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Nikon F5 Test Review
© 2005 KenRockwell.com

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Nikon F5

I'd get mine here, or maybe try here.

INTRODUCTION

"Imported from the future" when introduced in 1996 and exported to the past in 2004.

The F5 was the last Nikon film camera designed for professional news and sports photography. The F6 replaces it as of 2005, however since 35mm film has been replaced by digital the F6 is intended more to fill the need of the few rich amateurs who also bought the F5. Pro news and sports photographers today shoot digital for print. Film is great for quality, but too cumbersome for journalism when digital today is good enough.

Canon contract photographer and factory spokesmodel Arthur Morris told us the Nikon F5 was the world's best camera in person in January 2001. If someone that Canon spiffs to push Canon cameras tell you this, you ought to believe him. The F5 is also extremely durable. I read a story about one with over a million exposures on it.

Not bad, considering today great F5s sell for next to nothing used.

SPECIFICATIONS

Nikon's specifications are here.

Why do some people consider the F5 to be the world's best camera? (personally I prefer the Mamiya 6)

1.) The color matrix meter. The color matrix meter for the first time allows the meter to ensure light colors like my favorite yellow come out as light as they should, and that dark colors like red come out as dark as they should. I have to compensate my F100 manually for this. Also since the F5 has over 1,000 meter segments it can predict the subject and choose the correct metering algorithm far more accurately than any other camera.

The 3D properties are meaningless.

The meter in a camera is almost the only property of a camera that has any effect on the final photograph. The meter is very important, and the F5 has the best there is. This meter alone could make the F5 the world's best camera.

2.) Durability. The F5 is built as tough as a tank, and more precisely to boot. Unlike amateur cameras like the Canon EOS-1V and Nikon F100 which have film rewind forks and God knows what else made of plastic, the F5 seems as sturdy as any Nikon ever made.

When the plastic rewind fork of an amateur camera like the EOS-1V or F100 breaks you cannot get the film out of the camera unless you have access to a darkroom. That means you cannot use the camera any more until you have both access to a darkroom to remove the film and then have the camera repaired. The F5 is also unique among current AF cameras in having a manual rewind crank, so you can get your film out even with dead batteries. If you are a professional journalist this is important, since your photos are worthless a day later if they are stuck inside the camera until you can get back to the hotel after dark and miss the FedEx pickup. Of course pro journalists all shoot the D1H today, not old film cameras like the F5.

3.) Speed. The AF motor in the F5 is brutally fast, and the AF-S motor driver is also beastly. It probably can rip a discount lens like a Sigma to shreds. The AF speed is super fast to support the fast frame rates of the F5. The amateur photo mag reviewers just don't get this; go play with an F5 and see how it beats the lens around mercilessly to focus fast enough to get your shots at 8 frames per second. Don't be an idiot and put discount glass on your F5.

DISCUSSION

I have almost never photographed with this camera, but have played with it many times. People keep asking me my opinions, so here goes. Be warned, if I ever actually took one out and ran film through it my opinions may be very, very different. Even worse, I would probably fall in love with the color matrix meter and then have to haul this beast around with me all the time.

Durability

This camera very quickly squelches any bellyaching about Nikon no longer making "real" cameras. It seems to be hewn from a solid block of metal. It makes you want to use it for a hammer and makes you feel guilty putting anything other than a real lens on it.

AF Speed

AF speed is faster than any other Nikon. In fact, you may feel sorry for your lenses being beaten around so fast as it focused. Honest, one friend was afraid that a non-Nikon brand lens was going to be destroyed by the F5's brutally fast focusing. Just as well, I never have figured out why some amateurs are stupid enough to put discount glass on an F5. Too many people forget that the camera is for your convenience; it has nothing to do with the technical quality of the photo, unlike the lens which is far more important.

Too many amateurs ask me and then go right ahead and waste all the money they spent on an F5 by trying to save money and putting some Tamron, Spooginar, Tokina, RectalPro, Kenko, Quantaray, Sigma, Cambron or some other discount lens on this camera. Don't.

Inferior, outdated ergonomics

I find the F5 ergonomics less convenient than the F100. That's because the F5 is the oldest camera in Nikon's lineup.

The F5 viewfinder has weak selected focus area indicators compared to the F100 and others.

The power switch and metering mode switch requires two hands to operate. This was done with expensive mechanical lock-outs to ensure that a professional journalist doesn't accidentally knock a setting and loose a day's shooting, but for me these are simply a pain.

There is no simple lock for the AF area selector switch as there is on the F100 and N80 and D1X and D70 etc. On the F5 you have to go into a custom function to lock and unlock it. Otherwise you will go bananas knocking it by accident. The N80 is newer and better.

The F5's AE lock button cannot be set to hold the reading after one releases the button, as one can do on the F100. Therefore one needs to hold this button while exposing, and I fear that I'd blur slow speed shots by having to keep pressure on this button while exposing.

The F5 cannot be set to rewind automatically at the end of the roll as the other cameras can. You have to tell it to do this by hand each time, after which it rips right through it faster than any other Nikon.

So who buys the F5 in 2005?

I doubt anyone buys new F5s anymore.

Rich amateurs are dumping theirs for digital, so by all means go snap up a bargain on a like-new used camera.

Good photographers don't often buy F5s. The people who usually buy them are rich amateurs who confuse camera quality with image quality, or newspaper photo departments who used to issue the F5s to their photographers.

The F5 is for sports and wildlife. Only misguided rich people buy it for landscapes and portraits. News replaced the F5 with the D1 series years ago. For still subjects any camera is OK, and for the price of the F5 you could buy a far superior medium or large format camera if you broadened your outlook.

Professionals don't often buy F5s either. The photographer from your local newspaper turned in the F5 he was issued by his employer years ago when the D1s replaced them. Ask him: he'll probably admit that he'd never be able to afford an F5 on his own pay. F5s made sense for newspapers because the PJs love to beat the hell out of other people's cameras. The F5s are built to take this abuse, and are warranted for three years, even under professional abuse, unlike the one year warranty on every other Nikon camera. This warranty alone justified the cost of this camera for journalism.

Today for journalism the D1 series replaces the old F5. If you need film quality for still subjects, as I've said before, skip 35mm entirely and shoot a larger format camera. If you need immediacy for news then get a D1H. I'm unsure what purpose the F5 serves any more.

Nikon was running a rebate on the F5 when I bought my F100 at full price in September 1999. An F5 would have been about the same price. I chose the F100 because of its much lighter weight and better ergonomics.

The F5 weighs a ton and a half. Unlike the Canon EOS-1V, you cannot use anything smaller than the permanently attached 8-AA battery holder. The F5 is not a camera to be taken along for fun on vacation.

The only genuinely useful things I can recall the F5 doing for me that is not done on the other Nikon cameras is the unique color Matrix meter and the ability to set manual shutter speeds as long as 30 minutes without an idiotic external electronic cable release. I bought the idiotic cable release for my F100, so I don't need that long exposure feature on the F5. Everything else, like interchangeable viewfinders, you simply don't need. I will admit again that if I tried the F5 more I just might fall in love with the color meter and then have to haul it around everywhere.

The size and weight are why I don't use it today.

To be honest, this was a camera for people shooting action and news professionally and who need photos on film. It is not for landscapes. If you are a professional journalist you really ought to have a D1x or D1H instead, and if you are shooting still subjects you ought to have a larger format camera. Therefore, I don't see a lot of reason for the F5 other than people who need film for sports. This illustrates the difference between a great camera and one that I'd actually want to use for making photographs.

MORE

See here for lots of internal details.

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