The Nikon FM3a is one of the most refined manual SLR’s ever made, and as a 21st century manual focus SLR, somewhat of a throwback. It was produced in 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 Nikons 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. 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.
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 was available in black and chrome. For the chrome version there was a matching Nikkor 45 mm f/2.8P pancake lens which contained a CPU to enable it function with Nikon’s autofocus cameras. 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.
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 on the FM3A is an added bonus.
An Engineering Marvel
Under the covers the Nikon FM3a has one of the most advanced SLR shutters ever built – a marvel of compact mechanical engineering. It is built to such a high standard that it can shoot at 1/4000 of a second without battery power, which makes fast shutter speeds much more attainable. 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 excellent analogue light meter, the electronically controlled shutter for aperture priority shooting, exposure lock, and DX film coding. They also enable the TTL flash exposure compensation for fill flash – the only manual-focus Nikon to have this feature.
It 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 easy to use and much preferable to LCD displays such as 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 will just keep going…
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
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 has its fair share of entries on the greatest ever film cameras lists too – for good reason.
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.
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.
Photography Timeline 1826-2020
1826-1850 The Genesis of Photography
c. 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce uses bitumen of Judea for photographs on metal and makes the first successful camera photograph, View From My Window at Gras
1827 Niépce addresses a memorandum on his invention to the Royal Society in London, but does not disclose details
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 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
Nikon releases the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.2 S for the Nikon Z mount system
Canon launches the EOS R series next-generation full-frame mirrorless cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology that provides autofocus in low-light conditions previously too dark to focus in.
The Apple 12 ships, with a new 7-element design with an ƒ/1.6 aperture for the primary camera as well as advancements to Smart HDR and Deep Fusion.
Fujifilm launches the compact prime lens X100V. The fifth X100-series camera, it is described in Digital Photography Review as the most capable prime-lens compact camera, ever
2021 Sony introduces the A1, 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.