The third article in our series "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" takes on the Nikon F-mount, arguably the most well-known, and definitely the longest-lived of all the 35mm SLR bayonet systems. After a brief introduction, we will break down our overview in this format: 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing.
Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) began to build their reputation in the early 1950's as one of the premier Japanese optics manufacturers. Fortune and Life magazine photographers Horace Bristol and David Douglas Duncan were working in Japan and they were introduced to Nikkor lenses for the Leica M39-mount and Contax cameras then favored by photojournalists. Within a few years, Nikon introduced their famed S-mount series of rangefinder cameras that set new standards for rugged reliability. With the success of the Asahi Pentax SLR of 1957, Nikon found itself at a crossroads, with two management factions forming: one wanting to stick with rangefinders, and the other pushing for SLR development. Eventually (and fortunately for Nikon) the SLR project went ahead, drawing much from the SP rangefinder design. The result was the Nikon F of 1959, a professional-oriented machine. A whole line of Auto-Nikkor lenses underwent rapid development in the early '60s, giving Nikon one of the most extensive offerings of the early Big 4 (Canon, Minolta, and Pentax were the other companies). Nikon also developed a large assortment of accessories to increase the performance and versatility of the F: interchangeable finders, focusing screens, motor drives, etc. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Nikon solidified its reputation as the first choice of photojournalists and widened its scope to include advanced amateurs, and by 1979, to the average consumer. By the early '80s, they had risen to second place in overall sales among the now-Big 5 (Olympus had elbowed its way in during the mid-'70s). That would be the high-water mark for the Nikon manual focus system (and all other MF systems), although Nikon would continue to produce MF bodies and lenses into the 21st century, which was longer than any other major Japanese manufacturer. So let's get it on...with Nikon.
As noted earlier, Nikon first caught the attention of Western photographers stationed in Japan in 1950, when they found their optics to not only equal but surpass the image quality of the previously dominant German manufacturers' lenses, particularly at wider apertures. Things quickly became uncomfortable for the old guard as an article in the New York Times proclaimed the superiority of the upstarts from the East. Zeiss, in particular, got testy with the newspaper, threatening them with removal of all advertising and declaring that it was impossible for a Japanese lens to outperform a German one. Throughout the rest of the '50s Nikon kept up a brisk pace of lens development that went into another gear with the debut of the F-mount in 1959. The addition of the reflex box, required for through-the-lens viewing with the SLR, necessitated the redesign of the rangefinder lenses to achieve proper back focus distance. Nikon was first among the initial group of major Japanese SLR makers to have a fully automatic aperture (one that stopped down and re-opened without any intervention from the photographer), a feature that took two years for Minolta and Pentax to catch up on, and five years for Canon to do the same.
Nikkor Nomenclature. Manual Focus Nikkors can first be separated into 2 major categories: pre-AI (or non-AI) and AI. AI stands for Automatic Aperture Indexing, which debuted beginning in 1977. Before 1977, Nikkor lenses used a metering prong (colloquially referred to as Rabbit Ears or the Crab Claw) which was the means of communicating the lens aperture setting to the camera body for metering purposes. This slotted prong engaged a pin that protruded below the prism housing of the camera. To properly couple the lens to the camera, you had to: 1) set the lens to f/5.6, line the slot up with the pin while inserting the lens into the bayonet-mount camera, 2) turn the lens counter-clockwise to lock it into place, and 3) twist the aperture ring to minimum aperture and then back to maximum aperture to index the lens with the meter. This was called by Nikon the "click-click" procedure, and was given various other names by Nikon users ;-). It was anything but automatic. In 1966, Minolta had introduced its MC coupling for its Rokkor lenses, which was a simple tab on the aperture ring that engaged a spring-loaded collar with another tab on its new SRT SLR body. All you had to do was mount the lens, and the coupling & indexing took place automatically. Nikon basically copied this simple system in 1977 to quicken the lens indexing process.
AI lenses will mount on any Nikon body, pre- or post-1977. Non-AI lenses, however can only be used on pre-1977 bodies or bodies with a flip-up AI tab (Nikkormat FT-3, Nikon EL2, FM, FE, F3, F4, Df). Mounting an unmodified pre-AI lens on Nikon bodies with fixed AI tabs WILL DAMAGE the camera and/or lens and will necessitate repairs. The greater mounting versatility of AI lenses thus makes them more popular and they have higher prices than pre-AI Nikkors do. This leads to our first bargain possibility: pre-AI lenses can be a more cost-effective way to get into the Nikkor system, especially if you are using them on a mirrorless camera (no AI tabs to worry about on adapters). Another avenue available to the pre-AI user is conversion of the aperture ring to allow AI operation. Indeed, for many years, Nikon offered a factory AI conversion program where they would do an aperture ring swap to your lens. Unfortunately, this program is no longer offered and the few remaining conversion kits are rare and can be costly. Fortunately, though, most pre-AI aperture rings can be machined or have a tab added (AI'd) to permit full AI compatibility. We are happy to provide this service at 678 Vintage Cameras for $40 CAD per lens plus shipping. Feel free to contact us for details.
A brief outline of the various Nikkor lens generations goes as follows:
Features. The Nikkor lens lineup covered focal lengths from a 6mm fisheye to a 2000mm supertelephoto. It was the most extensive array of 35mm glass offered by any manufacturer in the film era. Nikon was one of only two manufacturers to produce their own optical glass (the other was Minolta). This gave them complete control of the lens design and building process. They drew some of their inspiration from the Zeiss ethos about contrast and rendering. Because photojournalists were one of their primary customers, Nikon took great pains to cater to their needs. In general, wide angle to mild telephoto Nikkors tend to have a lighter focusing feel compared to other manufacturers' lenses; a result of many PJs preferring to use one finger to focus quickly.
Noteworthy Lenses. In the nearly 50 year lifespan of the manual focus (MF) Nikkor F line, there is no shortage of interesting and impressive optics. We'll hit a few of the high points here:
Miscellaneous. For most MF Nikkor lenses, filter sizes fell in the range of 52, 62, and 72mm, with 52mm being the standard size. Two exceptions were: 1) the 18/4 super wide angle, which used a rare 86mm and 2) the super fast AI/AI-s 200/2 which required a massive 122mm filter (the AF versions would adopt the much more practical and affordable 52mm rear drop-in system). The big telephotos would use either 39 or 52mm filters in a drop-in slot at the rear of the lens. Nikon also has an extensive lens hood system that can be quite confusing with it's coding for different generations of hoods. A most helpful resource for this, and all Nikkor specifications, is Roland Vink's Nikon Lens website.
Recommendations. MF Nikkors tend to have strong resale value. This is due to Nikon's reputation as the choice of professionals for many decades and the fact that the F-mount is still current, albeit with more and more limitations as far as MF lens compatibility with the newest DSLRs. As with the other manufacturers, there are some good deals to be found with smaller-aperture and older (read: pre-AI and pre-multi coated) lenses. A common issue with older Nikkors is the deterioration of the helicoid lubricant, which leads to a dry, somewhat gritty focusing feel. This can easily be remedied by having the helicoid cleaned and re-greased. Check out our Best Bargain Lenses - Nikon MF articles for Primes (single focal length) and Zooms.
Mechanical SLR Bodies
Recommendations. Nikon produced mechanical SLRs longer than any other member of the Big 5. So there are many choices available to the film enthusiast. Our first suggestion is to grab a model that uses 1.55V or 3V cells to power the meter. The reasons for this are purely for the ready availability and low cost of such cells and no recalibration of the meter is needed. The F2 and any of the post-1975 amateur (Nikkormat FT-2 and on) bodies will fit the bill here. Next comes the matter of size and weight. Weight and dimensions decrease in this order: F2; F; Nikkormats; FM/FM2/FM2n. As far as the F models go, the plain eye level finder offers the lightest and most compact profile (albeit with no metering :-)). The FMs are the only models under 600 grams (21 oz). For a more detailed breakdown of the individual models, just click the links in this paragraph. The FT3 and FM were the only mechanical Nikon amateur models to feature the flip-up AI coupling lever that allowed the mounting of unmodified pre-AI (1977) lenses. If higher shutter and flash-sync speeds are important to you, the FM2n offers the most capability. For left-eyed photogs: one issue with all of the amateur MF Nikon bodies from the Nikkormat FT onward is the fact that the power switch is integrated with the film advance lever. It has to be swung out 30 degrees to power up the meter. This means the lever pokes into the right eyebrow at best or into the right eye itself depending on how your face is arranged ;-). Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but a nuisance, nonetheless. The other drawback (until the FM2 came along) was that if the lever was not closed the meter remained on until the power was exhausted. The FM2/FM2n offered an improved power switching system that was activated by a half-press on the shutter release, and would automatically shut off the meter after 30 seconds to conserve battery power (although the advance lever still served as the master power switch/shutter release lock. Skip the FM10...especially a new one ($520 USD at B&H is insane).
Electronic SLR Bodies
Recommendations. With 11 electronic MF SLRs to choose from, it can seem daunting to narrow down these Nikons. So let's break them down into three basic categories: Professional, Amateur, and Consumer.
The F3 is the professional entry in this bunch, and it is a remarkable value in today's market. Very good working examples can be had for $250 - $300 USD, which is around $50 more than an FE2 or FA (the two top amateur bodies). You get the best in build quality and reliability with only a small weight penalty (75 - 150 grams). The F3's main drawback is its flash capability. With its horizontal shutter, the sync speed tops out at 1/80 sec. compared to 1/250 sec. for the FM3A, FE2 & FA. Flash mounting is also more of a pain with the over-the-rewind mount of the F3 compromising exposure compensation control as opposed to the pentaprism mounts of the amateur models. For a closer look at the F3, check out this article.
If you have the dollars, the FM3A is the most capable amateur MF body Nikon ever produced, but you have to open your wallet a lot wider for that hybrid shutter. As far as the rest of the amateur MF models go, the FE2 and FA can be had for $150 -$250 USD in very good to excellent condition. The TTL flash metering, sync speed of 1/250 sec., and top speed of 1/4000 sec. elevate them above their predecessors and keep right up with the FM3A. The FA also offers program and shutter priority modes with AI-s lenses if that is important to you, along with it's AMP metering. Frankly, there is not a whole lot of difference between centerwighted and AMP, as they can both be fooled by extreme lighting situations. Later versions of matrix metering certainly improved on this, however. Some people prefer the needle metering display of the FE2 to the LCD viewfinder of the FA. Slotting in slightly below those two bodies are the original FE and EL2. They share the same circuitry, viewfinder, and flip-up AI tab to allow pre-AI lenses to be mounted and used with stop-down metering. The FE loses the MLU function of the EL2 (but has the same mirror pre-fire feature as the FM) and a little under 200 grams (7 oz) of weight. I would recommend the FE over the EL2 due to a power switch issue that the EL2 can sometimes have and also because the FE uses two inexpensive and readily available 357 cells instead of the expensive 544 cell used in the EL2. However, if you find an EL2 without the switch problem, it makes for a very fine vintage body. Finally come the two Nikkormats. You can often find FEs and EL2s for about half the cost of an FE2, which is no small difference. The ELW offers no specification advantage over the EL besides the winder (which I'm not exactly wild about, in case you hadn't noticed ;-)) and can have the same power drain issues as the EL2 (which the original EL does not have). The EL lacks the faster-acting silicon meter of the EL2. All of the EL family have higher power consumption than the FEs. For a closer look at the history of the ELs , refer to this article.
Now to the consumer bodies. This one will require the least amount of brain drain :-). Logically, none of the consumer bodies come up to the quality level of the amateur bodies. However, they can often be had for very little and can make for an excellent body to take into dodgier situations where you might not want to risk a better camera. The FG is the best of this bunch, with a lot of capability packed within its plastic panels. It offers plenty of manual override capability along with TTL flash, and quiet manual film advance for those who wish to be more discreet. The F-301 (N2000) is right behind as far as capability goes, but is let down in some situations by its noisy automatic winding. If you can put up with the cheaper feel of the FE10 it is a very capable camera, but it does give up the TTL flash capability of the FG and F-301. The FG-20 and EM bring up the rear with less capability, their biggest virtue being that they can often be had for next to nothing. None of the consumer bodies besides the step-sister FE10 feature DOF preview, which can be a deal-breaker for some.
It is worthy of note that you can make excellent photographs with any of these cameras. Some just provide more versatility and comfort in the process. The biggest thing is to find something that works well for you (and that you can afford ;-)).
Nikon introduced their first electronic flash in 1969. They dubbed their flash units Speedlights. The SB-1 was a monster, both in size and power. It required a bracket that both the camera body and flash unit mounted to. It was a modular system with a network of battery packs, cables, chargers, and macro ring lights that could be customized to the requirements of the photographer. There would be two further generations of this professional unit: the SB-5 (1975) which debuted auto flash (via an attachable sensor) and motor drive compatibility to 3.8 fps; the SB-11 (1980) which brought TTL capability when used with the F3; and the SB-14 (1981) a more compact, slightly less powerful version of the SB-11. The SB-11 halved the power consumption of the SB-5 and was the only model to use 8 AA cells in its grip instead of large Ni-cad cells. There was also an auxiliary D-cell pack for greater longevity and faster recycling. The SB-14 reduced its size by reverting to the use of a separate battery pack; now with 6 C cells. A specialized SB-6 was designed as for high-speed strobe applications. It is very rare and very heavy! The other specialized Speedlight in this group was the SB-140, which was an SB-14 designed for UV and infrared as well as visible light phototgraphy. Super rare and expensive!
1972 saw the first compact Speedlights introduced. Because Nikon had their proprietary flash mount for the F cameras but used the ISO standard hot shoe on their amateur models, they used two designations for the same basic flash unit, one for the F style another for the ISO mount (e.g. SB-2 for F and SB-3 for ISO). This dualism would continue until the F4 adopted the ISO mount. One nice feature of the compact units is that they all used thyristor circuitry, which meant that they only discharged as much power as was needed rather than the complete capacitor charge as did non-thyristor units. This both conserved power and made for faster recycling. The SB-2/3 and their descendants had a distinctive rotating mount that allowed for the flash to be oriented horizontally or vertically through 180 degrees. An even simpler and smaller (2 AA cell) fixed model, the SB-4, was made available in ISO form only in 1974. 1977 brought an updated, more efficient SB-7E/8E combo with the -7E using the F flash mount and the -8E the standard ISO flash mount. Both models dropped one of the three automatic settings of the SB-2/3. The taller and thinner SB-9 replaced the SB-4 at the same time. It eschewed the dial scale of the SB-4 for two horizontal sliding scales and had two automatic settings versus the single setting of its predecessor. The SB-E was introduced in 1979 as a companion for the EM SLR. It was slightly more powerful than the SB-9 with three automatic settings and also featured a flash-ready contact that caused an LED to light in the viewfinder of the EM and FE/FM cameras. 1978 brought the SB-10, which superseded the SB-8E with the addition of the flash ready contact for the FE body.
In 1980, Nikon adopted TTL flash metering with the F3 and its exclusive, compact SB-12 TTL flash unit. It was basically an SB-7E with the TTL capability added by means of a third signal pin that the flash used together with the ISO setting of the camera to determine when to cease firing. The comparable ISO mount SB-15 debuted in 1982 with the FG SLR that first used the now-familiar 4-pin layout still found on the latest Nikon DSLRs. The SB-15 offered full camera-controlled TTL flash metering, two auto sensor settings, a setting for use with a motor drive, and a full manual mode. It also included a handy tilting feature enabling bounce flash to go with the rotating mount. 1983 brought the SB-17, an SB-12 updated to SB-15 specifications for the F3 flash mount. The SB-18 also debuted at this time as a basic TTL/manual unit for the consumer-grade FG SLR. But the most noteworthy flash model introduced by Nikon in 1983 was the SB-16, a unit having the power of the SB-14 yet in a more compact form with greater flexibility. It would be the progenitor of the next generation of top-end Nikon flashes. It consisted of a main unit with a head that tilted and swiveled and had a small secondary head to provide a catch-light for portraiture. There were two modules that attached to the bottom, one with the F3-style foot (AS-8) and the other with the ISO foot (AS-9). The complete unit was designated SB-16A with the AS-8 and SB-16B with the AS-9. TTL and two auto sensor settings along with full manual capability and four zoom settings for the main head (28, 35, 50, & 85mm) made it by far the most feature-packed flash Nikon had yet created. The final Nikon flash of the pre-AF era was the SB-19 (1984), an update of the bottom-of-the-line SB-E for the new FG-20 and older EM SLRs. It had the same output as the SB-18 for the FG, but no TTL capability and two auto sensor settings. Both of these models were more efficient and used 4 AA cells instead of the 2 AAs of the SB-E, which gave about three times as many flashes per set of batteries.
Although we are dealing with the MF Nikon series in this article, we will review the AF- era flashes, seeing as they offer backward compatibility with the MF line. There were major advances in efficiency and capability and many newer AF units can be had for relatively low cost, particularly from the late '80s to the mid-'90s generations. Nikon initially continued to offer three basic tiers of flash units. They maintained their tradition of introducing new flash units with new SLR models, especially as new capabilities were coming pretty hot and heavy in this time period. The first model to appear with the F-501 (N2020) SLR was the SB-20 in 1986. It was a mid-range unit with a completely new form factor in this category for Nikon. It had a unique bounce system with only the interior of the flash head rotating by means of a dial on the side of the housing. It had three zoom settings (35, 50, & 85mm). It was the first Speedlight with the STBY (standby) position on the power switch, which would turn the flash off after a minute or two when not being used, but would immediately power it up again once the shutter release was pressed half way. Along with the now-ubiquitous TTL function, the SB-20 had five settings for auto sensor use (from f/2 to f/8 @ ISO 100) along with five manual settings down to 1/16 power. It was very well-equipped for its position in the lineup. A year later, the SB-22 (or SB-20 lite :-)) appeared. It was down a little on power, had only two auto settings, and no zoom capability. It also lacked the variable power settings of the SB-20 in manual mode, although when set to motor drive mode it operated at roughly 1/3 of full power. It could recycle in 30% less time than the SB-20. They are both quite handy little units.
1988 proved to be the year when Nikon filled out its new AF Speedlight lineup. The SB-23 was the replacement for the SB-18 at the bottom of the ladder in a smaller form factor. It offered basic TTL and manual operation, and very fast recycling (minimum 2 sec.) in a tiny package. But the big story was the SB-24, introduced with the F-801 (N8008) SLR. This was no updated SB-16, but a new-from-the-ground-up design with the first digital display for a Speedlight (that could be backlit in low light). It was also Nikon's first flash with rear (or second) curtain sync, repeating flash (up to eight firings per frame), and flash exposure compensation. As well, it added another zoom setting (24mm). There were now six (f/2 - f/11 at ISO 100) auto settings. It retained the five manual power settings of the SB-16 and had about the same battery life, albeit with a 12.5% boost in power and 35% faster recycling.
For the next seven years the only new models to appear would be revisions and improvements to the SB-24. With the introduction of the F90 (N90) body, in 1992, came the SB-25. While appearing nearly identical to the SB-24, it did have some notable improvements: two more manual power settings (1/32 & 1/64), red-eye reduction, high-speed sync with the F90 and newer advanced bodies, a pull-out diffuser for coverage down to 20mm lenses, and a built-in white card for a catch-light when using bounce flash. In 1994, the updated F90X (N90s) body had a new companion flash, the SB-26. The diffuser now covered 18mm lenses and there was now a built-in wireless slave system for off- camera use with other flash units.
With the SB-27 (1995), Nikon gave a nod to their past middle-of-the-line Speedlights (the latest being the SB-15 of 1982) and their rotating mechanism that allowed for horizontal or vertical orientation through a range of 180 degrees. Fully updated with the latest features like rear curtain sync, built-in bounce card, and red-eye reduction, the SB-27 had 5 manual power settings, zoom coverage from 24 to 70mm (4 settings in horizontal mode and 3 in vertical) making it the most versatile rotating flash ever produced by Nikon. The SB-26 went on a diet in 1997 and emerged 14% lighter and with a new name: SB-28. Along with the weight it also lost wireless slave capability. 1998 brought an updated SB-22s that ditched the MD (motor drive) setting for two more automatic settings (making for a total of four) and a slight boost in power with a touch longer recycling time. It also shaved 40 grams of weight from the original SB-22. And so we come to the end of the film-era Speedlights.
Macro Flash. Nikon introduced macro ring flash attachments with the SB-1. The SR-1 was for standard macro photography with 35 - 200mm lenses, and the SM-1 was designed for 24 - 105mm lenses and greater than 1:1 magnification ratios. Neither unit was standalone, but required the SB-1 and other accessories to function. The SR-2/SM-2 units were updated with cable sockets rather than hard-wired cables and they no longer had to use the SB-1 or -5 flash units for power. Instead, they used their own separate power packs. None of these units had TTL capability. That came with the first dedicated macro flash unit, the SB-21A/B, which also introduced TTL flash metering to Nikon macrophotography in 1986. The A/B designation was used, as with standard Speedlights, to differentiate the flash mounting system with the SB-21A for the F3 and the -21B for ISO hot shoes. It was a huge step forward. There were now three manual power settings (instead of two), and more accessories. 14 years passed before the updated SB-29 appeared. There was no longer any need for two mounts, so it was a standardized design that utilized the latest of Nikon's TTL technology. Two years later the SB-29s was introduced with the addition of a 1/32 manual power setting. The SB-21 and SB-29(s) are the macro Speedlights of choice.
