All About the Nikon Nikkormat Series – a Retrospective

All About the Nikon Nikkormat Series – a Retrospective

2560 1440 Josh Solomon

If the world of photography is built upon the relationships between camera-makers and photographers, there may be no relationship stranger than the one between Nikon and amateur shooters. Nikon’s history is full of failed attempts to foster this relationship. The Nikon FA was supposed to dazzle tech-obsessed shooters in the 1980s, but other manufacturers kept pace. The Nikon EM and FG were supposed to knock the Canon AE-1 off its perch, but were outsold by a huge margin. Even the Nikon Compact F series, perhaps the best overall series of SLRs ever made, never toppled consumer-oriented rivals. Which is weird, because Nikon’s amateur cameras were usually better than anyone else’s.

Take Nikon’s Nikkormat series. These cameras were incredibly well made, well designed, and came to be well regarded among photographers looking for a slightly cheaper alternative to the F-series that could still mount Nikon’s best lenses. They were often shot alongside their F-christened brothers and sometimes even replaced them in the field. By most metrics, they were successful and beloved cameras.

But despite their obvious quality and stellar reputation, Nikkormats have always existed in a no-man’s land in Nikon history. They were marketed as mid-range cameras – not for the beginner, but not for the professional either. And the Nikon name appears on them in a very shy way – small font, odd placement. It’s almost as if Nikon was embarrassed to make an amateur’s camera.

Even today they don’t get the shine that the F-cameras or even the compact F-series gets, despite their freakishly impressive build quality and clean design. How did we get here? Where did things go wrong? Is anything even wrong? Let’s take a look.

Growing Pains

Nikon’s weird relationship with the consumer-level market began with another weird line of cameras – the Nikkorex series. The Nikkorex series was a collection of relatively inexpensive fixed-lens, leaf-shuttered SLRs introduced in 1960, which were designed to show consumers the prowess of the then-novel SLR camera format. Unfortunately, early Nikkorex cameras proved cumbersome and unreliable compared to their competition, which at the time consisted mostly of compact fixed-lens rangefinders. Nikon themselves acknowledge this on their website today, mentioning that, “…in the lower-priced model market, the coupled rangefinder lens shutter cameras were prevailing, there were many similar products from competitors and we were exposed to hard fight.”

Future models of the Nikkorex were updated with telephoto and wide-angle lens attachments, built in zoom lenses, and lower price points. Nikon even tried completely reconfiguring the line into the interchangeable lens Nikkorex F, which featured an F lens mount and a curious new vertically travelling shutter. But despite all of this, Nikon couldn’t crack the consumer market. Hard fight, indeed.

But even though the Nikkorex line ultimately faded to obscurity, it did provide Nikon with valuable insight into making an inexpensive interchangeable lens SLR. The Nikkorex F would also supply Nikon with their ace-in-the-hole, a metal, vertically-traveling focal plane shutter manufactured by Copal dubbed the “Copal Square.” This shutter was strong, reliable, and featured a fast flash sync speed of 1/125th of a second. With this, Nikon got up off the canvas and began developing their next line of amateur-oriented cameras, the Nikomat series, known in the United States as the Nikkormat.

The Birth of the Nikon Nikkormat FT/FS

The new Nikkormat series would be designed around a few simple rules. The cameras were to be high quality, but cheaper, stripped-down alternatives to the pro-level F, complete with a coupled internal light meter, an F-mount, and that sweet Copal Square shutter. The idea was to create not a consumer-level camera, but a mid-range camera that could woo the large group of consumers who could not afford the pro-level F, but were serious enough to handle one. Being that these consumers had already flocked to excellent cameras like the Pentax Spotmatic, this new Nikon had to bring the heat. And in typical Nikon fashion, they overachieved, particularly when it came to quality.

Cheaper consumer level cameras  of the time were (and still are) typically associated with fragility, but Nikon set out to buck that trend. They wanted the Nikkormat to possess the same legendary build quality that had originally put Nikon on the map. To ensure that the product design and manufacturing would meet these high standards, Nikon management dedicated an entirely separate Nikon subsidiary and production facility called Mito Nikon to oversee the development and production of the Nikkormat. The establishment of this dedicated team turned out to be a masterstroke; Mito Nikon would spend the next fifty years designing and manufacturing some of the best Nikon film cameras ever made, including the Nikon F3, F4, FM3a, and the S3 Millennium Limited Edition and SP 2005 Limited Edition.

In 1965, the first Nikkormats, the FT and FS, rolled off the Mito Nikon conveyor belts. Nikon Fairs were held across the country for the occasion, and advertisements for the new cameras were broadcast on Japanese national television, in movies, and on the country’s Japan Rail system, all heralding the arrival of a Nikon SLR made for everyday picture-takers.

