Nikon F100

The affordable pro camera. In some ways, it's better than the F5.

 

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As an N90s and F5 owner, I was immediately intrigued when Nikon announced the F100. While the F90x/N90s is a fine camera, it's controls are quite different from the F5, and switching back and forth between the two makes me have to think about the camera I'm using more than I'd like.

In this view, you can see many of the F100's well organized controls. Some, like the metering selection knob on the side of prism, are in the exact place any F4 or F5 user would expect them. A few, like the control cluster where the rewind knob would be on a manual camera, use a different layout, but still recognizably Nikon (and better thought out than the F5).


The F100 looks like an F5 without the extended grip, and a cursory glance at the F100's controls will make an F5 user grin in recognition (alas, the grin will go away upon reading the part of the manual that describes the custom functions; more on that later). Since the F100 and the F5 share so many features and controls, I'll concentrate on the differences between the cameras in this review (you might want to read my F5 review before continuing).

The primary things the F100 sacrifices over the F5 are:

  • The F100 doesn't have mirror lock-up.
  • The F100 has a 10-sensor matrix meter instead of the F5's 1005-element color matrix meter.
  • The vertical release and extended grip are an option (MB-15) on the F100.
  • The F100's top frame rate is 5 fps compared to the F5's 8 fps.
  • The F5 has a self-monitoring shutter, the F100 doesn't.
  • The prism is not removable on the F100; it is on the F5, allowing waist level viewing and alternate prisms.
  • The F100 does not have a built-in eyepiece shutter (to keep extraneous light out when you're not looking through the viewfinder). Instead, it comes with a small plastic accessory that is easily misplaced.
  • The F5 has slow shutter speeds up to 30 minutes (you must override the 30 second cut-off with a custom setting to access them, however); the F100 doesn't (30 seconds is the max).

Benefits of the F100 over the F5 are:

  • The F100 weighs only 27.7 ounces, compared to 42.7 for the F5. (Those are the weights sans batteries.)
  • The F100 only requires four AA batteries; the F5 uses eight. The F100 also has an optional holder (MS-13) that takes two CR123A lithium batteries (a wise option if you plan to use the camera in cold weather); the F5 does not have this option.
  • The F100 has more flexible bracketing, allowing 1/2-stop adjustments in addition to 1/3- and full-stop settings.
  • The F100 has a user-selectable function called Closest Focus Priority, which defaults AF to the sensor that sees the closest subject (more on this later).
  • The AF sensors in the F100 briefly light in red when selected and are very easy to see, while the F5's AF sensors are black LCD superimposed over the viewing screen, which can be difficult to see in some lighting and with some subjects. Moreover, the F100's E-type screen uses the same AF sensor technology, while the F5's original E-type screen does not show the active AF sensor.

Minor things that are different on the two cameras:

  • The F5 has a secondary LCD display, which shows the ISO setting all the time. Bracketing, custom functions, and lock settings are shown on this secondary LCD, as well. The F100 has only one LCD, and all settings are shown on it, although some settings only display when you're adjusting them (ISO, for example).
  • The Dynamic AF control is on the back of the F100 along with an AF sensor lock; the control is on the top plate of the F5 and it's not as convenient to lock the sensor.
  • The F5 has a lock to keep the power from accidentally being turned on; the F100 doesn't.
  • The F5 allows manual rewind and has “safeguards” to keep from accidentally triggering rewind; the F100 doesn't.
  • The F5 syncs to 1/300, the F100 to 1/250. (Note that the Guide Number is reduced at the 1/300 setting, though.)
  • The F5 has a separate multiple exposure control; the F100 simply makes it one of the frame advance settings.
  • The F5 features a 100% viewfinder, the F100 96% (the F90x/N90s is approximately 92%).
  • The F5 lets the user set the exact self-timer delay from 2 to 30 seconds; the F100 has only four selections (2, 5, 10 and 20 seconds).
  • The F100 meters from EV 0 to EV 21 in center-weighted and matrix mode; the F5 from EV 0 to EV 20.

For two cameras that supposedly share the same basic design, that's more differences than you would expect. In practice, however, most of the differences simply aren't important for most photographers in day-to-day shooting.

Table of Contents

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The Basics

Except for its matrix meter and high-speed frame advance, the F100 is every bit as much state-of-the-art as the F5. It uses the same CAM 1300 autofocus sensors arrayed in exactly the same fashion, and as far as I can detect, autofocuses just as fast as an F5. (Caveat: I haven't had the chance to try both on fast-moving objects with the AF-S telephotos. But then again, it's not every day that you're out photographing cheetahs with a 600mm f/4, is it?)

What you have in the F100 and the F5 is analogous to a Porsche 911 and a Porsche Boxster: both high-performance machines with a common heritage and easily recognizable similarities. On close examination, though, you note a few odds and ends where the designs diverged. The F100, for example, tops out at 4.5 fps with regular batteries, 5 fps if you use the MB-15 accessory grip. And little corners are cut elsewhere, too. The flash sync speed tops out at 1/250, the slowest shutter speed only ranges to 30 seconds, the rewind time is 9 seconds (19 in “silent” mode). Compared to any other Nikon other than the F5, the F100's feature list and capabilities are top-of-the-line.

Handling

One of the first things to strike you when you first pick up the F100, is how well balanced it is. The F100 feels equally comfortable with a lightweight 24mm f/2.8 lens stuck on the front as it does with the large and heavy 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S. There's substance to this camera, but it's not anywhere near as heavy as the F4s or F5. The grip is neither over- or undersized. The material used to cover the metal body is the same rugged rubber used on the F5. The build quality is every bit as good as the F5. The F100 feels like a professional camera.

For F5 users, the F100 controls seem the same. The few differences typically don't get in the way. I'd feel perfectly comfortable taking one shot with an F5, the next shot with an F100, the next with an F5, and so on, ad infinitum. This is definitely a step up from the differences between the 8008 and the F4s, or the F90x/N90s and the F5. Let's hope Nikon continues this trend of design similarities, and abandons the interface-design-of-the-day philosophy that produced the F50/N50, F70/N70, F90x/N90s, and F5 in a short time period. [It appears they have: witness the recent F80/N80.]

Those of you who've read my F5 review know that I think Nikon made significant goofs in several design areas. Some of these have been fixed on the F100, some have been made worse.

For example, multiple exposure on the F5 was set with a dedicated button. On the F100 it is simply another selection on the frame advance dial, which is where it should have been on the F5. Score one for simplifying design well. Likewise, the F100 features a return to the two-button film rewind design seen on the F801/N8008, F90x/N90s, and F70/N70. No more fiddling with a door, two buttons, and a lever to rewind film. The Dynamic AF control and a lock have been added to the back-of-camera focus selector on the F100, a welcome change from the scattered focus controls on the F5. The bracketing control button is up on top of the camera in a place you can find with your fingers while looking through the F100's viewfinder, not under a door about where you chin hits the camera as it is on the F5. And bravo, there's no mistaking which autofocus sensor you picked, since it lights up in Canon red. Looks like the Nikon engineers are on a roll, eh?

No so fast. Where'd the eyepiece shutter go? How come the Single Servo AF mode and Continuous AF modes pick different focus areas in the exact same situation? Why can't you see what f/stop is being used when you mount a MF lens? How come the sensor indicator goes away so quickly? And what's with those custom settings? Unfortunately, there's still plenty to complain about with the F100; Nikon has yet to create the perfect camera, though they've now turned out two that are close.

The thing that drives me crazy even thinking about it, are the custom settings. Go read my F5 review if you want a fuller description of the annoying lack of logic that seems to pervade the design of the custom settings. I really didn't think that Nikon would replicate the problem on the F100, but they did, and they made it worse for anyone who owns both an F5 and an F100.

The F5 has 24 built-in custom settings, the F100 has 22. Some are the same. For example, custom setting #3 changes the bracketing order and it works exactly the same on both cameras. Some are different. Custom setting #5 on the F5 changes the AE lock method while on the F100 it changes the DX error warning method. Some are the same only different! Custom setting #21 controls the AE-L/AF-L button on both cameras, but the settings are different (the F5 uses letters like AEL, AFL, and L-L while the F100 uses numbers like 0, 1, 2, and 3 [yes, that means that F100 adds a capability the F5 doesn't have]).  Confused? I'd think so. Now I have to carry two cheat sheets with me in the field. Sigh.

