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Nikon FM3a – Code Name: “The Last Ninja” – by Rod ZX

June 7, 2020

I’ve heard the Nikon FM3A being described as “The most advanced manual focus SLR camera ever”, “Nikons mechanical epitome”, and “The Perfect Desert Island Camera” by Anil MISTRY (Link). Nice write up Anil, it was your article that finally made me pull the trigger on mine. I decided to call mine “The Last Ninja”

When I first got the camera, I tested everything and she was a beauty! I thought I would have to replace the battery and possibly a light seal or two. But alas, I was blessed with a camera in great condition, inside and out. No maintenance needed. Light readings were spot on and even the mirror bumper looked fresh and fluffy.

Many people shoot a test roll to check for light leaks, or other faults. I dived straight in. Deciding that the first roll of film to grace “The Last Ninjas” belly would be the adored Kodak Tri-X 400 rated it at 1600. One of the fancy features of the FM3A is that it sports auto DX code reading, so I had to manually select 1600 on the ISO dial.

Morning Shadows - FM3A - Tri-X pushed two stops

Drive-by shooting – Tri-X pushed two stops

Features

Nikon gave this camera a very smooth film advance lever, it boasts 1/4000th of a second shutter speed, easy double exposure thanks to a sneaky lever, exposure compensation dial and auto DX code reading. Auto DX code reading is perfect when you want a hassle free loading experience. It always sets the correct box speed if your film canister is properly coded from manufacturer, or you can manually select from ISO 12 to 6400.

It has a small window on the rear door that helps you remember what film is loaded, if any; handy after a stint on the bench. It has an auto exposure lock button on the back easily accessible by the thumb just like in the newest DSLRs. I had also never read about the blue slide bar overlay it uses as part of the metering system – that was a welcome surprise.

This camera was a progression and culmination of both the FM and FE range in the Nikon line-up. Everything feels solid, sturdy and well built, it’s intuitive to use. The shutter has a slightly muffled sound, the slower speeds sound good, the faster speeds make a noise that is very regular almost unimpressive.

Focusing is very easy with the split screen. I get a very high percentage of keepers with this camera, probably more than any other camera I have ever owned.

How can it not be a great camera? It has taken all the attributes from decades of design and feedback of the Nikon FE, FM, FE2 and FM2. All awesome camera systems in their own right and produced something special and unique in 2001, a truly mechanical marvel.

Ergonomics

I find the camera very ergonomic, intuitive and tactile, I love the thick knurled shutter speed dial. I don’t need to take my eye off the subject to change shutter speed.

I also love the feel of the high grade rubberized plastic that doesn’t look like it will decay anytime soon (like I’ve seen on some cameras). It actually feels pretty indestructible. The metal is smooth and lustrous, I have the black and silver version – I hear that the all black version is a little harder to come by.

My lenses

It feels perfectly balanced with the 50mm E series lens. I mostly use the Ninja with my 35mm f2 D lens, this is my preferred focal length -it feels a little front heavy with this lens, but still very manageable.

For me, my choice of lenses is the D range – you might ask why? The answer is simple – I just prefer the D lens range. They sport the latest technology available at the time regarding lens coating, and are also compatible with “The Last Ninja” in aperture priority mode, the mode preferred by many photographers, including myself. The D series of lenses is the last series to use an aperture ring on the lens, this makes them compatible with the whole Nikon FM and FE range of cameras – one (aperture) ring to rule them all!

If I had a Nikon F or F2, I would absolutely have to have an old 50mm but I don’t. The D range covers all my needs… having said that, the rabbit ears are kinda cute.

Alongside the 35mm, I have a 24mm f2.8 D prime that is great to fit some extra info into the frame or create some dramatic wide angles. I also have two zooms, a 28-70mm D and a 70-300 D that I try to avoid. I would like to buy a 50mm f1.4 D as they are relatively inexpensive but I have the 50mm f/1.8 E series, so it’s hard to justify.

My next lens is either going to be an 85mm or a longer prime. I’m saving funds for this and will decide when funds have been properly allocated to the cause. I know that during this pandemic photography is very much a luxury with the economy being at record lows. Curiously this has not affected film camera prices at all, so contrary to what the wife says, they are a solid bit of investment…

Reminds me of the Beatles

The Beatles – She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah – Tri-X pushed two stops

The Code Name

If you’re wondering why I call my FM3A “The Last Ninja” you just have to think about the cameras origins and after only a few seconds you’ll see the connection. To me, there is just so much that comes to mind. It’s the epitome of mechanical SLR’s, comes from Japan, a country positively obsessed with precision, built into their way of life; a country filled with history and tradition of Emperors, Shoguns, Samurais… and the odd Ninja.

It’s the last of Nikon’s mechanical shutter era, with a unique skill set that eventually faded with time. Classic design, manufacture and assembly. Like skills learned and passed down in apprenticeships, just like the swordsmiths of old creating the best hand forged weapons in the land. It not only marked the pinnacle of photography from that bygone era but also held the mystique and soul of all its predecessors.

Speed

Autofocus cameras come with a cynical thirst for speed and power. This saw the need for larger batteries. The focus became development of motor drives and larger batteries that connected to rapid fire machine-gun-like shutters. Similar to the ones in the movie with our hero Tom Cruise “The Last Samurai” which were eventually his downfall.

Anchor & Casino

Anchor & Casino – Lomography 400

Motor Drive?

The Ninja wasn’t immune to this need for speed – with the optional motor drive speeds of 3.2 FPS could be achieved. I don’t see the need for this speed, or the gargantuan motor drive attachment. It would add a lot of weight to the mix. For me the motor drive is obsolete, as I shoot film to slow down, for a more personal and reminiscent feel, some say for the romance of photography. The Last Ninja is not my work horse. If I wanted speed I would use something else. I feel this is an elegant camera for the purist.

Manually one could never keep up with the FPS of a modern DSLR. Thinking of how fast I could go, makes me hold out my thumb and flick my wrist side to side. The Nikon D780 specs, say it’s capable of 12 frames per second. I would have to have to move my thumb like a Billy the Kid draw, that fast.

Digital photography is great, in the way you can select ISO easier than you can change channels on the TV, also adjusting white balance is a plus, not to mention the marvels of an electronic viewfinder. But enough about those space age features. They just aren’t needed for everything.

Film

I have been putting lots of different film stock through The Last Ninja in the two years I’ve owned it. My two favourite film stocks on this camera so far are Kodak ProImage 100 and Kodak Ektar 100.

Pitt Street Mall - Sydney

Sydney City – Pitt Street Mall – ProImage 100 (My Daughters 11 year old curiosity accidentally pressed the film release button at the bottom of the camera on this frame when I told her to hold it for me while I did something else) You can see a line 1/5 of the way up the frame on the right.

Basketball Court

Making it rain in the Basketball court – Ektar 100

I also had the privilege to shoot a well stored roll of Fujifilm Provia 400F. I had kept this roll of film in 3 different fridges in the span of 23 years, very expired yet in very good condition, this film had an effect that left me staring at the images for a long time and left me wanting more, unfortunately this film formula is no longer available.

The Big Breakfast

The Big Breakfast and amazing colours – Fujifilm Provia 400F

Model for the day

Pure magic from Fujifilm Provia 400F

The last roll of film I ran through “The Last Ninja’s” Belly. The impressive Ilford HP5+. I knew I wanted to create black and white photos with the high contrast look pushed Tri-X gives you. But, when I saw the Ilford images. I was floored with the results. Truly outstanding shadows details HP5 brings to the table. Even pushed HP5 in this case. I will definitely be buying more rolls of HP5 and it will be a hard choice between this and Tri-X.

