Nikon F3 Review: Understated Perfection

The Nikon F3 is the third flagship SLR from the Nikon F series. Released in 1980, during the peak of the SLR arms race from camera giants like Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta, it enjoyed a 20+ year period of production before it was succeeded by the Nikon F4 (although the F3 was still in production well after the F4 was released). Enjoyed by enthusiasts and professionals alike. The technical details of this camera have been discussed to great lengths elsewhere. In this review I’m going to focus on my personal experience shooting this camera and where it fits in my arsenal. Here are my thoughts on this legendary SLR.

Nikon F3.jpg

I bought this Nikon F3 back in March of 2018. I got an incredible deal on it, $169 USD for the body, so I just had to get it. It was a bit dinged up but in 100% functional order. I didn’t really need it at the time, but with a deal like that I couldn’t really pass it up. Plus I had some Nikon F-mount glass already so I saw it as a good investment.

Nikon F3-8.jpg

I’ve only owned three 35mm SLRs in my life, the Canon AE-1, the Nikon FE and now the Nikon F3. The F3 is by far the superior system. The film advance is the best feeling advance I’ve experienced in an SLR, the modular nature and versatility are unmatched, and the design is to die for.

Nikon F3-6

The Nikon F3 was designed by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, a famous designer who’s responsible for designing some of the most striking Italian sports cars ever. He was the one who added the patented red stripe accent to the Nikon F3, an accent that has been included in every major Nikon release ever since. The F3’s design is industrialist while still remaining beautiful. It’s understated but bold. Some might say that it doesn’t matter what the camera looks like, what matters is its functionality. While I agree to some extent, I also believe that having a camera that you’re inspired to create with is incredibly important. If you’re more likely to pick up a camera that’s beautifully designed, you’re more likely to go out and shoot. Of course, functionality is important too and the Nikon F3 is no slouch when it comes to this either.

Nikon F3-9

The viewfinder in the Nikon F3 is one of my favorite components of this camera. It’s clean, clear, offers 100% viewfinder coverage and isn’t bedazzled with distracting needles and LEDs. The shutter speed is displayed in a separate LCD window, as is the aperture display. There’s nothing to distract you from your composition.

Nikon F3-3

The metering in the F3 is pretty much infallible. I shoot on aperture priority mode 99% of the time, and I’ve never had a failed exposure, even in tricky back-lit and contrasty lighting. Even with aperture priority mode on, I have the freedom to meter for the shadows or highlights with the exposure lock button. With these two features in tandem, I pretty much have complete control over exposure even while in a semi-automated shooting mode. The Nikon F3 is the camera I choose when I want to go out and shoot and have nothing in my way.

Nikon F3-7

I love taking the Nikon F3 out when I want just a bit more control over my exposure and aperture than a point and shoot but want to turn my brain off a bit and not worry about nailing my exposure like with my Leica M2. It’s also a nice departure from the 35mm focal length that is on virtually every other camera I own. The lens that is permanently attached to my F3 is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. Only on the rare occasion that I do some portraiture work will I bring out the 105mm f/2.5. Besides that, its always the 50. I love how this camera offers full-fledged functionality but also allows me to just turn my brain off and shoot.

Nikon F3-5

There are many aspects of this camera that I love and very few that I do not. If I had to complain about anything with this camera, its the flash compatibility. I don’t often shoot with a flash so it’s not much of a concern, but the F3 has a unique flash hotshoe and it can be tricky finding a compatible flash without the use of adapters. But as I said before, this is hardly a concern for me as I prefer to shoot without flash in 99% of all situations.

All in all, this is a fantastic professional SLR that serves as one of my main 35mm cameras. The understated but powerful design, incredibly clean and clear viewfinder, robust metering system and the versatility of its automated/manual modes make this my favorite 35mm SLR of all time.

Nikon F3-4

2 thoughts on “Nikon F3 Review: Understated Perfection”

  1. I’ve used a pair of F3 bodies in my work as an Environmental Journalist for the past 18 years. Never had any problems at all, both were bought second-hand. Of course I take care of them – have to.
    I regularly inspect the battery chambers for corrosion, non seen yet. I used the 3v lithium batteries, always insisting on Duracell. I mainly rely on wide lenses, 24/2.8, 28/3.5, 35/2, 135/2.8. The 35 gets most use. To reduce weight in my bag, the spare body is equipped with the DW3 waist level finder.
    It’s fairly light, just a few pieces of thin metal riveted together. It’s more a top end body cap to protect the screen (both B). I have no use for a motor. The WLF comes in useful for street photography with the 24. I always use autoexposure. I understand that Grays of Westminster have new F3 bodies for £2500 or the Titanium Black ones for £5000. Given the longevity and wide availability of these cameras secondhand, purchase of a new one would be something of an extravagance and I feel that the UK taxman might question the purchase. A far far better buy than the Leica R4.


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