I’m sure photographers everywhere thought Nikon was going to heck in a handbasket when they released the EM, a 35mm SLR, in 1979. Plastic body parts? No way to manually set exposure? Whaaaaaaat?

Nikon EM

SLRs were originally considered pro equipment. But through the 1970s, everyday photographers came to appreciate the SLR’s many positive qualities. Camera companies sensed a vast untapped market of amateurs and even casual shooters. Pentax may have been first to figure that out with their small, light, simple, relatively inexpensive ME in 1976. Is it coincidence that Nikon’s similarly sized and featured camera reversed those letters for its name?

Nikon EM

The EM was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and least expensive SLR Nikon had ever made. Yet virtually every F-mount lens made to that point mounted right on. The EM eliminated most of an SLR’s fussy controls, limiting the photographer to aperture-priority shooting (the Auto mode you see atop the camera). If you could learn to focus, you could get Nikon SLR-quality photographs.

Nikon EM

Nikon was deliberate in which corners it cut to build the EM. They built in quality where it counted, starting with a metal chassis. They also built in a metal shutter with electronically controlled shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 sec. — stepless, meaning that if the available light made 1/353 sec. the right shutter speed, that’s what the EM gave you. You could set ISO from 25 to 1600. The EM even had contacts on the bottom plate for an auto winder. All of this required two LR/SR44 button batteries, but if they died you could set the camera to M90 and keep shooting with a 1/90 sec. shutter.

If you like little SLRs like the EM, also check out my reviews of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Pentax ME (here). I’ve also reviewed a slew of Nikon SLRs including the F2 (here), the F3 (here) the FA (here), the N2000 (here), the N60 (here), the N65 (here), and the N90s (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was headed out for a day on the Michigan Road, thanks to a quarterly board meeting. I headed south on the road towards Napoleon, the little town where we were to meet. Our meeting was in the Central House (photo here), built in about 1820. I had Agfa Vista 200 loaded as I made some photographs inside.

Inside the Central House

During loading I had considerable trouble getting the film to take on the spool. You have to make perfectly sure that a sprocket hole is perfectly placed on the little notch that sticks out on the takeup spool. Also, the meter won’t engage until the film counter is on 1, so you can’t shoot those early frames.

Inside the Central House

To activate the meter on most period Nikon SLRs, you pull the winder lever out. It’s a drag. Not so the EM: just touch the shutter button. The camera beeps when the meter has done its thing. Also, a needle moves to point to the shutter speed the EM has selected. If the EM keeps beeping, it can’t find a good exposure at your chosen aperture.

Inside the Central House

The wind lever is both neat and annoying. It’s a two-part lever. The first part pulls out to provide a good angle for winding, and then both parts work together to wind. Under use, it feels as if too much pressure would break it. Winding itself feels thin and unsure, lacking the usual Nikon high-quality feel.


My EM’s meter didn’t always want to engage. I found that if I moved the selector from Auto to M90 and back to Auto the meter would play nice again for a few frames. Old camera blues, I suppose.

White Lily

On the way home I stopped in Greensburg to photograph some favorite subjects. When this gas station switched from Shell to Sinclair several years ago I was very happy to see this Sinclair Dino placed out on the corner for all to see. It’s the company’s longtime mascot.


I walked Greensbur’g square to finish the roll. The EM handled easily, which is the whole point of a camera like this. I never got used to the cheap-feeling winder, and the fussy meter remained annoying. But I never failed to get sharp, evenly exposed photographs from the EM.

On the square in Greensburg

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon EM gallery.

This Nikon EM came to me from a reader who had it in surplus, and I thank him for letting me experience Nikon’s little SLR. I do like little SLRs, as my love of the Olympus OM-1 and especially the Pentax ME attest.

This is a nice little Nikon body for an easy day of shooting.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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18 responses to “Nikon EM”

  1. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    I like the photobombing Dino. Didn’t realize there were any Sinclair stations this far east.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Not many. This is the only one I’ve encountered in my travels. But, I haven’t traveled the entire East.

      1. Dan Cluley Avatar
        Dan Cluley

        Looks like ARCO bought Sinclair and in the ’70s they sold the Sinclair stations west of the Mississippi to a new company and rebranded the Eastern ones. In recent years Sinclair has been doing some expansion back east.

