There are rare objects in this world that have the power to stop people in their tracks. Works of art so beautiful that they demand a lingering gaze; music so lovely that it pulls us into a different world. And for us photo geeks, even cameras can be so captivating!
I was on vacation, strolling through New York’s Greenwich Village and snapping away when a man stopped me on the street and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Hey, is that a Nikon F3?” We talked a bit, he lamented selling his own F3 long ago, and as we parted he mentioned his happiness (but not his surprise) to see one still in use.
A month later I was back home in Los Angeles eating at a Thai restaurant when another stranger asked me to take a photo of his family. When he noticed the camera on the table his eyes took on a distant, sentimental glow as he recognized the F3. He stared at it with something that resembled reverence, even as he distractedly handed me his comparatively gargantuan D4.
And it wasn’t much later that a stranger in a coffee shop casually remarked that the F3 slung over my shoulder was “the best camera of them all. That’ll last you forever.”
These interactions happen all the time, and they always leave me with a feeling of pride as I nod, and smile, and hold the F3 just a bit tighter. But what is it about the F3 that makes people so sentimental? What makes it so special, so beautiful, that it so often causes people to stop and appreciate it?
It’s an easy question to answer. Simply put, the Nikon F3 is one of the greatest cameras ever made.
Yes, the F3 is a truly amazing camera, but when we think of truly amazing products we often think of something that completely innovated an industry, or brought about a revolution. The F3 was never considered a technological innovator in the traditional sense. It never introduced new technologies the way that certain cameras from Canon and Minolta did. It offered no new gimmicks (like those of matrix metering, autofocus, or program shooting). So how is it that the F3 lit the world on fire at its original unveiling, and why does it continue to be lauded as one of the best film cameras ever made?
The secret to the F3’s initial success was that it combined all of the best features of the best cameras in the world, elevated these features to their maximum level of functionality and quality, and combined everything into a sleek, beautiful package.
And the secret to the F3’s continued position as a legendary camera is that nearly 40 years after it was first unveiled it’s as capable and beautiful as ever. In fact, it’s beauty may even be magnified following the recent decades of uninspired Japanese design.
To speak of the Nikon F3’s aesthetic brings me back to my previous reference to art. Speaking of the F3 can sound almost like speaking of the beauty of Michelangelo’s David, a comparison that is all the more appropriate when we know the history of the F3’s design, which was headed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Italian designer who brought us the DeLorean and the BMW M1. This visionary designer drafted a form that (as in many instances of Italian renaissance sculpture) was a perfection of proportion entirely in-tune with the camera’s functionality. His legacy of design lives on in every major Nikon since, in the form of the now iconic red stripe.
But looks can often deceive. Commercial history is full of products through the years that look the part but lack performance to match- again we can reference the DeLorean. Not so with the F3. Characterized by the hard, boxy angles of the 1980s and its all black paint, the F3 looks utilitarian in the way that an Armani suit is utilitarian: it gets the job done, but it gets it done with style. Nothing is wasted in its design, and even today you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who’d seek a change in the F3’s aesthetics.
Much of the camera’s strength is found in its ability to stay out of the way of the photographer. The F3’s operation is simplicity itself, especially when shot in aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. This is the sole automated mode, but it’s just about the only mode an advanced-amateur or professional will realistically need. It lets the camera do the complicated math of exposure but leaves much of the artistic control to the photographer. Depth-of-field is handled through selecting varying apertures, and the camera does the rest. Every shot is perfectly exposed.
But shooting in this mode doesn’t leave us unable to adjust shutter speed. For photographers who are more experienced, there are ways to bend the auto-exposure system to our will. We have access to both an exposure compensation dial, and an exposure lock button. This convenient button placed on the front of the camera makes it simple to meter for shadows or for highlights on the fly, by framing for the light, reframing for composition, and shooting.
Ergonomically the F3 is perfect. It fits snugly in the hand (with the aid of the hand grip), and all the dials and buttons are exactly where you’d expect them to be. You can find the mirror lock-up and depth-of-field preview in the same knob, above the AE lock and mechanical shutter release. On the top plate is a frame counter, a multiple exposure lever (ooh), the threaded shutter release, self timer, shutter lock/power switch, and the shutter dial. The shutter dial shows speeds from 8 seconds to 1/2000th of a second, plus bulb, time, flash-sync, and Aperture-priority mode.
The unique metering system used in the F3 is my personal favorite in any classic camera, just edging out Minolta’s CLC system used in the SRT and X-series machines. It uses an uncommonly heavy, center-weighted (80/20) metering system. Looking in the mirror-box we find thousands of tiny little pinholes in the reflex mirror which allow exactly 8% of the light to pass through the mirror and onto a metering cell. The end result is a cross between average scene metering and spot metering, and in practice it works wonderfully. This has never been copied by any other manufacturer and is not found on any SLR Nikon ever made, probably because it was so expensive to engineer and manufacture.
