As a Nikon user and collector, I’ve noticed quite a few Nikon film cameras appearances in the movies and on TV shows. This short article outlines those appearances. I’ve also written in more detail about the Nikon F’s appearance in one of the all time great movies – Apocalypse Now and there is an equivalent article on Leica M cameras in the movies.
“The Nikon F reinforced its reputation and established itself as modern design icon through its starring roles in films such as Blow-Up, with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in London; Apocalypse Now with Dennis Hopper as a Photojournalist; and, later, with Clint Eastwood as National Geographic photographer in The Bridges of Madison County.”
Nikon SLRs in Movies
Beyond those described above, the Nikon F series Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras appeared in several movies, including more greats like Full Metal Jacket and Taxi Driver. I found additional appearances from a little internet research, which revealed quite a few more. The Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 and F5 have all made appearances, but despite searching, I can’t find a movie with Nikon’s final pro SLR, the mighty Nikon F6 in it. Whilst I haven’t included TV, I am sure that my favourite TV detective, Columbo, used a Nikon F or F2 in one episode but I can find no reference to it. I suppose I will just have to watch every episode again… I am also yet to see another favourite, the Nikon FM3a on the screen, though the FM and FM2 have made appearances. With retro cameras becoming more popular its by no means impossible it’ll appear one day.
Lolita (1962, Nikon F1)
Blow-Up (1966 Nikon F)
The French Connection (1971, Nikon F Photomic)
Diamonds are Forever (1971, Nikon F)
The Killing Fields (1984, Nikon F)
Jaws (1975, Nikon F2)
Taxi Driver (1976, Nikon F2)
The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978, Nikon FM with MD motor-drive)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Nikon F)
Cannonball Run (1981, Nikon F)
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Nikon F)
Under Fire (1983, Nikon F2)
Ghostbusters (1984, Nikon FE2)
Full Metal Jacket (1987, Nikon F) Private Joker and Rafterman!
Gorillas in the Mist (1988, Nikon F)
Groundhog Day (1993, Nikon F Photomic)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Nikon F with S36 motor drive)
Heat (1995, Nikon F4)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Nikon F5)
Ronin (1998, Nikon FE2)
Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
City of God (2002, Nikon F)
Walk the Line (2005, Nikon F Photomic)
The Bang Bang Club (2010, Nikon FM2)
Batman v Superman (2016, Nikon S3 Y2K)
Ford v Ferrari (2019, Nikon F Photomic)
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Nikon F3 HP)
The First SLR?
Today many people think of the Nikon F as the first Single Lens Reflex camera, but it was actually the much less well known Ihagee (who made the Exakta VX Ihagee Dresden famously used in Rear Window) that manufactured the first 35mm SLR outside of prototypes. The F brought the innovations and features of earlier models into a single body so well that earlier models seem to have faded from consumer memory. Its effect on the camera market is similarly profound as it ended the dominance of German rangefinders from Zeiss and Leica. If you are interested in the history of photography there are a couple of comprehensive timelines on the site. From Chemistry to Computation is the timeline of the photographic process, whilst the Camera Timeline Year by Year describes camera introductions and innovations every year from 1900 to the present day.
My Nikon Film Cameras
Beyond Nikon Film cameras in the movies, I have a small collection of Nikons I enjoy shooting with. Some of which are reviewed on this site (The F6 and FM3a).
I have a late Nikon F from 1971 and it shoots very well. It has the original standard non-metered eye level finder, like the ones Dennis Hopper was carrying in Apocalypse Now. As much as I like an integrated light meter, the Photomic heads spoil the lines of the F too much so I use a hand held lightmeter. The Photomic heads are a little easier on the eye on the F2 and I have added a DP-12 Photomic head to my 1975 F2. I have a rather battered 1980 F3, which I bought in Sweden, and a 2004 F6, which I use a great deal. I also have an FM3a and FM2n, both of which are very lightweight and great to shoot with.
Other Classic Film Cameras in Movies
A huge number of film camera manufacturers have come and gone and their products have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of movies, but below are a few of the more notable ones. Of the models listed below, I have only shot with the Olympus OM-1, another game changing camera which began a shift towards more compact, lighter 35 mm SLRs, away from the increasing weight of the Nikon pro SLRs and back towards the smaller form factor that Leica had always delivered with rangefinders.
Though I don’t have any of the Rolleiflex models listed below (2.8F and T), I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1961 which I absolutely love, and is considered by many to be one of the finest film cameras ever made. The Rolleiflex uses 120 medium format film which produces huge and very detailed 6x6cm negatives. Shooting a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is an entirely different experience to shooting either an SLR or rangefinder, and though manual focus can be challenging, gazing at the world through that illuminated ground glass screen that sees the world back to front is absolutely entrancing.
This article started as a list of classic film cameras in movies, taken from my own observations and from internet research and focused largely on the cameras I shoot with – Nikon F SLRs and Leica M Rangefinders. As I sat down to write, I decided to focus on two of the greatest movies featuring photographers, Apocalypse Now and Rear Window, which happen to be two of my favourite films of all time. This took me on a voyage of discovery into the influences for the movies that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River in Apocalypse Now and provided the content for this blog.
In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays the photojournalist, an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from remote abandoned Cambodian temple. The photojournalist is nearly as unhinged as the man he admires – as his conversations with Willard (Martin Sheen) attest.
Willard : Could we, uh… talk to Colonel Kurtz? Photojournalist : Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…
Despite appearing in only three scenes, Hopper’s is one of the most intriguing characters in the sprawling story. Amongst the improvised hippy jive talk his dialogue is constructed from lines taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and poems from Rudyard Kipling and TS Elliot. The photojournalist, whose name is never revealed, also has an important role to play in revealing Kurtz’s plans for Willard.
Hopper’s photojournalist appears as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in photography gear, some of it visibly battered. The cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; by the look of them a fast 50mm, possibly a 105mm and a 200mm. The role was suggested to Coppola by the stills photographer on the set Chas Gerretsen on the basis that if he wanted to mock TV correspondents in South Vietnam he should create a photojournalist because “we were all crazy.” Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried a number Nikon F’s, and so the role was born, replacing Captain Colby, Kurtz’s right hand man, which Hopper had originally been cast as. Chas sold several of his old Nikon F cameras and lenses to the production company and they were used in the film.
Michael Herr, who collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now, undoubtedly had a strong influence on the portrayal of the Photojournalist. Herr is best known as author of the classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches and several scenes and pieces of dialogue used from that book were later used in Apocalypse Now and also Full Metal Jacket.
In Like (Sean) Flynn
Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War and new many of the photojournalists who covered the conflict. This included SeanFlynn, a man with one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war and the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol. Initially following in his fathers footsteps as an actor (his first film was Son of Captain Blood, sequel to his father’s classic Captain Blood), he abandoned the craft to start a new life in Vietnam as a combat photographer.
He exploits are truly intrepid. He shot his way out of an ambush with the Green Berets with an M16; incurred injuries from a grenade fragment in battle; made a parachute jump with an Airborne Division, and identified a mine whilst photographing troops, saving an Australian unit from potential destruction. Flynn used a Leica M2 in Vietnam, and it came to light, complete with a strap that fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin, just a few years ago.
In 1970 Flynn was captured by Viet Cong guerrillas at a checkpoint along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. The pair had elected to travel by motorbike rather than the limos the majority of photojournalists were travelling in. Neither he or Stone were never seen again and despite the efforts of his mother to find him Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984. Despite the continued efforts of friends and JPAC, the organization responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers, the fate of two remains unknown.
The Cultural References section of Flynn’s entry in Wikipedia references him as the basis for the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, though it is not substantiated. It is entirely possible however, as Flynn, along with Stone and Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. What is certain is that his story is told on the album Combat Rockby The Clash on the “Sean Flynn” track and a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011.
The Real Kurtz
The role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ (which included heads on sticks) was inspired by the character of the same name in Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, a book that impressed me hugely when I read it in my early twenties. What is less well known and is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ is another influence; CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmmong people into anti-communist guerillas.
The Wrath of Klaus Kinski
A huge influence and template for the Vietnam river epic is Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, starring a barely sane Klaus Kinski in the role of his life. The story follows the self styled ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’ Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, city of Gold.
It is an astonishing and spectacular film, described by Robert Egbert as is “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema”. Curiously, I did not make the connection with Apocalypse Now until researching this article, though now it seems obvious. Like Apocalypse Now, which was troubled by a heart attack, an overweight star, a mental breakdown and storms that destroyed the sets, the filming of Aguirre is the stuff of legend. Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to continue to act in the remote fever-ridden jungle district where the film was shot.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another of the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.
Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.
Inspirations for a Murderer
Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.
The Role of the Photographer
Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:
“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”
That Obscure Object of Desire
Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. Mounted on it was a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model, and collectively they are now known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and much desired by collectors. Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.
My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens
I have a 400mm lens also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller – just like this reviewer, who has includes a couple of great sample shots. Its an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, built like the proverbial tank with a 122mm filter ring and surgically sharp. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and even on a tripod it is so front heavy that on a ball head every adjustment is a bit of an adventure!
The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.
So far, I’ve mainly used it for moon shorts with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking. I’ve recently added a TC-301 to turn it into an 800mm f7 lens and a gimbal head to make it easier to shoot, but the moon has proved unusually elusive since then. If I was ever, like Jeff, confined to home for a long period and wanted to spy on my neighbours I think I would have to get a new lens. The beast is just too heavy for anything except tripod work.
It’s a Wrap – The Greatest Movies Featuring Photographers
As usual writing about the greatest movies featuring photographers turned out to be more informative than I expected. If I have missed any cameras or influences for Apocalypse Now or Rear Window you think I should include please leave me a comment.
The Nikon FM3A (often written as FM3a) is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made, and as a 21st century manual focus film SLR, somewhat of a throwback. It was introduced in July 2001 when the shift to digital cameras was well underway. The model was the last of Nikon’s semi-professional line of compact 35 mm film SLRs and one of the brand’s last film cameras; only the autofocus F6 SLR of 2004 and Nikon’s limited edition rangefinder swan song, the SP of 2005, came later.
The D1X, an improved version of Nikon’s first DSLR, the D1, was already out by the time the FM3A was launched. The retro looking FM3A sat on shelves in camera shops around the world next to the hulking digital flagship and autofocus film cameras such as the F5 and F100. Increasing digital camera sales, low sales volume and the increasing costs of such a mechanically sophisticated unit put paid to the FM3A in January 2006. This left only the Nikon F6 and the Nikon FM10 in Nikon’s 35mm film SLR line.
Nikon built the FM3A for serious amateur photographers who wanted a a high quality camera with full manual control. Personally, I am grateful for that. It may be a camera out of time, but it is an outstanding piece of engineering: compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with.
Evolution of the FM/FE Series
The first model of the mechanical Nikon FM series, the FM was introduced in 1977. Along with the electronic FE of 1978, the FM replaced the mechanical Nikkormat FT series and electronic Nikon EL series.
In 1983 Nikon introduced the mechanical FM2 with a honeycomb-pattern titanium curtain shutter that enabled a top shutter speed of 1/4000 sec and 1/200 sec for flash sync. The flash sync speed increased to 1/250, (identifiable by the flash sync speed labeled in red). This was a huge step forward compared to the FM’s 1/1000 sec. and 1/125 sec. The electronic Nikon FE2 followed later the same year. In 1989 the titanium shutter was replaced by an aluminium version – the FM2n – this is the version I have of the FM2.
Development of The Nikon FM3A
Development started in December 1998. Engineers from Mito Nikon (a Nikon production facility that had originally created the Nikkormat of the 1960s and later the F3, FM2n, F4, and others) joined forces with their counterparts at the Ohi Plant. The Ohi facility was the source of Nikon’s first cameras and early models such as the Nikon rangefinders and the Nikon F. Top engineers from these two facilities came together to form a project team.
The FM3A’s predecessor, the manual all-mechanical controlled ‘New FM2‘, had been a best-seller since its introduction in 1984. It was popular amongst experienced amateurs and some professionals, and offered shooting even when the battery was exhausted. At that time Nikon could see also increasing demand for the aperture-priority AE. The project team needed to produce a design that would reconcile these conflicting requirements. Eventually, in order to address the simultaneous availability of aperture-priority AE and battery-free shutter operation, the team decided to adopt a hybrid shutter design.
The hybrid shutter design meant that the shutter had to operate with two control systems. This resulted in a larger, more complicated shutter mechanism with more component parts . As the FM3A was the successor to the New FM2, a larger camera body was not acceptable, meaning the larger shutter unit had to be mounted in the limited space available. It was extremely difficult to develop a reliable shutter unit with such a complicated mechanism in such a limited space, and in the early stages the project team thought that the highest speed of 1/4000 second would be unattainable. However, after much development work the design was successfully realised.
