Nikon F-301

Nikon F-301 (N2000) – In Defence of Nikon’s Ugly Duckling – By Brian J. Grossman

We’ve all experienced that instant of hesitation, the moment of self-doubt, just before clicking the “submit order” button. “There’s no logical reason for this, no need for another camera. I already have six.” If you could freeze this moment, two things would become immediately clear. First, you’re going to complete the transaction and buy the camera. Second, you have an acute emotional need for a rational justification, no matter how far-fetched. Sometimes I think this is why people start blogs or YouTube channels, just to have an excuse to acquire and play around with new gear. “Hey, I haven’t reviewed one of those yet! And it’s on sale!” This more or less describes my last several gear purchases.

In May of last year I self-published a volume on Amazon entitled, “Nikon Film Cameras, Which one is right for you?”  My goal was to put together an extensive review of the Nikon 35mm system with an eye toward assembling a top-notch classic manual-focus system on a budget within range of the average food service worker. If analog photography is to survive then young people who didn’t grow up with film need the knowledge to do just that.

Nikon F-301 Top
Conventional control layout eschews 80’s “back to the future” aesthetic popular on competitors’ products.

Unfortunately, there’s too much bad information floating around online so I decided to make an effort to correct the record. After proofreading the manuscript the umpteenth time, I finally uploaded the text and it went live in May 2018. The first several reviews were quite positive, and I was very pleased with my accomplishment. Even so, something just didn’t feel right.

If my target audience are young bargain hunters, then shouldn’t I put more emphasis on the least expensive alternatives which still qualify as “top-notch classic gear”? My mission was as yet incomplete. I needed to buy more cameras and lenses. Not out of selfish desire, you see, rather from a sense of solemn obligation. I owed it to the younger generation. So off I went and purchased the two most affordable Nikon SLRs, a Nikkormat FTn and a Nikon F-301, (video here) plus a six-element 35mm f/2.8 AI, a Nikkor-H 85mm f/1.8, Nikkor-S.C 50mm f/1.4, and a couple of 135/3.5’s, pre-AI and AI.

Nikon F-301 Back Open
To load film, pull the leader to the red index mark and close the back.

In addition, for just over a year I tracked the prices of a defined set of affordable Nikon gear at the two largest U.S. retailers specializing in secondhand 35mm equipment. That way the second edition would contain accurate price estimates for all the equipment I was recommending. I was a man on a mission, albeit a mission which coincided perfectly with my obsessive predilection for gear collecting.

The second edition went live just recently here. I would like to share with you here the section on the Nikon F-301, perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated Nikon 35mm SLR on the used market today:

Nikon F-301 Back Open
The Nikon F-301 automatically advances three frames when loading

The Nikon F-301 (marketed as the N2000 in North America) was a consumer-market SLR made between 1985 and 1990 and represented two firsts for Nikon, the first camera made of polycarbonate and the first with a built-in motor drive. It is Nikon’s only manual-focus SLR with an integral motor drive. The frame rate is two and a half per second. Exposure modes include program, aperture priority and manual. Power is provided by four AAA batteries, though there is an optional accessory baseplate which accepts four larger AA batteries instead. As of this writing, KEH in Atlanta sells Nikon F-301s in excellent condition for $45; the same merchant charges $65 for an FG in excellent condition.

The fact that the Nikon F-301 sells so cheaply, even less than an FG, and is Nikon’s last manual-focus consumer SLR piqued my curiosity so I bought one rated in “excellent” condition from KEH. As of this writing I’ve put five rolls of film through it. The camera arrived functioning perfectly and needing no work whatsoever. It’s about the size of a Nikkormat but much lighter due to polycarbonate plastic construction. The automatic film loading is simple and works well. It’s a plus for analog neophytes who still struggle loading film. The focusing screen is big and bright and the light meter is spot-on accurate. I’ve shot it mostly in aperture-preferred automatic mode. A top shutter speed of 1/2000 is a nice touch at this price point.

Nikon F-301 Back
Striped pattern enclosed by round window rotates to indicate that film is advancing properly.

The important features which the Nikon F-301 lacks are a cable-release thread, depth-of-field preview and a dedicated mirror lockup lever. Other than that, my only additional complaints are twofold. First, this is one loud camera. My F100 whispers by comparison. Second, the illuminated shutter speeds on the right side of the viewfinder tend to wash out in bright sunlight and in any case are not comfortably visible to eyeglass wearers. There is no ADR readout displaying aperture information in the viewfinder, though you don’t get that on an FG or Nikkormat either.

A contemporaneous magazine preview stated that, “This is also the world premier of a patented Brite View screen whose large, central split-image focusing prisms are multifaceted to maximize focusing accuracy, while minimizing – or perhaps completely eliminating – the annoyance of finder blackout at smaller lens apertures.” I tested this claim by mounting my 200mm f/4 AI Nikkor to my FM2, F3 and the Nikon F-301. Sure enough, at certain angles the central split-image rangefinder blacked out on the FM2 and F3. I could not, however, induce complete blackout on the F-301. At most, one half of the rangefinder image would go a bit grey but was still usable. That’s impressive. This may be the brightest focusing screen on any manual-focus Nikon.

Nikon F-301 Battery
Remove the bottom to load 3 x AAA batteries, or 3 x AA batteries with the optional baseplate.

Conclusion: If you can get a Nikon F-301 in excellent condition for under fifty dollars it’s worth every cent. I predict that prices will remain low because it lacks the hip, groovy, vintage look of its manual-advance predecessors. That’s the only reason I can think of which explains why the FG commands a higher price. After a thorough evaluation I took the Nikon F-301 to my local analog camera shop where I process my C-41 and offered to swap it for five rolls of Kodak Portra 800. The owner scowled and pointed to the end of his display case where sat an F90, F70 and a couple F100s, unloved and gathering dust. “Those things don’t sell! Bring me a mechanical one and we’ll make a deal,” he said as he gestured toward the other end of the display case with the Nikkormats and Soviet rangefinders.

Whether you settle on a Nikon F-301, a Nikkormat or something else entirely, let me be one of the first to welcome you to the rich tradition of analog photography.  Enjoy your journey.

Brian J. Grossman

A recent write up on the Nikkormat FTn by Hamish can be found here

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19 thoughts on “Nikon F-301 (N2000) – In Defence of Nikon’s Ugly Duckling – By Brian J. Grossman”

  1. No need to defend this camera. I had two and my father had one in the late 80’s, my partner currently own’s one. Silly cheap, excellent camera. I do remember if you dropped one (and I did, a number of times) the mirror came out of its hinge, but it was an easy job to fix, the rest of the camera could take a lot of knocks and still keep going.

    1. That’s good to know. I haven’t owned mine long enough to draw any conclusions about durability or resilience to damage.

  2. Christos Theofilogiannakos

    Very nice little camera and very underrated for what it is: Compact, driven by cheap, readily available batteries, has an accurate CW meter, decent top shutter speed, a very nice viewfinder with a great focusing aid (you can’t find it in the F801, the f90, not even the F100 which also offer metering with manual Nikkors), four and a half exposure modes (you forgot to mention it has two different Program modes) and can be found really, really cheap (45 USD is not a true bargain for this particular model, I paid 15 and 22 euros respectively for my two F301s on the German auction site, the cheap one also came with a data back, AA battery drive, a large tripod base and the extra shutter release for use in portrait mode. Let’s hope your review won’t inflate prices!

    1. Yes, these cameras often go for much less than $45, but I prefer to give conservative price estimates to readers. That way people are pleasantly surprised when they find a nice one for less, and not frustrated because they can’t find a nice one for the price I gave.

  3. Nice work, Brian. I’m with you in that I feel (‘think’ would imply more logical process than I’m prepared to admit to) that the sweet spot for enjoyable film photography today is with cameras from the tail-end of the manual focus era. It’s a combination of feel and function – which is why I still use the Casio fx-39 calculator I’ve had since I was 11.

    Many words are spilled over all-mechanical cameras that ‘will work without a battery’ – when the battery is a one-dollar item that you can stash in any corner of your bag, or a set of easily-recharged NiMH AAAs as here. Now, I have two all-mechanical Nikons and I like most of what they do. But the Nikon I really love to use is the FE, because its electronics take care of the drudgery of exposure (unless I choose to take it back) and let me concentrate on composition. And the similarly electronic Pentax ME Super, which I bought in 1984 because I couldn’t afford an FE, still works beautifully with no more maintenance than an occasional squirt of contact cleaner.

    So it’s good to know that the F-301, which shares much of the same design philosophy as the FE and the FG (which appeals to me for travel as the lightest of all the ‘serious’ Nikons) is also reliable and good to use. LED meter display too, so good in low light if not bright sunshine; might make the ideal complement to the FE, which is the other way round. I’d want to hear one first, though – just how loud is it?

      1. I like ‘mechanical sneeze’. Not the stealthiest, then, but nor is the revered FM2N, which sounds like a (brief) fight in an ironmonger’s shop.
        But in most situations, camera sounds are benign and bothers nobody, and the 301’s winder would be handy for pictures of people, whose best expression invariably appears just after I press the button for the first shot.

  4. Nikon also made the N6000 manual focus camera, the non-AF version of the N6006. I gave one away. Most 1980s cameras are dirt cheap these days.

    This was Nikon’s answer to the Konica FS-1, followed by the FT-1. Built in motors were the rage. Then AF was the rage. These days- prefer an F2 over the N8008s or N70. The N8008s has the HP viewfinder of the F3, 1/8000th top shutter speed, and sells for less than the N2000.
    Something about an all-mechanical camera that is timeless. I went from the N70 to a Nikon SP just over 20 years ago.

  5. If you find a N2000 in a yard sale or thrift shop that does NOT have four corroded and leaking batteries in its base, you have found a most uncommon N2000!

  6. The F301 is a great camera. I sold it because I saw no reason to keep it alongside an F4 and an FM3a. But I am thinking of buying one again from time to time. In my opinion there is no better SLR for that money. It’s a super sturdy camera with it’s inner metal frame, has a great viewfinder and I even think it looks great. Love the 80’s look and it’s nice that its a manual camera that doesn’t look like all the others. To me it felt like a budget F3.

  7. The N2000 is a great camera, underrated to be sure. When I made the vacation of a lifetime a couple years ago I took my N2000. It is plenty capable, and were it to be lost, damaged, or stolen, cheaply replaceable.

  8. I was a pro back in the day and mostly used Nikon Fs. I had a pair of F301s for carry cameras and for stuff where there was a serious serious risk of wreckage. I loved the F301, its moror drive was plenty quick enough for press work, it was light and far less bulky than an F with a motor drive, bright viewfinder, its metering was easily as good as anything else and in program mode it nearly always called it right and never missed a shot.
    As tough as old boots as well. Its the most underrated Nikon probably because its rep in the day was poor because the Nikon fanboys were still locked in a love affair with the F and resented its un-Nikon looks and construction. I never found the lack of DoF or mirror lock up an issue and to be fair by the time the F301 came out a lot of cameras had deleted the mirror lock up. I still own an F301 and its still a sweetie to shoot with. Its a very capable box and for what a good one sells for a dream. I paid £45 for a mint one with a 35-105 AIS lens…..less than half what people pay for clapped out Pentax K1000s and the F301 knocks those into the weeds.

  9. Just going through my box of cameras. I’ve owned a like-new one of these since the 90’s. Always thought it was great. I could shoot sports without an endlessly jamming MD-12 on my FM2. And examining it now, there doesn’t seem to be any light-seal deterioration, unlike my 2001 FM2 or my 1970’s Yashica Electro. It’s ready to go. And the ergonomics are also terrific.

  10. For me, the best budget SLR is far and away the N8008 or N8008s. You can get them for about $25 or $35 USD, they are highly rugged, have a a big, bright, beautiful high-eyepoint finder (usually reserved for pro line models), a blisteringly fast 1/8000 top shutter speed so you can shoot at wide apertures outdoors without needing ND filters, DOF Preview, A/S/M/P/Pd/Ph modes, interchangeable focusing screens, focus confirmation with L/R arrows, ISO 6 to 6400, a smallish form factor (well, it’s not exactly compact, but it’s also not the size of a truck like the F4s), interchangeable diopters, and, in the case of the N8008s, a spot meter. All this for well under 50 bucks. It wasn’t too long ago you couldn’t give them away. I’ve never understood that… why people consistently overlooked these gems to overpay for an FM2n or F100. Why anyone wouldn’t want one of these is beyond me – they will go anywhere and do anything. Oh well, lack of demand was good for me… I have three of them now.

    1. Does the N8008 have a split prism like the N2000 does? For me, I much prefer the split prism to the little focus confirmation dot of my F100 when I’m using manual focus glass.

  11. Just bumped into this page by accident as I was trying to fix an electrical fault with my daughter’s F301. Turns out all I needed was a Qtip soaked in vinegar to get rid of oxydation on one of the contacts.

    Anyway I read this interesting piece (thanks for publishing) and want to add my voice to the choir. For me the F301 is simply the best, most practical and reliable “everyday” Nikon SLR ever: with the integrated motor, it is way lighter and more compact than the FM/FE/FA family with optional MD-12 motor. It is tough as nails, works with a vast array of Nikon lenses of all ages (AI, AIS, series E, AF-D), works in program mode with G lenses (though you will never know what aperture it chooses). I disagree with your assessment on looks: it looks very good, especially with the F301 logo (the N2000. font is really ugly), and way better than the next generation stuff (F401, F601, F801). It retains the style inaugurated with Giugiaro on the F3. The only thing I dislike is that the speeds are printed on a sticker on the speed knob, rather than engraved. I actually find it more pleasant to use than a F3 or a FM3, even though it does not flatter my desire for “authenticity”.

  12. I have this f2000 too. Its an awesome camera and yes its cheap to get and thats why i like it but not in terms of quality just market price. Its a bit loud for street photograpy if you a sniper but I interact with my street subjects and they get a kick out of the motor drive winding for shooting. Im afraid the old film camera prices on Ebay have been creeping up for the last few years. I wouldnt pay more than 100 dollars for a camera and lens. This is analog so dont forget if you dont process and darkroom your own film than paying some one for that makes shooting film very expensive. Here in Toronto it costs about 20 dollars to process and scan a roll of B&W. Half a dozen rolls later, thats 100+dollars. Buy this camera, don’t leave batteries to leak if you not using it for weeks and enjoy shooting film. I still prefer this camera over my friends F4.

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