The Nikon F3 – Cadillac of film cameras

The F3 was Nikon’s third professional film camera and would remain a top-of-line body in the family until it was discontinued in 2000. Even though there were newer cameras with more advanced features like the F4 and F5, Nikon continued to produce the F3. There are several models of the F3, each with their own subtle differences in features and function (see the features section below for specifics).

Switching to the F3

Over the years while working at a local photography store, Pro Photo Supply gave me access to a wealth of knowledge from co-workers, vendors and also our customers. I’m definitely a Nikon guy these days, reinforced by the fact that the older lenses work with both film and digital cameras. Very few cameras have left such an indelible mark on me than the Nikon F3.

Exposure guide

I buy nearly all of my film cameras from my local camera shop, Blue Moon Camera and Machine. The staff is great, they always have a variety of cameras to ogle ranging wildly in price and weirdness, but best of all they all know what they are selling and how to use it.

Until recently I had been shooting with a Nikon FE2. The FE2 is a great camera and I love the metering and how easy it is to read. The FE2 uses a needle that rises and lowers to show the shutter speed and whether the current shutter speed/aperture selection is correct. The F3 is quite different, and honestly not as nice as the FE2 metering. The F3 shows the current shutter speed with a +/- to indicate under or over exposure, while also showing the current aperture in the top center. It’s an easy system but can be harder to read in some situations. The actual metering of the F3 is better than the FE2. The F3 uses a weighted center meter that uses 80% of the meter focused on the middle 12mm circle with the remaining 20% spread over the rest of the frame.

Unlike other film cameras, the F3 has the light metering system located in the camera body and not in the finder. This is significant because the TTL metering could be synced to a flash regardless of the finder being used.

Finders

Nikon F3 with magnifier finder
Nikon F3 with magnifier finder

The F3 I have is the HP, or High-Eyepoint model released in 1982. The F3 HP finder (DE-3) is bigger than the standard finder (DE-2) and has a slightly larger eyepiece with less magnification and shows 100% of the captured frame. So you literally see everything that will end up on the film in the finder. The HP is slightly newer having been released in 1982. Just like the F and F2, the F3 has interchangeable finders making it truly customizable to your shooting style. There is a waist level finder (DW-3), a High Magnification Finder (DW-4), the HP Finder (DE-3), the Standard Finder (DE-2), the Action Finder (DA-2) and a couple others. There is also a finder with a non-TTL hot-shoe that was available on the F3P (Press/Professional). The F3P was originally only intended for professionals but eventually made it’s way to the public market.

While I prefer the HP finder, I use the High Magnification Finder a lot; when the camera is low to the ground. The waist level finder is also good for focusing while the camera is low to the ground as it features a magnifier just like medium format waist level finder cameras.

Focus Screens

The F3 has a plethora of interchangeable screens available as well as screens made by Beattie. Even though the Beattie Screens are known for brightness and clarity, the one I bought was not compatible with many lenses. Nikon themselves recognized that they could do better so they released updated versions with red dots called Brite-View. There are nearly 20 different screens available for the F3, which seems a bit over the top. I have tried several screens, K, E, C and R types ultimately settling on a Red Dot E screen. The grid is immensely helpful in composing and since it’s a Brite-View it’s much easier on my eyes. But on top of that it works great with all of my lenses.

The screens are super easy to pop out of the top of the camera. Simply remove the finder and lift the tab closest to the back of the camera and remove the screen. Unlike the FE/FE2 you don’t have to go anywhere near the mirror to change the screen, eliminating the possibility of damaging the mirror. They’re not horribly expensive either (I paid $40 for my red dot E) so trying one out isn’t a lifetime commitment.

Features and functions

Nikon F3 shutter speed dial and shutter button
Nikon F3 shutter speed dial

The F3 is capable of shutter speeds up to 1/2000s and also has a Bulb, Time, X and A settings. Even though the FE2 is capable of shooting at 1/4000s the F3 still has the advantage on many other fronts. The Time (T) setting is an all mechanical option and independent of the battery’s power level. So it doesn’t drain the battery during long exposure times. The HP finder has a shutter to close off the finder so that no light can leak in during long exposures. Other features like mirror lock-up make the F3 an excellent choice for longer exposures.

