I don’t want this blog to turn into a Nikon fansite. But Nikon related pages are now the most read: the Nikon D700 and FE2 entries have been the two most visited pages lately, leapfrogging the pages related to the Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6 zoom, which had been the readers’ favorite for years. And I can’t hide that Nikon film cameras are those I prefer, and that I’ve put my money where my mouth was.
Interesting things are happening at Nikon’s. On August 23rd, they will unveil a new full frame mirrorless digital system, launch a new lens mount and at least one lens.
The new lens mount will be typical of modern mirrorless cameras (short flange distance, and, I assume, no mechanical interface at all – autofocus and aperture control being all electric ), but its diameter will be unusually large – much larger in any case that the Sony E lens mount.
Over its 59 years of commercial life (so far), the Nikon F mount has gone through many revisions to support successively aperture indexing, automatic aperture indexing, matrix metering, auto-focus, silent wave auto-focus motors, and more recently, electronic diaphragm control.
Because Nikon has made a core business principle to guarantee at least a modicum of compatibility between its older lenses and its newer generation of bodies (particularly for high-end cameras sold to professionals), the new full frame mirrorless body will accept Nikon F lenses, via an adapter. But Nikon has not shared any detail about this adapter yet.
The adapter could be made simple, with no electrical contact and no mechanical linkage to the lens. Generally speaking, mirrorless cameras are not dependent on the automatic aperture pre-selection capabilities of the lens, so it’s likely that any Nikon F lens old enough to have an aperture ring will not only physically mount on the adapter, but will somehow work when the camera is set to semi-automatic exposure and manual focus mode. But recent lenses deprived of an aperture ring (or with an electronic control of the aperture) would not work with such a simple adapter. Which would go against Nikon’s tradition of preserving compatibility in priority for recent and/or expensive pieces of equipment.
The adapter could be made very complex. Sony supports Minolta/Konica-Minolta/Sony A mount lenses on its E Mount mirrorless bodies thanks to two models of adapters. The most complex of the two, the LA-E4, has its own autofocus motor in order to provide support and adequate AF performance for screw-drive autofocus lenses (which still constitute the majority of the Series A lenses offered by Sony today). Sony’s adapter also has a Phase Detection AF module, probably because its A series lenses were not designed for the contrast detection auto-focus system of its NEX mirrorless bodies.
Nikon’s original AF and AF-D lenses (the screw drive lenses without an auto focus motor) could be supported using a similar setup if Nikon really wanted to, but I doubt they’ll have any appetite for such a solution (one of the reasons being that professionals have been buying AF-S lenses with a built-in auto focus motor for almost 20 years now – and probably don’t use many screw-drive auto-focus lenses anymore).
Nikon’s now defunct One series (J1 to J5 viewfinder-less cameras and V1 to V3 SLR like models) could accept F mount lenses thanks to an adapter. With the FT1 adapter, auto-focus lenses with a built-in auto-focus motor (AF-S lenses, with or without an aperture ring) are fully supported (all auto-exposure modes, vibration reduction and auto-focus, of course).
Older auto-focus lenses (the AF and AF-D lenses) can be used in all the auto-exposure modes but don’t auto-focus. Lastly, AI and AI-S manual focus lenses will only be usable in Manual or Aperture Priority Auto Exposure modes.
Nikon FT1 adapter (Nikon F to Nikon One lens mount adapter) – Source: Adorama
My bet is that the new adapter will offer the same functions as the FT1. It will fully support any lens introduced in the market since the last years of the XXth century (AF-S, AF-S G, VR, AF-P), and with reduced capabilities, most of the older lenses.
Will there be a penalty in terms of auto-focus performance for users of AF-S lenses ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last 10 years – digital cameras and image stabilized lenses
The massive adoption of digital cameras has not led – so far – to a dramatic change of the design of the lens mount of the cameras. Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony (aka Konica Minolta) did not design specific lens mounts for digital cameras, even if they designed specific series of lenses adapted to the smaller size of the digital “APS-C” sensors.
Only camera makers which had been absent from the 35mm Autofocus SLR market and had no installed base to please had the liberty to start from a clean slate. In 2003, Panasonic and Olympus launched the “Four Thirds” format, combining a relative small size sensor with a large all-electric mount. Last year, Panasonic finally presented the Micro Four Thirds G1, a camera with an electronic viewfinder and interchangeable lenses (EVIL), the first digital camera to really depart from the conventional SLR design of the Contax S of the late forties.
Why did the camera manufacturers keep the same bayonet mount for digital?
When the first digital SLRs from Nikon and Canon were presented in 2000, large imaging sensors were so difficult to manufacture and therefore so expensive that the camera makers settled for a form factor smaller than the 36x24mm dimensions of 35mm film (23.7mmx15.6mm for Nikon, 22mmx14.9mm for the Canon EOS-D30).
This form factor was dubbed “APS-C“, because it was close to the dimensions of an APS picture, shot with the “Classic” image format (25.1×16.7mm) of the APS cameras. The sensor being smaller than a 35mm negative (the diagonal of 35mm film is 1.5 times larger than the diagonal of an APS-C imager), the camera makers had an opportunity to design a new series of smaller bodies and lenses, but they all decided to stick to their legacy lens mounts and to design digital SLRs at least as large as their film counterparts.
Being the undisputed leaders of the film camera market, Nikon and Canon in particular had no interest in starting a new incompatible product line, at the risk of alienating their large user base; it would have leveled the playing field, and offered an easier entry in the dSLR market to companies like Panasonic or Sony. Nikon and Canon also wanted to limit the cost and the technical risk of going digital by reusing most of the components of their film cameras in their first generations of dSLRs. And they may have anticipated that one day, with the help of Moore’s law, cameras using full size digital sensors would become affordable for their professional and enthusiast customers, making their large F or EF bayonets more relevant than ever.
For a few years, however, dSLRs with APS-C sensors were the only game in town. Canon and Nikon both developed specific lenses for their small sensor bodies. Canon decided to modify the EF mount so that the EF-S lenses designed for the small sensor cameras can not be mounted on full frame SLRs or dSLRs. Nikon did not change the F bayonet – small sensor DX lenses can also be mounted on full frame (or FX) bodies, but being designed for the APS-C sensor size, they do not cover the full format of the FX sensors and the image is automatically cropped.
The Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats
In 2003, Olympus and Panasonic launched the “Four Thirds” format. At that time, Canon had already started producing the first full frame 35mm digital camera (the EOS 1D), and was preparing much more affordable 35mm digital SLRs like the EOS-5D for the enthusiast photographer market. A large sensor was still complex and expensive to manufacture, but getting high quality pictures out of it would prove much easier than with a small sensor, in particular in low light situations.
The Olympus Four Thirds system was based on design decisions completely opposed to Canon or Nikon’s . The sensor size chosen for Four Thirds cameras is very small (its diagonal is only half of the diagonal of a 35mm sensor), but at the same time the lenses and bodies are designed around a large diameter bayonet mount (44mm, the same as Nikon’s F), with a relatively long focal flange distance (38mm). When the system was designed, it was believed that a large diameter lens and a long focal flange distance were required to get optimal results from the imaging sensor, but the Leica M8 and M9 have since proven that it was not the case.
On the positive side, the relatively large dimensions imposed by the Four Thirds mount gave the engineers more freedom to design high quality lenses with very fast apertures, but on the negative side the body & lens combination could not be made significantly smaller than the more conventional APS-C cameras of their competitors. To add insult to injury, the relative small size of the sensor proved a handicap in low light situations (all things being equal, small sensors are more subject to noise than larger ones), and steered most of the enthusiast photographers away from Four Thirds cameras. Four Thirds only got traction on the low end of the market.
Failing to make a significant impact on the mid-level dSLR market, and completely barred from the professional market dominated by new full frame cameras with extraordinary low light capabilities, Panasonic and Olympus decided to create a new niche for themselves, and launched Micro Four Thirds cameras. Using the same sensor as the “Four Thirds” dSLRs, the Micro 4/3rd cameras have abandoned the reflex mirror chamber and the pentaprism viewfinder of conventional dSLRs for an electronic viewfinder. They are designed for a much shorter focal flange distance (approx. 20mm instead of 38mm, and the mount diameter is also smaller (32mm approx. instead of 44mm).
As a result, the body+lens combination is much more compact than any other dSLR on the market. It’s still difficult to predict how this new category of cameras will fare in the future, but they finally bring something new to the table.
The migration from film to digital is without a doubt the most significant evolution of photographic equipment in the last ten years. Image stabilization gained acceptance during the same time, and is now a feature expected by amateurs using digicam as well as enthusiasts and pros using expensive large aperture teles. The objective of image stabilization systems is to compensate automatically the involuntary movements of the photographers, and to produce sharper pictures even at slower shutter speeds.
Canon, Nikon and Panasonic adopted relatively similar systems, all based on the controlled movement of optical modules installed inside the lenses. Minolta, Pentax and Olympus opted for in-camera systems compensating the movements of the photographer by moving the image sensor itself. Apparently both systems produce good results. In-camera image stabilization systems do not require any change to the lens mount, but in-lens systems need to be managed from the body, and require a few more electric contacts. Most of the current lens mounts are all-electric now, and adding a few contacts is an easy done job.
The state of the art in 2009
Pentax: Progressive introduction of the KAF3 version of the K bayonet mount, with autofocus motor in the lens. The majority of the lenses in the product line still need an autofocus motor in the camera body.
Canon: No change to the EF mount of the EOS cameras. Starting with the Rebel and the 20D cameras, Canon used a specific variant (EF-S) of the mount for lenses dedicated to the APS-C format. Canon dSLRs all work with EF lenses, but only the Rebel and 20D, 30D, 40D and 50D cameras can use the EF-S lenses.
Minolta, Konica Minolta and Sony: Progressive introduction of SSM lenses, with the focusing motor inside the lens. The majority of the lenses in the product line still need an autofocus motor in the camera body.
Nikon: Multiple variants of the F mount were used during the last 15 years:
– AF-D: no mechanical difference with the AF mount, the D lenses transmit the focusing distance value back to the body for 3D Matrix Metering
– AF-I: focusing motor in the lens – used for tele-lenses between 1992 and 1996;
– AF-S lenses: ultra-sonic (“Silent Wave”) autofocus motor built into the lens. Most of Nikon’s zoom lenses are now AF-S, and the conversion of prime lenses has started a few years ago.
– The new PC-E (perspective control electromagnetic) lenses now use an electromagnetic diaphragm command. All the other Nikon lenses still use the mechanical stop down mechanism introduced with the F mount in 1959.
Olympus & Panasonic started promoting the Four Thirds format in 2003. Four Third lenses use an all electric bayonet mount. The Micro Four Thirds are more compact, and use 11 electrical contacts instead of 9 for regular Four Third lenses. Thanks to the very short focal flange distance of Micro Four Third cameras, it is easy to develop adapters for Canon EF, Nikon F, Olympus OM or Leica M or R lenses.
Nikon was very proud a few months ago when the 50th anniversary of the F mount was celebrated. Half a century! Pentax had to abandon its original mount and transition to a new bayonet in the early seventies, Minolta and Canon in the mid eighties.
But there is more to lens and body compatibility than the design of the bayonet.
Even if the current Nikon bodies and lenses still use the same bayonet design as the Nikon F of 1959, it’s practically impossible to pair an unmodified lens from 1959 to a recent body, and vice versa: the lens and the body of a modern SLR have to exchange information and commands, and non-upgraded lenses from 1959 simply don’t share enough information to be usable.
The transmission of information from the lens to the body – focal length, maximum and minimum aperture, pre-selected aperture, focusing distance, and of commands from the body to the lens – setting the focusing distance, setting the aperture value, closing the diaphragm, can be performed from many different ways – some of them passive (a hole in the metal), some of them mechanical (rods, cogs and springs), the most recent working exclusively through electrical contacts.
Cameras of the mid fifties were far less complex than the ones we now use. No internal meter, no auto exposure, no auto-focus.
But users of SLR cameras were facing an important issue: because the viewfinders of their cameras were dim and the focusing screen grainy, the only practical way to set the focus was to open the aperture to its maximum. Let’s say F:1.4. But if on a sunny day they needed to shoot at 1/125 sec at F:11, they had to set the aperture ring to F11 AFTER they were finished with the focus and – of course – BEFORE they took the picture. Not very fast, not very convenient.
At the end of the fifties, most Japanese camera manufacturers adopted automatic diaphragms with aperture pre-selection: the lens remained at full aperture – let’s say F:1.4 -independently from the aperture value selected by the user on the aperture ring, making focusing easy. Only when the user pressed the shutter release to take the picture would a lever or a rod mechanically close the diaphragm to the value pre-selected by the user.