It's not even as if Nikon was consistent in their changes. At first, when I saw the changes to setting #21, I thought maybe the Nikon engineers were abandoning using letters for settings to de-anglophile the camera. But no, custom setting #24 on the F5 uses numbers to set the type of bracketing while custom setting #11 on the F100 provides the same function using letters! Custom settings just seem to be the design nemesis of the Nikon engineering team. Actually, the former product manager in me has a crueler interpretation: Nikon's engineers don't listen to product marketing at all, they simply do what they feel like on any given day. Ah, today we use boolean, tomorrow nibbles, next week mnemonics.

For all my bellyaching about custom settings, it's rare that they trip me up in regular shooting. Most of the settings are “one-timers,” things I set once to make the camera work the way I want it to on a permanent basis. I just have to remember that custom setting #16 is the self-timer delay, which I often change in the field, and that when I want to create with multiple exposures, it's custom setting #13 on the F5 and #14 on the F100.  Then again, maybe I'll just have the whole mess printed on a bandana that I'll carry with me everywhere.


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Exposure

The primary question I get asked about the F100 is how its matrix metering compares to the F5's. Unfortunately, the F100 comes up a bit short.

One thing that consistently surprises me is how well the F5 deals with situations that go beyond the film's range to capture (e.g., high contrast scenes). While it's not perfect, it does significantly better than any other matrix meter I've used. If the typical matrix meter gets things right 90% of the time (example: F90x/N90s), the F5 gets it right 95% of the time. The F100 is closer to the F90x/N90s than the F5; in fact, close enough to say that I don't notice any significant differences. The same scenes I have to override the F90x/N90s's matrix on, I have had to do the same thing with the F100.

In general, high contrast scenes cause Nikon's matrix metering to underexpose by at least one and sometimes as much as three stops. Recently I was shooting a hiker backlit by a late afternoon sun, standing in from of a highly reflective ocean. The scene had a range of at least eight stops from the bright sky (fog) to the dark foreground (darkly colored dirt in shadow), probably more if I were to meter the brightest highlights and deepest shadows. The F100 didn't get the sky or the foreground correct, picking an exposure that let the sky go completely detail-less, with the foreground going near black. This is a typical result of Nikon matrix meters. The F5 in such situations, by contrast, tends to expose for the sky correctly (this still often results in underexposure, but at least something's exposed well). My rule of thumb with Nikon matrix meters: if there's more than a sixth of the scene that's very bright compared to the rest (e.g., sky), I'll either switch to another metering mode or pan the camera to set a reading without that bright patch.

This is not to say the F100's matrix meter is bad. It's at least as good as the one in the F90x/N90s, which is no slouch. But it's not quite as good as the F5's, either.

Center-weighted metering in the F100 biases 75% of the exposure evaluation on the 12mm diameter circle in the viewfinder, as do most of the newer Nikons. And the spot metering is exactly the same as the F5: five spot meters that coincide with the five AF sensors, each approximately 1% of the frame.

Manual exposure hounds will appreciate one change in the F100 over the F90x/N90s: you get two full stops of metering information on each side of 0 instead of only one. You won't fully appreciate that until you hit a high contrast scene and are using the Nintendo control on the back to bounce the spot metering area around the frame. Moreover, the scale changes to reflect 1/3-, 1/2-, or full-stop settings, based upon settings you choose. The F100 is truly a joy to use in manual exposure mode.

 

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Autofocus

Go read the section on autofocus in my F5 review. With one exception and one addition, it all applies equally to the F100.

The exception has to do with the way the sensors scan for movement in a scene. Photo Secretary allows you to bias an F5 to horizontal or vertical movement only; as of this writing Nikon hasn't announced whether the F100 will allow the same thing.  [Since the F100 version of Photo Secretary wasn't yet available when I wrote this, it may turn out that the F5 and F100 do work exactly the same, but for now, you can't alter the autofocus scanning order on the F100.]

The addition is Closest Focus Priority (CFP). When an F100 is set with CFP active, you're telling the camera to use the AF sensor that detects the object closest to the camera. I can think of few times when I'd want this function, and worse still, it's bizarrely implemented. First, the AF sensor you select (and the one that lights up in the display) may not be the one that's used. Or it may be the one that's used. You won't know other than if you're paying really close attention to what's in focus on the groundglass or have memorized all the nuances of Nikon's autofocus system. And heaven help you if you've set spot metering, because the spot that meters is the one you selected, not the one the camera used for focusing. (At least one person has written me to explain that this was exactly what they wanted the camera to do in one situation, but there are simpler, more intuitive ways to get the camera to meter something other than the focus point.)