True to their goal, the Nikkormat offered the same signature rock-solid build quality and sharp, angular design that Nikon had made world-famous with the Nikon F. The Nikkormats also co-opted that camera’s famous F-mount, as well as the Copal Square shutter, here capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second. Also included were switches for depth-of-field preview and mirror lock-up, and in the FT’s case, a fully coupled internal light meter complete with a handy metering window on the top plate. The message was clear – Nikon came to win.

For those who couldn’t spend ¥54,500 on an FT packaged with a 50mm f/1.4 lens, there was the FS, an unmetered, non-mirror lock-up version of the FT available for ¥37,800 with the arguably superior 50mm f/2 lens. These weren’t consumer prices by any stretch of the imagination, but they were significantly cheaper than the pro-grade Nikon F while offering basically the same specifications and most importantly, offering a point of entry into the vaunted Nikkor lens system. Discerning amateur photographers could now use the same lenses that Nikon pros were using.

Nikkormats immediately enjoyed success both domestically and abroad among a stunningly wide range of shooters. Nikkormats were used by photojournalists, studio photographers, and casual shooters alike due to their rock-solid reliability and simplicity. Their lens interchangeability with the F also made them popular backup bodies to mount an additional lens or shoot a different film stock. These traits made the Nikkormats particularly attractive to Vietnam war photographers, a practice most famously referenced in popular culture by Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket [this link leads to a video clip from Kubrick’s film, which some readers may find objectionable – there’s also a Nikkormat].

The Nikon Nikkormat FTn, FT2, and FT3

Noting the popularity of their new line of cameras, Nikon improved and extended the line in 1967 with the Nikkormat FTn. The FTn did away with the FT’s arcane aperture syncing ritual by introducing what became popularly known as the “Nikon shuffle,” a simple shuffle of the aperture dial from its minimum to maximum setting to sync the lens with the internal light meter. The FTn also improved upon the FT by replacing its average meter with the now-classic 60/40 center-weighted meter which would come standard on nearly every Nikon SLR since. Later FTns introduced F2-style plastic tips on the advance lever and self-timer on later models, as well as a choice between a microprism and split-image rangefinder focusing screens at purchase. The FTn became the Nikkormat line’s best-seller and was produced all the way up until 1975, giving Nikon a steady foothold within the amateur market.

The FTn’s successor, 1975’s Nikkormat FT2, provided some small but important improvements to the line. A permanent hotshoe was finally affixed to the top of the pentaprism housing, the viewfinder featured a much easier to see 3mm split-image/1mm microprism focusing screen, the finicky ASA dial was made to be easier to set, and the camera was now powered by non-toxic 1.5V A76. Small, but necessary improvements, especially considering the breakneck pace of camera innovation in the 1970s.

Unfortunately for the Nikkormat, the SLR market was shifting rapidly towards compact, amateur-friendly, consumer-grade cameras. Nikkormats were a lot of things, but they weren’t small, nor were they friendly towards beginners. They were heavy, bulky cameras whose design was now almost a decade old. 1977’s Nikkormat FT3 turned out to be the white flag for the mechanical Nikkormats, with the camera only offering a new AI (Automatic Indexing) ring which did away with the “Nikon Shuffle,” and made the Nikkormat compatible with the then new Nikkor AI lenses.

The Nikon Nikkormat EL, ELW, and EL2

With the pending doom of the mechanical Nikkormats, Nikon would have to turn to the dark arts – automation. Fortunately, Nikon foresaw their struggles far before their mechanical Nikkormats started to really show their age. They presciently started development on a new, electro-mechanically controlled SLR in the early 1970s. Out of this development program came 1972’s Nikkormat EL, Nikon’s very first electronically controlled camera.

If the Nikkormat was the stock Ford Mustang of cameras, the Nikkormat EL was the track-ready Shelby GT350. It was still big, bulky, and built to an impossibly high standard, but it came with an aperture-priority mode which made the EL quicker on the draw than even its professional line-mates. The EL also pioneered Nikon’s match-needle system which would be used throughout the subsequent (and even more successful) Nikon FE series.

Much like the mechanical FT-series, later EL models only offered small improvements. The short-lived ELW offered support for a mechanical winder, while the EL2 was updated with an AI aperture ring in tandem with the FT3, along with a quicker silicon-based photodiode in the meter. But there was one very important distinction with the EL2 – it shed the Nikkormat name. The EL2 was to be called the Nikon EL2, finally bringing Nikkormats under the official Nikon umbrella after over a decade of awkward separation.

The Death of the Nikon Nikkormat

The Nikkormat name was eventually abandoned altogether to make way for the entirely redesigned advanced-amateur Nikon FM-chassis bodies in 1977. These newer bodies symbolized a rare departure from Nikon’s usual no-holds-barred professionalism; they were small, sleek, and lightweight, made to compete with cameras like the Olympus OM-1, Pentax ME, and Canon AE-1. The FM-series eventually surpassed the Nikkormat line in sales, but they also had an advantage the Nikkormat never had – the prestige of officially being named a Nikon.

