Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

By Robert Gulley

Some cameras are ergonomic and have a continuity of style with other cameras in a given system. This has been true basically since the beginning of mass-produced cameras of almost any format. Now and again, however, a camera will break the mold. The Nikon F4 is such a camera, and at long last I own one. (Okay, I own two.)

A Little Background

I first started exploring photography back in 1979 with a Canon AE-1. My high school buddy bought one and soon I had to have one too. They were great cameras, and a good place to start. I won’t bore you with a long story about where photography took me (or is that dumped me?!), but I mention this to underscore my first love of photography was film photography.

While I developed a couple of black-and-white rolls at home, I mainly shot color until I went to Ohio University and transferred majors to photojournalism. Part of the program required a foundation course in photography, and this is where I first saw a print come to life in the developer (for those unaware, unlike color prints, black-and-white prints can be processed under a dim red or yellow bulb, depending on the film). It was magic!!

I left photography behind in the late 80s, and therefore missed the transition to digital photography. Being very picky about my images as a photographer, even after leaving it behind professionally, I still wanted excellent images, and the early days of digital photography did not impress me. Eventually I did get a Fuji digital camera so as to take photographs of woodturnings and woodworking projects, required for articles I was writing at the time for several publications.

Fast forward to 2017 when I decided to get back to doing some astrophotography with a DSLR. I confess the old photography spark started a bit of a fire inside, and soon I was photographing things again, but this time just for me. It caught me quite by surprise, as I had had a love-hate relationship with photography for over 25 years.

After working with digital cameras for a few years, a friend gave me a film camera, and I rediscovered my love for the whole process of developing and printing images, having never forgotten the magic of that first print. I bought several old Nikkormats, and then a Nikon FM. Finally, I saw that the Nikon F4 was very reasonably priced (coming in significantly lower than the F3), and it checked all the boxes for me in terms of compatibility, features, knobs and buttons, and the “cool” factor. And of course, I had drooled over them when I was young because they were way out of my price range!

Nikon F4 - Close-up of Buttons on right side of camera

Top view of Nikon F4

A Radical Design

The Nikon F4 was a radical departure for Nikon in terms of design. In fact, because the design was so different, and the inclusion of then “untrustworthy” electronics, professionals often continued using the F3 rather than make the switch to the F4. Professionals were used to all-mechanical cameras, or at least ones that could still operate on a basic level even if the battery died. The F4 also did not have a manual film advance lever, so what would you do if the batteries gave out, or if a circuit went bad? Of course, these fears were unnecessary as the F4 was built like a tank and functioned flawlessly for the most part, as evidenced by the availability of these cameras in good working order almost 40 years later.

If you have never held (cradled, caressed) a Nikon F4, it is like nothing you have experienced with an SLR or DSLR. Designed by a world-famous car designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, the F4 looks and feels sleek and smooth, with gentle lines, rounded edges, and an inviting countenance. Yes, it is heavy, but that also means it is solid and steady in your hands. All the buttons and knobs (and there are plenty as there are no menus to sift through) are located in easily accessible places, and there are even locks on most settings so that they cannot be moved accidentally.

The professional-level Nikon F4 was radical for Nikon in another way – for once you could put a flash on top of the camera instead of on the side like the F3 and previous professional models. Autofocus was just starting to come of age, and the F4 had this ability, as well as future lens compatibility built-in. In fact, the F4 is the most compatible of any Nikon SLR featuring the F-mount lenses, going all the way back into the 1950s, and compatible with most F-mount lenses available today (with some exceptions and/or limitations). For a comprehensive listing of compatibility of Nikon cameras and lenses, see https://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/compatibility-lens.htm

When you are holding this camera, there is no question you are holding a professional-level camera, but you are also holding a true work of art. With over 1800 separate parts, design and functional innovations, and incredible longevity, the Nikon F4 is truly amazing.

Backside of Nikon F4 with an advanced databack.
More than just a databack, this unit can even hold firing the shutter until the subject is in focus!

I own two because I simply do not want to be without one should I experience a camera failure. I won’t bore you with all the minute details of what to look for if you are looking to purchase one, only to say try to get a model with serial numbers starting above 23xxxxx to be sure you have some slight improvements made between 22xxxxx and 23xxxxx. Also ask (or check for yourself) about the LCD display. One of the few failure points for some Nikon F4 cameras is a leaking LCD display. This can range from very slight, to leakage which can interfere with you being able to read one or more of the camera settings displayed in the viewfinder.

Beyond those two issues, you will see options for the Nikon F4, F4S, and the F4E, with the differences being battery placement and shutter frame-rate. With interchangeable finders, focusing screens, data backs and more, there is little doubt you could find the perfect combination for your shooting needs.

