With Digital SLR becoming such a force to be reckoned with in the professional and consumer markets is there still a need for a high end 35mm model from the camera manufacturers? Apparently so if Nikon has anything to say about it.
Things seem to have got all out of step at the top-end of the pro-film camera market of late. Nikon launched the F5 in 1996 and even though Canon launched their flagship film SLR, the 1V, in 2000, Nikon have waited a further four years to offer a comeback. In that interim period both manufactures have created a number of seriously large, expensive, Pro-digital bodies.
So whether Nikon's reticence to launch another top-end film camera was due to caution over the impact of digital photography or whether they have just been perfecting technologies, in other areas, that have ultimately been used in the F6 isn't known, but Nikon's UK marketing manager Jeremy Gilbert has clearly stated that “Nikon is committed to film and will continue to support photographers who use film for as long as possible.”
If you were to place the F6 and the Canon EOS 1V next to each other, and behind them place the Nikon F5 and the Canon EOS 1N RS, you'll notice straight away the designers of all four cameras have shared a drawing board at some point. Both the older cameras opted for the integrated power-drives, which add weight and bulk but also stability to the overall frames. At the same time they made their shooting speed incredible fast, the 1N RS could get through a roll of 36 frames in 3.6 seconds. The F6 and the 1V decided a more prudent move was to offer the drive as an extra, to be removed or added as the photographer sees fit. The F6 has kept a little more of the classic look of an SLR than the 1V, with the rewind post visible and the function buttons a little more pronounced than Canon's ‘push-buttons'.
Overall constriction of the body, designed by Giotgetto Giugiaro, is a combination of a die-cast Aluminum chassis with a cast magnesium top, bottom and front panels added. This combination allows maximum section strength where it is needed while reducing weight where it is not.
The flash sync and 10-pin terminal, used for attaching peripherals, are both snugly covered with tight fitting rubber lugs keeping the environment firmly in it is place. The internal shooting mechanism has been specially ‘floated' to reduce the amount of noise the camera makes when the shutter falls. On the standard body, without the MB-40 grip, power comes from a pair of CR123A cells, stashed in the handle.
In typical ‘world of tomorrow' fashion, Nikon have re-engineered the shutter, making it from DuPont KEVLAR, so that they can make boastful promises about superb shutter speed accuracy even after 15,000 consecutive shots, although I'm sure only they'd have time to put 4166 rolls of 35mm film through the thing. What this really means though is that the F6 offers a top shutter speed is 1/8000th of a second, which is fast. Other innovation crowed about are the new 11-area AF sensor with 9 cross-type AF (a rectangular focusing area) and an improved 3D colour matrix AE system to analyse the composition of the image in the viewfinder.
Being a pro-model, there are only 4 shooting modes, Program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual. Add to that the 3 AE modes (3D colour matrix metering, Centre weighted metering and spot metering), the 4 AF area modes (Single area AF, Dynamic AF with focus tracking and lock on, Closest subject priority dynamic AF and Group dynamic AF), the 3 focus modes (Single servo AF with focus priority, continuous servo AF with Release priority and Manual), 6 film advance modes (single frame shooting, continuous low-speed shooting, continuous high-speed shooting, continuous silent low-speed shooting, self-timer and mirror-up) and things start getting more complicated. All these functions are individually controlled via buttons on the cameras body, with selectors located on the back, front, top and the side of the viewfinder. A selection of these settings can also be set as part of the 41 custom functions menu accessed via the large LCD paned on the film door. The great advantage of the larger display this that Nikon now have the space to display ‘long-hand' a very useful, if not rather complicated set-up procedure. The custom functions are broken up in 5 sets, grouped into A (autofocus), B (metering / exposure), C (timer / lock), D (shoot and display) and E (bracketing / Flash). Using the 5 way paddle, on the left of the screen, the photographer can toggle through the menus, activating and customizing setting, like leaving the leader out of the 35mm film cassette when rewinding a roll or setting the command dial to deal with exposure compensation only.
As with any serious ‘pro-camera', the functions can take a little getting used to and there's assumed knowledge that you'll know when best to use bracketed exposures and spot metering and so on. There also a real danger of getting overexcited and just throw a roll of film in the back and totally forget all the rules of real photography. Cameras like this don't have a built in flash, so just because you managed to configure the buttons on the body to let you take a picture does not guarantee that it will come out looking all David Bailey, as my test roll is testament to. With a camera as good as this you have to think about shutter speed, depth of field and exposure and if you don't understand what the numbers at the bottom of the view finder mean, then you should probable put the camera down.
Gripes. Well the AF can take a little getting user to. Of the 4 settings, Single area AF, Dynamic AF with Focus tracking and Lock On, Closest Subject priority Dynamic AF and Group Dynamic AF, I found that the single area was the easiest to get accustomed to quickly. In this case, a single square illuminates in the centre of the viewfinder and that's where the camera focuses. When I experimented with the others I found the camera telling me where it was going to focus, despite my best efforts to tell it otherwise. That said, I still found the focus was a slower than the Canon 1N RS. The F6 seems to dither and even though it's only a fraction of a second until the in-finder symbols for ‘focusing in-front / behind' the subject resolve into the ‘locked-on' dot, I still found this too long. The focus mode selector on the front of the camera, tucked down the right hand side of the lens barrel, protruded uncomfortably when locked in the ‘S' mode. Not that this happened but, I can see that getting caught and knocked up into the ‘manual‘ or down into ‘continuous' settings, when in the ‘pushy-shovey' of a press pack.
Sadly everything in the pro-world is an extra and some you'll want, like Nikon Creative lighting system (SB-800 or 600 flash units), Some you'll think about, like the MB-40 power-pack and side grip and some you'll be left wondering about a while, like the MV-1 data reader. This strange device takes all the camera setting, stores them on a compact flash card, which in turn is uploaded to your computer and stored as a .txt file. Why? We'll get back to you on that as soon as we find out.
Overall the F6 is as impressive a camera as you are likely to see at the top-end of the market. Make no mistake, this is not the camera for 98% of photographers, the F6 is aimed at the kind of people who already know what the camera does without having to open the manual and can actually use AUTO FP High-speed Sync Capability correctly (it's a flash thing). It's not simply enough to flash the plastic for the F6, you must first acquire the knowledge of how to use it. This is how you obtain enlightenment, and very good photographs on the way.