dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

Nikon F5: The Final Frontier

By now, with something like 18 years of Nikon use under my (size 32) belt, I think that absent a gross mechanical failure, most Nikons will take good pictures.  At least as good as you the photographer can take.  By the time you get to a camera like the Nikon F5, there are only a couple of things you even look at anymore.  One is the user interface; the other is the autofocus system.

Ergonomics/Controls. The F5 is smaller and lighter than an F4 with MB-21 or -23. This is no doubt the product of changing the materials and eliminating the option of using the small grip.  Although the F4 with MB-20 is smaller and a touch lighter (2.5 lbs) than an F5 (3.25 lbs), the possibility of using the MB-20 requires that the camera have two metal bottoms and two tops - i.e., a top and bottom for the motor drive.  Add that to the fact that the F4 covers are made of brass (or something heavy that passes for it) and the F5 has magnesium covers. The F4 body casting is silumin, a heavy alloy used for engine blocks, and the F5 reputedly uses lighter magnesium for the main casting too. Whatever.  It feels like a huge metal object.

The F5's bottom is just a huge receptacle for 8 AA batteries.  Although this part is from reading, it is actually better to use 1.2V Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) than 8 alkalines, because the alkalines drop below critical voltage faster (which must mean that they drop below 1.2V quickly).  NiMH cells stay relatively constant until they die.  Many people use 1.8V Energizer Lithium AA cells; I surmised that from the lack of complaints about exposure errors that the camera has a voltage regulator.

The F5s controls are very similar to any other modern Nikon and significantly different from older Nikon SLRs, especially the F4.  The controls break down into three major clusters:

– The left cluster consists of the wind knob, R2 switch (rewind interlock) and drive settings (S, CL, CH, CS).

– The right cluster consists of the two control wheels (1 aperture, 1 shutter speed, your choice which is which), buttons for multiple exposure, exposure mode (P, S, A, M) and exposure compensation; and the main on/off/illuminate switch.  On the back there is an AF/AE lock (programmable) switch and an AF-on switch.

– The bottom back cluster includes a small LCD and a flip down door that reveals the controls for ISO setting, flash mode, autobracketing mode, focus area lock, and custom functions.  There is also a second AF-on button.

Apropos of custom functions, here they all are, with my translations:

# Description Options Translation
0 Custom Program set.   You can have two completely separate groups of settings, in memory, for different applications. 0: set #1
1: set #2
Wow, just like the Driver 1 and Driver 2 settings in my car.
1 Focus Priority with
Continuous Servo AF
0: release priority
1: focus priority

Setting 0 basically defeats the purposes of (C) mode for AF by allowing the camera to fire only when the subject is in focus.

Better explanation is that when you hold down the shutter release, the focus is locked for all successive shots.

2 Focus Priority with
Single Servo AF
0: focus priority
1: release priority

Setting 0 basically defeats the purposes of (S) mode for AF by allowing the camera to fire before the subject is in focus.

Better explanation is that after the single shot fires, the camera stays locked in focus and does not refocus.  Useful if you are shooting an off-center subject with the center AF sensor.

3 Bracketing order 0: center, down, up 1: negative value to positive value Who cares?  You're bracketing.  Not like you won't be able to tell which is under, over and on-target! 
4 Autofocus activated with shutter release button 0: Enabled
1: Disabled
If you switch this to 1, you have to use AF-ON all the time.  This is really annoying, unless you like to focus every once in a while.  But that's what they made M mode for.
5 AE-lock: Shutter speed/ aperture shift 0: Enabled
1: Disabled
6 Direction of rotation,
input dials
0: Default
1: Reversed
7 Auto Exposure lock when shutter release pressed 0: Disabled
1: Enabled
8 Film advance on closing the camera back 0: Disabled
1: Enabled
Pointless custom function.
9 Film advance speed in Ch 0: 8fps
CH8: 8fps
CH6: 6fps
For when you discover your toddler is not a Tomahawk cruise missile.
10 Film advance speed in Cl 0: 3fps
CL5: 5fps
CL4: 4fps
CL3: 3fps
Leave this alone.
11 Warning LED blinks during bulb exposure 0: Disabled
1: Blinks
How exciting.
12 Film stop 0: Disabled
E35: after frame 35
E36: after frame 36
What is the purpose of setting E35?  So you can fit 7 strips of 5 into a negative page?
13 Multiple exposure mode cancellation 0: Cancelled after 2nd exposure
1: Enabled until reset manually
14 Diameter of 75% weighted area in center-weighted metering 0: 12mm
C8: 8mm
C12: 12mm
C15: 15mm
C20: 20mm
A: average over full frame
PC: custom set via PC link
Has anyone ever compared the A setting to Matrix over a wide variety of situations?  What if the resulting exposures were... the same?!
15 Delay time for meter
0: 16 seconds
L4: 4 seconds
L8: 8 seconds
L16: 16 seconds
L32: 32 seconds
Set this to L8 if you want to save your batteries.
16 Self-timer duration 0: 10 seconds
L2: 2 seconds
L3, L4,...up to L60: 60 seconds
17 Bracketing in manual exposure mode. 0: shifts shutter speed
11A: shifts speed + aperture
10A: shifts speed (same as default)
01A: shifts aperture
00A: shifts flash output
Wow.  Simple binary on a carrier wave.  Radio!
18 Focusing screen compensation 0: zero
-2.0 to +2.0: variable in .5 EV steps
Focusing screen compensation should have been programmed into each screen.
19 Extended time exposure range 0: Disabled
1: Enabled
This is only relevant to nerds, whoops, astrophotographers.
20 TTL default flash sync speed. Not for Programmed exposure mode. 0: 1/250 sec
1/300,  1/250,  1/200,  1/160, 1/125,  1/100,  1/80,  1/60
Um... for those times when you need 1/300 and not 1/250?  FYI, this controls the "X" setting on the shutter.
21 AE-L / AF-L button 0: AE/AF lock
AEL: AE lock only
AFL: AF lock only
L-L: double-lock
Similar to what the F4 did with two separate buttons.
22 Aperture setting 0: Command wheel
1: Lens aperture ring
Eventually we will all forget that the ADR window ever existed.
23 Focus indicators 0: Displayed
1: not Displayed
Fun to watch
24 Bracketing, existing light or flash 0: both existing and flash
01E: existing only
10E: flash only
11E: both (same as default)

Finder. The viewfinder system is significantly different from the F4. The prism detaches using a fingernail pressing into a slot, and the then prism slides off easily. The metering setting is now locked by a button in the center of the selector (on the F4 with DP-20, the button was one solid unit; on the DA-20, the center was the pivot point for the switch). 

The magnification of the F5 finder is 75% vs 70% for the F4.  In terms of viewing, the standard focusing screen (EC-B) is slightly dimmer than F3 Red Dot and F4 screens, something probably attributable to (a) the presence of a clear LCD in the screen and (b) the rather large semisilvered surface required to feed light to the color CCD meter.

The EC-B shows the selected focus area in black when the camera is turned on. This display is redundant of the top-mounted focus area indicator and bright orange arrow LEDs in the finder that indicate the selected point. If you switch to a plain screen, such as an E, you use those other indicators of where the focusing area is set. You lock and unlock the focusing using a difficult-to-hit-by-accident switch on the bottom rear of the camera.

The finder has a nice single electrluminescent display at the bottom for metering mode, exposure mode, exposure settings, and frame counter.  This is a lot better than the setup on the F4, which has two LCDs (one top, one bottom) competing for your eye.  And let's not talk about the F3 by comparison.

I think that the F5 finder is the origin of the legends about the power hungry nature of this camera.  The always-illuminated finder display plus an energy-hogging 1005 element full frame CCD meter cannot be easy on the batteries.

Metering.  The F5 has the most sophisticated internal light meter humans have ever invented.  That said, Nikon centerweighted metering has been 99% accurate since the F3.  The F4 introduced Matrix metering into pro cameras, and then it was all downhill from there.  The F5 gives you 1,005 segment, 3D (with D lenses), color corrected metering with most AF lenses.  It also gives you 3-dimensional flash metering.   This is a great example of the 80/20 rule; specifically how 80% of the effort is spent obtaining the last 20% of the benefit.

In practical tests, the metering on the F5 has outperformed that of every other camera I own in overcast weather; my guess is that it can tell from the color temperature or the overall contrast that it needs to increase exposure of the subject area.  Pretty impressive.  No more dark eye sockets.

Motor drive. Insanely fast.  Put it on S or CL so your 36-exposure film lasts more than 4.5 seconds.  The CH mode is so fast that it's tough to take only one picture at a time.  Most people will never need to shoot many frames sequentially, but the fast motor drive means that the blackout time for shooting ends up being minimal.

Autofocus. AF is fast. A lot of people knocked the F4's autofocus, but in some ways the F4 holds its own speed wise with the F5, which is reportedly the fastest gun in the west (being capable of tracking a cruise missle or an F1 car at 60 feet...). This of course depends on what you are trying to do. In actual use, I didn't find the F5 to come up short with anything I tried to shoot a picture of. It's fast and sometimes so fast you have to take it on faith that the lens is continuing to focus as the mirror flips up. Under slightly more controlled circumstances. I tested the AF with a variety of lenses, some screwdrive (of varying focus effort) and one AFS. The following are single-shot, simple subject (i.e., vertical lines) to level the playing field a bit for the F4, which lacked cross-type sensors.

20/2.8 AF-D - this screwdrive lens has a really heavy front end that taxes anything you hook it up to. The F5 seemed to be about 1/3 faster than the F4.

28/1.4 AF-D - this screwdrive lens showed the least difference between F4 and F5. It is a heavy lens all around. It may also be that the thin depth of field and wide angle of view make it more difficult to get any AF system to lock on.

50/1.8 AF-D - this lightweight screwdrive lens was just about torn apart by the F5. F4 was fast, but with the F5 it is ridiculously fast.

105/2 AF-D - another heavyweight screwdrive lens, this time internal focus. The F5 was a lot faster with this; it almost feels like the body's motor vibrates the lens elements out of inertia.

28-70/2.8 AF-S - this one is pretty fast on an F4, certainly faster than any screwdrive lens. On the F5 it may as well be thought controlled.

My conclusion (probably unscientific) is that with screwdrive lenses, the limiting factor is really the torque the focusing motor puts out and with AF-S the processor speed and sensor type (cross or line) in the camera. The F4 does not have the fastest processor Nikon ever made, but it is still ahead of the torque-rich motor in the F4.  The F5 has a blazingly fast processor and a super-powerful motor.

Bottom-line. I am probably going to do a more comprehensive runthrough on this later, but suffice to say that I like the camera. I am not sure that it is so similar in concept to the F4 with MB-20 battery pack that it is a direct replacement.