Innovative Metering – World Class Shutter – Conventional Ergonomics – the Nikon FA

The Nikon FA is the last major manual focus SLR launched by Nikon. An evolution of the FM2 and FE2 cameras, it shares with the latter most of its body shell, a very fast shutter (up to 1/4000sec., 1/250sec. flash sync speed) and a on the film (OTF) flash metering mechanism. It finally catches up with Canon’s A1 and offers the same four automatic exposure modes (aperture and shutter priority, program and semi-auto).

Its “Automatic Multipoint Metering” (AMP) – a world premiere – is its real claim to fame. Better known under names such as “matrix”, “evaluative” or “multi-segmented” metering, it is now the default metering system of every dSLR in production.

Launched in 1983, this conservatively styled camera with very conventional ergonomics had a relatively short sales career. It was made obsolete in 1985 when Minolta took the market by storm with its first autofocus SLR, the 7000 (Maxxum 7000 in the US). Minolta’s competitors, Nikon included, spent the best part of the following three years trying to catch up. The FA stayed on Nikon’s catalog until 1988, and was not replaced. Its semi-automatic sibling, the FM2n would be sold until 2001, when the FM3a, a sort of combination of the best characteristics of the FM2 and the FE2, was launched.

Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor
An impressive (and heavy) camera: the Nikon FA with the MD-15 motor drive.

The metering system

Until the FA was launched, most of the cameras only offered some form of center weighted metering: the exposure sensor evaluated the luminosity of the whole scene, and because the sky is typically in the upper third of the frame, and the main subject of the picture in the center, it was designed to give more importance to the portion of the picture located at the center of the lower part of the frame.

It worked for most of the cases. If the subject was back-lit and not centered, the photographer had to determine the exposure with the subject at the center of the frame, memorize the exposure settings, and move the camera to compose the desired picture.

Some high end cameras also had a second exposure metering system, which evaluated the luminosity of a much narrower portion of the scene, almost a spot in the middle of the viewfinder. But spot metering and exposure memorization are not always easy to use,  and are far from being idiot proof. The engineers at Nikon were pretty sure that with the newly unleashed power of integrated circuits, they could develop a new approach.

It was introduced with the FA, as the Automatic Multi Pattern (AMP) exposure system. The camera was equipped with a database containing the mathematical description of thousands of real world pictures taken by Nikon technicians, with the exposure value that had given the best results in each situation. The light meter was divided in five zones (a large central zone, two zones at the bottom left and right, two zones at the top, left and right also), and the electronic circuit would correlate the exposure value of each zone with other elements such as the focal length of the lens to define the characteristics of the scene, and associate it with one of the many typical pictures described in the database of the camera.

Nikon FA (knob controlling the exposure mode: matrix or center weighted)
Nikon FA: the small and unmarked knob controlling the exposure mode (matrix or center weighted) is on the side of the lens mount housing, at the top of this picture

The Nikon engineers were so sure of the superiority of their AMP that they did not even equip the FA with an exposure memorization button – which so far had been a standard feature on high end automatic cameras. They just installed a little unmarked on-off switch on the right side of the lens mount housing, that conservative photographers could use to set the camera in the conventional “average center weighted metering” of yesteryear.

More about Matrix Metering and the alternatives developed by other manufacturers in this article of CamerAgX.

The ergonomics

The beauty of most manual SLRs resides in part in the simplicity of their commands. Each knob, switch, lever has only one function. If you turn the aperture ring on a semi-auto camera, the pre-selected aperture will change. Similarly, if you turn the shutter speed knob , the selected shutter speed will change.

The introduction of a automatic exposure did not really change the ergonomics. On a camera with aperture priority automatic exposure, you just had to select the “A” position of the shutter speed knob to let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically, and similarly on a camera with shutter speed priority, positioning the aperture ring on “A” indicated that you were willing to let the automatism manage the aperture for you.

