Nikon F-401 (N4004 in the US)

The F-401 first appeared in the shops in 1987.   It was made for the amateur market.   This is evident from the fairly thin plastic body (which cracks easily) and the limited, although quite adequate feature set.   The usual four exposure modes (program, shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual) are there, but only center weighted light metering is available and there is only one auto-focus mode.   (Manual focus is also possible.)   The viewfinder displays some basic information, including focus set ( ), the electronic equivalent of match-needle light meter indicators ( + O - ), and a flash ready signal ( z ).   Simple and sweet.

I oversimplified matters a little bit, when I said that the light metering system is center weighted.   In actual fact, there are two operating modes, one of which is somewhat more advanced than center weighted, because it utilises three separate regions in the viewfinder for measurement.   In normal automatic operation this system performs some kind of balancing act to correctly expose scenes with areas of excessive highlights or shadows.   If the user presses the AE-lock button or switches to manual exposure mode, the metering system falls back to simple center weighted light measurement.

"And what is the other camera doing there on the picture above?" - I hear you ask.   Well, in 1991 Nikon brought out a slightly improved version of the F-401, and they imaginatively called it F-401x (N5005 in the US).   This version differed from the earlier one in only two things:

  • a wider angle of coverage for the in-built flash so that 28 mm lenses could be used,
  • a safety lock for the shutter speed and aperture controls.

Other changes were purely cosmetic.   One could argue, that the larger hand grip makes the F-401x easier to hold.   As for the shiny finish, I'm not sure if that was an improvement and I definitely dislike the safety lock on the dials.

Now that I mentioned the dials - i.e. the shooting mode / shutter speed and aperture control dials -, let me go on to say that I find them the most exciting feature on these cameras.

They are built in such a way that one can rotate them with one finger.   Doesn't this - coupled with the layout - remind you of the command dials of modern SLRs?   Didn't this design feature gave later engineers the idea for the back and front command dials we now see on virtually every SRL?   I don't know, maybe not, but the similarities are undeniable.

Let me now spare a few words on the inbuilt flash, as in 1987 this was a new feature on a Nikon SLR.   The flash ready signal in the viewfinder starts blinking, when the camera thinks that the picture would benefit from the use of flash.   The flash can be raised (and coincidentally turned on) by pressing the two buttons on either side.
The guide number is 12 (at ISO 100).   To stay within the flash's angle of coverage, only 35 mm or longer lenses can be used.   (On the F-401x this was extended to 28 mm.)   The synchronised shutter speed is 1/100 of a second (or less), which is kind of alright for fill-in flash photography.   In fact, the camera has inbuilt programming logic to balance the flash light with the ambient light to automatically produce well lit photographs is these situations.

The lenses you see attached to these cameras on the first picture are the ones they were most often sold with, especially the f/3.3-4.5 35-70 mm zoom lens.   Both of these lenses are hard to use in manual focus mode (because of the narrow focusing ring and oversimplified distance scale) and indeed, the F-401 is meant to be used in AF mode.   There is no aperture stop-down button on the camera, so estimating the depth of field is not easy, if possible at all.   But, then again, these cameras were designed for the hobby photographer and they serve that purpose very well.   Just pop in four AA-size batteries into the battery compartment, load it with film, set one of the dials to the A mark, the other to S (this means program mode) and click away.   Hassle free photography.

At the time of writing (January, 2010) these cameras sell for a song on the second hand market.   This is understandable, but there is still more value in them than what most people realise - and that's mainly the lens.   In this regard, the one with the f/1.8 50 mm lens is the better value.   I bought a N4004 with that lens for $86 (Australian), had it for a while, and then sold just the lens for $163.

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