The Nikon F

It was September 8th, 2017 and I had found a local ad for an estate sale at a business and the ad mentioned vintage cameras and darkroom equipment.  Not knowing what type of business it was I immediate realized that it was a photography studio which at one time was the go-to place for weddings, portraits and imagery. It was named A-1 Photography located in Rockford, Illinois. I discovered that the owner of the business had passed away a year ago and his wife was selling the estate. 

I walked around the building in awe as I could not believe the amount of photography gear.  Lenses of all makes, film camera bodies, 35mm Canon and Nikons, medium and large format Speed Graphics, Mamiyas, backdrops, lights and of course darkroom equipment. 

The darkroom was a small room closed in a corner of the building no larger than a closet.  Inside was a huge sink that occupied one side of the wall and just opposite of that wall were two enlargers, a Beseler 67c and Omega DII. Next to the two enlargers was a large shelving unit stacked with darkroom paper, all sorts of sizes and brands. The room was packed and every little inch of space was being utilized in some form or fashion.  As I scanned the area noticing the dust on every surface, it almost looked as if the photographer had just left the place behind one day never to be used again. Test strips were still laying in the sink which was bone dry and rusted.  Negatives still rested in the enlargers; chemicals still chilled in the refrigerator below the sink. What was once a working darkroom used to print wedding photographs, portraits and similar imagery now sits dormant and is considered archaic technology; all of that replaced by a computer and printer. 

The darkroom sink at the estate sale

As I walked through this place I discovered a table filled with miscellaneous stuff like filters, cables and dirty lenses and in the rubble I discovered a Nikon camera with the giant letter F stamped on the front of the pentaprism.  I knew nothing about this camera but I instantly realized by holding it that this was something legendary.  $40 bucks and it was mine.

The Nikon F shortly after being discovered amongst the rubble.

I later learned that the Nikon F was Nikon’s first SLR camera which was introduced in 1959; this particular camera I discovered was made in May of 1969 according to the serial number. The F stands for reflex, and Nikon opted to use F instead of R since the r sound is not familiar in many Asian languages. This was also the first camera that introduced Nikon’s F mount lenses which have been in production to this day; in fact many of the F mount lenses made in the 60s and on are compatible even with the new-age Nikon digital SLR cameras.

What I soon realized about the Nikon F was that it was considered a revolutionary camera for its time which incorporated many great features that had been missing in previous SLR cameras or were not as functional. 

In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this camera and the impact that it had in the photography community I think it’s important to understand where photographic technology was in the 1950s.  Many professional photographers shooting with 35mm film relied on rangerfinder cameras such as the Leica M series and Contax cameras.  During this time, SLRs were being manufactured but had proven to be clunky with several flaws.  It was in this time, 1959, when Nikon had truly made a break through with the Nikon F, perfecting the single-lens-reflex camera.

The Nikon F has a modular design allowing users to remove the prism for waist-level viewfinder action.

Interchangeable lenses, interchangeable prisms and viewfinder, mirror lockup, depth of field preview, and automatic mirror return. Some of these things which come standard in most digital cameras nowadays were new features that had never been seen or perfected before. Something I found surprising was that the Nikon F was one of the first cameras to have automatic mirror return.  In many SLR cameras prior when the photograph was taken the mirror would stay in the upward position which blocked the view finder. It was this reason that many professional photographers chose to use rangefinder cameras over SLRs because their view was unobstructed while photographing subjects. Another important feature that Nikon successfully made was the auto diaphragm; this feature opened the camera’s aperture to the widest position possible allowing photographer with a bright and clear view through the view finder regardless of the aperture position on the lens. In other words, when a photographer was looking through the lens and closes down the aperture, the lens stays open at the widest aperture until the shutter is pressed.

Larry Burrows straps a Nikon F to a helicopter.

After it’s release to the photographic community, the F soon became the standard for professional photographers and photojournalist covering the Vietnam war, such as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin and David Douglas Duncan.  The F proved to be the camera that could endure the physical labors of war and the elements of the outdoors.  I also discovered that Nikon made a version of the F specifically for NASA and astronauts in space.   I think it’s fair to say that the Nikon F is a very historic camera not just for photography but to the role it played in documenting history.   

As soon as I got the camera home, I cleaned it up, put some film in it and to my surprise discovered that it works perfectly. Why shouldn’t it?  A camera that’s almost 50 years old that doesn’t run on batteries and was made to endure the trips through the jungles of Vietnam and the depths of space.

Testing the Nikon F with Tessa and her frisbee.

I love this camera.  I think what I love about it is its history, simplicity and durability. There are no bells and whistles and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.  With less distractions in the way it makes an easier user experience and eliminates the barrier between the photographer and subject.  It’s incredible to think that this camera is almost 50 years old and works exactly like it did when it was new. It’s a unique experience to take a photograph with this camera, develop the film and print in the darkroom; in the end the product is a picture which was made using a mechanical camera, a little bit of light and some chemicals.

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