It doesn’t look very interesting with the external gears of an Argus C3 or clusters of finely milled knobs on a Barnack Leica. There are no fun, quirky controls like the bottom-mounted film advance of an early Canonet or the Kombi-plunger of a Voigtländer Vitessa. It’s not particularly weighty or feels very authoritative in the hand like an F2 Photomic or even a cheap Nikkormat. You know, the shutter doesn’t even sound particularly pleasing and it’s a SEQUEL for chrissake! I would really HATE this camera if it hadn’t turned out to be everything I needed!
I have been shooting on various vintage 35mm cameras for almost 15 years. Rangefinders, view cameras, SLR’s, German, Japanese, American, Russian; 35mm cameras made in the 1930’s to ones made in the 21st century. And of all of them, I have found the Nikon FM2n to be arguably the most useful and practical for everyone from the student to the serious amateur to maybe even professionals, despite the fact that the FM2n is merely an upper tier consumer grade 35mm SLR.
I was born in 1981. The following year, Nikon released the FM2, a seemingly modest upgrade to 1977’s Nikon FM. The FM was a fully manual 35mm SLR that was slicker, easier to use, just less fidgety and dare I say, less clunky than the earlier Nikkormat models (no offense to Nikkormats, I love them too!). The FM was my first Nikon (purchased circa 2005 and still clicking along perfectly) and turned me onto the world class lens system and rugged yet precise build quality that I came to depend on in later years. The FM2 discreetly conceals its evolutionary yet substantial upgrades inside a body that looks nearly identical to the original FM. Unfortunately, the Leica-like mystique of the FM with its lack of model name emblazoned obviously across the front of the body and need to decipher the model from the serial number was obliterated by the ugly advertisey “FM2” inscription that became the standard Nikon identifier for years to come, even on DSLR’s. But then, maybe a photographer needed to let all the FM shooters know that he was packing something quite a deal more serious than their student cameras.
The FM, as with many mechanical cameras had a top speed of 1/1000th of a second. The FM2 obliterated this boundary, not by 1 stop but by TWO whole stops, giving the shooter the ability to quicken his shutter to an inconceivable 1/4000th of a second. That’s actually 1 stop faster than the F2 and F3, the professional Nikon bodies on the market in the early 1980’s. Cue bokeh shooters; now you can shoot at wide apertures in daylight or keep that high speed film burning through in the bright morning after a critical low light night time shoot.
Speaking of low light, let’s talk about the FM2n’s meter. The original FM featured three red LED’s as its meter display. If you got disoriented, it could be confusing as to which one represented over, under or correctly exposed since all three were just red dots. The FM2 brought the now standard LED display system of “+ 0 -“. The only improvement I’ve seen on this, that makes meter reading slightly more effortless is the display of Cosina’s 1995 take on Nikon’s FM, the FM10. This camera features a green “0” correct exposure indicator with red “+” and “-” symbols that really split hairs on what defines “at a glance” exposure readings.
I prefer these simple, uncluttered LED displays to swing needles because while they aren’t as comprehensive, as a Print Film-Shooting Documentarian, I need a built-in meter more for exposure confirmation than to measure quarter stop increments of my shadow detail. Get a handheld if you’re shooting slides in contrasty light! Some swing needle advocates claim LEDs aren’t as visible in daylight but I’ve had no such problems and happily shoot my FM2n’s night and day. So onto the meter itself.
TTL center-weighted averaging meter, standard, right? Fine. But the FM2 takes the FM’s top 3200 ISO and goes a stop more to a super grainy, super sensitive 6400 ISO. The standard of professional camera bodies and good light meters. Only a few film cameras ever featured built-in meters that went to 12800 and personally, I spend a lot of time at 6400 because it seems that after 1600, you may as well just push it all the way till your negatives are too thin to use, and for me 12800 is JUST beyond that.
Now, you’re going to need a nice bright focusing screen to see your subjects in 6400 lighting conditions. The ever-popular and strongly defended F3 fails badly in this regard so far as I’m concerned. The F3’s meter goes to 6400 but good luck trying to see the tiny, ugly, battery-saving LCD meter display and focusing, even with that 100% finder, is a dull, eye-straining affair. Yet the consumer grade FM2 brings a series of focusing screens that are 1/3 of a stop brighter than the FM screens (and maybe even more than a 1/3 stop brighter than the F3 Red Dot screens). FM/FE series screens are very compatible though so it’s possible to install these series 2 and even series 3 (for the FM3a) screens in earlier FM’s and FE’s. Nikon still sells the series 3 screens new actually. I have yet to try a series 3 screen but I’ve read that these are so bright that there is a lack of contrast in them that actually makes focusing more difficult rather than easier. So the series 2 screens, I use common K2 screens, seem to be a good balance for the available light shooter.
So you might have noticed that this article is about the FM2n but I’ve been talking about the FM2. That’s because these bodies are totally identical up to this point (though there may be some FM2’s sporting series 1 focusing screens). The difference comes in with the shutter, but even that is not so clear a divider between these cameras.
Nikon achieved the triumphant 4000 top shutter speed by employing ultra thin and light weight shutter curtains made of titanium with a compelling honeycomb pattern stamped into them. Previous consumer grade shutters by Nikon were made of thicker aluminum. So the groundbreaking FM2 features these legendary titanium shutter curtains while only early FM2n’s sport them. Later and most FM2n’s returned to smooth aluminum shutter curtains. I’ll let the hardcore collectors discuss what serial numbers these changes were made during.
