I’ve wanted to do a CLS write up for a while and finally had a nicely suited project to use. When the warm weather ends I clean out the shop from summer projects and get ready for some indoor fun through winter. This almost always turns up something interesting I forgot I had. This time it was this antique STANLEY Thermos, complete with frayed, knit sock. I thought it would be an appropriate entry to my Shop Series. So I’ll use the Thermos shot to introduce a few CLS components and how to work with them. You’ll see it’s pretty simple, but without a “quick start” it’s easy to file CLS into the “I’ll get around to it some day” bin.
One of the key attributes of the F6 is the circuitry it contains to run Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, or CLS. No other Nikon film SLR has this ability. If you’re not using your F6 + CLS you’re missing out on one of the features making it unique. There are two components (besides the camera) you’ll need to run CLS on your F6:
a) The SU-800 Commander head. Because the F6 does not have a built-in flash, access to the CLS control is through the SU-800 mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. The SU-800 looks a little like flash but doesn’t actually contain a strobe unit. This is the brain, so to speak. You could also use a CLS capable speed light like the SB-800. This also has a “Commander” mode allowing access to the same functionality.
b) At least one CLS-compatible flash, which means anything after the Nikon SB-300 and up. For this shot I’ll be using the SU-800, SB-800 Speedlight and the diminutive SB-R200 Speedlight.
To reinforce how simple CLS is to use I’ll keep it brief. The concept is simple: the SU-800 commander head communicates wirelessly with the other flashes and tells them when – and how bright to fire. The other flashes are simply set to “REMOTE” mode – ready to receive instructions from the Commander.
Because I’m going through the trouble to do this on film – film is cheap and I’m going to make the most of the opportunity. I devoted a full roll of Ilford FP4+ to bracket flash output and depth of field. Another nice thing about having plenty of images to choose from is if film acquires some imperfections in processing such as water spots or scratches there are plenty of other frames to choose from. Sometimes those analog anomalies add to “the look,” other times they don’t.
Here is a sample of the EXIF data generated from the chosen frame:
07, 2″, F13, 105, F2.8, Color matrix, M, Front curtain sync, 0.0, +0.2, 0.0, non-TTL auto flash/Optional speedlight/Multiple flash, None, AE Unlock, VR off, 2016/11/06,17:09
You can see there’s no specific flash power output; i.e., what the flash on Channel 1A was set to vs. 1B. Keeping notes on such things helps in future projects. The PhotoMemo Photographer’s Memo Book below (picked up from Mike Padua’s shootfilmco.com web site) came in handy to record the different steps – things that weren’t recorded in EXIF data.
After shooting, developing (Ilford DDX at 1:4 for 10 minutes) and scanning (Nikon LS-5000), Meta35 was used to marry the EXIF data with each frame.
The final result was the frame I felt best balanced light levels, depth of field and overall look and feel. To state the obvious – yes, it would have been easier to do this digitally. But for my creative goals there was no substitute for representing this vintage item in anything other than black and white film. I was particularly interested in how film rendered the different textures and imperfections in the smooth but aged metal finish of the thermos, the shiny metal cap and of course that beautiful knit sock complete with frayed threads dangling. From the moment I saw it – it had to be film.
If questions come to mind as you explore CLS shoot me a note on our newly re-vamped contact page. I’ve love to see anyone with a F6 look into Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. It’s a unique feature and will change your photography for the better.
This article is a written collection of thoughts explored in an attempt to think through some recent considerations. Every once in a while I get the itch to explore different film formats. The initial inspiration for this article was the recent consideration of diving in to large format film photography.
I’m approaching this from the standpoint of which film format works best for my type of shooting, and why. Not film vs. digital, which grew tired years ago. Both have merits, both are worthwhile. Exploring the choice of film format though, to me has merit. It’s an investment. Not just the film itself but the infrastructure/gear to shoot, process, scan and archive. There are advantages and disadvantages to each format depending on what/how I’m shooting.
I began thinking through buying, outfitting, then hauling around and using a large format system. I considered the benefits and weighed the cost. With that – this article isn’t a attempt to establish the “best” film for everyone to shoot, but the best film for me to shoot based on my own personal creative goals. My hope is this might help others who’ve considered different formats, and they’re able to glean any insights to draw their own conclusions.
One foundational question when choosing a camera system is what type of photography you’re interested in. If you’re strictly a landscape photographer making very large prints, a 35mm film camera probably isn’t your best option. Answering the question of what you’re planning to do with the photographs is important before making the commitment to a system.
Besides prints, printed books are one of my favorite applications for photographs. The ideal resolution of a 35mm photograph is far more than adequate to print any reasonably sized book, even large, coffee table books.
Of course, if you want to go totally old school, pop some corn and fire up the projector, you could have a good old-fashioned slide show (who remembers that distinct smell of the projector bulb as it heats up to throw your beautiful images across a dark room)?
Sheet Film & Large Format
Sheet film’s immense size has obvious advantages to image quality due to the amount of information contained. There’s nothing like it. Gorgeous, super high-resolution images you can zoom into various parts and form compositions within compositions allow printing gigantic prints people will ooh and ah at. It’s truly spectacular. Another advantage to sheet film is the processing. Because you’re not developing 12, 16 or 36 different exposures at a time – and just one – you’re able to customize development for that one, specific shot. This allows custom processing and tremendous creative control for each frame. The down side is, sheet film is expensive and a bit cumbersome to work with. A 20-sheet box of 4″ x 5″ Velvia 100 runs about $72. That’s about $3.60 per shutter release. A 20-sheet box of 8″ x 10″ Velvia runs about $255. That’s almost $13/shot. That’s some pretty serious dough if you’re going to shoot a lot. There’s also the idea that – because something is so expensive to shoot, and you’re only carrying so much film at a time – one may be reluctant to make an image they’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. No one is right every time they decide to frame up and shoot – or pass it up because it’s just not happening.
A few years ago we were climbing Independence Pass returning from a fall colors trip. It was near the end of the trip and colors were in their prime. Light was gorgeous and leaves were twinkling in the breeze. We pulled over just as two large format shooters were breaking down their large, heavy cameras off their large, heavy tripods. They’d pulled over and seen the same forest – but when it came time to frame up – I heard one say it just wasn’t happening; it’s time to move on. My friend and I spent some time nosing around and I came away with this:
This image was made with the superb Micro Nikkor 105VR to reach into the inner depths of what I found interesting in the forest, and compress the layers of trees into an expressionistic style montage. It was also shot with a shallow depth of field because I wanted to accentuate the abstract, expressionistic feel to the foreground leaves. The bokeh on the 105VR is super smooth and optics with ED glass are super sharp. It was the perfect lens for the composition I saw. The image is crisp enough to be enlarged quite large without quality loss.
If I were a large format shooter with only so many sheets of film at the end of a week-long trip and limited focal length lens, would I have been willing to make this shot? Hard to say – but those two guys walked away from the same scene without an image. I was glad to have had enough of the right film and a lens with the right reach to frame up what I saw in that forest, which turned out to be one of the best images from the trip.
Large format is also a bit cumbersome to haul around quantities for extended trips. I know people do it and get some great images – but as much as I admire and respect the image quality of the good shots resulting from such an investment of time, money and energy – I guess it’s just not something I’m willing to do.
120 Roll Film and Medium Format
Medium format roll film is a higher-volume alternative to sheet film, coming primarily in two flavors: 120/220. 220 provides the same physical frame size as 120 but provides twice as many shots because the roll is twice as long. But it’s tough to find these days – and doesn’t alleviate what I view as the more significant problem of shooting medium format: the larger size of the cameras.
The technical attributes of a medium format system are impressive. Initially I thought of it as the “goldie locks” format: not too big and cumbersome, higher number of shots per load, more detail in the negative… was it just right? It was clinically perfect; large negatives providing way more detail and information than the resulting print required. Beautiful, yes. But was it getting the proverbial drink of water from a fire hose?
I enjoyed my Mamiya RZ67 system- until it came time to use it the field. At that point it became a boxy, cumbersome beast. And even with a good assortment of high-quality lenses the RZ never was quite as wide – or close – as I wanted.
Then when I’d go out to shoot there was the internal struggle with what system to bring. After all – because of its flexibility, bringing the smaller format kit was a given. Its smaller form factor and a mind-numbing array of lenses and accessories provided a clear advantage. Bringing the medium format system too, meant doubling the amount of gear I had to fumble through when it came time to shoot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fumbled through bags of gear searching for a doodad in the dark. Just too much stuff, I’d mutter under my breath as a headlamp flickered on low batteries and fingers hoped to land on the one item so I could get back to work.
In 2009 I took a backpacking trip into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the Spear Head, a gorgeous, granite blade jutting out of Glacier Basin. I was a little younger and stronger then and figured what the heck, I’d just bring it all. I intentionally didn’t weigh my pack until after the trip. It weighed nearly 100 pounds. I’ll never do that again – I was miserable. I got some decent photos but really struggled beneath the weight.
Dynamic, Fluid Compositions
For me artistically – somehow the content of the medium format frame usually lacked something; a spontaneity, a whimsy, surprise. Larger format systems often lack the ability shoot off the hand; to respond to fleeting or decisive moments worth photographing as they appear.
To fully realize the benefits of the larger film size, shooting from a tripod is often required. This usually (but not always) means slow to set up and often resulting in a somewhat rigid, undynamic angle resulting from reluctance to mess with a perfectly level horizon, for example. The net result is a well-structured but often stiff, stagnent image. Still, I kept trying to talk myself into believing the larger, ‘higher quality’ image was worth the trade off. In the end, with reservations, I sold the RZ system. I’ve missed it occasionally but believe I made the right decision.
So then, lets take stock so far: 1) It seems one of the things I value is portability, and the ability to remain flexible to my environment – and have a camera in-hand when it yields an image. 2) I also value consolidating systems and gear as much as possible to avoid hauling around too much incompatible “stuff.” 3)Having the flexibility to shoot a larger number of images per load has also proven valuable. 4) While I do use a tripod, I also value the fluid, dynamic composition shooting off the hand allows. 5) And the ability to fine-tune composition through focal length (which by the way is one of the reasons I prefer SLR cameras instead of rangefinders) is a real plus.
35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design
OK, if portability is so important why not a point and shoot camera? This introduces the idea of aesthetics and style to the equation; the tactile component; what brings beauty, elegance and joy to the process. Photography isn’t bereft of beauty; not simply an analytical equation or assortment of facts and figures. It’s art.
To shun the aesthetic component of photography is to strip the very essence of its role as art. This aesthetic component extends to the tools used in the process… it doesn’t mean you can’t make a good photo with an ugly camera – but why would you want to?
Stripping photography of aesthetic value and trying to turn it into pure pragmatism is like eating bread and water all the days of life because it’s convenient. Give me a solid, well-designed, well-built, rugged tool over a fragile, plastic box any time. Yes – the point and shoot will fit in my pocket and be very portable. But the aesthetic and flexibility hits are just too great.
The design of cameras; their usability, tactile layout, human engineering, curb appeal and just joy-in-hand is a real thing. It’s why some cameras resonate with some but not others; why people collect – but don’t use – cameras. The engineering, thought, devotion to manufacturing excellence and even quirkiness/funkiness – is all a real thing. Art, beauty and great design are most excellent qualities in life.
O.K. you say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where’s the beef? What about the practical, the functional side of shooting a 35mm film camera?
How about weather sealing? Fatigue-minimizing ergonomics? Drop-resistance? A mind-boggling assortment of lens? Modern benefits like super sensitive electromagnetic shutters made of space-age materials? How about low operational noise? Rapid frame rates? Underwater housings? Interval exposures? Remote triggering for positioning in difficult or dangerous places or to capture wildlife.? And of course the aforementioned accessories? Interchangeable backs and viewfinders, for example. The list goes on and on because the 35mm system has been so popular for so long, and so many have wanted to do so much with it.
When initially exploring a system the first temptation may be to think “oh, I don’t need anything fancy…” But as your passion for the art of photography grows and you want to experiment, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to start all over again with a new system? The benefits of a contemporary 35mm film camera combined with today’s film is an awesome total photographic experience.
OK, so along with the points raised before, some sense of style, design and aesthetic appreciation is important to me. Got it.
