It’s been a while…
Before I went back to film with a Nikon F3 in 2016, my previous film camera was a Canon IXUS, 20 years ago. This was a point and shoot compact which took APS film, a short lived film format from the nineties. My photos from that time date from before I actively studied photography and the shots aren’t the best. My APS films were developed on standard machines, not the specialist ones they had been designed for, which further compromised the results. This then, is the real start of the story of my film photography journey.
A Fortunate Find
Whilst staying with friends in Stockholm in 2016, 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 showed signs of wear 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 quite taken with it and bought it on impulse.
An Early Model
This was my first Nikon film SLR. A bit of research revealed 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 It was introduced in 1980 and stayed in production until 2001, despite being superseded by the autofocus F4 in 1988.
That’s a long run – especially as according to the MIR site, work on the F3 started back in 1974, barely three years after the debut of the Nikon F2! The formal design process started in 1977 and a prototype was ready by late 1978, which is when NASA came knocking for an automatic exposure control camera for the Space Shuttle.
A check on the serial number showed my F3 was an early model from 1981, not the more common HP (High Eyepoint) variant introduced in 1982. The HP model is identical to its predecessor except for the finder (DE-3), which allowed those wearing glasses a better view of the entire frame. This became standard on the F3, which became known as the F3HP.
I don’t wear glasses when shooting, preferring to use a diopter, and in this case that’s an advantage, as the trade off the HP model makes to make the whole viewfinder visible from slightly further back is fractionally lower magnification (0.75X compared to 0.8X). The F3 is also slightly lighter than the HP variant as the finder HP finder weighs a little more, though the HP finder has slightly improved rubber sealing. Unless you wear glasses, there isn’t much in it.
The F3 has five finders (all interchangeable) to choose from: eye-level (DE-2), eye-level HP (DE-3) waist-level (DW-3), sport (DA-2), and high-magnification (DW-4). The F3 also offered a right-angle viewing attachment (DR-3) and an Eyepiece Magnifier (DG-2). I’ve stuck with the DE-2 my F3 came with.
Beyond models based on finder variants there are several more exotic models of the F3. The best known, and probably the most desirable, is the F3/T titanium model, which is a similar in weight to the regular F3 but will no doubt take knocks even better.
There was also a ruggedised F3P Press/Professional model, the F3 AF autofocus model and the weighty F3H F3 High Speed, a motorised speed demon that could shoot at 13 frames per second.
The autofocus Nikon F3 AF, which became available in 1983 with 2 autofocus lenses, was Nikon’s first entry in the world of AF technology. The Nikon F-501 arrived in1986, and the Nikon F4 in 1988.
The F3 Electronics Controversy
Unlike its predecessors, which had always been entirely mechanical, the F3 uses an electronically controlled shutter which requires batteries. Electronic shutters and dependence on battery power for anything more than a light meter was initially resisted amongst Nikon professional shooters. Their initial response was to remain loyal to their fully mechanical F2s and eschew the F3.
This controversy apparently continued for years and may still continue. As one blogger wryly commented as recently as 2019: “I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh…right…we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka “Knights of the Order of F2″ (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.”
The fears of Nikon pros at launch turned out to be unfounded as the F3 was demonstrated itself to be just as bulletproof as as the F and F2. Nikon was committed to increasing reliability – as an example the F3’s shutter was designed to last an incredible 150K actuations, increased from 100K for the F and F2. However, to give photographers more confidence in the new technology Nikon built in a backup mechanical shutter into the F3 that operates at 1/60 sec.
In practice, the F3’s batteries last a very long time (compared to my Leica M6 TTL for example) and the tiny LR44s are easy to carry as spares. I also have an F2 with a Photomic head, and it is excellent, but my F3 gets used more.
The F3’s Horizontal Shutter
There was one other issue that had he Pros using other Nikon cameras, at least for some shoots, was the slow flash sync speed. The F3 has a horizontal travel shutter which, given the 3:2 aspect ratio of film, takes longer to operate than a vertical travel shutter. The 1/80 second maximum sync speed was the same as that of the F2, but well below the semi pro models (FA, FM2, FE2) with vertical travel shutters, which offered 1/250 second. The F3 was the last of the Nikon Pro cameras with a horizontal shutter – the F4’s went the other way.
Longevity versus Mechanical Cameras
Over time electronic components can be the Achilles heel of older film cameras and initially I thought the Nikon F3’s LCD which displays the shutter speed might be a weak spot. The display in the viewfinder, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR), is just a display window so is not subject to deterioration, but LCDs don’t always age well. They can become harder to read over time and eventually stop working entirely. Nikon predicted they would only last about seven years or so with pro usage! 35 years after leaving the factory my well used F3’s LCD is holding up perfectly well. The F3’s manual controls also mean that the camera can still be used without the LCD display, although not with automation.
The last point to consider in the electronic vs mechanical Nikon stakes are that electronic shutters usually maintain their accuracy over time better than mechanical shutters.
