Classic Cameras: Nikon F4, the Game-Changer

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Where do I begin with the Nikon F4? Is my love of this camera rooted in the fact that four is my favorite number? Is it because one of my favorite jet warplanes as a child was the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II? Or, is the fact that I just love the look of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign bodywork? Is it because when I started out in photography with my Nikon N6006 the F4 was at the top of Nikon’s food chain? Despite my personal attraction to the camera, the Nikon F4, the company’s fourth flagship SLR, was truly a game-changing camera that changed the world of SLR photography.

The Nikon F4 was introduced to the world, in 1988, as a replacement for the workhorse F3, which had been brought to market eight years earlier. The term “game-changer” is thrown around at today’s camera-release press conferences with relative abandon but, when it arrived, the Nikon F4 was a true game-changer. Because of its feature set, many new to the era, it could easily be considered the first “modern” professional SLR camera.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

While not the first camera, or even Nikon camera, with autofocus, the F4 was the first professional SLR to have autofocus (if you don’t count the not-very-common F3AF, which employed lenses with autofocus motors built in). Not only did it have autofocus, but it had rare-at-the-time focus tracking. Another first for a professional camera: multi-segment (matrix) metering. Photographers with the camera would employ the F4’s computer (what is that?) to meter across the entire frame—not just the center area or center spot. And, unique to the F4 in the world of Nikon SLRs and DSLRs, when you use older manual focus lenses, you still get matrix metering.

A final first, the Nikon F4 was the first professional camera with a built-in motor drive. Especially in the digital world, this is completely taken for granted these days, but back in the days of film, you either cranked the camera to the next frame manually, or attached an add-on motor drive to the bottom of your camera.

Attached to the bottom of the F4s and F4e cameras was a vertical grip and battery pack—another first for a Nikon SLR. The standard F4 MB-20 battery pack did not include a vertical grip. All three battery packs were interchangeable on any F4 body. Speaking of batteries, the standard MB-20 battery pack holds four AA batteries. The F4s’s MB-21 and F4e’s MB-23 hold half a dozen AAs and boost the motor drive maximum speed to 5.7 frames per second

The F4 also could be operated with two different data backs, as well as a combination data back and 250-frame film magazine. The data backs could imprint each frame with a date, time, and other data—again, something we take for granted in today’s digital metadata world.

Extremely rugged and weather sealed for professional use, the F4 was designed, from the beginning, to be a workhorse camera and pros used and abused the camera for years. Extraordinarily complex when it was released, the camera has more than 1,700 parts. The camera’s reliability is legendary, but the thing that I love most about the F4 is its immaculate good looks. The camera was designed by Italdesign’s industrial design team and, to me, has the perfect blend of hard and soft lines because it represents a true transition from the mechanical cameras of the past to the computer-driven digital cameras of the future. The F4 still has knobs on top, but a mode dial ring surrounds the shutter release—a shutter release devoid of threads for a remote cable release (a data port allowed connection of a wired remote release). The large viewfinder prism housing has the then-super-cool white translucent strip across its face that allows light to enter and back-light the LCD readout in the viewfinder. This was also seen on the N8008, but not on my N6006, due to its pop-up flash. The F3 before it, and the F5 after it, were both attractive cameras in their own way, but there is something about the purposeful appearance of the F4 that gets to me every time I look at the camera. It is part machine and part art… used to create art.

The F4 was in production from 1988-1997, when it was discontinued, having been replaced by the F5. Interestingly, the F3 stayed in production until 2001.

Shooting the F4

If you missed this reference earlier, the Nikon F4 is a professional camera. It is not “prosumer” and definitely not something a beginner would carry around. Pick up this camera and you have no doubt that it was designed for exclusive use by professional photographers. You’d be hard pressed to want to bring this camera on vacation with you. The camera is large and heavy as they come and it is a bit of a shock to someone who has been shooting APS-C prosumer Nikon and APS-C Fujifilm mirrorless cameras for years. Not since I decided I wanted to drop a huge amount of money on a 5.74MP Nikon D1x years ago, have I carried a camera with this bulk and heft. Half a dozen AA batteries (I have the MB-21 power pack on mine) and 1980s vintage solid-state electronics are to blame for the weight. It would be interesting to see where engineers could shave ounces (pounds?) from a camera like this with today’s technology. Without batteries, the F4 weighs more than 2.4 lb. With the batteries and a power pack, it surpasses 3 lb—the same as a D5—but, for some reason, the F4 feels heavier than the modern pro DSLR.

Ergonomically speaking, the F4 and Nikon’s other new electronic cameras of the period (N4004, N6006, N8008) were the manufacturer’s first journey away from the slender non-contoured bodies of cameras past. Even in the early days of the now-ubiquitous chunky camera grip, Nikon did a stellar job with the F4’s feel in the hand. My hands are not the biggest around, but the F4 fits in them nicely. The vertical grip is deep enough that I often carry the camera by it without worrying that I will lose my hold.

Control interface-wise, the F4, for someone accustomed to modern DLSRs and the retro-awesome Fujifilm system, feels like a bridge between the two. You have a dedicated shutter speed dial but, roll the mode switch to A or one of the P modes and the computer picks a shutter speed for you. Also, like older electronic Nikon SLRs, the aperture ring on the lens really chooses your aperture, unless you lock it into the automatic position.

The viewfinder is uncluttered and simple. The AF is single-point in the middle, which simplifies life considerably, but makes it not super-flexible by today’s standards. A mirror and prism show you the position of the lens’s aperture ring—cool unless you’ve worn the paint of said ring! The LED displays do not scream their information at you, so you have to make a conscious decision to look for the info. Compare this to a modern DSLR or digital camera, and the viewfinder is a time machine to a simpler, yet still high-tech, world of photography.

The shutter release is smooth and, a split second after the click of the shutter and (light) thump of the mirror, you hear that super strange noise of an electronic motor advancing your film. All of the mechanical movements happen inside of this heavy, dense, camera body that serves to insulate the photographer from the calamity inside. You don’t feel the “Nikon recoil,” nor is the torque of the film motor perceptible to the hand.

The Nikon F4 burns through film at 5.7 frames per second. Say goodbye to a 36-exposure roll in just over 6 seconds.

Everything feels solid and smooth, even when the camera’s insides are moving. If there is one jarring tactile experience, it is the manual winding lever that spins when the motor drive is motoring—if your hand is covering that knob, you get a little surprise when the handle spins.

Still a Professional Camera

Incredibly expensive when released—more than $2,000 back then—the Nikon F4, because it isn’t a fully mechanical camera, can be found on the used market for a song and a half. Mechanical cameras like the Leica rangefinders, Canon F-1, Nikon FM2, and others command premium prices on the used market because they are mostly devoid of electronics, and should last into the foreseeable future. Electronic cameras from the late 1980s and early 1990s, not to mention older digital cameras, do not hold their value. Considering the F4’s price tag when it was new, the depreciation of this camera is incredible but, if you find a good example (and there are many) you will have nothing less than a full-featured professional film-shooting camera on your hands.

Besides, if it does break down, or you spend more time shooting digital, I don’t think you will find a better-looking SLR to put on the shelf in your office or living room.

To read about more great classic cameras, click here.

[Images captured at Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument.]

4 Comments

Whilst I agree that the F4 was, and remains a great camera I can't agree with everything. I took one on my honeymoon in 1990 and after we got back I bought my wife her first SLR a Nikon F401 (N4004). Yes the individual knobs for shutter speed, exposure compensation, drive mode etc should make handling a joy, were it not for the fact that each one has a separate lock button.

Yes the metering works very well but the AF is, by today's standards, sluggish (which is an insult to slugs). Used with MF lenses the F4 is the ultimate Professional SLR, with AF capability. The fact that it uses AA batteries is the reason I bought it, the then current Canon used expensive Lithium cells and I wanted to use the camera in places where they might not be available.

I had three F4s between 1990 and 1997 two F4s models and an F4E, they were easy to use if you didn't need to use the knobs, remember those lock buttons, and the results were stunning. I bought one of the first F5s in the UK in 1996 and traded my remaining two F4s against a second one in 1997.

A game changer? In many respects yes it was but the 1996 F5 showed us the way ahead, anyone who has used an F5 will find its younger sibling, the D5, very familiar. Some how though I think it will be the F4 that is still going into the 22nd century.

Hey Geoff,

Thanks for writing in. All great points! Your experience with the F4 is much more complete than mine. Lock buttons are both a blessing and a curse. I find Fujifilm (and other manufactures) solution with the coaxial lock/unlock button as a great solution...easily disengaged, and stays disengaged until you want to lock it again.

I hope you enjoyed the article!

Nice article, thanks for reminding me about the F4, which I haven't taken out shooting in quite a while. This camera's matrix metering is not color, so I often use the F4 for B&W. After countless rolls put through this body, I can't recall once having a poor metering result. It is awesome and super-reliable. With modern AA batteries I find that I don't need the grip, I get plenty of exposures without it. I'll bet that many of these cameras will continue working well into the next century.

Hi John,

Thanks for the kind words! I am thinking about ditching the grip on my camera as well. I bet a slimmer/lighter F4 will make it even more of a pleasure to use.

Thanks for stopping by!

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