When Nikon introduced the F2 in the autumn of 1971, its predecessor, the Nikon F, was still in high demand. In fact, 1970 had seen the highest ever level of production for the F, with over 100,000 units made. Nikon had intended to cease F production with the deployment of the F2, but demand for the F proved so great that two years elapsed before they were able to discontinue it for good. That is quite a testament to the popularity of the F and is also indicative of the tendency of professional photographers to stick with what is familiar and trusted. A similar thing had happened with the F itself when Nikon wanted to cease production of its rangefinders in 1959. Demand by photographers doubtful of the newfangled SLR and comfortable with their rangefinder cameras caused Nikon to keep them in limited production until 1965. Now history was repeating itself. So how could the F2 possibly compete with its already legendary forebear? By being a better camera, that's how! How much better? Let's find out...
The Finest Mechanical Nikon...the F2
At first glance, the F2 only looks like a warmed-over F. Which is not a bad thing, considering the esteem the F is held in. But a closer examination shows a much more refined design with greater capability and better ergonomics. Nikon began work on the prototypes for the F2 in 1965 and kept at it for nearly five years followed by another year of intense testing before the F2 was released for production. Improvements over the F include:
Whew! Made it. Now, some may prefer the F's slightly smaller size (not counting Photomic prisms) and weight (about 45 grams less for body only). Some also feel that the F's shutter is quieter than the F2's. That's the beauty of it, there are choices available to suit different preferences. If you are a street shooter, you might prefer the F. Or you might not :-).
So, what about our recommendations for the various models of the F2? As with the original F, models are differentiated based on the prism installed. So we start with the basic F2 with the DE-1 non-metered eye-level finder. If you want basic and beautiful, this is your pick, no distracting displays, just a 100% viewfinder surrounded by inky blackness, perfect for focusing (no pun intended) on composition. Metering is up to you, whether you choose a handheld meter or go for the original exposure calculator (Sunny 16 and the power of the mind ;-)). The DE-1 has improved build quality over the original F eye-level prism and can even be used on the original F by removing the Nikon nameplate from the front of the F body. The DE-1 does suffer from the same de-silvering problem as the original eye-level F finder due to the deterioration of the foam that seals the prism. Definitely make it a priority to inspect the finder carefully before purchase, and have the foam removed and replaced even if there is no de-silvering at present. As with the F, it is generally cheaper to buy an F2 with the DE-1 finder rather than separately. Black DE-1 finders are usually very pricey on their own. You can find very good user copies of the F2 with DE-1 from $250 - 300 USD in chrome and black. There are also three specialty non-metered finders available for the F2: the DA-1 Action Finder (gives 63 mm or 2.5" of eye relief), the DW-1 Waist Level Finder (image is upright but reversed from left to right), and the DW-2 6x Focusing Finder (also with upright but reversed image but shows at 6x magnification). With any of these finders the camera is called F2. With the metered finders, it's another story.
There were five different metered prisms produced for the F2: the DP-1, DP-2, DP-3, DP-11, and DP-12. The corresponding designation of these prisms mated with the camera body are as follows: F2 Photomic, F2S, F2SB, F2A, F2AS. Isn't Nikon alphabet soup great?! So let's try and simplify things a bit. There are two basic ways to categorize the DP finders: by 1) capability and 2) compatibility.
1) Capability. Logically, as time went by, Nikon continually improved the capabilities of its metered finders. The DP-1 (F2 Photomic), produced from 1971-77, was the most basic and longest-lived model and thus, least expensive and most common. It is a full information finder, displaying both aperture and shutter speed along with a swinging meter needle to indicate recommended exposure. It uses a CdS (cadmium disulfide) cell for metering with a 6-6400 ISO range and an EV1-17 metering range.
The DP-2 (F2S) was produced from 1973-76 and introduced LEDs for metering readout. It can be easily differentiated from the DP-1 by the hump on top of the finder. It also uses a CdS cell but the ISO range is 12-6400 and the metering range is EV -2 - 17. This would be the least recommended finder for an F2 because of reliability problems with the LED circuits.
Finally, we have the DP-3 (F2SB), the rarest and best of the original series DP finders. It was only produced from 1976 to early 1977 and about 22,000 were made. It is an LED (albeit with a different type of display than the DP-2) finder with silicon blue cell (SBC) metering, which is more sensitive and faster-reacting than CdS cell metering. It covers the same film speed and metering ranges as the DP-2. And it has a built-in eyepiece shutter, very handy for long exposure or self-timer work. The DP-3 gives the greatest full-aperture metering compatibility with the range of manual focus Nikkor lenses of any of the F2 finders. We'll get into that a little more later on. So where do the DP-11 & -12 fit in?
2) Compatibility. In 1977, Nikon introduced a new meter coupling system. Meter coupling refers to the capability to relay aperture information from the lens to the metered finder. When Nikon introduced its first Photomic finder for the original F in 1962 it used a coupling pin that engaged a slotted triangular (later, half-moon-shaped) prong mounted on all subsequent manual focus Nikkor lenses. It is popularly referred to as the crab claw or rabbit ears. It had to be manually reset each time the user changed lenses. In 1968, with the introduction of the Photomic FTn finder this process became semi-automatic and stayed the same through the DP-1, -2, and -3. Finally, in 1977, Nikon unveiled its new Automatic Indexing (AI) aperture feature. The DP-11 and DP-12 were merely updates of the DP-1 and DP-3, respectively, re-engineered to engage with the new AI tab on all new Nikkor lenses instead of the old-style prong. The AI tab remained on all Nikkors up to the introduction of the "G" auto focus lenses that eliminated the aperture ring. So, the DP-11 (F2A) is the same finder as the DP-1, just updated for AI lenses, and the DP-12 (F2AS) is an AI-updated DP-3. They were both manufactured right to the end of F2 production in 1980. Just as the DP-3 is the most capable of the original finders, the DP-12 outclasses the DP-11. That is not to say the DP-1/-11 are bad finders, they just don't have the same level of capability as the DP-3/-12, especially in low light. Some people even prefer needle metering to LED. Again it comes down to personal preference, and cost :-).
So, speaking of cost, what are you looking at when it comes to a metered prism equipped F2? Well, an F2 Photomic or an F2A (DP-1/DP-11) will be the least expensive, starting at $150 USD for well-used but working examples, and $200 USD can get you a very nice copy. An F2SB in good condition will usually start at $250 USD and $300 - 400 USD will get one in excellent condition. The F2AS starts at about the same level as an F2SB but runs about $350 to $450 USD for bodies in excellent condition.
It's probably obvious by now, that we lean towards the DP-3 or DP-12-equipped F2 for a metered camera. Choosing between those two comes down to the metering capabilities of each with non-AI lenses. First off, let's be clear, you can use both non-AI (pre-1977) and AI/AI-s (post-1977) type lenses with both finders.
The differences lie in the metering procedures you need to use. Because AI/AI-s lenses came with the old-style non-AI metering prong and the AI tab, they allow full-aperture (the viewfinder stays bright) metering with both the DP-3 and DP-12. The only advantage of the DP-12 here is the ease of mounting the lens. You just insert the lens and twist it until it locks and the aperture coupling is done automatically. With a DP-3 you have to make sure the aperture ring on the lens is set to f/5.6, line the slot in the metering prong up with the pin coming out the bottom of the finder as you insert the lens into the bayonet, twist the lens to lock it, and then twist the aperture ring to minimum aperture and back to maximum aperture to index the lens to the meter. This is the proverbial Nikon "click-click" procedure ;-). You mount a non-AI lens in exactly the same way. With the DP-12 and a non-AI lens, however, you must lock the AI lever on the finder all the way to the right with the front of the camera facing you BEFORE mounting the lens to prevent damage. What this means is that there is no mechanical connection to couple the aperture ring to the finder and thus, no way for the camera to know the aperture setting for metering purposes. This requires Stop-down (manually closing the aperture down, which darkens the viewfinder) metering. The DOF (depth-of-field) preview button is used to do this. When the aperture is stopped-down at your preferred setting, note the reading that the meter gives for shutter speed. Release the DOF preview button, set the the shutter speed dial to the appropriate speed, focus, and fire. Or you can set the shutter speed first, and turn the aperture ring with the DOF preview pressed until the meter indicates proper exposure. Then release the DOF preview, focus, and fire. Don't worry, this all sounds much more complicated than it is in practice :-).
To summarize, a DP-3 (F2SB) is slightly more complicated to mount lenses to, but will automatically meter with all of them, whether made in 1959 or 1999, as long as they have the metering prong. The DP-12 (F2AS) will mount any lens from 1959 and up, but will only automatically meter with AI/AI-s lenses made after 1977. If you already have a stock of older non-AI lenses or want to take advantage of their lower prices compared to AI/AI-s Nikkors, the F2SB would be more suitable, but you really can't go wrong one way or the other.
Durability is one of the hallmarks of the F series of cameras, and the F2 did not fail to meet the standard set by the F. It raised it even further. One of the most important areas to inspect before purchasing is the condition of the shutter curtains. Like the F they are made of titanium foil, and are very durable, but they do not last forever. As they reach the end of their life they begin to develop vertical fatigue cracks, particularly at the ends of the curtains. The only option for replacement is to procure another body with curtains in good condition, so it would be advisable to get a good one in the first place. Also because many F2's were used by pros or serious amateurs be aware of high levels of wear or corrosion on the film guide rails and pressure plate. Next, test out all shutter speeds, paying close attention to the speeds below 1/30 sec. The slower speeds are often the first to lose accuracy in a mechanically-controlled shutter, and would indicate the need for a CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) for the camera. CLAs for F2's start around $150 USD and go up from there. The ultimate in F2 servicing is offered by Mr. Sover Wong in the UK. He offers different levels of servicing and improvements for all F2 models and metered prisms. If you are interested in obtaining an F2, do yourself a favor and check out his website. It is a marvelous resource and will let you know all that you need to know about F2 ownership and what to look for when purchasing an F2. There are still other independent repair shops that will service an F2 that may be closer and more convenient for you.
The appeal of the F2 is undeniable for those people looking for the ultimate experience in a fully mechanical Nikon. It served as the high watermark for professional mechanical Nikon bodies. By 1980, when production came to a close, 816,000 had been built. As happened when Nikon transitioned from the F to the F2, many photographers were reluctant to move to the new F3 in 1980. So much so that the remaining F2 bodies were priced higher than the brand-new F3s as Nikon tried to induce people to move to the new camera on the basis of lower cost. This reaction was possibly more pronounced because, for the first time, electronic control of a pro-level Nikon was ushered in with the F3. But we'll save that story for next time ;-).
Next time...Nikon's Electronic Apostasy (aka the F3)
"Debut of the F2" @ Nikon Camera Chronicle
Nikon F2SB User Manual pdf
Sover Wong's Specialist Nikon F2 Repair & Restore Services
Nikon F2 @ mir.com.my
Picture credits: www.wikipedia.org & Wikimedia Commons
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.