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

4 thoughts on “Nikon F3

  1. Very interesting article thank you. I currently use a D90 but am a long time Nikon user. I also have a pristine FE with lenses, motor drive and SB flash. Wherre would be the best place to sell this, ebay is OK but I have never really used it. Could you also indicate what sort of price I might expect as you did for the F3.
    Your help is much appreciated.
    thank you

    1. Mike,
      Sorry it took me a long time to respond, but I was out of the country, and with no easy access to a computer. I don’t want to disappoint you, but the Nikon FE is not as well regarded as more recent or more high-end models such as the FE2 or the F3: its conventional shutter (1/1000 sec, synchro flash at 1/125) does not have the appeal of the titanium shutter of the more recent models. I checked the completed sales on eBay and I ran an evaluation on the site of KEH. In both cases you can expect between $40.00 and $60.00 for the body. If the motor drive is in working order, and if you find somebody interested in it, it can fetch up to $70.00. Nikkor lenses (AI, AI-S or AF) hold their value remarkably well. AI and AI-S lenses can still be used on the pro and semi-pro digital bodies of Nikon (D200, D300, D700,..) and some of them have such a reputation that they can still sell for a couple of hundreds. Lenses made by third party manufacturers (Sigma, Tamron, Tokina) have reached a good quality level in recent years, but older models (from the 70s and 80s) have an horrible reputation and are almost worthless. It is particularly true for the zooms.
      If you don’t want to sell on eBay, try retailers such as KEH, B&H, Shutterblade or Adorama. They have a used equipment department, and buy bodies and lenses if they believe they can sell them.
      I hope it helps.

  2. Many thanks for thoughtful and comprehensive reply, it is taking up space and I guess ebay is the route to go and the least problematic. There is a small second hand market here in camera crazy Hong Kong but I am not very hopeful.
    thanks again

  3. If I had all the money to spend, I would LOVE to own one “F” of each professional body.
    Right now I’m considering getting my first one: an F4s.
    So far I only own an EM and an F80, but I would love to add more to the collection.

    Great blog, by the way.


Comments are closed.