My first exposure to Nikon was at Penn State's Daily Collegian where the pool cameras were FMs and an F2. I didn't use the F2 much - with its motor drive and a 180mm lens it was wearing a cinder block.
The F2 was Nikon's mechanical, manual flagship system camera of the 1970s. Rugged and reliable construction along with a complete system of lenses, backs, finders and other accessories made it the professional's choice.
So much has been written about it already. My intention here is to give a quick tour of the camera, list some reasons why it may be better or worse than other cameras of the era, and describe what I like and dislike about using it.
Finders and functionality. Throughout its approximately 10 years of production the F2 body had few exterior changes. The major updates were to the Photomic finders which increased sensitivity, moved from needle to LED indicators, and provided compatibility with AI lenses. Some controls as well as the metering indicators depend on the finder.
This particular body has the DP-12 finder which was the last of the line and makes the camera an F2AS. The meter is compatible with AI lenses and measures down to a dim EV -2, landscapes lit by the full moon. It will meter non-AI lenses in stop down mode.
Body and construction. It's a big camera, but not absurdly so. About 0.5"/12mm wider than the FM/FE compact body and a bit deeper and taller as well. The metered finder adds considerable height. Weight is about 10oz/300g more than an FE2.
The camera is overbuilt. There are deep channels around the heavy gauge door which look like they'd be light-tight without any seals. The film sprocket roller is metal as opposed to plastic in other cameras, and looks like it came out of a car transmission. Everything feels solid and precise: the shutter fires with a sharp and authoritative clack, and the film advance is smooth and nearly silent.
The top deck has the film rewind crank on the left. Surrounding the crank is the non-standard flash mount: flashes slide over the rewind crank. The top edge of the serial number marks the film plane. On the finder there's a viewfinder illuminator switch and the ASA/shutter speed dial on the side. In front of the ASA dial on the side is the finder release lever.
On the right side of the top deck is the shutter release surrounded by the lock/time exposure collar. The shutter button won't work with a standard cable release, only with a Nikon AR-4 cable release or an adapter that screws over the shutter button and provides a standard threaded hole.
The film advance lever is the meter power switch. Pull it out exposing the red dot and the meter is on. The advance lever is ratcheted. Wind on with one big stroke or several short ones.
On the front of the camera to the left of the lens is the depth of field preview button surrounded by the mirror lock up lever. There's a familiar-looking self timer lever but this one pulls double duty: it is also used for exposures from 2-10 seconds (more on this later).
To the right of the lens is the lens release button and the PC terminal.
The back of the camera has a button that's used to release both the finder and the focusing screen. The DP-12 finder has a viewfinder shutter lever above the eyepiece to prevent extraneous light from leaking in during long exposures. When the eyepiece shutter is closed the top LED lights up for correct exposure.
The bottom of the camera has the motor drive advance and shutter connections on the right along with the rewind button. The tripod socket is centered under the lens mount, and the battery compartment is next to it. The camera takes 2 S-76 silver batteries (aka 357), 2 LR44s, or one CR 1/3 N. Batteries are used to power the light meter only. At left is the control to open the camera: Fold down the key and turn it towards O all the way to pop the back open.
Viewfinder. The DP-12 is bright and the entire frame can be seen with the eye a bit away from the eyepiece. In fact, it's amazingly bright for a 40+ year old camera. I'm convinced that this camera is easier to focus than, say, the FE2. The difference between in focus and out of focus on the ground glass seems more apparent.
The finder shows the aperture for AI lenses, a red LED +o- exposure indicator, and shutter speed along the bottom. The aperture and shutter speed display is a little fiddly - you need to look directly in, not at an angle - and unfortunately disappears in dim light. The finder illumination switch on the top of the camera lights up the shutter speed. There is a flash ready light above the eyepiece that works with the few compatible flashes.
Schmutz in the finder. The focusing screen accumulates dust and needs to be cleaned pretty often. I've also used the F5 which has a removable finder and suffers from the same problem. On my camera the glass finder eyepiece was missing which probably makes things worse.
Flash. Sync is at 1/80, the red dot between 1/60 and 1/125 on the shutter speed dial. The camera accepts the AS-1 flash coupler which slides into the proprietary connection and provides a hot shoe, but it must be removed to rewind film.
Self-timer and long exposures. The self-timer is variable between 2 and 10 seconds. Set the desired delay and then hit the small silver button on the body to start the timer. Pressing the shutter release will immediately make an exposure then the self timer will run down.
For exposures of 2-10 seconds, set the shutter speed dial to B. Lift and turn the collar around the shutter release to the T position. Select the desired exposure time using the self timer lever. Press the shutter release to make the exposure.
In use. As I mentioned earlier focus seems to pop more distinctly than on other cameras, especially with wide angle lenses. The large bright finder combined with the ease of focus makes up for any other shortcomings.
When I used an OM-1 I loved the ratcheted film advance - I'd keep the camera up to my eye and wind with a few little strokes. The F2 allows me to work this way again. The full film advance stroke is very short so it's possible to be ready to shoot again rapidly.
The shutter speed dial, being raised up by the Photomic finder, is not in the best position but I got used to it quickly. My body has a soft release that raises the shutter button. Not sure if this is better or worse.
The F2 is a joy to use. I quickly forget about the camera and concentrate on shooting.
The F2's biggest advantages in its day, its modularity and the huge number of accessories, are less relevant now. The two main connectors - flash, cable release - are non-standard. Many accessories now seem like antiques. There was an autoexposure module, a large thing that attached to the front of the camera and physically turned the aperture ring. The motor drive is heavy, requiring 8 AA batteries, loud, and rather complicated to use.
Alternatives. The F3 offers an electronically controlled shutter with the same speed range and flash sync as the F2, along with auto exposure and the same bulletproof build quality. The FM2 and FE2 are smaller and lighter, and both have a higher top shutter speed, a hot shoe, and a faster flash sync speed. The FE2 also has aperture priority auto, but requires a battery to function. The FM3A offers the best of both: a hybrid shutter that works fine without a battery, and aperture priority auto. Unfortunately it's very expensive.
The F2 is a great manual shooter. Small refinements make it a pleasure to use, and it's compatible with practically any Nikkor lens.
After the apocalypse, when all electronic cameras have been rendered inoperable by electromagnetic pulse, F2s will still be clacking away taking pictures of whatever is left... if there's unfogged film, anyway.
- Beautiful uncluttered viewfinder
- Focus really pops
- Ratcheted film advance and short advance stroke
- DP-12 meter is sensitive and accurate
- Very rugged build
- Usable with practically every Nikon F-mount manual focus lens, and will stop-down meter with anything that can be stuck on the camera.
- Heavy, especially with large aperture lenses
- No auto mode
- Non-standard cable release
- Not great for flash: no hot shoe, slowish sync speed. No shoe means no convenient place to attach a wireless trigger, either. Argh.
- Nikon F2 finders - all the various options explained
- Nikon F2 manuals - a different manual for each Photomic finder
- Photography in Malaysia's comprehensive F2 information