Nikon F3 – Legend with a red stripe

Nikon F3

When the Nikon F3 was created, the angels sang, a calm came over the world and a stream of light shone onto a workbench in Tokyo.  That is what a lot of people will tell you (maybe not exactly in those words though). In truth, this was never a ground breaking camera but a consolidation of all that was good in an SLR in 1980.

In fact, when the F3 was released it actually faced a lot of backlash.  It uses electronics, which back then had not been proven to last.  Time has generally proven them now, but if you can, imagine being a Nikon F2 user in 1980.  You were using a camera which is tough and as reliable that anybody can expect.  You are then presented with something that relies on batteries to fire the shutter.  There would be natural hesitation.

Lover’s sunset | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 80-200mm f/4.5 N Ai | Kodak Portra 160
Lover’s sunset | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 80-200mm f/4.5 N Ai | Kodak Portra 160

The one thing that is universally agreed is that the Nikon F3 is a beautiful camera.  It was designed by a car designer.  It just screams cutting edge early 1980s design style.  The designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro believed products needed to function honestly for the user, not just function correctly.  Giugiaro also designed the DeLorean motor car, which interestingly can be seen to have similarities with the F3.

One of the most iconic design choices of the F3 is the red line down the right side, next to the grip.  Mentioning that line in isolation does not relay the significance it brought to the Nikon identity.  It was then incorporated in almost all Nikon cameras from then, even to this day.

Sun shade | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | JCH Street Pan 400
Sun shade | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | JCH Street Pan 400

Even within the F3 fan base there is contention. Apart from the special release models, various people will swear by the HP (High viewpoint) finder, while others will tell you the eye level finder is better.  It can depend if the photographer wears glasses, but not always. What is agreed though, is that the viewfinder is bright and a pleasure to look through.

Quite a few Nikons have been reviewed here at Photo Thinking, including in the pro range, the Nikon F and the highly regarded Nikon F2. Also covered is what is considered a companion SLR for the pro range, even today, the Nikon FM2n.

Peeking from within the bakery tent |Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | Kodak Portra 400
Peeking from within the bakery tent |Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | Kodak Portra 400

The Nikon F3 is an iconic camera, polarises some opinions and has proven to be reliable and popular.  It was available for 21 years, outlasting its replacement in the F4 and well into the life of the F5.  That is an impressive CV for a camera, especially one which had doubts from the pros due to reliance on electronics.

The F3 became and is one of my main cameras which I will gladly use for anything important.  I will happily tell you it is a pleasure to use when I am in the mood for a manual SLR.  Especially with my current vintage Nikkor lens collection.  After a bit of information about the camera, I will tell you why.

Flowers | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400
Flowers | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400

History

In the late 1970s, Nikon was at a crucial decision point.  Having dominated the camera market with the F2 they started to plan for the next iteration of their professional line of cameras.  While the F2 was well established, known to perform and basically indestructible, a view of the future was already showing.

Canon had released the AE-1 in 1976 which is operated by a microprocessor.  This and a few other examples were significant, as it made it clear that electronics were coming and here to stay.  Just think, if Nikon had decided that it will stick with a fully mechanical camera, it would have been well into another decade before they could have tried to catch up.

Blue Mountains in bushfire smoke | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400
Blue Mountains in bushfire smoke | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400

They then took the brave step and designed a camera with an electromagnetic shutter release.  This allowed them to incorporate an electronic quartz shutter. A liquid crystal display (LCD) to display the shutter speed was also factored into the design.

One of the major changes which also had an impact on the function and the form factor was to move the metering into the camera body. This was a departure from the F2 and Photomic head.  Nikon was designing a fully modular system again and wanted the ability to meter through the lens (TTL) regardless of the view finder attached.  This was done though the mirror.

DMC DeLorean | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800
DMC DeLorean | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800

This presented a conundrum on how do you package all this together?  Package it and ensure it still captures market share against the expected resistance. This is where they brought in Giorgetto Giugiaro, one of the 20thcentury’s premier automobile designers. In 1999 he was actually named Car Designer of the Century and in 2002 was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  

He is widely known for the design of the DMC DeLorean, the same one in Back to the Future movies.  What a lot of people may not realise is that he is responsible for a quite a number of well known cars as well as a wealth of more “regular” ones.  He designed a bunch of Alpha Romeo cars, BMWs including the M1, Aston Martin including the DB4 GT, a number of Maserati cars and a whole lot more. 

Apart from cars, he also is credited with designing his own pasta shape, the Marille.  Other items include high end office furniture.

