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A review of Nikon autofocus amateur cameras

By Q.-Tuan Luong

I've tried them all (or almost), until the F100 came, which looked like an excellent camera, but by that time I had already switched to Canon (for the lenses). This article might be useful for those who are buying on the used market.

I have owned a N8008 (F801) for several years, and have upgraded in 1993 to a N90 (F90). The reason for this was that basically the N8008 was begining to develop problems, and I wanted the spot metering capacity, so that I could use the camera as a (expensive and heavy) spotmeter. Also, as electronic camera obsolescence is rather quick, I prefered to get the last model. I have also used for a few months a 6006 that I didn't like (when I had my N8008) and got in 1997 a N70 to use as a back-up AF camera and meter while my N90 is sent back to Nikon for cleaning and a minor repair. While it has many good things going for it, like many I just hated the interface. To get a usable second AF body, I did not buy the N90s because the improvements were not that important for me, but instead got a used 8008s (F801s).

My general conclusion as of Jan 99 was that Nikon had yet to produce a AF camera with which I am satisfied. Interestingly the new F100 addressed my complaints, and I believe that it would be my favorite among any other brand. However, I have switched to Canon, but this is another story.

General considerations: 8008 and 90

These cameras are somewhat on the heavy side. Actually the weight of a N90 is about the same than that of an EOS 1. Contributing to that is the fact that they use 4 AA batteries rather than the lighter, but more expensive and difficult to find, lithium batteries. They lack a built-in flash.

The layout is very good. You access all the functions quickly, without having to go through menus, and for most of the essential operations, don't need to remove your eye from the viewfinder. It does takes some time to learn to change the exposure mode without moving one's eye from the viewfinder. Unfortunately it cannot be done for the metering mode, since there is no display for it in the viewfinder, a major omission. The exposure compensation function is easy to find and can be operated with only the right hand. I find the AEL and AFL buttons awkward. The AEL should be a on/off button instead of a switch which has to be held. The AFL requires the use of the pinky and is easy to miss. The display is in full stops and full speeds. In critical situations, a display in 1/2 or 1/3 values would be preferable, whereas for general uses, this is good (you can dial faster). With a non AF lens, aperture display is lost, which I find annoying.

The program and shutter priority modes requires setting the aperture at the minimum distance. Thus switching exposures modes is not very convenient. If you use the "panic" buttons which will reset the camera to standard mode, you are not in working conditions if the aperture is not set to minimum, and may loose the shoot if in real hurry. In program or S mode, you don't have DOF preview (the DOF button is mechanical and requires some force) and the shift function is not very convenient, because it takes more that one click to start it, so you never know if you turned the dial in the right direction. Also, it just remains temporily, thus if the meter turns off because you are taking to much time before metering/composing before shooting, you have to restart again. For these reasons, i very seldom use program, but stick most of the time to AE. I like the similarity of the speed-dial/aperture ring controls with MF bodies, but I almost always use AE or semi-auto (M), which is quite practical, since there is a metering scale. However this scale is too small on the 90 (see below). I prefer to use M mode than AEL.

The battery pack should be fixed with a quick release instead of a screw-release, in order to allow one to remove and reinsert it quickly (usefull in cold conditions). The self-timer is very good. It can be set to a short value for use as a release cable, and to a rather long value, to make a picture where you are to be included, without having to run. I have found matrix metering to be OK, but in images with large shadows, you have to think about it in order not to overexpose, and the system does not compensate enough for strong backlit conditions. Two points that are well known are that the film leader is rewinded (this can be changed in factory), and that the body has no mirror lock-up or prefire (I am not that annoyed, but you may be, if you use long lenses). The HP finder is really very nice, and is one of the primary reasons to use the camera, if you wear glasses. I have sometimes the fealing that the 8008 was slightly better.

