Nikon D2H Digital SLR

Some months back there was a lot sale of 4 Nikon D2H SLRs on eBay. The seller was a warehouse store based out of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. They were described as former journalism cameras and the batteries were dead. The seller did not know if they worked or not. No battery charger with the lot. One in the lot looked in reasonable condition and all were dusty. The paint on the other three looked like they were used in wartime journalism!

Fearsome foursome!
The Terminator

The Nikon D2H is the fourth out of Nikon’s line of professional digital SLRs, after the D1, D1H, D1X. It was introduced by Nikon in 2003 with an off-the-shelf price of $5,000. Intended for professional use, the D-series are made for heavy duty use and weather resistance. They all have tough magnesium alloy frames and thick rubberized coverings.

The D2H uses Nikon’s own digital sensor with a 4.1-megapixel resolution. This was more resolution than the D1 and D1H but less than the D1X. 4.1-megapixel is low by today’s standards but for an amateur like me, this is more than enough resolution. This lower resolution is optimised at that time for sports and action shooting and is capable of capturing 8 frames per second (fps) for up to 40 frames. The D2X, while identical in appearance to the D2H, had more resolution (12.2-megapixels) and is optimised for more detailed photos.

Nikon F that took a bullet in Vietnam. Probably still took photos looking at where it got hit!

Knowing that these were journalism cameras and they are beat up meant that they have had heavy use over the years. However, I have great faith in Nikon pro-level cameras. They have been used by journalists and professional photographers all over the world, have been abused, dropped into raging rivers, knocked around in weightless space, dropped from heights and they still kept taking photos. They have even saved lives of photo-journalists.

After the cameras’ arrival and charging up the batteries with my own MH-21 battery charger, 3 of the of the D2H’s worked as they should but the fourth was completely dead.

One of the cameras had a sticker with the words “Intelligencer” on it. Curious as to what newspaper this was, I searched the internet for newspapers around Willow Grove. The Intelligencer is a daily newspaper published in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (12 miles from Willow Grove). These D2H’s have had a good working life and I guess the newspaper felt it was time to retire them. Also I guess the photo-journalists now prefer to use today’s newer full-frame D4’s and D5’s.

Digital cameras are like laptops, once a new model comes out with better specs (higher mega-pixel count, larger buffer, faster frame-rate), the price of the older model goes down really quickly. After cleaning and retouching the paint on the working D2H’s, I must say that I am very pleased with my $35 D2H’s!

Nikon D2H with a manual focus Nikkor AI 50mm f1.8 lens (taken by another D2H)
Everything functions as they should!

Nikon EN-4 Battery Lithium-Ion Conversion

I used to have two Nikon D1-series cameras – a Nikon D1 and a D1X. These, along with the D1H, were the first Nikon pro-level digital cameras – essentially Nikon F5 bodies with digital innards. These cameras were powered by the Nikon rechargeable nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) EN-4 battery.

Large and heavy, these batteries were also infamous for not keeping a charge after they have been used for a while. They were a bane for photographers using the D1 series cameras as they had to carry 3 to 4 of these heavy batteries on a photographic outing as these batteries were, on an average, good for about 300 shots each.

That was 20 years ago, the D1 series have long been superseded by newer models of Nikon pro-level digital cameras – D2 series and the latest of the pro-models, the D5. Nikon, cognizant of the shortcomings of the NiMH batteries, replaced the batteries of the new models with more reliable lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries.

I recently bought a 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1H camera on eBay for $50. $50 is a cheap way to shoot with a pro-level Nikon camera, albeit 2.7 megapixels. It came with 2 Nikon EN-4’s and 1 after market EN-4. One of the Nikon EN-4’s was dead – the charger couldn’t revive it anymore. I had seen another seller on eBay offering a Nikon D1X with a Li-Ion converted EN-4 battery. First time I had seen one of these and it looked like a good way to extend the shooting stamina of the D1H. I decided to play Dr.Frankenstein and revive the dead EN-4 that I had!

Scouring the internet, I came across a few posts describing how these batteries could be converted. The EN-4 could be configured in different ways but fundamentally the NiMH batteries in the plastic EN-4 casing had to be replaced with two 18650 Li-Ion batteries. 18650 batteries are so called because they are 18mm in diameter and 65mm in length. Each are rated at 3.7V with varying capacity (mAh) depending on the manufacturer. The Nikon EN-4’s were rated at 7.2V and 2000mAh. Two 18650 batteries will provide 7.4V which is enough to power the D-series Nikon cameras.

So I set out to buy the 18650 batteries and charger on Amazon. I settled on 4 Samsung 18650 Li-Ion batteries rated at 3.7V and 2500mAh each. While I waited for the items to arrive from Amazon, I started disassembling the EN-4.

Using a Stanley knife, I started scoring along the joint lines of the EN-4 casing on the sides, being careful not to cut myself. After scoring for about 15mins, I could start seeing the blue NiMH batteries inside the casing.

Finally able to open up the casing by cutting across the battery compartment, the NiMH cells were exposed. The NiMH cells (six of them) were stuck firmly to the casing with double sided tape. Needed to remove those slowly.

The six batteries are connected in series. To unravel the battery arrangement, I cut the black wire near where it is soldered to the last cell at the negative end of the series.

The six NiMH cells arranged in a line on their series connections. The cut black wire (on the left) is connected to the negative terminal of the EN-4 battery pack. The other wire is connected to the charging socket of the EN-4 battery pack. I left this alone.

Next I set out to disconnect the piece of metal strip soldered onto the positive end of the cell series. This was corroded (white corrosion) as seen above, rendering the EN-4 battery pack dead. Interestingly, despite this first cell being dead, the remaining five battery cells were each carrying an approximate 1.2V charge.

I slowly scraped off the corrosion and cut away the micro-solders of the metal strip from the cell. This metal strip will serve later as the positive terminal connection of the 18650 Li-Ion cells.

After cleaning up my work space, I am left with 2 halves of the EN-4 battery shell. This will form the “battery holder” for the two 18650 Li-Ion cells.

While waiting for the Samsung 18650 Li-Ion cells and charger to arrive in the post, I decided to disassemble a “dead” Nikon EN-EL4a Li-Ion battery pack that I had. The following day embarked on opening up the EN-EL4a.

Removing the Li-Ion cells from the EN-EL4a casing was much more difficult because of the tight space within this compact battery pack. Lo and behold, there were three 18650 Li-Ion battery cells in a EN-EL4a pack giving it an 11.1V 2500mAh rating, as I suspected (3.7V x 3).

Like the EN-4 battery that I disassembled, one of the three Li-Ion batteries was dead while the other 2 still carried a charge. By this time, the 18650 battery charger had arrived but the Samsung batteries were still a couple of days behind. I charged the 2 that still carried a charge and fully charged they carried about 4V each.

With the 2 Nikon 18650 cells at hand, I started on completing the project.

First I removed the springs and backing from a couple of AA cell holders. These will serve as the connectors for the 18650 cells in the EN-4 casing.

Soldered the previously cut black “negative” terminal wire from the original NiMH cells to an AA spring and its backing (cut to fit in the EN-4 casing). This wire is connected to the circuit board of the EN-4 battery pack which I did not disassemble.

This backing with its spring is then glued to the EN-4 casing forming the negative terminal. The metal strip that was disconnected from the “corroded” positive terminal of the NiMH cell series forms the positive terminal. This metal strip is also connected to the circuit board.

Throughout the project, I kept on the white terminal plastic cover of the EN-4 casing as much as possible to protect the small protrusion at the end of the casing from breaking accidentally. This small protrusion deactivates a switch in the camera battery chamber. If this is broken, the switch is not deactivated and the battery pack will not work.

