Cameras, Photography

Nikon F2A

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I now own one of the finest 35mm SLRs of all time and I’m dying to tell you about it. I’m going to try really hard not to gush.

A classic Nikon SLR has been on my want list for a long time, but they’re mighty expensive. I could see that to own one, I’d have to go well beyond my usual $50 limit. The Nikon FE looked like a likely choice – Ken Rockwell gave it a positive review and it looked like patience on eBay could eventually reward me with a body for under $100. I figured a lens would add another $50.

I mentioned my FE desires in this post. I have a few readers who never comment, but instead occasionally e-mail me their thoughts. John Smith is one of those readers. When he read about my Nikon FE dreams, he wrote me and said, “If you want a truly mechanical Nikon SLR to shoot rather than a mostly mechanical Nikon SLR, I might have an F2 that I could be coaxed into donating.”

An F2? You mean the legendary professional SLR? The true system camera, with interchangeable focusing screens and viewfinder heads? The camera that I didn’t think I could touch for less than $250?

Yep. John shipped me a Nikon F2 body with its DP-11 Photomic viewfinder head, which features a coupled light meter. Nikon called this combination the F2A. I welcomed it gladly into the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras.

Nikon F2

I went lens shopping and bought a 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor. My experience has been that f/2 prime lenses are great bargains. Everybody wants the sub-f/2 lenses (e.g., f/1.4), and so they command premium prices. The f/2 lenses are almost always great performers but cost significantly less. If I had been patient, I could have found one for less than the $57 (shipped) that I paid. But I wanted to get shooting!

Nikon F2

This is where I would normally tell the Nikon F2 story and explain how it works. But the F2 is arguably the most documented and discussed camera on the Internet. I have no new information to add, and no new angle from which to examine it. And it works pretty much like any other match-needle 35mm SLR.

But comparing the F2 to other SLRs feels like an injustice. The F2 is incredibly well built for pros who shoot constantly, year in and year out. The F2’s reliability is legendary. Also, it’s a true system camera. You start with the F2 body and add one of many viewfinder heads (see a list here) and focusing screens (see a list here). Then you choose from among several motor drives and flash systems, if you need them. You can even customize this camera for you. For example, are you a little farsighted? No problem; slip on an eyepiece with whatever level of correction you need.

My F2 arrived with the gridded type-E focusing screen and the DP-11 viewfinder head. John warned me that the meter in the DP-11 was fussy, and he was right; I couldn’t ever get it to perfectly center, even with two fresh LR44 batteries. Thank goodness for the wide exposure latitude of Fujicolor 200, my go-to film for testing cameras. It made up for most of the meter’s sins, and Photoshop made up for the rest.

This isn’t the best shot I took, but it does show how blade-sharp this lens is. You can almost count the straws of hay in these rolls.

Hay rolls 3

This isn’t a very exciting composition, either – but just look at that great bokeh. It reminds me of an impressionistic painting.

Needles

This is my favorite shot from my test roll. I took the F2A along on my State Road 46 tour a few weeks ago, and shot it extensively when we reached Nashville, a touristy town full of shops. I hung the heavy F2A around my neck. I was very aware of it all the time. But when I raised the camera to shoot, it seemed to disappear. It was simply an extension of my eye. Bliss!

Autumn garland

I took this available-light shot while my friend Dawn and I waited in line to get some ice cream. I’m really pleased with the warmth and detail this lens captured. You can almost feel the rough cut of the wooden walls.

To the Ice Cream House

I’m also very pleased with the color this lens returned on this film. I shoot Fujicolor 200 all the time and know it very well. These images possess a delightful warm, rich color quality that other lenses just haven’t delivered on this film.

Glass

I finished the roll in my front yard. I like the way the light plays through these little leaves.

Terribly tender leaves 2

John said that “many are called, but few are chosen” to make the F2 their primary camera. I’m not sure yet whether I’m chosen; I will need to shoot many more rolls of film first. But I can certainly tell you that I’m looking very much forward to that journey.

See more photos in my Nikon F2A gallery.

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39 thoughts on “Nikon F2A

  1. Very nice! I especially like the “ice cream” shot. I’m trying not to buy new cameras especially 35mm SLRs. But you’re now the second person that’s raving about that particular camera in a short time. Oh well, some day one will find it’s way into my collection, too :)

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  2. Daniel Burnette says:

    The DP-11 metered head likely will be less fussy if you install the silver oxide SR44 batteries instead of the alkaline LR44 batteries. A lot of people think the two batteries are interchangeable but they are not. The SR44 batteries drain in a way to give you the required voltage almost up until the end; the LR44 batteries drop off in a steady way from the time you begin using them. Many cameras from this era were designed to use the SR44s.

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    • Thanks for the tip. I used some LR44s I’ve had knocking around here for a while, so who knows what charge they have left. I’ll see about getting some SR44s before I take the F2 for another spin.

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      • Daniel Burnette says:

        Good luck with it, Jim Grey. Those Nikons are beasts; I never could afford one when they were new. I own a Nikon S3 rangefinder camera and it’s my favorite film camera.

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  3. Jim:
    Nice photos, and yes, you have the best fully mechanical (and the last hand-assembled camera from Nikon) camera on the planet, in my humble opinion. I have an F2S, with the indicator diodes in the finder, which I like quite a lot. My all-black version was a “bargain” from KEH for a little over $100 last year. You are right about the 50mm f/2. It has excellent corner-to-corner sharpness, and is under-appreciated. Have fun with your new friend!

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    • Thanks Mike! Those trees are becoming a favorite subject. They’re on the fairway that’s behind my back fence, so they’re easy to get to, and the evening sun casts nice shadows off their trunks. Here’s another shot of them, from my Kodak Retina Reflex IV on Tri-X.

      Golf course trees

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  4. John Smith says:

    The meters in the Photomic heads get jumpy mostly because the ring resistor gets dirty or fails. My good friend Sover Wong in the UK has new, super ring resistors available for some models of the F2 heads which, when installed, solve this problem. It is likely that once the resistor is serviced or replaced, a Nikon F2 would still be functioning long after it’s owner has expired.

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  5. Here’s a confession. I enjoy reading posts, both yours and others, on film cameras but I don’t usually take them all that seriously. Learning about the quirks of old cameras and old film is certainly interesting but it is, to me, interesting in the same way that reading about the warm sound of direct to wax cylinder recording is interesting. This one was different. The F2 and the excellent pictures you took with it show what the old technology could and can deliver. Until just a few years ago, I told anyone who asked that digital might be cheaper and more convenient but film produced superior images. I got away from that as digital got better and better but maybe it’s still true. No need to worry, though. I still won’t be bidding against you on that Exacta or Speed Graphic.

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  6. The 50 f2 NAI is a very nice lens indeed. But like all the rest of them I prefer a 1.4 better, more universal for me.

    About the meter being fuzzy. First IF it’s like the my F prism, it probably calls for 1.3V mercury batteries instead of 1.5 (you will have to double check). And the output curve for the batteries are different. If it indeed call for 1.3V, you can get some 625 Zinc air at walgreens and see if that solve the problem. Another thing, check the contacts. Last, it could be the “coil” inside being dirty /dusty.

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  7. smitty1063 says:

    Great work Jim,Looks like you got a winner here.That fuji color is hard to beat.
    Ice cream and classic cameras really make a fun day:)

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  8. John Smith says:

    Besides being big fun to shoot, the F2 is always an attention getter. I was prowling the streets of San Francisco some weeks back shooting Tri-X in my F2S when an older gentleman walked over and mentioned what a fine camera I had. Turns out he has one too and he worked on the Nikon lens assembly line in Japan in the 70s. We spent about 15 minutes talking about all of the great Nikon glass and he gave me some great tips on which pre-Ai and Ai lenses are the best, in his opinion. Of course, you get all the young folks with their iPhones walking up to you and saying “Cool! Is that a film camera?”

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    • How cool that you met someone who worked on the Nikon assembly line. What a fun conversation that must have been!

      I get the most attention when I shoot anything but my SLRs. My big Minolta Hi-Matic 7 rangefinder has gotten me the most attention, followed probably by my various Argus cameras because they all look so different.

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  9. tk47man says:

    And for those who dig old cameras…take a peek at Nikon’s just announced Df. It’s proof that everything that is old is new again.

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  10. Christopher Smith says:

    What a lovely Camera I’m really envious I’m sure you’ll have many years of enjoyment out of it. Its a bit out of my collecting price range but I can dream I may be lucky one day.
    I really like your photo’s you have taken with it.

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  11. Very cool! I shoot quite a lot with my Nikon F3HP. As one of your commenters noted – the F2 was the last handbuilt camera from Nikon. I would love to get the feel for the F2. But I can attest to the feeling of the F3… it’s superb. One thing I don’t appreciate as much however is that the F3 requires batteries for operation though. And I also have the 50mm F2… really great lens.

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    • I’m always going to put a battery into this F2 because I really don’t enjoy guessing my own exposure or using an external meter. So from that perspective, the F2 is as good as the F3 for me.

      I have no complaints with the 50mm f/2 either! Wonderful warm color. I’m an enormous fan of Pentax glass and love the signature color that the the SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/2 delivers — but I think I like this Nikon’s results a little better.

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  12. I really impressed by the results with this lens. The color rendition is excellent. I agree about the f/2 lenses being underestimated. I have used the wider version of other lenses and unless for some reason you can’t live with that bigger stop I am not sure they are worth the extra money. I know a lot of people will say they are, however they are usually the people who have already paid the extra money.

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    • I bought a 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M for use with my Pentax cameras because I kept finding myself shooting at church in available light, and that extra stop really helped. But under normal circumstances, I don’t need that stop, and the 50mm f/2 does equally fine work.

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  13. Bill Barry says:

    Jim,
    Great article on the F2a, I just picked up a black F2a with the DP 11 head, along with a chrome F with non metered prism head at a garage sale. $170 for both cameras with lenses. Shooting back and forth between the F and the F2, shows how Nikon took an incredible camera and made it even better. Every control on the F2 is right where it needs to be. Kinda makes the F seem fiddly by comparison. I do need to find a mid AI prime lens and the 50/f2 looks like a bargain.
    I really enjoy your camera write-ups and your contributions on Curbside Classics.

    Best Regards
    Bill Barry

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  14. alanbigskies says:

    Using F2 kit I earned my living freelancing for business magazines for roughly twenty-five years. These cameras are certainly the most robust, reliable and easy-to-use equipment I’ve come across.

    Most of my work was on construction sites and farms; my F2s were out in heavy rain, dust storms, snow and heat-waves and survived numerous drops (including one of fifteen feet), a drenching with cider, wet concrete and so on. The only recurrent glitches were that, now and again, shutter-speeds would ‘wander’ a little and they became clogged with dust during harvest. My local technician’s eyes lit up with glee whenever I took these cameras in to be sorted out. In his opinion they remain the best 35 ml cameras ever made.

    I’ve kept my kit: five bodies with S, A and AS heads, a range of equally-indestructible ais lenses and five drives – which proved more vulnerable than the bodies and are now beyond repair. My favourite body was a 1971 model and my preferred head the A version whose needle i found perfect for shooting transparencies.

    I ought mention my technician reckoned some spare parts for the A head were getting hard to find – hence the fifth body and head for spares if the need arose. But that shouldn’t alarm anyone who has bought an F2A in good condition – it took thousands of rolls of film before a metering problem showed up.

    These days I use Fuji’s X-Pro1 and I’m delighted with it. (I have looked at Nikon’s Df, mentioned above, but didn’t take to it – the top plate is too crowded for my clumsy fingers). But if i could still get pro-level E6 processing locally i would undoubtedly still use my F2s regularly…and with much more pleasure!

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    • I love this testimonial to the F2. You used yours well, and sometimes they took abuse, and they kept on going. It gives me optimism that my two F2s (I also have an F2AS) will last and last. My F2A has a wonky meter, so one of these days I’m going to send the whole camera out for an overhaul and to get the meter repaired. Then I can keep b/w film in one F2 and color in the other and be ready for everything!

      I’m grateful for the good word on the X-Pro 1.

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  15. Michael Lee says:

    I confirm that you should get it to Sover Wong. He worked on my F and it shoots like new. He is nothing short of legendary among F2 shooters. He offers Superb service and follow ups, pictures of work in progress along with a CD of full reports and orher goodies. Do your F2 a favour and get it healed at Sover’s ;-) cheers.

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