Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Handling and Ergonomics of Nikon Film Cameras

  • Nikon FM2 is small; too small for me to hold comfortably. I think adding the MD-12 will improve matters. The shutter speed dial is not easy to manipulate with the camera held to the eye. This is generally true of all the older generation film cameras; the newer command dial approach is easier to manipulate without taking eyes off the viewfinder. The FM2's film winding and shutter operation are very smooth for a mechanical camera; smoother than the F2. The viewfinder magnification is the best amongst all Nikon SLRs; makes manual focusing easier. However, the eyepoint is a mere 14mm which isn't helpful for glass wearers. The exposure, shutter and aperture information are each located on three different sides of the view, which is a nuisance. The exposure LEDs are good, but the shutter speed and aperture are hard to see in the viewfinder.
  • Nikon F2 - I like the F2 better with the hard leather case on, as it provides a better grip on the camera. Haven't tried with the motor drive on, but it seems the combination will be too heavy to be practical. Shutter speeds are harder to change as you have to reach the dial which is at the top of the finder. On both F2A and F2AS the shutter speed, aperture and exposure meter are displayed at the bottom of the screen, which is very nice. The F2AS has LEDs which light up to show exposure, just like the FM2. On the F2AS there is an additional switch to light up the shutter speed as well. The viewfinder magnification isn't bad, and can be made very bright by installing the G1-4 focusing screens. These screens are plain glass with a large central microprism. Makes the view brighter than all the other cameras. The handling is not as smooth as the FM2. Shutter and mirror are louder.
  • Nikon F3 - superb with the MD-4 attached. I had no idea how good this feels; no wonder most F3s were used with motor drives. The combination is visually appealing and a joy to hold, although with 8 AA batteries, it does become heavy. The F3 viewfinder has the shutter speed, meter and aperture displayed at the top of the view, which isn't as good as the F2. The LCD that displays the shutter speed and meter is small and the settings not so easy to see. But the aperture readout is much better than FM2 or F2, as it appears magnified. Viewfinder magnification is fair, and focusing is similar to the F2. The shutter speed dial is harder to reach with the motor drive attached. There is a small button for lighting up the viewfinder LCD, but this is fiddly.
  • Nikon F100 - feels very similar to D300/D700. Ergonomics are better than the manual cameras, generally. The grip is very holdable, and the dials are more easily handled without taking eyes off the viewfinder. Not as good as the F series cameras for manual focusing as there are no screens available with split-image or micro-prism rangefinders. Motor wind is much quieter than the F3/MD-4. 
  • Nikon F5 - I haven't used the F5, but having played with one at a shop, I think the F5 has better handling (subjectively) than the F100 or F6 due to its integrated vertical grip. This makes the camera more stable, and also the grip is better.  The camera feels solid in the hands, and is generally smaller than the other cameras with the motor drives/grips attached.
  • Nikon F6 - The F6 handles very similarly to the F100/D300/D700. The good thing is that there are focusing screens available with additional focusing aids. I think the F6 is too similar to a digital SLR to be really worth the money; why not buy a full frame DSLR instead? But it is tempting from a collector's viewpoint as it is probably the last Nikon F film SLR, and isn't being manufactured in great quantities. And amongst film SLRs it is probably the most refined.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What the Nikon F6 should have been

How many of Nikon F series cameras have been made? My estimates are given below:

CameraProduction datesEstimated production
Nikon F1959-1974862,600
Nikon F21971-1980816,000 
Nikon F31980-2001751,000
Nikon F41988-1996500,000 (close to 600,000 as per Nikon F4 FAQ website)
Nikon F51996-2005235,000 (estimated from serial numbers)
Nikon F62004-Present30,000 (estimated from serial numbers)

Clearly the advent of the D1 in 2001 affected the sales of F5, but Nikon had also lost ground to Canon during the F4 era, which must have impacted F5 sales. F6 sales are very low, understandably, as everyone has moved to Digital.

This poses the question about what kind of camera F6 should have been? As the Nikon Behind the Scenes interview on F6 indicates, there was no point in trying to compete with digital. Therefore the camera had to have some unique qualities. Did Nikon succeed in making F6 unique?

I think that Nikon ultimately failed. If you pick up an F6, you immediately see the similarity with the latest digital cameras, the D300, for instance. The F6 feels like a clone of its digital cousins. Of course, anyone who has only used film cameras, will see the F6 as unique, and as bringing in some of the more advanced features available in digital cameras.

My view is that the F6 should have been an all mechanical camera, with perhaps advanced metering, data back, etc. A mechanical camera offers something that no digital camera can; the ability to shoot in extreme temperatures, as well as the ability to survive over long periods of time. Electronics evolve rapidly and in a few years time, parts become scarce. But mechanical parts can be produced over a long period of time.

