The Nikon F3 and The Canon New F-1: Two 1980’s Workhorse Cameras

The Nikon F3 was introduced in 1980. The Canon New F1 was introduced in 1981. Both cameras were professional level workhorse cameras, and the third in a series of professional cameras for both companies. They were very similar, and yet, very different.

The Nikon initially came with the DE-2 as it’s standard finder, and Nikon shortly after introduced the DE-3 (and then the DE-4 for the Titanium body). All finders worked the same, however the DE-3 and DE-4 were named Highpoint finders (labeled HP) and allowed a slightly smaller view so you could see the entire frame with your eye slightly back from the eyepiece, if you were wearing glasses, for example. The F3 body enabled aperture priority auto exposure as well as manual metering.

The Canon had a meter built into the body, but in order to enable aperture priority mode, you needed the AE Finder. The eyelevel finder did not allow for AE mode, only manual exposure. Interestingly, the F1 also allowed shutter priority auto exposure with a winder or motor drive attached. So Canon took the approach of building the meter into the body, but the auto exposure modes were only enabled with additional equipment. I found this an interesting approach. Was this done for technical design reasons, or was it strictly marketing, to sell other hardware in order for the photographers to enable these features?

So, what is it like to use each of these cameras, and which do I prefer?

First, let me mention a couple things that bug me. First, about Nikons in general. I know there are probably reasons, and Nikon has kept the F mount the same for a very long time – so almost every lens that Nikon ever made will still mount on new cameras. But, I hate that the lens mounts by turning it counter clockwise. I know this varies by manufacturer, but I’m used to turning things clockwise to tighten them. Canon and Olympus both follow this concept with their lens mounts, but Nikon doesn’t. That’s just a minor bother for me. Not really a big deal. Also, Nikon focusing is opposite both Canon and Olympus. This is really a pain when you buy a third party lens (non-Nikon) for a Nikon body – then the lens generally focuses opposite of the Nikon lenses. This seems backwards, but it also looks backwards because the split prism on the focusing screen works backwards compared to focusing with a Nikon lens. The aperture ring on the Nikons move the same as the Olympus, but opposite Canon… just a frustration I have because I jump between many different models – Nikon seems backwards from other brands sometimes (or maybe everyone else has it wrong, and Nikon does things right).

So, there’s another thing. Many cameras do this, but it just bothers me. When auto exposure modes came into use on more and more cameras, manual exposure modes were sometimes treated as second class citizens. That’s one reason I love some cameras and tolerate others. On my love list, the Olympus OM-2, and the Canon F-1 (all versions). On my tolerate list, Nikon F2AS, Nikon F3, and Canon AE-1, among other cameras. And I understand that some cameras were targeting an audience that would use auto exposure modes 99% of the time. I, however, do not fall into that category. I use manual mode at least 3% of the time! Actually, I do use the auto modes quite a bit on my Nikon F3 but using manual exposure on these cameras is very tedious. On the AE-1, you have to look into the viewfinder to see the settings, then take your eyes away and change your settings on the top of the camera and the lens. On the Nikons (F2AS and F3) you have LED lights or LCD characters that show you if you’re over or under exposed – you have to adjust until the + and – signs are both lit, or some other such nonsense. I like a needle to show my exposure. The Olympus OM-2 is, in my opinion the best and easiest. The Canon F-1 bodies are all good to work with in manual mode – with a needle the way I’m used to. I understand the short fallings of this type of metering, and everything has weaknesses. But that’s what I like. I suppose it depends on what you get used to and what you’ve used most.

Both cameras are extremely tough, and built like tanks. I think the Canon is a bit heavier, but both are heavy enough to be a bit much to carry. Not compact at all, and not meant to be.

Now, I will say, the perception (and I believe it) is that the Nikon is better built. I feel like the shutter in the F3 is better in the long haul. The F-1 shutters have a reputation for becoming noisy, and some develop a squeal. A lot of these cameras (both the F-1 and the F3) have gotten a great deal of use, and the shutters can only take so much before it will fail. I believe the Nikon shutters do last longer – but I don’t have any specific proof of that.

