Formula Perfected, the Nikon FE2

Being one of their last manual focus cameras, the Nikon FE2 comes very close to perfect. It’s a very solid camera that is very focused at getting out of your way and helping you take the photos you want.

On the surface the FE2 may look like almost any other aperture priority SLR (such as the Olympus OM-2, from my last review). But if you dive deeper, you’ll find three big differences:

  • A maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second (the contemporary Olympus OM-4 and Canon New F-1 maxed out at 1/2000, and the Minolta X-700 only 1/1000)
  • A mechanical backup shutter speed of 1/250 of a second (the OM-4 had a 1/60 backup, and the X-700 had none)
  • A multiple exposure switch (also found on many other contemporary Nikon cameras, I haven’t seen any other manual-focus cameras with this feature)

But why are those differences good?

The faster maximum shutter speed gives you more room to play around with your aperture, which, depending on your film speed, can sometimes allow you to shoot wide-open during the middle of the day (not that I suggest always shooting wide open, quite frequently you’ll want to stop down just to make sure everything is in focus, or that you aren’t losing resolution at the edges). Specifically, it gives you one or two more stops of light to play with compared to other manual focus cameras.

A mechanical backup shutter speed is really useful because if you run out of battery, and don’t have any spares on you, you don’t have to stop taking photos (though, you no longer have your meter or auto exposure at that point, but that’s not a problem if you know how to figure out proper exposure settings without a meter). But other cameras also have the mechanical backup, the reason I like the FE2’s is because I think 1/250 is a more workable speed than the 1/60 you’ll find on an Olympus OM-2s or OM-4. At 1/60 you need to set your aperture to f/22 when shooting in daylight using ISO 100 film. At 1/250 the appropriate aperture is f/8 or f/5.6 with ISO 100 film, both of which generally have less vignetting than f/16.

And, this is 500% just a sometimes nice to have, the multiple exposure switch means you don’t have to think about how to get your camera to create a multiple exposure, you just need to hold down a lever when using the film advance (it keeps it from actually advancing the film, and instead only cocks the shutter). This is just way more convenient than trying to do the “three finger dance” you can use with most other cameras (where you hold the rewind knob in place, push in and hold the rewind button, and with those held in place, pull the film advance lever). Again, it’s a tiny thing, but it is really nice if you like experimenting with multiple exposures.

But like all cameras, while it has some excellent selling points, the Nikon FE2 is not without its faults. While, for the most part, they’re just small annoyances, I still want to point them out.

The biggest annoyance I have with it is that the film advance also acts as a shutter release lock. Now that may sound great on paper (and it is generally pretty nice in practice too), it means you must have the advance lever popped out before you can take a photo or use the meter. Eventually you get used to this and stop forgetting about it (which I’ve done a fair number of times), but when you’re getting used to it it’s really annoying. At one point I thought my batteries were dead and replaced them before I remembered that I just needed to unlock the camera.

The other major issue I have with the FE2 is that the meter doesn’t start working until you advance the film counter to 1. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another camera with this issue, and can usually get an extra two frames out of a roll of film. Technically this isn’t a problem because if you really want to use those frames you can use the camera in manual mode without a meter, but you do need to stop and think about it if you’re going to do it. Like the shutter lock, I can understand why they did this, especially for a more consumer-focused camera, they wanted to make sure users got exactly what they expected (in this case, no half-exposed/half washed-out frames you generally get from the start of the roll).

Both of those issues are things I can live with, and work around, and overall I think the FE2 is an excellent camera, but I would rather someone understand the quirks of a camera along with the benefits, instead of just thinking “X said this camera is great, so it’s going to be the one for me”.

At the end of the day, I think the Nikon FE2 is a great camera, and it’s one I’ll probably continue using for a long time. It really supports my preferred shooting style by providing a great aperture-priority SLR with an incredibly fast shutter and easy way to create multiple exposures. If you can deal with losing one or two frames per roll that you might otherwise get from a different camera, I highly suggest finding one.

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