The Fragile Beauty of the Nikon FA

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Whenever I look over at the shelf and my Nikon FA which sits there, I can’t help but feel a little sad. It’s a beautiful machine in pristine condition, purchased at the peak of its abilities. Not only is it the greatest expression of Nikon’s dogged perfectionism of the 1980s and perhaps the most influential camera of its generation, it’s also one of the easiest, most purely fun cameras I’ve ever shot. It has delivered incredible results for me nearly every time I’ve shot it. It’s a magnificent camera, and means quite a lot to me.

It’s also broken.

It wasn’t anybody’s fault, really. One day the FA’s shutter just seized up and the camera stopped firing without any warning. Just like that, this great camera died.

The entire story of the Nikon FA follows much the same path. It was once Nikon’s great hope of the tech-obsessed 1980s, their greatest achievement in 35mm SLR technology, the camera that would bury their conservative, staid reputation forever. It reached unprecedented heights in its day and set the stage for every tech-focused SLR that came after it. Its own time at the top was sadly short-lived. It was a camera that was too good to be true, but man was it good.

Nikon, Canon, And The Fickle Consumer Market

The story of the Nikon FA really starts with its rival, Canon, and the camera that started (or more accurately, catalyzed) the whole consumer SLR arms race – the Canon AE-1. The arrival of the AE-1 in 1976 completely flipped the entire 35mm SLR market on its head. In an era in which SLRs were seen as chunky and hard-to-use for the average honnyist, the AE-1 was a compact, inexpensive SLR that used electronics to make pro-level photography accessible to everyone, no matter their skill level. The AE-1 sold like no other SLR before it, and dominated the new consumer SLR market.

The AE-1 set the formula for the new consumer SLR – automation, innovation, and ease-of-use first, everything else second. Manufacturers like Pentax and Olympus followed suit, packing ever more technology into their new consumer-focused electronic SLRs, and it soon turned into an arms race. Minolta threw a veritable haymaker with their multi-mode XD (XD-11 in North America, XD-5 in Europe), a camera capable of both aperture priority and shutter priority operation (it had an unofficial program mode as well). Canon hit back shortly after with the multi-mode Canon A-1 with aperture priority and shutter priority mode, and a no-BS, honest-to-God fully programmed auto-exposure. The A-1 did the trick, and cemented Canon as the king of the consumer SLR market, which was all but confirmed by Canon’s 1981 victory lap of a camera, the AE-1 Program.

Meanwhile, Nikon was struggling to answer the challenge put forth by their crosstown rivals. Nikon’s stoic, professional, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy was exactly the opposite of what the consumer market of the ’70s required, and Nikon’s attempts at wooing those consumers weren’t exactly convincing. The Nikkormat series was great, but the entire line looked old, bulky, and slow compared to the slick and compact AE-1. Nikon found success with the completely redesigned compact FM-chassis SLRs in 1978, but those cameras were still viewed mostly as professional tools instead of a hip people’s camera. Nikon finally stepped to the Canon AE-1 point-blank with 1979’s aperture-priority only Nikon EM, but even its sleek Italian design couldn’t draw consumers away from the AE-1. Nikon just couldn’t solve the consumer market.

In the midst of the struggle, Nikon realized that they needed a new technology to truly gain a foothold in this new, tech-focused market. While searching for answers, they stumbled upon something even more potent – a weakness in the competition. This weakness, Nikon observed, was the conventional averaging metering system. In Nikon’s eyes, this metering system simply wasn’t good enough, or more accurately, smart enough for the average consumer and for programmed auto-exposure as a whole.

