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