6.11.2012

A quick review of one of the best cameras ever mass produced.


There are a zillion Nikon F2 cameras still floating around the photography universe.  There are two compelling reasons for that: 1. It was mass produced for over a decade; from 1971 to 1981, during a decade in which photography exploded exponentially as a hobby.  And this particular Nikon was the ultimate aspirational camera for most photographers.  2.  The camera is just flat out bullet proof.  It's like a giant squad of unkillable zombies.  It's the Energizer Bunny, it goes on and on.  And if it won't break it can go on giving pleasure to generation after generation of savvy photo artists.

Of all the cameras I've owned the Nikon F2 is still the only one I know about that has infinitely variable shutter speeds between 1/90th of a second and the top shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second.  No, I did not mis-type, you can set the shutter dial anywhere in between marked, click stopped shutter speeds and actually get controllable, fractional settings.

See the little ring of numbers that surrounds the base of the self-timer lever?  You can use that control, in concert with the control that surrounds the shutter button to set timed exposures up to 10 full seconds.  And the body?  Solid. Built of some kind of metal that won't melt, break, decompose or break.  It is even impervious to gamma and alpha rays.  Rumors abound that the Japanese tracked a meteorite of considerable size as it plunged through the atmosphere and settled in 300 meters of depth off the coast of their island nation.  Divers located the meteorite and took samples.  After rigorous testing by the JCIC it was discovered that the meteor's atomic structure was unlike anything on the periodic table.

In incredible secrecy Nikon, using a fleet of sixty enormous oil tankers and a system of air bladders the size of Rhode Island lifted the meteor intact (130.1 meters in diameter) and took it to their secret Fortress of R&D Solitude.  When queried by officials of several governments the people at Nikon gave out an official statement:  "Giant ultra-cool alloy meteorite? Never heard of it..."

Over the years they melted down this precious metal and made an alloy they called, "Inspirationium."

All Nikon F2 bodies were constructed out of this metal.  And it skewed the entire camera market.

Competitors came out with cameras built from stainless steel and then magnesium alloy at half the price but once a consumer touched the cool Inspirationium they had to have the Nikon F2.  Nothing else would satisfy them. Car payments were missed.  College funds plundered.  That product coined the phrase, "must have."

Several of these cameras have been on missions to space but most people have never heard of the top secret events in which a Nikon F2 saved the lives of everyone on a returning space shuttle.  The story goes something like this:  During lift off high speed video cameras captured footage of some heat shield tiles popping off the hull of the space shuttle.  Those ceramic tiles were a crucial part of the heat barrier that would protect the crew of the shuttle from the devastating heat of re-entry.  Everyone at NASA totally freaked out.  They were certain that the re-entry would be a disaster. The mission was kept secret because it was undertaken for some national security agency and recon satellites were being launched.

They tried to come up with a plan to save the astronauts but nothing else on the ship could withstand the hellish temperatures.  The  astronauts went on with their mission doing their space walks and talking wonderful images with their modified Nikon F2's.  Then one of the crew (an amateur photographer) remembered the rumors about the space alloy being used in the F2's and he frantically radioed mission control.  A quick satellite link up with Nikon (and much strategic arm bending concerning tarriffs and such) confirmed the rumor.  The space alloy had an incredibly high melting point.  It just might work.

Another space walk was planned.  This time it included three Nikon F2 cameras, superglue and two rolls of duct tape.  The cameras were placed over the spots where tile was missing and superglued into place.  The duct tape would certainly melt the instant the hull began to heat up but it would help hold the cameras in place until the pressure of the atmosphere  stepped in to take its place.  Everyone held their breath as the bandaged Shuttle began the descent.  The control crew on the ground was silent as they listened to the drama on their radios.  Radar from stations across the globe tracked the progress of the Shuttle.

Then......splash down.  The mission was saved.  And divers were sent to retrieve the cameras.

That alone would make an interesting story in itself but it goes on from there.  The retrieved cameras were returned to Nikon in Japan for a clean, lube and adjust and then sent back to NASA.  They only needed the saltwater rinsed out and few adjustments, other than that they were in minty condition.  A few years further down the road and budgets were cut.  The cameras were sold off at a public auction and rumor has it that one of cameras went to a famous fashion photographer in London, another is still being shot by some guy who does cigarette ads and the third one is used by a famous photojournalist who will, of course, deny that he's ever used a Nikon camera because he is, in fact, sponsored by a rival company.  But many of the assistants who've worked with him in the field swear that, when the going gets rough, and the Pulitzers and MacAuthor grants are on the line, one of the Space Shuttle F2's comes out of the bag with one of the legendary manual focus lenses and the real magic happens.  Every time.

Then there's the story of the CIA agent posing as a professional photographer in Rumania just spying the crap out of everything.  His camera prop of choice?  Of course it was an F2. The story is long and twisted but in the end he was caught red-handed by an assassin from the Rumanian government.  They faced each other and the CIA agent, Nikon F2 hanging around his neck on a leather strap, Nocto-Nikkor lens on deck, prepared to meet death with dignity.  His adversary lifted his silenced Makarov pistol and fired one shot directly at the agent's chest.

The bullet struck the Inspirationium shell of the camera which both absorbed all impact and then bounced the steel jacketed bullet right back at the assassin, striking him in the head and allowing the agent to escape.

But there is also the sad, sad story of the man in the hot air balloon who got too greedy.  He was trying to set a new altitude record for ballooning without supplemental oxygen.  He'd attained 30,000 feet and wanted to document his feat with his Nikon F2.  He was wearing it on a new, experimental strap the fit across his chest like a bandolier.  It was made of burgundy colored leather and it attached to the camera via the tripod socket. He called his strap the Burgundy Express.  But of course that single point of attachment was ludicrous and, as the camera twisted and turned on the strap it came loose and started to plunge to the earth.  Addled by the thin air our balloonist reached desperately for the camera and lost his grip on the safety ropes for the balloon.  In a flash he and the camera were accelerating toward terminal velocity.  The camera, with its small profile, accelerated more rapidly and hit the corn fields of Nebraska with a dull thud.  The balloonist landed directly on top of his own camera and was killed instantly by the impact.

But there was a silver lining to this story as well.  The camera, after falling 30,000 feet was sent to Nikon service for a quick CLA and, after an adjustment to the second shutter curtain, went back into service.  This time in the inventory of a photographer who had been struggling to succeed both artistically and in business.  Once she picked up the F2 her business picked up as well.
She went on to shoot for a number of major magazines, even shooting royalty.  And she's shilled for several other camera companies.  But you guessed it.....When the chips are down and the assets are on the block, out comes the F2 and in a matter of a few purchase orders everything returns to fashionable success.

Well.  That's all I really know about the Nikon F2 except that I have one as well.  It works.  It only takes film.  Seems you can't mix digital sensors with Inspirationium metal.

(for the painfully literal:  this is all fiction.  That means I made it up. )


I recently bought another F2 just so I'd have a back up.  I was amazed to be able to buy one for around $150. Perhaps the existence of Inspirationium is  a better kept secret than I thought.

Don't run out and buy a Nikon F2.  There aren't enough used ones to go around as it is.  And it's very complicated to use.  It has three major controls:  Focus, Aperture and Shutter Speed.  Too tough to remember without the manual.





27 comments:

Craig said...

The F2 is amazing. I have two of them too, though one of them, sadly, has developed the habit of occasionally locking up when advancing the film, leaving the shutter in a half-cocked state. Nothing a repairman couldn't fix easily, I imagine.

Nikon cameras in general, at least those made up through the 1970s, are indestructible. My FM and FE are still going strong. In the '80s Nikon's mid-range and pro cameras remained solid, but they started introducing cheaper cameras to grab the low end of the market, and those aren't proving quite as reliable in the long term as their all-mechanical cameras.

Being probably almost as much of a camera explorer as you, I'd hate to be limited to one brand (I love my Olympus, Minolta, Canon, Pentax, Mamiya, and Hasselblad cameras too), but at least in the 35mm film realm, if I had to choose one I think it would have to be Nikon for their unbeatable reliability and excellent range of lenses.

Bill Bresler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jared said...

I get the feeling that every time you post about a classic camera that you've owned and loved, it's price gets driven up. Sufferers of GAS jump on eBay, frantically searching the listings and bidding to grab themselves a camera with Kirk Tuck's approval.

Dave Jenkins said...

I hated the F2. I started with the F, then used Nikkormats for awhile before getting an F2. It is heavy, clunky, and worst of all, I could not rewind the film without banging my fingers against the meter prism and losing my grip on the rewind crank. The F2 is the camera that drove me to the Olympus OM system. So in that sense, I guess it did me a favor.

Michael Ferron said...

Don't buy an F3 and rave about it. I might want to buy a back up for mine and don't need it to go up in price. :>

Unknown said...

Oh, that was brilliant!

My original Nikon F with a tn finder still works as new. My Nikkormat (actually a Nikomat) still works like it was new. Both purchased in Japan around 1969.

If only Kodachrome 64 was still around...

ChazL said...

I've got a lovely, all black F2 Photomic, and it's got every bit of the cachet that you describe. Its ALMOST as cool as my two Nikon F's.

Maarit said...

I love those old Nikon's! Last weekend i got my first Nikon FM from late 70's that has been used earlier by my mother. It works perfectly and i'm having lot's of new experiences from learning how to use it.

steveH said...

Everybody else that I worked with back then used F's and F2's (except for one fellow who worked out a deal to be supplied with an M4 and lenses, and still get paid, to boot), but I never did cotton to them, using various Canon F-1's until I finally went digital.

But they're so affordable now ...

Sam said...

I love my FE for its aperture priority mode which will work out hour long exposures in the blackest night. Apart from that it has all the simplicity and charm you describe. Here's the trick setup: grab the b2 screen from an FE2. You will get a brighter screen which still has plenty of "tooth" for easy manual focussing. Just dial in a permanent +0.5 exposure compensation to compensate the meter for the brighter screen. You don't want the FE2 as you will lose the lovely meter needle (LEDs instead) and you will lose the extreme long exposure ability. The FE even locks up the mirror at the start of the self-timer.

Here is how I shoot a perfect night scene with my FE:
1. Set aperture and set shutter auto
2. Set self timer
3. Block any bright points of light in scene that I don't want the meter to regard by holding my finger in front of lens
4. Press shutter. Exposure is now locked but since the shutter hasn't fired yet my finger will not be in the picture
5. Remove finger
6. Wait for the perfectly calculated long exposure calculated by the camera to finish. On a very dark night this can be as much as an hour!

Tell me what other camera doesn't leave you staring at a stopwatch.

Sam

cidereye said...

Owned pretty much most high end Nikon SLR's since the F until the D2X and have to say that the F2 is by far my favourite. Still own 2, used the F2AS only last week along with an F3. Cameras today just will not give you the same passionate feeling when you use them, end of.

Lanthus Clark said...

I thought it was delivered to Nikon by super advanced aliens who wanted to speed up the evolution of the camera. Shows what I know!

;-)

Tom Swoboda said...

I stopped reading by the 4th paragraph.

I still have my late father's F2 imitator, the Minolta XK.

Luke Ding said...

Kirk,

Great post. I recently acquired a FE2 and I love it to bits. I have a 50mm Zeiss f1.4 attached to the front of it and it is absolutely amazing!

Luke

PP said...

In junior high school I was in photo club, you used your own camera and the school had a darkroom, well sort of a darkroom, it was shared with the cleaning people who always seemed to come in at the wrong moment.
Ahhh, but high school, they had a Nikon F2, but you had to be on the yearbook staff to use it. I really had no interest in yearbook, but join it I did and being the most knowledgeable kid in photography I got to cover everything with the camera. I was cool, I had a Nikon. Most of the pics in 4 years of yearbook were mine.

Funny though when I get to get a real SLR(moving up from a Ricoh 500G) I choose the OM1, go figure.

jason gold said...

i always wanted one! A must have.. The very first one's had teething trouble, after a few adjustments, clear and off into present danger.
i have the Nikon-F. i waited for those 2 to wear out..i'm wearing out.
Strong! i dropped a rig with a 200mmf3,5 Takumar(was Ian Berry's of Magnum). It hit concrete. Neither lens nor body damaged! Like a small dent in corner of body!The 200mm lens is all brass and solid glass. Heavy.
Dropped a Leica lens less than 12" and it took a year, to fully repair..
The weight now of my F's is the problem.
Reading about/watching Ragnar Axelson,"Last of the Arctic",kinda wondered why not a F or a F2. Oh! I added a F3 a few years ago when my FTn-heads went loco.
The F3 built 1980.

Noons said...

Besides the F I got 31 years ago (in a plastic bag - had been flooded!), I have two F2s - both fine-tuned by Sover Wong. The shutter in all three is within 1/4 stop precision, after all these years. Completely mechanical, and yet sooooooo precise - a true marvel of engineering! It is a definite pleasure to take them out every 6 months or so and run a couple of Neopan 400 or Acros through each. Never missed a beat!

John Krill said...

Another reason for not using a Nikon F2 is the manual film advance. MANUAL? Every time you take a picture you have to remember to 'crank' the film forward. How did they ever get good photos in the old days?

I've had too many Nikon F. Love every one of them. Now you have me going to eBay and checking out the F2. $200 should do it.

Great post. Keep up the interesting work.

CWM said...

I used to take my F2S to various "clean and checks" along with other cameras. The shutter speed was always accurate and never needed any adjustment. Realizing that I was always reaching for the F3 (High Eyepoint Model) based on my need for glasses, I finally succumbed and sold my 25 year old F2S. Wish I hadn't ...one of my few regrets over the years of buying, selling and trading camera equipment. Fun read!

Gregg Mack said...

Kirk, I'm not sure what you ate for dinner lst night, but it certainly had a strange effect on you. (I loved reading your post this morning!) BTW, I always thought the material was known as Unobtanium.

kirk tuck said...

Gregg, Unobtanium is solely reserved for Leicas....

It makes titanium look like sissy metal.

John said...

A Back Up Body? I thought you said the F2 was indestructable?

kirk tuck said...

I should have said "back up investment body." When the supply finally dries up I'll be able to sell one to collectors for who knows how much money and then have a body left for shooting on my private beach.... Optimism, the new drug.

Brad Burnham said...

Thanks for the fun read Kirk.

Ed Lara said...

Too much fun! A truly great camera, though, I can't believe you can get one used for $150. I do remember when I was back in High School and the guy in the camera club with the F2AS (clearly his dad's camera) was the envy of the group.

Jacques said...

Fictional ? Not so much... A good friend of mine used a F2 in the 1968 riots in Paris. An horizontally shot tear gas grenade hit him frontally below the waist, it happened he was holding the F2 there and the lens exploded, even the camera was torn up a bit... He ended having the biggest bruise he ever had, but the F2 cushioned in a way the direct impact...!
The FM2n is a dignified heir of the F2 (surely from the same meteorite ) :-)

Low Budget Dave said...

I still have the Nikon F, and still use it from time to time. All you fancy young kids with your F2's and your fancy timer's with "T"s on them...

In my day... Wait... I guess I used to overexpose all my pictures.

Can't blame the camera for that, though. I still do it.