Shooting classic cameras often brings compromise. Sometimes your camera lacks auto-focus, other times it’s got no light meter, or maybe your camera can’t auto-expose. I love old cameras, but occasionally the continual compromise makes me pine for a camera that’s, if not mindlessly automatic, at least a little less demanding.
So it can be refreshing when I get my hands on a camera that proffers the joys of a classic camera (involvement in the process, thrill of anticipation, sense of timelessness) with some added creature comforts.
The Nikon N8008 (called the F801 in certain markets) is just such a camera. This classic 35mm film camera is in practice one of the more modern machines I’ve tested. It gives everything I love about shooting film while allowing me to relax and shoot in a way that’s totally natural for those of us who grew up shooting plastic-fantastic DSLRs. Like some of the best products ever made, the N8008 is excellent at nothing, but good at everything.
The N8008/F-801 was developed in the late 1980s and released in 1988. During this period it was Nikon’s top-of-the-line 35mm SLR camera for photo enthusiasts, nestling just under the professional-grade F4 in the Nikon lineup. It was made to last, had outstanding specs, and positioned Nikon to challenge Canon in the arena of autofocus SLR cameras (this being Nikon’s second, and best AF SLR).
Strong construction has given the N8008/F-801 a reputation for longevity and durability. Though it’s heavily reliant on electronics and consists of an astounding number of parts, the camera has proven itself a reliable workhorse, and there’s every reason to believe this now 20-something-year-old camera will still be firing long into the future.
While this reliability is great, it comes with a price. The metal construction of the main body means that the camera is pretty damn heavy. At close to 700g, it’s nearly as heavy as the Nikon D810 full-frame DSLR. Add the required four AA batteries and things become wrist-achingly dense. But this isn’t so bad; heavy, long-lived machines are preferable to broken lightweights.
Aesthetically the N8008 is pretty boring. Its looks aren’t especially offensive, it’s just that they’re not especially appealing either. There’s nothing about the camera’s physical attributes to elevate it over its more beautiful predecessors (the gorgeous and compact FM, FE, etc., for example), but in the same breath there’s nothing here to repulse the average onlooker.
Yes, it’s boring, and a bit homely. Is this something over which to find fault in the camera? I’m not so sure. After all, for the period in which it was made the N8008 is quite ordinary looking. Its homeliness stems more from the existence of a distinct division upon the timeline of classic cameras, with incredible designs occupying the space before this divide and classless, uninspired designs populating the period after. It just happens that the N8008 released at the beginning of the latter era. With its entirely plastic exterior, bloated proportions, and spattering of spongey buttons, this camera looks like an unfortunate, overstayed relic from an era of disposable appliances.
But pay attention to my choice of words. Though it may look like an overstayed relic, it certainly doesn’t act that way. In use the N8008 is pretty exceptional. It’s a feature-dense camera, well-engineered, and thoroughly modern in its execution. And while it can at times feel like a modern DSLR, it still maintains the mechanical qualities that are a requisite for falling in love with any vintage machine.
Its buttons, switches, and levers, while feeling a bit tacky, are all positioned perfectly for unencumbered operation. Wrapping one’s hands around the camera feels entirely natural, with only a few small irritants, such as the placement of the control wheel being too decentralized and the grip being slightly bulbous. Still, I should emphasize that these are small issues that won’t present the same degree of annoyance for every shooter. Those with larger mitts may feel it fits perfectly in the hand.
With one look at the spec sheet it’s clear this thing is a serious camera for serious shooters. It’s capable of shooting in every one of the now-standard shooting modes (PASM), offers wide-ranging creative controls as well as some rather interesting special features, and allows access to Nikon’s incredible range of Nikkor lenses.
But the spec-sheet doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, it’s great to say a camera has a handful of auto-exposure modes, perfectly acceptable auto-focus abilities, and loads of in-demand bells and whistles, but I’m never convinced until I take a camera out into the field. Quite happily, the N8008 didn’t disappoint.
Its autofocus system (switchable to manual focus as well) operates extremely well. While certainly a bit slow compared to today’s cameras, it’s still fast enough to get the job done in most situations. It uses what Nikon calls their “Advanced AM200” module, whatever that means. They can call it whatever they like, but the takeaway is that the AF here is of the phase-detection variety. Knowing this, I expected to run into the typical phase-detection foibles, such as hunting and front- and back-focusing. Imagine my surprise, then, when the AF system proved to be nearly unflappable.
