The day the world stood still: Nikon F

Ever heard of Masahiko Fuketa? He was the main engineer at japanese Nippon Kogaku’s optics manufacturer Nikon. The company that became the biggest copycat player due to their many Leica and Zeiss rangefinder camera copies. Rebuilding Japan after WOII was an almost futile action without the help and knowledge of other countries, but the ambitions in the sixties grew to make Japan economically great again and with own, unique products that could be sold worldwide. A land of creativity and power. In 1959 they launched finally their own imagination with a camera that simply was named with the first letter of the engineer’s last name: F. It would change the world of photography forever.

Nippon Kogaku was a true believer, yes he did copy anything made in germany. Visited the country, sent his engineers to learn (and remake) all they saw and yes for a time it was successful, but not genuine. Nikon experimented with own rangefinders but the World did not catch on. But in the Korean War for the first time the high quality of Nikon lenses was recognized and appreciated and it became time Nikon could also produce something new for the eager market on cameras. A system camera with a single reflex, like the German Exakta or the Asahiflex (Pentax). The solid engineering of Fuketa combined with the creativity of the new graphic designer that was hired: Yusaku Kamekura. Both came up with a revolutionary idea that would improve the conventional problems with SLRs: a new and solid instant mirror return mechanism, an auto-diaphragm stop down mechanism for open-aperture focusing, and an all-new removable and interchangeable pentaprism and focusing screen system with 100% viewfinder coverage. But the camera should not come alone. Based upon their solid RF lenses, they recreated new SLR lenses with auto apertures. It should have a unique Bayonet mount that could last long and in that way serve many lenses (indeed still in use in 2021). About a cozy name they had no idea when the camera was finished. They simple called it the F (from re-F-lex) and embossed it big on the front top cover. A legend was born.

Nikon Photomic FTN
The legendary F, here in the Photomic FTN version of 1971.

The camera immediately was a huge success. It solved most of the problems other SLR’s were hassling with. At the Photokina in 1960 it was the Number One. Japan entered finally the world stage of Photography. The F went with the first American Mount Everest expedition since it was as advertised working under extreme conditions. It went with NASA to the moon, it survived bullets in wars, became the buddy of many war journalists. The F had come to stay ever since. But it also meant the end of the supremacy of Leica and Zeiss. For the first time a Japanese camera won the competition on the professional market. So let’s have a look what this camera is about.

Nikon F Photomic FTN
The front view of the Nikon F.

The F was not something new as in never seen before, but it combined many aspects of SLRs in one camera and above all, improved them into something never seen before. The camera was made in several models from ’59 to ’73 before the F2 was launched. The F camera had a depth-of-field preview button; the mirror had lock-up capability for making quick series; it had a new, large bayonet mount and a large lens release button; a single-stroke ratcheted film advance lever; a titanium-foil focal plane shutter; various types of flash synchronization; a rapid rewind lever and a fully removable back. But durability was the main characteristic: The F had a reputation for being extremely resilient to damage or mechanical failure, becoming known as “the hockey puck.”

Nikon F Photomic FTN
The huge ASA range, combined with a very precise light metering TTL system in the FTN.

The first cameras had a removable eye level prism finder and were succeeded by the Photomic models. In fact a photomic was placed on top and contained a light meter. The first models had independent photocell, afterwards the more advanced TTL systems were introduced, the TN and FTN. In the picture you see the most sophisticated FTN model that unlike previous models could directly couple to the ASA settings without also set the highest aperture setting of the lens. This became the standard metering pattern for Nikon cameras for decades afterwards. The camera has a focal plane shutter, ranging from his top 1/1000s speed down to 1s and B/T. It had a self-timer, automated picture counter, a switch for advancing and rewinding the roll, a unique mirror lock up system, a DOF preview button, an advanced unlocking mechanism for changing the prisms. It was by all means a modular system for changing lenses, prisms, focussing screens, motorized winding and so on.

Nikon F Photomic FTN
The advanced and precise metering system of the Nikon Photomic FTN

Loading the camera is easy because the whole back comes off and you have no obstacles inserting the film. Although you have to leave the back somewhere… On the bottom is a ASA remind button. It does not do anything. Setting the speed is controlled by the coupled photomic, just choose a speed, aperture on the lens and check the metering by pushing the little knob on the photomic. The needle has to be centered by adjusting your aperture or speed. In the finder you see the metering and also the chosen speed. The crack for winding just needs a short stroke to be ready to take the picture. That’s it. But notice the ultimate precision and ease of use how this camera performs these actions. Solid as a rock.

Nikon F Photomic FTN
The back of the Nikon F, a simple but noticeable design. The little button is the unlock mechanism for removing the Photomic.

If you look at the rewind button left, you notice a very familiar function and yes, it is a kind of a hot shoe for using flashes. For that you need a so called coupling add on, the AS-1 that creates a socket for flashes and it communicates with the body. The F has a PC sync cable connection but can also work with the contact under the rewind button. Somewhat the coolest feature is the unique lens coupling pin under the front of the Photomic. It catches the typical lens coupling prong and ‘tells’ the camera what the maximum aperture is. It takes some exercise to mount the lens and make sure the prong catches in the right way. And remember: Nikon lenses are attached anticlockwise and detached clockwise.

Nikon F Photomic FTN
A legend in full beauty: Nikons F, here the FTN Photomic version from 1971.

The lens is what most Nikon lenses are: superbly built and of the highest quality. Here you see the very versatile 35 mm wide angle F2.8 Nikkor-S lens. There a lots and lots of suitable lenses, from 6mm to 2000mm. So a Nikon comes with an almost never ending possibilities and most of the times parts can be combined, old with new, from model to model or adapters were made to make sure your Nikon can withstand all challenges and needs. For that Nikon deserves the rightful place to be named in the top of the best. An F is a must in every serious collection and can also perform in 2021 like it did in the early fifties.

Nikon F Photomic
Frank Sinatra using a Nikon F Photomic

2 Replies to “The day the world stood still: Nikon F”

  1. My first Nikon camera was the Nikormat in around 1967. I have owned a Nikon camera ever since that time. Today I own the Z6 after going digital in the early 2000s with the D70, D90, D600, D610, and the D750
    I have also owned Bronica as a professional and a Lieca M4 and later on the Fuji X series cameras. There is something special about the Nikon experience, in fact it is and has always been a photographer’s camera.

  2. I as well started with a Nikkormat , except that it was badged Nikomat , the non export version that was also sold at the military base PX stores at that time. I owned a Nikon ftn with the f36 motor drive, and work my way up to an F 2sb, f3 and then when it became time to switch to digital initially I was using the Kodak DCS series based on the Nikon N90 body called the DCS 460 , a fantastic camera fitted with the h size sensor ( 18 x 27mm ) that took some of the most incredible 6 megapixel images in Tiff raw. I moved up to a Nikon d1x, had a d100 as a backup and those works for me fine until I got my d700 and now still using a d800 in my 70s and retired it’s a wonderful camera and if I could ever afford to jump up to the z series I will but for now I have nothing but praise to say for the many years of Nikon cameras I have used. I was a professional photographer in fashion art and law enforcement forensics later teaching at college level, and retiring out as a technical printer in large scale 40 by 60 inch print laboratories printing large format negatives. ( 8 x 10 ) on Durst 10 x 10 track mount enlarger using Nikon Enlarging lenses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *