Nikon F4 versus Nikon F5 and the Camera as a Tool

Nikon F4 versus Nikon F5 and the Camera as a Tool

1800 1013 Jarrod Hills

A photographer whose work I admire recently upgraded from the Nikon D750 to the newer Nikon D780. After seeing some photos from the new rig, I asked how he was liking it. The response I received was interesting in that it plummeted down a well worn rabbit hole of anti-gear clichés. “As a working photographer, a camera is merely a tool,” and “the camera is not everything,” and “professionals have the ability to look beyond the marketing hype.”

This is the accepted wisdom, and I agree with it. But I think the professional was having a knee jerk reaction to my question, a question he must get asked a lot.

Those of us who try to be good photographers know that the camera plays only a small roll in the process. Yet there are just as many shooters who hold the opposite view; that a good photo is all about the camera. The camera is doing all of the work, and the photographer exists only to point it in the right direction. We see this philosophy in comments sections everywhere, even if it’s not acutely stated. A great photographer posts a great photo on the internet, and someone inevitably asks what camera made the shot, and at what settings, as if dialing in some magic combination of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture will allow any average person to exactly duplicate the shot of a visionary pro.

My original intention when reaching out to the previously mentioned photographer wasn’t to ask for that magic combination of settings and camera and lens, or insinuating that his work was anything less than the result of mastering the various important elements needed to create a good photograph. My question was an attempt to cut through the manufacturer’s marketing bull, get to the heart of why a person whose work I genuinely respect was upgrading when the earlier body is clearly able to handle all that they’re asking of it.

What could it possibly be that the D750, a very capable and respected camera, was no longer delivering?

This article isn’t a story about two photographers debating philosophy. But the exchange did prompt a thought. I began to question the idea that cameras are just tools. I’ve never looked at a camera as a tool. I look at them as mechanical objects, sure. But there’s something more to them. Yes they’re all going to be used for the same purpose, taking a photo, but they all go about it a different way with different mechanisms and methodologies. Cameras are deeply personal tools, not devoid of character or nuance.

My First Tool

I’m a fan of Pentax. My first camera was a Pentax P30T that I stole from my mother, who was the photographer of the family standing on the sidelines of soccer games trying to capture the action. It never really worked out (I’m quite certain there’s no photographic evidence of my eighteen years of playing) but she continued to upgrade within the Pentax line of film cameras, culminating in an early leap to the digital Pentax ist DS before putting the dedicated cameras down forever.

I eventually got into Pentax love through bodies lying around the house, and started to develop my own camera tastes, still under the Pentax umbrella. I eventually ended up with a Pentax MX. I love it. It’s svelte, lightweight, compact, and mechanical. I burned through many rolls of film, slowly improving. My tastes evolved. I started to desire more flexibility. Maybe something more than center weighted metering? What about autofocus? Greater durability?

I love the overall package of the MX but its lightweight body doesn’t instill confidence that it’d survive a rapid deceleration against a hard object, or live long after bouncing along a dusty trail in the woods. I had a genuine reason to upgrade. The MX, a camera I will never sell, is phenomenal, but I’ve got a five year old kid who rarely stands still, and the motorsports and bike races I love to photograph are faster paced than my ability to manually focus, even with pre focus techniques. So, research began and I made the leap to a “modern” camera.

Journey to Nikon F4

I ride bikes, and when I crash them, which happens more than I would like to admit, I fix them. Have you ever seen a list of the worst cars ever made? Odds are, I adore and have owned a few examples on that list. I’ve become quite comfortable with a wrench. I love the personality of mechanical things. Perhaps that’s why I prefer film cameras.

I really loved my first film camera, the Pentax MX, but there came a time when I needed something more automated. My list of requirements was focused, if not extensive. And after searching for quite some time it became clear that I was looking for something that Pentax, my known brand, didn’t really offer. The list of requirements solidified –

  • Tough
  • “Professional” with all that that implies
  • Metering options
  • Lens choice
  • Manually and automatically focused
  • Shutter speed faster than 1/1000th with motor drive
  • Still retained a film camera’s characteristics (knobs, dials, levers)

Reaching out to a specialist seller, I was able to find a Nikon F4. Mint, lightly used, later serial number. Initial impressions were good. It hit every one of the above check list items. I purchased a 50/ 1.4D and an 85/ 1.8D and started to shoot.

What a change from what I was used to with the MX. If a camera is a tool to allow you to create, these two bodies could not be more different. The Pentax MX is the elegant, lock picking set pulled from a leather wallet by the good looking gentleman thief. The Nikon F4 is something else. More comfortable to hold, but heavier, with dials and levers and controls everywhere. It means business. It’s not a stealthy lock picking set. It’s the shotgun used by SWAT that blows the door off of its hinges. As a tool, it’s truly an upgrade. 

Why the F4?

The F4 is a much maligned camera. People have a romanticized attachment to its predecessor, the F3. Was the F3 a good camera? Undoubtedly. Is it better than the F4? Absolutely not.

As a part of my research when upgrading from the MX, I looked at cameras from Contax, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, and others. Name the camera, and I considered it against my check list. I always came back to the F4. Even with all of the negative press that it has garnered. There is a CameraStoreTV review of it where a string of professional photographers summarily trashed it and declared that the day it came out was the day they switched to Canon. What was so bad about it? After using mine for some time now, I have a decent idea. Remember that statement about the camera making someone a better photographer? Was that what they were expecting? The camera is more advanced than the F3, so perhaps they were expecting it to do something that it was not really ready to do yet? Perhaps marketing had built it up? 

I am going to offer up an alternative interpretation of the Nikon F4. It is a bridge. A bridge between the more mechanical Nikon F3 and the fully automatic (allegedly overweight) Nikon F5. Nikon was trying to strike a balance, unsure of what people were going to want. Many photographers like the F3. Are they ready for the next technological step? When you consider the camera that way, the camera changes. Look at it as a camera that offered the user autofocus and automation while holding on to mechanical camera traits with knobs and dials.

A photographer I respect said that, ‘the Nikon F4 looks like it was designed by a committee. One that never talked to each other.’ I think they did speak to each other. It’s just that one side of the table wanted a conservative iteration on the F3, a Nikon F3.5, while the other wanted a true leap forward. What came out was the F4. It’s a camera that shows up and does what it should do. It “does exactly what it says on the tin,” as the Brits would say.

I won’t go into the details that make up the F4, as there is a very good review already on this site. What I will say is that it hit my checklist and hit it hard. If a camera is a tool for the photographer to use to better their work, the F4 was a great buy. One that I don’t regret more than a year later. It has, in fact, allowed me to capture scenes that were not quite impossible, but very difficult to capture using the MX.

It’s by far a more usable and capable camera for what I like to take photos of at the moment. It allows for better photographs. It opened up my world to more photographic opportunities. But with it, I have in fact moved away from what I have loved about cameras. The tactile nature of them. The simplicity of them. The sound and look of them. I have ventured into a camera whose sole purpose is to help me take the best photograph possible in whatever situation I find myself in.

Samples from the Nikon F4

Revolution, not Evolution

Before I started my current career, I worked at an antique British car shop. We specialized in cars like MGs, Triumphs, and Austin Healeys. One of the mechanics had a great big tool chest. We called it the aircraft carrier. In it, he had a torque wrench that was six feet long. Six feet! Bolts on aircraft and tanks require wrenches that long, but nothing on a British car would ever need that level of twist. So, why have a six foot long torque wrench when a two foot long torque wrench will do the job?

If a camera is a tool, the F4 is the normal, two-foot long torque wrench in my tool chest. It did just about everything well. I would take it on photo walks, to the park with my daughter, into the woods for landscapes. It went everywhere with me. Its Achilles heel showed itself though, as I started to shoot more mountain bike races. It handled the dust, mud, and knocks of trail duty just fine. What was failing was the autofocus. Remember that committee? The side of the table that won more than lost would be the proponents of making a Nikon F3.5. Prefocus, set up a shot, and the hit rate was still subpar. The autofocus just wasn’t fast enough. While mildly disappointing, it was not the end of the world. But the tool was failing. The two foot long torque wrench just couldn’t turn the bolt. Enter the Nikon F5. 

The Nikon F5

If the Nikon F4 was a hesitant shuffle forward, the Nikon F5 was a gravity-assisted moon leap. It was everything that the F4 wanted to be, without the handicap of traditional camera design. It ushered in a new era of ergonomics that still exists today. Nikon’s version of ‘a place for everything with everything in its place.’

Nikon committed to the people for whom professional camera bodies are designed. It was meant for the shooter who was not afraid of weight, and who needed the best of everything. The professional that needed to be able to capture whatever was in front of them with little hesitation. Eye in the viewfinder with no need to ever remove their hands from the molded grip. Moving two wheels and a couple of buttons, sometimes in conjunction with each other, could create any photo. Precise and to the point. 

“Oh man, that thing is going to be heavy.”

“Now you can cancel your gym membership.”

“Buy stock in Energizer.”

All common statements surrounding the Nikon F5. I have a C clamp on a shelf. It is massive. It weighs about fifteen pounds. No one complains about it being heavy though. Why? I can put hundreds of pounds of pressure through it and it will never, ever bend. Is the F5 heavier than the F4? Marginally. Does it eat batteries? No, it’s got the same appetite as the F4. It is unfairly maligned and represents, like the F4, a seriously undervalued, overly capable camera. Is it better than the F4? In one word, yes. But, you have to change your way of thinking. Is it more capable than the F4? Absolutely. But it’s half a step removed from a DSLR.

It has lost all of its ‘film-ness’. Gone are the external knobs, locks, and levers of the F4. It has more in common with my D610 than the F4. It has a top plate screen. It has command dials. It has a built in grip with associated buttons and a sub screen for ISO information. It has a self checking shutter. It has a frame rate more akin to a machine gun than a camera. It is, quite simply, impressive.

