The last great mechanical SLR - the Nikon FM3a
From Camera Geekery
You’re looking at what is most likely the last mechanical single lens reflex 35mm manual focus camera that will ever be made. It also happens to be one of the best ones ever made too. It is the Nikon FM3a SLR 35mm film camera, and this is my review.
This camera has an interesting (and a bit sad, timing wise) history. As far as I know, it is the last mechanical SLR ever designed by a “big house” camera company, and it is the only one designed and released in this century: planning started in 1998, preproduction models showed up in 2000, and the camera was released in 2001. It was on the market for barely five years, with Nikon ceasing production in January 2006. This was the last mechanical film camera from Nikon; their current FM10 mechanical SLR is actually designed and made by Cosina under license (and dates back to the early 1990s); the FM10 is a pale shadow of what the FM3a is and was.
The Nikon FM3a owes lineage to three lines at Nikon: their venerable F series lineup (Nikon still makes the F6 film model, an electronic beast of a film camera); the Nikon FE series - the lineup that Nikon used to introduce all their electronic and automation goodies on; and the Nikon FM lineup, which held true to the mechanical, rugged nature of Nikon’s history after the F line became electronic and motorized with the F4.
HYBRID SHUTTER What really makes the FM3a special is not so much its mechanical nature however - this is, as far as I know, the only completely functional hybrid camera with a dual electronic and mechanical shutter control, offering the full range of shutter speeds even when there’s no battery inside the camera. Leica with the M7 can’t do that: their electronic shutter can only shoot at 1/60th or 1/125th a second on no-battery backup mechanics.
The FM3a can shoot even at 1/4000th a second, mechanically, which was the holy grail of film cameras 20 years ago, and many could only achieve it with an electronically controlled shutter. This is especially notable because there’s actually two shutter systems inside the camera and Nikon didn’t even think 1/4000th a second would be possible with this hybrid system. But, they pulled it off: the FM3a can shoot from Bulb through 1/4000th a second in full stops without batteries. When batteries are in the camera and you’re shooting on Aperture Priority mode, you also get that entire range, but stepless, letting you hypothetically shoot at 1/875 a second if the metering requires it.
METERING SYSTEM, INDICATORS & LENSES This camera is indeed very analog. The metering system is centre weighted, but the coolest thing is how it is displayed: via an analog needle that steplessly indicates where the camera thinks proper exposure should be. Compared to Leica’s LED > o < metering display in their recent film variants and there’s no contest - the match needle display in the FM3a is vastly superior.
The camera can read DX indicators on film and automatically set film speed (or you can set manually). All Nikon lenses after 1977 can meter accurately through this camera except for the current electronic aperture G lenses; pre AI lenses can also accurately meter with the stop-down method (and pre-1977 lenses can be modified to work without stopping down). All of these things add up to accurate metering with literally millions of current or vintage lenses. It even features something that may not exist on other mechanical SLRs: a AE lock button on the back of the camera.
Oh, and it is a full TTL camera, for flash. Quite accurate too, for a centre-weighted meter. I can remember thinking how beautifully it would nail the fill flash using a SB28 under really challenging situations. This is a OTF TTL system (Off the Film plane) which helps a lot with the flash accuracy. And there a few additional benefits and perks in flash photography with this camera, which I’ll detail below.
CAMERA BUILD This thing is built like a lean tank and Nikon’s goal was a camera that could see decades of constant use. One of my favourite things about the FM3a is that the top and bottom portions are made out of brass, with thicknesses varying between 0.7mm and 0.2mm. Brass in cameras is as highly desired as it is in espresso machines - and perhaps even more so.
Let me keep “camera build” to a simple example to show you how robust this camera is. When developing it, Nikon wanted to see how real life situations in temperature extremes would be for the camera. So they sent prototypes to Antarctica for four months to let them weather the conditions. They learned things (like how the hybrid shutter needed more bulletproofing), and based the final build on that. This is a 12 month a year, all seasons, all weather camera. It’s not weather sealed like the F4 or the current Nikon pro digitals are, but it can handle extremes quite well.
