In 2019, I picked up a Nikon N2020 on a whim. I was looking for a 35mm Nikon that had a physical shutter speed dial and supported AF lenses. Originally, I thought I would be picking up a Nikon F4, but I didn’t want to spend that much. So, I started looking at other cameras from that period and landed on the N2020. The decision to go with the N2020 was only partially because of cost—there was also a sense of unfinished business. The very first 35mm SLR that I bought was a Nikon N2020, nearly 12 years ago. It was a short-lived experience. I shot a single roll and was so disappointed in the results that I sold the camera. Looking back, I know I didn’t give the camera a fair chance. In 2009 I was barely a competent photographer and knew nothing about shooting film. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the N2020 and see what my opinion was as a more mature photographer. Now, after owning this N2020 for nearly two years I want to share my experience with this unique—and oddly enjoyable—camera.
The Nikon N2020, or the Nikon F-501 outside the U.S., was released in 1986 and was Nikon’s first successful autofocus SLR. While the Nikon F3AF came out a few years earlier, it did not have much success and it also used AF lenses specific to the F3AF. The Nikon N2020, on the other hand, debuted the Nikon AF system that would be the standard for Nikon cameras for the next 30 years. The Nikon N2020 is based on the N2000, with the addition of autofocus. Both cameras marked a shift in design for Nikon. Gone were the film advance levers and an all-metal design. In their place, we have a built-in motor drive, auto film loading, and new polycarbonate construction. These cameras, especially the N2020, represented a transitional period in the photography industry. Cameras like this bridged the gap between the metal, full manual SLRs of the 60s and 70s, and the plastic, full auto SLRs of the 90s. As with any transition, it didn’t come without growing pains.
Nikon N2020 Autofocus
While the camera certainly has a lot of firsts to be proud of, it is objectively not that great. We’ll start with the thing that made the Nikon N2020 special, the autofocus. To say the AF is archaic would be incredibly kind. The N2020 uses an early form of phase detection, but it’s a completely passive system. Modern cameras have an active system that uses a form of range-finding to determine focus based on subject distance. Passive systems act similar to the contrast detection that was found in mirrorless cameras. The result of this early attempt at AF leaves a lot to be desired. Even in good lighting the focus frequently hunts, and usually has a bit of back and forth before it settles. In low light—and I mean anything dimmer than an overcast day—the AF can be unusable. Many times I had to tap the shutter button multiple times to get it to focus. Sometimes it refused to focus at all. Even when the AF is behaving, it is loud and annoying. Speaking of sounds, the film advance is downright depressing. Every sound this camera makes harkens back to a bygone era. A time of electronic advancement, of unnecessary motorization, and blinking red LED lights everywhere.
Nikon’s Design Philosophy
If we can move past the shortcomings of the N2020, of which are many, what’s left is something almost enviable. While other manufactures wanted to jump straight into the world of buttons, wheels, and LCD screens, Nikon tried to apply new technology to their existing design philosophy. The Nikon N2020 is a camera of duality—having one foot in the world of manual focus SLRs and the other foot (or perhaps just a toe) in the modern era. Save the AF and integral motor drive, the N2020 has more in common with the F3 than an F5. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation are all physical dials on the N2020. And it’s this sense of continuity and legacy that will forever endear me to Nikon. While Nikon has evolved over the years, it is always in a measured way. Nikon’s design philosophy honors their roots while treading new ground carefully. The N2020 exemplifies this. The design cues and tactical controls are very similar to an F3, with the addition of autofocus. It is a unique experience having the tactile control of a classic SLR like the F3, while using more modern AF lenses.
On the note of lens compatibility, the N2020 can use almost any manual focus lens. The major exception to this is “Pre-Ai” lenses, a limitation many late model manual focus Nikon bodies share. For AF, the N2020 supports the “screw-driven” AF or AF-D lenses, but can’t drive new AF lenses with integrated motors. It is also important to note that lenses without aperture rings can be used, but only in “P”. These limitations are important to be aware of when looking at bodies from this era. Out of my 10 lenses, only half will work on the N2020.
Shooting with the N2020 is an interesting experience, and a bit of a guilty pleasure, if I’m being honest. Dealing with the autofocus speed is a challenge, even trying to get a decent photograph of my cats can be almost impossible. Shooting it requires patience and understanding of its limitations. Learning and overcoming these limitations is one of the most enjoyable parts of shooting older cameras like the N2020. Putting yourself in a box and having to work to make good photographs—it’s a test of a photographer’s skill.
The Bottom Line
I like to shoot the Nikon N2020, not despite its flaws, but because of them. I like taking a step back into the 80s and experiencing what our parents did. There are certainly better cameras out there, but the N2020 has its place. If you want to use a real shutter dial and aperture ring, and want to use some of your AF glass, this is the only option short of a Nikon F4, which is easily 5 times as expensive. I feel the need to drive that point home because it is staggering. As of writing this, October 2020, the N2020 can easily be had for ~$30. The Nikon F4 on the other hand is $150-200.
If you are looking for a cheap way to dip your toes into 35mm or specifically looking for a more manual experience, this might be the right camera for you. After almost two years with it, I can safely say it is a camera I reach for often. Its unique experience keeps pulling me back. The Nikon N2020 isn’t perfect, but perhaps that’s the reason I can’t recommend it enough.