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.
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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