I picked up this Nikkormat FTn back in the winter – it was actually the first of a string of SLRs I’ve recently either bought or tried. Beyond my usual desire to buy cameras to write about, I can’t perfectly explain my recent desire to shoot SLRs more again, though it’s definitely fair to say that the Nikkormat FTn has opened the floodgates.
For a long time, I’ve held back from SLRs by telling myself – and you lot for that matter – that I just don’t get on with the things. This was a great way to prevent myself from falling down a bit of a GAS rabbit hole… Well, what can I say, I’ve tripped and fallen down it without really realising what I was doing, and since the beginning of the year have ended up shooting quite a few more SLR cameras.
In fact, I’ve already written reviews of the Leica R6.2 and Contax RTS, both of which shall be surfacing in the next month or so. In the meanwhile though, it felt appropriate to start at the beginning with this Nikkormat FTn – an eccentric but quite fascinating camera that started this little SLR redux of mine.
The SLR Redux
Actually, SLR cameras have never entirely gone away for me. I used to have a huge Nikon collection, but at some point well-prior to starting this website I concluded that I wasn’t all that keen on being a camera “collector”, and that whilst I like owning the things, I’m not the sort to have a defined collection of one brand or one type of camera in the way proper “collectors” do. As such, the Nikon collection started to wane to the point that I just had an FM3a, F2 and F.
I’ve told the story about my discovery that my right eye was failing a few times on this website, most notably here. The shorter version is that the Nikon FM3a was, for a while at least, my dream camera – but when I bought it, I found it didn’t work for me. I couldn’t focus it with my slightly duff right eye and found left eye framing bothersome with an SLR. So I ditched it and bought a Leica M7.
But, whilst the valuable FM3a left my life, my tatty old F and F2 stayed. I don’t really use the F, but the F2 became my camera of choice for shooting my Nikon shift lens. For the 35mm PC lens, I just needed a pre-AI Nikon Mount camera with a mechanical shutter, so the F2 was perfect. It became the archetypal “shutter in a box” that people who care much less than I usually do about cameras always talk about – it was there to perform a function, and beyond that, I wasn’t that fussed about it.
Finding the Nikkormat
Then one day I happened to wander into London Camera Exchange and spotted this near-mint condition Nikkormat FTn. I actually couldn’t believe how cheap it was, especially considering its condition. But that’s the way it is – at least for now – with these older Nikon cameras. They just don’t command the cash that the later models do. In fact, there was an absolutely cracking post on this subject recently published over on EMULSIVE here – well worth a read if you’re more interested in the facts than my meandering experiences.
I tinkered with it for a bit in the shop, and then initially put I back on the shelf and walked away. If memory serves, it didn’t take me long to return to the shop and put my money down. It was just such a pretty looking thing that felt so good to hold and use that I couldn’t let it go. Of course, a new camera meant I also wanted a new lens, and I’d soon bought myself an old but very clean 50mm f/2.
The quirky Nikkormat FTn
As it turns out, returning to SLR shooting with a Nikkormat FTn makes for a bit of an interesting choice. These cameras are quite quirky. Mounting the lens is the first hurdle. Like the Photomic heads for the F and F2, the lenses communication with the light meter is via the “bunny ears” on the lens and a pin on the camera body/head.
Unlike with the F/F2 heads though, the pin on the FTn isn’t sprung, so the lens has to be mounted to the camera with the aperture at f5.6. Once mounted, the aperture then has to be set to its minimum, and then maximum, and then returned to the desired shooting aperture for the meter to read correctly. It’s a bit of a process, but actually, it’s quite satisfying – everything just feels mechanically true, even if it does feel a touch convoluted.
Once the lens is mounted, the second big quirk to get your head around with the Nikkormat FTN is the fact that the shutter dial is missing from the top of the camera. A little bit like the Olympus OM series cameras, it’s located around the lens mount. Unlike the OM Series cameras, it has a lever that pokes out of the left-hand side of the body of the camera.
The selected shutter speed is displayed in the viewfinder, though the aperture isn’t. The result of this – at least if you use the built-in meter – is that the camera has a sort-of aperture priority feel to it. You set the aperture on the lens with the camera away from the eye, then with the camera to the eye, you can set the shutter speed so the needle in the viewfinder sits in the middle of the – and + symbols on the right-hand side of the view. Actually the meter needle in the viewfinder is another oddity – underexposure is up, and overexposure is down. You might think it would be like this due to the direction of rotation of the shutter dial, but it’s not, it’s the opposite.
The final major quirk that needs to be overcome when shooting a Nikkormat FTn is the fact that the 1.35v batteries are no longer made. I just chucked a 1.5-volt battery in and set the exposure index to 800. I tested it at home by taking a reading off a white wall in my house then compared it to another meter and found that by setting it a stop out this way, it measured fine.
The issue with modern batteries is that the voltage drops as they drain – these old cameras are sensitive to the voltage change so the meter can’t really be trusted to be perfect when using them. As such, when I went out shooting, I decided to just use the light meter on my phone. I sort of prefer shooting like this anyway, so it didn’t bother me at all.
The Nikkormat FTn is actually fairly full-featured for its age. On the left-hand side of the camera, as you hold it, there’s a lever to lock the mirror up, and there’s also a depth of field preview button on the top right-hand side of the camera. It’s the thing that looks like an awkwardly placed second shutter button. Finally there is an instant-death switch, otherwise known as a self-timer. I didn’t use any of these features mind, but they are there for folks who find them useful… Though I can’t recomend the use of self-timers on any old camera…
Shooting the Nikkormat FTn
My first roll with the Nikkormat FTn was way back in the winter. I didn’t have a plan with it to begin with, so chucked it in my work bag. As it turned out, this was to be a mistake – at some point, I must have bashed my bag on something and managed to dent the top of the camera. This seems to have cracked the paint on the inside of the head as the view through the finder went from perfectly clear, to slightly peppered with a few black spots of dust. It went from being near-mint to feeling more like a solid user in one foul swoop. A bit of a shame really, but these things happen…
In the end, the first shooting opportunity was on an occasion I took it out with the girls. My wife was poorly over the Christmas break and a little bit into the new year, so I’d taken them out for a walk in the woods to give her a bit of peace and quiet.
It was this experience that gave me the first hint that I might be a little bit out of practice with SLR shooting, though I did initially conclude that some of my sense of not being comfortable focusing came down to the fact I was shooting a camera with a micro-prism screen. Even in the days I did shoot SLRs, I was much more comfortable with split-screen focusing.
Funnily enough, I didn’t even get halfway through the roll. Norah had gotten tired whilst we were out and had decided to have a bit of a paddy. She doesn’t really like me taking her picture anyway, but when she’s tried and fed up of being out in the cold, I’m really pushing my luck.
On my return home, the camera was shelved with a little bit of a sense of having failed – I’d not shot many photos, and my confidence that they were in focus was quite low. Then, in the interim between picking it up again, I’d shot (and quite heavily ballsed up) a roll in an Olympus OM-10. This failure knocked me a little bit and had made me quite strongly come to the conclusion that the roll in the Nikkormat FTn would indeed be a failure too.
Some weeks later, I arranged to go out shooting shift lenses with Ashley Carr. I actually had that shooting day filmed, and when I have some time I’ll be writing a little more about the day to go alongside a little video of the conversations me and Ash has throughout the day. The short version though is that I’d loaned out the Nikon F2, and so had decided to shoot my 35mm PC lens on the Nikkormat FTn. Of course, when I went to load the film, I remembered I’d shot a few frames of Portra 400 with it. But since I didn’t want to shoot colour that day, I rewound it and loaded a roll of TMAX 400 instead.
I started shooting with the shift lens in the same way as I do with the Nikon F2 – of course, there was very little difference between shooting the two cameras, at least short of the shutter dial. Then, after about 10-15 frames with the shift lens, I decided I wanted to shoot with a tighter frame and reverted to the 50mm lens. I was having to use a micro-prism screen again, but fortunately, this time, I was taking photos of static objects, so I felt a little more confident with my focusing.
The following day I sent both rolls off for dev, and as you can see from the photos I’ve shared, I did see some success from both of them. Actually, my hit rate photographing the girls wasn’t too bad. Ironically, it was higher than with the Olympus that had given so much cause for concern. This is fairly incidental to the story of the Nikkormat FTn specifically, but this little bit of success did encourage me to pick up the aforementioned Leica R6.2 and Contax RTS.
Something a little satisfying
I think it’s also worth noting that whilst I’m not entirely sure I bonded with Olympus OM-10, and despite bashing the top of it, I have felt a certain slightly inexplicable sense of satisfaction when shooting the Nikkormat FTn. This camera is not a lightweight bit of kit – but because of this, it feels every bit as solid as my Nikon F and F2. As I’ve alluded, it also feels mechanically wonderful. In fact, if you read up about these cameras online, there are plenty of reports of them being made to pretty much the same exacting standards as the Nikon pro-series cameras. I must admit, I’m also entirely suckered in by the look of the thing. The black body with the chrome accents – in my view at least – makes for a particularly aesthetically appealing bit of kit.
In fact, I mentioned this to Ash whilst we were out. Sometimes cameras just feel right, and sometimes that feeling doesn’t exactly make sense. The Nikkormat FTn is definitely from a period of camera design where SLR cameras we’re still in their infancy. The mechanical connection between the lens and camera being so visible and almost clumsy is, without doubt, a nod to that. In fact, in some ways, the need to set the aperture to f/5.6 could feel like a bit of a bodge to help save costs in the process of making a more consumer version of the pro-range F series cameras.
But somehow, despite this, and the fact that I didn’t even use the meter, the Nikkormat FTn still manages to feel quite complete to me. The slight awkwardness of the mechanics is offset entirely by how true they feel, and alongside the aforementioned satisfaction this brings in mounting an un-mounting lenses, what this camera offers in terms of features just makes it feel quite complete.
Yes, it’s quirky, it’s impossible to deny that, but if there’s something I consistently find myself drawn to, it’s cameras that feel like little could be gained by either adding or subtracting from what’s on offer. And whilst the Nikkormat FTn could in some ways be thought of as a subtraction from the pro-series cameras it was contemporary to, it doesn’t feel it at all. In fact, despite probably slightly favouring my F2 with its un-metered prism for its overall simplicity, I don’t find myself in any hurry to get it back from the person I’ve loaned it to. Instead, I’m going to enjoy the Nikkormat FTn for a little longer.
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