How the Nikon F100 (and Film) Changed My Digital Photography

How the Nikon F100 (and Film) Changed My Digital Photography

1163 654 Craig Sinclair

My intention isn’t to review the Nikon F100, or the D700 DSLR which I’ll soon mention, nor their lenses, which swap wonderfully between the two bodies. If you look back to about a year ago on this very site you’ll find a very good review of the F100, and the D700 defies review since it’s a relic by digital standards at more than ten years old. What I’d like to focus on instead is the experience that using a collection of gear from a generation ago can offer, and how it’s impacted my photography today – both film and digital.

Just over a decade ago, Nikon’s D700 was my digital camera of choice, and I had half a dozen excellent lenses. A sudden desire to shoot more film made it sensible to buy a Nikon film body, which would allow me to shoot both film and digital with the same 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that I’d invested a small fortune in, and the “nifty fifty” 50mm f/1.4 D that every Nikonophile (Nikonista?) (Nikonisicist?) has to own to be “legit.” So, for the low, low price of $100 Canadian (around $70US) I bought a Nikon F100 film body.

The F100 was in near mint condition, better condition in fact than my year old Nikon DSLR. Most of the buttons were in the right places and it felt familiar from day one. I took some pictures with it to confirm that it worked and then parked it safely in a drawer. 

Simply owning it was comforting, and yet I rarely took it out into the real world. Partially because after buying the F100 I happened upon an N90s (with grip!) for the even better price of free, and the F100 was so clean that I kind of wanted to keep it that way. Also, digital was inarguably very convenient and was for the first time not being compared to film in terms of quality. Digital was truly the way of the future and the D700 was such an excellent camera, why would I opt for something as antiquated as film? 

By the time 2018 rolled around, the camera had sat in the drawer for so long that the AA batteries powering it had swollen, leaked, and snapped the battery carrier. No amount of super glue could make the carrier whole, so once more to the internet. I was pleased to find that you could still buy them new. It took a few weeks for it to show up, but my F100 was fully functional once again.

The Lenses

My fascination with Nikon’s holy trinity of glass waned sometime around 2012. I never did own the legendary 70-200mm f/2.8, and I eventually sold my 14-24mm f/2.8. I didn’t miss it and I still don’t. I live in Vancouver BC where housing is very expensive and I couldn’t afford the extra room required to own that monster of a lens. I still own the 24-70mm f/2.8, which currently lives in a cupboard for the most part, coming out to play for backyard BBQs or birthday parties when versatility trumps the photographic arrogance that us prime lens shooters have.

For all the power that D700 had, being the little brother to the D3 (same sensor, ergo, same quality photographs, just a few less batteries and buttons and 3% less optical viewfinder), I rarely used anything other than a Nikkor 35mm prime on the camera. When the D700 decided it didn’t want to work anymore I bought a D750, and replaced my favourite Nikkor 35 f/2 AF-D lens with a highly revered Sigma 35mm ART f/1.4. I then loaned the Nikkor 35mm to a girlfriend who decided to keep it after we broke up. Such is life. She got the N90S (with grip!) as well. 

I’m not one for systems. I like to use what works and works best, and I’m convinced I have photographic proof (pun intended) that the Sigma ART 1.4 is a better lens than the Nikkor 35mm D lens. It should be, it costs three times as much, but somehow I still missed that old Nikkor 35mm f/2 mostly because it was so much smaller than the Sigma, and though it wasn’t as good as the Sigma, it was good enough. So I bought another one, in no small part because this lens from 1995 so perfectly suited the F100 which I was suddenly itching to use again.

I already had the magical and affordable Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AF-D from 1986, and a pretty-neat-but-doesn’t-quite-focus-the-way-it-should 20mm f/2.8 AF-D which was introduced by Nikon in 1989. Then, for good measure, I added a 60mm f/2.8 AF-D, because; macro (or, rather, Micro because it’s Nikon). Finally, I recently added a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AF-D to the collection, because I’m stupid. In my defense, all of these lenses fit into the physical space that monster 14-24mm used to take up, and I still have room left over to do yoga should I so desire. 

The F100 Then and Now

Nostalgia is a very persuasive emotion. Objects from the past that we long for didn’t get better with time, and not all things from the past were good even though we tend to think of them as better than what’s currently being made. We do this because only good stuff has survived. This is the “test of time” that we often hear mentioned. In a hundred years, people will say everything from the year 2020 was better because all of the broken junk we toss into landfills will have been forgotten.

The Nikon F100 wasn’t the best SLR of its era. But the F100 was the beginning of high quality, modern, enthusiast gear. Not everyone could afford Nikon’s flagship F5, but for a bit less you could have a really solid film body with many of the features (and the little red wink of rubber) that the top tier model had. Sure, you could tell the pros by their F5s, but the F100 was pro enough for most of us. 