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The Gang Invents Matrix Metering

Up until this point in camera history, programmed auto-exposure cameras relied on internal meters that averaged the amount of light coming in through the lens. This worked well enough for most situations, but the system could be fooled by situations involving heavy backlight and off-center framing. This shortcoming was partially solved through the development of the center-weighted meter (a type of meter which values the light coming through the center of the frame, where subjects tend to lie most often), the exposure compensation dial, and AE lock, but all of these solutions still needed some skill and know-how to operate effectively. Essentially, this metering system, and therefore programmed auto-exposure modes as a whole, could only reach its full potential with advanced shooters. In Nikon’s mind, this completely defeated the purpose of a so-called auto-exposure mode. To them, a programmed auto-exposure mode should work every time in every situation, no matter the scene or the skill level of the shooter. It would only be through a brand new metering system that this dream would be realized.

Ever the overachievers, Nikon gathered a team in 1977 to develop a brand new metering system that could perfect the art of programmed auto-exposure. They employed an ingenious, but grueling method – they replaced the film pressure plate of a Nikon FE with twenty-four silicon photo diodes (the same metering cells used in normal in-camera meters), started taking thousands of photos with the camera, and recorded the readings off of each photo diode. By doing this, Nikon compiled a data library of different lighting situations, which then informed a computer algorithm programmed to recognize certain scenes. Their findings yielded two very important results; one, they could use the brightness of a subject to determine exposure, and two, they could segment the frame into five sections to determine the placement of that subject.

As soon as these refinements were made, they modified their FE to only use five carefully placed SPD’s instead of twenty four, and the team set out across the world to take photos in every possible environment and temperature of light to refine their metering algorithm. At the end of it all came Nikon’s greatest technological achievement – AMP (Automatic Multi Pattern) metering, later known as matrix metering.

Relevance, achieved.

AMP was originally intended to be unveiled in the Nikon FE2, but its addition would mean the cost of the FE2 would be too high, especially for previous FE users simply looking to upgrade. Nikon then decided to make a brand new camera, to be christened the Nikon FA. The FA was to be a true competitor to the Minolta XD and Canon A-1, and the camera Nikon hoped would cement them as the leaders in the upcoming decade. The camera would feature all the tech Nikon could muster, including their newest and greatest technology, AMP.

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The Birth of the “Technocamera”

The FA debuted in 1983 like no other camera before it. It featured an electronically controlled, vertically traveling titanium honeycomb shutter that maxed out at 1/4000th of a second, true PASM (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual) mode selection, TTL flash metering, an LCD metering display complimented by Nikon’s clever ADR (Aperture Direct Readout) aperture and shutter speed display, dedicated external motor drive capabilities (Nikon MD-15), and the brand new AMP metering as well as the traditional center-weighted metering system. The AMP system was further supported by the brand new line of AIS lenses, which enabled the camera to compensate exposure based on focal length, something no other camera could do. It even came with a badass nickname, the “Technocamera.”

For however technologically bonkers the FA was and is, its simple design and layout made it incredibly easy to use. Instead of radically changing the layout in the name of newness, Nikon made the FA feel and look like every other Nikon camera. The only difference was the discreet addition of a couple of dials and switches. The shutter speed dial was basically unchanged other than a nice little “4000” marking, the exposure compensation/ISO dial and depth-of-field preview lever was nearly identical to the FE and F3’s dial and the F-mount lenses, even though slightly updated, still mounted as it always had. The PASM mode selection has its own dial underneath the shutter dial, and the all-important AMP/center-weighted metering switch was placed conveniently next to the lens mount.

The result is a camera that packaged its complexity into a form which was accessible to everybody, which was the FA’s purpose from the beginning. The entire reason AMP was ever developed was to make shooting an SLR as simple as possible. Shooters could flick the dial to “P”, focus, and press the shutter button, and the FA would spit out a perfectly exposed image without the use of exposure compensation or an AE lock, which Nikon omitted due to their confidence in AMP. Anybody could use it at any level, and come away with an incredible image.

Consumers responded, and the FA created a valuable tech-focused niche in the consumer and so-called “advanced amateur” market, with sales figures reaching as high as second in the catalog to the mighty Nikon F3. It was a hit with critics as well, and won the inaugural year of the Camera Grand Prix in 1984. Nikon accomplished what they set out to do – create a camera that was on the cutting edge of technology, but that also worked for everybody. The FA was on top of the world.