It resembles a modern camera and in such, has more modern ergonomics than the F4 does. That is not to say that the F4 is a difficult carry. It’s not. The F5 is just easier due to the grip shape. If you have ever used a modern(ish) DSLR, you get it immediately. Nikon went without the plethora of locks and levers on this one, opting instead for a few buttons and two screens.

The F5 sets fire to the classic camera blueprint. The side of the committee that wanted to retain traditional film camera qualities in the F4? They showed up to the F5 committee meeting only to discover that the meeting had already ended and the locks to the building had been changed. The Nikon F5 is pure and simple, a machine created to capture pictures. Somewhat soulless in its pursuit. It is not a photowalk camera (although I do take it out on occasion). It’s definitively a tool.

Samples from the Nikon F5

When I load up my camera bag for a bike race, I grab my D610, a few lenses, and a film body. Fora. while, that film body had been the F4. Recently though, it’s been the F5. The first time I put a lens on the F5 and focused, it was a special experience. Focus just snapped. No hunting. Just focused. Right where I needed it to.

I, like a fool, set the drive mode to high and before I knew it, half a roll of Ektar was gone. I’m not going to make that mistake again. The grip made shooting in portrait mode a breeze. The shutter release is perfectly placed. The grip being an integral part of the body meant no wiggling, and it has a focus button. Those of us who shoot digital as well will appreciate that it has ‘back button focus’ ability. Why is this such a great thing? Well, it separates the focusing from the shutter release (which is very sensitive). In normal situations, this is meaningless. The F5 shutter button will half push focus and then full push after composition to fire the frame. But, when things are moving, this makes things difficult. The ability to hold the button half way down ready to fire and then have it focus when I want it to is ideal when trying to, say, photograph a moving bike. Metering is spot on. The balance is superb. The F4 is great with the shorter lenses and just good with the 80-200. The F5, on the other hand, balances the 80-200 so well it almost makes the lens seem lightweight. Lenses like a 50 or 85 practically disappear. 

Oh, but what about the negatives? The weight? Well, here is where I blow that argument out of the water. It is only marginally heavier than a gripless F4. Do not believe me? I went so far as to weigh them for you.

I mentioned that I use a D610, one of Nikon’s midrange full frame DSLRs. Guess what? The D610 is fractions of an ounce lighter. No one complains about that camera being heavy but everyone complains about the F5 being heavy. 

Full disclosure, I am using Energizer Lithium batteries in both the F4 and F5 so that does lighten the package. That also brings me to the eating of batteries. I am sure in the late 1980s and ’90s, when it was released and was actively being used, alkaline batteries were being used. Those do drain quickly. Lithiums are readily available and more stable. Also, turn the cameras off when you are not using them. It’s an easy habit to get in to and one I do with all of my cameras.

Final Thoughts

These cameras leave me conflicted. I love them. I truly do. They allow me to set up and capture things that might be very difficult to capture with any other camera. They streamline and expedite all things. From film loading to film unloading. What is it that people do not like about these two cameras? Is there a definition of what makes a classic camera great that these bodies do not measure up to? Both of these camera have their detractors. More vocal than others. Why? What do they fail to deliver that far less accomplished and capable cameras could not even dream to deliver, yet, are far more favorable amongst camera users? I think I have an idea.

In a digital world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the next best thing. With this movement comes, to me at least, a complete loss of connection. The movement towards more has lead to a complete loss of intent. Is the ability to machine gun your way through a scene really an advantage? Have cameras become not a way to connect to a scene but more just a way to capture it? I am not too sure.

The Nikon F5 was designed for a very specific job. As the demands of a camera increased and changed, so did the cameras themselves. Is the F5 better than an F4? Sure. The F5 is faster in every respect. It is better. To a point. At that point the F4 picks up, mostly due to its inherent design brief of seemingly being required to provide traditional camera feel while jumping into the electronic world. The F5 eschews that traditional feel and connection. It favors the expediency of giving you the ability to spin one, or both, wheels and shoot through a roll of film in seconds. 

This is where, I believe, they go wrong in the minds of many. It is not size or weight so much as it is convenience. Cameras are dripping with convenience now. The cameras we idolize are not. In some cases, they are truly a pain to operate. When something is designed for convenience and ease, it enters a different category. It becomes a tool. Tools are meant to be used and then placed back into their drawer until the next occasion requiring their use comes around. 

My digital camera is a Nikon D610. It is a great camera but also boring. It can take phenomenal photos, but I just don’t care about it. I don’t feel the need to use it. It is just a machine used to make photos, and making photos with it carries no sense of occasion. I use it and then I put it away.

I used to question when people said that a camera is just a tool. Now, I look at the Nikon F4 and the Nikon F5 next to it, and I get it. Cameras have become so specialized now that it is hard to see them in any other way. I use the F4 much more than the F5 due to its form factor. It facilitates, ever so slightly, a connection to the machine itself. When I go into the woods though, when riders are blitzing in and out of shadows, the F5 is the camera I pack. I am not trying to connect with anything. I just want to capture the photo.