  2. Wayne S. Avatar
    Wayne S.

    Hi Jim,
    Dino’s rule :)
    Neat EM review!A few years ago I won this auction on a complete and sparkling clean and working EM kit-camera,50mm lens,motor drive,case and boat loads of Nikon original paperwork,instn.,manual,etc.
    I think it was $20.00 and I had never owned one so I said what the neck if nothing else it’s got a Nikon 50mm and it looked kinda cool too!
    I was really impressed with the quality, handling and images-just terrific! It is a rather small SLR for those of us that like a larger camera. Reading about the EM it was said that the Nikon design and marketing team at the time directed these to the ladies slr market being a very elegant all black body and easier to handle smaller size camera-who knows if that is true or not?
    I think the Nikon EM is a neat camera as well as a historical representative of the direction cameras in the late 70’s /early 80’s were heading.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve read many other reviews that said the EM was designed for and marketed to women. Could be. But lots of people would have liked a small, easy SLR in those days, especially one that takes all that good Nikkor glass!!

  3. Joe Gigli Avatar

    Hi Jim, fun shot with Dino. We now have two stations that opened in my aera of Northwest New Jersey. I have been meaning to photograph dino over the last few years but did not get it done. He reminds me of an old slice of Americana.
    Joe Gigli

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Joe, it’s fun that the chain has kept the dino after all these years, and is putting the dino statues on their properties. It really is old Americana!

  4. Dan James Avatar

    I’ve never had a Nikon SLR, but considered it a number of times, and I nearly always came back to the EM, having enjoyed other small SLRs like the Pentax M series and Contax 139 Quartz.

    Some really lovely images here, the colours and exposures are excellent. The pink hat was an unexpected detour from your more usual subject matter, but such a lovely photograph, one that makes me yearn to shoot film again…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You know, if you’ve used and liked the Pentax Ms and the Contax I’m not sure you need to try the EM. There’s nothing so much more special or better about it. It’s a fine little camera for your Nikon lenses, if you already have them.

      The decorations inside the Central House provided a lot of unusual subject matter for me.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Yes the strawberries stood out too. Not least of all the colours which look very accurate – reds often get over saturated with consumer film.

        Yeh I know you’re right about the EM. I’ve never had a Nikon lens and I’m happy with Pentax K and M42 so no need now.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Dirty little secret: in Photoshop I desaturates the reds a little in the strawberry photo so they were more natural.

          1. Dan James Avatar

            Mr Grey, that is shocking… :)

  5. Sam Avatar

    Nice post Jim. One of my favorites but mostly for sentimental reasons!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s a nice little camera. Wish the meter in mine worked better.

  6. Kent Teffeteller Avatar
    Kent Teffeteller

    A note, Jim. Want this size camera roughly, and want manual, and full range of shutter speeds and much more, the slightly larger Nikon FG or FG-20 (without Program or TTL Flash) is superb. A great lightweight SLR. I have one and love my example.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The small, light Nikon body that I kept was the FA. It’s a peach!

  7. Robert Weir Avatar
    Robert Weir

    The Nikon EM was my first of many Nikons, I bought it new in 1979 for $130 including the 50mm f1.8 series E lens. I was subscribed to Modern Photography magazine and I read the review of the new camera at least five times by Herbert Keppler, one of the magazine’s editors before I bought the camera, lens and the SB-E speedlight. There was no mention of the camera being designed for women at that time. I just did an online search for the camera and found an article online titled “Nikon EM Review: The “SLR Camera for Women” –
    By Mike Caputo / 58 Comments / March 1, 2019 / SLRs / Nikon EM.” It appears it’s just his opinion, forty years after it came out. I used that camera until 1994 or 1995 with no problems at all when I found out about the autofocusing Nikon F70 and bought one to replace the EM. I’m sorry I didn’t keep it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hi Robert – I wonder if people are rewriting the EM’s history then! The EM turned out to be plenty hardy. Someone gave me another one this year that had been her father’s; it had seen no use in 20 years. Worked great, though it needs new light seals.

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