Nikon FM3a Review – A Nearly Perfect SLR

Nikon FM3a Review – A Nearly Perfect SLR

2200 1238 James Tocchio

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!).

Shots in the gallery below were made on Ferrania P30 Alpha with the Nikkor 105mm F/2.5.

Shots in the gallery below were made by CP staffer Dustin Vaughn-Luma using the AI Nikkor 50mm F/1.4 and many films; JCH 400, Ilford HP5 Plus, Acros 100

Minor Flaws

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.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
33 comments
  • I’ve been waiting for this one! The FM3a is by far my favorite SLR. I use my primarily with the voigtlander 40mm f/2 which is a very compact lens with incredible optics. It’s the perfect compact combo.
    The shutter mechanism on this camera is truly amazing. There is an article somewhere on Nikon’s website which goes deep into the development process and challenges the engineers faced trying to make it work.
    I’m often bitten by the gear bug but this is my keeper SLR for sure. Not to say it’s perfect, but it’s the best SLR I’ve used by a long shot. That being said, I dislike how the advance lever has to be pulled out to fire the shutter (a fault of all the FM/FE series cameras). I wish the viewfinder had 100% coverage (If Olympus can get 97% at 0.92 magnification, Nikon should have done better than 93% at 0.83). Finally although I much prefer the needle metering over LEDs, I wish they would have included illumination in the viewfinder or at least a white background so that it can be seen against a dark background.
    Like you said, no camera is perfect. For me, the FM3a is pretty darn close.

  • Great article! And the FM3a is a masterpiece indeed! I love my Nikon FE, that I find excellent, but the FM3a takes it to another level. Simple and very intuitive to use, and so efficient for the results! And those fabulous Nikkor lenses…. The 28/2.8 and 50/1.2 are my favorites for now, but still need to explore the possibilities of the 105/2.5 🙂

  • I would love one of these, they combine the best features from the FM2 and FE2, but I just couldn’t justify it at that price. The FE2 does pretty much everything the FM3a does and is much cheaper, so that’s what I ended up buying to accompany my FM2n. I like having two Nikon bodies to avoid having to switch lenses.

  • Yann Kaneko (@YannKaneko) March 2, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Great article, could you please sale me it to me now has the price are up there in Ebay.

    Thank you.

    *Not serious*

  • There is one annoyance forgotten te mention though. Although, as said, a camera is very personal.
    This camera’s exposure lock is the wind lever. You have to unlock it from the rest otherwise the camera will not fire. This is not so much an issue if this is your only camera. But when you mix with non-Nikon camera’s it makes you miss shots. And, I find the feeling of my thumb against my face (resting between the advance lever and the body) gets in the way…

    • Yeah, especially for left-eyed shooters this is annoying. It isn’t something that bothers me personally, but I have heard a number of photographers point to this as a problem. Thanks for adding it here in the comments!

    • It really is a matter of personal taste. I’ve owned my FM2n for over 20 years, it was my third SLR, following a Pentax K1000 and a Minolta X-370. I’ve been using it for so long that the exposure lock is second nature even though I own many other cameras.

      • i agree with the comments, i use my FM2n (and of course my FM3a) most of the time and i usually advance the film after a shot and lock-it. when i’m ready to shoot something, i’ll bring the camera to my eye and un-lock – easy for me. when i got the F3HP, i have to mentally note to either un-lock the shutter release (or else i’ll miss a shot) or to not advance the lever first before putting the camera away (or i’ll un-intentionally fire a shot). that’s definitely my personal experience. i wondering now if the F3P (Press version) is more intuitive with the un-lock/lock of the shutter release.. hmmmmmm..

  • William Sommerwerck March 2, 2018 at 11:44 am

    The FM3a is reminiscent of the OM-4 — and that is not a criticism. I wish my Olympus and Canon DSLRs were as simple and straightforward to use. All-too-often, I have to fight the camera to get it to do what I want.

  • hi there! the viewfinder is not fixed – there’s 3 choices. it can be switched from the original K version (split-prism), to the B version (clear matte) or E version (etched with vertical and horizontal lines). i own one of these, and usually shoot it in aperture priority mode when i’m shooting something fast. its a great camera for that. but… i usually reach for my FM2n though, mostly because i prefer the led metering.

    • For sure! But the prism is not removable like it is with most of the pro-spec F bodies. As for the LED metering, it’s absolutely better in low light. The Pentax LX has some beautiful LEDs as well!

      • oh yes, the prism is not switchable. now i’m missing my F3HP that i sold a while back.. the article by CP on the Pentax LX made me look for one then, when i still have a few M-lenses with a Pentax ME. the mention of the LX’s viewfinder as “perfect” and the small size made me curious enough, but the prices were crazy.

  • Well daggone it, now I want one!

    By the way, your camera reviews are the only ones on the whole Internet where I read the text and frequently forget to look at the images. That’s because the text is so good.

    • Thanks so much Jim. I want one too! This one was loaned to me by DVL, and now I have to send it back… sad, sad day.

  • Merlin Marquardt March 2, 2018 at 1:47 pm

    Great camera, great review.

  • This camera is so compact it makes for a superb travel kit with the Voigtlander SL40/2, 45/2.8 pancake or the old 50/1.8 AIS / SeriesE pancake, and every control save for the flash compensation button is pretty self-evident and clear. The exposure compensation lock and difficult to see needle are minor quibbles that I compensate for using the exposure lock thumb button to lock metering, and in the dark by the time it gets hard to see the needle I’d usually have it set it to 1/30s wide open with ASA800 or ASA1600 black and white anyway…

  • Sweet camera. I couldn’t bring myself to buy one over an FE2 as in use they are the same, but the FE2 has the way cooler old skool Nikon font on the pentaprism.

    I have the 45 2.8P AIS, and the Voigtlander 40 2.0, and prefer the Voigtlander. If you get the 45-P, make sure to get the much rarer black one. The silver version looks plasticky in comparison.
    😉

  • Great write-up and pictures, as usual. I’m definitely with you about the FM3a being almost perfect. Its a great size, easy to use, and precision-built. That shutter has a nice buttery sound to it. Of the Nikons I own and have previously owned, I think the FM3a and F4 are the most engaging to use (I admit, I haven’t used an F5 or 6 yet). My one wish for the camera is that Nikon would have added the ability to use non-ai lenses with a flip-up tab like the F4.

  • i agree as well on the logo font! and yes, the Voigtlander is such a beautiful lens, especially the rendering of colour.

  • I have used an FM3A and I did very much like it. My very first camera was a Nikon FE, so I am comfortable with this camera’s design and layout. But: It is hard to justify the very high price tag of an FM3A, when I can buy (and have bought) a pristine condition FE2 for half the price of a beater FM3A. Or two F3s that will last a few lifetimes. It is nice to have so many available options, though.

  • Gonna go back and read this one again… even though you are one of the best film writers on the net as noted in the many comments. 😉 That darn canoe image has my fixated. Also, James, I know I’ve commented and you’ve replied.. don’t forget about the F100 (though I’m happy for you not to write about it so prices for a second copy stay in tact); it’s a heck of a machine.

    • Be very careful closing the film back of the F100. I manually hold up the door latch as it is made of plastic. This part breaks very easily especially with age, rendering the camera toast. There’s a reason there are so many F100s out there for sale missing the camera back.. Really strange that Nikon skimped on that part when they could have made it out of metal like almost all their other cameras.

  • Kenneth Lundgren March 3, 2018 at 8:43 am

    I had my OM4 for 35 years now and always longing for OM3, a pure mechanical camera. Well my OM4 has struggle for some years now with the light metering and the battery consumption. Locking for OM3 but its very expensive so I expand my view and found FM2, a pure mechanical with 4000 speed as bonus, with some Zeiss lenses 35 and 85mm and a Sekonic battery free lightmeter that would be my next 35 year camera setup, as long as film stands on market.

  • I have an Fe2 and Fm2. I have always wanted an fm3a but the price has kept me away from it. The only thing I don’t like about the Fm3a is the match needle metering in it. it is difficult to see in some situations. I believe its the same thing the fe2 has. I think I like the led meters in the f2as and fm2. I have been in plenty of situations where I have been in costa rica, or on a camping trip, or surf trip and my batteries have gone dead and could not find spares so its comforting to know you have a camera that wont stop working when the batteries die.

