update: July 2003
|Nikon F5 Review
The best metering of any camera to date on an almost perfect body.
Camera is no longer produced
always a sucker for new toys. When the Nikon F5 was first introduced, it
looked like the consummate gadget for a dedicated Nikon user. With minor
reservations, mostly concerning the price, I dropped by my local drug, uh,
camera dealer and plopped my credit card down on the counter.
Since the F4s was still being made and sold at the time, buying an F5 wasn't an automatic decision for a serious photographer (Galen Rowell, for example, went back to an F4 with the MB-20 battery pack after spending a short time trying the F5). While I didn't know it at the time, there are clear differences between the two cameras that might have tilted my decision one way or the other. For example, the primary advantages of the F4s over the F5 are:
The F5 is better than the F4s in the following ways:
I've used the F5 for over five years and have a well-established love-hate relationship with the camera. I'll try to point out this dichotomy in the remainder of the review.
The F5 is a professional camera that is feature laden and state-of-the-art. The autofocus system is fast, and features five sensors (CAM 1300) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV �1 to EV 19 (ISO 100). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 20, not quite as wide as the N90s, for example, but plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/3 stop increments from 30 seconds to 1/8000, although a custom setting allows you to extend the slow end considerably (at the cost of battery life). Single shot and continuous firing at 1 fps, 3 fps, and as high as 8 fps are supported, the latter only with the expensive Ni-MH battery option (otherwise top speed is 7.4 fps).
Nikon made a lot of noise about the new color matrix metering system. A 1005-cell CCD in the prism is active in matrix metering mode, providing additional information for the camera to consider in evaluating a scene. According to Nikon, many colors have a direct impact on exposure. Certain yellows dominating a scene result in an underexposure result without the F5's color compensation calculation, for example. I'll speak to this issue more later in the review, but as this is one of the key differences between the F4s and the F5, it's important to understand what the 3D Color Matrix system is, and what it can and can't do.
The matrix metering also incorporates information about the focus point you're using if you've mounted a �D-type� lens. Nikon also lists �subject positioning,� �overall scene brightness,� and �scene contrast� as factors in the matrix metering calculations. In short, it's hard to second guess the camera as there are so many factors being considered. If simplicity suits you, the center-weighted and spot meter options are better choices, but even there, it isn't the same-old Nikon metering. Custom settings allow you to pick how center-weighted the center weighting is, and spot metering is done at the autofocus sensor in use.
As befitting a professional camera, Nikon keeps the mode selection simple: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual are the full lineup. Program mode is easily adjusted by spinning one of the control dials, thus there is no �Program High� or other special automatic modes as there are in some other Nikon bodies. If you really need a custom program, you can create one using Photo Secretary.
An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 5-stop range in 1/3-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at one-third, two-thirds, or full-stop values. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls. ISO values from 25 to 5000 are automatically set from DX-coded film, with manual override from 6 to 6400 possible. Flash sync works to 1/250 of second for normal flash, although a custom setting allows you to up this to 1/300 (at a reduced Guide Number, unfortunately). Flash metering uses five segments and can be TTL balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear curtain.
the viewfinder, you'll see 100% of the full frame. Shutter speed, aperture,
exposure mode, metering method, focus indicators, exposure compensation,
flash ready, and frame counter are all visible, even to eyeglass wearers
like me. Other minor indicators are visible as well, such as aperture
or shutter speed lock. Finally, with the supplied EC-B and the optional
EC-E screens, the active autofocus sensor is highlighted in the frame.
The highlight is black, and therefore sometimes hard to see, but nevertheless
The highlight is black, and therefore sometimes hard to see, but nevertheless useful.
The F5 takes any Nikon F mount lens (non-AI models need to be adapted first unless you have your F5 modified at a Nikon service center to accept them). And like all professional Nikons, it uses AA batteries (eight!). A depth of field preview button is included, as is mirror lockup. The self timer is user settable from 2 to 30 seconds, although this will require you to remember a custom setting number.
The camera weighs in at 42.7 ounces without batteries or any other accessories (almost twice that of an N90s of F100, especially once batteries are taken into account).
The Nikon F5 has no significant missing features other than loss of matrix metering with manual focus lenses. Indeed, if you look at feature lists of every 35mm SLR, you'll find very few things that the F5 lacks, and a few that only the F5 has. [This has changed slightly since I first wrote this. Nevertheless, for a professional, no significant feature is missing other than loss of matrix metering with manual lenses.]