8008 vs 90

Compared to the 8008, the 90 is slightly heavier, and does not fit as well in my hand, because it is more thick. The shutter curtain is useful for some tripod work, to prevent light entering from the viewfinder to mess up the meter. Two drawbacks on the 90 are the lack of built-in multi-exposure capacity (you need MF-26), and the fact that you need a special electronic release cable, which is bulky and pricey. The 8008 already needed such a cable, but it was still reasonnable. The two cables are not compatible. The 90 has some built-in flash controls such as the rear-curtain capacity which may be useful. The metering and focusing were totally orthogonal on the 8008. On the 90 there is some correlation especially with the D lenses. I don't know if it is useful or harmful. For flash photography, it seems to make sense. Chasseur d'Image believes that the daylight metering on the 8008 is actually better than on the 90.


Personally I found the vari-programs of the N90 useless, but a beginner photographer to whom I lent my N70 liked them. I hoped that the HF program would set the focus to HF distance, which would be a nice feature, but it doesn't. Actually, this computation would require distance info, and thus would have been possible with the D lenses (this would have been a pretty sensible use of distance info).


Although the interface is quite similar, there are some differences. The viewfinder shows more info (focusing area and frame counter), but they are useless to me, in the sense that I do not need this info for shooting. These new displays have reduced the size devoted to the metering scale. The 8008 metering scale was +-2 EV, whereas the 90 one is only +- EV, which is *much* less convenient. Actually one of my main gripes with the Nikon line of AF cameras is that the only cameras with a proper metering scale are N8008/8008s (discountinued and somewhat obsolete), and the F4/5 that I don't like for the reasons discussed below. Moreover, the metering scale was repeated on the external LCD of the 8008, and it is not on the 90. One thing which is still lacking seriously is a display of the metering mode in the viewfinder. The external LCD has a better layout and is more complete, except for one importing detail: it does not show anymore the metering scale, forcing you to look in the viewfinder, an annoying detail. The possibility to lit it is definitively usefull, since that controls which are important (flash settings, and did I mention the metering pattern ?), are not in the viewfinder.


The autofocus is significantly better on the 90. In terms of speed, it is noticeably faster. According to Nikon, it is slightly faster than the 8008s (that I have never used). The F90 & F90x use the CAM246 AF sensor whereas the N8008s and N6006 use the AM200 sensor. The former is a cross-type sensor, the latter is restricted to sensing vertical contrasts, and does not always grab the focus well. The wide zone (still quite a bit smaller than bodies with multi-point systems) is usefull for moving subjects, as well as to avoid having to recompose the image. However, the difference is not very significant for static subjects. Unfortunately, when the flash is on, the camera switches automatically to the spot focus, I don't know why. This is annoying when you alternate fill-in and flashless pictures.

Cable release

The cable release for the 8008 was expensive, the one for the 90 is outrageous, and somewhat overkill with its timing function. There were third party cables for the 8008, but it seems that the 10-pin connection on the 90 has discouraged everyone. With the 8008 the cheapest way to get a cable release is to buy a small piece which screws into the electrical release to transform it into a mechanical release (MR-3, around $30). Then you use a $10 cable. This gives you also the benefit of having a second shutter release button. However this will not pre-activate AF/metering with a half press capability. For example, if your camera is set to release priority then pressing the MR-3 will release the shutter immediately regardless of whether the focus has been achieved or not. The second option is to use MC12A or MC12B remote cord. Both these offer half press capability to activate meter and focus. They also have a switch to lock the shutter while it is open. The MC12A is very long (more than 8 ft) and is about $50+ in B&H. MC12B is same as MC12A but is shorter (less than 3 ft.) and hence more manageable. The price is about same as the MR-3. The only catch is that MC12B is not sold in some countries (including the USA and France).

3D metering

The N90 is the first camera to use the D lenses. These lenses transmit the focussing distance information to the body. Although this information is used both for ambiant light and flash metering, it is really useful only in the latter case, and if the flash is used straight on the shoe (which would not work for indirect flash or use with diffusers, or if the flash is hold apart with a MC-17, etc...). My opinion is therefore that this functionnality is mostly useful for fill-in flash. However, i don't use this technique enough to tell how things are improved with respect to the 8008, which was already pretty good. For non-flash metering I don't believe D is really useful. Parts of the better flash metering of the N90 can be attributed to the 5 segment TTL-flash sensor. The SB 25 exploits the D features (by firing a series of preflashes). In addition, the SB 26 gives a provision for remote flash (but I read there are serious limitations. Do your research). The SB 24 works just fine but does not exploit the D features.

The MF-26 data back

In my opinion, this device is not worth the price (I paid $200 at B&H). The features that it provides might look useful at first, but in pratice, some are so badly implemented that they are not at all easy to use. Generally speaking, to activate a feature requires too many manipulations for instant use. At first, I thought that the combinations of commands was the most complicated device I have ever saw, but actually it is quite logical. The back adds a little bulk to the camera, and it doesn't fit as well in my hands. It makes a nice clock, though.

The computer interface

Initially you needed a Sharp Wizard but now a PC will do. Info provided by Henrik Elowsson. I have no personal experience. This interface is why there is a 10-pin connection on the N90(s) (and the F5).


Application to download shooting data from the Nikon N90(s)/F90(x)
series OR from the Sharp EO with AC-2E or AC-1E. It's "only" sold by
Nikon USA dealers together with the MC-31 cable (1/97 114.95 at
B&H). I believe Grays of Westminster (London, UK) also carry it but
I'm not sure about this, anyone that can confirm this? (I've seen
announcements from Grays in this very group?)

I also noticed that the manual is printed in Japan. Is this package
available in Asia? I also regret saying that it was made by Nikon USA
which it apparently isn't.

Dataview is about to be replaced by a software called Photo Secretary
(due out in a couple of weeks) which probably will handle the CF's
currently changed by OPTN90s, wheter or not this will be sold outside
the U.S.( /Asia?) I actually don't know. Hopefully it will as this is
an outstanding feature that should be utilized!

Hardware requirements: A plain N90(s)/F90(x). no extras as the MF-26
or Sharp EO required.  386+ with 4 mb ram and installed windows 3.X,
also works with Windows 95 (Don't know about NT 3.5X and 4 yet)

For use with F90(x)/N90(s) you only need the supplied cable

For use with Sharp Wizard you need the AC-1E/2E and a cable called

1. Frame (can be adjusted to match actual frame no.)
2. Shutter Speed
3. Aperture
4. Exposure Mode (M,S,P,A,Ps, even states which vari-program used, e.g
Re, Po etc..) 
5. Metering System (matrix, centre or spot)
6. Flash-Sync Mode (normal, rear or slow)
7. Focal Length (on zooms actual f.l. e.g. 33 mm on a 20-35 zoom.)
8.  Exposure (compensation)
9.  Flash (compensation)
10. Caption (comment)

Three ways of storing data, minimum, intermediate and all. 

Minimum = 1, 2, 3 and 10
Intermediate = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10
All = (can you guess..) 1 - 10 

Number of rolls that can be stored

Table 1: F90/N90 Storage

Storage Mode, Exp/Roll, Rolls
Minimum, 24, 8
Minimum, 36, 5
Intermediate, 24, 4
Intermediate, 36, 3
All, 24, 3
All, 36, 2

Table 2: F90X/N90s Storage

Storage Mode, Exp/Roll, Rolls
Minimum, 24, 143
Minimum, 36, 99
Intermediate, 24, 74
Intermediate, 36, 50
All, 24, 50
All, 36, 34

The N8008s

It is a N8008 with spot metering and a faster AF (approximatively as fast as the F4) but slower than the N90.

The N90s

The N90s is officially considered by Nikon as a "professional" camera, where the N90 never was. However there aren't many differences.

