I don’t think there is such thing as a perfect camera. Beyond the quirks of design that cause even the best of cameras to annoy, there’s personal preference to account. Some people like large cameras, some people small. Some shooters prefer SLRs, others are wrong. But despite this, there does exist a camera that’s closer to perfect than any I’ve used. It’s the Nikon FM3a.
Before your eyes complete that roll and before your cursor drifts to the next site in your browser’s reading list (fannypackaficionado.com can wait a few more minutes), let me tell you why I’ve made such a brazen claim. Let me tell you why a camera like the FM3a is so remarkable.
An Unlikely Undertaking
In December of 1998, after more than four decades of making exceptional professional-grade film SLRs and just before digital cameras established themselves as the future of photography, Nikon decided to do something weird; create a manual-focus, 35mm film SLR camera. And though this is something the brand had done hundreds of times in the previous forty years, the Nikon FM3a was planned and built in a far different climate than any film camera Nikon had previously produced.
By the late 1990s, autofocus was here to stay as a fast and accurate tool critical to the working photographer. Casual and beginner photographers wanted point-and-shoot cameras, and most of these had begun the switch to digital. Even enthusiastic photo geeks were more often finding their shutter speed dials set to a letter, rather than a number. Even before it debuted, the manual-focus SLR FM3a was a throwback.
But this was by design. Nikon knew the desires of a passionate subset of professional and enthusiast-amateur shooters, shooters who appreciated the simplicity, the quality, and the all-mechanical nature of the brand’s earlier machines. Nikon also understood that these shooters weren’t interested in an autofocus machine, or an excessively electrified product. These shooters wanted a classic film camera with durability to withstand the pressures of hard use in harsh environments, the ability to shoot at all speeds without a battery, and auto-exposure for when manual shooting would mean a missed shot.
Working from a room at the Ohi factory, engineers from Mito Nikon (a Nikon camera production subsidiary that had previously worked on the Nikkormat series) began designing the FM3a in a remarkably cohesive way. The small team (seven engineers, later twelve employees) worked closely with the factory production staff to ensure unprecedented levels of quality control throughout the design and production processes.
The result was a machine that, without hyperbole, was (and remains still) the best manual focus Nikon SLR. That’s because the FM3a’s designers succeeded in combining all of the best features of Nikon cameras from the previous forty years while addressing the earlier machines’ failings. They smoothed the ergonomic quirks of its predecessors and added a pinch of high technology. It was designed with an eye for simplicity, and built for a very specific type of photographer.
In July of 2001, production of the Nikon FM3a began in earnest, and just prior to the camera’s debut, photo magazines published numerous articles on the upcoming release. Photographers loved it, and the ensuing avalanche of customer orders meant that demand outpaced supply for months. The FM3a was an instant classic.
Under the Hood
The Nikon FM3a is a classic 35mm film SLR, and though it was lovingly crafted at the turn of the millennium, it feels much like a camera made two or three decades earlier. The spiritual successor to the FM2 and FE2, it shares those machines’ compact form factors and focused ethos.
This DNA has prompted many commentators to an over-simplification. They describe the FM3a as an FM2 with the FE2’s aperture-priority auto-exposure mode added. This is like saying Audi’s Quattro is a Ford Pinto with four-wheel-drive. It’s certainly much more than that.
The design of the FM3a borrowed aspects of many other Nikon cameras’ designs, sure, but it’s very much its own machine, and it does things no other Nikon camera can do. Chief among these innovations is its incredible hybrid shutter that allows both battery-powered electronically-controlled auto-exposure shooting and full manual control at every shutter speed without the need for battery power. The fact that this extremely complicated shutter assembly fits into a camera as compact as the Nikon FM3a, and that it realizes a fastest speed of 1/4000th of a second, makes it one of the most advanced SLR shutters ever built.
It uses Nikon’s ubiquitous F mount, in manual focus, and works perfectly with the brand’s auto-indexing (AI and AIs) lenses. Later autofocus lenses also work, but you’ll be focusing by hand. These AF lenses must also have a physical aperture control ring. Without it, the camera’s wide-open TTL meter will not meter properly.
The FM3a has undoubtedly one of the best meters found in a Nikon SLR. With the classic 60% center-weighted pattern favored by the brand for years, it’s accurate and predictable. The addition of an exposure lock button on the back of the camera makes on-the-fly adjustments to exposure a simple task. The metering system mates to the camera’s aperture-priority auto-exposure mode, resulting in perfectly exposed shots every time. Exposure compensation in one-third stop increments to +/- two EV is available for when things get really wild.
