Sometimes returning to your roots is a good thing. When we lived in Santa Fe from the mid 90’s ’til 2000 I was in a different phase of photography. In recent years I’ve enjoyed returning to this beautiful country with a better understanding of light – and how to coax more out of a frame of film with subtle adjustments here and there. Below are a few recent images from our last visit to Santa Fe, the F6 loaded with Velvia. The meter in the F6 is a perfect companion to the narrow exposure latitude of this sometimes tempermental emulsion. A good 2-stop Neutral Density Gradient and occasional use of a 81A warming filter can help coax light into cooperating with Velvia, producing very pleasing results.
A big thanks to Richard Photo Lab in California for their excellent work developing all the film from this trip. It was the first time I’ve used Richard but not the last. They handled a large, complex order well and all the films were properly labeled and processed.
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 35mm film cameras. 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 MB-3 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 has to be 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. If you’re in the UK and need your F2 repaired you’re fortunate. Shipping back and forth 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. 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.
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 of the 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.
Chapter 2: San Luis, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico
One of my great joys in life is driving; to simply wander and explore with a camera; and once in a while to answer that perennial question – what’s down this road, or around the next bend? The drive from San Luis, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico has to be one of the most beautiful drives. Ever. When we lived in Santa Fe returning to Colorado was always a highly anticipated event – largely for the road trip. Sure, you can hop on I-25 and be door-to-door a few minutes faster, but that’s rarely the point.
159 south out of San Luis turns into 522 as you cross the New Mexico state line. The route is dotted with piñon pines – like beard stubble on a giant face – framing broad, sweeping vistas. Active skies hover weightlessly above distant mountain ranges toned by years of erosion and gnarled, stunted flora on this flat stretch of road passing through the southern region of the San Luis Valley. To the East the Spanish Peaks rise abruptly from the valley floor. To the west lies distant Kit Carson National Forest, home of Abiquiu and Georgia Okeeffe’s Ghost Ranch. The beauty of the area is understated during afternoon’s high angle light hours. Not quite desert – not quite mountains – the land can come across as harsh, unforgiving terrain void of life.
Towards the edges of the day, however, a softness emerges completely altering the same landscape in etherial beauty; the tones of distant ranges shifting from undifferentiated grays to subtle ochres, siennas, cadmiums, cobalts and indigos – and skies with supernatural color beyond comprehension. Dirt roads vanish into oblivion, pointing at no obvious destination save a clump of trees on the distant valley floor. A service road to a watering station for cattle? A driveway small children need to walk a half-hour to catch a bus on? One day – with a full tank of gas and plenty of film – I’ll discover where these roads lead. But today’s not that day. As is often the case when we hit this part of the drive it’s mid/late in the afternoon and the light isn’t so great – but only a photographer would complain about it. To pass through this land in the mornings and evenings is well worth the effort.
In your rear view mirror you’ll see the impressive Sangre de Cristo range towering on the northern horizon, anchored by the ominous and deadly Blanca Peak, one of the most notorious “Fourteeners” in Colorado. For those who don’t know, Colorado is home to all 53 peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain – from Canada to Mexico – that rise above fourteen thousand feet in elevation. Near Fort Garland, Colorado the Sangre de Cristos hook to the east slightly then continue south into northern New Mexico where they melt back into the surrounding hillsides and rolling arroyos above the town of Santa Fe.
From a photographer’s point of view the land presents virtually endless compositions – but can be tricky for the landscape photographer to actually frame something up. Often times there’s little more than a horizon and sky to work with. Occasionally you’ll have something of foreground interest; an unusual roadside shelter, an old tractor abandoned along the road, a derelict mobile home trailer parked in a field, or towers of neatly stacked, freshly baled hay. For shots like this – where there’s less of an immediate object to focus on and the image relies more on faithful representation of subtle detail – I’ll switch to a fine-grain, high resolution film like Ektar, (or Velvia/Provia when I was shooting more chrome films).
