The last time I shot film was somewhere around 2002, and I certainly hadn’t purchased a film camera this century. That all changed when I picked up a used Nikon FE in Ginza, Tokyo a few weeks ago. To write that the camera is ‘used’ is a bit redundant because the camera hasn’t been made since 1982, so all Nikon FE’s are used. Perhaps pre-owned is the correct way to talk about such camera these days.

Of course, the Nikon FE was a workhorse in its day. With its mainly manual operation, scads of these cameras were sold, and many are still in use today. Photographers have always liked the FE, even though it really is a half-notch under the professional level. Call it prosumer. Imagine my surprise when I found a fully working one in preferred black (there is also a black and silver model with the same innards) for a mere ¥8,000 Japanese yen or about $72 USD. Sure, you may be able to find one for cheaper online, but because I bought it from a shop, not only could I see it in person before buying to examine it, but also I got a six-month guarantee.

Mid-morning with natural light diffused through ‘shoji’ (Japanese paper doors).
Mid-morning with natural light diffused through ‘shoji’ (Japanese paper doors).

Lenses can be a problem for DSLR shooters. While the newer G lenses from Nikon will work on older cameras, the functions of such lenses are severely hampered on cameras without proper support – Nikon G lenses have no manual aperture control. Fortunately, Nikon D series lenses work perfectly on the Nikon FE, as do many lenses released before the D lenses, i.e. AI-s or AI lenses. Again, luckily, I still shoot with a few D series lenses on my DSLRs. I have the 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4, 60mm 2.8 macro, and 80~200mm 2.8, the latter of which I wouldn’t want to carry around on the FE all day, but the others work just fine.

Just for fun, I also went out and bought a used AI-s 28mm 2.8 fully manual focusing lens. These lenses are still produced in Japan and sell for ¥76,000 brand new ($680 USD). However, the used market for manual lenses is one of the biggest bargains in the world, and I picked up a minty copy from a camera store for ¥22,000 out the door ($197 USD), A nifty savings of ¥54,000 ($483 USD). That’s over 70% off.

There have been a lot of joys in using my Nikon FE so far, and certainly near the top of the list is using this manually-focusing lens. I had never bothered to pick up a fully manual lens such as this one mainly due to the stunning auto-focusing capabilities of newer Nikon lenses. Well, I have certainly been missing out on something. Focusing with these manual lenses is a pleasure beyond description. Sort of like eating ice cream – silky cream flow of focus. Velvet.

While manual control can be intimidating for people, myself included, using the manual controls has proven to be relatively easy on the Nikon FE. The camera is extremely user-friendly. Read a few articles online, and off you go. That’s not to say there isn’t a learning curve for a manual camera for digital shooters, but I often shoot my D600 in manual mode anyway. As such, the jump for me wasn’t too bad. In truth, shooting the FE has been some of the most fun I’ve had in photography in years.

Choices abound with the Nikon FE, not the least of which is with film stock. Right away, I ran a roll of black & white through the camera: Fujifilm Arco 100. My layoff from black & white film had been 25 years. At the time of this first roll, I hadn’t yet purchased the manual 28mm lens mentioned above, so I shot everything on the black & white roll with my 50mm D 1.4 lens. While I love shooting at 50mm, I could see that I wanted something wider in the narrow confines of the back streets of Japan’s Shizuoka City. The shots that follow were all made with the 50mm in manual focus mode, because, of course, there is no autofocus on the camera. One quick note: It is not my intention to review all of the choices of film available, or even the choices of lenses, or to review the camera for that matter. There are plenty of reviews and opinions online. I’m simply interested in sharing my experience.

Mid-afternoon light on a high-rise apartment building.
Mid-afternoon light on a high-rise apartment building.

As many people already know, one interesting feature on the Nikon FE is that photographers can create multiple exposures without having to re-shoot the entire roll. In other words, you can make double, triple or more exposures on individual frames, and the shots will line up. So, if I want to make a multiple exposure on exposure number six, I keep working on exposure six by holding in a button as I advance the film, which doesn’t actually advance the film at all. The button overrides the advance, cocks the shutter, and the film stays put. In this way, exposure six can be double exposed intentionally. Once a multiple exposure is made on a particular frame, a photographer then just goes on shooting the rest of the roll in single exposures if desired. Multi-exposed images can be made in-camera at any point on the roll.

A triple exposure from the Nikon FE.
A triple exposure from the Nikon FE.

One real concern about shooting film is developing. No shop in the entire prefecture where I live will develop black & white film these days. My roll had to be sent 150km away to Tokyo to develop and print. And, while it used to be that printing in black & white was cheaper than color, that is not the case any longer.

Once the film is developed and printed, there is also the matter of scanning images in order to digitize the shots so that they can be shared online. I dusted off an old CanoScan LiDE 30 circa 2003, but the scanner is dying and gave poor results with noticeable scan lines at the top of the images. Next, I scanned the black & white images shown in this article in the most rudimentary way with a Canon MG6350 using the free software VueScan. I just scanned the 3 x 5 prints.