The N6006

This camera had some functionalities of the N8008s (primarily the AF system, matrix meter and fill-in) plus built-in flash and its associated functions, and autobracketing. It accepts a $5 mechanical cable release. Main missing features are synch speed (1/125 instead of 1/250), DOF preview, focus memory button, multiple exposures. You can get around the lack of DOF preview by using the following trick: press the lens release button, and begin to rotate your lens as if you were going to remove it, but rotate it partially so that it is still well connected to the body. At this point if you look in the viewfinder you should see that the lens is stopped down, and you can play with the f-stop ring and see its effect. There will be no electronic display of the f-stop value, though. Be careful not to drop the lens ! The motordrive is slow. It has outlived the N8008s (!) on Nikon's catalog, and is a good buy. Because of its many features, a "shift" button is used to access some of them. I sold mine because:
  1. It ate expensive lithium batteries (I got in average 7 rolls)
  2. The autofocus is noticeably noisier than on the N8008
  3. Autobracketing is useless: takes a long time to set and works only for 1 series
  4. It is partly incompatible with the SB-24 (does not communicate the info such as iso, f-stop, focal).
  5. The built-in flash projected a shadow at 28 with the 28-85 AF that I used as an all-purpose lens at that time.
  6. Cannot fire the shutter in AF mode if AF fails (I am not sure I remember the details on this one).
  7. I didn't like the blinking signals in the viewfinder which I found distracting
  8. The viewfinder is less "high-point" than the N8008's.
  9. Metering scale is only +-1EV (five years latter I somewhat find that acceptable because I got used to the N90, but I might still buy a used N8008s to use as a lightmeter)

The N70

This camera is a little sister of the N90s (like the N6006 is a small sister of the N8008s) with the same AF system, matrix meter and D flash technology). It is also a good buy at half the price of a N90s. It has built-in flash and its associated functions, and autobracketing. It accepts the 2-pin cable release of the N8008. Main missing features are high synch speed (1/125 instead of 1/250), DOF preview (same trick as for the N6006 applies), focus memory button, computer interface. The motordrive has a decent speed. The camera shares some characteristics with the N6006: lower "high point" finder, lithium battery, blinking signals. It is slightly lighter (some claim that it is not well built and prone to failure in damp conditions, but this is the case of all the cameras with built-in flash, and as far as contruction is concerned, it looks similar to other Nikons to me), the flash is slighly more powerful and uses D technology. It does not project a shadow with the 24-120 at 28. The body is fully compatible with the SB-25 (you loose only FP sync). The autofocus is about the same speed as my N90 (it is probably slower than the n90s due to a weaker motor, although the circuitry is as modern), but it is significantly more silent. I think it is the quietest of the Nikon AF cameras, a nice touch. Two nice extras are the metering mode in viewfinder (at least...) and a "silent rewind" mode. Like on the N90s, the exposure control is in 1/3 stops, there is spot/wide AF selection and the useless vari-programs (which are better signaled than on the N90s by the way).

The interface, introduced to give access to the many features, has been much criticized. It is actually very intuitive for people used to computers. the problem is that it is slower than those of the 8008/90 since you must to do the "button + dial" manipulation two times instead of one to access any function. You have also to pull the camera away from your eye and use both hands (don't forget your flashlight at night !). It is foolproof and intuitive but not fast, and different from the other AF nikon cameras. Things get really bad if you are used to using the self-timer as a cable release. First, the delay of 10s is fixed (as opposed to the 2s you can set on other nikon af cameras), and second, you will find that when you try to engage the self-timer, the camera is just thinking that you want to change the value in the mode you are, so you need to switch modes first. This problem is the thing I find the most irritating about the N70. The QR feature is a good idea. I can switch fast from A-mode/matrix to M-mode and spot. I wish the bracketing function could be memorized this way, it would make it really useful (it is still much better implemented than on the N6006) together with the fast advance mode.

Personnally I don't intend to use my N70 as a main body. However, as a back-up camera or in situations where weight is very critical, I think it is fine. It weights 600g including batteries and flash and has all the useful features, which is less than half the weight of a N90 with a basic compatible flash and batteries. A few pbs with the N6006 have been fixed.

and the F4 and F5 ?

They are probably great cameras, and I have to admit that from time to time I am tempted, but my personal idea of 35mm photography is not to have a body as heavy as a 6x7 camera (F4 vs the Mamiya 7) or as expensive as a 6x7 system (F5 vs Pentax 67 with 3 lenses). In addition, these cameras do also have their quirks...

what about the F100 ?

It looks like a great camera to me. You'll notice that several of my complaints were fixed ! Some would say that Nikon has learned a lot from Canon...

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