  • Thank you for reviewing this very fine camera. I have had mine since 2003, bought new, and have not once regretted buying it: built solid, good to hand.
    To expect perfection is always going to be like hoping to bring the rainbow home. As users, we all have our personal preferences and one can find some little niggling shortcoming or other in almost all things. Fortunately, we are gifted by the ability to adapt. So, we can really get used to almost any camera we put our minds to using.
    I turned away from digital when the batteries failed due to extreme cold in the vast remoteness on Ladakh. The ability to fall back on the mechanical ability of this camera is it’s strong point for me.

  • I have an FM2n, which I love. Have always thought about trying this “last of an era” Nikon. I’m totally a fan of the Pentax LX, which really was the last and best film Pentax. I’m sure I’d fall just as hard for the FM3A.

  • Noooooooo! No G.A.S.!!

  • I bought a FM3a on a whim back in 2005. I had a F5 at the time and thought it would be nice to have a fully manual camera as well. Little did I know I was buying a masterpiece and Nikon’s manual SLR swansong! I still have both the FM3A and F5 today, and I think they make the perfect combination, depending upon what mood I’m in!

  • I imported a mint example from Japan. Absolute beauty takes beautiful pictures and does not get in the way. Build every good as a Leica IMHO.

  • Another great article, on one of my favourite cameras. I owned one, but personally I preferred the older FM2 with its led lights.

  • Thanks for another good review!

    Overall though my take is a bit different. Yes, this is a greatest hits version of a manual film camera for Nikon, and as such they really threw in some impressive technology, bridging the gap between electronic AF features and manual cameras. However in my view Nikon penny-pinched on a few silly items that detract from an otherwise great camera.

    1) The camera is brass, albeit a very thin gauge, meaning it is lighter but also more fragile. Unlike the tank-like F3 this camera almost feels flimsy by comprarison.
    2) Tha aperture tab is plastic and doesn’t accomodate pre-AI lenses. This for such a landmark camera NOT keeping it compatible with older lenses is tantamount to sacrilege! Also it’s plastic construction MAY save a few grams and a few Yen, but it doesn’t bode well for long-term use. Plastic can become brittle over time, and certainly a roughly inserted lens might break it.
    3) Missing is a film-door lock, which considering they placed a lock on the exposure compensation dial, seems also a bit wierd. Ultimately the camera favours ease of use over pro-level locks and controls, so this third point is more philosophical divergence than outright flaw

    On the plus side the expusure needle is very pleasing and visually direct, and although hard to see in dark light, is much more useful than led arrows, as you know instantly HOW far under or over-exposed you are. It makes zone metering fairly easy, as you can calculate mentally how much range you have, and then the AE-L button will hold exposure values for you. Really well done and one of the stronger points of this camera.

    Another point, this is perhaps the most flash-friendly manual camera by Nikon, and although I don’t use flash very often, when I do I don’t want to overpower my subjects, and the flash compensation button on the front ensures that.

    When I started looking for this camera online I’d totally bought into the whole mystique of the Last Great Film Camera, but ownership has seen it less used than it’s much more robust professional predecessor, the F3. Obviously I am comparing cameras that came from different ages (1980 vs 2001, a 21 year gap) but the F3 is still a supremely usable camera today, and way more durable. Obviously being 100% electronic it can fail and leave you without manual shutter control which the FM3a DOES, but in reality my copy has only once been to the camera repair shop and has been working flawlessly since. Its combination of durabilty, 100% viewfinder, and yes even heft, see me using my F3 more than the FM3a. I own too many cameras (or so my wife says) but over the last 6 months I’ve shot 14 rolls and of those 6 were with the F3 and only one with the FM3a. Other cameras included an EM, as well as some medium format cameras. This does not mean that I regret my decision in buying the FM3a. Possibly I regret buying the Chrome version (it was WAAAAY cheaper) and maybe that is it’s problem, it doesn’t look quite as pro as the F3. Will I ever sell my FM3a?! Don’t think so! It’s not likely that Nikon will ever make a better film camera.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio