Another year with the Nikon FM2n (times two)

It has been a little over a year since I published A year with the Nikon FM2n, my look back at twelve months using this fabled camera as my “daily driver.” Since then a great many things have changed, so here’s a look at my second year shooting the Nikon system.

My other Nikon FM2n
My other Nikon FM2n. I checked to make sure this was really it — aluminum shutter and higher serial number. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The most popular post on my blog of the past two years has been my retrospective of twelve months shooting with the Nikon FM2n, but my habits and gear have changed since then so I thought it was time for an update.

What’s new in the last twelve months?

A new FM2n, for one thing. Not a replacement, but a second body. How did that happen, you’re wondering?

Looking to have a really rock-solid daily kit, I traded a Canon digital lens I hadn’t used in several years for a solid F3. I thought it would become my primary and the FM2 would move to second body status, living with the 105mm f/2.5 on it.

Side note: I also have an F2 (write-up to come sometime soon). It’s heavy.

And it didn’t work with the Nikkor AI 20mm f/4.0 which I wrote a good deal about in my post on seeing in wide angle because the lens doesn’t have an aperture coupling fork on it (and those are harder to find or more expensive than I expected). So the F2 wasn’t quite up to being a daily carry body for compatibility reasons.

East Willow Creek cabin
The remains of a cabin on a side route of Creede, Colo.’s Bachelor Loop. The more difficult 4×4 route follows East Willow Creek and rejoins the loop after a steep and rocky climb over a high ridge. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I started putting film through the F3 before I even got it home (two rolls within the first two miles of the drive home, in fact). I love almost everything about it (also another upcoming post…), but very quickly found something I strongly disliked: the light meter.

The Nikon F3 light meter

I have two different issues with the light meter on the F3; one is about how I shoot and the other is about what comes out on the film. So really, they’re both about how I shoot. But one is evident before making a frame, and the other not until after the negatives are on the light table.

The personal issue is about the display in the viewfinder. It’s tiny and dim.

Even on a sunny day, I find the diminutive LCD relatively dark in the viewfinder. It is possible that it’s a problem of age or dust, but I’ve metered through a half dozen F3s and I found them all dim except in the brightest conditions. I know Sover Wong adds LED “night lights” to the DP-1 finder for the F2 so you can read the meter in low-light conditions, but I don’t know if the same is possible for an F3.

Spring skiing in Ruby Hill Park
Even in late April, a section of groomed snow is still skiable in Denver’s Ruby Hill Park. Skiers and snowboarders grind on rails and twist on the jumps. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I also find the separation between the characters on the readout to be so narrow that I can’t tell at a quick glance what is being displayed. The plus and minus signs (both display at once for correct exposure) are hardly discernible from the shutter speed, or even each other, without concentration. And the last thing I need is to change my focus from my composition, subject, etc., to meter different parts of a scene.

Which leads me to the other problem I have with the meter: the F3’s center-weighted meter is split differently than previous Nikons. Instead of the 60%/40% favor for the center ring, the F3 moved to 80%/20%.

Okay, yeah, it’s still center-weighted TTL metering, and 80/20 vs. 60/40 isn’t actually that big a difference, mathematically. But I found that to get a whole frame metered adequately (which I do manage to do sometimes!) I have to spend more time pointing at different parts of my scene and doing mental calculations to find the best exposure to maintain shadow detail without blowing the highlights.

I do that with the FM2, also, so it’s not a question of doing something I feel I shouldn’t have to. But I have to do more of it to get the same result.

What it really came down to? I was already too used to the FM2.

Colorado Flag in sun
The Colorado state flag is lit through by the sun on a crisp winter afternoon. This flag stands outside the renovated McNichols Civic Center Building in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The FM2’s glowing, red LEDs tell me what I need without moving my eye and I’m familiar and comfortable with using its meter to gauge a scene.

And I like it like that.

Enter the FM2n

No, not that one. The new one.

About a month after I picked up the F3, I was at a thrift store looking for jeans (I’m sort of over paying $40 a pair for new ones that don’t often last any longer than their recycled counterparts) when I spied an FM2 behind the counter.

I looked it over, opened it up, checked the shutter speeds, checked the aperture on the Nikkor AI-s 50mm f/1.8 attached to it, pressed the mirror gently up to see if it stuck, prodded the light seals…

It was practically brand new. The 50mm f/1.8 was the basic kit lens for most of the second half of the FM2n’s production run, and it focused like it was just out of the display case at Robert Waxman’s. The film path looked like it was machined and painted yesterday.

I realized two things about this camera within just a few minutes: it was much newer than my other FM2, and it wasn’t mine … yet.

Bonnie yawnie
Kate’s cat Bonnie is perpetually grumbling at something or other. Being such a curmudgeon is, evidently, exhausting. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Aside from a serial number more than two million marks higher than my titanium-shuttered FM2n, the quick giveaway for its relative youth was the aluminum shutter curtain. It was not a deterrent.

The price, however, was practically highway robbery — for the thrift store. I paid $30, less a 25% holiday weekend sale discount. Final price was under $24 including sales tax for body, lens and Nikon strap.

The aluminum shutter

As soon as I got the new FM2n home, I started researching the aluminum shutters. I knew they’d been used in later years, and I knew the titanium were frequently more prized.

But I didn’t know why. In fact, I still don’t.

Everything I found on APUG, Photo.net and elsewhere indicated that the difference is basically nil. Aluminum might perform better in extreme cold, titanium is more brittle if dropped or poked, replacements are all aluminum anyway, both are easily good for 150,000 actuations, etc.

So I decided not to care. In fact, at this point, I use the two bodies completely interchangeably and only even know which is which when I’m changing the film.

The office of the Hill-Top Motel
The Hill-Top Motel in Denver has been all but abandoned since 2006, after over 60 years in Englewood, Colo. I’ll be showing more of it in a future post. (Daniel J. Schneider)

So here I find myself with four great, solid Nikon bodies to use on a regular basis and they have shaken down like this:

  • The F2 has a Nikkor 50mm f/2 AI on it and stays loaded with black and white film — usually Tri-X, but sometimes Fomapan 200 or Ilford Pan-F+.
  • The F3 usually has a 50mm f/2 on it as well, and is usually loaded with film I plan to shoot in bright light (expired Kodak Gold 200, expired Fuji Superia 200, or slide film — which is basically always Provia 100F these days).
  • The FM2s have a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AI-s and the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AI on them, with a 50 f/2 in the bag.

That’s right, I said a 24mm.

The Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AI-s

I had been looking for another 20mm f/4 or f/3.5 (or f/2.8 if the heavens decided to shine on me) for a while with no luck. My friends at Englewood Camera told me that wide Nikon glass rarely came in, and when it did it inevitably sold in a day or two, or sometimes in mere hours.

But after nearly a year of watching I finally spotted something I couldn’t pass up in the 24mm.

Okay, so it’s not quite as wide as the 20mm, but the difference is honestly minuscule, both in the viewfinder and in the negatives. Except it’s not.

The 24mm is a much, much better lens than the 20mm f/4.0. So much better it’s still available from Nikon.

Damaged Nikkor 20mm f/4.0 AI
My badly damaged Nikkor 20mm f/4.0 AI. Note the scratches in the front element; several are gouges deep enough to catch a thumbnail on. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Not to mention the center of the front element on my 20mm is beat all to hell. Filters don’t really go on any more, and as you can see at right, the glass is badly scratched with several deep gouges and dozens of smaller nicks.

So the 24mm was an upgrade not only in build and overall image quality (biggest complaint is minor barrel distortion in most reviews, and even that isn’t nearly as pronounced as on the 20mm f/4) but also in condition (my 24mm is in excellent shape).

Adding a wide lens with an aperture coupling fork on it also means I can use it with the F2, so that expands its range of capabilities without having add extra lenses just for it. So the 20mm is in a pouch in my closet of camera stuff for now.

These days my Domke F2 Waxwear bag is typically stocked with the two FM2s and then I sometimes carry either the F3 or the F2 for alternate film.

I also picked up a Vivitar 272 hot shoe mount flash in the last year, and a cheap flash bracket to avoid the $150 price Nikon’s AS-17 flash coupler for the F3. The bracket is handy for the F2, as well. Of course, the flash can just go right into the hot shoes on the FM2s.

I’ve never spent much time or effort learning to use a flash that well, though. With my DSLR, a good (or acceptable-to-me) exposure with strobes is usually more trial and error than genuine knowledge.

With film, that kind of education is slower and more costly, so I don’t have much to show just yet. I’m sure it will be the subject of a future post, or maybe a heading in my third year-with-the-FM2 post.

Summitville cabin roof
Through the decaying roof of a cabin in the Colorado ghost town of Summitville. Better preserved than many of Colorado’s ghost towns, but the still-standing buildings are from the 1930s. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Since then

In the last year I’ve taken my FM2s to Denver’s Underground Music Showcase, walked the 16th Street Mall more than once, taken several short tours of Colorado’s back country, sought the tops of parking garages near sunset, strolled shaded lanes in small plains towns, and taken more photos just around the house.

I have also begun assembling photos and information for a post on an abandoned landmark (colloquially, not registered) in the Denver area that I hope to share very soon.

And I’ve really started to get a better feel for film and photography as I’ve stuck with one camera instead of jumping between several, letting the FM2n become more an extension of my body and my, for lack of a better phrase, “artistic vision,” than simply a tool in my hands.

In the next year I have at least one more Rocky Mountain excursion planned and a few other surprises. I’m looking forward to year three.

Accidental selfie
An accidental shadow selfie while loading one of the FM2ns with a fresh roll of Kodak Ektar 100 while looking at the quiet town of Eaton, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)
  • Larry Miller

    Daniel you might try using an incident meter. That should take care of both the highlights and the shadows in a picture to ensure accuracy. Those incident meters are truly accurate and I use mine 90%+ of the time. The one I have is a Gossen Digisix 2. Extremely accurate and extremely small. When it’s around my neck I never notice any weight from it. You’ll be able to manually shoot on the F3. Really works well.

    • I’ve been thinking about practicing that more. I have a Sekonic L358 that I use for mainly reflected light metering, but it has a dome for incident. The main reason I haven’t gotten around to this yet is that nearly all my photography lately has been of subject matter that metering incident would’ve been difficult to impossible (landscapes, trespassing concerns, etc.). Since I’ve moved to using the Pentax 6×7 as my primary camera I’ve had to get used to its meter, which is 60% center-weighted, with 30% inner field and 10% at the edges. This has, so far, worked very well for me. I’m considering investing in a Minolta or Pentax Spotmeter, honestly. But, ultimately, I’d like to get good at all of it! I don’t mind carrying an external meter at all. I would love to have a Gossen.