Nikon FM2n Review

This review first appeared on bythom.com in 2002 and revised for this site in 2012.

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An FM2n used to be found at the bottom of many pro camera bags. The reason? It's a great backup camera. Light in weight, small in size, and capable of working without battery power, the FM2n is a reliable, handy choice for that camera body emergency that always seems to happen when you're a long way from civilization. Besides, a used FM2n in excellent condition can often be found at a quite reasonable price. Alas, the FM2n is no longer manufactured, essentially replaced in 2001 by the more expensive FM3a.

At the time of its production, the FM2n was the baby brother of the F3 (much like the D800 is to the D4, or the F100 was to the F5).

Benefits of an F3 over an FM2n:

  • The F3 allows shutter speeds down to 8 seconds (compared to 1). It also features a T (time) setting the FM2n doesn't have.
  • The F3 has TTL flash metering while the FM2n doesn't. Note that the F3's TTL metering uses the regular exposure meter sensor, which results in a few liabilities, such as exposure metering being disconnected when you mount a flash.
  • The F3 has an interchangeable, 100% viewfinder compared to the FM2n's fixed 93% finder.
  • The F3 has a high eye-point finder (good for folks like me who wear glasses), the FM2n doesn't. The F3 also has a eyepiece shutter to keep stray light from coming into the prism when you're not looking through the viewfinder.
  • The F3's meter is highly centralized, with a 80/20 pattern (80 percent of the reading is made in the center of the frame, 20 percent in the outer edges); the FM2n's metering is 60/40.
  • The F3 has an aperture priority mode and exposure compensation. [corrected 1/11/01]
  • The F3 has mirror lockup (the FM2n does put the mirror up at the start of an exposure controlled by the self-timer, though).

Benefits of the FM2n over an F3:

  • The FM2n is significantly smaller and lighter than an F3.
  • The FM2n syncs with flash at 1/250, while the F3 has a measly 1/80 top sync speed. (Note: early FM2's synced at 1/200.)
  • The FM2n has a built-in flash shoe, the F3 requires an extra accessory unless being used with an F3-specific flash.

I've used an FM2n as backup for over a decade, so have a great deal of experience with the camera. It's also my camera of choice when I need to travel light while backpacking in the Wilderness.


The Basics

Let's start with the FM2n's family tree:

  • FM (1977). This was the camera that started this line of compact, manual bodies. Primary differences from the newer models are the shutter, which goes from 1 to 1/1000, and the 1/125 flash sync speed. Three versions of the FM were made, the second of which featured a slightly redesigned rewind crank, the third a 60th anniversary model that is gold in color.
  • FM2 (1982). The shutter was completely reworked for this new model, providing 1 to 1/4000. In the original FM2, the shutter was still made of titanium and synced with flash at 1/200. Shortly thereafter, the flash sync speed was increased to 1/250, though no other features were changed (these models are distinguished by the flash sync speed labeled in red).
  • FM2n (1989). The shutter was reworked again, this time made of aluminum. No other changes were made.
  • FM2n/T (1993). The top and bottom plate of this version are made of titanium. Otherwise, the camera is exactly the same as the FM2n.

The FM2n is a professional camera with a basic set of features and a great shutter (same as originally appeared in the 8008s and later the F90/N90). Shutter speeds are controlled in full stop increments from 1 second to 1/4000, with a bulb setting also available. An MD-11 or MD-12 motor drive can be attached, which can drive the FM2n at up to 3.5 frames per second (depends upon the shutter speed being used, though).

The viewfinder is simple, but provides useful information. Apertures appear in a window above the frame, shutter speeds in a cutout at the left, and a three-LED system on the right is used to set exposure. A horizontal split in the center circle is used for focusing (works great on vertical lines, less well on plain surfaces). The FM2n's viewfinder isn't what I'd call bright, but it isn't dim, either (certainly nowhere near as dim as the FM-10's). If you don't like the Nikon-supplied screen, you can buy replacement screens with alternate focusing patterns, or get a Beattie Brightscreen. Personally, since most of my manual lenses are f/2.8 or faster, I don't judge viewfinder brightness to be a problem.

You set exposure by making the 0 LED light. Overexposure is indicated by a + LED, underexposure by a - LED. The metering pattern is weighted to 60% of the exposure in the center of the frame (indicated by a circle in the viewfinder), with the rest of the frame accounting for 40%. You can set ISO values of 12 to 6400 (in the cutout on the shutter speed ring). Unlike newer bodies, the FM2n can still operate without a battery (though you obviously don't have an operative exposure meter without battery power).

The self-timer is a mechanical affair and has one useful feature: when you press the shutter release with the self timer set, the mirror immediately is moved out of the way, sort of a poor man's mirror lockup. The shutter release is threaded for a mechanical remote release.

You can use autofocus lenses on the FM2n, by the way; you just have to focus them manually.


Handling

If you've used any older Nikon or Nikkormat body, the FM2n will operate just the way you expect. Set the ISO value by lifting the shutter speed dial and rotating. Release the back by holding a small lever and lifting the rewind crank. Turn on the exposure meter by pulling the wind lever out to its ready position (which happens with an unmistakable click on the FM2n, unlike some earlier bodies). Depth of field preview and self-timer are controlled by two mechanical levers on the front of the camera. When you're done with a roll, hold in a small (but not too small) button on the bottom of the camera and turn the rewind crank clockwise until the tension releases.

