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The Nikon FA.
Nikon's Most Advanced Manual Focus Camera.
(1983-1988)
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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Nikon FA MD-15

A black FA with dedicated MD-15 technodrive and 28 mm AI-s Nikkor. enlarge. get a good used one here.

 

NEW: Example Photos from Arizona and New Mexico, November 2008 03 November 2009

 

Introduction

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The Nikon FA is the most advanced manual-focus camera ever designed by Nikon.

The FA is the only camera on earth that can give Program auto exposure along with Matrix metering with all AI and AI-s manual-focus lenses. This may seem like a weird set of conditions, however almost all my shooting is done in Program auto and Matrix, so its important to me.

Because of this, I used an FA for all of my most serious 35mm shooting from 1992-1999 when I replaced it with an F100. The F100 can't Matrix meter with manual lenses, so I had to buy all AF lenses as well, all part of Nikon's master plan.

Unlike any newer Nikons, the FA is also the only camera with Matrix metering which can meter exposures of seemingly unlimited duration. Newer cameras stop at 30 seconds of night exposure, while just like the FE, the FA will sit there for minutes clocking off a perfect time exposure.

The FA has a closed-loop exposure system. This means that while displaying the exposure any time the meter is on, the FA measures the actual exposure after the lens stops down to its taking aperture, just an instant before the actual exposure. This way the FA corrects for any errors in the lens' diaphragm mechanism, so I get exposures more consistent from lens to lens than on newer cameras. Some lenses have diaphragms which are calibrated so that they may over or under expose a little, but on an FA, they all expose perfectly.

The FA has two programs: normal and High. When using AI-s lenses of 135mm and longer, the program shifts three stops. If an AI-s zoom goes to 135mm or longer, it selects the fast program at all settings. Older AI lenses only run in the standard program. There is no manual program shift or any way to select between these manually.

Nikon billed the professional FA as the "Technocamera" at its 1983 introduction. A decade or two later it's still Nikon's most technically advanced manual focus camera. It was discontinued in about 1988. A dedicated MD-15 Technodrive motor drive is also available for it. An advantage of the MD-15 over the current MD-12 is that the MD-15 will power the FA from the motor drives' batteries, so you don't need to bother with the two S76 button cells the camera needs without the drive.

Back in 1983 it was so advanced that no one was able to comprehend its innovation, and therefore never sold well. Today they sell for more used than they ever sold for new. No one trusted the new meter system at the time, which is odd since today it's the basis of every matrix and evaluative system on every brand of 35mm SLR!

The FA was the world's first camera with Matrix metering. See the little button just below the self timer on the lens mount? That's the metering mode switch. Push it in for old-fashioned center weighting. Leave it out for Matrix. Since Matrix was so new few photographers trusted it. You can twist that switch to lock in center weighted if you prefer. If you do, it stays in and shows a little red dot to warn you. Want to see if Matrix is working? Point it at something extremely bright, like a white card in daylight. Press the button to get center weighted and you'll see the exposure reading change.

The FA introduced the world to Matrix metering. Unlike AF cameras, the FA offers Matrix with all manual and autofocus Nikon lenses made since 1977.

The FA also offers Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual and dual Program exposure modes for all these lenses.

The latest G lenses won't work on any manual focus camera or the FA. Most of the VR and DX lenses are also G. There's a page here explaining all these letters.

The FA offers Cybernetic Override, which new Nikons omit but Canon includes. This always active mode allows the camera to alter the chosen aperture or shutter speed in S or A automatic modes if the lighting changes and the camera runs out of suitable shutter speeds or apertures at the setting you've chosen. This way it is almost impossible to make a bad exposure, even if you make a silly choice in shutter- or aperture-priority modes. I like this a lot: with the modern Nikon AF cameras one has to adjust the settings manually if the light changes or get a bad exposure.

The FA offers TTL flash metering, but no automatic provision for fill-flash. In fact, forget fill flash since with flash attached the camera defaults to 1/250 shutter speed except for in manual exposure mode! This means that this camera is much worse then the modern AF cameras for most daytime people photos, since for these I almost always use fill flash. If you want to get fill flash you pretty much have to do this manually.

