Taking photos with my 1967 35mm Nikkormat FTN makes me feel powerful. Its all-metal body with mechanical springs, gears, and levers create a loud, satisfying “clunk” with every shutter press and deep “zip” when advancing the film. Its silver metal body with black faux-leather accents has proven to be not only timeless and eye-catching but, more importantly, incredibly durable. And the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings being located around the barrel of the lens make it incredibly quick to control once your muscle memory has been established.
Outside of the great images this camera can capture, using the FTN is an incredibly fun and satisfying experience. And the Nikon Z FC, Nikon’s latest entry-level mirrorless camera, led me to believe that I might, at long last, have a near-exact digital replica of a camera I love so much. Sadly, the Z FC wasn’t meant to digitally replicate a classic but, instead, inspire a new generation to carry a camera outside of their phones.
The Nikon Z FC is a compact APS-C, 20.9-megapixel camera. The body costs $959.95; the $1,096.95 kit I was able to test included a Nikkor Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens that retracts when not in use for a slim silhouette.
It’s a retro rebrand of Nikon’s entry-level mirrorless camera, the Nikon Z50, with a few added features, such as full-time eye autofocus while shooting video, the ability to accept firmware updates via an app, a faster USB-C port for charging and data transfer, and a fully articulating LCD screen. Unlike Nikon’s earlier Df, which took a DSLR and stripped out features in the name of its retro rebuild, the FC isn’t hampered at all — it can shoot full-resolution stills up to 11 frames per second and 4K 30fps video for up to 30 minutes at a time.
Photos from the Z FC with the 16-50mm kit lens are sharp with a very smooth and pleasing focus fall-off. The RAW files provide a lot of room for brightening shadows or bringing down the highlights. And I was very impressed with how the Z FC handled grain in low-light situations. Instead of a mess of color blotches and pixelation, the low-light grain has a film-esque, even texture to it that, when displayed on a small screen, such as a phone, isn’t distracting.
The Achilles heel of the Z FC is its slow auto-focus system. Often the camera can’t find any particular object to focus on and will do a fair amount of hunting once a point is locked in. There is focus tracking, in both photo and video modes, that works well in perfect light, but in low light, the camera struggles to hold onto a single point. Also, the green focus assist light is incredibly bright and draws a lot of attention to itself. Pair that with an auto-focus system that often misses the mark, and you might as well be a flashing Christmas tree out attempting to take photos in the dark. The slow kit lens doesn’t help this situation, either; you might have better success with a brighter lens, but I was not able to test that.
In video, the lens’ autofocus is audible when playing back footage and does a lot of hunting, even on faces in bright light. I shot in 4K 24FPS while testing this camera, and while it cannot shoot in the log, the MOV files are crisp and oddly stable in perfect light. I say oddly because the Z FC has no internal stabilization, though the kit lens can provide optical vibration reduction (VR) with a bit of a crop to your frame. The camera’s light weight is a huge help in keeping a shot steady, but I turned off the VR setting and was still surprised at how stable my shots looked. Below is some sample video that I filmed entirely handheld with the VR setting off.
But now to the elephant in the room and the biggest difference between the Z FC and the Z50: the look of the hardware.
The Z FC is a plastic take on Nikon’s 35mm F cameras. It shares the same retro look with the iconic silver body, a faux-leather wrap-around design, and dials on top. When I saw it earlier this year, I was instantly excited because it has long been a dream of mine to have a digital version of my Nikkormat FTN, which, although produced by the Japanese company Nippon Kogaku K. K., shares the same design as Nikon’s F cameras. But the moment I held the FC, I knew this wasn’t for film enthusiasts looking for the same manual shooting experience in a digital body.
Lightweight cameras with plastic parts feel like toys no matter how good the internals might be. The high-pitched click of pulling out the articulating screen or battery compartment and the slippery feel of the plastic body make me question the camera’s durability as well. And although many folks will be happy with this camera’s output, the experience of using it leaves a lot to be desired for a person who has become so used to the sounds and feel of more premium systems. I recorded every sound the Z FC makes in the video below.
All of that is to say this camera is not made for folks coming from all-metal, well-constructed 35mm cameras such as myself. It’s designed to look good from afar and be light enough to take anywhere, but using it feels like playing professional rather than actually being professional. And Nikon has played into the fashion first approach with six color options.
The Nikon Z FC is a great entry-level camera for fashion-forward folks who will be motivated to carry this camera everywhere because of its retro design. With most controls being set to dials on the top of the camera, the system is easy to use, and the quality of the images and video is very good.
Fujifilm and Leica cameras remain the closest experience to shooting with all-metal vintage camera bodies because of their many manual control wheels and solid construction. As for the Z FC, it’s a great camera for $959.95, but it does not provide the same experience of the cameras Nikon designed it to look like. Its looks are instead intended to attract an audience that wants to look the part of a photographer without having to carry the heavy gear that was once needed to be one.
Photography by Becca Farsace / The Verge