Full Circle: My Journey Back to Nikon

F100 35mm film camera

Full circle. That’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few months and how it applies to my personal journey as a photographer. A bit over four years ago I decided to make the switch to mirrorless. Well, here I am, four years later, switching back to Nikon. It has been six months since I made the switch back, and now I feel like I can look back and pull some perspective together. But, before we get to that I should go over why I made the switch. It all started with the death of my dearly loved Nikon F3. Even though I had been shooting mirrorless for my digital kit, for 35mm I still shot an old manual focus Nikon SLR. I started shooting a lot more 35mm when the F3 stopped working. Instead of simply replacing the F3 body I decided to take the opportunity to move to an auto-focus body.

The original plan was to get an F4s. It made sense to me, in a lot of ways it was similar to the Fujis. However, I had a hard time finding one cheaply. Eventually, I found a couple dirt cheap F100s. They were in Denver, and a friend who was living there (shoutout to Jonah!) at the time picked them up for me. He shipped one to me and I let him keep one. The F100 was my main 35mm camera before I went mirrorless, so there was a bit of nostalgia getting it back in my hands again. Shooting the F100 again was like coming home. After a few minutes, everything came back to me – it was like the last few years with mirrorless had not happened. I had forgotten how positive these cameras felt and just how fast they were. It barely took one shoot for me to realize that I had to switch back.

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So, I started figuring out the value of my Fuji stuff and pricing out what Nikon gear I would need. First, I had to decide on a body to go with. After looking around, I ended up with the same body I had when I sold all my Nikon gear four years ago, the D700. Even now, nearly eight years after the camera was first released, it is still arguably the most balanced digital camera Nikon has ever made. I wanted to try a newer camera, but aside from the top-of-the-line flagship cameras, the D700 is the only full frame camera that is capable of 8fps. To be honest, I was nervous, I wasn’t sure if it was still good enough. I mean we’re talking about tech that’s nearly ten years old. The D700 is the baby brother of the D3 and shares a lot of the same technology, most importantly the image sensor and processor. The D3 was announced in August 2007, the D700 came out the following July. Before I delve any deeper into the tech, I want to touch on the experience of shooting the D700 compared to the X-T1/X-E2 combo.

Needless to say, the first thing I noticed was the size and weight, I mean the body of the D700 isn’t much less than the X-T1 and X-E2 with grips and lenses. As I hoped, going back to a camera that I had previously owned there was almost no learning curve, at least from behind the camera. It’s kinda like riding a bike, you never really forget. Going from Fuji back to Nikon is kind of like night and day. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Fuji, but the feel of a pro Nikon is something else entirely. The Fuji embodies the very nostalgia of “the good ‘ole days” of 35mm photography. I’m not talking of the twilight years of film in the 90s, I’m talking about the 70s. Back then, you were lucky if your camera even had a meter, let alone any kind of auto exposure – you focused manually and YOU LIKED IT. Fuji embraced a design philosophy that was focused on simplicity, everything was put on a knob. The Fuji design remembers when photography was a slower, more deliberate process. At the same time, they were more than willing to accept all of the modern conveniences. In a lot of ways, it was almost like a digital version of an F3 or F4, well designed and built like a tank. The Nikon was another animal entirely. If the X-T1 was a tank, the D700 was an aircraft carrier. It is bigger, heavier, faster, and unapologetically modern. It has every button, menu, and setting you could possibly think of. Well, except video, but this camera is just old enough that it wasn’t even a consideration yet. It doesn’t really show its age, even though it’s ‘long in the tooth’, in many ways it is more advanced than the X-T1. But, all of that doesn’t matter to me, what does matter is the speed and responsiveness.

Mirrorless has come a long way since I first switched, and that is something that should be appreciated. My first mirrorless was Sony’s NEX-7, and comparing that to the X-T1 isn’t even a competition. That being said, the difference between the X-T1 and the D700 is equally as drastic. Even though the D700 is much older, when it comes to speed there is no comparison. And that’s it, right there. That’s the reason why I switched: speed. As much as I love shooting Fuji, the speed was starting to cost me. Don’t get me wrong, the X-T1 shot at 8fps just like the D700, but the autofocus is another story. The AF on Fuji’s was always okay at best, especially in low light. Now, the bulk of my work is shooting live music, which is generally in poorly lit bars. My cameras live at ISO 3200 and 6400, and even at that with f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses, AF was pretty slow. I was never super happy, but it was “good enough”. The D700, and the F100 for that matter, is another animal. Both cameras have near “instant” AF. All of this aside, this switch was not completely driven by function. It was also driven by nostalgia, a very personal nostalgia.

Getting an F100 again started it, and holding that camera again invoked something. It took me back to where I was at as a photographer when I got my first F100, over seven years ago now. I was just starting to take photography seriously and I had only just started to experiment with film. Both the D700 and the F100 are pure professional tools, but they have always been something more to me. They represent a distilled photographic machine, the photographic equivalent to a supercar. It’s just a tool, a machine, but it is one that is capable of almost anything, assuming you are skilled enough to push it to the limit. And that right there is why I was so turned off by them four years ago, I wasn’t ready. I’m still not, but I have gotten to the point that I can (using another car analogy) keep it on the road. It’s still just a tool, but one that can get out of its own way. I feel more empowered than ever to learn and grow, but from here on out it’s all on me. I can’t hide behind excuses of being limited by my gear, if I mess up now, it’s all on me. I do miss the Fujis, and the F3 for that matter, but they were always cameras that were just fun to use, not practical for “pro” work. I will miss the joy I got from them, but my new kit is what I need to be using right now. I move forward focusing on refining my skills and creating work that matters with the understanding that every phase of my development has shaped the photographer that I am. This is just the start of a new chapter, and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.