My cautious return to film photography began in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Scrolling the internet, with time on my hands, led to a brief infatuation with an Olympus OM2. But, the camera that really captured my heart is the one I am going to tell you about here: the Nikon F4.
I won’t say my decision to revisit the world of film photography was out of sheer boredom. The lack of social activities made everything more leisurely, and I had time for other thoughts. And, in the basement I found old, incorrectly stored, and expired films. Might they still be usable?
One must not let anything perish. Throughout my life, I have trouble parting with old things if they continue to work. If there was ever a ‘Photography Hoarders’ show online, I could well qualify for inclusion.
I tried out those films from the basement. Expired film material, be it Kodak Gold 200 or Fuji ‘something’, is, to put it politely, highly intriguing. I can’t remember the results. After all, it was over three years ago.
Moving on to modern-day film options, I found the results with Kodak Ektar 100 and Kodak Portra 400 impressive, not to mention Silbersalz35.
But what about cameras with which to shoot these films? I had hung on to all my Nikon film cameras, including an F90X that worked perfectly. Remember what I said about hoarding photographic equipment? Even so, I could not resist buying a used Nikon F4, which in my view is of legendary status in the pantheon of film cameras.
The Nikon F4 – a monster camera
Most photographers would be horrified at the size and weight of this camera, compared to the rather small Leica Ms or modern mirrorless ones. The F90X I already owned was no better—it just employed more plastic. The successors to the F4, the F5 and finally the F6 are no smaller either. It seems size and weight were viewed as positive attributes in those days.
Nikon launched the F4 in 1988 as the successor to the F3. The price tag of DM 4200 and the technical specifications positioned it in the professional range. It was available in 3 versions, without a handle, with an MB21 grip, and with an MB23 grip.
So, what was so special about it at the time?
Everything but ‘go-faster’ stripes
It has a matrix metering of the exposure with 5 different metering zones, autofocus, the first vertical, electronically controlled shutter, 5 exposure programs, shutter speeds from 30s-1/8000s, TTL flash metering, flash synchronization from 1/60s-1/250s, mirror lock-up, film transport by motor with up to 5.7 frames/s, and so forth.
It consisted of 1850 parts, 4 CPUs, and extensive operating software, with many lines of code for those days.
None of the technical features mentioned was a novelty in itself. Nevertheless, they featured in a single housing for the first time. The body was designed by Guigiaro, employing a strict “Form follows Function” philosophy.
It was operated using rotary knobs, the last camera of this kind from Nikon. Its successors offered users only menus, displays, and monitors, apart from the Nikon Df and now the Nikon Zfc.
Its body is aluminium and heavy. Very heavy. In boxer shorts, without batteries or lens, it weighs in at over 1000g.
The F801, released in 1991, is similar to the F4 in many functions, but has a different operating concept. The most important advantage of the F4, from my perspective, is its ability to handle matrix metering of exposure with “old” Ai and Ai-S lenses.
A prism with a view
The interchangeable, mounted prism viewfinder DP 20 shows 100% of the image. This alone is impressive. It displays important parameters, including frame number, selected program, and exposure time. For manual lenses, it displays a focus indicator (LED), and for old AI/AI-S lenses, the selected aperture is mirrored top-centre using a magnifying glass. I continue to be extremely impressed by this idea.
The viewfinder eyepiece offers the ability to correct refractive errors from -3 to +1 diopter. Nikon has retained this feature on all its big digital cameras (D700, D810, D780, and D850). A question to Leica: why doesn’t the M have this?
Unfortunately, the DP-20 viewfinder is often the part that causes problems on old models. The LED indicators slowly break down (so called LED-bleeding) and not all information is readable any more.
On the plus-side of the DP-20, you can set the exposure priority: matrix, centre-weighted, or spot. The other available viewfinders lack this functionality.
Nikon had, despite the advent of AF functionality, kept its F-Bayonet. All lenses with this bayonet can be used on the F4, at least in principle. Modern, G/E-class lenses do not have aperture preselection. They simply lack the aperture ring.
“A” mode (aperture priority) and “P” mode are thus not available. If you absolutely need it, you can outsmart the F4 with the “S” mode (shutter priority). I didn’t. I don’t need to use these new lenses on the F4.
The autofocus is slow. With the first AF lenses, adjustment of the optical elements was achieved via a rotating screwdriver-like device, protruding from the camera body. Lenses with internal “servo motors” did not exist at first. Not surprisingly, when these early AF lenses were roughly set to the correct distance by turning the focus ring, the AF was significantly faster. I prefer to remain silent about AF capabilities in low light. But hey, this is a camera from 1988.
Controlling the VR (Vibration Reduction) of modern Nikon F-Bayonet lenses (Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, etc.) is not possible.
Nevertheless, Nikon kept the old bayonet, obviously thinking that many photographers had a large collection of F lenses.
Canon, as far as I know, changed its bayonet when transitioning to AF bodies. From today’s perspective, Nikon probably made the wrong decision. The restrictions of their bayonet meant It took them longer to develop AF systems comparable to those of Canon. And, Canon was able to sell more new lenses sooner.
