PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

17Apr/081

Nikon FE-2 review

FE-2 and 35-Distagon as seen by D80, 60-Micro and three SB-600 strobes, hastily on my kitchen counter.

Introduction

Bleeding-edge FX sensor format camera with interchangeable sensor system, supports sensitivities up to ISO-3200 and resolutions up to 20MP, solid and compact all-metal body, mechanically-coupled meter with support for Carl Zeiss ZF lenses, giant clear viewfinder with split-prism focus assistance, battery life measured in years, dedicated synch port for studio lighting… the feature set of the FE-2 sounds impressive. It’s also 25 years old.

I’m not normally one to look at the past with longing, rationally I see that a great deal of crap was made in the past as in the present. The FE-2 makes me wonder though. I wonder if the soul of photography hasn’t really stood still all this time, while we went chasing technology where none was really needed. After all, I shoot my D80 in pure-manual mode 95% of the time.

Why I’m shooting an FE-2

I wasn’t up-and-shooting in the 1980s, so my connection to it isn’t nostalgia. A twisted story line is what got me here. For months I tortured myself in the search of the perfect Digital Fifty (previous article), which eventually led me to the 35-Distagon. Once I saw what the Distagon offered I was instantly smitten… and for a time it was good…

Seriously, it’s still good. Happy as a clam. Or a camper, a happy camper clam.

But I started wondering what else the Distagon could do, you know, if I wasn’t throwing away 55.6% of the image it projects at the back of my camera. I wanted to see how it paints on FX-format. With D3 availability at The Dollar Store still a few years out, I turned to the other FX format, film.

Alas! My F80 doesn’t have an AI-coupled meter, just like the D80, but unlike the D80 it doesn’t support chimping. So I asked around and sought out a fellow photographer who I knew had just consigned his 1980s-era gear to life on a shelf. A few emails later, I was holding an FE-2.


The 35-Distagon’s focus and aperture markings. The FE-2 reflects aperture in the viewfinder via a small window under the Nikon name-plate. Clever.

Along the way I get to live a more primal form of photography with manual-focus, semi-manual-centerweighted-exposure, ½ FPS, no bracketing. It feels nice. It’s also fun to note that it hasn’t yet been completely buried by the present technology (though I agree it’s certainly not competitive).

It puts the present into perspective, losses and gains both. The decoupling of sensors and bodies was a great feature of film, for instance.

Technical Characteristics

 

The speed dial locks at the A position to prevent erroneous changes. The winding lever also acts as a system lock when pushed in. Excellent design all-over.

Sensor Format: FX / 135, 24x36mm
Lens mount: Nikon F-AI, supports virtually all Nikkor lenses except Type-G lenses, auto-focus will not function, VR will not function.
Metering modes: center-weighted, stop-down center-weighted.
Flash metering: if you have faith, compatible with all SB units up to this day.
Exposure modes: aperture priority and manual, with exposure compensation -2/+2 in third-stop increments.
Shutter speeds: 8s – 1/4000s in full stop increments, stepless in aperture-priority mode, mechanical 1/250 doesn’t require a battery, bulb mode supports standard cable release.
ISO range: 12 – 3200 in third-stop increments.
Focus modes: single-action and continuous-action focus with your left hand.
Focus areas: millions, but the split prism in the center is the main one to use.
Frame advance modes: single frame, multiple exposures.
Shooting speed: up to 1fps if your wrist can take it.
Rewinding speed: roughly 4fps for me.
Buffer depth: 36 frames if shooting from frame 1.
Color modes: color negative, color positive, black & white, infrared.
Image formats: scan to NEF, JPEG, TIFF, BMP, …
Resolution: 1~20 megapixels depending on ISO
Other features: synch port, self-timer, mirror lock-up, depth-of-field preview.

Compared to the D80

Mechanically-linked ISO and exposure compensation dials. Hot shoe with basic TTL control.

Sensor Format: clear win to FE-2, DX format sucks for prime shooters, zoom aficionados couldn’t care less.
Lens mount: slight lean to D80, an AI coupling would be nice but auto-focus and VR have their uses.
Metering modes: draw, I can’t tell the difference.
Flash metering: D80 wins, chimping beats a flash meter any day.
Exposure modes: draw, don’t need other modes.
Shutter speeds: FE-2 wins, standard cable release support.
ISO range: draw, each is about as good at the various ISOs.
Focus modes: draw.
Focus areas: draw.
Frame advance modes: draw.
Shooting speed: D80 wins, faster than my right wrist.
Rewinding speed: D80 wins, no rewinding.
Buffer depth: FE-2 wins.
Color modes: FE-2 crits D80, D80 dies.
Image formats: D80 wins, scanning’s a real chore.
Resolution: draw, it’s not like the D80 outputs 10MP at 1600ASA anyway.
Other features: FE-2 wins on mirror lock-up, but list for D80 is long as my arm.

Conclusion


Self-timer/lock-up and depth-of-field preview levers. A modern grip would be nice, but it would probably sully the spartan look of the FE-2.

Pros
* Dedicated physical controls for each essential variable in photography
* Manual winding and cocking offers a soothing release from stress
* AI meter coupling enable ape
rture rings to function as intended
* No useless features, the entire camera is useful, all the time
* Split-prism generally a boon, but sometimes in the way

Cons
* Film is a hassle, not competitive on quality anymore
* Viewfinder is probably going to scratch my glasses badly
* Useless with Type-G Nikkor lenses unless you like f/22 with stop-down metering

It’s unfortunate that film is such a hassle compared to digital, because there’s nothing wrong with the FE-2. I would argue that it gets almost everything perfectly right. Slap a D3 sensor in this puppy and sell it to me as new-again!

I wonder if we’ll ever see a digital SLR that is as “essential” as the FE-2, stripped of all the baggage of modern living.

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  1. I find my FE somewhat hard to hold as well. I’ve done some searching and a company does make a grip for it (http://photoequip.net/) but, at $72US it’s an expensive gamble that I doubt is terribly effective. If it had the same finish or was rubberized maybe.. but not for a metal bracket that doesn’t even cover the whole base. I guess the only other option is the motor drive but that goes against the whole purpose of getting a classic manual camera in my mind.


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