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Jarrod Hills

Jarrod Hills is a high school teacher, father to a five-year-old daughter, and a fan of everything on wheels, being outside, and capturing family moments.

All stories by:Jarrod Hills
  • Merlin Marquardt June 15, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    Great review and opinion piece. What about the Nikon F6?

  • Vince Bodie de la Mross June 15, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    Having used an F3, an F4 and various Nikon DSLR’s for years, I can attest to the F4 absolutely being a “bridge” between the old and new school. Just the symphony of sounds coming out of an F4 from the moment I started using it were enough to have me hooked. I also agree that the whole weight issue is a non-issue for any serious photographer. More weight equals more stability, which means sharper images if handled correctly. Getting tired? Keep shooting, you need the exercise! 😉

    One note on the six foot torque wrench… I know they’re not British, but if that mechanic had ever worked on a BMW V8, he would have surely needed those extra four feet of torque on the “Jesus bolt”. Ask me how I know!

    • I am glad that that comment made sense to more than just me. The F4 is a great camera but is much maligned because it is in that gray area between manual and electronic. The shutter and film transport make great noises and the dials all make satisfying clicks when you manipulate them. My only real complaint about it are the little levers or detents that are required to turn some of the dials. I suppose that pros want to lock something in and make sure that it never moves. For more recreational use, they can become trying.

      I agree on the weight. It really is not that bad. A “prosumer” DSLR is about the same weight. I think that, and I mentioned this, you have to change the way that you look at the camera. If you change the way you look at the camera, the weight becomes a non issue and actually somewhat of an advantage. I like to pan and with just about any zoom or prime, it is a breeze. I usually put a 50/1.4D and an 85/1.8D on the camera. The F4, and even more so the F5, make panning with those primes, and a larger 80-200/ 2.8D, so easy.

      MGBs have a huge 7/8″ bolt on the crank pulley. That is about it. Nothing else requires that much leverage. I did do some suspension work on a couple of MKV VW’s which involved removing the one time use stretch bolts that attach the steering knuckle to the axles. I would have loved to have that much leverage to break that one free.

  • In my career as a newspaper photographer, I have used all of the top Nikons, F, F2, F3, F4, and F5. I used the F4 and F5 side as a two-camera combo with different lenses. I bought the F4 used and the F5 was purchased new in 2000, it was the most expensive film camera body that I had ever purchased in my career coming in at around $3000 CDN. I must say I liked the F5 much more than the F4, it had better ergonomics and was a nicer camera, in my opinion, it was my favorite “go-to” camera and I enjoyed using it very much. I didn’t keep it long as in late 2001 the newspaper I worked for went digital and I started using the Nikon D1H. I ended up selling my F5 before the price dropped too much.

  • Thomas J. Schitteck June 15, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Wow, what a wonderful article! Thank you very much. 30 years ago i had two Contax RTS-Cams with a lot of lenses. The F4 was my favorite, but i had to sell all my Zeiss-lenses for it. So i decided to stay with Contax and had bought the RTS3. It was a good way!
    Now, 30 years later, I’m looking definitely for a F5! The Contax is still working, but i have problems with my eyes, the F5 will help me there! 😉

  • David Millington June 15, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    Great review!
    I look at the progression from F3 (small electronics to whet the whistle, so to speak), through F4 building on that, to get photographers ready for the F5, with more advanced metering, handling, better battery life, etc.
    Then comes the F100, which is a compact F5 (almost!), but, for me, also a test body for the run into digital (remember the early Kodak offerings? Tanks!).
    Which has more or less dictated the Nikon form ever since.
    In the same way that the Canon DSLRs can trace their lineage to the T90 film camera.
    Glad you like the F4/F5; I’m still stuck on my F3 and probably won’t change now.
    As for weight? Nothing to worry about!
    I pack a Hasselblad 503 with 150 and 250 mm lenses.
    Now THERE’S a way to reduce gym membership!!

  • Great write up! I have the F3P, F4 and F6 and the F4 is my favorite. Everything works as it should, I find the meter bias more to my liking than the F6, and I don’t have to worry about menus and settings being lost if I pull the batteries out for an extended period of time.
    The F3? Not a fan of the floppy film advance lever, and frankly the exposure readouts in the VF are awful. But it is a pretty camera.

  • Joe shoots resurrected cameras June 18, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    I did the same switch from Pentax to Nikon, though I went from the Spotmatic line to the F2, then got an unmetered F, but I totally get the need for *more* than Pentax can give you. It’s really a same in many ways because Pentax made some fantastic quality lenses that don’t cost too much at all, but sticking with the M42 mount really set them back for a while, as did their hesitance to make a professional body before the LX came along (I’d love to have one). I too am surprised that you didn’t skip over the F5 and go right to the F6, considering you’re interested in the advanced features. Really none of those features interest me that much, though if I did want autofocus I suppose I know what to get now, so thanks for the suggestion. I am tempted to get an F4 to shoot AI-s lenses just so I can have a more compact setup with motordrive, but that’ll be just if the right body falls into my lap. Happy with the F and F2.

