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"THE NIKON MYSTIQUE"



by Scott "Genghis" Wong





Photo by Genghis


MY OLD NIKON F: Bought 50 years ago.


Much has been made in cliquish photography circles, about the "Leica Mystique." There is no question that Leicas have been fine instruments of photographic capture, and deserve the kudos they've received over the years. I would like to however, put Leicas and Nikons into the proper perspective, using my own personal and professional experience to shed light on this. I've had extensive professional experiences with both Leicas and Nikons, and vast experience with Nikon SLRs in my personal photography. When I was a teenager and my brother Don Wong, was a freelance photographer before he entered ophthalmic photography, he had some sage advice for me. He said....

"Scott, the Leica is a nice camera, but the real workhorse for professional photographers, is the Nikon F. It will do more for you professionally than a Leica will ever do, will be more durable, and will deliver better results than the Leica."

My late brother Don Wong, was legendary as a founder of the Ophthalmic Photographers Society in 1969, and he knew what he was talking about. When I entered ophthalmology as an ophthalmic photographer in 1971, the top retinal camera was the Carl Zeiss fundus camera. The Zeiss camera utilized a number of backs, including Zeiss Ikon, Contax, Pentax, Leica and Nikon backs. I've used all of these backs on Zeiss retinal cameras for extended periods, and can report that the reliability of these backs ranging from worst to best, was in this order: Contax, Pentax, Zeiss Ikon, Leica, and then Nikon. Without a doubt, the Nikon F backs were the most durable and reliable bodies. The Leicas however, had a spotty record of reliability. The great volume of shutter releases for a camera body day in and day out in ophthalmology, is gruelling and punishing, consisting of far more shutter trips than an amateur photographer's camera back will ever see on its busiest day.

During the eighteen year span in which I worked at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, I had a number of frequent breakdowns of Contax, Pentax and Leica backs. But of the two Nikon F backs I had on my Zeiss retinal camera, I had not a single breakdown in 18 years. One of the Nikon Fs was a motorized back with a bulk-loading back. This old warhorse did its duty day to day, month to month and year to year, often shooting frames at four frames per second. What my brother told me was true: In a professional practice, the Leica could not keep pace with the Nikon for durability. The Leica was in my view, a great boutique camera with a cult following, but when it came to gruelling tests of untold numbers of shots per day, there was no contest.

The camera pictured on top, is the Nikon F body that I purchased new in 1962 at Willoughby's in NYC. This picture was taken about five years ago. Please note the excellent condition it's in, which accurately mirrors how it still functions today. When I bought it in 1962, it was a typically silver camera, which I spray painted to make it all black. It had no built-in meter, so I checked exposure at that time with a Gossen Luna Pro hand held meter. I later bought used, the Photomic metering head you see in the photo, enabling built-in metering in my Nikon F. This Nikon back is in the same great condition now, as you saw in that five year old picture. Please note:

In the 50 years that I've had this camera, it has never needed repair or service of any kind.

It is a beautiful camera, and reliable to boot. Like a well-crafted Swiss watch, it just keeps on going. That in stark contrast to the many trips I made over the years to Marty Forscher's Professional Camera Repair shop, with malfunctioning Contax, Pentax and Leica bodies in tow. I'm sure that I subsidized many of Marty's vacations, as my Contaxes, Pentaxes and Leicas broke down on an annual basis. This was due in part, to the heavy workload imposed on them in my retinal photography work. While it is true that this personal camera of mine never went through the unreal number of daily repetitions that my professional Nikons did, it did receive a goodly number of shutter releases over many years for street photography, without complaint and breakdown. I never once, brought a professional or personal Nikon for Marty's handiwork.


Photo by Genghis

NIKON F AT BRIDGEHAMPTON: Capturing the famous Chevy Chapparal at speed in 1965.


I had the opportunity to photograph Jim Hall's famous Chevy Chapparal racecar, at the Bridgehampton circuit in 1965. I shot this beautiful car from a sand dune at the Long Island track, with an 80-200mm Nikon zoom lens my brother lent me. I used panning technique, shooting on Kodak Tri-X Pan film developed in UFG 1000 developer at 1000 ASA, and printed on Kodak Kodabromide grade 4 paper. This old Nikon F back has seen much in the past 50 years, right up until the time that I went digital a few years ago with Nikon D1Xs. I did over the years, acquire other examples of Nikon flagship cameras, consisting of the Nikon F2 and Nikon F3 film SLRs. Of the three film SLRs, my favorites were the F and F3. To me, the F3 represented the very best that traditional film SLR design and technology offered. The F3 had its own niche before the SLRs that consolidated motor drive in the body like the F5 came along.

Photo by Genghis

NIKON F3: Pinnacle of traditional film SLR design.