One surprise to me about the F3 was that it was styled by an Italian design legend: Giorgetto Giugiaro, the man who styled the Ferrari 250 GT Bertone, the Aston Martin DB4 GT Bertone, and much else.
Another surprise was that there were Space Shuttle versions of the F3. These had large magazine backs of different capacities and various other modifications for use in space. It wasn’t the first Nikon in space however, as modified Fs were used aboard Apollo 15 and Skylab.
Upgrades and Repairs
Before I could shoot with 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 is highly modular. It’s 5 interchangeable viewfinders could be paired with 15 interchangeable focusing screens. These vary from the standard central split-image microprism rangefinder screen to those for very specific use cases such as close ups, astro and architectural photography.
Mine was fitted with a Type D, which is used for close ups and with long lenses. I called Greys of Westminster and ordered the more usual Type K type rangefinder screen, a new coupling cover and a -2 diopter.
It’s easy enough to remove the F3’s finder to change the screen. Sliding the grooved buttons on each side of the finder back towards the eye piece releases the front of the finder which can then be lifted out and removed.
All that remained was to take the body into my local camera shop, imagex, who sent it away for a much needed service, at a very reasonable cost of £69.
Adjusting to the F3
It wasn’t difficult to get used to the controls of the F3. They are simple and the dials on the top plate of were familiar looking, as I was shooting with the retro styled digital Nikon Df at the time, and the F3 only offers aperture-priority automation and manual operation.
I did fire the shutter accidently with the backup mechanical release lever (‘what does this lever do? doh!’) to the right of the lens beneath the ‘exposure memory lock’ button (AE-L on modern cameras).
The only adjustment I thought I might need to make was to get used to the heavily centre-weighted metering system, apparently a request from Nikon Pros looking for greater precision. Metering is TTL and reads the light over the whole focusing screen, but nearly all (80%) of metering sensitivity is set to the central 12mm, whilst the rest of the screen gets the remaining 20%. The F4 flipped to 60/40, though it’s not clear why. In practice the heavy centre weighting hasn’t presented a problem, even when I forgot about it, but that maybe because I shoot with very forgiving black and white negative film.
The F3 was the first in the F series to put the meter in the camera body. Previous models, which had the meter in the prism, featured 60/40 centre-weighted metering. This is also the case with the last of Nikon’s film cameras, the rather wonderful FM3A.
One little control that isn’t at all obvious is the Multiple Exposure Lever on the far right of the top plate. This enables you re-cock the shutter without advancing the film.
The Wind On Wind Up
Something I came across though reading, rather than a problem I encountered, is that the F3 metering and shutter operates differently during wind on. By design, the F3 fires the wind on frames of the film at 1/80th second using the mechanical backup shutter. I have read that this is to speed up loading a film in low light or if the lens cap is on. I’ve also seen this attributed to preventing needless long exposures in A mode. Some photographers have experienced this beyond frame 1, perhaps as the result or a mis-indexed starting point or mechanical slippage of some kind. This feature has caused me no problems, but has been the source of some aggravation in the forums.
The Nikon F3 in Use
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. Initially I 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 liked the grain and the tone of film and I was hooked.
From the Nikon F3 onwards…and backwards
Since I bought the F3 I have acquired several other Nikon film cameras – most notably the mighty F6 and the hybrid mechanical/electronic marvel that is the FM3A, both of which you can read about in detail on this site from the preceding links.
I’ve also gone back to the start of the F series with a late F from 1970 and an F2 from 1975, both of which are excellent cameras. I particularly like the way you can see rangefinder DNA in the F’s baseplate, which evolved from the Nikon SP rangefinder. The prototype for the F was built on an SP model, adding the distinctive mirror box and pentaprism of the SLR, and a new lens mount, the F mount. The letter F comes from re-F-lex.
Though some of my photographer friends love the later Nikon F4 and F5, I have never taken to either of them – preferring either the earlier F, F2 or F3 manual focus cameras or the final F6 pro model.
I’ve taken the Nikon F3 with me when I’ve travelled, including some fairly harsh environments like the Faroe Islands, and it performed very well. I thought about taking my FM2n on that trip, as it is lighter, but the more rugged F3 inspired more confidence.
The Go Anywhere F3
The Nikon F3 remains one of favourite manual Nikon film cameras. Unlike other more expensive classics, such as Leica M6 or Nikon FM3A, which most photographers (including me) fret about in use, my F3 presents no worries at all. It is extremely rugged, affordable to service (or replace), and easy to use.
I bought it slightly beaten up and it’s so tough I am comfortable taking it anywhere. I have 50mm and 28mm (Voigtländer) pancake lenses to keep the form factor to a minimum – the F3 and both pancake lenses easily fit into a small camera bag. It is versatile: the shutter is fast (up to 1/2000 second), and though I haven’t needed them to date, there is a PC connection (but no hotshoe) for flash, and it will take a standard cable release. It takes great pictures. What more could you ask for?