In the days when press photographers shot on film, most of them fell into one or two camps; Canon or Nikon. The Canon shooters used high end cameras like the T90 or, when autofocus arrived, the all-singing and all-dancing EOS 1. Nikon shooters used the trusty Nikon F range of cameras, ending with the pro-series F5, an autofocus beast built for warzones and anything else the world can throw at it.
But even towards the end of the pro films days, Nikon press photographers usually had something else in their bags. It was a kind of last resort, something for when all the batteries were spent but pics still had to be captured. It was the Nikon FM2, and it was one of the best film cameras ever made.
The FM2 had no autofocus or auto-winding, had only the simplest of meters, and a mechanical shutter. All this was pretty standard for a camera in the 1960s, but decidedly old hat when the FM2 was first released in 1982.
The FM2 followed in a long line of classic SLRs in Nikon’s F series; the Nikon F was blooded in the Vietnam War, where a clutch of legendary photographers took history-making pics with the Nikon F. The Nikons were tough and reliable – just what you needed out in the field, sometimes for weeks at a time. Nikon lenses were rightly praised too.So why’s it so good? Partly because of its simplicity. There’s nothing on an FM2 that doesn’t absolutely have to be there. Where the FM2 stands out is its fastest speed – 1/4000th of a second- and a flash sync of 1/250th, the kind of features normally found on pro-level cameras.
The Nikon FM2 was in production until 2001; it was replaced by the FM3A, a broadly similar camera which also had aperture-priority. The FM3a’s a beautiful – and increasingly expensive camera – but requires batteries to use properly. The great thing about the FM2 is that the camera requires the batteries for nothing more than the meter. That’s why it was so useful to have at the bottom of a camera bag. And the FM2 feels anything but cheap; there’s a sharp, smooth click and effortless winding on to the next frame.
I bought my first FM2 in 2001; a jet black model that I used for a couple of years before trading in. A few years later, I found one going very cheaply on eBay and bought it; I’m glad I did. Most of my SLR shooting is done on M42 mount cameras; mostly because it costs relatively little to build up a decent pile of lenses. But the FM2 is the perfect travel camera; if I was to spend more than a couple of weeks on the road taking pics, the FM2 is what I’d take. It’s partly because the Nikon lenses are so good, but mainly because of this camera’s unqualified toughness. I’ve had my current FM2N, a 1986 model, for around six years. During that time it’s needed absolutely no servicing at all. I’ve changed the batteries just once.
Another plus point is the meter’s sensitivity; it will meter up to ISO 6400, essential for shooting in really low light. Alongside a Nikon F100, I use the FM2 for a long-running project shooting bands at soundcheck, an environment where there’s very little light. The FM2’s been perfect for this kind of shooting.
You can get your hands on a Nikon FM2 on eBay for as little as $100 if you’re lucky, though this usually won’t include a lens. Bump the budget up to around $150 and you’re likely to get one with a lens and a few other bits and bobs aswell. For a camera that’s more than likely to outlast you, that’s a bargain.
Check out my FM2 pics below or the hundreds to be found in my Flickr set.