(originally published in Sept 2009 – I did not change a word – just added a comment at the bottom of this post)
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.
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.
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.
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 by glass wearers. The viewfinder is the only part of the camera which is really larger than what you would find on contemporary advanced-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.
My 2021 take on the Nikon F3 – over the last twelve years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with almost every Nikon SLR manufactured between 1970 and 1995, and I still hold the F3 in very high esteem. There are a few other Nikon bodies that would compete in the “desert island camera” category – I can only see the FE2. The FE2 is much lighter, it’s easier to read what shutter speed the auto-exposure system has selected, but its viewfinder is very narrow compared to what the F3 (even in its non-HP version) offers, and it’s probably not as solid as its “pro” sibling.