My landscape photography has progressed throughout the last few years, from aspiring to capture vibrant colour landscapes on DSLRs, to settling on working mainly in black and white and tending towards using film as my medium. I’ll write about this journey in a forthcoming post so as not to distract on the more practical nature of using this specific 35mm film camera for the application of landscape photography. Reviews and information pages elsewhere linked at the end of the post go into far more detail on the tech specs of the camera, but often lack focus on a specific application of the camera. Hopefully this review adds a slightly different perspective from my practical use in the field.
The Nikon F4 is a bit like a bridge between two eras, although clearly signalling the direction for the future of automatic professional SLRs, it still retains full compatibility with every manual Nikon lens that came before (even the esoteric wide angles that require mirror lock up to mount) and is one of only 3 bodies to offer matrix metering with Ai lenses (N.B. Not all lenses that appear in Ai design, with the aperture index tab are actually an Ai lens that will support matrix metering. At first I thought my F4 was malfunctioning in not providing matrix metering with a 35mm F2.8 I was certain was an Ai lens. After some extensive searching online I came to find this was actually a K lens and despite having the aperture tab to mount on Ai bodies it did not have the recessed metal on the metal back of the lens mount required for this mode). Autofocus via a body motor is provided with 4 points, characterised as slow and clunky by todays standards, and soon eclipsed by Canon’s efforts. Indeed if you need fast autofocus in a film SLR then this camera is not for you, however for landscape photography this shortfall is irrelevant. Today it impresses me more that Nikon was so dedicated to backwards compatibility, in contrast to Canon who opted for a new lens mount she the automated era of SLRs arrived, and as someone with a sizeable collection of Ai and pre-AI glass the F4 offers two advantages over the later F5 that dropped matrix metering for Ai lenses and support to mount pre-Ai lenses.
So why am I tending to use the F4 over the F5 for landscape photography at present? The first two reasons are presented above, although their benefit is perhaps more subtle that it seems. In truth I rarely use non-AI glass with the F4, although it is nice to have the option. Matrix, along with centre weighted and spot metering are certainly nice to have, although I’m also quite happy to use my external Gossen meter, so the advantage there is slight. Most of my landscape shots are on a tripod, and the smaller form factor of my F4 with no grip is a much better form factor for me than the F5 with its non-optional grip. Weight wise there isn’t actually much different so its mainly the shorter, if stouter form factor that I find works well. The F4 remains true to the preceding heritage of manual SLRs by indulging us with a dial for every function; there is no command dial that changes shutter (or aperture on an AF lens) and this ergonomic difference is something I slightly prefer.
I am tending to do more and more long exposures with my landscape photography. Features both share that are a boon for this are: a viewfinder shutter built into the prism, very useful for blocking out light in a long exposure. The ability to change prisms and add screw-in viewfinder attachments, a waist level viewfinder or angled viewfinder attachment are great for those low angle shots, and this is a perspective I find myself using often as it naturally gives quite a different view than we are used to seeing at eye level. I prefer the standard screw-in shutter release cable which is interchangeable other cameras than the proprietary Nikon connector used on the F5, F100 etc. Mirror lock up could be helpful in minimising shake, although I should cement it in more as part of my routine as I must admit I seldom use it. One feature I have recently discovered that will be very helpful is the T mode; its function is similar to bulb mode, where the shutter is held open for long exposures, after 30 seconds the shutter is held open and released manually without any power draw. Very useful for exposures where minutes turn to hours. The shutter is opened on the first press of the release, and to close you simply turn the shutter speed dial to another setting. Clearly there will be some shake in doing so, but for very long exposures in dim light or with many ND filters this shake should not affect the final image as the light captured during the shake should be very minimal. However I am yet to utilise this feature extensively to see the results.
The legendary landscape photographer Galen Rowell had a tendency to use the smaller and lighter Nikon manual SLRs such as the FM line. After all a camera is just a fancy light box and if you are using Ai lenses then an FM/FE offers much of what the F4 does if you can live less options for metering and (very) nice to haves like the built in viewfinder shutter. Minimising on weight may be important depending on the trip and in these cases I probably would opt for one of these bodies. However the nice-to-haves of the F4 really do add that extra convenience that make using this camera that bit more convenient to make it worth it for me. It should also be said that the larger, brighter 100% viewfinder coverage is fantastic on the F4 (as it also is on the F5) is so nice to use, this is a very noticeable downgrade on the prosumer SLR range. For me this is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy using the F4 more than the FM/FE for landscapes, and after all photography is supposed to be fun (as it is just a hobby for me at least), and so these minor details do add that bit extra to me.
Finally the last comparison should be with the Nikon F4 and the Bronica SQ system that I have been more frequently using for my landscapes. It’s true that I do prefer the square framing and larger negative this medium format camera provides, and in this regard none of my 35mm cameras really can compete. So the Bronica is my go to camera if weight is not a huge limitation and I am taking a trip purely for the pursuit of photography. However its diminishingly practical for me to take my medium format gear on trips I take with my family, where I am trying to tack on a few landscape excursions onto the trip. So this is where the F4 fits in for me. The resolution of 35mm looks fine for sharing on social media, like instagram, and also printing small. Upgrading my scanner for 35mm to a Nikon LS-4000 has helped, and I will try the maximum resolution scanning from my lab soon to compare.
As for the trip, Gran Canaria proved once again fertile ground to scratch my landscape photography itch, and the F4 was a good companion to capture it.