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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 …).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.