Nikon F3

Nikon’s F3 was the “pro” camera of the early eighties, but it kept on selling until 2001. A dwarf compared to current mid-level digital SLRs, not to mention monsters like an EOS 1DS or a D3. Incredibly simple to use compared to anything digital sold these days. Aperture Priority Automatic or Semi-Auto exposure. Center weighted metering. That’s all. It worked. And it still works today.


Nikon F3 - cosmetically not perfect - it simply works
This Nikon F3 is far from perfect cosmetically – but it works

Consider all the changes that took place in the SLR design between 1980 and 2001. Multi mode exposure, spot and matrix metering, integrated motors, autofocus, DX coding, the F3 had none of that, but it outlived two or three generations of newer-better-faster pro bodies from Nikon or Canon. The F3 had the elegance to hide its real technical advances under a classical skin, and to let the photographer communicate his instructions through smooth and oversized controls. Of all the pre-autofocus SLRs of Nikon, the F3 is the most pleasant to use, and probably the one which will yield the best results.

The F3 is an exception in the Nikon F lineup. It’s compact, smaller than its predecessors, and way smaller than its successors, the F4 and F5. In fact, its size is very comparable to that of the FM, itself hardly bigger than the yard stick of compact SLRs, the Olympus OM-1. The F3 is also easy to use, without the idiosyncrasies of the F and F2s with their Photomic finders and manual aperture indexing, and without the myriads of commands of an F4 or the menus and submenus of an F5.


Olympus OM-1n / Nikon F3
Olympus OM-1n / Nikon F3 – The F3 is larger, of course, but not that much. Compact and not very loud, it can be used for street photography, among other things.

The F3 is much more modern and usable in everyday life than a semi auto camera like the FM: its commands are larger and smoother, and the automatic exposure system is faster to operate; thanks to the center-weighted metering and a memory lock button, it does not deprive the photograph of his control on the exposure . When a flash is needed, the FM still requires the user to concern himself with Guide Numbers. The F3’s flash system is modern: following the path opened by the Olympus OM2, the SPD (silicon) cell is housed under the main mirror, and provides On The Film flash metering. But the Nikon engineers avoided loading the F3 with complications like multi-mode auto-exposure or multiple metering patterns. The F3 has few commands, and they’re so easy to understand that no manual is needed.


Nikon F3 (above)
Nikon F3 – a view of the commands – add the exposure memory lock and the backup shutter release on the front, you have them all.

All the commands are generously sized, and very smooth to operate (the film advance mechanism is mounted on ball bearings). The view finder is wide, bright and clear, making focusing easy. After a few years of production, Nikon replaced the viewfinder with a high eyepoint (HP) model, which could be used more easily byglass wearers. The viewfinder is the only part of the camera which is really larger than what you would find on contemporary advance-amateur SLRs.

Of course, the F3 is not perfect. It may be compact, but it’s heavy (approx. 750g). Its OTF flash system may have been advanced for its time, but the shutter only syncs at 1/60sec, and none of the viewfinders of the F3 system has a standard flash hot shoe: the F3 requires a specific flash adapter, to be inserted at the top of the rewind lever. But if I had to own and use only one film camera, that would be the F3, without any hesitation.

viseur Nikon F3
Nikon F3 and its DE02 viewfinder at the front – Note that the exposure metering system and the LCD showing the selected shutter speed are on the body, not on the removable viewfinder (the little windows at the front of the viewfinder are aligned with the LCD and the aperture see through when it is in position on the body)

How much for a Nikon F3?

The price of an F3 is extremely variable. The F3s were produced over 21 years, and some of them could be fairly recent, when others could have been used and abused since the early eighties. F3s were built like tanks, but they were used as their everyday work horse by legions of professional photographers, and they may have had a rough life.

Old and scruffy models in perfect working condition – like the 1983 model represented on those pictures – can be had for a little more than $70.00. Nicer and more recent models with the HP viewfinder and a motor drive will cost you at least $300.00. Beyond the standard F3 and F3 HP, Nikon also produced many derivatives of its flagship camera, for specialized applications or to test new technologies like the autofocus system they showed in 1983. Some of them are relatively rare collector items and will command a much higher price.

