Serious photojournalism- the Nikon F3

My F3 with HP viewfinder and 50mm f1.4

Some cameras have a certain following. Any Leica fan gets giddy at the sight of that red dot. Medium format guys talk about Hassy and Rollei. The Nikon F3 had a huge following, but in less classy circles. The F3 fan was unshaven, probably unwashed, sporting a worn surplus M65 field jacket, press credentials, a hangover, and the prized manual focus F3 SLR on a wide strap.

In 1980, Nikon introduced the F3, a camera aimed at photojournalists who wanted robust cameras, They had loved the F and F2, which were all mechanical and reliable. They all looked askance at the F3 to begin with. It was electronic, required batteries, and had some automatic functions. The more complex the machine, went the established wisdom, the more likely it was to fail. They needn’t of worried.

The successor to the F3, the F4 was introduced in 1988. The successor to the F4, the F5, was brought to the market in 1996. So many PJ shooters loved the F3 it continued to sell even after two generations of follow on products were introduced. Nikon finally shut down production of the F3 in 2001. Factory service for the camera is still available from them. People love their F3s.

It’s an easy camera to love. The last of the manual focus pro SLRs. They are slightly more reliable than bricks, with a shutter life cycle spanning decades. They handle naturally. The viewfinder is modular, so it can be changed out according to assignment and personal preference. I have a HP finder on mine now, but I like the standard DE 2 as well. You could get an autowinder for the camera. You could get some absurd options, like waist level finders, sports finders, camera backs that held 70 feet of film for hundreds of exposures. There was even the option of an all titanium body. The thing is the swiss army chainsaw of cameras.

F3 on Amtrak
In my sleeping compartment, heading to Denver from Chicago on the California Zephyr.

But what I like the best about the beast is it does the one thing I want. It gets out of my way and lets me take the picture. Seems simple, but like most simple things it’s hard. There’s no menus, or fiddly placement of the controls. Everything is close to hand and natural, so that I can do anything I need on the fly without taking my eye off the eye piece. The finders are all big, bright, and 100% of the captured image. Sure, it has some flaws. Most notably the flash mounting which is on top of the film winder for some reason. But the flaws are ones I can live with.

When I write about my F3, it sounds like a love story. Mainly because it is.


  1. October 24, 2015

    Stil got an F3; bought it after I dumped the F4s which used to embarrass me every tine I tried to load a film.

    The F and F2 never embarrassed me.

    Had to go D200 and D700 – still have both, but use the D200 most.

    Yep, less complications better pictures.

    • Andrew
      October 27, 2015

      That is the truth. Simpler is far, far better.

  2. Hernando
    November 10, 2015

    I saved and bought anF2A in college, when it was Nikon’s best. I now also have nice samples of the F4 and F5 (the latter feeling too much like a digital camera to get much use) but never saw much need for an F3 because I love my F2A. Your article is making me re-think this…

  3. David Murray
    March 14, 2018

    People are coming back to film. They are researching old film cameras on the web. The Nikon F and F2 are good, solid reliable cameras but the metering heads are usually dead and repairs are expensive. Also, some models are very expensive because of rarity. Fortunately the best of the manual focus Nikons were made between 1980 and 2001/2. The Nikon F3. You can still buy new ones from Grays of Westminster in London for £2500. “Last of the brand new stock” shouts the old boy (Gray Levett). I have been using a pair since 2000, one of which has the waist level finder to save weight. In use, this is really just a top body cap. When film runs out, I just swop lens and heads and carry on. I find the 3v Lithium battery to be the longest server and always carry spares. I really do strongly recommend this camera, you will have great difficulty finding one that does not work, even badly worn ones work just fine.
    But buy one soon as prices will rise with demand.

  4. John Garcha
    January 17, 2019

    Very Inspiring, it’s time for me to dust of my f3 and get on my De Rosa steel.

  5. Mark Cimon
    October 26, 2020

    Still have my Nikon F3 with HP finder and waist level finder, with my trusty 55mm 1:12, had the F4, too big and clumsy, sold it off in 2011… hard to find a sturdy F model that fits so well in hand and just goes ! And this is with MD-4 attached. I have tried FE, FM, F2AS, Even had an F with photomic finder and unmetered prism finder. All great cameras including the EL which was the model before the FE. The F3 just does it for me, synergy I guess.
    I looked at the F5, looks like a digital minus the screen… its a tank and eats batteries for lunch.

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