Look at an F5 and you're struck by how big the camera is. Pick it up and you'll probably think it isn't as heavy as it looks. It's still heavy, though. And when you add eight AA batteries, that weight rises to medium format territory. Unlike the F4, there is nothing you can do about the bulk and little you can do about the weight (use lithium AA batteries; more on that later).
On the plus side, the F5's build quality is first rate. Weather gasketing is superb, and the feel of the camera is quite good�not metallic, not plastic, but a nice, substantial heft with a bit of a rubbery feel. For my small hands, the F5 is as much as I can grip. Fortunately, most of the controls fall naturally under my fingers. Unlike the N90s, there's no long reach to the bottom of the lens to engage the autofocus lock�the button is right under my thumb on the back of the F5.
Virtually all controls with multiple settings (flash, metering, exposure compensation, ISO, mode, drive) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating one of the knurled control dials (some, like bracketing, require you to rotate both to change all the available parameters). You won't be able to change to a different film advance mode without taking your eyes from the viewfinder, nor will you likely be able to change flash mode, ISO, bracketing, or lock settings without peaking. But you can move the active autofocus sensor, change aperture and shutter speed, change program or exposure modes, and dial in exposure compensation while looking through the viewfinder.
Some F5 users don't like the autofocus selector on the back of the camera, complaining it works too much like a cheap Nintendo touchpad. Perhaps I've played too many video games in my life, but it works for me. Another complaint about this control is that, since it sticks out on the back, it's too easy to accidentally brush it and change the setting. Perhaps, but after using the camera a lot, I haven't found this to be a problem. If I'm looking through the viewfinder, I see what selector is active, and if I'm not looking through the lens, it's usually because the camera is on a tripod with the lens set at hyperfocal distance.
do need to understand how
the autofocus selection is made by the camera in �dynamic focus mode.�
Moose Peterson has an excellent
description on his web site, for the curious. Suffice it to say
that it doesn't work like you'd expect it to from reading the manual.
But after working with the camera for some time, I can't say the manual
is incorrect. It simply leaves out a few important points and misleads
you by its simplicity. I've been impressed by how well the autofocus
system works, especially once you master the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde
personality of the Closest Focus Priority feature.
I've been impressed by how well the autofocus system works, especially once you master the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality of the Closest Focus Priority feature.
My primary handling complaints are these:
Virtually all of these problems seem to have resulted from too-little user testing. I can't imagine Nikon pros telling the company that this was the way to design the camera. Still, while frustrating, none of these things overpower the basic good in the design.�
The F5 has one near fatal handling flaw, however: custom settings. The camera has 24 numbered custom functions that are set via an engineer-from-hell design. Sometimes custom settings are set by Boolean value (0 or 1 for you non-computer geeks). For example, �AE lock activated by shutter release button� (custom setting #7) is disabled by setting a 0 and enabled by setting a 1. Of course, �AF activated by shutter release button� (custom setting #4) is enabled by a 0 and disabled by setting a 1. Wow. Nikon uses the 0 setting for the default value, figuring that a confused user can always get the camera back to its original setting by dialing in all 0s. But that also means that unless you have one darned good memory, you'll never remember whether 0 is disable or enable!
A confused user is what results; I don't know any F5 user that doesn't have to look at a cheat card or the manual to set something. Want to change the self-timer delay or set multiple exposures? Better memorize the custom setting number (16 and 13, respectively). And if you use other Nikon bodies with custom settings (F80/N80, F100, D1, D1x, or D1h), you'd better be prepared to learn different sets of functions and settings (only a few are consistent between all Nikon bodies).
But wait, it gets worse. While the non-Boolean settings are sometimes refreshingly simple to interpret (flash sync speed is represented as the value, as in 250 for 1/250 or 125 for 1/125), most of the time they are binary nibbles (yep, another computer term) that you'll need a chart to interpret. Want to change the bracketing mode from the default of using both ambient light and flash to just flash? Better remember that 10E is the setting. Need to reset the camera back to ambient light and flash? Try 11E. (Obviously [sic], ambient-only bracketing is 01E). Nikon could have used FLA and AMB and F-A, or F and A and FA, or any number of other self-reinforcing reminders, but apparently that would require that they anglophile the camera. But wait, they did! The custom setting for the lock button (#21) is set using values of AEL (exposure), AFL (focus), and L-L (both).
