Using a 31-year-old SLR for fast-paced photojournalism

Jan 11, 2020

Simon King

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Using a 31-year-old SLR for fast-paced photojournalism

Jan 11, 2020

Simon King

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Introduced in 1988, the Nikon F4 was the world’s first professional autofocus camera, and it made its way quickly into the hands of many working photographers. But despite the incredible leap in technology it represented, it was apparently quickly overtaken by the competition, which built on the solid foundation the F4 offered.

Early reviews were kind, but the advances in all areas of camera technology since then have left it more a cult option for today’s users.

I’ve seen the F4 in common use today as a portrait machine or as a landscape option with slide film – slower genres that take advantage of the excellent metering and intuitive controls. Less seen is the application to faster-paced, action-oriented environments: sports, wildlife, and my use case: photojournalism.

My decision to try the F4 for photojournalism was based entirely on the practicality of the system. Although I don’t baby my gear, there’s a line between general-purpose use and beater use, and my work at protests or in harsh weather conditions definitely calls for a beater. Features like weather sealing, manual controls, and a reputation for a sturdy build were all taken into consideration in my decision to go for the F4. I also liked that it was a simple enough system, with no menus or many features I wasn’t likely to use.

Within a few days of use, I had my share of irks with the camera; things like shutter blackout (which I’m not used to at all) took me some getting used to, and the meter readout didn’t make sense to me at all.

However, any and all of the small irritations I felt with this camera were outweighed by the images I actually made with it. Shooting at 50mm I was not held back in any majorly disruptive way and was able to work just as efficiently as with the camera system I am used to.

I had none of the concerns bringing the camera right into the heat of the action, where I may have otherwise felt a little more reserved with my Leica setup. For the Nikon F4, 50mm f/1.4, and 80-200mm f/2.8 I paid just over £300 (~$370), which is essentially nothing compared to my usual rangefinder equipment.

I believe that the reason many photojournalists prefer to shoot from a distance with longer lenses is the value of their gear. I think this has a negative effect on the quality of their work and that we would have a much more emotive selection of images if more chose to shoot wider and much closer. Cheaper gear encourages this approach – the emotional impact of the image ought to outweigh any concern over megapixels or sharpness.

The majority of the images in this article were taken at 50mm, which I think is the best focal length for reportage work. I could work on 50mm alone, but I’ve wanted to play with a longer focal length for a while now – 90mm is my standard for all-round photography, but anything more than that is tricky on a rangefinder. The SLR gave me the chance to incorporate 80-200mm, which I’ve been using for slower-paced scenes – such as during peaceful protests when people are less aggressive, and I’m able to reach in and pick them out of the crowd.

Autofocus with the 50mm is fast — about as fast as I can manually focus with a rangefinder. This is faster than I expected, as the majority of things I’d heard about the autofocus was that it was the main reason to avoid the camera. I’ve had no issues with missed focus so far, but I’ve struggled with focus locking, as I’m used to moving to accommodate for my subjects changing distance from me. I’ll sometimes refocus a few times before being comfortable that it’s dead-on. The central point AF is close enough to the way I’m used to working with a rangefinder patch, although it can be difficult to see – especially in low-light.

I can see how the central focus point could be an issue for sports or wildlife photographers who would need a wider grid to work with, but for the focus/recompose method of shooting I’m used to with a rangefinder on the street, I couldn’t think of a better system I’d rather use for fast action happening within a few meters from me.

Manually focusing an SLR is one of my least favorite things, even with a split prism. I use the F4 as an autofocus-only camera and simply have to trust that whatever I’ve pointed it at is in focus. The single point system is very similar to the Contax G, so any users of that system should have no problems adjusting. The F4 makes similar use to the G of indicators in the viewfinder to help with focusing, but with the added benefit of the through the lens verification that things look the way the photographer wants. With these methods combined, I don’t worry as much about focus as I do with other SLR cameras.

My low-light experiences with the F4 are noticeably more frustrating than with my rangefinders. I find both framing and focusing to be an annoyance — the focusing will lock on quickly enough when there is sufficient contrast, but in any other case, it will struggle. I have to slow right down in darker areas, whereas with my M6 in the same conditions I can essentially continue to shoot with no changes necessary.

I do like how dampened the shutter is, and I’ve enjoyed the ability to shoot down to very low speeds handheld – often essential for night scenes.

I haven’t had much of an issue with this workflow – I think it would be most comparable to the way I shot my Contax, essentially as a point and shoot; but there are compromises to make. Having said that I think the slight adjustments I’ve had to make for this system to work in my hand haven’t detracted from the actual work. The images I’ve so far produced with this camera are in line with my expectations, and that’s what matters. I feel I’m able to get closer to the action and capture it quickly without being held back by the camera.

Photography, and especially film photography, continues to gather popularity from new enthusiasts and newcomers to the art. We are also currently seeing (for better or worse) an intense amount of civil unrest in the form of protests, riots, rallies, and significant events.

This generation of photojournalists and visual storytellers has access to the entire history of photographic tools, and it’s great to shoot alongside photographers who are using anything from medium format Hasselblads to disposable film cameras. The entry requirements necessary to create a beautiful image are almost non-existent, which leaves some obvious choices to anyone dedicated to storytelling – I think the Nikon F4 is one of these.

Compared to what’s on offer from modern cameras it’s a restrictive option, but it’s by no means defined by its restrictions. When putting the story first, it is a better option than anything a photographer on a budget is likely to be buying new. I’ve found it a fantastic option for fast-paced photojournalism, and I think that it, along with an era of classic film cameras, ought to be finding it’s way into the hands of today’s passionate storytellers.

About the Author

Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which you can read about here.

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13 responses to “Using a 31-year-old SLR for fast-paced photojournalism”

  1. Robert Hicks Avatar
    Robert Hicks

    But it doesn’t have dual card slots!

    1. Simon King Avatar
      Simon King

      Literally unusable for pros ?
      /s

      1. Jore Puusa Avatar
        Jore Puusa

        I am a pro..or was..retired now. I´ve been shootin wars and crisis in 47 countires. I shot with F3 and F4. They are and were extremely usable for a pro. I still use one when shooting in a situation when camera may be damaged. World`s absolutely best photojournalism was done during film era. Nowadays people plagiarize each others.
        By the way, what do You shoot with a digital cam when the battery is dead.??

        1. Alastair Wilson Avatar
          Alastair Wilson

          Absolutely, Don McCullin managed OK with film!

        2. Simon King Avatar
          Simon King

          The “/s” at the end of my comment is Internet shorthand to denote sarcasm – sorry that was unclear! I wasn’t being serious at all.
          I carry spare batteries for all my cameras, whether it’s the F4, FM2, or anything else. Worth the wait, as I don’t want to be caught out!

          1. Jore Puusa Avatar
            Jore Puusa

            The ? at the end of my comment is a common shorthand for a question.

        3. Paul Turner Avatar
          Paul Turner

          The F4s is equally useless with a dead battery.

    2. Cindy Brown | Atlanta Avatar
      Cindy Brown | Atlanta

      LOL

  2. Cindy Brown | Atlanta Avatar
    Cindy Brown | Atlanta

    These cameras are beasts. You can throw them against a wall and they’ll keep going.

  3. Alastair Wilson Avatar
    Alastair Wilson

    Used to be in and out of process departments of all the UK nationals, Guardian, Mirror, Mail, Correspondent,Telegraph, Independent (my favourite for the image style) etc back in the eighties before colour and the results the photojournalist achieved from film could be stunning.

  4. Paul Ford Avatar
    Paul Ford

    Why is the name logo taped over? its clearly a Nikon F4S

    1. Jore Puusa Avatar
      Jore Puusa

      Pros tape the name with black tape to avoid the reflection of the white name in glas surfaces etc. I did it – as did my colleaques.

  5. Peter Blaise Avatar
    Peter Blaise

    These pictures are 745 pixels across, easily croppable without loss from within any digital camera’s capture with any lens, including a wide angle cell phone camera capture, without getting a policeman’s elbow in our face and our camera being “at risk”.

    Any photo becomes unusual and more compelling when converted to black and white, but if starting with a color original, the conversion can be intentionally selective, versus accepting only the defaults of only one film, and one filter, if any.

    This story is about the good old days of heavy metal photography, more than a comparison of what it takes to tell a compelling story photographically.

    We all have our anecdotes, mine is: someone tried to grab and run with a friend’s Nikon/telephoto gear. My friend grabbed their own camera by the lens, swung and knocked the assailant out cold, turned the camera around, took the assailant’s picture, then trotted off to call the police, evidence in hand and in-camera.

    Like the opening story, that’s a story about our gear, not our photography.

    More importantly, none of these photos tell a story on their own or in concert.

    Conversely, look as one picture from William Eugene Smith, with a Minolta and 16mm lens, no less, images that will rip your heart out and stomp that suckker flat ( Smith’s Nikons were stolen, and he was beaten, unwilling to use his cameras as physical weapons against children ).

    See https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/tomoko-her-bath-minamata-japan-22604

    More at https://www.google.com/search?q=w+e+smith+minamata&tbm=isch

    Nikon 50mm?

    Really?

    Photographic storytelling wise, it’s not the gear.

    It’s the photographer.

    – – – – –

    Anyone want to give credit to the years-earlier Minolta Alpha 9000 professional autofocus camera system that threw Nikon into a catch-up tizzy?
    .