Updated July 23, 2020
At first glance, the FE (along with its slightly-older sister the FM) is as nondescript a Nikon as there ever was. Its specifications are nothing out of the ordinary for a late-'70s enthusiast SLR: 1/1000 sec. fastest shutter speed, Nikon's venerable 60/40 centerweighted metering, sub-600 gram weight, and a seeming dearth of innovation. Looks? Nothing to see here people...move along...move along. Flanking the classic Nikon logo on the pentaprism housing are two virgin swathes of metal betraying no clue as to the identity of this wallflower. Only once you go to bring the camera to your eye is there the possibility of positive identification, that is, if your right thumb isn't already covering the tiny "FE" that precedes the serial number on the rear of the top plate. But don't sleep on the FE, there is more here than meets the eye ;-).
Origins and Influence
Nikon's original electronically-controlled SLR was born as the Nikkormat EL (Electronic & Light) in 1972 (there would eventually be three iterations; the EL-W & Nikon EL2 followed the original in 1976 and 1977, respectively). The Nikkormats (in mechanical or electronic configuration) were Nikon's enthusiast-level bodies, and had a sterling reputation for rugged reliability. This was due, in no small part, to their construction, wherein the mirror box and front panel were a single casting. This was a rarity among SLRs. While this characteristic made the Nikkormats among the toughest SLRs of all time, it did increase the amount of labour that it took to assemble the cameras, as single pieces or very small sub-assemblies had to be placed into that part of the chassis in a specific sequence. This was not much of a worry for Nikon until 1976, when Canon debuted its AE-1 featuring the most modular design the SLR industry had seen up to that point. Canon's purpose in doing so was to facilitate partial automation of the assembly process, thus reducing overall cost. SLRs would never be the same. This factor, along with the downsizing trend that Olympus had started in 1972 with the OM-1, were the two driving forces that pushed Nikon to introduce a completely new enthusiast line of SLRs in both mechanical (FM - 1977) and electronic (FE - 1978) forms to replace the Nikkormat generation (1965-80).
The influence of the AE-1 is unmistakable. The FE weighs exactly as much (590 grams) as the AE-1 and is one millimeter wider and one and a half millimeters taller than the Canon. On a spec-sheet there is very little to separate the two and the FE did not bring anything revolutionary to the table like the Canon had done. Nikon also adopted the concept of seeking to simplify construction and partially automate assembly ("Value Engineering" in Nikon-parlance). But Nikon was not just making a Canon clone, they positioned the FE as a true enthusiast SLR (just as the EL2 had been) versus the more consumer-oriented AE-1. This was evident in its 25% price premium over the AE-1. To go along with its more solid construction, the FE also had the following features that the AE-1 lacked:
For a moment, let's take a closer look at the relationship of the FE versus the EL2, which was released in May 1977 along with the FM. The EL2 was basically a stop-gap measure until Nikon could get the FE into production. The two shared the same IC (integrated circuit), viewfinder layout, and exposure meter. Although the EL2 was available until 1980, from the time that the FE debuted in April of 1978, EL2 sales declined precipitously. It's not hard to see why, as the FE could do virtually everything the EL2 could and with almost 200 grams (7 oz) less weight. The FE had lower power consumption and used the more economical and common SR44 (357) batteries versus the 544 silver-oxide or PX28L lithium cell that the EL2 required. True, there was no longer a dedicated mirror lock up (MLU) control, but the FE would pre-fire the mirror if you used the self-timer, so that was not too much of a loss. It was only with lenses that protruded into the mirror box that the EL2 held the advantage (the 6mm/5.6 Fisheye, OP 10mm/5.6 and the 2.1cm f/4 Nikkor-O with serial #s above 225xxx being the only Nikkor lenses that required this that could be mounted on an EL2 or any other Nikkormat, for that matter). The FE shared the same flip-up AI (Automatic Aperture Indexing) tab as the EL2 that allowed the mounting of older non-AI Nikkor Lenses, a feature that would be dropped from its successor, the FE2, and all future amateur Nikons aside from the Df DSLR. The FE was the first enthusiast Nikon body to be made available with interchangeable focusing screens, as mentioned above, something neither the EL2 nor the FM offered.