So let’s look at the attributes of 35mm film itself and see if they line up with creative goals:
35mm roll film attributes
35mm is convenient. Not as convenient as digital, but more convenient than large or medium format. As roll film (not sheet film) with 36 frames available on a roll, you can load it and shoot a good many pictures before it runs out. When it does, because it’s so tuckable; stowable, it’s easy to have another roll or 3 in your pocket, ready. So being able to take a few rolls on a hike, for example, is pretty nice. It doesn’t mean you need to shoot it all – but if you need it, it’s there.
35mm still relatively inexpensive and available. Even if your local drug store no longer stocks/develops film, it’s easily obtained in quantities at a moderate cost. So if you pick up a brick or two, store it in the ‘fridge and use it over a span of time – it’s a great value.
35mm has a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s pleasing to some and not others. Some call the 6:7 aspect “perfect” (i’m guessing it’s the ones who developed the camera who decided it was perfect)… because you don’t have to crop for 8″ x 10.” Others say 6:45, which is pretty close to 3:2. Still others site the advantages to the square format because you don’t have to turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait. Whatever… I don’t know if it’s an old habits die hard thing or what, but I find the shape of the 3:2 frame agreeable to virtually any composition; either horizontal or vertical. Some things frame up better side to side, others top to bottom. And turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically being labeled “too difficult or inconvenient” reminds me a Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about having to shake the juice before opening it. It’s not complicated.
I’m a believer in the L-bracket because with certain cameras I do shoot on the tripod regularly. The L-bracket provides fast, sure, solid mounting in either horizontal or vertical position. But the real power of the 35mm form factor is being able to easily hand-hold the camera.
The future of film
There are still plenty of different emulsions available from which to choose. It’s true – chrome (slide) films have taken a hit in past years. But other films are emerging in their place, and they’re really, really good. Still – Velvia 50 on a tripod with a good lens is capable of amazing image quality. Today’s 35mm film is relevant because it’s better than anything produced in the past. Kodak’s Portra line, for example, has been completely retooled, and it’s awesome. Portra 400 is not the same 400 speed film as yesteryear.
When I visit one of the few remaining camera stores in my area I ask how film sales are going. Every time I’m told the same thing: we can’t keep it on the shelves. People are still buying lots and lots of film whenever they find it available. Add mail order from local suppliers like Denver Pro Photo here in Colorado, or national mail order retailers like B&H out of New York- and continued availability seems assured.
I think it’s safe to assume the heyday of large-scale film production like we saw in the past is behind us. But there are new players emerging, and businesses seem to be consolidating, positioning themselves for future success. I for one am very encouraged. To form some idea of how many people are still devoted to film photography take a look at instagram and search something like #filmisnotdead, or #filmfeed, #analog, #filmphotography, #analogvibes or countless other film-centric hashtags. Film is very alive and very well.
35mm film is easy to work with. Because it had such a wide commercial appeal, having it processed is easy. Processing it yourself is even easier, as I’ve recently been reminded. The tanks to hold it are smaller, the reels are smaller, the chemicals are less. Everything about 35mm is smaller and easier to work with. Yet, done right – the image quality is amazingly high.
What about image quality? Let’s get this out of the way: this is where you get into the limitations of 35mm film for certain applications. It will never produce a 30″ or 40″ or large print as cleanly as that big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ piece of film – or today’s super high-resolution digital cameras. So if that’s the goal, 35mm is the wrong tool. But… how many times have I actually wanted to print a photograph that large? Not many. The rest of the time, something in the neighborhood of 18″ x 12″ with a nice, 2″ matte all around is more than large enough. And if it’s a good shot I want to go larger with – if technique is perfect and equipment is first class – I can.
The 35mm look
When people think of 35mm film often time they think of grainy, black and white (or color) photojournalism photos made over the years. There is a reason those images look like they do. Often times photojournalism films were in the ISO400 speed category and therefore had a courser grain. The reason was pretty obvious: as a photojournalist you need to be ready for anything, in any light. And a 400 speed film was a good way to stack the deck in your favor. The point of the photograph wasn’t how sharp or perfect it was – the point was the content of the image itself. So a “great photograph” might be great not because it’s super sharp and has no visible grain, but because it’s a compelling image.
Today’s 35mm film is capable of many other things beside grainy photojournalism photos. A fine grain 35mm film like Velvia (color slide film), Kodak Ektar 100 (color negative film) or Ilford PanF50 (black and white print film) has virtually no visible grain and possesses tremendous enlargement capability. So many different “looks” can be created with different 35mm films, developers and scanning or darkroom technique. See the “look” heading down further for more on this topic.
To the casual viewer who couldn’t care less what type of camera was used to make the picture – they see the contents of the frame, not the technical attributes of the photograph. The photographer is the only one who cares what camera was used.
It’s the same sort of thing that makes a digitally captured photograph look different than a film-recorded photograph. Most people would see the contents of the frame, not the presence or lack of subtle tone falloff, clipped highlights or grain/no grain. With today’s digital post-processing techniques, one could choose to process that “look” right out of a 35mm made image if so chosen.
When I parted with my RZ system – as painful as it was – I consoled myself with this: when I go out to shoot, everything uses essentially the same F-mount, Nikon system. I can use virtually any lens on any camera, film or digital, and everything just works. There are of course caveats in the details. But largely it’s true, and it’s reliable. And I like that because it reintroduces simplicity to shooting and allows me to enjoy the process of creating again. UPDATE/FULL DISCLOSURE: After this article was written I decided for those normal to wide shots where a little more resolution would help, adding back the ability to shoot medium format was a good idea, and picked up a Mamiya M645 1000S. It’s considerably smaller and more compact than the RZ system and with one lens, fits perfectly into the bag above. The M645 uses the same, screw-in cable release as my older Nikons, the same Kirk ball-head mounting plate I’m already carrying, and has a easy Mirror-Up mechanism. A 58-77 step up ring allows use of the same filters and lens accessories I’m shooting with the Nikon lenses. So now technically I’m back up to two systems, but now the MF rig is tiny and self-contained.
Easy Film Processing
As mentioned in a previous post, recently I’ve begun developing my own black and white films again, after a 30 year hiatus. To say I’ve enjoyed the process again is an understatement. I should have done it years ago. But I had a great local lab available and didn’t need to.
