If you’re a die-hard Nikon fan—not someone who merely enjoys Nikons, but one of those folks who absolutely refuses to even look at any other type of camera—then do me a favor and go away. For the love of all that is holy, please, I beg of you, do not read any further.
Don’t worry—Nikon’s reputation will escape this review intact. I plan to tell the world that my Nikomat FT2 is an outstanding camera. But I also plan to talk about the ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated way this relic of an SLR goes about its business, and you’re probably not going to like that.
So spare yourself. Spare us. Go read Joe Monat’s Leica M6 review so you can understand how inadequate you make the rest of us feel.
Are the Nikon-heads gone? Good. Now we can talk.
Welcome to my review of the Nikomat FT2, and if by some chance you think I’m spelling the name wrong, I’m not—Nikomat is the name applied to Nikkormat cameras sold in Japan. So HAH!
Oh, sweet Jesus, I’m turning into one of those hyper-annoying Nikon owners already. Damn my eyes.
And now I’ve written 200 words and haven’t told you anything. I really am turning into a Nikon owner!
Nikkormat was Nikon’s consumer line of cameras from the early days when they didn’t want to sully the pro-level Nikon brand, before they figured out that a bit of sullying would sell a crap-ton of cameras. My Nikomat was one of a bunch of SLRs my friend Mark gave me when he learned I was getting back into film photography. The FT2 was the second-oldest camera in the box, and yet it was in the best condition. It looked like it hadn’t been used much, and that should have been my first clue. Why would someone who had such a good camera avoid using it?
I now know why: Because it is, I am pretty sure, the strangest SLR ever produced by a mainstream camera manufacturer. I’m not entirely convinced that Rube Goldberg wasn’t the chief engineer. (Youngsters: Wikipedia time.)
Let’s start with the shutter speed, which is set not by a dial up top but by a collar around the lens. The idea, as explained to me by an Olympus apologist (most of the OM-series cameras use the same setup), is that you can adjust the shutter speed with your left hand without taking your finger off the shutter button. Well, that makes sense.
Except this totally doesn’t apply to the Nikomat, because the dial is too stiff to use with your fingertips. I was taught to support the camera with my left hand and set exposure and shoot my right, but the only way to adjust the FT2’s shutter is to transfer the weight of the camera to the right hand, grasp the shutter adjustment firmly between your thumb and forefinger, muscle it into position, then the shift the weight back to the left hand to take your picture. I’m used to it now, but it still slows me down.
Incorporated into the shutter speed collar is a small, precision-engineered device apparently designed for the express purpose of destroying fingernails. Coincidentally, it also sets the film speed.
The Nikkormat FT2 is seriously heavy—and remember, this is coming from a guy who owns a Pentax KX. With a 50mm lens on the front and no neck strap or film, the FT2 weighs a staggering two-and-a-third pounds. For those of you not in ‘Murica, that’s just over a kilogram of camera. My Pentax MX weighs three-quarters of a pound (360g) less. Hell, my car weighs three-quarters of a pound less.
Even the usually-simple task of opening the back is unnecessarily difficult. Instead of pulling up on the rewind lever (which you have to do anyway to provide clearance for the film cassette), there is a tiny metal latch on the camera’s edge. Anyone lacking decent-length fingernails will be unable to load the camera—and that’s every FT2 user, thanks to the aforementioned film-speed adjustment gizmo.
But the strangest thing about the Nikomat FT2 is the way you mount the lens.
You may have noticed those little “rabbit ears” on Nikkor lenses. All of the Nikkormats, save the short-lived FT3, make use of those. They engage a meter-coupling pin on the camera body to tell the camera what aperture is selected.
In order to mount a lens, one must first set the lens aperture ring to f/5.6, then push the coupling pin on the camera clockwise as far as it will go—otherwise the pin and ears won’t line up. Next, you put the lens on the camera and twist it… backwards. Nikon lenses turn counter-clockwise to go on and clockwise to come off, opposite of everything else in your life (bottle caps, volume knobs, nearly every other 35mm SLR camera lens, etc).