Donkey in a Field
A curious Donkey on a Farm near me.
Tiny Flowers and a Bee
A bee is busily working on these tiny flowers.

Wrapping up

Will I give up my DSLRs? Of course not. There are situations, innovations, and working modes which make them invaluable. But the Nikon F4, and other format film cameras I own, not only remind me of the joys of film photography, but they help me slow down and take a more hands-on approach to photography. I am more involved in the process of making the photograph with an analog camera, much like how driving a stick-shift car makes one more a part of the car’s performance.

I will caution you, however, once you pick up a Nikon F4 you just might not be satisfied with the feel of any other 35mm camera. You have been forewarned!!

(Some of my favorite images: https://www.clickasnap.com/profile/rgulley)

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About The Author

By Robert Gulley
Retired Professor, retired Minister, and Caretaker of my wife who has Multiple Sclerosis. I started in photography in my teens, and worked professionally for around 10 years. Entered into the photolab business for about 20 years, and was working in digital image restoration before most folks knew what that was! I have written for a number of magazines and online blogs, doing my own photography as needed, but left personal photography behind many years ago. In 2017 I bought a new camera to explore astrophotography, never expecting to fall in love with photography again, but photography has a way of getting into one's soul, and so it was for me. Now I enjoy digital and especially film photography in small, medium, and large formats as time allows. Because film cameras are still relatively inexpensive, I now have cameras I could only dream about when I was young. Life is good!
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Manu on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Try the Nikon F6.
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Thanks - sadly WAY out of my price range! Cheers!

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Rick replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

At the risk of being told I’m a lunatic, I prefer the F4 to the F6. I was lucky to get my F6 when they were relatively affordable a few years ago. Yes, the F6 is technically a much better camera than the F4. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, I just prefer the F4 for much of what I do. Mine is the version with the small battery pack (so not a vertical grip), and despite definitely being heavier than the F6, it never actually “feels” heavier to me.

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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

That's interesting - and not altogether surprising from what I have read from some other folks who have tried both cameras. I hope one day to borrow an F6 just for the experience, but I will be surprised if I find I like it more. Of course, when you have both you can go with the mood of the day! Cheers!

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Ibraar Hussain on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Thank you for this very inspirational piece and the delightful photos
You’ve got me looking at a Nikon F4 now!
I like the waist level finder for it.
I’ve never owned a Nikon and this looks perfect
Thank you
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Thank you for the very kind comments, Ibraar! I suspect when you pick up an F4 you will find it a delight as I have! Cheers! Robert

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David Patton on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Excellent article Robert, I share much of your sentiment about the F4, it has become my favorite Nikon film camera!
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Thanks for the kind words, David! The F4 is definitely my favorite 35mm film camera!

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Ron Peters on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

I pared mine down to reduce weight. Replaced the data back with a plain film back and replaced the very heavy battery grip with the simpler battery holder. All parts from Japan, of course. The configuration shown in this article was the only one sold in the US.
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 20/03/2024

Hi Ron, I have one F4 with the standard back and the other has the data back, mainly for completeness, but it does have some good uses, particularly when working on a tripod. I tend to prefer a heavier camera, so the battery grip helps me hold things more steady. I might someday get a third body like yours, lean, mean, and ready to rumble! Cheers!

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Joseph Irvin on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

The F4 is easily Nikon's best SLR after the F2. Truly revolutionary instead of evolutionary, with so many modern features, it's the most advanced platform for shooting AI-s lenses and is basically the most capable camera I own. But stop telling everyone how good it is, you'll drive the prices up!
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

Ha! You're right! Better stick to the big and clunky camera descriptions so no one will buy them but us! Cheers!

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jason gold on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

I had photographers who were given at workplace or bought own, on introduction. Many were faulty, killing battery. They are bloody heavy and large. I stayed with and still use my Nikon-F! What can a F4 do that I can't? I added 20 years ago, a F3. My N-F Photomics all dead. F3 uses 2 easily obtainable battery.
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Wendell Cheek on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

I want to agree with all the superlatives, both in the article, and comments..... But. In the S configuration, it's just too big for my hand! I handled one with the databack, and traded. Much better, for my hand only! Since, I've realized I really like the E battery pack, so had to pick up another, (with data back). Having worked as a professional for 45 years, until 2017, I have owned and shot all the F series cameras, and feel there are many features to recommend each of them, it would be hard to not agree with the points made herein for the person who only wants one. If it fits your hand, go for it!
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 21/03/2024

I agree, the "E" configuration really fits me the best, with or without the data back (I have one of each). I have battery grips or motor drives for all of my Nikon cameras which can accept them. I haven't tried the "S" battery pack, but from the looks of things I think it would be more awkward. My [G]ear [A]cquisition [S]yndrome prompts me to get one of all the "F" series cameras, but so far I have resisted (heh heh, for now . . . .) Cheers!

