1992. Barcelona. Change is in the air. For three decades, challengers had risen and been vanquished. But now, for the first time, the adversary would gain the advantage. And Nikon F-series cameras would never be the same. From now on, instead of setting the pace, Nikon would be chasing, always keeping an eye on and trying to keep up with the new market leader. But how did it come to this? And what makes the F4 such a milestone camera in SLR history?
1988. Seoul. Anticipation is in the air. The most-hyped 100-meter race in Olympic history is about to start. From the starting line to the first corner of the track, most of the photographers check the settings on their tried and true F3s, prefocus their 300mm f/2.8 Nikkors on chosen spots to record history, and wait. A few Nikon-wielding photogs, though, have in their hands something new. Nikon has chosen these Olympics to demonstrate their latest pro camera, the F4. Many of these individuals do not prefocus. Instead, for the first time in Olympic history, they will let the camera do the focusing.
Few photographers are cradling Canon's latest (1981) F-1, the only real challenger to Nikon in the pro market. It's not been much of a fight, though. Canon has sold around 175,000 F-1s since 1981, which sounds like a good number until you compare it with F3 sales; 570,000 in the same time period. A better than 3 to 1 advantage, or more than 75% of the market. In other words, business as usual for Nikon, just as it has been since Canon first tried taking them on with the original (1970) F-1. Today, there is a large battery of Nikons focused on the track. That battery will be smaller, 4 years later, in Barcelona...
Starting with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nikon sought to use the global reach and prestige of the Games to build their brand. They would specifically demonstrate high-speed versions of the F-cameras in very limited numbers and/or new lenses at these events. When Canon introduced the F-1 in 1970, it was clear that there would be a showdown in 1972. Nikon had a 7 fps (frames per second) version of the F at the Summer Olympics, Canon responded with a 9 fps variant of the F-1 at the Winter Olympics. And from then on, they would both try to one-up the other on the Olympic stage. In 1987, Canon had introduced its brand-new EOS (Electro Optical System) line of auto focus (AF) SLRs. They were heavily promoting it to pros in advance of the Seoul Olympics even though their top model, the EOS 620, wasn't really a pro model and their pro body would not be ready until 1989. So what better time and place for Nikon to pull out the F4 and get the drop on Canon than at the '88 Summer Olympics.
The F4 is a smash. It offers speed like never before in a pro SLR. 1/8000 sec. top shutter speed; 1/250 sec. flash sync speed; 5.7 frames per second film advance; and the fastest AF then available. Three metering modes that you can select at the flick (or bump, initially) of a switch. For all those pros who have a bag full of manual focus Nikkor lenses, no problem, the F4 can meter with almost every F-mount Nikkor ever made. It is built like a brick outhouse. And weighs as much as one, too ;-). Its top deck layout is based on the F3 with the MD-4 motor drive attached. The location of the shutter speed dial and shutter release (with concentric drive-mode dial) is nearly identical, so the adjustment from an F3 is fairly painless. The DOF (depth of field) preview and MLU (mirror lock up) button/lever is in the same location Where the F3's manual film advance lever was, the F4 now has its exposure compensation dial and exposure mode selector. There is now an AF lock button above the familiar AE lock button of the F3, and a new focus mode selector beneath the lens mount release. In other words, an evolution of the F3's control layout, with basically only the AF controls being added and the motor drive now integrated. Nikon sells 230,000 in just three years, quite an accomplishment in a shrinking pro market dealing with major consolidation in print media and the resulting reductions in photography staff. But this will be the F4's apogee...
Canon's Caped Crusader
By the time Barcelona rolls around, a major shift in pro SLRs is already under way. Canon had finally gotten its professional-targeted EOS-1 on the market in 1989. At first, it seemed that it would pose little threat to the F4, particularly from Nikon's standpoint. There was seemingly no major superiority in any specification, and from a build and reliability perspective, the F4 trumped the EOS-1: a shutter rated for 150,000 vs. 50,000 exposures, and a rugged rubber-armored metal body vs. a piddly polycarbonate one. However, Canon had two trump cards of its own.
Sports photography has long been dominated by the quest for speed. First, it was faster frame rates. Then faster shutter speeds. Faster control response. And once auto focus came along, faster focusing speed became the holy grail. Canon's first attempt at an auto focus SLR, the T80 FD-mount camera, was such a disaster that they decided to start fresh from the ground up. That is what led to the development of the EOS system with its EF (Electro Focus) lens mount. This was opposite to the approach Nikon took, seeking to update its venerable F-mount to AF without losing compatibility with the vast manual focus Nikkor catalog. Canon took a lot of heat for its decision to scrap the FD- mount. And Nikon skilfully exploited this in its marketing. But Canon's decision was the right one in the long run. There would end up being far more performance potential available to develop in the EF mount. And it would be the speed of the EOS-1, both in AF and operation that would swing the struggle for SLR sports supremacy in Canon's favor.