Worse still, Nikon made the decision to make CFP always active if you select Dynamic AF and inactive if you select Single Area AF. Yes, you read that correctly: the F100 will not necessarily use the focus area you select if you set the camera's AF area switch to [ ], but it will if you switch it to [+]. Fortunately, you can override that decision with custom settings, but I just know it'll catch a few F100 owners by surprise someday.

Two other comments about AF on the F100 compared to the F5:

  1. The F100's controls are much more logically laid out. The Dynamic AF selector is next to the AF selector control (the Nintendo control, as I like to call it). Moreover, there's a nice lock switch, too.
  2. It feels like the Nintendo control is a bit further from the rear Command dial and the shutter release (e.g., my hand feels more stretched on the F100 than on the F5). Note that I said “feels.” The measured difference just isn't enough to warrant that change in feel, as we're talking about fractions of a millimeter. Yet, still, moving back and forth between the F100 and the F5, I liked the feel of the F5 better. After measuring both cameras several times and looking at the differences, I'm becoming convinced that the difference has to do with a slight placement difference of the shutter release. And I do mean slight. This, coupled with the bulk and weight of the F5 makes me grip it in a way that feels a little more natural. Be forewarned, however, that I have a have small hands, so, as they say, your mileage may vary.

 

 

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Drawbacks

  • Those darn custom settings. Not only do you get to memorize them or bring a cheat sheet, but you also need to remember which ones are different between the F5 and the F100 if you own both cameras. I didn't think Nikon could make the custom functions worse, but they did.
  • Unexplained early rewind. I've now seen or heard about early rewind occurring on five different F100 bodies with five different kinds of film. The signs all point to a bug in the F100's software. My suspicion is that it's power related (e.g., alkalines going low when the camera's demands are highest), but I have no proof. Nevertheless, the problem is real, and because of this, I can't recommend that you set the automatic rewind and automatic load custom functions on the F100 (the default is to have both off).
  • Manual lenses. Unlike the F5, you can't get the F100 modified to accept pre-AI lenses, and you lose matrix metering and f-stop display when you use MF lenses on the F100.

Positives

The F100 is truly a professional caliber camera that produces fine results, resists the elements well, and complements the F5 so well that F5 users may find they use their F100 more often than not. A few of the highlights:

  • The F100 is virtually an F5 at a fraction of the cost. The F5 features you give up simply aren't important in the hands of a competent photographer. If you require mirror lock-up, removable 100% prisms, or 8 fps, be prepared to pay an extra US$700-800 for those features.
  • Many F5 foibles have been banished or reduced with the F100. Gone is the extra LCD (and its power consumption). Safeguards like the lock on the power switch, the kludgey rewind procedure, and the two-step back opening procedure have been banished without really compromising the handling. The multiple exposure control has disappeared and been put where it should have been in the first place, on the frame advance control.
  • A bracketing system that is a joy to use, and more flexible than the F5's.

Footnote

I've started using my F100 set a little differently than when I originally wrote this review. Besides disabling CFP in all focus modes, I've made the following custom settings:

#4 – disabled autofocus activation with shutter release

#21 – enabled continuous AE lock on the AE-L/AF-L button

To focus, I pick a sensor and press the AF On button briefly. Then I fiddle around with spot metering until I get the reading I want, at which point I press the AE-L/AF-L button to lock exposure. Finally, I compose my shot and press the release. In situations where I'm not tracking fast-moving subjects (e.g., landscapes, which I shoot a lot of), I find that I work fast and get exactly the results I want without the fighting the camera on focus and exposure. Moreover, if I want in-camera dupes, I just press the release several times, since the camera won't adjust the focus or exposure until I tell it to.

F100 Summary

The heir apparent to the F90x/N90s, the F100 clearly tops the F90x/N90s in every respect except perhaps metering, where it is only marginally better. The extra bucks you'll spend on an F100 over an F90x/N90s provides: much better weather sealing, built-in bracketing control, a logical, better control over minor camera settings (custom functions), faster autofocus that covers a wider area, a better viewfinder (96% coverage and slightly more info), slightly faster frame advance, and the best multiple exposure capability of any Nikon. The F100 is so good that you should consider it if you're considering an F5.

Features:

Reliability:

In the field:

Value:

Bottom line: Who needs an F5? Most photographers should save the extra money the F5 would cost them and buy another Nikkor lens.

 
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Philippe Rigault writes:

Very good review. I have had the F100 for a year as my main camera and would like to add a few points. Red-eye reduction, available on the F100, is absent on the F5. It also bothers me that when you switch to Continuous AF on the F100 that you lose focus-priority and are converted to shutter-priority. I would have liked to set the priority-mode in a custom function. Finally, I agree that memorizing custom functions is a headache. At least on the F5 you can store two sets of custom functions and switch back and forth between them. I would have loved having that ability on the F100, but you have to use PhotoSecretary to store sets.

Andy Adler writes:

While I am very pleased with the F100, I'm not at all happy with the now somewhat notorious plastic rewind fork. Mine broke not long ago, forcing me to send it to Nikon for repair. Good thing I'm awash in bodies at the moment. Inexcusible, IMHO, to make such a critical component out of breakable material, unlike every other body that I own, from a Nikkormat FTn on forward.

Kurt Peters writes:

I'm a bit confused by your description of your shooting style toward the end of the F 100 review. You can turn on the auto focus with the AF On button, but does that also lock the focus, or does the camera continue to focus as you're using the same sensor to spot meter different parts of the scene? What I meter is not always the same thing I focus on.

Thom's response: The use of that button interacts with custom settings that dictate what the shutter release, AE-L/AF-L, and focus mode buttons are doing. It's often easier for me to ask a student "what do you want the camera to do" than it is to answer questions like this, but I'll try. AF-ON starts autofocus (if the camera is in an autofocus mode). If the camera is in Single Servo autofocus mode, the camera focuses and soft "locks" there. Release the button and the camera should stay focused there. If the camera is in Continuous Servo autofocus mode, the camera continues to focus as long as you hold down the button. Release the button and the camera stays focused on whatever point it was at when you released the button. But...if the shutter release is set to Enabled for autofocus (custom setting #4), which is the default, when you press the shutter release, the camera may refocus. To make things even more confusing, custom setting #21 controls the function of the AE-L/AF-L button, and the user can make it do one of four things: (1) simultaneously lock both AE and AF; (2) lock only AE; (3) lock only AF; and (4) AE lock even after the button is released. On my F100, I've programmed the shutter release to not activate autofocus and the AE-L/AF-L button to retain exposure lock. This gives me the ability to lock either without having to continually hold a button (I'm often running in and out of my own pictures with the camera on a tripod). It also takes care of the situation you describe: spot metering on something different than the focus point. But remember, too, that the F100 is a wonderfully nice manual mode camera. You could just as easily put the camera in manual exposure mode, meter, and leave autofocus set as it comes with the camera. In short, the F100 (and the F5) both have a rich complexity of features that allow most photographers to customize the camera to their personally shooting style. If only the custom settings weren't so darn cryptic.

Mustaffa Abd Aziz writes:

The part on dynamic AF in the F100 instruction manual is too brief and confusing. But after reading a number of forums on the subject, I am more confused than ever. Perhaps Nikon would be so kind as to enlighten users (e.g. photojournalist, sports, fashion, etc.) on what one can expect of dynamic AF, as well as its shortcomings. As one forum contributor suggested, Nikon, please listen to your users.

Thom responds: I don't disagree with your comment on documentation. Here's the problem: Nikon's camera engineering unit is relatively self-sufficient and traditional Japanese (only a few speak English well, and few interact with non-Japanese photographers, customers, or even media). So terse engineering descriptions need to be translated. Worse still, Nikon, like many of the Japanese manufacturers, fell for the wave of "fuzzy logic" software in the late 80's and 90's and still produce products that are difficult to characterize in a "if this, then that" fashion. So the rest of the world gets manuals that rarely goes into the why or how Nikon's software works. Probably the best practical explanation of how autofocus works on the F5 (and the F100) is on Moose Petersen's site. Rather than try to repeat all that here, I'll simply refer you to it. As for Nikon listening to its users, I'd love to say it will happen, but as long as Nikon is structured as it is, I doubt it'll happen.

 

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