Nikon's Perfect Vision? The N2020

Bloated, ungainly, and bulbous are all words that could be accurately used to describe Nikon's autofocus SLR cameras of the 1990's.  Despite their reputation for rugged and dependable cameras, Nikon's film SLR line up in the later days of film carried a look that was admittedly unbecoming to a number of camera fans, myself included.

But it wasn't always this way.  Nikon's very first successful autofocus SLR actually looked much more like its manual focus predecessors than the bulky AF cameras that would follow it.  In fact, the camera actually had a sister model (the N2000) that looked more or less identical to it, but lacking the autofocus feature.  The 1986 AF model, known as the F-501 in other markets, was known as the N-2020 in North America, which leads to me jest that this camera was Nikon's perfect vision of its future.

I'd rarely use the term "elegant" to describe most Nikon Autofocus SLR cameras, but I certainly can appreciate such a trait in the N2020. 

My interest in the N2020 came after reading Mike Eckman's well-penned Nikon trifecta article.  I was particularly pleased to discover that he had a spare "beater" body that he'd shell out for some surplus trade bait of my own.  I'd already had some experience with the N5005 and N60 that I'd genuinely liked, but the N2020 seemed very much like my kind of Nikon, being an autofocus camera that remained remarkably true to its manual focus roots.

The camera that arrived, while hardly pristine, was certainly nicer to me than most "beater" cameras. Like my Mamiya MSX-500, it seemed to have served as a yearbook or other staff camera, even carrying a "fleet" number marking of "5" along its top housing, letting me give it the more informal nickname of "Fievel."  It did show signs of some indiscretion with the pavement in the form of a crack on the top housing, and some loss of paint, but still managed to look dignified to me regardless.

Above: The N2020 makes simple use of letter abbreviations and colors in getting its functions across.  For example, the Red [L] switch setting stands for lock, with other settings for single shot and continuous shooting.  Note the difference in texture between the AE-L and AF-L switches.  Below, while more recent SLR's have crammed increasingly more dials and buttons into the back, the N2020's rear is refreshingly unadorned, with a window to read the film cassette and a "sight glass" to confirm film is advancing. 

What immediately struck me about the N2020 was just how self-descriptive it was.  In just a brief glance among the dials and switches, I could more or less figure out what every function on the camera did.  For the most part, the control locations seemed intuitive.  The stacking of the AE-L (Exposure Lock) and AF-L (Focus Lock) buttons seemed as if it could cause confusion, but the each button did have its own distinct tactile feel with the former having a raised center, and the latter having a depressed center.  Besides, having both buttons side by side would enable the simultaneous use of both, using center and ring finger, while the index finger could still reach the shutter release, allowing the left hand to steady or focus the lens.

The addition of this camera to my entourage was a perfect fit.  Not only did it have an attractive look and well thought out form, but it also was readily usable in P, M, or A modes using older manual focus AI lenses, something lacking from both the N5005 and N60.  However, I'd just week prior taken delivery of an autofocus Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D lens, and was eager to try out the combination.  Having just seen some excellent results with my N60 using Agfapan 25 with this lens, I was biased towards repeating this film and lens combination with the N2020, so I did.

My experiences with the N2020 were generally excellent.  I easily bypassed the DX setting using the dial under the film rewind knob and downrated the long expired film to an ISO 20 rating for shooting. I shot the entire roll using the "A" setting, as I have discovered a love for using this lens as wide open as I can, and the exposure system seemed to be right on target from my tests.

Focusing of the camera turned out to be another matter.  As the first generation of Nikon AF camera, the focus was slower than other models, but not annoyingly so for my hobby shooting.  What I did begin to notice as the film rolled through however was that the N2020 would achieve focus on a subject, only to offset the focus setting on the lens slightly.  Were I shooting stopped down to f/5.6 or more, it likely wouldn't have mattered, but as I was shooting wide open with minimal depth of field, I found myself not wanting to trust the autofocus feature for the latter part of this roll on a rather scarce film stock.

Turning the ISO dial a good way past the "12" setting will allow the film speed to be automatically set using DX coding.  Though my film had such coding, I elected to simply set the speed to 20.  Below, the viewfinder may not have a split prism finder like most manual focus SLR's of the era, but the focus assist lamps and focus confirmation lights are a huge help.  Note the shutter speed between 30 and 60 as seen at right.  The only little tidbit sadly missing is a view of the aperture. 

But manual focusing wasn't quite the issue that it often is on other AF SLR's.  Not only is the viewfinder and matte screen particularly clear on the N2020, but the camera offers a pair of focusing assist "arrow" lamps as well as a focus confirmation indicator.  With a nice bright lens like the 50mm f/1.8, focusing was a pretty easy task for my purposes, but I notice that it's a bit more challenging with a lens with an f/3.5 maximum aperture.

Aside from the sometimes flaky focus, my only other minor quibble with the N2020 was that the bottom plate had a tendency to come off in my camera bag.  This isn't quite as alarming as it may sound as the bottom cover merely covers the batteries, a carefully arranged set of 6 AAA cells.  Like the N5005, the N2020 lacks any camera-top LCD panel. And while the N5005's viewfinder has an absolute dearth of information at a glance, the N2020 at least offers a significant informational leap by displaying shutter speeds using backlit red LCD analog numerals along the right side of the viewfinder.  When shooting in "A" mode as I was, the level of information was not only ideal but easily referenced.  Admittedly, there are times when too much information in a viewfinder leads to it all being too easily ignored.