Sydney City BnW

Sydney City – Ilford HP5 Plus pushed two stops

Train Station BnW

Train Station – Ilford HP5 pushed two stops

The Last Ninja was on the shelves at a strange time. Your average manual focus film photographer looking to update their Nikon FM2, for example, would have been faced with a lot of choices that might have drawn their eye away from FM3A. In the same era it was released, the Nikon F100 might have captured their imagination instead, or maybe even an early digital SLR.

This dilemma and maybe a desire for greater technology didn’t win the FM3A too many fans in its day – it’s safe to say that more people would have left the shops with a bag full of F100 than an FM3A. This was near 20 years ago, it was the time of a photographic revolution. Both the Nikon F100 and FM3A have cult followings today, but you only need to look at the prices of the FM3A to appreciate how popular this camera has become. The Legend of “The Last Ninja” lives on!

Mini

The Mini – Lomography 400

Skate Park

He was a skater boy, She said “see you later, boy” – Fujifilm Provia 400F

For my needs, I’m very happy with The Last Ninja and everything that in gives me. I feel like I have a real piece of history not just a camera over my shoulder. I’m also very happy with the level of scanning being provided by film business supporting the film community today in 2020. Thank you everyone here for keeping film alive. I truly believe that there is a film worldwide renaissance happening, and I’m very happy to be a part of it.

Thanks for reading and keep shooting.

You can find me here on Instagram

 

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Simon
    June 7, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    Cool review and lovely photos. I treated myself to an FM3a when they were new in the stores back in ‘O3, when my FM’s light meter shorted out. Such a great camera. Years later when I realized how collectible they were, I sold it and replaced it with an F3HP, for a fraction of what I got for the FM3a. Kinda regret it now, but the 100% viewfinder and higher eyepoint make such a huge difference when I take photos. An HP version of the FM3a would be my dream camera. Love that match needle meter display.

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 8, 2020 at 4:11 am

      Hi Simon, both great cameras, I have a soft spot for the F3HP also, but I’m content with the Last Ninja for now. Enjoy

  • Reply
    Phil Stefans
    June 8, 2020 at 3:14 am

    Great review. I love my FM3A, and I didn’t think I’d find a camera that was its equal until I bought an F3 to use alongside it. I prefer the ergonomics of the F3…the little grip bulge is a godsend and the slight difference in the position of the wind on lever means it’s not poking me in my right eye (I’m a left eye shooter). The finder in the F3 is brighter and has 100% coverage too. That being said I think the build quality of the FM3A is better and of course having a hotshoe and a sync speed of 1/250th is fantastic. And I love having a film window so I can see what film I’m shooting. Both great cameras that I’m sure will still be working in 30 years time.

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 8, 2020 at 4:14 am

      Hi Phil, yes they sure go the distance. Quality is evident for a 20 year old camera, mine still looks new and works like a dream. Enjoy yours

  • Reply
    Huss
    June 8, 2020 at 5:57 pm

    “The most advanced manual focus SLR camera ever”

    That would be the Leica R8/9. Center, spot, matrix metering. Aperture/Shutter/Programme/Manual modes. High speed flash sync. Shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec.

    But the Nikon is nice.
    😉

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 9, 2020 at 3:07 am

      Hi Huss, yeah those features do sound top shelf 👍 maybe making the Leica R9 “The Last Panzer” 😉

  • Reply
    Zach B
    June 9, 2020 at 12:39 am

    I own the FM2n and the FM3a, both are great cameras, but I think the FM3a has three advantages that may or may not be worth the money:

    TTL flash metering with 1/250 sync makes event or wedding photography much easier when one has to work fast. I have used this at festivals, a wedding, and an outdoor wrestling tournament.

    The needle meter system can be used for a general Zone System metering method – when I shoot I use this to quick check my range and the differences between my sky and ground levels. Depending on the scene I’ll meter the sky and place it three stops over. For day time use this needle system is superior to the LER system, but when shooting indoors or in low light it can become difficult to see.

    Lastly, the Apature Priority mode. I don’t use this very often at all as I like to shoot with side light/ back light, and that can confuse the camera sometimes. But when shooting on a tripod in lowlight it is really nice to be able to set the lens to f/5.6-8, adjust the exposure comp to give me +1 to help ensure better results with long exposures, and then use the self timer for mirror lockup.

    I’ve had my FM3a for about seven years and I shoot it in conjunction with my Leica film rangefinders. In January I took the FM3a on a 30-day trip around S.E. Asia with a Voigtlander 28mm f/2.8 and 58mm f/1.4 (plus a Rollei 35T) and found this to be a stellar travel kit. I shot 58 rolls of Delta 100/400 and made some really amazing photos.

    The shutter of the FM series cameras is fairly reasonable, but surely more noticeable on the street than a Leica. I photographed a engagement ceremony in rural Laos, and really felt self conscious about the shutter noise during the ceremony. I also find that I can focus more accurately with a rangefinder in low light than with an SLR.

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 9, 2020 at 2:59 am

      Hi Zach, I have to agree with you RE: TTL Flash metering at 1/250 it’s fast and dependable. Your expertise shines with your great advise, thank you. I will try your way of metering +1 indoors at f/5.6 on a tripod with a timer this afternoon. I have to admit I had never metered the sky and stopped down 3 stops, might try that trick also. Your trip around S.E. Asia sounds amazing, I bet the reliable and compact FM3A handled everything you threw at it… All the best mate, keep shooting.

  • Reply
    Khürt Louis Williams
    June 9, 2020 at 11:08 am

    I already have two Pentax film cameras but now I have GAS and FOMO at the same time. I started browsing eBay but convinced myself that the money was better spent on new glass for my Fuji X-T2.

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 13, 2020 at 8:27 am

      You might be onto something there Khurt, The Fujifilm X-T2 is the camera I took the FM3A picture with. I can Highly recommend the 23mm f/2 lens as a perfect match. It’s a 35mm full frame focal length equivalent. The X-T2 has a magical colour formula and ISO flexibility galore. All the best.

  • Reply
    Isolation Photo Project, Day 79: Blackened Catfish - Island in the Net
    June 10, 2020 at 12:20 am

    […] note. After reading this Rod's "The Last Ninja" blog post and Anil's "My desert Island camera" blog post about Nikon's FM3A, I have serious GAS. I […]

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    June 12, 2020 at 4:10 am

    Hi Rod,
    Nice post, good shots. My primary gear is the (film) M series. However, I held onto my FE2 w/the 55mm micro-Nikkor AiS. The bodies of both the SLR & the rangefinder are very close to the same size. That’s a characteristic I like in terms of space in the bag. Both cameras are perfect for the task they were designed to do. I don’t have a focal length duplication between the two systems. In this period of lockdown, the FE2 gets a bit more use because I can’t get to my favorite places to shoot, which is more urban & street/people. Glad I kept the Nikon.
    Continued good luck w/your photography.

    • Reply
      Rod ZX
      June 13, 2020 at 8:36 am

      Hi Daniel, Thanks. Yes Nikon film cameras have a habit of going and going like the energizer bunny. Glad that you still have yours. I went out today to a funny place where Graffiti is legal. I saw a guy with a new Harley Davidson taking his own pics of the bike with the graffiti as a back drop albeit on his phone 🙈 and several people doing new pieces on walls, container and giant empty water tanks.
      I’m glad that they are relaxing restrictions here in Australia and we can start to wonder a little further for photographic inspiration. All the best mate👍

  • Reply
    Joe Brough
    June 21, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    Rod,
    A fixed focal length prime I can highly recommend to go with The Last Ninja, both underdogs that punch well above their weight class & slay the opposition is the Tokina 100mm 2.8 Macro. A mindblowing portrait lens that is even better than its Nikkor counterpart @ 2-3 times the price. I got mine in 2010 when I was starting out in digital. It’s a sleeper lens, so much so that (love him or hate him) Ken Wheeler/Angry Photographer said if you don’t own this lens, you’re a fkn moron. Nice to be quicker & smarter than Ken for once, hehe.
    All the best,
    JB

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