And then, it wasn’t. The first commercially successful autofocus SLR, the Minolta Maxxum 7000, was released in 1985 (just two years after the FA), the world abandoned manual focus, and the FA made a quiet exit in 1987. All this development, all this innovation for only two years of dominance.

But for those two brief years, the Nikon FA completely changed everything about camera technology. It could certainly be argued that the FA wrote the technological DNA found in nearly every automated camera released after it. The newer autofocus cameras would include their own version of the FA’s matrix metering, a mode which still forms the basis for the primary metering systems of nearly every digital camera today. The exposure compensation for longer focal lengths, the switchable metering patterns, even the PASM dials we use today on nearly every camera has their roots in the FA. It seems almost cruel that the FA’s day in the sun was cut short, considering how influential it was.

But maybe that was always going to happen. To recall WH Auden, time was going to have its fancy with the FA and all of its technologies, and it eventually did. But that doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the Nikon FA for us today.

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What The Nikon FA Means Today

Describing something as “a product of its time” is usually an apology, but for the FA, that tells us exactly why it remains an incredible camera. The FA was a child of the early 1980s, a transitional period between the late ’70s and late ’80s in which mass computerization hadn’t quite yet taken hold. As a result, the things that came out during this era still possess the mechanics of the old world while still being technologically innovative and exciting. The FA was not of the age of the computer-powered Porsche 959, the MIDI-sequenced Heaven Is A Place On Earth by Belinda Carlisle, and the frosty digital Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, it was more of the age of the coach built Porsche 944, the achingly human groove of I Keep Forgettin’ by Michael McDonald, the warm analog Roland Juno-60 synthesizer. The FA shares the same charm and influence as these pioneering products, but also shares their same fleeting beauty.

It’s this perfect combination of old world knowledge and glitzy new technology that makes the FA one of the most usable classic cameras today. It’s packed with nearly all of the technological creature comforts we use today, but remains (if I can be this pretentious) unspoiled by the menus, multi-purpose dials, and blobby, homogenous designs of the decades to come. Every operation is still accessible by their own dial or button, laid out simply for anybody to use.

The technology still holds up, too. The AMP metering, though not perfect, does exactly what it was intended to do – make shooting simple and easy. If you need something more specific than what P mode can give you, you can simply flick the dial back to A, S, or M and handle business with ease, just as you would with an F3 or FM. No matter if your subject’s too bright or backlit, if you need a thirty second exposure or capture movement at 1/4000th of a second, it’s got you covered. It is very nearly perfect. If I had to design a new classic camera, I would just reissue the Nikon FA, straight up, with no changes or improvements.

Well, except for one thing – reliability, or the original’s lack thereof.

Befitting of its historical fate, Nikon FA’s are known for dying unexpectedly. I would not be surprised if the stereotype of electronic cameras bricking out unprovoked was started by a disgruntled Nikon FA owner. These things break, and break easily. Unlike the all-metal FE2 and F3, the FA is clad in plastic, er, polycarbonate, and contains a hornet’s nest of electronics. Too many things can go wrong in a camera like this, and things often do. In all my years of shooting vintage Nikon, the FA is the Nikon I encounter the least, and I suspect that’s due to the comparative lack of surviving copies. And James has told me that his shop finds far fewer fully operational FA’s than it does any other Nikon SLR of any type and era, which says it all.

Reliability really is the Achilles’ heel of what would otherwise be a perfect camera. It has that perfect mix of historical significance, modern relevance, and good design I look for in every classic camera. But at the end of the day, my Nikon FA is still sitting on the shelf, broken. I probably won’t ever be able to get it fixed. But maybe I’ll go search for another one, just to experience it all over again.

Get your own Nikon FA from eBay here

Find one at our shop, F Stop Cameras

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Written by Josh Solomon


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