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Nikon F - 1959
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• First perfected mechanical 35mm SLR

• Many other firsts, too

• $329.50 with f2 lens in 1959 ($2469 in 2010 dollars)

Twenty-three years after the first 35mm SLR, the Kiné Exakta, the first perfected mechanical SLR finally appeared: the famous Nikon F. Almost all of its main features had appeared in earlier cameras, but never all together:

• Instant-return mirror

• Instant-reopen diaphragm

• Depth-of-field preview

• Self timer

• Interchangeable finders

• Interchangeable viewing/focusing screens

• 100% viewfinder

• Mirror lockup

• Optional 250-exposure back

• Optional motor drive

Not only did the Nikon F have the features, but it had great Nikkor lenses, all the way from 21mm to 1000mm. Its ruggedness became legendary. It came from Nikon, makers of what were arguably the world's best rangefinders. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Nikon F was a system.

The Nikon F was so perfect that its replacement, the F2, didn't show up for 12 years.

I called the Nikon F the "first perfected mechanical 35mm SLR". After the Nikon F, numerous 35mm SLRs appeared in the early 1960s that had what I call the essential features: focal-plane shutter, instant-return mirror, instant-reopen diaphragm, and, of course, pentaprism finder and interchangeable lenses. Before the Nikon F, only one obscure camera, the Zunow, had them all. The Nikon F defined what a serious SLR had to be.

With the mechanical camera perfected, development after the Nikon F went towards making SLRs with the essential features cheaper (even at age 15, I could afford a Konica FP) and making them more automated. But the days of waist-level viewfinders, mirror blackout, diaphragms that reopened only when you advanced the film, and expensive leaf-shutter cameras were permanently over. Any makers who didn't follow the Nikon F's lead were history.

My Nikon F has a serial number of 6424073, which makes it one of the first 25,000 made. It has the original logo, as you can see below.

I should explain my dented viewfinder in the photo below. I bought my Nikon F from KEH with a Photomic finder, as shown below. I wanted a plain finder so the camera would look as original as possible. I was disappointed to discover that plain finders in good condition cost almost as much as I paid for the whole camera, so I settled on a dented one at a reasonable price. (Reasonable for Nikon F finders, that is.)

As unattractive as the Photomic finders were, they did allow Nikon to stay current with developments in TTL exposure metering during the 1960s. The first Photomic in 1962 (mine, shown below, is almost that old) was one of the first, if not the first, shutter- and aperture-coupled CdS meters for any SLR. (Technically it wasn't built-in, however, which is why the Minolta SR-7 has that distinction.) Later Photomic finders even gave the Nikon F through-the-lens (TTL) metering--without changing the body!

The first sequence of ads below are for the 12 months of 1959, the year of the F's launch. You can see the transformation of their marketing form rangefinder to SLR.

In the next double-page spread (May 1961; shown as two ads here), Nikon attempts to encapsulate the whole history of the 35mm SLR.

Popular Photography reviewed the Nikon F in its August 1959 issue. They liked it, but didn't rave about it. Note that Pop Photo referred to the new camera as the "AR", for "Automatic Reflex", which is also what Nikon called it in their ads until December 1959 when they just called it the Nikon F, without the "Automatic Reflex" qualifier.

Modern Photography in their August 1959 issue was a lot more enthusiastic.

Below is a Nikon F brochure that appears to date from 1963-1965, as it shows a button-switch Photomic finder, which was introduced in 1963. The Photomic T finder was introduced in 1965, so if the brochure were issued after then it would have shown the newer finder. However, note the early serial number on page 5.

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Nikon FNikon FNikon FAd from Popular Photography, Jan. 1959
Ad from Popular Photography, Feb. 1959Ad from Popular Photography, March 1959Ad from Popular Photography, April 1959Ad from Popular Photography, May 1959