The New 1980’s Camera Design Paradigm, The Nikon F3
Shooting Film for the First Time
My first 35mm film camera was a Konica Autoreflex T, an ancient 35mm camera built like an absolute tank, and the first ever to feature a built-in light meter. Unfortunately, the weight and heft of it didn’t hinder the jam that left the film advance stuck forever in place, rather shortly after I purchased it. Although short-lived, my relationship with this camera got me into the process of photographing with black and white film, and I am truly grateful for it.
Since then I’ve tried a collection of different cameras, of varying shapes, sizes, and formats, and my most recent acquisition, a Nikon F3, is by far the easiest to use. I’ve had six months and about a hundred feet of film to test this camera out, and I’ve put all of it’s functionality to the test.
Enter the Nikon F3
The Nikon F3 was Nikon’s professional SLR camera released in 1980, alongside the consumer FM2 and FE2. It is manual exposure (with an aperture priority mode,) manual focus, and manual film advance and rewind. The F3 was the first professional Nikon to feature electronic shutter controls. It wasn’t originally as popular as the F2 and original F because the latter were fully mechanical, and therefore could be trusted to work at all shutter speeds even if the battery that powered the meter ran out. The reason Nikon included an electronic shutter is that it enabled them to implement the first automatic exposure mode (aperture-priority) in a professional SLR.
It was designed by Italian automotive and industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, and was the first Nikon to feature the red accent that has become synonymous with Nikon cameras. As the camera that followed the Nikon F2, a chunky beast that didn’t have much going for it where design is concerned, the F3 seems rather svelte in comparison, as if Nikon was trying to start a design revolution. However, the F3 is still not as sexy as a Leica M - though some would disagree, I feel that being rangefinders, the Leicas have a bit more innate beauty and interest.
Something else that I love about the F3 is that it has a removable viewfinder, allowing you to swap finders and focusing screens easily. If you occasionally do street photography, like I do, then you will also appreciate the ability to take the finder off and look down into the mirror from above, and compose your shot without alerting your subject as quickly. Another thing that makes waist level shooting more comfortable is the addition of an extra shutter release lever, mounted along the front of the body near the lens, that is easier to depress when you’re holding your camera low and close to your body than the traditional shutter release button. It flips in close to the lens mount when not in use. There is a small switch on the viewfinder that activates a light-tight screen, blocking light from entering through the viewfinder. Helps if you’re scared of mirror-reflected light fogging your film.
Although I am overall very pleased with this fine piece of engineering, I do have a few gripes about this camera. Although still sparse in comparison to anything made today, the number of plastic parts present on the F3 is greater than its predecessors. There are a couple of little plastic bits that have been chipped off of my copy, to be expected from a camera introduced the same year my father turned eight. There is a fair bit of play in the film advance lever, as well, and the meter readout in the viewfinder is tiny and hard to read. Even worse, the button that you press to illuminate the meter reading is so small that you almost need the tip of a pen to push it, and so stiff that you have to keep your nails long if you do plan to use it. I don’t like that the multiple exposure lever is tiny and plastic - it feels like it’s going to break every time I touch it.
For all intents and purposes, the negatives here are nitpicky at best. This camera is the most usable SLR made before the F5. The things that are hard to use are also seldom used - multiple exposure is mostly a gimmick, and the lcd used for the meter readout was cutting edge at the time. Unless you’re shooting in the dark, you don’t need a meter illumination button anyway, and if you are shooting in the dark, you can use the aperture priority mode to get perfect exposure up to many minutes in length - no meter reading required. I find that none of these cons actually get in the way of my shooting, and the sweetest part of this whole deal is the price. One of these exquisite gems can be had for about $150 on eBay.
You can connect with Thomas Nowaczynski, the author of this article, on Instagram.