Nikon F-301

This is my first Nikon. There are two reasons, basically, why I haven’t bought one before. First, Nikon SLRs are usually sold without a lens – this means that buying a Nikon SLR gets you a camera that you cannot use. Second, Nikon lenses are very confusing. Nikon fan boys make a great deal out of the fact that all Nikon lenses will fit all Nikon F mount cameras. However – and it is a big “however” – not all Nikon lenses will work with all Nikon cameras – and some lenses will damage the camera. There are at least three aperture control systems and two autofocus systems. Buying a body and then looking for a suitable lens is more complexity than I need.

At last, I have found a Nikon SLR camera complete with a lens that I could afford. This is the Nikon F-301with manual options available. It is entirely manual focus.

Once East German Zeiss Ikon introduced the Contax S in the late 1940s, the basic design and layout of 35mm SLR cameras has only varied in the details. This camera follows on from the original Nikon F introduced in 1959. This particular model dates from 1985.

As mentioned above, this camera has automatic exposure. It also has automatic film advance and automatic film loading. Everything else is still entirely manual.

I will start with a physical description before going on to describe the camera in use.

The camera is made from metal (I think aluminium) with a plastic top plate. The camera measures 144 by 93 by 46 mm and weighs xxg with no lens attached or film loaded. The top plate is rather cluttered – this is a function of automated cameras. The first thing to note is that there is no film advance lever – this function being automated. On the far right of the top plate is the frame counter. This resets to ‘S” when the back is opened. Frame numbers are in white with odd numbers as dots. frames 12, 20, 24 and 36 are in red as these were the usual film lengths in 1985.

Just left of the frame counter are two switches. The front one is a combination on/off switch and shutter release button. In the ‘L’ position the shutter button is locked and the electrics are turned off. There are two on positions. “S” is for single shots and the setting that will be used most of the time. “C” is for continuous shooting at 2.5 frames per second – 14 seconds to use up an entire 36 exposure cassette.

The rear switch of the two turns audible beeps on or off. I prefer off. To the left of this second switch is a small button marked “R”. This button releases the film advance mechanism so that you can rewind the completed film. In use, you press this button in and, while depressed, slide the slider behind it to the right. This holds the button in place while you rewind the film. Loading a new film resets this button.

The large dial to the left of the two switches is a combination shooting mode and shutter speed selector dial. There are four shooting modes: Program (P), Program HI (Phi), Aperture priority (A) and Manual. Manual offers shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/2000 seconds. In the manual mode, the shutter speeds are exactly as set but in the three auto modes the shutter speeds are continuously variable and likely to be between the indicated speeds.

In Aperture Priority mode, the camera selects the exact shutter speeds required for a good exposure with your selected aperture.

In P mode, the camera selects both shutter speed and aperture. If the P mode is going to select a low shutter speed there is an audible beep (if beeping is switched on). In this mode, the aperture must be set to its minimum value (i.e. biggest number) or the camera cannot alter the aperture.

Phi mode is much the same as P mode but the camera select as high a shutter speed as possible. This is intended for when you use a long lens or are shooting a moving subject.

You can easily switch between the manual speeds but to switch out of either A, P or Phi modes you must press a chromed release button in front of the mode selector dial.

Next along is the pentaprism hump. This has the viewfinder eyepiece on its rear (9 by 5 mm). The focus screen has a split-image focus aid in the centre surrounded by a ring of micro-prisms. Around this ring of micro-prisms is a second ring of 12 mm diameter – this second ring has nothing to do with focus but indicates the area that the light meter uses to assess exposure.

On the right of the focus screen is a vertical row of red LEDs. The numbers are shutter speeds. In the three auto modes they indicate the selected shutter speed – if two are lit, the actual shutter speed will be between the two. In manual mode, the selected shutter speed is shown steadily lit and the shutter speed that the camera thinks you should use is displayed flashing.

There are also triangles top and bottom. If the bottom triangle is lit flashing, there is insufficient light for a good exposure (the camera will still fire) and if the top triangle is lit flashing there is too much light for a good exposure (the camera will still fire). If both triangles are lit, you are in P mode and the aperture has not been set to its minimum.

On top of the pentaprism hump is an accessory shoe. This has the standard large central contact (so is a hot shoe) which allows any generic flash gun to be used. There are also three additional small contacts which are Nikon specific for their own brand of flash guns.

Left of the pentaprism hump is the rewind knob. This is the standard fold-out crank which also doubles as the catch for the back. Around the rewind crank is a ring with two functions. First, it sets the film speed. This is set by lifting the ring and turning. this camera was the first Nikon to utilise the DX system of encoding film speeds on the cassette. Accordingly you set the film speed to DX and let the camera do the hard work. For films not in DX encoded cassettes you must set the film speed manually. Available speeds are from 12 ASA to 3200 ASA (there are no DIN options). The film speed ring has a second ruction – allowing exposure compensation for awkward light conditions. To set this, you press the chromed release button in front of the ring and turn the ring without lifting. You can adjust this for two stops over or two stops under exposure.

The front of the camera, as always, is dominated by the lens mount. This is the famous Nikon F mount – but with the AI-S modifications. This is a three lug bayonet with no electrical contacts. The modifications of the original F mount are a ring around the mount which is rotated by a lug on the lens. This lug is attached to the aperture ring and tells the camera which aperture has been selected. This is used for aperture priority metering only. There is also a lug on the bottom of the inside of the lens which engages with a slider inside the mount. As far as I can make out, this lug tells the camera what the max aperture of the lens is. There is a second lug on the lens on the side which engages with a slider in the lens mount. This lug is rotated by the camera when the shutter is fired – it closes the lens’ aperture.

When looking at the lens mount, there is a pin at 3 o’clock which holds the lens in place. This is retracted by a large chromed button beside the lens mount when you want to remove the lens. Slightly above this locating pin is a second, sprung, pin which engages with a small recess on the lens mount. With an AI-S lens, this sprung pin pops out into the recess and tells the camera that an AI-S lens is attached. Older lenses do not have the recess on the lens mount so the pin cannot pop out – telling the camera that a non-AI-S lens is attached. I said Nikon lenses are confusing!

Still looking at the front of the camera, on the right above the lens release button, is a socket for an electrical cable release. This is 8 mm diameter, threaded and contains two electrical contact. When not in use, there is a screw-in cap.

On there left side of the lens mount is a lever. Pushing this towards the lens mount fixes the camera’s selected exposure settings to allow for when the main subject does not appear in the circle in the viewfinder. Inside this lever is a button to activate the self-timer. This does not work on my camera. To the left of this lever/button is a red LED which indicates that the self-timer is active. Right on the left of the camera is a protruding grip.

The base plate of the camera is removable, under it is a cradle to hold four AAA batteries. One set of batteries should provide the power to take 90 rolls of film according to the manual.

The back of the camera contains a window to enable you to see the film cassette to act as a reminder as to which film type you have loaded. On the right of the back is a small round window with blue and white stripes in it. When the film moves inside the camera, these lines rotate. This has two purposes. First, you can see that the film is advancing properly. Second, you can tell when you have finished rewinding the film. While you cannot see the window while you are actually taking photographs, you can tell that the film is loaded properly as the camera will advance three frames as it loads the film and these lines will be rotating as it does so. If the lines do not rotate, the film has not loaded and you need to attend to it.

Inside is normal for a modern film camera. On the left is the recess for the film cassette. This recess has a row of six electrical contacts. These press against the film cassette and read the DX code. The DX code contains information about film length and film speed. The camera uses this information to set the light meter.

Next to the cassette space is the shutter. This is a vertical travel metal bladed shutter. To the right of the shutter is the sprocket shaft. This is partially covered by a chromed plate which is a part of the film loading system. Right of this is the take-up spool. Below the sprocket shaft are four contacts. These work with the optional data back.

The inside of the back is more complex than is usual. In the middle is the pressure plate – this is nice and large. Left of this is a sprung roller – again, a part of the film loading system; the roller keeps the film against the take-up spool.

Just right of the sprung roller is another roller. This one rotates the blue and white stripes as the film moves within the camera. Being a Japanese camera, the joint between the camera body and back is rendered light tight with plastic foam. In time, this foam deteriorates and ceases to be light tight. On this camera the foam is in excellent condition.

Loading a film is easy. The cassette goes on the left, you pull the film across the film gate and leave the end off the film leader by the orange dot. When you close the back and turn the camera on the film advance activates, winding the film to the first frame. A caveat: I used a fairly old cassette of film and there was a serious kink in the film between the lever and the rolled film in the cassette. This meant that the film did not seat properly over the sprocket shaft and so would not wind onto the take-up spool. I had to remove the film cassette, trim about 50mm off the end of the film and refit into the camera. This time the film loaded correctly. I ended up with 22 shots rather than the 24 I should have got.

In use:

This is an easy camera too use – as the designers intended. As I was trying out the camera I used all the shooting modes at some point but mostly I used A – aperture priority.

I had the film speed selector set to DX and this clearly read the film speed from the cassette. I did not try setting the film speed manually.

Using P and Phi modes worked fine – you need to remember to set the lens to its smallest aperture or nothing will happen. A mode also works fine, the camera selecting the shutter speed to match the aperture the user has set.

Looking at the negatives (courtesy of Snappy Snaps in Lincoln) the negative density is as I would want it to be on all frames. Exposure is uniform indicating that the shutter is moving smoothly without any shutter bounce.

The lens (a Tokina 35-70 mm zoom lens), which is clearly a cheaper lens, performs well most of the time. When I shot into the sun, the image lost a lot of both contrast and saturation (see the first image below) but, when shooting contre-jour was avoided, both contrast and saturation were fine.

Shot into the sun – some flare, but not too much.
Nikon F-301 35mm film camera from Japan.


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