 

Specifications and Compatibilities

It runs on two S76 or A76 button cells. It runs for many years on a pair. With the MD-15 Technodrive attached it runs from the 8-AAs in the drive.

All modern lenses made since 1977 (except gelded G lenses which lack an aperture ring) are completely compatible with the FA. My 80-200 AF-S even has the lug to kick in the the high-speed program of the FA, and my new 17-35 AF-S also works great in all the exposures and metering modes. Just forget the G lenses, which include most VR lenses. Lenses from 1959 through 1976 can be modified to AI to work with the FA. See more about that here, and see full compatibility information at Nikon Lens Compatibility.

Even though Nikon deliberately cripples newer AF cameras from making full use of older MF lenses, Nikon is decent enough to continue putting the mechanical lugs on new lenses that allow conventional and matrix metering and automatic high-speed program selection on the FA.

AF cameras need a CPU in the lens for S and P modes and Matrix metering to function. The FA offers these functions with any Nikkor lens made since 1977, manual or autofocus, except the latest toy G lenses.

The FA reads lens maximum absolute aperture data MECHANICALLY from lugs on the lens. Look into the lens mount of the FA: you'll see a little black feeler at the bottom. That is pushed different amounts depending on the maximum aperture of a lens. If the FA feels this pin (on every lens made since 1977) you get matrix and aperture readouts in finder. No lug, you get F-- or whatever in finder. See your FA manual.

If you want to screw around, press the lens release button and rotate your lens just a tiny bit on your FA. You'll fool this feeler and get different max and min aperture readings.

AF cameras have no feeler (to save cost for Nikon and to force you to buy AF lenses), so AF cameras have no idea what the absolute maximum aperture of an MF lens is, so one gets no Matrix metering on AF cameras with manual lenses. You get no S or P modes, either. I'm unsure why no S or P modes, probably just also to make you have to buy AF lenses. Honestly though, the camera would not have any idea what aperture it was setting so it couldn't be sure it was making a reasonable choice in program, or display the set aperture in S mode.

See also these pages for the manuals and more information on the FA.

 

Performance

The FA's original Matrix meter isn't as accurate in tough conditions as newer matrix meters in the AF cameras.

The FA will err on the side of overexposure if the scene contrast gets too high.

It sometimes can interpret light stucco (daylight zone VI or LV16) as a zone V, requiring manual compensation.

The FA provides closed-loop exposure control, so it automatically compensates for any inaccuracy in the calibration of a lens' diaphragm. Even the F5 or F6 can't do that. Different samples of Nikon lenses may have slightly differently calibrated apertures, so some AF lenses on AF cameras may expose a little differently than others. They all give the same results, regardless of lens calibration errors, on the FA. This closed loop feature was not used anymore in Nikon cameras after about 1990.

The FA works fine with variable aperture zooms. It will read a little funny in the viewfinder at the long end of the zoom range since it will still base the readings on the presumption on the lens really is as fast as it is at the short end of the range. The only potential minute issue is that the matrix may be fooled a little at the long range, since the camera is thinking that the lens is still as fast as it is at the short end.

The 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 AI-s reads as if it's f/4.5 for all the zoom range. Since the longest zoom setting is 135mm, the FA changes to the fast program, which I don't prefer for this lens. FOr the 35-135, I revert to aperture-priority.

The FA works great in the cold. I have used it for hours at +25ºF (-5ºC) and it works the same as it does at room temperature.

The FA has real knobs so you can change settings like a man. Each knob does only one thing, so it's much easier to use than newer cameras where unneeded features choke your ability to get to the ones you do need.

The FA highlights the 12, 20, 24 and 36 exposure marks in orange, so you'll often have a highlighted number coming up even if you only shoot 36-exposure rolls of film. I don't know that 12-exposure and 20-exposure rolls of film are produced anymore.

