 can only utilize AI lenses. Though many people worry that vintage cameras with electronic shutters, I took this camera out on a day that was well below freezing and didn’t have any issues. 

Build Quality

As mentioned above, the chassis of the Nikon FE is built of a sturdy aluminum-copper alloy, which was used as the basis for many Nikon cameras for nearly 40 years. Indeed, there are few cameras that can say the same, and I can see why. I’ve gotten used to carrying around my Nikon F100 (review here) and Nikon F2, which are significantly heavier to a point where the weight is actually a deterrent from taking the out. Granted, I don’t know that I would have ever considered them too heavy until I used the Nikon FE and got to experience first-hand that a vintage film camera doesn’t have to be heavy to have a good build quality. 

Accessories

Given that the Nikon FE is not on the same level as the professional camera like the Nikon F2 or F3, the ability to customize is lessened a bit. It is possible to change out the focusing screen, but the selection of alternatives is pretty limited, however, it does include a databack (Nikon MF-12), which I find very cool. One of my favorite things about the Fujifilm GA645 series cameras (review here) was the ability to print on the border of the frame. Aside from the databack, the camera has the typical option of a motor drive/winder (MD-11 and MD-12). 

Lens Offerings

Without a doubt, the best part of the Nikon FE over the FE2 is, in my opinion, the ability to use non-AI and AI glass (the FE2 can only be fitted with AI glass), which means that some of the older and still capable glass from the non-AI era is useable. While most of my vintage Nikon glass is AI or AI-S, I do still have some non-AI glass that I love very much. Indeed, my 35mm f/2 is non-AI, and it is the favorite of my vintage glass, though I should note that the only lens I used with this camera was the one that I got with the camera, the Nikon 50mm f/2 AI, which is a wonderfully sharp lens that is delightfully compact and fast enough to result in a bright viewfinder.   

What I Like

  • Size (it’s a good deal smaller than its F-model contemporaries)
  • Weight (the lightest 35mm I own and one of the lightest I’ve ever used)
  • Equipped with aperture priority (the meter isn’t the best I’ve ever used but very tough to trick)
  • Capable of being equipped with a data back
  • Non-digital reading in the viewfinder (uses a needle)
  • Batteries are easily available at grocery stores and drug stores
  • Relatively inexpensive (reliably less than $150)

What I Don’t Like

  • I wish there was a touch more resistance in going into/out of aperture priority mode (though I didn’t accidentally switch back in forth in my experience, I could see it happening)

Conclusion

The Nikon FE is a very capable and easy-to-use camera that I highly recommend. In fact, for someone looking to pick up a 35mm film camera with a vintage aesthetic that is intended for use with manual lenses, I honestly think I would recommend the Nikon FE above all others. That’s not to say there are no other capable and excellent budget 35mm cameras. Indeed, there are many to choose from, but when it comes down to price and being as feature-rich and capable as the FE, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that’s on the same level, much less something that’s nicer for the same price. When it comes to price, I got my copy for just under $100. Though there is a sliding scale for what someone may conclude is “budget-friendly,” I would personally say it’s at or below $150, and the Nikon FE can easily be found already equipped with a lens at that price point.  

Have you ever used the Nikon FE? What were your thoughts? Do you have any camera suggestions for a photographer looking to get into film?

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23 Comments

Alnoor Meralli's picture

I have used the Nikon FE, the Nikon FA and the Nikon FM. My favorite was the Nikon FM2 in black which was a simple and very resilient camera that was enjoyable to use. I used it for event photography paired with a Metz 60CT2. It supported a flash sync speed of 1/250 and a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 - very decent for a mid-range camera from the 80's.

Pan daBear's picture

Beat me to it! The FE is great, but the 40-year-old electronics could be an issue. That’s where a FM or FM2 fits in: no battery no problem.

sam w's picture

for film, the FM2 is great, and also my favorite. it's doesn't really fit in the author's classification for budget though. it costs as much as a new entry level DSLR, whether that's a bubble waiting to pop, or a testament to it's quality and ease of use, I'm not sure, but the Nikon FM2 is the only film camera I still have. well, that and some chintzy plastic TLR I found on ebay a few years ago.

