Nikon F3HP

The Nikon F3 is the first professional level Nikon SLR to incorporate an electronic shutter and automatic exposure capability. Of course, the F3 provides the same high-quality materials, refined fit and finish, and durability for professional use as all F-Series cameras. Like its predecessors, the F3 continued to be part of a remarkably broad and advanced professional camera system.

When used in the new aperture priority mode, shutter speed range is a stepless 8 sec. to 1/2000 sec. An F3HP is an F3 body with a so-called "High-Eyepoint" DE-3 prism. Compared with the original F3 standard DE-2 eyelevel finder, the F3HP has a larger viewfinder eyepiece. Actually, most of the F3s that I have seen incorporate the HP viewfinder. Of course, the F3HP viewfinder provides a 100% frame coverage, like all F-series cameras, and a large, bright image with 0.8x magnification. Nikon offered 21 interchangeable focusing screens for the F3, but I have only used the standard K screen.

I waited years to upgrade to the F3HP because I liked my F2AS so much. However, since I had been using a Nikon FE as my second body together with the F2AS, I eventually succumbed to the desire to have aperture priority auto exposure on my main camera body, as well. The F3HP, particularly without the optional MD-4 motor drive attachment, has a perfect shape, body size and weight for comfortable and stable holding as well as all-day carrying. The F3's built-in handgrip allows a firm grasp.

One advantage of the F3 over the F and F2 is that the exposure meter is incorporated into the body instead of the prism. As a result, you can now change viewfinders and still keep the exposure meter. I have never needed to change from the F3HP's easy-to-view High Eyepoint DE-3 prism, but for professional applications, Nikon offered other types, such as the DW-3 Waist-Level Finder, the DA-2 Action Finder, and the DW-4 6x Magnification Finder. Nikon even produced the DX-1 AF Finder, with an electronic focus-aid indication!

The exposure meter on/off switch is a plastic lever that is incorporated around the shutter release button. This is something of a precursor to a similar switch on the future F4 and other newer Nikons. However, I find the switch on the F3 quite tight and hard to turn. In fact, my original switch recently got damaged from long use and was stuck in the off position. I had get the switch replaced at the local repair shop. Fortunately, there is no reason why the switch could not just be left in the on position during periods when the camera is in use. Even with the switch in the on position, the meter circuit does not actually activate unless the film wind crank is pulled slightly and the shutter release button pushed part way down. The shutter and meter are locked off when the film advance lever is pressed into the lock position. The F3 is the first F-level camera to utilize a standard ISO shutter release thread in the center of the shutter release button, instead of the older AR-2 style connector. The shutter release button is positioned just right in the middle of the body and has a silky-smooth feel.

As indicated above, the F3 is the first F-series to support aperture priority automatic exposure instead of just manual exposure. Simply turn the shutter speed dial to "A" to utilize this function. A really cool feature of the F3 is the 80% center-weighted exposure meter, concentrated on the viewfinder's 12 mm outer reference circle area. In my view, the 80% central weighting is a great compromise between Nikon's normal 60/40 weighting and a spot meter. The 80% weight allows you to easily meter on the most important section of the image, while still incorporating some exposure information from the remainder of the frame. You can center the 80% central spot on the metering target, then hold down the exposure memory lock button on the front of the the body and reframe. However, since I personally find it uncomfortable to use the exposure lock button in this position, I usually use manual exposure mode unless I am in a rush to shoot. One important thing that I don't like about the F3's manual exposure mode is the compact-style manual exposure indicator in the viewfinder. When in manual exposure mode, all you see are small +- indicators on the top left of the viewfinder. You adjust the exposure until both the + and - indicators are visible at the same time. This system, while extremely accurate, is not as clear or quick as the match needle setup in the Nikomat EL/FE/FE2/FM3A or the three diode (-o+) setup in the F2AS/FM/FM2n system. The F3's viewfinder display is not automatically illuminated in order to save battery power when not needed. However, you can push a small button on the prism to temporarily illuminate the display in the dark.

The F3 is the last F-series body to have manual film wind, unless you attach the optional MD-4 Motor Drive (with up to 6 frames per second performance). Starting from the F4, these cameras switched to built-in automatic film winding. This is great if you are shooting rapidly. However, if you just want a high-end film camera for slower, more deliberative shooting, manual film advance provides quieter film operation, much better battery life, and a smaller and lighter package compared with the auto-advance F4, F5 and F6. Unlike the semi-pro bodies like the FE and FM, the film advance lever on the F3 may be operated in one complete stroke or a series of shorter ones. The F3 can be used without a battery. Just push the mechanical shutter release lever on the front of the camera, although the mechanical shutter speed is limited to only 1/60 second. Certainly not as good as a full range of shutter speeds, but at least flexible enough for many situations in an emergency, especially if you have a tripod available. Nevertheless, this is almost never going to become an issue. My F3HP battery and shutter have never died throughout decades of use, and a single battery seems to last forever with the camera's low power usage.

The meter coupling lever on the F3 can be locked up to allow mounting of prehistoric non-AI lenses, although in my case, my only non-AI lens was converted to AI decades ago.

Since the camera has an electronic shutter, it also has an electronic self-timer, complete with flashing red light, just like modern SLRs.

The eyepiece has the usual shutter lever, but still no adjustable diopter. This is no problem, however, since Nikon still makes screw in diopter lenses for the F3. Actually, works fine with diopter lenses for the F90X, F100, etc. These diopter lenses have screw in rings that are slightly thinner than harder to find ones that are actually designed for the F3. However, the F90X/F100 diopters work just fine. The large F3HP viewfinder eyepiece is relatively easy to use with glasses.

In order to use an electronic flash unit, just like the earlier generation F and F2, the F3 still requires that an accessory shoe be mounted over the rewind knob, or that a special Nikon F3 flash unit be mounted directly onto the camera in the same position. (Of course, you could also use a side-bracket flash with a synch terminal cable.) Interestingly, the maximum flash synchronization speed is 1/80 sec., slightly slower than the 1/90 sec. maximum speed on the F2. The new advance is that the F3 offers TTL automatic flash exposure. If you can find one on eBay, I recommend that you use the powerful, F3-era Nikon SB-16a Speedlight. Apparently, newer Nikon flash units also provide TTL flash functionality with the F3, although you would need a special special adapter and  the new units also include additional functions that add don't apply to the F3 and just add complexity.

Balanced fill flash is available for these flash units on the F3, but you have to first set the background exposure manually, with a shutter speed at or below the maximum electronic flash synchronization speed. Then set the appropriate camera distance based on the film ISO, selected  aperture and guide number. Finally, fill flash is achieved by further shutting down the aperture by 1-2 stops, and correspondingly adjusting the shutter speed. You can also set this flash to TTL and adjust the flash exposure down by 1-2 stops using the exposure compensation dial (note: the compensation dial does not adjust the background exposure in this case because both shutter speed and aperture are set manually. All that being said, for fill flash, it would frankly be easier and faster to use a more modern F90X, F100, F5 or F6, which all provide 3D matrix automatic balanced fill-flash, Nikon's most advanced flash system. The F4 also has a pretty good flash capability, but it is still one generation older pre-3D technology (i.e., no communication of subject distance from D-type lenses.)

If I were forced to own only one film SLR camera from any brand, and I had to balance all the characteristics of the available choices for my shooting, (well, OK, except for the amazing, ultra-advanced F6) my pick would be the Nikon F3HP. Why? Well, I mostly use 35 mm film for landscape and cityscape photography. I can use my iPhone for casual snapshots, or a digital SLR for other applications. Even though an F2 will probably last farther into the mists of the distant future with its all mechanical design, the F3 has also proven to be very durable and long-lasting, and  has the benefits of aperture priority auto exposure, basic TTL flash, and a slightly more compact and elegant design than an F2AS. Compared with its later descendants, the F3 does not offer the benefits of matrix (multi-segment) metering, automatic balanced fill flash, and multiple exposure modes, but on the other hand, it is significantly smaller and lighter than the later pro-level bodies.

Copyright © 2013 Timothy A. Rogers. All rights reserved.