I’ve owned three Nikon F3 cameras.
The first was purchased used at Lewis Camera Exchange in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1994. I was getting back into film photography in a big way and had bought a new Nikon N90s and 50/1.8 AF-D kit a year or so before. I didn’t need the F3, but it was a gently used trade in and the price was right. I hardly used that F3. Not because it wasn't a nice camera, but because the N90s was a GREAT camera and auto-focus was such a marvel. I loved shooting that N90s, so my first F3 sat mostly in a camera bag until I sold it during my divorce in 2000.
I got my second F3 about five or six years ago from a photo friend who was selling off some nice gear to fund a Leica acquisition. Didn’t need another camera, had too many already and my second F3 only saw a roll or two before I gifted it to another photo friend.
I never regretted parting ways with either of my first two F3s. I love Nikon SLRs. In fact, the bookends to the F3, the wonderful Nikon F2 and the revolutionary Nikon F4 are two of my all time favorite cameras. I just never clicked with the F3 and had one of my trusted sellers, Josh Cohen at Victory Camera, not sent me a photo of an almost new, minty Nikon F3HP he just got into his shop, I’d probably never have given this camera another thought, but as I gazed at the photos of the subject camera, I got to thinking that maybe I’d never given the F3 a fair shot. If you’ve followed my blog for any time at all, you know it wouldn’t be the first time that I have given a camera a second (or third) whirl and changed my mind. Besides, I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing how much to pay for an old camera and still leave some room to make some money if I had sell it. At least, break even. I gave Josh the green light.
My third F3 arrived from Colorado in a few days. It came nestled in its original box and foam insert, complete with the little white plastic bottom plate cover. If this camera was used at all, it was pampered. No nicks, marks or scuffs. This F3 has the HP or high-eyepoint finder. Nikon says this finder is great for people who wear eyeglasses as it allows the photographer to see the entire viewfinder even if your eye isn’t right up against the camera. I don’t wear glasses, but I appreciate the big viewfinder with its soft rubber eyepiece.
The Nikon F3 was released in 1980 and was Nikon’s flagship pro body until 1996 when the F4 was announced. It remained in production until 2001, but you could find new, in-box F3 cameras on store shelves for many years after that. There are lots of places online to read about the technical specs of the F3, so I won’t go into a long list here. Simply, the F3 is a professional grade manual focus 35mm SLR, built to serve working photographers. Nikon designed this camera to be used and used hard. That’s why it was in production for 20 years. That’s why NASA sent it into space. That’s why so many of the over three quarters of a million F3s that Nikon produced are still around today and still working just fine.
The F3 offers manual or aperture-priority automatic exposure with a top shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second. The shutter is electro-mechanical and is dependent on batteries. The viewfinder is removable and there are all sorts of different finder configurations, focusing screens and attachments. You can also bolt on a huge motor drive if you want. It’s a true system camera.
It has been several years since I’ve handled an F3 and I had forgotten how nice the fit and finish is on this camera. Cameras like the F3, Pentax LX and new Canon F-1 were really the last of the true metal-bodied cameras. Various plastics and rubberized coatings became the norm with the next generation of film cameras. The F3 is all finely finished metal with deeply etched brand and model markings. The controls on the F3 feel reassuring. Film loading is easy and the advance action is sublime. Oh, and the shutter sound of an F3 just brings a smile to my analog face! I shot the F3 concurrently with a Nikon FE2 that had just been CLA’d and while the FE2 is a fabulous camera (review coming soon), the F3 feels far more substantial in every aspect. When you shoot an F3, you know you are using a professional caliber camera.
When I shoot a new-to-me camera for the first time, I usually like to eliminate all of the variables. That normally means selecting brand new, familiar film stock like Kodak’s Portra 400, but I was feeling like living dangerously and loaded the F3 with some Agfa APX 100 that expired twenty years ago. My F3 test drive was a stroll along the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
I think having some miles under my belt and trying so many different brands and kinds of film cameras over the years has given me a new perspective on what kind of camera feels good in my hand. I had forgotten that the F3 has just the slightest of a hand grip built into the right side front of the body. It’s subtle, but just enough to make it one of the best handling SLRs I’ve tried.
In the past, I had considered the F3’s viewfinder display one of the camera’s least attractive features. This time around, I appreciated the simple display of camera-selected shutter speed and photographer-selected aperture. I totally get now what Nikon achieved with this camera…a big, bright viewfinder that gives you just the critical information in a minimalist way, allowing the photographer to concentrate on picture taking. I hadn’t enjoyed a photo stroll so much in a long time. Of course the warm and sunny San Francisco afternoon was nice too!
I finished off the roll with a few shots in the house, pushing the limits of the camera’s meter and expired film under indoor available light. My old school stereo receiver…
And my jar of collected seashells and sea glass…
So, after three of these cameras, I finally get the Nikon F3. It’s a superbly designed, well built picture taking tool and excellent platform for a wide variety of Nikkor manual focus lenses. Nikon’s classic center-weighted metering is hard to fool even when you throw outdated film at it. Yes, it needs batteries to operate and I always read about photographers talking about how great it is that purely mechanical cameras can take pictures all day if the batteries die, but for a casual shooter like me, that’s hardly a worry. I’ve been using film cameras for nearly 45 years and I’ve never had a camera battery go dead on me.
I always ask myself two questions about cameras.
One: If I had to sell all my cameras and keep just one, would I be okay with this one? If it were the Nikon F3, yes. It’s a fun to use, super capable camera that looks great, feels great and will handle most anything you throw at it.
Two: Do I like it enough to invest in a CLA? Yes! Even though this F3 has been well taken care of, it deserves a good cleaning, lubrication and shutter/meter calibration. No matter how nice a camera might look, nearly four decades can take its toll on foam seals. Shutters and on board metering systems can slip out of tolerances as well.
I’m glad I gave the F3 another chance. It’s a fine camera.