The Nikon F3 was Nikon‘s third professional single-lens reflex camera body, preceded by the F and F2. Introduced in 1980, it had manual and semi-automatic exposure control whereby the camera would select the correct shutter speed (aperture priority automation). The Nikon F3 series cameras had the most model variations of any Nikon F camera. It was also the first of numerous Nikon F-series cameras to be styled by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, and to include a red stripe on the handgrip – a feature that would later become (with variants of stripes and various other shapes) a signature feature of many Nikon cameras.
The F2AS was a current model when the F3 was introduced, and for a while both were sold concurrently. The earlier Nikons had developed such a sterling reputation for extreme ruggedness and durability that many Nikon F and F2 owners were initially reluctant to transition to the new F3 from the F2 series, particularly due to the new camera needing batteries to operate. The F3 was superseded by the F4 in 1988 and the F5 in 1996. Despite being superseded by the newer cameras, it remained in production through to 2001, with over 751,000 F3s produced through September 1992. It continues to be the longest running professional grade Nikon SLR. Long after production ceased, new bodies in boxes were available throughout the world, so an exact production number is not readily available.
Nikon abandoned the earlier mechanically operated shutter of the F2 for a modern, electronically controlled, horizontally traveled metal curtain design. The new shutter proved to be equally reliable and less maintenance-intensive overall, though the decision to retain the horizontal-travel design significantly limited its top flash sync speed (1/80 sec.) compared to other Nikons, some of which used the Copal shutter. This decision forced many disappointed press photographers to use Nikon’s semi pro bodies (FM, FE, FM2, FE2 etc.) instead when higher sync speeds were needed, usually for fill flash in daylight situations. The F4 finally solved this sync speed deficiency with Nikon’s pro grade SLR offerings with its 250th sync. In contrast to the manually operated F2, the F3’s electronic shutter required battery power to operate, although the camera included a small backup mechanical release lever that tripped the shutter at 1/60 sec.
The F3 continued the high-quality of its predecessors, in some ways surpassing it. Tolerances were exacting, and typically Nikon – just enough for operation of the camera (with a small allowance for debris), yet not enough to inhibit cold-weather operation at temperatures where lubricants begin to gel. Only the finest quality mechanical and electronic parts were selected, and Nikon insisted that all electronic components be sourced with a guarantee of 20 years of continued supply. Not only did the F3 utilize ball-bearings to mount its shutter and film transport mechanisms, but additional clusters of bearings were added to the film advance to make one of the smoothest operating cameras ever built. Indeed, resistance is so low when operating the film advance that it is difficult to tell if there is film in the camera.
For the first time, shutter information was displayed via an internal liquid crystal display (LCD) inside the viewfinder. Aperture information was relayed through Nikon’s “ADR” (Aperture Direct Readout) which was a window at the top center of the viewfinder that got its information from a micro-prism that read small numbers at the top of the mounted lens, of which type ‘AI’ (Aperture Indexing) or ‘AIS’ (Aperture Indexing Shutter Priority) lenses had printed behind the normal aperture numbers. Though widely used today, LCDs were very hi-tech at the time. They proved somewhat difficult to see at night, so Nikon installed a button-operated light for use at night. The LCD is one of the few problem areas of the F3 design, since with age, LCDs lose contrast, blur, and become inoperative after a number of years. Fortunately, unlike modern autofocus cameras with LCD ‘Command Center’ panels, malfunction of the F3’s LCD viewfinder display does not prevent full operation of the camera, since this is accomplished with manual dials and indicators. Many F3 cameras built in the 1980s were never used professionally, and therefore are still in perfect working order, including the LCD. On early production models the auto exposure lock button, originally a simple push-in part, is often missing; Nikon later redesigned this part so it was securely attached from inside the body. The later part can be fitted to early bodies but a partial stripdown is required.
The Nikon F3 was the last in the Nikon series of manual-focus, professional level 35mm SLR cameras. Its production cycle is generally accepted to be from 1980 to 2000 or 2002, close to a record for a high-volume professional camera. Its successor – the F4 – along with operating the two F3AF lens, featured auto-focus and new optional metering and modes, but retained the ability to mount older manual-focus lenses. The F3 was also the last F-Series camera to be offered without an integrated motor drive, making the camera smaller overall than its successors in the F-Series. The lasting appeal of the F3 remains the same as it was at its inception – a precision tool for those who prefer a less complex, extremely well made camera for continual use in extreme environments.
The optional motor drive for the F3, known as the MD-4, contained either 8 AA batteries or a special NiCd battery pack that would be recharged. Its performance surpassed that of past Nikon models, with a capability of 4 frames per second with uninterrupted reflex viewing, or 6 frame/s with the reflex mirror locked up. The integral seamless design of the MD-4 motor drive made it an extremely popular option for many F3 users. A bulk film back could be fitted in lieu of the normal back to the F3. This film back, known as the MF-4, was capable of handling up to 10 meters (33 ft) of 35mm film, or 250 exposures.