Nikon FE2 – (Almost) My Favorite Nikon SLR

Nikon FE2 – (Almost) My Favorite Nikon SLR

2000 1125 James Tocchio

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.

[The sample photos below were made with the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 and Agfa APX100 film.]

Wrapping Up

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.

Buy your own Nikon FE2 on eBay here

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
26 comments
  • Me too!
    Since we speak wisely and we balance all ratios:
    – Price,
    – Performances,
    – Many great lens,
    – Quality,
    – Compact compare to many,
    – Light,
    – Easy to find,
    – Easy to repair,
    – Easy to use,
    – … and so on.
    This is probably the best Nikon with the F6 and the FM3a which are really more expensive, and probably one of the best camera because we can do more things than with a Leica, despite a love Leica, but to have a killer camera: here it is!
    And of course a NIKON! Made in Japan of course!

  • Shubroto Bhattacharjee October 8, 2021 at 3:26 am

    Elegantly described, James.
    The FE2 had an exposure-value lock missing in the FA; the rationale was that the 5-segment AMP multipattern metering in the latter would obviate the need for a lock.
    Loved the humour in your huge-batteries paragraph!

  • Merlin Marquardt October 8, 2021 at 7:02 am

    Like it.

  • This is why the SP was sold?

    I LOVE the FE2 – love the compact size, AE, display, reliability, and I even like the shutter lock. It’s the perfect carry all the time camera for me.

    I have one gripe against the FM3A, and it’s that the typeface on the prism is not the old Nikon one. I can buy an FM2/T AND a FE2 for the price of one.

    Also, the factory AI modified 105 2.5 PC is the bees knees

    • No. In the end, the SP was not sold and I still have it.

      • Thankfully ! Still waiting on the full review after all these years of using it! No worries, don’t want to bug you on this again !

        Good review on the FE2 which is objectively quite hard to beat. My only reservations are that It is does « feel » as nice or well built as some other less capable older cameras, Minolta XE-1; Nikon EL 2 or even the Nikon F3 and Pentax LX etc.

        But easy recommendation to anyone to just get and get on with photos and not worry about camera.

        Have a good weekend

        Marius

  • Do you enjoy this more than the Nikon SP? It’s hard to beat the price + practicality of the FE2 here.

    The more I’ve shot film, the less I’m willing to shoot with a fully manual camera for day-to-day stuff. Sure sometimes it’s fun if the process of taking photos is all your focused on, but sometimes you just want to capture the moment without having to fiddle around with a light meter. In my opinion, the aperture priority film bodies (looking at you Nikon F3!) provide some of the most pleasant photographic experiences.

    Also side note that I too absolutely love the 28mm f/2.8 AIS and 105mm f/2.5 lenses. Doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂

    • I enjoy using SLRs more than I like using rangefinders, so in that sense I do prefer this over the SP. However, the SP is a special camera. I don’t think I like any other camera more than I like the SP.

  • I bought my black FE2 in 1983 to use in photography classes in high school. I still have it, though the shutter occasionally sticks, now, so it’s way overdue for a CLA. It’s a great little camera. Sadly, my wife threw out all my old negatives so I don’t have much to show for those years of ownership.

    One correction: the meter turns on when you pull the film advance lever out to its on position then you half-press the shutter release. It remains on for about 15 (?) seconds.

    You touched upon the AE lock feature but you didn’t mention how to use it. For the uninitiated, you press the self timer lever towards the lens mount when you have the meter reading that you like then you press down on the shutter release to take the photo.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach October 8, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    My opinion might be a bit biased, but I don’t think there’s any other series of cameras that’s delivered so many consistently masterful models as the FM/FE series. Maybe Nikon’s own flagship F models, but even those have some arguable setbacks, such as being less accessible to novice shooters, more expsencis, as well as larger and with more heft. As the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you, and one’s more likely to have an FM than an F

  • These are not bad cameras, but a Leica R5 or R7 would easily outperform them.

    • In what respect…?

    • Same question about the R5 and R7 in which?
      I don’t think so: R5 and R7 are not so reliable and lens are not really better.

    • I would have to disagree, strongly. The Nikons of the FE/FM family are more reliable mechanically and electronically (particularly important with the FE series where you *need* the electronics for the camera to function) than either of the cameras you mentioned. I spent a lot of time hanging around a second hand camera store in London that emphasised Leicas, and their SLRs of that vintage suffered frequent failures of various kinds.

      Leica R lenses contemporary with these Nikon models are *arguably* better in some cases than their Nikon counterparts, but only just barely, and usually it wouldn’t be noticed in real life shooting. And as James pointed out, Nikon offered a lot greater variety of lenses than Leica ever did.

      Finally, while I was very interested at various times in Leica SLRs of that period, I never pulled the trigger on buying one (even though I own, and love, an M3 and an M6). For me, the most maddening thing was that every single Leica SLR I ever handled that featured electronics, there was a distinctly perceptible shutter delay. My Nikon FE seemed to fire almost immediately when I pressed the shutter button, while the Leicas were not nearly as responsive. To me, that was *inferior* performance that meant I’d never swap my FE for one.

      • I agree with everything you said here. As an owner of a Leica R5 for the past few years I will add that I love the R5 and its metering system is amazing. Better than Nikon’s FM/FE series cameras.

        Relating to the shutter lag, that is a symptom of a sticky mirror piston. These can easily be cleaned and it effectively eliminates any lag. The shutter still feels a little slow, but that’s by design (the camera adjusts exposure by milliseconds at the time of shutter release, supposedly).

  • The FE2 is one of my favorites! I have the FM2n, FE, F3, F4 and F100. The FE2 and FM2n get used the most!

  • I collect old Nikons (and several other brands) and I like the FE2 a lot. The FE is also fun to shoot. On his website review of the FE, Ken Rockwell claims the the shutter on the FE will go from longer than an hour to 1/4000 in A mode. (I haven’t tried to do this myself, though.)

    “Meter and Shutter Range

    The manual settings are fixed at full stops from 8 seconds to 1/1,000.

    The Auto mode also selects shutter speeds seamlessly, so if perfect exposure is 1/234 second or 3.1415926 seconds, that’s what you’ll get.

    Even though Nikon only specifies the Auto mode to cover the same range, in actuality the Nikon FE’s Auto range covers from exposure times longer than an hour to about 1/4,000 of a second!”

    Not sure if this is applicable to the FE2, he doesn’t say.

    The EL2 was Nikon’s first auto exposure camera in 1977, discontinued in 1978 for the FE. I just got one recently and I’m currently shooting it. Shutter sounds great, controls are sturdy, but it’s big and clunky. I’m using an aftermarket grip I found on eBay from a seller in Hong Kong; the camera is difficult to handle without it.

  • Plenty of love for the FE series here too (and the very similar-to-use Nikkormat EL) I’ve not used an FE2 but I think it fills one of the FE’s few ergonomic gaps: that the AE lock doesn’t also lock the viewfinder needle.

    If this is true, I’d get more use out of it than from the FE2’s headline-grabbing whizzy-shutter goodness. And part of me just wants an FE2 now because my teenage self couldn’t afford a new one when I started all this in 1984.

    Oh, and would you be interested in backing my Kickstarter project for a motorized, solar-powered LR44 trolley? It uses artificial intelligence to predict the exact moment your camera’s batteries will expire, which means that it usually just stays home watching Netflix and eating your custard creams while you get on with the pair you have. Target price is $9,995 but early backers will never see their money again — I mean, get a special deal. Sign here, please.

  • The FE2 was the first film SLR I bought, when I started shooting film in earnest, having been a digital photographer for some years prior. It certainly helped to already have some compatible Nikkor AF-D series lenses I could use on the FE2. I picked it precisely for the reasons outlined in this lovely review. Aperture priority, seamless auto-exposure shutter speeds, relatively small and light, durable titanium shutter, excellent build quality, excellent viewfinder display, 1/250 flash sync, and 1/4000 max shutter speed. One thing that the author left out, that I think the FE2 does lack, is one of those viewfinder blackout shutters useful when taking long exposures. I have one of these in my Canon A-1 and Minolta XD-11 and it seems conspicuously absent on my FE2, but that’s a small trifle compared to how much I love using this camera. Of all the cameras I use, my FE2 is the one I would never consider getting rid of. Also, I have that same Nikkor-P Auto 105mm f/2.5 lens pictured, with the scalloped focusing ring and ability to stop down to f/32. The copy in the photos here appears to have been Ai-converted, replacing the aperture ring with the correct Nikkor Ai part and the solid pre-Ai rabbit ears with the later see-through version. As those parts are difficult to come by anymore, my lens was Ai-converted by machining down the stock pre-Ai aperture ring to the correct dimensions, while retaining the solid rabbit ears. It’s a great fit on this camera.

  • Whomever bought the excellent condition FE2 on KEH after reading this article before me…well…I’m mad. LOL In all seriousness, I have been very adamantly against any film cameras that include electronics but the aperture priority feature and this article might put me over the edge as that would be very convenient in an event setting. Also going to need that 105mm lens…gulp; time to sell some gear.

  • Great review. The FE2 was my first “electronic” Nikon that I bought new in the ’80’s with the MD-12. Today it doesn’t get used as much but I shot many rolls of Kodachrome 64 back in the day with excellent results. I never had dead battery issues during a shoot, though I did carry a 3V 1/3N lithium backup. Anyhow there was always the M250 speed if you had no power. Until recently, I found little love for used FE2’s with it’s older brother the FM2 being more popular and commanding higher prices. Many lust for the seemingly out of reach high priced FM3a but I can’t justify getting one only to have a similar user experience and performance as my FE2.

  • Count me in as another lover of the FE/FM series. My father had a Nikkormat EL (which still works) when we were growing up an bought me a brand new Nikon FE in 1979. I took it all over the world, dropped it a few times and it just kept on working. I still have it today and it still works flawlessly. Still shoot slides with it once in a while. I love the match needle exposure meter. Very intuitive, superior in my view to the DSLR – – – | – – –
    presentation. I never use the exposure compensation wheel. If I want to underexpose or overexpose a bit i just tweak the aperture a bit between the stops and the needle will tell me how much over or underexposed the shot will be. Real easy. You can do this in both manual and auto mode. Try it. I use manual mode most of the time and auto if i’m in a hurry. I’m a big fan of the split image focusing screens.

    I have both the Nikkor 105 2.5 AIs and 28 2.8 AIs. Love that I can put the FE and my Df in the camera bag and use these lenses on either camera even though the two cameras came out 35 years apart.

    I also agree that the FM3a is the ultimate member of the FE/FM family. I bought one about 7 years ago on ebay for $500. Love it. Yes they are crazy expensive now and some in ebay are asking $1500 but I saw several in the $800-$1000 range. Still rather pricey though.

    The FE/FM series cameras are awesome!

  • The best nikon manual camera was the F2, no discussion.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio