The F2 was introduced in 1971 off the back of the hugely successful F. Though external resemblances are similar, the camera was completely redesigned internally to improve reliability and ergonomics – firstly, the backs became hinged, and the shutter button moved forward to a more comfortable position at the front of the body and the wind stroke became shorter. The camera’s internal construction became modular, improving ease of repair. Batteries for powered finders migrated to a small cavity in the base of the body, with mirror lockup now standard. The titanium horizontal-travel FP curtains were improved and speeded up to offer 1/2000s and a 1/80s x-sync, up from 1/1000s and 1/60s in the F.
It spawned a huge number of variants, from the basic unmetered F2 with plain DE-1 prism, to metered versions (DP- finders) that offered everything from match-needle metered manual mode on an old-fashioned galvanometer and CdS cell, to a solid state/LED system, to an attachment that converted the camera into a shutter-priority automatic by mechanically moving the aperture ring of the lens.
But those are the pedestrian versions. We’re interested in something a bit more special. There are a few candidates here: the F2H, equipped with a pellicle mirror, motor drive, huge number of batteries and titanium shell, reached 10fps; F2 Data (data back imprinting); F2 anniversary (bleh) and of course…the Titan, designed for ultimate durability and ruggedness. The working photojournalist hero’s camera – if they could afford it. There were actually several models of Titan: early F2Ts had plain fronts, a titanium mount, top and bottom plates and unmetered DE-1 head. Around 3,000 were produced from 1978-80. There were a rare few in natural titanium – these fetch a fortune at auction – if they ever come up. The ‘F2 Titan’ – with ‘Titan’ script on the front – was produced for one year, in 1979, with also around 3,000 produced. Practically, I like to think of the titanium F2 variants as the pinnacle of Nikon’s mechanical film cameras – some may argue for one of the S rangefinders, but I don’t think they ever went as far as the F2 did.
The F2 is a bit of a special camera for me. The first film camera I really bonded with was an F2A; coming from a D2H, it felt antiquated and clunky. But also incredibly well built, tactile, and solid beyond belief; the kind of thing which you’d throw at anybody who might want to steal it, with the thief coming off with the worse end of the deal. Its manual-ness made me slow down and think before shooting. I can’t remember why I sold it – I do remember it wasn’t a lot of money – about $300 – but I suppose there must have been something else I needed more at the time. Years later, being older, photographically wiser (unlikely) and deeper down the rabbit hole (definitely), I yearned for one again – and regretted selling the first one. On and off, I browsed online classifieds and used equipment sites, hoping to find something that might suit. Then I discovered the titanium variants, and actually got to see and handle one in Tokyo; this would have been around 2008. Far out of my budget at the time, I left Japan empty-handed. But I was smitten. In late 2012, following the last Tokyo workshop – an opportunity presented itself.
I’d originally gone into (the unfortunately named) Lemon Camera in Ginza – an enormous warren of used gear – to pick up something as a souvenir from the trip. I had in mind a beat up old F (those go for $50 or less) as a paperweight or display item. Then I found I could get one that worked for not much more, and before I knew it, I had about a dozen mechanical Nikons on the counter, a 28/1.4 D, a Leica M6 Titanium…and the F2 Titan. One of my students from that workshop trip – Doyle, if you’re reading this, I really appreciated your patience that day – accompanied me and saw first hand my extreme indecision when it came to camera shopping. In the end, I was seduced by the snappy mirror, incredible viewfinder, feeling of solidity and balance, and left with the Titan – dream fulfilled.
Now that I had it, I had to shoot with it. And this time, I’d do it properly – self-developing and all. This camera is what started my serious return to film photography. I have to admit, the first few outings made me nervous: I was shooting with a very rare, very expensive classic, in nearly perfect condition. Making a mark on it would seriously affect its value. It’s clear that the previous owner used it, but used it respectfully; it’s been very well taken care of. One’s first impressions on handling a Titan are conflicting: the spatter-finish paint is identical to modern pro Nikons, the body doesn’t weigh as much as you’d expect from a brass camera (of the period), but the design paradigm is thoroughly vintage. It almost makes you think you’re using a special-edition reissue of sorts.
The finder, however, is not something from a modern camera at all. Despite its coarseness and focusing ‘snap’ it’s surprisingly bright and very, very large. Eye relief is more than fine for somebody wearing glasses. And unlike modern finders, the mirror was still perfectly aligned after over 30 years – the infinity hard stop on my manual focus lenses has the split-prism lining up perfectly at infinity. Most modern focusing screens don’t show the effects of lenses faster than f4 for brightness, since the majority of users have slow zooms anyway; even the pro Nikons don’t seem to be much better. The F2 will show a difference in brightness and depth of field down to f2, making critical focusing a breeze anywhere in the frame. In case you don’t like the focusing screen, there are about eight or nine other options that can be interchanged – just pop off the prism, flip the camera upside down and push the button again to release the screen cartridge. Here, one of the camera’s secrets is revealed: I suspect the brightness is due to the collimator lens underneath the focusing screen itself.
There are few controls on the camera body itself, and all of them fall under your right hand – shutter speed, wind lever, shutter button with locking collar, DOF preview button and mirror lockup lever, self timer lever. All buttons and dials have a very satisfying feel, owing to the fully mechanical innards. Pretty much everything moves against a hard detent or a tension spring. And it’s all perfectly adjusted for the right amount of tactile feedback, too. Rewinding is off a crank on the left hand side; you open a keyed tab on the bottom of the camera to release the back, and pull up the rewind lever to admit or release the film canister.
In practice, the camera is very intuitive to shoot. All you have to do is set exposure, compose, focus, and hit the button. Once you get used to metering with a handheld meter, or better yet, flying by eyeball, there’s really nothing in the way of driver aids to help or hinder: if you get the shot you want, it’s entirely down to you. If you don’t, you can’t blame the camera, either: it does exactly what you tell it to, no more, no less. And I like that; I like the challenge, I like the way it fits and feels in my hands, I like the bright, airy, punchy viewfinder. I like to use it, and that alone is a fairly rare but extremely important characteristic of cameras design that’s frequently overlooked today (for more on this, you might enjoy my article on haptics and tactility). The camera is no more than the distilled essence of a facilitator: light-tight box, shutter, and film transport. But, boy does it do its job well. MT
The best place to find vintage gear is on the secondary market in Japan – send an email to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter; he can source to spec and budget. I get a good chunk of my stuff from him and can’t recommend him highly enough. Send him an email and tell him Ming sent you!
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