During the 70s, a majority of the professional photographers opted to use Nikon camera systems. This led Nikon to the pinnacle of their success and opened up newer business opportunities. Following the footsteps of the pros, many advanced amateur photographers started looking for Nikon camera options that would fit them. To tap this market segment, Nikon came out with the Nikon FE in 1978 as a successor to the Nikon EL2.
The FE features a metal-bladed, vertical travel focal plane shutter that has a shutter range of 8s to 1/1000s, and the Bulb mode. Most of the circuitry is mechanical, however certain aspects of the camera are dependent on some electronics. Other features of this camera include a flash sync speed of 1/125s, exposure compensation of +/- 2 stops, self timer, aperture-priority mode, double exposure, and depth of field preview.
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Who is the Nikon FE for?
Unlike the build of higher end professional cameras (like the Nikon F4), the Nikon FE is quite compact and light. This makes it the perfect camera for someone who likes to walk around with their camera. The compact nature of the body also means that the camera will not take up much space when you’re travelling.
And if you’re someone who has a good collection of Nikon lenses, you’ll be happy to know that the Nikon FE is compatible with all of Nikon lenses. Of course, you’ll have to sacrifice the autofocus feature in case of autofocus lenses; same with the VR functionality as well.
With the features that Nikon managed to present in the FE, it is fair to say that the FE is a camera that can be equally handy for professionals and enthusiasts. Even beginner photographers who want to start with film photography will find right at home with the Nikon FE. No matter what level of photography you’re into, it’s pretty difficult to go wrong with this camera.
Nikon FE features
|Lens mount||Nikon F-mount|
|Dimensions (WxHxD)||142 x 89.5 x 57.5 mm (5.6 x 3.52 x 2.26 in.)|
|Weight (body only)||590gms (21 oz)|
|Shutter speed||8 – 1/1000s, Bulb mode |
1/90s in M90 mode (mechanical, without battery)
|ISO range||12 – 4000|
|Battery||2x S76, A76, LR44, SR44 or 1x 1/3N|
|View finder||Fixed, non-removable eye level pentaprism type with built-in through-the-lens (TTL) exposure meter with 0.86x magnification, and 93% coverage|
|Flash sync speed||1/250s|
The appearance of the Nikon FM is conservative at best. It looks pretty similar to the Nikon FM. The overall build quality is top notch. Like the FM, the FE too has a chassis made of copper-aluminum alloy that emphasizes the build quality of the camera.
Holding the camera feels very comfortable. Despite being a 35mm film camera, the size of the Nikon FM is comparable to that of modern day APS-C mirrorless cameras. All the knobs, buttons, and dials are ergonomically placed and feel like the extension of our hand. They are very responsive too. Also, the virtually non-existent and minimal shutter sound together make the camera a joy to shoot with.
And yeah, one interesting thing I noticed in this camera is that unlike other film cameras, this one can be turned off. If you tuck the lever all the way in, it turns the camera off. You cannot depress the shutter button while the advance lever is in this position. There’s a red dot beside the film advance lever to let you know if the lever is tucked all the way in or not. I found this useful as it prevents me from accidentally wasting a frame.
The Nikon FM features a center-weighted metering which assures accurate exposures in almost every lighting conditions. You need an absolute extreme lighting condition to fool the meter. The center-weighted metering concentrates 60% of the sensitivity into the 12mm diameter circle in the center of the frame.
With the center-weighted metering in the Nikon FE, the subject at the center is emphasized while the rest of the scene still gets a respectable 40% sensitivity. In case you want to compose your shot with the subject not in the center, you have a lever at the front of the camera for locking the exposure.
This feature comes in handy when you do not want the subject to be in the center of your frame. Simply meter the scene with the 12mm circle over your subject, and push the lever which is at the front of the camera, on the right side of the camera, towards the lens.
What I noticed was that even when the exposure is locked, the meter needle continues to deflect. However, the meter reading still locks in electronically. I found this to be helpful as it allowed me to understand the exposure difference between the scene and my subject.
The exposure lock lever also doubles as a self-timer lever. To activate the self-timer function, simply pull the lever outwards in a counter clockwise direction, and you’re done. Doing so trips the shutter after a delay of approximately 10 seconds. To take a picture using the self-timer, you need to cock the shutter first, then pull the lever counterclockwise until it stops, and then press the shutter release button.
I loved the fact that you can cancel the self-timer quite conveniently. Whether or not you have pushed the shutter button, simply turn the lever back to its upright position, and the timer gets cancelled.
You can use the Nikon FE either in automatic (aperture priority) or manual mode. When using the camera in auto mode, the camera automatically selects the shutter speed appropriate for the aperture setting and lighting conditions. In auto mode, the green needle of the exposure meter in the viewfinder moves to the upper ‘A’ position while the black needle continuously indicates the shutter speed being selected by the camera.
Even when the camera is in auto mode, you can override the exposure using the exposure compensation dial which is just below the film rewind knob. You can do so for up to +/- 2 stops.
When the camera is in auto mode, you can notice that the camera can go beyond the specs on paper. If the light condition means that the camera has to keep the shutter open for 40 minutes, it will do so. If there’s plenty of light, the camera can go up to 1/4000s as well. Interesting right? But sadly, it’s not possible in manual mode.
If you set the shutter dial to any other position than auto, you’ll be using the camera in manual mode. In this mode, the camera has a very intuitive method of assisting the photographer. The black needle in the camera meter points to the shutter speed which the meter thinks you should be using, and the green needle on the other points to the shutter speed value that you have selected.
If need be, you can always deliberately over or under expose your shot by placing the green needle below or above the black needle respectively. I really liked this implementation by Nikon as this makes the entire process much more intuitive.
If you look at the shutter dial, you will also find a label that says M90. Well this is a purely mechanical shooting mode intended to be used in case you are stranded with a dead battery. With a dead battery, the meter will not work, and the M90 mode will limit the shutter speed to 1/90s. So, to absolutely nail your exposure, you might want to apply the Sunny 16 rule in such cases.
Lenses for Nikon FE
What good is a vintage camera if you cannot get proper lenses for it today? Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about lenses for the Nikon FE. This camera is compatible with every lens that Nikon has made for its system. However, there will be certain levels of compromises you will need to make.
Primarily, the camera was designed for the AI lenses, but in case you need to work with the older non-AI lenses, that is possible too. In that case, stop-down exposure measurement will be required with the camera body’s meter coupling lever locked up. Surprisingly, this flexibility is not available in the succeeding Nikon FE2.
Besides the non-AI and AI lenses, even the D-series of lenses are compatible with the Nikon FE. However, do note that you will lose the autofocus feature and VR functionality of the lenses. Modern day G lenses from Nikon can be mounted too, but since they do not have a dedicated aperture ring, you will need to make certain modifications.
Nikon FE Sample Images
Should you get the Nikon FE?
The answer is simple. If you are a beginner or an advanced amateur looking forward to trying your skills with film photography, go for it. The camera packs in a lot more than what you’ll pay for it. If you are a professional looking to enjoy film photography casually, go for it. But, keep in mind that the body is not designed to tolerate extreme conditions if you see yourself working in such conditions. Also, if you need a faster shutter speed than 1/1000s, have a look at the FE2 instead.
Final verdict on the Nikon FE
For what it’s worth, the Nikon FE is an absolute bargain. It is good value for money. And when it comes to using it, it is simple, friendly, inviting and dependable. It does everything you need and nothing you don’t.
If you’re really interested in getting back to film photography, but do not want to spend across a whole lot of money, go for the Nikon FE.
New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!