Nikon F / F2

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Classic SLRs:
Nikon F & F2

by Karen Nakamura


Overview and Personal Comments

The Nikon F was the camera that arguably started the professional single-lens reflex revolution. Until its release in 1959, the rangefinder ruled supreme - as represented by the Leica and Contax. Even Nikon had their own fantastic line of rangefinders, the Nikon S series. Using the text or images on this website without permission on an ebay auction or any other site is a violation of federal law.

But when Leica came out with the M3, the best rangefinder ever made, Nikon knew that they would need some way to compete. The Nikon SP rangefinder was one strategy, but its gorgeous rangefinder mechanism was also tremendously expensive. The single-lens reflex offered something that neither Leica nor Contax had, and Japanese camera manufacturers jumped in that direction. Asahi released the Pentax Spotmatic, Canon released the Canonflex, and then Nikon finally released the F. While the other cameras were popular among amateurs, professional photojournalists were sold on the ruggedness and system compatibility of the F series.

Compared with rangefinders, SLRs have the following advantages:

  • Less difficult to manufacture, cheaper
  • Easier to keep in alignment
  • Can focus macro and telefocus lenses accurately without parallax error

Of course, there are some tradeoffs:

  • SLR viewfinders are normally dimmer than rangefinders
  • Rangefinders show the action outside of the frame
  • Rangefinders are quieter and have no mirror blackout

The Nikon System

The top-end of the Nikon SLR line is represented by the single digit F series (F, F2, F3, F4, etc.). The beauty of the professional F line was that almost everything was interchangeable. Unlike other cameras where the lens was the only thing you could swap out, the Nikon F / F2 offered different:

  • Focusing screens (matte; microprism; architectural; RF prism; etc.)
  • Finders (waist-level; prism eye-level; metering prisms; etc.)
  • Film backs (standard back; data back; 250 frame back)
  • Motor drive (different variations of drive speed)

Nikon F: The Nikon F was developed in parallel with the Nikon SP/S3 and the two units share the same external body design and a number of parts (40% by one count). If you compare my Nikon S3 with my Nikon F, you can see the family resemblance. Nikon was the last major manufacturer in Japan to come out with an SLR and used ideas from the other designs to make the F the best SLR on the market. Unfortunately, typical for Nikon, the F was a bit overdesigned and was very expensive, so sales were poor.

Nikon F2: The F2 was designed to fix some of the ergonomic and mechanical flaws of the F. The finder doesn't vignette with long lenses, the prism finders now lock on, the wind lever is more comfortable, the shutter speed was increased to 1/2000 sec, and so on and so forth. The F2 was a total redesign of the F from the ground up, not an improved model. Nikon later did a total redesign for the F3 and F4 cameras as well. The F2 was a huge hit when it came out, outselling the F almost immediately.

One of the smartest things in the F2 was the relocation of the battery compartment to the body of the camera, as well as the use of silver-oxide rather than mercury battery. Small electrical contacts brought power up to the metering prism (the body itself doesn't use electricity anywhere as it has a mechanical shutter). This allowed for the wind lever to be used as an on/off switch (pull it out slightly to turn the meter on). Because the batteries were in the body, they did not have to be mounted in the prism, which saved a considerable amount of space and made the prisms more solid and reliable. The SR-44 button cell batteries for an F2 are readily available at any drug-store.

F3: The F3 came out in 1980. It shocked Nikon-fans by having an electronically controlled shutter with only one battery-less speed: 1/80 sec. Sacre bleu! The F2 was the last F to have all-manual speeds.

F4: The F4 came out in 1988 and featured a built-in motor drive that could reach speeds of 4 fps. It was the first single-digit F camera to have auto-focus although is sluggish compared to offerings from Canon. The top shutter speed ws 1/8000 second. This was a very highly regarded camera among professional photographers for its reliability and ruggedness.

F5: Like the F3, the F5 shocked Nikon-fans in 1996 by having a smooth, feminine body shape that looked from a distance like a Canon EOS camera. Like the EOS, the F5 was run by an internal CPU and not mechanical linkages. It featured custom functions and top and rear control dials like the EOS. Unlike the EOS, it introduced the new RGB matrix metering which took into account the color of subjects. This is still a Nikon-only feature. Unfortunately, RGB matrix metering was not available with older AI and AI-S lenses. With a permanently attached motor-drive, it was also the biggest and heaviest Nikon F ever, with 8 AA batteries powering it (and it eats batteries for lunch) it weighed in at 1210 grams without batteries.

F6: The Nikon F6 announced in 2004 is a very interesting camera. It features the RGB matrix metering of its predecesors; is rugged and waterproof, but is also much smaller and lighter than any other F series camera at 975g (w/o batts). It is powered by two small CR123A lithium batteries or an optional motor drive with AAs. With eleven focusing areas and a large rear control LCD, it appears to be extremely well-designed and will take the F series well into the 21st century. In fact, I would recommend the F6 over the Canon EOS-3 as it appears that Canon has dropped further development of film cameras.


