Nikon F3

Nikon F3

Nikon F3

 

Introduction

This classic camera was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most dividing celebrity of the 80’s. At least among professional 35mm SLR cameras of course. It  created quite significant waves in the world of professional photography because with it Nikon finally put the vote on automation and electronics as the new lead design principles.

Nikon and me
I am not dedicated to any brands, so there is no particular reason why I haven’t wrote about any Nikons until now. In fact my very first camera was a digital Nikon Coolpix 3500. It was hideous to use and broke horribly, but still it was my very first camera.Not much later I owned for a short time a Nikon F75 which was the first and until now the only camera which I’ve ever sold. It was a great tool, but it had a monstrous hunger for not so cheap CR2 batteries and it was way too modern for me anyway. The little Coolpix is still lying around somewhere in a box with serious electronic injuries. Who knows just like any other (now classic) camera, maybe one day it will get repaired too.

By the time it was very hard to accept  these changes by the majority of professionals who simply did not trust anything which was depending on batteries more than a powering of a light-meter. It is a bit hard to imagine today but at that time it had a perfect sense. But the change was already on the doorstep and it was inevitable. The previous F models were already masterpieces mechanically anyway, there was very little room for possible improvements in the purely mechanical realm.

The F3 was their first electronically controlled single digits F camera and despite of the early resistance by the community, it found the way to tremendous success and changed the face of the camera market once and for all.

In fact what Nikon did with this camera was nothing really revolutionary or unexpected as all the technology was already existed and tested by lower-end models of theirs or by the competitors. They simply selected the best components available and remixed them in a very attractive package.

I could write a lot more about the exciting history of this camera, but there are other more competent people who just did it very well before of me.  So instead of a week attempt of a complete and deep introduction of this camera, I simply try to give an overview filtered through my own experience.

I can faithfully recommend this site for the historical overview and for all possible technical details.

Nikon F3 HP official structural illustration

Nikon F3 HP official structural illustration

 

How did I get this camera

Nowadays my collector nature is being held a back because of the lack of time and dozens of higher priority projects. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sooner or later I need to settle and start to master the gear I already have. The negative side-effect is that I am running out of (new) old cameras to review.  But fortunately it turned out that  I can try out and write about a camera without actually owning it. I have a good friend who has a grandfather with a really good taste and since he moved to digital he gave his old Nikon gear to his grandchild. At first I just spot a box of T-max on the shelf at the place of Andrea’s and I asked her in which camera she intend to use it. Eventually she showed me a really nice bag full with vintage gear including the F3 with motor drive, many great lenses, matching flash unit and many more gems. Few weeks later (when I have recovered the shock, found my jaw and gathered enough courage) I asked her if I could try out the gear. She said yes, so the post you are reading now couldn’t be written without her kindness.

Data sheet

  • Type TTL auto-exposure 35 mm. Single Lens Reflex Camera.
  • Produced 1980-2001
  • Film type 24mm x 36mm
  • Weight 780g (body without lens, but with HP prism, batteries and film loaded)
  • Dimensions (HP version) 148.5 x mm height, 101.5 mm width, 69 mm depth
  • Lens mount Nikon F-mount
  • Shutter electronically controlled, horizontal-travel titanium focal-plane shutter
  • Shutter speeds 8s-1/2000s, B, Aperture priority,  1/60s can be used mechanically without batteries
  • Sync speed 1/80s
  • Viewfinder various interchangeable finders
  • Exposure meter full-aperture TTL centre-weighted exposure measurement at (80/20)
  • Batteries   Two 1.5V silver-oxide batteries SR44 (Eveready EPX-76) or alkaline manganese batteries LR44
  • Self-timer 10s delay electronic self-timer
  • Hot shoe special accessory shoe on the rewind knob supporting TTL flash units; PC synchro socket.
  • Motor drive optional MD4 motor drive up to 5.5  frames per second with mirror lock-up
  • Mirror lock-up
  • Depth of field preview
  • AE-lock
  • Multiple exposure lever
  • Exposure compensation

First and second impressions

When I first had a closer look, I was not exactly impressed. The camera was bit dusty and showed marks of very extensive use. Nothing serious, but I really had the impression that the camera may had some mechanical issues. Nevertheless I took my time, and cleaned the dust and smudges carefully.  During the process I had to realize two very important things. First of all never give up on an F3, these cameras are very hard to kill, no matter how they look like there probably nothing wrong inside. Second of all it has many buttons and switches which I had no idea what are they good for. I have seen many unusual designs like left handed Exactas and other marvels, but the F3 control layout gave us some rounds with Google and the user manual.

Nikon F3 with MD-4 motor drive, Nikkor 28mm f/3,5 and HP prism.

Nikon F3 with MD-4 motor drive, Nikkor 28mm f/3,5 and HP prism.