The Nikon F3 HP ("High Eyepoint") was known for its ruggedness, revolutionary titanium shutter allowing extremely high shutter speeds and cavernous-appearing viewfinder, and this combination along with the SLR design, made it far superior to rangefinder designs like the Leica. Remember, with an SLR, what you saw was exactly what you got, as you were viewing directly through the lens. Before I went digital, I spent equal amounts of time in my personal photography, with both the F and F3. I favored both of these greatly over the F2. But the old warhorse, my trusty Nikon F, got much use, as you see in this picture I took of racecar driver Dan Gurney, also at Bridgehampton in 1965. This was taken in the race paddock before the race, with the Nikon F equipped with the 80-200 zoom. Both the F and F3 backs are like precious, artistic jewels as you hold them in your hands, ready for duty and looking inspiringly good at the same time. The F3 particularly, is an aesthetically gorgeous design. It is not insignificant that the designer of the F3, Giorgetto Giugiaro, also designed Ferraris and Maseratis.

Photo by Genghis

DAN GURNEY AT REST: Bridgehampton, New York 1965.


It was with my Nikon F, that I started my long journey in street photography. To my mind, there's no finer instrument for street photography than a Nikon back with relatively short focal length lens. In my earliest street photography however, my F body was mated with the 50mm F2 Nikkor that I bought with the back in 1962. Even with static subjects like "Guppies 1963," I still shot at 1000 ASA, and developed the Tri-X film in UFG 1000 developer. Even back then, I recognized the paramount importance of shooting at high shutter speeds in street photography. "Guppies 1963" was taken in Central Park in, you guessed it---1963, the year after I acquired this great camera. I especally liked the aftermarket "soft release" I placed on top of the shutter release button, which allowed for butter smooth tripping of the shutter. Ergonomically, the soft release was perfect.

Photo by Genghis

"Guppies 1963"


In 2003, I went completely digital with Nikon D1x DSLRs. In the meantime, I had zero interest in the megapixel race that so many gear heads are enraptured with. To me, the D1x is a back that engenders great flexibility with regard to postprocessing in RAW to draw out what I needed in well-balanced images, along with the small file sizes that I like to work with. To me, the D1x was perfect, and no amount of anxiety about the immediate obsolescense that newer, higher megapixel cameras, ever visited my brow. To me, the race for the latest, is nothing more than a distraction for the unserious. The never-ending merry go round of periodic obsolesence, has nothing to do with quality photography, and nothing more than a salve for the weak-minded.

To date, I have three D1x backs, none of which has malfunctioned. I also found the perfect mate for my D1x backs in the 20mm f/4 Nikkor, manufactured for one year only between 1977 and 1978. This focal length has given my street photography, the imtimacy that I seek, as I shoot at distances from subjects at 3 to ten feet, usually closer to three feet. Also, this 20mm lens is a pancake lens, with a depth of only an inch and a half. This old "AI" (automatic indexing) lens, meant for older film SLRs, is compatible with all of Nikon's flagship DSLRs ("F-Mount" cameras).


20MM F/4 NIKKOR:
For those close encounters with street subjects.


There is no substitute for the sense of intimacy in street photos taken with a wide angle lens like the 20mm, at close distances of 3 to 5 feet. Longer focal lengths tend to engender a feeling of detachment, intsead of intimacy. If you are far from the action, the resulting photo will show it. The connection with subjects is lost with long lenses, even if the street photographer may feel more comfortable if the subject is unaware of being photographed. Many street photographers celebrate hiding themselves and their intentions, from their subjects using various clandestine techniques, as if this is something to be proud of. I am not a fan of this approach.

One famous street photographer who was a practitioner of clandestine street photography, was Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson famously covered his camera with something when he shot, disguising the act and intent. I can't imagine doing this. It destroys any connection between the photographer and the subject, and reeks of sneakiness. My technique is simply to predetermine the distance required from the subject needed for the composition I want, set the lens manually using the lens' distance scale, walk up to the subject and plant myself at that predetermined distance from the person, and make the exposure. This approach is direct and honest, and produces that intimacy that results from close proxmity of shooter and subject. Any eye contact between shooter and subject is a bonus, and is purely a function of circumstance. Street photography is a fluid art, where the subject is surely to be in motion, when the subject's attention can be fixed anywhere or nowhere.

Photo by Genghis

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 4TH KIND: From 4 feet away using the D1x with 20mm lens.


I have been a Nikon loyalist for over a half a century, and I feel that my loyalty to the brand has been justified by the incomparable service and incredible reliability that Nikon backs have given me. No doubt, many more professionals have made Nikons their instruments of choice for pragmatic reasons, as opposed to cultish, subcultural reasons: Nikons simply outlast the competition. A glance at the pristine working condition of my original Nikon F bought 50 years ago, encapsulates why Nikon has its own "mystique." The Nikon Mystique is real, and has been supported by the testimonials of pros ever since the introduction of the first Nikon SLR in 1959, the venerable Nikon F. That the "Nikon Mystique" is rooted in pragmatism and a reputation of Nikons being bulletproof, makes the mystqiue all the more laudable. A mystique based on cultishness is more ethereal and is bound to wear thin with camera malfunctions. Nikon users out there, enjoy your cameras and appreciate the Nikon Mystique. Later.