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Camera Reviews

The Nikon EM Review

Mike Graham (Merlin)

Keywords: older, nikon, em, bodies, camera, film

This article was orginally written by late member Mike Graham (Merlin) and we on the team keep it online for us all to enjoy and have as a reference. Enjoy!



(Updated 21-JAN-2021, originally written by Merlin) At first glance, the Nikon EM looks almost too simple to be taken seriously. It's tiny, uncluttered, and if you were to remove the NIKON logo off the pentaprism, you'd never guess who made it. To appreciate the true qualities of this superb little SLR, you need to take a deeper look.

Nikon EM

Merlin's Nikon EM body

Being a long time Nikon fan and owning an F3HP and a Nikkormat FT3, you might think I'm too biased to give a truly objective view - after all, this is an entry-level SLR, and there were plenty of similar cameras around to choose from at back in 1979 when the EM was introduced. But I bought my EM just because I wanted a Nikon that my wife could use, or to be kept in the car for emergencies. I wasn't doing it justice! 

Since the EM is aperture priority auto only - you set the lens aperture and the camera sorts out exposure for you - I was skeptical. No shutter control? No EV compensation? How can it possibly get me good slides? Well, it does, consistently and reliably. 

The first clue you get that this camera is indeed made of sterner stuff is when you cock the shutter. The unusual winding lever has a kind of knee joint that flips sweetly out when you use it and clicks back out of the way when you're done - a charming feature. You can also wind in several multiple strokes, and film transports smoothly. A light squeeze on the shutter button, and the meter comes on . A simple needle on the left hand side of your viewfinder moves up and down the shutter speed scale. Speeds below 1/30th are shaded in red, to warn you you're risking camera shake, and if the needle goes into this area with your finger still on the button, you get a discrete acoustic warning, too -  a soft beep. Squeezing off the shot is predictable and smooth. 

Using the EM, you'll find the metering system does a startlingly good job of sorting out MOST situations, and for backlit subjects, a little button on the camera front (a bit awkward to use) slows the speed down two stops to compensate. 

The EM, in spite of Nikons use of polycarbonate for the top and bottom plate, feels solid and handles nicely, even if you have banana fingers like me. You never get the feeling you've got a cheapie in your hands. Not a Nikon for the purists, but a true Nikon nevertheless. 

A pessimist would list all the things you cant do with the EM, but it's much fairer to judge what it can. For very little money, you get a no-frills SLR, delightfully easy to use, that will produce consistently good results for most situations. The EM can even be motorized, either with the respectably fast 3.2 fps MD-14 or a slower 2 fps winder. But by adding a motor you lose the advantage of a small camera, and it becomes as bulky as any other powered SLR. For more "professional" features like depth of field preview, manual speed control, EV compensation, mirror lock and so on, you really need a different camera. But for the ability to take good photos without a lot of fuss, it's unbeatable. It works with most of the AI-Nikkor lenses (some special wide angles need a mirror lock and would damage the camera) and Nikon introduced the E series lenses at about the same time - a low budget alternative. It won't, however, work with the older non-AI lenses with the prong coupling, and attempting to mount one could screw up the meter coupling on the bayonet. 

By the way, a reader asked me about the silver rewind knob - I think it's an unpainted original, but it must be the result of a repair long ago before I got it. Neat, eh? Normally they come in black. 

Definitely a camera worth owning! For less than the price of a good coffee machine...




A second review on the Nikon EM

By J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) -- Updated 15-JUN-2016

Released in the spring of 1979, at 1 lb. 2 oz. or 460 g in weight, this camera was not only lighter than any of its predecessors and somewhat smaller; it was also inexpensive and quite uncomplicated. Designed for mass marketing and intended to appeal to new photographers, its simplified operation was a delight while sharing the same ruggedness and reliability of the well proven F Pro Series and the Nikkormat Series (Nikomat in Japan), with a die-cast aluminum alloy chassis.


Nikon EM with 50mm f/1.8 E lens


This was a 35mm film camera, 24x36mm reflex with a built-in center-weighted light meter with a sensitivity range of EV 2 to 18, using one SPD cell. The meter range was from 25 to 1600 ASA (now ISO).

The shutter stepless speed range was from 1 to 1/1000s and a Bulb electronic setting. The shutter was a vertical travel metal focal plane type.

It could use either of two motor film winders, the MD-E (2 frames per second or fps, with 6 AAA batteries) and the not so preferred due to its weight, the MD-14 (3 fps, with 8 AA batteries), later introduced for the Nikon FG.