I also cleaned the lenses belonging to the F3 and since they were protected with  filters all of them were in an excellent condition. They feel a bit dry to me in terms of lubrication, but otherwise focusing very smoothly and precisely. Maybe they act completely normally, only I am not so familiar with Nikon AIS lenses.

After I finished the cleaning of the gear and finally powered up the camera, the moments I spent with trying out every part of it lead me to the conclusion. You can trust this camera. The more I use it, the more I trust. The sound of the shutter, the feel of the advance lever, the snappiness of the motor drive all ensure this feeling. After all this image what a professional camera should show about itself.

Things I love about the F3

As I said the Internet is loaded with much more established articles about the Nikon F3, therefore the very best I can do is to share my personal opinion about it. Let’s start with the things I most appreciate in this camera.

Look and feel

Nikon F3 in leather half case with Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 and HP prism.

Nikon F3 in leather half case with Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 and HP prism.

The F3 is an important milestone in the history of Nikon, but not only because of the technological aspects. This was the first Nikon which appearance was designed by the Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.  He introduced the red mark on the grip, which is an unmistakable characteristics of every Nikon SLRs since then. Indeed, this camera looks different from every previous models and can be distinguished with ease from the competitors as well.

Personally, I like the previous F shapes better, but I have to admit that the F3 looks all right and it also handles great at the same time. The small grip contributes to the secure holding, and I find it very clever how it fits together with the motor-drive.

Butter smooth operation (excellent mechanics)

Every part of the camera carries the marks of mechanical excellence.  Even the smallest moving piece is doing its job with minimal resistance and completely free from any inappropriate noise.

There is virtually no difference in the operation of the film advance lever with and without film loaded into the camera. It is really that smooth that you can have a hard time to say that the camera loaded.

The mirror flips up quietly and gently as well, it produces very little camera shake compare to my other SLR cameras.

Viewfinder experience

For me one of the most important aspect in a camera is the viewfinder experience, and this is where the Nikon F3 really shines.

First and foremost this camera features a modular design, which allows you to choose from a huge variety of focusing screens and finders. This particular kit came with a HP prism and with my all times favorite waist level finder.

Nikon F3 in leather half case with Nikkor 50mm f/1,4 and HP prism. Waist level finder next to it.

Nikon F3 in leather half case with Nikkor 50mm f/1,4 and HP prism. Waist level finder next to it.

The HP abbreviation stands for High eye Point which provides a proper picture in the finder from the viewing distance up to 2,5 cm. This is especially beneficial for those who wear glasses, having larger than average nose or don’t want to squeeze their eyeball into the finder window. Although I don’t wear glasses, I still find convenient to use this finder too. The downside is that the image is slightly smaller than the one found in the usual prism. The finder window is round shaped, which looks very nice and professional in my opinion . The prism also features a window-blind to prevent light entering and thus altering metering results when shooting on a tripod.

I mentioned that waist level finders are very close to me, I have got used to the work with them with my Pentacon Six. Due to the lack of any additional optical elements (prism, mirrors), this finder gives the brightest and crispest image possible which indeed looks marvelous when using the F3.

Viewfinder mock

Viewfinder mock

But the best part of this camera is the way it indicates shooting parameters in within the finder.

A small LCD display shows the shutter speed settings, while the actual aperture marking (from the lens itself) is projected into the finder. In other words, you really see your lens marking in the viewfinder. I simply cannot imagine any cooler solution for this problem.

These information windows are built into the body, therefore all compatible finders benefit from them. The same information can be read in the HP prism and in the waist level finder.

Light metering

Nikon F3 metering with secondary mirror

Nikon F3 metering with secondary mirror

But how is the light metering done? Traditionally the metering cell/s are located in the prism.  Obviously it cannot be the case with the waist level finder, besides all readings are passed from the body to the finders.

In case of the  of the Nikon F3, the metering cell is located in the body to support the interchangeable viewfinder design. The cell is located at the bottom of the mirror box facing backwards to the direction of the film. There is a small secondary mirror underneath the main mirror in order to transfer the light for metering. The main mirror is semi transparent at the middle thus the secondary mirror can reflect part of the light to the metering cell. The secondary mirror moves synchronously with the main mirror.

This layout has another benefit of being capable to measure the light reflected back from the very surface of the film being exposed. This way real time exposure control is possible which is essential with TTL flash photography.

1/80s before the first frame

Have you ever tried to load a semi automatic camera with the lens cap on? I committed this mistake quite a few times with my Olymous OM 4. Normally, because the lens cap is on, the camera calculates a very long exposure time so you need to wait a lot before you could get to the next frame. This could be really annoying especially when you are in hurry. Of course, if you set your camera to manual mode during loading, this is not an issue at all, but somehow I walk into this trap quite often.