Sydney Opera House sails | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800
Sydney Opera House sails | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800

In an interview for designboom, Giugiaro states “my philosophy in cars and objects is that the form should be honest, we could say that I try to remove the superfluous and be harmonious, I strive for harmony in complexity. I know that I have to decorate the product, give it a characteristic and an emotion, so that it is not rejected by the market.

Specifically, for the Nikon F3, in other publications, he is quoted as saying “For the Nikon F3, I added a red line to the professional-use camera, which used to be entirely black. I sought to make that the hallmark of the Nikon F3 through a bit of graphic flair. In other words, I added a bit of fun to it. Fortunately, the company likes the addition of the red line. I am delighted that the company still uses it extensively to give a family feel to Nikon’s camera line.

Poppies at Australian War Memorial | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400
Poppies at Australian War Memorial | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400

Putting all this together, Nikon produced a camera which looked modern and worked as such.  The red line breaking up all the black between the grip and the body giving the camera texture.  The grip itself was new for the Nikon pro SLR line.

Initially the sales of the F3 were not strong in the first year, 1980.  In fact, during the overlap, the F2 did retain a decent percentage of sales.  In 1981 though, things changed quickly.  The professionals worked out the benefits of such a design, but there were a few more new functions that the F3 won them over with.

With the microprocessor, the F3 has Aperture Priority mode added.  This allows the photographer to focus on depth of field and creativity.  The camera then takes care of shutter speed.

Smell this | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Oriental Seagull 400
Smell this | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Oriental Seagull 400

Nikon ensured that even when the F3 was released that it was not just job done and left to sell.  It came with options for configuration, including the very popular High viewpoint (DE-3) finder which reclassifies the camera as a F3HP.   This allowed the viewfinder to be used further back, really handy for eyeglass wearers. Another popular finder is the waist level finder.

The F3 was sold for 21 years.  This outlasted the F4 which was released to replace it. In fact, it continued to sell into this century, until 2001.  That is well into the period the F5 dominated as the top of the line Nikon.

These days, the Nikon F3 is available on the second hand market.  Prices are rising as LCDs and other parts start to fail, and available units decline. It does though, hold a romanticism in the SLR world which does not have many rivals. 

La Perouse | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektachrome E100
La Perouse | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektachrome E100

Camera Specifics

The Nikon F3 is a 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.  It accepts lenses for the Nikon F mount all the way from 1959.  This includes pre-Ai lenses by moving a small tab.  It is optimised for Ai and Ai-s lenses.  

The more modern G lenses will only work wide open as they do not have an aperture ring.  DX lenses will vignette heavily as they are designed for a crop sensor.  Focus is manual with the only exception being some late innovations with specialised lenses.  

Aperture can only be controlled by an aperture ring on the lens which the camera recognises for exposure metering.  The aperture can also be seen in the viewfinder, through a little cut out window.  

Nikon F3 and Nikon F3HP with motor drive.
Nikon F3 and Nikon F3HP with motor drive.

Shutter speed can be selected through a dial on the top plate.  Available shutter speeds range from 1/2000thto 8 seconds, Bulb, Time and X (1/80thsecond for flash).  The shutter will only work at 1/60thsecond without a battery.  “A” is also available for Aperture Priority, which allows setting of the aperture and the camera will select the shutter speed based on the exposure reading.

The shutter speed is displayed on an LCD within the viewfinder.  Shutter speeds are shown in full stops.  “+” and “-“ symbols are also displayed for over and under exposure warnings.  The LCD is illuminated by ambient light.  A small red button on the side of the viewfinder turns on a small light in low light situations.

The viewfinder is part of the modular system the camera is built around.  There are a number of different viewfinder heads, including the standard eye-level, the high-viewpoint, 6x high magnified, waist level, and action finders.  They all allow the camera to show the shutter speed and aperture.  Multiple focusing screens are also available and can also be changed over.  

The metering is through the lens (TTL), through the mirror itself.  Metering is 80% centre weighted.  There are tiny holes in the mirror which allow 8% of the light through to the meter via a secondary mirror.  This design allows the reflective light meter to be housed in the body rather than the view finder.  

The two benefits of this design are that the viewfinder construction is smaller and exposure metering is available for all viewfinders.  Around the dial is the self-timer lever, 10 seconds indicated by the flashing red light on the front.

Next to the shutter speed dial is the shutter release which has a standard cable release thread.  It is an electromagnetic shutter release, which gives the photographer an exposure reading when it is half pressed.  Around it is the frame advance lever which is operated with the right thumb.  Just forward to this is the multiple exposure selector.

On the other side of the top plate is the film rewind, which can be released by a button under the camera.  It also disengages the lock for the back when lifted and allows access to load film.  To the side of the lever is the compensation selector.  The range of compensation ranges from -2 stops to +2 stops.

Rotating the dial under the film rewind lever allows selection of the film speed in ISO ratings.  ISO range is from 12 to 6400.

A unique design on the F3 is that it does not have a cold or hot shoe, but a proprietary flash mount requiring an adaptor.  It is located where the film rewind is, requiring removal to rewind film when finished.  This is a point of contention, with most people not preferring this design. Flash sync speed is 1/80thsecond.

On the front of the camera, next to the lens mount, is lens release button.  On the other side near the top is a silver depth-of-field preview button.  Rotating the lever around it while holding it down activates the mirror lockup.  

A button a little lower on the same side is an exposure memory button, which coincidentally is lost on a lot of copies these days.  The lever around this button releases the mechanical shutter release, to be used in the case of no batteries.  This is limited to 1/60thsecond only.

The back of the camera only features a film speed reminder slot, to put the box flap into it.

Inserting film in the back is a fairly standard affair, by threading the film on the right side.  With the back open, the shutter is visible.  It is a horizontal-travel titanium focal plane shutter, rated for 150,000 exposures.

A popular accessory with the professionals was the MD-4 motor drive.  It also powers the camera itself, not just the film advance.  It has its own shutter release button.  With the motor drive the camera can power through 6 frames per second.

The camera is powered by 2 LR44 or SR44 batteries. The motor drive requires 8 AA batteries. Camera design has been executed to allow the camera to be perfectly balanced with the motor drive, though it does cover the red stripe.

During the years it was available, some special F3 models where released.  This includes the F3/T, a titanium body version.  Two versions of this were released, originally in champagne then in black.  The F3AF was released in 1983, utilising special lenses and was Nikon’s first auto focus camera.  A military version was also released, the F3P.

Ta Puia, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100
Ta Puia, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100

The Experience

I have been a Nikon user for a long time.  When I started collecting, a key theme in the collection was always going to be the Nikon F range.  Especially the professional models.  So, in that respect, the Nikon F3 was a done deal. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it would become my go-to manual Nikon SLR.

I have become so comfortable with it, that I bought a second one.  This way I have both the eye-level and the HP versions.  I must admit, I am worried about the LCD failing, but so far all is good.

Houseboat | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400
Houseboat | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 400

One or the other F3 cameras has accompanied me across Sydney, a family trip to Canberra, a few times to Auckland, including Waiheke Island and Devonport, and even to the thermal pools around Rotorua. I have used it to capture family moments and events and quite a few creative photographs.  It has been a great travel camera, especially as I don’t carry big zooms and selectively take 2 or 3 primes.

My two cameras are from 1980 and 1981 based on the serial numbers.  That means they are early copies and that they are working so well is a testament to the manufacturing quality.  One is missing the exposure memory button but that is very common.

Sydney Opera House | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800
Sydney Opera House | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800

Using the F3 is probably one of the most effortless manual focus SLRs I have used.  While not considered one of the smaller cameras, it fits very nicely in the hand.  If is dwarfed by the more modern SLRs through.  The grip makes the camera easy hold and never feels like it would slip out of the hand.

Bringing it to the eye I love looking through the viewfinder, it is nice and bright.  One of the reasons I have the two finders is I do use glasses sometimes and the HP finder makes this effortless.  

Wai-o-Tapu, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 20mm f/4 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100
Wai-o-Tapu, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 20mm f/4 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100

The viewfinder is also one of the things which I wish was a little different on the F3.  At times the LCD is hard to read, especially in lower light.  The red button is very hard to press to light it up. When it does light up, to be honest, it is quite pitiful.

I haven’t used the F3 much with the motor drive. While it is quite comfortable, it is not something I would like to burn through film with.  The reason is that it is a manual focus camera so there would be lots of out of focus subjects.  Give me an autofocus camera for sports or wildlife any day.

Coogee South Rock Pool | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak T-Max 100
Coogee South Rock Pool | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak T-Max 100

Once I start to shoot with the F3 though, that all gets forgotten.  Winding the film to the next frame is a pleasure.  The film advance is in just the right place for my hands.  The gearing nice and smooth.  