Over time the F100 has become harder to find used and more expensive, but the period correct lenses continue to be affordable, some of them still available new. And in a world of astronomical pixel counts and fast focusing, and cell phone cameras that can take photos with zero light, film is hip again. Why? I might argue that film puts a real limit on what you can accomplish with a camera. When I put a pair of 64GB memory cards into the dual slots of my D750, not even my camera can count how many exposures I have available to me, and even after taking the equivalent of three rolls of film on the D750 the frame counter in the display doesn’t change.

When I get out the F100, which I do more and more these days, I make a note of the number of frames left before heading out, and if it’s less than half a roll I pack a spare. The appeal of shooting with an older camera system is that you are transported to a time when you had to be more conscientious of what you were doing with your limited resources. It’s not that it was better, it was just different, and it fostered a respect and consideration for whatever it was you were doing or experiencing. 

The Old Camera as Teacher

Camera culture is pretty silly, and always has been. We’ve always been obsessed with having the best everything, yet making a beautiful image has been achievable (and the gear necessary to do so has been available) for a hundred years. In the 21st century we review lenses that retail for $2500 or more; zoom lenses with a range from 24mm to 300mm, and we nitpick about a slight drop off in sharpness in the corners or a bit of pin cushion or barreling effect that we can’t actually see without superimposing a grid onto our digital images. There were zoom lenses in the 1990s, but they weren’t as good as what we have today, not always affordable, and it was a lot harder than pushing a lens profile correction button in Lightroom to correct for the deficiencies of those mediocre lenses. Our arrogant love for primes today is an artifact of a time when only a prime could take a quality photograph, and a prime wasn’t a bank breaking deal. Primes were affordable but quality options for amateur photographers, and appreciated by the pros for their superior performance. The full range of five individual D lenses I’ve collected for use on the F100 cost altogether less than the 24-70 Nikkor I still have, and there would be enough cash left over to buy a box of beer. Who doesn’t like beer?

I don’t get gear envy and don’t often find myself lusting after the latest of anything, but I like good stuff. This kit is good. Really good. It’s arguable that many D lenses are not up to the task of satisfying the resolution demands of a 30+MP sensor, but they are more than adequate for a 100 ISO film grain. I also like how small most of the lenses are in comparison to their modern digital counterparts. Of its time, of its era, all this stuff just works so well together, and it looks good too. If you’re not picky about the condition of your gear, if you can handle some scratches and rough edges, you can put together a full kit of lenses and a body for about half the price of the new D780 body.

When walking out the door with the F100 and the 35mm mounted to it I’m comfortable knowing there’s not a picture I’ll miss, and I’ll be happy with the photographs I get. On occasion I’ll throw another lens into the bag, sometimes the 20mm, or the 50mm, and sometimes I’ll even swap that extra lens onto the camera, but mostly it’s the 35mm. It’s taught me to zoom with my feet, and it’s a rare moment that I have to adjust my position to fix my framing, I’ve become that comfortable with the 35mm. The D lenses taught me that without breaking the bank. 

Spending time with the F100 has affected how I take pictures as well, as will using any film camera. Film slows things down and makes you more aware of the photographs you take, but often it’s the outdated technology playing role. With the F100, sure, I only have five focus points, but those focus points are where they should be, and they work really well. I can take 4.5 frames per second with the F100, and its metering is accurate with spot, center-weighted and average options, just like the modern digital Nikons. The mode button is in the same place, and the command dials do mostly the same things, and the LCD display on the top has a familiar layout when compared to modern Nikons. Versatile ISO, face tracking, and image preview aside (and a real cost for every one of those thirty-six images), the F100 feels like a digital SLR in your hands. It isn’t though, and with everything else as capable as digital, the photograph taking experience is purely about film and not some strange mix of compromises brought on by using an old, manual film camera. If you miss the shot, you can’t blame it on the camera, or film. 

This has changed how I take digital photographs. The way I mentally process image taking with a comparatively modern film camera is different than digital. You compose more carefully, and just before you depress that shutter release button you ask yourself, “Do I really want this picture?” These are good habits to have. Yes, electrons are virtually free, but I take fewer digital images per outing because, well, I don’t need to take more. I can get the picture I want more consistently with fewer exposures because of my interactions with film. This means I’m sifting through fewer digital files to find the one that I want, and my hard drives fill up at a much slower rate. I’d argue these are good things, and I have the F100 to thank for it. I’ll concede this isn’t the way to photograph a wedding, but for my day to day, it suits me just fine. 

If any of this makes sense to you, dear reader, I recommend tracking down any late generation prosumer film body. You’ll find them relatively cheap and if you pick the right body you’ll probably already have some lenses to mount. I’d suggest tracking down period correct primes as well. You may discover some interesting facts about how you take photographs, and you’ll become a better photographer for it too. 


