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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.