On Nikon’s 99th Anniversary, DigitalRev is taking a look at nine of the most influential cameras ever made by this illustrious Japanese company.
But while Nikon is almost a century old, for the first few decades it mostly manufactured lenses under the name Nippon Kōgaku Tōkyō K.K. It was only after World War II that Nikon began making their own camera bodies, and the rest is history.
Nikon S (1951)
Even though the Nikon S wasn’t the first rangefinder from Nikon, it was arguably the most influential. It was a rangefinder based off the Contax rangefinders just like it’s predecessors – the Nikon I (1948) and the Nikon M (1949) – although it was the first to use the full 35mm format, and the first to be widely sold in the US.
Later versions of the Nikon S included Nikon’s first professional camera, the Nikon SP, which was a strong contender to the throne held by Leica in the photojournalism world. While S-mount lenses were quickly discontinued after Nikon came out with the F-mount, those early lenses were so highly regarded that many photographers asked for them to be adapted for their Leica cameras.
Nikon F (1959)
The Nikon F is a legendary camera in every sense of the word. It combined elements of every other successful camera currently available back then, resulting in a revolutionary package that cost far less than the professional rangefinders of the time.
It also had interchangeable prisms and focusing screens, mirror lock-up, flash sync, depth-of-field preview, and a removable back. In fact, the F was widely used with a motor-drive and 250-exposure backs to capture the Vietnam War, and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs in the 1960s.
It was the definitive camera of the era, and established SLRs as the way of the future. Going forward, every Nikon SLR would retain design elements from the original F, and while evolution has taken the F-mount far, even the newest D5 can arguably be said to retain some essential elements of Nikon’s very first SLR.
Nikon F4 (1988)
Once again, Nikon proved that they don’t necessarily have to be the pioneers of a technology in order to make a great camera. In the 80’s Minolta was shaking up the industry with their autofocus cameras like the Minolta 7000 AF, which was the world’s first autofocus SLR, and Nikon themselves made a modified F3 called the F3AF, which was the first Nikon with autofocus.
However it was the F4 that really brought autofocus to the masses of Nikon users, and most importantly it could still use all the legacy Nikon lenses from the past with some form of metering.
Right now if photographers want to look into old F-mount bodies, the F3 and F4 remain some of the best options. The F4 showed that Nikon wouldn’t be abandoning the mount, like how Canon scrapped the FD-mount for the faster, newly designed EF-mount.
Nikon F5 (1996)
The Nikon F5 became the definitive sports camera, and was one of the last significant film SLRs ever made. Until the Canon 1v was introduced, the F5 was the fastest camera on the market, capable of shutters speeds up to 1/8000 of a second and a burst rate of 8fps. It had a grand total of five AF points, and had Nikon’s 3-D Color Matrix meter.
Even after digital was introduced a few years later, the F5 was still a force to be reckoned with. And even though the subsequent Nikon flagship SLR, the F6, didn’t have an integrated vertical grip, the F5’s body served as a basis for many of the most important early digital cameras such as Kodak’s US$29,995 DCS 600 and DCS 700 DSLRs.
Nikon D1 (1999)
Nikon’s first properly commercial DSLR was the D1 – a 2.7 megapixel beast based on the F5, and capable of 4.5fps burst. While 2.7 megapixels doesn’t seem like a lot, it was very useable at the time, and was one the first widely used cameras for newspapers.
At the time, it’s reasonable cost (it was only US$4,999 compared to Kodak’s US$30,000~ models) and speed started to show the public that digital was the future. It obviously couldn’t compete with film for resolution, but the speed with which digital files could be sent across the world made it a no-brainer for journalism. The subsequent D1H and D1X separated Nikon’s flagship series into one model meant for sports, and one geared towards high-resolution.
Nikon D70 (2004)
Many readers today might have fond memories of the Nikon D70. This was Nikon’s very first consumer DSLR, and truly marked a watershed moment for Nikon shooters – many of whom were swayed by Canon’s 300D.
The D70 was available for US$999 on release, and for all intents and purposes was a superb camera. It shot JPEG and NEF, on a cropped APS-C 6.1-MP sensor, and even had an early version of Auto ISO.
While moderate in size, it was still significantly smaller than the professional Nikon models, and took CF or Microdrive cards. It could shoot from ISO 200-1600 – the standard back then – offered excellent value for money. Even though the D100 was out earlier with many of the same features, the D70 had a new body and was available for much less.
Nikon D3 (2007)
Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR was the Nikon D3, and it had been a long time coming. Canon had the Canon EOS-1Ds ever since 2002, and in the mid-noughties it seemed like Nikon professionals were converting in droves since Nikon were taking so long to release a similarly powerful full-frame camera.
The US$5,000 D3 allayed all fears, and marked a huge turning point in Nikon’s history. It was the first camera to carry the “FX” designation, and the first Nikon (along with the D300) to have live view. It could shoot in 9fps at full-frame, and could go up to ISO 25,600 when boosted.
After this was released, Nikon reassured its professional clientele that it would be dedicated to making full-frame cameras, while also continuing their more-consumer friendly APS-C cameras. Even though the D3 was “just” 12-MP at the start, the D3X bumped up Nikon’s power to 24.5-MP during the height of the megapixel war with Canon. The D3S came out two years later and brought 720p video to Nikon’s pro line, and provided a stunning 102,400 maximum ISO.
Nikon D700 (2008)
The D700 was Nikon’s first prosumer full-frame DSLR, and had many of the same specs featured in the D3. However, it packed all this into a much smaller, but still professional body, and proved to be a huge hit.
It was available at launch for US$2999 and was a strong competitor to Canon’s 5D Mark II, and both cameras had their strengths and weaknesses. While the 5D Mark II offered more resolution, the D700 was far better at high ISOs.
The D700 was hugely important for Nikon because for the first time, more casual Nikon photographers could finally use their legacy lenses at their full potential. The F-mount has been Nikon’s strongest selling point for decades, and Nikon have gone through so much effort to ensure that almost all old lenses can still be used on the most modern bodies.
While US$2,999 hardly meant the D700 was for everyone, lifelong Nikon users with a huge investment could finally reap the benefits of the ecosystem. Of course now full-frame Nikon cameras like the D610 are available for as low as US$1,500, which is remarkable if we take into consideration how far we’ve come in just a decade.
Nikon D5 (2016)
To end off this list, which is by no means definitive, we have Nikon’s newest flagship model: the Nikon D5. This camera represents the future for Nikon as the flagship models always have – and from what we’ve seen, the future is as bright as the D5’s viewfinder.
For US$6499 Nikon have created their most capable camera ever, one that looks and feels like the F5, but does so much more. It has a 20.8-MP sensor that can go natively up to 102,400 ISO, 12fps with full autofocus and autoexposure, touchscreen functionality, 4K video, and a 153-point phase detection autofocus system with 99 of those being cross-type. It’s easy to list out the specs and note what the D5 has, but when you compare it with these other models from the past, it’s shocking to see just how good cameras have become in such a short time.
Feel like we left something out? Let us know what you think the most influential Nikon cameras are in the comments below