The viewfinder is exceptionally informative, showing a large exposure scale on the left side of the frame. This scale shows the camera’s selected shutter speed in manual mode (or indicates the camera’s in Automatic), the correct shutter speed as suggested by the meter, the selected aperture, an exposure compensation alert light, and a flash ready light. It’s large (showing 93% of the actual image area at .83X magnification) and bright (the brightest standard focusing screen of any manual-focus Nikon). The standard K3 screen shows a split-image focusing patch surrounded by a micro-prism focusing ring in the center of a clear matte screen (while other focusing screens can be installed by the end-user).
Build Quality and Feel
In the hands, the Nikon Fm3a quickly distinguishes itself as top-of-class. It’s a tough camera. A masterpiece of form and function worthy of the same accolades people heap on cameras from certain German brands. The top and bottom body covers are each made from a sheet of brass. The shutter release and film wind cap are the lathe-turned products of hand-machining. The shutter and film advance actions are smoothed by oil-free, self-lubricating bearings. The film transport mechanisms are made of high-strength hardened metal gearing.
These nuts and bolts details and fine materials selection culminate in a camera that feels, above all else, stunning in use. It’s a compact camera, dense and solid, and ergonomically exceptional. Dials, knobs, levers, and switches actuate with delightful precision, and film advance is silky smooth and whisper quiet. The shutter release button is supple, with a half-press activating the meter and a full press making the shot. Mirror slap is light and well-damped, and as quiet as a traditional SLR can manage.
Manual shooting is as straightforward as with all the best classic manual cameras. Set your shutter speed on the top dial, set your aperture, and shoot. The viewfinder display shows how your settings relate to exposure in a clear way. If your selected speed is higher or lower than the meter needle, that means you’re off.
In aperture-priority mode, things are even simpler. Set to F/8, there’s no better “be there” camera. The metering system is masterful, and in two weeks of shooting it never made a bad exposure. The AE lock works perfectly, and makes even the most challenging light a no-brainer.
Nikon’s F mount lenses are historically magnificent and we’ve written about plenty of them on this site. It’s no secret that Nikkor is one of the best names in glass. With over thirty years worth of available lenses to fit the FM3a, there’s no worries about finding a lens that fits your needs and style. There’s even a lens built specifically for this machine, and though I’ve yet to try it myself, the AI Nikkor 45mm F/2.8 P looks stunning and tantalizingly tiny (17mms deep!).
For all this gushing, the Nikon FM3a is not a perfect camera. I said those don’t exist, remember? That’s because in low light shooting situations it can be difficult to see the meter and shutter speed display in the viewfinder, especially when compared to the LED display in something like Pentax’s LX. And because the FM3a’s pentaprism is fixed, it’s less customizable than many of the pro-level F series cameras with their detachable prisms. Additionally, the inclusion of a locking device on the exposure compensation dial is a criminal offense over which I often rage. Here it’s especially annoying, as the exposure compensation warning light in the viewfinder is impossible to miss. Why, then, do we need a redundant lock on the dial? This only slows the process of photography, something the FM3a never does otherwise.
And if there’s one more sticking point, it has to be price. When it debuted in 2001, the Nikon FM3a was expensive ($820). Even today it’s one of the priciest Nikon SLRs. For the cost of an FM3a, someone could probably buy four or five FMs. The FE2 is half the price and, aside from the electronic-and-mechanical hybrid operation and some advanced flash methodology (through-the-lens, off-the-film AE), does nearly everything the FM3a can do. You could buy a couple of the pro-spec F3s or F4s for the same price.
But none of these cameras would be the very best manual focus SLR Nikon ever made. The FM3a can make that claim. And quality is remembered long after price is forgotten (so the old wisdom says).
Legacy and Takeaway
More than a decade after the final copy shipped from the factory (production ended in 2006), the Nikon FM3a still stands as an impressive photographic tool. It’s quite possibly the most impressive SLR I’ve yet used. For those who prefer SLR cameras, like me, the FM3a gets us to the rarified heights of pretentiousness in which German rangefinder users seem to always reside; a place where the camera becomes “an extension of the eye.” I reluctantly admit they may have a point. When a camera works for you, it’s a magical time.
Firing this electro-mechanical masterpiece on the streets of Boston was as fluid an experience as I’ve had in photography. There was no thought beyond making the shot, no questioning glance to the top of the camera, and no puzzling over frame lines or worrying over light. There was no hunting for focus or wading through menus; no twiddling of dials or viewfinder distractions. It was just me and the camera, and the knowledge that at least one of us was going to work perfectly, every shot. If I could simply focus and think, then there would be nothing standing between me and making a decent photo.
And I think that’s what Nikon intended when they designed the FM3a. They set out as the sun was setting on the heyday of film to create a perfect 35mm film SLR; a camera that would be a masterpiece tool, fit for the most demanding and experienced film shooters. And they finally did it. The Nikon FM3a is a real masterpiece.