The Nikon F5, at first glance you might mistake it for a digital SLR. I certainly have been asked ‘what sensor is in that camera’ and depending on my mood and my general view of the person asking I might reply with something a little more sarcastic, other times a simple response is “oh a 36x24mm or full-frame as it’s called in digital photography.” The F5 was my second grail camera after switching over to a Nikon system from Minolta, in fact, I picked up the battery grip for the F80 to make it look like an F5 because at the time the F5 was still an expensive camera in 2009, having been out of production for around five years. But I waited for nearly a decade and watched the price drop until it reached a reasonable price before pulling the trigger, and I’m glad I did. The F5 is a pleasure to work with and use, and worth every dollar I spent, it has become a camera that has seen weddings and war, snow and rain, and everything in between.
Type: Single Lens Reflex
Format: 135 (35mm), 36x24mm
Lens: Interchangeable, Nikon F-Mount
Year of Manufacture: 1996-2004
Strangely the Nikon F5 came out of something that could have been the Nikon F4, you can clearly see the design queues of the F5 in a late 1988 prototype F4, although I think it was more a prototype F5 shortly after the release of the F4. And like the other prototypes in the Professional line, the F5 did change from the original form, but not as much as the other model entries did. By the second prototype, it had reached its final form with only minor tweaking. But the 1990s were a time of change for Nikon and professional photography as a whole, and the F5 marked a radical departure for Nikon and their professional cameras. Where the F through F4 were infinitely modifiable, the F5 could change little. The first and biggest change is the fact the battery grip was integrated into the body, something that the prosumer cousin to the F5, the F100 still allowed for a photographer to remove. Nikon replied that the integration of the grip gave all photographers the power to use all the features of the camera without having to worry about buying an accessory. And the F5 is a feature-rich camera, with a built-in advance that brought a burst of 8 frames-per-second and a top shutter speed of 1/8000″. Nikon also improved the autofocus speed and accuracy and a 3D Colour Matrix Meter. However, with these improvements came a loss of some features, the one thing that angers most photographers is the removal of the use of non-AI glass and reducing the use of AI and AI-S lenses to only spot and centre-weighted metering modes. The F5 could allow for full use of G-Type lenses and full functionality of VR in modern lenses. Also gone was the 250-shot magazine, however the introduction of two databacks the MF-27 that allowed for imprinting exposure details into the frame spaces and the more advanced MF-28 that allowed for 9-frame bracketing, interval shooting and up to 1,000 hour exposure times. The 3D Colour Matrix metering could only be accessed by using either the stock DP-30 and DA-30 finders, the other two finders both waist-level (DW-30 and DW-31) were again limited to centre-weighted and spot. By the time the F5 ceased production in 2004, most professional photographers were making the transition to digital, and Nikon would use the F5 chassis to build the modern professional digital SLR and even today you can see the design cues of the F5 in the D4.
I’m not going to lie the F5 is a big camera and hefty. But for a camera that abandoned the knobs and dials of the previous version, it is surprisingly easy to use and operate. As soon as you pick up the camera, you have your shutter control, function control and a pair of command dials right at your fingertips. That said, switching through the PSAM modes requires two hands, so I tend to pick the appropriate mode and just run with it. But in any of the semi-automatic and manual modes, the pair of command dials makes life and operation easy. Turning the camera on and off is done through a locked switch around the shutter button, and in low-light operation, the screens light up a blue colour which makes it easier to see than just a simple green. But where the F5 shines is in the viewfinder, the DP-30 offers a bright nearly 100% coverage with similarly backlit screens that work great in any lighting conditions. Another item I like is the retention of the manual rewind knob, which still requires a single button be pushed, a second trigger is there for automatic rewind. The manual function allows you to leave a tail out, as no custom setting exists to auto rewind with the tail out. And herein lies my one beef with the F5, accessing some of the custom functions and even manually adjusting the ISO requires you to flip down a little door on the ‘grip’ and then press the small button and dial it in. It’s not super obvious and can get a little frustrating, at least when you flip down the door it stays down.
Get a good strap; if you’re going to be running with the camera for a whole day or extended period, it makes the experience all the better. Despite some of the weird hops through menus, all you need for running the camera right there. Not to mention the camera is a joy to use, the shutter is quick, the trigger is sensitive, and the sound is excellent. However, the vertical trigger is a bit awkward due to where it’s placed on the body it’s a little too high, now that I’m used to the lower placement on the Maxxum 9’s grip. But what makes the F5 stand out in my mind is the auto-focus speed and the metering. The AF on the F5 is fast, even with older D-Type lenses, and the AF sensor is pretty accurate, and it is easy to allow for the selection of focus points. However, if I’m doing continuous focus tracking, I want an AF-S lens, which is so much faster due to the internal focus motor. Now the 3D Colour Matrix meter is one of the best I’ve ever encountered, and Nikon still uses it today in digital cameras, it never misses a beat even in the weirdest lighting conditions which I’ve taken the camera in such as abandoned buildings or battlefields.
As I mentioned earlier the F5 marked a change in Nikon’s view of lenses, in the past all cameras since the Nikon F could mount and operate the pre-ai lenses, and the F4 being the last camera to be fully compatible with the pre-AI lenses complete with matrix metering. Nikon decided that they would look forward with the F5, pre-ai lenses were no longer compatible with the F5, but a photographer could get their mount modified to allow for limited use of pre-ai glass with stopped-down metering and use of only centre-weighted and spot metering. AI and AI-S lenses mounted and allowed for open-aperture TTL metering, but again you are limited to centre-weighted and spot metering. That said, modern lenses from Nikon work seamlessly with the F5, starting with the D-Type lenses the F5 retains the internal AF motor drive and coupling, just make sure to set the Aperture ring to smallest setting and lock it in place, you will control the aperture from the camera body, even older G-Type glass will function. Now you aren’t limited to these, modern AF-S lenses function, I regularly use the AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G and AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G with the F5, and the camera will take advantage of any vibration reduction (VR) functionality on the lens.
If you’re a fan of professional Nikon cameras and want something to up, your pro-film game than the F5 is certainly a camera worth your time. If you’re already a Nikon digital shooter and have a wealth of modern glass, the F5 is certainly a camera that is worth getting if you’re looking on getting into film photography. And these days the Nikon F5 is an under 300$ camera on the used market, which is down even more from when I bought mine. That said, some of the advanced data backs like the MF-28 will run you the same price as a camera body, so if you want one get one already mounted on the camera. And to make the camera even sweeter it can operate for a long time using AA batteries only, no special batteries needed here. It also means that no matter where you are, you get power, even from a gas station somewhere in Northern Ontario. And while I know have a Maxxum 9, the F5 remains a companion especially if I’m working at paid jobs, or even photo walks where the weather is going to get nasty. F5 is a camera that is designed to work.
Don’t just take my word on the Nikon F5, check out these other reviews by some awesome camera reviewers!
Japan Camera Hunter – The Wonderful F5
Film Bodies – Nikon F5 Review
Jake Horn – Nikon F5 Review
Mr Leica – Nikon F5 Review