Nikon F4 – Nikon’s last conventional Pro camera

The F4 was the last Nikon camera to enjoy (for a few years) an undisputed supremacy on the professional market. Successor of a long line of modular pro cameras, the F4 uniquely combines conventional ergonomics with a modern feature set.

A typical Nikon pro-camera

Now that we have discussed in detail the F4’s auto-focus system, let’s spend a few cycles on what makes it such a great camera.

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Interchangeable viewfinder, knobs and safety locks everywhere – a typical Nikon F camera.

The F4 is a true Nikon F – a modular body with an extremely high built quality, compatible to some degree with almost anything Nikon has ever made. With 24 different focusing screens, 4 models of viewfinders, 3 grips and 3 backs to choose from, it can be customized to almost any specific requirement.

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Nikon F4 with MB-21 grip. With the prism removed, the camera still operates (but only with spot metering)

It has been designed so that it will never let the photographer (or an  unexperienced assistant) waste a roll of film or botch a shooting session:

  • there is no menu, just knobs and switches – just look at the camera, and you visualize how it’s set up.
  • there are locks on the film door, on the shutter speed knob, on the ISO dial, on the exposure mode switch, on the on/off switch, and a flashing red LED will warn the photographer if the film is not properly loaded in the camera.
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Nikon F4. The MB-20 grip holds 4 standard 1.5 volt AA batteries. With the MB-20 grip, the camera is significantly more compact.

It oozes build quality: it’s a full metal precision instrument.

Another Rosetta Stone

Nikon has been using the same bayonet lens mount since 1959, but even if its basic dimensions have stayed the same, it has evolved to the point where old lenses could damage some of the recent bodies, and recent lenses can’t be reasonably used on most of the older cameras.

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Nikon F4. The MB-21 grip is composed of a base holding two AA batteries (right) and a hand grip holding the 4 AA batteries (left)

In the Nikon line-up, the “pro” or “advanced-enthusiast” cameras are compatible with more generations of the Nikon F bayonet than the amateur oriented models, and a few bodies are exceptionally good at bridging the generations. The F4 is one of those, and deserves its “Rosetta Stone” nickname.

High level, the F4 can work with almost any manual focus lens (pre-AI made from 1959 to 1976, adapted AI, AI and AI-S), thanks to an array of pins inherited from the Nikon FA (like the FA, it offers matrix metering with manual focus lenses). Old ultra-wide angle lenses protruding deep in the mirror chamber can also be accommodated: the mirror can be locked in the raised position. And it has the electrical contacts needed by more recent AF lenses.

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Nikon F4 – clockwise from top, on the mount’s flange : the meter coupling lever used for aperture indexing, the lens type signal pin, the lens release pin, the auto-focus shaft. On the inside of the exposure chamber: the electrical contacts  used by AF lenses (top), the focal length indexing pin (right) and the aperture stop-down lever (left).

Of course, not all the exposure modes are available (pre-AI lenses have to be used  stopped down, and only the Aperture Priority and Manual mode work with AI and AI-S lenses – but with the benefit of matrix metering and focus assist).

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Nikon F4 – the grey tab on the left is the meter coupling lever used to transmit the selected aperture to the body with AI, AI-S and AF lenses; before mounting pre-AI lenses on the camera, press the shiny button to lift the meter coupling lever.

With Nikon’s AF and AF-D lenses, everything works. AF-S (motorized) lenses work also, as long as they still have an aperture ring. The AF-S G lenses (deprived of an aperture ring) can only be used in Shutter Priority and Program Mode.

Only very recent lenses (the AF-P with an electronic control of the lens’ iris) can’t be used at all.

Reliability

The F4 is not known for any major issue (Nikon was wise enough to abstain from using magnets as a substitute to springs in the shutter mechanism or soldering capacitors or batteries to the mother board).

In the eighties, LCD displays were a new thing, and vendors were often adding warnings or disclaimers in their user manuals, because they did not know how LCDs would age. In fact, they seem to have aged pretty well with most cameras, with the exception of the Nikon F4.

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Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. The top LCD shown here is damaged (a common flaw of the F4).

The camera has two different LCDs: a small one at the top left of the viewfinder, showing the number of remaining images on the film roll, and a large display at the bottom of the viewfinder, showing to usual exposure parameters (metering mode, shutter speed, aperture …).

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Nikon F4 – with the viewfinder removed, the small LCD display on the top left is part of the body; the large LCD showing the exposure parameters is part of the DP-20 viewfinder.

The top LCD is in fact part of the body of the camera itself (a small prism redirects its image so that it’s visible at the top of the viewfinder’s focusing screen). On the camera I purchased, it looks like it was covered by a dark green spider web. It’s distracting, but not a big issue, as the information displayed is not essential (I’m considering covering the LCD with a piece of black tape).

The issue of the “leaking” main LCD is more serious. In the most acute cases, the LCD display at the bottom of the viewfinder is all black (as if it was covered with black ink), and totally useless. This LCD is part of the viewfinder. Replacement DP-20 viewfinders are easy to find, in the $50.00 to $70.00 range on eBay, but even copies deemed “perfect” show small signs of leakage at the edge of the LCD. I don’t know whether they’re now as bad as they will ever be, or if they will further degrade over time.

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Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. My second DP-20 viewfinder – on the first one the LCD leakage was very pronounced. Here, only a tiny corner at the lower left  corner of the LCD has  started leaking.

How does it compare?

The F4 is unique – no other camera offered such a combination of modern features (matrix metering, multiple automatic exposure modes, auto-focus) in a somehow conventional modular body.

In the Nikon family, the F3 is a much simpler camera. Its High eye Point (HP) viewfinder is better suited to manual focus operations  (longer eye point and higher magnification) – it is easier on the eyes, but gives very little information (the shutter speed selected by the camera in Auto exposure mode, augmented by a + or a – in semi-auto mode). If you only intent to operate in manual focus mode, don’t need spot or matrix metering and don’t mind the weight (the F3 is a surprisingly compact camera, but it’s very dense), the Nikon F3 is very good pick.

The N90s (F90x) is not a modular camera, it is not as solidly built and is more plasticky (with a peeling film door). It is designed around a modal interface (press a button, turn the control wheel to change shooting parameters). In terms of everyday performance, it’s more capable than the F4. Its viewfinder shows a larger image (0.78x), its auto-focus is much faster, and although  large and heavy in its own right, it’s not as voluminous as the F4. But because it does everything so well (in the background) and only communicates with the photographer through LCD screens, it feels more robotic than the F4.

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A great combination, if it was not for the size and the weight (I did not have any holster bag large enough to carry it).

When the F4 was launched in 1988, Canon was starting its transition to the new EOS camera generation. They still had two manual focus professional models – the modular and very conventional New-F1 of 1981, and the T90, with modern ergonomics but without matrix metering.  Canon would not offer a real pro auto-focus camera until the EOS-1 of 1989 and they had no trans-standard constant aperture USM zooms until 1993, leaving a few years of reprieve to Nikon. The EOS-1 had a fixed viewfinder, but could be fitted with battery grips of various capacity. Nikon’s F4 successor, the F5, followed Canon’s example: modern ergonomics, and less modularity than its predecessor (the battery grip was integrated to the body and could not be changed). In that sense, the F4 is the last really conventional and modular 35mm SLR.

How much

The F4 is not a rare camera. It may have struggled at the end of its sales career, but during its first three years, it sold in large quantities (270,000 copies sold between 1988 and 1990).

Fully functional cameras with some issues (cosmetic or leaky LCD display in the viewfinder) sell for a bit more than $100.00, with faultless copies fetching twice as much.

To a large extend, the value of the F4 is related to the accessories it’s coming with – non standard grips, viewfinders and focusing screens were not sold in large quantities (and sometimes only in select geographies), and sold separately, they can be worth more than the camera itself.

As a conclusion

The F4’s mission #1 was to never let a photographer miss a picture inadvertently – all settings are visible on clearly identified knobs and dials, there are locks everywhere, and even a warning LED if the film is not properly attached to receiving spool – it’s the play-it-safe tool for a pro who does not want the embarrassment (and the potential loss of revenue) of failing to deliver.

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Nikon F4 with the MB-20 grip and a small sliding aperture zoom. The MB-20 grip is smaller than the MB-21, and was standard equipment in most of the world. In the US, the MB-21 was standard (I know, everything has to be bigger over here).

Technically, if offers what was the best in 1988 and still is pretty good now (large viewfinder, 1/8000 shutter, OTF Flash with 1/250 sync, matrix and spot metering). Its auto-focus system, while not as capable as a modern camera’s, is still good enough for any scene where you have the time to focus first and then re-frame.

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Nikon F4 with MB-21 grip: it’s even larger than a recent D700/D800 body.

Like the F3, it’s a camera that grows on you. I was not crazy about it  when I started using it (its size, its weight and a narrow auto-focus zone were a serious let down), but I rapidly came to appreciate it. It does not feel like a computer or a robot taking all the decisions for you (like a N90S would),  it’s still an analog camera with conventional commands, with an auto-focus system that forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing.

It will give its best results if you have the deliberate approach that makes shooting with conventional film cameras so rewarding.


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Horace – Nikon F4 – Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – during this photo session, I used the Tokina at full aperture all the time,
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Max – Nikon F4 – Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – getting a good exposure of a black dog with brown eyes is not easy – the F4 got it right (I did not have to correct the exposure in Lightroom)

 


Nikon F4: is its auto-focus that bad?

The F4 is at the same time the last Nikon pro-camera with conventional/analog controls, and the first offering most of the functions that modern bodies have made us familiar with (auto-focus, matrix metering, PASM multi-automatism, motorized film advance and rewind). It was also the last Nikon camera to enjoy (for a few years) an undisputed supremacy on the professional market.

In 1988, auto-focus was still in its infancy. Minolta had launched the Maxxum 7000 in 1985, and Nikon had followed with their first auto-focus SLR, the F501 (N2002 in the US) one year later. The F4 was the first implementation of  auto-focus on a professional SLR.

Compared to what was available in 1988, the F4’s auto-focus was not bad at all, but the arrival of the Canon EOS-1 one year later made it look slow and primitive, and today, the performance of its auto-focus system is what makes photographers think twice before using or buying an old F4.

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Nikon F4 – an analog user interface with an incredible number of locks (counting 5 just in this pictures)

The F4 is built around Nikon’s second generation auto-focus module, the “Advanced AM200”. Its single horizontal AF zone is composed of 200 CCD sensors, and the focus zone is very small  (probably 3mm wide and 1mm high – if the engraving on the viewfinder’s focusing screen is any indication). The module is shared with other Nikon auto-focus SLR bodies of the same period (F801/N8008, F601/N6006 for instance) but the F4’s auto-focus motor is stronger and the use of a 8 bit microprocessor makes the whole setup faster than on lesser cameras.

On the viewfinder’s focusing screen, at the place where the split image rangefinder would be on a manual focus camera, the AF zone is signaled by two small brackets engraved on the glass of the focusing screen. The markers of AF area are very difficult to see if the subject is poorly lit, and it can be difficult to visualize exactly where the camera is focusing (on modern cameras the active auto-focus zone is often surrounded by red LEDs. Nothing of that sort here).

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Nikon F4 – the type “E” focusing screen. the auto-focus zone indicator is etched into the glass. Note how small it is compared to the overall surface of the screen.

So, is the auto-focus really that bad?

The F4 was famously launched at the Seoul Summer Olympic games.  Today, nobody would use a F4 to shoot sporting events with long tele-zooms, but in all fairness, with lenses of shorter focal distance,  the auto-focus is reactive and accurate. Its biggest weakness in my opinion is not its slowness, or that it tends to hunt if the scene is poorly lit. It’s that the AF zone is so narrow that you really have to pay attention to what part of the scene the AF sensor is pointed at. You can not simply point the camera loosely towards the subject, and expect the auto-focus system to locate it somewhere in the central area of the frame. You have to aim precisely at it, right at the center of the focusing screen, let the system focus on it, then keep the shutter release button half pressed  (to lock the focus) and re-frame your picture. In that sense, it’s more a focus-assist system (Nikon write about an “electronic rangefinder” in their user manual) than an auto-focus system as we know it now.

The N90S (F90X outside of the US) that came a few years later (1994) benefits from an auto-focus system of a newer generation: it still has a single zone auto-focus module, but it’s much wider (7 x 3mm), and is shaped like a cross (it can focus on subjects presenting vertical lines as well as  horizontal lines), even in low light and with slow (f/5.6) lenses.

The user experience is very different. The camera easily finds the subject even if not perfectly centered in the frame, and it focuses rapidly and accurately, even on mobile subjects moving erratically. In that regard, the N90S is already a modern camera.

Using the F4 as a manual focus camera

A common opinion in the forums is that you should simply forget about the auto-focus system, and use manual focus lenses on the F4. Even if it’s technically possible – the F4 accepts almost any manual focus lens ever made by Nikon (with very few limitations) – I’m not sure it’s a great idea: the viewfinder of the camera has not been designed for that.

In the days of manual focus cameras, manufacturers had to make focusing as easy as possible for the eyes of the photographer, and as result, they used to design viewfinders with a high level of magnification (0.9X) and they spec’d focusing screens to be as precise as possible, even at the cost of looking at bit dark and coarse. As soon as auto-focus systems became the norm, manufacturers adopted viewfinders with much lower magnification factors (0.7X), in conjunction with much brighter and smoother focusing screens, which had a more limited ability to show small differences in focusing. [more about the evolution of the viewfinders of SLRs over time]

The F4’s default viewfinder (the DP-20) and its default focusing screen (the BriteView Type “B”) are typical of an auto-focus camera. The DP-20 is a long eyepoint / low magnification viewfinder (22mm and 0.70X respectively), and the “Type B” focusing screen is bright but not very precise. The Type B provides none of the focusing aids you  find on a manual focus camera (no micro prism, no split image rangefinder).  It’s difficult to set the focus with the naked eye when you can’t or don’t want to use the auto-focus system.

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Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the top LCD is shown (number of remaining pictures on the left, aperture in the middle, green dot for the focus. The grid of the “E” focusing screen is somehow visible.

Optional focus screens optimized for manual focusing were available from Nikon and from third party vendors (Nikon’s Type “K” and Type “P” focusing screens have a ring of micro prisms around  a split image rangefinder spot, the Type “J” just has a central micro prism focusing spot). Equipped with such a focusing screen, the F4 could be used as you would use a F3 or a FE2 – with the additional benefit of matrix metering. Those focusing screens are pretty scarce now, and are sometimes offered for more than $150.00 (they’re specific to the F4 – you won’t be able to focus accurately with a focusing screen designed for the F, F2 or F3).

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Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. On this picture only the botton LCD is shown (showing the metering mode – Matrix – the shutter speed, the aperture and the exposure mode: Program)

On the F4 I bought, the Type B focusing screen had been replaced with a Type E. It’s a variant of the Type B with horizontal and vertical lines etched in the glass. If I mount a manual focus lens on the camera, I just use the auto-focus system as an electronic rangefinder – when the big green dot is on in the viewfinder, it’s focused. This “electronic rangefinder” is as good as a split image rangefinder – you just have to trust it.

More in a few weeks, with my take on compatibility, reliability and ….

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Nikon F4 – with the viewfinder removed, the small LCD display on the left does not show the same information: here the exposure mode. The green dot on the right shows that the focus has successfully been set by the camera (the auto-focus module and the microprocessor are in the camera’s body, as well as the spot metering system – only the matrix and the average weighted cells are in the DP20 viewfinder).

Early Nikon AF cameras and their AF modules

On a camera, the overall performance of the auto-focus system (and the quality of user experience) depend on much more than just the AF module.

  • An auto-focus system is composed of hardware (the AF module with its CCD sensors, the microprocessors) and of software (the AF algorithm). It is  part of an even larger system (the camera itself with its other subsystems and its lenses) with which it has to integrate smoothly.
  • As an example, an explanation of the AF performance improvements between the F90 (N90 in the USA) and the F90X (N90s in the USA), both equipped with the same CAM246 AF module (from a very interesting blog entry in 678vintagecamera.ca :”Improvements over the F90 included faster AF speed and tracking. Nikon claimed a 2x increase in CPU speed, a 25% faster AF lens drive speed over the F90, and a new AF algorithm.”Same AF module, dramatically improved performance thanks to hardware and software improvements. (source: https://www.678vintagecameras.ca/blog/forgotten-film-warrior-the-nikon-f90x-aka-n90s)
Nikon AF Modules (1986-1995)
Name of the AF module Number of AF Points Shape of the AF zone Number of AF Pixels in the module Nikon cameras equipped with the module Launch year of the camera
no name  1 horizontal  96 horizon. F501  1986
AM200  1 horizontal 200 horiz.  F401 1987
Advanced AM 200 1 horizontal 200 horiz. F801, F4, F601 1988, 1990, 1991
 CAM246 1 horizontal + vertical 172 hor; 74 vert; F90, F90X  1992, 1994
Multicam 1300 5 multiple horizontal +vertical 1300 F5, F100 1996, 1999
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Nikon F4 – with the standard DP-20 viewfinder and the MB-20 grip (4 AA batteries)