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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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