EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: With a few important exceptions based on specific technical features – you can’t go wrong with either camera. There is no net better or worse choice. That said, allow me to present a few differences commonly discussed.
Question: I have and love my F5. Why would I get an F6?
Answer: First, debating which camera is “better” is a waste of time. Both the F5 and F6 are top of the line, flagship, professional cameras employing everything in Nikon’s design/development pedigree at their time of release.
The F5 project was led by Tetsuro Goto, with design by Giugiaro Studio. At the time of release (1996) it was the fastest auto focus camera in the world, and used new sealing techniques adopted through what Nikon learned in the Nikonos system. Sticking to the typical 8-year production cycle of professional F models, the F6 was released to everyone’s surprise in 2004 – along side the D2H digital camera. The F6 was designed and developed to fulfill the need for a faster, lighter 35mm film camera with ultimate reliability and low power consumption.
Allow me to go on record praising the Nikon F5. A classic piece of photographic history. To those as devoted to the F5 as I am to the F6, please visit nikonf5.net by Australian photographer Gareth Buckett.
CREATIVE LIGHTING SYSTEM: The F6 contains circuitry for Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. The F5 does not. If you want to go off-camera flash you’re going to be working with Pocket Wizards or some other third party solution. Although the F6 has the circuitry for CLS, you will need to purchase separately the SU-800 Commander Head or a contemporary CLS-capable flash to access CLS control. I’d call this a draw today because of the additional options for off-camera flash.
SIZE and WEIGHT: This is the most commonly sited and most obvious difference between the two cameras. I have to wonder if it’s the single most important difference – or most noticeable. The F5 is constructed of one, solid, large, cast aluminum alloy body. This is desirable by some, and equally undesirable by others. To some the larger size communicates a solid, dependable feeling while shooting. To others, the larger size presents difficulty in handling, and difficulty stowing the camera away for travel due the larger footprint in the bag or weight on the shoulder. The reason for the size was the first ever internal MD (Motor Drive) and power pack that combined – provides 7 frames per second, 8 if you opt for the optional MN-30 power unit. This has the net effect of sometimes making the camera too large to bring with you – making all its power and features irrelevant. “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
As well as the physical size differential, the stock weight of each comes in at:
F5 = 1,210g
F6 = 975g
The F6 is visibly smaller and lighter in its stock configuration. Do not mistake the smaller, lighter attribute for inferior however. The F5 is constructed as a cast, aluminum alloy body where as the F6’s top plate, bottom and front cover were made of the stronger and lighter magnesium alloy, with only the back door being made of the slightly cheaper aluminum alloy. If you prefer that solid, beefy feeling of the F5, imagine that same feeling in a trimmer, tighter, smaller package. The feeling of holding the F6 compared to the F5 is just as solid and confidence inspiring as the F5 – without the mass.
If it does take physical size and weight to impress, the MB-40 can be mounted to the bottom of the camera, making it actually slightly taller than the F5 and when using Lithium batteries in the F5, actually slightly heavier. But somehow through the miracle of brilliant design, the F6 still feels lighter.
When I configure my F5 and F6 identically as follows:
– The F5 with the Kirk L-bracket and 8 Duracell Alkaline batteries 3 pounds, 8 and 3/4 ounces (this weight drops with Lithium batteries).
– The F6 with the MB-40 grip, EN-EL4a battery, Kirk L-bracket, no lens = 3 pounds, 7 and 5/8 oz.
It’s this second configuration that matters most to me because it’s how I shoot them. When the F5 is loaded with heavier, Alkaline batteries, the F6 is only an ounce lighter. Due to the F6’s design, however, it feels significantly lighter in hand than the F5. Size is strictly personal preference – there’s no right or wrong. I understand the emotional connection to a larger camera – but practically speaking the advantage here has to go to the F6 for its either/or approach.
