Nikon EM & Nikkor 35mm Review – A Quest for An Ideal Compact Film SLR – Pt2 – by Ed Lara

In a prior post I shared my thoughts on the Pentax MV-1 which I purchased at the same time I found a Nikon EM. I bought both in an attempt to replicate the great experience I had using the compact,  Olympus XA, but in a slightly bigger body.

I got my Nikon EM body with its dedicated MD-E auto winder. In spit of the combo being bulkier that the EM alone, It actually feels very good in my hands, especially with the modest hand grip up front. It comes close to the great handling I felt with my old Olympus EM-5  digital micro43 camera plus battery pack. Hence, I have used the EM with its winder attached the whole time I’ve owned it.

I know that when the EM first came out there were many critics who said it was too much of a “cheap” amateur camera compared to the hefty F-series pro cameras. My experience is very different. The camera feels very solid and reassuring in hand. When the EM arrived I borrowed a Nikkor 35mm F2.0 from a friend. Mounting the very solid Nikkor made the EM feel even more substantial.

Control Comparison

The controls on the EM are very similar to the Pentax MV-1: a simple three way switch around the shutter release with options for AUTO (for camera-determined shutter speeds), M90 (1/90 sec) for flash and B for long exposure Bulb. The last 2 setting allow the cameras to be used without a battery. Apparently, when set to AUTO without a battery, the camera fires at a shutter speed of approximately 1/1000, though I have not tried this feature yet.

The light meter is activated by pulling out the film advance lever partway. Looking through the viewfinder, to the left one sees a set of shutter speeds from 1/1000 at the top to 1 sec at the bottom. The light meter needle indicates the approximate shutter speed selected by the camera. The camera alerts the shooter with an audible beep if the meter deems the exposure to be over, or if shutter speeds below 1/30 are used. Unlike the MV-1, the EM has a backlight compensation button on the left front of the camera body, which provides an additional 2 stops of exposure when pressed. While this does not have the flexibility of a real exposure compensation dial, it works well.

Advantages in the Real World

The EM’s finder is bright, and focusing has been very quick and easy. This is the biggest advantage of this camera  compared to the Pentax MV-1 and compact 40mm pancake lens.  I have had a much better shooting experience with the Nikon EM. Technically, the fact that the EM also has clear shutter speed readouts and a needle gives it a better set of visual indicators compared to the color “smears” for over, under and correct exposure of the MV-1. But, in action, I hardly refer to the needle and shutter speeds anyway, so this was not really a big advantage.


I have never owned or shot with Nikon equipment extensively before, but because of the reputation of the lenses, I expected the images to come out very well. After seeing the downloaded scanned images, I was not disappointed, The color rendition of the Nikkor on Kodak Ultramax 400 was really good, and Nikon’s bottom center-weighted metering pattern did pretty well overall. I am very pleased with the results, and look forward to shooting with the EM more frequently.


The Nikon EM certainly has a few advantages versus the Pentax MV-1: the backlight button, the ability to use 3 shutter speeds without a battery, and bright viewfinder are the top three in my book. However, the EM and 35mm Nikkor combo is no match for the diminutive Pentax MV-1 and 40mm F2.8 pancake in terms of compactness and portability. Because of its smaller overall size, shooting the MV-1 feels closer to shototing with the Olympus XA, but with a more comfortable to hold/use camera body. With the EM I find myself shooting more deliberately and slowly, as I would with my film or digital rangefinders. Granted this is in part due to using it with the EM Winder, but the bigger Nikkor lens also adds to this feeling.

That said, the Nikon EM and Pentax MV-1 are both excellent compact cameras to shoot with, though I would use the MV-1 for the more intuitive and stealthy style required for street shooting. The Nikon EM and MD-E  winder is better suited for more less rushed moments like portrait or nature photography.

All in all, I am really pleased with how this comparison went, and I look forward to using both these cameras regularly for the foreseeable future.

If you want to see more of my work, you can follow my Instagram feed: @photoedontheweb. Thanks for reading!

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14 thoughts on “Nikon EM & Nikkor 35mm Review – A Quest for An Ideal Compact Film SLR – Pt2 – by Ed Lara”

  1. Thank you for this review.
    I wonder how you may feel about a Nikon EM without the winder, and the Nikon E 50mm f1.8 lens attached.
    This would be a very close match for the Pentax MV.
    I shoot a Pentax ME Super quite a bit and also enjoy shooting Nikon cameras.
    I have shot the larger Nikons, but your review entices me to try the EM.
    Thanks again

  2. Castelli Daniel

    I enjoyed your review on the tiny but mighty EM. At the time Nikon released the EM, they stated that they would not compromise quality for the sake of size. That’s one of the reasons it’s slightly larger than it’s counterparts. Back in the 80’s (!), a few of my photo students bought the EM. We took a day trip to NYC for some urban photography and ended up at Nikon House. Nikon had on display a fully disassembled EM under glass. So cool and such attention to build and quality. Quite complicated.
    Try working w/your EM w/out the winder and fit the E series 35mm or 50mm. You’ll really get the sense of how compact the EM really is.
    Good luck and good shooting!

    1. Photoedontheweb

      Thanks, the EM plus 35mm definitely feels more compact, but I do enjoy using it with the wonder to give it a bit more heft. That EM display sounds amazing!

  3. I have done this seach many years ago. I’ve owned MV-1, MX, ME, & MV. Sold them & gave some all away. I settled on Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 bodies. I still have 9 bodies that I use – 3 OM-2 and 6 OM-1.

    Besides the Zukio glass, the fact that I can still get them serviced ( is what drove my decision.