Processing your own black and white film is extremely easy. There’s a small, initial investment required for tanks, reels and a few odds and ends, but after that your cost per roll drops to virtually nothing. Contrast that with $10-$12 from commercial black and white processing and the cost savings is significant.
As wonderful as cost is – it’s perhaps the least compelling reason to process your own film. You also have the ability to try different developers to produce different looks. Then there’s the convenience of shooting and processing your film on the same day. Add to that the feeling of actually creating something with your hands again and the case for developing film at home is solid. Don’t wait like I did. Jump in with both feet and enjoy it.
A Buyer’s Market – Finally
The overabundance of high-quality tools with which to work in 35mm is one of those pinch me moments we don’t get enough in life. Really, really good cameras and lenses are ridiculously inexpensive on the used market thanks to people simply retiring their tried and true friends after experiencing the convenience of a first digital camera.
A few years back I picked up a Nikon N8008s for $26. It retailed new for about $500-$600 in the late 80’s, which in today’s money is around $1,100. I often wonder how many wished in hind site, a year or two later, they’d held onto their trusty 35mm friend rather than selling it for pennies. I’ll bet lots. It’s a shame, really. Things don’t suddenly become useless because something new comes along. This is an on-going problem in our culture; not just for cameras but other consumables too. After spending so many thousands of dollars on digital gear from 2006 to 2010 I’m pretty happy to get a great-working camera for $26. Be warned though: the used market has caught on and prices are rising.
Of course, being the best of the best, the F6 is still considerably more expensive than $26. And the F6 is the focus of this web site. After all, the F6 could be one of the greatest reasons to continue shooting 35mm film. Or – perhaps shooting 35mm film is one of the greatest reasons to have and use the F6?
The valid question is – what does this have to do with the F6. The answer is, nothing at all. But trust me, it’s a worthy diversion.
If you’re interested in the F6, you should also take a serious look at the F2 line up. As with other “last iterations” the F2 is considered by many the finest SLR Nikon – or anyone else for that matter – has ever built. It’s also been labeled the “most beautiful” camera ever built by some. What I mean by ‘last iteration’ is this: in manufacturing terms the final version of something before a large-scale change is often times the best, most refined, successful version of that something. It leverages all the knowledge and experience the manufacturer has learned up until that point and rolls it into one, final masterpiece. In the case of the F2, it represents the last of the hand-assembled, all-mechanical single-digit professional F-series film cameras from Nikon. The F2 isn’t simply a refinement of the famous F preceding it – it’s a complete re-design leveraging everything they learned making the F and rolling it into this lady-killer hunk of a camera. After the F2 came the F3 which was assembled using more automation and employed electronics for basic operation. 40+ years after the roll out of the F2 it’s still considered by many the finest camera ever made.
This year I’ve been working on something I’ve had in mind for a while: acquiring one of each of the single digit Nikon F professional SLR cameras. This summer while in Chicago I had the opportunity to visit Central Camera and from the shelf a beautiful, old (and I swear lonely) F with the FTn Photomic prism called to me in a way I just couldn’t ignore. Soon after we left the store for our first stroll together through the city to get acquainted.
Prior to this July my knowledge of the older Nikon systems was a little sketchy. OK, it was inept. I knew they were legends – but most of my serious time behind the now vintage Nikons began around the F4 days and I hadn’t paid much attention to the older F’s. This year that has all changed.
If the “F” leg of my journey began by happenstance, the F2 leg began as an act of benevolence from my good friend Mark. He’d been using his F2 for a while and decided to pick up a newer, nicer one. Soon afterwards I received an e-mail saying he was sending me his original F2 Photomic. I was humbled by his generosity and honestly, not sure what to expect. I knew it followed the F and, for some (unknown) reason, I thought of it as “second best” to the F – like some sort of little brother that wasn’t as talented or good looking. Perhaps it had something to do with the fanfare the original F enjoyed because it was “the first.” Perhaps it was because the F2 lacked a prominent F2 on the front of the camera, as all following F’s sported. Perhaps because at first I errantly thought that F2 was simply a reboot of the original F. Who knows… no matter the reason, I was dead wrong.
Design Philosophy of the F2:
In anticipation I began scouring the web for as much information on the camera as I could find. As a new comer to the F2 there’s nothing I can add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said. What follows instead is this compilation of what I think are some of the marvelous and noteworthy discussions surrounding this camera.
I’ve considered writing a head-to-head review of the F2 and the F6, but don’t really see a point to it: though they share the same DNA, one evolving from the other, they’re two, radically different cameras – each with their own pedigree and position in history – not just the history of Nikon, but in the development of the art of photography. The temptation is to ascribe one as better than the other and that’s something I refuse to do out of respect for both.
The F2 was the last all-mechanical hand -assembled camera (think about that… over 1,500 individual parts assembled into one, highly-efficient, precision instrument), Nikon F-series camera. The shutter was hand assembled by mostly women in the Oi works because of their smaller hands and more delicate touch. The F2 has electronics only in the form of a battery compartment at camera bottom to run the DP-X metered finders.
This approach allowed designers to reduce the size and mass of the metered heads because they no longer had to accommodate a battery compartment as in the F. It was also assumed the present (early 1970’s) state of electronics development in the metered finders should be manufactured separately from the all-mechanical body allowing later swapping of rapidly advancing electronics with rock-solid mechanical engineering beneath. In short, the mechanics were expected to out-last the electronics – which of course proved to be true. Replaceable prisms remained a design cornerstone of Nikon professional cameras for many years to follow coming to an end with the F5. As we already know, the F6 no longer makes use of this design feature. The entire F2 (sans motorized grip) functions with no power what so ever. That itself is impressive. But even more so, the F2 is constructed with over 1,500 pieces clicking, twirling, humming, springing and dancing away inside that heavy-duty chassis every time you click the shutter. Simply amazing.
Though at first glance it might be hard to tell the F from the F2, especially when they have eye-level (non-metered, triangular) finders, when design to the successor of the famous F began in September, 1965 the decision was made to start from scratch. This was further reflected by Nippon Kogaku’s changing from their traditional letter and number development code, to simply “A.” Eventually in the design cycle it was recoded “30FB.” The F2 design team was all in-house and had four main goals: a) Design a camera of the highest quality, b) quick and easy operation, c) a systemic approach allowing expansion, and d) continuing down the path to automation.
