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Nikkormat EL Mini Review – A Trip To The Seaside with Fuji Provia 100F – By Clive Williams

November 2, 2021

I’ve had some fun since reviving my silver-based photography in 2018.  But I’ve become quite disillusioned with it in the latter phases of the Covid apocalypse.  In particular, the travel I used to do for business, which took me to places that stimulated my curiosity and offered stories to tell with pictures, has not been happening.  I’m fortunate enough to have been in continuous employment, so I’ve had money to spend on cameras and lenses, but they, and I, have had nowhere to go and nothing to do outside my home office.  It has, frankly, been getting me down.

But the First Mrs W and I did manage a night away in Brighton in July, my first visit there for ten years. And, for once in a damp summer, the sun shone. And I packed a roll of Provia 100F, with a recently-acquired Nikkormat EL to put it in. The EL takes my two 1960s Nikkor wideangles ‘natively’, without the compromises and risks of using them on my FE, so I can enjoy their occasional naughtiness when the sun appears.

Regency Square

Regency Square, Brighton; 24mm

The consumer-review part, half a century late

My EL came with its box and 48-year-old manual and still does everything it ought to. It has a microprism-only focusing screen; apparently, some ELs were equipped with a split-image one, but they’re not user-replaceable as the FE’s screens are. Nor does this early auto-exposure camera have an exposure compensation dial, so modifying the meter’s advice means fudging the ISO — ASA if it’s still 1973 — or switching to manual.

Brighton balconies

Tea for one; 135mm

Fortunately, the EL does manual very well indeed. This — as far as I know anyway — was the first appearance of the brilliantly simple ‘match needle’ system that continued right through the FE series to the FM3a of 2001. A moving black needle shows the meter’s recommended shutter speed against a scale on the left of the viewfinder; a translucent green bar shows the speed selected on the dial. It’s intuitively easy to go one side or the other of the metered value, while always knowing both your relative and absolute setting. It’s like navigating with an interactive map rather than ‘left here, right there’ directions; you always know where you are and how to get back to safety. It’s simply the best meter display on any camera I’ve used.

Brighton gull

Seaside scavenger; 135mm

I’d had a Nikkormat before, an FTn that was a little too bare-bones for me, but the EL is a very different beast.  It has that old-school heft but otherwise it feels and works like the FE.  This is a good thing.  It requires remarkably little change of workflow from a modern photographer: set an aperture, check the meter’s speed reading, compose, focus, shoot.  It’s pretty much what I do with my Fuji digital kit.

What the Fujis – and Nikons even slightly younger than the EL – don’t require, of course, is the baroque Nikkormat lens mounting ritual: not just remembering that Nikon bayonets twist the wrong way, but first setting the aperture ring to f/5.6 to align the meter claw with the pin on the camera before slotting the lens in, running the aperture ring to each extreme in turn, then checking on the tiny 5.6-2.8-1.2 scale that it’s registered the correct maximum value. It’s an amusing mechanical curiosity that also enables this camera’s unique ability to offer auto-exposure with unmodified 1960s lenses but it’s clunky by even 1970s standards, requires both hands and carries a significant risk of dropping a lens while fumbling with caps, aperture ring, body and bag.  Modern cameras do it better.

Out and about at last

This didn’t bother me on our evening stroll as I took only the old 35/2.8 with me – and because Mrs W1 was eager to get to the restaurant and impatient with me stopping to frame possible shots.

Brighton seafront shelter

Mind that shadow! 35mm

But I did grumble inwardly about it as we explored the following morning, using the 135/2.8 – also on its first outing – for details of buildings, and the little 50/2 for views of shop fronts and alleyways.

Brighton balcony bike

Steh dein Rad neben meines; 135mm

The reward

So what of the results?  I was beginning to think it was time to give up on slide film, as it’s easy to waste with careless exposure and it’s become hideously expensive.  And then I get a set of transparencies back from the lab and it’s that old feeling again: these things are just so PRETTY!

Brighton mural

Mural; 50mm

And this is the heart of this article; we all have something that draws us back to film and this is mine.  Yes, it’s an expensive way to take pictures and it’s practically useless once the sun goes down, but opening that little package, unfolding that sheet of little coloured jewels and thinking, ‘I made that!’ just lifts my spirits like nothing else.

Brighton cinema detail

Odeon cinema; 35mm

So I’ve ordered more Provia, because that’s the slide film I really like, and I’m going to continue for a while yet.  The EL behaved faultlessly; there’s only one frame out of 38 that I consider slightly mis-exposed – although still usable – and even with the microprism screen and the 135mm, I’ve done well enough on the focusing front too.

