Forty Years Later

My first camera —the Zorki 4K

Despite the promises of the Marxist-Leninist cheerleaders, the average Soviet citizen of the 1970’s still couldn’t afford a Leica. So the Soviets built their own Leica ‘tribute’ — the Zorki 4K. Then, for the benefit of those of us who, despite the promises of the capitalist cheerleaders, couldn’t afford a Leica they exported it to the West. And so the Zorki 4K became the first camera I ever bought back when I was around fourteen years old. I didn’t know much about it at the time; its most appealing feature for me was the price. I think it might have been around £30. I also acquired a hand held light meter since the Zorki dispensed with such unnecessary fripperies (as did the Leicas of the time).

My first SLR — the Canon EOS 1000

What I really wanted was an SLR, but they were beyond my financial reach. A year or two later Nikon introduced their new SLR’s, the FM (1977) and the FE (1978). I really, really wanted one or the other of these, but their introduction coincided with my own introduction to the world of casual work and unemployment, and so they too were unattainable.

Time passed and my initial interest in photography faded. By the time it returned, while it remained the era of film, electronic technologies — autofocus and autoexposure — were the norm. And so I bought my first SLR, a Canon EOS 1000. I felt a bit of a traitor doing so even though I had never actually owned any of the Nikons I had once admired. I followed that somewhere around 2000–2001 with the EOS 30, holding out against the gathering digital tide until 2005.

I went digital with yet another Canon, but along the way have also had cameras from Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm. Despite my early hankerings I had never owned a Nikon —until today. I am now officially a ‘Nikonian’.

And this is not just any old Nikon, not one of your showy all singing, all dancing auto everything mini computers bedecked with buttons, knobs, dials and a dashboard’s worth of blinking and flashing lights. This is an honest to goodness, built like a tank, manual everything, mechanical, film Nikon. Finally, after forty years, I have my FM —specifically, a pristine late model FM2n.

My first Nikon — the FM2n

The FM and its variants were in continuous production from 1977 to 2001. Mine appears to have been manufactured in 1999. An FM3a appeared in 2001 for a brief and glorious last hurrah before succumbing to the inevitable triumph of digital photography, though the FM3a was more a hybrid of the FM2 and the FE2.

I had been considering acquiring a film camera for a while and in the last month had been watching a few used camera sites. Then on Thursday of last week this camera appeared on KEH.com — ‘The World’s Largest Pre-Owned Camera Store’. The only problem — it was expensive. No, it wasn’t. It was expensive relative to other FM series cameras I had seen. But it cost more because it was newer, and in excellent condition. I should have bought it instead of prevaricating, but, prevaricate I did. Which was just as well, because the next morning I got an email from KEH offering 15% off film cameras and 20% off lenses. On Thursday it was expensive; on Friday it was a bargain. I ordered it. This morning it arrived, together with an equally nice 50mm f1.8 AI Nikkor.

In preparation I acquired some film — HP5 and Tri-X — and a battery (only needed to power the built in light meter). I also downloaded one of the many online copies of the orginal FM2 instruction manual — all fifty pages of it. (For comparison, the manual for the current digital Nikon D500 runs to 438 pages). I even found an FM2 repair manual with wonderful exploded diagrams of every part of the camera, though I’m hoping I won’t need to consult that any time soon.

Tonight I installed the battery and attached a strap. Tomorrow morning I’ll load some film and hit the streets.

But why?

Nostalgia?

Maybe. A little.

It’s more about taking control. I’ve never been inclined to take hundreds — or thousands — of images when I go photographing, or to shoot at ten frames per second. I prefer one frame at a time, trying to be a little more deliberate, resisting the temptation to fire away and sort it all out later. This camera is just a way of taking that deliberative approach one stage further. Manual metering and manual focus force me to take more time, to think about what I’m trying to photograph. So in one sense there is more to think about. At the same time, there is less to think about. So many of the options that digital cameras offer simply aren’t available on a film camera, particularly on a film camera as basic as the FM2. Fewer choices but more time spent on the choices that matter is a recipe, I hope, for better photographs.

There is also the small matter of cost. I have 36 exposures to work with. It will cost me money to buy the film and cost me more to process it. Once a frame is used, that’s it. There is no delete option. And so it becomes more important to try to get it right in camera.

Of course, it may be that six months from now I’ll wonder why I bothered and rush back to the comforting ways of digital. If I do, I suspect I’ll be able to sell the camera on Ebay and make a profit. Or it may be that I will decide to sell all my digital gear and go all in with film. I’m looking forward to finding out.