A bonus was that I could scan via my WI-FI network at home. After I ran a few test scans, I found acceptable settings by scanning in greyscale at 600 dpi (a limitation of the scanner as far as I could tell) with a black point setting of 1. I liked the black point setting of 5, too, but went with the better detail in the shadows of the setting at 1.

While shooting a manual camera is much slower than auto-everything, the fun factor of manual handling is much higher on this Nikon FE than on my digital cameras. It is just enjoyable to slow down and think more deeply about shots.

Nikon FE Test 2
Nikon FE Test 2
Nikon FE Test 2
Nikon FE Test 2
Nikon FE Test 2
Nikon FE Test 2
Scanning tests. (Left) Greyscale from old CanoScan LiDE 30. (Center) Color scan from LiDE 30. (Right) 6400 dpi on the Canon MG5360. All failures.
Scanning tests. (Left) Greyscale from old CanoScan LiDE 30. (Center) Color scan from LiDE 30. (Right) 6400 dpi on the Canon MG5360. All failures.

Once I shot the black & white roll and sent it out for developing, I loaded a color roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. All of the following color images were shot with the 28mm 2.8 manual-focus lens. Of course, color film is no problem for shops to work with, and negatives and prints come back in an hour or so complete with a contact sheet, and a CD with each film image scanned to a 500k JPG. Not great digital quality, mind, but good enough to post on a website.

My first color shot on the Nikon FE with 28mm f2.8 manual-focusing lens. The prints and images almost look three-dimensional. The sharpness of the 28mm manual-focus lens blew me away, with the foreground in this image seemingly wanting to jump off the page/screen. Image is straight out of the camera from 35mm Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 film exposed according to the matching needles in the finder.
My first color shot on the Nikon FE with 28mm f2.8 manual-focusing lens. The prints and images almost look three-dimensional. The sharpness of the 28mm manual-focus lens blew me away, with the foreground in this image seemingly wanting to jump off the page/screen. Image is straight out of the camera from 35mm Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 film exposed according to the matching needles in the finder.

What’s more, you can edit these JPGs to some extent in software of your liking. I still use Apple’s last version of Aperture. While I do like the colors I got from the Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400, I personally prefer more saturation in my images, so a boost in my photo editing software gave me the look I wanted. Another option is to scan the negatives or prints yourself as a higher resolution. I did not do this option as I have no high-res scanner.

Gas station in Shimizu, Shizuoka, Japan. Excellent detail in the shadows of the rooms in the back. Image as straight out of the camera. No processing by me.
Gas station in Shimizu, Shizuoka, Japan. Excellent detail in the shadows of the rooms in the back. Image as straight out of the camera. No processing by me.

In the following images, I boosted the colors in my editing software. The original jpg from the camera shop CD are on the left, and my color processing on the right.

The following images were edited in Aperture. Click on an image to view it in full screen.

Shoot film. I love the way film looks. It is clearly different from digital. When returning to film, or even shooting film for the first time, there are a number of variables that need consideration. Film stock is a big one. Experimenting with different film is one of the pleasures of shooting film. Another big one is how to get the images into the computer. Scanning requires experimentation. Due to the shortage of labs willing to develop and print black & white rolls, I’m tempted to take the next step, and begin developing my own film.

A return to film is not to say that one should sell all of their digital gear. On the contrary, adding film to your arsenal of equipment is what I’m suggesting. I now plan to be a hybrid photographer. I’m glad that I got my Nikon FE, and I’ve since purchased three more film cameras: An Olympus 35 RC rangefinder, an Olympus 35 SP rangefinder, and a Nikon F3.

In addition, from the depths of my closet I dug out an old 35mm Olympus MJU II Zoom I used in the 1990’s. When my wife said that she had an old point-and-shoot camera somewhere, I urged her to unearth it. Coincidently, it was a 35mm Olympus MJU II with the fixed lens pretty much new-in-box, a camera that’s become somewhat of a classic. It turns out that I currently have a MJU II set. I’m now putting film through all of these ‘new’ film cameras.

~ Marcus Grandon

 

 

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Great story, I had a similar one, I stopped shooting film also around 2002 and I came back briefly in 2017 with a Fuji G617 I shot some panoramas and sold it, I was missing it lately so got a Fuji gx617 instead and a hasselblad 501c, just started again back in November and have shot a few B&W rolls which I’m developing at home with CineStill Df96, I started shooting slides for the first time ever and plan on developing myself as well with Arista rapid E-6.
    Good luck and enjoy the process!

    • A very good post. I would just like to add another couple of comments about the Nikon FE. First, it has a great exposure display which is very easy and intuitive to use. Second, it is excellent for night photography; just set it on auto exposure and the camera does the rest.

    • Thanks, Carlos. I’m also happy to read that you had a similar experience. Returning to film has been a super fun experience for me, and added to my enjoyment quite a bit. Good luck to you, too.

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