Nikon F4 Camera Review – Thirty Years Old This Month

Nikon F4 Camera Review – Thirty Years Old This Month

2000 1125 Jeb Inge

The Nikon F4 is the perfect camera for me, but it took a while to get there. Like most photo geeks, I long suffered from Gear Acquisition Syndrome, a disease that makes us think that our photography will jump to the next level if we only had that new, expensive lens, or a different camera body. We’ve written about this phenomenon before, and if social media is any indicator it’s an affliction with which plenty of people are familiar.

For me, GAS presented as a search for the perfect camera. I spent countless hours researching for a camera that could do everything I needed a camera to do, in the style I wanted it done. Three years and numerous misfires later (with my bank account begging for mercy) I started to wonder if the perfect camera even existed.

Then, a few months ago I finally found it. 

After years of ogling and online stalking, I finally pulled the trigger on a Nikon F4. The company’s fourth flagship SLR seemed to check off all the boxes on my list. It’s tough and durable, boasts a wide array of creative controls and metering modes, and was built to define reliability. Even before running the first roll through it, the F4 was already feeling like the one. I was finding myself getting up from my desk and walking across the room just to hold it.

During travels through Central Europe over the next month, I was able to put the F4 through its paces in numerous challenging environments and wildly differing light conditions. Photographer error aside, this beast of a camera delivered on every single image. It also seemed to be pulling me out of the photographic malaise that had been haunting me for months. My curiosity about the camera quickly changed to amazement. It really was as good as I’d hoped. Research after that fact impressed me further, as I learned just how much effort went into making the F4.

What Makes an F4

Believe it or not, there was a time that manufacturers would put nearly a decade of work into the creation of a new camera. When Nikon debuted the F2 in 1971, engineers immediately began working on its replacement (the F3 didn’t release until 1980). The F3 was Nikon’s first flagship to offer electronic control and automatic operation. It would become one of Nikon’s most respected cameras (and one that Josh placed among the greatest cameras ever made.) The market agreed; the F3’s popularity would keep it on shelves for an astounding twenty years!

But before that success story had a chance to write itself, Nikon went about their business. As soon as the F3 went into production, work began on its successor. But development of new photographic technologies accelerated to breakneck pace in the 1980s, and Nikon quickly realized that it would have to approach development of the F3’s successor differently. Until the F3, each iteration of the F series had evolved and improved on its predecessor. But with the development of improved electronic light metering, ever more critical automation, and the brand new technology of autofocus, Nikon would have to build the fourth F from scratch.

With the F4, Nikon hoped to include four key features; multi-pattern metering, a high-speed shutter, faster flash sync, and automatic focusing. The F4 would come to have all of these components, but none of them were unique to it. High-speed shutters were released in the FM2 and N8008, a higher flash sync in the FE2 and Nikon’s Matrix Metering was first released in the FA. Minolta’s Maxxum 7000 was the first through the door with true autofocusing while Canon rebuilt its entire business around autofocus starting with its EOS 620/650 cameras. Nikon followed suit with the F-501 and the N8008. 

Nikon wouldn’t be pioneering any of those capabilities with the F4, but they would be the first to gather them all in a single camera body. Also, they would include a brand new (and much brighter) finder screen, reduce shutter sound, and improve weather resistance. Nikon would get even further in the weeds to improve on its distance measurement technology and other basic performance issues that the company admitted it had overlooked while focusing on automated operation technology. The new F wouldn’t just have all of the latest features, but also improved basic components.

And the Nikon F4 has a lot of components; it’s made of 1,850 total body part numbers, has four CPUs, and runs software holding 43 million different types of operating conditions. That may not compare with the electronics of today’s professional cameras, but in 1988 it was unprecedented and groundbreaking. As was the F4’s spec sheet. 

The Nikon F4 boasts the first electronically controlled vertical-traveling focal plane shutter capable of speeds from 30 seconds to 1/8000 plus bulb and time-set modes. It has a flash sync speed range from 1/60 to 1/250 of a second, an ISO range from 6 to 6400 (DX reading from 25 to 5000) and five exposure modes (manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, program and high-speed program). It’s capable of up to 5.7 frames per second, has mirror lock up, a multiple exposure function, and exposure compensation range of +/- 2 in 1/3 stop increments. 

Metering is handled through one of three modes – Matrix, center-weighted and spot metering, with an EV range of 0-21 at ISO 100. Nikon’s matrix metering was still in its infancy, and the F4’s version of it used a five-zone system. It’s not as impressive as the systems found in the F5, F6 or F100 but still the best on-board meter in any camera made before the nineties. 

Its TTL Phase Detection system packed in one whole focus zone, which was common for the day. 

The Nikon F4 came standard with the removable Multi-Meter Finder DP-20 Pentaprism. The meter mode selection lever is positioned on its side, along with diopter control, a hot shoe, and an additional exposure compensation dial for fine tuning when using one of the F4’s ten interchangeable focusing screens. The B-type BriteView screen was standard on most F4s and was much brighter than the F3’s screen.

In designing the housing for this massive pile of parts and technology, Nikon chose Italian designer Giorgetto Guigiaro. Guigiaro’s portfolio includes dozens of cars, motorcycles, firearms, wristwatches, farming tractors, computer prototypes for Apple and the promenade for the Italian city of Porto Santo Stefano. He even designed Marille pasta, which in Italy elevates you to royalty. Most importantly for Nikon, he had previously designed the F3, EM and L35AF cameras.

Guigiaro believed in the mantra “Form follows function,” that every part of a product must serve a useful purpose. That’s a tall order with a camera. These machines have to provide comprehensive controls in an often restrictive form. Against the odds, he created an ergonomic masterpiece with the Nikon F4.

This is the last of the professional SLRs with dedicated knobs and levers instead of dials and menus. It’s the first with shutter releases on both the vertical and horizontal grips, and the first F-series camera to lose the film advance lever. While rewinding is electronically driven, film can also be rewound manually to save battery power. Some functions, like the vertical shutter release, shooting modes, and the ISO dial have levers to protect accidental use. Autofocus and exposure lock buttons are millimeters from the fingers that will flick them.

Some of the greatest cameras feel like they were designed outward from the photographer’s hand. The F4 is one such camera. It feels absolutely perfect to hold. Dense is an optimistic descriptor of the F4, with “brick like” being another. 

There’s no getting around the F4’s weight — which seems to be a real sticking point with many of the camera’s critics. At 1,280 grams, the F4 is more than 500 grams heavier than the F3 and is 80 grams lighter than the also-beastly F5. And that’s all without batteries. You’ll have four AA batteries if using the MB-20 battery pack, six if using the MB-21 and eight if using the MB-23. (Also worth noting, the camera becomes the F4s with the MB-21 and the F4e with the MB-23.)

The Nikon F4 debuted exactly thirty years ago this month, in September 1988, and it carried a price tag of $2,500. That’s a whopping $5,316 in 2018 dollars. That makes the F4 more expensive than any camera in Nikon’s current lineup except the D5 (here again we should consider the true value of film cameras in 2018). Flagship cameras have always carried punishing price tags, but they also come with the absolute best reliability and performance. In 1988 no 35mm SLR could even come close to competing with the F4. It won all the major awards that mattered at the time and proved itself as a masterful imaging machine.

By the dawn of the 1990s, the F4 wasn’t the grand slam Nikon expected it to be. Part of the reason was Canon’s release of the EOS 1 in 1989, which was lighter and had a better autofocusing system than the Nikon F4 even though it too had a single focusing zone. Professionals were all-in on autofocus, and photojournalism and sports work demanded the best AF system possible. Canon had bet everything and changed its entire brand direction on autofocus. Now it was paying off.

The F4, Thirty Years Later

But it’s no longer 1988. The question is whether or not the F4 is a camera suited to 2018. Thirty years after its release, the Nikon F4 is more valuable than ever. The biggest reason is lens compatibility. The F4 can shoot every lens (manual focus and autofocus) made by Nikon since 1959. It even provides Matrix Metering with manual-focus AI and AI-s lenses. There are some caveats to that, however. Without on-board aperture control, G-series lenses have to be used in shutter priority mode. The only thing truly lost on the F4 is vibration reduction, which hadn’t yet been developed.

This kind of compatibility gives Nikon shooters carte blanche to pick from nearly every Nikon lens ever made. This is a true gift considering the brand’s legendary line of new and old lenses. That pure compatibility and matrix metering support won’t be as easy for F3 or F5 shooters. Canon users have it even worse; Canon fans must choose between EF and FD mount systems.

As I set out on my Central European F4 journey, I remembered the camera’s purported weaknesses. These are its autofocusing speed and accuracy, and its excessive weight. I was anxious to see whether these failings so commonly squawked about on the internet would prove true or false.

It’s true that the autofocus is loud and can take its time in low light. But life really isn’t that hard with a single focus point, as anyone who’s used a manual-focus camera can attest. If AF is struggling, just switch the F4’s focus dial to M and you have an incredibly advanced manual focus camera with Matrix Metering.

What can I really say about the weight? Yeah, the Nikon F4 is a pretty heavy camera. If your daily shooter is something like the Olympus XA, using the F4 will be a shocking experience. And even with the light-by-comparison MB-20 and D-series lenses the Nikon F4 will still be a handful. But what should we expect from a camera made of 1,850 parts? It’s got four coreless motors, and four late-eighties CPUs. All this is packed into a die-cast aluminum chassis built to handle the worst punishment. Cut the thing some slack!

Okay, if you don’t like heavy things, you probably won’t like the Nikon F4. If you’re a masochist like me and prefer heavy cameras without camera straps, welcome to the intersection of photography and personal fitness.

Like bokeh, styling is a completely subjective concept. But some designs are more polarizing than others, and somehow the F4 seems to fit in that camp. Yes, it’s the late-eighties and Don Johnson is still driving a Ferrari Testarossa on Miami Vice. The F4 sports similar styling on the side of the pentaprism, but aside from that, aesthetically there’s not much to complain about.

Because the F4 sits at the epicenter of a massive shift in popular photography, it’s frequently overshadowed by the flagships that bookend it. That’s unfortunate, since it has features that make it a better machine than either the F3 or F5.

The F3 is smaller, lighter and has undeniably great construction. But the F4’s spec sheet blows it out of the water. The F5 has an improved autofocus and 3D Matrix Meter, but it’s otherwise largely similar to the F4 but without the F4’s groundbreaking pedigree, analog controls, and interchangeability. The F4 succeeds as a camera for the very reason it’s overshadowed by others; as a camera between two eras, it has the best DNA strands from each. It’s a large, powerful camera capable of nearly anything, with deep roots in an era when individual cameras had their own identity.

It’s an understatement to say that I loved shooting the F4. There’s nothing I didn’t like about it. Its viewfinder is what I wish my eyes made me see. It’s shutter sounds like the perfect mix of a paintbrush and a haymaker. It’s thirty years old, looks five, and seems ready for fifty more. Its ridiculous weight makes me laugh the same way I do when I see Rocky Balboa cut the Russian for the first time in Rocky IV. Just like the Italian Stallion, my F4 can take punch after punch and still deliver results.

It was those results that made what felt like infatuation turn into something else. No matter what I threw at its meter, the F4 gave me exactly what I wanted. Results were even better when I wasn’t going out of my way to trick it. Here, finally, was a camera that was giving me in print the composition I saw in my head.

Now, for the first time since buying my very first camera, I no longer feel that pang for more and better gear. Instead, I’m so content with what I have that the cameras on the shelf are sweating in fear. They have cause to be concerned — I can honestly say that everything else could be sold off as long as I keep my Nikon F4. I know that it can’t be the camera for everyone, but it’s the perfect camera for me.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

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  • Amazing sample shots in this one.

  • Per Kristoffersson September 12, 2018 at 7:08 am

    “/…/It’s the first with shutter releases on both the vertical and horizontal grips/…/”

    well, it is if you disregard the Minolta 9000 of 1985…

    • I could have been more specific, the F4s was the first to have it built in to the system. The 9000 had one when you attached an external drive but was otherwise a manual-advance SLR with one shutter trigger.

      • Per Kristoffersson September 12, 2018 at 8:02 am

        had to search arount a bit, but now I see. Always thought the portion with the vertical shutter release was an add-on like on the minolta (and just about any other camera). Interesting that Canon used a very similar solution for the EOS 1.

  • Agreed 100%. I recently acquired mine and feel the same way. Being a Pentax ‘guy’ it was difficult to make that switch. The truth is that it does every single thing I ask of it and does it well. I have been shooting with mine quite a bit and find it more natural every time. It seems to not be so popular as people think of it as an AF camera. If you think of it as a MF camera that can also AF, it is a pretty unbeatable combination. I have yet to be let down by mine. The F5 might be more advanced in AF but it is a gigantic. The F4 seems to be just the right size.

  • I own two Nikon F4E and a bunch of old AI´D Nikkors like the Nikkor Q 3,5/135
    and Nikkor P 3,5/55 Micro which work perfectly and add a little weight too……..
    No idea why people always complain about “being too big cameras” in my experience
    no photographer ever died or break down because of that – maybe smoking-drinking
    and being to fat – but not for this reason !

    The Nikon F4 is the last professional beats with real knobs and no Mickey-Mouse-Menues,
    just switch On and Fire (so easy) !

    • true that.. I choose F4 among the other Nikon “pro”-models.. it has real knobs for sure.
      I’ve shoot many weddings with this cameras (I have 2 F4E bodies) back then.. and it was good and reliable 🙂

    • Karl Valentin – Re. concern over the weight: people who were buying these back in the day were pros, and probably sports pros most often. No one else could justify the expense. Pros already carry a lot of heavy gear; fast glass, big flashes, back-up bodies. The extra weight of this body was the difference between being able to carry an extra lens or not.

      • Karl makes a good point about people who smoke/drink/are fat, yet having a camera encourages one to get out and look for pix. Jeremy D mentions pros who carry a lot of gear too. Look at old newsreels of incidents and see the pros’ carrying their Billingham 550 bags stuffed to the gunwales with gear. Weigh. a ton? You bet!
        Heavy cameras have been around for quite a while – look at the Leicaflex trio and lenses, they are seriously heavy and not a battery or motor in sight. There was a battery, the size of a jeans button for the onboard meter. However, I carry a pair of Leicaflex SL bodies and two lenses with reflective and incidental meters as my meters don’t work. Add a Filofax Deskfax in the front pocket of my Billingham 335 and passport in my old safari jacket and I’m good to go. I’ll pass on motorised film advance and matrix metering (what the £#<¥ is that?). Yet heavy cameras have their benefits. If anyone messes with me, a Leicaflex SL and the 250mm f4 Telyt (first version with fixed tripod mount) would knock them cold.
        Old metal Gitzo monopods are useful too, avoid carbon fibre. All the best, happy shooting and good light. TM.

  • Very nice tribute to a truly revolutionary camera! Can’t sing this camera’s praises enough! Here’s my love story…

  • Great review Jeb! I love my F4 dearly. One correction though, the mb-23 grip (which makes it the F4E) takes only 6 batteries, but puts them all in the grip below the body. It can also take a NiCd pack.

    • I recently acquired a new Nikon MN-20 NiCad from Turkey, still in Nikon Factory package, for the F4e. I haven’t charged it yet, but I’m not worried because they can be rebuilt if they don’t work. I had two MN-30’s for my F5 rebuilt, and they are fine. The MN-20 NiCads do add to the weight of the F4e, so it is even heavier with them.

      Both the F4e and the F5 are big and heavy, but the weight provides stability, besides tiring you out. They both provide beautiful pictures despite my ineptness. They don’t make me a photographer, but I enjoy the results I get. My F3 HP does a good job, too.


  • I thought that the F4 was called an F4 when the MB-20 was used (four AA batteries). When you mounted the MB-21 (two in the main grip and four in the base) you ended up with the F4s. With the MB-23 it was the F4E. I have an F4 with both the MB-20 and MB-21, though I probably will never use the MB-21 again since I don’t need 5.7FPS when shooting film. The MB-20 makes this camera almost as light and handy as a modern Nikon DSLR.

    Also, the latest Nikon lenses with focus by wire will not work with this camera. I’m not sure about the lenses with electronic aperture control. I have lenses from 1963 to much newer AF-S lenses and they all work fine on my F4. My N8008s loses the ability to autofocus the latest AF-S lenses but is just as capable since all of my older lenses are AI modified.

  • The only flaw of the F4 (in earlier models I’m told, but that could be wrong) is the dreaded screen bleed that happens over time. I bought my F4 off eBay a number of years ago and yup, the top left hand side had a bit of bleed. Nothing that impedes shot making, but you do see the annoying thing every time.
    However, everything else about this camera is pretty much perfect. I absolutely love the sound of the shutter being released so much, it’s my favourite of any camera I’ve used (followed by the FM2n).
    Yes it is a heavy camera, but I am a big tall man and it really doesn’t bother me all that much. I don’t have any of the additional grips (tho I did at one time look into it due to my huge hands) but the camera is pretty easy to hold, with or without a strap.
    I did buy myself an F5 just to see how much better it was than the F4 in regards to autofocus & overall ease of use, yes the autofocus was a bunch quicker, but I gotta say it just plain frustrated me in a lot of ways. No dials on the bottom end of the camera made portrait mode shooting extremely awkward & time consuming in setting up a shot. Maybe I need a lot more time with it, but it also just made me feel that much better about just sticking with the F4 & thinking about moving the F5 on.

  • Gorgeous shots, the skyscrapers especially. I’d love to try a more advanced camera like this but I fear that the additional controls, matrix metering etc would be wasted. Plus I don’t know what half of them do! Keep up the great work guys.

  • I bought an f4 last year after selling my f100. I sold it because the only autofocus lens I had was the 85mm 1.8 D lens the rest are his lenses. the only thing I don’t like is the shutter has that crazy loud paparazzi shutter. but a few of my fav photos were taken on it.

  • The F4 was and remains a monstrosity.

  • 35mm Film Shootist September 16, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    I cannot believe it’s 30 years ago at age 19 I read in wonder at the review in Amateur Photographer magazine about this camera, never thinking I’d ever be able to actually own one.
    Time I think, to get a example.

  • If there was a camera that I wanted to put a pic on my wall as a teenager (like the Testarossa and Countach) it was definitely the F4s. I wanted one so bad back then, but no way I could afford one. Eventually I made enough money, and they were cheap enough that I could get one. It didn’t disappoint.. mostly. The AF is a little sluggish, but usable. Fast forward to today and i’ve gone through 3 of them. One of which was nearly perfect and “minty’ till the shutter blades self destructed (on the 2nd roll I shot through it ;_; ) Another started giving me issues with the AF and shutter release, so it became a shelf queen, but it seems the third time was the charm, I found a good one with an MB-20 attached, (which was why I bought it anyway) I prefer the smaller grip these days, although, I do put the MB-21 on if i’m planning to shoot a big lens. It’s heavier, but it’s better balanced.

    btw, speaking of the grip, there’s a typo in the article. “(Also worth noting, the camera becomes the F4s with the MB-20 and the F4e with the MB-23.)” it’s actually the MB-21 that makes it the F4s. The MB-20 is the small grip..

    I don’t use it as much as my Ms these days, but I still think it’s one of the most beautiful cameras ever made and nobody can change my mind.

  • A truly iconic camera, and thanks to the wonders of Ebay I have gone through 2 of them.. the first DOA but I didn’t realise it right away.. Caveat Emptor! The second one a very late serial number used to within an inch of it’s life, but still going strong. I mixed and matched the parts and bar the leaking LCD (something you should have mentioned in your article!) which makes seeing shutter speed a bit of an issue.. it works perfectly. The viewfinder is simply a joy to use and when paired with an F3 doing B&W duty and the F4 colour.. simply a charm. The added weight is of benefit though, as it steadies the camera during shutter operation, especially at lower speeds. The manual controls are a welcome change to the menu driven approach of the F5 and F6. I also have an F2 (silkiest shutter sound out there) and the F6 (computer wonder.. currently in with Nikon awaiting unavailable parts!). The F3 has been to the mecchanic a few times, but my current F4 just goes. The viewfinder is simply a joy to use, I can’t repeat that enough, and the removable prism does actually have it’s uses!

    • I admit that LCD leakage issue was unknown to me until some of the comments here, but it’s still good to know. The F4’s durability is a modern marvel. I once tried to lookup places to have them cleaned up and the basic response was “they never need it.” That’s how you know you’ve made a durable piece of equipment.

  • Along with the F2AS, it was one of my favorite Fs as it was perfect with respect to having both backward and forward compatabilty with almost any Nikkor. I could even retrofit an R screen to fit the camera’s finder. Unlike the more advanced F5, the size and weight could be made much more manageable with the MB-20 battery grip. I also liked the old style analog shutterspeed dial even though at it’s heart is was still all electronic like those with an LCD display. Still, I’m perfectly happy now with my D850 and never plan to return to film.

  • Great review and terrific pictures!

    When using manual focus lenses which focusing screen do you use? I am a bit worried about the lack of split prism on the standard focusing screen after reading this article:

    • Stephen Sanders June 24, 2019 at 6:03 am

      The standard focusing screen is fine for manual focus lenses. The image snaps into focus on the matte screen and if you need to be precise, use the digital rangefinder. Find it easier to focus than say the ‘K’ screen in my FE

      • Thanks! I’m getting some serious GAS-symptoms over this camera but it’ll have to wait until I have tested out my new OM-4 for a while.

  • Just waiting on mine to arrive from Japan. I couldn’t resist! Great, enthusiastic and well written review (as always here). I wanted this camera back in 1988 when I had a Canon T70 and couldn’t afford this. Maybe I wasn’t ready for the F4, but I am now! Thanks for helping me spend money on a piece of history.

  • The F4 was my second serious camera. I was working in Germany in the late 90s, and figured I’d buy a decent camera and take some snapshots while I was there. I started with a Minolta X700–which was a great little camera. But one day I wandered into a second-hand camera shop in Bremen and they had an F4 with the MB-20 sitting there. It was a bit battered, and really rather cheap. relatively. And when I held it I was totally smitten. It just felt like *my* kind of camera.

    I shot the heck out of that thing. I used to love doing macro photography with slide film with it, the little waist-level pop-up finder with magnifier and flash sync terminal made that really easy. And I shot loads of sports on black and white film for various newspapers with it. With the MB-23 it was a 6.5 frames per second beast, and with the MB-20 it was a great walk-around camera, despite the weight. Looking through the finder, compared to my D810, is like looking at a movie screen. It’s fantastic!

    Those things can take a battering. In London I lived upstairs from an old fellow who spent years shooting for a few of the daily papers, until he finally retired from the Mirror. He told me that on his last day on the job in the early 2000s, he took his two F4s and lenses and tossed them in a skip (dumpster, for our American readers). When he observed my horrified look, he said, “Ah, mate. You wouldn’t have wanted those cameras. They were beaten all to hell–I used to literally *run* to cover stories with them banging against each other around my neck, and they got dropped their fair share of times. They still worked–but they were really, really rough after all that.”

    I still have my own trusty old F4–and I need to break it out again. Thanks for the review!

  • Nice. I just finished my D series set-up (24, 35, 50 1.4, 85mm 1.8, 35-70mm 2.8, 24-120mm and 70-210mm). I was thinking of going F100 for film, but I’m just now learning about the F4. I like the fact that the viewfinder can be detached. Looks heavy, but so is my D700. Nice review.

  • Excellent article, I’m glad I found it. And your pronouncement of this camera’s admirers being ‘insane’ is spot on. I shot with an F4s as a newspaper photog a few decades ago and slogged that beast around for years. Additionally, my bag also held a backup body (F3HP w/ MD-4, later swapped out for an 8008s), and 24, 35, 85, 80-200, and 300 glass. I’m now in my 50s and have back problems, but no matter… I loved that camera for all of the reasons you mentioned, and more. Photography was not simply a means of income, but was — and still is — an opportunity to explore and to experience new things… to appreciate triumphs and failures and simplicity and chaos and solitude. And that F4 shared many of those experiences with me.

    So as the digital age bullied its way into the present times and 35mm film production started dropping off like the 1929 stock market, I held out as long as I could, but the writing was on the wall: film is less productive, film is expensive, film is bad for the environment, film is dead. My DSLRs were now getting all of the action. So I bought a table at a local camera show and parted ways with my F, FM, FM2, FE2, N90s, 8008s, and my beloved F4. I paid close to $2,000 US for it and sold it for less than a tenth of that. I was saddened, but believed it was practical and necessary. Before the week was out I began to regret that decision, and even more so upon the later realization that film didn’t die after all.

    As fate would have it, however, a friend was clearing out old photo gear recently and gave me an F4s that had been sitting unused for years. I took it home, mounted a 24mm lens, and the instant I put that camera up to my eye, all of the experiences came surging back. What a marvelous feeling — like hearing a song from years ago that stirs your insides around, or being transported back to grandma’s house when the smell of freshly baked cinnamon bread wafts into your nose. Six batteries and a roll of XP2 later, I was out of the house and making images with it. I don’t know if I’m trying to recapture my past or if I’m trying to live in it, or if I even have anything more original to say photographically. None of that matters. It feels like an old friend is out exploring with me again, and that’s good enough.