I used vintage, manual AI-S lenses for my first films. I had sold the Nikon AF-S 24-120mm 2 years ago. It seems I can part with old possessions after all.
Loading film into the Nikon F4
Here’s a titbit for users of film M Leicas:
How do you load film on the F4? Open the cover on the back. You have to move a lever on the rewind knob and pull it up. Put the roll in the compartment, press the rewind button down, grab the film tab and pull it to the right over the red mark, close the lid, press the release button. Hey presto, done. Impressive, isn’t it? It is the same on the F90x.
The Nikon F4 recognizes DX-encoded film. The film ISO setting can be set via a dial.
Power supply problems
Now we come to the battery issue:
The F4 requires 4, 6, or 8 AA batteries, depending on the grip installed: MB20, MB21, or MB23. This is a huge problem for the global traveller. Where do you get AA batteries? And then their weight? Absolutely unacceptable. Should I have a good day and lots of time, I will compile a list of supply options for this rarity, cough …
The experience of photographing with the Nikon F4
The F4 is unquestionably a dinosaur and a monster. It was created during the transition from mechanically to purely electronically controlled cameras. It was called a game-changer at the time, and probably was. If you believe the current advertising in the photo sector, there is one every week nowadays.
In the comparison picture, you can see the differences in scale to the Leica M10 and the D850. For fairness, each is fitted with a 50mm lens.
Back then, with its price tag, it was an unrealizable dream for me. Now I have spent €199 for a “clearly” used piece.
I’ve already written about the weight, but it still feels quite comfortable in my hand.
If you happen to be accosted in some dark alleyway, swung on its strap, it will undoubtedly send any would-be assailant sprawling. After that, you should check the settings for safety’s sake, though…. An M6 would probably achieve similar results in the same scenario, though, owing more to its sharp edges rather than its weight.
As a decades-long user of Nikon cameras, all control buttons are where I expect them to be.
The bright viewfinder image is a joy. Focusing is thereby “Almost Student Proof”. Press the shutter release, listen to the remarkable sound of mirror and shutter, followed by the whirr of the film-advance, and she’s ready for the next picture.
I didn’t find myself missing the usual lever on the right for advancing the film.
The shutter speeds, adjustable by knob, range from 30s to 1/8000. The electronically controlled Copal Square shutter, from Nihon Densan Copal, achieves times up to 1/8000 s! This is often enough for a wide open aperture, despite bright light, and allows images that are otherwise only feasible with neutral density filters. A bulb mode is also available. The connector for the cable release is on the lower-left side at the back of the camera.
Oh yes, if the tiresome battery problem arises, and you are 50 km away from the North or South Pole, or stuck on I-70 West of Denver and have decided not to carry the AA rarities for weight reasons, to save power you can crank the film back manually. I think this feature takes a load off the mind for some people. Yes, you may crank if it works for you!
Since acquiring the camera, I have repaired the prism attachment, DP-20. The eyepiece attachment was missing the rubber ring to protect the user’s eyes and/or glasses, and probably also a mounting ring to which the rubber ring was affixed. My research on the internet led me to new rubbers, but not the part number for the retaining ring. The attachment (DP-20) alone is sometimes offered for up to €140, in “mint” condition, cheekily often without the rubber guard on the eyepiece. I have no idea what’s “mint” about it.
At an online and retail store in the immediate EU neighbourhood, I found one or €39, complete with rubber ring. I am mystified by these other prices. Apparently, some photographers are willing to pay them.
Wasn’t there once a TV show, “Make a Wish”?
My wish would be for the functions of the F4 in a body the size and weight of an M10. It should be possible? Please!
The motor film transport would be negotiable.
Out comes the soapbox – overseas camera purchases
Suppose someone wants to buy a Nikon F4 from Japan. The chance to find a decently preserved specimen there is greater than in Europe. The price is, maybe, €200 plus €40 shipping.
From that point on, the person has a unique opportunity to learn about the absurdities of German/European customs law. According to my research, conducted in 2021, an SLR camera for 35mm film had the customs number 90065100. This number may well be different in 2022.
Therefore: (€200 + €40 shipping costs) +4.2% customs duty + 19% VAT = €297.60. In addition, depending on the parcel service, there are €6 to €15 extra fees because they have to collect customs duty and VAT. Spectacular deal, isn’t it?
This is how the €200 bargain turns into a pain in the neck. By the way, a Leica M6 would have the customs number 900653 because it is not an SLR.
For the DP-20 Prism, the customs duty is 3.7% because it is a “part”. Got it?
That was a quick interjection about the joys of buying cameras from overseas. If someone travels to Japan in person and buys a camera there, they will almost certainly have some film in their used camera when they return, wink, wink.
To me, the Nikon F4 is simply a fantastic camera. I throw it in a backpack without batting an eye and take it out even in damp conditions. It accepts all lenses with an F-Mount. In the bright viewfinder, I see 100% of the image. It has a moderate price tag in used condition and not €3000+ like a Leica M6 TTL 0.85.
Hopefully, mine will last a long time and at €199, it’s easy to think about a second unit.
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