CAMERA OPERATION This camera truly is a joy to use. It’s lighter than a Leica M6 when comparable lenses are mounted, and much smaller than a Canon 5D or a Nikon D700. I’d go so far as to say it is slightly stealthy, though not as stealthy as the Leicas can be. When the flim advance lever is tight against the shutter area, the camera is effectively shut off and locked down: to start taking photos or even to test the meter, you have to flip the film advance lever out a bit (it has a very positive action when doing this - you’ll know when it is out in firing position). This is great for avoiding battery run down (for the meter) or accidentally tripping the shutter.
The camera has that nearly perfect hand weight you’d expect from a professional travel camera. It’s heavy, but pleasingly so and won’t wear down your neck hanging from a strap all day long. Since you have your choices of lenses, you can go for uber-serious big glass models like Nikon’s older 50mm f1.2 AiS lens, or nice and light, like the lens I enjoy having on the camera: the Nikkor E-series 50mm f1.8 AiS pancake lens. (in my pictures, I either have this lens on the camera, or the amazingly versatile Nikkor 35mm f2 AiS lens, which focuses down to a few inches!)
Film advance is rapid and sure to the touch. There is a bit of resistance in advancing film (more than the Leica M6) but trust me, you want that. The shutter trip is awesome - I like it more than Leica’s shutter button on the M6: the FM3a’s shutter has a great resistance that inspires confidence in metering vs tripping the shutter. Put it this way: I have a soft release on my Leica’s shutter button; I don’t on the FM3a. That’s because the FM3a’s shutter button is perfect.
Changing shutter speeds is via a big chunk of knurled metal that has very positive click stops. It can be used while the camera is up to your eyeball, but it is a fairly stiff-to-turn dial. When you dial it all the way to A (aperture priority auto exposure mode), it is locked in this position, requiring you to press a centre tiny button to turn the dial off and back to manual shutter speeds.
Changing ISO speeds is a bit difficult: you have the lift a thin, knurled ring to actually change ISO. This is a good thing as it prevents accidental ISO changes (which will screw up your exposures), but I wish it was a bit easier.
Being a Aperture priority auto exposure camera, you get nice exposure compensation (part of the ISO dial setup) up and down 2 stops in 1/3 stop increments, and on the back is an AE lock button for dealing with challenging lighting situations.
In front of the camera is a mechanically coupled depth of field preview (works quite nice, and graduated, so you can make guesses at possibly better intermediary f-stops for your aperture), and one of my favourite things on this camera: a very old school, fully mechanical timer for delayed shots (though it can trip the electronic shutter when in AE mode).
Lastly, Nikon designed and implemented a long lost feature (at least in the digital age) into this camera - a very nicely designed multiple exposure lever. It’s built into the film advance lever mounting area and extremely easy to use. This was analog special effects from way back when.
STANDOUT FEATURES I cannot emphasise enough how retro cool-modern this camera’s shutter system is. As far as I know, there is no other hybrid mechanical / electronic shutter system on any other 35mm film camera. This one effortlessly jumps back and forth between mechanical (and quite accurate) shutter tripping in full stops (1/500th, 1/1000th, 1/2000th etc) and stepless electronic shutter control when using the camera’s AE mode. Back in the day, this would have been the ultimate killer feature.
See, back in film days, especially for photojournalists, batteries and the need for them were a bane. Batteries worked different in different climates. Sometimes it’s impossible to find batteries when you most needed them. And when pro-spec cameras like the F4 came out, I can recall photojournalists moaning quite vocally about the monster battery draw that camera needed.
So a hybrid shutter system: one that could work mechanically at all speeds sans batteries, but one that also used little SR button batteries to drive a shutter and meter, would have been the ultra killer app during the hey-day of film photography.
Having 1/4000th a second in a mechanical film camera is a rarity even to this day (the FM10 from Cosina via Nikon tops out at 1/2000th a second, and the Leica M7 tops out at 1/1000th a second). 1/4000th is really important to have for high-key, low depth of field photography options.
Beyond the shutter, this camera has many more killer features. The AE lock button, on a mechanical camera is awesome. The DX reading of film - ditto (given the type of camera it is). Film loading is a simple joy and very easy, even for someone who’s never handled film before. I like the action of the depth of field preview button, and I haven’t even gotten to the fact that everything feels like it is perfectly positioned for eye-to-the-viewfinder shooting.
Speaking of the viewfinder: it has a very old school viewing screen with the split rangefinder design and the hash-circle surrounding the circular range finder. These work in practice just like the rangefinder patches do in rangefinders, but they don’t work the same way physically inside the camera. Whatever, it gets the job done for nailing focus much better than “is it blurry or not”. The view through the viewfinder is exceedingly bright (dSLR users would be shocked at how bright this is) and seeing the analog meter controls on the left, the old school physical view of the Nikon lens’ aperture ring up top, and the indicators for flash and exposure compensation all add to the feel of a mechanical beast you’re holding on to.
For flash photography, this mechanical hybrid beast has it goin’ on, as they say. It reads TTL right off the film plane area, meaning its more accurate. It also is a full TTL centre-weighted system, and that includes “makes sense” perks, like, if you’re running in Auto mode, and have exposure compensation set to -1 or whatever, the flash is compensated for that amount automatically.
Want slow-sync flash? Not a problem, and very “manual” - just use the built in meter, set your shutter speed to get your background light in check (or darker, or lighter or whatever), shoot, and your main subject still gets lit up properly.
And another bonus, killer feature that, as far as I know, is not on any other mechanical (or electronic manual focus) camera: just above the lens release button is a button with a flash symbol on it: press it while shooting and your flash is automatically compensated back 1 stop (-1 EV); this is great for weird lighting situations where you know the camera on auto mode will fire too much flash (how do you know this? Experience). This is some advanced stuff.
WRAP UP Everytime I think about the Nikon FM3a, I get sad, but I’m also glad I own one. I keep thinking about selling it, but everytime I do, I think about what a milestone this camera is, and thoughts of selling it go away. (it also helps that this is considered a collectible now, and fetches premium prices on eBay; so if I sold it, I’d probably want to buy it again down the road, and would probably pay more). I had it in storage for some time, but my recent re-interest in film made me dig it out.
This camera was a remarkable achievement for Nikon. I cannot stress enough how amazing it is that they spent the R&D money to develop the hybrid shutter system at a time during film SLRs’ waning days. Nikon most likely knew that film SLRs were a dying breed but they rolled the dice, spent heaps of dough, and developed this camera. They didn’t chimp one bit on the materials used (all metal, brass top and bottom plates covered with dull chrome, awesome faux-leather coverings). They didn’t chimp on the innards either. They spent many dollars testing and refining this camera. They wanted a worthy lineage successor to the Nikon F and F2: a camera people would still be using 50 years after it was built, because it was built exceptionally well.
When I think about this camera compared to the romantic, historical, flights-of-fancy pock-marked Leicas (M6, MP, M3 etc), this Nikon is built just as tough, but is so much more advanced. Having the split image rangefinder patch in the middle of the viewfinder brings it on par with focusing you get via a rangefinder, but with a better, more versatile meter, a bucketload more functionality in shutter speeds, AE systems and light control, the versatility in lens choices and a build quality on par with a M6, I’d say this camera holds up very well against the favoured Leicas.
- Nikon’s History Page on development of FM3a (comprehensive!)
- Modern Classic SLR Series: Nikon FM3a (crazy insane beyond comprehensive!)
- Phillip Greenspun’s Photo.net Review (written when the camera first came out - bonus material: many, many comments)
- Josh Madison’s FM3a Review (written in 2002, entertaining and recently updated with nice layout)
- Ken Rockwell on a camera he doesn’t own (yah, I know, but it’s got stuff)
- Online Photographer on demise of the FM3a
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