Nikon F3 35mm SLR Film Camera Reviews
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Nikon F3 35mm SLR Film Camera

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Built Like A Ferrari But Showing Its Age...

Sep 30, 2000 (Updated Sep 30, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Smooth Operation, Rugged Construction, Feels Great In Your Hands

Cons:Outdated Technology and Expensive

This is one of the tougher reviews I've written about a piece of Nikon gear because there are aspects of this camera that I really like. But there are other things about the F3 that diminish the flexibility and value of the camera-at least for photographers who work like I do. It's not really my goal to discourage anyone from purchasing an F3, but to share some of my experiences with a camera that I used for a number of years as an amateur and pro photographer. If I've done my job right by the end of this review you will know if this is the Nikon for you.

I should probably begin by letting you know that I sold my F3 some years back because I found it was spending more and more time back at my office and a lot less time in the field. At some point it just becomes obvious when a piece of gear I once loved ain't cuttin' it like it use to...

Don't get me wrong; I think the F3 is a beautifully-built machine that feels, well, like a Ferrari, or at least what I imagine a Ferrari feels like, since I have never actually driven one. The detail and finish is top-notch, easily equal to a Leica in construction. The film-advance lever is smoother than any other camera I have used. This is a camera that is just plain wonderful to touch and hold, not to mention to look at.

But it all finally comes down to how well the F3 works as a picture-making machine, and unfortunately the F3 is showing its age. It was first introduced in 1980, and a lot has happened in the 35mm world in the last twenty years. I'm not necessarily referring to auto-focus either, because I appreciate a good manual-focus camera (see my review of the Nikon FM2). But the F3 costs quite a bit and I think it is over-priced for what it offers.

I realize that since I am a pro photographer I may have different requirements than an amateur, but I did start out as an amateur and I believe that there are certain camera features that are important to both pros and amateurs. In fact, when I began using an F3 I was still an amateur.

The main thing that kept my F3 in my closet was its old-time flash sync speed of 1/80 of a second. Even when the F3 was introduced that sync speed was behind the times, with other Nikons of that era like the FM and FE sporting 1/125 sync speeds. Now for some photographers the slow sync speed won't make a difference, but if you like to stop action and use fill-flash outdoors in bright sunlight, 1/80 just doesn't cut it. At that shutter speed there is the possibility of "ghosting." That is when there is enough ambient light combined with a slow flash sync to create two images on the film: the actual flash exposure and a second dim "ghost" image caused by the ambient exposure after the flash is fired but the shutter is open long enough to register the ambient light.

This was a real concern twenty years ago, and that is why the introduction of the FM2 in 1982 was such a big step-forward. That is because the FM2 was the first 35mm SLR with a flash sync of 1/200 (later increased to 1/250 on the FM2N). At that point the difficulties inherent in using flash outdoors became a thing of the past, and I can tell you that photographers were plenty excited about it. A friend of mine was an editor at the Los Angeles Times back in '82 and I remember him telling me that when the FM2 came out the photo department immediately purchased forty FM2s for their staff photographers.

Young photographers who have grown up with 1/250 (and even faster...) sync speeds will have to make some adjustments if they use an F3. If you like to make images of fast-moving subjects and use fill-flash to reduce the contrast range on the film, then you may find yourself leaving the F3 at home like I did. For example, this past weekend I photographed a samba parade in Arcata, California on a beautifully bright, sunny day (which is a miracle in itself for coastal northern California!). I would not have been able to make the images I did with my N90s with an F3. I won't even go into the benefits of Continuous Servo Autofocus and automatic fill flash where you can easily set the exact amount of flash...

Again, I really do appreciate manual-focus cameras; I own three manual-focus Nikons, including a Nikkormat FT, which was first introduced in 1965 and an FT2, introduced in 1975. Bear in mind that both of those cameras sync at 1/125!