Nikon F3 in CF-22 case
Nikon F3 in its CF-22 case. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the F3 had to show some italian bravado. The body design is classical, but the leather everready case is bright red.

More about the Nikon F3

Photography in Malaysia – the Nikon F3
Shutterbug: the Nikon F3 (2007)

Lunch Break - Quais de la Seine. Paris. April 2009
Lunch Break along the Seine. Paris-April 2009. Nikon F3 – Nikkor 24mm AF

50 years of lens mount evolution (Part III of VI)

Automatic Exposure

The first SLR cameras with TTL metering were semi-automatic – the needle of a galvanometer indicated how far the shutter speed/aperture combinaison was from the ideal exposure, but it was up to the user to turn the aperture ring or the shutter speed knob to adjust the exposure parameters following the directions provided by the needle.

The next step was obviously to design a camera which would set automatically the aperture value or the shutter speed corresponding to the ideal exposure.

Olympus OM Mount
Olympus OM Mount: it remained unchanged from 1971 until the end of the production of the OM-4 in 2003. Note the design and the wonderful finish of this mount

Automatic exposure was first adopted by point and shoot cameras, and by a few amateur oriented reflex cameras.

Before Integrated Circuits capable of controlling a focal plane shutter became available, the simplest way to provide auto-exposure was to keep the conventional mechanical shutter, and to use a servo-motor to link mechanically the match needle of the exposure galvanometer to a series of rods controlling the aperture of the diaphragm. It was easier to implement such a system on a fixed lens camera, which explains why at first auto-exposure SLRs (such as the Mamyia Auto-Lux 35 or the Canonex) did not have removable lenses.

The engineers developing conventional SLRs had a few technical hurdles to pass before they could produce auto exposure SLRs capable of attracting a wider audience of seasoned photographers. The difficulties were cleared at the beginning of the 70s, and two types of automatic SLRs started hitting the market between 1971 and 1973.

Aperture Priority Automatic Exposure

The development of integrated circuits made Aperture Priority (pre-selecting the aperture and letting the camera set its shutter speed automatically) relatively easy to implement. The mechanically controled shutter had to be replaced by an electronically controlled model, but no change was needed on the lens mount -at least for Minolta and Nikon. Aperture priority cameras did not need a delicate linkage between the body and the lens, and could be used even with specialized diaphragm-less lenses (mirror lenses, for instance). Pentax had to adopt full aperture metering – they added a few cams to the 42mm screw mount for the introduction of the first electronic SLR, the Spotmatic ES. Nikon and Minolta launched their own aperture priority SLRs soon after (1971-1972). Olympus followed with the OM-2 in 1975.

Shutter Speed Priority Automatic Exposure

On the contrary, Shutter Speed Priority (pre-selecting the shutter speed and letting the camera set the lens aperture automatically) did not require any change on the shutter mechanism used on previous semi-automatic cameras, but precision mechanics was needed to ensure that the diaphragm would close at the exact value determined by the exposure system of the body.
The automatic diaphragms used in pre-selection lenses – see: 50 years of evolution of SLR lens mounts (Part I of VI) had so far been working in an all or nothing mode: full aperture, or closed down as far as the lens could go, namely to the aperture pre-selected by the user. With Shutter priority, the brute force approach did not work anymore: a lever on the mount (camera side) had to transmit to the lens the exact aperture value determined by the automatic exposure system, and all the lenses of the system had to react identically to the movement of the exposure lever of the camera.

The lenses and the mounts had to be modified again, either by the addition of aperture transmission pins (that’s what Canon did in 1971 with the new FD mount), or by the transformation of the all or nothing stop down command of the diaphragm into something much more linear, where the movement of the stop down lever was proportional to the value of the aperture to be used. Nikon chose the latter route with the AI-S mount introduced progressively after 1979, in preparation of the launch of future cameras offering Shutter Speed Priority and Programmed Exposure modes.

The first Shutter Priority SLR of one of the “big four” was were introduced by Canon (the EF model in 1973) following the tracks of Konica, which had been producing its Autoreflex T series since 1968.