The town of Questa, New Mexico is the next “major” town along the route. One of Questa’s claims to fame is its honey production. Long about the time we hit Questa, we’re hungry. Last summer we decided to uphold our tradition of avoiding chain restaurants and dining instead at locally owned establishments. This led us to WildCat’s Den in Questa. I’ll be honest… at first I was a little skeptical about bringing my family into this sketchy looking establishment, with bars on the windows. The WildCat Den sounded like something other than what it turned out to be – pure and simply, home of one of the best burgers in northern New Mexico.
We burgered up, chatted with the cooks and headed out. If you ever find yourself wandering through Questa hungry, make sure you hit the WildCat’s Den. Don’t be fooled by the bars on the windows – they’re to keep the burgers in – not the people out.
South of Questa, the only signs of life are the small, mountain enclaves of Arroyo Hondo, San Cristobal and El Prado. At night this drive can be harrowing, evidenced by the abundance of one of my ongoing fascinations – roadside memorials – dotting the route. Unfortunately in New Mexico you see a lot of them. On the way out of Questa we passed this especially poignant one I couldn’t help but stop at.
A big draw in Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. At 650 feet above the river below it’s spectacular – and easily accessible – spanning the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles west Taos on Highway 64. Unfortunately its accessibility has become an issue for those wishing to use the bridge to end their lives. Jumpers off the Rio Grande Gorge bridge number 115 in the last 20 years. When we were there last August another person had recently jumped to their death. Emergency vehicles blocked access to the side of the bridge thus thankfully preventing the view to the body below. The knowledge it had just been discovered moments before we arrived temporarily erased the light-hearted spirit being on vacation inspires.
That’s quite enough talk about roadside memorials and people jumping to their death. Fortunately on this trip no such events preceded our arrival. Instead we were met by these guys (below image). I’ll take them over the other any day of the week. There were several different groupings of big horns along the east side of the canyon. The rams huddled together along the rim while the mommas with their kids dotted the cliffs below.
The F6 was the obvious choice for these images of Big Horns because of its VR capability. Afternoon light was beginning to dwindle and though they were relatively close on the canyon rim – 200mm closed the gap. Pushing Ektar one stop to ISO200 set the 70-200VR up for success with a comfortable working combo of ƒ5 at 1/400. The 70-200mm VR is a great lens but experience has taught me to not expect greatness for shots like this at ƒ2.8. No time for a tripod – everything was hand held. The F4s stayed in the car for this outing, not wanting to fumble with additional gear while changing film. He would have his chance to shine later.
By the time we arrived in Taos we were ready for a longer break. Less populated and more mountainous than Santa Fe, Taos is a town of notoriety and size, standing unique in the regions’s art community. The hearty traveler could spend a lifetime exploring Taos and surrounding area. You never know what you’ll find winding through town on back alleys rather than being stuck in traffic on the main road. This old, turquoise Jeep pick up truck appears to be blessed living out its remaining days as a planter in someone’s front yard.
The Taos art community is world renown, spanning generations with heavy hitters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer. Today, famous artists such as Charles Collins and so many others line the plaza with unique, inspiring art. Something about being around art makes you want to create art with the camera. For me that’s what our trips to New Mexico are all about – and the fun was only just beginning.
“Lincolns Union” is a “Master Mind” sculpture created by Charles Collins – a bonafied “Master” from Taos, New Mexico (2014). The sculpture is composed of three, individual pieces that stand on their own, representing the Union solider, the Confederate solider and “the woman who held the flame of hope for both.” When reconfigured they form a unique, new shape resembling Lincoln’s face.
I could go on and on about Taos – but we’d never get to the next destination: Santa Fe. Coming up next, the Art Epicenter of the United States, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thanks for sticking with me this far. The real fun is about to begin.
In each blog post I attempt to roll in an application to the F6. The F6 is, after all, the reason for this site – and why so many people come here: to read about it. For this series of posts in the spirit of “try something new… you might like it,” I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to add the Nikon F4s into the mix.