    • Another lost Pentaxian! I would not say lost I guess. Just left wanting. Try the MX. A bit cheaper than the LX but same general feel and size. They are phenomenal little cameras.

      The F6 is a great camera. Absolutely is. Problem is that it is also quite a bit more expensive than a mint F5 is. With the difference in price, you can grab an F5 and a couple of lenses. One thing that the F5 will do that the F4 will not is shoot any Nikon AF lens with an aperture lever. So, that opens the door to a bunch of VR lenses with great optics. If I am honest though, the F6 just is not for me. It is that next iteration but the difference in what it can do versus what the F5 can do, at least for me, is not worth the escalation in cost.

  • In defense of the Nikon F4 autofocus, remember that it was the first professional camera with AF. It was early days for AF and this was Nikon’s version 1.5 for their AF system. It was slow by today’s standards but it was about as good as it gets when it was introduced. Even the F5’s AF pales by comparison to modern DSLRs.

    • No doubt. The F4 AF is not bad, it just is not up to what I try to do. If I am walking around town or taking family photos, the F4 is what I will grab. It is more than enough for that. For fast moving objects, the F5 is a revelation. I was not able to get any photos submitted in time from a drift event I attended a few weeks ago but the hit rate was quite nice (they are on my Flickr account). The shots I captured were definitely ones that the F4 would have struggled to nail.

      I did not mean to disparage the F4. I have not sold it so it definitely has its place. It is undervalued and unfairly maligned. It is a great camera. I do not see me selling mine any time soon.

  • Great comparison on two great cameras (includling the MX!). All cameras are tools, but I think what you were aluding to is that some have more “soul” than others.. A maker’s mark that somehow enters the camera.. We see it as the logic in the button and dial placements, certain technical and aesthetic choices, which ultimately make one camera more desirable or appealing or capable than another.. or all three. I own from the F2 to the F6, as well as a plethora of other film bodies (including the MX!). I started my journey on a K1000 (the FM2’s were simply too expensive back in the day) but eventually came upon Nikon via their DSLR’s, and then finally backtracked into their film cameras, so my experience with them is all post-digital. The “F” cameras have always been made for a certain type of shooter that required them to be professional in every way, capable, durable, rugged. And the F’s have certainly cultivated a no-nonsense look and feel to their cameras. They are tools, no doubt about it. The shift from MF to AF with the F4 must have been quite a stressful time for Nikon and it’s engineers, as the “arms race” of AF was heating up, and left many competitors by the wayside. I don’t think there was much more they could have put in there at that point and with their level of know-how.. I dispute the “commitee” design approach on that camera, which was truly groundbreaking, whilst still maintaining it’s manual feel. True, the F5 is a big leap forward. Think V2 and Saturn Rocket in terms of difference.. But the F4 was the first rocket! The F4 was the best that Nikon could achieve at the time, even as it lagged way behind Canon and it’s EF lenses and focus system. That was only remedied in the digital age with the amazing D3, a good 9 years after Canon’s Eos 3 had ushered in truly amazing AF. As it stands the F4 is my manual focus camera extraordinaire.. usually working with colour film, whilst my F3 works with B&W.. The viewfinder on the F4 with MF lenses is simply amazing, bright, big. For some reason the F5 doesn’t feel quite as “nice”.. As I also own an F6, the F5 seems to loose out to it’s younger sibling, being more lithe, better at AF. However the F5 is truly built out of a solid block of unobtanium (I paraphrase someone else’s comment..). The F5 was build for a professional. The F6 for a rich amateur..
    What I like about the Nikon film cameras, is that notwithstanding the lightspeed jumps from F4 to F5, there is a certain continuity in design elements, button placement, logic, and a certain sense of oriental practicality and in some cases anachronism.. (á la film rewind knob, still, existant on the F6!). In software terms we’d call it “backward compatible”. All of them are wonderful, filled to the viewfinder with a certain no-nonsense character that simply makes me want to fondle them, while at the same time allowing me to take some pretty decent pictures. I still have the MX.. But sadly it doesn’t get used quite as much as it’s louder, heavier, beefier brethren of Nikon fame.

  • Great article!
    I’ve owned and used the FM2, F3, F5 and F100 in the past 20 years. The F5 is a wonderful camera. Masterpiece of design that set the standard which still has not been bettered.

    The F5 is misunderstood. People call it heavy. It is lighter than both the F4 or F6 when those cameras have their grips on. You couldn’t even buy the MD20 F4 in North America back in the day. They were all F4S or F4E. And as far as I know most professionals were using grips. F3 with MD4, F4S and F4E. They’re all heavier and less compact than the F5. The “eating batteries” thing I believe comes from an early bug in early F5 cameras.