More about it
A history of the Nikon F mount by Denton Images

Angenieux 28-70mm f:2.6 AF

The 28-70 f:2.6 was Angenieux’s last consumer oriented zoom, designed for Nikon, Minolta and Nikon AF cameras. With a very wide aperture, an all-glass and all-metal construction, it was positioned to compete with the “pro” series zooms of the big three. The tests performed by the specialized press at that time showed that it was THAT good. Unfortunately, its price was also on par with the best of Nicanolta, which made it a tough sale beyond the small circle of admirers of French technology. When Angenieux decided to refocus on professional markets and stopped the production of its consumer oriented lenses, Tokina inherited the design, and their AT-X 287 Series – which was sold as recently as 2007, is a remote descendant of the Angenieux 28-70 AF.

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The Minolta Vectis S-1: APS done right?

I don’t have this camera anymore. I’m afraid it ended its life in the trash can – not economically repairable – a few years ago. But I used it for years, I liked it a lot, and it’s too bad that no digital SLR available today is as light and portable as the Vectis S-1 was.(*)

The gun metal version was sold in Europe.
Minolta Vectis S-1 – The gun metal version was sold in Europe, but not in the US.

Launched in 1996, it was the only SLR system designed from scratch for the APS format. It inherited the best features from the Minolta mid-range 35mm cameras of its time, and exploited the new functionalities of the APS format to its full advantage. Built around a new, specific and very modern mount, the Vectis cameras and lenses were far more compacts than conventional 35mm SLRs, and than the APS SLRs developed by Canon and Nikon.

Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) need a moving mirror, and the moving mirror needs room, which imposes a flange focal distance of approximately 45mm on 35mm cameras (44mm for the Canon EF, 46.5mm for the Nikon F mount). The diameter of the mount, on the other hand, is closely related to the size of the film (it’s roughly equal to the diagonal of the film – 44mm for the Nikon F mount, for instance). Both Canon and Nikon decided to make their APS cameras compatible with the large range of 35mm lens they had been selling for 10 years or more, and designed their APS SLRs around the same dimensional constraints (flange focal distance, mount diameter) as their standard 35mm offerings. Logically, the cameras could not be significantly smaller than their 35mm counterparts.

On the contrary, Minolta took the risk of making the Vectis S-1 totally incompatible with its own 35mm lens system – and opted for a shorter focal flange distance (38mm) and for a smaller mount diameter, without any mechanical linkage between the camera body and the lens. The body and the lens could be made much smaller, but Minolta had to develop a whole range of new lenses, and ended up supporting two totally incompatible product lines.

Lighthouse of the Pointe St Matthieu (near Brest, France)-by default APS cameras shot in APS-H format (16x9 proportions)

One could debate endlessly about who did the right thing, Minolta or Canon-Nikon. Minolta’s risky strategy did not pay off – the sales of the Vectis cameras proved disappointing, Minolta lost its independence and had to merge with Konica. But Canon or Nikon’s more prudent approach did not work either, altough they did not lose as much money with APS as Minolta did. Learning from the experience, Canon, Konica-Minolta and Pentax all decided to retain their 35mm mount on their new dSLRs with APS-C sensors. Only Panasonic and Olympus, with no legacy of 35mm AF SLRs, decided to use a smaller form factor with their Four-Thirds and Micro-Four-Thirds formats.

Minolta Vectis S-1 (rear view). Courtesy of

The design of the S-1 was very innovative in two important areas: it was not using the conventional central pentaprism, but a series of mirrors leading to a viewfinder implemented at the very left of the body – leaving space for the nose of the photographer, and the camera, its lenses and its accessories (such as the external flash) were all weatherproof, forming a compact, lightweight and reasonably rugged system that could even be brought in mountain expeditions.

The rest of the camera was in line with the advanced-amateur class of products of the time (P, A, S, M modes, Matrix and Spot metering, passive autofocus) and took advantage of all the new functionalities brought by the APS format – the ability to pre-select one of three print formats when taking the pictures being the most important. Some compatibility existed between the accessories of the 35mm cameras of the manufacturer (Maxxum or Dynax) and the Vectis: the flash system and the remote control could be used indifferently on both lines of cameras.

The user experience was very pleasant. Minolta cameras of the AF era have always been very pleasant to use, and the Vectis was no exception, provided you put the right lens on the body.

