Nikon FE – A Camera Review

I swear this is not a photography blog, but I am really interested in taking photos. In my post about iPhone photos, I mentioned my “big camera,” which is my 1970s Nikon FE, a second-hand, 35mm film camera. My husband got it for me as an anniversary gift, a couple of years ago from a local camera shop. While I use my iPhone camera much, much more often, sometimes I like to snap some shots with my film camera, and here’s what I think of it.

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Things I Love

It’s film. One of the things I love most about this camera is admittedly, purely subjective and emotional: I find film photos beautiful. I love the simplicity of taking it “old-school,” and the fact they’re not digital. It reminds me of simpler times, and fills me with nostalgia as I remember being a little kid, taking a roll of film in to be developed, and waiting with bated breath for the prints to come back, seeing them for the first time and smiling as I relived the moments that had passed weeks and months before, rather than just moments before. I also think there is something magical about the way light blankets and wraps itself around faces in film. There is so much dynamic range in the light captured with film, that just isn’t the same with digital. Faces seem more life-like, and the images blow up to large sizes quite beautifully. On a technical side, film is also a little more forgiving with focusing and over/ under-exposing.

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It’s inexpensive. This camera cost $220 for the body and the Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8 lens. For a digital SLR that shoots full-frame (35mm shots) like this one, it would be something like a Canon 5D, which for the body alone on an older model, is around $1,200. (Granted, the Canon does things like take video, and auto-focus, and a lot of other things that the old SLR doesn’t.) For simple photo-taking SLR requirements, it’s hard to beat the price of the Nikon FE.

It’s easy to use. It’s easy to load and unload film, comfortable to hold in my hand,  the body of the camera has texture and doesn’t slip out of my hand, it’s not too heavy, has a built-in light meter that’s easy to read, and while it doesn’t auto-focus, it has a split-image rangefinder spot that makes it incredibly easy to focus.

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Caveats

It’s film. Growing up in the digital camera age, I’m used to instant gratification, so waiting a week or so to have film negatives developed, and scans to a CD processed, is a bit difficult. In a world of cameras that hold thousands of shots, it’s also hard to remember that there are only 36 shots and then I’m done. I have to think carefully and wait for the perfect moment to press that shutter, and I can’t delete any “outtakes.”

Fewer shots. Because each roll only has 36 shots, and it’s not a good idea to snap away like with a digital, sometimes I miss the shot: it just doesn’t turn out right, the focus is off, the lighting is off, the exposure is off. Sometimes that can be corrected a bit on the digital scan, in Photoshop or Lightroom, but sometimes it can’t. It also means that there are often fewer great shots overall, in total, than if I snap away with a digital.

Fewer editing options. Unless you have a darkroom and know how to use it, or want to post-process your digital scans on your computer, there’s not as much editing you can do with film photos, as you can with digital. You can, however, over or under-expose a shot on purpose, or push or pull the film in processing, for varying looks, or to try and correct a mistake in camera settings when you took your photos. These are more difficult techniques, and you don’t have the benefit of seeing how they will look, until it’s too late, and you can’t change it back like you can with a digital edit.

It’s expensive. It also can be hard to find film, and it can get a little expensive to buy and develop it, if you shoot a lot. (I like to use Ilford HP5 Plus 400 film.)

It’s slightly more difficult to use. It’s important to know a little more about photography to use an SLR camera, but you don’t have to know that much more than you do with a point-and-shoot camera. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details, a guide like this is really helpful. In my use, the important things to know are: how to load and unload the film, how to focus the lens, a little bit about shutter-speed, and how to read a light meter.

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Again, it’s Film

It’s absolutely more work to get out the “big camera,” to think about and set up the shot, find enough light, make the proper adjustments, get subjects to be still long enough, and snap the photo at the precise right moment. It’s much easier to snap away and know one shot of many will turn out (and that’s my MO, often). With a roll of film, shots must be thoughtfully-composed because every one counts, and there’s a limit to how many can be taken. But, sometimes, especially for special moments, film is worth it. It’s almost as if film is the first draft of a moment in life, and digital images are copies of it. Film can capture things in a way that can’t be mimicked quite exactly, with post-processing in Photoshop. The dynamic range of light that film can capture, just can’t be reproduced with digital.

When a film image comes out right, it’s like I can feel it. It escorts me back to the moment I snapped that thoughtful shot. I can almost feel my baby’s chubby, softer-than-velvet cheeks, see the twinkle in her wide eyes as she experiences life with a newness only a baby can, hear her sweet baby coos as she learns to use her voice, and it takes my breath away. And I get to keep that moment, and live it again and again, forever.

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Because so much of photography is in the eye of the photographer, and because film takes so much thought, I feel like not only do film photos have soul, they capture a bit of the photographer’s soul, too. They allow an outsider to see with the same eyes as the photographer, to live in her shoes, feel what she feels, for just a snippet of time. It’s romantic. It’s pure. Film photos have a life, realness, grittiness, and emotion to them.

Film has come back in the last few years as a popular choice among some of the best photographers. A lot of people feel as passionately about the end-result of film, as I do. (It’s not to say that I don’t find digital valuable and beautiful–I DO! It’s just different.) It’s easy to be intimidated and think it’s only for pros, but I’m far from a pro, and even I have been able to use the Nikon FE to get some gorgeous shots. There’s little downside to playing around with a fairly inexpensive, used camera, and it’s a great way to learn a bit more about photography, to experiment, and to have fun, and just maybe, capture a moment forever, that also takes your breath away.

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