The cost of manual-focus 35mm equipment increases to rise and Nikon gear is leading the pack. Ten or fifteen years ago one could find Nikon F3s and FM2s in top shape for USD 200 or less, and if you paid a hundred dollars for a Nikon FM or a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AIS, then it was in near-mint condition.
Today those same F3s and FM2s fetch twice what they did a decade ago, and good luck finding a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-S in usable condition for under USD 150. With the recent resurgence in popularity of analog photography, premium Nikon gear from the golden age of 35mm film has become a bit dear.
It’s not overpriced, mind you. Those of us who collect and use classic Nikon equipment became too accustomed to the “you can’t give this stuff away” days of the early 2000s. Today we’re all kicking ourselves for not having bought more.
What of the young person of today who wants to get into the Nikon system for the first time? Have they missed the boat?
In preparation for the upcoming second edition of my self-published Amazon e-book “Nikon Film Cameras, Which one is right for you?”, I’ve been tracking the prices of certain cameras and lenses from the manual-focus era.
It turns out that the older unmodified pre-AI lenses sell at a discount of about twenty to forty percent versus the later AI or AI-S version of the same lens. The Nikkormat cameras these lenses were intended for can be had for well under one hundred dollars (US) in top condition.
What of the young person of today who wants to get into the Nikon system for the first time? Have they missed the boat?
Pre-AI Nikkor lenses cannot be safely mounted on AI cameras without modification by a trained professional, hence the discount. In contrast, AI and AI-S series lenses can be mounted on pre-AI cameras with no loss of functionality. This presents the educated bargain-hunter with a new world of opportunities.
In this article, I’ll first review the differences between pre-AI and AI indexing systems and then give my recommendations for the best bargains of the lot.
Table of contents
- 1 What are Nikkor Pre-AI, AI and AI-S lenses?
- 2 Pre-AI Nikon camera bodies: Nikon vs Nikkormat
- 3 The Electronic Nikkormats: EL, EL2, ELW
- 4 The Mechanical Nikkormats: FT, FS, FTn, FT2, FT3
- 5 What you need to know, the “AI tab”
- 6 Pre-AI lenses. What can you buy?
- 7 The final word…?
What are Nikkor Pre-AI, AI and AI-S lenses?
AI stands for “Automatic Indexing” It is a feature found on all Nikon 35mm equipment produced after 1977.
Prior to that time, all Nikkor lenses had to be manually “indexed” to the camera after being physically mounted – the camera had to be manually told each lens’ minimum and maximum aperture. No other manufacturer required this extra step when mounting a lens and by the 1970’s it seemed antiquated.
How to manually index a Nikkor lens
The procedure is fairly simple but must be done correctly each time a lens is mounted nonetheless.
Nikkor lenses communicate aperture data to the camera so that the light meter can give an accurate reading at full aperture – an improvement over the stop-down metering method common in the 1960s and in use with such systems as Practika/Pentax M42 screw-mount or the Canon FL system.
Pre-1977 Nikkor lenses communicated aperture data mechanically via a special prong on the lens (the signature Nikkor “rabbit ears”) which mated to a metering pin on the camera.
When mounting the lens one must set the aperture to f/5.6 so that the prong will align properly with the pin, which should be seated as far clockwise as it will go, roughly the two o’clock position. Don’t force it; the mechanism will move with a gentle push of a finger.
Once the lens is seated flush with the mount and the pin properly mated to the prong, turn the lens one quarter turn counterclockwise until you hear a click.
The lens is now physically mounted to the camera, and you can proceed to the extra step required to index the lens so that the light meter knows the maximum aperture of the lens you just mounted.
Turn the aperture ring to minimum aperture, usually f/16 or f/22, then all the way to maximum aperture.
That’s it. The lens is now indexed.
On Nikkormat bodies, confirmation of proper indexing is found around the lens mount below the pin in a clockwise direction. You will see three numbers atop a narrow slit. The numbers are, from left to right, 5.6, 2.8 and 1.2. In the slit is a small red index mark.
If the lens is properly indexed then the red mark should correctly indicate the maximum aperture of the lens just mounted.
For example, if you mounted a 50mm f/1.4 lens, then the red mark should appear just slightly to the left of the number 1.2. Indexing a 24mm f/2.8 lens should result in the red mark aligning perfectly with the number 2.8, and so on.
The procedure is rather simple once done a few times. It’s really only inconvenient when changing lenses in less than ideal field conditions, especially if time is of the essence.
Pre-AI Nikon camera bodies: Nikon vs Nikkormat
The cameras which utilize the pre-AI system include the original F, early versions of the F2 and almost all Nikkormats or as they were known in Japan and parts of the Far East, Nikomats. I’ll be using “Nikkormat” throughout this article for consistency.
In this class, the F and F2 most certainly do not represent the best value for the money. These professional system cameras were used by people who made a living taking pictures under tough conditions and deadlines. They were beaten hard and abused. These were work tools and treated as such.
Well-preserved survivors fetch a premium price today. At this time the Nikkormat was the only other SLR sold by Nikon. In fact, during the 1960s the Nikon F was simply referred to as “the Nikon” and Nikkormat (called the Nikomat in Japan) was a separate brand. Indeed, one magazine advert of the period boasted, “There’s a lot of Nikon in every Nikkormat”.
This remained the case right up until the introduction of the AI models in 1977.
The Electronic Nikkormats: EL, EL2, ELW
Turning our attention to the Nikkormat series, let’s first make one clear distinction. Broadly speaking, Nikkormats came in two flavors, mechanical and electronic. Today the electronic Nikkormats are best used for strictly decorative and ornamental purposes.
The Nikkormat EL was the first camera with an electronic shutter produced by Nikon. As a general rule of thumb, one should avoid first-generation auto-exposure electronic shutters. This was a big leap in technology and few manufacturers got it right the first time. The EL and its successors, the ELW and EL2, were notorious power hogs which drained batteries voraciously, even when in the “off” position.
The only way to prevent this drain is to remove the battery, which brings us to the next fault…
The battery compartment in the electronic Nikkormats is situated in the lightbox under the reflex mirror. What were they thinking? Who knows. The lightbox of an SLR should be kept closed at all times and opened only when necessary. New cameras come with body covers over the lens mount for a reason.
Messing about inside the lightbox should be avoided. I am unaware of any other manufacturer which located the battery compartment under the reflex mirror, a mistake Nikon has never repeated. If you have inherited an electronic Nikkormat from your grandparents then, by all means, use it if it works.
I would not, however, pay for one or invest money in repairing or refurbishing a camera of this series.
The Mechanical Nikkormats: FT, FS, FTn, FT2, FT3
Turning to the mechanical Nikkormats, there were five in the series, produced between 1965 and 1977. Three can easily be eliminated from consideration. We’ll start with them first.
The Nikkormat FT, FS and FTn
The first two models were introduced in 1965, the FT and FS. The FS was a meterless camera. It was produced in very low numbers and is highly sought after by collectors today. The FT suffered from three annoying drawbacks which were corrected with the introduction of the FTn two years later.
First, it was necessary to re-set the ASA each time one changed lenses. Second, it used a full-field averaging metering pattern which reads the entire frame evenly with no distinction between center and corner. The FTn switched to Nikon’s now famous 60/40 centre-weighted metering pattern, a big improvement. Finally, the FTn displayed the shutter speed in the viewfinder; the FT did not.
If FT’s were readily available and less expensive than FTn’s, then I’d say they’re at least worth a look. But due to the FT’s status as the very first “prosumer” Nikon and its lower production numbers, collector interest keeps prices at par with the FTn. Given that, I can think of no reason to choose an FT over an FTn.
The next two models occupy the sweet spot in the high quality-low-price pre-AI universe.
The Nikkormat FTn and FT2
The FTn was introduced in 1967 and remained in production until 1975 when it was replaced by the FT2. The latter camera was in production for only two years. Production figures for these cameras vary from one online source to another, but I believe it fair to say that about one million FTn’s were produced and about a quarter as many FT2’s.
The FTn had all the premium features one would expect of a model at the top of this class: speeds from 1 to 1/1000 plus B, depth-of-field preview, shutter speeds visible in the viewfinder, self-timer, mirror lock-up, plus an external light meter readout on the top plate. Very few cameras of this class could accept a motor drive; the mechanical Nikkormats could not. Today the FTn is very price-competitive with comparable SLRs from other brands.
FTn’s are not merely plentiful and inexpensive, they are superb cameras and as ruggedly indestructible as an SLR can be. Nikon made no compromises in terms of engineering and build quality. These cameras are mechanical works of art.
Buy one in fair condition for twenty dollars and invest another hundred having a good technician bring it back to spec. You are now the proud owner of a piece of precision engineering which will outlive your grandchildren. You could buy one rated in “excellent plus” condition for perhaps sixty dollars, though I’d still have it looked over by a tech I know and trust. At fifty years of age, even in excellent condition, a complex machine like this will likely need a bit of maintenance. If you pay a hundred dollars for an FTn it better be in mint condition with the original box and paperwork.
Some FTn quirks
All of this raises the question, if FTn’s are such great cameras then why are prices so cheap? Because they suffer a few quirks which put some people off. First is the pre-AI lens indexing procedure described above. In addition, the shutter speeds are accessed via a collar around the lens mount in a manner some consider awkward.
Film speed is also adjusted around the lens mount, with a rather fidgety bracket at the underside. There is no hot shoe, but rather a detachable cold shoe accessory which is often missing. The FTn is big and heavy; it weighs nearly a full kilogram empty and without a lens. That’s a massive package even by the standards of the day.
Finally, the FTn was designed to accept mercury batteries which are no longer available. Alkaline replacements are available (designated PX625A), though they produce 1.5 volts as opposed to 1.35 for the mercury cell.
There is wide disagreement over the significance of this last detail. Some claim the voltage discrepancy throws off the meter in a logarithmic fashion such that one cannot compensate by fiddling with the ASA setting. In contrast, I know at least one experienced, well-respected technician who claims that it makes little difference and isn’t worth worrying about. When I objected that online forums were full of mercury battery solutions and workarounds he responded, “I’ve been fixing these things for 35 years! Who are you going to believe?” A full analysis of this issue is beyond the scope of this essay. You’ll have to decide this one on your own.
The FTn compared to…
The FTn is in the same class technologically as the Minolta SRT series, the Canon FTb, Konica Autoreflex series and the Olympus OM-1. All these cameras boast all-metal construction, high build quality, plus easy repair and maintenance. All were designed for mercury batteries which powered a cadmium sulfide (CdS) photocell in a center-weighted metering pattern, and their shutters fired on all speeds without a battery.
The Olympus’ distinguishing feature is its compact size and light weight; all the others are big heavy bricks like the Nikkormat. The Konicas used an early and entirely mechanical form of shutter-priority automation; all the others used match-needle manual-exposure metering. The Pentax Spotmatic, one of the most popular SLRs of this period, is more comparable to the earlier FT due to its use of a full-field averaging metering pattern.
The FT2: how much of an upgrade?
Nikon introduced the FT2 in 1975 with several upgrades. It weighs a bit less than its predecessor and enjoys an integrated hot shoe. In keeping with the times, the mercury cell was replaced by a single 1.5-volt LR44 battery.
The FT2 also added a split-image rangefinder focusing aid at the center of the screen, though some of the later FTn’s got this upgrade too. Most FTn’s made do with a microprism spot. Finally, there was a slight improvement to the manner for adjusting film speed.
In comparing it to other models of the era, I can’t think of many mechanical, all-metal, built-like-a-tank SLRs which used a 1.5-volt battery to power a CdS photo cell. The only one which comes to mind is the Pentax K-1000, a grossly overrated camera easily outclassed by the FT2. The former lacks a self-timer, depth-of-field preview, and mirror lock-up.
The FT2 viewfinder
There is no information in the viewfinder of the K1000 except the meter needle. Its light meter uses full-field averaging. The FT2 is, in my opinion, the best platform upon which to base a budget-conscious pre-AI Nikon system. It’s a bit more expensive than the FTn, though one can easily be had in excellent condition for well under one hundred dollars, and it offers full functionality with pre-AI lenses, which is really where you’re going to save money.
The Nikkormat FT3
The final model in the mechanical Nikkormat line, the FT3, was a stopgap measure until the arrival of the Nikon FM, which wasn’t quite ready for market at the time the AI system was introduced with the F2A.
Nikon didn’t want any pre-AI dinosaurs left in its product line once the new system hit the shelves so they swapped out the metering pin on the FT2 for an AI tab and, viola, the FT3 was born. The FT3 is identical in all respects to the FT2 save the upgrade from pre-AI to AI. It was produced for only a few months and sold alongside the FM for about a year before quietly being withdrawn. If you want to enjoy full functionality with pre-AI lenses, the FT2 is a better choice.
What you need to know, the “AI tab”
After the introduction of the AI-system a handful of cameras were blessed with a retractable AI tab enabling the mounting of unmodified pre-AI lenses. Of course with the AI tab disabled the lens cannot communicate aperture data to the camera, so light readings must be taken with the lens stopped down to the working aperture.
Cameras so equipped are:
- Nikkormat FT3
- Nikkormat EL2
- Nikon FM
- Nikon FE
- Nikon F3
- Nikon F4
When you decide to upgrade your collection, your best transitional cameras will be the FM and FE. Both are truly superior devices which can be had in great shape for USD 100 to 150.
This is the beauty of starting with a pre-AI system. You’re basically buying Nikon equipment at Canon or Minolta prices, but you’re not stuck. You can seamlessly transition to an AI collection via the retractable tab cameras.
Pre-AI lenses. What can you buy?
So if you stick to pre-AI, what sort of lens system can you expect to buy? First, let me disclose that my research tracked prices at two well-known retailers of used analog camera gear in the United States, both of which maintain websites with detailed product listings and consistent grading scales.
If you live elsewhere, you can expect to pay a bit more. Prices quoted herein are for lenses in either “bargain grade” or “very good” condition, indicating no significant optical defects, mostly smooth focusing plus cosmetic wear, sometimes considerable.
Here I am reviewing only the least expensive version, or slowest maximum aperture, of each focal length between 24 and 135 millimetres. The discount still applies of course to the pricier lenses. Want to save fifty bucks on a 35mm f/1.4? Look for an unmodified pre-AI example.
Wide/wide-normal lenses: 24mm – 35mm
Starting at the wide end, the Nikkor-N 24mm f/2.8 is plentiful and quite reasonable, coming in at about USD 125. I’m very pleased with the results I’ve had from mine. I ran a set of test shots against an AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8. The older lens is softer in the corners wide open, but otherwise comparable. Some will tell you that wide angle lenses have improved tremendously in recent years. This may be true. I suspect the newer glass is sharper in the corners and suffers less distortion.
For this objection I have two answers. First, other than corner softness at open apertures, one would strain to detect much defect or distortion with the naked eye without pixel-peeping a 30+ megapixel image. Second, if you can find a better 24mm lens for USD 125, buy it. Even assuming that wide angle lenses have improved immensely in the past decade, that doesn’t mean the old ones are now substandard. Moreover, the latest and greatest lenses from Nikon are G-series with no aperture rings and are thus virtually useless on manual-focus cameras. Oh, and they ain’t cheap either.
Continuing upward, the 28mm focal length offers one of the best bargains in the Nikkor line, the 28mm f/3.5, a lens introduced with the original F in 1959 and which remained in production well into the 1980’s in AIS configuration, with no change to the optical formula.
Significantly, it was co-produced alongside the 28mm f/2.8 which was introduced in the mid-70’s. The fact that it was not withdrawn from production and superseded by the f/2.8 lens is a strong indicator of Nikon’s confidence in its quality. I tested mine against an AF-D 28mm f/2.8. The older lens was noticeably sharper in the corners and suffered less vignetting wide open. Perhaps I just got a bad copy of the AF-D, but the old f/3.5 does not disappoint.
Remember, Nikon is primarily a lens company. Their optical engineers take the art of lens making very seriously. If they regard a given optical formula as obsolete, they’ll withdraw it in favor of the improved version. The 28mm f/3.5 is dirt cheap only because buyers think reflexively that wider aperture = better.
Nobody buys a 28mm lens for portraiture or creamy bokeh. Unless you need a fast lens for low-light shooting, pick up a Nikkor-H 28mm f/3.5 in top shape for sixty bucks.
The 35mm focal length presents more of a challenge.
The Nikkor-S 35mm f/2.8 is a fine lens, though the early single-coated versions tend to flare. It’s not seen as often as the aforementioned 24 and 28, perhaps because Nikon’s most popular 35mm lens of the period was the f/2 version introduced in 1965.
It’s actually more common to see f/2’s than f/2.8’s for sale in this focal length. When available they can be had for under one hundred dollars. Aaron Sussman, author of the highly respected “The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook”, published in eight editions between 1941 and 1973, referred to the Nikkor-S 35mm f/2.8 as “one of the finest lenses of its kind”. Today this magnificent piece of optical artistry can be yours for about seventy dollars.
Normal lenses: 50mm
Turning to the 50mm focal length, you’ve got two excellent choices. If your priority is distortion-free sharpness with high contrast, the Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 comes in at fifty dollars.
For better bokeh you can move up to the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 for USD 80.
You’ll search long and hard to find a decent AI version of the f/1.4 for anywhere near one hundred dollars, whereas there’s not much of an AI premium for the f/2. So whereas the f/2 is cheaper the f/1.4 is the better deal if one measures the bargain by the amount saved versus the AI version.
Short-telephoto lenses: 85mm – 135mm
The 85mm focal length tends to be pricey in every 35mm system I can think of, though I’m not sure why.
At any rate, a Nikkor-H 85mm f/1.8 in nice shape commands about two hundred dollars. But before you fork over that cash, consider the next two candidates for portraiture instead.
The 105 and 135mm focal lengths offer two classic designs for portraiture. Both utilize a Sonnar-type optical formula first developed by Zeiss in the 1920s. At that time anti-reflective coating technology was in its infancy and optical designers sought to minimize the number of air-to-glass surfaces, so Sonnar lenses tend to have fewer groups of elements.
Today this type of formula has a cult following and is highly favored for portraiture. The early 105mm f/2.5’s with the chrome front ring used a Sonnar formula, as did all pre-AI versions of the 135mm f/3.5. The pre-AI 105mm with the black front ring has the updated optical formula and most have multi-coating (look for the “C” after the “P” around the front element). It is identical optically to the AIS version which sells for twice the price. That’s quite a premium for a built-in lens hood. Either version of the 105 can be had for one hundred dollars. The 135 fetches about fifty.
The final word…?
I’ve been using the Nikon system for about twelve years, though my pre-AI gear is much more recent.
When prices started to rise I decided I wanted a camera which could mount unmodified pre-AI lenses with full functionality so I picked up an FT2 for forty bucks. I took it to my local tech and now it shoots smoothly and flawlessly for a total investment, including the original purchase price, of about one hundred dollars.
I liked it so much that I bought an FTn which I have thoroughly enjoyed. My FM has been gathering dust for over a year. The Nikkormats are now my go-to cameras for everyday use. Unless I need a shutter speed over 1/1000, TTL flash or critically accurate metering in low light I feel no need to reach for the FM2, F3 or F100.
If you’re considering which 35mm system to buy into, don’t write off Nikon because of price. Give serious thought to a Nikkormat-based pre-AI system.
You will not be disappointed.
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