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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Love Affair - A contemporary review of the Nikon F3

I was still in school when I first met her. God, she was beautiful. I felt like I was cheating when I switched my attention to her, but it also just felt right and good. Like it was meant to be. Years later I deeply regretted abandoning her for a newer version. It ate at me. I yearned for that click, for the feel in my hands; for the tactile caress and they way it just felt right…every…single…time…I pressed the shutter. After many years, I finally have the Nikon F3 back in my hands, and she’s mine!

My photographic journey started in my early teens with a Pentax ME Super. This soon became two Pentax ME Supers. Although I loved using my ME Supers (and a later the awesome little Super A) I always longed for a Nikon. I was probably caught up in the hyperbole of marketing rhetoric, but every ‘serious’ photographer seemed to be toting one. Bear in mind that my adolescent brain was in awe of photographers like Peter Lichfield (Olympus), Frans Lanting (Nikon), David Bailey (Olympus), Terence Donovan (Pentax), Galen Rowell (Nikon) and even local photographers like the aviation genius of Herman Potgieter (Canon). As my world and mind view broadened I started to take in photographers like Peter Magubane (Everything), Ken Oesterbroek (ended up with Nikons) and Fanie Jason (Nikon). But, admittedly being young, naive and armed with nothing more than the ‘learn’ photography books I could get out the local library, my idea of a camera was what David Hedgecoe and Heather Angel were using. That was Nikons (okay, so Hedgecoe also used Pentax, but a lot of his books were graced by Nikon FMs). 

It was destined to be when I walked into the local photography shop in Bloemfontein, Exporama, and there on the shelf was a Nikon F3 trimmed out with a burgundy leather case and a simple e-series 50mm f1.8 lens. I had the pre-HP model, not that I knew the difference at that stage. The important thing was that this camera started my relationship with Nikon, which continues to this day. For years I deeply regretted selling my original F3 to my photography mentor, Monty Cooper, in order to pay off the first brand new camera I had ever bought; the Nikon F100. Finally this year, through a series of fortuitous events I finally managed to get another F3 back into my hands (by way of my second shooter, Claire). 

I have read on the internet that there were people who absolutely hated the F3. Personally, I have only ever heard from people who loved the camera. Still, when the F3 was first announced it did take a while for the professional photojournalists to switch from the all-manual F2 to the F3. The F3 was Nikon’s first fully electronic camera in the sense that even the shutter is electromagnetically controlled. The earlier electronic cameras like the FE all had a mechanical connection to the shutter button - basically a button that pushes on a lever to trip the shutter. Without a battery the F3 is essentially a brick. Nikon did include a second manual backup shutter release though. This is a small lever on the left hand side of the lens mount (as you look at the camera - it is on the right if you are holding the camera and falls exactly where the second Fn button resides on modern Nikons). Tripping this allows the shutter to fire at 1/60th of a second without batteries (or a meter for that matter). Of course it means either guessing the exposure, or using a handheld light meter to get the right exposure for 1/60th of a second. As an aside, while hiking the Appalachian trail in America in the late 90s I ran out of battery and ended up using the mechanical shutter on my F3 for about two weeks. Use of the ‘sunny 16’ rule and some conservative bracketing and I was able to continue the hike while shooting the Fuji Sensia and Astia that I had with me.

The Achilles heel to the f3 is the same as that of the F2 and the original F; the flash system. The F3 has an unusually slow sync speed of 1/80th of a second. The problem is that if you are trying to match a flash to ambient light, or overpower daylight, 1/80th of a second flash sync is simply too slow (and this only when you set the shutter speed dial to X). This was especially the case when Nikon’s FM2N had a flash sync speed of 1/250th a second (the fastest available at the time with the earlier FM2 having a 1/200th sec sync and the original 1977 FM having a 1/125th sync). The FE2 and FA which both came out shortly after the F3 also had these fast flash sync speeds. 

Then there was the way that the flash attached to the camera. Nikon had a fantastic system of interchangeable finders. Initially the F3 shipped with the DE-2 finder, but this was eventually replaced with the ‘high-eyepoint’ DE-3. There were several other finder also available for specific usage, including an enormous viewing finder that felt more like looking at a TV-screen (designed specifically for when photography had to be done through a face-mask - think diving, working in hazardous environments, and even astronauts shooting in space). The problem was that the latch connection of the finder couldn’t take the additional strain of mounted flash on top of the finder. The answer was to mount the flash over the ISO wheel on the top left shoulder of the camera. The downside to this is that it is impossible to rewind the film manually (the MD-3 motor drive can do this), nor remove the film from the camera without first removing the flash, or even change the exposure compensation dial when a flash is mounted. To make matters worse, the flash foot was a proprietary rail mount, which meant conventional hot shoe flashes couldn’t be used (although there was an adapter  . It did offer TTL flash metering though, which was impressive. Towards the end of the F3 production life, Nikon offered the F3P. The ‘P’ supposedly stood for ‘Press’. This camera was first offered exclusively to NPS customers, but eventually did make it’s way into stores. What set the F3P apart was the fact that it had a conventional hot shoe mount on top of its DE-3 finder. This did not offer TTL metering though.

To make matters worse, there were only two flashes that were ever designed to be used with the F3; the SB-12 and the SB-16 (with a special F3 base). The SB-12, although impressive in that it gave excellent TTL flash metering, didn’t have a swivel head so the light could not be bounced off surfaces. A SC-12 cable allowed some movement, but with the same drawbacks as having the flash mounted above the rewind lever.

So the F3 didn’t have the greatest reputation amongst photographers who worked with flash. As a result it definitely wasn’t renowned amongst fashion photographers. Photo journalists who worked without flash though tend to swear by the camera. Again, this is interesting as the initial reception was decidedly cool. Photographers were sceptical of the all-electronic shutter as well as small niggles like the all-plastic film advance lever (the previous F2, the FE and FM had a metal lever with a plastic tip for comfort). Time would come to show how durable the F3 really was. It also simply sips power and the two tiny button cells that it uses literally last for years. 

I personally find the F3 extremely comfortable to handle. Unlike previous Nikons and Nikkormats the F3 sported a small grip on the right hand side of the camera which makes it a lot easier to hold than the old box shape of the F2. The F3 was also the first Nikon to bear the red mark that has come to be associated with all Nikon cameras since (including the new Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras). This was introduced by the Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro who has strongly influenced (for the better) the design of Nikon cameras since 1980. For the F3 through to the F5 the ‘mark’ has been a red line (admittedly in the F100 and F5 the line has become a more pronounced vertical finger indent - in the digital age the line turned into the tell-take red swish at the top of the grip). The F3’s film advance lever is smoother than that on the F2 and the shutter speed dial is the first to have a rubber coating around its edges to make it more comfortable to operate. This comfort extends to the fact that is fairly easy to turn the dial with the right index finger while the eye is still to the viewfinder.

Looking down at the camera the left hand rewind lever now has the exposure compensation and ISO dials (ala the 1978 FE). A small lock button needs to be depressed to turn the compensation dial. To change the ISO you have to lift the the ring surround the rewind lever and rotate it with the ISO indicated in a cutout facing the photographer. On the right of the penta-prism the shutter speed dial sits with shutter speed indicated between 8 seconds and 1/2000th of a second. Bulb, Time, X-sync and the newly incorporated ‘A’ for Aperture Priority are also included. Beneath the dial is a rotating switch for the self-timer. When this is rotated counter-clockwise it exposes a red dot. Pressing the shutter button now activates a 10 second timer. Unfortunately there is only the ten second timer option, unlike the earlier F2 which had 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 second options. The small red window/lamp at the front of the camera flashes evenly for the first 8 seconds, and then flashes at a faster pace for the last two seconds of the exposure. The timer can be cancelled at any point by simply rotating the self-timer switch back to ‘off’. A similar rotating switch sits beneath the bottom button and film advance lever. This is the on-off switch for the camera. The camera will not fire or meter if this is off. To the right of this is a small double exposure lever. Swing this outwards before cocking the film advance lever and it will stop the film from advancing while still allowing the shutter to be cocked. As the film-advance lever is released, the double exposure lever bounces back to its normal position (if you want multiple exposures on the same frame you have to pull the tiny lever out between each shot.

On the front face of the camera Nikon added several important controls, some of which were new to the flagship series of cameras. Looking at the camera on the top left of the lens throat is the depth of field preview and mirror lockup switch. To lock the mirror up, depress the metal button with your middle finger and turn the lever with your forefinger. Below this sits the auto-exposure lock button and manual shutter release. One of the impressive features here is that Nikon have more or less stayed true to this design layout all the way from the F3 to the D850, which still has buttons in the exact same placement (although the AE-L button has now become a Fn button). On the right of the lens throat is the usual lens release button. Around the lens mount is the rotating automatic indexing (Ai for short). At this stage Nikon was still keeping pre-Ai lens users in the fold, and the F3 had a folding notch so that pre-Ai lens could be mounted. These lenses had to be used in stop down metering mode though.

Looking through the viewfinder of the F3 one is presented with a large and crisp view with a bright split prism in the centre. The view is particularly good when looking through the DE-3 viewfinder. This was the first of the ‘High-eyepoint’ viewfinders to come out. The difference between the DE-3 and the DE-2 is that the entirety of the viewfinder (which shows 100% of the image view) can be seen even when the eye isn’t pressed directly against the viewfinder. This design has continued on in every professional Nikon SLR since. At the top centre of the viewfinder is the ADR (Aperture Direct Readout) window that was first incorporated in the iconic FM camera. This is a small window and prism that reflects the view of the aperture into the viewfinder. To the left of this is an LCD screen that indicates shutter speed, under/over exposure and whether the camera is in manual mode or not. Unfortunately the under/over exposure warning is shown purely as a + or - sign, meaning that the photographer has no idea how far under or over exposed they are based on the meter (The f2, FE and FM all had needle meters, giving an instant feedback as to how many stops over or under the exposure was compared to the meter reading). A really nifty feature though is the small illumination lamp for shooting in the dark. On the right front of the prism is a small square red button. Depressing this admittedly finicky little button lights up the shutter speed window and also casts a small amount of light onto the displayed aperture number, meaning that the shutter speed and aperture can be viewed even in the dark.

One of the advantages of the electronic nature of the F3, along the quartz timing for the shutter speeds, is that these speeds are also stepless. Unfortunately the photographer has no indication off what the actual speeds are, but when using the camera in aperture priority mode, the shutter speed could be in between the stops presented. This meant that the F3 had a very accurate exposure metering for it’s time. Coupled to the very precise meter built into the body, and the F3 was capable of extremely accurate exposure. Selectable shutter speeds ranged from 8 seconds to 1/2000th of a second as well as X (for flash sync), Bulb (B) and Time (T) functions. The last is something that has only recently returned to Nikon DSLRs. This is a setting that locks the camera into an exposure until you turn the shutter speed dial (with modern cameras you hit the shutter button a second time). This is particularly useful for long exposures at night where you are wanting an exposure for a a period of time that Bulb inconvenient (I use it a lot on my D850 for long exposure images with a Lee big stopper filter in place).

If one goes on life of manufacture alone, the F3 is probably the most successful camera that Nikon ever produced (although it probably shares the title with the FM2N, especially as this was essentially updated with the FM3A). Nikon only discontinued the F3 in 2001, just under 21 years after it’s introduction. It was still being sold several years after the introduction of the F5 and F100. Over it’s lifetime several iterations of the camera were made available to the public as well as specialist bodes for NASA and the US Army. Probably the most popular od the special iterations was the F3T which had a titanium body. Also popular, and still easily found was the F3P (dubbed the ‘Press’ model) which had a raised shutter speed selector for making it easier to use with gloves. More importantly, the F3P had a non-TTL metered hot shoe on top of the pentaprism - a nod to the many photojournalists who needed to have quick film change ability while using flash. On top of these models were the F3AF - Nikon’s first stab at autofocus and the F3H which incorporated a pellicle mirror so that it could fire at 13 frames a second. There was even a digital F3 thanks to a collaboration with Kodak in producing a DCS back with a 1.3 megapixel CCD sensor.

I personally love my F3 (now that I have one in my hands again). I made the mistake of selling my first F3, and won’t make that mistake again. Although there are good arguments to be made against the F3 as an everyday film camera (I have friends who still think the FM2 and FE2 are better cameras and I myself own and use an FE2), there is something special about shooting with an F3. Whether it’s the big bright viewfinder, the feeling of indestructibility to the body or the accuracy of the meter (to the extent that a handheld is a nicety rather than a necessity), the F3 just wants to be used.

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