Saturday, 15 April 2017

Nikon F-301 / Nikon N2000

In a few days' time The White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl" will be fifteen years old. It wasn't their first single - not by a long chalk - but it was the first I remember seeing on television. You remember the video. It was made with Lego pieces. Stop-motion Lego pieces. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon F-301, a 35mm SLR that was sold in the United States as the Nikon N2000, although nowadays everybody calls it the Nikon F-301, albeit that no-one calls it anything because no-one remembers it or cares about it.

The F-301 was released in 1985, the same year as Madonna's "Into the Groove". Nikon sold it alongside the F-501 / N2020, which was essentially the same camera but with an autofocus motor. Autofocus was a big thing back then, but there was still room in the market for manual focus cameras. In November 1985 Popular Photography had a look at the F-301 and concluded that it was okay, I guess, although the reviewer basically describes the camera without passing judgement.

Also, check out the headline font, which is a good example of a proportional font, e.g. the letter I in NIKON is much narrower than the letter O - but also check out how the letter O actually overlaps the letter K. I think the font is ITC Avant Garde Gothic, but I'm not an expert. Obviously they must have hired a designer to push the letters close together. I assume the headline font is an imitation of Nikon's N2000 logo, in which the zeros overlap, just like the Olympic rings, although the F-301/N2000 had nothing to do with the Olympics:

Flight of ideas is a mental disorder characteristic of mania. Nikon sold the F-301 as an entry-level beginner's camera, although compared to the later F-50 and F-70 it feels a lot more substantial. The top plate is apparently made of plastic but the chassis is however metal, and overall the F-301 is heavier and more solid than I expected. Benoît Pioulard's music is fantastic. He is an ambient-indie musician (technically Benoît Pioulard is a "project"; his real name is Thomas). His ambient music mostly sticks to the same formula of evolving, distorted drones, and it sounds lovely:

"Sonic sculpture" is a massive cliche, but in this case it's true, the music is like an object to be contemplated or a mood that slowly passes through you rather than a quick buzz. Until recently I assumed that this was the entirety of his bag, but he has also made jangly indie pop and even ambient folk. Last year he broke his wrist! Unfortunately this incurred hefty medical costs. If only he had flown across the Atlantic to the UK, where he could have had the surgery for free, except that they won't let you fly if you have a broken wrist, scotch that idea. I'd love a scotch egg right now. I love savoury things. Sadly I don't have a scotch egg.

Nowadays the F-301's design smells of the 1980s. In those days it was fashionable to ask Porsche Design or Giorgetto Giugiaro to have a go at designing camera bodies; the F-301 looks like something Porsche or Giugiaro might have produced although apparently it is an in-house design.

F-301s are available on eBay for pennies. They have no real antique value. As with the early Canon EOS cameras the body is slightly more upmarket than it appears. I bought one so I could try out my 28mm f/2.8 AI-S on a period-correct AI-S-enabled Nikon film camera, because why not?

With an AI 20mm f/3.5. As always the most important part of the photographic system is the man holding the camera (or woman), specifically me.

Spec-wise the F-301 resembles the Pentax A3, Canon T50 and so forth. It uses Nikon's AI lens mount and is one of only four Nikon SLRs that supported AI-S; it is manual focus only; it has DX film encoding and manual film advance, but not rewind; it has a non-standard PPhiAM exposure matrix, oddly without S; it takes four AAA batteries, or four AA batteries with an optional baseplate.

I have this baseplate, and with four Eneloops the F-301 lasts forever. Which is good, because it's useless without batteries. It doesn't have a backup mechanical shutter speed, but even if it did there would be no way to wind the film on. Unlike some motor-equipped cameras it shoots until it detects film tension, rather than stopping at exactly 36 frames, so a few of my rolls had 37 exposures. When you insert film it winds on with three quick shots.

The F-301 has a beeper that beeps if the shutter speed is too slow. You can turn it off. The beeper and the motor drive are very loud.
The camera was sold as an entry-level model, but it still has some of Nikon's professional heritage. You need to press a small button before you can twist the PASM dial; ditto rewind. The motor drive runs at an unusually fast 3.5fps.
Beyond the AA baseplate there were no special accessories. No handgrip, no dedicated speedlight (the F-501 had the SB-20), no underwater case etc.

 The full caption is "black dudes, you can avoid the rain drops if you smoke".

So the story goes, during the making of The Fifth Element director Luc Besson came up with an imaginary alien language for Milla Jovovich's character, and by the end of filming the pair of them were so proficient in this language that they could have entire conversations. Humanity developed language for sound practical reasons, but to what extent does it shape our consciousness? Historically the F-301 was quickly overshadowed by Nikon's new autofocus cameras. In the 1990s and 2000s it was never prized by the cult camera crowd, who instead gravitated towards Nikon's older manual focus SLRs, such as the EM and F3 and so forth. On a technological level the F-301 is objectively more advanced than the F3, but the F3 has a much better viewfinder. The viewfinder is the F-301's biggest weakness. It feels cramped and I have to jam the camera against my face to see all of it.

My F-301 was actually broken when it arrived - the mirror and shutter were jammed - but after a bit of poking it started working again, so top marks to Nikon's early-1980s engineers. By the 1990s Nikon embraced cheapness to an alarming extent, and the F-301 was perhaps the last gasp of old-school grown-up Nikon.

If you want to experiment with film photography using old Nikon manual focus lenses the F-301 is an interesting value proposition - it can't depreciate any more, the only issue is liquidity - but you have to ask yourself if you'd rather fulfil a childhood dream and buy an F4 instead. The F-301, F-501, and FA do have one advantage over the F4 if you plan to use manual focus lenses however, in that they have a split-image viewfinder. Floordrobe, that's a good word.