If I could own only one camera it would be the Nikon F3

It’s a bold statement, I know: if I could own only one camera, it would be the Nikon F3.


My camera collecting has been, in part, a journey toward finding the cameras that work best for me. I think I’ve tried enough cameras now to make this judgment. 

I’d miss my other SLRs, especially my Pentaxes ME and KM. Once in a while I’d pine for my autofocus, autoexposure Nikon N90s. There would be times I wished I could slip my Olympus XA into my pocket, or enjoy a Kodak Retina.

But if I owned only my Nikon F3, I’d make wonderful images for the rest of my life, and be perfectly happy doing it.

The rugged Nikon F3 can withstand any conditions I might subject it to, including my own considerable klutziness. After I send it out for a CLA, it should work beautifully for me for the rest of my life. I own a good range of capable Nikkor lenses. I’m ready for pretty much anything I might want to shoot.

The F3 offers aperture-priority exposure, my favorite way to shoot. It also offers full manual exposure.

The F3 is heavy. One could argue that I might enjoy one of Nikon’s lighter semi-pro bodies more. I own one, an FA, and it’s a good camera — and less fatiguing at the end of a long day slung over the shoulder.

But it took me no time to adapt to the F3’s ways, and now whenever I shoot it I feel one with it. That kind of bonding has happened for me with only a few cameras, my FA not included.

This was going to be my Operation Thin the Herd writeup on the F3. But it is silly to keep you in suspense through a long post when I’ve always known there was no way I would get rid of this camera. So here now, the photos that would have graced that Operation Thin the Herd post. The lens is the 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, and the film is Kodak T-Max P3200.

Chicago River at night

These are from our December trip to Chicago. I really enjoyed being able to capture the city at night on that fast, fast film.

Chicago River at night

I just can’t get over how good these night photos are. That P3200 really performs.

State Street at night

Heavy cloud cover made for poor light during the day. The P3200 let me shoot at comfortable apertures for plenty of depth of field.

Hotel Allegro

The F3 hung off my shoulder nonstop for three days. By the third day I was beginning to wish for relief. That’s my only beef with the camera.

State and Lake

I love Chicago as a photographic destination. I haven’t even begun to exhaust the obvious subjects yet.


The F3 is quiet for an SLR perfect for shooting inside a museum like the Chicago Art Institute.

Inside the Art Institute

I managed one photo inside the Merchandise Mart before security sternly warned us that photography was prohibited.

Elevators in the Merchandise Mart

I made a portrait of Margaret at our Sunday lunch, at a restaurant called The Dearborn. We shared a bottle of delicious Spanish wine.


All was not perfect with the F3 on this outing. I didn’t know it until the images came back from the processor, but the shutter was acting up a little. On my first roll it affected about a dozen shots, but did not occur at all on the second roll. It’s possible that the shutter was just a little crabby from disuse. I had been using my F3 regularly until about a year ago, when Operation Thin the Herd began. It’s kept me busy with my other cameras!

I’m going to shoot a few more rolls through my F3 to see if the problem recurs. This is a good reason to use up some ten-year-expired Kodak Max 400 I have in the fridge. If I see more of this, I’ll move the camera up in the CLA queue and include a repair to the shutter.

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41 responses to “If I could own only one camera it would be the Nikon F3”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I’m 99.9% with you, the one flaw? I would want a full mechanical shutter. Not that I did a lot with 35mm as a pro, but I remember when the F3 came out, the pro community was kind of like: “…battery timed shutter…really?” Lots of people held on to their F2’s for that reason….

    Mine? Hasselblad 501CM….still have mine, and just ordered a bunch of roll film too…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think the F3’s electronic shutter has acquitted itself well in the nearly 40 years it’s been available! But yes, the F2’s mechanical shutter is unassailable.

  2. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    Definitely liking this group of BW photos.

    We stayed at the Allegro once, but it was 25 years ago when it was still the Bismarck. It looks a little fancier now (our room was straight out of the ’70s, complete with console TV)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am happy that boutique hotel chains like Kimpton buy up old properties like these and renovate them. The Allegro must have been quite a stunner in its early days as the Bismarck but at least the old gal gets to serve anew.