What more can I say? The FM2n is super simple to use, and all the controls are solid in feel and easy to find. I have small hands, and the smaller size of the FM2n body fits perfectly in them. I never feel like I'm reaching for a control, nor do I feel like I've got too much bulk in my hand.


Exposure

The meter in the FM2n is notorious for slight overexposure. And because it's a center-weighted meter, it often sees too much sky in its calculations, as well. I almost always set my exposure with both the 0 and the - LED lit. Other than that slight idiosyncrasy, the meter is consistent and reliable.

[A series of postings on the NikonMF discussion group speculated about what the difference in EV is when two LEDs are lit. According to Nikon's literature, when the 0 and - LEDs are both lit, the camera can range anywhere from -1/5 stop to -1 stop under the correct exposure. Nevertheless, the second LED is reasonably predictable as to when it lights--i.e., it starts to light when you are about 1/5 to 1/3 stop off the metered exposure. Since most of us are controlling exposure via changing the aperture, it gets to be second nature to do so slowly; we all quickly learn the different "feel" of a third-stop twist versus a two-third stop twist. If you must have absolute precision, use the ISO dial to change the metered reading by a specific amount. And none of this discussion changes the fact that most FM2n bodies have a tendency towards slight overexposure at the metered reading.]

Exposure accuracy is also due to the FM2n's great shutter. All but the highest shutter speed (1/4000) seem to be perfect in my camera. I've done a number of tests shooting with the same overall exposure but at different aperture and shutter speed combos, and my FM2n is much more accurate than my older Nikkormat and my mom's EM, and even slightly better than my N90s.


Drawbacks

  • It's a manual camera. About the only thing you can automate is the film advance.
  • No spot metering. This would be an unbeatable manual camera with that single feature addition.
  • Glass ceiling. If you wear glasses, you can't see the aperture, shutter speed, and exposure setting simultaneously.
  • No TTL flash capability. That's not a huge loss for a manual camera, but it does mean you'll want a flash capable of automatic flash calculations to use with this camera (I use an SB-27).


Conclusion

You really can't find much fault with the FM2n. If Nikon gave me cart blanche to alter the FM2n in any way I wanted, here's the full set of changes I'd make: (1) add a spot meter; (2) add a film cartridge view window on the back so you can see what film's in the camera; (3) move the meter indicator to the left side of the frame, next to the shutter speed (alternatively, add a high-eye point finder); and (4) add TTL flash support. That short list of minor changes should tell you why this camera sits in so many pro bags: it's near perfect.

My concise instructions for the FM2n.


Bottom line: The gold standard of light, manual focus bodies. Only the Olympus OM-4 was better, in my opinion.


MV writes: Right on, Thom. Great review of a great camera. One comment: in the family tree the model with 1/250 sync and a titanium shutter is already an FM2n, not just an FM2 (the later model with aluminum shutter). The former has serial numbers N7xxxxxx, while the latter series has N8xxxxxx. Also, it might be worthwhile pointing out that the serial number is the only place where one finds the N suffix, and not in the camera name on the front panel.

Mike writes: I own an FM2n (sn 757xxxx) and it has the aluminium shutter. Other examples I have examined (738xxxx) also had an aluminum shutter, but a 734xxxx had the titanium shutter. I think around 750xxxx is when the final shutter change was made. [You could very well be right. Nikon is notorious for its obscure serial numbering practices, so I would almost always opt for a physical examination of a body in question before determining its exact model and attributes. I also wonder whether or not we're seeing some bodies that have had shutter replacements put in them. Does anyone know if Nikon always replaced a titanium shutter with a titanium shutter when they did warranty work? And the answer from a repair shop is: "the aluminum shutter blades are a better design and more efficient than the familiar honeycomb titanium blades. They are stronger where it counts, at the rivets holding the blades to the actuating arms. For those who stick their fingers through the shutter while loading film on a perfectly good camera, we only replace the blades in the shutter and not the entire shutter; the replacement blades only come in aluminum."]

Alexander writes: Great review, thank you. One addition: the meter on my FM2 tends to underexpose by a 1/2 stop, not to overexpose like you mention. Probably this is just my particular camera, which is an original FM2, not an FM2n, and it needs to be recalibrated. I second that the full frame cannot be seen with glasses. That was the main reason to sell mine. [You know, I keep thinking I should sell mine, since I don't use it anywhere near as much use as it used to, but then I get a crazy assignment that makes carrying extra batteries or expensive equipment out of the question, and I temporarily fall in love with the FM2n all over again. Once you learn the camera's few quirks, it really is one heck of a reliable piece of equipment. I've leant it to a number of friends, who've carried it places I'd dare not go. So my FM2n has now been to more wild and remote places than most people ever get to in their lifetime. If it could only talk...]

Lars writes: According to the Braczko's The Complete Nikon System, there are in fact three "normal" versions of the FM2. The original FM2 from 1982 with titanium shutter and 1/200 sync, the first FM2N from 1984 with titanium shutter and 1/250 sync, and finally the last FM2N from 1989 with the F-801 aluminum shutter and 1/250 sync. [I've used the information from Braczko's earlier Nikon Pocket Book (now out of print), which I find to be slightly more convenient.]

Michael writes: You write that if you could you would "...add a film cartridge window on teh back so you can see what film's in the camera." I've checked with Nikon Service and Nikon Part Number 1B991-395, the back for the FM3a, fits and works just fine on the FM2n, and it has that window that you and I like.

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