Why Consider the F4?

A site reader reminded me of all the things that the F4 was to its loyal users, and even today I'd be hard pressed to recommend any other Nikon film SLR over it.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: it has a minimal and slow autofocus system. Not a lot of focus points, not a tremendous amount of focus calculation horsepower. The F4 camera uses basically the same focus engine as the N8008 and N90s. By today's standards, that makes it basic and a little sluggish.

But look at all the other things that F4 had going for it:

  • Configurable body: choose the small grip or the large grip as needed. 4 AA, 6AA, or NiMH battery options.
  • Any lens: no need to modify the camera, as it had everything necessary to work with any pre-AI, AI, AI-S, or autofocus lens. The F5 and F6 need to be modified to use pre-AI lenses.
  • Traditional controls: dials galore. See what you're setting directly. 
  • Any finder: one of the last of the removable and replaceable finders. Nikon made sports finders, magnifying finders, and more. Likewise, you had a wide choice of focus screens, too.
  • Any back: need to shoot 250 shots on a roll? The F4 could do that with the optional roll back. It also had a multifunction back that added interval and other type shooting.
  • Lock it up: when I said any lens, I meant it. The F4 and F5 were the last camera that could be used with the stick-into-the-mirrorbox wide angle and fisheye lenses Nikon used to make. Real mirror lock up.
  • Ph mode: a program that kept the aperture wider open (producing higher shutter speed), useful for telephoto work pre-VR.
  • Reliable: took a beating and kept shooting.

A story: I remember when Galen Rowell got one of the first F5 bodies from Nikon and flew off to Fiji to do a commercial shoot. I also remember his [expletive deleted] comments about the F5 when he got back. From batteries to lens support to controls and configuration, Galen had a long litany of things he didn't like about the F5. He immediately went back to using his F4. A few years later he got his F100. I was with him hiking the Bay Area Ridge Trail with his new F100: it had the early rewind problem that plagued a few early samples. Galen was so upset he was going to abandon the hike and go back to Emeryville to get his F4, so I lent him my (working correctly) F100 and mostly just used my Olympus XA compact. 

Those two experiences put Galen off of "modern" film bodies for quite some time, especially the F5, which he never really used again. Eventually he came to grips with the F100 and some of the low-end consumer bodies he used on his runs and climbs, but he never fell out of love with his F4. He's not the only one. It was the epitome of Nikon's traditional film SLR designs. Post F4, things got more electronic, more feature-laden, and more like what eventually became the DSLR.

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