  3. Dan James Avatar

    It’s always great to read about people finding cameras they’re so happy with. What would set the F3 above the F2? I don’t know much about Nikons (never had one) but wasn’t the FM range much like the F series, but more compact and lighter? And all mechanical?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The F3 offers aperture-priority mode, which is my favorite way to shoot. The F2 doesn’t. Also, and this is a nit, but I’m going to pick it: to meter, you have to pull the F2’s winding lever back. I don’t like that very much. Tapping the shutter button activates the meter on the F3.

      The FM (and FE and FA) cameras are indeed more compact. I own an FA and like it. Just not as much, for some reason, as the F3.

  4. mike connealy Avatar

    Nice work on those night shots. Makes me wish I lived closer to a real urban area.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Road trip!!!!

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    If the F3 had the FE2’s wonderful needle meter display rather than the little LCD window, it would be PERFECT. What ISO did you shoot this film at?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Now I’m almost afraid to try an FE2 because I’m sure I’d love that needle display. But I don’t find the F3’s LEDs to be that challenging. I shot the P3200 at 3200.

      1. Johnny Martyr Avatar

        For me, the Achilles’ heel of the F3 is that dim little LCD meter display. It’s not clearly visible without the added light past about 800 ISO situations. Engaging the light each time you want to meter in low light seems ridiculous for a 1980’s meter as it slows one down and the display is still very small anyway. It’s certainly not as fast to read, even in broad daylight, as a big swing needle or simple 3 LED’s. What surprises me is how an improved read-out was never even offered. After buying an F3 as my first F body, I reverted to the F2 which has many more meter/head options. I still own my F3 and use it almost exclusively in aperture priority mode in situations where I don’t need a meter, because outside of this, it’s a very fine piece of equipment. I think the FE2 would really sit well with you. It’s of course much smaller and I think much easier to use in this regard. The shutter and overall durability of the F3 is superior though. I think one would have to actively try to break it in order to do so!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I really do wish to try the FE and the FM (original or “2”) to see how they feel. But that F3 LED in the vf really doesn’t bother me, and you’re right, the F3 is tough as nails.

  6. jon campo Avatar
    jon campo

    Excellent pictures Jim. I keep trying to bond with my F3 but it seems like a lost cause. My two F2’s are a different story. I love those cameras.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Isn’t it funny how individual camera love is?

  7. Mike Avatar

    I just picked up an F3 that had been CLAd. It is quickly replacing my Canon A-1 as my go-to favorite camera. I was starting to wander to the Nikon side after getting a couple of Nikon FE’s. I don’t like that you have to leave the winder out from the body to shoot. It hits me in the forehead when I am looking through the viewfinder Other than that I think it is a near perfect camera. The F3 also, feels great in the hand, has a nice weight to it and the shutter sound is music. I am not really sold on the HP viewfinder, I think I would rather have the lower profile standard VF. I am on my second roll of Portra 400 and it just keeps getting better.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, the winder hitting the forehead does take one out of the zone a little. I don’t like it either. I do rather like the big HP viewfinder though. The prism is easy enough to swap out if you want to find a non-HP vf.

  8. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    I really like my F3 it’s a great camera but I also like my F4s as well so it’s a toss up between the 2 for me. Great photo’s Jim.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve never tried an F4! I’m kind of afraid to — because I might like it too much.

  9. lasousa2015 Avatar

    Great choice Jim. For me, thinking quickly, it would be my Rolleiflex 2.8F. Sterling image quality, light, small for bagging with filters, robust build with a good meter, and it attracts people making it easier to take candids in the streets. It is good for all genres of photography, even macro with the screw on close up filters if one can afford the steep change for the set.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d like to try a Rolleiflex 2.8 one day. Maybe if I save my nickels for a good long time!