    • Rojoga: getting you out of the house and into the fresh air to make pix with your F4S will benefit you both physically and mentally. My Derbyshire Peak District cottage in the U.K. has a garden that borders fields and open countryside with little paths that run for miles. When the weather is good and the ground is reasonably dry, I put on my ancient army jacket and boots and pack a little bag with flask of coffee, packs of biscuits and an equally ancient Leica M3 with 50mm f2.8 Elmarit lens and Weston V meter. And I tramp for miles. When I get home I cook my tea and later, an early night. And I sleep really well.

      So chaps, look on your cameras as aids to living a longer and healthier lifestyle. I’m 71.

  • Firstly, I am very happy to see quite a few articles about the F4 written in 2019, 2018, 2017 (which means I will probably leave the same comment to all these articles, sorry;-)…. this means a revival. Until a few years ago, all the articles were from the beginnings of the Internet. However, the second hand market supply has shrunk over the last decade, and some cameras became very, very expensive…

    Anyway, I used to have quite a lot of various 35 mm and medium format cameras (and evern one 4×5 beast) over the last decade. Currently I am left with just two, but looking into getting back some which I miss. But I have experienced many cameras and I know exactly what I want, what I don’t want, what is important to me, and what is less important. I also know my dream set-up, but dreams are out of reach (financially, in this case). Without digressing too much, I am now looking at a 35mm SLR. Autofocus. Why? Because, despite having good eyesight generally, I am really bad at manual focusing on SLRs (RFs are much easier, but that’s a different story, again—financially). I never like Canons. I just didn’t and don’t. I always like Nikons. I had the FA, F3, F4, F5. Talking about AF< we are left with F4 vs F5. I had the F4 first, replaced it with the F5. Loved both. I am not considering any of the other, certainly good Nikon AF SLRs, the F100, F90x, while they have some good asects: price, AF, they lack some key aspects for me: 100% VF (I cannot have anything gatecrashing the edge of the frame!), mirror lock-up (yes, I usually shoot -scapes with 6×7 but on occasion I don't have it with me), and the rock-solid build quality and sealing (I am clumsy, I break soup plates, ink bottles, knock things etc; I know the F100 and F90x are good, but.). I don't mind weight, I am used to carrying a 6×7 and Nikon F5 all day long; I love the weight of the F5, F4, the solidity, the feel. Why is the decision between the F5 and F4 tricky? Well, I love the F4 layout, knobs, and the smaller size and weight with the MB-20. It is also cheaper on the market. I don't like the user interface of the F5, and while it is super comfortable to hold, carry, shoot (especially vertically) it is big, and sometimes hard to squeeze into the bag full of other cameras. I only shoot black and white negatives, so I am not that concerned about the more sophisticated matrix metering, the one on F4 is just fine, particularly, since I also have the spot (never use the CW). Now, for speed, generally. It is important from several aspects. FPS is irrelevant, I never shoot rounds. General responsivness it crucial (with other cameras, especially silly non-SLR digital, I had to wait ages for it to turn on, warm up, and actually shoot), but I don't think there is any difference between the two, both are great. Now, the AF… well, that's the big difference in performance, which is also very important to me. People say that lightning fast AF is key for bobsleigh photographers and "normal" people can sort 99% of situations with the F4's AF. But it's not true. I am no pro, I don't shoot sports. But these milliseconds are equally important when shooting my son executing his knock-out head-on kick during his shinkyokushin fight, or when the happy couple kiss just after saying "YES". I don't mind one AF point. The five on the F5 are no more useful than the on the F4. But the F4's is not even a cross-type… and the speed, and low-light performance, are a real downside… I have used the F4 before and loved it, but I know its downsides.

    There is one camera that is supposed to answer all my prayers, which I have never laid my hands on: the Minolta Dynax 9. Old school layout, brick built but small, very fast, very modern. Looks like The One. Yet, there are very few of them on the market, and expensive (around F5 money, or more), and very few lenses… (The D7 is cool lacks the built quality and 155 VF, so is a no-no; the Canon EOS1… no, just no;-).

    In the end, it will probably be the F4

    Thanks for reading.

