Nikon FM: compact and rock solid, a good risk-all backup camera for Nikon users

In the mid seventies, a new generation of SLRs hit the market. They were following the example set by the Olympus OM-1 and were much more compact than their predecessors. They also used less mechanical components and more electronics.

The FM was Nikon’s response to the OM-1, and to similarly compact cameras from their main competitors. The FM outlived them all. The FM and its derivatives, the FM2 and the FM3a,  were sold for more than 30 years, and when the production of the FM3a was finally stopped, they were still in such demand that for a while used FM3a’s were selling for more than when their price when new.

Compact, reasonably light and rock solid, the FMs were often used as backup cameras by professional photographers until they stopped using film a few years ago.


Nikon FM
Nikon FM – it accepts pre-AI lenses, AI, AIS, AF and AF-D lenses.

 The FM is a mechanical, manual focus, semi-auto camera. It leaves you total control over your images, and does not change the aperture/speed combination you selected on its own. No need to memorize the settings in backlit pictures. But total control comes at a cost: speed of operations in a rapidly changing environment. It’s a nice camera for landscapes, travel, street photography, but more recent autofocus cameras will deliver better results for sports and action photography.

The flash control system is also old school – the camera exchanges very little information with the flash unit, and the photographer has to set the shutter speed and the aperture by himself, using guide number tables: there are obviously better cameras to shoot indoors.


The FM as a photographic tool

By modern standards, the FM is a bit of a disappointment. On the one hand, it feels very well built and solid, and it can be carried around everywhere because of its (relative) small size. The Olympus OM1 or the Pentax M series are still smaller, but don’t feel as robust.  Like the other semi automatic cameras with mechanical shutters, the FM also works without batteries. The light meter does not use a galvanometer (no needle) but a series of bright red LEDs are the right of the viewfinder screen: there are very few parts that can break on a FM.

On the minus side, the mechanical commands are firm, and the advance film lever doubles as a shutter release lock: you can only use the light meter and press the shutter release if the advance film lever is pulled out of the body (by an angle of approximately 45°). It’s not very practical, and slows down the operations. I missed more than a few snapshots because the lever was pushed flush with the camera body, in the off position. I guess you can get used to it, but it’s not ideal. (the Nikon F3 does not have this issue; the film advance lever does just that).

Nikon FM / Olympus OM1n
Nikon FM / Olympus OM1n – the smaller prism cover make the OM-1 look smaller.

The Olympus OM1 was the forerunner of a new generation of very compact but still very capable SLRs. Coming a few years later, the FM is not as compact as the OM1, but not that much larger. It’s heavier, though. Its electronics (the light meter, the rest of the camera is mechanical) aged very well, the batteries it needs are still easy to find, its mechanical components are solid and it’s compatible with any Nikkor lens built between the early sixties and the last few years.


Nikon FM - Shutter
Nikon FM – Metallic shutter. Clearly a camera from the seventies.

The FM has a mechanical metallic shutter. Its fastest speed is 1/1000sec, with a  maximum flash synchronization speed of 1/125 sec. The different versions of the FM2 and the FM3a have much faster shutters, built in aluminum or titanium, with a maximum speed of 1/4000s and a flash synchronization. speed of 1/200 (early models) or 1/250.

Nikon FM
Nikon FM –  depth of field preview lever and self-timer at the right of the lens.

The FM holds a special place in the Nikon product range: it’s one of the few Nikon cameras (the only other compact SLR to share this characteristics is the FE) which is compatible with the pre-AI lenses as well as the modern AI, AIS and AF lenses. The other members of the family – FM2, FE2, FA, F3A – are only compatible with the AI, AIS and AF lenses; trying to mount an older pre-AI lens can damage the camera.

That’s the reason why the FM is sometimes referred as the Rosetta Stone of Nikon cameras



The Nikon FM is a simple, compact, rock solid and reliable camera, with a decent viewfinder and an accurate light meter. It’s not very fast to operate and not always pleasant to use because of firm commands and of the protruding film advance lever, but it can take advantage of a huge variety of lenses, built by Nikon over a period of almost 50 years. The FM2/FE2 are a bit smoother, the automatic FE and FE2 are also faster to operate, but the F3 beats them all, with its very soft commands, its good ergonomics and its large viewfinder.

The last FMs were produced in the early eighties, and good ones are still easy to find. They command lower prices than the much more sought after FM2’s and FM3a’s. A very nice one from a reputable seller will not cost you more than $150, and not so nice ones can be bought for less than $70 on eBay.

Charleston - July 09 - Nikon FM - Nikkor 24mm
Charleston – July 09 – Nikon FM – Nikkor 24mm

More about the Nikon FM

The best site of reference about the Nikon FM: Photography in Malaysia

The site has not been updated recently, but it contains very detailed information about the Nikon cameras and lenses manufactured until the F5.

7 thoughts on “Nikon FM: compact and rock solid, a good risk-all backup camera for Nikon users

  1. The FM3A Nikon is a great camera. So well built. Has all the important features. Full range of mechanical shutter speeds and mirror lock via the self timer. To my mind spot metering is not necessary. TTL flash is great and remember Zeiss lenses can be used. Yes I could purchase a contax but can they now be repaired – all electronis apart from the B setting and 1/50 sec mechanical in the case of the contax RTS 11. The Nikon bodies are brilliant and coupled with zeiss optics are a fantastic combination.

  2. I am a Leica R6.2 user. This is the best SLR I have ever used. Superb optics – a brilliant viewfinder – all mechanical shutter speeds a mirror lock up facility and spot metering. I love the OTF flash facility and the compensation. I have to say the optics are superb, but I have used Zeiss lenses also and would say they are at least equal to Leica. Yes there is nothing quite like a leica – but I think there are camera body / lens combinations out there that are equally good. The Nikon bodies are amazing in terms of build quality and prospective durability and using them with the best of the Nikkor and zeiss lenses are a combination hard to beat.

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      Nikon, Leica. What about Olympus? The manual focus OM System is dead, but some of the cameras (the OM-3 ad OM-4T) are still extremely sought after. I started using an OM-2S a few months ago. More about it and the Olympus system in a few days.

  3. I agree that Contax, leica, nikon and olympus film slr’s as mentioned above are great cameras but digital has surely taken over. I must say there is a special quality derived from b&w film that is IMHO not matched by digital but in general – come on guys we are talking 20 plus megapixels becoming the norm. The only film camera I would own now would be medium format the iconic Rollieflex. If you are a tradionalist or romantic then film will be forever in your heart – but digital is superior in every other way and is getting better and better

    1. I think there is a place still for film and not just medium format. 35mm is very much alive. In my own field of astrophography nothing beats a long time exposure with a fast film for star trails and meteorites. to do the same on digital successfully one needs expensive specialist equipment with cooling devices to prevent noise. there is an art to getting the correct exposure and developing and printing that is far more satisfying than manipulating digital images on a computer. Long live film!

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