Camera review: 14 years with the “invisible” Nikon FM3a

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In January 2006, after 5 or so years of film photography with a combination of cheaper cameras (e.g., a Minolta SRT-101, a Fed-3 and an old Mamiya 35mm), I bought a like-new Nikon FM3A for $429 USD on eBay. Since then it has shot hundreds (if not thousands) of rolls of film, and has accompanied me to 20+ countries on four continents.

I have subjected this camera to some pretty harsh conditions, including extreme heat, cold, dirt, and humidity, and almost 15 years later, it is still going strong as my primary camera for everything from daily walks, to rural hiking, to international travel.


Since I just got it back from a small repair, this seems like a good time to share a few thoughts, along with some of my favorite images. Here’s what I cover:

A quick overview of the FM3a

A little background if you’re not familiar: The FM3a was introduced in 2001 as the third generation of Nikon’s FM series. It combines some of the best features of the FM and FE cameras, and is most notable for its unique hybrid electronic-mechanical shutter. This allows fully automatic aperture-priority operation when selected, but also permits all shutter speeds (up to 1/4000 sec) to function without a battery.

Metering is via a match-needle system Otherwise, the camera is pretty stripped-down in terms of features. It has a multiple exposure tab, exposure compensation from -2 to +2, and has an exposure lock button, self-timer, and DoF preview lever. I use all of these on a regular basis. It also has a flash exposure compensation button (dropping the EV to -1 when used during flash photography) that I have never used once. The meter is a simple 60/40 center-weighted system.

Not having used many DSLRs or advanced electronic film cameras, I can’t say that I have missed other, more advanced features. In does have interchangeable focusing screens– years ago I switched to the E3 screen, which has etched gridlines and no center prism spot. I find this to be exceptionally useful when shooting architecture and landscapes.

(No need for more technical details; all of this and more can be found on the fantastic mir.com.my, which contains a detailed history of most Nikon cameras and lenses, including this one).

My personal experience

This is a versatile, workhorse camera used for making pictures in a wide variety of conditions. My primary requirement is that it be reliable and functional.


By that standard, the FM3a is about as good as you can get – this is a camera that can be thrown in the bottom of a bag and scratched up without much concern for losing hundreds or thousands of dollars in resale value due to cosmetic or functional damage (although given current prices, one might want to be a little more careful). The all-mechanical backup provides a level of security that, even in the unlikely event the battery dies, all shutter speeds will still be fully functional.

Lenses and accessories

I have several Nikon F-mount lenses I use with my FM3a:

  • Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Series E
  • Nikon 55mm f/3.5 Micro-NIKKOR
  • Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f/2

More and more I find that compactness is one of the most important factors when choosing a lens. I used to use the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 almost exclusively, but my go-to lenses since 2015 have been the Voigtlander Ultron or Nikon Series E. While these are on opposite ends of the quality spectrum, I sometimes find that the wider 40mm Ultron is a bit too much for some applications.

Generally, if I’m going to be in an urban or suburban setting, I’ll take the 40mm, but for hiking/fieldwork/rural areas I want a bit of a tighter crop. Additionally, the Series E is such a cheap lens that it can be easily replaced if damaged or stolen. It’s hard to beat the Ultron though, so it stays on the camera most of the time. As a side note, the earlier version of this lens has a hatched rubber grip around the focusing ring- this can shrink or swell in extreme temperatures, and mine came unglued. The later version replaced this with a metal ring, so I would recommend that one if you have a choice.

Film

I prefer fine-grained color films, and mostly have shot Kodak Portra 160 for the past few years, though I recently switched over to Ektar 100 due to the lower price. I was always a big fan of Provia, especially for night photos (using the camera’s auto-exposure function with +1 stop compensation works pretty well!) but the cost of E6 development has gotten higher over the past few years, and the C-41 negatives scan just as well for most photos.

Loading the FM3a is simple and almost identical to other, similar SLRs. ISO can be set manually or with the DX encoding sensor, so bulk-loaded rolls are no problem. The camera is also safe for infrared film.

Problems?

My FM3a has required repair twice in 14 years, once due to a hard drop in a freshwater river (my fault), and once earlier this year due to some issues with the film winding lever. After the first incident, the mirror was stuck up and the shutter would not actuate. This was repaired fairly easily by a professional but was left afterwards with the peculiar bug of always having the exposure compensation warning light on, even when no exposure compensation was selected.

Last year, I started noticing the there was sometimes an issue with the camera ‘registering’ that the film had been wound. After winding the film, the film advance lever would require a few taps in order for the camera to realize the film had been wound and make the shutter button to operable. This issue was repaired by Nikon UK for 70 GBP, and my camera is now back to full functionality.


