[NOTE: THIS IS PAGE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. INFORMATION, COMMENTS, CORRECTIONS, LINKS TO AND FROM, PHOTOS OF F'S AND ACCESSORIES (CREDIT GIVEN), AND TIPS ON BUYING, USING, AND COLLECTING F'S WILL BE APPRECIATED. PLEASE EMAIL ME.]
The Nikon F was Nikon's first production SLR. With a million examples produced from 1959 through 1972, it was the father of a long line of successful Nikon professional SLRs. Heavy and solid, this slab-sided warhorse with its blocky Photomic prism remains a capable camera and a real head-turner in a crowd of modern plastic autofocus SLRs.
The Nikon F body offered the following features:
Eye-Level Finder.   This was the standard finder, with no metering functions. An optional external meter, which can be attached to the Eye-Level finder, couples mechanically to the shutter-speed dial and the lens aperture ring to provide an external match-needle meter.
Waist-Level Finder.   This finder permits viewing from the top of the camera and includes a retractable 3x magnifying lens.
Sports Finder.   The Sports Finder allows the photographer's eye to be further from the eyepiece (60mm) for wearers of goggles, faceshields, and helmets.
Magnifying Finder.   This is a waist-level finder with 6x magnification, for precise detail and copying work.
Metered "Photomic" Finders.   The Photomic finder was introduced in 1962, with an external meter linked to the shutter dial and aperture ring; a meter needle in the viewfinder shows exposure, which can also be read from the outside of the finder. A screw-in angle converter narrows the meter reading for use with telephoto lenses; with non-telephoto lenses, this converter makes the meter somewhat center-weighted. 1965 saw the Photomic "T" finder. This finder provided through the lens (TTL) metering, so that the photographer no longer had to manually calculate exposure with filters. The Photomic "Tn" finder, offered in 1967, added center-weighted metering. 60% of the meter weighting is given to the 12 mm circle in the center of the standard focusing screen. The most common Photomic finder, the Photomic "FTn", appeared in 1968. This finder includes a match-needle at the top of the viewfinder and has semi-automatic lens aperture indexing. Previously the photographer had to manually set the finder to each lens' maximum aperture. With the FTn finder, the lens is mounted on the body, and then the aperture ring turned from minimum to maximum aperture; this indexes the finder to the lens. Older F bodies may have to be slightly modified to accept the FTn finder.
I think the F body with the imposing and pleasantly mechanical Photomic finder is the quintessential F. The Photomic finders use mercury batteries which are not available in the U.S.. Mercury batteries are still sold overseas and Wein zinc-air substitutes are available in the U.S.; regular 1.5v alkalines should not be used. More troublesome, these finders included a special resistor that can no longer be repaired or replaced after it has worn past the limits of adjustment. So if you find a nice spare Photomic finder for your Nikon F, buy it!
The titanium foil shutter permits speeds of 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/500, and 1/1000 seconds and Bulb, and synchronizes at all speeds with flashbulbs (remember those?) and with electronic flash at 1/60 sec. The F requires a non-standard cable shutter release.
The mirror can be locked up, after a fashion. The F does not allow the usual process of framing the scene through the viewfinder, locking up the mirror, releasing the shutter, then proceeding to frame the next shot, because the F's mirror cannot be locked up before the exposure. Instead, the F's mirror can be set to raise and lock up after an exposure. It can be set to stay up through subsequent exposures, but the viewfinder will be obscured the entire time. In other words, each time mirror lockup is selected a frame of film is wasted, and the photographer cannot look through the viewfinder between two successive shots with the mirror locked up. (This lock-up function was originally designed to allow the camera to accept certain non-reflex-viewing ultrawide lenses which protruded into the camera body, rather than to minimize vibration.)
Nikon offered nearly 20 different focusing screens. The standard screen has a split-screen rangefinder in a concentric circle on a matte background.
Some Nikon F bodies were factory fitted with a motor drive, the F-36, and the required motor drive plate. The motorized F fires at 4 frames per second (with the mirror locked up). An interesting feature is a frame counter that counts down as frames are exposed, and can be set to allow firing a pre-selected number of frames in a burst. A F that was not originally motorized may need modifications to fit a later-acquired F-36 drive. The F-36 has a firing button on the back of the drive, and can be used with either the standard battery pack and connecting cord, or the cordless pack. The standard battery pack has another firing button, and the cordless pack adds another firing button on the top of the battery compartment. The drive must be set to the correct firing rate, corresponding to the selected shutter speed.
A special and collectible high-speed version of the F featured a pellicle mirror and a 9.5 frames per second firing rate.
As noted already, the F was introduced in the flashbulb era. The BC-7 Flash accepts glass flash bulbs in the tiltable flash head. The BC-5 flashgun will also fit.
The F had some provisions for electronic flash. Flashes can be connected to the camera's PC socket,, or to the F's hot shoe if you have an adapter that accepts ISO flash units (adaptor AS-1.) Flash synchronization is at 1/60 sec. Nikon's electronic flash was the SB-1 Speedlight, a flashhead mounted on a handle, which requires a separate battery or Nicad pack. Other Nikon accessories allow ringlights, multiple flashes, and use of AC power for the SB-1.
The F-250 Exposure Back is a F-36 motor drive attached to a special back that accepts the MZ-1 250 Exposure Cassette. A Wireless Control permits remote operation of the F fitted with the F-36 or F-250. Nikon also made pistol grips for the motorized or non-motorized F. Odder accessories were the various models of Speed Magny, which allowed the F body to expose large format film.
With the F, Nikon began its now-famous line of Nikkor SLR lenses. During the F's production, Nikon introduced a broad range of lenses. In 1962 Nikon introduced the 21f4, 28f3.5, 35f2.8, 50f2, 58f1.4, 105f2.5, 105f4, 135f3.5, and 85-250f4-4.5 lenses. In 1963 the 8f8, 35f3.5, 50f1.4, 55f3.5 Macro, 200f4, 43-86f3.5, 200-600f9.5, and 500f5 Mirror lenses were added. More lenses were introduced on a frequent basis, and by the end of the F's production the Nikkor lenses included such exotica as a 1200f11, 1000f11 Mirror, 50-300f4.5, 2000f11, 6f2.8, and 200f5.6 Medical (incorporating focusing lights and a built-in ring flash), in addition to a complete line of more normal lenses. More information on Nikkor lenses is available [LINK]
Nikon has kept the original F bayonet mount and almost any Nikkor lens made to this day can be mounted on an original F.
Many special versions of the F were made and are quite collectible today. For more information, see Michael Liu's Nikon F Page.
As of this writing, standard-issue chrome F bodies without finders are often advertised for $100 to $150, and Photomic finders for similar prices. All-black F's are more expensive, and this page won't even try to list values for unusual or collectible F's.
The best Nikon F-specific resource on the Web that I know of is Michael Liu's Nikon F Page, which has a great deal of information on the F's specifications and accessories. A wealth of general Nikon information, including links to pages on Nikkor lenses and other Nikon models, is available from Walter Pietsch's Nikon Pages. For discussions about Nikons in general, try the Nikon Mailing List.
Thanks to Albert Ma for several of the photographs here, and to Jeff Lyddan for the loan of his F as model for the rest.