If you happen across an old Nikkormat in a junk shop etc, you might wonder, what the hell is this?!
It doesn’t SAY Nikon but it has a Nikkor lens and the name plate reads “Nikkormat,” or “Nikomat.” Is this some sort of cheap Nikon knock-off? But it’s weighty and machining is quite handsome. What is going on?
Back in the ’60’s, the suffix “mat” was ultra hip. There’s Spotmatics, Yashica Mats, one hour photo labs were called PhotoMats. And of course, there’s the Nikkormat. I believe that “mat” was short for “automatic,” which has been the Holy Grail for consumer photography for decades. Yet early “automatic” cameras were fully manual cameras by today’s standards. Things like auto return mirrors and automatically resetting frame counters or having a built-in light meter were considered automatic in the ’60’s but became standard into the ’70’s.
The Nikkormat line are, in fact, official Nikon cameras but they didn’t get the “Nikon” moniker because they were intended to be consumer grade offerings with fewer features than Nikon F cameras. Chiefly, Nikkormats do not have interchangeable viewfinder/meter heads, (earlier models) can’t accept motordrives and the series received auto-exposure before the F series, at a time when pro’s didn’t trust automation. Nikkormats and Nikomats (as they were called in Japan), were Photo 101 cameras before the K1000 was created. They weren’t intended to be taken very seriously. Even today, Nikkormats usually sell for about half the cost of a K1000.
Ironically, though, Nikkormats are probably some of the most dependable, capable, and FUN 35mm SLR’s ever built. Nikkormats have near full access to Nikon’s extensive, decades old professional F-mount lens line. And we all know that lenses are what take the photo. Forget that passé act of screwing the lens into the body, that 1960’s Pentax, Mamiya and many cheaper brands required. Nikkormats rock the bayonet lens mount, just like a pro body. Also, unlike Pentax’s cheaper 1960’s SLR’s, you can meter on a Nikkormat WITHOUT STOPPING DOWN! And what’s this? You get a meter display on top of the camera AND inside the viewfinder! You don’t even need to turn on the meter with a separate switch! Metering was not an afterthought with the Nikkormat, it is a as much a part of the design as the film advance.
Nikkormats also feature DoF preview if you care about that, but more importantly, they have Mirror Lock-Up. It’s not until the 1972 Olympus OM-1 and not in many other 60’s or 70’s consumer level SLR’s that MLU is present. This and the availability of cheap but super high resolving Nikkor Micro lenses make a case for the Nikkormat as a well-equipped, budget macro image machine.
When you hold a Nikkormat, it feels like the whole camera was carved from a single solid block of steel. It’s not as jagged in the hand as an Argus C3 “brick” but it does maintain the feel of a veritable block of metal. Design is austere and utilitarian without looking cheap. Tolerances are reasonably tight and fit is very consistent. What probably makes the Nikkormat construction feel good in the hand though, is that no components were made any smaller or lighter than they absolutely needed to be. Everything is big and spacious with large expanses of flat, non-contoured quality-grade metal. Leatherette is tightly applied, both around the body and atop the prism head. Finishes are enduring.
My Photo 101 camera was the Pentax K1000. And I love K1000’s to this day, but the first time I handled a Nikkormat, I felt like I’d been missing out. Nikkormats are cheaper than K1000’s, tougher than K1000’s and, really, can produce higher quality or more varied results with a wider and more nuanced lens system.
Nikkormats are absolutely brutishly beautiful cameras to use, abuse and enjoy. They are everything that Leica is not in terms of grace, style and compactness. And just as Leica was once a war camera, so was the Nikkormat. Ask Greg Marinovich, photojournalist and member of the Bang Bang Club. When people over-use cliche classic camera descriptors like “built like a tank” and “bullet proof,” of all the cameras I’ve ever used, I cannot help but think the Nikkormat line are where these phrases were born.
I discovered my first Nikkormat, an FTn at a pawn shop when I was still only dating my amazing wife. It was only $50 and had a 50/1.4 SC mounted. WOW. Coming from the FM world where the body was about $150 and the 50/1.4 AI was another $150, this was unbelievable. I grew to love the outfit and so I had the body CLA’d for paid work and continue to use that same pawn shop special 50/1.4 SC, my favorite 50mm Nikkor, on my F2sb today. I picked up several FTn’s and pre-AI lenses with time and learned that my favorite Nikkormat is the FT2.
Most people prefer the FT3 and it is the most expensive of the Nikkormat line as a result of the usual internet over-hype. But as a working photographer, I’ll tell you that the FT2 is more practical because it accepts both pre-AI and AI lenses. The FT3 allieviates the need for the Nikon Shuffle but therefore, cannot take pre-AI lenses, which, in my view, is a tragedy.
Oh wait, the Nikon Shuffle? Did I forget to mention this classic Nikon dance move?!