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Craig Sinclair

Craig Sinclair was born in Ontario and is a University of Toronto School of Architecture graduate living in Vancouver for the second time. His photography explores the underlying narratives existing in found contexts. There is beauty in the ordinary, a concept he explores by taking a photograph every day; an exercise he began in 2007 and continues to this day.

All stories by:Craig Sinclair
20 comments
  • James, great, thoughtful article as usual. I think the word you my have been struggling for in para 2 may be Nikonnarcissist? Just wondering. Wonderful colour serendipity in the last image!

  • EXACTLY. Taking a film camera out brings about a certain discipline to your shooting method, and there is a certain pleasure in limitation. This is one thing I tell others when they ask about why I shoot film.

  • The pic of the girl and the cat is so good!

    Heads up – the F100 is notorious for snapping its film door latch, as for some reason Nikon made it out of plastic and now age and use has caught up with it.
    To lessen the chance of this happening, press and hold up the film door release button, close the back, then release it. This puts much less strain on it.
    The huge #s of F100s on ebay with broken or missing film doors backs that up..

    • It’s is a relatively easy fix.
      Facebook.com/groups/thenikongroup

      • What is that relatively easy fix? You just posted a link to an FB site.
        Parts are unavailable. People have been scavenging doors from other F100s broken in other ways.

  • Craig, with all respects I am a bit getting tired of this story how film shooting will make us better digital photographer. You are not first person I am listening this story.
    May be I am missing something, but I know myself. Since first digital box came to my hands, up to today magical cameras I have and virtually unlimited storage, I rarely take more then one photo. Sometimes when need different exposures I can take 3 . But I don’t think this is heritage from my 20+ years of film shooting before digital. More likely it came from military training. When we used to have shooting competition, 3 bullets were shoot for testing and 5 for the competition points. When you know your gun, you don’t need that 3. So I think it is good comparison.
    When you know what you are doing, when you see your photo before, when you know how to compose, when you see distracting elements in frame before triggering, that is what one need to learn and practice. Film has nothing to do with. I am able to look trough viewfinder many times without pushing the button. Young digital shooters today use to shoot tens of same photos as normal process. Nobody teach them that is wasting time. Repeating same bad shot tens time will never produce good one. Repeating multishots just because we can, leads nowhere.
    Telling people how they will become better photographers if start shooting film, I think it is not correct because it is not true.

    Everything else in your article is nice. I was enjoy reading. Your photos are great. I like them.
    I did also obtain bunch of Nikon film bodies recently (F-801 among others), even did several roles developed as used to in the past, but I gave up. It is hell expensive, and not better for me. Although having that old body in hands is great feeling. Cheers!

    • Maybe it was less about film specifically making anyone a better photographer, and more about being forced to consider each image made with a greater level of consciousness. Your observation about rarely taking more than one photo is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re (probably) old, and were raised with a process that made us more considerate of what we were doing. But you must have at some point seen some kid with a digital camera taking photo after photo of the same thing, looking at the display screen over and over again between each shot, like he was one of a thousand monkeys with a thousand cameras, trying to figure out exposure and composition. To your gun analogy, there’s a person who can take a 30 30 bolt action rifle and hit the target with the first shot. And there’s the guy with the full auto assault rifle who buys a bigger magazine and holds the trigger and points the gun generally at the target until it’s destroyed. Both end up with the same result; a target hit. Much different approaches though.

      I agree, when you know what you want to take a photograph of, you can take that photograph, and film has nothing to do with it. But for “kids today,” shooting film will change how they shoot digital. It’s not about film, it’s about process, and film will force you to change your approach. And then make your digital process better independent of film.

      You and I grew up shooting film. I firmly believe that made us better digital photographers. And I might be wrong in your case, maybe you learned more efficiently than I did. I used to take a lot of live music photographs. I put the camera on “high speed shutter” and held my finger down hard on the shutter release, because I could, because my memory cards were huge and I had more of them in my back pocket. I found myself going through a thousand photographs for any given shoot. And then I started being more considerate with my exposure settings and paying more attention to my subject matter and I came out with a tenth of the raw files, and probably twice as many usable shots.

      When you’ve shot film, you don’t need the test shots. You know your equipment, how the meter works, and you take the photo. I think we’re in agreement in our disagreement.

  • Best and most pragmatic review I ever read. Makes me want to shoot film. Makes me want to take pictures. I have most of the lenses above. I have an F5. These days I run with an FE and the 50mm 1.4. It’s pretty much all you need. Such a motivational article. Thanks. Ian

    • The 50 1.4 is a stellar lens. I was going to add “for the money” but, truth be told, Nikon could charge a lot more and I don’t think any of us would feel ripped off.