Charles Mercier's picture

I used an FM for over 20 years. The film advance lever wasn't the best built - though that never failed. My friend just negotiated an FE with a 50mm f1.8 E lens for $50 at our local thrift shop.

Aaron Gold's picture

By not actually shooting with your non-AI lenses, you've completely missed one of this camera's biggest drawbacks (and misled your readers in the process). And if $150 is your idea of budget, there's clearly an entire world of 35mm cameras that aren't on your radar. I like your writing style, James, but reading Camerapedia and snapping a few pics does not qualify you as an expert. A few questions on a forum and you'd know a lot more about this camera. If you're going to produce reviews that are actually useful to readers, you need to do a lot more research. You can't just shoot a roll with a single lens and say, "Ooooh, that's a nice camera, think I'll write a positive review of it."

W Mitty's picture

Wow. That's a bit harsh.

I don't believe he claimed to be "an expert". "If you're going to produce reviews that are actually useful to readers"...Hmm. Maybe you should write an article that is useful to us readers, since you seem to be much more knowledgeable.

FWIW, I found the article to be a nice overview of a worthy film camera. I paid about $200 for mine a year ago, with the 50/1.2 lens, and I thought it was a darn good bargain, compared to most of the FE's for sale on eBay. I suppose one could buy a different vintage film camera and lens for $100 if saving $50 floats your boat.

What I like most about my FE is that it looks great on my shelf, alongside my Kodak Retina II and my folding Brownie Autograph.

Aaron Gold's picture

Agreed. And I hate to be so harsh because I like James and his writing. A review should inform a potential buyer about the true pros and cons of a camera, and that goes beyond a writer's impressions. I have an FE. It's a great camera. But it has its drawbacks and, being an inveterate bargain-camera hunter, I can tell you it is definitely not a bargain. And to imply that the FE works just fine with pre-AI lenses is simply wrong. How does it look for FStoppers' reputation when someone buys an FE and a non-AI lens and discovers that they aren't actually compatible?

I'm a career journalist (and I write camera reviews) and stuff like this really bothers me. This review is incomplete, factually inaccurage and -- forgive me, James, I hate to say this but it's true -- just plain lazy.

Photography today is plagued by self-proclaimed experts who don't know what they're talking about. FStoppers should not go that route. They have a responsibility to their readers that they are abdicating with poorly-researched "reviews" like this one.

I've read James' stuff and while he's been wrong before, I know he can do better.

Nick Thornhill's picture

I agree

Juan Marziali's picture

But the FE does support pre AI lenses. There's an indexing tab on the Mount that needs to be rotated out of the way for the Pre AI lenses. Then you rotate it back for AI and AIS lenses. Plenty of YouTube videos show you how to do it. There's nothing he said that is wrong. You are the one misleading people.
Also AI and AIS lenses can be directly fitted onto Nikon digital SLRs meter and index on higher end models. Something you can't say about any other vintage glass. That certainly alters the value proposition of Nikon's vintage cameras and lenses verses the competition.

Aaron Gold's picture

"Supports"? As in offers comfort? Pre-AI lenses fit an FE. However, they do communicate aperture to the body, so open-aperture metering (and, by extension, the auto mode) does not work. This is a huge piece of Nikon misinformation that ignorant reviewers keep passing along - that "Every Nikon F-mount lens is compatible back to 1959." Not true, not in the sense that any Pentax K-Mount lens is truly compatible with open-ap metering and ap-priority automatic modes on any Pentax K-mount film camera.

The fact that James didn't note this means that a) he hasn't actually tried a pre-AI lens on his FE and b) he's doing his research on Wikipedia.

Is that responsible journalism? Not even friggin' close. And that's why I'm being a dick about this.

Luckily I know just enough about film photography to know that a lot of what FStoppers writes is inaccurate and unreliable -- and therefore I know not to trust what they write about digital cameras, which I know a lot less about.

Nick Thornhill's picture

That 50 could buy an extra lens.

Michael Reis's picture

Since last year I do own an FE and also an FM (I write 'an' because it pronounces nicer, please take my apologies). Apart from a Voigtländer Rangefinder an a Minolta Something (I can't remember which model it was, something with aperture automatic), I always shot and still shoot Nikon. What I like best about the early F consumer models is the design. This includes the color scheme (I prefer chrome-black prior to black only), the layout of the controls, the unbelievable low throw of the advance lever, the small form factor. And the fact, that they are almost my age add some coolness to it. Sure, there are a lot of other well known brands, and they might be superior or at least equal to the FE and such, even more sophisticated. What I also like when shooting these outdated cameras is the experience I get when there are almost to none conveniences involved: focus on the shot, period.
But this also is a question about preference. I simply like the Nikon FE and FM.

