The Classic Nikon F2 35mm SLR Camera

By Chuck Hawks

Nikon F2 Photomic.
Nikon F2 Photomic w/55mm Micro Nikkor lens. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Nikon F2 professional camera was introduced in 1971 by Japan's premier camera and lens maker, Nippon Kogaku KK, as the successor to the famous Nikon F, which by then was growing long in the tooth. The F2 was discontinued in 1980, when it was replaced by the F3, the first battery dependent Nikon professional camera and the first to offer aperture priority automatic exposure.

The F3 was also the last Nikon fitted with a titanium curtain, horizontal focal plane shutter of the type used by the F and F2. It was eventually superseded by the motorized, auto focus F4, which used a vertical travel, titanium blade shutter and the improved F4s, which was the last Nikon professional SLR with interchangeable viewfinders and bulk film backs. The F5 and the current F6 are fine cameras with lots of bells and whistles, but they cannot be reconfigured to the extent their illustrious predecessors could.

If there were a contest to choose the best 35mm SLR of all time, I'd vote for the Nikon F2. The F2 was the ultimate mechanical SLR. No onboard electronics and no battery required, unless you chose to use one of the TTL light metering viewfinders.

My first F2 came with a plain prism finder. I subsequently upgraded that body to an F2A Photomic and finally to an F2AS Photomic with TTL metering prism finders. All F2 light metering viewfinders used a 60% center weighted / 40% field metering pattern.

All basic F2 camera bodies were the same, but changing viewfinders changes the designation. Briefly, "F2" with no suffix indicates a camera sold with a plain eye-level prism (DE-1) without a light meter. Add "Photomic" (F2 Photomic) and you have an F2 body with a DP-1 prism finder incorporating a TTL light meter that couples to the camera's shutter speed dial and to the aperture ring of the lens via the meter's spring loaded prong and a shoe on the lens. (See photo at top of page.) An "A" suffix (F2A Photomic) stands for automatic indexing, meaning that the light meter in the DP-11 finder couples to the lens automatically, without the prong or a shoe on the lens. Either way, you had cross-coupled, full aperture, manual match-needle, through-the-lens light metering.

Standard Photomic meter prisms, whether lens shoe or AI coupled, used a CDS metering cell. An "S" designation indicated a Photomic prism finder using a low light capable silicon blue metering cell, instead of a CDS cell. These initially coupled to the lens via the prong and shoe method and later by the AI method. S meter finders used LED exposure indication, instead of a needle. Thus, an F2AS Photomic camera was an F2 body with a DP-12 finder, a silicon blue cell, AI coupled, eye level metering prism.

The basic DE-1 eye-level prism finder sans light meter could be had in all black or with satin chrome trim to match black or silver chrome bodies. However, all F2 Photomic metering finders were black, which I felt looked better on black camera bodies. (Again, note photo at top of page.)

AI and AIS Photomic meter prisms can use non-AI lenses in stop-down metering mode. Non-AI (prong to shoe coupled) Photomic metering prisms can use E or AF lenses lacking a metering shoe in stop-down metering mode. AI Nikkor lenses retained a meter coupling shoe and therefore work fine for full aperture metering with either AI or non-AI Photomic finders.

I should be obvious from the foregoing that the F2 camera body featured interchangeable viewfinders. The most common and popular types of viewfinders were the DW-1 waist level finder with flip-up magnifier, DE-1 plain prism eye level finder and the various Photomic light metering, eye-level prism finders. There were other, more specialized viewfinders, such as the DW-2 (stovepipe) high magnification waist level finder for macro work and the long eye relief DA-1 sports prism finder for action photography.

In fact, pretty much everything on the F2 was interchangeable, allowing the camera to be configured for almost any photographic purpose. The standard camera back was removable and could be replaced with data backs and bulk film magazine backs. The viewing screen was interchangeable and there were about 20 alternatives, many quite specialized. Viewing screens came with a center circle showing the area in which 60% of the light meter's sensitivity was concentrated. The camera's "F" bayonet lens mount could accept non-AI, AI, AIS, Series E and even AF Nikkor lenses. (The latter in manual focus mode only, of course.) The camera's bottom plate accepted two different motor drives with maximum continuous speeds of four fps and six fps. The prism finder's eyepiece was threaded to accept accessories, including diopter correction lenses, eyecups, magnifiers and right angle finders. A hot shoe flash adaptor slid over the rewind knob to accommodate cordless flash units equipped with an ISO hot shoe and there was a PC flash cord socket on the camera body.

There were over 60 interchangeable Nikkor lenses for the F2 in focal lengths ranging from 6mm to 2000mm, the largest selection of lenses made for any camera. Many of these became legendary for their excellent performance, such as the 35mm f/2 Nikkor, 50mm f/2 Nikkor, 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor, 55mm Micro-Nikkor, 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor, 180mm f/2.8 Nikkor and 80-200mm Zoom Nikkor.