Personally, I use Photo Secretary to set my custom values for the camera. First, this PC program provides access to useful custom settings that you can't set on the camera (!), but it also allows you set the values in English (or the language of your choice, assuming the software is available in that language). Unfortunately, this is only a small step in the right direction, as:
I could go on and on about the flaws in the custom settings, but I'll leave it at this: Nikon needs to get a user interface expert to fix Photo Secretary, and they should seriously consider fixing the way you set them on the camera [Now that I've seen what Kodak and Fujifilm have done with custom settings on the digital bodies, that comment is even more to the point]. If you need to use a custom setting, good luck, spend plenty of time memorizing the key numbers and options, and don't try to do it when you're drunk, sleepy, or in a hurry. Better yet, just buy one of my books, The Nikon Field Guide or the Complete Guide to the Nikon F5, and keep a reference with you at all times. Thanks, Nikon!
One final comment on handling: if you're moving up from any Nikon SLR, you'll find most of the functions familiar, just often in different places or with additional options. Spend some time learning the controls before heading out to a critical shoot.
F5 Product Specification
Everyone wants to know if (and how) the color matrix metering works. The short answer is �mostly.�
The eight-area matrix metering is very intelligent, sometimes too much so. [No, you didn't read that incorrectly. The color CCD 1005-pixel matrix is overlaid on a regular eight-area matrix.] It does a good job of ignoring backlight and sky in horizontal exposures, and with fill flash and D-type lenses is nothing short of awesome in its accuracy. I find that it handles large blocks of red better than any other in-camera meter I've used. But I'm not so sure about a few other colors, especially yellow, which Nikon often used as an example in their F5 literature. Also, when contrast in a scene goes beyond what film can handle (e.g., five stops for slide film), the Nikon matrix metering often errors on the underexposed side, as do previous Nikons. Still, the F5 has pulled matrix exposures out of its hat in situations that no other Nikon body would get right. The F5's matrix metering is the very best I've encountered.
If you don't like matrix metering, you've got plenty of other choices. The center-weighted metering can be changed from the 12mm-default circle to 8, 15, 20, or just about anything else. Thus, you can �narrow� or �expand� the area the F5 uses in its calculations. Spot metering is even better: it reads only the 1% circle around the active autofocus sensor. Switch to spot metering, use the video game controller on the back to pick a sensor, and you've got a reading. It's easy to compare different points in the frame by bouncing the active autofocus sensor around and noting the differences.
In all modes, with the exceptions noted on the matrix metering, the F5 has provided rock solid exposures, perhaps the best exposures I've ever managed with in-camera meters.
The autofocus system is where the F5 rocks. It's fast, accurate, and does things I haven't seen any other Nikon manage. [The F100 matches the F5 in this regard, though the F5 appears to have more torque on the AF motor, which makes a difference with the long telephoto lenses that don't have built-in focus motors.] If you're a sports or wildlife photographer, the F5 is a dream. If you're a photojournalist, the F5 offers you a reasonable alternative to using preset focus and depth of field in fast breaking situations.
Those who haven't used an N90s or F100 before moving to an F5 will need to practice a bit with the Dynamic AF mode. The active sensor displayed in the viewfinder isn't necessarily the one that is used for focusing. Instead, it's the �initial� sensor in Dynamic AF mode. You have to learn to trust the F5 to do the right thing with subjects that are moving in the frame, since it will not display the autofocus sensor actually used for the shot, only the one you picked as the initial sensor. As long as only your primary subject is moving towards or away from you, the F5 figures that out in just about every scenario I can throw at it, even when I pick an initial sensor that isn't on the subject. With more complex subjects (e.g., shots of large crowds, with everyone moving), you need to be more aware of how the autofocusing system works. The F5 responds faster to top-bottom changes than to left-right ones (unless you override that with Photo Secretary; and note that this is for horizontals only--with vertical shots, the camera autofocuses faster when subjects move left to right than top to bottom).
One thing to be aware of: if you're using spot metering in Dynamic AF mode, the area metered corresponds to the camera's chosen autofocus sensor, not the one you picked as the initial sensor. This may or may not be what you want the camera to do (e.g., follow the subject versus expose for a particular spot in the scene).
You can override Dynamic AF by putting the camera into the Single-Area AF mode, where the autofocus sensor you pick is the one that is always used for focusing, regardless of subject movement. Single-Area AF mode is a good starting place for newcomers to the F5, as you're in full control of what the camera does. But I've learned to love Dynamic AF for some moving subjects, especially wildlife photography.
Highly Recommended. If you can afford it and don't mind lugging the extra weight around, the F5 is king of the Nikon 35mm bodies.
*If you can get a used F5 in excelent shape for US$1200 or less, the value goes up a star.