  • The F4 is my dream camera. I finally have one and it was stupid cheap. No screen bleed either. If you want the same, just look at the ones for sale on Ebay from Japan. Less than £150 including shipping.
    My main Nikon is a D750. I dream of a 24mp digital back for the F4… heaven.
    I used to have one of those 1.3mp Kodak digital backs made for the F90 etc. It was sold as non functional for £12.

  • Great article! So true about GAS and the search of the perfect camera. I can relate to your story a lot and I also ended up with a Nikon F4. It’s an amazing camera, for me the perfect compromise between technology and analog culture. Thank you!

  • “…welcome to the intersection of photography and personal fitness.” Great line! I still have my F4s and I fell in love with it as a college student in Fairbanks, Alaska. During a cold weather photography symposium. A Japanese engineer gave a demo of the F4s and mentioned that it had been tested outdoors in temps lower than -35F and that it still kept on ticking. The only concern at that point had to do with the film becoming so cold and brittle that it would shatter upon auto-rewind, or that static electricity would generate streaks which would ruin the film inside the camera. Mechanically? The F4s performed flawlessly. And I fell in love with the design and ergonomics. It would become my first camera but not for another four years as really had to save up for it! And what an unboxing that was. *chills*
    Thank you for the essay, really enjoyed it.

  • I too went thru many old film cameras until I purchased an amazing F4 off Ebay, man what a camera:

  • Just read your review prior to my F4 arriving. Great tribute to this iconic camera. Funny I never thought I would buy this F model after owning the F, F2 and F3. I think the latter still will remain my favourite but I guess time will tell. Really looking forward to trying out the F4 even more now.

  • I’m another guy who is reading this prior to my F4 arriving. I’ve wanted one ever since 1988. The first time I saw one, it was before I was into photography. I was in my tae kwon do school and one of the kids’ dads was a protog. He showed up with his F4s and the big Nikon bounce flash and made it look so easy to get those shots. I think he just had the 50/1.8D on it, too.

    Years later, I was a camera salesman at Ritz (dated two lab girls there 😉 ) and we didn’t even have one in either store I worked in; they were too high-end for our clientele in those areas. So I coveted an N90s instead. I finally got one of those last year for $25. F4s are still a bit more dear; I paid $285, but that is 1/9 what they cost in ’94 or so, even ignoring inflation.

    Now, I’m a bit worried about the weight. I think I will just use a quality strap and not worry about it. It weighs 47% more than my D610, which I already consider heavy. (having come back to FF from µ4/3)

    I have to challenge you a bit: What has your F4 done for you than an N90s wouldn’t have done? It’s slightly faster, slightly better viewfinder. But other than that? If you ever come across a reasonably priced N90s, N90, F90 or F90x, pick it up.

  • Nice review….. I used the F4s for sport and owned one as soon as it was launched. I was a manual focuser then so the gear driven D lenses didn’t phase me as I simply didn’t buy them but used the MF lenses. Canon Eos in terms of Af blew it away. However what I didn’t like was the shutter lag compared to the F3P. And I went back to them. Today I have another F4s and I am amazed the AF is very good with the silent wave motor lenses… they built in the technology all along! Shame the lenses weren’t ready at the time…. but I love my F4s again now.

  • Sorry for the late post here in 2022, but I have to say I have had mine for a few years now and agree with pretty much all that you have stated here. Another article I recently read described in detail the shutter design which made his camera so expensive to manufacture. It is one of the smoothest shutters available and allows the use of slower shutter speeds handheld than other bodies. I never thought of this but I think it is correct. I guess it could be thought of as Nikon’s answer to vibration control before lens-based or body-based VR came into use. I always wondered why Nikon did not deliver this design on its flagship digital cameras (D2X, D2Hs, D3, D3s) that I have owned and used. From video reviews I have seen of later digital models it does not appear this was incorporated in these bodies either. My guess is the F4’s shock-absorbing shutter design was too costly for these.

  • I got mine in ’91; one of the greatest cameras I’ve ever owned. Ended up in a bad spot in 2000 and lost it to a pawn shop. Your review has stirred up all those feelings I had about my F4 for nearly 10 years. Currently shopping eBay to find another one. I was just looking at some old negatives and I remembered filing some V shaped marks in the part to the sides of the shutter curtains that distinguished my negatives from that camera from any others. I will have another one before the end of the year.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge