I own more Nikon SLR bodies than I can possibly use, but each one of them offers its own wonderful characteristics. Also, many of them were gifts to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, and remembering the gift-giver makes it hard to want to say to goodbye.
This Nikon FA is the body I received most recently, and I’d shot just one roll through it. I liked it for its compact size and excellent capability. Here’s a photo from that roll, which was Fomapan 200, through my 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens.
The FA is part of the FE/FM/FA family of semi-pro 35mm SLRs that Nikon introduced to replace its Nikkormat line. The FA was last to the party, introduced in 1983 as a technological tour-de-force. It is the world’s first camera with matrix metering, which Nikon called automatic multi-pattern (AMP) metering. I believe it is also the first Nikon SLR to offer programmed autoexposure, setting both aperture and shutter speed. It also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure and manual exposure.
The FA is also small and lightweight compared to Nikon’s flagship cameras like the F2 and F3. That makes it great for a long weekend of shooting, as when my wife and I recently visited bourbon country in Kentucky. I started with Arista EDU 200 on board, which is rebranded Fomapan 200.
My 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor lens was mounted. Ken Rockwell calls this one of Nikon’s 10 worst lenses ever, but except for noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end I like it. I use it like three primes: 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm, all of which are marked on the barrel so I can dial them right in. For that convenience I’m happy to spend a little time correcting distortion in Photoshop. The photos above and below are from the Maker’s Mark Distillery near Loretto, KY.
I shot in program mode at first, but the in-viewfinder display kept telling me 1/250 sec. and I wondered whether something was amiss. I switched to aperture-priority mode after that. But every photo I made came back properly exposed. Perhaps the FA’s program mode just biases toward midrange shutter speeds. This photo is of the spring house at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.
I blew through the Arista EDU in a day and switched to Agfa Vista 200 for the rest of the trip. In challenging late-afternoon light the FA did a good job of exposing so the Talbott Inn in Bardstown wasn’t lost in the shadows. This tavern and hotel has been operating since 1779.
Bardstown is charming, especially for people like Margaret and me who like old houses. We walked around town a lot just photographing homes and buildings.
I have one peeve with the FA, and I became more and more annoyed with it as the weekend rolled on. To meter, you have to pull the winding lever out to its first stop. With the camera at my eye, that lever poked right into my forehead. I wished for a different way to activate the meter. Also, my FA has a strange fault: the mechanism that prevents you from winding past an unexposed frame is broken. Otherwise, the FA performed well. Its size, weight, and feature set make it a great everyday manual-focus SLR.
The 35-70 zoom also includes a macro mode. What a versatile lens this is.
It’s taken me most of the last 10+ years of collecting and using old cameras to internalize that the lens is the critical component of any camera. But I do believe the FA’s matrix metering made a real difference in mixed and challenging light. My beloved Pentax ME would likely not have done as nuanced a job exposing this mid-evening light.
We drove out to Bernheim Forest on our trip to see the giants, these wooden sculptures just completed by artist Thomas Dambo. I’m sure I’ll do a whole post about them soon. Light reflecting off the smooth wooden surfaces made for a challenging exposure situation, with lots of bright and dark areas. I had to tone down highlights in Photoshop.
The FA’s 1/4000 sec. top shutter speed lets me blur the background in dimmer light, compared to my 1/1000 sec. Pentax ME.
Want to see more? Check out my Nikon FA gallery.
Let’s take an inventory of my manual-focus Nikon SLR bodies.
I’m not getting rid of my two Nikon F2s or my Nikon F3, no sir, nuh uh. I own two Nikkormats, an FTn that’s big and heavy like the F2, and an EL which is smaller and lighter like this FA. I also own an N2000.
The Nikkormats will have their turns in Operation Thin the Herd soon. But I don’t see me keeping either of them over my F2s and F3.
When the N2000 had its turn in Operation Thin the Herd (here) I decided to keep it. I travel with it, as if it is damaged, lost, or stolen, replacements can be had for as little as $20. And I just plain like it.
A working FA costs at least $100, but it’s a far more capable and sensitive performer than the N2000.
On this Kentucky trip either camera would have been fine, though the FA nailed exposure in some of these shots where the N2000 would probably have only done okay.
It comes down to this: The Nikon FA’s wind lever pokes me in the forehead. It’s really annoying.