A while ago, I sold my Canon AE-1 to a friend to try to get him shooting some film photography, and to get rid of a camera that was in danger of collecting dust. It’s not that it was a particularly bad camera, but I'd much rather have a friend shooting film than hang on to a camera I found myself using less and less. Besides, I felt the batteries were always dying on me a bit too fast, and I’d never have backups. (I'm told that this is abnormal for Canon AE-1's, so don't let me experiences influence you against one! It's a nifty camera.)
A while after selling it, I realized that I really missed having different focal lengths available to shoot, even though my only non-normal lens on the Canon was a 28mm. It was then that I realized that I was at a place where few other people had ever been—since I wasn’t heavily invested in the Canon FD system, I could afford to try a Nikon and compare the two systems. I read review after review of the different cameras that Nikon had to offer, and finally I settled on the Nikon FE2 as my replacement camera. This review goes over the factors that influenced my decision.
First off, the meter is fantastic, and suited to my tastes. In the viewfinder, there’s two needles along the side of the viewfinder that are dependent on your shutter speed and aperture settings. If you’re in manual mode, then you simply line them up, and you’ve got the correct reading. It’s great for on-the-fly exposure decisions. If you want the background to be overexposed a certain number of stops, for example, you can simply watch the needles separate as you compensate by adjusting the settings.
The next biggest selling point was the shutter itself. It’s a vertically-travelling titanium focal plane shutter, which is controlled electronically. I know, I know... one of the reasons I sold the Canon AE-1 in the first place was to get around the battery issue. However, in a pinch, you can easily run into a drugstore to find the required A76 button cell batteries (a/k/a 357A or LR44). The camera also takes a 1/3N battery if you don’t want to stack two into the battery compartment. If you can’t even get to a replacement, then don’t worry. The camera will still fire at its mechanical shutter speed, 1/250 of a second, which is fast enough that you should still be able to take great shots in average lighting conditions.
Another fantastic thing about the shutter is that it has a maximum speed of 1/4000s and a sync speed of 1/250s. Of course, that means you’re not as restricted to tiny apertures on sunny days, and if you do a lot of off-camera lighting, you have a lot more freedom to adjust your shutter speed to isolate the light you’re using. The old Canon was maxed out at 1/60s.
I was surprised to find that the film advance felt a bit smoother on the Nikon than the Canon, perhaps a bit quieter, even. Speaking of the film advance, the camera also features a little momentary switch you can pull so that the lever will only cock the shutter instead of also advancing the film. This means that you’ll be able to shoot multi-exposures extremely easily—just hold the switch down while you “advance” the film before taking the second exposure. The Canon AE-1 will kind of let you do this. You have to press the film rewind button on the bottom of the camera before advancing the film, and sometimes it would advance by a sprocket or two, so you wouldn’t get perfect overlap.
There are more bells and whistles to go over. Your ASA can be set from 12 to 4000, and the lens is a little bit off-center to give you more of a grip surface on the camera (that is, if you’re right-handed). In the end, though, the FE2 is a camera that’s a bit of a step up from the Canon AE-1, but not one of the “professional” models of Nikon cameras like the F3 or the F4. Though, with a slower shutter than the FE2, you can start to have the debate that the F3 really isn’t the superior model. However, that’s a debate best left to people who are a bit too into equipment wars for my liking.
One thing I had to get used to was that the film advance lever also doubles as the camera lock. When it’s flush with the back of the camera, you can’t take a picture. It has to be pulled slightly forward to disengage the lock so that the shutter will fire. Originally, this was a nuisance to me, because I’d maybe miss a crucial moment when I realized the lock was on. Gradually, though, I realized that it’s good to have a lock that you’ll actually use. The AE-1 featured a lock by the shutter button, and I’d never use it. In hindsight, it was a bit like driving without a seat belt.
Finally, I should note that I have two lenses for the Nikon FE2: a 24mm and a 135mm, both f/2.8. I might eventually get a 50mm, but I wanted to re-fill the void that was left by not having a wide-angle or telephoto option around. Nikon Ai lenses are definitely more pricey than their Canon FD bretheren. While the Nikon Mafia will likely argue that it’s because of superior optical quality, I think it has more to do with the fact that Nikons are backwards-compatible. The new digital SLRs that Nikon puts out are still capable of accepting the old lenses, and a nice manual-focus lens can come in handy when you’re shooting HD video.
Anyway, I got my FE2 from KEH for under $200, and if you’re more of an eBay gambler, then you might be able to find an even better deal. In the end, I’m glad I was able to get another manual-focus 35mm SLR camera, because I hadn’t realized how much I missed having one.
Dan Domme is a film photography enthusiast and PhD student in the Acoustics department of Penn State. He's been a serious photographer for the last two years, and now shoots nearly exclusively on film. You can view his Flickr stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yeknom02/ or his photography blog at http://dommephoto.wordpress.com/