Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's the five-ton truck of the 35mm world.
The Long Version: I have a problem: I like cameras. The Nikon F5 has been on my to-buy list for a couple of years, but back then their prices were beyond what I was willing to spend on a film camera and I bought the more reasonable F100 instead. Happily, this past spring the benevolent spirits of Craigslist came through for me, and now a legendary F5 is mine.
If the D800 is the God Nikon then the F5 a Titan. It's the camera that all modern pro and semi-pro Nikons are descended from, whether they're film or digital. The button-and-dial control layout started here, and it's amazingly seamless to switch between the F5 and a digital body – maybe too easy.
The F5 is fast. Really, really fast. Not only is the shutter blackout incredibly brief, the film advance is so quick that its sound is subsumed within the not-subtle shutter and mirror noise. Working with the F5 barely feels like using film at all, which is a little scary with a camera that can rip through an entire roll in under five seconds.
Needless to say, I keep my F5 in single-frame mode whenever it's loaded.
Holding the F5 is like looking at a photo from the D800: unreasonably awesome. If I'm ever concerned about needing to bludgeon my way through a wall or out of a crowd, the F5 is absolutely the camera that I'll want to carry. I'm pretty sure that, if swung with enough force, the Nikon F5 could disassemble just about any camera out there and still work flawlessly.
The F5 feels better to hold than any other Nikon I've tried, and it proves that in 1996 Nikon still knew how to build a proper thumb rest. But sadly, they quite literally don't make them this way any more. The incredible impression of solidity that the F5 enjoys at least partially comes from not needing all of the buttons, screens, and flippery that infest digital cameras. The F5 isn't a gadget, it isn't something to fiddle with or check out – it takes photos and asks no questions.
The vertical grip is worth a quick mention. These days it's common to see a complete suite of controls on either the pro bodies or the accessory grips for the more compact cameras, but the F5 only has the basics: shutter release, AF-On button, and a lockout switch. The grip itself is also fairly subtle, so the camera is held with an open hand instead of a gripping fist. That's unlike any vertical grip on the market today, but it's still effective and – I might as well say it – it keeps the bulk of the camera down.
The F5 is also the last Nikon film camera to offer Live View: it has a removable prism, much like many of its Medium Format friends. Even without the various alternative viewing devices that can be attached, such as the waist-level hood or magnifying eyepieces – which are still quite expensive – sliding the prism off of the top of the camera can provide a look-down viewing alternative. Perhaps that's not the most useful feature, but it can be a fun trick to do with a room full of digital kids.
By today's standards the F5's five-point autofocus sounds primitive, but it's accurate and sensitive. I tend to use just the centre autofocus point with all of my cameras, and only occasionally move to a different point for predictably off-centre compositions, and the F5 is perfectly capable of playing along.
I did make a big mistake when learning about the autofocus with my F5, though – I tried it with the 80-200/2.8D lens. This is a heavy lens that depends on the camera's built-in motor to drive its focusing system, and I assumed that because it's a contemporary of the F5 that the two would be a good match. Very bad move: it was, and now I want an 80-200.
The F5 is powered by eight AA batteries, and its focusing motor could probably tear some lenses in half. The 80-200's huge elements were thrown into position with such force that I could feel the lens and camera – an eighteen-pound combination – jump and recoil in my hands. Using it with smaller AF-D lenses isn't as dramatic but is equally effective; the F5 has given my 85/1.8D new life. To think that I was once considering selling it…
Contemporary AF-S and VR lenses are fully compatible with the F5 as well, but what they gain in silent autofocus they lose in cool zipp-zipt sound effects. There's a lot to be said for old-school.
The only real drawback to the F5 is its size and weight, but those are also two of its better assets. Yes, my GA645zi is a smaller camera with a negative two and a half times bigger; having such a mousy little neg from a camera this size does seem pretty absurd. But if there's one thing that I've learned about photography it's that the camera fundamentally changes the process, and using the F5 is almost enough to make me feel 'macho' despite its rather modest endowment.
And yes, the F100 is a nice camera too, having mostly the same internals but being much more sensibly sized. As a second camera, such as one that backs up a digital body or as one that won't see very much use, it's a completely logical choice. I'm going to sell mine anyway – using it is simply no match for the F5 experience.
Compared to using a digital SLR the F5 does need a slightly different way of thinking. Its metering is excellent, but my favourite negative films are actually less forgiving than my D800, so I do need to watch out for high-contrast scenes and small highlights again. This is where I really miss the ability to use the rear control dial for "easy exposure compensation"; it's a shame to waste one of the dials in command-priority modes. The front command dial is also in a subtly different position than on the newer cameras, positioned more toward the lens-side of the grip, and the dials are also stiffer than on the current digital bodies.
I also have to remember that it's normal to see 'grain' with iso400 films – even my little Canon S100 has cleaner files than what Portra400 or XP2 can give me, but that's completely missing the point.
Using any film camera these days is an affectation – I doubt that anyone still depends on the F5 to get the shot that will pay their rent. Similarly, digital cameras are now so far beyond what small-format film can capture that using the F5 will actually be a step down from the image quality of any entry-level SLR from the past few years. That's completely okay. The charm of film these days is exactly the flaws, grain, quirks and colour palette that becomes an indivisible part of the image, and the different processes that changes the entire mindset around its photography.
So given that film is inherently an indulgence, why not use the biggest and the best that Nikon has ever made? The F5 is unquestionably a Pro camera, and these days it can be afforded by mere mortals. While I got lucky and found one in very good cosmetic condition, I wouldn't hesitate to buy one that looks like it's been bouncing around in the back of a truck. Given a moderate amount of shopping skills it shouldn't be too hard to convert $800 into an F5, 50/1.4D lens, and enough film to get started with. That's a small price for immortality.
last updated 22 june 2012