Nikon FM3A - A Unique Mechanical Camera

I first returned to shooting 35mm film (after digital) back in 2007, when a friend convinced me to buy a Nikon F100. Switching between this and a Nikon D2H (with a handful of AF lenses) was easy & fun. It started me on a path of discovering a host of old film cameras. Ten years on and although my film shooting was in decline, I suddenly felt an urge to get back to my photography roots with an all manual 35mm SLR. This is the thought process that led me to the Nikon FM3A...

I loved the style of the original Nikon F but I wanted a little automation (specifically; aperture priority), so I kept looking through all the great models. The Nikon F3 was an obvious choice, but the more faithful styling and higher shutter speed of the Nikon FE2 was pulling my attention away. The only problem with the FE2 was that it had no mechanical functionality. After continuing to use a mechanical camera after its meter died back in the 90's I fully appreciated the value of a mechanical camera and ideally I wanted this reliability again. The Nikon FM2 would have been perfect, now if it only had aperture priority. Then I stumbled across the FM3A. All the benefits of both the FE2 and the FM2, but with none of the down sides... well, accept price and availability. While looking for a second hand FM3A in Europe, I looked up some more information about its history. It turns out there's a lot, so here are some aspects that helped justify my future purchase...

FM HISTORY

At a time where 'Nikon' was the name of the flagship camera (not the company), the Nikkormat FT started a more affordable line of mechanical film cameras alongside the Nikon F series. In the late 70's Nippon Kogaku were poised to introduce their first electronically controlled pro model - the now legendary Nikon F3 - the FM series ('M' for Mechanical) was born. It took over from the FT, keeping the original Nikon F styling through it's entire series. With the imminent discontinuation of the F2, it was about to become Nikon's only mechanically operated camera left in production. The electronic Nikon F3 did have a mechanical backup (hybrid shutter), although it was a crude system (only firing at 1/80th). It was the first and last flagship model to include this feature. The perfection of this 'hybrid' mechanism would go on to make the 3rd FM model so special.

MANUAL vs MECHANICAL

The Nikon FE2 is a manual camera. It has a manual film wind, manual focus, manually set ISO and a manual shutter speed dial, but it is not a 'mechanical' camera because it has aperture priority mode. In this mode the light meter controls the shutter speed and this means that it must be fired electronically. In a mechanical film camera, like the Nikon FM, the light meter is independent from the camera's functionality. It will suggest settings for the photographer, but can't actually change them. These cameras have no automatic modes and the functionality doesn't require batteries. Film cameras with automatic modes had to fire the shutter mechanism electronically. This meant that if the battery (or any electronic component) were to fail then the camera would no longer work.

UNIQUE SHUTTER

Some high-end cameras have hybrid shutter mechanisms. This means that they can be fired both electronically & mechanically. However these were generally electronic cameras first, with partial mechanical functionality as a backup. Cameras like the Pentax LX (1980) & Canon New F-1 (1991) were the most advanced. They had access to the higher shutter speeds (flash sync to 1/2000th) without power (although the latter had to have the batteries physically removed for the shutter to fire). The Olympus OM4 (1983) & Leica M7 (2002) had access to two speeds without power and the Nikon F3 only one (1/80th). All hybrid film cameras were limited without power to some degree until the Nikon FM3A (2001) and none of them had shutter speeds higher than 1/2000th.

To this day the Nikon FM3A is the only camera in the world with a fully functional hybrid shutter mechanism. So, like the FM2 the Nikon FM3A has to access to any of its shutter speeds (from bulb, up to 1/4000th of a second) without power. Adding aperture priority on top of this was such a technical challenge that Nikon only managed to release this camera by 2001. At this point film cameras were in heavy decline due to digital picking up. The FM3A was released on the same month as the second generation of their ground-breaking D1 series DSLRs). They were made in relatively small numbers and when it was discontinued, 5 years later, Nikon never released another film camera again.

Being released in an internet age there's a lot of info about the development of the FM3A on the web. I'll include some links to these sources in below, but here are some highlights that stood out to me... Nikon struggled to fit the hybrid shutter mechanism in the same size chassis as the FM2, but somehow managed it while reverting to the stronger metals of the FM (gen 1). The additions of TTL flash and a -1 stop flash comp button (on top of exp comp) brings some 2001 tech to film. The camera was sent to temperature extreme climates to see how it would cope for a year and then the design was fine-tuned before release. The list goes on and on, so rather than reprint some of these great articles, go and check these out if you want to know more...

INFO RESOURCES 

CoffeeGeek's article - A great read

Nikon's Chronicles - lots of info

MIR's Modern Classic SLR - lots of info

Ken Rockwell - Ergh, but has some good points

Nikon FM3A
Nikon FM3A, Angelo Pelle Strap, Artisan Obscura Wooden Shutter
Nikon FM3A, Voigtlander 58mm SL II S

PURCHASE

It's quite easy to find a Nikon FM3A in Japan (Ebay), but I wanted a local one, so I searched on google and eventually found a shop in Chester with one for sale (Camera Solutions). It was in great condition, with only a few marks and a 50mm f/1.4 AI-S. The focus mechanism on the lens was uneven and quite scratchy, but the I wasn't too bothered about that as I intended to switch it out anyway. The only down real down side for me was that I'd recently moved to Sweden. Although the shop didn't usually ship to Europe they graciously agreed to ship it to me... *happy dance*... thanks guys!

CUSTOM

You can probably tell that by looking at this camera porn that I was even happier when it arrived. You've probably also noticed that I have pimped it a little. Sorry if it's not your cup of tea, but I promise no cameras were harmed in the making of these images. Here's a breakdown of the parts and what I thought of each one:

  • Leather Case

  • Wooden Shutter / Hot Shoe Cover

  • Leather Neck Strap

  • New Lens

CASE - FM3A Custom Leather

This custom, hand stitched leather design I found on Ebay, by Patagonean (user name: Zobet / real name: Enzo). This was very reasonably priced for what it was. It was beautiful job and even though it was an FM2 design that claimed to fit the FM3A, it actually had parts specifically cut for the FM3A design (AE-Lock button). As much as I like the look, the design and OMG that smell the ergonomics of this didn't really work for me when shooting. It made the camera too bulky and getting my finger to the shutter was awkward. So this design will mostly function as a nice place to store the camera when not in use for now. However, I have spoken to Enzo about making another version for me and he's totally up for it. I will do another review for that when I get around to making some notes for him and ordering it. 

WOODEN PARTS - Shutter & Hot Shoe Cover

This 'Desert Ironwood' set, by Atisan Obscura is absolutely stunning. I find the shutter (concave shape) is really comfortable to shoot with. It has a brass screw and comes with a set of rubber washers which both protect the camera and helps keep the shutter from naturally unscrewing itself. The Hot Shoe cover fitting is perhaps even more nicely made and sits so flush with the lines of the hot shoe that it feels like it was meant to be there. It also isn't hard to remove, while being firmly in place at the same time. Considering the camera didn't come with a cover it makes me very happy to have this and looking so damn pretty. The desert ironwood colour and pattern go really well with that of the leather strap too... nice segway...

NECK STRAP - Leather Neck Strap

This hand made (in Tuscany), Foxy Brown leather neck strap, by Angelo Pelle is absolutely lovely! I like how the adjustment buckle has a leather cover so that it doesn't scratch the camera. The under side of the shoulder pad is a gorgeous purpora red, goatskin suede (which I'm really sorry that I didn't capture). The feel, the look and the smell of this strap is beautiful!

LENS - Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 SL II s

The 2016 version of this 58mm, Nikon fit lens (made by Cosina) is now even more styled like the older pre-AI Nikkor lenses. This is nice because despite fitting on the FM3A the sexy old Nikkors don't actually meter on this camera (stop down metering only or if they're AI-converted). This lens not only supports full metering on any Nikon F body from 1959 to now (which no Nikkor lens does), it also has some amazing build and image quality. The aperture and focus dials are sublime to operate and I even like the slightly longer focal length. The leaded glass has a higher transmission than any manual focus Nikkor 50/58mm, plus the sharpness and contrast are better as well. 

 

Although Voigtlander used to be German they're now made in Japan, since being bought out by Cosina. It seems rather fitting that this camera and lens combo are both made in Japan and both released in the 21st Century. That's rather unique for a high-end film SLR.

VERDICT

The first thing I noticed about the FM3A's operation was the winder lock. When clicked into the camera's body it switches the camera's meter off while also locking the shutter. Having used a few other SLRs this was a little odd and difficult to get used to. It is however a very elegant and tactile way of working. Initially forgetting to release the winder can lead to missed shots, but getting used to it also forces you to be faster due to a shorter stroke. It also has the benefit of including a power switch & a shutter lock to a camera with no additional switches (check the Canon A1's buttons by comparison). The precision of the winder mechanism also feels amazing. Very little pressure is needed to advance the film, in fact you can barely tell that one is loaded from the tension in the winder. This operation (a staple of the FM series) is something I like more the more I use it.

 

The lack of body grip retains the old (retro) styling of the FM (FT and F lineage before it). It looks great, but it's not as comfortable as it would have been had it included one. This effects the balance of the camera with larger lenses. Most 50mm lenses will be fine, but the larger aperture lenses from 85mm and up will feel a bit front heavy without any grip on the body. This wasn't much of an issue for me because I mostly intend to use 50mm lenses, but might one day cause some issues.

 

Meter assisted mechanical operation of the FM3A is great. You get a needle to show you were the suggested speed should be and thick blue line to align with it if you want to follow what it's telling you. Aperture priority involves turnign the shutter speed dial all the way up above 1/4000th and the dial then locks in this position. The layout and operation is the pretty much the nicest of any SLR I've used. It's about as simple as it could be while providing the fastest mechanical speeds available. This pairs really well with fast lenses, while giving the reliability of a mechanism not reliant on batteries for any of its settings. 

 

I know that technically any Nikon camera will provide the same results with these lenses, but I don't regret buying this elegantly engineered light-box. Actually using it has given me such a thrill that it's given me a taste for more Nikon cameras. I imagine having a display cabinate with an FM3A as the crowning jewel, sat in front of a Nikon F3 and an original F. Every time I look at this camera I want to use it, every time I hold it I don't want to put it down.

 

PHOTOS

I've run a few different film rolls through the FM3A now, both black & white as well as colour. Below are some examples shot on both the Nikon and the Voigtlander lens. 

Edward Noble

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