Nikon F2 Photomic: The SLR by which all others are judged

Nikon F2 front view
The Nikon F2 exudes a commanding presence. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Nikon F2 is the camera to beat all cameras in many photographers’ eyes. The rest just haven’t handled one yet.

Okay, to be fair, the Nikon F3/T might be the most well-loved of all hard-working 35mm SLRs by a slim margin, but the F2 was the gold standard workhorse for a decade or more.

Known as much for their considerable heft as for the model’s innovations, rugged durability and long-unequaled versatility, to this day thousands of F2s lie waiting in photojournalists’ closets for the day when digital dies, or the zombie apocalypse, whichever comes first.

More than 800,000 of these superb cameras were made, and while they are relatively common on the used market today as a result, they still fetch a better price than many of their original competitors.

In one of his more eloquent passages of praise, Nikon guy Ken Rockwell says of the F2: “The original Nikon F of 1959 put Leica in the coffin, and the F2 was the camera the almighty himself used to hammer in the nails.”

If it seems like I’m using a lot of glowing superlatives in this brief intro, that’s probably because I am. Spoiler alert: this camera will receive all five possible stars, and quite possibly deserves a sixth. It’s not as beautiful as a Ferrari, or as luxurious as a Bentley, but its performance is wrapped in a unique and utilitarian beauty that will be remembered for centuries. It’s kind of like the Plymouth 426 Hemi ‘Cuda of cameras.

Pavilions Denver sign
Test shot of the giant sign above the Denver Pavilions shopping center just off of the 16th Street Mall in Denver. Always a favorite when backed by moody clouds. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Details

Preceded by the 12-year run of the legendary Nikon F, the F2 was introduced in 1971 to great fanfare. The F2 was, more than anything else, the amalgamation of all the lessons Nikon learned and the advancements they made during the foregoing decade-plus of incremental upgrades released for the F. The F2 was discontinued by Nikon with the introduction of the F3 in 1980, but parts remained available and Nikon Professional Services continued to service F2s until 2000.

The F2’s back is hinged, unlike that of the F, which was mated to the bottom plate and had to be removed entirely like the back of the Olympus Pen series. In keeping with the ruggedness of the F2’s design ethos, the door is locked shut by a heavy-duty latch on the bottom plate: lift a handle and rotate the latch to unlock the door.

Nikon F2 bottom cover
On the bottom of the Nikon F2 you’ll find the fantastically secure locking mechanism for the film door, as well as a tripod socket, spool release, battery cover and motor drive connections. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The rotating latch also actuates a stop on the inside of the camera that prevents the film cassette from leaving the camera body unless the latch is fully open. When loading, place the cassette into the body, push the rewind shaft down, and turn the latch to the closed position to lock the film cassette in place. Pull the leader across the film transport path and slot it into the take-up spool. Begin advancing the film, and once you’re satisfied it’s secure on the spool, push the back shut. When the door is fully closed, you’ll feel it snap quite securely.

While the aperture-coupled “Photomic” TTL metered prism was introduced as an option for the F, it was a standard feature on the most common F2 varieties. All of the F-series professional Nikons feature interchangeable viewfinders except for the latest, the F6. A variety of other viewfinders were available, including a magnifying chimney, a folding waist-level finder, and more.

Nikon F2 through the viewfinder
The Nikon F2 viewfinder displays the shutter speed and aperture, conveniently placed next to the meter needle. The viewfinder is very big and very bright. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The DP-1 (the designation for the standard TTL prism) features a center-weighted metering circuit with CdS photocells. A center patch 12 millimeters in diameter accounts for 50 percent of the exposure reading, while the other half is averaged from the rest of the frame, slightly favoring the area nearest the middle and radiating out toward the edges of the frame with decreasing import.

A relatively simple swing needle with a clear center notch and clear + and markings is visible near the lower-right corner of the viewfinder. The shutter speed and aperture settings are displayed on opposite sides of the meter indicator. Ambient light from above the finder illuminates the displays, so low-light conditions and/or a wide-brimmed hat can make them unreadable. On the front right of the finder housing is a small, silver battery-check button, and on the left rear corner is a small terminal that makes contact with the AS-1 hot shoe adapter (see below) to illuminate a “flash-ready” light in the viewfinder.

