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A few reasons why you may want to buy the Nikon F3 film camera!

In light of the current re-discovery of film photography among modern photography enthusiasts, I wanted to do a practical review of the Nikon F3 film camera because I find it to be a particularly good choice considering the reasons most give when gravitating toward analog photography. This is a really good camera to get for people who currently own a Nikon Dslr as the lenses you buy for your film camera will also work (with varying degrees of compatibility) on your digital one!

I wanted to mention that I started on film and the approach and end results really are much different than using digital. The interaction between yourself and your camera changes as well as the interaction between yourself and your subject. In addition, I think there are certain things that render differently on film than they do in the digital realm. Things like motion blur seem to have a different look, not to mention things like film grains and other characteristics that seem to give it a completely different vibe. I really like the creative variety that it brings to my portfolio.

One of the joys of this camera and other film cameras of this era, is the direct nature of shooting with them.  You get to spend more time interacting with the scene and (despite needing to control your settings) you end up with less of the technical aspects diluting your creativity.  I enjoy having direct dials for everything versus using menus as you do on more modern cameras. The F3 does still have an aperture priority mode as well in case you are in fast moving situations and don’t have time to use the full manual mode. There is no automation past this however so it requires you to anticipate your shot and what you want it to look like which helps people coming from modern automatic cameras to start learning the art of photography instead of just relying on the point and shoot mentality. You will very quickly learn about exposure and depth of field when using this camera!

The F3 was released in 1980 and was initially met with skepticism and disdain by a professional community which had relied on mechanical cameras up to this point and weren’t convinced they could trust a camera with an electronically controlled shutter.  But despite it all, the camera overcame all of that and became one of the most popular cameras ever produced.  It was sold by Nikon for 21 years despite having been replaced by the F4 in 1986 and the F5 in 1996. 

If you’ve never used a manual focus camera, you will likely be amazed at the large, bright viewfinder that you get to experience.  The F3 gives you a 100% coverage view so you know exactly what’s in your shot and what is not. They also included the split viewfinder which makes manual focusing a breeze compared with the cameras you see today. With autofocus systems the norm on modern cameras, there is not as much need for a fantastic viewfinder since you mostly only need to compose the shot and not worry about focusing and including them in modern cameras would make them needlessly expensive.  

The mechanics of this camera are of such a quality that you know as soon as you pick it up that it was overengineered in ways you just don’t see in the modern day. It does use batteries to control its shutter speeds and for the metering system but they seem to last at least 6 months to a year and so keeping an extra set in the bag is enough insurance to me that the camera is going to work when I need it to! Despite the initial hesitance toward a partially electronic design, the camera’s long-term reliability has proven itself over the many years since its release and the fact that so many are in great working order says it all.

Buying the F3 today is a great option because of the amazing variety of lens choices available and the fact that you can use many of these on your modern camera.  You can use pretty much any lens Nikon has ever made with the exception of the newest G series lenses when Nikon decided to remove the aperture ring from the lenses.  The rule of thumb is that if the lens has an aperture ring then you can use it on the F3.

The shutter speeds range from 1/2000 of a second all the way to 8 seconds and it also includes a bulb mode for custom shutter times. It accepts the universal shutter release cable and with this you can have shutter speeds of whatever you’d like.  The Viewfinder has a switch to block light entering the chamber for use during long exposures.  The removable prism allows you to use different types of prisms including the popular waist level viewfinder option.  It does have an exposure compensation dial for use during aperture priority mode or to fool the meter for more accurate under or over exposure.  You also get the ability to set film speeds manually so you can push or pull your film with ease.  

There are a few flaws with this camera and the one that gets me is that the display LCD is controlled with available light.  It works fine during daytime under good lighting conditions but in low light situations the readout becomes hard to see.  Engineers had a solution for that as they installed a light that would light up the display for a few seconds after pushing a button.  The problem is that many of these buttons don’t work or more commonly it is very hard to press this button in a way that will activate the light. Altogether I don’t like using this camera in low light situations for this reason, but for a daytime camera, you really can’t get much better!

Another negative for this camera for me is that there isn’t a flash shoe in the normal location. Instead they incorporated onto the film rewind lever and it requires a special adapter.  This puts the weight off to one side of the camera and interrupts the balance when using a flash.  In addition, it then becomes impossible to rewind the film and change rolls without first removing the flash unit.  It would only take an extra few seconds to do this and replace it again in the field, however it would seem like an eternity if you were missing shots because of this.  Between this and the issues mentioned above about shooting in low light, I prefer this camera as a strictly available light camera.  I sold the flash and adapter that came with my F3 vowing to never bother using it, preferring other cameras in low light.  

One thing I really like is that the film advance lever doesn’t have to be cocked out away from the body in order to shoot as you do on some of the other Nikons of the era. This is a personal preference thing, but since I mostly shoot slower with film I like leaving it after advancing the frame.  

Overall the F3 is a camera that I will highly suggest to anyone looking for a film camera. There are many fantastic film cameras but very few have a place in my heart like the venerable Nikon F3.  There are other great cameras available and you may eventually find another that you like as well or more depending on your needs, but then again you may not.  There are other more technologically advanced film Slrs available as well that may include things like autofocus, matrix metering, and automatic modes.  But for most people getting back into film, they want to go back to the “experience” of manual photography.  The F3 has an aperture priority mode available for those times when you just don’t have time to change all your settings manually, but that’s as automatic as you’re going to get.  

On top of being a fantastic camera, the prices are still pretty fantastic in 2017 despite an upswing of the market prices during the recent revival of film photography in general. People are realizing that there is still a place for film despite digital having won the war for most uses! You could buy one of its prosumer relatives and get 90% of the features with a slightly less robust build quality, however the price difference is pretty minimal. A good condition F3 can range from approximately $150-300 but you’d be hard pressed to get a lesser model for less than $100.  Getting an old camera can be a crapshoot and buying one that was so well engineered means that you are much more likely to get one that will be in good working shape. You should always assume that you will need a clean, lube and adjust service on any camera you buy, however you can often use it upon arrival as well.

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