After seven years of running this site and shooting a new camera every week, I know the type of film camera that I like. Gone are the days when I pined for the rarest rangefinder, or drooled over whichever medium-format camera du jour was currently reverberating within the echo chamber of film photography YouTube.
My ideal film camera is exactly this – a compact, 35mm single lens reflex camera with aperture priority semi-automatic shooting mode, plus exposure compensation, a nice viewfinder, and with manual focus and film advance. And since I’ve unintentionally become something of a Nikon collector, it’s helpful (though not necessary) if the camera’s font reads “Nikon.” If my tastes sound like yours, you may like the camera that I’ve been shooting for the past two months. It’s the Nikon FE2.
What is the Nikon FE2
In 1977 Nikon released the Nikon FM. This camera hit on a winning formula – the FM was a smaller, lighter, purpose-built camera compared to both Nikon’s professional models and their earlier sub-professional cameras, the Nikkormat series. The FM was a pared back, all-mechanical camera with a versatile shutter, with a built-in light meter displayed in the big, bright viewfinder, and with obvious controls. Most importantly, it was constructed to a very high standard (immediately felt in its ball-bearing film transport and shutter).
Intending that the FM would be used by amateur photographers and enthusiasts, and as a back-up body for professionals, it was made intentionally absent of some of the pro-grade features found on their professional F series cameras – the FM lacked interchangeable prisms, there were fewer and less sophisticated accessories, and its fully manual controls were quickly upstaged with the release of Nikon’s F3 in 1980 (which introduced aperture-priority auto-exposure).
Despite not being the most capable camera that Nikon offered at the time, the Nikon FM’s combination of superb build, concise and focused design, and compactness struck a perfect balance for many photo-takers, and the camera became a massive success for Nikon. Enthusiasts loved it. Professionals loved it.
Nikon was quick to expand and improve upon the success which they’d found with the FM. In 1978, just one year after the FM’s release, Nikon released the Nikon FE. This camera was, to put it simply, a Nikon FM with an added electronic shutter and aperture-priority mode. The core specifications of the FM and FE are nearly identical – same shutter speed range, same lens compatibility, same light meter (though the meter display is different), similar viewfinders, same chassis and body. The only real difference (and it’s a big one) is that the Nikon FE adds an aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure mode.
And so, by 1978 the compact Nikon SLR series then consisted of two very similar models – the FM (all-mechanical and full-manual), and the FE (electro-mechanical with semi-automatic exposure in addition to full manual).
Just four years later, Nikon again updated their compact SLR range when they released the Nikon FM2 in 1982. The new camera featured an improved titanium shutter (now capable of astounding speeds of 1/4000th of a second compared with the FM’s and FE’s 1/1000th maximum speed), a higher flash sync speed, and an improved silicon-photodiode light meter.
Just one year later, in 1983, Nikon again updated the series with the Nikon FE2 (finally, we’ve arrived at the review camera). The FE2 took the bearing-mounted titanium shutter of the FM2 and improved upon it through the addition of a quartz-oscillator for electronic timing control, and removal of one shutter blade (the FE2 uses eight blades while the FM2 uses nine). These developments further reduced the shutter travel time from 3.6 milliseconds to a blistering 3.3 milliseconds. Nikon was also quite proud of the FE2’s damping – the camera uses a unique rotating flywheel and inertial mass damping system to minimize mirror shock vibration, eliminating the need for a mirror lock-up feature. The FE2 was available from dealers until 1989.
In 1984, Nikon released an updated FM2, called the FM2n (recognizable by the printed “N” preceding the serial number of FM2s) which adopted the improved shutter from the FE2, and increased the camera’s flash sync speed from 1/200th to 1/250th of a second. Later FM2n’s lost the titanium shutter in favor of an aluminum version, easily discernible since the titanium shutter features a stamped honeycomb pattern while the aluminum shutter blades are smooth. The FM2n would remain in continuous production until 2001.
The FM2/T, a titanium-bodied version of the FM2n, was made beginning in 1993 and sold until 1997.
In 2001 Nikon released the absolutely astonishing Nikon FM3a, an amazing hybrid camera which combined the best aspects of the FM2n with the best of the FE2. The FM3a is, without question, the best manual-focus SLR that Nikon ever made.
What I Love About the Nikon FE2
For photographers like me who, as mentioned at the head of this article, appreciate manual focus 35mm film SLRs with aperture priority auto-exposure, the Nikon FE2 checks all of the obvious boxes. But there are a lot of manual focus 35mm film SLRs in the world. Why choose the FE2 over similar cameras from Minolta, Pentax, and others?
To start, it feels excellent in the hands. While there are plenty of similarly specced film cameras that we could buy today (Minolta alone made about a dozen) very few of them feel as solidly made and finely designed as the Nikon FE2. Nikon’s camera is a precision instrument in the finest tradition of mechanical precision instruments (ignoring the fact that it’s not actually entirely mechanical).
Its mechanical controls and dials actuate with perfect resistance. Every action is direct and assured. The film advance, benefitting from a ball-bearing mounted transport, is smooth and fluid and ratchets with clockwork clicks. The metal chassis surrounded by alloy body plates gives the impression that the camera is durable and strong, like the finest old-school SLRs. Unlike many old-school SLRs, however, the Nikon FE2 is relatively light at 550 grams (1.2 lbs), and it’s smaller than professional-level cameras. This relative compactness combined with its average weight gives the impression, in use, of shooting a tuned and balanced camera. One which will fire forever and withstand some abuse.
Next on the list of likes is the camera’s relative simplicity. There’s nothing here, as far as controls are concerned, which does not need to be here. Aperture is controlled by the aperture ring on the lens (the FE2 can natively mount any Nikon AI and AIS F mount lenses). Shutter speed is controlled via a knob on top. There’s an ISO setting dial, and an exposure compensation dial (+/- 2 stops), depth of field preview, AE lock, and that’s it. The least useful feature is the self-timer (for me). This succinctness of controls creates a methodology of use in which the photographer simply chooses the appropriate depth of field via the aperture ring, sets the Sutter speed (or not, if we’re in semi-auto mode as I typically am) and then fires the shutter. Fine control is easily handled by using exposure comp, or the AE lock (the latter is activated by pressing the self-timer lever inward toward the lens mount once we have the meter reading that we want).
The viewfinder is gorgeous. Big and bright, it gives us every bit of information we need to make a photo. On the left hand side we see the light meter reading and shutter speed indicator, represented by two needles. This system is preferable to the one found in the FM2 because it shows not just whether or not our settings are accurate, but by how far off we might be. On the top of the frame we can see the selected lens aperture. On the right hand side we can see whether or not the exposure compensation dial has been activated. At a glance it’s possible to see exactly what the camera sees, or will see when the shutter is fired, and make our adjustments if necessary.
The last and perhaps the most important thing that I love about the FE2 has little to do with the camera itself. It’s the lenses.
I’ve spent the last year shooting exclusively (for my own pleasure) a Leica R5. I love this camera for many of the same reasons that I love the Nikon FE2. It’s dense, small, capable, and offers aperture priority auto-exposure. But I chose the Leica R5 as my everyday camera not so much because of the camera, but because of the lenses. [See this 28mm review, and this 21mm one, and this 50mm one.] The same can be said about the Nikon FE2.
During the time when Nikon was producing the FE2, they produced more than 70 manual focus lenses for the Nikon F system. This means that there’s a compatible lens to make every type of photo with the Nikon FE2. The fact that I can twist the FE2 onto two of my all-time favorite lenses, the Nikon 105mm F/2.5 portrait lens and the Nikon AIS wide angle 28mm f/2.8, instantly vaults the FE2 into my personal pantheon of favorite cameras.
What I Hate About the Nikon FE2
There’s very little that bothers me about the FE2. But there are a few irritants.
First irritant – it’s battery-powered! It takes two LR44 batteries and these things are absolutely massive. And when the batteries die the camera is inoperable! I can’t possibly be bothered to carry two extra LR44 batteries in my pocket, or camera bag, or wherever. They’re too big. They don’t fit anywhere. And they’re expensive. Who can even afford to buy two LR44 batteries to put in the camera and then two additional LR44 batteries? It’s criminal that Nikon would ever make a camera that runs on batteries.
In case you missed it, that last paragraph was a big joke. People complain constantly about battery-powered cameras and the compliant is ridiculous. The two batteries that power the Nikon FE2 weigh less than one half of one tenth of one ounce. And they’re tiny. And they cost $5.99 for a pack of twenty. And one set in the Nikon FE2 will last eight months of regular shooting. Honestly, everyone, stop complaining about batteries.
Next (and first in my list of actual complaints) is the locking exposure compensation dial. I truly love using exposure compensation, and I really detest locking dials. And so, the fact that my favorite dial on the Nikon FE2 is locked at all times is a cruel irony. To adjust exposure compensation we’re required to press a truly tiny button to the inboard side of the dial. And it gets worse – unlike many cameras with a locking dial, which are freely rotatable once unlocked and turned off of “Off,” the Nikon locks itself on every increment of the dial. This means that to change even from +1, for example, to +2, we have to again press and hold the unlock button. This is a fidgety adjustment and I hate it completely. If I’m not observant enough to know when the exposure compensation is activated then I’m probably not observant enough to be interested in photography (there is, after all, a giant red LED which glows in the viewfinder anytime that the exposure comp is active).
Secondly, the camera does not have a dedicated On/Off switch. Instead, the camera is turned on when the film advance lever is flicked out from its detent. This puts the film advance lever exactly where we need it to be when we’re shooting rapidly, but it also means that the lever pokes me in the eyebrow occasionally. Or it means that if I want to simply frame a shot and see a meter reading, in preparation for maaaaybe taking a photo, I can’t actually see that reading without flicking the lever away from the body. And though this last gripe doesn’t apply to me personally, left-eye dominant shooters will find the protruding lever very uncomfortable.
Lastly, the thing that I hate the most about the Nikon FE2 is that it’s not a Nikon FM3a (the best manual focus Nikon camera ever made). For this, I cannot forgive it (until I look on eBay for an FM3a to replace my FE2 and choke over the FM3a’s $1,500 price tag compared with the FE2’s average price of $200). Reality check processed, I then forgive the FE2 for not being an FM3a and continue happily shooting the thing.
There are plenty of people who will say that the Nikon FE2 is not Nikon’s best manual focus 35mm film SLR with aperture priority. These people might point to Nikon’s pro-grade Nikon F3 or even the Nikon F4 with its hybrid methodology of manual and automatic focus. And it’s true that the F3 or the F4 are more durable, more versatile cameras than the FE2. But they’re also bigger, fatter, clunkier, and needlessly complicated for today’s average hobbyist film photographer.
And some others might point to the FM3a. They would be right, if not for that price tag. I adore the FM3a, but it’s too expensive for most people, even if the price is warranted (which, I think, it truly is). And then there are others who will point to the Nikon FA. But the sad truth is that every single Nikon FA I’ve ever used has broken within hours, days, or weeks of touching my fingers. They are fragile beyond belief.
The Nikon FE2 really is the best manual focus 35mm film SLR that Nikon ever made, all things considered. When we factor the camera’s build quality and lens availability, its proven reliability, its style and size and weight, and its remarkably reasonable average sell price, the FE2 is tough to beat.
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