    The F5 was a wonder when it came out. The first Nikon that had faster autofocus than anything Canon had at the time. Best light meter there ever was. I’ve held the F6 and it seems to be a fine camera, but doesn’t have the soul of the F5. And the F6 is bigger, clumsier, less robust and heavier than the F5 with its grip on.

    I have an F100. People like to call them mini-F5’s. That’s not true. The F100 is a consumer camera and you can feel it. That plastic film door.. The shutter sound of the F100 is nowhere near as nice. There’s tons of vibrations ringing out in the body after an exposure. It sounds cheap.

    The F5 by contrast is super well dampened. Sounds and feels amazing. I love using it as a walk around camera. It’s incredible reliability and the way it just flows, all while sounding and feeling amazing makes you feel like a boss. The best.

    Having said that. I would love to get an F4 someday. What a machine!

    • I was a non-Nikon user as a student in high school, using my father’s Pentax A3000 before buying my first Nikon n6006. My goal when I started learning photography was to eventually move up to medium format. Working in a darkroom, I always knew that a larger negative meant more details, more depth. As a student, owning a MF camera was not even a possibility at the time (1988).

      I own an F100 and continue to use it today. But there was a time I recall that the F100 in 2001 was nearly $1,800.00US, sometimes more depending on where you lived. Personally, I looked at it as a professional upgrade from what I was currently using at the time, a Nikon N90s. The F100 is not a mini-F5, I agree. But after using an F5 and an F100, I don’t believe the latter is cheap. In my humble opinion, the worst Nikon was the FM10. The viewfinder was horrible! The FM10 felt like cheap plastic that was designed for 3rd graders.

      While I rented an F5 for the occasional wedding (2001-2009), I was also using a Contax 167MT for a few years until I grew tired of the split image viewfinder. I wear progressive glasses so the move to medium format made logical sense. No doubt, the F5 is a sophisticated Nikon, built for speed with beautiful ergonomics. My hands and slow approach to photography made me gradually step away from my F100 and to use medium format more often.

      I still use my F100 if I want speed but for the casual portrait, I pull out my boring Nikon D610. For that Nat Geo landscape moment, I pick up the Hassey or the Mamiya RB. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of using the older Nikon F SLRs, F2, F2Titan, F2As, or F3HP. I am looking forward to receiving my very own Nikon F4E in a few days.

      • Shubroto Bhattacharjee February 3, 2024 at 7:47 pm

        The FM10 is an inexpensive machine built by Cosina, a clone of other Cosina-made badge-engjneered devices labelled Yashica, Ricoh, Canon, and others…
        The same Cosina who make their own glass and who build Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses today — not to be sneezed at! 😂

  • Stefan Staudenmaier September 6, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    It was the Nikon F4 that brought fun back into my photography after all these years of digital
    workflow. Ist is a joy to use ist with my old manual lenses and it works like a charm even on
    Matrix metering. The only drawback is the led bleeding that could happen on a des models.

  • Michael L Palmieri October 6, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Just wanted to say A) this is a great website that I am glad I stumbled upon and B) thanks for making me spend money I don’t have on decades-old gear I once owned and then foolishly sold off. =^)

    Anyway, I just clicked “buy it now” on a late model Nikon F4s and am now hunting down my favorite lens of all time – the venerable Nikkor AI-s 105/2.5. I hope that combo and some TMax will relight my photographic fire.

    I was once a working PJ who learned on Tri-X and D76, shot color negs, then color slides, and then made the digital swap sometime around 2000. I hung up my Domke vest years ago and now teach all-digital high school photography classes.

    Back around 2000, when the time came to purchase my own digital gear, I switched from Nikon to Canon because at the time, the D1 couldn’t hold the 1Ds body cap. It simply made sense; and even now I have an amazing one-year-old a 1D X Mark II in my bag with the plethora of L series glass I’ve acquired all these years. But if I’m honest, I’ve never been a Canon guy – I always held onto my Nikon roots (although my first proper camera was an awesome Minolta Maxxum 7000i). It’s weird, but Nikon gear for me has soul – I can’t explain it really and I am sure people say the same about other brands too – but there’s just something about Nikons. Money was money though and so went my F3P, my F5, my F100, N90, and all that wonderful Nikkor glass – If only I could have it all back (or switch back without going into the poor house). Thankfully I did keep my original Nikon F and matching 50 1.4 though.

    Sorry for the reminiscing ramble, but this site really has revved me up and I can’t wait to fire up the F4 I just purchased.

    • Michael I personally loved your reminiscing ramble. And I get what you say about Nikons having soul. The most soulful Canon I ever owned was a black A1, and even it lacked that certain je ne sais quois… By the time Canon went AF you could say goodbye to whatever soul was left IMHO.