F2 styling employed a slightly rounder feel softening the hard edges of the original F ever so slightly. There’s also a good bit of accessory cross over between the two cameras. The non-metered (classic triangular) prisms are interchangeable between cameras, as are 20 different focusing screens. Other accessories like the AR-1 soft-shutter release and AR-2 cable release are also compatible between the two cameras. Despite first glances and shared accessories there are many changes and design refinements between the F and F2.
The F2 has a a distinctive, “mechanical” look to it – different than the following F3, F4, F5 and F6. It wasn’t until the F3 that Nikon brought in the Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, changing the face of the following F-line forever. Though I admire the sleek design of the later F’s, there’s something wonderfully solid about the glorious apparatus surrounding the F2. From MD motor drives to MB battery packs, 250 and 750 – frame replaceable backs, early auto exposure contraptions, as well as a cornucopia of other accessories covering virtually every photographic scenario one could imagine – everything bolts to the F2 with that famous, Nikon assurance that you’re holding something in your hand that’s probably going to outlive you.
One of the great benefits of an all-mechanical camera is the environments capable of functioning in that electronics either wouldn’t survive (like the arctic) or where highly flammable conditions exist. A great story surrounding the F2 centers around Japanese adventurer Naomi Uemura who came to Nikon with the simple request in June of 1977, “make me a camera that can survive the North Pole!” That camera was a modified F2, a camera capable of functioning at temperatures exceeding -50°C (-58°F). Nikon built Uemura 3 F2’s with which he shot 180 rolls of film over a 6 month period trekking across The North Pole and Greenland. You can read more about this remarkable adventurer and the details of how Nikon worked closely with Uemura to develop a camera specifically for his needs here.
The more I read, the more I realized what an incredible engineering feat the F2 was – and still is. Manufactured from about 1971 to 1980, it represented the most robust “system” camera Nikon had ever build. It spanned many (6 primary) model variations ranging from original F2 with the unmetered DE-1 prism to the pinnacle F2AS, as well as exotic derivatives. Limited production runs such as the F2 Uemura (3 were made), the F2 DATA, of which reportedly only 1,000 were made, the F2T for Titanium, and the F2H, for High Speed – which had a special mirror designed for super high-speed shooting. Any F2 viewfinder will fit any F2 body.
At 40+ years old now in many respects the F2 represents the pinnacle of mechanical engineering – prior to moving to the advances of the electronic era. The lore that surrounds this camera is almost a fairy tale; a synopsis of world history from the early ’70s through 1980.
Rumor has it that the original F adaptors were initially slow to move to the F2. The same thing happened when the F3 was launched – with many photographers opting to pay more for the older, mechanical F2 instead of trusting ‘them new fangled’ electronics. Regardless of the initial reluctance, the camera did famously well and reportedly over 800,000 units were produced from the fall of 1971 to the cease of production in 1980.
Reflecting the shift in photography of the day, the F2 was superior in forma and function and served as the final coup de grace to the German rangefinders. I suppose that’s more an op/ed statement though, anticipating an outcry from the German camera crowd. Let’s just say in the context of the working press of the day it’s subjectively true.
For anyone interested a deeper history of this camera I encourage you to check out the references at the bottom of the page.
The camera arrived and as so many others can attest to upon experiencing it in hand for the first time, my jaw hit the table. To borrow a phrase from Tomohisa Ikeno describing the Nikon F6, the F2 is indeed also “a camera of great substance.” Any previous thoughts otherwise instantly vanished. The F2 is deceptively heavy for its rather smallish size compared to today’s cameras. As the camera appears in the photo atop this page, he weighs in at an impressive 4lbs 7oz. So, not exactly a featherweight. This is not a negative – I like the solid feel and welcome the balance the camera produces in hand. It’s a beautifully simple camera to operate, on par with the original F, though with a few more “shootability” traits. Maximum shutter speed was increased from 1/1,000 in the F to 1/2,000 in the F2 allowing one to work with larger apertures in brighter light. This is an even more amazing feet when you consider it’s all mechanical, horizontally traveling titanium foil shutter.
The shutter release button was moved forward on the top plate making it a bit easier for a naturally placed finger. Functionality of the shutter release collar was expanded to allow T (time) shooting (using the self-timer lever on the front of the camera), a normal shooting position, and a L (lock) position to prevent accidentally tripping the shutter.
The film advance lever was now tipped in plastic, providing a greater sense of human engineering compared to the bare metal lever of the F. It was also given the additional duty of turning the camera’s meter on and off by rotating it out which reveal a red dot on the top plate. The film advance lever had a short throw (only 120° of rotation) allowing quick film advance.
The frame counter was removed from the film advance lever to the top plate. Perhaps most notably however was the back door of the camera was now hinged allowing one to change film more easily, rather than having to remove the back completely as with the F. Other refinements also went into the F2. For all the F2 detail anyone could ever digest I invite you to visit the MIR F2 Index page. You’ll get lost for hours in this incredibly comprehensive resource about the camera.
The Hunt is On
The month or so since first unboxing the F2 has been a bit of a whirl wind. The copy generously sent to me was usable, but had seen better days. I decided I’d try to obtain a nicer copy. There are a few things about the F2 I’ve learned in my recent acquisition phase from auction. One is, moderate to decent F2’s aren’t terribly expensive. I’ve seen them range from about $100 to $200 for average to good condition cameras. Even less if you pick up a F2 body with no finder. This is great news. The not-so-great news is, if you’re going to shoot it, you’d better be prepared to put a little money into having it refurbished. These are old, mechanical cameras – some of which were used hard. I recently picked up a body for the princely sum of $65 listed as “working fine” and in “top condition.” It looked presentable from the exterior, but it surely wasn’t in top condition. One of the achilles heal in older F2’s is the plastic battery compartment shattering. When it does, not only does no power reach the metered prism, but even worse, little pieces of plastic jam the film transport mechanism. The fix requires surgery: a costly strip down to the chassis to epoxy or otherwise repair the battery compartment. While they’re at it, a good CLA makes sense. So my $65 bargain ended up costing a couple hundred by the time it was repaired. Lesson learned.