SANTA FE – If heading to the art epicenter of the country with two, vintage Nikon film camers isn’t on every photographer’s bucket list – you need to re-write your bucket list. I’m fortunate to live within an easy day’s drive – and have the benefit of history and knowledge of such a place. This provides new depth and opportunity with each visit. On our latest sojourn to “The City Different” of course I shot the F6, but this was the first outing with my newly acquired F4s – a birthday gift from my lovely bride. When we lived in Santa Fe in the late 90’s the F4s was my primary camera. I sold it shortly after buying my D3s in 2010 but knew I’d reacquire one some day. This new F4s shipped straight from Japan (no US preceding the serial number) and is in absolutely gorgeous condition – like it had never been used. So to return to my old stomping ground with two vintage, Nikon film bodies was a wonderful opportunity to make some unique images on film (I realize I’m stretching a bit, describing the F6 as a “vintage camera” when in reality it’s only 10 years old).
I’ll get this out of the way right now: comparing the Nikon F6 to the Nikon F4s would be a little like (and I say this will all due respect to both era’s engineering/design) comparing – say – a 1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon with a 2014 Chevy Tahoe. There really is no comparison between the two flagship cameras from two different eras of engineering and design. Both are spectacular for their time. Let’s leave it at that. But… I suppose if you want to think of this next series of posts as a real-world usability exercise; what it’s like to actually shoot the two cameras side by side – you’ll get an idea if whether adding the F4s to your bag is a good move. I’m sure tickled to have one again and absolutely love working with it. Its role isn’t to replace the F6, but instead provide an additional, excellent way of recording images on film – using the same system (*see below).
The overall approach was to shoot the F4s for general purpose, hand-held work with higher speed films (ISO400 and up) because I didn’t envision shooting it with a tripod for a few reasons: one is the camera doesn’t have an L-bracket as the F6 does. My primary tripod uses a Kirk ball head, which requires a Kirk-mount for each camera. The F4s is old enough that I don’t expect to easily find an L-bracket. Besides, the ergonomics of the camera are so elegant; smooth, sculpted and contoured in all the right places (an absolute joy to hold) – that to slap an awkward piece of aluminum onto such a beautiful form for the occasional appointment with the tripod was just something I couldn’t muster the gumption to do. I do have a generic Kirk mounting plate that screws into the tripod socket if need be. *Also – regrettably – the F4 system doesn’t use the same MC-30, 10-pin cable release as the F6, so it means either adding a MC-12/12A to the bag – or – just using an old-fashioned, screw-in style cable release in the threaded port near the bottom, left rear of the camera. So if I had to use the F4s on a tripod I could – but elected to keep it hand held for this trip. The F6 was also for general shooting, and anything requiring a tripod – for the above reasons – in reverse.
Film for the trip was varied – relying mostly on a C-41 solution. Following up on a recent post about pushing Ektar 2 Stops, I added ample Ektar, intending to push to ISO200 (instead of its native ISO100) for the additional speed as well as saturation and contrast bump (see chapter 2 post to follow). Following up on another post – about over exposing Portra, as per usual I had an adequate stash of both Portra 160 and Portra 400 – two emulsions that have become my “go-to’s.” I am primarily a color photographer – but having two bodies – also threw in enough Delta 400 and a few rolls of Rollei ATP to satisfy the occasional black n’ white craving (one destination was Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds, Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu area). I had my D3s in the bag too, just in case I ran out of film – so was pretty much ready for anything.
Our first stop was the small town of San Luis, located virtually on the Colorado-New Mexico border in the picturesque but lonely San Luis valley. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado and with a population of 629 people (2010 Census) it’s also the most populated town of Costilla County. We travel through San Luis because it gets us off I-25 at Walsenburg (Colorado) and after summiting LaVeta Pass and entering the San Luis Valley – begins the most scenic and beautiful part of the drive South.
The Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church sits atop a butte above town and is one of the main attractions of the area. The church was established in 1992 and about then I remember returning from my first trip to Taos – and climbing amongst the sanctuary’s construction. At the time I thought it was an ancient church in ruin. Turns out it was a new church being built. Who knew. I wish now I had images from that trip 22 years ago. In 22 years I wonder what I’ll wish I had images of from now?