  • Mr. Sasan Soheily October 16, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    I really enjoy reading the articles and comments on this website. I am a proud owner of a Hasselblad 500CM for the last 7 years. But I started with a Nikon 6006, then moved up to the 8008s. Then I needed a faster gun, so I upgraded to the N90s with the grip because I wanted a vertical shutter button. Finally, I saved enough $$ to purchase a used Nikon F100 in 2003. The Nikon F5 was out of my budget, although I used it as a rental with an SB flash attached to it. The F5 did not appeal to me because I was already using the F100 consistently. The weight of the F5, contrary to popular opinion, turned me off, especially when I had to attach a flash on top of it. I say this because I use a Mamiya RB67 Pro-S with a Sekor 127mm lens. I like the weight of the RB, not the F5, weird but that’s just me. I was shooting portraits and weddings with my F100 + grip between 2001-2009. The only Nikon SLR that I never had a chance to play with was the F4. I recently bought a used F4E and I’m waiting for its arrival. I’m old school and prefer the large buttons on a traditional SLR. Keep shooting….

  • Great review, Jarrod. I think you’re on to something looking at how the nearer to a DSLR, the less charm a camera has. I’ve been shooting with a Pentax LX for and K10D for years. I always felt a stronger connection to the LX. The K10D always feels a bit distant, lizard-like – as if unsure what to make of me. A little less than a year ago I picked up a Pentax MZ-S and just got an F4E.

    Despite the lack of old-schoolness on the part of the MZ-S, I’ve developed a strong fondness for it. It just feels right in the hand, it tracks small humans well, makes very sound exposure decisions while doing so, and is comparatively very quiet in operation.

    I wonder if there is another factor to the general aversion to the F4 and F5. Maybe it’s connected to them being necessary tools for pro journalism. My F4 feels great in the hand, makes excellent exposures and is also remarkably quiet for something so large. Honestly, the focus motor is louder than the film advance. The thing is a hulk compared to my Pentaxes and my FM2N. I wonder if the folks who decried them when they were new felt railroaded into schlepping around something the size of a German shepherd puppy that wasn’t nearly so nice to look at. Looking at your weigh-in shots, I wondered what mine weighs. 3lbs 4.5oz without a lens; big boy.

    As good as these new cameras feel, picking up the LX is like clasping my other hand. I do think old cameras have more of that soul.

  • A note. I feel like the F4 is the better, more functional camera of the two. But there is a caveat. The F4 autofocus is not that fast or that great. But being it’s a Nikon which takes the good old F mount, AI and AIS manual focus lenses fully function, and have matrix metering and program mode. It’s a darned fine manual focus camera with a built in motor drive. Consider it just that. MAF as Stephen Gandy says, Manual Auto Focus camera. Best used as manual focus, where it shines.

    • I agree, the article is OK but misses a lot of detail that most photographers don’t know about or care about BUT if you are earning from it then it’s good to know. The F4 does things that the F5 can’t or the F6 and vice versa, if those needs are met with the F4 then no improvements will make a newer camera better if it can’t do what you want it to do and sometimes it’s in the tiny details that counts, try holding AE-L and AF lock on a F5 at the same time, impossible! One handed on an F4, the compatibility for Manual focus Lenses can’t be touched by modern cameras like the F4, it can use the technology in newer Lenses that weren’t even invented when it was released, plus try it with the normal grip and it’s a tiny film machine that can do most anything.

      Better choice focusing screens, the viewfinder is amazing, all buttons and no stupid menus to trawl through whilst missing shots, seems these days, more complicated is ‘Better’ according to most marketing departments and at the end of the day, this article is just one person opinion and means nothing if you don’t agree with it, it’s all subjective and the boring null dull ‘Is it a Tool’ is the most pointless thing ever said about a camera, of course it is DUH! but it’s part of a tool kit where if you don’t know how to use it or care for it then it’s a useless tool but nothing stopping people ‘caring’ about their gear, cleaning, routine maintenance is all part of human behaviour and binds us to inanimate objects, it’s what humans do, who gives a crap what it is, as it’s the end result that matters, could be taken with a shoe box and most wouldn’t know or care.

      I was a little giggly at the thought that people take great sports pictures without the AF crutch everyone seems to think the F4 has, then maybe it’s their technique they need to brush up on, wonder how people took great pics before AF, OH yeah, they learned the proper way instead of relying on technology that isn’t perfect. The Photographer takes the picture not the gear. A little cliche and stereotypical but a nice article for a beginner to learn something or two.

  • Great article!!!! I recently purchased the 500 mirror f/8. I have a Nikon D780 and they have played nicely together. Also have an N2000, but am thinking about upgrading to the F4 or F5. Any opinion on which would do better with the 500 f/8?

    • For manually focused lenses I’d definitely give the F4 a try over the F5. This is because of greater availability of focusing screens for the F4, particularly the P focusing screen which combines crosshairs with a split prism that really helps focusing manually. Having said that, the f8 nature of the Cat lens you’re using may make that last feature hard to use. I have both F4 and F5, and generally use the F4 for manual focus lenses (when not using a F3 for porability or the F6 because the shutter sounds so nice).

  • I honestly can’t decide between the F4 and F5. The F4 is 260 in mint vs the F5 for 440 in mint.

    • What’s the serial number on the F4? If it’s in good shape, I personally would take the F4 for half the price. If it’s a high serial number that’s gravy on top.