BATTERIES: The F5 is a hungry beast, requiring 8 AA Batteries as its only method of obtaining the power it needs.* The batteries tuck horizontally, neatly into the integrated grip and add significant weight to an already robust camera. The good news is, AA batteries are probably one of the most easily obtained battery sizes on the market. The bad news is that for extended trips you need a bunch of them due to the the F5’s insatiable need for power.
The F6’s base configuration requires 6Volts of power via two, efficient CR123’s tucked neatly into the vertical grip via the MS-41 battery caddy. Estimated roll counts of different configurations are as follows:
- CR123 batteries: 10-12 rolls
- AA Lithium batteries: 40-45 rolls
- EN-EL4a battery: 30-35 rolls.
The MB-40 grip first mentioned above offers the added bonus of allowing the same AA batteries plus the digitally popular EN-EL4a battery. So your digital camera and film camera can share the same battery and this is a good thing. When you want/need to go smaller, lighter, and more efficient, clearly here the advantage goes to the F6. It’s worth noting that both the F5 and F6 have manual rewind cranks to save battery power on extended shoots.
MIRROR UP: For anyone interested in more information about Mirror-Up shooting you can visit this page. The F5 has a small, mechanical lever facilitating Mirror Lock Up, where the F6 has a setting on the Film Advance Mode Selector dial. The F6’s configuration is a disadvantage because the photographer is forced to choose between a self timer and M-up. Sometimes you want both – like if you don’t have a cable release with you and are shooting slow enough that it matters. The F5 allows the photographer to set the lever manually and still use the Self Timer on the dial. Practically speaking this is a non-issue for many because of the number of ways a camera’s shutter can be tripped without a timer – providing you have these other accessories with you. For example the ML-3 or MC-30 are standard operating procedure when it comes to remote release. But again – if you don’t have them, M-Up is still inconvenient with the F6. I’d give the advantage here to the F5 because you don’t need to rely on a second piece of equipment. There is an alternative for F6 users not on a time constraint: if you set the Film Advance Mode Selector Dial to M-up and trip the shutter, 30 seconds after the mirror flips up out of the way, the shutter will automatically release itself. This is cumbersome in changing light – but M-up shooting is already. There is no way to adjust this delay in the Custom Settings Menu.
TRANSITIONING from OLDER NIKONS:
This category was added because I’ve recently been switching between the F4s, F5 and F6. At first glance this category seems to favor the F5. The reason is the presence of the F5’s Aperture Direct Readout (ADR). The ADR provides the ability to view lens aperture directly off the lens barrel via a small window in the viewfinder/prism. This means you can quickly move a lens from an older camera (like an F3 for example) that has no command dials, mount it on the F5 and just keep shooting – rather than having to stop to lock the lens into its minimum aperture first. The F5’s CSM 22: “Aperture setting via Sub-Command Dial” allows you to enable or disable the front command dial on lenses with aperture rings. The default is ‘enable.’ If you select ‘disable’ you can change aperture using the aperture ring on the lens. However it’s a little unintuitive: ‘F- -‘ shows in the top display, the MF-28 display and most importantly in the viewfinder – instead of the correct aperture. CSM 22 forces reliance solely on the ADR to communicate correct aperture.
Out of the box the F6 requires any lens with aperture ring to be locked in the minimum aperture setting. This renders the ring on the lens useless and instead controls aperture with the camera’s front command dial. If you want to switch things up the F6 handles the alternative a little more gracefully: CSM f:4 disables the front command dial allowing the lens to be controlled by the aperture ring instead. The beauty is the top display, viewfinder and rear display all show the correct aperture instead of the ‘F- -‘ like the F5. Both cameras are smart enough to automatically re-enable front command dial operation when G lenses are mounted. Pretty slick.
The down side to using the lenses aperture ring is you don’t get 1/3 stop EV settings as when using the front command dial. So it’s a trade off based on the photographer’s priorities. If you do a lot of switching back and forth between these older cameras with no command dials (think F1, F2, F3 and F4) – you’ll appreciate and be familiar with the F5’s ADR allowing you to wing it old school. The F6 presents a more refined alternative – though the lack of ADR isn’t a plus – so it’s probably a draw.
