My Nikon F5

While working my way up through the Nikon Fs I’ve now reached number 5. All 1.8kgs of it.

I’ve always liked big solid cameras, something you can hang onto properly without worrying you’ll break it. My Canon T90 was quite a hefty body with a big secure grip that you could swing it from even with a big lens attached. There is a sense of theatre with a large camera that you just don’t get with a compact, it’s like operating a steam shovel rather than a laptop, buttons and dials that your fingers have to learn how to reach and operate specifically, familiar but unique.

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Of all the 35mm SLR cameras ever made it is the Nikon F5 that I always wanted. When I was learning photography and reading all the books and magazines it was the F5 (along with the Canon EOS-1) that everyone in the trade seemed to be using. After the development of shapes and sizes through the earlier F models the style of the F5 has remained on through the D1, 2, 3 and 4 models as the ‘pro’ body style.

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And so it is that I’ve tracked a nice example down for pennies compared to it’s original price of around £1500 when launched in 1996. Compared to a modern-day equivalent, such as a D800 or D4 there is very little to write home about on the F5 as most of it’s features are now taken from granted on all but the most basic SLR camera. But what is noticeable is how much it feels like it’s modern-day descendants. The F5 is a massive departure from the F4 before it, with LCD screen, dual command dial controls and an ergonomic button layout – but when I pick up a D800 very little has changed since the F5, everything is in the same place, even the LCD readout in the viewfinder. The F5 represents a turning point in camera design, they got it right in 1996 and 18 years later not much has changed (aside from the obvious internal changes from film to digital capture technology).

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The body hides it’s bulk well (if not it’s weight), it’s much thinner than a typical DSLR and easy to hold in a variety of ways including in a portrait orientation where the additional shutter release and AF-ON button make it very usable. Although I found the shutter release sits right on a contact point with my hand while holding the camera the right way up, which fired off a few frames when I forgot to lock the release.

As a camera it’s really quite easy to use. It’s got all the usual shooting modes, exposure compensation, focus modes, bracketing, self-timer, etc. etc. along with a number of custom functions for setting up the minor controls just how you like them. All the usual kind of stuff we have become used to with digital bodies.

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There are also a few nice additional touches that justify this as a professional workhorse, chiefly that the shutter is rated to a silly high number of actuations and is self-checking and correcting so it should stay true for a good long time. Although the body is capable of 7 or 8 frames per second shooting the limitation of 36 exposures to a roll tends to ensure that 100k+ shutter activations are a long way off (being 2700+ rolls of film – although that’s only about 4 hours of continuous shooting at 7fps).

It runs from 8 AA batteries (or a rechargeable pack) but you can stretch out the battery life by rewinding the film by hand when not is a hurry.

I took the camera out for the, now customary, first roll of film walkabout with a roll of fresh Kodak T-Max 100. After a winter shooting on ISO 400 film it’s nice to have enough daylight to go fine grained again.

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The handling of the camera is everything I’d expected, big, solid and sure. It just works. The viewfinder continues in the best tradition of the F bodies, i.e. big and bright and a joy to use. The F3 HP viewfinder still beats it on the shear size of the visible image, but it’s not far off.

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I’ve been using a mix of lenses on it, and I’ve found the rangefinder assist to be really nice with manual focus lenses. The viewfinder is clear enough to focus by eye, but the green focus light with red left-right arrows is a really clear aid. The red arrow points in the direction you need to turn the focus ring and the lights are big enough and just in your field of view in the top of the viewfinder so you can stay looking at the centre of the view and still see what theya re indicating. The F5 is the pinnacle of this system as later bodies like the D800 have this indicator on the LCD at the base of the view and all in green, so you can’t really see what it’s telling you without diverting your eye to look at the symbols directly. A small thing, but it makes the F5 very usable with manual lenses.

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The F5 will also work with the newer features of the very latest Nikon lenses, AFS and VR and all that. I’m looking forward to doing some landscape work with my 16-35mm AFS lens. I’ve still got some lovely fine grained Ektar 100 colour film to shoot, a perfect film for pulling all the detail from some super wideangle images.

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I think I shot the whole roll without once thinking about the exposure. The meter is famously capable in this camera and even in contrasty sunlight with heavily backlit subjects it managed to cope perfectly. While I worked on these images in Lightroom I didn’t add any local adjustments such as a graduated filter, and nothing was nudged more than a quarter stop from the exposure recorded.

I’m a big fan of centre-weighted metering as I don’t have to second-guess it, but the 1000 odd pixel colour metering system in the F5 seems to work better than I ever remember it being in my D80 or D300 bodies (the D80 in particular was atrocious and let to me defaulting to centre-weighted from then on).

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I retracted a lot of previous steps taking these images, so there’s not too much to talk about regarding them. Other than the few exposures made by accident when the secondary shutter release wasn’t locked properly they all came out great.

I made relatively few adjustments in Lightroom compared to what I usually do, just some curve adjustments, a spot of sharpening and a dab of the clarity slider. I applied a blue-sepia split tone, but it went a bit over the top so I dialled it back. You should be seeing a dose of warth in the highlights/sky and a hint of cooler tone in the stonework and foliage.

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So that’s that then. Another hero met and added to the collection. It’s a good time to buy an F5 at the moment, used prices have dipped to an all-time low and it’s probably quite hard to buy a bad one. Wear on the bottom plate and rubber handgrip may indicate that a body has lead a hard professional life, but the insides should still be sweet. And you never know what important news event, far flung landscape or high profile celebrity may have been captured using your F5 in it’s previous life.

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