  • Fantastic review, thanks so much. I bought the F100 used for all of the reasons you mention above. It now sits in the closet and haven’t used it in over 5 years. The reason is that it’s just become to heavy for me to lug around.

  • Maybe because I’ve had my F100 for quite a bit longer than my D700, and I started shooting photographs in the 1970s, I tend to think of the relationship between the F100 and the D700 in the reverse: Nikon got it right when they modeled the D700 control layout and size after the F100. The F100 was with us for a decade before D700 appeared.

    Overall I think part of the allure of film camera bodies and lenses is tactile touch of f stop rings and shutter speed dials, as well as the direct simplicity of the metering read outs. Film cameras assist the photographer, they don’t have distracting menus. My FE’s match needle metering is still intuitive and helpful, as Is my FM2n’s +/o/- led meter display.

    Now if Nikon would only produce a digital with the size and control layout of the FM/FE series at a reasonable price-like Fujifilm managed to do.

  • I like it how you said “Finally, I recently added a Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AF-D to the collection, because I’m stupid.” I have the 35mm, then 50mm, then, 24mm. I thought I didn’t need anything in the middle. As a matter of fact, I do. Now I miss my 35mm. It is subtle, but little bit difference in the field of view and rendering make justifies the need for something in the middle.

  • Lovely review and perspective on shooting both digital and film. FWIW, because the cost of the F100 has gone up in recent years it’s worth considering other modern Nikon film cameras that can share the same lenses as your DSLRs. In fact, it’s difficult to find a decent F100 for $200 or less nowadays, often $250 and up. The N90/F90 is a very capable option, but so is the Nikon F80/N80.

    It’s a lighter-duty camera than the F100, but it’s very very capable. The F80/N80 is a bit smaller, lighter, and perhaps not as comfortable to hold as the F100. But it offers about 75% of what the F100 offers for about 25% of the price, such as PASM shooting modes, 5 focus points, front and back control wheels, multiple metering modes, compatibility with screw-drive AF lenses and electronic AF-S lenses, and a host of customizable menu settings.

    The F80/N80 does not have the same weather sealing as the F100 and it takes CR123 batteries, more expensive and harder to find than AA, but those batteries do last forever. On the F80 you can change ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings only in half-stop or full-stop increments, not in third-stop increments. You can mount manual focus lenses like AI and AIS but there’s no metering support for them. But these are relatively trivial details really. And on top of it all, you can find a fully functioning F80/N80 in the ballpark of $50. That’s an incredible value! I have an F80 and I have used it to shoot my kids’ sports with back-button autofocus. It’s light and easy to carry, and it works just like a DSLR. What’s not to like?

    • I’ve owned the F100 and now use the F80. I got mine with 28-70 Nikon lens for $30! Just be patient there are deals like that on ebay.
      I don’t notice any difference in image quality compared to the F100. Or usage really except for the fact that the F/N80 also has a pop up flash which can be very handy. Thing is I actually prefer the even cheaper F/N75. Does everything but is much smaller and lighter. And cheaper. Downside is it only has DX film coding but you can add +- 2 exp compensation (or shoot in manual) which makes up for it.
      I did not notice any weather sealing on the F100 – it does not even have seals on the film door, just deep plastic channels. Which is great a there are no seals to go goopy with age (as they all seem to do), but is bad as dust etc gets through.

      At the price point the F100 is now I’d get the F4. Bigger for sure, but far more solid and with way better controls. It is my favorite F body – I even prefer it to my F6.

  • I still have not bought any Nikon film cameras. I have a bunch of film cameras and a bunch of Nikon digital cameras but keep thinking about something like the F100. Thanks for the great post.

  • Dude. This review is brilliant. The f100 is one of the best slrs ever made. Film makes you think before you shoot. That is one reason why I love it. I love to process and scan my own pictures. There is a craft there. Stop, think, check settings, compose, check settings again, click. Each picture costs money, if you are a tightwad like me, you become a better photographer just because you don’t want to waste cash.😂
    Nikonian is a term, so is Nikonite, not sure about the others.
    Facebook.com/groups/thenikongroup

  • Avatar
    Renato Valenzuela Jr. May 26, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    crazy! I wrote something similar about my N80 not too long ago. #shamelessplug https://www.renatovalenzuelajr.com/blog/2019/3/nikon-n80 But I don’t think I articulated it as well as you did.

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Craig Sinclair

Craig Sinclair was born in Ontario and is a University of Toronto School of Architecture graduate living in Vancouver for the second time. His photography explores the underlying narratives existing in found contexts. There is beauty in the ordinary, a concept he explores by taking a photograph every day; an exercise he began in 2007 and continues to this day.

All stories by:Craig Sinclair