I wonder… how many professional digital cameras today use replaceable viewfinders? There’s a reason the answer is none.
REPLACEABLE VIEWFINDERS: Why this has become such a dividing line for some between a “professional” and “amateur” camera I will never understand. Both the F5 and F6 have big, bright 100% coverage viewfinders. This means there’s no guessing what’s at the edge of the frame – you can actually see your entire composition before releasing the shutter. Besides the standard issue DP-30 viewfinder, the F5 has 3 additional view finders available to mount on the camera: AE Action Finder DA-30, Waist-Level Finder DW-30, and DW-31 6X High Magnification finder. Replaceable viewfinders have been a design cornerstone from the early F’s through the F5 and facilitate various types of specialty shooting. The F6 takes a different approach, doing away with replaceable viewfinders. The reasons are Nikon’s alone and we’re left to speculate. But one thing I can promise you is that the lack of replaceable viewfinder is not a negative on the F6.
I’ve heard some use this lack of feature as the fatal flaw of the F6; noting it as the important demarcation of a “professional camera.” Of course this is rubbish. I wonder… how many digital cameras today offer replaceable viewfinders? None that I’m aware of. If they’re such an important and valuable option for the ‘professional,’ why don’t contemporary professional digital cameras by Nikon or Canon – or anyone – offer them? My contention is cost, and structural integrity.
First structural integrity: replaceable viewfinders represent too much of a risk to the vulnerability of the camera’s electronics. Beginning with the F3 forward, electronics became a more critical design consideration in each progressive camera. Even though the F5 represented the best weather sealing of its time, replaceable viewfinders facilitate a critical point of entry for moisture and debris (and this is important: on top of the camera) – making it more vulnerable to failure in inclement weather. With other options available such as the DR-5 Right Angle Viewer – and the hard reality that junk can and does eventually enter your camera through any possible means (regardless of how well it’s sealed) – this one has to go to the F6. The risk of replaceable viewfinders far outweighs the benefits – so they were discontinued.
The exception I’d make is if you’re doing a lot of close to the ground or low-angle work and can take advantage of the F5’s DW-30 waist-level finder, or DW-31 6X high magnification finder. It’s far more comfortable composing such images from the top than having to stick your face in the mud to see through the viewfinder. Moisture and dirt entering the camera are still a reality and something to avoid and you wouldn’t want to subject the F5 – or any camera – to pouring rain for extended period.
There is one other consideration, as French photographer Sylvain Lenfle points out: “One strength of the F5 removable viewfinder: being in a Parisian café with your 50mm and a girl at the table just maybe 1 meter in front of you. Putting the F5 on the table, removing the viewfinder as if you were cleaning it, checking the frame and shooting “discreetly.”(PLEASE CLICK HERE).
Then there’s the cost of producing them. Surely not inexpensive to manufacture, if there’s little demand from the market for replaceable viewfinders – why bother?
No… by the time the F6 camera along the lack of need for replaceable viewfinders had become apparent and they were no longer offered. The benefit to the F6: it’s as well sealed as any camera can possibly be, fitting with one of Nikon’s stated design mandates: to build a camera of ultimate reliability. If I’m heading into wet country and need an ultimately reliable camera, I’m bringing my F6, not my F5.
Even better weather sealing in the F6 – along with new oils – were used to allow temperature differences of -20°C to +50°C to be incidental. One of my favorite images from a Nikon advertisement is the photo above of the F6 covered in dust. Both the F5 and F6 offer interchangeable focusing screens: the F5 offers 13, the F6 offers 7. Immediately upon purchase I swapped out the stock focus screen for the Type E screen which provides horizontal and vertical grid lines for easier alignment.