Brighton Beach deckchairs

 There are two people in this picture; 135mm

All the lenses did well too – although in bright light and mostly stopped down, I’d have been surprised if they hadn’t.  There’s one little piece of six-blade misbehaviour from the old 35mm – which I was secretly hoping there would be.

Brighton war memorial

 Boer War memorial, i360 and flare spot; 35mm

I usually conclude my 35mmc pieces by resolving to get rid of the kit I’ve just been using.  I probably ought to do the same here; five Nikon bodies is at least three too many.  Do I really need the EL as well as the FE? Or that ancient lens, when I have a newer 35/2.8 with coatings that would not have put that hexagonal ghost in the war memorial picture, and which works with all the functions of all my Nikon cameras? Of course not, but they’re fun to use, and I wouldn’t get much for them anyway, so where’s the harm?

Thorsten’s charming piece here, from a trip with one camera and just a 35mm lens, makes me think I could try something similarly minimal, with the EL and the old 35/2.8. But I’ll do mine in colour, with slide film. Because I don’t think I’m ready to give that up just yet.

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Benno Karkabe
    November 2, 2021 at 10:23 am

    I fully share your enthusiasm, as the EL is my first camera. Actually, as a student I bought 2 of them with hard-earned money, in the early 70s and still have them. I was in love with them , nurtured them like babies & they were indispensable in getting my idea of photography. Really nice pictures you made! Enjoy your EL, it’s a fine piece of craftmanship.

  • Reply
    thorsten
    November 2, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Dear Clive (and Hello Mrs. W!) It sounds like you had a lovely trip, with an amazing camera. I never had a Nikkormat, the FE2 and FM2 where around when I got in the game. I switched to digital in 2001, but a friend gave me his old FE and I used that to get back to analog. This is how I learned about light leaks ;)) have a look here: https://bit.ly/2ZIsYgz
    Great that you used the Provia. as I just returned from the beautiful english south with two rolls HP5, after I schlepped the F3 from Dungeness to Weymouth. All I need to do is print the five frames now, and get back to you! Best! /t

  • Reply
    Lee
    November 2, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    I think Nikkormats are a great camera and a great value. Yes, they are generally clunkier to use and heavier to carry than the subsequent FM, FE, FM2, FE2, FM3A series that came out, but they are also beautiful and unique. I sought out a Nikkormat a few years ago because I wanted a different shooting experience than my FE2 provided. With the shutter speed dial built into the lens mount, and the need to perform the “Nikon shuffle” when mounting lenses, a Nikkormat provided me with that different experience.

    In particular I went for the Nikkormat FT2 for several reasons. First, it takes easy to find and cheap LR44/SR44 batteries instead of mercury cells like previous Nikkormats. Second, it has a focusing screen with both split prism and microprism focusing aids. Third, it has a hot shoe and provides the option of easily using flash both on and off camera. Fourth, the ASA selector tab has a locking mechanism making it much less likely to shift during normal use. Because of these features, I think the FT2 is the best Nikkormat of the bunch. Unlike the EL, it doesn’t try to bridge the gap between fully mechanical and electronic autoexposure. The FT2 is a camera with a firm identity, basically the last heavy and brick-like camera Nikon made for amateurs before adopting a lighter chassis. I love my FT2 and think it’s a joy to use. Mine came with a late model 50mm f/2 pre-Ai lens which is also a good performer.

  • Reply
    Lee
    November 2, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    In particular, I found this article linked below extremely informative and useful when comparing Nikkormat bodies and Pre-Ai lenses. It’s basically an awesome buyer’s guide.
    https://emulsive.org/featured/how-to-save-money-with-a-nikon-pre-ai-camera-system

    • Reply
      Clive Williams
      November 2, 2021 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Lee. There is some good information there, and Brian Grossman has contributed a piece here about another under-appreciated Nikon camera –
      https://www.35mmc.com/20/09/2019/nikon-f-301-n2000/
      – but I disagree with his dismissal of the EL, which my experience doesn’t bear out.

      I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the manual and automatic Nikkormats have little in common beyond the badge and the bulk. I’ve used both and the shooting experiences are radically different. Solid and capable as they are, the FT cameras feel basic and old-fashioned by comparison with the FM that succeeded them, whereas the EL offers a user interface that didn’t change much from 1972 right up to the end of FM3a production in 2006. And in terms of lens compatibility, it’s a Rosetta Stone camera that can do auto-exposure with virtually everything Nikon made from 1959 until meter forks started to disappear with the E-series lenses.

      That may not be enough to make me keep my EL, and I wouldn’t recommend it over an FE or FE2 to someone without pre-AI lenses to use, but it seems to me like a sound and very usable piece of kit, even today.

      • Reply
        Andrew
        November 2, 2021 at 5:36 pm

        Clive – I 100% agree that the EL is an overlooked gem. An EL was my first-ever SLR camera, and I’ve kept it and still use it frequently. If I had to buy another MF camera, I’d probably go for an FE2, but the EL does enough that I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything. Although a later camera would offer an expanded ASA range and exposure compensation, both of those things that are easy to emulate on the EL thanks to the match-needle metering system. The only true limitation of the EL is the maximum 1/1000 shutter speed. Heck, you can even get the 8 second long exposure time from the EL2, FE, and FE2 with the EL: if you put the shutter speed dial between “4” and “B”, you’ll get 8 seconds. The camera was originally intended to have an 8-second speed, but apparently the shutter wasn’t quite consistent enough for Nikon’s QA standards, and rather than redesign the shutter they simply removed the marking and the detent on the shutter speed dial. But the speed is still “there” and can be used in manual mode.

        I share your love for the match-needle system. To my mind, it’s the most elegant metering system any manufacturer ever devised. The match-needle system is also why I’d have a hard time switching to an FA – having matrix metering, shutter priority, and program would be great, but I feel like I’d be losing a lot by trading the match-needle for simple +/- LEDs.

        And as for the need to use lenses with a meter coupling prong, I haven’t let that hold me back. AF and AF-D lenses have dimples on either side of f/5.6 on the aperture ring: the lenses are designed to permit the addition of a coupling prong. I’ve had the prong added to most of my AF lenses, permitting full interoperability between my Nikkormat and my AF bodies.

        • Reply
          Lee
          November 3, 2021 at 12:49 pm

          Additionally, I believe all the Nikkormats have a stop-down button either on the top plate or on the front by the lens mount. Even if your mounted lens does not have the metering prongs, you can still stop-down meter with the lenses on these cameras. Though, you are correct that simply adding the meter coupling prongs to your AF or AF-D lenses is definitely an option that allows seamless use of such AF lenses on Nikkormats.

        • Reply
          Clive Williams
          November 3, 2021 at 2:48 pm

          I didn’t know about the 8s trick but, sure enough, it’s there on mine and seems pretty accurate — according to a hand-held timer anyway.

          And yes, I’ve just tried the stop-down method with my one prongless lens, a Series E that didn’t come on the Brighton trip, and that works too. Although if I liked stop-down metering, I could have just taken my FE instead of the EL.

  • Reply
    Mark
    November 2, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    W1?
    When does W2 appear?

    • Reply
      Clive Williams
      November 3, 2021 at 2:40 pm

      Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but don’t put that on the Internet.

  • Reply
    David Hume
    November 3, 2021 at 11:04 am

    Hey Clive – it seems to me like you did a great job metering for the Provia. They all look great! I used to shoot almost exclusively Sensia (cheap Provia) for editorial work, Kodachrome for travel and negs for family snaps. I got on very well with Sensia/Velvia (Sensia for portraits, Velvia for landscapes). I started with Nikons so for me their lenses go the right way, and anything has to be better than screw mount hey. This article got me thinking because I think I began with a Nikkormat – one that had a battery under the mirror? This was the ’80s so I guess your could still buy the right batteries. Can’t remember what it was but I know I had an EL and an EL2 (with winder) at least before moving to FEs, FMs et al. I hated the match needle though – and loved it when I got the LEDs in an FM. Odd; I could try to explain why but I guess it’s just personal in the end. Anyway, after those compacts I just recently came to the F2 with plain prism, no meter, and it just clicked. Something about the size. Great to read about these cameras getting out and about. Sometimes people say they’re heavy but they are just nice I think. Thanks for the read.

    • Reply
      Clive Williams
      November 3, 2021 at 3:02 pm

      Thanks David. The four-cell 4LR44 6V battery the EL was designed for is still available and only costs a couple of quid, not that I’ve needed to replace mine yet. And yes, it fits under the mirror, which is less fiddly than it sounds, given that this is a biggish camera and has a dedicated lock-up lever for the mirror. Even so, I imagine the more modern FE series had lower-power circuitry and the designers were pleased to be able to make do with two cells instead of four, which could then fit into the base plate.

      But (and this, rather than the hardware, was meant to be the main point of my piece!) isn’t slide film wonderful stuff?

      • Reply
        David Hume
        November 4, 2021 at 1:58 am

        Clive – I’m conflicted over slide film these days. I don’t know that it has a place any more, now that everything is digitised. That’s what my head tells me anyway. On the other hand I’ve written 19 pieces for 35mmc and eight of them feature slide film!

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    November 3, 2021 at 10:52 pm

    Great camera. I had the Nikon EL for a short time. This was the time when Nikon was on fire. They blasted into the mid- 70’s with new lenses & cameras. Except for disco music, a great time 😁!

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