Now, here’s a point of contention. Most people will go on and on about the robustness of the Nikon titanium shutter. Afterall, the F2’s shutter is titanium and many have yet to be replaced or even calibrated 40 years later yet still slam out shots all day without flinching. But my experience has differed. Long story short, I currently own 3 FM2n’s and have gone through 5 to get to these 3. Why? Because the titanium shutter curtains have failed on me several times. In two cases I returned the camera, in one I had the shutter replaced with aluminum (titanium replacements are no longer available anyway) and in the last case I will be doing the same when I get around to it. So personally, I don’t recommend anyone buy an FM2 for regular use unless the shutter has been replaced with an aluminum one. And I recommend buying a newer FM2n that came out of the factory fitted with an aluminum shutter. It’s easy to see the difference, titanium shutters have the distinct honeycomb pattern and aluminum curtains are just “normal” looking, flat, smooth metal.
So that is a sort of engineering difference between the FM2 and FM2n so here’s the only difference in practice, the flash sync speed on the FM2 is 1/200 and this was increased to 1/250 on the FM2n. This, of course, requires a cosmetic change to the shutter speed dial and an FM2n can be identified by this and its serial number (found on the back of the top plate just below the film advance lever) which starts with a capital letter “N”. “N” apparently stands for “new”.
If you’re not a Nikon shooter or you’re used to their earlier models, there are a few points about late model FM’s and subsequent FM series cameras that I really enjoy. Aiding in the simplicity of operation while adding functionality, Nikon employs three combined functions. In the FM series, we no longer have to do the “Nikon Shuffle” when mounting a lens. Nikkor lens aperture is automatically indexed by the body to facilitate more rapid lens changing like a modern SLR. Battery check is integrated into the meter read-out. If you don’t see LED’s firing and your shutter is not set to bulb, the battery is drained. Similar model cameras have separate buttons for the battery check but with the FM2, it’s inclusive and intuitive. Speaking of which, here’s my favourite feature of the FM series. Early FM’s and other models featured a separate shutter release lock around the collar of the shutter release. In late model FM’s and the FM2, this shutter release lock, as well as meter toggle switch, are incorporated into the film advance lever. To both activate your meter AND unlock your shutter, simply pull the advance lever out to its first stopping position at 30 degrees. To shut the meter off and lock the shutter, just return the advance lever to the home position. This greatly helps prevent accidental exposures and unnecessary battery drain as well as ensures that the camera is ready to fully serve you as soon as the film has been advanced. I don’t know why this design wasn’t incorporated by other camera-makers; it would be an elegant addition to the Leica MP but, in my opinion, should have been on board since the M6 and I have no clue as to why Voigtländer doesn’t do this with their Bessa line as it would be another practicality point against Leica (à la conventional film door). At any rate, these features strongly contribute to the ease of use of the FM2n, putting it above something like an F2 for speed, intuitiveness and general gestalt.
So that’s the basic lo-down on the FM2n. Why is it so great though? I think it’s great because of all the things it’s not! It’s not a very fun classic camera compared to the thousands of other interesting classic cameras available. But it does everything I need it to do, and often more, without any glitz or glam, just smart utilitarianism. It just sits well in my hands not claiming to be anything more or less than it really is. There is no automation or fine German design that might over-promise capability or enjoyment of use and then under-deliver in the streets when I’m under the gun. The FM2n is invisible. It’s not remarkable. It’s the camera that disappears and allows me to shoot by pure reflex. My only affection for the FM2n is that I have very little affection for it and therefore it allows me to get the job done without clouding my decision to use it with the hope or magic that a more funky, quirky or exotic classic camera brings to the table. The FM2n is a no-nonsense film camera. But unlike other no-nonsense film cameras like the much more popular Pentax K1000 or even more discreet Olympus OM-1, the FM2n does not stop at the boundaries that most similar cameras do. It’s the go anywhere, do anything all manual 35mm SLR at a reasonable price that’s not too big, not too loud and won’t let you down.
I rely on a small fleet of 3 FM2n’s on which to shoot weddings. If you’re not familiar, wedding photography requires stamina and laser fast reflexes in order to get each crucial shot that unfolds nearly continuously through an 8-12 hour shoot. During weddings, personally historical moments are happening constantly around the photographer and he/she has to be ever prepared to release the shutter with perfect exposure and focus every time. The ergonomics, pleasing strain-free viewfinder and extensive exposure controls ensure that, even as a 100% manual shooter, I’m always ready to make art out of the moment. Discreetness of camera is also critical to the candid wedding shooter or any photojournalist. The FM2n, shrinks into your hands, not as well as an OM-1 but more than an F2. The metal shutter is certainly not going to win any quiet contests against a Leica but it doesn’t have that Tha-Klunk sound of an FM10 or Voigtländer Bessa. The ratcheting sound of the advance will be missed by most people if you work it fast, as you can, and should, be doing with this little camera. The rewind crank is of ample size, clearance and toughness to spin it as fast as you can without worry of slamming your fingertips into the oversized head of many professional F bodies or snapping off the crank as I often see on Mamiya 35mm SLR’s. If quietness and size are not a concern, a motordrive can also be installed and removed mid-roll, unlike the F2 and F3 which require you to install and remove drives between rolls. Though very light in weight for an all metal camera, the FM2 was designed to operate in extreme temperatures and mine certainly don’t seem to mind being thrown into a camera bag, slamming into lenses during a rapid body change. I don’t have to baby these cameras as I feel I have to with my Leica M6 TTL. The FM2n just does exactly what I ask of it and doesn’t ask for anything in return.
Long story short, I really love my FM2n’s and highly recommend them to students who have a higher than average but not not super crazy budget (expect to pay around $250 at KEH.com for a good FM2n body only) and want a camera for life or skilled film photographers who want a solid available light SLR that can handle abuse when necessary.
Please enjoy a few of my favourite photos that I’ve produced using an FM2n throughout the past 4 years. And thanks for reading!
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