FA has superior shutter feel: no detent midway.

Cheapskate trick: The FA defaults to a fixed 1/250 shutter speed for frames before frame one. To shoot frame 0, be sure to make a manual light meter reading at 1/250 before you finish the previous roll of film, and set your lens accordingly to shoot frame 0 of the next roll.

The self timer works the usual way: flip down the white-line lever on the front. When you press the shutter, the mirror flips up, and 10 seconds later the picture gets taken. If you change your mind after flipping the lever, gently move it back up to cancel the self timer.

Film Economy: I usually get 38 frames. If I cheat and guess the exposure correctly for frame 0, fixed at 1/250 unmetered manual, I can get 39 frames every roll of Fuji Velvia 50.

The autofocus Nikon 14mm f/2.8 feels perfect on the FA.

 

Flash

The FA has TTL flash metering, but no automatic balanced fill flash ability.

It's wonderful if you make photos lit by flash alone, but a poor choice if you want to balance ambient light with flash as you should.

Use any Nikon TTL flash (about SB-16 or newer) and you'll take full advantage of the TTL flash exposure of the FA.

I prefer the SB-30, SB-23 or SB-22 for small size.

The TTL flash mode only works in a range of film speeds up to about ASA (ISO) 400. Back in this camera's heyday TTL flash was a pretty advanced concept, and also ASA 400 color film was exotic stuff you'd only used for the purposes of avoiding the flash in the first place. Look out if you intend to use fast film and TTL flash.

Even today this shouldn't be an issue: as a professional camera no one really would shoot ultra fast film with flash, since you get better quality for less cost with slower film and the point of ASA 400 film is to forget the flash.

In old-fashioned non-TTL Auto mode, you can use any flash at all, except of course flashes dedicated to other brands of camera.

Use an old Vivitar 283, use any Nikon speedlight of any age or flashbulb gun, or use any of the brand new flashes like the SB-28DX or SB-800. I tried my SB-600 and noticed that the FA came out before locking hot shoes. The new flashes mount, but won't lock as they do on newer cameras.

If you use an SB-400 (2006 introduction) or SB-900 (2008 introduction), they won't work in TTL mode. Skip the SB-400, or use the SB-900 in primitive non-TTL A mode.

 

Weaknesses

Watch out for used ones with sticky depth-of-field preview levers. This often means the aperture control pin is sticky, which means that even though the FA will seem to operate perfectly and the pictures will look fine, that the lenses never stop down and shoot wide-open all the time instead.

The FA's exposure system will compensate and make all look AOK, except that you're shooting wide open, even in daylight.

Even though the manual cautions that the LCD may fade in a few years, I've never seen one stop working unless it gets cracked by dropping it.

The mirror and back-door foam tend to get gummy, but those are easy repairs for any service shop.

The worst thing that usually happens to any of these great cameras is that they get put away for a decade and the batteries leak.

 

Recommendations

If you want to do serious landscape photography in 35mm, this may be the best camera ever made. (Of course I think serious landscape photography in 35mm is oxymoronic and only silly people would get serious on 35mm instead of a larger format).

I prefer the FA to my F100 since the FA has a virtual mirror lockup for use with telephoto lenses on tripods and the FA's Matrix meter reads perfectly for long night exposures. (The F100 has no mirror lock and the F100's Matrix meter underexposes under dark outdoor night conditions.)

The little button with on the front of the camera at the bottom of the lens mount is the metering mode switch. Matrix metering is with the button out, push it in and you are in center-weighted mode. This switch can be rotated to lock it into centerweighted, and in which position a red bar is displayed. There is no indication when the camera reverts to center-weighted mode if one attaches a pre-1977 lens that lacks the proper Matrix coupling lugs.

If you can do with only Aperture-Priority and manual exposure modes with manual-focus lenses, the F6 is better with manual lenses because it has a color matrix meter and can record EXIF exposure data to CF cards, even with AI-converted lenses.

 

More Information: Popular Photography spoke of it in their May 1984 issue.

 

PLUG

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