PART I: To Whom?! - An Introduction

The starting question is to whom I could recommend this camera in the recent digital era? Let me answer this trough my own example; If you are not hesitant anymore of your choice, skip this section and jump to the next part.

I got my first camera (meaning the first which I really started to use) as a graduation present from my friends in the winter of 2006. It was a Nikon F65. The art of creation suddenly had taken me, I was hooked. But I was not satisfied with my camera; I wanted to have a bigger, a better, a more fancy one. I honestly believed that the more expensive the camera is, the better pictures I could make. I owned a Nikon F/N80, D40 and tried F100, D80, but did not get engaged with any of these.

But as my own style had slowly evolved at last I knew more precisely what I needed. I mostly shot portraits in wide variety of environments. For that I needed a light, portable, yet a sturdy, reliable, and affordable camera. Since I had become familiar with Nikon's ergonomics and gears, I wanted to stick to the brand. I also realized that for me photography was not just a technical hobby, but, rather, a way of self-expression and therefore I wanted to control the whole process; I wanted to be involved in those moments from taking the pictures until developing the final print in the darkroom. I was also very sensitive for the tonal transition of the photos, since almost exclusively I shot in b&w. Because of these reasons digital was quickly out. And, above all, I realized that I needed such a camera that 'stays out of the way'; Which does not distract my attention, but lets me to be fully involved with the scene, with the model, with that other human being whose essence I try to transform into a picture.

Then somewhere I red about the Nikon FM2(n). Somehow it felt the right one; Quickly I gathered all information I could, and ordered one through ebay. Recently (as of 2008) one can get an FM2n for less than 400$ in perfect, almost new condition, and for less than 200$ in an adequate shape. And what do you get for this money? Such features in a tightly-built body that match or exceed even the high end competitors of the mechanical camera market (e.g., Leica MP for more than ten times the money...): shutter speed up to 1/4000sec.+B, flash sync speed up to 1/250sec., ASA/ISO values between 12-6400, multiple exposure option, self-timer, depth of field (DOF) preview, consistent center-weighted exposure meter, compatibility for wide range of Nikon lenses, and...the myth.

When mine arrived I just knew: this was it. The camera is just a tool, of course. But one has to be deeply accustomed to the tool, for using it properly. Some feature (or a lack of that) might be weakness for someone, while for someone else it perfectly fits to his/her idea of creation and enchants his/her artistic power.

It is purely mechanical, one of the most reliable cameras Nikon has ever made. And it is small - especially with the prime lens I use. It means that you can carry everywhere and in action it does not separate you from your model as much as, e.g., a bulky F100, not to talk about the F5... It might means more intimacy, which can be present in the picture.

So, do you want to do it slowly, letting the scene fully penetrating your-self through your senses? Do you want to have a decent small camera which does not draw too much attention, thus disturbs the original scene as least as possible? Do you need to carry it along in cold or remote areas, often without available power supply? Do you want to keep distracting things at the minimum and let your mind work in and with the details of the 'real scene'? Are all these important for you? Then go for it! :)

PART II: On the Field

In the Hand - At first you might be surprised by its weight (540g-see also technical data below). Compared to its fairly small size it seems rather heavy for those accustomed to modern cameras made of plastic. This is built on die-cast aluminum chassis and it feels so: rough, sturdy, feels like a metal brick. Its build quality beats even that of Nikon F100. The most important knots are also metal, too, only the DOF, the self-timer button, and the film chamber opener ring are fabricated of plastic. Among all these, I am only worried of the self-timer; it appears to be slightly loose, though I have had no any problem with it whatsoever.

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.

Its ergonomics is very good (at least for my middle-sized hand): All the film advance lever, the shutter speed dial, the DOF button, and the shutter release button can be reached comfortably while holding the camera. You might want to try it yourself, though; some of my friends were complaining about its small size.

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...

In Action
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.

With some practice, even without pressing the DOF button, you will know what aperture might be adequate for the foreseen composition, thus you can set it even before composing through the viewfinder. Depends on lens, but with manual Nikkor lenses (or AF lenses supporting manual use) the apertures are usually marked in unit stops, but can be set continuously in between, too (unlike the shutter speed). Then again, there is no LED indicating that you are using half or 1/3 stop, but you will feel it after a while.

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...

PART III: Pros and Cons

+ fully manual (for those who like it), works without battery
+ very consistent exposure meter
small size
+ sturdy, extremely well built body
+ mechanical robustness. Quantitative tests show to be one of Nikon's most reliable cameras. Its durability is claimed to be 100 000 exposures and above; that is about 2800 rolls film-when will you shoot that much?! :)
+ very good weather sealing around film chamber-door
+ the strap holders are at perfect positions; very well balanced especially with standard lenses
+ high flash sync speed (1/250sec.)
+ high max. shutter speed (especially unique considering the age of the camera)
+ multiple exposure option
+ DOF preview lever
+ self-timer
+ mirror lock-up (via self-timer lever)
+ probably the best value for the money on the market

- fully manual (for those who do not like it)
- long shutter time lag
- no spotmeter
- no TTL flash metering
- poor eye relief

Overall: It is just a camera. It serves me well. As an exchange I love it! :)

PART IV: Technical Details

Type of camera: 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera
Body: die-cast aluminum chassis
Shutter: vertical travel metal focal plane shutter (models manufactured earlier than 1989 with titanium shutter)
Shutter speeds: 1/1-4000sec., B(bulb)
Max. flash sync speed: 1/250sec.
Viewfinder: eye-level type, 93% frame coverage and 0.86X magnification with 50mm lens set at infinity
Focusing screen: K2 split-image micro prism type as standard, B2 and E2 type available
Film sensitivity range: ASA/ISO 12-6400 (1/3 stop intervals), manual setting
Frame counter: additive type (S, 1-36), automatic reset when chamber door closes
Film Advance Lever: 30-degree standoff angle and 135-degree winding angle
DOF preview: via lever
Self-timer: set/cancel type provided via lever; can be set continuously until about ~10sec
Mirror lock-up: through the self-timer lever
Multiple exposure: via lever
Lens compatibility: Nikon F-mount. Most of manual or AF Nikon mount lenses work perfectly on FM2n, except those lacking manual aperture rings (G-series)
Power source: one 3V lithium battery, or two 1.55V silver-oxide batteries, or two 1.5V alkaline-manganese batteries
Exposure meter switch: light pressure on shutter release switches it on. Automatic switch off after ~30sec
Exposure meter: TTL center-weighted full aperture system; approximately 60% of the sensitivity is concentrated in the central 12mm diameter area of the frame.
Metering range: from EV1 to EV18 at ASA/ISO100 and with 50mm f/1.4 lens
Dimensions: ~142.5mm(W)*90mm(H)*60mm(D)
Weight: ~540g (body only - titanium bodies : 515g)

Sample Pictures, © 2008, Daniel Martini

Nikon FM2n, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF, Kodak BW400CN

Nikon FM2n, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF, Kodak 400TX

Nikon FM2n, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-s, Kodak 400TX

Nikon FM2n, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AI-s, Fuji Velvia 100