Review of the Nikon F6

Unexpected. Unexcelled.

 

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Initial: 12/8/04
Update: 12/9/04
Update: 4/1/05 eBook available

Just when you thought the film SLR was dead, Nikon has to come along and resurrect it. The surprise announcement of the F6 at Photokina shocked a few people, though if you had been paying close attention you would have noticed a few prototypes floating around the world and the fact that Nikon's usual 8-year window between pro film bodies had elapsed.

Indeed, if you look at my 2003 predictions, you'll see the F6 guardedly expected. That's because I kept hearing about those prototypes as they made short trips to various photographers around the world. When the F6 didn't appear in 2003, I gave up on it, but I'm glad that Nikon didn't.

Take a Nikon D2h (or D2x), make the vertical grip optional, add film transport mechanisms in place of a digital sensor, and voila, you have an F6. I'm sure it's not quite that simple, but for all practical intent from the user side, it is.

Note the large monochrome LCD on the back of the F6. This is used for informational purposes and for the menu system.

The F6 is an interesting concoction. To make it, Nikon essentially took the shutter and transport mechanism from the F5 and stuck it into a D2 series body that doesn't have a vertical grip. It's not quite that simple, of course, as there are a ton of minor things that got tweaked, but from a shooting standpoint, you can think of it that way.

Let's start with the changes on the "film" side. This is Nikon's top-level film camera, so it has Nikon's top-level film transport and shutter. I don't see much that's different from the F5 in the F6's transport mechanism, though I'm sure that there are many small differences in some of the internal parts. Essentially the multi-gear pull is still there, as are the subtle things that the F5 did to keep film flat and steady through the gate at high frame rates (again 8 fps with the extended grip and lithium-ion battery, 5 fps with the regular batteries). Film in the F6 engages the same way, and at the same point in the chamber, as the F5. I haven't run many rolls through my F6 yet, but those that I have run as smoothly as did my F5.

The shutter is a bit different. Nikon says they're using a lighter, more durable material in the shutter, though the design is still basically the same as the F5. As you'll recall, the F5's shutter is self-checking, and so is the F6's. The F5's shutter can sync to 1/300, but the F6's only goes to 1/250. The F6 makes up for that by supporting High Speed TTL (TTL FP) when the SB-800 flash is used. Personally, I like that better than having an oddball 1/300 (which also lowered the flash power slightly). Shutter speeds of 30 seconds through 1/8000 are still supported (with Bulb and shutter speeds of up to 30 minutes in Manual exposure mode possible). As before, the shutter self adjusts and reports (locks) when it can't. Like the F5, you're either going to get the shutter speed you asked for or none at all.

Once you move beyond the film transport stuff, the F6 much more resembles a D2 (h or x) than an F5. To wit:

  • The matrix metering uses the 1005-element color sensor in the viewfinder, though the algorithms have once again been tweaked (more focus and distance information is considered than before) and the sensor does more than before (see next).
  • Flash metering with a CLS-type flash (SB-600, SB-800) is i-TTL and set via the 1005-element viewfinder sensor ala the D2 series. (Regular TTL is still supported for older flash units via a five-element flash sensor in the mirror box.)
  • The viewfinder itself is no longer removable and replaceable. The eye point has changed to 18mm (from 20.5mm), but magnification, optional screens, and 100% view are all the same as the F5. Diopter adjustment is down slightly with only a -2 to +1 range (accessory diopters can change the range, though).
  • The autofocus system now uses the CAM2000 module (11 sensors, 9 cross-hatched) instead of the CAM1300 (5 sensors, 3 cross-hatched). The central area is reliably blanketed with very efficient sensors, so much so that there is a noticeable difference in low-light autofocus response over the already good F5. As with the D2 series, you have new group autofocus functions and a great deal of flexibility in how focus is obtained and tracked. If you liked the F5's autofocus, the F6 will knock your socks off (though it'll take much more practice to master due to all the new abilities and settings).
  • Photo Secretary is gone, but not the ability to remember film information. In place of the old software package, the F6 uses an optional MV-1 CompactFlash card accessory to save information the camera has stored about each image (in CSV format; this accessory works with the F100 and F5, too, by the way).
  • The back of the F6 looks a bit digital due to the large (monochrome) LCD that has been stuck just below the viewfinder. Like the Nikon DSLRs, this LCD is used for a menu system that sets camera settings and custom settings. No image review, however. While shooting, the rear LCD displays additional information about camera settings and picture options. When you press the Menu button, it displays the menu system for setting options.
  • Gone also is the optional data back. Surprise! The F6 has those functions (data imprint and intervalometer) built in. That's right, you can imprint image data on or between frames (and write an index on frame 1). You can also set the camera to take pictures unattended at user-settable intervals (including bracketing and multiple picture sequences at each interval).
  • The F6 loses the dedicated vertical grip and controls (but has an optional one with a full set of command dials and AF buttons).
  • Pros will lament that Nikon has finally abandoned AA batteries in a pro film camera. Where the F5 used 8 AA batteries, the F6 makes do with two CR123A batteries. If you really want to use AAs, you need to get the optional vertical grip, which also supports the same rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in the D2 series (a much better option).
  • The F6 also gets the FUNC button from the D2 series, something that's not on any film camera prior to the F6. This user-programmable button has a range of uses, though I tend to leave mine set on pre flash.

You're probably wondering about a few odds and ends that the F5 had that might not have made it onto the F6. Don't worry, they're present:

  • Like the F5, the F6 can be modified by Nikon to accept pre-AI lenses. Unlike the F5, the F6 can matrix meter with manual focus (non-CPU) lenses.
  • Like the F5, the F6 has both a 10-pin and PC sync socket. Unlike the F5, you'll never lose the caps for those sockets, since Nikon has built a clever new rubber cap system that harnesses to the camera strap eyelet.
  • Like the F5, interlocks and locks abound. Unlike the F5, Nikon has removed the extra lock on the camera back we all complained about (e.g., you can simply lift the manual film rewind knob to open the back).
  • Like the F5, the F6 has both CL and CH speeds (plus S and CS). Unlike the F5, mirror lockup is also accessed from that same frame advance selector; makes sense to me.

One new feature some will appreciate: deciding whether to leave the film leader in or out on rewind is now a Custom Setting. Previous Nikon models had to return to the factory to have them programmed to leave the leader out, and could only do one or the other.

With the exception of removable finders, there really isn't anything significant Nikon has left out of the F6 that the F5 had, yet there are plenty of very noticeable improvements. This is a pro-focused camera that comes with the kitchen sink.

Table of Contents

Need a book on the F6? Click here.

 

Handling

Okay, the F5 was a hate-it-or-love-it beast. It's large size and bulk meant that it wasn't everyone's favorite camera for handling. Eight AA batteries with short lives meant carrying extra weight around to feed the beast. Couple that with the transition from traditional dials (F4) to a full command dial interface (F5, N80, et. al.), and many pros simply didn't like the F5.

I'm betting that the F6 will win some of those folk back. In the eight years since the F5, Nikon has introduced five additional pro bodies (F100, D1, D1h, D1x, and D2h), and with each, the little details have gotten better and better. That's not to say there aren't some warts in the F6's handling, but they're minor and mostly excusable. Beyond that, we're all now very used to the command dial interface, and Nikon has refined this so that most of us can adjust our major settings without taking our eyes from the viewfinder (this now includes being able to set bracketing while looking through the viewfinder).

Let's start with the good news: if you own a D2h or D2x, you'll pick up the F6 and be shooting in seconds (once you figure out that you have to put film in it, that is). Controls are so similar and familiar, the transition back and forth between film and digital should be remarkably fumble free. I love this. I'll be taking my F6 with me on trips from now on simply because I can use the same controls and accessories (most notably the same battery as the D2 series, at least if you've got the optional grip).

The smaller body (no vertical grip) makes the the F6 seem much more portable, though it is still significantly heavier and a bit larger than the F100. Still, I'd rather carry the F6 than the F100, which is something I didn't say about the F100/F5 choice. The camera fits nicely even into small hands, the controls all feel like they're in the right places, and small touches have improved your ability to find the right control without looking (most noticeable in the slight offset of the AE/AF-L and AF-ON buttons, but even the Mode/Exposure Compensation buttons are slightly different now, a subtle but excellent touch). The F6 just feels like a better, smaller F5. So much so that I wish it was around when I was shooting daily with the F5--I would have traded my F5 in for an F6 in an eye blink.

About the only button placement that feels wrong is the FUNC button, which is down under the lens. And it only feels wrong if you try to use it with your right hand. If you've got your left hand under the lens for support, your third finger should naturally fall right on the button.

One touch some will like and some won't is that the manual exposure bar has been expanded and moved to the right side of the viewfinder display (a bit of an homage to match-needle SLRs). Even with glasses on I can see this clearly, and the expanded size and scale makes it easy to see what's going on, but I'm sure that someone will complain about having things both below and to the right of the frame view. I won't, and I don't think you should, either.

An obvious difference between F5 and F6 is the larger rear LCD and the new menu system. Here, too, is mostly good news. Custom Settings are handled about the same as the D2 series, which is to say nicely grouped, easy to understand, and no longer cryptic as they were on the F5. Other settings (Date, Language, Intervalometer, Imprinting, etc.) are a little less straightforward (why is Language not on the Set-Up menu but instead at the highest level?). The Shooting Menu doesn't have "Banks," which is probably okay, but I would have liked to have the ability to memorize a group of settings here rather than have to enter all the options for an imprint or interval session (and frankly, a couple of the Custom Settings probably should have been duplicated here, which would have made a Bank option more interesting).

A bigger problem with the menu system is that it isn't very pretty. If you've used a Speedlight SB-800 you'll know what I mean: the move from dedicated LCD icons to a crude LCD matrix means that fonts look a bit rough and crude. This, coupled with an attempt to be helpful makes the menus a bit more confusing than they should be. For example, since the menu system is hierarchical, Nikon has used lines in the heading to indicate at which level you're at: ---HEADING--- would indicate you're at the top level, ===HEADING=== indicates you're at the second level, and so on. It's a good idea, but in practice it doesn't work well. Moreover, Nikon chose to make the bottom line of the menu system the help area (mostly), so you have heading/commands/help, and both headings and help have lines in them. I like the tabbed UI of the D2 series better, and there's no reason why Nikon couldn't have used a variant of it here. Note that in the Custom Settings the help jumps up to just under the heading (and lots of heading items get inverted), so there isn't a great deal of consistency in the design and it does get a little ugly to look at. Fortunately, it's never unclear what you're setting, so these problems really don't add confusion, they just make you look a little harder at the display.

Which, unfortunately, is the weakest point of the F6. In modest light levels its hard to read, which means you'll fumble for the back light switch. Even with backlighting the display is a bit dim. The single-pixel width character strokes don't help things in dim light. Be prepared to use the back light a lot as you get to know the camera.

If you haven't used a D2h the new autofocus options will at first confuse you (may I suggest my F6 book? ;~), but note that the autofocus control on the back of the camera goes from camera-does-it-all (top) to you-do-it-all (bottom), with the middle variants being in between those extremes. Put another way, if you think you need to take more control of the autofocus, try moving the switch down a notch. Conversely, if you want the camera to do more of the work, try moving the switch up a notch. It's little touches like this that endear me to Nikon's UI when they get it right.

Battery performance is, well, so-so. I haven't shot enough rolls yet to be sure, but it seems pretty much like the F5: you'll be changing batteries more often than you do with an F100. Nikon claims 15 rolls at normal temperatures and use for the two CR123As, I think that figure is a little high. Stock up on extra batteries before you leave on long trips to nowhere, folks. (Fortunately, buying CR123A at reasonable prices in bulk is now possible.) Better yet, get the EN-EL4 and vertical grip; Nikon claims about 35 rolls per charge with that rechargeable battery--shared with the D2 series, but I haven't yet been able to check that yet (my grip is back-ordered).

Overall, I really like the handling of the F6. I can find what I need to change quickly (often without even looking). The camera feels right in my hands. All the build quality and handling issues that Nikon lovers expect and love are all there. Battery life is potentially an issue, and the menu system and rear LCD could use a face lift, but that's about it in terms of significant negatives.

 

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Exposure

If the F5 was excellent, then the F6 is most excellent. One of the things that I noticed very early on with the F5 was how well it handled very tough situations, and the F6 is no slouch at that, either. Indeed, if anything, it handles extreme contrast situations a little better. Like the F5, the F6 adjusts for color tonality if it sees things that might impact the exposure.

But the kicker is flash exposure. If you're using an SB-600 or SB-800 you'll be annoyed by the slightly earlier pre flash (it can trigger blinking subjects in a few quick response folk), but you'll be very satisfied with the flash exposures. Fortunately, the pre flash is mostly cancelable (and you can always use the FUNC button to do pre flash on your terms). Where you'll be floored, though, is with multiple SB-800's firing wirelessly from one mounted in the F6's hot shoe. Wow. Just be careful: if you shoot slide film you should do plenty of testing to make sure you understand just how much light you can throw on a subject with four SB-800's. Also, i-TTL flash has many more nuances than did the old TTL used in the F5. The good news is that "yes, it is possible" (and it pretty much doesn't matter what "it" is); the bad news is that you've got more learning to do.

 

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Autofocus

We'll probably have some arguments and debate over this. I'll just state up front that the F6 is mind-boggling good at autofocus once you understand it's abilities and limitations. But I suspect that there will be some people who don't like it. Let me explain.

While the F6 uses the same sensor arrangement as the D2 series, the position of those 11 sensors in the frame is different. With the D2 series, the sensors are spread out more over the entire frame (because of the 24mm instead of 36mm width of the sensor versus film), while on the F6 they are much tighter to the central area. As one photographer said to me in disgust: "they don't even reach the the rule of thirds intersections." That's not quite true, as the very outer edges of the central nine sensors do indeed reach out to about the third lines, but I get the idea: some people think the AF sensors are too centralized.

Those people have either been shooting with Nikon or Canon DSLRs, probably. The autofocus sensors on the F6 cover a bigger area than those on the F5, and they do so more reliably (3x the cross sensors). If you like the F5's autofocus, the F6 will simply blow you away. It's faster, more reliable, and simply has more control options. Plus it covers a bigger area.

Which begs the question of whether it covers a big enough area. Personally, I think so. The problem with the Nikon DSLR arrangements is that there are noticeable gaps between the sensors due to their spread over the frame (as I discussed in the first issue of the Nikon DSLR Report. If you frame multiple players loosely in a soccer match the same way with an F6 and and D2h, you get different autofocus performance. On the F6, the central player (or players) will be reliably autofocused. On the D2h, outer players may be focused upon, or, every now and then, you might get that magical moment when every subject is in the gaps between sensors. Now if you're framing full frame, single subjects (that grizzly bear that snuck up on you, for example), you wouldn't have real problems with either set of sensor positions, though you might have to change your focus behavior a bit with each (more focus and reframed with the F6; more use of directly controlling the outlying sensors with the D2h). But if you have small, multiple subjects loosely framed, you might like one arrangement over the other. Which one is best, however, isn't for me to say, as apparently different photographers have different opinions here. For me, I like the F6 just as it is.

Bottom line: if you're moving from the F5 to the F6, there's no question that you'll love the new autofocus system once you learn it. All the things you wanted improved from the F5 have been. If you're moving back and forth between an F6 and D2 body, well, you'll have some adjusting of shooting style to do as you move back and forth. I doubt that the same autofocus settings and technique will work for you, and this could be frustrating until you master it.

 

 

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Drawbacks

  • Get out the checkbook. You can get three F100's for the price of an F6. Of course, they won't do all the things an F6 will, but you'll still have three instead of one. More is better, right?
  • Slimmed down, but didn't lose weight. I guess the F6 put on muscle mass. The body fat is gone from the F5, but the weight just didn't come down as much as you'd expect. The body is over two pounds, get used to it.
  • Who stole the AAs? CR123A batteries aren't as ubiquitous, and the F6 is still a battery hungry camera, so you might want to consider the optional vertical grip and rechargeable battery, which will take another chunk out of your checkbook.
  • No more dropping the top. Interchangeable finders are history--the F6's prism is not removable or replaceable. The DR-5 right angle accessory is not a perfect substitute for a waist-level viewfinder.

Positives

State of the film SLR, no questions asked. A few of the highlights:

  • Comes fully loaded. Data imprint and intervalometer now included in the base price. That's all on top of a state-of-the-art exposure system, autofocus system, film transport mechanism, and so on.
  • Manual lens heaven. Yes, you can use pre-AI lenses (after the body has been modified by Nikon and you get used to moving the tab). Yes, you can matrix meter and use flash with all manual focus lenses.
  • Flash or be flashed. i-TTL, especially with multiple SB-800s, is more flashing fun than I've had since college. With an SB-800, you can use flash right out to 1/8000 in TTL modes (at the expense of power). Nikon has once again asserted its leadership in the flash area.
  • Nothing lost, much gained. Everything you liked about the F5 either stayed or was further refined and bettered. As should be noted from the above bullets, much was also gained.

F6 Summary

King of the film SLRs by a long shot. State of the art everything for a film body, and perhaps the last in the royal family. These are preliminary ratings that may be adjusted slightly as I use the camera more (obviously, Reliability is great with only a few rolls shot; time will tell if it stays that way).

Features:

Reliability:

In the field:

Value:

Bottom line: My F5 is now retired. Long live the F6.

 
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Question: Is the CS (continuous silent) frame advance mode really silent?
Answer: No, though it does seem somewhat quieter than the F5 was.

K Fisher writes: With just a couple weeks of F6 use, I absolutely agree with your
comments. While I never owned an F5, once the F6 was announced I decided to sell my F100 and treat myself to the ultimate and perhaps last Nikon film F. Even bought the SB-800 in anticipation. What a treat. Everything (for me) on the camera just seems to fall in the right place, I'm already pretty much used to operating by feel alone. Heavier yes, but who cares - it's just so solid and well-thought out. Many elsewhere have inquired about the "silent mode". Of course it isn't silent. No interchangeable viewfinders - I never used one. No AA batteries is the only biggy for me but CR123a's are readily available for $2/$2.50. An extra MS-41 is on its way. So if reliability and performance live up to the rest of the hype again, who cares? This thing rocks! Please drop everything else you're doing and finish your guide to the F6. The F6 manual isn't as bad as some Nikon efforts, but your F100 guide was my bible. Throw in a chapter specific to the SB800/600 and charge more!

E Freibrun writes: Having been a long-time F5 user, I can offer the following regarding one aspect of the F6 in which Nikon did not include some very useful functionality from the F5.  With the F5, one could lock up the mirror, then use the self-timer (e.g., set to 2 seconds) to quickly make a vibration-free image without the need to use a remote cord.  This is very convenient, as it eliminates the need to fiddle with a remote cord when the light is changing quickly.  However, in the F6, because the self-timer and mirror lockup functions are on the same control dial, one can't use both simultaneously -- one is forced to either use a remote cord or one's finger to release the shutter with the mirror locked up. (Thom's response: almost. The mirror lockup will actually trigger a picture to be taken after 30 seconds. In practice, this isn't nearly as convenient as using the self-timer and mirror lockup together, though.)



 

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