The Nikon Li-Ion 18650 battery cells are placed in the EN-4 casing to check the position for the connecting board on the other end.

I cut two 16mm diameter wood dowels to form the base support for the cell connecting board. The board is made up of the plastic backing from the 3-cell AA holder with one spring for the negative end connector and an aluminium metal strip constructed from a Diet Coke can to form the positive end connector.

Each dowel has 2 grooves cut into the base to accommodate plastic protrusions on the inside of the casing. The connecting board fits perfectly between the plastic protrusion (to fit the bottom screw of the EN-4 cover plate) and the adjacent plastic divider in the casing.

This cell arrangement provided 7.86V, higher than the NiMH EN-4 rating of 7.2V. However, this apparently is still safe for the camera circuits from my research on the internet.

Before glueing the pieces together, I tested this battery pack in the D1H. Carefully inserting it into the battery chamber of the camera and turning it on, both top plate and back LCDs show their customary readings and the monitor reads as normal. More importantly, the shutter fires! Hooray!

Taking the pack out from the camera, the dowels and backing are then glued into position with super-glue.

The electrical connection on the board is formed by connecting the aluminium strip to the spring. This worked fine before glueing the strip to the board but once I glued the strip, the connection no longer worked. I surmised this was due to super-glue creeping up between the metal strip and the spring by capillary action and forming a thin “insulating” barrier when it hardened. To restore the electrical connection, I later had to solder in a connecting wire. In future, I would use a small round head screw, screwed to the dowel through the board as the positive connector and connect this to the spring by wire. No glue.

Once the components were glued in position and electrical connections restored, the top half of the casing is readied for re-assembly. Because the 18650 Li-Ion cells are slightly wider in diameter than the NiMH cells, the top half of the casing cannot fit back without removing the sides of the top casing to expose the Li-Ion cells. Once this is done to measurement (and covering the dowels for esthetics), the halves are glued together.

The finished product with the Nikon 18650 cells inserted.

The Franken Li-Ion EN-4 next to another dead Nikon NiMH EN-4.

The Franken EN-4 weighs approximately 150 grams compared to the original EN-4’s 250 grams. Approximately 100 grams less.

Li-Ion Franken EN-4

With the new Samsung 18650 cells and a combined total of 5000mAh of capacity – this Li-Ion Franken EN-4 battery pack has more capacity or juice to last longer and take more photos than the original NiMH EN-4.

Overall, a satisfying project to revive an old $50 Nikon pro-level camera.

Nikon FM SLR Family

My first fully mechanical SLR was a chrome Nikon FM2. I was attracted to the FM2 because of its all-mechanical construction and operation. In the late 80’s when I started taking photographs seriously, the rage was newer electronic models including autofocus. Silicon chips, personal computers and LCD readouts were getting popular. The age of the all mechanical cameras like the Pentax Spotmatics, Minolta SRTs, Canon FTbs, and Olympus OM-1s was now over. I had a Yashica FX-103 Program which was a gift from my mother. It was a fully electronic camera with an electronic shutter. It was idiot proof for a novice like me. Just set it in Program or Program-Hi (for “fast” moving subjects) mode, the camera sets the aperture and shutter speed automatically for a “correct” exposure. Soon I learnt that there was more to capturing light than Program or Program-Hi modes. I became fascinated by those mechanical SLRs of years past.

Nikon FM2 sales brochure

I decided to buy a Nikon FM2. After all they were the perfectionist’s Nikon. How could I resist a sales pitch like that? In those days in the 80’s, there was no eBay or even the internet! I scoured the camera shops in Sydney looking for a used FM2. Eventually in March 1989, I saw a chrome one sitting in the window of a shop with a price tag of A$695. I bought it.

Back home, I started tinkering with it. It was light about 540g (without lens). The serial number on the back of the top-plate started with an N (N7634115) making it a Nikon FM2n. Interestingly, the shutter-blades had a honey-comb pattern. I found out decades later that these shutters were made of titanium and because they were thin, the honey-comb pattern was to give the titanium blades a greater degree of rigidity.

