January 31, 2010

Nikons’s most advanced manual focus “ultra-compact” SLR: the Nikon FG

Filed under: Gear, Nikon Cameras — Tags: , , , , , — xtalfu @ 11:58 pm

In 1972, Olympus launched the OM-1. Much smaller and lighter than any other single lens reflex (SLR), it opened the path for a new generation of more compact cameras. Nikon’s own FM (launched in 1977) was remarkably smaller than the Nikkormat cameras it was replacing, but still a tad bigger than the Olympus OM-1n. Built like a tank, it was not light, either.

It would take another model, deliberately designed for the beginners, the Nikon EM (1979), to finally beat the OM-1 at its own game (weight: 460g against 510g, width: 135mm instead of 136mm). Small and light, the EM had a plastic (polycarbonate) body over an aluminum chassis, an aperture-priority exposure control system, and very few ways to over-ride the automatism. A magic -2EV button could be used for back-lit scenes, and that was about it: there was no semi-automatic exposure mode. It could use all Nikon’s previous AI (auto-indexing) lenses, as well as a new series of cheaper lenses (the E-Series) launched for the occasion. The E-series lenses were smaller and less elaborate than the other Nikkor lenses, but some of them (like the 50mm f:1.8) gained a very good reputation over time. It has to be noted that the E-Series lenses were the first to use the AI-S version of the F mount. Geeks can learn more about the evolution of the lens mounts of SLRs in the pages published a few months ago in this blog. 50 years of lens mount evolution.

Nikon FG

In 1982, Nikon extended their “ultra-compact SLR” range with the FG. It retained the platform, the dimensions and the shutter of the EM, but its electronics had been revised to incorporate two exposure modes, a semi-auto and fully automated program adjusting the aperture and the shutter speed. It also adopted the On the Film (OTF) flash metering system of the FE2. Not a pro camera yet, but not a beginner’s camera anymore.

To this day, the FG remains the smallest of the manual Nikon SLRs targeting the “advanced-amateur” market. A few “all-plastic” autofocus SLRs tipped the scales at 350g in the subsequent years, but Nikon’s digital reflex cameras are all bigger and heavier.

Shooting with the FG

The FG was available in two versions: “chrome” or black. Both had a small removable grip at the right of the body, and looked like smaller copies of the F3. After all these years, the FG is still a very nice little camera. Like the EM, it’s built around an aluminum chassis, and the body itself is in polycarbonate. The commands are simple and well organized. A single selector controls the shutter speed (for semi-automatic operation) and the type of exposure automatism (aperture priority or program). When the program mode is selected (after pressing a safety lock), the aperture ring of the lens has to be set at the smallest aperture. If the photographer forgets to set the aperture, the “overexposure” LED will flash in the viewfinder. The shutter is taken over from the EM and can not offer anything better than 1/1000 sec, with a flash synchro speed of 1/90. Incidentally the shutter still works at 1/90sec when the batteries are dead.

There are few other controls on the FG. A switch disables the warning beeps that the camera emits in multiple occasions, and a push button on the left side of the body can be used to open-up the exposure by 2 stops, to prevent under-exposure in back-lit scenes. There is no way to switch off the camera, and the best way to prevent battery drain is to leave the shutter speed selector on the manual 1/90sec setting when the camera is not in use.

Nikon FG - The commands

Nikon FG - The commands

The viewfinder is one of the places where savings were made. With 0.84x magnification and 92% coverage, its performances are similar to the FM or the FE’s, but remarkably inferior to the exceptional OM-1, which in spite of being so compact, still combines a magnification of 0.92x with 97% coverage. At the right of the viewfinder, the photographer will find a scale representing the shutter speeds, with one or many (up to three) red LEDs showing the actual shutter speed and/or the ones recommended by the metering system. Red LEDs, as usual, happen to be invisible when the camera is used in a bright environment.

Derived from the EM and largely built in plastic, the FG is obviously not in the same league as the FE2 or the F3 when it comes to build quality. The articulated winding lever is not as smooth as the F3’s (which is mounted on roller bearings) or the FE2’s, which gives the impression of being mounted on a bronze bearing. The camera has the reputation of being prone to a scary shutter lock (nothing dramatic – set the shutter dial to Manual 1/90sec , and everything goes back in order). To me, it looks more like a “bug” than anything else.

Olympus OM-1 and Nikon FG

Olympus OM-1 and Nikon FG: not a big difference in size - the design objectives of their manufacturers were miles apart, though.

In a few words, the FG is a strange combination of relatively advanced features (multi-mode exposure automatism, on the film flash metering) with a base which is derived from an entry-level camera. In particular in its black version, it looks very competent and professional, which could lead to some disappointment. Because of its small size and its serious looks, it’s easy to believe that it’s a pro camera, comparable to its FM2 and FE2 stablemates, or to the Olympus OM-2.

Nothing could be more wrong. The Nikon FM2 and FE2 are equipped with an exceptional titanium or aluminum shutter, with flash sync speeds up to 1/250sec and a maximum speed of 1/4000 sec. The shutter of the FG is much more limited, and its top speed of 1/1000 sec is a serious limitation on a bright sunny day now than 400 ISO seems to be the universal film sensitivity, in black and white as in color.

The FM2, FE2, OM-1 or OM-2 were cameras built for demanding amateurs or professionals; a small size was one of the design objectives of their manufacturers, but it came second to build quality.

The second hand market recognizes those facts: a nice FE2 costs at least $ 125, with the FM2 and some late Olympus models crossing the $250 barrier. Well received on the market when it was launched, the FG is still abundant on the second hand market and a very nice one can be found for approx. $50.00. A nice compact SLR for casual photography.

More about the Nikon FG

Nikon’s own words about the FG
Photography in Malaysia: the “bible” for the amateurs of Nikon cameras. Check the Nikon FG pages.

The Nikon FG - a light SLR for mountain hikes

The Nikon FG - a light SLR for mountain hikes


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