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h.e.green on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

I bought an F4s 2 years ago and I think you really described the feeling of it - definitely the most dense and rugged feeling 35 mil camera i've held - it feels like something you would find in the cockpit of an F-16 viper. they work like a dream and just go. In the end I sold it and went to a plain prism F2 and now leica M, I value the lighter weight more than automation. (maybe I should have tried the small grip)
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

Isn't it great that there are so many film options out there?! We are fortunate to have previously professional-level cameras and optics for film through which many of the world's most iconic photos have been made. Cheers! Robert

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h.e.green replied:

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

certainly, I'm glad photography is quite an accessible pursuit, as you said I can buy the same camera Cartier Bresson would have used for not much more than £1000, but say I wanted to buy the same kind of wristwatch (!) that Paul Newman wore? forget about it....

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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 22/03/2024

You ae so right! That puts things into perspective for sure!

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Julian Tanase on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

My Nikon F4 is indeed a wonderful machine, one that I tend to use as much as I can. Had it since the very early 90s, and it never let me down. As I shoot film only, I came to appreciate its reliability, clockwork way of working and delivering excellent results. I do have several other Nikon cameras, and a couple of Nikkormats, but I always am drawn to the F4. I do not use it with the MB21 nowadays; MB20 one is the one now, lighter and a bit more compact for me. Paired with a 50/1.8D, it is a joy to use, really nice pack.

Have fun and keep it close :) !
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Thank you, I plan to do just that! My only regret is in not getting one sooner! Like you, The F4 gets the most use - my other film Nikons only come out when I am feeling more nostalgic, or when I want to make sure to work the cameras to keep them limber. Cheers! Robert

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Alex on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Thank you for this. I think the F4 is the best looking film SLR there is. With the Contax RX a close second. It's a joy to use and the Nikkor D lenses are the best iteration of all the Nikon film lenses, if you ask me.
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Alex, I couldn't agree more!! Cheers! Robert

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Dan Castelli on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

The F4 is more of a Lambo than a Ferrari.
I had two at one time: one fitted with a Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 AF-D (backbreaker!) and the other fitted with the 35mm 35mm f/2.0 Nikkor. They were beautiful to look at, a joy to use and you knew that it was virtually indestructible. It was the weight that finally forced me to sell off the bodies. I think the Nikon F100 was merely a 'light' F4 with electronics rather than dials. Keep shooting with them.
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Hi Dan, That 80-200 F2.8 AF-D is an incredible lens, and a perfect pairing for the F4 (other than the weight!). Both are superb classics on their own. Cheers! Robert

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Graham Orbell on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Call me old fashioned but I’m going to stick with my plain prism 1971 Nikon F. ( and an FM and a Nikormat ) With cameras half a century old I believe in the KISS principle. Keep It Simple Stupid. No offence intended
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Hi Graham, No offense taken! I almost bought an "F" today at a local camera show, but had to get a TLR instead - couldn't pass that one up. I have two Nikkormats and an FM, so I really enjoy those cameras as well. The advantage to the F4 is compatibility with my AF DSLR lenses which really help with wildlife focusing etc. Cheers! Robert

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Graham Orbell replied:

Comment posted: 23/03/2024

Yes I also have a couple of Rolleis and for me I solve the Nikon / Canon debate if there is one, by owning Nikon for film and Canon for DSLR. My Nikkor F lenses adapt nicely to Canon DSLR. Too many cameras and far too many lenses and too time. Happy shooting, Graham

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JJ on Nikon F4 Review – A Design Revolution

Comment posted: 27/03/2024

I got one there not so long ago with an F3 (always good to have a spare), the F4 is way heavier and that's the first thing I noticed. It's very sturdy and well built but for me, 600g or less is ideal so the Pentax MZS wins for me. Not pro level but well built and compact. I also really like the Minolta A7. For short photo trips then the F4 and F3 are cool, paired with the 35mm f2 and 85mm f1.8
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Robert Gulley replied:

Comment posted: 27/03/2024

I keep being tempted by the 85mm 1.8 lens :-) I have a 60mm macro and a 100mm Tokina macro, so I really don't need something in-between, but so many folks love that lens. Ah, the trials and tribulations of photography!! Cheers!

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