As far as the influence of the FE on subsequent Nikons, it, in tandem with the FM, was the basis for all succeeding enthusiast manual focus Nikon bodies (FM2(N), FE2, & FA) culminating in the ultimate MF Nikon enthusiast SLR, the limited-run FM3A of 2001. The FM3A is a combination of FE2 and FM2(N), leaning more to the FE2 side. (Think FE2 with a full set of backup mechanical speeds to go along with its standard stepless range of electronic speeds.) This family history of a quarter of a century is impressive, particularly in the face of the bottom falling out of the MF SLR market by the mid-1980s with the introduction of the first decent auto focus SLRs.
The FE2's (introduced in Mar. 1983) improvements to the original FE consisted of:
Now that is no small list of improvements! So why not just go for an FE2? For starters...cost. Expect to pay at least double for an FE2 in the same condition as a comparable FE. Part of that is down to supply: there were almost twice as many FEs (over 1.1 million) produced as FE2s (approx. 600,000). But the FE2 also achieved a kind of cult status with Nikonians after being discontinued in 1987 as a result of the AF revolution, and that served to inflate used prices for many years, although they have cooled somewhat, more recently. All the while the original FE just kept flying under-the-radar. And this is where the bit about excellence in execution comes in...although the FE was not head and shoulders above its peers in any single specification, and lacked a few features its successor offered, it remained one of the purest distillations of the first two decades of Japanese SLR development in a simple, reliable, and reasonably compact package. There were no gimmicks, it just worked. And that bland-to-some exterior serves to make it the perfect piece for those who prefer discreet elegance.
That is not to say the FE is perfect in itself. No camera ever is. Nikon still kept that irritating film-advance-lever-activated meter switch from the Nikkormat that pokes into various parts of your facial anatomy (particularly if you are a left-eyed shooter). The exposure compensation dial is lift & lock, which is a drawback for some people. Using the AE lock is easier if you are looking for a quick adjustment when in AUTO mode. And while that match-needle viewfinder is wonderful in daylight conditions, at night it can admittedly be a nightmare to see ;-). Avoid the MD-11 motor drive (which was replaced by the MD-12 in mid-1979), as it lacks an internal auto-OFF switch to prevent the camera's batteries from draining. The MD-12's internal switch will turn off the meter approximately 50 seconds after the shutter button is released, thus prolonging the life of the FE's batteries.
Putting Some "Class" in the Classic SLR
Born over four decades ago, at the height of the SLR's reign among 35mm cameras, the FE is a time capsule today. It also happens to be a very functional one for modern film enthusiasts. Its uncomplicated layout and operation require only a 48-page manual (take that, DSLR users ;-)) to educate the photographer in its operation. It is one of those cameras that finds its way into your hands when you are going out. Not too heavy, not too small, not as big or loud as a Nikkormat EL or Nikon EL2; you might find one in the hands of Goldilocks. If you are a regular non-AI Nikkor user, stop-down metering is a breeze with its nicely-placed DOF preview lever.
Uncomplicated...understated...and maybe just a bit underrated, the FE may be the ultimate MF Nikon for you :-).
Assorted Nikon Manuals @ http://www.butkus.org/chinon/nikon.htm
Debut of Nikon F3 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/history-f3/index.htm
Vol. 7: Nikomat EL @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Vol. 8: Nikomat EL-W/Nikon EL2 @http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Vol. 9: Nikon FM @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Vol.10: Nikon FE @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Vol. 13: Nikon FM2 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Vol. 14: Nikon FA/FE2 @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Nikon SLR Production Numbers @ http://knippsen.blogspot.ca
Roland Vink's Nikon Pages @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz
Nikon: A Celebration - Third Edition by Brian Long
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.