Secondly, Nikon’s early assessment that the finders would peter out before that stout mechanical body proved true. Finding a good, working DP-anything isn’t as easy as you’d think. Again, these are 40 years old and early electrical technology. Many finders are “jumpy” or inconsistent or not working at all. There are a few places that will fix them – but it’s not cheap. Nor are the unmetered, original DE-1 finders in good condition. So again, to have a good F2 shooter you’re going to spend a little money. However – when the total cost of obtaining and repairing a solid F2 are compared to what the same expense would purchase in today’s consumer electronics, there’s no comparison: you’ll get a lifetime camera in the F2 vs. something that’ll sell at a garage sale in a couple years for $50 (I’m talking about the digital, by the way).
You might get lucky like I did and find a decent DP-1 metered prism for a reasonable price. Thus, my humpty dumpty F2 was assembled in such a way and looks and functions great – with a little TLC by a factory trained Nikon technician. The thinking is, at 40 years old and with a recent refresh this camera will outlive me. I’m OK with that.
This is another subjective assessment. Whatever camera one uses repeatedly and grows accustomed to is going to feel comfortable in hand. It will become that “extension of one’s self” people (including me) like to say when describing how you’ve used a camera for so long and know it so well, there’s no longer an adjustment necessary when you pick it up. You just shoot. To the long-time user of the F2 – as with anyone using any other camera for a long time – it’s highly shootable. To the newbie – it’s also highly shootable.
The base configuration of the F2 with the metered DP-1 finder is an all-manual camera. In contemporary context if you think S for shutter priority, A for aperture priority, P for program and M for manual, the only mode the F2 has is M – manual. The DP-1 provides an adequate meter with which to gauge exposure – though the electronics and sensitivity of that meter aren’t on par with today’s camera – especially the F6. No matter – it’s plenty good enough and you can rely on it getting you in the ball park. It is center-weighted, taking into consideration the entire frame but weighting preference to the center of the frame – suitable for most general purpose photography. The photographer experienced with basic fundamentals of determining exposure will be able to do anything with the F2 they can do with any other camera – perhaps just not as quickly. Again – this is all subjective. Please all you old-school F2 shooters don’t take me to task on this statement; it’s not directed at you. I’m talking to the those used to a different metering system and to the adjustments they’ll want to make to be successful with the F2.
The DE-1 non-metered prism finder is a different matter. With no meter at all you’re left to determine exposure any number of other ways (like with your own light meter, or superior intellect). In that case the un-metered F2 will fall into your hands like a well-worn glove ready to respond to your every command. It is SUPERB. I’m kind of a nut about stuff like this – the warm, squishy attributes of a camera. How it feels in the hand. Its a big deal to me. Something clunky and awkward you hate to hold is not going to get held. Consequently, not going to make pictures.
The F2 is a dream. I’ve heard the term “built like a tank” so many times it has become a meaningless platitude. So let’s come up with a better way to describe the F2. I’m drawing a blank at the moment.
Another fun thing about the F2 is all of the beautiful – but way overpriced accessories. The “collectors” have driven the price of this old gear through the roof. Something simple like a MF-3 replaceable back that allows leader-out film rewinding (with the MD-2 and MB-1) I saw at auction for $450. For a back. Buyer beware… just use your head, do your research and you’ll be fine.
The F6 has a diopter adjustment built into the viewfinder. For the F2 if you’re interested in adjusting the diopter of the F2 you’re back to old school method of finding the appropriate one. As mentioned earlier the F2 and F share some of the same accessories for the F2 like focusing screens. Thankfully viewfinder adjustment diopters are another area the F2 leverages from other camera’s accessories, sharing the same diopter size as that of the FE line, FM line and FA as well as the F3 (not F3 HP which stands for High Eyepoint and uses a different diameter thread). So with a little creativity and digging you can still find genuine Nikon parts, or high-quality reproductions fairly easily for this 40-year old camera.
If you’re into the old, mechanical nuts and bolts stuff that has a retro sound, look and feel – you’re going to go broke in the world of the F2. The accessories available for the F2 are vast. For a little fun visit the Nippon Kogaku Klub for some pretty exotic mechanical F2 gear. Over accessorizing is not a danger for him: the more bling you hang on him the better looking he gets. He’s a sculpture; a work of art masquerading as a 35mm film camera. The good news is you can pick one up at a reasonable price and have a blast shooting it stripped down to its skivvies’. It’s that great of a camera.
Repairs for the F2
It’s easy enough and even fun to clean and polish your old, new-to-you F2 when it shows up. Even tasks like replacing the often crumbly, gummy foam seals in strategic positions of the camera are easily doable with the right tools and a little time/patience (check out Jon Goodman in Dallas, Texas. He’s your man for replacement foams). But when components fail – especially electronic components – it’s difficult if not impossible to find suitable replacements so long after the originals were discontinued. Another great thing about the all mechanical F2: in theory, it’s repairable. Thankfully there are a handful of qualified, dedicated artisans still available to make such repairs.
At the top of the list is Sover Wong. Sover is a UK-based, Nikon factory trained, F2-dedicated technician. You can read more about his approach to repairing your prized F2 here. Sover is a legend in the F2 community. To have your prized F2 “Sovered” is to restore it functionally better than new. His shutter timing calibration exceeds Nikon factory specs. If you’re in the UK and need your F2 repaired you’re fortunate. Shipping round trip from the US adds another $100+ to the repair bill, which thankfully is quite reasonable for the level of attention he lavishes on these cameras. Upon receiving my F2S back from Sover it had a distinct ‘snap’ and smooth, quiet liquidity to operation. Having the internals of your F2 documented and provided on CD with the camera is a wonderful addition to the camera’s dossier. He records every serial number of every F2 he services and has a generous warranty and repeat service policy.
There are others still around in the US who will work on your F2. Be careful though. I’ve heard and seen horror stories of people badly mutilating the camera in the process of what they call a repair. Some components require special tools to disassemble. Calibrating the shutter is another precise adjustment requiring someone who really knows their stuff.
If you’re in Northern Colorado give Key Camera Service in Longmont a call (303-772-7690) . They repaired my jammed F2 and did a great job.
