A Camera – The Nikon F-501 AF

Nikon F-501

That was Santa’s surprise present this Christmas: a really nice Nikon SLR, the F-501 AF.


It is a thirty-year-old camera (1986, just like me) mixing vintage looks and a nostalgia bonus (just like me) in a body that is quite heavy (just like… nevermind) but is also offering a firm and steady grip.

More importantly: the F-501 AF is the first customer grade Nikon SLR to offer a modern TTL (Through The Lens) autofocus system. It was sold in the US under the N2020 AF denomination. Former systems in the same grade of cameras used specific lenses containing the focus motor. High prices led makers, first of them Minolta one year before the F-501, to build their motors inside the body of their SLR.

Twist of fate, modern DSLR would switch back to motorized lenses once prices go down, for efficiency and low volume requirements.

Good to know: the batteries required to run this camera are 4 simple AAA cells, located on a support in the shoe. Easy to find, including rechargeable models (planet Earth will thank you).

Another then-new feature, the F-501 has automatic film advance, thus the absence of winding lever. This also eases film loading, and sensibility is automatically set thanks to DX code reading on the roll. As always in photography, improvements come one at a time, and the advance motor does not provide rewind capability.

Along with the camera debuted the AF Nikkor lenses, still sold today! I’ve been spoiled with two of the standard lenses, the 50mm f/1.8 lens and the 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 zoom. The latter seems to receive mixed reviews and I do not have tested it yet. I grabbed the 50mm first, and that was the best choice: it’s a renowned lens, bright and precise, producing a really nice bokeh.

Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8 : it’s a renowned lens, bright and precise, producing a really nice bokeh.

It was really easy to get my hands on and use this camera. I grabbed it naturally on a couple of occasions for a test roll, without ever thinking about the light conditions or anything. On sunny days as well as evening light, it’s been really confortable to use. The firm grip and steady shutter even allowed some twilight shots without much motion blur.

Automatic exposure modes are CPU controlled with preference for high or low speeds. The aperture priority mode will be your best friend. Manual exposure will allow to shoot using compatible lens. Only speed priority mode may be missed by its admirers. Some ergonomic oddities can be forgiven: the power-on switch has a tendency to remain in-between two modes, the AF-L and AE-L buttons are unreachable.

The viewfinder is bright. On its right, the selected speed is displayed, along with an exposure guide when necessary. However, it is missing a reminder of the corresponding aperture, like on the Canon A-1 SLR. This is something you can be accustomed to. Below the image, there is a focusing guide, displaying the direction you should manoeuvre your lens barrel: useful when in manual focus!

In low light situations, the autofocus system performance is disappointing.

Because in low light situations, the autofocus performances is disappointing, and you can then sense the giant steps the makers have made to get to modern autofocus systems. When the autofocus system does not manage to focus properly, the focus guide is not of a big help, and the standard focusing screen does not offer any clue useful to manual focus. An optional focusing screen, Type J, is the only hope of getting support from microprisms.

Everything in balance, the F-501 is a very good SLR camera for making good use of the excellent compatible lenses.

Some pictures

Here is a galery of some shots from the test roll: Ilford HP5 Plus at 400 ASA. Every picture has been shot using the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens.

Do not hesitate to ask in the comments if you have questions about the Nikon F-501 AF, and please share your pictures shot using this camera with me on Instagram. Have fun !

More info

  • The F-501 AF on collection-appareils.fr
  • Another deep review of the F-501, among other Nikon SLRs, that coincidentally was published on the same day as this blog post 🙂 on mikeeckman.com
  • The F-501 AF in my personal collection.

Author: Laurent

In his thirties, film photography amateur, vintage cameras collector, precision DIY hobbyist.

13 thoughts on “A Camera – The Nikon F-501 AF”

  1. Thanks for the link, Laurent! What a coincidence that we both published reviews regarding the same camera on the same day! To think that it took us both 31 years to finish the review! 🙂

    1. I’m not familiar with low profile lenses, but I’m pretty sure they exist in F-mount with manual focus. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an AF version.

  2. Hi. I`m a Nikon User from Austria. Maybe you can help me. I have bought a Nikon f-501 bit I am not sure if the camera works. When i press the shitter release button (in position S) nothing happens. Only the red LED is blinking. Has it something to do with the battery? Thank you very much

    1. Hi Klaus !
      I checked mine right now and it does exactly this when there is no film inside. Even autofocus is switched off.
      When I open the back door to reset the frame counter, the camera let me focus and shoot the 4 initial pictures (all at once). It then realizes there is no film loaded, and it goes back into “no response” mode.

      If you have film in it, maybe it is not correctly attached to the right spool. The user manual also states that the LED should blink if you load film that does not have a DX code (silver squares on the film canister) and left the ISO selector on “DX” position.

      Let me know if this helps!

  3. I am attempting to use the N2020/F501 in manual mode, I am trying to understand what the flashing numbers are telling me from an exposure setting point of view. How i can tell when i am underexposing by a stop or over exposing.

    1. The flashing numbers are warning of under/over exposure once there is on stationary number the exposure is correct this is in manual mode or under arrows if the shutter range is above 2000 sec or the lower than 1 sec either stop down for over exposure or use flash lower than 1 sec ( unless you are on a tripod lower than hand held permits or B setting Rule of the thumb is to use a shutter speed that is the same as the focal length for sharp images.

  4. hallo
    ich habe eine sehr gut erhaltene F501 bekommen mit Nikkor 50/1,8 + 70-300 /4-5,6 D ED
    Leider habe ich festgestellt das der Autofokus zwar mit dem 50er funktioniert aber beim 70-300 nur, wenn überhaupt ganz sporadisch. Meist rührt er sich nicht ;dann mal zaghaft. Man sagte mir es könne sich eventuell Staub auf den AF-Messzellen abgelagert haben. Manuell geht es natürlich ; wenn auch nicht ideal mit der Mikroprismen-Mattscheibe. Aber dann hätte ich auch die F301 nehmen können ; meine in jungen Jahren 1. SLR
    Vielleicht wissen Sie einen Rat ?
    Vielen Dank im Voraus
    Grüße Willi

    1. Hallo Willi,
      laut der Bedienungsanleitung der Kamera (in Englisch auf der homepage von http://www.butkus.org zu finden; in der Bedienungsanleitung dann auf Seite 41 linke Spalte mittig) funktioniert der Autofokus bei der F501 AF nur bei Nikkor AF Objektiven, die lichtstärker als 4.5 sind. Dein 70-300/4-5.6 ist wahrscheinlich in Teilen zu lichtschwach (wegen der 5.6) und funktioniert damit nicht richtig.
      Schöne Grüße,

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