It seems that the engineers of Nikon knew my kind and built in a mechanism which sets the shutter speed to 1/80s until the frame counter reaches the 0 marking. This prevents me to fire a 30s exposure during film loading.

This can be a disadvantage to those who tries to get the maximum amount of frames out of every roll, but personally I think it is a really nice and clever feature.

Small touches everywhere

The Devil is in the details.  If you take a closer look on this camera, you can notice a numerous fine details which aren’t that necessary to operate the camera, but contribute to the overall feeling. They make you feel confident that the camera you are holding is a very special and fine tool.

Some of the little details are not unique to this particular model, but characteristics of the Nikons at this era.  For example I like the screw cap of the battery compartment. It has a small plastic holder, which positions the batteries and it has a clear graphical indication, how the batteries should be placed.

There is a lock on literally everything which can be accidentally moved such as shutter speed dial, film rewind, exposure compensation and mechanical shutter release. There is no way, you accidently change a setting or open the camera.

Ever-ready case is the best I have seen apart from 3rd party manufacturers.  It can be used as a half case, it lets you see the film notes at the back and it is very stylish.

The window blind on the prism, the mechanical shutter release, the way they implemented multiple exposure control are all very fine details.

Nikon F3 in my hands

Nikon F3 in my hands

 

Things I don’t like so much

Actually it is very hard to find anything  to not to like on this camera, but I have managed to put together a short list.

Weird switches

Nikon F3 weird switches (Can you spot the self-timer? it is actually around the shutter speed dial)

Nikon F3 weird switches (Can you spot the self-timer? it is actually around the shutter speed dial)

Probably because the F3 is a completely new breed of  industrial design among Nikon cameras, they had to make compromises here and there. Some switches such as self-timer and the on-off switch are a bit small and less intuitive to use. It took me some time to figure out what is the self-timer switch is doing. But the weirdest button of all is the little red rectangle just below the finder. This is used to illuminate the shutter speed information screen in the finder. It is hard to find and even harder to press during composing  a frame. You need to use one of your  fingernails to be able to push it.

Hot shoe

Because of the interchangeable viewfinder design, the hot-shoe could not be placed at the top of the prism, therefore and alternative solution was needed. The Nikon F3 has a very interesting non standard flash shoe combined with the film-rewind lever. This part of the camera gives home to the film speed settings and exposure compensation.  To use flash, you need a special flash or an adapter.

Test shoots and answer to the scanner crisis

I have asked specifically the guys at my favorite camera shop and photo lab to scan my negatives without over-compressing the resulting jpg files. But they managed to give me once again 50% compressed garbage, therefore I officially gave up on them and decided to give another shoot to my old scanner. This time however, I tried out SilverFast (again) instead of the factory software I used and finally I have found the common understanding with this software. It really gave a new life to the old scanner of mine. I love the possibility to reduce noise by multiple scanning. I still think that this is not the final solution for my scanning crisis, but for the time being it is an acceptable compromise.

Click on the photos for full resolution versions so you can really see the quality of the scans! If you feel like, I would be happy to read your opinion in the comments section about the quality of these shoots and of course about the photos themself. 

Barbara

Barbara (Graz, 2013) Nikon F3, Nikkor 50mm f/1,4, Kodal Portra 160 (Expired), Canoscan 9900F

Eszti

Eszti (Graz, 2013) Nikon F3, Nikkor 50mm f/1,4, Kodal Portra 160 (Expired), Canoscan 9900F

Michael

Michael (Graz, 2013) Nikon F3, Nikkor 50mm f/1,4, Kodal Portra 160 (Expired), Canoscan 9900F

Richard

Richard (Graz, 2013) Nikon F3, Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 @ f/2.5, Kodal Portra 160 (Expired), Canoscan 9900F

 

Olympus OM 4 Ti vs Nikon F3

I know that this is not a fair comparison since the OM4 was released a few years later, yet both cameras represents the top of the manual focus models in their respective brands. Both of them shares the formula of manual focus, electronically controlled horizontally travelling shutter with mechanical back-up, aperture priority auto exposure, somewhat similar light metering system with TTL flash control and separate motor drive. It would be better to compare the titanium versions, but at the moment  I have my hands only on the normal F3.

Obviously the OM4 Ti feels more solid despite its lighter weight. It is smaller and you really can feel that this is a weather sealed titanium body. The F3 feels also solid in my hands, but  not the same. I prefer my OM 4 Ti when it comes to build quality. Again the F3 titanium would probably compare differently.

The multi-spot light metering system of the OM 4 is also superior to the F3, although I had no issues so far with the Nikon even when using flash. On paper though the Olympus offers more in this aspect. It has to be said that the OM 4 is a newer camera, therefore this comparison is not entirely fair neither.