Interesting quirks about the Nikon F/F2

The F2's shutter amazingly allows up to a 10-second timed exposure, perhaps the longest of any all-mechanical shutter. It works through the self-timer. Turn the knurled knob around the shutter release to 'T'. Then set the self-timer to the desired amount of seconds, 2-10 seconds. Then release the camera using the shutter release on top (not the self-timer release), usually with a remote release cable.

If you have the DP-12 metering prism (on the F2-AS), then the prism will actually meter down to 10 seconds (depending on the aperture and film speed). Quite a brilliant design.

In a pinch during macrophotography, you can remove the prism on an F/F2 and just look down directly on the focusing screen. If you're shooting photos of bugs on the ground, this can come in handy if you don't have an angle finder. It also allows for above-the-head shots (so-called "Hail Mary" shots).


Technical Details - Body

Camera Name
F F2 AS (DP-12)
Place of Manufacture


Date of Manufacture
1959-63 1977-80
Focusing System

Single-lens reflex with pentaprism eye-level viewfinder
Lens use helicoid focusing
100% viewfinder

Lens Mount

Nikon F mount (bayonet)


Focal plane shutter (horizontal travel titanium)

1 sec ~ 1/1000 + B + T
X-sync = 1/60
8 sec ~ 1/2000 + B + T
X-sync = 1/80
Metering System

None - metering through prism only


PC connection
F+X sync

PC connection
X sync
Film type / speeds

135 type (35mm standard film)

Battery type


2 x SR44 Silver-Oxide (1.5v)
for metered prisms
Dimensions and weight w/out lens

~xx0 grams
1x0 X 1x0 X xx mm

~xx grams
153 X 102 X 66 mm

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Technical Details - Metering Prisms

Prism Name
Photomic (for Nikon F) DP-12 AS (for Nikon F2)
Place of Manufacture


Date of Manufacture
1962-65 1977-1980
Metering Type


Center-weighted silicon photodiode (SPD)
Metering System

Match-LED ( + / o / - )
EV -2 ~ 17
0.8x magnification
Shutter Speeds

8~2 sec (slow speeds)
1~ 1/2000 sec
Film speeds
ASA ASA 12-6400
Battery type


Powered by camera body
Dimensions and weight

~x00 grams
xxx X xx X xx mm

78mm x 42.5mm x 64.5mm
Copyright © 2005 Karen Nakamura / Use of this chart, text, or any photographs in an eBay auction without permission will result in an immediate IP violation claim with eBay VeRO. Violators may have their eBay account cancelled.



About Nikon / Nippon Kogaku

Nippon Kogaku K.K. (Japan Optics Corporation) started out in 1917 as the optics affiliate of the Mitsubishi conglomerate (who also made the Zero fighter plane). Nippon Kogaku originally made military optics such as gun sights and rangefinders; as well as scientific microscopes and telescope optics. In the 1930s, they made various optics for view cameras and also were an OEM supplier to Seiki Kogaku (now Canon Camera), making lenses for the early Canon rangefinder cameras. Nippon Kogaku actually produced all of the lenses for Canon (Seiki Kogaku) until 1947.

After the war, Nippon Kogaku needed a non-military market and they started making Leica and Contax-compatible lenses. They realized that they needed to produce a camera system of their own to meet the post-War demand, both commercial as well as for the U.S. military. After waffling on a TLR system (tentatively called the Nikoflex), they made the big jump of making their own rangefinder system, the Nikon I in 1948, which was loosely based around the horizontal shutter design of a Leica and the lens/rangefinder/body of a Zeiss Contax. American photojournalists covering the Korean and then Vietnam War discovered Nikon's Leica/Contax compatible lenses as being the equal or better of their Leica/Zeiss lenses; and the Nikon camera bodies proved themselves in the Korean conflict. Life magazine was instrumental in promoting the new camera system and lenses "back home." Nikon S, S2, S3, and SP cameras are now in hot-demand as both collectibles and great user-cameras.

The Nikon F camera series, released in 1959 (well after all of the other Japanese manufacturers had released their own SLRs), launched a new era in Nikon's history. The F was acclaimed as an extremely rugged camera and for four decades through its various iterations (F, F2, F3, F4, F5), ruled supreme as the photojournalist's camera of choice for photography in harsh conditions - from the Antartic to the Sahara.

In terms of body construction, Nikon uses the same simple-strong philosophy of Leica. Nikon cameras are not crammed with features, but because of this, they are simple to use and very reliable. Nikon is also a conservative company, staying a generation behind in terms of technological innovation in cameras (auto-focus; ultrasonic lenses; vibration reduction; and currently, full-frame digital). However, pros who prefer reliability over feature-cramming prefer Leica and Nikons, while people who want the latest tend to buy Canon. This has proven to be Nikon's achilles heel in the digital photography revolution and it has limped behind Canon.

Optically Nikon also follows the Leica philosophy of resolution over contrast. Canon and Contax have traditionally valued contrast over resolution, which makes for sharp and crisp photographs. Leica/Nikon photos are more muted, but there is more fine detail in the shadows and highlights. For more information, see Dante Stella's write-up.




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