  4. I had a faulty EM, but paired with either the Voigtlander Ultron 40mm or the Pancake 50mm it is a great little camera, and still very reasonable. I loved it for street photography, but a drop killed it before I could get it sorted.

    1. Charlie- thanks for your comment, and sorry to hear about your EM. We’re you using Leica M mount Voigtländers and if so, what brand of adapter do you recommend? Thanks.

  5. hiiii. Great review. This is a lovely camera. Nikon produced wonderful lens, and with the 50 mm pancake or the Voigtlander ultron 40 mm I am agree with Charles Morgan it is a pretty killer. Light, simple, small, nearly better sometimes than my Leica.

  6. Hi Ed, I enjoyed reading your two articles about the Pentax MV-1 and Nikon EM. I have owned and used both of these cameras and I agree with your pro / con comparison between the two cameras, except one. It’s really not fair to compare the viewfinder brightness of the MV-1 with a 2.8 lens attached. I highly recommend the Pentax-M 50mm 1.7 and think it would make for a more fair comparison. If anyone doubts how much difference a stop-and-a-half can make in the viewfinder, get a hold on a body with depth of field preview and play around with it a bit. By the way, the 50mm 1.7 is still pretty compact, even though it’s not a pancake. And it’s really a special lens too. Better than the Nikon E series 1.8.

    1. Photoedontheweb

      Thanks, John, really appreciate your comments. I’ve been wondering about my difficulty focusing on the MV-1 and thought it might be a faulty ground glass, as well as the lens. I did have the ME Super ages ago, and recall the finder to be very bright with the 50 F1.4 and the Sigma zoom I had. I guess you’re right about the 40mm pancake making the focusing harder. Not sure I have the desire to add another Pentax lens into my already cluttered mix of old film lenses at this point. Interestingly, despite my difficulty focusing, I’ve shot two rolls with the MV-1 and the pancake and the shots overall have been very sharp! I’ve relied on the split-image and micro prism collar focusing aids rather than the overall ground glass so I guess that is helping. I still can’t explain my eye strain, though, when using the MV-1, which makes me think I need some sort of diopter correction, though I do not have this problem with any of my other film SLRs like the EM and my old OM-1n. Thanks again. Hope you are staying well during this interesting time.

  7. Shubroto Bhattacharjee

    Thanks, Ed, for an enthusiastic review.
    The “humble” EM was the basis of my first Nikon outfit — EM body; Series-E lenses 35/2.5, 50/1.8, and 100/2.8; MD-E winder; and SB-E flash.
    I absolutely loved that 100/2.8 optic.
    The EM was the first Nikon to convey the aperture-in-use to an appropriately dedicated flash — tiny SB-E [3 stops], larger SB-19 [6 stops], and similar Vivitar models [5200, which I owned, and larger 5600] with the appropriate foot. Took the guesswork out of so-called “Auto” flash mode. Brilliant!
    The larger MD-14 motordrive upped the firing rate to just over 3fps.
    The design was by the famed Giorgetto Giugiaro, who also designed the professional F3 and subsequent models; the EM lacked his trademark red-stripe!
    The late, great Herbert Keppler had described an unofficial depth-of-field preview method for the EM [and FG-20/FG] that I used gratefully over my ownership.
    Great things did come in small packages in those days!

    1. Photoedontheweb

      Shubroto- thanks for sharing your thoughts on the EM. I always had dreams of getting a Nikon FM myself back in the day, but ended up with a Pentax Na And Olympus OM-1 film cameras in the 80s. So glad I chose the EM to be my very first Nikon! I loved Herb Keppler’s artocles—- do you remember his technique for DOF preview on the EM? Thanks again.

      1. Shubroto Bhattacharjee

        My pleasure, Ed!
        Keppler’s method [which can probably be used with other brands of SLR that keep the aperture wide open for viewing, and let it “drop” under spring pressure to the selected aperture for exposure]:
        * Set the aperture ring to minimum-opening [largest F-number].
        * Squeeze the lens-release button with the left hand, and turn the lens barrel SLOWLY counterclockwise [viewed from behind the body] while looking through the finder.
        * Watch the image dim as the aperture closes down, while visible depth-of-field in the finder increases.
        * When the image dims no further, you’re at the smallest aperture!
        * Rotate the lens barrel back clockwise until the lens locks; shoot.
        The great Maitani used the opposite approach on Zuiko lenses for Olympus SLRs — by default, the aperture remained wide open, even when off-camera; for shooting, the diaphragm was spring-forced [not released] TOWARD the shooting-aperture. He added a “preview”button to every Zuiko lens, easily operated by the left thumb on the lens barrel, to mimic this preview position. Ah, Yoshihisa Maitani! 🙂

  8. I settled on the Pentax MG and the Nikon EM for my two lightweight SLRs. I like needles in the viewfinder, not over/under lights. Both are nice and light and easy to use in aperture priority mode.

  9. I also have an MV and a Nikon EM w/ a MD E motor drive. Sold all the other cameras and just kept these two. They’re both wonderfully small and light. I prefer the MV, the standard 50 2 lens is amazingly good and it has a much nicer film advance using a standard lever vs the Nikon’s double jointed thingie.

    Still, I end up shooting the EM because the 1.5 stop button gives me quicker control over the exposure (sort of) vs the MV’s ISO dial. The darkish focus screen on the MV isn’t as nice as the EM’s, but it’s good enough. The FG cameras have more features, but they have more electrical troubles. I’ve never seen a an EM that didn’t work right. The MV can use T mount lenses w/ adapters, as well as M42 lenses w/ a PK adapter. The Nikon can use Nikon lenses and Leica R lenses w/ an adapter. So between the 2, there’s a LOT of legacy lenses that can be used on them.

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