Recommendations. Although there are decades-worth of Speedlights available its actually not too hard to narrow down the choices because of the extensive backward compatibility of the late '80s to late '90s units. Even if you don't need or want TTL capability, their automatic and manual options are very extensive and versatile. And they can be had for very reasonable prices nowadays. Let's start at the top. SB-28s and -26s in excellent condition can be had for $80 - $90 USD. If the wireless slave of the SB-26 is not your cup of tea, you can save $30 - $40 USD by selecting an SB-25, which has all of the automatic and manual features of the two newer units. (The SB-25 is my personal pick among the top-end flashes for its balance of features and value.) An SB-24 can cut another $10 or $15 USD off of the SB-25 but you lose the two lowest manual power settings of the SB-25. Any of these units has plenty of capability for any MF Nikon SLR. The next area to consider is if you want less bulk and weight and can put up with bit less power. For the smaller units my pick is the SB-20. It has 84% of the power (and recycyles a touch faster) while saving a third of the weight of the SB-25. It also has 5 manual power settings, which edges the SB-22. Now for the topper...they can be had in excellent nick for $25 USD. We have a value winner! The SB-22 & -22s are excellent little units as well, but they cost almost as much as an SB-25 and lack the manual capability of the other nominees. If you just have to have a 180 degree rotating Speedlight, the SB-27 sits in SB-24 price territory, with SB-20 power and recycling, and in between the two for weight and bulk. A bonus to all of these Speedlights is that they can be used in auto and manual modes with any camera with a hot shoe. They have much lower trigger voltages than most 1970's and some early 80's flash units, so they are completely safe for use on both older MF and newer AF bodies.
This is not to say that any of the older Speedlights are unusable. But you pay almost as much for a bigger, heavier, less powerful SB-16 as the SB-25. There is no older model comparable to the SB-20 in size, power, or features. The SB-15 can be had for about 2/3 the cost of an SB-27, but you lose the five manual settings, and half of the automatic settings, along with a 16% power reduction among other things. The one situation where you might take a hard look at an SB-16A or -17 is if you are looking at an F3 and you need cheap TTL flash capability. In order to use the more modern AF-era Speedlights for TTL on an F3, you would need to shell out $50 to $100 USD for the AS-17 flash coupler on top of the flash unit cost. This adapter translates the TTL signals of the F3 into modern Nikon TTL signals. The relatively compact SB-17 will cost $35 to $50 USD and the SB-16A goes for about the same but does carry a hefty size and weight penalty for its greater power and longer recycling times. If you happen to get one of these older models thrown in with a camera or lens purchase, by all means use it :-). But there are really no drawbacks and so many advantages to using the newer AF-era Speedlights on your MF Nikons (aside from the F3).
Nikon had, arguably, the most extensive range of accessories of any of the Big 5 manufacturers. Indeed, it was their early offering of interchangeable finders, focusing screens, motor drives, bulk film backs, and many more pieces that solidified their grip on the professional market for three decades. Over time, the professional lineup expanded with intervalometers, battery packs, and AC adapters, and much more. With the introduction of the FM/FE family in 1977, a whole new range of accessories became available for the amateur and later, the consumer lineups. Nikon probably has produced more distinct cables for various connections than the other 4 major manufacturers combined ;-). They also produced more motor drive and winder models than any other manufacturer. Some of this was due to a lack of continuity through time and the differences between the professional, amateur, and consumer lines. Nikon's accessory designations are a veritable alpha-numeric goulash. Fortunately, there are a few websites out there that are very helpful at decoding the jumble. Instruction manuals are also very helpful in showing which accessories accompany a certain product. One nice thing about Nikon is that they still offer as new many things like eyepieces and diopters for vintage models. With patience you can find almost any needed accessory, aside from some very rare and specialized pieces. One thing to be aware of is the incompatibility of certain accessories with either previous or succeeding generations of cameras and lenses. If you are ever in doubt, check thoroughly before using a certain accessory to prevent damage or impaired operation.
Reliability & Servicing
Nikon built their reputation for rugged dependablilty on the back of the F and the mechanical Nikkormats. Aside from the failed Nikkorex F, they had an enviable record of reliabilty. For decades, they were the standard all competitors were measured against. With their pro and advanced amateur models, they were almost always at the top of their segments (among the Big 4 and later 5) in price because of the materials used and solid construction of their SLR bodies. And people were often willing to pay extra for that premium. When it came to lenses, there was less of a difference, with Pentax and Minolta often having better or equal build quality, especially when it came to the focus mechanism. Admittedly, this has more to do with feel than outright reliability, but Nikkors often need to have cleaning and relubing of the focus mechanism done more frequently than the other two. When Nikon moved into the consumer SLR market, something obviously had to give as they sought to compete on price with the other manufacturers. The gap narrowed to a point basically indistinguishable between the brands. This is not a slight on Nikon as that is the reality of any "race to the bottom" when cost becomes the primary consideration. Most often with the consumer bodies, it was the electronics that were the biggest issue. One advantage Nikon held in the consumer segment was their manual film advance mechanisms, which still used ball bearings, even if not as many as in their higher-end models. Most other manufacturers cut more corners there and over time it showed. For their price when new, the consumer MF Nikons offered a lot of value, and not a few pros would use these compact, capable bodies for a lightweight backup to their F-series. Nowadays, the used prices of many of the amateur bodies and the professional F3 have dropped to a point where it is hard to resist spending a few dollars more for the boost in build quality or capability. But you can often pick up a consumer body for well south of $50 USD, and they can make for a great backup and often a primary camera if their limitations are respected. Most Nikon accessories are well made and very reliable.
As far as servicing goes, any of the mechanical Nikons and Nikkormats can still be independently serviced, which is good as Nikon has a policy of supporting products for ten years after production ends, which disqualifies any of the MF Nikon pieces of equipment (aside from the few AI-s lenses still in production). Electronic models are more of a crapshoot, as there are no new circuit boards available if yours fails, leaving cannibalization of another body as the only alternative for repair, with all of the risk that entails. This is obviously not endemic to Nikon, as all vintage electronic SLRs fall into this category. It just goes with the territory :-). Lenses are as easily serviced as any other brand of glass and Nikkors retain their value better than most other MF systems. If you need a pre-AI lens converted to AI, there are a variety of service providers (shameless advertising plug for our AI conversion service here ;-)) that offer it, and if you have some skill with tools you may attempt it yourself. Do not attempt it without thoroughly researching it first or if you have any doubts.
The Nikon MF SLR system was one of the most extensive, which makes it worthy of a good long look when it comes to selecting a vintage SLR system. Excellent reliability and glass, along with a plethora of accessories are all strong points. Although Nikon was not generally on the cutting edge of innovation ("generally" does not mean that they never were innovative ;-)) or ergonomics, they never fell too far behind (at least in the manual focus era). One benefit of their dedication to backwards compatibility is the fact that certain accessories that came along in the late '80s and 90's (e.g. AF flash units) with a lot more capability were able to be used on earlier bodies (even if those bodies could not always utilize the full range of features offered by the newer accessory).
If you are looking at big telephoto lenses, Nikon is one of the two companies (the other, Canon) that offer the most in the way of selection and quality. Such an extensive system, with a lot of pro-level equipment and a still-current lens mount, means that it will often cost more to build a Nikon system than one from the other Big 5 members. But there are bargains to be found with patience and self-discipline. Looking for lenses a little outside of the mainstream, for instance, with slightly smaller maximum apertures or underrated focal lengths is one way to stretch your dollars. The Series E lenses, while lacking the build quality and multi coatings of Nikkors, are optically excellent in most cases, and can be had as inexpensively as any other Big 5 OEM lenses of the same focal & aperture range.
Another benefit of the popularity of the Nikon F system is the number of online resources for research and knowledge on how to get the most out your gear. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but I have found these very helpful:
Next up: the Olympus OM system
Nikon Camera Chronicle @ http://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/
The Thousand and One Nights @ www.http://imaging.nikon.com/history/story/
Photography in Malaysia @ http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/photography.htm
Roland Vink @ http://www.photosynthesis.co.nz/nikon/lenses.html
Nikon Lens Surveys @ http://www.naturfotograf.com/lens_surv.html
bythom Nikon Flash Specifications @ http://www.bythom.com/sb1.htm
Nikon Instruction Manuals @ http://www.butkus.org/chinon/nikon.htm
Popular Photography Mar. 1991 p. 34 @ https://books.google.ca
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.