With an aperture priority auto exposure, the shutter speed match-needle scale was visible on the viewfinder and it had an audible and annoying warning alarm when the exposure was incorrect or the shutter speed too low to make crisp images when handholding (under 1/30s). I also had a self-timer that first engages the mirror to lock up before starting.

It was great to have a very advanced for its time automatic backlight compensation button. When pressed, it automatically added two stops to the exposure, without the compensation dial other cameras had.

The very clever Nikon engineers also stripped this body of some features correctly deemed unnecessary for fun shooting. It had no mirror up mechanism (except in Bulb, considering this shutter setting would be used on a tripod for long exposures). It had no depth of field button. It had no interchangeable screens.


Cover of the NIKON EM Automatic Ultra Compact brochure - 1980.


Flash synchronization was through its electronic hot shoe at a single speed: 1/90s (M90), its flash unit was the SB-E. Powered by four AA batteries and delivering a guide number of 56 feet (17 meters). Flash operation is semi-automatic. When using the SB-E, the hot shoe transmits the film speed and aperture information to the flash. When the flash is on, it automatically sets the camera exposure to the M90 setting (1/90s) and activates an LED in the viewfinder. All the photographer needed to do was to set the f/stop within the scale in the back of the flash and the SB-E did the rest. If the LED blinked, the exposure was insufficient.

This camera was typically paired with the inexpensive 50mm f/1.8E. Also available for it were the 35mm f/2.5E and the 100mm f/2.8E.  Other lenses added later were the 28mm f/2.8E, 135mm f/2.8E and three zooms: 36-72mm f/3.5E, 75-150mm f/3.5E and 70-210mm f/4E. It can also take any other AI and AI-S lenses.

I bought a Nikon EM in Japan for my son when he was 9 years old and he both used it extensively and loved it. The lens we both liked most was the 75-150mm f/3.5 E as in the sample shot below. 


Image illuminated with yellow lightbulbs for bugs at a hunting cabin in 1979


The Nikon EM camera was very successful for a while, and then seemed to fade away into the horizon, mostly because the poor reputation of the E lenses amongst professionals, lenses not bearing the Nikkor name. Yet, its easy operation, light weight and remarkable reliability made it resurge decades later, and was often found in the hands of film shooting pros, even today.

One time-blurred important contribution of this camera and its lenses is that their successful sales at large scale helped to fund the next generation of bodies and optics at a critical time for Nippon Kogaku.

I wish we still had ours. My son lent it to a friend and never saw it again.
He was and remains a good friend, but boys are … boys.

Discussions on the Nikon EM

We discuss Nikon EM and other manual fokus Nikon cameras in our Nikon Manual Camera forum.



(3 Votes )

Originally written on September 10, 2002

Last updated on January 26, 2021


J.P.M. Driessen (johnnie5) on August 24, 2021

I just got one as a gift, with a f2 lens and Ai kit. What a wonderful camera, light, compact. My 2 brothers in law and I plan to shoot each a roll in black and white, all three with old film-cameras, rent a studio to develop and print them the old way . Yes, that was on my bucket-list ;-) John

User on December 31, 2019

”I wanted a Nikon that my wife could use”

Sandor Kovacs Jr. (LAZ2) on July 14, 2019

Just joined & am glad we did - a round square in a stretching frame!

Craig Piburn (CraigPiburn) on January 14, 2018

Hey Mike, nice information on the EM. Mine also has a silver rewind knob.

User on March 3, 2016

It's a nice enough camera, when it works. Problems arise in this model as it ages and gets used, due to the low quality of its internal parts. Things that don't wear out on other cameras will wear out on this one due to their construction of plastic or even cheaper materials. They also suffer from a lack of repairability.

David Bryan Lackey (dbl_gt) on March 15, 2015

Thanks, Mike... It has been so long I don't remember my first experience with an EM. But your review has rekindled my interest. Maybe I should pick up one again just to keep in my pocket!

Ian Doig (IanLD) on August 31, 2014

My first SLR. Really liked my EM and really sorry when it got stolen. Good review and brought back many memories.

User on May 30, 2013

I just bought a house and the previous owner, emigrating, left me his cameras "to dump". I'm not an expert but one is an EM (another is an EL) which I find quite delightful and am amazed that it was marketed as a cheap camera. Light and compact I agree with all you say Mike. I just love SLRs, can appreciate the massive quality of Nikons such as the F, but to me this EM has it's own special, handy, usable niche. Bit like a second mini car for inner city use.

Emory Hall (ehall) on January 28, 2013

Hi Mike Thanks for the review, and I want one also, see now why some people have so much equipment.