Camera Reviews

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.

Nikon F3HP *EXPLORED*

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.

Chicago

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.

Margaret

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

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    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…

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  2. Dan Cluley says:

    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)

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    • 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.

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  3. 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?

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    • 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.

      Liked by 2 people

    • 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.

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      • 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!

        Liked by 1 person

        • 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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.

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  5. Christopher Smith says:

    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.

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  6. 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.

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      • 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.

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  7. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.

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  8. SilverFox says:

    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.

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  9. 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!

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    • 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!

      Liked by 1 person

      • 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!

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        • 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.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. 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.

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