Nikon built more special purpose lenses than any other manufacturer, some of which became famous in their own right. Among the best known were the incredible 6mm f/2.8 fisheye with a 220-degree circular field of view, 16mm f3.5 (later f/2.8) full frame fisheye with a 180-degree diagonal field of view, 15mm f/5.6 (later f/3.5) rectilinear ultra-wide angle with a 110-degree field of view, 28mm and 35mm PC (perspective control) lenses, 45mm f/2.8 GN (guide number) lens designed for flash photography, 58mm f/1.2 Noct for nighttime photography, 105mm f/4 bellows lens, 105 f/4 Micro (macro lens), 120mm f/4 and 200mm f/5.6 Medical close-up lenses with a built-in ring flash and focusing light, 500mm f/8 Reflex, 1000mm f/11 Reflex and 2000mm f/11 Reflex--all catadioptric (mirror) lenses, the latter being the longest focal length lens offered by any manufacturer.

Other accessories included a range of Nikon filters, dedicated lens hoods for almost all Nikkor lenses, lens mount adaptors, lens and camera cases, flash units, cable releases, soft touch shutter buttons, remote control and time lapse photography equipment, connecting cords, camera straps, pistol grip, panorama tripod head with level and click stops for 28mm-105mm lenses, bellows units, close up lenses, extension tubes, lens reversing rings, slide copier and sundry other goodies. The Nikon system was (and still is) the largest in 35mm SLR photography and the F2 was the apex camera during its heyday.

There were even a couple of specialized, modified F2 bodies. The F2T body, intended for exceptionally rugged conditions, was made with titanium. The F2H was a titanium high speed motorized body (MD-100 motor drive) with a fixed, partially silvered mirror that allowed continuous frame rates up to 10 fps.

The Nikon F2 was designed and built during a time when the major camera manufacturers of the world were competing to build the best, highest quality system cameras they could. Features were oriented toward improving imaging capability.

The F2 body was made of die cast aluminum with brass top and bottom covers. The removable back was also brass and inside was a large pressure plate and the longest, widest film guide rails in any 35mm camera. Film plane flatness is crucial to sharp photographs. The heavy duty bayonet lens mount was machined from stainless steel. The male bayonet on Nikkor lenses was machined from brass and hard chrome plated. (Nikon used dissimilar metals to prevent sticking.) The camera's metal finish was brushed silver chrome or black enamel and the gripping surfaces wore an extremely durable synthetic leather covering.

The F2 competed with other fine professional SLR system cameras, including the Alpa 11 (Switzerland), Canon F1 / F1n (Japan), Contax RTS (Japan/Germany), Leicaflex SL / SL2 (Germany), Minolta XK (Japan), Olympus OM-1 / OM-1MD (Japan) and Topcon Super D (Japan). These were cameras built to last for decades and most of the remaining examples are still in operating condition. Note that all of these cameras were the products of "first world" countries.

Against such illustrious competition, the Nikon F2 not only thrived, it dominated. By the time the F2 was discontinued, something like 90% of all professional photographers were using Nikon 35mm cameras, mostly F2s.

Specifications and Features

  • Type: SLR with quick return mirror
  • Film size: 135 (35mm)
  • Format: 24x36mm
  • Camera body: Die cast aluminum with brass top and bottom covers
  • Camera back: Interchangeable; standard back is brass, hinged and removable
  • Finish: Brushed chrome or black enamel; black synthetic leather covering
  • Shutter: Horizontal focal plane with titanium curtains on ball bearing races; electronic flash sync at 1/80 sec or slower
  • Shutter speed range: 10 sec. to 1/2000 sec. plus B (bulb) and T (Time)
  • Lens mount: Stainless steel Nikon F bayonet
  • Viewfinder: Interchangeable (8 different finders)
  • Viewfinder frame coverage: 100%
  • Viewing screen: Interchangeable; type K standard, 19 optional viewing screens
  • Film advance: Manual with 120-degree stroke, 20-degree standoff, ratcheted thumb lever; motor drives optional
  • Flash contact: PC socket and removable ISO hot shoe
  • Self timer: Variable delay, 2 sec. to 10 sec., cancelable
  • Shutter release lock: Yes
  • Depth of field preview: Yes
  • Mirror lock-up: Yes
  • Film memo holder: Yes, on back of camera
  • Multiple exposure provision: Yes (frame counter does not advance)
  • TTL light metering: Yes, with any Photomic viewfinder
  • Light meter batteries: 2 ea 1.5vtype S76
  • Meter pattern: Center weighted 60/40
  • Dimensions: 152x99x56mm (without lens)
  • Weight: 732 grams (with DE-1 prism finder)

The F2 is not a small or lightweight camera, but it is noticeably more compact than today's giant, motorized 35mm and full frame digital SLRs. Its ergonomics are good, with the most commonly used controls falling readily to hand. However, it you add a motor drive and its associated battery pack to an F2 it becomes a large and heavy camera. I bought an MD3 motor drive and MB-1 cordless battery pack, but found they were not worth the increased bulk, weight and noise and got rid of them.

