The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Nikon’s Camera Systems

The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Nikon’s Camera Systems

2400 1350 Josh Solomon

We answer emails about recommending cameras and lenses every day, so we thought it might be helpful if we published brief guides to the most popular camera brands. These guides are not meant to be comprehensive. Instead they’re an introduction to The Essentials, a selection from each brand’s camera system, the best of the best. You can’t go wrong buying any of these machines.

First up in the series is Nikon, covered by who else but our resident Nikon fanboy Josh Solomon. Enjoy.

If you’ve chosen Nikon, congratulations. You’ve chosen one of the most illustrious brands in photography, renowned worldwide for their simple, rugged designs and incredible build and image quality. You’ve also chosen a brand with a frighteningly deep camera and lens roster with lots of confusing nomenclature and esoterica. Again, congratulations, I guess.

Jumping into the complicated world of Nikon can be intimidating for newcomers owing to a staggering amount of information. But have no fear – this dedicated Nikon fanboy’s got your back. Here is the best of the best from the brand.

Best Professional Camera – F6

Nikon’s bread-and-butter has always been their professional grade F-series of cameras, a line of cameras which can rightly be considered the hardest of hardcore cameras. Every single one of these cameras are suitable for the hardcore professional, but if there is one that stands out from the rest, it’s Nikon’s current F-series model, the F6.

This choice may ruffle the feathers of the Nikon faithful (who are no doubt reprimanding me in the comments for not choosing a vintage manual focus F or F2), but if we’re talking about an out-and-out film shooter for paid work, there isn’t a better choice in the Nikon lineup. It’s the most streamlined, most advanced, and most up-to-date iteration of the F-series and provides quite literally everything a working 35mm film photographer could ever need. It’s got quick autofocus, is compatible with all modern Nikon AF lenses as well as vintage manual focus lenses, and has that legendary F-series ruggedness as well. There are more features, but to list them all would be a fool’s errand, doubly so considering we’ve written a full review on the camera here.

Sure, it doesn’t have the same historical charm or vintage look of the older F-series cameras, but if you need to grab a perfect shot in a hurry the F6 will get it for you every single time.

Best Enthusiast Camera – FM3a or Nikonos V

For those of us who are merely enthusiasts and don’t need all the bells and whistles of a true professional camera, the field of Nikon film cameras opens up considerably. History buffs and purists will no doubt enjoy the older F and F2 cameras while more casual amateur shooters will equally enjoy the F3, FM-series, and FA, but if there’s a camera that rises above the rest in terms of functionality and all-out cool, it has to be the Nikon FM3a.

The FM3a combines everything great about Nikon SLR’s into one beautiful package. It’s built upon the acclaimed FM-style compact SLR chassis, but improves upon its predecessors in a few key ways. It’s the only 35mm SLR with a hybrid mechanical/electronic shutter which offers aperture-priority autoexposure as well as a full functionality at every shutter speed when the batteries die. The FM3a also retains the FM2’s absurdly quick 1/4000th of a second mechanical shutter, Nikon’s classic 60/40 center weighted metering pattern, and adds Nikon’s super bright K3 focusing screen. Even amongst purists the FM3a is a revered machine, and it would behoove any Nikon shooter to own one.

I could end the discussion there, but i’d be missing a huge part of the Nikon lineup – the underwater-ready Nikonos system. No Nikon system is complete without an underwater-ready Nikonos and for regular shooters, the Nikonos V is about as good as it gets. It’s weatherproof, waterproof, and shock-proof, and is criminally easy to shoot. Combine that with the superb W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 and you’ve got the world’s toughest point-and-shoot camera.

Best Beginner’s Camera – FG

Nikon never had a firm grip on the novice market (and still doesn’t), but nevertheless their consumer cameras were nothing to sneeze at. The Nikkorex and Nikkormat series represented the company’s early attempts at a consumer SLR during the 1960s and ’70s, and the compact FM series was meant to carry on and improve that line. However, it wasn’t until the introduction of the truly tiny EM that Nikon finally had a horse in the beginner photographer race.

The EM was a simple aperture-priority camera aimed at consumers who wanted a small, cheap, yet capable camera which could mount those sweet, sweet F-mount lenses. The EM succeeded, and could be considered Nikon’s first true entry into the consumer camera arena. However, it is not the EM that gets my pick as the best Nikon for novices, but its successor, the Nikon FG.

The FG took the tiny EM chassis and stuffed it with a boatload of automation in a bid to catch up with the EM’s more fully fledged contemporaries like the Canon AE-1 Program. The new FG featured fully-automatic programmed autoexposure mode and manual override in addition to an aperture-priority mode, exposure compensation, an FM2-derived LED metering display, and TTL flash metering.

The FG gets my nod for Nikon’s greatest consumer camera because it’s relatively cheap and commonplace, can do nearly anything a novice shooter (and even an advanced shooter) will ask of it, and mounts some of 35mm photography’s greatest lenses. It’s a wonderful jumping off point for any aspiring shooter to build their Nikon system upon, and for some could be the only Nikon SLR they’d ever need.

Image provided by Bellamy Hunt, Japan Camera Hunter, and published here with permission.

Best Collector’s Camera – SP 2005 w/ W-Nikkor C 3.5cm f/1.8

Of Nikon’s many collectible cameras, none are more collectible than the company’s rangefinder cameras. Before Nikon’s rise to international fame with the Nikon F SLR, the company cut their teeth making rangefinder cameras throughout the 1950’s. The last, and greatest, iteration of these rangefinders is the Nikon SP, Nikon’s most technologically advanced rangefinder and a favorite of hardcore photojournalists. 

But it is not the original SP that i’ll pick for Nikon’s most collectible camera, but rather the remake, the SP 2005. During Nikon’s wave of nostalgia that produced the mentioned Nikon FM3a, Nikon decided to revive their last two rangefinder cameras, the S3 in 2000 and the SP in 2005. This was no easy task – the original dies had been lost to time and Nikon had to create them from scratch. The years of painstaking effort paid off – the two cameras currently stand as the company’s most beautiful creations, as well as two of the rarest with only eight thousand of the S3 2000 made and the twenty-five hundred of the SP 2005 made. While the S3 2000 is a fine camera in its own right, I will give the edge to the SP 2005 for its added rarity. 

The SP 2005 and S3 2000 also come with two of Nikon’s finest lenses, the W-Nikkor C 3.5cm f/1.8 and “Millennium” Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4, respectively. These two lenses are both recreations of ultra-rare Nikon rangefinder lens designs, improved even further with Nikon’s 21st century multicoatings.

For Nikon to have made brand new versions of long-dead cameras and lenses is an astonishing feat, and one that deserves preservation on the shelves of all dedicated camera collectors, and a place in the hands of a few responsible shooters.

Essential lenses

The Nikon lens roster is the largest in all of photography and chock full of classic lenses, but in the interest of keeping this list light and tight we’ll pick just three of the brand’s most well-loved lenses.

This first lens may strike some as an odd choice. The Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 is a rather nondescript, cheap lens in the Nikkor roster. But don’t let looks and price deceive you; the Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 is quite possibly Nikon’s finest fifty.

The humble Nikkor-H quietly but consistently outshines many of its contemporaries in flat-field performance, corner-to-corner sharpness, and wide-open sharpness, contrast, and color rendition. Its visual signature is a throwback to the early days of subtle, controlled contrast and fine detail rendering. Wide-open images from the lens show a gentle character, as details become smoothed out, contrast lowers just a tiny bit, and bokeh blossoms into something beautiful.

The second lens is possibly Nikon’s most famous lens and a favorite at CP – the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It brings incredible subject isolation, bokeh, and amazing sharpness that’s nearly unmatched in both vintage and modern lenses, making it a superb portrait lens as well as a great walk-around short telephoto lens. Pre-AI examples will adhere to the classic Zeiss Sonnar-derived formula while AI and AI-S versions will employ an updated Double-Gauss/Xenotar-style formula but, truth be told, every single iteration of this lens is a stunner capable of making amazing images.

The third and final lens is the wide-angle Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AIS. Out of the many stellar wide-angles in the Nikkor lineup, this is the one to have. The AI-S version improves upon its predecessors by adding in Nikon’s Close Range Correction (CRC) system, pulling in its minimum focusing distance to an intimate 0.2m (0.7 ft). The 28mm f/2.8 AI-S also enjoys a reputation for being Nikon’s sharpest wide-angle lens, making it an easy choice to fill in the final slot of a basic Nikkor SLR lens kit.

Got any more suggestions for the budding Nikonian? Let us hear about it in the comments.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • A personal note about this statement re. the F6 : “..but if we’re talking about an out-and-out film shooter for paid work, there isn’t a better choice in the Nikon lineup”
    My anecdote – last year I was traveling in Europe and had a specific project in mind that I was going to make money off. I took a digital Leica, a Fuji TX-2 (Xpan) and a Nikon F6. I took the Nikon instead of a film Leica (which would allow me to match lenses with my M240) as I thought it would be the most dependable one of the lot. The go to when the shot counts camera.
    After shooting rolls and rolls of E6 film, I was shocked and stunned to see that the F6 had decided to start front focusing on most of the shots. So pretty much, most of them were ruined. I couldn’t tell in the VF as it was just a touch off, but printed large – very noticeable. Now I take care of my gear, and this camera looks like new, not a mark on it. Nikon LA repaired it in a few days (awesome service) and said the af module had to be replaced. I thought that this was my fluke, a one off, but then I found out that quite a few other F6 users had this issue. So.. now knowing what I know, my go to would be my F3P or F2. I shoulda just taken my M7 to match my lenses…

    The F6 works great again, but once bitten.

    Now the Nikonos V -that is an inspired choice and one I agree w/ 100%. That lens is a cracker, the camera is super easy and quick to use and this is the only camera that deserves the ‘made like a brick/carved from an ingot/indestructible moniker’. Stuffs happened to mine that would have blown other pro cameras into little pieces (it’s the camera I take with me when I do risky stuff). The super quiet muffled shutter. Just awesome. Get one while they are still cheap..

