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