The Nikon F4
The Nikon F4 represents a radical shift in professional 35mm camera design. Released in 1988, this was the choice for professional photographers as it was Nikon’s first fully supported autofocus camera. Today it still holds up incredibly well in that it supports just about every Nikon Lens ever produced (though there are some restrictions) with Matrix metering and supports just about every Nikon flash unit available. If you are looking for a camera that will shoot film and work with your existing Nikon gear – this is the camera you are looking for.
I’ve owned my Nikon F4s for well over 10 years and I’ve ran countless rolls of film through this camera. It always produces amazing results and has never let me down. Its built like a tank and traveled around the world with me. If I had any complaint at all it would be the weight. Like the Nikon F5, this is a heavy camera for a 35mm and if you’re carrying it around doing street photography it will wear you out. For this reason, the Nikon F3 is still my favorite for those types of shooting situations. But for everything else – you won’t regret purchasing one of these. Even better is the street price for a body these days is around $200 so its clearly a wonderful choice for getting excellent results with 35mm.
NIKON F4 FEATURES
If you consider the F4 being released in 1988 and that it was a bridge camera to the world of autofocus lenses, the F4 design is extremely impressive. In fact, it would be amazing if Nikon and Canon would revisit some of the usability designs presented in these early cameras today. The two significant features that make the F4 such a fabulous camera are its lens compatibility range and its control layout. You can get full, Matrix metering with all the old manual focus Nikon lenses which is not true of later Nikon cameras. And the button/knob configurations allow you to access the deep, computer functions of this camera without having to scroll through menu’s on an LCD screen. These two features alone make this camera one of my favorites to this day.
NIKON F4 LENS COMPATIBILITY
One of the reasons I love the F4 so much – and the main reason I tell people its the film camera to buy is the lens compatibility. In a nutshell it works with any Nikon lens ever made.
If you have a weird array of lenses in your collection, just know the following limitations:
Older invasive fisheye lenses: manual mode only.
Pre-AI: You’ll need to stop the lens down for your aperture metering – A and M modes only
AI-Conversions: No Matrix metering. A and M modes only
AI, AI-S: Aperture priority and manual modes only (obviously, you’re picking the aperture)
VR lenses: they work, but no VR – the camera can’t power the VR function on the lens
G Lenses: P and S modes only – this is because there is no aperture ring
Seriously folks, despite these limitations, you can use every lens ever made. If you’re a decent photographer, you’ll have absolutely no problem getting great results.
The main differences between the F4, F4s and F4e deal with the options of motor drive on the camera. They are all the same, basic F4 camera. The F4 is the most compact, using 4 AA batteries housed in the grip. The F4s offers an option of the MB-21 motor drive that uses 6 AA batteries and gives you an additional vertical shutter release button. The F4e incorporates the MB-23 motor drive. Released in 1991, this drive offers options for the most demanding photographers of the time. It also features 6 AA batteries and a vertical release, but also offers options for the Ni-Cd battery and an additional 250 exposure Bulk Film Multi-Control Back MF-24 terminal.
If you are looking for one today I’d choose the F4 if you are going to carry it around all day or the F4s if you want more power and a vertical release. Skip the F4e as you probably don’t need it and the accessories are dated.
The battery life is outstanding. On my F4s – I’ve had the AA batteries in for years at a time. When you need to replace them, you can find AA batteries just about anywhere. And since we’re on the subject of availability – you can also get Kodak Tri-X, yes real black and white film which is why I still shoot 35mm – at CVS drugstores in the United States ;-)
As I mentioned earlier, the key feature of a transition to auto-focus lenses was Nikon’s design of allowing both auto-focus AND older manual focus lenses to work on the camera. To me this is one of the Nikon F4’s classic strengths. You have a digital rangefinder telling you which way to focus with two arrows, and a center light that lets you know you are in focus on the camera’s one focus point. In addition the auto-focus design is quite advanced for the time. The camera features a high speed focus response, focus detection in as low as EV -1 light, Low contrast scenes and minute details can be detected. This was based around Nikon’s advanced AM-200 auto-focus sensor which was built on high-sensitivity CCD sensors, high speed responsive autofocus motors and an 8-bit computer all built into the camera.