      1. lasousa2015 Avatar

        Other equally capable models are much less pricey. I owned and very much liked the Automat with 3.5 lens. A must as with all TLR’s is having a good focusing screen. They get dirty or foggy over time. I have a Beattie screen on my 2.8. There are some web discussions on how to clean older screens but I have never tried it. I think dish soap and warm water and gloves to avoid skin contact with the glass. The Minolta Autocord is phenomenal, but its bane is the focusing lever. It is made of cast aluminum and is prone to breaking off. I found a wonderful repairer for these cameras, mine came back with a new focusing lever with stronger materials and restored entirely to as new including a crystal clear focusing screen. I always recommend the Autocord for anyone wanting to scratch the TLR surface.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I am perfectly happy with my Yashica-D and Yashica-12. Actually, I love the Yashica-D. I could happily make that my only TLR ever.

  10. Olli Thomson Avatar

    Tried it once. A wonderful camera but I really couldn’t get on with the viewfinder, particularly the LCD. I’m still looking for an aperture priority Nikon now I have a collection of lenses. I’d quite like an FM3 but they are out of my price range. Someday I’ll probably pick up an FE2, though I did see a very well used F3 lurking in the corner of a photo store here in Sofia when I was out for a walk today. I might have to drop in and see how much they’re asking.

    Great set of pictures. I particularly like that first river shot.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The LCD could be larger, but it’s not a dealbreaker for me. I like the vf, but I know the high-eyepoint thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

      I’d like to try an FMx or FEx one day. I own an FA and it’s nice.

  11. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

    These are really great shots. I particularly like your lead-off image of Chicago at night.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! I can’t tell you how fun it was to shoot at night like it was daytime. I can’t get over how well the P3200 performed.

  12. SilverFox Avatar

    Nice pics Jim, never tried a Nikon film camera myself; I think it’s probably too late now.
    Nice pic from inside the Merchandise Mart; I got a few in there myself before I was caught by security when I was in Chicago last year; there are lots of interesting details.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It would be lovely to get to shoot the Merchandise Mart well. And it’s never too late to try a new old camera!!

      1. SilverFox Avatar

        I’m trying not to start looking at whole new camera brands, got too many cameras as it is. And I just realized I have shot Nikon in the form of the Nikonos underwater cameras so I am calling that action done :)

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Very good then! :-)

  13. brandib1977 Avatar

    These images are stunning. Nice work!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Why thank you!

  14. Johnny Martyr Avatar

    The F3 isn’t quite a grand slam for me due to the meter display (as noted above) but it’s awesome that you have a single body that you are that you are 100% happy with. For me, the FM2n is very close but I enjoy each of my cameras for their unique characteristics to such a degree that I could only choose one based on criteria of use! Great read and I’m happy to see you’re getting along with the P3200 also!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A lot of people have commented here and elsewhere that the F3’s meter display is a disappointment or an outright problem for them.

      I was choosing the “one camera” from the cameras I already own. Perhaps if I tried an FM or an FE I’d change my mind!

      1. Johnny Martyr Avatar

        You know, it may come down to speed/comfort. It’s not as if I cannot see the display, I just cannot interpret it at a glance. And regardless of if I’m trying to react quickly to an unfolding scene or taking my time and dialing all the details in, I don’t find it pleasing to look at. However, if one is moving slower and isn’t as visually offended by its look, I’m sure it’s quite adequate! And accurate at any rate!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          You know, if I were more of an “unfolding scene” photographer I might find the F3 to be the wrong camera! But I tend to do documentary work — I have plenty of time to think about the subject, frame/compose, etc.

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  16. sumacandmilkweed Avatar

    Of my current collection, my Minolta SRT-102 is the one I reach for most and if I absolutely could only keep one camera, that would likely be it. It’s too heavy, but the viewfinder is bright, it makes double exposures easily, I’ve dropped it and knocked it into things and it just never, ever gives me trouble. I try not to choose things on looks alone, but it doesn’t hurt that I think it’s the most attractive 35mm camera I own. I’m just sad I lost the original lens cap for it a few years ago because that added to its charm, but I bet I can pick up another.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What an excellent choice. And such a sturdy camera. If you had it CLA’d it would probably work flawlessly for the rest of your life.

  17. Sam Avatar

    A perfect blend of mechanical and 80s electronic cameras. Jim, a great case you made for one of Nikon’s all time classics.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s an easy case to make!

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