My Dad’s Old Nikon FG Pulled Me Back Into the World of Film

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I swore off shooting film cameras about 15 years ago. I packed my Nikkormats away and had no intention of EVER shooting anything but digital. I said it during my seminars, I argued with people who said things like “I sure miss film”, and I promoted and preached all the reasons NEVER to shoot film.

Well, that changed last year, in a big way.

My dad had brought me his old Nikon FG one day, in mint condition, with all the literature, books, lenses, gadgets, etc., and asked if I wanted it. I said “sure,” in one of those polite, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this but I don’t want it thrown away” ways.

This is an image of my dad's old Nikon FG film camera with JCPenney winder attatched. Mint condition, after light leak repaired.

My Dad’s Nikon FG, complete with JCPenny winder attached (and working).

Anyway, several months later a close friend of mine, Moses Rodriquez, invited me to join him with a Meetup group on a photo walk. For some reason, the FG called my name from inside the old camera bag, inside the closet. It was audible. I went down to Overland Photo Supply and picked up three rolls of Kodak Tri-X film…and fresh batteries.

One thing that makes the FG a perfect starter camera is that it was Nikon’s first fully automatic camera. Put it on “P” and shoot like the wind. Or, my preference, set it on “A” for aperture priority, and you have more control over depth of field and still can enjoy the ease (laziness) of an automatic camera.

By “automatic” I only mean it sets the exposure for you. These cameras are manual focus and manual advance, unless you pair it with a motor drive or winder (which mine has, made by JCPenney). I didn’t use the winder that morning, and found myself forgetting to advance the film after several shots…how soon we forget.

Introduced in 1982, the FG has become one of my favorite cameras to just grab and go. It’s light, easy to use, cheap, and it beeps. Yes, it BEEPS! 

Photo of my Nikon FG collection, including one FG-20 wrapped in blue leatherette.

I love the FG so much that it’s hard to pass them by when I see an inexpensive one for sale somewhere. They make a great gift for friends wanting to get started in film.

When it came out, a shutter speed of 1000 was about all you could expect. So when it’s sunny out, you’re shooting 400 asa film and have the lens wide open for a shallow depth of field…it beeps to say “no way, brother. Close that lens down.” The same happens in a dark room when the camera just can’t get the shot, except this time it’s begging for more light. “Beep.”

Of course there is fully manual, which matters on this camera, considering how the metering works compared to modern digital cameras.

When I shoot digital, I like to use the center point for focus and exposure, hold the shutter button down slightly to activate, hold it, then compose. It’s how I’ve shot for years. The Nikon FG uses a center-weighted metering, so it TRIES to do that, but it’s different. 

When shooting high-contrast subjects, waiters wearing white shirts and black vests, for example, it can get thrown off by the extreme contrast of the tonal range combined with skin tone within the metering area. It’s not that it WON’T do it, I just found that I would have random, oddly exposed images, and it’s bad enough to miss a shot due to bad focus, let alone exposure anomalies. 

So I’ve found that the FG is great for walking around and shooting in shadows, sunlight, indoors, and outdoors on auto, just be prepared for a few disappointing frames.

If you want to really control the exposure, you can always use the through the lens (TTL) metering to get the exposure, then manually set it to match. Of course, a light meter will get you there, too.

One really nifty feature of the FG is a button just where your left index finger tip sits. If your subject is backlit, hold that down while shooting and it will open the aperture 2 stops automatically. 

Another benefit of this camera, I’ve found, is that it’s small and friendly looking, compared to, say, and F3 with motor drive or an F4. When I ask people if I can take their picture, they can tell it’s an amateur’s camera and are more receptive. Stick an F5 in front of them and they think they’re going to be in the New York Times, above the fold, and cower in fear. This is one reason I often take it out without the winder. I look like your friendly tourist trying to capture the locals.

With FG in hand, off I went to the photo walk with my friends and ran three rolls through the camera, shooting whatever was of interest. Generally people and old stuff…and old people with stuff. 

When I got my film back, I immediately noticed there was a light leak. I hadn’t thought to check on the condition of the seals.

My first reaction was to get the camera repaired, which I did, thanks to my friend Clarence Gass.

But after I started adjusting the photos and posting them, I realized I LIKED the light leak, but, alas, it was too late as Clarence had already fixed the seals. I actually thought about peeling them off. I not only like the look of the leak, but I like the randomness of it. You just don’t know what you’re going to get until you see your film. 

I decided NOT to “break” this camera. I like it. I’ll hope that another camera I buy along the way gives me that light leak and I’ll NOT fix it. So far, no luck. 

So I present here two galleries. One with the first round of photos from the photowalk, with light leak, shooting Kodak Tri-X 400 asa film, probably using the standard 50mm 1.8 lens. The second gallery includes shots taken after the light leak was fixed, most likely with Kodak T-Max 400 asa film, and the lenses are most likely 50 mm, but probably a combination of 1.4 and 1.8. I should take better notes.

 

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