Developing simple ergonomics became more difficult with cameras that could alternatively operate in semi-auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and program auto exposure modes. Most manufacturers added a big four way switch on the top panel, which could be set in Program, Shutter, Aperture or Manual. But when the PSAM switch was set on P or A, the shutter value did not match what was shown on the shutter speed knob, as shown in the example below.

Nikon FM detail of the shutter speed knob
On a semi-auto camera (like this Nikon FM) the shutter speed knob and the aperture ring of the lens show the shutter and aperture settings that will be used to take the picture.
Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector
On the Nikon FA, the value displayed on the shutter speed will not necessarily be used to take the picture. The camera is set in “A” (aperture priority) mode and the shutter speed will be determined by the electronics of the camera.

On the Nikon implementation, the photographer also had to remember to set the aperture ring to the smallest aperture, and the indications in the viewfinder (a very small LCD display showing alternatively the speed or the aperture selected) did not really help.

The ergonomics of modern “all-electric” cameras are totally different. The aperture ring and the speed knob are gone, leaving room to an “electronic input dial” and to a large LCD. Not as intuitive and immediate as the knobs and rings or yesteryear, but far simpler than the complex combinations of knobs and switches of the Nikon FA.

Using a Nikon FA as an everyday camera

When it was launched, the FA was nicknamed the “techno-camera”. Positioned at the top of the FM-FE family of cameras, it came with an impressive specs sheet: matrix metering, multi-mode exposure automatism, very fast shutter, on-the-film (OTF) flash metering. Its detachable motor drive was reasonably fast (3.2 frames per second) and could power the camera (and save the precious LR44 batteries).
With the exception of the prism housing (in poly-carbonate), the camera is still built in metal, and is very nicely finished. If the complex electronics from the early eighties survived, the FA is still perfectly usable, and will take great pictures.

Should you buy a Nikon FA? That’s a matter of taste. More recent cameras (film or digital) provide the same technical features, but with their large LCDs and their electronic dials, they’re easier to use and less conducive to set up errors than the FA. The AMP metering of the FA is still relatively primitive – it did not reach the level of performance of today’s matrix metering, and it deprives the photographer of his control over the exposure. Switching to the center weighted mode does not really offer more control, unless the semi-auto exposure mode is used, because no exposure memorization mechanism has been provided.

The Nikon FE2 or the FM3a share some of the technical advances of the FA (the titanium shutter and the flash metering in particular), but their simpler ergonomics (match needle in the viewfinder, shutter speed knob and aperture ring always showing the actual settings) as well as their more predictable exposure metering make them a better fit for photographers who want to be in immediate control of the basic settings of the camera.

The value of the camera on the used market reflects this. In spite of its impressive list of specs, the FA sells for approximately the same price as the Nikon FE2 ($125 to $200 on eBay depending on the condition of the camera), below the FM2n (approx. $250) and far below the FM3a ($500 and above).

Nikon FA with handgrip

The hand grip (on the left) has to be removed to leave room for the MD-15 motor. As a consequence, this tiny accessory has often been lost and most surviving FAs don’t have it.


More about the Nikon FA

The Usual Suspects…

Nikon’s own words: Imaging Products-Nikon Family- Nikon FA and FE2

Photography in Malaysia (MIR) The Nikon FA
Ken Rockwell: The Nikon FA


American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400
American Petit LeMans – the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA – Kodak CN400

The Nikon FE2: one of the very best manual focus SLRs ever.

Launched in 1983, the successor of the FE had a relatively short sales career, but a long legacy. It can be argued that the Nikon FM3a, sold from 2001 to 2006, is much more a descendant of the FE2 than of the FM2.

Nikon FE2 - Shutter
Nikon FE2 – The titanium blade shutter was the most advanced at the time of the camera’s launch, with a top speed of 1/4000 sec and a flash sync speed of 1/250 sec.

In 1977, a few years after Olympus initiated the compact SLR revolution, Nikon presented the FM. Like the Olympus OM-1, the FM was a compact semi automatic camera with a mechanical shutter, which could be equipped with a motor drive. But contrarily to the OM-1, which still relied on a CdS light metering system and on mercury batteries, the FM used modern gallium photo diodes and silver oxide batteries. It also benefited from a vertical blade metallic shutter, and the exposure metering was relying on 3 LEDs instead of the more conventional match needle arrangement of the OM-1. Solidly built and reliable, the FM was very successful commercially, and the ancestor of a large family of models whose production only stopped in 2006.

Nikon FE2
Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 data back – the data back connects to the PC Sync of the camera

The FE from 1978 is the automatic exposure version of the FM. It looks very similar to the FM, but instead of LEDs, it uses two needles to show the shutter speed selected by the photographer (semi-auto mode) and by the automatic exposure system (aperture priority auto mode). In 1982, the FM became the FM2, receiving a new mechanic shutter with titanium blades, which could reach 1/4000 sec and had a flash synch speed of 1/200 sec.

IMG_1099
Nikon FE2 – Auto Exposure Mode – the thin black needle shows the shutter speed selected by the metering system of the camera. Note the aperture value at the top of the viewfinder.

One year later, the FE2 was launched. Its titanium shutter is an improved and electronic version of the FM2’s, with a X synch speed now reaching to 1/250 sec. The FE2 also benefits from a modern on the film (OTF) flash metering system (that the FM2 never got). The FM/FE range of products was extended the following year with the presentation of the Nikon FA, which added matrix metering (a world premiere), a programmed exposure mode and trade the brass prism cover of the FM/FE models for a polycarbonate one. Both FE2 and FA were discontinued in 1988. The FM2 lived longer, and was ultimately replaced by the FM3a, which merged the mechanical shutter of the FM2 with the electronics of the FE2.

Using the FE2 as an every day camera

Reasonably light and compact, the Nikon FE2 is very solidly built, and very nicely finished. Compared to a previous generation model like the FM, the FE2 has smoother commands. The viewfinder is typical from a pre-high eye point construction – the enlargement factor is high (0.86) for a good focusing precision, but the frame coverage is limited (93%), and the eye point is very short (14mm), which could be an issue for photographers wearing glasses. Even with thin glasses, it’s impossible to see 100% of the image projected on the focusing screen without having to move one’s eye ball right to left and left to right: you only perceive 90% of the focusing screen when you look straight into the viewfinder, which compounded with the rather limited frame coverage, ensures that you’ll have a wide safety margin on both sides of your prints.

Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n
Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n – The FE2 is a bit larger, but not significantly.

The determination of the exposure is very conventional for a camera of its generation, with a center weighted measurement provided by two silicon photodiodes. In automatic mode, a needle indicates the speed selected by the exposure system of the camera on a large scale at the left of the viewfinder. The photographer has multiple ways to override the automatism: he can memorize the exposure (pushing the self timer lever towards the lens), apply a correction factor on the film speed selector (from -2 up to +2EV), or switch to semi-auto mode. In this case, a second needle – larger and transparent – appears in the viewfinder, showing the shutter speed selected by the photographer.

IMG_1100
Nikon FE2 – Semi auto exposure mode. The fat blue needle shows the selected shutter speed, the thin black needle shows the shutter speed recommended by the metering system.

In a very simple matching needle arrangement, the photographer just has to align the meter needle with shutter speed needle. The shutter speed knob is much smoother than on the FM (in the FE2 the shutter is controlled electronically), and surprisingly the camera is more pleasant to use in semi-auto mode than the FM. No wonder that Nikon derived the exposure control system of the FM3a from the FE2’s and not from FM’s.


Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
A very clean Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 data back – All the commands are grouped on the top plate – with the exception of the depth of field preview and the exposure lock levers, located at the right of the lens mount. A very simple and efficient layout.

