The Nikon F3 is a tank. If you need to buy a camera that will double as a bludgeon, the Nikon F3 is for you. This camera was a professional photographer’s go-to camera for nearly a decade, and is built to take an enormous amount of abuse while lasting an eternity on little more than a watch battery.
Today you can get the Nikon F3 for cheap, and because it was built so tough, it’ll probably work just fine even if the outside is scratched and worn from use.
There are several different slight variants of the camera, the most common being one with a larger eyepiece. I personally have the original version, but the HP version is even nicer if you can get your hands on one.
The Nikon F3 marked a big change for Nikon. It heralded in aperture-priority auto exposure and featured one of the first primitive digital interfaces in the form of a small shutter speed readout. It also paved the way for the revolutionary Nikon F4, which was the first widespread Nikon autofocus camera. Because of this, the F3 features a lot of the best of both the electronic and mechanical worlds.
Despite being one of the earliest aperture priority auto exposure models, it actually works extremely well. The mechanism is simple enough that once you get a feel for it, you can predict exactly how it’s going to work. If you’re looking a bright scene (like a snow-covered landscape) you know that the camera will likely underexpose. It’s a spot meter that exposes for the center of frame, and you can adjust exposure compensation accordingly.
If you want to shoot manually, the camera will helpfully let you know if you’re overexposing or underexposing with a plus or minus in the viewfinder. Generally, I just set the camera to ‘A’ and forget it, but it’s great having the option to go full manual when you need to.
Build Quality and Ergonomics
The biggest problem with this camera is that there is no way to tell if there is a roll of film inside except by opening it and looking (which isn’t an option because it blows out any film inside). You’re supposed to tear off a piece of cardboard from the package the roll came in and put it in the slot in the back, but obviously that is not a foolproof solution, especially if you’re as forgetful as me. There’s also no way to tell what ISO the film inside is if you forget what you put in. It’s not ideal, and I actually blew an entire setup on a professional shoot with this camera when I shot it without any film rolling around inside. If you’re careful, you’ll be fine, but you better be careful.
Otherwise, everything works great. Loading and advancing film has a bit of a learning curve for youngsters. It occasionally throws me off a bit that the film is loaded in differently than a newer film camera like the Nikon F100. You have to wind the film manually, which can take a few tries the first time.
The Nikon F3 is not compatible with modern aperture ring-less lenses (usually denoted as ‘G’ lenses), and autofocus obviously won’t work on lenses that have it. Ken Rockwell has a fantastic breakdown on what does and doesn’t work with this camera, which I won’t repeat here.
Manual focus is surprisingly easy with this camera. Unlike modern SLR and DSLR viewfinders that we’ve grown used to, focusing isn’t a guessing game guided only by a confirmation LED. There is a prism in the middle, and if you line up an object in it, it’s in focus. Once you get the hang of it, it’s quick and fun.
This thing lasts an eternity on a minuscule battery. I honestly don’t know how long it actually lasts because I’ve only gone through two over the course of five years. If you have spare with you, you’re good to go for at least a year of heavy shooting.
The main reason the battery lasts so long is that it does so little. Cameras at this time were still largely mechanical objects free from the constraints of electricity, and the Nikon F3 is more like those cameras than the small supercomputers of today. Loading the film and advancing is still done manually, and there isn’t even autofocus.
So who is this camera for? There are lighter versions of this camera out there that also last ages on a small battery and meter. If you want a companion to your Nikon DSLR, the F3 won’t necessarily play nice with the same lenses. No, this is the camera for those who want to really feel the film experience. Like the powerhouse F5, this is a f*&^*&g film camera, and it makes no apologies for it. The solid metal brick construction, the hard slap of the shutter – this is as rugged as it gets. When I’m heading out into a snowstorm to shoot, I don’t grab the delicate F100. I grab the F3.
There are other cameras out there that are even older than the F3 and even tougher, but they don’t always have autoexposure or meters built into them. Personally, I don’t want to use a separate light meter if I can help it (although iPhones make great light meters), so the F3 is about as old as I’ll go on Nikon SLRs on typical shoots.
One of my favorite lenses to use with this camera is the Nikon E-Series 100mm lens, but any manual focus will work great. If you want a general purpose zoom, the 28-85mm AF Nikkor 3.5-4.5 works well even with manual focus and beats the hell out of the ancient pump zooms that were contemporary to the F3. If you want the genuine manual experience, nothing beats Nikon’s old manual focus lenses, many of which can be picked up used for cheap.
For most shoots, I prefer my Nikon F100, which is a far more modern design. However, I always enjoy taking out my F3, especially if I’m going to be out on long trips places where I’m not going to have access to batteries or chargers. It’s the first Nikon film camera I purchased when I started shooting film, and I still revisit it time to time when I want to remember what it feels like using a camera that would (and has) survived anything.