My roll through the N2020 seemed to run its course far too quickly, but it also allowed me to have the thrill of seeing my results on this very enjoyable SLR camera.  Fortunately, the results matched the experience, and will only help fuel my interest in shooting with this camera again and again...

As afternoon light began to cast some curious shadows across the access trails to the Soldiers Delight NEA, the Nikon masterfully captured the variance in the light.  

THIS is why I am in love with Agfapan 25.  The tonality it captures is nothing short of spectacular to me.  The sharpness of the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 at wider apertures is phenomenal.

Shot all the way open, the ability of the 50mm f/1.8 to still maintain adequate contrast is one of the things that I like most about using Nikon cameras. 

Three barren trees stand out nicely against a cloudless sky on a March afternoon at Soldiers Delight.  I only wish that I could get past this favorite spot of mine more often. 

Near the trail head was this lopped off tree surrounded by brush.  The N2020 handily picked up some perfect exposure from the situation, again while shot wide open. 

I think my focusing skills were a tad off on a little deviation through Canton to shoot some photos.  Still, the out of focus rendering of the D series lens is quite decent.

My focus had improved to spot on to snap this Butchers Hill piece of photographic charm in Baltimore.  Here again, the film and camera combined to provide the perfect amount of contrast in varied lighting. 

Another shot taken at the same site.  Yet again, the focus was just where I wanted it, and the results speak for themselves. 

Trying to focus through a fence was not easy, but it was quite possible.  "Fievel" seemed to sense what I after and gave me a decent shot in return. 

I didn't have my best tripod with me to hold the camera steady for this night exposure.  Upon review, this slow speed film does a great job at tonality in nearly every lighting situation. 

Under overcast skies, the N2020 offered me a decent shot with this out the car window scene.  I seem to be forever in awe of how well defined the barren twigs on the limbs are with this lens. 

Another shot taken minutes later is a hint dark, but still acceptable.

Even with a distant subject, I still managed to get a bit of desired softening in the distant backdrop.  The 1.8 really seems to offer me all the shallowness of depth of field I need for most images. 

With a bit more stopping down to about f/4, the lens is perfectly sharp, and the N2020 seems to know just what to do with it. 

Well toned, and sharp just where I want it.  I swear I look at this image and wonder if it had been taken on a medium format combination.  The fine grain and shallow depth of field seem to defy that it was taken on a modest 35mm rig. 

A little more fun with some shallow depth of field.  Yet again, this came out sharply in the desired area while muting out the backdrop nicely. 

Forgive me for being a bit of a one trick pony with the f/1.8 shots but a camera like this just makes them quite fun.  Soldiers Delight NEA. 

A quick shot in broad daylight at f/5.6 in Lisbon reveals that the N2020 does fine across the frame.  

The Agfapan 25 works absolutely great as a landscape film even (or rather especially) if you stop it down to the middle of the aperture range.  This shot is what I'd consider tack sharp. 

One of my recurring favorites over the years sits near Cooksville.  The silvery look of the Agfapan is well utilized by the N2020. 

Settings like this make me a bit sad that I can't really filter out some the modern day elements that clutter the scene.  The McKim Center is one of the most interesting in all of Baltimore. 

Patterson Park's Pagoda makes a great photographic centerpiece.  I managed to refrain from shooting a foreground element and blurring out the profile of this landmark in the backdrop. 

I surely didn't refrain from shooting this scene however at a modest depth of field.  The cannons in the backdrop quickly get more and more diffused. 

The Agfapan film works particularly well with sculpture, conveying a look that is fantastically complemented by the Nikon and its signature prime lens. 

Another more modern bit of of sculpture had kindly been provided with a scarf to help keep it from being too cranky about intrepid photographers taking its photos.

One last narrow depth of field shot of a long abandoned freight spur in Canton.  A little bit of vignetting evident, but 

I really do feel that the N2020 is about as close to perfect as a Nikon film camera can come for me.  It is of an attractive size and weight.  It offers easy access to controls via switches, buttons, and dials. And while my example had a bit of flakiness in the AF, I can readily see how this camera functions more or less ideally as BOTH an AF and MF camera, with a perfect lens compatibility level for 90% of my entire modest collection of Nikon glass, the sole standout being a pre-AI lens that won't mount to this camera.

With a 1/2000 top shutter speed and a very accurate meter (despite lacking the bells and whistles of matrix metering), the Nikon N2020 seems more or less ready to be a great companion to the casual shooter who wants access to some of the best classic 35mm lenses in the business while having an optimal level of lens compatibility across the lineup.  All of this comes in an elegant form factor that stands out from the majority of models that succeeded it.  It's not quite a perfect machine, but to me, it represents the closest thing to perfection I've yet to see from this very respected camera maker.

So I'll continue to call it my "Perfect Nikon Vision."


  1. I used the Nikon 301, its MF companion, on fast outdoor portraits with fabulous results in the 50/1.8.

  2. I just got a N2020 from my dad and I am looking forward to getting to know it. Thanks for the great article about its capabilities!