What most photographers don’t know is that there are two switchable filters ensure accurate autofocusing in every shooting situation. These are located at the base of the mirror box and switch automatically according to the shooting situation. One filter uses infrared light to prevent errors in focus when there are chromatic aberrations from the lens. The second filter transmits infrared light and is used when shooting using the infrared light emitting AF illuminator. There are even dust removers used with this system. This is very impressive and useful for the photographer.
The shooting modes on the shutter button actually work to the advantage of the shooting situation – not stupid icons for “scenes” as put on cameras today. These “modes” are S, CH, CL, and CS. These are Single, Continuous High, Continuous Low and Continuous Silent respectively.
The two ways you’ll use auto-focus are pretty basic. There is one focus point in the center of the viewfinder. Place your subject on this point and then compose the shot. In Single-Servo focus mode, the focus will re-align if needed between each shot as long as you’ve got the shutter button pressed at least half way. If you release it you’ll need to re-compose as with 1 focus point the camera won’t know what you’re focusing for.
You can also use the AF-L (auto-focus lock) button to lock the focus in for Continuous Servo Autofocus.
Focus Mode Selector:
A small downside to using this camera is the need to switch the focus mode selector as the camera doesn’t have lens detection built into the system. The focus modes are C, S and M or continuous, single or manual. What this means is you need to set this depending on the lens and mode you need to use.
To keep the camera focusing on a moving object, set the auto-focus mode selector to Continuous Servo and the film advance mode to low-speed continuous (CL). Basically, the camera will focus twice before each shot to determine the speed of the moving object you are trying to focus on. This kind of system is much improved on in modern cameras, but was pretty advanced for its time.
There are 3 metering options on the Nikon F4 as found on the metering dial on the side of the view-finder. You can choose Spot, Matrix or Center-weighted (80:20) as found in the Nikon F3. For the time, matrix metering was new and revolutionary. This was a huge improvement over the center-weighted system which really required the photographer to understand metering and use the AE/Lock button with a lot of recomposing. Matrix was first seen in the Nikon FA and made its way on to the F4. Matrix works by taking a light reading and running it through the camera’s micro-computer to reference multiple scenarios. This was revolutionary at the time and is still used today. It was the superior answer to the Canon New F-1’s tri-metering system which was an improvement over center-weighted designs.
Matrix metering yields exceptional results with fill-flash photography as well.
Using the shooting-mode dial offers the choices of how you wish to expose your image. The choices are PH, P, S, A and M or Program (high speed), Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Manual. If you are working with manual focus lenses or newer lenses with no aperture ring, you will be limited in what you can shoot. Manual focus lenses will only work in aperture priority or manual. As these modes are fairly conventional for all 35mm cameras of this era, there is the unusual inclusion of a PH or high speed mode. The difference between P and PH was an early attempt to get the camera to recognize a “capable” lens to tell the camera the focal length. This would factor possible “hand shake” depending on longer focal lengths into the determining of the best aperture and shutter speed settings. This is obsolete on modern cameras.
The Nikon F4 is compatible with 5 different interchangeable focusing screens depending on the photographers preference or scene. Type B, Type U, Type F, Type C and Type M are all available with different variations in matte and fresnel field preferences. The best part is, you just pop off the view-finder and they are easily changed.
Virtually all Nikon Speedlights are compatible in varying modes with the Nikon F4. Another reason this camera is still one of the best 35mm you could spend your money on. As long as they have a mode for basic OTF metering you will be able to accomplish a wide range of shots with this camera.
I often get asked which is the best Nikon film camera to buy. I’m torn between two models – the F4 and the F3. The F3 tends to be my favorite just for the simplicity and ease of use. But if you want a few more options including matrix metering with manual focus lenses or the ability to use autofocus – the Nikon F4 is your camera. Factor in the price of what you will pay for one of these now it is really a no-brainer – get both and pick the best body for the shooting situation you are in.
The Nikon F4 is an amazing camera. Even though they came out in 1988, this is still a camera that will last you a lifetime for 35mm work. And it won’t break the bank like a Leica will. And here’s the deal breaker – no one will know the difference when you get great photographs.
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