The synthetic leather provides a firm grip and the camera can easily be hold in one hand. Grasping the solid metal gives a confidence of its reliability. And it is more than just a promise; I have been using this camera in rather extreme conditions and it never let me down. After the years it looks just a bit more weary now, but still provides the same perfectly consistent results as on its first day.
Basic settings - Loading/unloading the film is very easy, even on field I could manage without any problem; Pull the rewind knob up and the back lock lever as indicated at the same time, and the chamber door pops open. After inserting the film always check whether the rewind button rotates when advancing the film with the film advance lever! Unload: push a small metal button at the bottom and rewind the film. Then open the chamber as described above. (If you are not familiar with the handling of FM2s, see pictures in PART IV). I must note here that I have been using the camera in the extremely dusty conditions of the Indian tropical dry season and I find the chamber door sealing to be excellent. Not a single dust particle inside, even when the camera was covered with massive dust - well done, Nikon!
The ASA/ISO value can be set manually by simply pulling the shutter speed dial up and rotating it to the desired value between ASA/ISO 12 to 6400 in 1/3 steps. The film advance lever works also as the lock-unlock mechanism; By pulling it out to its standoff position the shutter release button is unlocked and the camera is ready to use.
Back to the Basics - You should suspect by now that, like the ISO setting, everything else in this camera (apart of the light meter) is operated manually. This links you 'back' to the scene you shoot, since you have to make decisions and act by yourself without the help of an inbuilt 'AI'. I.e., set the focus, aperture, shutter speed according to the various lightning situations, and advance the film (oh, and shoot :) all on your own. To make your choice an adequate one, you need to be aware of, and judge small details of the 'real scene' that might be overlooked when the camera does everything for you, or when you are just preoccupied by the disturbing number of different pre-set buttons, dials, LEDs, etc. And this simplicity makes you to be present in that very moment... For me this is just the meaning of photography. Hope, you did not get it wrong: one can be present with a fancy camera, too. Using a fully automatic camera might helps you to concentrate only on the composition. But there is a distinct chance that, instead of making an intimate relationship with the model (whether animated or not), one is more focused on information filling the viewfinder; or, the other extreme, one does not penetrates into the moment and just shoots a snapshot. And that could make the difference between a touching picture and a technically good, but overall boring one. Also, in my opinion, the simplicity of the tool (i.e., the camera) always reminds you what really matters: the intimate relationship among you, your feelings, and the subject you shoot. It reminds that the camera is there only to capture that slipping moment - I agree, it is quite subjective, though...
Handling - Right hand handles the action tools, while the left deals with supporting and setting the aperture and the focus on the lens. Conserning focusing, I strongly recommend to invest into a real manual Nikkor, instead of modern AF lenses that support manual focusing too! Focusing with the former is way more smoother and accurate. Also, they are much more robust (made of metal instead of plastic), and, in case of the standard lenses, the optical design is identical with that of modern lenses.
Viewfinder - The viewfinder is big and bright; Not quite as much as, e.g., Nikon F100's and covers only about 93% of the scene, but puts most DSLRs to shame. Even more, for a film camera in most cases the 93% coverage is arguably better than the 100%, since the mask generally crops off the boundaries of the frame, when enlarging the negative.
The eye relief is rather poor; I heard several complaints by those wearing eye glasses not to be able to see all the presented info at one glance, so be aware of this drawback if that applies to you.
The wide screen is as simple as possible, showing only the scene and the absolutely important shooting info. I.e., it lets you concentrate on composing. Focusing is easy with the focusing screen, which has three parts: on the wide matte screen one can focus general scenes and close-ups. With the micro prism grids moving object can be caught, and the split-image rangefinder is fit for vertical lines. (Note that two other types of focusing screen were available, but above mentioned was standard. Even recently from time to time one can find them at ebay). I find that in dim light focusing can be more accurate than with recent high end AF systems. Although, this system is certainly not for fast action shooting (unless you use deep DOF and shoot in the range of hyper focal distance, perhaps with motor drive).
In the black frame around the screen there are the most important info: shutter speed (left), aperture (top), and the LED indicating correct exposure (right);
Shutter speed dial - it works with reassuringly firm clicks. The bad side of this firmness is that one has to use both the thumb and the index finger to rotate it; On the other hand it is virtually impossible to make involuntary changes. On the dial the shutter speed 1/250sec. is painted in red, as reminder of the maximum flash sync speed.
Exposure - The meter measures the light all over the screen but has a strong bias; roughly 60% of the total light is measured within the 12mm wide circle in the center. I.e., it offers the traditional central-weighted meter, and only that. In some situation a spot meter would be great, but so far I could menage without that (use your legs for spot-metering). In this camera only this meter requires battery power. With a new battery it can safely run for several years. (UPDATE: as of 2012 I am still using the very same battery as in 2008, when writing this review). Even in case of power failure you still can go on shooting by applying the sunny16-rule. The exposure is indicated in the viewfinder (see photo above) by the three red LEDs: -, 0, +
0 : indicates the setting, suggested by the exposure meter
0- both lit: underexposure by half-to-1 stop
-: underexposure by more than one stop (+ similarly shows the overexp.s)
You activate the exposure meter by slightly pressing the shutter release button halfway down (after the film advance lever is set to its standoff position). I find the exposure meter to be very consistent, although, it tends to overexpose negative films by roughly 0/5-1 stop. No wonder, these old mechanical cameras were optimized for transparent films where the shadow detail is a critical question. If the camera is not filled with slide film, then setting the ASA/ISO value higher than its actual value, is the most simple solution for this idiosyncrasy. My experience is that +2/3 gives a perfect general approximation (that is, for example in case of an ASA/ISO400 film, set the dial to ASA/ISO640). I compared the exposure meter with this setting against the state of the art matrix meter of the F80 in various lighting conditions, and it was dead on. (But if you change to slides do not forget to set the actual ASA/ISO - once I did...)
Shutter release - By pushing fully the shutter release button down, you trigger the shutter mechanism, which is affirmed by a solid metallic 'clickkk'. It is nice to feel that you are in a direct contact with springs, flyers, etc., and not alienated by electric circuits. A vibration free shutter release can be attached to the button, and via the self timer the mirror can also be locked-up if sharpness is the ultimate goal, or when shooting at low speed, or with tele-lens. I found in certain situations the delay between pressing the shutter release button and the actual firing to be slightly too long. Not once I just missed the decisive moments by some fractions of a second. I do not know any objective data on the shutter time lag, but I bet it is not at the top end of mechanical cameras.
Then, finally wind the film advance lever to its outermost position to advance the film to its next frame. The movement of the lever is smooth and, yet, firm. It gives a perfect feedback about the film advance process without being sticky in any sense. Great! This is somehow intimate... Through this winding you get direct contact with the camera, its internal mechanics once more. You can feel how the mechanics works, with affirmative solidity and smoothness implying quality and utmost reliability. Thereafter, you and the camera are both ready to capture another vibration of life...