    • Good points all round – unfortunate to hear about your F6’s front-focusing issue, but glad Nikon LA could do a job on it. For what it’s worth, the F3 is my second choice for a one-and-done pro grade Nikon!

  • Merlin Marquardt June 25, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Very nice.

  • Nicely done as always. I do have a few comments: I would agree with Huss: In the “professional” category I would probably nominate the F3–or the much more affordable and very awesome F100–as strong alternates.

    I agree with your choice of the Nikonos V, which has become one of my favorite cameras of all time. But the FM3A has become quite the fetish item among collectors and the price of a decent used one has risen to the point of absurdity. I would take a decent FM3n any day.

    Lastly, I agree with the choice of the 28 f/2.8 AIS. I use it constantly. The 105 f/2.5 is, of course, a great lens. I used to have one that looked like it had fallen out of a moving car, yet it was still razor sharp. But,again, the price of the 105 has been grossly inflated by collectors. I would suggest that a worthy alternative is the 85 f/2. Sharp, compact, rugged.

    • oops–FM2n. I just invented a model there…..

    • The FM3a is pretty fetishized, but I feel like it’s one of the few cameras that truly warrant the hype surrounding it. An FM2n will work just as beautifully though!

  • Traeton Janssens June 25, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    I hope to see an Essentials guide for Minolta! My nominations would be the XK for professional, XD11 for enthusiasts, XG-1 or SRT-101 for beginners, and maybe the black TC-1 for collectors (or the mythical Samsung manufactured X-300…).

  • Stephen Hoffman June 25, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    Since the SP 2005 collector’s item status make it unattainable for most of us users, I would recommend instead the S2. It was a very popular camera and thus fairly easy to find now at reasonable prices. It sports a 1:1 finder just like the SP and is almost as pretty. I would recommend one with a 50mm f2 rather than the f 1.4–its noticeably sharper wide open. You don’t have to pay more for the “black dial” cameras, the silver ones are just fine.

    • I had an S2 for a while! Fantastic camera, with an even better lens (Nikkor 50/1.4). I chose the SP 2005 because I think it’s the pinnacle of collectibility for Nikon cameras. But for all of us mere mortals, the regular S2/S3/SP Nikon rangefinders are more than enough!

  • Your selections are pretty much right on the money. However, I would pick the FM2n over the FM3A, mainly because the former is more plentiful and less expensive. Also, for my purposes, the electronic shutter option on the FM3A adds nothing and somewhat wrecks the simplicity of its all mechanical predecessor. I am glad you picked the FG as the recommended beginner camera. When I switched to Nikon from the old Canon FD system, my dad gave me his FG. I was skeptical at first but grew to enjoy its compact size and its operation in the manual mode. Since then, I picked up a second body for about $65.00. I like the FG better than the Canon A-1 and AE-IP, mainly because of the match needle-like operation in the manual mode and the 1/90 mechanical backup speed. Now I have two FM2ns and two FGs. I strongly agree with your selection of the 105mm f2.5, which I think is one of the best lenses made by anyone at any price. I would add the 180mm f2.8 ED or ED-IF to the list, due to its speed, sharpness, and lack of chromaitic aberration.

    • The FG’s a pretty spectacular camera! The FG and the FM2n in tandem is a great setup. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the 180mm f/2.8 as well, we’ll need to give it the treatment soon!

  • I love articles like this, the history references, and the “reasons to choose”. As is usual, these articles fuel gas, but I am not buying into another system. One has to work for me.
    Keep them coming, this blog is easily in the top 3 on the net.

  • Agree with the F6. It’s an awesome camera. I’d add a point and shoot category though… gotta love that L35AF.

  • Great article. I’m slightly leaning towards what I actually own but the F4 had been a tremendously reliable camera for me and it’s knob-based controls make everything easy to set up. Also the FM2n with the pancake 50mm f/1:8 is a beautiful light weight package and the simple LED meter works perfectly for night shots. The FM3a always looks great but feels over-engineered plus the italicised Nikon logo simply doesn’t look right on an FM/FE chasis.

  • Great job, Josh Solomon. Couldn’t agree more with all you’ve written. Thankful that I have a mint FM3a and a Nikonos V.
    Got to get those lenses. You’ve really picked the winning trio there.
    Well done!

  • All I’m hearing is a list of feature sets I don’t need nor desire. The F2AS remains supreme. Always has. Always will. 🙂

  • Nikon FM3a is one of the best SLR’s ever!! But I really enjoy my Nikon FE as well… and the Nikkor glass like the 50/1.2 or 105/2.5 is pure perfection!!

  • How about the Nikon 801. This was my workhorse when I did theatrical and Dance photography. This camera never let me down, even with the rough use it got over 10 years.

    I still have two bodies that still work. They are just too battered to have any resale value, but I cannot bear to toss them in the dustbin. The same goes for the 180 2.8 that was my go to dance lens.

  • One mote great review from Josh in all Casualphotophile great reviews;-)
    I will add one of the best P&S: Nikon 28TI

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon