Nikon F3: A Worthy Successor to the F2?

In 1980, when the F3 was released, there was some resistance among F and F2 uses, mainly because of the fact that it required batteries. It was quite a different world back then. We didn’t carry and use electronic devices like we do today. There was some doubt about the reliability of anything that required batteries.

Today, we don’t think twice about carrying, and using, devices that run on electricity, and require batteries, and constant charging.

Once photographers developed some trust, once they had time to experience the reliability of the F3, they made the F3 one of the most popular of Nikon’s professional SLR cameras – with production continuing from 1980 through 2001. Below you see the F3 and F2, side by side. They are very similar in size and layout.

Nikon F3 HP on left, and Nikon F2A on the right.

So, what are the main differences?

First, the biggest change from the F2 to the F3 is the F3’s electronics. The F3 needs batteries to run – however, they built in a 1/60 of a second mechanical shutter, which bypasses all electronics and will function without batteries. Naturally, I don’t mind this requirement (or restriction) in today’s world. Pretty much everything I own (except many of my old cameras and my Sekonic Studio Deluxe meters) requires batteries. The fact that this camera requires batteries to power the shutter, is (I think) a good thing. The shutter speeds are more reliably accurate than the F or F2 shutters. Don’t get me wrong – the F2 shutters, especially the later models, are very good. The mechanical shutters that Nikon made are very reliable – however, over time they do tend to be a bit off, and not as accurate, and not as consistent, as the electronic models.

Next, let me point out that the electronic shutter on the F3 allows speeds all the way down to 8 seconds in manual mode. The F2 does have a way to do long exposures down to 10 seconds – but it’s a bit of a pain. With the F3, it’s just another shutter speed.

The F3’s self timer is also electronic. Moving the self timer switch (under the shutter speed dial) to on, and pressing the shutter release, activates the self timer for 10 seconds – the red light flashes, and the shutter fires. You have to remember to turn the self timer switch to the off position when you’re done using it.

Both camaras can mount and use ai or non-ai lenses. The F3 uses the same tab that was on the FE – the small tab on the mounting ring that can be moved up and out of the way for non-ai lenses. The F2A Photomic head has a tab that can be moved up and out of the way when mounting an older lens. The difference being that metering and coupling with the lens is all done through the head on the F2, and metering and coupling on the F3 is handled through a sliding dial around the lens mount.

ASA/ISO on the F3 is 12-6400. On the F2 the ASA/ISO is 6-6400, which is a bit wider range.

Nikon F2A and F3 HP, back to back. Both are mounted with 50mm f/1.4 lenses.

Although I love the solid feel of the F2, and it is a very beautiful camera in it’s own right, the F3 feels nicer in my hands. I think Nikon did a nice job with the layout of the F3 controls, and the contours of the body that make it feel very nice – just right.

The F2 sounds all mechanical – it has a very nice sound when the shutter fires, and the mechanical sound of the shutter, especially at slower speeds, is very nice. The F3 has an electronic accuracy to it when you fire the shutter – much like the FE and FE2 have. You don’t hear any mechanical gears spinning, but it still has a very nice sound.

Another difference is the way the F3’s finder is removed. It’s (I think) better, and simpler. You simply slide the 2 grooved buttons (one on each side of the finder) towards the eye piece, and the front of the finder is released, and springs upward. You can then lift it, from the front, and remove it from the body. To replace, slide the back in first (by the eye piece) and then press the front down until it locks. On the F2, removing the finder is not hard, but a little more complex. There’s a button on the body the detaches the back, and for Photomic finders there’s a separate lever on the finder that releases the front of the finder.

Speaking of finders, the F2A (my favorite F2) with the DP-11 finder, used a slightly different metering method than the F3 did. Metering on the F2A was a weighted average, with the center 12mm of the screen accounting for 60% of the measurement. The F3 changed this a bit (like Canon did with the New F-1) and made the center 12mm account for 80% of the measurement. So the F3 gave a little more weight to the center portion of the screen than the F2 did. I actually like this, and I think it works better if you know what you’re doing. The F2 metering is a bit more forgiving if you’re not really paying attention to the light in your scene.

So, there are some differences. For collecting, the F2 is a classic (like the F). The F3 is maybe not in the same class as the F2, but I will say, you can get a much newer F3, one that was made all the way up until about 2001. So, if you’re not just collecting, if you want to take photos as well – if you’d like to use this camera, you should maybe consider the F3. When you are shooting with older, vintage cameras, newer is nicer in some ways.

If you have a chance to get your hands on an old F2, or an F3, take some photos and see how they work. See what our fathers and grandfathers had to go through to get a sharp, well exposed photo – and have some fun with film while you’re at it!