This review first appeared on bythom.com and re-edited for this site in 2012.
I'm 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 F4s doesn't lose matrix metering capability with manual focus lenses.
- The F4s has the tab required to use non-AI lenses (it's a US$93 service center option for the F5).
- The F4s can be substantially slimmed down in size and weight by using an MB-20 battery pack.
- The F4s camera controls are more traditional, making it a better choice for someone switching back and forth between an F3 or FM2n and an autofocus camera.
The F5 is better than the F4s in the following ways:
- The F5 features a more sophisticated matrix metering system, which is arguably more accurate than anything that's come before it.
- The F5 has a faster autofocus system with controllable sensors that cover a much larger area of the frame than any other previous Nikon, especially the F4s. [Note: the F100 features the same AF system; the F80/N80 and F65/N65 use a similar layout with a different focus module.]
- The F5 has features the F4s doesn't: built in exposure bracketing, computer control, and data downloading being the most significant.
- The F5 has a higher continuous shooting capability (8 fps versus 5.7 for the F4s). Plus you can link multiple F5's together for even faster shooting.
- The F5 has a self-testing, self-correcting shutter; the camera simply won't fire if the shutter is so out of whack it begins affecting exposure.
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 ï¿½1 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.
In 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 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 gaskets are 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.
You 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.
My primary handling complaints are these:
- The exposure and focus lock button and the “AF On” button are easy to confuse, and I don't really want an Autofocus On button, anyway. I'd rather have a button that locks both exposure and focus, and another that locks my choice. But, no matter what, camera designers should never put two buttons next to each other that are the same shape and feel. The same problem goes for the three buttons just in front of the LCD on top of the camera (AF area mode, exposure mode, and exposure compensation). The fact that they feel the same to the finger is problematic, but at least with these three, the viewfinder helps you figure out which one you pushed. [Since I originally wrote this section, I've played with the F5 and F100 AF On options, and have found that I do actually prefer using this button to control when the camera autofocuses in some situations. Still, as the camera comes set from the factory, the AF On button isn't particularly useful.]
- The dual-control rewind is more elaborate than it need be, and it is possible to accidentally partially rewind film. In hundreds of rolls through the film (maybe thousands), I've twice opened the back to find that I hadn't been paying enough attention and that I had released the second control too early, resulting in the camera only partially rewinding the film. Considering that both controls have safeguards (a cover and a button), can anyone tell me why I'd ever want to partially rewind film?
- Built-in bracketing only allows choices of two or three frames. While that's often all I'm interested in, several times I've wanted more flexibility than the F5 allows. Given that the F5 is a professional camera, it would have also been nice to have it set half-stop settings in addition to the third-stop settings, as well as longer bracketing sequences.
- The original E-type screen doesn't support the autofocus sensor display of the regular screen.
- The vertical shutter release isn't useful enough. Where are the front and back control dials? After all, the front dial is how you change apertures on the F5, isn't it? And why is the AF-On button so important to replicate, but the AF/AE-lock isn't?
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:
- The same demented engineer apparently came up with the longer names for settings, meaning that you won't always immediately recognize what a setting is trying to accomplish until you think like a Japanese engineer. (The Help file is a little better.)
- The software isn't exactly user-friendly or organized well (think the worst software you've ever seen Microsoft produce, and you're coming close).
- You'd need to carry a laptop into the field!
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.
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.
- Custom Settings. Either learn to ignore 'em or bring a cheat sheet. There is no in between.
- Battery Life. With alkaline AA batteries, the F5 just doesn't last very long, even after the factory adjusted the settings early in the production run. The culprit is the power draw. Alkalines slowly lose power, and quickly fall below the level the F5 often requires. Sometimes shutting the camera down for a few moments can give you enough extra energy from an alkaline to squeeze out another roll, but that technique is too untrustworthy to rely on. Alkalines are adequate emergency battery substitutes for F5, but not for your primary battery. Instead, use Lithium AAs. Not only do they last enough longer to pay for the extra cost, they are significantly lighter. The only drawback to using Lithiums is that when they reach exhaustion, they fail quickly, without much warning from the camera (I've seen the battery indicator go from full to empty in a single roll). Another option is the ~US$500 Ni-MH rechargeable Nikon sells, but for those of us who spend long times in the backcountry, this leaves us too dependent upon finding a wall socket, which, last time I looked, aren't anywhere to be seen in the wilderness, thank goodness.
- Manual Lenses. You can fix half the problem by paying Nikon USA about US$100 to have a manual-indexing tab added to your F5. That'll at least allow you to mount a non-AI lens on your camera. But you lose matrix metering when you put a manual focus lens on an F5. You also lose program and shutter priority exposure modes. Since the F4s didn't have this limitation, one can only ask Nikon "what were you thinking" (The F4, however, must be used in aperture-priority or manual exposure modes with manual focus lenses).
- Documentation. Nikon owes the F5 owners an accurate, complete description of how the color matrix metering works. When it works, it works well, but when it goofs, it's always a surprise. Maybe we wouldn't be surprised if we knew how it worked! Likewise, Nikon still hasn't produced a clear description of all the nuances of the autofocus system. Moose's description is better than Nikon's.
- Price. Though it has dropped from US$3200 to around US$2000 in street price since its first appearance, the F5 is still a very expensive camera. And considering the 2x difference compared to a used F4s in good condition or a new F100, the extra cost isn't immediately justifiable. On the price/performance front, the F100 wins, although not for anyone who needs state-of-the-art frame rates, removable prisms, or mirror lockup. Nikon USA's gray market policies make it impossible to justify buying anything but a US version in the US—if you don't, anything that goes wrong with your camera turns it into an unfixable paperweight (Nikon USA won't repair gray market F5's at any price, and Nikon hasn't supplied the requisite parts and test equipment to third parties). Obviously, price now is no longer a real concern, as the product is only available used. However, do note the price of an F5 versus an F4 or F6 if you're considering buying one. If the F5 is the same price as those, I'd probably suggest you buy the F4 or F6.
- Exposure and Focus. The best on the planet.
- Feature Set. The list of features missing from the F5 can be printed in large print on a piece of paper smaller than the custom settings cheat sheet Nikon supplies.
- Build Quality. I've dragged my F5 up 16,000 foot passes, around Patagonia, through the backwoods of American, and deep into Alaskan wilderness. It's been rained on, attacked by killer dust storms, dropped, kicked, and shoved recklessly into my pack. It looks like and performs like new.
Recommended. If you can afford it and don't mind lugging the extra weight around, the F5 is king of the Nikon 35mm bodies.
F5 Product Specification
5 selectable focus areas, Single or Continuous servo, Dynamic or Single area, focus tracking up to 200mph, works at -1 to 19EV, AF lock button
8-segment 3D color matrix (0 to 20EV), selectable center weighted size, five area spot metering (2 to 20EV). Flexible Program, aperture-preferred, shutter-preferred, manual exposure modes
Bracketing +-5 stops compensation, 2 or 3 frame bracketing in 1/3 EV steps
ISO Range 25 to 5000 DX, 6 to 6400 manual, 25 to 1000 Flash TTL
Single frame, continuous (low and high speed to 8 fps), multiple exposure
Shutter Electro-magnetically controlled focal plane with vibration dampening and self testing, 30 seconds to 1/8000 plus Bulb
Interchangeable DP-30, .75x magnification, 100% coverage, diopter adjustment, eyepiece shutter, 20.5mm eyepoint
8 AA batteries, optional MN-30 Nimh rechargeable
Flash Sync to 1/300, slow sync, rear sync, 5 sensor TTL
Mirror lockup, DOF previrew, manual/auto rewind, optional MF-28 control back, optional MF-27 data back
Size and Weight
42.7 ounces (1210g)
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.