During my earlier stint shooting the F4s I primarily shot the 35-70/2,8 (non-D) pump zoom. It’s a fine lens and I still have and shoot with it. Today, however, I also have the opportunity to mount a wider variety of lenses on the body and enjoy previously unexperienced creativity with the camera. But as anyone with multiple lenses and bodies can attest, if you try to carry around too much gear things get heavy and cumbersome. Disciplining one’s self to one body and one lens for an outing is a great exercise. For San Luis the F4s was paired with the Nikkor 17-35/2,8D and performed beautifully. Especially with the 17-35 mounted – and no strap – the F4s isn’t a light camera. But the smooth, rubberized grip covering contours placed in just the right spots made it quite comfortable in hand while walking around for an hour plus.
Exposure note: most of these images of the church are effectively 2 stops over exposed by the F4’s (Matrix) meter. The roll of Portra 400 was (intentionally) over exposed by one stop at ISO200, and I added another stop of exposure compensation using the F4’s exposure compensation dial while exposing the frames containing sky. I was a little worried they’d blow – but not even close when looking at the negative; it’s healthy and strong all around. I was especially pleased with the level of detail in the sculpture shots. The cast bronze was dark to begin with and it would have been easy to bury the nuance in shadow. Portra did a beautiful job of holding tone in the sky while recording detail in the dark bronze. A chrome film would have effectively produced a silhouette of the sculpture. Portra continues to impress me – especially when provided ample light to work with. Alas, you can’t control the light – and don’t always have the availability to wait around for things to get good. We had an active sky with high clouds knocking down bright, high-altitude sun enough to diffuse harsh shadows. But – it was mid-day, so we made the best of what was given and moved on. When light isn’t ideal I tend to focus more on composition, subject matter – objects – and story telling – rather than broad-sweeping, scenic beauty. Oh how I’d love to be on this hillside at sun-up. I can only imagine the color in skies passing over the San Luis Valley during these times. For now at least, this will have to do.
Note: I’ve heard others discuss dislike of short, “just passing through” trips while out shooting. I couldn’t disagree more. Photography – especially film photography – is about the long game. Treating these short trips as scouting opportunities – sometimes making copious notes on subjects, ideas, and times of day and position of the sun relative to the season – pays dividends in the long run. In the future, when you have opportunity to revisit the same destination for longer, you now have a starting point.
Besides, for me photography is about exploration. When I have a camera in hand I move slower, look more intently, interact more directly with people and places, and overall the experience is richer and deeper because of that. Even if it’s for just an hour – make the best of that time. Take notes. Keep a log book in the car and note time of year and day. Pay attention to vegetation. You’ll learn something about the land, and be better informed the next time you pass through.
Next stop will be Taos, but we’ll save that for the next post. Thanks for reading this far and check back in a week or so
Welcome to the Nikon F6 Project. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
Nikon F6: I had in mind when I sat down to write this introduction a eloquent, thought-provoking soliloquy capable of convincing anyone, anyplace that shooting a film camera in 2009 still had meaning; that it wasn’t only worth doing but a good thing to do. Smart. An essay that would appear in blogs around the world extolling the virtues of film; of ardent, stubborn truth and idealism, old-school virtues, staying the course despite the appearance of what today appears to be. Nikon would have a parade for me in Japan and I’d throw yellow and black confetti on children as they … well, you get the idea.
Recently I put up a gallery on my zenfolio site entitled “nikon F6“. The only traffic it receives is me checking it from my iPhone. It’s becoming more obvious that no one really cares about 35mm film (except Ken Rockwell-God bless him). At first this saddened me. Then the other night we were at a family gathering and I was talking with a fellow photographer, a commercial pro from Denver. We were extrapolating years down the road and he said “no one will know how to shoot film… it will be the domain of the few, the eccentric, the creatives, the artists… it will be a specialty, a niché, desirable because it’s rare; a lost art.” An idea was born.
