Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's film.
The Long Version: The F100 is the D700 of the last century. It's the smaller pro body that undercut the top-of-the-line F5 by offering nearly identical performance - and some improvements - for significantly less money. It has the same autofocus, and naturally takes the same film, so the fundamental image quality is the same. There are certainly differences between the F100 and the F5, but even for most professional photographers the smaller camera is the one to choose. An when I adjust the Canadian price that Edwin Leong quotes from 2000 for inflation, the F100 would be selling in 2009 for about $2600, about where the D700 is today. Plus ça change, eh?
And just in case any digital people think that spending that much for a film camera is an historical anachronism, well, maybe that's true. But check out the price of the Nikon F6 some time.
Since this is almost certainly the first F100 review of this decade, I have to say how nice it is to have depreciation work in my favour for a change. I bought the penultimate Nikon of the last millennium for about ten cents on the dollar. It's a shocking price considering what a great camera it is, and the one that I bought second-hand is probably in better shape than my year-old D700. It's compatible with all current Nikkors, including those upstart VR doohickies, and is perfectly happy with AF-S and HSM motors as well as driving lenses with its own AF motor. The F5 is a bigger camera that's still more expensive, and the F6 costs a fortune: the F100 is still the best 135 film camera for a digital photographer.
Compared to even a 'beginner' digital SLR, the F100 is an incredibly simple camera to use. There are less than twenty buttons to choose from, and most of them can be safely ignored. One of them serves no known useful purpose, and another is used to get to the Custom Functions menu that appears on the top - only - LCD. That's where the camera can be customized with many useful-but-set-it-once options. The only controls that I actually use when taking photos are no different from the current digital SLRs: AF mode switch on the front, focus point selector on the back, command dials for the aperture and exposure compensation, and shutter.
The Mode button is in a different place than on my D700, and the three buttons on top of the drive selections are also a little different. The F100's includes flash control (but doesn't have one built in) and a bracketing button. That's one that I miss on my 700; I still can't believe that such a useful feature for a digital camera needs to be assigned to a custom button function. Amusingly, the one button that they do share is iso selection, as the F100 has the option of taking its setting from DX-coded film or letting the photographer override it. Otherwise, there is remarkably little difference in the working handling of the two cameras; my Olympus E-1 and E-3 have less in common than these Nikon designs that are a decade apart.
The complexity of selecting a focus point was one of the big complaints about the F100 when it was new, and the word 'Nintendo' was used a lot. While multi-point pads and four-way controllers are now common, the F100's setup still feels primitive and awkward. Its five focus points should have been selectable with five direct buttons. With the gamepad, if the AF point is on the far right then I need two 'left' presses to move it to the far left, but if the current AF point is the bottom, top, or centre then it only takes one press of the 'left' side. Worse, to return the AF point to the centre - the most important setting to be able to get to quickly - the photographer needs to see/remember which point is active and then steer it back to the middle. The only way to centre it without looking at the camera is to press one side of the controller pad twice and then the opposite side once. Very little annoys me more than having buttons behave differently based on conditions that aren't obvious, making this my biggest complaint about the F100.
It's a good thing that Nikon fixed that problem on its later cameras by adding a central 'return to home' button option many, many years ago. Otherwise, I'd continue to be annoyed.
There are two things that tell me when I'm taking a photo with my F100. First, the autofocus isn't nearly as clever as I'm used to. The subjects that I shoot, which are often made up of repeating patterns or essentially featureless areas, can confuse it in ways that just don't happen with modern cameras. My E-3 and D700 can both lock focus on the texture of the paint on my living-room wall with nothing but a 60-watt bulb for illumination, while my F100 can be stumped by stucco on an overcast day. Secondly, when I actually take the photo with the F100, I enjoy it more than I do with any of my (many) other cameras. For the actual experience of making the exposure, mentally and sensory, shooting with the F100 is absolutely wonderful. The only digital camera that comes close is the solid and subtle Olympus E-1, and its shooting experience is dulled by my compulsion to review the photo immediately. That takes me away from the scene and breaks the moment in a way that film doesn't allow; even the "I just spent fifty cents to take that picture" reaction of hearing the film advance can be unlearned comparatively easily.
Granted, it did take me about two rolls of film before I stopped automatically reaching for the 'play' button on the back of the F100. Old habits and all that.
Naturally, the experience and pacing of using a film camera is completely different from digital capture. Anyone who has read this far - or even bothered to skim through and has picked it up again just now - doesn't need to be told about the many valid reasons why film cameras are now only used by people who make a point of using them, such as art students and Freeman Patterson. (Smart man, him.) I'm not someone who's romanticizing the notion of 'analog' photography, either. Even film photography is digital: minilab prints are typically made from scans, not optical enlargers. My film camera is the start of a digital workflow, and that's okay. It gives me another tool and a different look in this digital age, and is another way of enjoying this hobby. It's a beautiful machine. I can't say that it has improved the quality of my photographs, either technically or artistically, but that's not really the camera's job. Its ultimate purpose is just to make me happy, and it does that perfectly.