Nikon F100: First Hands-On Impressions of an F5 "Petite"
By Bjørn Rørslett
Here I was with the brand new Nikon F100 and it felt like welded into my hands. Handling it really was instinctive for a seasoned F5 user and probably would be so to most other people. The demo camera, the only one here in Oslo, was in great demand and I could use it only for a short time. However, I will have access to it again next week and then there hopefully shall be time enough to run some really rough tests on it (I did promise to bring it back to the dealer's, but did not state its condition ..).
The F100 is a direct crossing between the prestigious and quite expensive F5 and the its cheaper predecessor, the F90 (designated N90 in the US). From its external looks it's obvious that F5 was the dominant party of that crossing. The advertising material produced for the F100 further underpins this impression by directly indicating a visual transition from F5 to F100. So hey, you are assumed to get a Pro camera here. Now let's go into details to see exactly what the F100 offers.
F100 has a non-interchangeable viewfinder, lacks colour matrix metering, has no mirror-lockup and is able to achieve less frames per second that F5, but a framing rate of 4-5 fps should satisfy most potential buyers. Only a rudimentary databack will be available. Obviously F100 is targeted at photographers not willing to spend a fortune on F5 but nevertheless wanting to make use of the advanced features of that model. Thus F100 shares many F5 features such as its flash wizardry, command wheels to operate shutter speed and aperture jointly or independently, selectable multi-spot areas, and the essential auto modes such as P (Programmed mode with optional override), A (Aperture Priority), S (Shutter Priority - equally useless in practice here as for F5), and Manual mode. There isn't a trace of the brain-dead and utterly useless "Programs" which infest F90. Good news - back to basics.
The relationship to F5 is visually strengthened by the F100's rubberised outer coating, which is decorated with a red trim strip as in the F5. The body is made in magnesium alloy and has an attractive hammered surface finish. It makes a much more durable and solid impression than its cousin, the F90. The viewfinder is very bright and clear, in fact presenting a slightly clearer view of the subject than does F5, and the indications in the viewfinder are very easy to read indeed. This is helped by a red outline of the currently active focus area of which there are five, and these can be selected by a multiway oversized button in the rear. The nice thing here is that there is a locking lever immediately below the focus area selector making it a breeze to lock focus to any position. Certainly a vast improvement over that of the F5! Basic bracketing facilities are built-in and can be selected in 1/3 EV steps.
Other details show clearly that Nikon has learned from F5 and you'll find a number of minor improvements to make handling the camera easy. Thus, the AF start button on the rear is enlarged and has a rough surface to help it stand out from the adjacent AE/AF lock. The AE lock now can operate as a true lock in the sense that exposure can be locked into place with a button press and will not change until the button is pressed again. How I wish that feature could have existed on F5 - we are not all of us having 3 arms to press and hold all those option buttons ... The custom functions of F100 are controlled largely similar to F5 and most control features of F5 are repeated for this new camera. Those having acquired the Photosecretary software and special PC-camera cables for F5 will be pleased to learn that the program functions also for F100. At least, the F100 brochure states so, but my Photosecretary didn't recognise F100 when I hooked it into my NT computer. I have to add that this F100 was a pre-series model and the problem hopefully is fixed for production cameras.
The camera runs on 4 penlight-size batteries. Data in the manual indicates that Lithium batteries are to be preferred, and these are the only viable alternative at low temperatures. There is a booster module (MB-15) with its own shutter release for vertical shooting and this unit extends the battery capacity to 6 AA cells; it can also run on the new MN-15 NiMh battery pack. However, Nicads and rechargeable NiMHs of 1.2 V capacity cannot be used.
The shutter release of F100 operates very smoothly as customary for modern cameras. When the shutter is tripped, the camera does make a more highly pitched sound than the F5, no doubt because F100 weighs only 3/4 kg. Its AF action was extremely fast and certainly did not yield to F5 - in fact, my impression was that focusing the 20-35/2.8 AFD and 85/1.4 AFD with F100 was even faster than on F5! Both cameras share the same AF module with 5 high-level and 5 low-level light sensors to make a total of 10 sensors, some of which are tilted to gain AF precision. Thus the quick AF response of F100 could be due to improved AF software. I recently tried the new AFS 80-200 f/2.8 Nikkor on F5 and that was a blindingly fast combination in AF mode. Wonder what F100 can make this zoom do - hopefully I'll manage to find this out in a short while.