Having an F2 loaded at all times is now standard operating procedure, right along side the F6 (and the F, F4 and F5). The appeal for me is the lack of electronics and the sheer sense of substance while holding it. While I love the F6 and continue to rely on it for every-day shooting, the F2 warrants special consideration from an artistic, idealistic and even – I’ll say it out loud – romantic point of view.
The whole “film thing”
I was talking with my wife about it the other day, asking her what she supposes it is that causes someone to fall in love with something 40 years old; that by contemporary standards is wholly behind in technology, lacking in many of today’s stated “necessary” features and frankly the antithesis of today’s modernly digital cameras. What is it about hoisting these cameras to our eyes, we whisper under our breath, “wow…”? What is it that makes us spend the time and money cleaning them up, recalibrating shutters, repairing viewfinders, and massaging them back into smooth, efficient operation to go out and make the same photograph many other cameras could make? Why do we do it?
Passion. Romance. Feeling. Love. Lore. Appreciation for great engineering. That “X-factor” that can’t be measured, quantified or explained when you hold the sum of over 1,500 individual parts designed, manufactured and assembled into one, precision instrument you now hold in your hand. A device that’s part of history. I believe it’s the very essence of photography; the attribute elevating the mechanical process of clicking a button from the common realm to the ethereal. Making art with art. Poetic, even.
I’m of course not saying there’s only one camera capable of this. But I do believe for each person who hoists their favorite, old film camera to their eye and squints into the viewfinder; fingers caressing and adjusting knobs, breath steaming the camera back, eyelashes sticking in the viewfinder… there’s something going on more than simply using a light-tight box to execute a mechanical process. We can admit it… we’re among friends. It’s all part of the “art” of photography, and we know it.
So what’s all this have to do with the F6. Nothing, really. Other than when you shoot the F, F2, F3, F4 and F5 you begin to appreciate the F6 DNA all the more. Trying to answer the question ‘which is your favorite’ is a cat chasing its tail. Each photographer has preferences based on their experience: specific cameras which trigger memories from long hours spent with them in hand, or admiring one over another for aesthetic and design preferences. But best… why bother? Just shoot and enjoy each as the spirit moves you and simply enjoy them for what they are: works of art masquerading as 35mm film cameras.
1. Maximum Impact Research, or mir.com’s section devoted to the F2. It’s exhaustive and you’ll be lost in it for hours, guaranteed. Invaluable for everything from a wholistic understanding of the system to drilling down into finer details of specific devices and accessories.
Have you ever wondered how to embed EXIF data into your film-shot and computer scanned images? Are you one of the newly enlightened 35mm film shooters recently in possession of your dream, quasi-vintage film camera (think Nikon F100, Nikon F5, Canon EOS-1V or Minolta Maxxum) – but frustrated trying to figure out how to tweak its Custom Settings exactly how you want? You may have given up, resigning yourself to thinking, “some day someone will figure this out.” Well, that someone is Promote Systems, and thanks to the software company in Houston, Texas, your wait is over. Enter meta35, a new product allowing you to extract EXIF data your camera generates, import to the computer, then embed into the specific frame of film it corresponds to. Not only that, but Meta35 allows interaction with these old, beautiful film cameras Custom Setting Menus; tweak them, then re-export to the camera. Quickly, easily, and without any cryptic cheat sheets.
About a year ago I received an e-mail from a gentleman asking if the Nikon MV-1 Data Reader was the only game in town when it came to retrieving data off the Nikon F6. The answer at the time was, unfortunately, yes – as far as I knew. For those unfamiliar with the MV-1, it’s a glorified CF card reader in a black, velvet pouch that hooks up to the 10-pin ports on the Nikon F6, Nikon F5, Nikon F100 and Nikon N90S/F90X allowing the transfer of Exif data generated by the camera (when this option is activated, as in the case of the F100) – write that data as a tiny .txt file to a Compact Flash (CF) card, then transfer that data to the computer for further use. The MV-1 is perfect for what limited functionality if performs, but there are several downsides. One is cost; at close to $240 it feels dramatically over priced for what it is. Another downside is that it’s one-directional in the sense it’s designed simply to retrieve data stored in your camera and write it to a card. During that process it deletes the data from the camera’s memory. Yet another disadvantage to the MV-1 is they’re tough to find – and will become tougher as time passes.
In the old days there was a piece of software called Nikon Photo Secretary, allowing interaction with the F5’s inner functions. I never used Photo Secretary so can’t speak precisely to what it did or didn’t do. It was released about the same time as the F5 and from the looks of things, designed primarily to interact with the CSM (Custom Settings Menu) of the F5, providing easier access to its inner secrets. Regardless, if you can even find it today, and/or a computer that’ll run it – you’d be lucky. So what’s left?
Fast forward a year to an e-mail from the same gentleman a year ago, asking if I’d be interested in trying a new product for extracting data from the F6. Enter meta35, from Promote Systems in Houston, Texas. Meta35 is a new product providing today’s film shooter with the data generated by their cameras, previously inaccessible. And in the case of a camera like the F100 where you actually have to tell the camera to record data (its default is “off”), meta35 is the only game in town allowing access to this function, buried deep in the camera’s brain to wake it up, fully realizing its potential.
Meta35 is a software/hardware solution for not only these vintage, Nikon film cameras (F100, F5, F6, N90S/F90X), but also Canon EOS-1V and Minolta (Maxxum, Dynax and Alpha) cameras as well (please see footnotes at end of article). The software component runs on both Windows and Apple OSX as a efficiently designed, standalone application. The 2-part hardware component consists of a small cable with the appropriate connecting head for your camera on one end and standard 3.5mm jack on the other that plugs into a small adapter which connects to the computer’s USB port. Meta35 is extremely simple to use, well designed and fully functional.
Think of the camera’s data in two separate buckets:
– First, the Exif data generated while shooting a roll of film
– Secondly, the camera’s Custom Settings Menus (CSM), allowing deeper, more custom interaction with the camera.
The one-driectional MV-1 is capable only of removing (and erasing) generated EXIF data from the camera. Meta35 is bi-directional in the sense it allows you to read and write information to and from the camera. In regards to Custom Setting Menus, in the past its been difficult or impossible to access that data without some sort of deciphering key explaining what CSM function is mapped to what code in the camera. Meta35 somehow cuts through to not only decypher each camera’s CSM info, but allows retrieval, editing on the computer, then re-exporting altered CSM settings back into to the camera.