If I could design the F7, I would make it a modern F2. Fully mechanical with a data back and modern  metering (colour matrix, spot etc.).  Separate motor drive as in the older cameras. The idea would be to create a camera that could provide unique features that digital cameras cannot provide, plus a longevity that digital cameras cannot match.

Given the production numbers of film cameras, I do not think that there is any chance of an F7 seeing the light of day. F6 is probably the last film SLR made by Nikon.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

50th Nikon F anniversary and no commemorative model

This is the 50th anniversary of the Nikon F camera and surprisingly, Nikon have not released a commemorative model. I think a limited edition Nikon F or F2 would have been appropriate. Perhaps the economic downturn has something to do with it.

Katz Eye Focussing Screen on D300

I have a number of manual lenses which I would like to use with my D300. The problem is that I struggle to get the right focus; I don't usually carry a tripod with me, and no I can't use live view to get accurate focus. To solve this problem I have now got a Katz Eye screen installed.

First impressions are:
  • With AF lenses, Nikon's AF seems more reliable than manual focus using the Katz Eye screen.  This may be because I need to get better at manual focusing.
  • Even with the Katz Eye screen installed, manual focusing is not as convenient as in my other film SLR cameras. I compared the D300/35mm lens combo with the FM2/50mm lens. The FM2 is easier to focus as the viewfinder magnification is higher.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Nikon D3 versus Canon EOS 1D - AF module

I do not own a Canon 1D Mark III or the Nikon D3, therefore my analysis below is just speculation, and should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Like everyone else, I have read the reports of AF problems with the 1D Mark III. The question is what could have caused these problems and how likely it is that the problems have been resolved in 1D Mark IV.

The AF sensor design changed between Mark II and Mark III. The design of the Mark II design is shown below, followed by the sensor design in Mark III (extract from Canon white paper).

Note that the cross-hair sensors are all clustered together in Mark II, whereas in Mark III, they are interspersed with line sensors. Now look at the Mark IV layout (from Canon white paper):

Although the Mark IV has more cross-type sensors, the layout in automatic mode is the same as that of Mark III. In manual mode, the layout allows more cross-type sensors to be used. The horizontal line sensors are usable with f2.8 and above, whereas the vertical line sensors are usable with f5.6 or above, except for the center AF point, which operates as cross-type upto f4, and as a line sensor upto f8.

Comparatively speaking, all of Nikon's cross and line sensors are fully operational at f5.6 and above.

My take is that the Mark IV may not provide as significant an improvement over Mark III as it could have. I think Canon should have clustered all the cross-type sensors in the middle, just as the Mark II did, and as Nikon D3 does. Another potential issue is the lack of vertical sensitivity below f2.8 in any except the central sensor.

Apart from the AF sensor and the AF algorithm, the other factor that affects AF performance is the mirror operation. The Mark IV specification of the mirror hasn't changed from Mark III. Blackout time is still 80ms, and shutter lag is still 55ms (with 40ms only at max aperture). It seems that the shutter lag is limited by the speed with which the aperture can be closed. Canon has maintained the top speed of 10 fps in the Mark IV.

The Nikon D3 has a shutter lag of 37ms and a blackout time of 74ms. Despite this, the D3's maximum firing rate is limited to 9fps, which means that the D3 has more time in between shots,  both for the mirror bounce to settle, as well as for AF calculations. Of course, we do not know how good Canon's mechanism is for reducing mirror bounce; the better this is the more time will be available for AF operation. It may well be that Canon's active mirror control mechanism, first introduced in the Canon EOS 1V, is more efficient than Nikon's.

For an interesting insight into Nikon's implementation, have a look at this video (credit: the video was posted at by user Tokyo24 on 28 Nov 2009):

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Comparison of Viewfinder Magnifications in Nikon cameras

I think that the FM2N is probably one of the better cameras for manual focusing due to the high magnification of the viewfinder image of .86%. Compare this with .70% in D3.

The APS-C format DSLRs cannot be directly compared here because the specification of viewfinder magnification is in terms of a 50mm lens, but to get the same field of view as a 50mm lens on full frame, one has to use a 35mm lens on the APS-C DSLR. The effective viewfinder magnification of an APS-C DSLR is therefore lower than the specified one. Rough testing leads me to believe that the D300, for instance, which is specified as 0.94% magnification using 50mm, only provides an effective magnification of .75% when using a 35mm lens. This is not bad when compared to D3, but the Nikon FM2N is better for manual focussing.

Viewfinder magnification using 50mm at infinity
Viewfinder Coverage
Nikon FM2N
Nikon FM3A
Nikon F

Nikon F2

Nikon F3

Nikon F3HP
Nikon F3AF

Nikon F4
Nikon F5
Nikon F6
Nikon D3
Nikon D700
Nikon F90x
Nikon F100