Launch and Packaging
The Nikon FM3A was introduced in February 2001 at the PMA show in Orlando, Florida. Prior its introduction, Nikon customers had to choose between the mechanical FM model with manual exposure control or the electronic FE with aperture priority mode that wouldn’t work without batteries. After the FM3A became available photographers had the best of both worlds with a hybrid shutter that allows both electronically-controlled auto-exposure shooting and full manual control without the need for batteries.
The FM3A came in all black and silver and black. For the silver version there was a matching Nikkor 45mm pancake lens available at launch, which is shown in the picture above. The FM3A could make use of a range of accessories such as the Nikon MD-12 motor drive, the MF-16 databack and the various TTL flashes.
The Pancake Lens
In July 2001, the manual focus Nikkor 45 mm f/2.8P AI-s pancake lens went on sale simultaneously with FM3A. It was a lightweight Tessar design just 17 mm deep and weighing only 120 g. The lens consisted of 4 elements in 3 groups with a 7-blade circular diaphragm. Initially the finish was matched to the silver FM3A model, with a black finish added that November. A CPU in the lens enables programmed, aperture-priority, shutter-speed priority, and manual exposure modes. The CPU also enabled it to function with Nikon’s autofocus cameras. It pairs really well with the camera, but my preferred lens is the 50mm f1.4 – which is what I used with the sample shot shown below.
What Makes the Nikon FM3A a Great Camera?
The Nikon FM3A is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made. Its compact size, large bright viewfinder, ergonomic controls, excellent analogue light meter display and accurate focusing split image focusing screen make it a pleasure to use. The absence of the normal SLR blackout is an added bonus.
The focusing screen is actually the brightest standard screen of any manual-focus Nikon. This is Type K3 Focusing Screen, the interchangeable focusing screen that comes as standard. The K3 is ‘a matte/Fresnel screen with a split-image rangefinder spot surrounded by a microprism ring and a 12mm centre-weighted area reference circle’. It is optimized for f/2 lenses – faster lenses won’t get any brighter. I’ve found it very easy to use. Nikon introduced two alternatives along with the K3, the E3 matte screen for close ups, and the B3 etched screen with horizontal and vertical lines. The B3’s lines are useful for composition, architectural photography or multiple exposure operation.
The meter is accurate and extremely easy to use via needle matching. It uses a 60% centre-weighted pattern but also provides a welcome and well-placed AE lock button on the back for manual adjustments. There is also a film window, which was a new feature for the FM series.
The build quality is exceptional. The top and bottom body covers are each drawn from a sheet of brass; the shutter release and film wind cap are lathe-turned, whilst the shutter and film advance actions run on self-lubricating bearings. The film transport mechanism is very tough and makes use of hardened metal gearing.
The FM3A is regularly compared to its predecessor, the FM2n, often to determine whether the FM3A is worth it, because the difference in cost between them is substantial. Both cameras feature an all-mechanical vertically-traveling focal plane shutter capable of taking 1/4000th a second exposures but the FM3A adds electronic aperture priority mode. Both are also very light, but the FM2n comes in a tad lighter at 540g versus 570g. You can shed a few more grams if you go for the FM2/T which makes use of titanium top and bottom plates to get to a very trim 515g for a tough, metal camera.
The most obvious difference to the FM3A is the FM2n’s -o+ LED metering display (a bit like the Leica M6 TTL’s), which is quite different to the FM3A’s analogue twin needle display. The needles are great in normal lighting conditions, whereas the FM2n’s is better in low light. I enjoy shooting with both, but I think the FM3A’s makes for a more engaging shooting experience. The price difference between the two models is even more acute with the black FM3A as it commands a premium as a collector’s item. I went for silver FM3A and a black FM2n, which gives me the best of both worlds.
Beyond the difficulty of viewfinder visibility in low light, there is very little to say against the FM3A, other than it was, and a remains pricey camera. It has a fixed head so isn’t quite as versatile as the F Series cameras with their interchangeable finders, but you can change the focusing screen if you want to. Some also find the locking device on the exposure compensation dial annoying, and it certainly isn’t strictly necessary, but I have not found it interferes with my enjoyment of the camera.