In the case of the F6, Meta35 does not allow changing CSM settings on the camera – this is simply done using the F6’s Menu on the back. But if you’re an F5, F100 or N90S/F90X, Canon EOS-1 or Minotla Maxxum shooter you’ll appreciate being able to easily read and alter each Custom Setting in the camera, then push those settings back to the camera and be ready to go.
EXIF DATA: Retrieving and embedding Exif data
When it comes time to embedding EXIF data into your image, meta35 is more than up to the task. Here’s a quick snapshot of the process. There are also links to short, informative “how-to” videos available here.
1) Hook meta35 to the camera and turn the camera on 2) Launch the software 3) Import the Exif data from the camera 4) Locate and load the image directory you wish to work with 5) The software automatically matches the exif data frame with the proper image* 6) Enter the additional IPTC data at the bottom such as titles, locations, keywords, etc. 7) Click “embed data” button
and presto – your image now carries all the data generated when shot such as f-stop, shutter speed, time, date, camera brand/model, etc.
OK – that’s a best-case scenario. Here are a few things you’ll figure out during your use of meta35, each tied to the number above:
1) Hook meta35 to the camera and turn the camera on. Make sure when you’re finished using meta35 you physically disconnect the cable from the camera or it will eventually deplete your batteries.
2) Launch the software.No issues here. It will run on both Windows and Apple OSX computers and I never experienced a single stability issue.
3) Import Exif data from the camera.This begins a bit of a fork in the road: if you use the MV-1 for the F6 it’s set to actually delete EXIF data from the camera after finished writing to the card. This of course leaves no data on the camera for Meta35 to interact with. So if you’re in the position of having both the MV-1 and meta35, use meta35 first to extract the data from the camera. meta35 allows the option of leaving the data stored in camera after extraction. If you wish to go back later and use the MV-1 to extract the data file you can do it then.
*In case you’re wondering – as I was – whether meta35 can work with data already imported from the camera and living on your hard disc, the answer is yes (!)*
4 and 5) Locate and load the image directory you wish to work with. This is an important step that takes a lot for granted. Without getting into a workflow discussion, I’ll say this: for most compatible use across the board it’s best to work with JPEG images. Here’s why.
a) Though meta35 presently understands both TIF and JPEG’s, it’s more compatible with JPEG’s on both platforms. On the Apple platform there is an issue preventing the software from writing all the EXIF data to TIF files on Apple OSX. It does allow some information like shutter speed and aperture, but not other information like camera brand, camera model and some others. They’re working hard to figure this out and I have no doubt they will. But for now, use JPEG’s – especially if you’re in the Mac.
b) When you scan images from a roll of film, this process assumes a logical, sequential naming convention. I’ve written other articles on this in the past so won’t get into it again here. But if you randomly name your files willy nilly when scanning, it makes associating the proper image later with the proper frame’s EXIF data much more difficult. Meta35 uses a logical sequence-based method. It understands “frame 1” in the EXIF data – and expects you to identify “frame 1” in your image directory. Much of this is common sense – but Meta35 isn’t a mind-reader – it needs you to do your part too.
c) The good news is, once you’ve imported the image directory you want to work with, re-ordering images in the image pane is relatively simple if you’ve not been diligent in your naming conventions while scanning. It’s easy to re-order, or even omit and exclude images from syncing. It’s rare that I scan all 36 images in from a roll of film, leaving gaps between images. No worries for meta35. It allows you to either exclude the data file or the image, based on how you prefer to work.
6) Enter the additional ITPC data at the bottom such as titles, locations, etc. This is a nifty way of adding keywords, descriptions, titles to your images. In the case of the Copyright pane there’s an option to apply to whole roll, saving time of entering the same information repeatedly. Same with the time/date stamp – allowing you to time/date stamp the entire roll. It’s a bit laborious to copy and paste information across all 36 images, but it needs to be done at some point and meta35 provides the most concise and streamlined opportunity to work on a whole roll at once.
7) Click “embed data” button. As noted above, this action will embed all entered data into your images, with the exception of TIF’s on the Mac, which embeds only some of it. The image is then permanently joined to its shooting data. When you open the image in other software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or DxO Optics the data is there.
CSM Settings: Retrieving, Altering and Exporting Custom Settings from/to the camera:
Working with the camera’s custom settings menu is a breeze with meta35. As noted earlier, when altering the F6’s Custom Settings you’ll continue to do so on the camera’s menu itself. But for other cameras such as the F5, F100 or N90X/S, meta35 makes customizing the camera’s functions a breeze. Here’s the overview:
1) Connect the camera to the computer 2) Launch the software 3) Once the camera is located by the software, click “Import from Camera” 4) The camera’s Custom Settings appear within the software. Make whatever changes you wish. You’ll see short explanations associated with each setting if you need more information. 5) When complete, click “Export to Camera” and the camera is now updated. 6) Disconnect the camera.
It’s really that easy. No deciphering cryptic keys, or trying to memorize codes in the camera and what they mean. All information is clearly presented in the software as readable, easy to understand information.
Meta35 is a combination of software and hardware that lets photographers download shooting data from compatible cameras, embed the data into the EXIF metadata of scanned images and configure the cameras built in custom functions to optimize settings to the photographer’s needs. For version 1 software it’s robust, stable, well thought through and fully functional. It will be exciting to see where Promote Systems takes it from here.
Meta35 is compatible with the following film cameras that record data: Canon EOS-1V, Nikon F100, F5, F6(1), F90X, N90S, Minolta Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha 7(1,2) and Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha 9(1 ,3).
1. Custom functions can be set directly on the camera.
2. Requires Minolta DS-100 data saver.
3. Requires Minolta DM-9 memory data back.
– transfer film shooting data from the camera directly to a MAC or PC
– embed the shooting data into the EXIF metadata of the scanned images
– set up and customize camera custom functions
Meta35 retails for $149 for Nikon, Canon and Minolta versions, and is available for both Windows and Apple OSX computers. For more information please visit Promote System’s web site at meta35.com