By the time the 1992 Summer Olympics arrive, the handwriting is on the wall. F4 sales have already been slowing. By the end of the Games the coronation of the Canon EOS-1 is complete. The faster and quieter AF permitted by its Ultrasonic Motor-equipped 300/2.8 (then the bread and butter lens of the sports photographer) and button + scrolling dial user interface are just more efficient than the F4, with its traditional physical-control-for-each-function layout. And Canon just piles it on with the updated EOS-1n in 1994. Boosting the AF sensor count from 1 to 5 that are user-selectable, adding an eye-piece shutter and MLU via Custom Function (the F4 already had both), and a beefed-up shutter mechanism, the EOS-1n adds to the strengths and addresses most of the deficiencies of the EOS-1 versus the F4. By the next Olympiad, Canons will outnumber Nikons in the galleries of photographers.
Paying the Piper
Ironically, also in 1994, Nikon introduces the N90s (F90x), its new top "prosumer" body, with a new, faster AF array. But the F4 receives no such upgrade. Nikon has belatedly realized that for speed, the traditional control layout has been surpassed by the button + scrolling dial interface. They have been developing the F5 with a totally new user interface (obviously influenced by the EOS cameras) and a fast 5-point AF system. But they are shutting the stadium doors after the sports shooters have already left. The F5 doesn't debut until 1996. Canon's victory is complete. They now set the pace. Nikon can be innovative (e.g. the F5's matrix and flash metering are out of Canon's league), but they are now reacting instead of being proactive. For example, in 1998, Nikon finally admits the superiority of motor-in-lens focusing and introduces its AF-S lenses with "silent wave" motors. It has only been over a decade since Canon did so. In the fall of 2000, Nikon debuts its first VR (vibration reduction) SLR lens. Sorry, Canon has already had IS (image stabilization) for five years. And the latest twist of irony is that Nikon had introduced VR to the market in 1994, put it in a compact camera, and then did not manage to integrate it into its SLR lenses until Canon already had 8 IS lenses available. And it's not like Nikon didn't know that Canon was working on IS, Canon having showed a prototype 300/2.8 lens featuring stabilization at trade shows in 1988. Nikon's traditional conservatism has finally caught up with them. So where in history will the place of the F4 be?
The Legacy of the F4
The F4 was a milestone camera, not just for Nikon, but for all SLRs. It had more capability crammed into its body than anything before it. It was/is the pinnacle of the traditional control type of SLR. But it clearly marks the end of an era, just as the F5 marks the beginning of a new era for Nikon. The F5 has served as the template for all succeeding pro Nikon bodies. You can put an F5 (1996) and a D5 (2016) beside each other and clearly see the DNA that has come down from the F5. Whereas, you can take the F4, put it beside an F with a motor drive, and clearly see the evolutionary approach that rewarded Nikon with domination of the pro SLR market for over 30 years. And also see the last professional Nikon body of its kind.
The F4 also serves as a symbol of what can happen when a revolutionary technology arrives and there is hesitation or misjudgment. It's easy to look at Nikon in hindsight and say that they should have been more willing to take risks to advance their AF technology. But the reality is that it was just not in their character. They had built their reputation on rugged, reliable cameras that got the job done, not by being on the cutting edge of innovation. But bear in mind that Canon really did not stand to lose near as much by taking the risks that they did in developing the EOS cameras. Their AF development had been pretty lousy to that point, and they were a very distant second in the pro SLR market. It has often been observed that it is easier to chase than to be chased. The chaser has a clear objective to pursue, in this case the F4 was the ultimate target for Canon to shoot for. Interestingly, in the areas of build and durability (Nikon's traditional strengths), it was not until the third-generation EOS-1v of 2000 that Canon finally met the F4's standard.
2016. Stillness is in the air. A burst from the sturdy and intrepid F4 disperses the silence. A smile breaks on my face. It matters not that Canon dislodged Nikon as the leader in professional SLR market share over two decades ago. This is still a formidable camera, and with build quality oozing into my hands. So it may not be as millisecond-responsive as an EOS-1 paired with a USM 300/2.8. I am not exactly in the line of photographing 100-meter races, Olympic or otherwise ;-).
Debut of Nikon F4 @ www.imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Debut of Nikon F5 @ www.imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle
Nikon F4 Background & Personal Summary @ Photography in Malaysia
Nikkor - The Thousand and One Nights @ www.nikkor.com/story/0035/
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L USM @ Canon Camera Museum - Lens Hall
Canon EOS-1, 1n, 1v @ Canon Camera Museum - Camera Hall
1987-1991 @ Canon Camera Museum - History Hall
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.