For those longing for the early 1960s and the days of light meters without a display in the viewfinder, the DP-1 also has a tiny exposure needle on the top of the housing that’s visible with the camera held at waist level, which can be a handy way to get your exposure close, surreptitiously, before lifting the camera to your eye.

The viewfinder is big and bright. Actually, “massive” and “brilliant” might be better terms. The FM-series cameras’ finders were notoriously brighter than the F3’s finder in the 1980s, and the F2’s finder is possibly even a little brighter than them. Side note: The viewfinder’s coverage is a full and majestic 100 percent, and features greater magnification than either the consumer cameras of the era or the F3.

The DP-1 couples the shutter speed by replicating the speed selector knob on the side of the finder housing, and mechanically connecting the new knob by way of a small pin in the top face of the selector on the camera. When mounting the finder, you’ll need to rotate the shutter speed dial until it catches and you feel it snapping between the detents for the marked shutter speeds.

The film speed setting (lift and turn the ring on the shutter speed selector) is unique to the TTL prism — with non-metered finders attached there is no film speed setting or reminder built into the body. The F2 does have a film reminder window on the back cover, however, into which you can easily slip the end flap from a film box. You can select from an astounding array of film speeds — from ASA 6 through 6400.

Exposure compensation is also possible with the shutter speed selector. Lift and turn the ring until the desired compensation mark, along the top edge of the outer ring is aligned with the film speed. You can select from one half stop underexposed through 2 stops over, in half-stop increments. If this sounds like adjusting the film speed to act as exposure compensation, that’s because it is — Nikon just codified it for us. As such, you can actually achieve even more compensation by moving beyond the provided marks (provided that’s possible from whatever starting ASA you’ve selected).

Some later versions of the metered finder also incorporated an eyepiece shutter — to block stray light from entering the camera through the eyepiece on long exposures and the like — operated by means of a sliding button above the eyepiece.

Some later models of viewfinder progressed through variations of meter displays using LEDs (like the FM2n and other 1980s consumer Nikons), and auto-indexing. Didn’t I mention that? The F2’s earlier TTL finders use a pin to couple the aperture to the lens. The lenses have a small “fork” protruding from one side that engages the pin and, as the aperture ring rotates, mechanically transmits the aperture location to the light meter. But they aren’t auto-indexing.

For the meter to indicate exposure correctly, when you mount a lens you’ll need to immediately cycle the aperture ring from the minimum aperture to the maximum aperture and back again. Indexing the lens in this fashion is commonly known as The Nikon Shuffle. If you’ve indexed the lens properly, the maximum aperture should be indicated correctly in a small window on the front of the viewfinder housing, above the lens.

It’s worth noting that the pin is designed to couple to any Nikkor lens with a coupling fork on it, from the so-called pre-AI lenses designed for the F series and released in 1959, up through the latest AI and AI-s lenses made today (yep, some are still available brand new). You can add a prong to any of the later AF series lenses for full function, or use the meter with depth-of-field preview active on later lenses.

Some F2s with newer finders (made in 1977 and later) won’t index properly to Pre-AI lenses, but will index with AF lenses automatically. These cameras won’t require the Nikon Shuffle.

To remove the finder, you’ll need to depress the button on the back of the left-hand end of the top cover. For TTL prism finders, there is also a lever on the right-hand side of the finder housing that you must depress (down, toward the ground) to release the prism.

In addition to the viewfinder, the focusing screen is interchangeable. There were 14 varieties available from Nikon.

The shutter itself is mechanical — no batteries required. The batteries are needed only for the light meter, and seem to last almost indefinitely (mine were supplied to me by KEH along with the body and have yet to die, three years and dozens of rolls later).

The horizontal-travel focal-plane shutter is made of titanium foil. That’s right, it’s freakin’ titanium. While modern professional DSLRs brag that their shutters can withstand 200,000 or even 250,000 actuations, it’s entirely possible that no one knows the serviceable average maximum actuations on an F2 because they just keep going and going.

