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.
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.
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).
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)
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?