I also will say, the perception (and I pretty much believe it) is that Nikon glass is very good. In fact, I believe that it’s up there with the best glass ever made. However, Canon’s optics are very good – especially their professional lenses. Very close to Nikon’s level of quality, but I think the edge goes to Nikon’s glass.

As far as metering, both of these cameras employ a heavily center weighted metering system. For professional use, or for a photographer that understands the zone system and how to compensate for darker or lighter scenes, they both work extremely well. These cameras were before any matrix metering was developed, but in the right hands both cameras meter extremely well. I actually like using both, as long as I remember to compensate for darker or lighter than normal subjects, depending upon the intended results.

Here’s a few shots from my Canon F-1.

Here are a few photos taken with the F3.

Here’s a couple other tidbits… Both have manual shutter speeds all the way down to 8 seconds. Both have max shutter speeds of 1/2000 of a second. For flash photography, the F3 syncs at 1/80 of a second, the F-1 syncs at 1/90 of a second. So, both are pretty close to the same for flash syncing.

As far as manual (non-battery powered use) the F-1 actually functions without batteries at 1/125 to 1/2000 of a second. Below 1/125 it requires batteries. The F3 actually has one manual shutter speed (I believe 1/60 of a second) that is operated by a special shutter release on the front of the camera. The Canon is a bit more flexible in this area.

It’s interesting, the rewind crank on the F-1 has a kind of clutch that engages when the rewind lever is pulled up. If the rewind lever is down, you can turn the knob to tighten the film, but it slips (with friction) so you can take up slack, but not put too much tension on the film unless you flip the lever up. Interesting feature.

One feature of the Nikon F3 is regarding it’s data back. Many data backs from this period have analog settings – which have limited date ranges, and are really pretty useless for standard date codes now. You will notice that one of my Nikon F3 photos has a data stamp. Nikon’s data back MF-14 has digital date settings that allow me to use it still this year (2021). The Canon Data Back FN is analog, and has 3 dials to set a data code with. I’m not sure it is usable with today’s dates, in any case, it seems much more limited.

Here’s another thing. I have poor eyesight, so I need to either wear my glasses, or adjust the camera’s eyepiece somehow. I don’t like wearing my glasses while taking photographs. On new cameras, you can change the power of the eyepiece with built in adjustments. On these cameras, you have to add a correction lens to the eyepiece. One advantage of the F3 (and F2s as well) is the availability of diopter adjustment lenses for Nikons. Very easy to find on eBay. Canon F-1 diopter adjustment lenses, on the other hand, appear to be difficult to find. I’ve been searching for several years, and I’ve found 1 that is the right strength for me. Over the same period, I’ve bought a dozen or so for my Nikons. I’m not sure why this is, but that’s an advantage for the Nikons.

Now, as far as which one I prefer to use, that’s a tough question. On one hand, I think the Nikon is built better, and has a better shutter. On the other hand, I love the way the Canon F-1 handles manual mode, with a match needle type of meter. I absolutely love the viewfinder of the F-1. The information displayed is really everything I want to see. It’s interesting how it works – much like the Olympus OM-2 works. When you change modes – in the case of the F-1 you change modes by changing finders – the display in the viewfinder changes appropriately. In manual mode, the match needle on the right shows just what you need for easy manual operation. In AE mode (with the AE finder installed, and the shutter speed dial in AUTO) the manual display on the right disappears, and a new shutter speed scale appears on the bottom. This is perfect. Exactly what I need to see.

So, if it comes down to it, I think I prefer to use the F-1 because I shoot in manual mode a lot. That makes a difference for me. If I’m only going to shoot in AE mode, it’s a toss up. Have you used both the Nikon F3 and Canon F-1? Which do you prefer. Both are top notch, but there are advantages and disadvantages to both.