I have been shooting film cameras seriously for about 3 years now. It started with a Pentax ME and then ballooned to about any film camera I could get my hands on. It eventually settled out that my collection focused on the Canon AE-1 line of cameras. These great SLRs from the late 70’s were easy to get, easy to fix and took decent pictures. The only thing is, I never really liked them. I am not one to enjoy shooting in shutter priority. Where the camera selects the aperture based on the shutter speed you select. As I got better at taking pictures and wanted more manual control, I found this function of the AE-1’s to be limiting. Since the meter only shows what aperture it recommends based on the selected shutter speed, not how well exposed the scene will be.
I was able to solve this some with the Canon A-1. Which has the ability to be either shutter priority or aperture priority, or if your really picky, it has a full program mode. I thought I had found the perfect camera. That is, until I found the Nikon F3.
I happened to read a couple of articles about this camera and it lead me to try to find one. These were the “Professionals” choice of camera when they were introduced in 1980. They were in continous production for 21 years. Can you imagine Nikon or Canon making one of their current digital cameras for 21 years?
I went to my local camera store, Southerland’s Photo in Huntsville, AL to see if they might have one in their collection of film cameras. They did have one in the showcase, a mint condition F3 for around $400. While this is still a bargain compared to what these cameras sold for new. It was out of the range of what I will spend on a film camera. Southerland’s does have a bargin bin section in the back that I comb through once in awhile. To my surprise, there was a F3 setting on the shelf. I asked them about it, they told me it had a full CLA recently but they couldn’t put it out in the main display area since it was a little rough cosmetically. I didn’t care, I tested the functions of the camera and everything seemed perfect to me. So I negotiated the price down to $100. A steal to be sure.
My lone real experience with Nikon cameras to this point had been the great in it’s own right, Nikon FE. The FE is a, what we would call now, Pro-sumer camera. It has enough features to keep a pro happy with it as a backup camera and the slightly more advanced hobbyist shooter happy with a wider range of control.
I tried to like the FE and found it to be a capable camera. It feels good in the hand, has classic Nikon looks and build quality. There was always just one problem. In order to activate the meter, you have to half-cock the wind lever. This wouldn’t be a huge problem except I tend to left eye compose. So the wind lever hits me in the forehead while I try to look through the viewfinder. I also overall just found using the wind lever as an on/off switch to be annoying anyway. I would rather just pick up a camera and start shooting.
I wrote a review on the Nikon FE here, you can read it if you like.
What’s it like using the F3, near perfect. It has a fast shutter, up to 1/2000th of a second, should you need to shoot wide open in full daylight. It pairs up to pretty much every Nikon lens ever made, as long as they have an aperture ring. Film loading is easy, the viewfinder is big and bright and the camera feels really nice in the hand. Heavy enough to feel substantial but not so heavy it’s a pain to carry all day. It does require batteries to operate, two LR44 batteries, that are easy to find at most stores. If the batteries go flat, you can still shoot at 1/80th of a second. You can’t do that with the Canon’s.
Is this camera perfect, no, but it’s close. I like that it is always on, sort of, the meter doesn’t come alive till you half press the shutter button. So you never really have to put the on/off switch to off. My Canon F1 will go flat if I leave the meter turned on. There is also a finger grip on the right side (as you hold it) of the camera. I find it’s a little small to be useful as a handhold but paired with a wrist strap it’s a nice place to rest your fingers and keep a hold on the camera body.
The meter is a 60/40 center weighted TTL (Through the lens). Through the Lens metering allows you to compose with the lens wide open, or brightest, and the computer in the camera knows how much the selected aperture will reduce the available light, so that when the camera stops down to take the picture it will be properly exposed. Assuming your shutter speed is set correctly for the scene.
When looking through the viewfinder, the meter is reading the light on the subject in the middle of the frame and ignoring most of the rest of the frame. The meter read out shows the shutter speed in a small LCD screen on the upper left of the viewfinder and the aperture is displayed through a small window at the top center of the viewfinder. This is a mirror of the top of the lens, so if you are locked between apertures, you won’t see anything. You set the shutter speed with a dial just to the right of the viewfinder, I find my finger naturally falls to the position of the shutter selector, making easy to change shutter speeds on the fly.
If you choose to go the manual route, the LCD in the viewfinder will let you know if the shutter speed you have selected will under or over expose the shot by showing a + or – next to the shutter speed. When it shows both signs, that’s when the camera thinks you have selected the proper shutter speed. If you are just going to chase the numbers, I recommend putting the shutter speed selector on “A” and then adjusting depth of field with the aperture ring. The LCD will show you the cameras selection for shutter speed. This is my favorite way to shoot.
One thing to keep in mind with this camera, is that until the frame counter gets to “1” the meter doesn’t work. It will just show 1/80th of a second in the LCD until the film counter gets to 1. So if you know what you are shooting and how to work exposures, you can get a couple of frames from the film leader. Other than that, you will just have to click through to get the counter. I find it’s best to load the film, pull the winder once to make sure the film is pulling into the take up spool and then close the back. This starts the frame counter. Click off 1 or 2 more shots and you should be good to go.
Set the ISO on the left hand side dial to match your film, or push or pull the ISO as you want. Once you finish your roll, push the rewind release on the bottom of the camera and then using the knob on the left side, wide the film back into the canister. Once the tension is gone you can push the door release switch at the bottom of the rewind knob and pull the knob up at the same time to open the film door. It’s a pain, but prevents someone from accidentally opening the back.
I tend to pair my F3 with a 35-105mm lens. It is a great walking around combo that can go wide when I need it, or telephoto for detail work. I also have the great 28mm F/2.8 for it also when I really need sharp wide angle shots.
Is the F3 the perfect camera, no, is it the best I have come across in my collection for my style of shooting, yes. It pairs well with my A-1 as what is always in my camera bag. Usually with the Kodak ProImage 100 in the Nikon and the A-1 loaded with Ilford HP5. That way I have a color and black and white option available. The Canon is lighter than the F3 also, so it makes a good companion.
If you have the chance to pick up a Nikon F3, I would recommend you do it. There is very little that can go wrong with these cameras, mostly they suffer from shutter issues if they have been abused, but if you pick one up that’s working, chances are it will continue working for a long, long time.