Emergency Hammer

In case of emergency, break this window with the hammer. In case the hammer is missing, using your pro-level Nikon camera may also work.

They’re serious pieces of construction quality, the single digit Nikon models.

From older posts, it may be clear that my main cameras are Nikon SLR and DSLR models. Those who were bored enough to read in depth, may have noticed that my most recent digital cameras were a D700 and D810. For film, I waxed on enough about the virtues of the FM2, so it’s no surprise that has a place in my bag too. Together with a FM, actually.

What is not in this list, is a single digit model.

Great, in every dimension

I’ve never used any of the digital pro-level models extensively. From the short flashes I held one: darn it’s heavy. Darn it’s big. I’d have loved a D3s or D4 for the ability to perform in nearly no light at all, but no way I’d be carrying around one. Similar short experience with a F5. With all batteries inserted, it’s just a weapon.

I get why people are attracted to them, but they’re not for me.

However, my first serious film camera actually was a single digit model. The venerable, indestructable F3.

 

Nikon F3

 

Nikon F3

 

A lovely well-used sample. I bought it more or less in this state, at a very fair price. The well-worn outside did not get in the way of this camera working just perfectly fine.

Built to last

There are many stories, histories and user reports on the F3. This model is properly loved by many. I’ll join that chorus, with some side notes. But allow me to be really brief on the description of the camera itself.

Designed and built to be used by professionals anywhere, to be durable and dependable no matter what. The older F and F2 had set a reputation, and the F3 had large boots to fill. It was the first professional model Nikon made that actually relied on electronics; the shutter is electronic. Without batteries, it only has a 1/60th shutterspeed available.

With batteries, it goes up to 1/2000th, and the built-in metering allows for semi-automatic operation (Aperture-priority, nowadays that big A on the model selector).

Nikon F3, 105mm f/2.5, Kodak BW400CN

Professional touches

The F3, like the F and F2 before it, had some additional touches that were tailored specific to the professionals of that time. One is the exchangable prism. Where the older models mainly had prisms to add metering, for the F3 the available selection was a bit more eclectic.

Mine, as displayed above, had the DE-2 finder. Many found today have the DE-3 finder, which makes it the F3HP. This finder has a higher eyepoint, making it easier to see the entire viewfinder image from a bigger distance. People with spectacles love these – since I don’t need spectacles yet, I was happy with the DE-2.

Then there is a waist-finder viewfinder, DW-3. An autofocus prism (DX1). Some even more exotic viewfinders. And different focussing screens for all these, for all kind of different situations. Very modular and versatile.

A second touch is that nearly all controls are locked. You need to press a secondary button to unlock the control, and then you can make the changes. It prevents from accidental changes. To me, more of a nuisance than a blessing, but I can imagine journalists or wedding photographers in hectic, crowded situations loved this feature.

Nikon F3, AiS 35mm f/1.4, Kodak BW400CN

The good

A camera with this much fans, surely there has to be a lot of positives. And there are.

From what’s written above, it may already be clear: this camera is build to last. Everything about it feels solid, well made. Mine, looking as battered as it did, operated completely smoothly.

The viewfinder is an absolute joy. Big, bright, clear. I had a type B focus screen, which lacked a split-prism. But the viewfinder was so clear, it was perfectly easy to focus without the help of the split prism. Even with a hard to focus lens as the AiS 50mm f/1.2. To date, the best viewfinder I ever used or saw. Just glorious.

Nikon F3, AiS 50mm f/1.2, Kodak ColorPlus 200

Silly useless, but a feel-good factor: the film advance. Smooth, relatively silent and always feeling like there was no mechanical resistance whatsoever. Exceptionally smooth. Yes, it doesn’t help your photos improve, but it just makes using the camera nicer.

It’s a nice camera to hold. Part due to the sense of solidity, but part surely because it’s well designed. The body, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, has a rudimentary handgrip, and the texture exterior provides enough grip. I do have to add, though, I never used it with very large or heavy lenses. Whether it remains comfortable to hold in such cases, I have my doubts.

A feature easy to overlook, and rather niche: a switch for allowing double exposures. Not something you need every day, but I quite like it, and the mental excercise of making the double exposure work is good too.

Nikon F3, Kodak ColorPlus 200, 50mm f/1.2 and 105mm f/2.5

Last but not least: 2 simple LR44 cells for the power: easy to find, cheap and easy to carry a pile of spares too.

The indifferent

Nothing. Seriously – there is nothing indifferent about this camera. None of its features are mediocre or ho-hum. Sorry, no middle ground this time.

Nikon F3, 105mm f/2.5, Ilford XP2

The bad

Most of what follows is highly personal. It’s what I find bad about this camera, and it may even just represent the sample I owned. Take it for what it’s worth.

One I already mentioned above: the locks for the controls. It just got in my way, all of the time. Again, I get the idea, but for normal uses like mine, not the most helping feature.

It is heavy. Not F5 or D4 heavy, but still, heavy. Heavier than I liked for a camera from this era. The price to pay for the build quality, no doubt.

One strange weak point for build quality, though: the rubber ring around the shutter speed dial. Mine slipped, which after decades is to be expected. But why not engraved grooves? That would have continued to work until the whole thing falls apart. A strange choice of material.

On mine, battery life was pretty poor. I have a sneaking suspicion it was due to aged electronics, causing the batteries to slowly leak. In any case, it made me switch batteries pretty often. It’s one of the reasons I definitely do prefer all mechanical cameras over electronic ones. Not a fair conclusion based on experience with one single camera, I know. But I prefer mechanical all the same.

Nikon F3, 105mm f/2.5, Kodak ColorPlus 200

For me, the single worst thing about the F3, though, is nothing about the F3. It is the fact that the FM2 exists. For me, it is just the nicer camera. Many will disagree with this sentiment. But it’s personal; the FM2 just fits me better.

Ooooh…..!

Forgot one. Let me get very geeky for a moment. One thing I positively adored about my F3.

The sound of the shutter release, and the immediacy of it.

Like a psycopathic axe killer. Taking an immediate swing at it, with a very crisp, clear sound. Definitely not silent, in fact quite loud. But you press and bam! It goes. No delays, and the sound just oozing that mechanical perfection.

Yes, very geeky. But compare it to the squishy laggy shutter release of the Leica R6, and I guess it helps making sense why I loved the F3 for it, and disliked the R6 for it.

Nikon F3, 105mm f/2.5, Ilford XP2

Conclusion

Well, the last sentence on the bad gave it away already probably. The constant use of past tense probably too. And the fact that all photos are C41 development might give away that they pre-date my efforts to develop my own film.

Ever since I got the FM2 – about two years after I bought this F3 – that camera has been my go-to film SLR. The F3 increasingly stayed at home. So it was only fair to pass it on to somebody who would use it.

Because these cameras should be used, and should be used hard. They’re absolute workhorses, and generally a joy to use. It can handle some abuse, and then some. So use it anywhere, any place. Just bring spare LR44 cells, in case, and then there is nothing that will get in your way. Not with this camera.

Nikon F3, AiS 35mm f/1.4, Kodak BW400CN
Nikon F3, Kodak ColorPlus 200 (not sure about the lenses used)

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