Honey-comb titanium shutter blades

These shutters were able to achieve a shutter speed of 1/4000 seconds – very high for the mechanical cameras of the day. Early shutters were made from titanium; however, from 1989, for the FM2n, manufacturing technology had advanced sufficiently to allow for aluminum to be used.

Chrome Nikon FM2

The Nikon FM2 is a delight to take photos with. The viewfinder has red LED lights indicating exposure with +/0/- as you adjusted the aperture and shutter speed. It is very intuitive without you having to take your eyes away from the viewfinder. The mechanical mechanism makes a nice whirling sound especially at low shutter speeds and when using the mechanical self timer. You don’t get this with fully electronic cameras.

Coogee Sunrise, Sydney 1989

In 2002, I bought a black FM2n (serial number N7711819). By that serial number, more than 77,000 production units later, the titanium honey-comb shutter blades had been replaced by aluminium ones without the honey-comb pattern. I sold the chrome FM2n 4 months later.

Later in my photo gear journey, I added the Nikon FM and Nikon FM3A to the Nikon FM family.

Black Nikon FM with a Nikkor AIS 50mm f1.8
Nikon FM3A with a Nikkor AIS 50mm f1.4
The Nikon FM3A on a MD-12 Motordrive

Nikon F3 SLR

The Nikon F3. Step beyond the ordinary.

Inside cover of the Nikon F3 brochure of the 80’s

These words greeted you the moment you turned the cover page of the Nikon F3 advertising brochure of the 80’s. In the background you see a silhouette of a stylish black Nikon camera with the designation F3 and a glimpse of a red line. Almost like a sports car and yes, as everyone in the photo industry knows, it was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, a famous Italian car and industrial designer. Enough to make me drool! I had to get my hands on one.

The Nikon F3 with a AS-4 flash coupler

In 1989, I bit the bullet and got one in the used market for A$799. It is a nice camera to hold and to operate. The moment you hold it, it becomes very evident that this is a quality pro-level camera. The film advance level is silky smooth. Even the shutter firing feels smooth. It had all the features for a pro-user. While it employed an electronic horizontal curtain shutter, there was the ability to fire the shutter mechanically at around 1/60th of a second when the batteries are dead or the camera is turned off. On the other hand, my first camera, the Yashica FX-103 Program, also with an electronic shutter, couldn’t fire if the batteries are dead. This was a difference between the pro-level F3 SLR and the consumer-level FX-103 SLR – the pros couldn’t afford to lose a shot because of dead batteries.

One drawback was the lack of a flash hot-shoe on the F3. To mount a flash, you had to use the dedicated Nikon AS-4 flash coupler mounted over the ISO dial of the camera. This made it cumbersome to access the ISO dial and rewind knob. The flash coupler had to be removed before rewinding the film.

The Nikon F3HP with a Nikkor 50mm f1.4 AI lens

Built for professional photographers, the F3 is modular. The prism housing/viewfinder is easily detached from the body and interchangeable with any of the 5 available: DE-2, DE-3, DA-2, Dw-3, DW-4. The DE-3 is also known as the High-Eyepoint (HP) viewfinder.

Coupled with the Nikon MD-4 motordrive, the camera is capable of a 4 frames per second continuous mode which made it a favourite with sports photographers in the 80’s.

The F3 with the MD-4 Motordrive

In the era of quick digital photography and new digital cameras, the F3 is now more a curiosity for camera collectors or gear acquisition syndrome folks. For a camera that debuted in 1980 with a list price of $1.174.90 (with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4), in 2019, one can purchase a F3 body for about $150 to $200 on eBay.

Sydney Harbour, Australia 1989 taken with a Nikon F3

Put a roll of film in an F3 and take a walk with it – it is still a tactile pleasure for me to crank the smooth film advance lever and press on the button to release the shutter of the F3. I’ve had great times and pictures with the F3.