02 July 2008


Goin' back to Cali... I mean film

for-fire-use at Flickr.comI've been writing more about photography lately, largely because I've been doing more of it, especially weird stuff like high dynamic range pictures—it's a hobby I can play with even when I'm on chemotherapy or otherwise ill. I've been happy using my Nikon digital SLR and small lens collection.

This week, Nikon introduced a new high-end DSLR, the D700. Of course it was fun to read about, but my D50 is just fine; the D700 is far beyond anything I need to use, and at $3000 is well out of any price league I'm likely to be in for a long time.

One thing I have been wanting to try is cross processing, of which I've seen some great examples in Kris Krug's photostream at Flickr. Cross processing, however, requires a film (not digital) camera. It usually involves taking slide film and instructing your film lab to process it using the same chemicals used for print film. Like HDR, cross processing creates some bizarre, surreal effects, as in these pictures from Kris. Taking some black-and-white shots might be fun too.

However, my last film SLR, a Nikon F601, died several years ago (the film transport crapped out while we were taking family Christmas pictures). I still use a couple of the lenses I bought for it on my digital D50, but I currently have no way to take film photos. Fortunately, now that we're well into the 21st century and the digital era, used film cameras are ridiculously cheap. As long as you're not going for a Leica or a Nikon F6, it's actually difficult to spend more than a couple of hundred bucks on even a very nice older film body.

So yesterday, Canada Day, I hunted around on eBay a bit and found this:

Used Nikon F4s

It is a used, slightly but deliciously worn Nikon F4s, which was Nikon's revolutionary top-of-the-line professional camera from 1988 to 1996, when it was replaced by the F5. The photographer at my wedding in 1995 (likely the year the particular one above was made) used the F4, as did many photojournalists, sport photographers, and other professionals a couple of decades ago. I put in a bid for the F4s above, and I won.

I've tried out a used F4 in a local camera store before, and unless you've handled a top-shelf professional DSLR—film or digital—the heft of the thing is a little hard to describe. Like the current flagship Nikon D3 or Canon 1D, it is large, extremely solid, heavy, and yet still very nice to hold. While it is a fully electronic, autofocus and autoexposure camera, all the controls on the F4 are analog: dials, buttons, and levers. There is no external LCD panel or menu system. It feels like you could hammer nails or fend off a robber with it and keep taking pictures afterwards.

Although it was designed when I was in my early years at university, there are numerous ways the F4 outperforms any camera I've ever owned, including its fast and precise continuous shooting frame rate (5.7 frames per second, almost twice as fast as my D50), and at least basic compatibility with (as far as I can tell) every F-mount SLR lens Nikon has ever made—from the earliest manual-focus models from 1959 to the latest autofocus ones from 2008—including all the ones I own. The F4 is midway through the line of professional Nikon F cameras made over the past 50 years:

F-evolution by Jeremy Allen at Flickr

All this for just over $200. That's about the price of a nice pair of boots, a decent set of men's clothes, an 8 GB iPod nano, or a low-end zoom lens today; $100 cheaper than Nikon's current low-budget student manual SLR, the FM10; about a third as much as the current intro-level Nikon or Canon digital SLRs (or what I paid for the D50 in 2006); and a mere 10% of the $2000 cost of a new F6—or of the F4 itself at introduction in September 1988.

My new/old F4 should arrive in a week or two. Now the question is: where do I buy slide or B&W film in Vancouver these days?

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Nice find. I might have to go that route soon, as the shutter on my film body is getting unreliable.

They make a B&W film now that is processed in colour chemicals, and can be purchased anywhere (Walmart, etc.). This can be handy as even harder than finding a store handling B&W is finding a lab that processes it.
HA! An F4. I dreamed of that camera when I was a kid. Great find. As for film, Beau stocks lots of it, as does Lens and Shutter and Leo's Downtown. I have about 100 rolls of Konica SR-G 120-size film in my freezer if you ever want to cross-process with a Hasselblad...

As for black and white film, Kodak still makes plenty of Tri-x and they just announced a new T-MAX film (amazing, really). Fuji makes 2 colour negative films (I think) and Kodak makes 3 or 4, but they're still available. Heck, Beau has some 8x10 sheet film that they order in for a customer....

Ohhhhhh, 8x10... But I digress. The number of film stocks has dropped dramatically in the last few years, and you'll not be finding any Polaroid anywhere, that's for sure. I have about 25 sheets of 4x5 type-55 that I have to shoot off, as it's about to expire. It'll be a shame to see it go, but that's progress, I suppose (just like how that $2500 F4 is worth just a couple of hundred dollars...)
I got a mint-condition Pentax ME Super from my stepdad a few years ago (he'd bought it in the early 80s and never used it). I like using it but have yet to play with Xpro; the cheap bastard in me hates paying so much for film. I like it for when I feel like spending more time preparing shots (manual focus and adjustments, etc.).

Hope you have fun with it. Maybe we can do a film photowalk sometime.

(And I have no idea where to buy film beyond London Drugs but know lots of people I could ask).
As Alastair says, Beau Photo (https://www.beauphoto.com/) always has a great selection and it's a fun shop to explore as well.

Best of luck with the cross-processing, it's a lot of fun.
How is it that, in all these years, I've never been to Beau Photo? Weird. Thanks for the pointer.
Hey Derek.

My daughter is doing BA (Photography) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where the first year students still use film. We bought a whole swag of Fuji Provia 400, Kodak T-Max 400, Poloroid and other films from B&H Photo via the web - arrived from across the world in less than a week. You might want to give it a try. The T-Max is great - check my photos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/24208164@N05/


Steve Taylor, Melbourne, Australia
Hey, I'm not sure what part of Bby you are in, but my favorite photo developing shop was always the little one at the Kensington Mall at Kensington and Hastings--the shop is just in front of the Shoppers Drug Mart. Last time I was there was before I moved downtown, so about a year and a half, so I hope it's still there, but they carried B&W film and consistently did an excellent job developing the film. I really miss that place and need to find somewhere downtown to start taking my film, I've got 5 rolls waiting to be developed!
Ariane, I think you mean Scenic Photo at Kensington Square. I'll check it out.

I also appreciate the pointer to Beau Photo. Cool place. I dropped by there, Lens & Shutter (got some expired Ektachrome 64T and Ilford XP2 B&W film to try), and Broadway Camera yesterday, just for fun. I'm heading into serious film nerd territory now.

Thanks. I think.
yep, that's the one! if he hasn't retired by now, the guy who runs the store is really great and friendly too. :-)
As of June 8, this camera has wound its way through various locations in upstate New York, flown out of JFK Airport in New York City, cleared Canada Customs, and should be on its way to me. But I don't know if it cleared customs in Toronto or Vancouver, so that will affect how quickly it arrives.
By the way, anyone looking for a cheaper manual film camera still has some choices: there are lots of Pentax K1000 SLRs still out there (they made millions of them for more than 20 years between 1976 and 1997), and Nikon even sells a brand new FM10 (actually made under contract by Cosina in China) as a student/intro camera -- though it's a bit pricey, since you can get a much better used camera cheaper.
Oh, and Canon's Rebel K2 is still around as well.
Okay, the camera's here.
You will like that F4, it is a real work horse, even if the AF is a bit primative by today's standards.

The fast frame rate is good, but frankly, it gets pretty expensive shooting film at 5.7 fps. I find motor drive shots are better left to digital, especially if you're on a budget.

As far as universal compatability, I wouldn't go that far. There are many lenses that are either hobbled (such as the "G" or DX lenses) as well as a number that you can't mount at all. In fact, the lens on the F2AS in the picture of the F-series is a 55 f1.2 nikkor that cannot be mounted on the F4 at all.

If you'd like, link through my picture and send me an email, I have a pdf that you might want to go along with the new camera.

Jeremy Allen
As far as I know, non-AI lenses like the 55mm f/1.2 will mount and operate if you flip up the F4's little aperture coupler and then use stop-down metering: they're just as functional as they would be on an F or F2 in that case. You can even mount those nasty old '60s fisheye lenses that require you to flip up the mirror to avoid breaking it.

It's true that the newer lenses without aperture rings only work in program or shutter-priority modes (no aperture-priority or manual), and that DX lenses vignette, but the amazing thing is that the autofocus functions. It's still pretty remarkable that lenses designed and built decades after the F4 came out will work at all with it, never mind as well as they do. Same with my SB600 flash, which came out almost 10 years after the F4 ceased production.
Just be careful of the 2.1cm f/4 (Biogon-clone) wideangle that requires mirror lock-up; it requires a special tab on the lens mount that's only on F, F2, and some early Nikkormats.

The rear element is a circle with one edge lopped off, and needs the tab to maintain registration with the locked-up mirror. The non-retrofocus fisheyes (8 f/8, 7.5 f/5.6, 10 OP f/5.6, 6 f/5.6) have much smaller rear elements and lack the registration tab.

You are right about the "pre-AI" or "prong" lenses being able to mount and will work via the stop down method of metering, but the 55 f1.2 and some 35 f1.4's are special cases and CANNOT be mounted on the F4 per the manual. Some other fairly rare lenses also cannot be mounted on the F4 like the aforementioned 21 f4 and a small list that can be found in the manual.

The 55 f1.2 is probably the least rare of the forbidden lenses and is why I mentioned it, lest someone damage their camera because of it.
I am sure you will love the F4. After almost 10 years experimenting with digitals (latest one a D80), some friends re-ignited the film fire in my mind. As a result, in less than 3 months I ended up owing one F2A (in mint+ condition), one F5 (mint-) and two F4 (one early model and one latest one). Oh yes, and the following lenses: 16mm f/3.5, 20mm f/2.8 AF, 28mm f/3.5, 50mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2.5, 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D, 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 AD-D and a Sigma 70-300mm DG APO EX.

I consider the F2A and the latest F4 the best jewels in my collection. The first, because I used to have such a camera when I was a youngster (18 years old), and the second because it is such a nice camera to use.

The F4 can take almost all Nikon-made lenses in the past 50 years, even the F5 can claim that. It also uses dials instead of menus and switches, just like the real cameras should be. And it is much lighter compared to the F5, even with the six-AA cells battery holder. I also love its simplicity compared to the F5, I do not need 5 or 50 autofocus sensors, all I need is one with the ability to lock the focus and the F4 provides that.

Finding film is not difficult here (Greece), I have narrowed my selection to Fuji Velvia for slides and Tri-X for B&W. I do not fancy negative films, so I am happy with the above.

The biggest problem I got, going back to film, was the quality of processing that the typical photo stores do on film these days. Most of them haven't even fired up their developing stations for years, so my first films were returned to me full of marks. I was so frustrated. Eventually, I located a pro shop which develops print and slide films and I send all my films to them. It takes a week to have them developed and returned to me, but it's well worth it.

And of course, I had to get a film/slide scanner, in order to scan my negatives/slides in my computer, a Plustek 7500i.

I am sure you will have much fun with the F4, they do not make them like that anymore.
It's been over a year since this post, and I've taken plenty of pictures with the F4, including lots of black and white, a bit of cross-processed slide film, and even some nice stuff on old colour print stock. I'm still enjoying it—I have my first roll of Fuji Provia slide film in it right now, and plan to cross-process that too.

When I was 18 an F4 (introduced that year) was far out of my reach. I had an old manual-focus Nikon FG and a couple of lenses (you can see me with it on the far right here in 1986), but they did the job.