You mention that the autofocus module of the F80/N80 is the same as that of the F5 and F100. This is not true, as the F5 and F100 use the Multi-CAM 1300 module while the F80/N80 uses the Multi-CAM 900 module.
Thom's response: Yes, you are correct. What I meant to say was that F80/N80 uses a multi-point autofocus selection ability similar to that of the other cameras. As far as the functional differences between the 1300 and 900 modules, I'm still playing with my N80, and haven't formed a complete conclusion yet (though see next comment). I've corrected the portion of the review that was misleading.
In your F5 review you said the N80 has the same sensor [as the F5], but it is different. The sensor on the F100 is like the one on the F5. The F65 and F80 have the same sensor. You also said: "Finally, with the supplied screen (but not with the original accessory E-type screen), the active autofocus sensor is highlighted in the frame." I think that you said it ok, but just in case: The standard EC-B and the accessory EC-E screens have the 'black points,' while accessory B and E don't have it (as well as all the other accessories).
Thom's response: Also correct (and now reworded in the review). Since two readers have pointed out the different sensors, you're probably asking what the differences are. The primary difference is in the use of "cross sensors" (sensors with both vertical and horizontal sensitivity; cross sensors also have a dual response nature, with part of the sensor responding specifically to low-light situations). The Multi-Cam 1300 used on the F5 and F100 has three cross sensors (left, center, and right), while the Multi-Cam 900 only has a central cross sensor. The implication is that the F100 and F5 do better at off-center low-light focusing than the F65/N65 and F80/N80. [One way the F5 is different than all the rest: you can turn off the two non-cross-hatched sensors in the F5 via Photo Secretary.]
The F5 designers disappoint me. In order to set the self-timer value one has to go into custom settings. You can't see the exposure meter in the top LCD window. My old N8008s does better on both accounts. I compose my shot and then, once set, almost always work without looking into the viewfinder. I therefore prefer all the info to appear in top LCD window. While the F5 might be full of new and latest features, exactly why did we have to lose the ease of operation--ala the F4s. Why lose old lens compatibility--e.g. matrix metering with AIS lenses?
Thom's response: Well, I don't necessarily disagree with you. Nikon has consistently proven that they'd prefer to make arbitrary changes to designs rather than listen carefully to potential users. I remember that when the F5 first appeared, a number of pros quickly decided that the F5 didn't really give them anything that they didn't already have, except, perhaps, for faster autofocus. On the flip side, they lost matrix metering with older lenses, suffered through questionable battery life (at least in the earliest units), gained weight, lost grip flexibility, and lost simplicity of operation (hey, Nikon, pros don't have time to consult custom settings cheat cards!). Over time, I've noticed a few, including myself, drifting back to their F5s. First, the matrix meter is better (read: more accurate and better at guessing in unusual situations) than any I've seen on any other camera, period. Second, not only is the autofocusing state-of-the-art, but the heftier autofocus motor in the F5 body makes some of the "slower" lenses, like the older AF Nikkor 300mm f/4, focus measurably faster. Finally, the camera is even better weatherproofed than the already excellent F4. Still, the design lapses are very frustrating, as you note. For what it's worth, you can get your older MF lenses to matrix meter with an F5 by having a CPU installed in the lens (a US$85 option from third parties). Also, are you closing the viewfinder when you meter with the top LCD? If not, you're losing some accuracy in some situations.
Having just bought an F5, I find that the Nikon designers have indeed taken into account the users of the camera. While it would be nice to use non-binary choices in the custom settings, for the majority of settings you set them once and leave them be. That's what they are designed for. The camera is very easy to hold and everything is in a logical place. The locks are easy to activate yet unobtrusive to use. Combine the matrix metering, which in my estimation is the most advanced in the 35mm field, with the speed of autofocus, speed of exposure calculation, and reliability, the Nikon F5 represents an enormous amount of value. True, you can't cut down on some things, such as battery packs. However I feel this is good. It makes the camera simple; there are less individual components to fail or have their contacts affected by dust, oil, etc. Interchangeable viewfinders and focus screens represent an incredibly flexible camera system that allows the camera to change with your change in style.
Thom Responds: I basically agree with you on everything except custom settings. At least six of the custom settings are ones that I do change in the field, depending upon what I'm shooting. And even setting them once at home is going to take a manual at your side to perform. Professional tools are normally highly refined, and generally don't require someone read the manual every time they need to use a feature. Note that Nikon finally wised up on the D1x and D1h, where they've made the custom settings a menu system with reasonable names--the F5 has two LCDs, so there's no lack of real estate to put in better feedback.