The second flash-related oddity on the F3 is the location of the hot shoe. The F3HP body has a non-standard flash hot shoe located under the film rewind knob. It means that to manually rewind the film you must remove the flash before you can do so. And since the F3 hot shoe is unique, you must use Nikon flashes designed for that hot shoe (the SB-14 and 16 flashes are still available...) or purchase an AS-4 adaptor in order to use a flash with a standard hot shoe. If you use a flash other than a Nikon brand you should check with the manufacturer to see if they have their own adaptor and what flash functions will be available when using the F3. Since I primarily used a handle-mount Metz flash with a standard PC sync cord with my F3 I was not affected by the F3 flash hot shoe design peculiarities.

The flash shoe location is due to the fact that the F3 allows the user to remove the DE-3 High Eyepoint prism (the standard F3 prism since 1982) and replace it with optional specialty prisms. I never had a need for this feature; if you have special requirements that call for a waist-level, magnifying or sports finders then the F3, F4 and F5 cameras are what you have to choose from in order to get that flexibility.

The F3 can be used with the fast MD-4 motor drive. The MD-4 shares a grip design with the MD-15 in that the grip is somewhat squared in comparison with a more round grip like what is found on the MD-12. I got use to the grips on my F3 and FA, but I prefer the feel of the MD-12 over the other grips. The MD-15 was better than the MD-4 mainly because the MD-4 is so big. A plus factor for the MD-4 is that its batteries take over from the small button batteries in the F3 (the MD-15 does the same for the FA), so in cold weather you may experience better and longer battery operation than you would from the button-type batteries. If you always keep a motor drive attached then you no longer have to worry about where you are going to find 1.5volt batteries for your camera.

The MD-4 does not have a built-in shutter release for making vertical images. But you can add the MR-2 Terminal Release to the remote terminal on the front of the motor drive. It does stick out a bit from the motor drive; it is a little awkward to use and can be a nuisance in a cramped camera bag.

The downside of the MD-4 is that it is a large motor drive, and when combined with the F3 it makes for one hefty package. The MD-4 is nearly as tall as the camera body! I know of one rather petite female photographer who wont even consider lugging around an F3 or similar size camera; Im 510 and I got tired of carrying the F3/MD-4 combo. I soon found myself preferring my FM2/MD-12 and my FA/MD-15 when I knew I was going to be carrying my camera gear all day.

Finally, the camera display is an LCD-type, one of the first of its kind when it came out. Normally the display is illuminated by ambient light. The problem with the LCD display is that in order to illuminate it you must depress the Viewfinder Illuminator Button on the side of the finder housing. Let me tell you, it is hard as heck even in the best of circumstances to push that little red button and get the rather dim interior light to come on. Imagine what it is like if you are in the middle of photographing a fast-changing situation! At least the F3 has a light; the FAs LCD display has no light at all!

So there you have it: my contrarian review of the F3. In 1980 the F3 did have some new features such as its 80% center-weighted metering system located in the camera body and it was the first fully electronic F-series camera. But its twenty years later and times have changed. For around the same price as an F3 you can purchase an F-100 camera; you may actually save some money if you factor-in the additional cost of the MD-4.

I would recommend the F3 to someone who never made the switch to auto-focus or who has a selection of manual-focus lenses at their disposal. I would suggest that the F3 is a better camera without a motor drive than with one, and if the handling of the F3 appeals to you then go for it.

But if you enjoy using retro 35mm cameras and want features similar to what an F3 has to offer, then I would also suggest that you look at a used FA with an MD-15 motor drive. While the FA is arguably not as rugged as the F3, most of us really dont need the extra reliability of the F3. And the FA has a number of important innovations that the F3 does not, and at a much lower cost. I purchased a used, mint-condition FA for $300; the MD-15 drive came from a Texas dealer and cost $250 brand-new. Of course, that was a few years ago but you get the picture... The FA became my primary work camera and my FM2 its back-up. When I sold it five years later to a friend (WHY did I sell that camera???) I got...$550 for it, and I could have sold it for more if I had wanted to do so. Now THAT is value for your dollar!



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