So in the 60’s, as I mentioned, it was unusual for an SLR to have a built-in light meter that didn’t require stop down metering or some other compromise. Nikon’s compromise is that the photographer has to INDEX the aperture of the lens when it is mounted. Since the meter doesn’t “know” what the aperture range of any particular lens is, we have to “tell” it what it is. So to mount any Nikkor lens to a Nikkormat FT, FTn, or FT2 (among others), one must first select a lens that has an Indexing Prong on the aperture ring. Then, one must set the lens aperture to 5.6 and slide the Indexing Pin on the Nikkormat all the way to the right until it stops (right while facing the front of the camera.) Mount the lens as you would any other bayonet mount lens but while doing so one has to allign the Indexing Pin on the body with the Indexing Prong on the lens so that they are engaged/coupled. Twist the lens to lock it into the mount like any other bayonet lens. BUT THEN, you do the Nikon Shuffle. Rotate the aperture ring of the lens to it’s largest then its smallest aperture. You should only have to do this one but I honestly, go from end to end two or three times every time I mount a Nikkor lens to a body. Sometimes I find myself doing it on an AI (Auto Indexing) body like the FM2n too, just out of habit from using the Nikkormats and F2sb.
This may sound like a pain in the ass. Newer Nikons obviously don’t require the photographer to shuffle and even pro body Nikons from the pre-AI era like the F2s and F2sb only require the shuffle, not the set the lens for 5.6 step. But it’s really not a big deal and any old Nikon shooter will tell you that it just becomes a habit. For me, personally, when I mount a Nikkor to a pre-AI body and rack the aperture back and forth, I get a sense of manly confidence like I just loaded a damn machine gun.
Another thing that makes Nikkormats fun is the shutter speed dial. Instead of being positioned atop the camera, the dial is wrapped around like lens mount. Olympus later copied this on their OM line but this method has been surprisingly left behind by SLR designers otherwise. What’s nice about the shutter speed control is that your left hand needs only to work along the lens barrel for adjustments, making your right hand solely in control of the shutter release. It’s a little faster a shooting method once you get down with it. And so that you don’t have to keep turning the camera around to see the shutter speed, Nikon smartly included an optical shutter speed display in the viewfinder. Again, something else the K1000 or similar consumer grade bodies do not feature.
A real head-turner for me too is the addition of a light meter display on the top plate. Many cameras have the display only on the inside of the finder or only on the top of the camera (if only in the form of an accessory meter.) But the Nikkormat features both, allowing the photographer to check exposure, perhaps for candid shots, without lifting the camera to the eye. On the FT2/3 they also added + and – symbols to the top plate display which is quite a nice, albeit small refinement that the FT and FTn lack. If you own/use a Nikkormat and habitually don’t make good use of that top plate display, I recommend trying to incorporate it more, I think you’ll like it. It’s much like shooting with a DSLR. Very forward.
The only drawbacks to the Nikkormat are the limiting top ISO of 1600 and the often jumpy swing needle.
As a guy who shoots some 60% of his work at 6400 ISO, bodies like the Nikkormat, Olympus OM series, Pentax M series, etc that stop at 1600 really bug me. I find that shooting P3200 and Delta 3200 with the Nikkormat ISO setting pegged just over 1600 is great for rating these films at 3200 though so I still kept them in use for paid work for some time.
The Achilles heel though, for me is a service problem that is maybe just part of living in a more humid area of the world. With age, the Nikkormat swing needle meter displays tend to get “jumpy.” They flit back and forth to extreme readings when only the slightest adjustment toe the aperture is made. Apparently this has something to do with a corrosion that builds on the electronics. A simple cleaning cures it. But if you live in a more humid region such as on the coast etc, the issue will likely return, as it has with every one of the five Nikkormats I’ve owned. The meter is still accurate, but you just need to be patient with the needle as it flies out of control and then will land back in the right spot. This is fine for slower shooting. But it’s no good for the weddings that I used to carry my FTn’s and FT2 to. Sadly, my small feet of three Nikkormats has largely become grounded, having been replaced with newer, less fun bodies with more stable electronics.
Yes, despite all the dependability and robust construction I patron in the lines above, there is this one nagging issue for those of us who feel we need a meter. But, the Nikkormats and I have had some fantastic times together and while I’ve owned five over the years, I don’t think I’ll let these last three leave my collection in the foreseeable future. They see use as back-up cameras, fun cameras and disposable cameras in harsh weather such as the rainy Matt & Kim concert that Steph and I photographed last year. I’d always recommend Nikkormats to anyone looking for a cheap Nikon body who maybe lives in the midwest (!) and enjoys the haptics of full manual shooting. Below are some of my favorite Nikkormat images.
What Nikkormat model is your favorite? Considering buying one?
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
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