And the N8008s is an updated version of the N8008 with improved autofocus capabilities. On a beautiful, sunny day at Boston’s waterfront I encountered exactly zero instances of hunting, front-focus, or back-focus. Lighting was excellent, so I wasn’t too surprised by the system’s abilities, but later in the evening amidst the subdued-lighting of a small, Italian restaurant, focus was still handled with aplomb. Though there were a few instances of hunting over candlelight, focus was still accurate, if a bit slower.
Granted, I was shooting a 50mm F/1.8 AF Nikkor. Fast focus will naturally be more of a struggle with something like a zoom-Nikkor or portrait lens, but I can’t imagine many shooters will hate the N8008s’ focus capabilities.
I should also mention that, as far as AF motors go, the N8008’s is a bit loud. If that’s a serious concern, be so advised. I’m not really sure it’s a huge liability, but I know people seem to get pretty upset over noises coming from their cameras. It won’t be obvious on a busy city street, it won’t startle a grazing deer, and it won’t ruin your candid photography, but yes, it’s a pretty loud camera.
Metering is virtually flawless on any setting, consisting of average matrix metering and center-weighted metering (75 / 25%), with center-weighted metering in particular yielding impeccable results every time. Shooting in either metering mode, as well as the upgraded N8008s’ added spot-metering, test film developed without a single under- or over-exposed shot in even the trickiest lighting situations.
Shooting in aperture-priority mode is simplicity itself. Simply rotate the aperture ring on the lens and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed. Shutter priority is similarly effortless. Just set the shutter speed via the rotating thumbwheel on the top plate and the camera selects the appropriate aperture, and with a shutter capable of exposures from 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second there’s no limit on the photographer’s exposures.
But the camera’s strengths don’t end with the fundamental core of AF, shooting modes, and metering. It also offers a wide range of secondary controls that are hard to top in the world of vintage cameras.
Exposure compensation is available in 1/3 stop increments up to a rather strong +/- 5 EV, pretty excellent for those who love the rapidity of exposure compensation. Depth-of-field preview is available via a well-positioned button aside the lens mount. There’s available exposure lock, autofocus lock, 3.2 FPS continuous shooting, multiple exposure shooting of up to nine exposures in a single frame, automatic film-loading and rewind, and the list goes on, and on.
Mirroring the nearly unlimited speeds of the shutter, the rest of the camera’s features are similarly accommodating to the shooter accustomed to modern machines. And it’s this unlimited potential that’s the camera’s greatest strength. Switching between shooting modes, using exposure compensation and AE-lock for backlit subjects, choosing AF or MF modes, etc., it’s easy to see that the N8008 is a step above the typical old camera.
For those of us who cut our teeth shooting DSLRs, it’s hard to think of a more comfortable camera with which to expose film. Select the desired shooting mode, spin a thumbwheel, depress a few plasticky buttons, and listen to that glorious mirror flapping up and down as images are made with natural ease.
Familiarity with your machine is crucial to the photographic process, so if you’re a DSLR veteran whose primary goal is making excellent images, the N8008 will feel comfortable.
The included focusing screen is Nikon’s standard Type B screen. This is the perfect general photography screen and offers unobstructed viewing and easy focusing over the entire frame. The matte/Fresnel surface does well-enough when manual focusing, but for those who want something different it’s possible to remove the Type B and substitute it with Nikon’s Type E, which features compositional assistance grids.
It doesn’t much matter which focusing screen you choose. Either way, when you look through the viewfinder you’re sure to fall in love with the massive, well-lit VF. It provides the full range of crucial information so often lacking in vintage camera viewfinders, allowing the photographer to know with certainty what’s happening with every exposure.
A backlit LCD display shows focus indication, exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, flash indicator light, etc. This wealth of information and instant updates allow for the kind of streamlined shooting that can often be the difference between making an amazing image and missing a shot altogether. Without taking one’s eye from the viewfinder it’s possible to understand and adjust any setting on the camera in mere moments.
In the end, the N8008/F-801 is a classic camera with a thoroughly modern ethos. It’s old enough to charm us with its aging character, modern enough to be completely usable by any shooter and in any situation. It’s from one of the best brands in photography and compatible with one of the best lens lineups in the world. It’s a camera that can do everything you’ll ever ask of it, and it’ll keep on firing for decades.
While it’s not the prettiest camera, nor the fastest, nor the lightest, nor the most alluring, it’s still an exceptional camera. It’s the best at nothing, but very good at everything. It’s the practical all-rounder that Nikon intended it to be, and it just works. What more could you need?
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Well written! I’ve always wondered about these hybrids that clash classic and modern into a smorgasbord of photography fun. You might have just tipped the scales in their favor for me.