Now the lens is on, but you’re not done—you have to twist the aperture dial as far as it will go in one direction and then the other. This “tells” the camera the lens’ minimum and maximum aperture, the latter indicated by a little red dot on the side of the lens mount. (It’s kind of cool to see it pop into the right place.)
Now you can finally start the process of focusing the camera and setting your exposure, provided your subject hasn’t moved. Or died of old age.
To be fair to the Nikomat, the rigmaroles required to use it become second nature after a while. (I find myself racking the aperture dual back and forth on my Pentaxes, because it’s kind of fun.) I initially regarded them as quaint traits of an older camera, along with idiosyncrasies like the need for a silver-oxide (S76) battery instead of easier-to-find LR44 alkalines.
But then I discovered it isn’t an older design. The Nikomat FT2 was produced from 1975 until 1977, same as my Pentax KX, which has the shutter-speed control in the proper place, takes LR44s, and uses lenses that twist in the correct direction.
So why would I put up with this overweight, overcomplicated, fingernail-killing brick of a camera?
Because I love it.
You probably think I harbor a deep disdain for the Nikomat FT2, but the truth is the exact opposite—I am deeply, hopelessly, blindly in love with my Nikomat, to the point that I’ve shot more rolls with it than any other camera I own.
Why? What the hell is wrong with me?
Maybe it’s the pride one feels in mastering something that is difficult, or in possessing knowledge that few others have. Owning one of these cameras is like belonging to a secret club. If you don’t know how to position the meter-coupling pin, you don’t get to come to our meetings.
Maybe it’s the fact that the Nikomat FT2 is a mechanical camera, which I find vastly superior to electric cameras (something upon which I’ve already pontificated in my review-of-slash-loving-ode to the Pentax KX). The FT2’s shutter and winder have a very distinct feel, smoother and lighter and more refined than my other (Pentax, Minolta, Ricoh and even other Nikon) cameras.
Maybe it’s the fact that the Nikomat FT2 is something of a contrarian, and so am I.
Or maybe it’s just that it makes beautiful goddamn pictures. Mark gave me the camera with an off-brand 39-85 zoom that made ominous crunching noises when I turned the focusing ring, but happily I had some genuine Nikon manual-focus lenses—a Nikkor 50/1.4 and 28/3.5. That fast 50 in particular has become a favorite, and I consistently get good images from it.
Don’t tell the Nikon fanatics—their egos don’t need any expansion—but they really are on to something when they drone on and on about the superiority of Nikon lenses. And I don’t think there’s a much more cost-effective way to get into classic Nikkor glass than these old Nikkormat (and Nikomat) cameras. I regularly see FT2s like mine selling on the ‘Bay for $50 or less. Ditto the earlier FTn, which lacks a hot shoe, and later FT3, which eliminates the lens-mounting dance but can’t use some of the older lenses. Those lenses can be a bit dear—Nikon, y’know—but it helps that the Nikkormats (except for the FT3) can use early non-AI units that are incompatible with later-model Nikons.
I had a broken Nikon FE that I’ve since had repaired, so I now have an alternate way to shoot through those Nikon lenses, and I really should put the FT2 on a shelf. It’s in lovely condition and I don’t want to risk anything happening to it. But I know I won’t, because I love shooting with it. The Nikomat FT2 infuriated me with my first roll of film, but it’s since become a genuine favorite and a camera I’m happy to recommend to others. After all, who wouldn’t want an SLR that will confound them, delight them, and build their biceps, all at the same time?
Just don’t tell the Nikon fanatics how much I love the Nikomat FT2. And if they ask, tell them I’m off shooting with my $10 Ricoh KR-10 Super.
A quick post script: Our proprietor, Hamish Gill, reviewed the Nikkormat FTn and came to pretty much the same conclusions that I did. I swear on a stack of Kodak Darkroom Dataguides that I didn’t read his review until after I wrote mine. Even die-hard Nikon fans will, when pressed or threatened with torture, admit that these are bizarre-o camera.
© 2020 Aaron Gold
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