Unfortunately, the kit lens – a 28-56mm f:4-5.6 zoom, was not something Minolta should have been proud of. Poorly built, if proved fragile, and the quality of the pictures it produced was far from impressive. Mine broke rapidly, and I replaced it with a much better 22-80mm lens, which was correctly built, and could produce great pictures – with the right film in the body. APS’ promoters had decided that 200 ISO would be the “normal” sensitivity, but APS used a smaller negative than 35mm, and the quality of the enlargments from 200 ISO film never convinced me. The 100 ISO film, on the contrary, was very good. On a good bright and sunny day, with a good lens and 100 ISO film, APS could compete with 35mm.

My Vectis was defeated by one of design flaws of APS: the fragile automatic film loading system. A tiny piece of plastic broke in the camera, preventing the film door to open. Having it repaired was not an option. I sold the lens, and trashed the camera.

Today, the Vectis S-1 still has fans, ready to pay prices in excess of $150 for a camera. I liked mine as long as it worked, but with 100 ISO APS film now unavailable, I would not spend my money trying to get another one.

Good camera, flawed format. RIP.

(*): Edited in July 2017: the Vectis S1 tipped the scales at 365g, and the fragile 28-56 kit lens added 110g. With film and battery, the whole set was probably was below 500g. Today – in 2017, the remote heir of the Vectis, the Sony A6000, weights 20 grams less (at 345g). The Sony 16-50 Power Zoom also weights 110g.


More about the Minolta Vectis S-1 la page du Vectis S-1 (site in French)

Portsall harbour low tide (near Brest, France)
Portsall harbour at low tide (near Brest, France)


French Photographer Willy Ronis dies at 99

Willy Ronis passed away on Sept. 12th.

With Robert Doisneau, he was one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called humanist school of photography. He became the first French photographer to work for Life.

He will remain famous for his black and white scenes of Paris streets, of Provence and his nudes.

Willy Ronis - Les Amoureux de la Bastille - 1957
One of the most famous pictures of Willy Ronis - Les Amoureux de la Bastille - Paris - 1957

More about Willy Ronis

A selection of pictures on Artnet
The Willy Ronis page in Wikipedia

50 years of lens mount evolution (Part I of VI)

Nikon was very proud a few months ago when the 50th anniversary of the F mount was celebrated. Half a century! Pentax had to abandon its orginal mount and transition to a new bayonet in the early seventies, Minolta and Canon in the mid eighties.

Nikon F - Photo courtesy of cameraquest (
Nikon F - Photo courtesy of cameraquest (

But there is more to lens and body compatibility than the design of the bayonet.

Even if the current Nikon bodies and lenses still use the same bayonet design as the Nikon F of 1959, it’s practically impossible to pair an unmodified lens from 1959 to a recent body, and vice versa: the lens and the body of a modern SLR have to exchange information and commands, and non-upgraded lenses from 1959 simply don’t share enough information to be usable.

The transmission of information from the lens to the body – focal length, maximum and minimum aperture, pre-selected aperture, focusing distance, and of commands from the body to the lens – setting the focusing distance, setting the aperture value, closing the diaphragm, can be performed from many different ways – some of them passive (a hole in the metal), some of them mechanical (rods, cogs and springs), the most recent working exclusively through electrical contacts.

Diaphragm pre-selection

Cameras of the mid fifties were far less complex than the ones we now use. No internal meter, no auto exposure, no autofocus.

But users of SLR cameras were facing an important issue: because the viewfinders of their cameras were dim and the focusing screen grainy, the only practical way to set the focus was to open the aperture to its maximum. Let’s say F:1.4. But if on a sunny day they needed to shoot at 1/125 sec at F:11, they had to set the aperture ring to F11 AFTER they were finished with the focus and – of course – BEFORE they took the picture. Not very fast, not very convenient.

At the end of the fifties, most Japanese camera manufacturers adopted automatic diaphragms with aperture pre-selection: the lens remained at full aperture – let’s say F:1.4 -independantly from the aperture value selected by the user on the aperture ring, making focusing easy. Only when the user pressed the shutter release to take the picture would a lever or a rod mechanically close the diaphragm to the value pre-selected by the user.

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