Appearance

I re-covered the original camera leather shortly after I got it with brown leather from cameraleather.com, which has held up quite well over the years, however after several bangs and scratches, I stopped caring about keeping it free from cosmetic damage. The black version is made of enamel-painted brass, so when the paint wears off you get visible brass on all the corners and the prism. This gives the camera a kind of patina that makes it look older than it is.

The combination of the brown leather and brassing gives the camera a nice vintage look but it might have a negative affect on the camera’s value. Otherwise, I use a homemade leather camera strap, and a leather case picked up in a bargain bin in Tokyo (made by a Japanese company called Swimming Fly & Gevaert, which I can’t find much information about) for around $2. I don’t know if the case was meant for this particular camera, but it fits perfectly.

Comparing the FM3a to…

The FM3a is definitely an upgrade in terms of quality from anything I’ve used before, but this camera is simple enough that using it is not too different than a wide range of other 80s-era SLRs. Certainly, the aptest comparison is with Nikon’s other FM and FE series cameras, but users of Canon AE-1s, Pentax MEs, Minolta SRTs, etc. would also feel right and home and wouldn’t be confused by any aspect of its operation.

In general, this is an exceptional but simple camera, renowned for its build quality and reliability. I have been able to take photos for a decade and a half, and have hardly ever had to think about the camera itself. It’s become “invisible”, allowing me to focus on the photos rather than the physical process of photography.

This ability to become an almost-invisible part of the photographic process might be my favorite thing about the FM3a, and I fully intend on getting another few decades out of it before I pass it on to the next generation.

~ John

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10 thoughts on “Camera review: 14 years with the “invisible” Nikon FM3a”

  1. I concur with most of the above comments. I have never owned an FM3, but I still have a 1979 FE and a 1987 FM2n both of which I have owned since new, and still use regularly.

    In between then and now, I have bought (and sold) a Nikkormat FTN, an F2AS, an F3HP, and an F4. I still have an F5 which I’m not quite sure about. Several medium format cameras have been and gone, but now I’m in my 80’s, I still find the FM, FE cameras the finest I have ever owned, and I’m so glad to say that I have never parted with them.

    The only other regret I had was trading in my Nikkormat, but that’s another story !

    Reply
  2. I bought my FM3a from Grays of Westminster in 2003. It is a chrome version. I have this year had to send it to Nikon for a major repair and CLA as the shutter unit started to malfunction. That was quite expensive. Up until then I have found the camera to be a delight to work with. The 60/40 meter is very reliable – I shoot E6 and B&W. The viewfinder – though not 100% – is bright and focussing is easy – macro photography is a delight. I took the repaired camera out for a spin recently and was rewarded with well exposed shots – pity I was using E100 – uughh!. It is a lovely camera and I will feed her a healthy diet of Velvia, Ilford and Kodak 400TX in the future – I promise.

    I also have a late serial number FM2n (black, beginning to brass nicely) which is a slower camera to use but I get the sense it is more reliable and may yet outlast its semi-electronic sister! I have recently bought some Fuji Velvia 100 at a really good price – so good that I fear I may never be able to buy it again. Looking long term, both the FM3a and FM2n will become B&W film cameras one slow speed, one fast – there is no way I’m having any colour print film in these ladies!!

    I hope that your FM3a goes on forever – and mine too, but do check out a good FM2n just in case!

    Reply
  3. Love the look of your FM3a body, you’ve really left your fingerprint on it! I’ve long been curious about using CV lenses on my Nikons. I shoot them on my Leica’s but have had severe reliability issues with the LTM CV’s with fairly serious/heavy use that has lead me to retiring two of my lenses following multiple rebuilds. The CV M lenses seem better built and mine are still going strong. How do you feel the F-mount Cosina Voigtlander racks up against the classic Nikkors in terms of ability to handle abuse etc? ThanksS

    Reply
    • I can attest to the F mount Voigtys, I have the first generation 40/2 Ultron and the 75mm Heliar (which by the way, is a very nice lens – kind of unique for F mount)
      They’ve been in use for over 10 years and they’ve held up beautifully. They still sell the 40 and 58mm’s new, both are stellar lenses.

      You know what, the prices on FM3a’s aren’t that nuts anymore now that I compare it to the FM2n (which is going through the roof.. 400+ for a clean one, yikes). I may have to get one for christmas!

      My question to John Counts – how do you find focussing without a split image, that head shot with the 50/1.2 for example, I have an E screen on my F3 and I can’t imagine nailing that without some kind of focusing aid! I’d love to hear your input.

      Reply

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