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.
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 !