Juan Marziali's picture

In the 90's I had an FM2. Unfortunately it was stolen in NY in 1995. Through the years I always missed that camera. Last year feeling nostalgic I went hunting on eBay. I ended up with a pristine black FM and the 50 1.8, 105 2.5, and 70-150 Sigma zoom all for $140. I thought that was a deal. The camera has been flawless.

David Walker's picture

My Nikon bodies include: F1 Ftn, FE2-MD12, F100, D100, D2X, and D3, and I must admit other than for the lack of autofocus, the FE2 is my favorite. Although the D3 with the 70-200 IS-AF 2.8 lens is pretty awesome for sports work. However these days days if I'm going to shoot film, I almost always revert to my Hasselblad 500C. The mf scans are so much better than 35 mm.

simon pizzey's picture

A secondhand FE was my first camera for my first professional staff press photographer job. Light, reliable and easy to manual focus, mostly used with a 50mm lens. Hammered it for two years. Pride of place in my attic still works perfectly. Many FE2s, FM2s and MD12 motor drives lie pieces nearby.

Edwin Hidalgo's picture

I still keep my Nikon FM3a, the last Nikon manual camera. The FM10 and FE10 were later made by Cosina and they are cheap looking. FM3a:is the best film camera ever made by Nikon for advanced amateurs. It has everything the FM2 had plus auto shutter for aperture priority, Iso recognition, and more. It uses AI, AIs, AF, AFd lenses. Not for sale ☺️

Tom Kinkel's picture

I thought the Nikon F3 was the best film camera that was ever made and the super smooth shutter action and build quality .Had SL and SL2 Leica but kept the F3 till a Nikon F4s arrived and that was it. The beast had the best light meter and frame rate , so it was big but had no vibration unlike FE or FM and most of the roll has such even exposure even on transparency film .The F4s uses AA batteries also no nasty silver oxide hard to get batteries .

Rick Wiedeman's picture

I've recently gotten back into film photography, and the first camera I bought was a Nikon FE from Japan via eBay. Loved it... I had drooled over Nikons as a kid, but couldn't afford them. After only a month and a few rolls of film, the shutter froze. I bought my second FE from KEH, and it proved more reliable. Got a couple of prime lenses, shot some film, and found myself getting irritated with the dirty viewfinder and gritty lens action. These problems seemed inevitable with 40 year old gear... until I bought two Minoltas that were New/Old Stock. I've loved them even more. I recognize Nikon quality, but a clean view with new lenses and smooth action has proved more important to me -- and the Rokkor lenses seem equally good, at least to my eye.

Cliff Lawson's picture

I still have my 1968 Nikon F. Had it reconditioned about 11 years ago and then never put another roll of film through it. This article got me thinking I should do that. I have the 50 f1.4 that it came with, 35 f2.0, 105 f2.5, and 200 f4.

Charles Mercier's picture

Back in the day, if I had had the money, those would have been my lens choices. Except for the 35, I would have gotten their 24 f2.8 instead. I did get the 105 though.

Sean Hedman's picture

I can totally agree with the OP. I was given my FE by my mother who used it throughout my childhood. I grew to really love it, becoming my go-to holiday camera. Soon after I upgraded to a Nikon F2, but not long after found myself returning to the FE as it is just much more compact, lighter and less cumbersome to use. I like the versatility of the F2 but it's not as fun to use imho. Changing viewfinders is a nice option for the F2, but overall the FE is just all-round a more charismatic beast to work with.

Geoff Miller's picture

I cut my SLR teeth on an FE with an MD-12. Still have it. That camera rocked!

Nick Thornhill's picture

Budget? You must be joking! No doubt that it's a good camera, but for a fraction of the cost there are some stunning alternatives. How about an all metal Chinon with a Tomioka? Or, a Minolta XD7? That would give you the aperture priority and shutter priority. Minolta glass is nothing to sneer at either...