Conclusion

Powered by two easy to find LR44 silver oxyde batteries, the camera also operates without battery at a speed of 1/250sec. Compatible with any AI, AIs and AF lenses, it’s still perfectly usable today.

Less rugged than its FM and FM2 cousins (it has an electronic shutter and a potentially more fragile match needle metering system), it is more pleasant to use and can respond efficiently to a larger variety of photography opportunities. Like the FA and the FM3a, but unlike the FM2, the FE2 benefits from a modern through the lens (on the film or OTF) flash metering system, compatible with the flash units currently sold by Nikon.

Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 back. The MF-12 back was designed for the FM/FE cameras, which did not have internal synchronization contacts for a data back inside the film chamber. Hence the need for an external synchronization cord. The FE2 could also use the MF-16 data back, which did not need the external sync cord.

Its automatic exposure system is very easy to override, and does not get in the way. The matching needle system in the viewfinder is very informative, easier to read in the sun light than the LEDs of the FG, and than the small LCD display of the FA.

With the F3, the FE2 is probably the most usable Nikon camera of the early eighties.

How much for a Nikon FE2?

The Nikon FE2 is a very good automatic exposure film camera, and its reputation has obviously an impact on its price. Specialized retailers like KEH sell it between $130 (Bargain) and $270 (Top Condition).

As usual, prices are a bit lower on eBay, but the FE2 does not seem to sell for less than $100, with peaks up to $180 for very nice items.

There are few alternatives to the FE2: the more recent FM3a is much more expensive (typically from $400 up to $700) and the FE, with its modest shutter and no OTF flash metering, is far more primitive and more difficult to recommend.


Eight years later…

I wrote this blog entry in 2009. Eight years later, after having tested and used many other SLRs from Canon, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax, the FE2 is still one of my preferred cameras:

  • it’s simple – very few options and commands. You read directly on the rings and knobs how it’s set up (pretty easy – aperture, shutter speed, ISO – that’s all). Controlling it rapidly becomes instinctive – an extension of your eyes and hands .
  • with average metering weighted towards the center/lower half of the scene, and an easy to find exposure memorization lever – it’s easy to get the exposure right.
  • the focusing screen is very clear – almost as clear as the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera, but not at the detriment of precision – you can get the focus right, even with very luminous lenses. It’s a relatively short eye point viewfinder – if you wear glasses, you won’t see the borders of the focusing screen unless you really pay attention to it.  You just see the scene – you’re in the middle of it – it’s an immersive experience.

More about the FE2


Photography in Malaysia


Tree trunk
Tree trunk – Along the Nickajack Creek – Smyrna, GA (Nikon FE2, Nikon 50mm lens, Kodak CN400 film.

50 Years of Lens Mount Evolution – Part IV of VI


Programmed exposure


The automatic bodies of the early seventies still required some input from their users: they could only determine the shutter speed (or the aperture in the case of Canon cameras) after the photographer had set an aperture (or a shutter speed) compatible with the film speed, the intensity of the light and the characteristics of the scene (portrait, action shots, macro, and so on).
If the aperture set by the user was too low or too high, a matching shutter speed could not be selected by the camera and the picture was hopelessly under or over exposed.
Similarly, if the photographer let the camera select a very slow shutter speed with a long tele-lens, the picture would be blurry and unusable. Trained photographers knew that. But a better automatic exposure solution had to be found for the photographers who did not want to be bothered with technical details.

Nikon FA - the commands for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM)
Nikon FA (1984) – the command for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM) is in front of the shutter speed knob


Inspired by the program modes already available in point and shoot cameras, Canon launched the A-1, a new SLR with programmed exposure modes in 1978. Practically, it meant that the auto exposure system of the body had to simultaneously command the shutter speed and the aperture of the diaphragm.


Canon did not have to change anything on the FD mount, which had been created for full aperture shutter priority exposure. 


Nikon introduced the “AI-S” generation in 1979 when the mount was modified to support a linear command of the diaphragm. The first Nikon cameras to take advantage of the AI-S lenses and to offer a program mode and shutter priority were launched in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Because the camera body was informed of the focal length of the objective, it could choose automatically between two aperture-speed combinations when configured in program mode, one for wide angle and normal lenses, and one for lenses of 135mm and longer .

Nikon F mount - AIS on the Nikon FA
The AI-S variant of Nikon F mount, shown here on the Nikon FA. Compared to the lens mount of the FE2, the FA’s is using three more sensors: a small pin above the lens lock – which informs the body that the lens is of the AI-S type, a larger sensor inside the reflex chamber (right of the picture, in the middle) which is used to transmit the focal length of the lens to the body, and a slider at the bottom of the reflex chamber, used to transmit the maximum aperture of the lens to the body. The use of mechanical sensor had reached its limits. It was time to adopt electrical contacts instead.
Nikon F mount - AI on the Nikon FE2
For reference, the much simpler design of the AI mount (Nikon FE2). The stop down lever controlling the diaphragm is on the left side on the picture. You can still find it on current Nikon digital cameras.


Still trying to catch up with Nicanolta, Pentax adopted a brand new bayonet mount, the K mount, in 1975. The first K mount, however, did not support shutter priority or program modes. Electric contacts would have to be added with the KA declination of the K mount in 1983 to make it possible. Its close derivatives are still used today on Pentax DSLRs.


The state of the art between 1971 and 1985


Pentax: Aperture priority automatic cameras launched in 1971 with modified 42mm screw mount lenses supporting full aperture metering.
Change from the 42mm screw mount to a new Pentax K bayonet in 1975 (automatic pre-selection, full aperture metering, transmission of the pre-selected aperture value from the lens to the body);
Shutter priority and program mode introduced in 1983 with the KA version of the K mount.


Canon: The FD breech mount introduced in 1971 was ready for the Shutter priority cameras launched in 1973 (Canon EF) and for the program mode (Canon A1, 1978).


Minolta: MD declination of the SR Mount (one pin added for the support of the Shutter priority mode) to support the Shutter priority mode in 1977.


Nikon: Aperture priority cameras available since 1971 (Nikon EL) with the manual indexing F mount. Launch of the AI version of the F mount in 1977 to improve the ease of use. Progressive adoption of the AI-S declination of the F mount in 1979 to prepare for the arrival of cameras offering a program mode (Nikon FG, 1982) and a shutter priority automatic exposure (Nikon FA, 1984).


Olympus: the OM mount was introduced in 1971, and was ready to support programmed exposure from the beginning.



More about the lens mounts


Photography in Malaysia: information related to the F lens mount


American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400
American Petit LeMans – the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA – Kodak CN400 – Processed by Costo. Cropping and minor adjustments in Lightroom 2

Why are manual exposure cameras worth more than automatics ? (Intro)


The facts


Let’s take three lines of manual focus cameras which still have a very active second hand market today: the Leica R series, the Nikons FM & FE and their derivatives, and the Olympus OM-1 & OM-2 and their “single digit” descendants. Each line contains automatic exposure cameras (Leica R4, R5, R7; Nikon FE, FE2, FA; Olympus OM-2, OM2s, OM4, OM4t), and manual exposure cameras (Leica R6, R6.2; Nikon FM and FM2; Olympus OM-1 and OM-3).


For a given generation of camera, manual exposure models are almost always worth more than their automatic exposure siblings.


Average retail price of a camera in Excellent Condition (source: a reputable specialist of used photographic equipment)

Brand Manual Camera Auto exposure Camera
Leica R6.2: $ 999 R7: $ 550
Nikon FM: $ 190 FE: $ 170
Nikon FM2: $ 245 FE2: $ 199
Olympus OM-1: $ 150 OM-2: $ 190
Olympus OM-3: much more than $500 * OM-4: $ 235
Olympus OM-3T: much more than $1,000 * OM-4T or TI: $ 450


More after the jump