Nikon FM3A Vs F3
Curiously, there has been quite a bit of debate on the internet on the FM3A vs F3, though the current Nikon F pro body at the time of its launch was the F5. A frequently asked question seems to be which one is tougher and more resilient. I have both and they both seem pretty tough, though the F3 seems to have an Achilles heel when using a flash mounted above the rewind knob. There are several reports that if a mounted flash is bumped reasonably hard, the chip which controls exposure functions under the rewind knob can crack, rendering the F3 largely inoperable. The F3HP has the hotshoe above the prism which fixes that problem, but If you are looking for the toughest possible camera I would take an F2 or original F ‘hockey puck’. I am not sure how useful the comparison is, but the main differences between the F3 and FM3A is that the F3 is heavier and larger, uses LEDs in the viewfinder, offers an interchangeable prism and pro accessories and is slower for flash sync (1/80 versus 1/250) and shutter speed (1/2000 versus 1/4000).
Comparison with Leica M
An even stranger comparison, for me at least, is the comparison with the Leica M, particularly the Leica M6. In some cases this occurs as part of a search for an SLR that feels as good as a Leica, in others I think it is just a comparison of late model film cameras – the M6 TTL was introduced in 1998, the FM3A in 2001. I shoot with both Nikon and Leica cameras – digital and film, but again I am not sure of how useful comparisons are. Firstly rangefinders and SLRS are very different, and secondly Leica takes a unique approach to building cameras and lenses – which is reflected in the cost. I really enjoy shooting with both the M6 TTL (a 0.58 model) and M7 (a 0.85), but I don’t have to worry about finder magnification with my Nikons!
An Engineering Marvel
Under the covers the Nikon FM3A’s hybrid shutter is one of the most advanced SLR shutters ever built – a marvel of compact mechanical engineering built to such a high standard that it can shoot at 1/4000 of a second without battery power. This is a feat most other mechanical shutters just can’t match, topping out at 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second. Adding batteries powers the the electronically controlled shutter for aperture priority shooting, the excellent analogue light meter, exposure lock, and DX film coding. Batteries also enable the TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash – the only manual-focus Nikon to have this feature.
The camera weighs in at 570g, only a little more than the king of compact SLRs – the Olympus OM-1 (510g). At 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm it also compares well against the OM-1’s diminutive 136 x 83 x 50 mm form factor.
I enjoy using the analogue light meter, which is preferable to the one on my F3. The two needles, one matched to your settings and one to the light measured by the meter, are clear and easy to see. That analogue instrument is also far more durable than LEDs. When the inevitable electronics apocalypse claims many of my cameras the FM3a (along with the F and F2) will just keep going…
Unlike the FM2 that was a best-seller for 16 years, the FM3A had a shorter production life. In January 2006, five years from its introduction, production of FM3A was discontinued along with the F100, F80 and other major film cameras. Nikon’s discontinuation was necessary to allow the firm to concentrate its resources on the digital cameras.
Nikon FM3A Specifications
Shutter: Vertical-travel, metal focal-plane shutter: 8 to 8 to 1/4000 sec step-less aperture-priority auto. Bulb, 1 to 1/4000 sec manual with mechanical control (all settings available without batteries in manual)
Viewfinder frame Coverage: Approx. 93%
Viewfinder Magnification: Approx. 0.83x with 50-mm lens set to infinity
Focusing screen: K3 type (split prism-image microprism type, Clear Matte Screen IIa) standard, B3 type and E3 type optional
Viewfinder information: Shutter speed, exposure meter indication, shutter indication, direct aperture value, exposure compensation mark, ready light
Exposure Compensation: ±2 EV in units of 1/3 EV
Auto Exposure Lock: AE lock button
Self-timer: Mechanical, countdown time of approx. 4 to 10 seconds
Flash sync speed: 1/250
TTL flash Compensation: Compensation to -1 EV activated with the TTL flash compensation button
Automatic DX film recognition
Film-check window On rear of camera
Power Source: One 3-V lithium battery (CR-1/3N type), two 1.55 V silver batteries (SR44 type), or two 1.5 V alkaline batteries (LR44 type)
Dimensions (W x H x D): Approx. 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm / 5.6 x 3.5 x 2.3 in.
(camera body only)
Weight: Approx. 570 g / 20.1 oz. (camera body only, including battery)
Future Proof Pleasure
The FM3A is an outstanding piece of engineering that will last long into the future. It is compact, handsome, precise, durable, reliable and a pleasure to shoot with. For me, along with the F, F2 and F6 it is one of Nikon’s greatest cameras. It makes an appearance on a few greatest ever and favourite film cameras lists too, though I think the FM2 shows up just as regularly.
There are many strands in a photography timeline – the chemistry of film and processing, the physics of optics, the mechanical engineering of shutters, the electronics of metering and digital photography, and the iconic camera designs that bring everything together. At each end of the photography timeline, the science is bewilderingly complex – from the arcane chemical processes of early photography to the algorithms of computational photography, which enables cameras to go beyond capturing photons to compute pictures.
It’s not a linear journey; digital photography has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in all things analogue, characterised by toy cameras, digital filters and apps that produce or replicate the look of film as well as the renewed growth of film photography. I started to shoot with film again in 2016 and around the time I first wrote this article, during the lockdowns of 2020, I started to expand my small collection of vintage film cameras and went back to film photography. There is an all-film gallery of the boats of Deal, Kent shot with a variety of film cameras including SLRs, TLRs and rangefinders here. It’s gratifying to see the growth of UK film businesses such as Analogue Wonderland, which supplies a vast range of film stock and The Intrepid Camera Company, which has reinvented large format photography for the twenty-first century. I’m as interested in looking forward as back however, and and follow new developments with great interest, including crowd funded ventures such as the AI powered Alice Camera.
I’ve reviewed, and borrowed from, many timelines and dozens of articles and books on the history of film, film processes, cameras, lenses, digital technology, phone camera development and computational photography to compile this photography timeline and in an attempt to combine these strands. The sections of the timeline are of my own devising.
I’ve tried to be diligent with my research and check the facts. The sources for the majority of entries are included as URLs. I have also referred to several excellent books: A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard; the Taschen books 20th Century Photography and A History of Photography; Photography A Concise History by Ian Jeffrey and Photography, the Definitive Visual History by Tom Ang, all of which I can recommend. If you spot any factual errors please feel free to share them with me along with the source(s).
Charles Chevalier creates a compound achromatic lens to cut down on chromatic aberration, a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same plane, for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic experiments
1832Robert Hunt’sResearches on Light records the first known description employing platinum to make a photographic print, but does not succeed in producing a permanent image
1835William Henry Fox Talbot makes his first successful camera photograph or “photogenic drawing” using paper sensitised with silver chloride,
1839 The public birthday of photography, from three inventors – Dagurerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s Daguerreotype becomes the first photographic process to be adopted, creating a unique image on a silvered metal plate of remarkable sharpness.
Hearing of Daguerre’s invention, Fox Talbot announces a paper process to achieve images by action of light and presents his photogenic drawings at the Royal Society in London
Hippolyte Bayard produces direct-positive images (like Daguerre’s process) on sensitized paper (like Talbot’s).
Sir John Herschel suggests fixing images in sodium thiosulphate. He also coins the terms photography, negative and positive.
1854James Ambrose Cutting takes out several patents relating to the Ambrotype process, underexposed or bleached wet collodion negatives that appeared positive when placed against a dark coating or backing
Parisian portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patents the Carte-de-visite (CdV), a new style of portrait utilizing albumen paper the size of a visiting card that will become commonly traded among friends and visitors
1855 The carbon process is patented by A. L. Poitevin, producing an image resistant to fading which becomes widely used in book illustration
1857 The folding camera with tapering bellows is invented by C.G.H. Kinnear, forming the basis for subsequent bellows designs
1858 John Waterhouse invents Waterhouse stops, a system using plates with different aperture diameters that could be inserted into a slot in the lens barrel which are the earliest selectable stops.
John Harrison Powell registers his design for a portable stereoscopic camera.
1871-1900 Instantaneous Photography without the Chemistry
1871 English physician Richard Leach Maddox invents the lightweight gelatin dry plate silver bromide process, assigning the complex and arduous chemistry work photographers had previously to undertake to a factory
1873Charles Harper Bennett improves the gelatin silver process by hardening the emulsion, making it more resistant to friction
The platinotype process, which produces platinum prints, is patented by William Willis.
1877 George Eastman learns to make his own gelatin dry plates, based on the writings of the British innovators, including Charles Harper Bennett
Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke produce Blitzlicht – the first ever widely used flash powder
1878 Heat ripening of gelatin emulsions is discovered by Charles Harper Bennett, making possible very short exposures and paving the way for the snapshot
1879 George Eastman applies for a patent for an emulsion-coating machine, which enables him to mass-produce photographic dry plates
1881 Thomas Bolas patents a hand-held, box form camera he calls a detective camera
1882Etienne Jules Marey perfects a chronophotographic gun, a device capable of taking 12 exposures a second.
1883 Ottomar Anschütz designs a camera with an internal roller blind shutter mechanism in front of the photographic plate – the first focal-plane shutter in recognisable form
William Schmid patents the first detective camera to be widely sold
1885 The first flexible photographic roll film was sold by George Eastman, though this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base
1886 Frederick E. Ives develops the halftone engraving process, making it possible to reproduce photographic images in the same operation as printing text
The first single use camera, the Ready Fotografer, is introduced, using a dry plate, though it appears to have enjoyed very limited success
1887The Rev. Hannibal Goodwin files a patent application for camera film on celluloid rolls, though it will be not granted until 1898, by which time George Eastman has started production of roll-film using his own process
1888 The Kodak n°1 box camera, the first ready-loaded, easy-to-use camera is introduced with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”
1889 George Eastman introduces the first transparent plastic roll film, made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate film
The Loman Reflex, the first commercially produced camera with a focal-plane shutter, is introduced
1890 The Zeiss Protar, the first successful anastigmat photographic lens, designed Dr Paul Rudolph, is introduced
The Ilford Manual of Photography is first published, providing detailed technical information regarding optics, chemistry and printing.
W.W. Rouch and Co. introduce the Eureka, which will become a popular detective, or hand, camera
The German manufacturer C.P. Goerz incorporates the Anschütz focal-plane shutter into a camera
1891 Bausch and Lomb introduce the first of their iris diaphragm shutters, incorporating an f-stop and shutter speed setting device
1892 Samuel N. Turner applies for a US patent for paper-backed, daylight-loading roll film. The backing paper is printed with white exposure numbers which can read through a red window in the back of the camera. The idea is incorporated in the Boston Manufacturing Company’s ‘Bullseye” camera of the same year.
The Graflex Speed Graphic press camera is introduced and will continue in production until 1973
1913 Kodak invents 35mm film for the early motion picture industry
Oskar Barnack, creates the Ur-Leica, the prototype of a small-format 35mm camera, doubling the width of 18x24mm cinema film and running it horizontally, rather than vertically as in cinema cameras of the time
1971 Nikon introduce the F2 to succeed the legendary F with a variety of finder options.
1972 Kodak reduces the popular Instamatic Camera to pocket size with the introduction of the Pocket Istamatic Camera with the new easy-load 110 Film Cartridge, extending the cartridge loading principle to what had hitherto been known as the sub-miniature camera.
Polaroid introduces the SX-70 an improvement on previous models that ejects pictures automatically and without chemical residue,
The Copal Compact Square Shutter (CCS), one of the most notable focal plane shutters of the ’70s, is introduced with the Konica Autoreflex TC
1977 Fuji introduces the first zoom lens to be sold as the primary lens for an interchangeable lens camera – the Fuji Fujinon-Z 43-75mm f/3.5-4.5
The Minolta XD11 is the world’s first camera with aperture priority and shutter priority, as well as a fully metered manual mode.
Kodak enters the instant picture field with a range of cameras and a new film. Kodak instant cameras do not need a mirror to reverse the image laterally, which is a requirement for Polaroid cameras, but litigation from Polaroid soon follows.
1978 Konica introduces the C35 AF, the first point-and-shoot autofocus camera.
1980 The Ricoh AF Rikenon 50mm f/2, the first interchangeable autofocus SLR lens, is introduced
Nikon introduces the F3, with manual and semi-automatic exposure control.
1981 Sony introduces the Mavica, a TV camera that records TV-quality still images on magnetic floppy discs.
The Sigma 21-35mm f/3.5-4 becomes the first super-wide angle zoom lens for still cameras.
International speculation on the silver market causes a significant rise in the price of silver, an important base material for the photographic industry. Agfa-Gevaert’s struggles results in the group being acquired by Bayer.
1982 Nikon introduces the FM2, which uses an improved Copal Square Shutter to achieve an unheard-of speed range of 1 to 1/4000th second and a fast flash X-sync speed of 1/250th second.
Kodacolor VR 1000 film is announced at Photokina. It is a T-Grain film, which makes possible such a high speed film with tolerable grain.
1983 The Olympus OM-4 is the first camera with a multi-spot exposure meter, taking up to eight spot measurements and averaging them
Nikon introduces the FA, the first camera to offer a multi-segmented (or matrix or evaluative) exposure light meter, which uses two segmented silicon photodiodes to divide the field of view into five segments.
1984 LOMO begin mass-producing the LC-A, achieving popularity within the USSR and kickstarting Lomography.
The Contax T, the first in a series of high quality, exceptionally compact 35mm rangefinder cameras is introduced
Leica introduces the M6, which resembles the Leica M3 but adds a modern, off-the-shutter light meter with no moving parts and LED arrows in the viewfinder.
1985-2006: Autofocus to Camera Phones
1985 Minolta introduces the world’s first fully integrated autofocus SLR with the autofocus (AF) system built into the body – the Maxxum 7000.
1986 The disposable camera is popularised by Fujifilm with the 35mm QuickSnap, which helps to define consumer photography in the late ’80s and ’90s
The Canon T90 marks the pinnacle of manual-focus 35mm SLRs
Canon launches the RC-701 ‘Realtime camera’ the first commercially available Still Video Camera
Kodak introduces T-MAX film which is smooth, fine grained and sharp – characteristics due to its use of a tabular grain emulsion. T-MAX 100 has a very high resolution of 200 lines/mm and is often used for testing the sharpness of lenses.
1987 Canon launches the EOS (Electro-Optical System), an entirely new system designed specifically to support autofocus lenses.
Canon becomes the first camera maker to successfully commercialise Ultrasonic Motor (USM) lenses which appear with the introduction of the EF 300 mm f/2.8L USM lens
1988 The Fuji DS-1P, the first digital handheld camera, is introduced, though it does not sell
The JPEG and MPEG standards are set.
Kodak introduces the DC 210, the first “Megapixel resolution” digital camera selling for under $1000 ($899).
1989 Canon introduces the 50mm f/1.0L, the fastest AF EF mount lens, and one of the fastest lenses in the world.
1990 Adobe Photoshop 1.0 image manipulation program is introduced for Apple Macintosh computer.
Eastman Kodak announces the development of its Photo CD system
The gum oil process, a painstaking and highly expressive photographic method, is invented by Karl P. Koenig.
1995 The Casio QV-10 is the first camera to incorporate an LCD screen on the back for image preview and playback
1996 Eastman Kodak, FujiFilm, AgfaPhoto, and Konica introduce the Advanced Photo System (APS), enabling the camera to record information other than the image
The Canon IXUS is the firstIXUS APS camera, Canon’s contribution to the launch of the APS film system and an important milestone in compact camera design
Hasselblad introduces the V-system 503 C/W medium format film camera which will continue into production until 2013
1997Philippe Kahn publicly shares a picture via a cellphone for the first time
1998 Leica launches The M6 TTL to replace the M6 with a larger, reversed shutter dial and TTL flash capability
1999 The first commercial camera phone, the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, is launched in Japan
The Nikon D1 is the first fully integrated digital SLR designed from the ground up, rather than a digital modification to a film SLR
2000 Sharp and J-Phone introduce the first mass market camera-phone in Japan, The J-SH04
Canon introduces the EOS D30, the company’s first digital SLR produced in-house. Previously Canon had a contract with Kodak to rebrand DCS models. It was also the first DSLR with a price tag affordable to enthusiasts.
2001 Nikon produce the manual focus FM3a, the last manual focus 35mm SLR released by a major maker
Mirrorless cameras overtake DSLRs based on unit volume (CIPA data)
2021 Sony introduces the ⍺1, a 50.1MP, 8.6K camera capable of shooting bursts at up to 30fps blackout-free, with 15 stops of dynamic range, real-time animal eye AF and anti-distortion shutter technology.
Olympus exits the camera market, completing the sale of its camera business to JIP, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm.
Nikon announces, and very late in the year, ships, the Z9 – the first professional camera to arrive without a mechanical shutter without rolling shutter thanks to its fast stacked shutter. It also offers the world’s fastest still image frame rate of 120 fps.
2022 French Photographer Mathieu Stern creates portraits of people who do not exist with the Dall-E-2 AI programme.
Leica introduces the M11 with a 60MP full-frame back side illuminated sensor