A Family Resemblance

When you dabble in vintage cameras, every now and then the stars align and you get to sit a neat historical sequence side by side by side.
Pictured here you see three Nikons that all share a family resemblance. All three were introduced between 1977 and 1984, but let’s start with the middle model, the 1978 Nikon FE – the smaller of the two chrome bodies, wearing the f1.8 lens.
When I first got into 35mm photography, my teenage eyes couldn’t understand why the Nikon FE deserved its high price tag. Frankly, its leatherette trimmed prism seemed old fashioned in the early 1980s. The dials were spiky and rough looking compared to the sleek lines of the Minoltas of the time. And the viewfinder used old-fashioned needle readouts, instead of cutting edge LEDs, or the digital readout boasted by the “hexaphotocybernetic” Canon A-1.
It wasn’t until many years later when I bought a used FE as a backup to my new AF Nikon that I realized why the FE had been such a popular model back in its day. The ergonomics were wonderful: the wind lever is also the on/off switch (quick and practical), the shutter dial can easily be twiddled with the camera at your eye, the depth of field lever was right where you’d want it. I could go on. Also its features were a cut above what passed for an SLR around 1980. Not only did it have aperture priority, but that second green needle provided a shutter speed readout and metering target when in manual mode. Try that with a Canon AE-1 (or even an A-1 – you can’t). No wonder similar systems had appeared on Ricoh and Pentax cameras. And, of course, the camera has proved rugged, with many, many FE’s still in use today – top and bottom covers of metal certainly helped there.
How did Nikon get it so right with the FE? Well, we have to turn the clock back to 1972 when they weighed in with their “golden age” camera the original Nikkormat EL. I say “golden age” because many camera makers were introducing overbuilt, high tech, expensive models to take advantage of new integrated circuits at that time. Think Pentax Spotmatic ES, Minolta XE-7, or Canon EF –  and Nikon had their EL – but they continued using the “Nikkormat” brand to distinguish it from their pro-grade “Nikon” cameras. Nikon was almost the last to use such a sub-brand. One might recall that Canon used the “Canonet” name for their rangefinders well into the 1980s.
The EL introduced Nikon users to aperture-priority automation, but with two viewfinder needles to allow manual override – although you had to actually look at your lens to see what aperture you were using. It was a big handsome camera. Probably its goofiest feature was its battery compartment. You actually had to lock up the mirror and poke in the base of the mirror compartment to lift up a lid to get at the 6V battery – not easy if you have big fingers.
The Nikkormat EL was also a pre-Ai era camera, meaning you had to carefully line up the “rabbit ears” meter coupling on your lens with the lens mount pin before mounting the lens. Then you had to twist the aperture ring to its extremes to get the meter to adjust for what aperture lens you had mounted. Given that the “rabbit ear” coupling was designed for early external cell meters, it was amazing they got it to work at all with internal TTL metering.
But time marched on, and in 1976 Nikon updated the EL with the EL-W – same camera, but with a new coupling on the bottom to accept the Winder EL-W. Since I’ve never seen an EL-W, I have to assume it is a rather rare camera – probably because the EL-2 came out just a year later.
The EL-2 is the larger of the two chrome bodies pictured here, wearing the f2.0 lens. You’ll notice that the Nikkormat name is now gone. This fine camera was granted full “Nikon” status, even though it was basically an EL-W, but now with the new Ai  (Automatic Indexing) lens mount introduced in 1977. No more rabbit ears to line up. Strangely enough, the Nikkormat FT-2 manual camera was updated to the Ai FT3 the same year, but it kept the Nikkormat moniker.
But in 1977, the new lineup began with the Nikon FM, essentially a lighter, more compact manual camera, with LEDs in the finder replacing the needle of the FT-3. Inside, flexible circuitry replaced bulkier point-to-point wiring. Also, there was a cool looking true motor drive for it, allowing up to 3.5 frames per second. Even though Nikon were hedging their bets by keeping the older larger models around, it was obvious the new FM style was the future, and it sold well.
Which brings us to 1978, with the arrival of the beautiful FE – which borrowed much of the EL-2’s goodness and layout – but with a more practical battery compartment. The shutter still had the option of firing at 1/90th or on Bulb if the batteries were dead, and the self timer lever still operated as an AE lock if pressed the other way. But now there was an aperture window in the finder to fill in that last piece of vital information, and you could swap out the screen for two additional types.
So why did I only have my FE for about three years? Well, it didn’t take long to realize that what I really wanted was an FE-2, which had been discontinued for nearly 10 years by the time I went looking for one. Unfortunately, everyone else was looking too, because prices for those gems were sky high. Eventually I tracked down a nice black one, seen here with a f1.4 lens, and came to believe I had found the perfect manual SLR camera. It may not be as rugged as an F3, but the twin needle viewfinder is still the quickest way to set up an exposure. Historically, the 1984 FE-2 was the first focal plane 35mm SLR to offer a flash sync at 1/250th – allowing fill flash exposures in bright light (very much in fashion at the time, even though flash is almost frowned on indoors these days). Also, flash control was now TTL with compatible units. More minor updates included a warning light for exposure compensation, and the flash ready light left the eyepiece to go inside. The small chrome button on top now unlocked the exposure comp. dial, not the ISO – neater. Focus screens were also much brighter, and the meter shut off by itself.
On the down side, that faster shutter was a little noisier, and the shutter button rattles a bit more – but there’s no doubt it was the ultimate successor to the EL and FE series. There were many days when I much preferred using it instead of my multi-mode, cutom-functioned, multi-AF, button-festooned SLR. If I didn’t really need fast autofocus, there was nothing the FE-2 couldn’t do for me, but in a much simpler, less cluttered manner.
Eventually, in the onslaught of AF cameras, the FE-2 faded away in the late 1980s, leaving the FM-2 to carry on the compact manual focus line. But to me, and apparently many others, the FM-2’s lack of TTL flash and more scattered finder layout (not to mention the lack of aperture priority automatic) made the FE-2 desirable. Apparently Nikon noticed the soaring prices of FE-2s on the used market by the late 90’s, and so…. reintroduced it.
Okay, officially, the FM-3a was a replacement for the FM-2n, but there’s no denying it was essentially an FE-2 at heart. Aperture priority exposure, twin needle readout were pure FE lineage. The only thing from the FM lineup was that the shutter would work on all manual speeds without batteries.
But the FM-3a did have some refinements, including a gorgeously smooth focusing screen, a neat button to cut TTL flash exposure by one stop, and DX reading of ISO speed off the cartridge. Fit and finish also seemed to be a bit higher grade than earlier models.
To my eyes, I didn’t love the pointier prism top, and I definitely knew the italic Nikon logo was all wrong. I decided I’d stick with my FE-2 until an FM3T showed up (titanium covers, I hoped). But it wasn’t to be. Sales of the FM3a faded as customers looked at the D100 and D70 as the digital future.
Many of us still express the hope that maybe the FE-2 experience will come to the digital market – an ergonomic, well laid-out camera, with simplicity at its core. I’m not sure it’s possible, as digital cameras need a screen on the back – for image review and settings of not only ISO but image quality, colour modes, and all the rest. So once the screen’s there you may as well choke it with menus, and sub menus, with more settings and options than any of us will ever really need (but if you leave something out, the reviewers will whine).
So if one is writing up a list of the best SLRs from the 35mm era, the Nikon FE series would have to be near, or at the very top.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on March 30, 2012.

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