Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon Nikomat FTn

Tree flowers

Metal, mechanical 35mm SLRs with coupled light meters are my favorite way to shoot. I like how substantial they feel. The best of them, like my 1967-75 Nikon Nikomat FTn, feel like they’ll outlast me.

Nikon Nikomat FTn

On my first outing with this camera I loaded some since-discontinued Arista Premium 400 (which was allegedly rebranded Kodak Tri-X 400) and went to the State Fair. The camera felt a little clumsy in my hands at first, but I soon adapted to its ways and enjoyed the experience.

Moo

And then this camera went onto the shelf and stayed there. I simply have too many lovely metal, mechanical SLRs to choose from, and I kept reaching for my Nikon F2 and my various Pentax bodies first. This is one of the reasons for Operation Thin the Herd: to pass on gear I’m just not going to use enough. Let this good gear go to its next owner.

But I don’t want to be too hasty. This is really a lovely camera. Through the 1970s Nikon put its name only on its professional cameras. Starting in 1965, its not-quite-pro cameras got the Nikomat name in Japan and the Nikkormat name in the rest of the world. I see no evidence that they were not as solidly built as the pro cameras. They just lacked some of the pro features of the F-series cameras like interchangeable viewfinder-meter heads and focusing screens. When reasonably cared for, a Nikomat/Nikkormat is a lifetime camera.

This camera is from before Nikon had devised a way for a body to automatically find the mounted lens’s aperture range. Such cameras and lenses are called “pre-AI,” where AI means “automatic indexing.” This is the only pre-AI body I own, and I keep my only pre-AI lens on it all the time, a 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C. The H means Hex, for the lens’s six elements. The C stands for multi-Coated, an improvement over earlier H lenses, which were single-coated.

I loaded some Fujicolor 200 into the FTn and shot the roll. It wasn’t until I shot the fourth image past 36 on the frame counter that I realized something was wrong. I opened the camera to find the film leader sitting next to the spool. I had struggled to get the film to wind around the spool and sure enough I’d utterly failed. But this time when I stuck the leader into the spool it grabbed immediately and wound strongly. I got on with shooting the roll again. We were in Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.

Eagle Creek Park

There’s nothing light about the FTn in use. The winder feels substantial. The shutter button requires a solid push. The lever on the lens mount that adjusts shutter speed feels hefty and clicks surely through its stops. This, friends, is what I like about metal, mechanical cameras.

Eagle Creek Park

The meter is classic Nikon 60/40 center-weighted. You adjust aperture and shutter speed and the viewfinder needle moves along a scale. When it’s horizontal between + and -, you have a good exposure. + is one stop of overexposure and – is one stop of underexposure. I like how Fujicolor 200 looks when overexposed by up to a stop, so I tended to meter so the needle pointed more towards the +. It didn’t work out for me on this roll; I had to adjust exposure in Photoshop on nearly every frame. I did scan the negatives on my flatbed scanner, however, and I haven’t perfected my techniques yet.

Eagle Creek Park

By the late 1970s, SLRs from all makers had largely standardized their controls, placing the shutter-speed selector on the body’s top near the shutter button. That’s what I prefer. I know of two SLRs that place the shutter-speed selector on the lens mount: this one and the Olympus OM-1. The FTn does the OM-1 better in two ways: its selector ring features a tab that makes moving the ring easier when the camera is at your eye, and you can see the selected shutter speed through the viewfinder.

In Zionsville

While doing some light shopping on Zionsville’s charming main street, I tried making some photos inside the shops. My shutter speeds were low, like 1/15 sec. But the camera operates smoothly and I have a steady hand.

Costume jewelry

I shoot Fujicolor all the time and know it better than any other film. The lab’s scans didn’t look great; everything was very brown, and large areas were blotchy. I thought maybe the lab had a bad day with its scanner, so I scanned them myself. They, too, were very brown, but at least they weren’t blotchy. You’re looking at my scans in this post. I had to do a lot of Photoshop work to try to correct the colors.

Red trees

I also shot a roll of Kodak Portra 400 in the FTn — my first ever, so it’s a film I know not at all. Those images were blotchy too but the colors were good. The lab agreed to take the negatives back and re-scan them. If that makes any difference I’ll let you know. Meanwhile I’ll share scans I made from that roll in an upcoming post.

Black Dog Books

See more in my Nikon Nikomat FTn gallery.

I like this camera fine. I like my Pentax KM and my Nikon F2 more, and so I reach for them all the time and this Nikomat FTn almost never. This is only the second time I’ve used it. Sadly, that sounds the death knell for the Nikomat FTn in my collection.

Verdict: Goodbye

Standard

8 thoughts on “Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon Nikomat FTn

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Can’t say enough about all the Nikomats…wasn’t unusual to meet 35mm “pros”, like annual report and journalism guys that had a few high end Nikon bodies, and then a bunch of these for banging around…the FM and FE really killed these, but I’m not sure the first series of those camera were as “robust” as the Niko’s…

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    • I own two, this one and a Nikkormat EL that I have film in right now. They’re solidly built. If my Nikon FA is typical of the FM and the FE, no, they’re not as solid as the Nikomats/Nikkormats. But the FA sure is lighter to carry!

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  2. Hi Jim, You have a great site, and some really nice photo work. I have been reading your site for the last 2.5 years and enjoy it every day. As a full time photographer for the last 35 years, mostly newspapers I have lived through the golden days of film transitioning into digital. I enjoy it all. I found your site when I was looking to play with my film cameras again. As a long time Nikon user (since 1983) I just want to mention that the letter on the older Nikkor lenses has to do with the amount of elements in the lens not the aperture blades. The link here has a good list
    showing the letters. http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/companies/nikon/nikkoresources/50mmnikkor/index1.htm
    Sorry for lurking so long with out commenting on your great work and what you have done so far for the photo community in general.

    Keep up the fine work
    Joe Gigli
    http://njcoinc.com/projectphoto/

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    • Thanks for the correction — I updated the text accordingly! No worries about being a longtime lurker; that’s perfectly all right! Happy you’re along for the ride.

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  3. arhphotographic says:

    Hello I do find your “thin the herd” articles a must read. They do raise a very interesting question as to why one camera doesn’t make the cut . Is it something that can be measured or is it just preference?
    80+cameras in and I haven’t found one I don’t like! Perhaps I have already done a “pre-thin” in my choice. Rather like being selective of those whom you choose to regard as friends.
    The nikkormats are probably my most trusted companions.

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    • It really is about personal preference, comparing the camera I’m using to all the other ones in my collection to decide which to keep. I’m more a photographer than a collector now and I just want to keep the cameras I truly love.

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