The Nikon F6 was introduced in 2004. There are plenty of detailed, very well written compendiums and chronological essays of the camera and some glimpses of the potential thought processes surrounding Nikon’s decision to build it. Honestly, I don’t know anything about any of that. It’s all cool stuff, but it doesn’t really do it for me. Google Nikon F6 and you’ll come up with a wealth of information. That’s not what this site is about.
The Nikon F6 is of course a 35mm film camera. The thing about 35mm film that makes it special to me is the quality vs. portability matrix – and of course the fact that it’s analog, not digital. I remember a while back I was reading about one of my favorite photographers, the late Galen Rowell, (Galen Rowell, A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006) who said no way was he going to lug a large format view camera up a mountain to take pictures. If 35mm film is good enough for Galen, it’s certainly good enough for me. The key for me then, is to make sure I get that little, luggable camera up the mountain, into the canyons, under the waters, into the rivers, caves, air ways, flight paths, game trails, every other hard-to-get-to place you can think of and all those you can’t imagine. In other words, get out there and shoot. Go places. Do things. Meet people. See stuff. Which should come as no coincidence, is what I love to do.
I bought my F6 new in August of 2008 just before leaving for a photo trip to Zion National Park. Really more just to have one, just in case it was their last. But after reading up on it, running a few rolls of film through it and seeing the results I realized this was no camera to sit on a shelf gathering dust as a collector’s item. Rather, an instrument of precision and perfection to be exercised, pushed to the limits, run wide-open on high-test; a weapon against the ordinary; a domineering force of photographic Nikon F6 35mm film camera, Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commandernature born to destroy the bell-curve of “good enough;” a hunter of Barthe’s punctum with every release of the refined, kevlar focal plane shutter; the visual can-opener to life exposing to those willing to venture its deep, complex circuitry and technical capabilities exploration of things in a way never before able with 35mm film. Folks, film isn’t dead. It just needed a new champion to help take it to the next level. That champion is the NIkon F6.
The Nikon F6 was built with a strong pre-disposition to seize the moment. It’s an incredibly sophisticated film camera – beyond what most people realize, employing the at-the-time latest digital technologies in terms of metering, auto focus and electronic sophistication including advanced flash capabilities being deployed in the top-end digital cameras – all in a highly refined, unsurpassed durable, rugged yet elegant package drawing on previous Nikon legends for what could be one, final, jaw-dropping, show-stopping, drop-dead perfect camera: the last of its kind. A final exclamation mark by the authors of photographic exclamation.
I grew up seeing the photographs the pros shot with high-end Nikon gear and think, “man, if only I had a camera and glass like that…” well now I do and I still can’t take photos like them. But I continue to try, schleppin’ around my bag, burning through film, squinting through the loop at the light box, scanning image after image, scrutinizing in Photoshop and even printing a few decent efforts… all this for the love of the process. You see, I believe the process of photography bares more examination, more attention, than it receives today. Back in the day, photography was pondered; studied; explored. What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach.
So what is this site about? This site is about using the Nikon F6, and what incredible photographs it’s capable of taking. I say this realizing I’m inferring that my photographs are incredible. While even a broken clock is right twice a day and I’ve gotten lucky a few times, for the most part they’re not. And that’s not feigned self-deprication – it’s simply my today’s version of the truth. This site isn’t intended to self-grandize me and my work, but to show what this camera can do – yes, even in my ham-fisted mitts. The reason for this site is to honor, pay homage to, respect, revere what, at this writing, appears will be the last in the long, legendary line of NIkon F-series film cameras. And how to get every drop of performance out of it.
This site is my attempt at examining some of those photographs and some of the reasons for the photographs and how the F6 helped make them. It’s my attempt to hop off that relentless, speeding train of technological progress always apparently late for something – greater convenience, ease of use, digital sterility, simplicity of automation – and take a step back. Years from now, when the film market has all but dried up save for a few, stalwart romantics, and a film Renaissance rumbles through the pile of point-and-shoot castaways in our land fills, people will scour the web, whatever fashion it assumes in that day, and maybe come across this site.
To those people I extend a warm welcome, inviting them to explore the unique, wonderful and even romantic side of photography as it once was, and could be again with this fine instrument. Welcome back.