Low stone wall Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor Arista EDU 200 2019
My decision to part with my Nikon FA hasn’t sat well with me since I wrote Verdict: Goodbye on its Operation Thin the Herd post. Logically, I own too many Nikon bodies and that this one’s winding lever keeps poking me in the forehead means I will shy away from using it. The whole point of Operation Thin the Herd is to shrink the collection to a set of cameras I’ll use regularly and enjoy.
There is, however, no denying the FA’s brilliant metering system. Just look at how much shadow detail it captured here. A camera as capable as this one probably deserves another chance.
I shot this at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Margaret and I were struck by how much the Kentucky countryside reminded us of Ireland, except the farms were not divided in Kentucky by low stone walls as they were in Ireland. Then we came upon this most Irish of low stone walls.
My old Kentucky home Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor Arista EDU 200 2019
At first, I thought this little cabin was the original My Old Kentucky Home and the big house up the hill came later to replace it. But it turns out that the cabin is only a spring house, built to keep the water supply clean.
It also turns out that the song My Old Kentucky Home isn’t actually about this place, even though that’s what this place is called. The song is about a failing farm and a slave who knows he’s going to be sold to help cover expenses. The song shines a light on the slave’s plight.
This home belonged to Stephen Foster, who co-wrote the song. It and its expansive grounds are now My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.
I continue to be deeply impressed with this film, Arista EDU 200, which is the same emulsion as Fomapan 200.
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.
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.
Nobody could alienate photographers as well as Nikon could in the 1980s. The company did it by leading the way with automation and electronic control. We take all of this for granted today, but then serious photographers were a traditional lot who shied away from anything not mechanical and manual in their cameras.
1983’s Nikon FA was, and is, the most technologically advanced manual-focus camera Nikon ever introduced. Yet it didn’t sell all that well compared to Nikons more-mechanical, more-manual cameras. Perhaps its high price (within spitting distance of the pro-level F3) helped push buyers away. But certainly its high advancement did.
The FA offers both programmed autoexposure and Automatic Multi-Pattern (matrix) metering controlled by a computer chip. Its vertical titanium-bladed, honeycomb-patterned shutter operated from 1 to 1/4000 second. It synchs with flash at 1/250 sec., which was pretty fast for the time. Two LR44 or SR44 batteries power the camera. Without those batteries the Nikon FA can’t do very much.
The FA also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure. And it hedges against your poor judgment with Cybernetic Override — if the FA can’t find accurate exposure at your chosen aperture or shutter speed, it changes that aperture/shutter speed to the closest one at which accurate exposure is possible.
Also, if you don’t want to use matrix metering, you can switch to center-weighted by pressing and holding a button on the lens housing, near the self-timer lever.
Typical of Nikons of this era, it was extremely well built of high-strength alloys, hardened gears, ball-bearing joints, and gold-plated switches. It was mostly assembled by hand.
By the way, if you like Nikon SLRs also check out my reviews of the F2 (here), F3 (here), N2000 (here), N90s (here), and N60 (here). Or just have a look at all the cameras I’ve ever reviewed here.
This FA was a gift from John Smith to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras. John has my tastes pretty well pegged at this point! I was in a black-and-white mood when I tested this FA, so I dropped in some Fomapan 200. Given the FA’s compact size, I figured the 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens would look balanced on it, and I was right.
I like this little clock. I got it at Target for my office at work four jobs ago. But I don’t have an office anymore, so it announces the time to nobody in my seldom-used living room. I keep thinking there’s a good photograph to be made of it on my bookshelf. I’m not sure this is that good photo. I’ll keep trying.
The FA’s winder glides on silk, and when you fire the shutter the mirror slap is surprisingly gentle. My finger always hunted to find the shutter button when the camera was at my eye, though. That surprised me, as I’m used to everything falling right to hand on Nikon SLRs.
You have to pull out the winder to turn on the camera and make it possible to press the shutter button. I wasn’t crazy about this, especially when I turned the camera to shoot portrait, as the winder would poke me in the eyebrow. Because I’m right-handed I tend to rotate my camera so the shutter button is up top, where it’s easy for my right finger to reach. When I rotated it so the shutter button was on the bottom, the winder stopped poking me, but the button became awkward to reach.
An LCD in the viewfinder reads out your shutter speed. When it reads C250, you know you just loaded film and haven’t would to the first official frame yet. Every shot until then gets a 1/250-sec. shutter, like it or not. I have other Nikons from the same era that do some version of this and it frustrates me every time. I hate wasting those first few frames! And while I’m talking about the LCD panel, it reads FEE when you’re in program or shutter-priority mode but the lens isn’t set at maximum aperture, which is necessary for those modes to work.
The matrix metering on my FA was accurate enough, but I suppose there are just some challenging light circumstances it just couldn’t navigate. A little flash would have helped a lot when I photographed my No. 3A Autographic Kodak.
I shot most of my test roll around the house, but also took it to work a few times and made lunchtime photo walks around Fishers. Someone in my building drives this lovely Fiat 500c.
The Nickel Plate tracks run alongside the building I work in, and I often walk along them on my strolls. This platform and awning are fairly new, and are largely for show as trains don’t travel this track anymore.
I wrapped up the roll in my garden after a rain.
It was here that I discovered a fault in my FA: you can wind it as many times as you want after a shot. I wonder how that gets broken on a camera.
The Nikon FA is a delightful little 35mm SLR. Its compact size, light weight, high capability, and smooth operation make it a fine choice to take along wherever you go. And my quick eBay research reveals that working bodies go for far less than other contemporary Nikon bodies such as the better-known FM2. But that camera lacks the FA’s matrix metering. So why pay more for an FM2, especially now that we’ve all come to embrace the electronics in our cameras?
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.