Nikon F-401 Review – the £1.50 SLR

This all singing SLR body (sold in the US as the N4004) almost made it into the Poundland Challenge. It turned out to be a bigger steal than most from that and demonstrates you can get incredible cameras for next to nought these days.

Nikon F-401 (aka N4004)
Nikon F-401 (aka N4004) AF SLR with a Nikkor AF-D 35-80mm lens

The 1987  Nikon F-401 was Nikon’s second true AF SLR body after the F-501 and is an oft neglected body as it wasn’t that cutting edge. But this model does offer a lot (and at £1.50GBP I can’t grumble). Despite being plastic bodied it looks more like a bulky pro model and weighs as much as my alloy nikkormats especial with batteries in. As ever image quality is probably more dependant on the lens than the camera body in average conditions but there is a lot to like here.

Nikon F-401 (N4004)  Specs

  • Lens Mount : Nikon F *
  • Focus: Infrared AF
  • Focus Servo : single
  • Exposure: Auto
  • DX Coding : 25-5000 ¹
  • Shutter:  1-1/2000 sec +B
  • EV 100 :  1-19 ²
  • Battery: 4XAA

* only AI lens on can mount not all supported
¹ If non DX coding film defaults to 100 ASA
² with f/1.4 lens

The camera can use most Nikon lens to varying extent from AI models of the mid 70’s on right through to dSLR lens (see Ken Rockwell’s guide to Nikon lens compatibility and the manual). It is mainly AF lens that you get metering with but you can still manually set exposure using your noggin or external meter with a 1970’s AI lens (relatively cheap but still good manual focus E series lens are worth highlighting here as they can take advantage of the focus assist feature). AF is by a single beam but in daylight conditions that’s fine. It can’t cope in the dark (at bit annoying given this was the first Nikon with a built in TTL Flash) or with low contrast images. You can turn off AF and manually focus and with AF lens and some manual lens there is a Focus assist feature in viewfinder (just as well as the focus screen isn’t changeable and is just a plain matt ground glass with no focusing aids. (UPDATE DEC 2015- worth noting for AF lenses really only full support for screw based AF lenses mainly the AF-D and the G class version – other may need manual focus see Ken Rockwell’s guide above – DX lenses don’t focus but unlike later F55 do seem to meter)

Nikon F-401 control panel
Nikon F-401 control panel Front dial controls shutter and rear Aperture. Note rewind button (R)

The camera features 2 dials to the right of the pentaprism cover. These control shutter and aperture. You can lock both in an auto mode or leave one set at auto and shoot in either aperture or shutter priority mode. You can even use in full metered manual mode using the LED icons that appear at the bottom of the fairly bright viewfinder along with the focus LEDs. A flash warning also appears although unlike later cameras you need to manually pop up the flash (better in my view). You have a traditional hotshoe mount and the camera can use a wide range of Nikon Speedlight dedicated flash units. Nikon introduced a 3 area matrix metering system but you can do spot metering by half depressing the shutter and then simultaneously push the AEL button (quite hard to do – a switch selector would have been better). You can lock focus by half depressing shutter (yup that’s an issue if you want spot metering)

Hair today
Nikon F-401 with Nikkor AF (D) 35-80mm lens. Kodak BW400CN

Okay and now the downsides (in addition to the AF issues). There is no cable point and no remote option although there is a timer feature.  There is no Depth of Field (DOF) preview and no mirror lock. These most can live without but more important is that there is no EV compensation and given that this camera features automatic DX coding you’ll be forced to manually set exposure if using expired film or want to compensate. It’s also a autowinder camera which is noisey along with the shutter and means that the camera wil advance to a safe 1st shot on loading

3 stones
Nikon F-401 with Nikkor AF (D) 35-80mm lens. Kodak BW400CN

Shot wise it does the business okay although spot metering is fairly clumsy and it does struggle in low light.

Nikon made 3  models each with more refinements. The F-401s added better AF and the later F-401X added more shutter speeds.

Berry Spring
Nikon F-401 with Nikkor AF (D) 35-80mm lens. Kodak BW400CN

Many regard this as a second fiddle camera and it is often overlooked. Mines was a real steal at £1.50 but whilst the camera usually went for a bit more, it wan’t by much (and someone got one for just $1.20 + P&P recently). Pay into the teens and you should get one with a lens.

Keep those prices in mind and consider more popular alternative. The professional Nikon F4 also has a single point AF system and fixes all the issues of the F-401 in spades plus offering support for every Nikon F mount lens. Then there’s the F-801 which like the F4 allows both manual setting of ISO and EV compensation is also widely available. But a F4 body will set you back about £100 or more and the F-801 will be around £20. Suddenly at £1.50 the F-401 starts to be a interesting compromise for a canny photographer, although the lens will set you back

Why buy

  • It’s a Nikon SLR for £1.50
  • Works well in common circumstances
  • Ludicrously cheap
  • Takes AAs

Why not

  • AF has limitations
  • Limited focus screen for MF
  • Can’t meter non AF lens
  • Bit heavy despite being plasticky
  • No EV compensation
  • No DoF etc

What I paid and what it Came with

  • £1.50 plus £4.50 P&P
  • Came with body cap, Nikon strap and original manual

Helpful links

  • N4004 Manual at Mike Butkus’s site (select pt 1 & 2 not full)
  • F-401 on Nikon’s Website
  • F-401 at Camera-wiki
  • F-401 on Photography in Malaysia website (with handy links)
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5 thoughts on “Nikon F-401 Review – the £1.50 SLR”

  1. I also picked one up for a $1.50!
    Mine has a broken latch however. I am currently just holding it shut with masking tape. Does anyone have any info on repairing the latch?

  2. Broken door latches were endemic on early AF consumer Nikons. The door hook was plastic and the body latch metal – something had to give. Some disintegrated just by being left closed for a while (two of my F601s shattered in a drawer!) Nikon fixed them under warranty and independent sellers offered a metal replacement hook which took considerable skill to fix, requiring expert alignment of four tiny screws.

    Later models like the F55-75 seem more reliable in this regard, have better autofocus and metering and are still cheap, sometimes selling for under £20 with a Nikon kit zoom. The frequently overlooked 28-80 3.5-5.6D is a brilliant lens for the price and the one to look for. They have exposure compensation which is necessary for bulk loaders using non-DX or differently coded cassettes. By the time Nikon got to the F75 digital cameras were competition, and the camera has all their expertise and sophistication packed into a consumer body – it sells for slightly more than previous iterations but all later models are very similar.

    If you can put up with the noisy film advance, plasticky feel and overall bulk, consumer AF SLRs make practical and sophisticated film cameras.

    1. I have a Canon Rebel Ti which I bought used, and used for a few years until I decided I wanted to use fast -ish m42 primes rather than the relatively slow (but pretty sharp) kit zoom. The door latch is busted on it too, not busted-busted, but it doesn’t auto-latch when door is closed, you have to manually latch it. A little screw had worked itself loose. I put it aside meaning to essay a repair at some point then (of course) lost the little screw. Anyway I’ve since gone back to heavy, simple, all-manual, [almost] all-metal 1960-70s vintage SLRS, which come with their own ‘issues’. As film seems to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence, this has driven up the cost, the thrift and pawn shops’ stock has been picked over, leaving horribly broken junk to be had for peanuts. This is a good thing because the market for actual film may survive a bit longer.

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