Then there is the shutter sound.  It is not quiet, but it is very distinctive.  In fact, there is a story I once heard that it is the Nikon F3 shutter that was recorded and used in shutter sounds you hear in movies, commercials and sound effects since the mid 1980s.  There are also arguments from fans of other manufacturers who claim it is their camera, but I will continue with my beliefs on this one.

Te Puia, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100
Te Puia, Rotorua, NZ | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100

Exposure accuracy is surprisingly accurate.  I say this, as it is before Nikon introduced their famous matrix metering, so it is centre weighted.  As 80% is within the centre marked area, it means that I need to ensure I meter with the subject in that area.  As I am focusing in the centre, it works well.  The LCD displays the +/- symbols if the meter believes you are over or under exposing.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t indicate by how much.

When I receive the negatives or slides taken with the F3 I am always impressed at the accuracy of the exposure.  I also use a Nikon F100, a much more modern and technologically advanced camera.  If you put the two sets of photos in front of me, I would struggle to pick which one is better exposed.

Sydney Opera House | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 20mm f/4 Ai | Kodak Ektachrome E100
Sydney Opera House | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 20mm f/4 Ai | Kodak Ektachrome E100

Having aperture priority mode is also superb on a camera you can trust the exposure on.  It makes shooting so much easier, as this my preferred mode of shooting.  I always think of aperture first and shutter speed second, so suites my style perfectly.  The LCD displays the shutter speed, so I can see if it is getting too slow to hand hold.

In terms of focusing, with that bright viewfinder it is very easy to match up the focus segments of the focusing prism in the centre. The focus throw and smoothness are dependent on the lens, but it is very nice to be able to see it easily.  Nikkor lenses tend to not be slouches, so the experience is generally very good.

Sun umbrella | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | JCH Street Pan 400
Sun umbrella | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | JCH Street Pan 400

As you can tell, I love my Nikon F3 cameras.  They are something I look forward to shooting with and would happily settle to using these cameras if I had to settle only on a manual focus SLR.  I trust this camera so much, when Kodak Ektachrome E100 was released, this was the camera I used to review the film.

Would I recommend them? Yes and no.  If you buy one, especially with the rising prices of the F3, you need to buy it understanding that the LCD is the weak point.  Nikon only planned on them to last 10 years, so everything is a bonus since then.  If you are willing to risk that, then these are a wonderful camera to use.  

If not, other options like the FM2n are a decent consideration if a fixed prism is ok.  The F2 is obviously a like for like option if a modular system is important for you.  For me, since everything from that period onwards has been electronic and the F3 is such an iconic camera, I could not be in the world of not having one or two.

Pier at Botany Bay | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 160
Pier at Botany Bay | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Portra 160
Tide is out | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm F/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400
Tide is out | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm F/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400
Alec | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800
Alec | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Ilford HP5 Plus 400 @ EI 800
Australian War Memorial | Nikon F3 | L: Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai R: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | Kodak Portra 400
Australian War Memorial | Nikon F3 | L: Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai R: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF | Kodak Portra 400
Police bike line up | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | JCH Street Pan 400 @ EI 800
Police bike line up | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | JCH Street Pan 400 @ EI 800
Camaro | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100
Camaro | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Ai | Kodak Ektar 100
Manly Pavilion | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Oriental Seagull 400
Manly Pavilion | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 Ai | Oriental Seagull 400
Timeless Treasures | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400
Timeless Treasures | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 85mm f/2 Ai-S | Kodak Portra 400
Sydney skyline | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 80-200 f/4.5 N Ai | Kodak Portra 160
Sydney skyline | Nikon F3 | Nikkor 80-200 f/4.5 N Ai | Kodak Portra 160

Related Links

With the Nikon F3 being such an iconic and popular camera, there are of-course quite a few articles about it.

Josh Solomon has written about the Nikon F3 on Casual Photophile which includes the most amazing teardown picture of the F3: Nikon F3 – Camera Review

Alex Luyckx, from Classic Camera Revival Podcast, reviews his Nikon F3 at: Camera Review Blog No. 24 – Nikon F3

On Emlusive there is a review by Nick Orloff of the F3:  Satisfying a 37 year dream… My first Nikon F3

Johhny Martyr writes about the F3, but not necessarily as a lot of people would expect:The F3, Nikons Greatest Achievement?

Jim Grey has reviewed the Nikon F3 on his blog, Down the Road: Nikon F3

2 Comments

  • Jim Grey March 7, 2020 at 10:32 pm

    You’ve done some stunning work with your F3!

    Reply
    • Theo March 7, 2020 at 11:40 pm

      Thank you Jim! That is very nice of you to say that.

      Reply

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