The F2 was Nikon’s mechanical, manual flagship camera of the 1970s. Rugged and reliable construction along with a complete system of lenses, backs, viewfinders and other accessories made it the professional’s choice.
I was a dedicated Olympus user in the 80s: they were compact, capable and tough. My first exposure to Nikon was at my university’s newspaper. The pool cameras were motor-driven FMs and an F2, even though the F3 had been available for years. I didn’t use the F2 much – with its motor drive and a 180mm lens it was like wearing a boat anchor. I’d instead use my Olympus or the slightly slower but much lighter FMs.
When I got back into 35mm photography in 2012 I needed a fast camera for a project I was working on so I chose a Nikon F5. By 2015 I didn’t need the speed and weight of the F5 so I switched to FE2s for many projects. Even though my initial experience with F2s wasn’t positive, when the opportunity to purchase an F2AS came up I thought I’d give it another try. I ended up loving it and sold the FE2s a couple of months later. I now own the Nikon F2AS and two F2A bodies, and they’ve been my primary 35mm cameras for the past year.
So much has been written and spoken about the Nikon F2 in the nearly 50 years since its debut. My intention here is to give a quick tour of the camera, discuss what accessories I find useful, and describe what I like and dislike about using it as an everyday camera in the 21st century.
Finders and functionality
Throughout its approximately 10 years of production, the Nikon F2 body underwent few exterior changes. The major updates were to the Photomic metering finders which increased sensitivity, offered needle or LED indicators, and added compatibility with AI lenses.
Some controls, as well as the metering indicators, depend on the finder. All of the metered viewfinders show the exposure indicator, shutter speed and aperture in the finder. There are two main groups of F2 finders, those which were made to work with Nikon’s non-AI lenses and those made to work with AI and later lenses.
The Nikon F2 is unique in the Nikon world in that each main camera configuration (body + finder) as sold by Nikon, has a dedicated name:
- Nikon F2 (Body + DE-1 prism – 1971-76)
- Nikon F2 Photomic (Body + DP-1 metered prism – 1971-76)
- Nikon F2S Photomic (Body + DP-2 metered prism, 1973-76)
- Nikon F2SB Photomic (Body + DP-3 metered prism, 1976-77)
- Nikon F2A Photomic (Body + DP-11 metered prism, 1977-80)
- Nikon F2AS Photomic (Body + DP-12 metered prism, 1977-80)
There were a number of other finders available but not sold in a kit configuration. Here’s a quick breakdown of the five metered prism options from the six shown above:
Non-AI lens finders
When a lens is mounted on a body with a non-AI finder the aperture ring must be rotated to the smallest then largest f-stop to couple the lens properly.
- DP-1 (F2 Photomic): CdS meter, needle indicator, EV 1-17.
- DP-2 (F2S Photomic): CdS meter, 2-LED indicator, EV -2-17.
- DP-3 (F2SB Photomic): Silicon photodiode meter, 3-LED indicator, eyepiece shutter, EV -2-17.
(EV ratings are at ISO 100.)
Both the DP-1 and 2 have over/under exposure indicators on the top plate. The DP-3 only has a correct exposure LED on top. They’ll work fine with any lens that has meter coupling prongs on the aperture ring.
AI lens finders
Non-AI lenses can be used in stop-down mode by pushing the meter coupling lever up and out of the way. The DP-11 has the over/under exposure indicator on top while the DP-12 only has a correct exposure LED.
- DP-11 (F2A Photomic): CdS meter, needle indicator, EV 1-17.
- DP-12 (F2AS Photomic): Silicon photodiode meter, LED indicator, eyepiece shutter, EV -2-17.
I’ve noticed that the needle indicator has a slight lag in responding to rapid changes in light. Both of my DP-11s measure a stop slower than the DP-12, which matches my handheld exposure meter.
Non-metered options include a plain pentaprism, 2 different waist level finders, and an action finder.
F2AS body and construction
I’ll be talking about the Nikon F2AS for the majority of this article. That is, the Nikon F2 body with the latest DP-12 metered prism finder. For clarity, functionality of the prism’s meter aside, the camera is constructed and behaves in the same manner as every single Nikon F2 version out there.
It’s a big camera, but not absurdly so. It’s about 0.5″/12mm wider than the Nikon FM/FE compact bodies and a bit deeper and taller as well. The metered finder adds considerable height.
Weight is about 10oz/300g more than an FE2.
The camera is overbuilt. The heavy gauge back door fits into deep channels in the body which looks they would remain light-tight without any seals. The film sprocket roller is metal as opposed to plastic as in many cameras, and it looks like it came out of a car transmission.
Everything feels solid and precise: the shutter fires with a sharp and authoritative clack and the film advance is smooth and quiet.
The top deck has the film rewind crank on the left. Surrounding the crank is the non-standard flash mount: flashes slide over it. The top edge of the serial number marks the film plane. On the finder, there’s an illuminator switch and the ASA/shutter speed dial on the side.
In front of the ASA dial on the side is the finder release lever. For precise exposure control, the shutter speed is continuously variable between 80 (the red dot) and 2000 – the dial can be set between click stops for intermediate speeds.
Everything feels solid and precise: the shutter fires with a sharp and authoritative clack and the film advance is smooth and quiet.
On the right side of the top deck is the shutter release surrounded by the lock/time exposure collar. The shutter button won’t work with a standard cable release, which means either getting a compatible one such as the Nikon AR-4 or an absurdly expensive adapter that screws over the shutter button and provides a threaded socket.
The film advance lever is also the meter’s power switch: pull it out exposing the red dot and the meter is on. The advance lever is ratcheted. Wind on with one long stroke or several short ones.
On the front to the left of the lens is the depth of field preview button surrounded by the mirror lock-up lever. There’s a familiar-looking self-timer but this one pulls double duty: it is also used for exposures from 2-10 seconds (more on this later).
On the right side is the lens release button and the PC terminal.
The back of the camera has a button that’s used to release both the finder and the focusing screen. The DP-12 finder has a viewfinder shutter lever above the eyepiece to prevent extraneous light from leaking in during long exposures. When the eyepiece shutter is closed the top LED lights up for correct exposure.
The bottom of the camera has the motor drive advance and shutter connections on the right along with the rewind button. The tripod socket is centered under the lens mount, and the battery compartment is next to it. The camera takes 2 S-76 silver batteries (aka 357), 2 LR44s, or one CR 1/3 N. Batteries are used to power the light meter only. At left is the control to open the camera: Fold down the key and turn it towards O all the way to pop the back open.
The F2AS’ finder (the DP-12) is bright and the entire frame can be seen with the eye a bit away from the eyepiece. It’s amazingly bright for a 40+ year old camera. I’m convinced that this camera is easier to focus than, say, the FE2. The difference between in focus and out of focus on the ground glass seems more apparent.
The DP-12 finder shows the aperture for AI lenses, a red LED +o- exposure indicator, and shutter speed along the bottom. The aperture and shutter speed display is a little fiddly – you need to look directly in, not at an angle – and unfortunately disappears in dim light. The finder illumination switch on the top of the camera lights up the shutter speed. There is a flash ready light above the eyepiece that works with the few compatible flashes.
Sync is at 1/80, the red dot between 1/60 and 1/125 on the shutter speed dial. The camera accepts the AS-1 flash coupler which sits solidly over the rewind crank to provide a hot shoe, but it must be removed to load and rewind film.
Self-timer and long exposures
The self-timer is variable between 2 and 10 seconds. Set the desired delay and then hit the small silver button on the body to start the timer. Pressing the shutter release will immediately make an exposure then the self-timer will run down.
For exposures of 2-10 seconds, set the shutter speed dial to B. Lift and turn the collar around the shutter release to the T position. Select the desired exposure time using the self-timer lever. Press the shutter release to make the exposure.
The Nikon F2 in use
The F2 is a joy to use. Minimal controls and no distractions mean I quickly forget about the camera and concentrate on shooting. As I mentioned earlier focus seems to pop more distinctly than on other cameras, especially with wide angle lenses. The large bright finder combined with the ease of focus makes up for small ergonomic shortcomings.
I loved the ratcheted film advance on Olympus SLRs – I could wind in a few little strokes without taking the camera down from my eye. The F2 allows me to work this way again. The full film advance stroke is very short so either way, it’s possible to be ready to shoot again rapidly.
The shutter speed dial, being raised up by the Photomic finder, took a while to get used to. The shutter is considerably lower and there’s an accessory soft release that raises it up. I find no particular advantage with the soft release.
Most of my current work centers around protests, performances and gallery openings. The distinctive sharp shutter sound means this is not a stealth camera. People have noticed when I’m shooting on the street, and I must be conscious of the sound when shooting at quiet performances.
The F2 has a wealth of focusing screens options. The most common is the type K, ground glass with central rangefinder surrounded by a microprism ring. It works well in most situations but focusing in dim light can be a challenge. I’ve found it particularly difficult at performances. I recently tried a type H2 screen, which is entirely made up of microprisms, and allows rapid focusing anywhere on the screen. The trade-off is there’s no depth of field preview. It’s unlike any focusing aid I’ve ever used, and it does make low-light focusing less painful.
The meter is excellent but the center-weighted averaging pattern can be tripped up by certain scenes. Spotlit performers against dark backgrounds will be overexposed and bright white gallery walls will be underexposed if the meter’s recommendation is followed blindly without compensation.
Unlike the F5, which is weather-sealed, I’m hesitant to take this camera out in the rain without some protection.
Viewfinders and street shooting
The F2AS has LED exposure indicators and the F2A has match needle exposure. I prefer the F2A for everyday outdoors shooting because it has a match needle indicator on top of the finder head. It’s possible to set exposure without raising the camera. The F2AS has a single LED that lights only when the shutter eyepiece is closed and correct exposure is set which renders it practically useless.
One of the cameras came with a waist level viewfinder. It’s more of a novelty than a practical accessory: usable for horizontal compositions but verticals are nearly impossible. It is fun to pop it on every once in a while, set the lens to zone focus and use it to roughly frame street photos.
Other F2 accessories
The F2’s biggest advantages in its day, its modularity and the huge number of accessories, are less relevant now. The two main connectors – flash, cable release – are non-standard. Many accessories now seem like antiques. For example there was an autoexposure module, a large thing that attached to the front of the camera and physically turned the aperture ring.
The high-speed MD-1 and MD-2 motor drives are heavy, loud, and complicated to use. The MD-3 is slower and lighter, but still brings the total weight of an F2 with 50mm lens to a little under 4 pounds/1.8Kg. Along with 250 exposure backs, intervalometers, data backs and many other accessories I’d consider these collector’s pieces.
The eyepiece magnifier, which also works with the FM and FE cameras, screws into the threaded eyepiece window and magnifies the central area of the focusing screen. It’s extremely helpful for precise focus, and folds up and out of the way when not in use.
Nikon F2 alternatives
The F3 offers an electronically controlled shutter with the same speed range and flash sync as the F2, along with auto exposure and the same bulletproof build quality. This is the first camera where the high-speed motor drive MD-4 was easy to use.
The original FM and FE allow shooting with both AI and non-AI lenses, standard hot shoes and 1/125 flash sync speed. The FM2 and FE2 are smaller and lighter, and both have a higher top shutter speed (1/4000), standard hot shoes, and a faster flash sync speed (1/250).
The FE2 also has an aperture priority auto mode, but requires a battery to function. The FM3A offers the best of both: a hybrid shutter that works without a battery and offers aperture priority auto. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive.
The final word?
The F2 is a great manual shooter. Simple controls, a beautiful viewfinder, and small refinements make it a pleasure to use, and it’s compatible with practically any Nikkor lens with an aperture ring.
After the apocalypse, when all electronic cameras have been rendered inoperable by electromagnetic pulse, F2s will still be clacking away taking pictures of whatever is left…if there’s unfogged film, anyway.
- Beautiful uncluttered viewfinder
- Focus really pops
- Ratcheted film advance and short advance stroke
- DP-12 meter is sensitive and accurate
- Very rugged build
- Usable with practically every Nikon F-mount manual focus lens, and will stop-down meter with anything that can be stuck on the camera.
- Heavy, especially with large aperture lenses
- No auto mode
- Non-standard cable release
- Not great for flash: no hot shoe, slowish sync speed. No shoe means no convenient place to attach a wireless trigger, either. Argh.
The iconic camera of the 70s remains a capable and reliable shooter in the 21st century.
Note on eyepieces:
There are two eyepieces that will fit Photomic finders: part number 2923 for the F/F2/F3 which has a thick rubber ring, and part number 2925 for FM/FE/FA which has a thinner rubber ring. I prefer the smaller one.
- Nikon F2 manuals – a different manual for each Photomic finder by Mike Butkus.
- Dealer Notebooks – a wealth of hard-to-find technical information hosted by Pacific Rim Camera. The F2 Sales Manual is particularly useful.
- Photography in Malaysia’s comprehensive F2 information.
- Richard de Stoutz has a guide to body variants and a table of production dates by serial number.
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