  • Thanks Jarrod great article. My first camera was a pentax point and shoot and then a minolta x300 which died and for a while I used my partners nikon 601 and then she moved to a D70. Being a curmudgeon at that time early 2000s I bought an F4 which was far and away the fanciest camera I had ever used and I used it alot. The buttons seem to sit in the right place so that it is a tool and doesnt get in the road of taking photos just as you said. I still like it. Recently being fortunate enough to have a job Ive bought more autofocus cameras than I should have and also recently an F5 which Im not as familiar with but still has that just right feeling when you pick it up. Still incredible how the price is so low in comparison to how much either went for when new. I have a canon 1n and a pentax z1p now which I do like using but dont quite have that just right feeling that come with the F4 and F5. All of them such advanced cameras for the money that you pay for them-still not a small ammount but nothing compared to the original cost. Thanks again.

  • I really enjoyed this article. I never subscribed to the “camera is just a tool” mantra. Nor is my Jeep or the Mercedes I once had, or even for that matter that Chrysler Sebring convertible “just a conveyance”.

    When I started photography (1967), I wanted a Nikon F. Couldn’t afford one, so bought a Miranda Fv. When I could afford a Nikon (1973), wanted an F2, but couldn’t afford one, so bought a Nikkormat Ftn. Bought first F2 in 1980, over the years owned every version of it, and this was my forever true love camera until 2014, when I finally went digital. When I went digital, wanted a Df, couldn’t afford one so went the Fujifilm X100 series route. Finally bought a Df (two in fact) in 2021.

    I have two sets of lenses for the Dfs. Four AF-Ds and six Ai and AiS lenses. If the Df were just a tool, I would be using the latest AF-S or -G lenses that are newer and faster focusing. But I like aperture rings! I I love the build, heft, and look of the MF lenses! For that matter, I would be using one of the “regular” Nikon DSLRs. But I hate their ergonomics. I love the Dfs retro dials.

    Many photographers will not understand this view. I have in my collection a Nikon F brochure I picked up in 1987. It says, in part:

    “the Nikon F is … especially for the man to whom fine equipment is itself a source of gratification with the knowledge that its quality goes hand-in-hand with the inevitable quality he will enjoy in the results”.

    All these years later that’s how I feel about the Df. You are right it’s very personal.

    • Martin,

      Couldn’t agree more. I got started in photography by inheriting a bunch of Nikon film gear and an ALPA 9d with three lenses. Had I inherited crap gear I certainly wouldn’t have taken on film photography as an art and a hobby that became a part time vocation, and a very enjoyable one at that, due in large part to the attachment I felt with gear that had been used for some pretty famous shots. I felt a kinship with and an appreciation for the craft that just oozed out of that old gear.

  • THIS – – – is a spot on compare of these two fine instruments. I acquired both in my return to analog photography several years ago. The F5 was first as I discovered I could finally afford a gadget which I once lusted after AND which, arguably, is the pinnacle of film processing. I couple of years later I stumbled into a review of the F4 and realized THAT was the camera I wanted. IT had dials and knobs and – where the AF might not be as snappy, I always had the F5!

    Long story – – – I’ve been shooting film since my dad handed me the Argus he brought back from his time in the Army Air Corps. I learned to meter light from a small manual that accompanied the GE lightmeter he used. I also learned not to replace flash bulbs for a minute or two after you shot one!

    In the ’70’s I was earning a real living and picked up a Canon AE-1 and a couple of lenses and covered all of the kids’ sports and birthdays and Christmas parties. Somewhere along the line my home is broken into and my gear stolen. I jumped into the Nikon line and an F3. Not sure when it was, but somewhere in the late ’90’s early 2000’s someone bought me a very nice Nikon digital. I hung up the analog gear and marched forward into the brave new digital realm. sometime in the 2000-teens, I found my desire to carry the camera everywhere I went (which had been pretty common) waning. I hung it up and assumed that I had gotten too old and that I had outgrown the craft.

    We lost my father-in-law in early 2020 and after his memorial services we gathered at our home. While sitting around the table – someone ran inside and grabbed a shoe box full of my old analog prints. We passed those old prints around for hours remembering when, laughing, crying . . . . and in those moments it dawned on me how much I LOVED film and the process it necessitated. AND – it occurred to me that that process had a compelling impact on the end result. THose prints were very good. Process matters.

    No doubt it’s a love affair. I sold off the digital junk, dusted off the F3 AND doubled down on an F5! I even took a leap into MF and picked up a gently used Hasselblad for a price I considered cheap!

    Casual sex or making love. The end results may be indistinguishable to some. For others – we’ll both understand the difference. Process matters.

    When the action is fast – the F5 is the way to go. For everything else, I love the familiarity of those knobs and buttons on the F4. Thanks for so accurately characterizing the differences between these two fine instruments.

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Jarrod Hills

Jarrod Hills is a high school teacher, father to a five-year-old daughter, and a fan of everything on wheels, being outside, and capturing family moments.

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