The intricacies of the metering system showcase the almost obsessive attention to detail that Nikon put into the F3. But even the most basic aspects of typical 35mm cameras were enhanced, maximized, and perfected in the F3. One simple example; the film advance lever has eleven ball-bearings, more than any other camera ever made. The F3’s engineers didn’t need to do this, but they did, just so that photographers could enjoy a film advance motion that would be as smooth and effortless as possible. This also made it possible for the F3’s motor drive to operate at such high speeds, the idea being that if the film advance assembly required less energy to operate, then the motor drive could operate more efficiently.
Another area where the F3 takes the standards of the day and absolutely trounced them was in the realm of electronics. The very chassis of the F3 is molded in a way that the circuit board, which is flexible, can fit within the internal chassis itself, increasing the reliability of the camera’s electronics to a level that most cameras simply can’t match.
The shutter is made out of titanium honeycomb and was stress-tested up to 150,000 exposures, something that far surpassed any camera design at the time. And the top and bottom plates are made of some of the thickest brass we’ve seen in a Japanese camera.
The more we examine the F3 (something we did quite extensively in our exploded view) the more impressed we are by its design. One gets the sense that every aspect of this camera was agonized over, that no stone was left unturned, and it only adds to the aura of legendary quality that the camera exudes.
The F3, like all of Nikon’s professional-level cameras, is a modular system camera. This means it offers a massive range of accessories for the professional. Possibly the crown jewel of this system for many amateur shooters is the optional HP viewfinder. Here “HP” denotes “high-eyepoint” which allows the shooter to hold the camera further from the eye and yet still see the entire picture. Since the viewfinder has 100% coverage, what you see is exactly what you get. It’s absolutely massive and perfectly illuminated, one of the brightest viewfinders I have ever used. Being someone who wears glasses, this is one of the best VFs in classic cameras.
All of this combines to make something singularly legendary, and in my opinion unmatched. The F3 is definitively present while staying out of the way, hard-working while requiring no effort, functional and reliable while being oh, so beautiful.
It almost goes without saying, but one of the major hallmarks of the Nikon F system has always been the outstanding line of lenses produced. Optical characteristics, quality of construction, and innovation in lens design are easily better than almost any other brand, and Nikon has created its fair share of now-legendary lenses. If you’re looking for a camera system with unmatched glass, the F3 is it.
Compatibility isn’t an issue. The F3 uses Nikon’s ubiquitous F mount, meaning that all of Nikon’s F mount lenses will mount to this camera. But unlike some older or newer Nikons, the F3 makes allowances for using all of Nikon’s lenses. Pre-AI, AI, and AI-s lenses all are compatible. Auto-indexing (AI and AI-s) lenses mount natively and require no additional procedures for normal operation. For Pre-AI lenses, simply flip up the AI tab on the lens mount and use the stop-down method for metering. No problem.
But all interesting characters have to have some flaws, and so it is with the F3. A few things hold it back from complete perfection. First off, the hot-shoe is a proprietary affair and positioned so that its usage blocks the exposure compensation dial and ISO adjuster. The shutter’s horizontal travel hamstrings the F3’s flash-sync speed to a paltry 1/80th of a second, making the use of fill flash in bright conditions quite challenging.
Problems arise in the prism as well. For instance, the LCD display (which was a huge deal at the time) is hard to see in low-light and the illumination lamp button is placed so that practical use is clumsy. You also can’t tell just how much you’re over- or under-exposing because the only indicator is a small + or – symbol crammed next to the shutter speed readout.
And if we’re really nitpicking, we could complain about the very heart of the F3’s engineering. This camera is electronic, not mechanical, meaning the shutter is only fully operational with the use of batteries (though there is a single-speed mechanical override). Even today, some folk refuse to shoot electronic cameras, and back when the F3 was new this was a downright massive sticking point with photojournalists on account of the deserved reputation for breakdowns that electronic cameras had developed. That said, the past 30 years have proven pretty conclusively that the F3’s electronics are nothing to worry about. Its hard-earned reputation for reliability is now unquestioned.
But possibly the greatest argument against the F3 is that it didn’t (and still doesn’t) offer anything significantly different from many other cameras. When we boil it down, the F3 is nothing more than an aperture-priority electronic camera with manual override. That’s it. One could easily find these core features features from the cheaper Nikon EM or FE. If you’re looking for a camera on the cutting edge of technological innovation, even by the standards of the 1980s, this isn’t that camera.
But shoot the F3 for a couple of days and we invariably come to the conclusion that so many have come to before. The Nikon F3 is one of the greatest cameras ever made.
When I first purchased my F3, it was beat to hell with brassing throughout, had a cracked advance lever and a faulty lens-lock that I still have to check on every once in a while. I could tell somebody had used it, and used it well. But even after a storied history, it’s still ticking like the day it was bought and it still feels like the most reliable camera in the world.
It makes the process of photography something magical. It dissolves the veil between you and your photograph, something only a truly special camera could do, and something I’ve never experienced with any other camera. The impeccable attention to detail, and a design sensibility that borders on the artistic inspire me like no other camera.
More than that, it has a certain intangible quality that endears me to it. No doubt those old photographers who’ve reminisced over my F3 felt much the same way those many years ago. This je ne sais quoi just may be the greatest trait of this camera. It just feels right.
I’ve tried countless SLRs from every manufacturer, but I keep coming home to my F3. And sometimes, there really is no place like home.