Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to settle on “the one.” The one 35mm film camera that will serve all my photography needs. This was no easy task as I needed a manual film body to have a shutter speed of 1/4000th or faster, a flash sync speed of 1/200th +, have aperture priority, in-camera light meter, accept my Nikon glass, be small, light, and look good.
After a few film bodies, I ran across the Nikon FE2 on eBay and pulled the trigger. The review below outlines my thoughts on the Nikon FE2 and why this is quite possibly the best 35mm film camera available.
I shoot all kinds of subjects, but my primary focus is environmental portrait photography. Photographing people in random outdoor environments, I want to shoot shallow depth of field as much as possible. I’m talking apertures of f/1.2 and f/1.4.
Shooting a very shallow depth of field allows me to blur out the distracting background and force the viewer to focus on my intended subject, the model. Shooting outside this is almost impossible unless you introduce an ND filter, as most film cameras have a 1/1000th or 1/2000th max shutter speed making shooting at f/1.4 impossible, as too much light is being let in.
Enter the titanium 1/4000th shutter of the Nikon FE2. This shutter is AMAZING! I can shoot super shallow depth of field with Fuji Pro 400H and really make dramatic images. I was shooting with a Nikon F3 and constantly had to use a 3-stop ND filter to limit the amount of light coming in as the F3 has a max shutter of 1/2000th.
An ND filter is a doable workaround but makes manual focusing even more of a challenge as everything is dark with the filter attached. The FE2 freed me from having to carry around more stuff. Yay!
One more detail surrounding the shutter is that it is properly dampened. It is so well dampened that shutter lockup, according to Nikon, is not required and therefore left off this camera. Nikon went all out and the extra attention given to dampening this shutter can be felt when on a tripod and shot at slow shutter speeds. I’ve yet to see blur in my photos introduced by shutter slap when the camera is on a tripod and shot at slower speeds.
I occasionally dabble in flash photography and needed to be able to shoot 1/200th + flash sync speed. The Nikon FE2 was definitely up to the task with an amazing 1/250th flash sync speed! This enables me to be super creative in my flash compositions and lighting schemes.
Knowing I have the speed if I need it is very reassuring. As much as I love my Nikon F3, but the 1/2000th max shutter speed and the measly 1/80th flash sync speed relegated this camera to the shelf for “cameras I sometimes can be bothered to shoot.”
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I prefer to shoot aperture priory. I know I want to shoot max aperture so there is no need for me to constantly set my shutter speed. I dial over and under exposures in by locking it in with the EV dial (no shutter speed shuffling required). I want to set the camera to “A”, the aperture to f/1.4, and start shooting.
I need my camera body to enable me to lock the exposure settings, while in Aperture priority and know the image will be properly exposed. The Nikon FE2 does this. It has aperture priority, intuitive exposure lock, and a solid 60/40 center-weighted metering.
Regarding the light meter, it’s a Rockstar. While it is a 60/40 center-weighted meter, it is still sparingly accurate. I notice very little difference between the exposures on my Nikon FE2 and my Nikon F3 (The F3 has a 80/20 center-weighted meter). I focus and recompose and the key to that working properly is to lock the exposure value prior to recomposing. Works like a charm and delivers consistent results that meet my expectations regarding image quality.
The Nikon FE2 is a stellar performer. Sometimes machines that perform well don’t necessarily have the looks to match their functionality. This is not the case with the Nikon FE2. The FE2 is a beautiful camera! I own the silver and black model and absolutely love it. Sure, the Nikon F3 is visually appealing, but, in my opinion, the FE2 is an all-round more attractive camera. I understand, looks mean nothing compared to the image being produced, but I like my cameras to inspire me to pick them up, hold them, and shoot them!
In the hand, the Nikon F3 feels stout. It has a metal alloy body that is small, tactile, and with ideally located controls. Everything is within reach and running the camera is effortless. I am a big fan of the “power switch” being on the film advance lever. To turn on the camera you simply flick out the film advance lever. To turn the camera off, simply shift the film advance lever towards the camera. This is an intuitive approach that just works. My thumb rests perfectly behind the open film lever allowing me to rapidly advance to the next frame and just as quickly shut the camera off.
The FE2 is a fast, durable, beautiful manual SLR camera that comes in at a decent price ($175-$200 for a mint copy on eBay). It puts a check in every box I find important to have in a film camera. If I were shooting inanimate objects, I could probably be content with the Nikon F3, but the shutter and sync speeds are just not what I need them to be.
I’m enjoying running this camera during my portrait sessions and hope to get many years of use out of this camera. Before I go, you can check out a full video review of the FE2 (by me!) right here.
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A few comments:
1) Mac said he shoots environmental portraits, but that he mostly shoots at f/1.2 or 1.4. That much background blur will take much of the environment out of it, then it is mostly just a portrait.
2) Mac said he felt limited by the F3’s 1/2000 sec. max shutter speed, because he had to use a 3 stop ND filter to shoot wide open outside. …but the FE2’s 1/4000s only buys one more stop, so he’d still need to use a 2 stop ND filter.
3) One thing Mac didn’t mention is that the FE2 doesn’t require a ridiculous adapter to use on-camera flash.
4) In the F3’s favor is the superior viewfinder. (in terms of eye relief, accuracy and magnification) As well as ball bearing film advance transport and interchangeable finders, mirror lock-up, viewfinder shutter… Rarely-used features. It’s not the shutter that would blur long exposures, but the mirror slap.
Good review anyway!
I’m pretty sure Pro 400H could handle the around 2/3 stop of overexposure shooting on the F3 vs the FE2 if you’re all about that 1.4. I do find the two-letter F cameras to be ideal though, in regards to size and included features/buttons and levers (just what’s necessary, and then some!)
Great review of the FE2 Mac. I love my black FE2 so much I’m keeing an eye out for a chrome one so I can run with two bodies (one for black and white and the other for colour).
Best 35mm camera!
Thanks for the write-up. I grabbed a
FE2 as “new” old stock (in box , et al) for less than 100.00USD about 8 years ago. I use a micro-Nikkor (AI) on it. It’s my technical camera. I shoot mostly industrial B&W close-ups. It is the same size as my Leica M2…they complement each other. I don’t need/desire/lust for anything else.
(btw…the M2 is fitted w/a 40mm CL lens; I don’t use the m/nikkor via an adaptor on the Leica.)
It’s more about shooting than acquiring gear.
I used the FE 2 in the Alaska Arctic for three years when I worked on the newspaper “The Arctic Sounder” as the only person in the bureau. It never froze up, the film never flared when advancing — even at minus 48 degrees. I could hand hold it and shoot at very low speeds and it was sharp.
I never understood why the FE2 sat below the FM2N in popularity. In my experience its match needle indicator seems much better for metering a scene and judging exposure when shooting full-manual than the limited LED indicator of the FM’s. Also, while the mirror rise and first curtain are very well-dampened, there IS a provision for MLU when the self-timer is engaged. Combined with its capability for hours-long autoexposures, this makes it not only one of the best manual-focus 35mm cameras for night landscape and astrophotography applications. It’s really one of the best all-rounders out there. …But if style and ergonomics are paramount when it comes to SLR’s, the OM-1 still wins hands-down vs. the FE2 or any of the ‘two-letter’ Nikon F’s.
cos I’m fairly certain the FM2N sits alone in being a mechanical camera with 1/4000 top speed (even if in reality it’s a little less than that) and 1/250 flash sync
Nice review and images EM, might be less of a bargain after that review ehh.
FM2n all day long.
Hey Mac, nice review of the FE2, I had one in the 90’s and really liked it, unfortunately I got rid of it many years ago. I’ve been thinking about getting it again specially as you said the prices are so good now. One important question. What scanner are you using for your 35mm negatives?
I’m using an Epson v850 for medium format and works very well but heard it’s not that good for 35mm.
Great review. I agree with you on so many points.
Thank You so much.