Olympus OM 4 Ti vs Nikon F3

Olympus OM 4 Ti vs Nikon F3

The viewfinder experience is better on the Nikon due to the fact that not only the shutter speed, but the aperture values are shown in the finder. However the OM4 warns you right in the in the viewfinder when exposure compensation is active while the Nikon shows nothing. Both cameras can benefit from a wide variety of focusing screens, but of course the Nikon has the possibility to change the whole finder.

In terms of electronics, I feel more confident with the Nikon, somehow it feels as a more bulletproof system to me. The clever solution of fix 1/80s for the first shoots before the 0 frame and the very long battery life all gives me a good feeling.  The Olympus has a very mature system, but I had some troubles with week batteries and the battery life is also less.

At the end both cameras are excellent choices and I think both can do the job equally well. The F3 offers more features such as mirror lock-up, multiple exposure, interchangeable finders,  high eye-point  prism, but the OM 4 is smaller, features a very unique and excellent light metering and flash system and has a rather classical look.

But no camera worth anything without compatible lenses. I think that the OM lineup is strong enough, but Nikon is definitely has a serious advantage here. So if you are about to choose between these 2 cameras or similar models, consider your lens needs first.

I own the OM4 and I will need to give back the F3 soon,  and while I really enjoyed the time with the Nikon, I still appreciate the Olympus look so my camera-bag remains intact.

Conclusion and recommendation

If you would like modern, but  manual focus camera which you can trust with no compromise in features and don’t mind the size, than this is the camera for you. I think the F3 is affordable today and you can use a really impressive set of affordable quality lenses as well. The motor drive is not my thing, but indeed it can make this camera a speed daemon (~5 fps) as long as you can handle the focus. TTL flash photography is also among the features, but keep in mind that you need a special adapter or a compatible unit.

I really like this camera, it is a pleasure to use, it does look stylish and it has the coolest aperture indication in viewfinder ever. So if you like it, grab one in good conditions and you will not need another camera for a long time because this oe will never let you down.

References

Fun

Nikon F3 in Area 88

Nikon F3 in Area 88

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10 comments

  1. Skuggsjá · July 6, 2013

    Great review! Thank you!

  2. welcometoalville · July 6

    Nice write up. I’ve shot with an F3 since 1989 and it’s terribly battered but still works flawlessly. My favorite camera of all. Your photos are excellent throughout your site.

    • camerajunky · July 6

      Thank you for the complement. I am sure that your camera will work for a long time. Keep enjoying it.

  3. Toby Madrigal · July 6

    I am currently using a pair of F3 bodies, one has been fitted with the WLF to save weight. I carry them with the 4 lenses I find most useful in a black Billingham Hadley bag. The lenses are 28/35/50/85mm all f2. I have the MD4 motor, also the DA2 action finder. Although a fine accessory for viewing, it’s sometimes a pain as people point to it asking what it is? My kit was bought all secondhand at least 15 years ago and still works fine. I only had limited capital to invest in camera gear for my business and was advised to look at Nikon and in particular the F3. I know people with both F and F2 Photomic finders on their bodies. None of them work. The electronics and mechanical sections of my cameras still work as good as when I bought them. When I began work as a photojournalist, I had an old motorbike, thus the cameras and lenses got plenty of bumping about. Sometimes I have dropped the bag! For anyone wanting to try film or go back to it, the F3 and a few lenses are the best value for money you can get. An F or F2 body with defunct finder generally costs twice that of an F3. Digital? You can keep it.

    • camerajunky · July 6

      Wow, the DA” finder really is special. I have never seen one live, but looks very interesting indeed. Your lens collection is also something I favor too. Classic focal lengths are well suited for me. Thanks for your comment, and wish you lots of good light and fun with your F3s.

  4. Brian K · July 6

    Great review! I also have an F3though not the HP version with the with a 50mm 1.2 that my father bought in 1980 and it’s now been in my possession for the last 10 years..i’ve just restarted using in a few years ago and using it is such a pleasure compared to modern DSLRs..just love the simplicity! The only problem with mine is with the metering which doesn’t seem to indicate the correct exposure anymore..i’ve been contemplating sending it back to nikon to get it repaired but i’m not sure if it’d be worth it since everything else works and i’m kind of used to shooting manually using the sunny 16 rule to calculate shutter speed and such…I’d love it if you could do a tutorial about scanning 35mm film and the settings and steps you use in lightroom to get to the finished digital photographs as the ones posted above. You seem to be getting pretty good results. Thanks for the interesting read and blog!

    • camerajunky · July 6

      Thanks. It is actually a good idea to write about scanning and post processing. Hopefully I will have time for it soon.

  5. Pablo · July 6

    :D great review now i get a F3 thanks :D

  6. David · 2 Days Ago

    Thanks! I like Nikon.

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