Up until the 1990s, SLR photography was all about professionals vs the amateurs.
Professional photographers got robust, shoot-anywhere cameras that could handle pretty much anything the world threw at them and still function. They could often work without batteries, and offered few frills to help less experienced photographers learn the ropes.
The amateurs, meanwhile, got the friendlier, simpler cameras, ones which often had electronic aids (aperture-priority, for instance) which helped them get an accurate exposure more often. They weren’t as robust, but then again they weren’t expected to be hauled around a war zone. You made your choice according to your photographic needs and budget.
That changed in the 1980s and 90s. After the advent of autofocus, SLR cameras started incorporating more plastic into their bodies aswell as their lenses. This was partly to keep weight and costs down. But just like their metal forebears, not all of these plastic cameras were built the same. Some boasted tough alloy exteriors every bit as knock-proof as their old-school metal cousins, with weather-sealing to keep dust and moisture away from the film and sensitive innards. With electronics becoming more reliable and useful, they often included a sophisticated set of shooting modes and matrix metering – which samples light from several areas of the frame – for far more accurate exposures.
This is what you got if you could afford the pro price tag. The rest of us made do with the “trickle down” versions of the cameras made for the pros – models like the Canon EOS 300V, Nikon F50, Pentax MZ-50 or the Minolta Maxxum 505si.
And then a third option presented itself. Some called them enthusiast cameras; some called them “advanced amateur” SLRs. Another term for them was “prosumer” – a portmanteau of “professional” and “consumer”. These cameras sacrificed the all-weather armoured shell of the pro cameras, but on the inside they boasted many of the more advanced electronic features of the top-level SLRs.
One of the best of Nikon’s prosumer-level cameras was the F90, released in 1992 and in production until 2001. It was a stopgap until Nikon could release its flagship F5 pro-level camera – but it helped stem a drift from Nikon to Canon that had been taking place over the previous few years. Canon’s autofocus was much faster than Nikon’s; the pro-level F4’s autofocus was considered poor in comparison by professionals.
The F90 sported a small motor in the body which powered the autofocus lenses, rather than relying on separate motors in each lens, like the Canon did. The F90’s autofocus was so fast – and the build quality so good – that many pro photographers bought one.
In 1999, Nikon decided to augment the F90 with a new camera, the F100. Like the F90 it was designed to be a prosumer camera; many regarded it as both a slightly less robust cousin of the F5, and a precursor to the last (so far) of Nikon’s pro-series film cameras, the F6.
The F100 remained in production until 2006, five years later than the F90 it replaced. By then, of course, digital SLRs had emerged as the tool of choice for both pros and enthusiasts. There was no replacement – no F150 or F175 or F200. The F100 remains the last gasp in the film-shooting range of Nikon prosumer SLRs.
So what does the F100 have hidden under its magnesium-alloy body?
Exposure modes: Programmed Auto (A) with Flexible Program, Shutter-Priority Auto (S), Aperture-Priority Auto (A) and Manual (M)
Shutter speeds: 1/8,000 to 30 seconds; stepless on [P] or [A]; in 1/3 EV steps on [S] or [M]; Bulb
Focus points: Five – Dynamic Autofocus tracks moving subjects across the frame, and focus points are also manually settable, using a thumbpad on the back of the camera
Exposure metering: 3D matrix, centre-weighted and spot; EV 0 to 21 at ISO 100 with f/1.4 lens (EV 3 to 21 with spot metering)
ISO: 6-6400, either via DC-coding or manual over-ride
Prism: 96% coverage
Burst speed: 4.5 frames a second
Flash synchronisation: Up to 1/250
Power source: Four AA batteries. High-speed battery pack MB-15 and R6/AA-size battery holder MS-15 are also available (for six alkaline or lithium batteries, or Ni-MH battery MN-15)
Dimensions: 155mm(W) x 113mm(H) x 66mm (D) (6.1 x 4.4 x 2.6 in.)
Weight: 785g (body only without batteries)
Other features: In body aperture setting, LCD lamp for reading settings in low light, multi-exposure setting
The F100 wasn’t cheap when it was released – $1,400 in the US – and it’s not hard to see why. There is an incredible amount of technology crammed inside the F100’s relatively small body. Even today, 20 years after its release, its specs are pretty impressive.
The F100’s place among Nikon’s classic SLRs is not forgotten. While the top-line F6 is the last word in Nikon’s film SLR family (and supposedly still in production) many photographers would find little reason to justify shelling out the extra shekels for the F6. The F100 is that good.
I’ve been shooting on one since 2006. I bought an F100 off eBay in what is probably the biggest photographic steal I’ve ever managed. It came with Sigma 35-70/2.8 autofocus zoom (a fantastic lens) and an MB-15 battery grip just in case I wanted to unleash my inner paparazzi and blitz away at five frames a second (spoiler: I don’t). I’d given up auto-focus cameras pretty much when I started learning film photography from the basics up in 2000; the Canon EOS 50E I’d bought a year before got put in the drawer in favour of a Praktica MTL 5B with a 50mm lens.
But I had started a project shooting bands at soundcheck, one which called for some fine focusing in low light at f2.8 and wider; sometime autofocus in these situations is pretty damn useful.
As a young newspaper reporter back in New Zealand I’d been on many a job with photographers lugging F4s; the F5 seemed a spectacularly impressive camera too. But did I really need something built to keep Saharan sand out of the joints? Not so much. The F5 also weighs a hefty 1.2kg without a lens or batteries, and that can add up if you’re lugging it about all day.
More camera reviews:
- Minolta Dynax 9xi: Quick on the draw
- Nikon N8008/F-801: An unsung autofocus hero
- Nikon FM2: An all-manual masterpiece
Some cameras take relatively little time to work out – you feel like you know their limits after a handful of rolls. Not so the F100. After nearly a decade-and-a-half shooting with one, I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of its abilities.
The F100 is neither too big nor too small; at 700-odd grams it’s neither too lightweight nor too heavy. It’s by no means as simple to operate as an all-manual model like the FM, which means getting to know the manual is definitely recommended. But that’s perhaps more of a leap for me than those who might come to the camera after shooting digital.
Anyone familiar with modern Nikon DSLRs will feel right at home after picking up an F100. Casual Photophile said as much in a review last year: “The F100 was a massive influence on Nikon’s family of DSLRs, so the camera will feel surprisingly familiar.”
Like all of Nikon’s higher-level cameras of the 90s, the F100 allows you to mount a bewildering array of Nikon lenses – as long as they are AI/AIS mount. The lenses mount in the traditional way, by first pressing the lens release button to the left of the lens mount. The lens mount itself isn’t the tough-as-nails stainless steel you find on the likes of the F5 – it’s chrome-plated brass. This is one of the corners cut on the F100 compared to its pro-level brethren, though after 14 years shooting with it I can report no problems with the mount. That might be partly due to the fact I use only a couple of lenses with the F100, but it’s certainly been robust enough for the hundreds of rolls I’ve shot with it in that time.
The camera’s hand grip (on the right-hand side) is home to the shutter button, the mode selection and the bracketing button. On the front of the handgrip is one thumbwheel and on the back is another. These control the shutter speed (back) and aperture (front) according to which shooting mode you’ve chosen. It is – as the success of the same design in Nikon’s family of DSLRs shows us – pretty intuitive.
I usually shoot in shutter-priority in low light, and aperture priority in normal lighting conditions. This being a fancy-pants electronic camera, there’s three metering modes toc choose from: a centre-weighted mode which takes 75% of the metering from the central circle , a matrix-metering mode which calculates the correct exposure from 10 different parts of the frame, and a spot meter which can be set from any of the five focusing points. You choose these metering modes via a selector on the right hand side of the viewfinder prism.
The matrix metering isn’t as sophisticated as that on the more expensive F5, which measures from 100 different parts of the frame, and some photographers have complained that it tends to underexpose, especially on print film. Apparently, the matrix metering was designed for use with slide film, which is much more dependent on accurate metering. I can’t say I’ve used it more than once or twice – the centre-weighted metering is so good that it’s what I go for time after time. Spot metering is occasionally useful, especially shooting on stage in very low light. You’ll work out which mode suits your shooting pretty quickly, and my guess is centre-weighted will be fine.
The F100’s flash sync speed – 1/250 – is no mean feat even against newer digital competition, faster than the 1/200 achievable on high-end digital bodies such as the Canon EOS 5DIII. Like the majority of Nikon’s cameras post the F3, the F100 works with any of the TTL Speedlite range, such as the SB-28. That’s another plus point for digital shooters who have grown up used to flashes automatically reading the right exposure straight from the camera’s own settings.
You might have come away so far thinking the F100 is a faultless design and the search for your perfect film SLR camera is over. Well, not so fast. Early versions of the F100 did, come with one particularly annoying flaw – a brittle plastic rewind fork that was particularly prone to breaking. Later models ditched the offending plastic part for a metal one, which solved the problem. I have an early model F100, and the rewind fork has indeed partly broken. But most of it is still intact, and I haven’t felt the need to get it repaired. Thanks to Nikon’s habit of producing spare parts a good decade after the discontinuation of a camera model, F100 parts still seem to be in plentiful supply, at least for now. However, if this is a repair you wish to avoid, then plumping for a later model with a metal fork might save you some tears in the long run.
The only other common issues that frequently comes up with the F100 concern the camera’s back. The plastic door latch is certainly not as robust as that on the F4 or F5, and breakages are not uncommon; mine broke about five years after getting the camera, just before I was taking the camera with me to Boston to shoot Buffalo Tom’s 25th anniversary concerts. I briefly toyed with the idea of buying another body secondhand in the US, but found a spare door on eBay for around £30 (the price of these is about double that now, but still a lot cheaper than forking out for a new camera body). Then I found a camera repairer in Boston who was able to fix it in a few minutes.
It’s not a complicated job – and you don’t have to fiddle around with any of the camera’s electronics – but does require a bit of knowhow and some decent tools as it means you have to remove the plate on the left-hand side of the camera (An excellent post from Photrio describes the process here.)
Another issue that can crop up is stickiness affecting the leather-like covering, which may also affect the thumb wheel which chooses the five auto focus points. Again, this thumb wheel is not exactly fragile, just not built to the same bullets-and-Pulitzers toughness as you might find on cameras like the F5. If you’re shooting with the camera regularly, and not giving it a wipe down before putting it away, then dirt and grease can build up. Remember, the F100 doesn’t have the pro-level weather sealing of Nikon’s more expensive cameras.
The only other major gremlin when it comes to the F100 is its multi-exposure setting. Underneath the selection knob on the left-hand side – which includes flash mode selector, ISO selector, bracketing and rewinding function. Underneath that is a rotary dial which lets you choose the shooting mode; single (S), continuous (C) and continuous slow (Cs), which adds a quieter, slower rewind mix if you’re somewhere where noise needs to be kept to a minimum. This is also where you’ll find the self-timer and the multi-exposure function.
The only problem? If you put the multi exposure function on, it doesn’t turn off after one frame, like a lot of film cameras. You can blat away an entire roll of film and every single shot will be superimposed on top of each other. I found this out the hard way shooting Buffalo Tom at soundcheck in a glorious Amsterdam concert hall, and mistakenly popping the camera on multi-exposure mode. One entire roll of Tri-X, all in one frame. And here’s what’s even worse – the function doesn’t turn off when you change films either. You have to manually move it back to one of the traditional shooting modes. It’s a minor niggle, but one worth noting if you’re in that adventurous minority that likes shooting multi-exposure. (You can read more about this on Ken Rockwell’s comprehensive look at the Nikon F100 and its minor foibles.)
I might have initially bought the F100 for low-light work in music venues, but it pretty soon became a staple in my camera bag. It’s one of those cameras you could imagine being picked up and put down again and again by the design team, tweaked and tinkered with until the weight and handling was perfect. That’s a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. The F100 has heft but not dead weight; even with hands on the small side, nothing’s an uncomfortable reach away. As Austin Rodgers stated in Fstoppers’ 2015 review of the camera: “The Nikon F100 is, without a doubt, one of the best 135 cameras out there and is, in my opinion, is the absolute best choice for a digital shooter to experiment with 35mm film (for the money).”
That’s the great thing about great camera design – it often only becomes apparent after you’ve been using a camera for a while, and your fingers and thumbs are naturally reaching for the controls. Great design is often quiet.
The autofocus points – five of them – are fantastic for offset focus, and were a major boon using this onstage, where the details I am trying to capture during soundcheck or show are very rarely centred in the frame. But should you want to shoot in manual focus, that’s possible to. On the left-hand side of the camera, just next to the lens mount, is a focus selector which allows you to choose between single focus, continuous focus or manual. Even with manual focus selected, the F100 will still help you achieve an in-focus shot – the autofocus serves as an electronic rangefinder, registering correct focus in the viewfinder.
Couple the excellent metering with lightning-fast autofocus, robust construction and a fat, bright finder, and you have a travel camera that gives the National Geographic feels without the backache. add the battery pack and a decent lens to the F5, and it weighs about the same as a Kiev-60. That’s a lot of camera to hang off a neck strap.
The F100’s mount means it can shoot pretty much any Nikon lens since 1958 (manual lenses minus the autofocus, of course), plus many digital-era lenses – and that includes the ‘G’ series without an aperture ring. That’s another factor that makes this camera the perfect gateway to film for those coming from DSLRs.
The F100 isn’t so much a city slicker’s version of the F5 – a professional spec, minus the heavy armour – and more like a dummy run for Nikon’s final (probably) film SLR, the F6, released in 2004.
When the F6 came out, I wanted one. I still do, in a way. But not enough to shell out the not inconsiderable amount of money required. And I’m someone who will justify all sorts of camera purchases with a great big “because…” at the start of the sentence. Why? The F100 occupies a pretty special place in my collection in that it’s a “working camera” – the camera I’ve used on reporting trips and on my long-term project shooting bands. It’s done so well in that regard that I can’t see the gap for another camera to squeeze in.
The camera reminds me – this is a segue, but bear me out – of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. That aircraft, a heavy-lift transporter which first flew in the 1950s, is so good at its job that there’s a saying in aviation circle: “The only replacement for a Hercules is… another Hercules.” That’s how I feel about the F100. I’m far more likely to buy another body than buy an F5 or an F6 to complement it. The only replacement for an F100… is another F100.