Since the earliest days of mankind we’ve been obsessed with war. We painted on cave walls to depict victories, wrote novels on it, and most recently recorded it on film and pixels. War is seductive and it’s proximity tothe “boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman" is what in part intrigues all of us. As photographers we hold the notion of the war photographer highly: he is both human and superhuman.
We talk about the Nikon that stopped the bullet, what James Natchway is shooting and where, and all of us think of Robert Capa saying “if it’s not good enough you’re not close enough” shortly before stepping on a landmine. We have this fascination because like the men that carry them the camera of the war photographer is imbued with superhuman powers. It can stop bullets, freeze frames, and can outlive even the toughest of photographers.
While the Nikon FM is not a war photographers camera I can’t help but think about it in that context. Perhaps I’ve seen Apocalypse Now one too many times, but to me it’s Nikon all the way. So while the Nikon FM doesn’t make me bulletproof it does present an excellent opportunity for someone starting out to get their hands on rugged, full manual camera, at a decent price.
The “FM” stands for full mechanical, which means that these babies can operate with no batteries if you have an external meter or are savvy enough for the “sunny 16 rule”. The FM has a brother, the FE, which has more bells and whistles, but batteries are required for operation. While these cameras are bulletproof (pun intended), you may be best to opt for a full mechanical version as complexities add complexities when it’s time for repair. The meter is currently dead in one of the pictured units, and the shutter counter as well, but it keeps on ticking. As with anything your mileage may vary.
Although the FM was intended to be a more reasonably priced option for consumers it didn’t lack quality. It’s construction is almost entirely of metal and inside it features a titanium bladed shutter. In no way does the FM feel like a cheap camera, although you can now pick up a mint one for $100. If you’re on the fence about the quality of a thirty year old camera like the FM keep in mind that the later iterations of the FM (read FM2, FA, FM3A, etc. . . ) were all built around the same chassis with some minor modifications.
The maximum shutter speed on the FM is 1/1000 and the flash syncs at 1/125 of a second. You, of course, won’t be using flash on the battlefield and instead will be putting on that Nikkor 55 1.2 and getting ready for action, won’t you? And while the range of shutter speeds from 1 to 1000th of a second won’t stop a bullet it is a range that has served photographers for generations without fail. If I tickled your fancy when I said f/1.2 you may want to take note of the shutter speeds available and invest in a proper neutral density filter for wide open daytime shooting.
Speaking of glass, if you’re coming from a Canon background you’re going to notice that the lenses thread on in the opposite direction. I won’t call it backwards at the risk of being burned alive by Nikonians, but it seems prudent to mention. In all honesty this was a little annoying for me at first, but after a week or so it became second nature. While we’re talking about glass it’s also worthwhile to mention that Nikon has made some truly fine lenses during their history and most anything you can affix to this camera with the Nikon name on it will surely suit you.
It’s worth noting also that if you’re a digital shooter, and already have a host of lenses you may be in luck. The Nikon FM will accept pretty much any lens with the Nikon F mount from 1958 until present, with the exception of the newest “G” lenses. You do want to control your aperture don’t you? For the budget minded it’s possible to get into a Nikon FM with a 50mm f/2 lens for about $150, which is quite a deal.
The meter in the Nikon FM is a simple three LED unit. I’ve yet to have a poorly exposed photo, but I am a little leery of the meter. There’s just something about those three LED’s that I’m not sure ofEven after having the camera for over a year I still don’t fully trust it. I’ve become so accustomed to using a pocket meter that I usually double check the Nikon’s readings anyway. I also don’t step on cracks in the sidewalk so take my advice on the meter with a grain of salt.
On the topic of metering, it should be noted that flash options for the FM will be of the non-TTL variety. Find yourself a good manual or auto flash and you’ll be set should you prefer to artificially illuminate the battlefield. When I do need to light a scene I use a small Metz C-2 unit which works quite well and balances nicely on the camera.
The viewfinder is a pleasure to look through, and if you’re coming from any DSLR without 100% viewfinder coverage I think you’ll consider viewing through the Nikon FM a treat. Both of my samples are equipped with a standard split screen prism which is both bright and easy to focus. For those with questionable vision, or those who are interested in Macro photography, an optional 2x magnifier can thread into the eyepiece. KEH Camera regularly has these eyepieces and if you’re squinting to read this it may be a sound investment.
In terms of handling the Nikon FM is a winner, and has very typical classic camera ergonomics. If you’ve only held modern cameras it may take some getting used to at first since there’s no grip “where the battery goes”, similar to what you’d find on a DSLR. If you’re accustomed to something with a grip you’re in luck and a Nikon MD-11 might cure your ills. Either way the Nikon FM can be tailored to your preference: classic no grip, or something slightly larger with an MD-11.
Adding to the handling of the Nikon FM is it’s light weight. The camera itself is more trim, and weighs less than the Nikon F2. While the F2 was designed to be a professional camera, in practice, the differences are relatively miniscule. The Nikon FM doesn’t have the interchangeable prism, viewing screens, and a couple of other accessories of the F2, but with the weight reduction as it’s primary benefit. And while the FM isn’t the lightest camera ever created, it is certainly comfortable enough to carry all day, even with a backup stowed in a bag if you’re traveling.
Whether the Nikon FM is the camera you want to take into the battlefield is largely a matter of preference. If you already have a number of compatible Nikon lenses it presents an affordable and durable entry into the world of film photography. If you’re starting from scratch there are some things to consider.
First, the aforementioned meter display will for some be tricky. A number of comparably priced cameras, the Canon AE-1 comes to mind, display the f-stop in the metering display which for some will be beneficial. It should be noted that the FM does in fact show you the f/stop, and shutter speed in the display, but that your eye has to do this three part movement: once to the meter on the right, then to the top of the frame, and finally to the left to see the shutter speed. While this certainly isn’t a deal breaker, and the Nikon FM has a host of worthy traits, it can be confusing.
Second, Nikonians will think I’ve gone AWOL, but the lenses mounting counterclockwise might make you crazy if you’re coming from another manufacturer. Canon shooters will likely consider the previous statement a victory on the brand battlefield, but truth be told it only take a short period of time to get the hang of mounting the lenses.
Lastly, how does the Nikon fit into your current gear bag? I think it’s important to have gear that plays nicely with one another at this stage in the game. Having a Canon EOS film body with lots of lenses to play with is really a lot nicer than having an FD body with one lens and a digital EOS and 10 EOS lenses. Similarly, you should consider how an FM with some early manual focus lenses will play with whatever Nikon gear you may already own.
While the Nikon FM is clearly not “the” camera for everyone overall it is an excellent value if you’re looking for a fully manual 35mm camera. Whether it’s worthy of your consideration rests largely on the last three points above.