Nikkormat FTn

Introduction

The Nikkormat series of SLRs was released by Nikon from the mid-1960s through to the late-1970s. Originally marketed as a cheaper alternative to the Nikon F series SLRs, they were built in much the same manner. As a result, they share the Nikon F series reputation for durability, which secured them a home in the outfits of many professionals.

The Nikkormat FTn, fitted with the NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 lens.
The Nikkormat FTn, fitted with the non-AI (pre-AI) Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 lens.

I purchased mine at my favourite camera store in Cambodia, where they had been attempting to sell it on behalf of a collector for roughly a decade. Besides the perished (as expected) light seals and a faint layer of dust from sitting in the display case, it was in remarkably good condition.

Quirks

While the FTn follows a generic SLR design, there are a few largely unique differences.

Atypically, when compared to most SLR designs, the shutter speed is selected by a dial around the lens mount. Unlike the similarly equipped Olympus OM Series, the ring has a large protruding lever, so is relatively easy to manipulate with gloved hands.

St. Paul's Cathedral, The Octagon, Dunedin. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, The Octagon, Dunedin. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

The shutter readout in the viewfinder shows the selected speed in white, with the immediately higher and lower speeds either side in yellow; a diamond appears next to the highest and lowest speeds to indicate you’re at the end of the range. This was a nice change the LED next to a speed, or matchstick over a speed, that I have normally seen in the viewfinder of other older SLRs.

Looking back towards the University of Otago from the Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
Looking back towards the University of Otago from the Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

There is no automatic signalling of the lens’ maximum aperture to the light meter; this needs to be known for accurate exposure metering. To set the meter, each time a lens is mounted, the aperture ring has to from wide open to fully stopped down. To communicate the shooting aperture, a lever-mounted pin on the camera body rests between two lugs on the aperture ring; the deflection of the lever changes as the ring is turned, signalling the aperture to the meter.

A small beach southeast of Brighton, south coast of Dunedin. Scroggs Hill is visible in the distance. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
A small beach southeast of Brighton, south coast of Dunedin. Scroggs Hill is visible in the distance. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Unlike most of the more recent 35 mm SLRs, the FTn has a mirror lock up feature. This locks the mirror out of the light path: it removes a source of camera shake at low shutter speeds; and allows for the use of ultra wide angle lenses whose rear elements protrude into the mirror box and would foul the mirror (and its mechanism).

In Use

Compared with other SLRs I’ve used, the overwhelming impressions of the Nikkormat and 50 mm f/1.4 are “bigness” and “over-engineering”.

Body

Major controls are all excellently damped; the viewfinder is large, bright and easy to find focus with; and there’s a reassuring sense of unbreakability whenever you hold it.

Flood protection works on the Water of Leith shortly after sunrise. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
Flood protection works on the Water of Leith shortly after sunrise. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

When fitted with the 50 mm f/1.4 and loaded with film, it assaults you with almost 1,100 g of weight (for reference, the equivalent Olympus OM Series camera is ~760-780g). Admittedly, this is quite heavy, but thanks to a larger body and sound ergonomics, it doesn’t feel any heavier in hand. By comparison, the Leica R4 I (thankfully) sold approached the Nikkormat’s weight, in a body almost as dainty as the Olympus: it wasn’t that nice to handle at times, especially with anything more than a 50 mm lens.

The University of Otago clock tower at sunrise. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
The University of Otago clock tower at sunrise. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Being a fully mechanical camera, everything moves relevant to your finger on the shutter button: you can even control the rate at which the mirror flips up, just by pressing the button more slowly. Sadly, I found the shutter button a little awkward to locate while wearing gloves. Still, that’s a small trade-off for the ability to shoot without battery anxiety.

Lens

I found the lens to be very good: photos are sharp, with good contrast, and even without a lens hood, flare was very well controlled. The controls on the lens mirror those of the camera body, in that they are not a burden to use. Being a pre-AI lens, compared with AI and AI-S lenses, it is compatible with a limited number of newer Nikon bodies.

The Herb Garden, Dunedin Botanical Gardens. It handled the flare well, considering it was shooting directly into the sun without a lens hood. Nikkormat FTn with NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.
The Herb Garden, Dunedin Botanical Gardens. It handled the flare well, considering it was shooting directly into the sun, on a snowy day, without a lens hood. Nikkormat FTn with Nikon NIKKOR S.C.-Auto 50 mm f/1.4 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Being as this was my first time using a Nikon for anything other than a cursory glance, it’s the first chance I’ve had to use their colour-coded depth of field scale. Rather than lines with corresponding aperture numbers, each line pair for a given aperture is a different colour; this colour corresponds to the colour with which the lens aperture is painted onto the aperture ring. I found the colour coding system much quicker and clearer in use, if a little less detailed, and a little more haphazard in bright light.

Conclusion

This is the first Nikon I’ve owned, and to be frank, I now see how they earned their reputation and market success. It’s a well conceived, well engineered device that performs its intended function to a T; likewise, I’m rather enamoured of the lens. While I freely admit it’s larger and heavier than I tend to like, it’s by no means unwieldy or burdensome to carry.

I can’t conceivably see why I’d want to part with this camera.

Footnote

Some of the fine detail appears a little mottled in the scans. Based on the negatives, it appears to be software induced. I am working through solutions at the moment.

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