It has been a long time since I shot with film. My last film camera was a Canon IXUS, an automatic compact which took APS film 20 years ago. Though I have always had a camera to hand since I was a small boy I was strictly a point and shoot photographer until I moved to digital, and didn’t move to an SLR until after I had turned to digital. Recently, whilst staying with friends in Stockholm, I came across an Aladdin’s cave of a camera shop, which had a number of film cameras for sale, including Kodak Instamatics, Rolleiflex TLRs and Nikon SLRs, including several F3 models, some fitted with external motor drives. The Nikon F3 model I picked out was somewhat worn and had a hole in the bottom of the body (which I later discovered was due to a missing motor drive coupling cover) but I was very taken with it and bought it on impulse together with some Ilford black and white film.
That evening I did a bit of research and discovered that the F3, the successor to the legendary F and F2, was the last of the manual-focus, pro 35mm SLR cameras; it was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001. Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries. This dependance on the battery power was initially quite controversial and adoption was not universal amongst Nikon professional shooters. Those fears turned out to be unfounded as the F3 turned out to be of the same bulletproof nature as the F and F2 and very reliable.
The F3 was styled by Italian design genius Giorgetto Giugiaro who styled the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone (1960), the Aston Martin DB4 GT Bertone ‘Jet‘ (1961) as well as motorcycles and firearms. It was the first Nikon to use a red accent – in this case a vertical red line near the hand grip – which has subsequently become an integral part of the design language of Nikon cameras. The dials on the top plate were familiar looking to me as I have been using the retro styled digital Nikon Df for some time.
As the F3 is electronically controlled it offers aperture-priority automation as well as manual operation. The metering system is TTL and reads the light over the entire focusing screen but 80% of metering sensitivity is set to the central 12mm area, whilst the outer area of the screen only gets 20% consideration. As I am completely accustomed to matrix metering, this might require some change of technique to get accurate exposures. There is a small LCD readout that shows the shutter speed. The camera is of modular design, which enables a wide choice of focusing screens and finders. The electronically controlled shutter is of the horizontal-travel focal-plane type and is made of titanium.
Before I could get to use my new purchase I needed to get it serviced and replace the missing motor drive coupling cover. Reading a little more I learned that my camera was fitted with an unusual focusing screen, a plain matte screen which lacked the usual split image rangefinder spot. The F3 can take over 20 types of screens and mine was apparently fitted with a Type D, which is used for close ups and for use with long lenses. I called Greys of Westminster and ordered the more usual Type K type screen and a new coupling cover and took the body into my local camera shop, imagex, who sent it away for a much needed service, which cost a very reasonable £69.
Once the camera was back I bought some Ilford HP5 400 film and headed for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I shot some of the statues in various galleries, whilst I also visited the excellent Paul Strand photographic exhibition. The shooting experience is good on the Nikon F3, especially the manual focusing, but I did have a few exposure issues. I probably could have pushed the film speed of the HP5 further than I did, but I put that down to experience. I also kept looking at the back of the camera to see what I had shot, only to be greeted by cardboard film type insert on the camera back. My first keeper is shown above – I really like the grain and the tone of film and plan to continue to experiment with it.