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A History of my Photography - Early Nikon Cameras 1975 - 1999

The Beginning of the Nikon Era


    After I got out of Navy boot camp in November of 1974 I was in a foul mood. My wife at the time had pawned a lot of my camera equipment, but my pride and joy, my Leica M4 she had sold. I quickly checked with the store she had sold it to and found they had sold it. The M4 was out of production, replaced by the M5 which was way beyond what I could afford. In a fit of disgust I sold all my remaining gear ( after getting it all back from the pawnshops). I kept the Canon FTb a little while longer but sold it after moving to Illinois. Seven months later I had the money from selling my house and I was ready to start over.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

Nikkormat EL in black with Vivitar Series 1 35-85mm f2.8 Lens

In 1975 I decided to get back into photography. I was in the U.S. Navy at the time and attending school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago Illinois. I lived for a while in Waukegan Illinois above a camera store. I would see all the camera gear in the window, so when I had the money I bought a new camera. At the time there were many choices to choose from, but I had decided to try a Nikon camera next. The reasoning was as as follows:

    I had had enough of Pentax and screw mount lenses

    Anything out of Germany was too expensive.

    The Canon FTb had taught me to dislike Canon.

    Minolta, Yashica were all cheaply made.

    Konica and Topcon were hard to find.

    Nikon has a very good reputation for solid dependable cameras and some of the best optics around.

    I picked the Nikkormat EL because it wasn't as expensive as the F2 and seemed to have all the features I wanted. I bought a black body one like the picture above, but I didn't buy the standard lens. Instead I bought the new Vivitar Series 1 35-85 f2.8 Vari-focal Lens. Quite a mouthful to say and quite a piece of glass to stick on a camera. The lens was large - it took 72mm filters but it was like carrying 3 lenses on your camera at the same time - a 35mm wide angle, a 55mm normal lens and a 85mm telephoto. All this and f2.8 as well! The lens was not a zoom lens it was a vari-focal lens. The difference is that the zoom lens tries to maintain the same focus as you change the focal length, while a vari-focal does not.

Black Nikkormat EL with 55mm f3.5 Micro-Nikkor

    I used the camera a lens for a bit then added a Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm f3.5 Zoom Lens. This gave me a good fast telephoto zoom with macro focusing capabilities. Every thing worked great except the macro focusing was at minimum focal length and 1:22 was the maximum magnification factor. Both lenses were one ring control - you turned the ring to focus and slid it forward and aft along the lens barrel to change focal length. This was a very handy system that has disappeared with the advent of auto-focus lenses. With these two lenses and a Rollei electronic flash I had a nice complete system. A Vivitar 2X tele-converter rounded out the capabilities.

Black Nikkormat EL with 70-210mm f3.5 Vivitar Series 1 Lens

    The Nikkormat EL was a very easy camera to use with the capability of aperture priority automatic exposure. This means that you set the f stop you wish to use and the camera's metering system selected the shutter speed. The selected shutter speed was displayed by a needle in the viewfinder that pointed to the shutter speed scale. If you wanted to manually set the exposure you move the shutter speed know off of the A setting to the selected speed. The speed ranged from 1/1000 of a second to 4 seconds. There is a hidden 8 second speed between the 4 second mark and the B setting that is undocumented and did not appear until the EL2 came out in 1977. When shooting in manual mode the selected shutter speed appears as a wide green needle in the viewfinder and you match it with the thin black needle of the metering system - or not. The meter is center weighted which I found to be much better than the average overall system of the Spotmatic. Moving the self timer lever inward would lock the setting in automatic mode providing what is now called AE Lock. There was no exposure compensation setting but you could fake it by using the film speed setting. Another feature that was lacking was the f stop display in the viewfinder.

    I had the EL for about two years. After Leaving Great Lakes I was Stationed aboard U.S.S. Truxtun. One day while I was carrying the camera and the two lenses in a attaché type carrying case I fell down a ladder with worn out rungs. Aside from ripping a large section of skin from my arm while trying to brake my fall the camera case popped open. The 70-210 lens was mounted to the camera at the time and the fall ripped the lens mount off the camera. The 35-85 looked okay but was extremely difficult to focus or change focal length. Longer screws allowed the lens mount to be reinstalled securely to the camera and both the camera and the 70-210 lens still functioned perfectly. I was worried about how long it would keep working so I sold them to someone who was getting out of the navy soon. The broken 35-85 stayed in a drawer at home for many years until I thru it out.

Chrome Nikkormat EL with 43-86 Zoom-Nikkor

    I have in the post 2000 time frame purchased on eBay the same camera model and both lenses. The camera is the chrome version and is in excellent condition with everything working. The lenses are slightly newer AI mount version which work with my newer Nikons as well.


   Nikon F with F36 Motor

Nikon F with F36 Motor Drive and Cordless Battery Pack and Standard Prism

    After having the EL a few months I bought a used Nikon F with a F36 motor drive and cordless battery pack. The camera had seen heavy use and needed some work. It's main problem was that it had belonged to a local newspaper and was simply worn out. As my first motor drive camera it was fun to use but difficult to load. It came apart into two sections - the camera body and the motor drive back and battery pack and you had to juggle both sections to load it. Getting the two joined was no simple task either. I traded it in on an F2S. The lesson here is that there are just so many exposures built into a camera with the old external motor drives making them even tougher and this camera had them all used up.


Nikon F2S

Nikon F2S with 55mm f3.5 Micro-Nikkor

    The F2 was the successor to the Nikon F. Canon had come out with their F1 in 1970 to compete with the Nikon F and Nikon introduced the F2 in 1972 to compete with it. The F2S introduced a new light metering prism. All other metering systems at the time used meter movements as their indicators. These are delicate. The F2S meter system uses a + and a - LED to indicate correct exposure. Both LED's light for correct exposure and if only one lights it tells you whether you are over or under exposed.. The viewfinder also displays the shutter speed and f stop you are using. Another feature of all F2 prism finders is the provision to display the flash ready light. This feature is provided only by Nikon flash equipment - but more on that later.

F2S with Micro-Nikkor at full extension

    The F2 has a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000 second and other than the metering system is totally  mechanical. The dependability of these cameras is legendary. I still have mine and it was my only camera from 1976 through 1985. I has traveled with me on three cruises to the Pacific and Indian Oceans each of which were over 80,000 miles in length. I took it with me ashore in countless places and the only thing I have had to do is have it re-foamed about five years ago. I adapted my Rollei flash to display on the ready light in the finder. After the flash was stolen aboard ship I was adapting a Vivitar 283 flash and I miscalculated the resistor value I needed by a factor of ten the wrong way. When I tested it smoke poured from the finder and I was sure I had fried the metering system. I tested it and it was still working accurately, and still does (the flash ready light was toast though.!).

    When I bought the F2S I didn't buy it with a typical fast normal lens but with the 55mm Micro-Nikkor f3.5. This lens is much sharper than the standard normal lenses, has a flat field and focuses from infinity to 1:2 normally and from 1:2 to 1:1 with a supplied extension tube. This lens is still fully functional an as sharp as ever. I also bought a 105mm f2.5 lens which is another extremely sharp lens and later a 20mm f3.5 Nikkor. During the same period I bought a used 500mm f8 Reflex-Nikkor. I still have all these lenses and all are fully operational except for the 105 f2.5 in which the diaphragm has failed after 25 years and parts are no longer available. I replaced it with a AIS version I bought on eBay.

Nikon F2S with MD2 Motor Drive and MB1 Battery Pack

    I also bought the MD-2 motor drive with its MB-1 battery pack. These units stacked on the bottom of the camera and doubled the weight. I used AA batteries rather than buy the dedicated Ni-Cads and charger. I only really took advantage of the motor drive a couple of times while I was in the Navy. Once was to film a missile launch, but even at full speed with the 20mm lens only two frames had the missile in it. Another time off Karachi, Pakistan I mounted the camera with the motor drive and the 500m Reflex Nikkor on the sight arm of the gun director, then used the remote release to fire the camera. I was able to take a number of good shots of various military aircraft and ships that way. I found you could really burn film with the motor drive but it had power rewind to speed changing rolls.

Rear View of the F2S and Motor Drive showing the motor drive controls and battery doors

    Another indulgence was the aperture control unit for the F2S It was a servo system that the light meter used to rotate the aperture control ring on whatever lens was attached. It worked intermittently and was not very dependable. I sold it and the motor drive in the late 1970's to purchase parts for my computer. The computer turned out to be a much better choice career wise than photography equipment.

    Beside the DP2 eyelevel metering finder I have an meter less DE1 prism finder, a 6X magnifying DW2 finder and an action finder for a Nikon F that I modified to fit the F2 also. I also tried a number of different focusing screens. I have also acquired a used MD2 motor drive that is fully functional, though a little battered.


Nikon N2000

Nikon N2000 with Sigma 28-85 Zoom Lens

This camera was a birthday gift in either 1985 or 1986. The N2000 supported a number of new features that I had not tried before:

    It was the first Nikon with a built-in motor drive. It supported both single frame and continuous shooting.

    Film speed could be set manually or automatically by DX coding.

    It had both exposure lock and an exposure compensation dial.

    The self timer was electronic with a flashing led on the front but no sound. I was used to the old mechanical self timers and their buzzing sound.

    There was a small window on the back that let you see the film type and number of exposures.

    It also supported aperture priority and program mode automation. I found I mainly used program mode and the exposure lock when needed. This worked for nearly all of the picture I took with this camera.

Top View of the N2000 Showing the controls

    It was my first camera with Through The Lens (TTL) Flash exposure control. I had been using a Vivitar 283 flash unit. It worked okay but tended to over expose on many flash pictures. I purchased a Sunpak 444D electronic flash unit with a Nikon TTL module and I discovered the advantage of TTL flash. Suddenly nearly every flash picture was correct! I found I got the best result by setting the camera to manual exposure with 1/125 second shutter speed and the f stop set between f 5.6 and 11 depending on film speed and distance.

Top View of the N2000 Showing the size of the 28-85 Lens

     Nikon also made an auto-focus version of the camera called the N2020. Auto-focus for both still and video cameras was a new development and I didn't trust it yet.

    The camera was powered by 4 AAA batteries in the bottom. This caused the number one defect - the tripod socket is all the way on the right side of the camera. An early purchase was a replacement battery holder that took four AA batteries. This also had the the tripod socket off to the side.

Bottom view of the N2000 Showing the off center tripod socket.

The N2000 was designed for AI or AIS lenses. I had never converted my old pre AI lenses. So I purchase two new lenses for this camera (they also worked on my F2). The first was a Sigma 28-80 zoom and the second was a Vivitar 70-210 lens. I used the camera with these two lenses up until the year 2000 as my main camera.  This has been a great camera and I still have it today.