The last of its kind?

There’s a school of thought that says a particular product or technology will reach its peak just as that technology or product becomes obsolete. Supposedly, the very finest buggy whips, or saddles would have been made just as the horseless carriage was introduced. The idea there is that the greatest artisans of such products would have retired, leaving later artisans to turn their efforts to newer endeavours.
I can think of a couple of examples that might run counter to that argument. The Leica M3 of 1953 (54) is considered by many to be the finest made 35mm rangefinder camera ever. I’ve taken a few apart, and indeed, the workmanship and precision is on a level not quite met in later M4s and M6s, etc. The M3 proved just too darn expensive to keep making that way.
My 1989 VCR was a very well-made piece of equipment, and was worthwhile repairing two or three times before I had to replace it with another in around 2004. That one barely made it past its warranty period before it started refusing to load tapes. It was certainly cheaper than the 1989 model, but I don’t really know if I could have spent much more at that time, even if I wanted to.
But the rule of peak perfection does apply to such things as pocket watches, for instance. While it’s true that Patek Phillipe made pocket watches well into the 20th century with all manner of exotic complications – moon phase dials, perpetual calendars that know when February will have 29 days, chimes for the hours and minutes – those pocket watches were made in an era when such things weren’t really carried or worn. They are horological works of art designed and bought by collectors for exotic sums of money.
You would never have expected the station manager at your local railroad station in 1890 to have had a Patek Phillipe on the end of his fob. No, you would hope he had an American-made Hamilton 992 “railroad grade” to make sure the trains ran on time (and didn’t crash into each other – lives really were at stake). Those finely finished, but practical and robust Hamiltons faded away as wristwatches took over, and today’s Hamilton branded watches aren’t American, but Swiss.
And of interest to us is the idea that the 35mm SLR would have peaked right as the digital SLR arrived. Canon fans would point to the EOS-1v as their most advanced, never-bettered 35mm body. Minolta fans had their Maxxum 9 (or Dynax 9 or Alpha 9, if you lived in Europe or Japan). Pentax fans seem to prefer their 1980s LX to the 1990s MZ-S, but we can keep out of that debate today. And Nikon users often hold up the F5 as the finest example of film camera-dom to wear an F-mount.

F6 with MB-40 grip

It may have looked like a step back from the mighty F5 it replaced, but with the battery grip, the F6 could still rip through film at 8 frames per second.

Of course, it’s the F5 of 1996 that is king of that hill: the last Nikon to have interchangeable finders and backs. The last one to have focusing screens in snap-in aluminum frames (with electrically operated focusing points, no less). We all recognized the F6 of 2004 as being something a bit watered down: a fixed finder, a fixed back, powered by a pair of (gasp) CR-123a lithiums – just like grandma’s point and shoot. But what did you expect? By 2004, the D2 series was Nikon’s flagship, not the film camera. The F6 was a smaller lighter replacement for both the F5 and the F100. The F5 was proudly unveiled for the 1996 Olympic Games. Few F6’s saw Olympics action. Sports cameras were digital by then.

F6 batteries

Without the accessory grip, the F6 had to rely on a pair of lithium batteries – like a point and shoot?

Of course, not many of us got to see an F6 in the flesh. They were expensive, and digital was all the buzz at the time. Pleas to our local Nikon rep to bring by an F6 were ignored. There wasn’t an F6 available for show-and-tell, apparently.
And besides, if you still wanted a top-end film body, there were plenty of guys selling off their barely used F5’s.
But some weeks ago, I was able to pick up and behold my first F6, some 13 years after it went into production. I’ve loaded film into it, and shot with it. And I can state categorically that I had been wrong. Boy was I wrong.
I’m pretty certain that had I seen an F6 back in 2004, 2005, 2006, I would have bought one. I still proudly owned and used my F100 at that time as my primary camera, not yet trusting digital to anything important. I think that F100 would have been sold off to purchase an F6, toute suite.

F6 top

This all looks quite familiar, even to digital Nikon users today.

What an awesome camera, especially in the ergonomics department. Compared to an F5, it just snuggles down into your hand so much better. The F5 feels clubby in comparison. And unlike the F5, it can be run without the 8-AA battery pack on the bottom (the F5 incidentally was Nikon’s only pro F body that didn’t have a detachable motor drive/battery grip feature – it was always full size). Those CR-123a’s might be forgiven after all.
No, the F6 didn’t have interchangeable finders, but Nikon (and Canon) by that time knew no one really bought them. The F6 back doesn’t come off, but few realize that the F4 was the last Nikon to have a bulk back option. Go ahead, re-read those F5 brochures, but there’s no 250 exposure bulk option there. The F5 gave us eight frames per second, but 36 shots was the limit.

F6 back

If you’re looking for live view, or even image review, you’re barking up the wrong tree!

But the F6 back does have a screen in its middle, that allows for custom settings and other setup options in the clear language of your choice. You no longer have to remember if custom setting 14 or 16 is the one that changes the self timer setting.
Heck, that screen even allows the terminally geeky to scroll through your last few films and see how each shot was exposed. Also the F6 back can not only destroy your photos by printing an ugly date/time stamp across the corner (no, no, no!), but it can also sneak cool geeky data between the frames (yes, yes, yes!).

F6 inside

How could the F6 really be a flagship pro body without removable finders or accessory backs? But times had changed, and the 35mm SLR had a different purpose in 2004. Still, the fixed back had special powers of its own…

But aside from such sillliness, the F6 borrowed the AF unit from the D2 cameras, and compatibility with the newer flash system and accessories. Whether film photography Luddites of that era needed such stuff is a moot point.
The viewfinder may be a bit cluttered with all those focus point targets, but at least there’s a wonderful vertical exposure scale on the right hand side. Manual metering isn’t an afterthought in this camera.
And yes, just like the D2x, you can program in your favourite nine manual focus lenses, so all the readouts and metering make sense. The meter pattern switch is on the side of the prism where I always thought it looked coolest – and the LCD screens have Indiglo blue type backlights, not those dinky green LEDs Nikon’s been using lately.
The build quality is very, very worthy of the “F” badge: metal where it belongs. Say no more.

And here’s the thing. Unlike the Maxxum 9, the EOS-1v, or the Contax RTS III, the Nikon F6 stands alone as the only one still available today brand-new. Yes, Nikon, they’re the ones who held a press conference back in the day to announce they were discontinuing film cameras and succeeded in making the 6 o’clock news around the world by a happy-to-bash-film media – they’re the same ones who quietly kept in production two film SLRs for years: the FM-10 and the F6.
The inexpensive Cosina-made FM-10 disappeared just recently. Which makes the F6 the last of its kind, I think. Is there another brand-new 35mm SLR still in production anywhere in the world? I can’t think of one, but maybe there’s something low cost in China or Russia still being made.
Given that it’s highly improbable we’ll see an F7, that makes the F6 the latest and greatest of its kind, for as long as it sticks around. Not a bad way to go out.

~ by windsorphotooutfitters on April 26, 2018.

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