Sheep in Wolf's Clothing: The Nikon N5005

Looks can be deceiving.

This has proven itself to me on several occasions in film photography.  Some of the most basic cameras have delivered me some of my favorite images.  Kodak Retinette cameras have yielded some great photos for me, while I have a full size poster of a photo that I took using the basic Agfa Billy Record.  

This phenomenon works in reverse as well.  While browsing some bulk camera lot listings on our favorite online auction site, I happened upon a listing that contained photos of a camera that gave me the initial impression that it was built to be a professional workhorse, helped no doubt by the presence of bulbous analogue dials atop it indicative of a machine of professional standards...

Of course it didn't hurt that this camera carried a name broadly displayed vertically upon its grip that is considered to be the premier 35mm SLR brand for professional users...

My initial thought on this quick first impression that this was certainly a camera that would fetch a hefty price tag.  I dug in and looked a bit deeper at the model of interest to discover, much to my surprise, that it was readily available for under $20.  I did a modest bit of research and rather quickly discovered why this camera was so readily attainable, but yet, I was still intrigued enough to add this rather offbeat addition to my collection.  And with this, I became the owner of a circa 1991 Nikon N5005.

The N5005 (also known as the F-401X in other markets) bears a striking resemblance to the kind of cameras that I could never afford in my previous incarnation of film shooting days: a burly and intimidating looking Nikon Autofocus beast that looks at first glance like an advanced shooting machine for the demanding professional.  But it's not that at all.

It's actually an entry level camera, and a closer examination of both the camera itself, or particularly a review of its feature set bears this out. Looking beyond the initial appearance and the notable features the camera has, you begin to take note of what this camera is lacking.

There is no exposure compensation dial (or feature) for starters, and in fact, there is no way to manually set the ISO.  This camera relies strictly upon DX coding, defaulting to 100 for film cartridges lacking this coding. Guess this camera won't be seeing any of my Mr. Brown LOW ISO film at all! 

Depth of field preview?  It's not happening on here.  Multiple exposures? Nope.  And don't expect to be using any burst mode on this camera for those action shots.  Despite some visual parallels to the more advanced members of the Nikon line up, this is very much a beginner's camera with a basic feature set. 

But merely clumping the N5005 in the category of "Beginner Camera" is oversimplifying to a good degree as well. The model itself is a refined version of the N4004 and N4004S that were often maligned, and offers faster (and predictive!) autofocus over its predecessors, as well as center-weighted and 5-zone matrix metering as well as auto exposure lock to help "compensate for the lack of compensation."  Add in the easily accessed full manual control, and the result is a camera that isn't too shabby in many areas. 

Released in 1991 as a follow up to largely address the shortcomings of its predecessors, the camera comes off as a rather interesting bridge into the world of the autofocus environment, thanks in large part to its top control layout.  While there is no mistaking this camera for a Nikon F4, it does share some of the visual attributes of the pro camera which other models such as the N8008 lack.  Prior to the introduction of the Minolta Maxxum 7000 in 1985, which used button menus and an LCD screen to set aperture and shutter speeds, most SLR cameras had analogue top dials for shutter speed and a ring around the lens to set aperture. The N5005 retained a similar degree of analogue control to old manual focus cameras, but with the added benefit of an autofocus system that was largely an offshoot of the more full featured N8008.

Still, the complete absence of some features that are present on older cameras of mine as well as on at least one of my "modern" point and shoot cameras was a total bummer.  I did wonder if I'd miss them when shooting the N5005. 

The N5005 may also hold a little known bit of significance in that upon its introduction in 1991, it was likely the very last autofocus SLR introduced that lacked any LCD panel.  In fact, the Nikon FM-10 of 1995 may be the only newer SLR camera model of a major manufacturer that lacks an LCD. This shows just how quickly the industry had changed following the Maxxum debut of 1985, and how dated a dial based setup looked to the shooters of the time who had been using them for decades.  

Picking up this 25 year old camera for the first time, I was immediately impressed by how reasonably substantial it felt for the era, particularly compared to the contemporary entry level products of Nikon's largest rival: Canon.  While this Nikon may not feel tank-like in the manner of a 1970's metal SLR, there is still the impression that it is well constructed and ready to handle whatever you might want to throw its way.  By comparison, Canon Rebel camera bodies feel far lighter in comparison, though part of this may be due to AF motors being housed in the lenses of Canon systems, whereas Nikon's AF motors reside in the camera itself.

Otherwise, depending on how you view it, this Nikon camera is either "sadly spartan" or "refreshingly simple." Aside from the two main dials atop the camera, there is little in the way of controls.  The N5005 won't come off as "overwhelming," though for many used to all sorts of bells and whistles they may never use, it may come off as "underwhelming."  While I tended to fall into the latter camp, I certainly kept an open mind in shooting the N5005, and making sure to find chances to test every bit of functionality that did exist in this early AF model.

The top layout of the N5005 is clean and uncluttered, with most control occurring via the two dials.  Combining an "A" setting on the speed dial and an "S" setting on the aperture dial puts the camera into program mode.  The presence of an aperture dial atop the camera coincides with the introduction of "G" series lenses from Nikon that lacked such control on the lens itself.

In shooting my first roll, a very fresh 2020 dated sample of Ilford FP4 Plus, I was overall quite pleased with the simplicity of the camera as well as its feel.  The viewfinder was clear and bright, the auto-focusing was quick, and the shutter release and film advance all flowed smoothly to give the feel that I was working with a top-tier camera.   However, there were enough clues that this camera was of the basic variety. 

Biggest of these clues was the amount of information in the viewfinder, or more specifically, the lack of information in the viewfinder.  While cameras with LED indications of shutter speeds (and often aperture) had been commonplace in the later years of the "manual focus era," this AF camera lacks any such niceties.  Instead, one merely finds any of a handful of colored symbols to denote focus confirmation, exposure and metering, and flash status (or suggested use) along the bottom edge of the viewfinder.  These symbols are certainly vivid enough, but are terribly basic compared to many other models, both contemporary to the N5005 as well as those made in the decade before.  In addition, using the exposure + and - symbols can be a bit confusing at first. This certainly seems a camera that feels most at home in the more automatic settings.

A couple of glances through the viewfinder reveal how simplistic it is.  In the top view, the camera is set to program, with the green dot confirming focus, and the red dot confirming it possible to achieve exposure, but a flashing symbol at right suggests this speed is too slow for a handheld shot without flash.  Below, in a manual mode, the "O -" combination suggests that the selected exposure combination is a half stop underexposed.  It is a tad challenging at first to know if the "-" (and  conversely the "+") mean that you HAVE too little exposure dialed in, or that you NEED to reduce the exposure.

One nice feature of the N5005 that isn't possible with AF cameras from Canon and Minolta is the opportunity to shoot manual focus lenses on the body.  Regrettably, the N5005 does not offer metering with these lenses, though other Nikon AF models do. 

As a trade off to the lack of an exposure compensation measure of any kind, the N5005 offers this carrot: an exposure lock button.  Used skillfully in the proper situations, it can be a great asset to achieving proper exposure.

For all of its interesting looks, hints of character, and historical interest, there is not a great amount that can be said about its operation.  The lack of information in displays as well as the very limited feature set leads to an experience that will be either blindly automatic or significantly manual in nature, depending on the mode selected.  Spinning the dials in the latter mode with the viewfinder pressed to one's eye still feels a bit blind.  It actually would have been nice if there was some discernible tactile feature that distinguished these two dials from each other, perhaps the aperture dial being less rounded and bulbous, so that it was easier to know just what you were changing when shooting manually, since there is no indication in the viewfinder.

The challenge with the N5005 is that the novelty of its analog dials eventually wears off.  And despite its impressive appearance and build quality compared to other cameras of the same era, it becomes difficult to overlook the features not seen on this camera once you take a look at a camera of another maker that has those very features missing from the N5005. 

One of Canon's entry level SLR cameras of the early 1990's was the EOS Rebel S. It is a camera that feels light in the hands (read "cheap") and designed to hit a lower price point (again, read "cheap") yet it still manages to toss in many feature absent from the N5005. The camera reads DX coded film when loaded, yet the ISO can still be manually set from 6-6400. Exposure Compensation is readily accessible, as is the ability to shift Program Exposure Settings. 

On the N5005, much of this desired functionality is simply not possible on account of its most distinctive feature: the analog dials. The result is the lack of a cheap and easy way to control the camera, that being by means of an LCD screen. It simply would have been tough to find ways to tell the camera what to do without such a screen.  And this strained communication works in reverse as well. 

As I was on the verge of closing out my inaugural roll, lining up shot #36 on the roll of FP4 Plus, the camera simply quit on me. It would confirm focus on the manual focus Nikkor 50mm f/2, but on depressing the shutter, it just "sat there looking at me." Trying a few more times, I was unsuccessful. The self timer LCD would blink a couple times with each press but no shot would be taken. It was like trying to discern what my 1 year old is asking for with his repetitive grunts. I tried locking and unlocking the camera, switching lenses back and forth, and only after unloading the film and putting a tiny bit of pressure on the shutter when firing did the problem clear up. Not quite what one wants in a "go to" camera. 

The pragmatic advantages that I can see in the N5005 over its cheaper rivals of the time are the advanced metering system, the ability to mount and use manual focus lenses, and the use of readily available AA battery cells.  But there isn't much else that it has going for it. One of the things I ponder as I look at the N5005 is the market to whom it and its predecessors in the 4000 series were targeted. It doesn't have the rugged build and functionality of the pro Nikons, and lacks the more user friendly shooting of cameras like the N50 that would show up a few short years later.  Was there a legion of amateur photographers at the time who steadfastly despised LCD screens but still wanted an autofocus camera at a reasonable price point?  Or did Nikon simply put the N5005 into production knowing that one day I would find it, get very much interested in it, and elect to add it to my stable of used cameras.  

It certainly is an odd camera, literally. While Nikon produced a N2000, N2020, N4004, N6006, and N8008, the N5005 was the only four digit camera model of this lineup based on an odd number series.   According to some sources, only about 64,000 of this model were made, making it one of the less common Nikon models created.  

Overall, it leaves me with an odd feeling, only somewhat satisfying in nature while shooting, yet when I look at it, I can't help but marvel at the old-school dials, that reinforce what I like about it, and make me glad to own this rather unusual camera.  It certainly helps that the results from this rather early autofocus camera are really quite good, as can be seen in the results below from my roll of FP4.  

I tend to start a lot of rolls off with time exposure shots, and the N5005 was no exception.   I also have a bad habit of showing up in Downtown Frederick on the morning of trash pickup day.  The N5005, with the small Sigma 35-70 lens does a good job of getting sharp images from the 35mm end. 

A couple more shots from the same morning jaunt.  Tripod was essential for these. 

Under daylight and zoomed out, the Sigma still did a great job of giving a perfectly focused image, even when grabbing a shot while sitting at a traffic light. 

On a brisk lunch walk, the program mode made it easy to treat the N5005 like an oversized point and shoot, returning great results in the process. 

Zoomed all the way in, the camera and lens again put forth a very good result.

And then zoomed out, the center scene of interest pops from the scene.  Note the softness around the edges, likely partially from the lens and partially from the focal point. 

The results of using the AE lock can be seen here.  Matrix metering does an OK job with this unevenly lit scene in the first and last shots, but the details in the statue are lost.  Pointing at the statue and then hitting AE lock before recomposing, the result (in center) is certainly preferable. 

A statue at the Navy Memorial certainly exudes the chilly day scene here. 

Switching to the manual focus Nikkor 50mm f/2, I didn't quite nail focus on the light post in foreground as desired on my first try.

Stopping down for a couple of shots however, I was greeted with very sharp results from the 50mm lens. 

Another shot from the 50mm lens isn't quite as sharp as the last two, but the aperture was opened up more. 

With the Sigma lens reattached, I decided to try a couple more attempts to see how the "Matrix" metering performed in fading light.  Overall, despite some lack of shadow detail in the foreground scenes, the results are rather impressive.  Still, these may have been good situations for the AE lock.

FP4 hasn't typically been one of my more prevalent films, but I like how it handles dusky skies. 

With the day's light nearly done for, I snapped this shot at 1/2 second at f/2 to see how sharpness and bokeh play out with the 50mm f/2 in low light conditions.  Very impressed. 

The same basic scene handled this time stopped down with a time exposure.  Quite glad I made it past here, and that I had a camera ready to snap this, even if it elected to quit following this shot.

Would I recommend an N5005?  Probably not.  It's not that it is by any means a bad camera, but in today's market, you can actually get far more functionality, particularly from other Nikon AF models, for about the same money as it costs to snap up a used working N5005. Unless of course, you are a weirdo like me who is coveting a somewhat unusual and overlooked, yet still quite capable camera, in which case, the N5005 could not be more perfect!