The Auto (A) setting is more like Aperture priority than Automatic, because the camera decides the correct shutter speed with the selected aperture. This setting is great for more spontaneous shooting where you’re really only concerned with depth of field. The X is the flash sync and syncs up to Nikon flashes and fires the shutter at 1/80s. The F3 manual cable release is built into the shutter button, a self timer that can be fired by moving the dial under the film speed dial to reveal the red dot.

And finally that funny little lever on the top right of the camera body. This is your multiple exposure lever. Simply flip the lever up and fire the shutter as many times on that frame as you want; the film advance lever cocks the shutter without advancing the film. Unlike every newer auto-focus all electronic cameras your F3 isn’t completely useless when the battery dies. Nikon built-in a mechanical shutter release on the front of the camera. It only fires at 1/60s, but it’s better than nothing. The meter won’t work so you’ll be guessing.

Lenses

The best thing about this camera, and nearly all Nikon cameras built before 2018 is the fact that you can use almost any Nikon lens on this camera – even many of the auto-focus lenses. On its own this feature is what made me switch to Nikon from Canon. Where Canon opted to change their mount when they started to make auto-focus cameras, Nikon doubled down on the F mount bayonet. Which is amazing if you think about it. A lens built in the 60s will work on a digital camera made in 2012. There are, of course, caveats to this.

I wouldn’t buy a DX type lens to use on a film camera as the DX lenses are designed to work with a smaller sized sensor and would likely not give you complete coverage for the 35mm frame. Almost any FX (full frame) lens that has an aperture ring will work on older Nikon cameras and still be able to use the built-in metering on board. I have a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D lens that works great on my D610 digital camera and my F3. Older lenses will work too, but they have to be AI lenses or the digital body will likely not function and just read EEE on the LCD Screen. There are several references online about lens compatibility so I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole.

Nikon F3 film plane indicator
Film plane indicator

There’s another feature that Nikon tends to include on many if not most of their cameras; the film plane indicator. It’s that little circle with a horizontal line through it. Why is this helpful? For many reasons, but a more recent reason is that it enables you to very accurately mount the camera and then move it along the film plane. This is pretty much mandatory for making high quality panoramas – especially if you’re shooting circular panoramas. If the camera rotates on any other point the images will be exponentially more difficult to stitch together. The F3 is no different and it’s located on the top of the camera body next to the finder.

Conclusion

The F3 is built like a tank weighing close to 3 lbs with the HP finder and loaded with film and a 50mm lens. Add to that the MD-4 motor drive and you have yourself a feature rich 35mm boat anchor of a camera. Besides throwing your shoulder out of it’s socket the F3 is a solid, reliable camera that, even with its electronics can still be used in a pinch with dead batteries. The placement of the controls are characteristically Nikon, so they just make sense and I don’t have to stop to find the setting ring I want to change. There’s also one little, sort of obscure feature that is a nice touch. You can flip the aperture tab on the lens mount back and out of the way so you can use non AI lenses without any fear of damaging your new baby.

If you’re in the market for a new film camera, the Nikon F3 is your Huckleberry.



View the Nikon F3 Gallery for images taken with this camera

Specifications

General

Nikon F3 HP
Type: Single Lens Reflex : SLR
Lens mount : F mount
Operation : Electronic
Format: 35mm
Shutter: Quartz-timed Titanium Shutter
Shutter speed: 1 sec – 1/2000s, B, T, X
Shutter remote : Mechanical
ISO Range : 12 – 6400
Shutter lock : Yes
Mirror lock-up : Yes
DoF preview : Yes
Mechanical Shutter Speed: 1/60s
Multiple exposures : Yes
Self timer : 10s
Flash: PC connection – X
Flash mount : accessory shoe
Battery: 2x LR44
Production: 1980 – 2000
Weight: 1.7 lbs (without lens)

Download the F3 manual

Accessories

Film Backs:
MF-6 : Rewind stop film back
MF-14 : Multi-function data back
MF-18 : Data back and rewind film stop
MF – 4 : Bulk roll film back

Finders:
DE-2 : Eye-level finder
DE-3 : High-eyepoint finder (HP)
DW-3 : Waist level finder
DA-2 : Action finder
DW-4 : 6x magnification finder

SB-12 Speedlight (direct mount for the F3)
AS-3 : Flash coupler (hot shoe)
MD-4 : F3 motor drive

Download MF-14 Data back manual

Download the MD-4 motor drive manual

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: