Thursday, May 28, 2015

The War Zone Camera: Reviewing the Nikon FM


This is not a camera for everybody. First of all, it is a film camera (with this, I might have lost several of you already, but hopefully you'll plug back in in a while, once you realize what the Nikon FM is capable of). Secondly, it is a manual camera - not only is focus manual, but also exposure (there is an on-board meter, but you must set aperture/shutter speed yourself). So, why would you be interested in such a camera? Read on to find out.


+ War Zone Camera: Reliable, tough, and fully mechanical (doesn't need batteries to operate - except for the on-board meter)
+ can use (and meter) any lens with an aperture ring - pre-AI, AI, AF. In theory also modern AF-S G lenses, but without an aperture ring, you're stuck with the smallest aperture*
+ Superb viewfinder with split prism, allows you precision manual focus and proper depth-of-field estimation even for very fast lenses (modern film and digital cameras only go up to about f/2.8. The FM goes until f/1.2)

*new lenses - like the newest 300mm f/4 VR - have an electronic diaphragm. That means, when mount on a camera like the FM, you're stuck with the largest aperture - a much better scenario!

- No TTL flash support
- Although it's not heavy, it's not light either. The front being flat, it doesn't offer a good grip.
- Slightly loud (in fact, you can set the 1-sec exposure and actually listen to the gear mechanism unwinding)

Intended Users

Great for:
  • photographers who need a truly (and I mean truly) reliable camera that can take some serious abuse and keep on going - without batteries, let me remind you
  • all kinds of landscape and nature photography - where you can take your time to consider (and enjoy) setting up.
  • portraiture with very fast primes. If you got frustrated trying to manually focus your 50mm f/1.2 or 85mm f/1.4 on a DSLR, you've got to try the FM experience. 

Not for:
  • fast action (duh! It's manual focus and exposure)
  • if you've never shot film, and you only know how to operate your D3200, learn the tricks with a more modern film camera first. Although the FM is a very simple camera to operate, its philosophy is significantly different.
  • flash photography. Slow sync (1/125), and no TTL support.

Final Verdict

The Nikon FM is one of those cameras that make you admire human ingenuity. This is a fully mechanical camera, that can give you accurate shutter speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000 sec without any electrical power and circuits. Think about that for a moment. It can absorb tremendous abuse and still keep going. If I had to pick its best quality, that would undoubtedly be its superb viewfinder (compared to modern DLSRs that is). It allows you to manually focus (and judge depth of field) lenses with maximum aperture as fast as f/1.2. If you don't realize how important that is, try an experiment. Take the fastest lens you have (e.g. a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8) and stop it down to f/2.8. Press the depth of field preview button. Do you see any difference? No? Well, that's because viewfinders today are optimized for f/2.8 lenses - in other words, they don't allow you to judge depth-of-field variations beyond (i.e. wider) than f/2.8. Manually focusing an f/1.4 lens on a DSLR is much harder than on a Nikon FM - which also employs a split-prism which allows you perfect precision.

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