The Ultimate Freedom for a Large Format Photographer - The Nikon F

October 11, 2015  •  32 Comments

The Ultimate Freedom For a Large Format Film Photographer - The Nikon FThe Ultimate Freedom For a Large Format Film Photographer - The Nikon F The vast majority of my work is created with large format camera systems, but I love the freedom of using a mechanical small format roll film camera sometimes.  

My favorite film and developer for the Nikon F is either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5+ in D-76 1:1.  These films in this developer provide a great deal of latitude and even when shooting without a meter using the Sunny-16 rule for exposure, the vast majority of my negatives scan and print really well in the darkroom.  

I love the creative control I am afforded via large format, and this is how I envision myself always creating my serious fine artwork.  However, there are times when you just want to have fun with a minimal amount of effort and thinking and don't be fooled into thinking that you can't create amazing and gallery quality work from 35mm film, or a classic mechanical camera like the Nikon F.

I own the little Rollei 35, and I love my Mamiya 7 and Fuji 690 Rangefinders.  I also own the beautiful Leica M3 35mm Rangefinder that is mechanical art to me.  I own the Pentax 645N which is a fully automatic medium format camera system that produces excellent results with total ease.  All of these cameras are great and I love using them for different reasons.  

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I should discuss my version of "ultimate freedom" first.  There are some excellent small format 35mm cameras, such as the tiny Rollei 35 and a variety of 35mm and 120 medium format Rangefinders that are fantastic as well.  There are even handheld 4x5 cameras too! 

The classic all mechanical Nikon F represents freedom for me while possessing all of the features that make it the perfect camera to have fun with and explore.  Perfect is a pretty strong word, so I will discuss some of my key thoughts that lead me to this conclusion. 

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First, the ultimate freedom camera for me must have interchangeable lenses, so this rules out the Rollei 35 and all of my Rangefinders, except the Leica M3 and the medium format 645N.  While I love the M3 for many reasons, changing film in this camera versus the Nikon F is a stumbling block.  I wouldn't classify it as undesirable; the Nikon F is just flawless and smooth.  Also, focusing with the little slider arm on the M mount lenses are more difficult than simply turning the lens on the Nikon F.  I love my Leica M3, and I use it often, but it doesn't make the cut for my ultimate freedom list.  I would be happy just admiring it on my shelf.

I love the Nikon F camera and the older Nippon uncoated glass for my style of black and white photography. The Nikon F camera, introduced in April 1959, was Nikon's first SLR camera. It was one of the most advanced cameras of its day. If I were doing black and white and in a cold environment, I would choose the all-mechanical Nikon F over any modern-day DSLR.  No batteries equal more freedom from "stuff".   

I bought my Pentax 645N brand new in the late 90's when it was first released.  It still looks and operates like the day I got it, never needed a repair or adjustment.  The 645N is one of the best hand-held cameras ever made in my opinion.  The layout and use of this camera are logical, easy, and made for a photographer.  The 645N and Nikon F both share these qualities.  The simple reason why the 645N did not win my "ultimate freedom" crown was simply because of weight and physical size versus the Nikon F.  I don't think the 645N is a big or heavy camera, it is simply larger and heavier than the Nikon F.  Also, if I valued automatic focus more than I did the smaller size and weight of the Nikon F, the 645N would be the winner.  I use the Nikon F with either Tri-X or HP5+ loaded, no metering, just Sunny 16, and I get wonderful results.  I don' have to think when I use this camera.  

The irony of this is that it is one of the most simplistic cameras today and I love it for this reason.  It is amazing how a half-century of innovation has absolutely no value to me when I use this camera.  The Nikon F was produced until 1973.

As you can see in the photo, I use mine with the ground glass versus the viewfinder most of the time (It is a large format thing).  I have the viewfinder, and I will use it if I want a vertical composition.  I have the cushioned shutter release and when I press the shutter I can feel the quality in this camera.  The aperture is adjusted on the lens; the shutter is adjusted on the top dial, and that is all you need to create world-class photographs.  I use my Nikon F exclusively with black and white negative film, but that is not a limitation of the camera, just my preference.  

I typically load Kodak Tri-X or HP5+ black and white film in mine, and I use the Sunny-16 rule for exposure. While I do own the little Voigtlander light meter that I can clip on the hot shoe, I don't find myself using it.  If you are photographing infinity subjects, you can literally leave the lens at infinity and point it in that direction and based on your gut feeling about the exposure, release the shutter and move on.  I am into nature and landscapes, but I can see this setup being ideal for a street photographer too.

Upon return from my relaxation and freedom fest, I develop Tri-X and HP5+ in Kodak D-76 based on the EI that I choose (typically either EI 250 or 500) because it is easy to remember when using the Sunny-16 exposure rule.  For exposure, if I used EI 250, then F16 on a bright sunny day would be 1/250 shutter.  A little cloudy, no problem, 1/125, a little less light, 1/60, and so on.  The older mechanical cameras, 35mm, and 120 formats are an incredible value today in my opinion.  In fact, my very first camera, Mamiya C220 from 1968, is still in perfect working condition and I use this camera just like I do the Nikon F when I want total freedom.  

The Nikon F represents the concept of no rules or boundaries for me with a lot of flexibility and freedom of creative choice.  I get to relax, have fun, feel and act like a kid again and have no expectations.  I love taking trips down roads that I have never traveled before, and this camera is perfect for those adventures.  Some of my best prints are created this way.  Best is defined as the ones that I like and appreciate.  I have made up to 16x20 darkroom prints with this camera and they look fantastic. 

What is your personal favorite for your "ultimate freedom"?

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Michael Wellman(non-registered)
Great article. Agree 100%. I love going out with my Nikon F and F2 and shooting like it was 1973. Mechanical cameras that will last a lifetime and those non-ai lenses are fantastic. So much fun to shoot with something that is 50+ yeas old and still working.
Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Ken, excellent choice!! I like my Holga and Diana cameras.. Stay in touch.
Ken Stevens(non-registered)
Holga 120N is my go to freedom camera.
Many thanks for your articles! Unfortunately no experience of Nikon F, started out on my Minolta SR-1 some 50 years ago (!), still in good working condition and still in use! Lately do some work in large format (Sinar F/P 4x5, 5x7, 8x10, and som Graflex 4x5) BUT I think my FREEDOM is my Hasselblad 500 C (yes sunny 16 works well!), heavy? Not a problem to me, handheld or on a tripod, works great (leses: 50,80,150,250,500 mm).
(something should be made with my website below, sorry for that!)
The solitaire(non-registered)
Hi Tim. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Even though I used large format and medium format, photography, to me, is being mobile and travelling. I too prefer the Nikon F with plain prism finder, even though I own several other cameras. As you say, boiling down to the essence with a focus and Aperture ring and a shutter speed dial allows me to focus on taking photographs rather then getting carried away by bells and whistles as found on more modern cameras
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