The extra-lightweight titanium shutter curtain allowed the F2 to shoot at 1/2000 seconds. While the F2 was not the first camera to achieve that speed (it was a Minolta rangefinder with a leaf shutter), the F2 was among the first professional SLRs to do so, and certainly the most rugged and reliable at that point.

Incidentally, Nikon made the mirror frame out of titanium, too, which reduces the weight by enough to reduce shutter delay by a noticeable number of milliseconds; in comparison to other period SLRs, when you depress the shutter release of the F2, the shutter fires RIGHT NOW. The reduced weight also seems to reduce the mirror noise by a bit; the F2 is by no means a discrete camera, but it is on the more favorable end of the loudness continuum. And it just sounds so darned snappy.

Next to the lens mount, under your right middle or ring finger as you hold the camera, is a button with a lever wrapped around it. The lever, which rotates to the right, is the mirror lockup. The button in the center activates depth-of-field preview. On the left side of the lens mount is the lens release button (visible in the top photo above), and above it is a threaded PC sync socket.

The right side of the Nikon F2
The right side of the Nikon F2 has the self-timer, mirror lockup and depth-of-field preview button, film advance, shutter release and shutter speed setting. Note the green numbers at the continuously-variable end of the speed scale. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The flash sync speed is 1/90 second, respectable for 1971 but not particularly impressive. More impressive is what it does from there on down to 1/2000. Examining the shutter ring, you’ll notice that 1 second up through 1/60 seconds are marked in white enamel; 1/90 is represented by a red line; and all the faster speeds are marked in green enamel. Why, you ask? Because below 1/90 seconds, the speeds are continuously variable. Huh?

What that means is that, while Nikon conveniently provided detents at each faster shutter speed for those of us clicking through by feel and counting stops rather than paying close attention to the shutter speed, they aren’t by any means required. You can fine-tune by watching your meter and stop anywhere between two detents to get a fraction of a stop in speed difference. Want the shutter at 1/750 seconds? That’s totally a thing on the F2. So is 1/1724 second, if you want to take the time to dial that in (I’ll be over here at 1/2000 waiting for you to quit messing around).

In addition to the continuously variable speeds, the F2 has a stellar long-exposure mode. Take a look at the self-timer lever (front of the body to the right of the lens, as seen from the photographer’s point of view). Notice it has numbers around it, and an indexing mark on the round central hub of the lever? Those are times — 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 seconds, in fact.

Try this on for size: set the shutter speed dial to Bulb, turn the collar around the shutter release knob to “T,” and then turn the self-timer lever to 4. Depress the release and the shutter opens simultaneously with the beginning the timer ticking down; when the timer reaches the end of its travel, it closes the shutter. These speeds are continuously variable, too, and allow time exposures up to 10 seconds long.

The shutter release button sits inside the aforementioned collar, which also has a Lock position (“L”). The button is taller than the collar by a very comfortable amount, and the collar is wide, and hollow along its inner diameter, making operation easy in spite of the somewhat long travel required of the button. The button itself is smooth on top, and a cable release requires the use of an adapter that covers the button and screws onto threads hidden down inside the collar.

Top view of Nikon F2
From the top, the DP-1 viewfinder attachment dominates the F2, overshadowing even the lens quite a lot. The meter display is visible from the top, as well. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Next to the shutter release and film speed selector on the right shoulder of the top plate is, predictably, the film advance lever and frame counter. The advance lever is also the power switch for the light meter — it must be pulled out from its “home” position about 15 degrees. If you’ve already operated the lever to advance the film and cock the shutter, it will stop at this “resting” position when it return, and will lock to avoid a double advance solidly enough that, like the FM2n and many other Nikons, you can hook your thumb behind it for extra security when carrying the camera in one hand. The frame counter resets automatically.

In addition to the cable release adapter, the F2 requires an adapter to use an on-camera flash, as it has no built-in accessory shoe. It does have, however, power connections and a wedge-shaped boss surrounding the rewind knob that accept the AS-1 Flash Coupler, an inexpensive adapter that simply adds a fully-functional hot shoe. The AS-1 has a locking ring that rotates to secure the unit once fitted over the boss, and while installation and removal are relatively easy, the coupler must be removed each time in order to rewind the film or remove the cassette.

