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The Nikon F3 40 Years Later

A belated post from 2020

Nikon’s top-tier SLR line has seen a few hallmark anniversaries over the past few years; two years ago the F4 turned 30, last year the F turned 60, and next year the F2 will celebrate its 50th birthday. This year however marks a special anniversary for what is often considered the most significant of this line of groundbreaking film bodies: The F3 turns 40.

As the 1970s marched on the world of camera technology was rapidly changing. Heavy, often clunky and unintuitive manual bodies were starting to be phased out. Assisted shooting modes were becoming increasingly popular. After the release of the F2 in 1971 Nikon began to invest resources into auto-assist bodies that implemented an electronic shutter instead of a mechanical shutter, the norm of the early '70s. The first among this new breed was the Nikkormat EL, released in 1972. In 1977 Nikon introduced their Auto Indexing (AI) metering system and with it came a wave of smaller, lighter, and more intuitive cameras such as the FM and FE models each including aperture-priority automatic modes as well as introducing the Photomic AS finder for the F2, allowing AI technology to be used on the then five year old, fully manual body.

In 1980 all of this new technology came together in a single beautiful body designed by famed Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giugiaro's design influence is evident in the F3, featuring smooth geometric lines throughout with a curved grip on the right end bordered by the now iconic red racing stripe that Nikon continues to implement in its camera design to this day. The F3 was positively received and in the subsequent eight years leading up to the release of the F4 five additional F3 variants hit the market: the F3HP featuring a larger prism finder, the F3T featuring a body constructed of titanium, the F3P featuring a wide array of improvements for press photography, the F3H with a motor drive capable of shooting at 13 frames/second, and the F3AF, Nikon's first autofocus camera compatible with just two early design AF Nikkor lenses.

The legacy of the F3 has evolved but certainly not soured over the last 40 years. Young blood continues to discover the beauty and remarkable functionality of the F3 while vets of the film age will fondly recall the F3 they once had or dreamed of having. There's a uniting presence of it among those who know of it and its reputation. While not everyone would call it the greatest 35mm camera ever made practically everybody respects it for what it is, and that's a camera that's both easy and a privilege to use. No engineering detail was overlooked. In addition to the ease of use the body’s modular design backed by an impressively flushed out accessory line allows the shooter to make the F3 what they want it to be.

Another lasting beauty of the F3 is that if one wants to try it (and everyone who shoots film should at some point in their lives) is that while popularity of the camera continues to gain momentum the price point has remained relatively palatable, with working bodies still readily available for around $200. While a favorite camera will always be a subjective thing, the F3 is worth at least taking out for a spin if given the chance. You can feel Nikon's hard work in everything you do with it, the body has heft without being cumbersome, the shutter substantial without being clunky, and the advance lever butter-smooth without feeling loose. And the use is just half the fun. On the other end the excellent meter and the beauty of Nikkor glass will yield absolutely stunning results in both color and detail.

Since the F3 entered my arsenal over two years ago it's been my constant companion. It's been with me to take pictures of friends, of strangers, of city streets and harvests and sprawling farmland. It's a camera that's become second nature, taking a picture is as natural as taking a breath, and it's an easy gospel to spread. There are few cameras more gratifying to show to a photographer than the F3 if it's their first time handling one. What begins as a casual glance turns to visual happiness as they try the advance and fire the shutter. Few bodies illicit such an immediate and visual response. It's like someone seeing an old friend they haven't actually met, they look on it with sudden familiarity and trust.

And I suppose at the end of the day that's the key to the enduring legacy of the F3, we can talk all day about engineering and functionality and they both play a large role in the story, but moreover Nikon managed to make something that is such a pure joy to use that even if there are more advanced cameras it doesn't matter. In the grand scheme you will always seek out the old friend, through thick, thin, ups, and downs they will be your greatest comfort, they will be what you fondly think back on, and they will always be the one thing that will make everything okay.

Happy 40th, buddy.

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