In 1984 I had just entered my 20s and my pockets were not very deep. Up to that point I had been using a Rolleiflex SL35M, my second SLR, but it had stopped working. I felt that this was my opportunity to move up to a brand that was my heart’s desire, NIKON!

Entering a store in my home town that was of a type that was pretty common in the US back then, I walked past the stereo equipment, the large and small appliances on the showroom floor and headed over to the counter that sold cameras. They had a number of SLRs and lenses for sale from multiple manufacturers, including a handful of Nikons. Most were out of my price range, but one, the FG-20, fit my budget and was just what I was looking for, a fully manual camera body with just a hint of automation.

After about a month of using it, I was so pleased with it that I decided to buy another. I went back to the same store and I still remember the sneer the salesman gave me when I told him this was my second FG-20. He asked why I would want two of the same camera? I informed him that it would allow me to have two different lenses ready to go in an instant, or shoot two different types of film and be able to move between the two cameras seamlessly. The contempt he had for the young man in front of him buying the cheapest Nikon for a second time is still palpable to this day.

I didn’t care because these Nikons were exactly the camera that I wanted, and over time they served me well. I ran many hundreds of rolls of film through them both and as long as I put fresh batteries in them, they just kept going.

The FG-20 was designed as an entry level SLR for the express purpose to entice people to the Nikon ecosystem. It accepted any Nikon F mount lens, could be fitted with a motor drive that allowed a blazing 3.2 frames per second, and it could be paired with a small sized flash. Finally, it had that exciting new way to meter the scene through the lens, center-weighted Metering!

One of the most intriguing features it did have was that when set to aperture priority mode, the shutter speed was stepless. In other words, if the proper exposure for the chosen aperture happened to be 1/75th of a second, or 1/840th of a second, the shutter would work at that speed. You could, of course, set any speed manually from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second in full stop steps, too.

When I gave up analog photography before the year 2000 I just couldn’t bring myself to getting rid of the cameras I had spent so much time with and used to record so many of my life’s adventures. I stored them away, every so often thinking that I should sell them or give them to someone who could use them, but I never could bring myself to that. They always got put away.

20 years after I put them into a box in my closet and 34 years after I had originally purchased them, these small, plastic, light weight bodied SLRs once again came out of storage. This time it was different. This time they got a general cleaning, fresh batteries, new light seals, and fresh rolls of film. Much to my pleasure, they didn’t miss a beat! They’re still working as well today as they did back in the 1980s, and boy am I happy I didn’t get rid of them!

Today, one is at my wife’s side for whenever she gets the urge to shoot some film again. The other I take with me most of the time I’m out of the house, even when my primary cameras, a Canon 80D and a Canon EOS3 remain back at home. I find that the compact size and light weight are great for shooting around town or when I simply want to be free of the size, heft and complexity of those more sophisticated SLR and DSLRs.

I can wield the FG-20 one-handed as it hangs from a hand strap without it becoming a bother or getting in the way. The size isn’t intimidating to potential subjects either. I can leave it in a cup holder in my car’s console for easy access when driving, and it neatly fits into the console’s compartment when I need to hide it when I go into a store or some other place I can’t or don’t want to bring it. I’ve even found that the body is opaque to infrared light, so they are great cameras if you’d like to try your hand at IR photography without the expense of getting or converting a digital camera!

As a plastic beginner’s camera, it was never very popular. It was often looked down on by many photographers when it was new because they lacked many of the latest and greatest features that were just becoming available at the time.

Sadly even today they continue to be overlooked and ignored. That is a shame because I have found them to be excellent cameras that are more than worthy of consideration by today’s analog photographers. If you’re looking for an inexpensive 35mm camera that will be light and efficient, without all the bells and whistles that can eventually fail, a camera that is a solid performer that can last for decades, consider picking up an FG-20.

After three and a half decades, I’ve never regretted buying mine!

~ Richard

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About the author

Avatar - Richard A Kowalski

Richard Kowalski

Richard A. Kowalski is from Tucson, Arizona. A professional researcher who regularly uses a 110 megapixel camera attached to a 3000mm f/ 1.7 telescope to produce and examine about 1000 images each clear night he is at work, he first fell in love with photography...


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  1. I’m looking for a solid used entry level camera for my daughter. Came across this article. I swear if I wait 30 years, she could write the same article in that she has the same needs and wants in a camera. She needs something to learn on but also be able to grow with. Easy on the pocket book but takes great pictures. I’ve had several Nikons over the years. About 5-7 years later than you. So I forget what I chose that first time out but can tell you I wish it would have been a simpler, smaller, lighter. I’m about to buy a used FG-20 for her and was so happy to stumble onto this article as it hit all of the points I thought about when looking at cameras. Validates the choice.

  2. Just yesterday I bought a Nikon FG-20 from a local camera shop for $120 (CAD), it’s in really good condition and I cannot wait to use it! I spent most of yesterday figuring it out and learning where everything was, how to load film, etc, (I’m coming from a D3500), I think I have it down and after work today I plan to buy some black and white film at the same store I bought the camera.

  3. i bought my fg-20 at about the same time for precisely the same reason – limited budget, wanted nikon glass. i’ve had many cameras since then, but i’m still shooting the fg-20 and carry it around with me almost everywhere i go. it’s dead simple, being almost completely mechanical. it’s lightweight and a joy to work with. it’s sitting on the table beside me right this minute, loaded with a roll of portra 800, ready to go. and it makes great photos. can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.

  4. Super cool article and pics! I so remember pining for a Nikon camera in the 80s and going home empty-handed because I did’t have the budget. I finally got an FE and F3 last year, and they are everything I’d hoped.

  5. I have two FGs and find this model to be a very underrated camera. They work great in the manual mode. The FG has a few more features (such as TTL flash) than the FG-20 but if you can live without them, the FG-20 will be just fine. My understanding is that Nikon was concerned that people were buying the FG over the FE2. Consequently, they took away a few features and replaced the FG with the FG-20.

    1. Absolutely right, Armand.
      Two comments:
      – Like the EM before it, the FG-20 conveyed the ASA [ISO] and aperture settings to either of two purpose-built dedicated Nikon flashes [SB-E, 3 stops range, and SB-19, 6 stops], for fuss-free sensor-controlled auto flash exposure.
      – The FG-20 did not replace the FG; it succeeded the auto-only EM, and was thus a masterstroke. The FG offered TTL flash control and Programmed auto-exposure — the latter holding the mirror down so that the meter could take a final stopped-down reading before the mirror flipped up and the shutter fired.
      This Minolta-inspired mechanism ensured that, should the aperture close down to a value not quite as set [including jammed-open], the shutter speed would be readjusted to yield correct exposure.
      Enjoy your FG-20 machines!

  6. I do remember the FG-20 as I got a job selling cameras back in the 80’s. You are right Richard, the FG-20 was an entry level camera from Nikon. We did have a few returns from unsatisfied customers, however those returns were more like users fault. Love your color and B/W pictures!!. Keep going Richard and thank you for sharing.

  7. Really interesting reflections. Funnily enough, despite being a long-time Nikon user I only heard about the Nikon FG this morning, and then this article dropped in!

    One thing that I noticed on the FG was the overhanging shutter-speed dial; this reminds me of the Leica M5, and seems like a really smart idea because it means you can switch speeds with your hand on the right of the camera — is that right? If so that would make it a great camera to shoot in full manual!

    1. Thanks Calum. Your observations are exactly right! The dial does overhang the front of the body so you can adjust the shutter speed without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

      1. This is a feature of the M5 that I really appreciate. To some extent the M6ttl’s shutter speed dial functions the same.