The rewind knob itself features a flip-out crank as well as being knurled around its circumference. It also has a two-stop shaft, which allows the knob to be lifted to the first stop without disengaging it from the film cassette. The added height allows space for fingers to grip the knurled sides for rewinding, and provides clearance for the crank as it passes the large viewfinder housing. Pulling up to the second stop allows disengages the shaft from the cassette, but remember you’ll need to operate the latch on the bottom plate in order to open the film door.

The rest of the bottom plate is nearly as busy as the top plate, containing the battery chamber and cover, a threaded tripod socket, the take-up spool release button, and shutter and drive couplings for the optional motor drive unit. On the shoulders are sturdy strap lugs.

Stephen Watts of Dotsero
Stephen Watts pounds the keys of his tenor sacophone with his band, Dotsero, during a performance at the 16th Street Fair in Denver, spring, 2014. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The F2 Experience

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the Nikon F2 is its weight. It’s not quite as heavy as the Pentax 6×7, but it somehow manages to feel even a tiny bit more sturdy. That’s probably the second thing you’ll notice.

That Ken Rockwell quote up top about using it as a hammer? I don’t think he’s joking. The F2 is the most rigidly solid camera I’ve ever held in my hands. Imagine the solidity of a Barnack Leica combined with the weight of a Mamiya RB67 and the chunkiness of a Pentax K1000. It might be easier to just imagine a Sherman tank the size of a brick.

Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness
The apse, ambulatory, and radiating and lady’s chapels of the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness are built of brick; funding for the native granite stone blocks ran out after the transepts and choir were completed. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Then you’ll start to notice the controls. There are considerably more than a lot of the consumer-level cameras I’ve reviewed here. And the DP-1 viewfinder is complex enough to have its own manual apart from the regular F2 manual. But somehow it manages not to seem busy or cluttered. Everything is placed very carefully in a comfortable and convenient spot, and enough functions are combined in multi-function controls to win the F2 excellent marks for overall ease-of-use.

I wasn’t kidding when I said it was the size of a brick, either. It’s definitely the largest 35mm SLR camera I own, or that I have ever handled. The only others I can think of that even come close are the Canon F1 and Miranda Sensorex. Maybe the Minolta XE-7.

The advance lever — one of those multi-function controls, as it serves three purposes — is comfortable and placed just right. Pulled out to turn the meter on, it becomes a comfortable and secure thumb rest; it advances through 135 degrees of rotation quickly and smoothly, but with just enough resistance and vibratory feedback that you know it’s working; and it cocks the shutter quickly for rapid-fire operation.

The rewind knob is very functional, too. The way it pops part way up is extremely useful for fast rewinding. My only complaint with it would be the tiny knob on the crank, which spins freely and easily for rapid operation, but is smaller than its successors and finished in smooth chrome; knurled would be better as I occasionally lose my grip when I’m really trying to change film fast.

Denver's giant blue bear
“I See What You Mean,” a four-story blue bear made of geometrically-patterned fiberglass over steel, peers in the windows of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The little “gate” that holds the film cassette in the camera with the back open is a great addition, though it can be a source of frustration during loading or unloading if you don’t leave the O/C Key (Nikon’s name for the latch on the bottom plate) open all the way. Dropped cassettes during one-handed film-changing are a thing of the past, though. The super-secure latch system by itself is a huge confidence builder and, probably, evidence that the F2 goes beyond being superbly crafted and a touch into over-engineered territory.

As I said above, the need for ambient light can mean the meter is hard to read with a hat on, or in low light, but the rest of the time I really love it. It’s probably my second-favorite light meter display (losing out to the LEDs in the FM2n and/or the later-model finders for the F2 that I don’t happen to own). It’s really accurate, too, in my experience. Given that the later finder versions, after Nikon upgraded the meter’s photo cells to silicon, are regarded as even more accurate, I bet they’re stunning.

The DP-1 finder is just about perfect in every other way I can think of, though. Easy to use, made of a thick and durable plastic, with great optics and coverage. It’s superbly bright and the standard focusing screen, which features a center horizontal split-image focusing aid surrounded by a microprism ring, is excellent. My F2 has the Type L screen, which is identical except the split-image aid is turned to a 45-degree angle, which is frequently more useful than the horizontal version.

My main gripe with the DP-1 finder attached would be that the shutter speed dial is more difficult to operate. This is due in no small part to the finder’s shutter speed selector knob being smaller in diameter, shorter in height, and less-aggressively knurled than the standard knob. It’s just a little harder to get a grip on with one finger when I’m holding the camera to my eye (ad the camera is too big to get my thumb up their while still supporting the body). But since the shutter speed is displayed in the viewfinder, I really like to be able to adjust it without dropping the camera from the ready position. It’s not an insurmountable problem; like everything when you switch between cameras, it just takes a little getting used to.

Nave and aisle of Cathedral of St. John
Looking across the nave at the east aisle of the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness in Denver during Doors Open Denver in 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter is a thing of beauty, either at rest or in operation. 1/2000 seconds is fast enough that it’s nearly impossible to detect whether the shutter actually opened with the naked eye. And the sound — if ever there were a cataloged, International Organization for Standardization, reference sound for what a camera shutter should sound like, this is the one upon which the standard should be based. It is the most camera-shutter-like sound of any camera shutter sound ever. It’s tight and quick, like the tick of a finely-crafted watch movement played through a small megaphone. It sounds like the embodiment of narrow tolerances and exacting craftsmanship.

The shutter release button, too, is a finely machined piece of metal. Comfortable under the finger for frame after frame, and requiring just the right amount of pressure to operate, it’s a joy to use. Not too easy to operate, not too hard, and lockable for when it’s bouncing around in your bag. Further evidence of superb design and execution.

That the shutter is purely mechanical and will still operate at any speed in spite of dead batteries is the icing on the cake. And, with proper attention, it’s an unstoppable cold-weather machine, too.

Some people seem to resent having to index the lens to get the aperture coupling right every time they change lenses, and obviously Nikon wanted to move away from it (as evidenced by the fact that they did just that a few years after the F2’s initial release), but I don’t really mind it all. You have to remember when you haven’t used your F2 for awhile, but it becomes habit again quickly.

The only gripe about this old method of aperture coupling I can think of is that the fork interacting with the finder pin can cause the tiniest bit of binding here and there, which means the same lens doesn’t shift between apertures quite as easily as when it’s in use on an F3 or FM2n. But really? This is a tiny thing, especially when you don’t change your aperture all that often.

Taking pictures with an F2 is, in a word, brilliant. I’m deadly serious when I say it’s the ne plus ultra of 35mm SLR cameras in oh-so-many ways. Aside from a few very tiny things, it’s nearly perfect in its own right. And I’ve used few other cameras that even come close in terms of the sheer totality of its usability, versatility and downright magnificence. I plan to hang on to mine so it can be buried with me (well, not really, but I’ll probably have it long enough to will it to someone).

Art Students League second floor
The Art Students League, in the historic 1897 Sherman School building, maintains the historic appeal of the hardwood floors and creaky staircases, and surrounds them with students’ art on display. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Ruby Hill Park overlook pavilion
The Ruby Hill Park overlook pavilion affords plenty of space for multiple picnicking groups to enjoy relative privacy, and offers expansive views of the Denver city skyline nearby to the north. (Daniel J. Schneider)
16th street chess tables
Games attract a crowd on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. The tables, public art by sculptor Doug Eichelberger, were installed in 1992. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Playing the piano on the mall
Playing Beethoven’s Für Elise on one of the 16th Street Mall’s “Your Keys to the City” pianos. Even with the instrument a bit out of tune, the performance drew a crowd. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Piano Movers on 16th Street
Piano movers distribute the freshly painted pianos of Denver’s “Your Keys to the City” program along 16th Street Mall in spring, 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Ruby Hill Rail Yard skier
Skiers enjoy the last bits of snow at the Ruby Hill Rail Yard terrain park in Denver in the late spring of 2014. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Living statue at 16th Street Fair
Testing the resolve of a singing cowboy-themed living statue during the 2014 16th Street Fair on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
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Nikon F2 Photomic camera
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