The Nikkormat line’s rebadging is a significant detail considering Nikon historically prided themselves on which products received their name. This selectiveness happened not because of quality, but because of marketing. For example, the Nikon L35AF “Pikaichi” featured perhaps the finest lens put in any point-and-shoot, yet Nikon decided to leave the “Nikkor” name off of the lens because the camera was marketed to amateurs. Nikon did the same thing to the otherwise stellar Nikon Series E lenses designed to accompany the consumer-level Nikon EM and FG. Even the most prestigious lens manufacturers weren’t that picky; Zeiss and Leica had apparently no qualms sticking their lens names on consumer point-and-shoots like the Leica Mini and Yashica T4.

Nikon’s unwillingness to compromise meant that the otherwise fantastic Nikkormat cameras were stuck with a sort of off brand marque. Though the name separated their product lines as intended, it presented an awkward situation for consumers. Great as the Nikkormat was, you just couldn’t have a capital-N Nikon unless you paid top dollar for the Nikon F. Nikon eventually relented by the time the EL2 came around, but it was too little, too late. This stubbornness showed up in nearly ever amateur-based Nikon exploit, and has made for a strange relationship that exists to this day.

Nikon Nikkormat Buyer’s Guide

The name might also explain why Nikkormats are currently undervalued on the used market. Nikon FMs and FEs, though functionally similar cameras to the Nikkormat FT2 and EL2, cost a lot more than their bulkier brethren. Those cameras are also much more widely known, written and YouTubed about than the Nikkormat series, which means more cheap Nikkormats for the rest of us. So, which one should you pick?

I personally owned a Nikkormat FTn for many years, and it’s still a camera I think of whenever I think of pure build quality and reliability. It can withstand any amount of abuse, operate under any shooting condition, and still deliver gorgeous photos reliably. But for shooters just coming into the hobby I’d recommend the Nikkormat FT2 because of its built-in hotshoe, more widely available battery (1.5V A76), and native ability to mount and communicate with cheaper pre-AI Nikkor lenses. 

This site’s founder James’ personal choice in the Nikkormat line is the last of the lot, the Nikon EL2. It brings his preferred aperture-priority shooting mode coupled to the most responsive metering system ever offered in a Nikkormat. It uses a very common battery, is built to incredible standards, and can use any pre-AI, AI, and AIS Nikon lens ever made (AIS lenses will operate identically to AI lenses since the camera doesn’t offer shutter-priority or program mode).

But truth be told, any Nikkormat is worth owning even half a century after they were made, especially at the price that they cost these days. Nikon’s Nikkormats are among the few examples of products developed by any company that provide the amateur market with that company’s very best.

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Josh Solomon

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
17 comments
  • Avatar
    Andrew in Austin, Texas April 8, 2020 at 10:52 am

    A good choice for a look back at a hall of fame-er, which if it hadn’t existed I probably would never tried an F mount.

    It’s been about 4 decades since I last did the Nikkormat shuffle, while changing lenses on an FTn. No need to expand on that. Two things come to mind as I think back, was its solid build and the built-in TTL meter, which had an added top display that I actually used when setting up the exposure.

    The FTn soldiered through the mid-1980s, until it was on an out of town trip. Went to an FM and never looked back until today. My example never missed a beat.

  • Avatar
    Merlin Marquardt April 8, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Like these cameras. Like this article.

  • I love the period adverts, from the days when a photographer was always ‘he’ – unless ‘she’ was the one who needed the lady-lightweight, easy-carry FM. [Pauses to knock out pipe.]

    Only it turns out I’m a lightweight, too. My FTN has gone, traded in for a neat little Pentax MX – whose meter display and shutter speed dial work in the same direction, not in perverse contra-rotation – but not before it had acted as gateway to half a dozen Nikkors, plus an FE, an FG and an FM2N. The big old FTN had stopped winning the which-one-do-I-take-out contest since I found I appreciate late-70s modernity like LEDs, aperture-priority and split-image focusing. (Never a problem metering with a modern battery, though – even with slide film.)

    But there’s something dreamlike about those scalloped ’60s Nikkors when the sun is low. Now, if I got an EL, I could still use them and get aperture-priority too…

  • Good stuff Josh.
    I use a black Nikkormat FT2. I gave my silver one to my nephew after the Canon A1 he bought died. These cameras are so well made it is crazy that the Pentax K1000 fetches much more money. Back in the day the K1000 was the budget beginner option, with the Nikkormat being a mid level camera with pro level build. Guess people have forgotten about that..

  • The Nikkormat FTn was my first camera, bought used as a 20 year old camera in 1990. I still have it, it still works perfectly. I joke that it could probably pound a Canon AE-1 into a fine powder and still take perfect pictures. While I shoot other cameras more, at some level, it’s still the camera I judge other other 35mm cameras by. Today I have an FS, three FTns, and two FT2s. Once I solder in a diode, I prefer the FTn for three reasons. I never use flash, so I prefer the cleaner lines of the prism without the shoe; I prefer an all microprism focusing aid to a split prism, and finally, I know it’s shallow, but I like the look and feel of the flat early FTn film advance lever.

    • Avatar
      Merlin Marquardt April 9, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      Yes, generally agree, prefer the all metal flat film advance lever to the later plastic tipped version. The flash shoe of the later models can be removed, but then the resulting hole in the prism housing must be closed. Black electrical tape can be used but while easy and simple is a little inelegant.

  • Well, if you are a collector/user, then it is best to have the four of them and then a spare FTn or F2 in your back pocket being inexpensive.

  • Avatar
    Kārlis Dižbite April 9, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    I have Nikomat FT2 (black) And I otfen shoot with it. Legendary camera.

  • Avatar
    Castelli Daniel April 9, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Man, I loved my Nikkormat FTn…indexing a Nikkor (usually the magnificent one-oh-five) set the tone…damn, I’m here to shoot some serious pics! You know, as good as they were, they didn’t float too well. Found that out the hard way. Also had the non-metering F & F2. Never tested them to see if they were buoyant. I went onto eBay after reading this great article and was surprised at their low cost. I hope the posting leads people to pick up one with a lens and shoot some film.

  • The Nikkormat series is definitely all about the base, about the base no treble.

  • Avatar
    Christopher Davies April 10, 2020 at 2:25 am

    Great article, I live in Manchester, UK and in our Covid lockdown this article has brought a welcome relief from the obsession with dire news. Thank you I have a Nikkormatt and will be loading film today to capture the time we live in in the lenses of a classic.

  • When I decided to get into shooting film a few years ago the first camera that I used was a Nikomat EL. This camera has taught me a lot, mostly through trial and error, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mine still travels in my camera bag at all times. I tend to always take two cameras (usually I’m playing with a camera I just bought) and this one is my good old reliable to make sure I get the picture I want.

    Great article! I loved learning more of the history of not only my camera, but the entire Nikkormat line.

  • The FTn has a build quality that needs to be experienced in person. Even the film counter window is a tiny glass portal gem. Simplicity and durability exemplified, still mind blowing that these cameras were mass produced at this quality level. And imo, the best, most satisfying film advance I’ve ever used. Including the legendary one on the F3.

  • I like the sound of the Nikkormat shutter way better than the annoying, metal “clack” of the F2. And the Nikkormat meters seem more reliable than the wonky electrics of the F2. I have a chrome FTN, and a chrome and a black FT2. The black FT2 is my favorite.

  • While the Nikkormats were undoubtedly solidly made, they did have some bizarre quirks that are not mentioned in the article. For example, the battery being in the mirror compartment of the Nikkormat EL, ELW and Nikon EL2. Bizarre, overly complicated and frankly crazy. I should note that I overall am a Nikon fan, owning multiple Nikon SLR and DSLR bodies.

  • I have a Nikkormat story…

    In the 1980, a friend of mine was going off travelling and asked for a recommendation of a reliable camera. I was using an EL2 and FTn, ans suggested she bought a mechanical Nikkormat (because batteries may be hard to get where she was going).

    A few days later, she showed me her new camera. It was a spotless, immaculate black FT2, with a similarly superb 50mm f1.4. It was gorgeous! She also got a wide and a tele Nikkor lens.

    Some months go by, and I get a call from my friend who is back from her travels and we meet up for coffee. She has been all over place and spent a lit of time in India. Of course, I ask about the camera, and she looks a bit sheepish. She takes something camera-like out of her bag and puts it on the table. It is her Nikkormat, but bashed, scraped and the rewind crank has gone!

    The tale was that in India, her group got too close to a herd of elephants, and had to make a quick dash away. In the melee, her camera was dropped on the ground and subsequently stepped on by one of the elephants, which drove it into the ground. She recovered it with some difficulty a while later. The lens was snapped of at the mount (it was her slightly ropy tele, not the 50mm) and the camera was not a pretty sight! She got as much dust out of it as possible, pressed the shutter release, and heard a familiar “click”. She wound the film on and the rewind knob (less crank) turned. She removed the remains of the lens and fitted another to the camera, looked through the finder, and all looked well.

    The back had not opened, so she finished the film and then continued to put more rolls through the camera. It was working perfectly!

    Although it worked, it was not pretty to look at, and she bought anther Nikkormat soon after. However, she always held onto the original one – her camera that survived being stood on by an elephant!

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Josh Solomon

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