It's easy to see why Nikon fans are such a devoted group. After testing the new Nikon FE mini-SLR, I'm dedicated, too - dedicated to the belief that Nikon builds tough, dependable, functional tools that any photographer would be proud to own.

The FE is Nikon's auto-exposure follow-up to its recently released FM, the first compact single-lens reflex bearing the Nikon name. Unlike the FM, though, the FE features aperture priority (set the lens aperture and the camera automatically selects the shutter speed) with manual override, an exposure-compensation selector to bias the exposure as much as two full stops beyond the meter reading and the memory lock that's been successful in other Nikons.

By pressing and holding a small lever on the front of the camera, you can lock in the exposure reading taken off the subject, then step back and shoot against a bright backlit sky - all in the automatic mode and with perfect results. The memory lock lever doubles as the self-timer and timer cancel switch - ingenious.

The FE has an ASA dial with ratings from 12 to 4,000 for further biasing the dual-silicon photo diode metering system. Shutter speeds range from 1/8th to 1/1,000th of a second (plus B and a manually operating 1/90th speed for continued operation even when the batteries fail). Finally - and perhaps best of all - the viewfinder features complete information so you never have to take your eye away from the camera.

The FE body sports an X-synch for electronic flash, as well as a hot shoe with safety lack - the shoe is activated only when the flash unit is in place. This latter feature, Nikon says, prevents the possiblity of "annoying, slight shock when shooting with a flash connected to the standard PC termainal." It's of dubious value at best, but it shows the fiendish ingenuity of those Nikon engineers.

Also on the body is a depth-of-field preview lever, a film memo clip for, reminding you of the film type in the camera and a film-advance lever that doubles as the meter on/off switch. A double-exposure mechanism disengages the film counter so you always know how many frames you've shot when double exposing.

An integral part of the Nikon FE is the newly designed MD-11 motor drive unit, a front-grip unit with continuous or single setting and shutter-release button built in the handle. The unit itself is comfortably light-weight, despite the fact that it takes eight AA-size batteries for up to a hundred rolls of 36-exposure film. The unit's base features an on/off switch, an LED indicator, film-rewind switch, and the easiest attaching mechanism of any unit on the market (tied, perhaps, with Konica's) - two large, knurled thumb knobs that do the job in five seconds. The battery pack is similarly easy to remove, and you can buy spare packs for quick changeover in the field - especially useful when shooting in sub-zero temperatures when battery life is greatly diminished.

In the field, the Nikon FE with MD-11 motor drive was sheer poetry. Shooting at speeds of up to 3 1/2 frames per second, there was little the camera could not capture. Set on auto and utilizing Nikon's time-tested center-weighted metering system, even mildly backlit subjects were perfectly exposed shot after shot. That fact, combined with the small size and light weight of the FE, makes it s perfect camera for the pro seeking to expand his system, as well as for the beginner looking for a rugged, foolproof camera that will deliver quality from the very first frame. Who could ask for more?

Suggested list price for the Nikon FE black body, $480; 55-mm Micro-Nikkor f/3.5 macro lens, $302.50; MD-11 motor drive, $259.