Nikon FE review: a classic film camera revisited

The Nikon FE is very capable, easy to use and ideal for anyone wanting a vintage 35mm film camera

Nikon FE being held in a hand to show off the camera
(Image: © Lauren Scott)

Digital Camera World Verdict

The Nikon FE was an advanced semi-professional 35mm SLR camera, manufactured by Nikon in Japan from 1978 to 1983. Today, it's possible to pick up the camera from eBay and specialist secondhand retailers for under $200/£200, but is it still worth buying? The FE is a manual-focus SLR with aperture priority and manual exposure modes, making it a good choice both for advanced enthusiasts, as well as beginners who want a film camera with a retro aesthetic.

Pros

  • +

    Compact and affordable

  • +

    Gorgeous retro aesthetic

  • +

    Easy to use

Cons

  • -

    1/1000sec shutter two stops slower than the Nikon FE2's 1/4,000sec

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Film cameras continue to see a resurgence in popularity, as emerging young shooters seek a more tactile, analog photographic experience than digital cameras, and traditional (let's not call them old) photographers look to hark back to the cameras that they learned the craft with.

Here at Digital Camera World, we review all the latest cameras upon release, but what about the original film cameras that kickstarted the industry as we know it today? Launched way back in 1978 (just a few years after the Canon AE-1 and six years after the original Olympus OM-1) the Nikon FE was an incredibly popular 35mm SLR with advanced amateur photographers.

The Nikon FE is one of the best film cameras that you can still buy, for a number of reasons. It does everything you need, and (unlike the latest digital cameras) nothing you don't. It's solidly built, easy to use and operate, and offers a great balance of price and performance.

Despite being a regular user of the Canon EOS R6 (opens in new tab) and Fujifilm X-T5 (opens in new tab), I recently picked up the Nikon FE on eBay to carry out a few creative assignments, and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed the experience. I haven't shot on film since university, and while it might be more expensive to buy and develop the best film for 35mm cameras, I'm almost sure it's worth the reward when you get the images back.

Let's look at what makes the Nikon FE a worthy film camera to buy in 2023.

Nikon FE Specifications

Lens mount: Nikon F
Exposure control: Manual, aperture priority
Shutter speed: Mechanical 1/1000 sec to 8 seconds, plus bulb
Film speed: ISO 12 – 4000
Exposure metering: Center-weighted
Battery: 2x S76 / A76 / LR44 / SR44 batteries
Dimensions: 142 × 57.5 × 89.5 mm
Weight: 590g

Nikon FE features

The Nikon FE is an F-mount camera, which can be used with most vintage Nikon lenses. Its shutter is electronically controlled and metal-bladed, with a range of 1/1000sec to a maximum of 8 seconds, while Bulb mode is mechanical and unlimited. Flash sync speed is 1/125th of a second. With the exposure compensation dial, you can go two stops over or under, while the ISO ranges from 12 to 3200.

I haven't tested it yet, but camera expert Ken Rockwell explains (opens in new tab) that the FE has an automatic mirror lock-up for when you're using it on a tripod. All these things add up to make the Nikon FE a surprisingly good companion for night photography, even astrophotography if you use film that's sensitive enough.

Nikon FE Design and operation

Nikon FE being held in a hand to show off the camera

On the front of the camera there's a lens release button and a depth-of-field preview lever – all pretty standard (Image credit: Lauren Scott)

There's no denying that the Nikon FE is a good-looking beast, especially if you're into retro cameras. I chose to pay a little more in order to get a model in amazingly good condition, but there are lots of very well-kept cameras on there. Its design is conservative, yet classy and sophisticated, even 45 years later.

At its inception, the Nikon FE was built for durability, and it certainly ages well, if my camera is anything to go by. In terms of materials and construction, the Nikon FE has a tough faux-leather exterior and high-strength metal copper-aluminum alloy, as well as gold-plated electrical switches (according to Wikipedia (opens in new tab)).

Nikon FE being held in a hand to show off the camera

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

The camera's top plate is incredibly well laid out, perhaps even nearing perfection. On the left of the pentaprism (and flash hot shoe mount) there's an ISO film selector dial with a locking exposure compensation dial underneath. To the right, a dedicated shutter speed dial with Auto-lock, a shutter button with a thread for a cable release, and a lever to wind on the film. This also acts as an ON/OFF for the camera and overhangs the body ever so slightly so that you can reach it with your thumb. 

This approach to exposure setting dials has been emulated in some of the latest mirrorless cameras (opens in new tab) on the market. But of course, with the Nikon FE, you also get a window to show you how many exposures are left on the film.

Nikon FE being held in a hand to show off the camera

(Image credit: Lauren Scott)

The Nikon FE is well-proportioned and easy to hold and grip. It most commonly comes bundled with a 50mm lens, but I bought it body-only, with a separate 28mm lens for wider angles. As you'd hope, it's easy to support the camera in your right hand and change the aperture and focus on the lens with your left.

Nikon FE being held in a hand to show off the camera

My Nikon FE came with the MF-12, the first databack designed for the FM/FE (Image credit: Lauren Scott)

Nikon FE Sample images

We're just in the process of getting sample negatives from the Nikon FE developed and scanned, and have tested it with a range of films including the Ilford HP5 Plus, Kodak Portra 800, and Lomography LomoChrome Purple from Analogue Wonderland (opens in new tab).

Nikon FE Verdict

The Nikon FE is an easy camera to fall in love with, because of its simplicity, rather than in spite of it. Without getting bogged down with extensive menus and choices, you can pick it up and focus on the pure joy of photography.

Its viewfinder is clear and bright, and depth of field preview is effective, but the camera offers enough controls to leave you fully cognizant of how and why you're shooting – both in terms of composition and exposure.

The Nikon FE might seem a little rudimentary now, but it helped open up more advanced features to a much wider audience. Relatively risk-free for the price, the Nikon FE is still a very capable SLR and the perfect model for photography students who want to delve into film, wannabe retro hipsters wanting to get into film photography, or old-school enthusiasts wanting to relive the glory days of film cameras from the late 70s.

Where to buy the Nikon FE

With the Nikon FE proving incredibly popular, before you jump on eBay it might be worth asking relatives if they have one – you never know what might be tucked away in a shoebox in the back of a cupboard. Otherwise, the best place to track one down is eBay or camera stores with secondhand sections like Adorama (opens in new tab).

A Nikon FE in nice condition with a 50mm f/1.8 lens shouldn’t set you back more than about $150 / £175. Just be mindful that there can be a few issues if the camera hasn’t been looked after, namely poor light seals and the reflex mirror returning slowly which results in a loud squeak.

Find the Nikon FE on eBAY (opens in new tab)

Find the Nikon FE on eBAY (opens in new tab)
A Nikon FE in nice condition with a 50mm f/1.4 shouldn’t set you back more than much more than $150. Just be mindful that there can be a few issues if they haven’t been looked after, so try to find a model that's been fully tested – and check the seller reviews to see what other customers have said about their cameras.

Find the Nikon FE on eBAY.co.uk (opens in new tab)

Find the Nikon FE on eBAY.co.uk (opens in new tab)
A Nikon FE in good condition with a 50mm f/1.8 will cost around £170, but you can find body-only examples for around £75. Just be mindful that there can be issues with the sensor or mechanisms that the seller may not even know about.


Love shooting film? You might also like the best darkroom equipment, the best film scanners and the best Lomography cameras.

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Lauren Scott
Managing Editor

Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 


An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)


In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.