Nikon claims the matrix metering for F100 is improved by giving it 10 sensor segments. Probably the software evaluating the data is more important than the number of matrix segments per se. From my cursory tests of F100 vs F5 I could not detect any significant difference between them. Prolonged field use next week will throw more light on this. Meanwhile, it seems evident that Nikon had stored some clever tricks up their sleeve. F100 is going to be a winner camera.
More Details of F100: Viewfinder Layout
F100 complies with contemporary Nikons in having a high-eyepoint viewfinder, a feature which a major competitor lack. Thus even people wearing glasses can easily take in the entire view in the finder of F100, which shows 96 % of the film frame. Applying slight pressure on the shutter release, or the rear AF button, turns on a bright red outline of the currently active focus area. Beware though that this causes approx. 1/3 stop exposure deviation so accordingly the light just stays on for a fraction of a second. The groundglass of F100 is very bright, in fact, clearly is superior to the standard EC-B screen of the F5. Another advantage is a lack of moire pattern for a DOF preview, and this holds for true macro photography as well. The colour sensors of F5 impart disturbing moire and dark spots on the standard F5 screen when the effective aperture of the lens is small, say f/11 or less, to make that camera less suitable - indeed hopeless - for work at high magnification.
The layout of the viewfinder of F100 is far more discreet than on the F5. All information is on a panel below the finder image. There are no brightly illuminated areas outside the screen as on F5, and the only displayed colours are green on grey. This unclutters the information display to a large extent and most of the data thus are easy to read. However, being smallish and monochrome the focusing indicators are significantly less prominent on F100 than on F5, the latter camera having conspicuous red and green focus markings in its finder. Probably this would be of no concern to the dedicated AF enthusiast but there are other people that do employ MF lenses on any Nikon and F100 would be no exception to this. The MF lens user however will find the F100's electronic focus-assisting feature of little practical value unless the camera is mounted on a tripod.
For some incomprehensible reason F100 lacks the eye-piece shutter found on all earlier F-series Nikons starting with the F2 model range. This in turn makes using the camera on a tripod at an automatic mode setting awkward and impractical. You definitely have to remember to cover the eye-piece to avoid stray light influencing the exposure. Each to his own but this feature wasn't wise to exclude! Of course, when F100 is put into manual mode this problem doesn't exist.
Practical Experiences with Metering on the F100
A few days after my first encounter with F100, I had a new opportunity to use the camera. This time I aimed to elaborate on the technical merits of this newcomer from Nikon. For example, how did F100 cope when you mount a non-AF lens on it. Clearly you won't get AF in this case, but in order to fully utilise the vast arsenal of older (and often superior) MF Nikkors, F100 should be able to give precise metering even when using a non-automatic lens, with stopped-down shooting or with teleconverters. It's a fairly well known secret among Nikon aficionados that F4 didn't exactly pass that test with flying colours. F90 did better and F5 was nearly impeccable in this respect, coming up to the standard of F2 AS.
I'm happy to report that F100 handled nearly all metering challenges I did throw on it in an excellent manner. Thus, stop-down metering through my 28 f/3.5 and 35 f/2.8 PC Nikkors gave identical readings to those of F5, and matched my trustworthy F2 AS. My F4's were not up to this challenge at all. Using old Micro-Nikkors with extension tubes to bring the effective aperture below f/5.6 proved no obstacle to the F100 meter either in spot or centre-weighted mode. The only deviation occurred for the Noct-Nikkor 58 mm f/1.2, a super-speed lens that Nikon admit needs -1/3 to -1/2 stop correction on F5 to avoid overexposure. Even taking this compensation in account, F100 indicated +1/3 stop error compared to my F5. I wouldn't call this a significant problem, but those fortunate to own the otherwise excellent Noct-Nikkor should be aware of this issue which incidentally is covered in the F100 manual.