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The EM accepts nearly all lenses with the Nikon F bayonet mount (introduced in 1959) supporting the Automatic Indexing (AI) feature (introduced in 1977). The contemporary Nikon made AI lenses were the Nikkor AI-S, Nikkor AI and Nikon Series E types. The AF-S Nikkor, AF-I Nikkor, AF Nikkor D and AF Nikkor autofocus lenses are also AI types. Nikon’s most recent 35 mm film SLR lenses, the AF Nikkor G type (introduced in 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. 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.
Beginning in 1977 with the advanced amateur Nikon FM, there was a complete overhaul of the entire Nikon SLR line. The 1970s and 1980s were an era of intense competition between the major SLR brands: Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax and Olympus. Between circa 1975 to 1985, there was a dramatic shift away from heavy all-metal manual mechanical camera bodies to much more compact bodies with integrated circuit (IC) electronic automation. In addition, because of rapid advances in electronics, the brands continually leap frogged each other with models having new or more automatic features. The industry was trying to expand out from the saturated high-end professional market and appeal to the large mass of low-end amateur photographers who were itching to move up from compact automatic leaf-shutter rangefinder (RF) cameras to an SLR, but were intimidated by the need to learn the details of operating a traditional SLR.
Although Nippon Kogaku enjoyed a sterling reputation among professional photographers with their Nikon F2 of 1971, the F2 was a slow seller to most amateurs and beginners, being fairly bulky, expensive, and complicated. Although the Nikon midlevel Nikkormat FT (1965) and EL (1972) camera series were made almost as well as the Nikon F and F2, their relatively high price turned amateurs away from the brand, who instead flocked to cheaper models from other manufacturers.
The Nikon EM formed the base of the new line. It was the smallest and cheapest SLR ever made by Nippon Kogaku. It was a battery-powered (two S76 or A76, or one 1/3N) electromechanically controlled manual focus SLR. The EM featured a lightweight and compact hybrid copper aluminum alloy body and fiberglass reinforced polycarbonate plastic top and bottom covers, plus aperture priority semiautomatic exposure control governed by a built-in 60/40 percent centerweighted, silicon photodiode light meter. A left side viewfinder galvanometer needle pointer indicated the exposure on a shutter speed scale. The viewfinder also had Nikon’s standard 3 mm split image rangefinder and 1 mm microprism collar focusing aids, but the focus screen was fixed. The viewfinder is dimmer than those in the semi-professional Nikons since the expensive prisms of the latter were not used. The camera is also fitted with a low-light exposure warning in the form of an audible 'beep'.
Accessories for the EM included a highly automated dedicated electronic flash unit, the Nikon SB-E (guide number 56/17 (feet/meters) at ASA 100) and a very small power winder, the Nikon MD-E (motorized film advance at 2 frames per second). However, the star of the E-system were a new brand of lenses – the Nikon Series E lenses (discontinued circa 1987). The Series E lens line up in 1980 were a 28 mm f/2.8 wide angle, a 35 mm f/2.5 semi-wide angle, a 50 mm f/1.8 normal, a 100 mm f/2.8 short telephoto and a 75–150 mm f/3.5 zoom, with the subsequent addition of a 70–210 mm f/4 zoom, and a 135 mm f/2.8 medium telephoto. These lenses were intended to enhance the EM’s appeal with new users, by being inexpensive but good quality alternatives to the pricey regular Nikkor branded lenses.
The EM also had one very rare feature for an electronically controlled camera. Nippon Kogaku’s philosophy that a camera must always work when called upon resulted in the EM’s backup ability to operate without batteries – albeit in a limited fashion: completely manual mechanical control with limited shutter speeds (1/90 second, marked M90, or Bulb) and without the light meter. (A little-known feature of the EM is that when the battery is removed, the "Auto" setting produces a shutter speed of approximately 1/1000 sec. This is documented in the factory repair manual.)
The EM and its attendant E-system accessories were Nippon Kogaku’s first attempt to reach the low end of the SLR market. Called internally “the Nikon for women”, the EM was designed to provide style (exterior contours sculpted by Italian automobile stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro), convenience (a system of dedicated accessories), ease of use (as much automation as possible in 1979), low cost (simplified manufacturing process) and the prestige of the Nikon name (prominently displayed on the pentaprism housing) for initiates to SLR-dom.
Unfortunately, the Nikon EM and its later offshoots (FG, FG-20) proved to be a sales and marketing failure for Nikon. Older Nikon owners refused to countenance the cheap internal construction and lack of manual mode flexibility of the EM. The expected female beginner photography market also failed to appear, as tyro photographers (including women) rejected the implicit condescension of an aperture-priority only EM, and voted with their wallets in favor of higher-priced Nikons or the extra features of less-expensive Canon and Minolta cameras.
Despite its cheaper construction quality, the EM has proved to be as reliable over the years as its more expensive Nikon counterparts of the era. A set of less expensive lenses marketed with the camera's introduction (Series E) also came in for heavy criticism, and Nikon soon dropped the entire line. Although the Series E lenses were unpopular with Nikon buyers, several of the Series E lenses exhibited excellent performance, particularly the 50 mm f/1.8 (pancake), the 100 mm f/2.8, and the 75–150 mm constant f/3.5 zoom. The relatively low prices of the EM/FG family and the Series E lenses in the used equipment market make them good bargains in terms of price/performance.