The FE was the replacement for Nikon EL2 of 1977 and a member of the classic Nikon compact F-series. It used a compact but rugged copper aluminum alloy chassis developed from the one introduced by Nippon Kogaku in the Nikon FM in 1977, and with minor external controls and cosmetic differences. (The landmark Olympus OM-1 had introduced in 1972 an innovative compact body design that captured the camera buying public's imagination. Its impact swept through the industry and compact bodies became the norm for SLRs for a dozen years.)
The Nikon compact F-series SLRs were moderately priced, semi-professional level stablemates to Nippon Kogaku's premium priced, professional level Nikon F2 (introduced 1971) and F3 (1980) SLRs. They were all-new successors to Nippon Kogaku's Nikkormat F and EL-series of amateur level SLRs. With their quality construction, impressive durability and evolutionary technical innovation, the F-series were very popular with professional photographers, who prized their durability and ability to operate in extreme environments.
The FM/FE chassis proved to be remarkably long-lived. Nippon Kogaku/Nikon used it, with incremental improvements, as the backbone of the compact F-series from 1977 to 2006. The other members of the compact F-series are the Nikon FM2 (introduced in 1982), FE2 (1983), FA (1983) and the limited production Nikon FM3A (2001).
The original Nikkor "non-AI" (introduced before 1977) lenses, will mount but require stop down metering. Nikon's most recent 35 mm film SLR lenses, the AF Nikkor G type (2000) lacking an aperture control ring; and the AF Nikkor DX type (2003) with image circles sized for Nikon's digital SLRs will mount but will not function properly. A few exotic lenses from the 1960s requiring mirror lockup and all IX Nikkor lenses (1996) for Nikon's Advanced Photo System (APS) film SLRs, must not be mounted, as their rear elements will intrude far enough into the mirror box to cause damage.
During the late 1970s, Nippon Kogaku manufactured approximately 55 Nikkor non-AI and Nikkor AI type lenses. They ranged from a Fisheye-Nikkor 6 mm f/2.8 220˚ circular fisheye to a Reflex-Nikkor 2000 mm f/11 super-long mirror telephoto. This was the largest and widest ranging lens selection in the world by far.
Major accessories for the FE included the Nikon MD-12 motor drive (automatic film advance up to 3.5 frames per second), the Nikon MF-12 databack (time or date stamping on the film), and the Nikon Speedlight SB-10 electronic flash (guide number 82/25 (feet/meters) at ASA 100).
As an almost-all-metal, electromechanically (some electronics, but largely springs, gears and levers) controlled, manual focus SLR with manual exposure control or aperture priority autoexposure, the FE required batteries (two S76 or A76, or LR44 or SR44, or one 1/3N) to power its electronically controlled shutter. The batteries also powered the FE's "match-needle" exposure control system. This consisted of two needles pointing along a vertical shutter speed scale on the left side of the viewfinder. In manual mode, a black needle pointed out the shutter speed recommended by the built-in, open aperture, through-the-lens (TTL), silicon photodiode (SPD) light meter, with its classic Nikon 60/40 percent centerweighting, while a translucent green needle showed the actual camera set shutter speed. The photographer would adjust the shutter speed to freeze or blur motion and/or the lens aperture f-stop to control depth of field (focus) until the needles aligned.
In automatic mode, the FE's black needle indicated the shutter speed automatically set by the electronic circuitry in response to the light reaching the meter. The green needle just indicated that the FE was in "A" mode. This system can be traced back to the Nikkormat EL (in the USA/Canada; Nikomat EL, rest of the world) of 1972 and continued until 2006 with the Nikon FM3A.
The FE's auto-exposure lock mechanism is activated by pushing and holding the timer shutter release lever toward the lens mount; even though the exposure is fixed to the state of the instant the lever is pushed, the black shutter speed needle in the viewfinder does not reflect this and moves freely.
The FE had a "full information" viewfinder. In addition to the metering shutter scale, the viewfinder also displayed the set lens aperture and had a flash "ready" LED to give context to the metering needles. The viewfinder also introduced interchangeable focusing screens to the compact F-series: the standard Nikon Type K screen (3 mm split image rangefinder and 1 mm microprism collar focusing aids plus 12 mm etched circle indicating the area of the meter centerweighting) could be replaced by Type B (central 3 mm focusing spot plus 12 mm etched circle) and Type E (Type B plus a grid of 5 horizontal and 3 vertical lines; called the "architectural screen") screens.
Although Nippon Kogaku enjoyed a sterling reputation among professional photographers with their Nikon F2 of 1971, the F2 was far too massive, expensive and complicated for most amateurs and beginners.
Nippon Kogaku chose an unusually high standard of workmanship for amateur level SLRs. It kept using high strength alloy parts, hardened metal gearing, ball bearing joints and gold plated electrical switches, all made to precise tolerances and largely hand assembled, in the Nikon compact F-series. As a result, the Nikon FE could endure conditions that would cause virtually all other contemporary non-professional level SLRs to break down. A higher price was considered a fair trade for impressive durability.
The Nikon FE was a conservative design compared to its competitors. It can be described as a twin of the Nikon FM mechanical (springs, gears, levers) camera with precision electronic controls grafted on. Its unusual roots were most obvious in its backup ability to operate without batteries - albeit in a very limited fashion: completely manual mechanical control with two shutter speeds (1/90th second, marked M90, or Bulb) and without the light meter.
The FE's deliberately limited but tightly focused features were not intended to appeal to snapshooters with no intention of learning about shutter speeds and f-stops. Nippon Kogaku believed that advanced amateur photographers were not interested in every possible automated bell and whistle, but rather the highest possible quality and precision of control.
The Nikon FE was a good seller, but not as popular as more cheaply-built and less expensive competing autoexposure SLRs - for example, the Canon AE-1 (released 1976) or the Minolta XD11 (in the USA/Canada; XD7 in Europe; XD in Japan; 1976). Time has proven that Nippon Kogaku's choice of simplicity over gadgetry made the FE tough and reliable and it is now regarded as one of the finer SLRs of its generation.