I remember the Nikon F3 being expensive when it first came out in 1980. At the time, a new Nikon F3 with a 50mm lens cost about US$1,175 – that’s about US$3,500 adjusted for inflation. I don’t remember how much they were in here Australia, but I’ll guess a lot more – we had all sorts of duties and tariffs added to most things that were imported… apparently to protect the local camera manufacturers (of which there were none).
I remember it was 1981 – just a year into the F3’s 20+ year production – and to put it simply, I wanted one… I had a number of friends in the early stages of their photography careers, and for an aspiring commercial photographer or photojournalist, it was the go-to… the must-have camera.
But I was part of the Pentax ecosystem and the market we have today for used gear didn’t exist – just a few camera stores that bought for pennies on the dollar – so I could only lust after them from afar.
Fast forward 37 years from 1981 to September 2018 and I had the chance to spend a few days in Tokyo, on my own, just taking photos, and eating and drinking.
I took 2 Fujis with me: An X100F (don’t hate me, I know it’s digital, but it’s a rangefinder!) and a Fuji GS645S with a few rolls of JCH Street Pan 400 in 120 – what else are you going to shoot in Japan?
I really didn’t go intending to buy anything, but I had contacted Bellamy at JCH to ask for his recommendation on a well-stocked second-hand store. “Fujiya Camera in Nakano” was the reply.
You can see where this short review is heading can’t you?
I won’t bore you with the decision-making process in the shop – it was fun, and no, the Japanese DO NOT haggle – but next thing I know I’m wandering around Tokyo with my new Nikon F3, a couple of lenses, a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 in the camera, about $500 less in my bank account, and a big grin on my face.
And it didn’t take long until I realised why it’d been the ‘go-to’ camera of its day.
If you want to be critical, it’s heavy. I’ve got a Pentax Super A that’s light by comparison, but the Nikon doesn’t feel heavy to me, it’s solid. It feels dependable and ready to tackle whatever you throw at it.
The classic SLR layout: everything exactly where it needs to be, and a few little things that make is a pro device rather than consumer/prosumer: double exposure lever next to the film advance (I’ve played with it once or twice, it’s something I need to explore); manual shutter release, viewfinder curtain, in case you’re shooting without your eye at the finder (it stops light getting in and upsetting your metering).
The only two things I don’t like are minor: The bayonet mount is “lefty loosey” from behind the camera. EVERY camera I have owned – part and present – goes in the other direction. Four months later and I still have to think before I try to twist a lens on or off. There’s no hot shoe but there is an accessory mount above the rewind lever. Still, with a sync speed of 1/60 I don’t think I’ll be using flash all that much.
The “I don’t likes” are minor. The likes far outweigh them.
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The Giugiaro styling – even if it’s not much more than a red stripe – is gorgeous. Who wouldn’t like a camera designed by the studio that penned cars like the Iso Griffo and Lancia Delta?
And there’s the intangible of finally using a piece of equipment that you’ve lusted after on and off for nearly 40 years – am I stretching things to say it’s almost like finally having a romantic dinner with your high school crush?
So I wandered Tokyo, camera in hand, just enjoying it. Classic street shooting: Seeing an image in my mind and waiting for it to fall into place; ready with a finger on the film advance for the decisive moment that’s just around the corner.
And the lenses I’ve bought – 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm – are, despite, or perhaps in spite of, their age, wonderful. They’re nearly as much fun on a digital body as they are on the F3. I love auto-focus on a digital camera, but I’m enjoying these manual focus lenses just as much as their auto cousins.
Looking through the dozen or so rolls I’ve put through the camera since September 2018 (hmmm…averaging nearly one a week), I’ve realised it’s very quickly become my favourite film shooter.
If I’m going into the studio to shoot something ‘serious’ I take my Canon 5D and Hasselblad 503 for both film and digital versions; the GS645S is fun for medium format street portraits, there are a couple of other SLRs and a rangefinder in the gear cupboard to choose from as well, but the F3 just seems to do the job. It captures on film what I’ve seen with my eyes, and does it with the minimum of fussing about.
I’m not the sort of person who throws cameras around, but it’s got a feeling of dependability that I don’t seem to get with anything else. I’m not planning on dropping it, but I’m not scared of that happening.
