The Nikon FE: A year on film

I took on film about a year ago, largely out of a sense of dissatisfaction with digital (despite the virtues of my beloved Fujifilm x100s, which I'll detail in a later post). My results with digital photography always feel manufactured. A feeling that is mirrored when I browse the most popular images across social media, especially the more overwrought and polished creations that dominate the top ranks of Flickr and 500px

Film is grounded. It's a direct and holistic connection to the subject via light. Digital, by definition, is fragmentation. It's a ghost of reality, split into millions of chunks, and reassembled by manufactured rules drafted by technicians in cubicles — re-assemblies that are further warped by the unchecked creativity of the Lightroom or Photoshop user or a cheap Instagram filter.  

I'm not saying it's an either or choice. I do both. However, I get the feeling that the popularity of the digital arts is mostly symptomatic of a broader cultural disease - being hypnotized by technological immediacy that is "almost real" at the expense of the reality that's always at hand. That disease goes hand in hand with babysitting a dysfunctional family of retarded technology that never fully gets along.

So I moved to film, and choosing the right camera was the biggest hurdle. I didn't have a fortune to spend, and whatever I chose had to be reliable, high performing, robust, and be able to get of the way of the photograph itself. I'm in it to create pictures. If I wanted to perform counseling on another machine, I'd stay with digital.

Enter the Nikon FE

Nikon FE with the nikkor 28mm f/2.8 ai-s

Without building it out of proportion, the Nikon FE is simply this — the best vintage film camera I could comfortably afford. It's a semi-professional model made from 1978-1983 and eventually led to the apparently perfect FM3a in 2001. But while the FM3a runs $700 used, the FE is literally 99% the same camera and cost me just $105. My Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-s lens rounded the price tag to $225. That includes shipping. Both items are functionally flawless.

What does $105 buy?

  • Manual-focus 35mm film SLR. Electronic shutter with two mechanical backup speeds, mechanical advance lever. Manual rewind.

  • Aperture priority: Set the f-stop and the camera selects the correct shutter speed. Perfect.

  • Lens compatibility: works with every Nikon SLR lens made since 1959 except 1960s fisheyes and Nikkor "G" lenses.

  • Batteries: Two S76 or A76 cells, or one 3V 2L44 lithium. Cheap and common. It can run for years on a pair.

  • Can be used without a battery at 1/90 shutter speed (M90) and “bulb mode”.

  • Through the lens metering with viewfinder indicators for f-stop set, the set shutter speed, and recommended shutter speed from the meter. If you're shooting manual, just adjust the shutter speed dial so that the two shutter speed needles match.  

  • Auto exposure lock.

  • Depth of field preview.

  • Self timer.

  • Dedicated double exposure.

  • ISO settings from 12 - 3200 with 2 stop exposure compensation dial.

  • All metal body and lens mount. The only exception is plastic on a couple dials and the fake leather on the grip. 

  • Shutter speed dial goes from 8 seconds to a 1/1000 of a second. 

The shutter speed settings stop at 1/1000 but in auto mode it will go much faster. I've regularly shot it up1/4000 without issue, but that can apparently vary camera to camera. Test it out and see what it does. The metering needle ends at 1000, but all you have to do is count shutter stops upward as you open up the aperture. 

Build quality and ergonomics are exceptional, even for my over sized hands. The metering is perfect. The power switch is so simple, I had to look up how to turn it on (just pull the film advance meter back a click). It runs on cheap toy batteries, so keep spares in your bag and leave the camera on full time.

I added the Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai-s wide angle lens a couple months ago, and both it and the 50mm are superb quality, tack sharp, and available for under $200. A 35mm would be nice, but that would cost about twice as much. That's where my Fujifilm x100s comes it. It's a 35mm equivalent.

What's the downside?

There are only two that I've found, three if you you're a real hard ass.

  • The auto-exposure lock has no indicator. You just have to push the AE lock lever and trust the camera. It will work perfectly.
  • Lens selection. Because of the way the lens mounts with respect to the mirror, you're pretty much stuck with Nikon lenses. Adapters don't generally work and, from what I understand, using an exotic lens can require a custom adaptation.
  • Shutter speed dial stops at 1/1000, but as I said above you should be able to get an extra stop or two by trusting the meter in aperture priority mode. 

The only reason I'd buy another film SLR is for an auto-focus model but, again, that's where the x100s fits in. Manual focus keeps me connected to the subject, which as I stated in the beginning is the whole point to shooting film in the first place.

Nikon fe head on view

Hwaeomsa in Autumn

Befitting good Buddhist values, Korean temples are modest. Regardless of location, they are universally constructed in a boxy fashion and lacquered in precise tones of adobe and turquoise paint. 

Hwaeomsa fits the mould, but its location on the hillsides of Jirisan, Korea's tallest mainland peak, lend drama that's normally lacking in the larger temples. In the Fall air, with Summer's humidity forgotten, it's a corner of genuine tranquility. To date, it's my favorite example of Korean Buddhist culture. 

Originally constructed in 544, most of the buildings were rebuilt after succumbing to fire during the 1593 Japanese invasion. 

Ambivalence in Busan

My goals for Busan were similar to Seoul. Explore one corner of the city. Find a great restaurant and bar for a solo traveler, and create a landing pad for future trips. Instead, the small victories of Seoul weren't to be had. Restaurants were hard to pinpoint. Some online information was out of date, and once I chose a place for dinner I fell victim to self-sabotage. 

Sam Ryan's Sports Bar is right on Haeundae beach. It gets full points for a great burger and atmosphere. I lose for confusing a Manhattan with a Cosmopolitan, which meant my evening began with a fruit laced nightmare instead of rye. A craft IPA and bourbon mostly made up for it, but it reflected the tone for the entire trip - a minor pervasive struggle. The restaurant was hard to find, the food okay, and the next options weren't obvious. The verdict on the city? Still out. The beach was nice but I'll need more if it's to be a regular destination. Soul and character win out over looks and superficial charm. I'm from Vancouver. Surface beauty lost it's appeal years ago.

A few more bars were opening by the time I hit the street again, but I wasn't feeling it. It was a short overnighter and I needed a success, one that came through an expensive bottle of wine back at a great hotel room. The social side came the next afternoon, ironically in the world's largest department store. In addition to floors of clothing, Shinsegae boasts a superb food court that includes a craft beer and wine stand. The customers and staff were enough to convince me to keep an open mind about the city, until next time.

The vastness of Busan's cityscape and beach offered little. Success came from small corners, which is often the best kind. 

Gulls at Haeundae 

Fisherman, Haeundae.

Fisherman, Haeundae.


Sam Ryan's Busan
Haeundae Hyebyunro ST.298. 24 'Palede CZ' 1-18, 612-727 Busan, South Korea

Le Idea Hotel.  35 UN pyeonghwa-ro, Daeyeon 1(il)-dong, Nam-gu, 부산광역시 South Korea

Shinsegae Department Store, Centum City, Busan

Craft beer and wine. Shinsegae food court.

Seoul Saver

Dark beer with bourbon is one of my favorite combinations. I'd like to take credit for it, but in my circles that belongs to friend from Vancouver who favours extreme solutions to any given problem.  And a solution it is, a rare one in Korea, but finding it always leads to a good night. This time I find it in Seoul.

Aside from the airport it's my first trip to the capital. I've had a lot of goals over the past fourteen months and dropping $500 on two nights of food and booze hasn't figured highly into them. Not to mention the thought of flying solo through a 25 million person city has been pretty underwhelming. This was a recon trip only. Find a workable hotel, a great place for food, and save the last day of the long weekend to chill out at home. All I needed was a landing shore. A foothold for future invasions. 

A hotel is easy enough. Korea's littered with cheap and comfortable rooms, available by night or the hour for students and the surreptitiously married looking for a place to shag. For food, the target was Mozzie's, an upscale Kiwi bar in Itaewon specializing in red meat comfort food including lamb shanks, steaks and burgers, served with proper sides of potatoes and greens. Exiting the subway, I also forgot it was half way up Hooker Hill, which is exactly what it sounds like.

"Handsome man, you are very welcome!?!"

"Thanks, maybe next time ladies."

The streetside entrepreneurs were welcoming, but I almost turned around after entering the bar. It was beautiful. Intimate lighting, a large hardwood bar, great seating, and it was almost totally empty. 

Fuck it. Nothing was going to happen tonight, and moving to the next place would be a 15 minute walk that may well end with nowhere to sit. The food and drink should be a slam dunk, as should a good night's sleep afterwards. 

And it was. A bar seat with Coopers Irish Stout and a double of Basil Hayden's ran 40,000 won (about $40). I would have gone with Woodford's Reserve but that's $20 more, for no reason outside of Korea's psychotic import system. The money I saved covers dinner, an excellent meatloaf with mash and peas. I was finished and full with a quarter of a beer and a shot of bourbon left in my glass. The place was starting to fill up, so I took the owners advice and tried one his Japanese Single Malts. I chose the Hibiki, knowing that a double wouldn't totally break the bank. The girl at the bar delivered it neat with a fresh glass of water.  

Living in Korea is like being stuck in a desert. Not in the abandoned absence way. More in the way that opportunity comes like oases between oceans of sand, and the past couple of months have been more sand than water. Early on, I made the mistake of asking women out directly, as if being an adult was a valid strategy. Korea doesn't work that way. Lead in and body language notwithstanding, asking for a date or a number is usually a dead end. You're more likely to get a dodge or an invite to an indefinite chase at their work or some other safe space. On the other side, people will jump straight into bed if given a socially structured or hidden back door,... so to speak.  

It's a problem. Futility versus constructing scenarios within a severe language deficit. The part I'm not sure about is if the story holds in larger cities.

I glance up from my my phone and the bar girl is reaching for the camera next to my drink.

"Do you own one?" 

"I take pictures but usually with my phone. Can I see?"


I hand over my phone while she's looking at the camera.

"There's not much there. I post most my stuff on Instagram."

"There's such a good feeling from your pictures."

"If there isn't a good feeling with something, I won't do it."

"Are you a professional?"

"No, this is just for fun."

She gives me her hand and introduces herself. Korean's are renowned for long, fishy handshakes, the kind that leave you with crawling skin and a deep-seated need to wash.  It's different with some firmness and flirtation. We keep talking until I pay my bill. She hands me a business card as I'm leaving.

"This is me. My cell number is here. You can call me next time you're in Seoul."

"I will."


Sunday is a write off for exploration. It's pouring rain, so I head to the Canucks Bar before catching the train to Suncheon. The waitress stays to chat while I wait for my burger. After food, I take a drink to the window seat and write. 

The cosmopolitan is excellent. The table is high and stable. My chair is comfortable, and words flow easily between views of the rain and sips from my glass. That's what Seoul has been, a basic ease impossible to find in Suncheon. The relaxed pleasures of a rainy day and an opportunity written in numbers on the business card tucked in my back pocket. 

Mozzie's at the ITW Hotel. 126-7 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul.

Canucks Restaurant & Bar. 145, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Abandoned in Yeosu

Korea is like a giant abandoned place.

The culture values the new and the modern above everything. New office buildings go up beside crumbling homes with traditional tiled roofs long left deserted. Entire "downtowns" are constructed beside older city centres scarcely decades old. You would expect the changes to create some visual drama and a sense of energy, but they don't. The blocks blur together in a kind of featureless disposability.

Yeosu offers a change. I take the 20 minute train ride from Suncheon to see the ocean and feel like I'm back on the waterfront of Vancouver or Victoria. The illusion holds as long as I don't look back. The view away from the water puts me more in mind of a Stephen King novel or an episode of The Walking Dead.

Three years ago, Yeosu hosted Expo 2012 and the waterfront is still dominated by its pavilions and pedestrian thoroughfares. It's empty in February, but unlike most areas in Korea the emptiness takes on a sense of scale and story. 

The Expo grounds follow a broad arc from the train station to the roadway that connects Odongdo Island to the shore. A scaled replica of Dubai's Burj al-Arab marks the start of the road, while in the middle of the bay the Big Othe non-orgasmic centre piece of the world fairstands upright like a vast upended hula hoop. The major pavilions are scattered amidst these points, along with a single carousel that turns circles without customers. Rust has already crept into the buildings and hand rails. There is no one around, and the inevitable loneliness of the place is covered over with a garish stream of Kpop music from the public address system. 

It's a photographers dream.  

MVL Hotel and the bay from Odongdo Island.

Sky Tower. 

Empty seating on the boardwalk.

Theme Pavilion

Pedestrians exiting the Theme Pavilion.

Theme Pavilion.

Walkway to the Digital Gallery.

Fashionable pedestrians.

The Big O with the Theme Pavilion in the background.

Carousel near the aquarium.

Expo mascot. Odongdo Island.