The F2 is a manual, mechanical camera and it has no TTL flash capability. I used a 45mm f/2.8 GN Nikkor lens on my F2 cameras to automatically get correct flash exposure with manual flash units. This very accurate system is based on the guide number of the flash and the distance at which the lens is focused.

Nikon used to offer electronic flash units with a proprietary Nikon F2 foot that attached directly to the F2 body over the rewind knob. However, the F2 can use practically any manual or automatic electronic flash that connects to the camera by means of a PC cord or an ISO hot shoe. For the latter you will need a Nikon AS-1 adaptor that slips over the F2's rewind knob and locks in place.

I still have an AS-1 for my F2 Photomic, but I when I was shooting professionally I normally used Vivitar 283 and 285 flashes on a Stroboframe grip frame, connecting to the camera by means of a Vivitar heavy duty, coiled PC cord. My first wedding partner, the late Ken Sanchez, preferred Metz "potato masher" style flash units, which worked equally well.

The fact is that 35mm camera bodies actually have relatively little to do with making high quality images and publishing pictures taken by a test camera is basically pointless. (I hope you are not disappointed by the lack of "test photos" accompanying this article.) True, SLRs need to have accurate, reliable shutters, but basically the camera body just holds the lens in the correct position in relation to the film and keeps the film flat.

Beyond that, picture quality depends primarily on the lens that focuses the light to make an image, the film that records the light and the photographer's technical skill. The Nikon F2 performs its basic chores with great precision, as well as any 35mm SLR ever has. It also has the strongest shutter ever put in a 35mm camera.

Beyond film plane flatness and a good shutter, the whole point of any SLR camera is through the lens viewing. The F2's viewfinder shows 100% of the picture area for the utmost in viewing accuracy. (Most SLR viewfinders show 92-95% of the picture area.)

Part of accurate viewing is being able to visually check the depth of field at the working lens aperture. The F2 makes this easy with a preview (lens stop down) button on the front of the camera body, located where it can be easily depressed by the middle finger of the right hand.

Many 35mm photographers fail to understand that one of the main reasons rangefinder cameras, such as the Leica M series, consistently take sharper photographs than SLR cameras is due to the vibration caused by the SLR's mirror moving at the moment of exposure. This mirror vibration can be entirely avoided when the F2 is used on a tripod by manually locking the mirror up before pressing the shutter release. Most SLRs don't have a separate mirror lock, but the F2 does. It is concentric with the depth of field preview button, a logical location. Depress the depth of field preview button and rotate the mirror lock downward to raise the mirror. Take as many pictures as you want, the mirror will stay up until you manually release it.

Used correctly, these relatively simple features can actually contribute to taking better pictures. Sadly, they are missing from most digital SLRs, which are packed with nonessential electronic features (time/date calendars, GPS, telephone, programmed modes, etc.) that contribute absolutely nothing to picture quality. Most folks haven't the faintest idea how to use their electronic digital cameras and are afraid to switch them off of the fully automated "green zone." No wonder their photographs are pedestrian at best. On the other hand, all of the F2's features relate directly to picture taking and are easily understood and used.

On a personal note, I have owned and used professionally Nikon F, F2, F3 and F4 cameras, as well as a slew of lesser Nikon SLRs. Every Nikon SLR I have owned (which includes almost every model made up to and including the N8008s and F4s) served me well. However, my favorite is the F2. My favorite F2 metering finder was the AS Photomic. It had a metering range of EV -2 to EV 17 at ASA/ISO 100. Incidentally, the batteries for the Photomic meter finders are housed in the camera's bottom plate and pulling the film advance lever out to its 20-degree offset turns on the light meter. Light metering viewfinders had been an afterthought for the original Nikon F, but the F2 was designed in conjunction with the Photomic metering prisms and the great majority of F2 cameras were sold with a Photomic viewfinder.

Today, what photography I do is almost entirely with Leica digital cameras, which are among the least complicated of the breed. My sole remaining Nikon F2 is a Photomic model made in 1974 and it still works perfectly in every respect.

It has almost outlived its time. Kodak no longer processes film and their size 135 (35mm) film offerings are greatly reduced. Fuji (Japan) still offers color print and transparency film in 135 cassette (24 and 36 exposure). Agfa (Germany) offers color negative, color transparency and black and white films in 135 cassettes. However, neither company's line is as extensive as it once was. I suspect that my F2 Photomic will still be working when 35mm film is found only in museums.

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Copyright 2012, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.