Let me be blunt: I’m a nerd. Always have been, always will be. My love of technology and all things new was likely passed to me from my Granddad, who owned such landmarks of electronic wonder as the first pocket calculator and a trunk-mounted, remote-operated, multi-CD changer for his early-nineties Volvo turbo. My own lust for tech goods has led me to drop large quantities of money on the current high-end gadgets of my day. I had an iPod when they still used FireWire, was an early adopter of the first-generation iPhone, and got rid of my Nikon D300 DSLR earlier this year because it felt positively old.
Yup, it was time to freshen things up in the camera department. Only, I didn’t opt to replace my aging D300 (nor did I have the money for a new DSLR). Instead, I decided to further augment my photographer’s eye with a decades-old Nikon F, the first single lens reflex camera Nikon ever made. I had been eyeing this camera for some time as it sat untouched in our used section at Pro Photo Supply. It was paired with a brilliant 50mm ƒ/1.4 manual focus lens, making it a very attractive piece. I spoke with our used equipment guys and did some research on the Internet, and the more I learned, the more I realized I had to have this camera.
Were there newer (but still old) manual Nikons that I could have purchased? Sure. Were they better than the F? Probably. But I came to fall in love with the story of the original F. Not only did this camera introduce the F-mount which is still used on all Nikon SLRs today, it revolutionized photography.
In production from 1959 through the 1970’s, this was the preferred camera of photojournalists covering the Vietnam War and was well known for being extremely tough. Photographers dubbed it “the hockey puck.” (A modified version was also taken on the Apollo 15 mission to the moon.)
After some brief hands-on time with the F, I can’t imagine how skilled those photographers had to be to use this thing in a battle zone, paying constant attention to the light and their exposure settings while trying to focus manually on a rapidly changing scene. Photography played a huge role in the Vietnam War, and the Nikon F was right there on the front lines, bringing the heroics and the horror of war to the people back home.
When I hold this camera in my hands and feel its weight, run my fingers over the scratches in the metal body, and look at the dust perpetually adhered to the lens, it speaks to me in a way that no new camera can. It’s blatantly honest about what it is and what it does. It’s not hiding any secrets buried away in a menu system, or tempting me with megapixels or burst rate. There’s no multi-point autofocus or a built-in light meter, and it certainly isn’t telling me that it will make taking good pictures easier.
But now, a half-century since its inception, after surviving the searing heat of war and the total cold of space, after being replaced time and time again by newer models, it is telling me one thing very clearly: “I am still here.”
Does your gear inspire you? I didn’t realize such a thing was possible before, but even inanimate objects can tell stories. And stories, after all, are what photography is all about. Since acquiring the F, my manual lens collection has expanded to five lenses. To some, this may seem like a lot of effort being wasted on a dying art. Thankfully, Portland appears to be working hard to keep film alive, and Pro Photo’s used section is continually offering up an ever-changing array of old cameras, lenses, and other accessories with stories of their own.