AUTO FOCUS: The F5’s auto focus system, the multi-CAM1300 is inferior in terms of accuracy to the F6 due to the lack of number of AF tracking points and sophistication of the AF system (5 focus points in the F5, 11 on the F6’s multi-CAM2000 AF system) – but I’ll admit here that understanding the nuances of AF systems is not something I’m well versed in. The F5 however is superior in speed. The F5’s auto focus motor feels like it’s going to rip the guts out of whatever lens is mounted to the camera. That’s how powerful it feels. Like sitting in an old, muscle car and feeling the rumble of that huge motor when you hit the gas, the application of all this power contributes to the “brute force” feel of the camera. The downside is power consumption. The F5 chews through 8AA batteries fast. For me the auto focus discussion is not quite insignificant, but close. Often times while shooting the F6 I’m manually focusing on stationary objects – not trying to track an athlete moving towards me at high speeds and frame rates. For jobs like that my D3s is perfectly suited. Another advantage to the F5’s auto focus is the ability to view the position of focus points in the top plate/screen. The F6 does not allow this – but does allow viewing on the rear LCD screen. One feature of the F5 that takes getting used to is the (lack of) color auto focus indicators in the viewfinder. Because they are either dark gray (dormant) or black (active), this makes it tough to immediately see where the active focus point is. The net result is, though the motor is super fast to focus the camera, there’s mild mental delay peering through the viewfinder while your mind tries to figure out just what that super fast motor has focused on. The F6’s viewfinder is ENOURMOUS and BRIGHT, with easily visible red AF Activation points letting you know what the camera is focused on and eliminating confusion. It’s fast, accurate and easily distinguishable.
SHUTTER: Both cameras have super durable, self-checking shutters. “The F6 is equipped with a self-diagnostic shutter that automatically controls the shutter speed for each release of the shutter. The self-diagnostic shutter automatically detects inaccuracies in performance and readjusts the shutter speed for greater accuracy in subsequent shooting.” (p.86 of the F6 manual). This means that if the camera can’t provide the shutter speed required, it won’t fire and will instead display “Err” in the LCD and camera’s top panel. The F5’s double bladed shutter curtains are made of a carbon fiber type material and aluminum alloy and rated at 150,000 releases. This translates into approximately 4,000 rolls of 36 exposure film. The F6’s shutter was changed to a quieter, more durable and refined Kevlar material supposedly reducing noise and reducing vibration in the mirror box – and rated at the same, incredible 150,000 releases. Both the F5 and F6 offer what they call a “Silent” mode (Cs) on the Film Advance Mode Selector Dial. It’s not quite silent, but it’s definitely not loud and for more intimate settings like a concert or performance where the Clack-Clack-Clack of a loud shutter might be a problem, this is a benefit to both cameras. “B” setting is available and electromagnetically controlled on both the F5 and F6. Both the F5 and F6 offer “Silent” modes and while not silent in strict sense, there more silent than my D3S’ shutter. I think the D3S has about the loudest shutter I’ve ever heard.
CUSTOM SETTINGS MENU: The F5 has a total of 24 Custom Settings capabilities built in allowing one to customize the functions of the camera more to their personal preferences. These Custom Settings are accessed via a small button located beneath the fold-down, metal flap on camera rear. Pushing the button initiates a code in the bottom-rear LCD. This code indicates the camera’s settings. The problem is, one needs to know the codes to use the Custom Settings. The cameras capabilities are further expanded with the addition of an optional MF-27 or MF-28 data backs. To use one of these data backs requires (easily) replacing the stock back door of the camera with a completely different, thicker back containing the brain for higher functions. The new back door adds significant “mass” to the camera making an already large, heavy camera feel even larger and heavier; fatter, for lack of better term. Again – to many this is a good thing, providing balance and stability to the camera. To others it’s a detriment, making the camera too heavy to easily manage. To get intervalometer functions one needs the MF-28 – which is even thicker. Accessing full functionality of these backs is through a (by today’s standards, primitive) LCD UI. But once you get it, it’s not difficult. So to fully leverage the F5’s capabilities you need to know the 24 CSM codes and be able to decipher the MF-27/28’s interface to program the back.**
The F6 has all of these higher functions, including the intervalometer – and more – designed and built directly into the camera’s stock configuration, aluminum alloy back door and accessible with one rear Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) panel that uses plain language (not codes) to communicate different options. The designed integration of these higher functions is accomplished in a tight, trim package making it ergonomically friendly – as well as logically accessible. Easily deciphered Custom Setting Menus displayed large on the rear LCD allow tremendous control and ease of use of deep functions of the camera, extending it beyond the F5’s stock technical capabilities – all in an ergonomically and technically superior way.
The F6’s stock configuration allows retention of generated shooting Exif DATA stored in memory where it resides, and viewable on the camera’s rear LCD screen by clicking the INFO button on the back door. You may also retrieve the EXIF data in the form of a CSV (Comma Separated Value) text file to import into EXCEL or another spread sheet program for further use. This is accomplished by connecting the Nikon MV-1 to the 10-pin data port at camera’s front, beneath the attached, rubberized caps. *As of June 2015, there is another option to the MV-1 called meta35, produced by a software company in Houston, Texas. To read more about meta35 please click here.
**Meta35 allows interaction with Custom Settings Menus on cameras such as the N90s/F90X, F100 and F5 – but not the F6. The good news is you no longer need to memorize the CSM codes for these cameras. The bad news is if you’re in the field and don’t have a laptop with you (who does when shooting a film camera?) you’ll still need to know CSM codes. Most of the time I set and forget my CSM menus and hardly ever switch things in the field.
There are many who never even take the camera off of Program Mode – much less have the willingness or desire to dive deep into Custom Settings Menus – making all of this nuance, finesse and technological power absolutely meaningless. If you’re not interested in tweaking the camera’s settings, not knowing the codes is a non-issue. One of the nice features offered in the F6’s Menu Options is setting d3: FILM LEADER. On the F5 it was required to send the camera back to the factory to allow this feature. On the F6 it’s a simple preference easily found in the Menu system. Sometimes you may wish to use this feature if you need to swap out rolls before they’re fully exposed. Leavnig the leader out allows the photographer to rewind the film but easily re-load it later. Make sure if you do this, however, you have Data Imprint/Between Frames set to “Off” – otherwise you’ll get data imprinted on your previous exposures as the camera advances to the frame previously left off at. (Click HERE to see what that looks like… look above the hood of the JEEP for red numbers).
NON-CPU LENSES: I’m unclear if the F5 allowed this or not, but for certain, the F6 allows you to store up to 9 non-CPU lenses in the camera’s memory. By specifying lens data (focal length and maximum aperture) a variety of CPU lens functions become available when using a non-CPU lens. Lenses are set up using the F6’s Menu system (MENU button/NON-CPU LENS menu item). Once a non-CPU lenses data is stored, it can be easily retrieved for use when that lens is mounted using the FUNC button and the Main (rear) Command Dial (if Custom Setting F3 is set to LENS DATA). (Thanks to my Denmark Nikonian friend who pointed out this great reminder.)
ERGONOMICS: I’ve saved this topic for last because it tends to be less factually driven and more determined by emotional preferences. The ergonomics of the F6 are astounding. It’s a pleasant camera to hold and work with – which is a key argument against the “camera is just a box” mindset. Here’s what I think: if you have a camera that’s comfortable to hold, easy to use, and small enough to tote with you just about everywhere, you’re going to shoot it more. I am of the opinion that the more you shoot the camera, the more valuable photographs you’ll make as a result. If a camera is large, cumbersome, bulky and difficult to work with (like a Mamiya RZ67), you’re less likely to have it dangling around your neck when a moment presents itself. Regarding MF (medium format), sure – you’ll get a nice, big frame of film, but the spontaneity factor is dramatically reduced because it takes so much longer comparatively to get that shot off. The Nikon F6 is extremely refined, extremely solid – yet somehow not bulky or large. If it had ab’s it would have a 6-pack. It’s a marvel of texture, form, sound, tactile layout, logic and ease of use. Its sounds are refined, sophisticated, subdued; not loud and bombastic. Its an instrument “of great substance” allowing the photographer to easily envelope the camera and making it an extension of oneself with which to record spontaneous moments. It’s also equally comfortable to use for methodically set-up shots. It’s a difficult thing to describe. Ergonomics is where the emotional component begins to enter into the equation: round where it makes sense, solid to the touch and density without bulk. There’s a response the camera somehow offers the user, further enabling the camera. Like a dog thumping his foot when you scratch the right spot.
Besides these difficult to define “feelings” about the camera, there are a few important facts that may influence a good decision:
- As already mentioned, the F6 is smaller and lighter requiring significantly lower power consumption; fewer batteries.
- Buttons on the F6 are slightly larger and rubberized, easier for fingers to find. Buttons on the F5 are slightly smaller and more difficult to find, especially with gloves on.
- There is no FUNC button on the F5. The F6’s FUNC button is customizable through the Custom Settings Menu and allows easy, fast switching between various functions of the camera. For example, I have my FUNC button set to allow me to switch from Matrix Metering to Spot Metering with the press of a button
- The F6 is the only Nikon camera to employ their Creative Lighting System. Even with the SU-800 control head, no other camera has the CLS circuitry.
- The F5 makes Mirror-Up shooting with the Self-Timer a bit easier by using a mechanical lever rather than the F6’s option: a either/or approach on a dial.
- The F5 is one, large, solid block of aluminum alloy. the F6 is one, smaller solid block of lighter, stronger magnesium alloy.
- ADR – Aperture Direct Readout. If you switch back and forth between older cameras (pre-command dial interface) and the F5/F6 you’ll appreciate the F5’s ADR window in the viewfinder allowing you to view lens aperture setting on the lens’s barrel – and not be forced to lock the lens to minimum aperture before being able to shoot. The F6 has no mechanism to do this except a Custom Setting Menu option allowing you to “always” use the lens’s aperture ring. The F5 also has this setting.
- The F5 accommodates the convenience but structural vulnerability of interchangeable viewfinders. The F6 does not use interchangeable viewfinders and is structurally more secure because of it.
- The F5 is a sledge hammer. The F6 is a scalpel.
Question: Can’t I make the same images with my F3, or F4S or F5 as I can make with the F6? Why “upgrade?”
Answer: I’d say 90% of the time the answer would be yes (90% of all statistics are made up). But the rest of the time you’d have a distinct advantage over other cameras. And it’s that other 10% of the time that can easily make the difference between a photograph everyone else could make, and a special one you can make because of the tool in your hands. But let’s face it: if you were solely basing your decision on “practicality” you’d probably buy a D700 and be done with it. So I don’t think that’s the issue.
BUDGET: A used F5 is considerably less expensive than a used F6 – approximately one third to one half the price. You can still purchase a new F6 for about $2,500, complete with US Warranty. In 2007 (a year before purchasing the F6) I was in a camera store in Denver and they had a “new” F5 for about the same price. I wish I’d bought it then. I think beyond these above mentioned facts everything else is personal preference. Please correct me if I’m wrong. There are probably more subtle, technical differences between these two precision instruments – but what’s listed above represents the ones I’ve heard -and consequently have addressed – most.
If you’re committed to 35mm film, I’m convinced you can do no better than the Nikon F6. Not only is the camera itself excellent, but you also have the full weight of the Nikon System behind your investment. From vintage lenses and PB-6 bellows, to the new CLS Flash circuitry, I don’t believe there’s a more robust, complete, higher quality, flexible system available to the 35mm film photographer today.
The information on this page is a duplicate of the same section from the “Should I” page. I created a new page for it because it may be easier to find in internet searches.