Recently, I started shooting film again. I picked up a second-hand 50mm lens, a film-developing starter kit, and a Nikon FE2 body. The camera cost me around €270, and it’s easily the best film camera I’ve ever used — and that includes the Leica M6 I owned and used for several years.
Why the all-manual FE2, and not something like Nikon’s best autofocus film SLR, the F100? The FE2 is perfectly simple. It has everything you need, and nothing you don’t. And apart from two weird design choices (this was the early 80s, remember?), it’s hard to find anything that could be improved. Nikon clearly thought the same thing, because when it created its last manual-focus film camera in 2001 — the FM3A — it fixed one of those problems, and changed almost nothing else.
Normally, I don’t like “reviews” that just expound on the list of specs, telling you all about what something does, and nothing about the experience of using it. In this case, though, the design and choice of features is the experience, so we’ll start of with some explanations.
What is the FE2?
The FE2 launched in 1983. By today’s standards it’s tiny, and even back then it was a small camera. It’s a manual-focus SLR that uses Nikon’s F-mount lenses. You can use pretty much any Nikon F lens made since 1977, including those made today1.
The titanium shutter runs from 8 seconds to 1/4000th second, and the flash sync speed is 1/250th second. Both of those are impressive even today. 1/4000th may sound like a pointlessly impressive spec-sheet number, but if you’re trying to use a ISO 400 film on a sunny, day, and keep the lens’ aperture open wide for blurred backgrounds, it’s essential. Remember, the only way to change ISO on a film camera is to change the film.
You also get aperture-priority auto, a multiple-exposure lever, a proper screw-threaded hole for a cable shutter release, depth-of-field preview button, and exposure-lock button, for when you’re using auto. That button is the first bad design element. You lock in the auto-exposure setting by pushing the self-time lever towards the lens. It’s well placed, and easy to use when the camera is held up to your eye, but it’s too hard to press, and the surface of the lever is too small, so it digs into your fingertip. I play guitar, so I have tough fingertips, and I find the arrangement almost unusable.
The viewfinder and manual metering
The other bad part of the FE2 is its viewfinder—if you wear glasses. The finder has a nice high magnification (0.83x), but it has a short eyepoint. Eyepoint, or eye relief is the maximum distance you can move your eye from the eyepiece, and still see the whole frame. A high eyepoint lets you see the whole image rectangle, even when your eye is pushed back by glasses.
The FE2’s find has a very short eyepoint. Even without glasses, you may have to move your eye to see the whole frame.
In practice, though, I don’t find it so annoying. The finder is so big and bright, it’s still a pleasure to use. You focus using the then-standard split-image rangefinder with a microprism surround. This makes manual focus easy, although if you’re used to autofocus, you may find it a little tricky to begin with.
Then, we come to the exposure meter. This uses the best-ever method for setting exposure—the match needle. Along the left edge of the viewfinder is a scale, showing all shutter speeds. Then, there are two needles, like the needles on a car speedometer. The green needle points to the shutter speed you have set. The black needle points to the shutter speed recommended by the camera’s light meter. Match them, and you get—in theory—perfect exposure.
To use auto mode, you set the shutter speed dial to A, and the camera picks the shutter speed for you, depending on the aperture you have set, and the light levels. Also visible in the viewfinder is the current aperture of the lens, projected from the lens itself using a prism in the viewfinder.
The match needle is a fantastic system, especially compared to the LED-arrow system that often replaced it in newer cameras. Unlike LEDs, which only indicate whether you are under or over, needles also tell you how much you’re under or over. It’s easy to see that you’re four stops out, for example, and quickly move the shutter dial or aperture ring to the correct spot. You can also just rove the viewfinder’s eye over a scene and watch the needle move. This is a great way to get an idea of the contrast levels in a scene.
There are other needle systems. One simple version has a needle that moves up and down, and the correct exposure is in the middle. This is less complex than Nikon’s two-needle meter, but it’s still better than LEDs. Once you get used to it, the match-needle system is as easy as glancing at a clock. You don’t have to process anything to understand it. It’s ambient information, and in my opinion it has never yet been improved upon.
The only problem with the FE2’s needle system is that it is not lit up at night, so it can be hard to see against a dark background.
The FE2 is rock solid. Every important part is metal, all the controls have a positive click (except the ISO dial, but at least it’s tough), and it feels like it will just keep on going. If you buy one, you may need to replace the light seals in the back, but that’s a simple job (and cheap, even if you get a repairperson to do it).
You do need a battery to operate it, but if the battery dies it can still keep shooting at 1/250th. The good news is that the battery lasts for months.
Some photographers refuse to use a camera that requires a battery, but that’s just a fetish. After all, you have to carry spare film with you all the time. Why not batteries too? And these are tiny S76 cells. You could fit a decade’s supply into a film canister.
Now we get to the juicy part. This camera is an utter pleasure to use. There’s not much in the way of automation, so you have a lot of responsibility not to screw up focus, or exposure, or to shake when taking low-light pictures. But that’s the nature of a manual film camera. Once you’ve learned the basic functions, this camera is a dream. Unlock it by pulling the film-wind lever out a little (with a satisfying clunk), take a meter reading, focus, and shoot. Nothing gets in your way.
The easiest way to explain how good the FE2 is, is to compare it to a lesser camera. I have my dad’s old Cosina CT-1, a 35mm SLR from the same period as the FE2. It’s just fine, but the viewfinder is darker, the controls harder to turn, the whole thing feels clunkier. With a good lens, it can take photos every bit as good as the FE2 (film cameras all use the same film, with no sensors or megapixels to fight over), but it’s just not pleasant to use.
Another example: I compared the FE2 to the fancier F100, shooting both at the same time. The F100 is much more like today’s DSLRs, with auto-everything. I love it. It’s well-made and beautifully designed. It also has a high-eyepoint viewfinder, and a proper thumb-button for exposure lock. But I still prefer the FE2.
And not for some hipster retro-crazed reason. My mind feels different using the older camera. I pay way more attention to the picture than to the camera. Even though both cameras use expensive film, I find I snap more with the F100, whereas I consider and compose with the FE2.
And I’m not sure why. The F100’s autofocus is way easier to use. The F100 also has a modern Matrix light meter, whereas the FE2 uses a dumb center-weighted meter that requires constant second-guessing to interpret properly.
Maybe that’s the answer. Because the human operator can screw up a photo with the FE2 so easily, by missing focus, or setting the exposure too high or low, you’re forced to pay attention. And while you’re in this attentive, hyper-focused frame of mind, you also focus on the image itself. With the FE2, I know when I’ve got a good shot. With the F100, I’m less certain.
Inevitable Leica interlude
I mentioned the Leica M6 above. It’s a fantastic camera, and I owned one for years before I sold it to pay the rent. At the time I thought it was the best thing every But getting back into the FE2, I found that I prefer the SLR to the rangefinder. This is pure opinion, of course, but for me, the image projected onto the ground-glass screen of the FE2 is pretty magical. I like the direct view of a rangefinder viewfinder, but I love the view through the SLRs lens.
Now, both camera styles have their technical advantages, and I do miss some Leica features (rangefinder focusing is way easier, for example). But for me, the FE2 is just about perfect.
Nikon’s later FM3A, released in 2001, is pretty much an exact copy of the FE2, only with all-mechanical shutter speeds in addition to electronic (great for those anti-battery fetishists), and the exposure lock button moved to the back, under your thumb. It has a few other modern extras, but it could easily be called the FE3. That’s how good the FE2 is. Even Nikon could barely improve on its design, almost 20 years later.
That’s not to say it couldn’t be improved. A more glasses-friendly viewfinder would help, as would an eyepiece that doesn’t unscrew itself and fall off (ask me how I know). And I added a little Sugru finger-grip to make it a bit easier to hold. But there’s really very little I would change. The FE2 really is an almost perfect device.
- Lenses without their own aperture ring won’t let you change the aperture, though. ↩