It’s accompanied me on a few weekends away, for a couple of street sessions, taken photos of family members and random food, and has just spent four weeks travelling around India, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan with me.
It took me nearly 40 years to finally get acquainted with this wonderful camera and I’m glad to be discovering it now rather than ‘back in the day’. I think if I’d owned one in the 80s it would have been used for a few years then upgraded to the F4 and maybe eventually to an F5 (not sure I’ve got the arm strength to shoot all day with an F5!).
I’ve realised that using an old camera is like driving an old sports car, it mightn’t have every bell and whistle that a modern car has – remember cars without ABS & climate control? cameras didn’t always have autofocus or record shutter speed & aperture – and while it might have an odd quirk or two, if you drive it the way it was made to be driven, either car or the camera, it’ll bring a lot of pleasure.
Owning it now means I’ve got the ability to just enjoy it for what it is: a well-built tool that does what it was designed to do.
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I’ve used the F3 since about 2000. Got three, one a standard and the other two F3P. Used with 28 F3.5, 50 F1.8 and 135 F3.5 AI lenses. All I need, don’t use zooms. The cameras just keep working, apart from the illuminated readout on the standard, everything else works fine. On trips abroad I take two bodies with an eye level finder on one and the waist level finder on the other to save weight. This is why the 28 & 135 are F3.5, they are the lightest and often I leave the 50 at home. The WLF has its uses for discreet shots, the trick is to look away and look puzzled at the pressing of the button. The F3P button is covered with black rubber. I don’t use motors, far too heavy and I don’t need fast sequences. I’ve long suspected that motors cause excessive wear to the internal mechanisms. Film is exclusively Kodak Tri-X, the best film in the world. It’s surprisingly resilient to airport scanners. A few extra 3v Lithium batteries take very little room up in my bag, a Black Billingham 107.
Loved my F3. The auto-rewind on the MD-4 MD was pretty cool.
I’ve just read your review after satisfying a 30 year dream. My lovely family have just bought me an F3 for my 50th birthday. I’ve not had the chance to use it yet but having spent 2 hours cleaning it I can tell it is a special camera. I have wanted one since the late 80’s after seeing the work of one of my favourite photographers, Galen Rowell. The F3 was one of his favourites, sadly i could never afford one back then but now i’ve got one and can’t wait to get out and use it.
Great review, great photo’s.
Congratulations! It’s a lovely little thing.
Muy linda nota! Y no te preocupes, yo esperé también 40 años por mi primera y única M3 con un Cron 50! Y, si, es un placer tocar, usar y a usar del objeto del deseo de casi toda la vida, alcanzado por fin!! Saludos!!
Great article, and I’m so glad it lived up to your expectations ✅
Thanks for your review, it is timely as I have been shooting the F3 of late. I agree with Andy Basford, the meter readings can be a bit fidgety to read, but it truly is a work of art to look at and as a user. I particularly like the 20mm F4 if you ever have a hankering for a wider lens, The legacy Nikon/Nikkor lenses are wonderful and as a bonus completely compatible with my Nikon digital camera, making a versatile travel kit for my upcoming trip.
Great article. I will look for your writings.
I’d had numerous and various Nikon bodies over the years but always had hankerings for a ‘single digit’ model and eventually an F3 HP came my way at the right price… and I love it! OK, the viewfinder info could be easier to read but that’s really the only fault I can find with it… my lens setup is similar, swapping a 24mm for your 28…
Amazing article! Thanks for sharing your experience! The F3 was my dream camera after using a professor’s in my College darkroom course in 2000! Sadly digital became mandatory for the fields I was shooting in and not until last year did I come across an F3 (from Japan as well). I was lucky enough to take it with me on a trip through Kagawa, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo picking up some lenses and unique film stocks along the way, and capturing some of my personal best on film. The bond and memories you have with your tools is as strong as your best photos! Don’t ever take it for granted!!! Cheers.
Meanwhile, I’ve made a business in 2020 shooting film for professional jobs because it’s back and loads of people ask for it over digital. It’s kind of ironic how film is back because people realized that it has qualities that digital ruins