SLRs

A Nikon FM3a Review – My desert Island camera – by Anil Mistry

Nikon Fm3a

Last year I wrote a short piece for 35mmc as part of the “5 frames with” series. The camera I used was my Nikon Fm3a with the Nikkor 50mm f1.2 AIS lens- a combination that I just adore.

During the writing of it, I realized that if I could only have one camera and one lens forever, then this would be it. I also shoot with a Leica M7, a Contax Rts ii , an Olympus Om2 and a whole load of other medium formats and compacts. And I love them all to bits, but for me, Nikon Fm3a just nails everything beautifully  and I’ve found myself using it more and more as my main go-to street portrait camera- which has upset the Leica somewhat.

Hamish asked me to expand on my thoughts on the Nikon FM3a, so this piece is just that. The proof is in the pudding so I will fill this post with lots of pictures too, showing results for different film stocks.

The pics you’ll see come from the Nikkor Series E 28mm f2.8, The Micro Nikkor 55mm f2.8 and the majority come from the Nikkorn 50mm f1.2 Ais. Please click on the pictures to see them in a larger format.

Before we get into it:

This is a personal piece about me, my work and the camera I use for it. There are lots and lots and lots of cameras out there that can do the same thing as this camera. I am not claiming that this is the best camera in the world- but is is for me (so far). So for the pedants and spec freaks out there, I am aware that ALL CAMERAS MATTER. But today, I am talking about THIS camera. So if you respond with a “well, actually, the Nikon F whatever performs the same functions at a fraction of the cost with interchangeable screens, or “My Spotmatic is technically superior in brassing terms” or any of that guff, you’re missing a very simple point and I’ll ignore you. There are plenty of tech reviews and comparison Specs sites for you to drool over out there, so please knock yourself out. I write personally and  passionately, for people enthusiastic about cameras AND about taking pictures with them. So relax and enjoy it or scroll on.

 

Nikon Fm3a

A beautiful camera, and a fitting end to Nikon’s legacy

Nikon Fm3a

The FM3A does everything I want an SLR to do

The Camera

The Nikon FM3a is the last fully manual capable 35mm slr that Nikon produced, manufactured between 2001 to 2006, coming in all black and satin chrome. It’s the successor to a line of semi-pro slrs that Nikon made from the late 70s- the FM, FE, FM2 & FE2 (lots of F’s, just to confuse you a bit)

Film SLRs then started to go all autofocus and electronic, and that started to piss off the pro’s, so the FM3a was designed in response to a professional demand for a more reliable camera- something without autofocus and unnecessary electronics, but with a build quality that was precise and durable- and with the prized AE function of the discontinued FE2.

The Nikon FM3a was designed to be something built to last. Built to the highest possible quality and designed to last decades. It was Nikon’s mechanical swansong, flying in the face of the digital dawn- a love story to Nikon’s unique position in camera history.

Sadly, its inception coincided with the rise of digital photography, so it ceased production in 2006, but its legendary build quality has resulting in its second hand price staying close to its original value (especially the black models, because we all know that black cameras take better pictures)

Nikon Fm3a

The Nikon Fm3a has a wonderful feel that traverses the decades and takes the best from them

Shooting the Nikon FM3a

I love the “old & new” features in this camera- it looks classic but feels like a new hi-tech piece of kit. Nothing clunky about it at all.

Nikon Fm3a - top

The dial on the left allows iso selection as well as exposure compensation.

DX

The Nikon Fm3a takes DX coded film from iso 25 to 5000 but you can also override the DX coding and enter your own settings on the dial from iso 12 to 6400, giving you lots of creative options.

A look through the elegantly simple viewfinder reveals the match meters on the left plus a neat little top window that shows the aperture reading on the lens

EXPOSURE

The Nikon Fm3a provides  a choice of manual exposure or aperture priority- along with an exposure lock button which you can hold down to remember settings and reframe as you wish. To see your exposure you half-press the shutter button and look inside the viewfinder to see the reading.

In the viewfinder window, there is a classic looking blue match needle meter on the left of the display showing your chosen shutter speed. The black needle indicates whether your chosen aperture (visible via a little window in the top of the viewfinder) will over or under expose the shot. By turning the aperture ring (or changing shutter speed) to match the needles, you will get a well exposed shot.

In Aperture priority mode, the Nikon Fm3a only shows the shutter speed your camera will shoot at based upon your chosen aperture setting. By changing aperture, the shutter speed needle will move up and down accordingly to show the speed it will shoot at to get the right exposure.

Kodak Portra 400

I mainly shoot on Aperture priority mode, setting my depth of field and then letting the camera do the rest. This is a camera made in 2001 that doesn’t have a single blinking light or any digital guff in the viewfinder. Don’t get me wrong- I love a hi tech display- my recently acquired Contax RTSii makes me feel like I’m in an episode of Knight Rider when I look through its 80’s digital display viewfinder but the FM3A’s match needle method is so intuitive and tactile that I never feel lost.

Exposure compensation in A mode is possible also, allowing you to further adjust shots on the fly if you feel the desire to do so..

 

 

Focusing

The Nikon FM3a comes with my favourite focusing aid- a split screen. The viewfinder is generous and clear and I can very quickly get focus and shoot. Compared to my Leica M7, I can focus a lot faster and also feel a lot more confident that I have focus because it is so clear. I love the M7 and I always feel like I’m talking it down when I discuss the FM3A but it’s simply the truth. I find that the SLR is more instinctively easy to focus and shoot with than using a rangefinder patch.

Nikon Fm3a

The shutter dial shows all available speeds along with an A setting that hands shutter speed over to the aperture selection

Shutter

The Nikon FM3a’s shutter is built to such a high mechanical standard that it can shot at 1/4000th of a second WITHOUT a battery. Think about that – the engineering history that’s allowed that to happen. It blows me away.

With batteries, the FM3a ‘s shutter goes into amazing electronic mode- shooting at WHATEVER shutter speed the set aperture requires- the numbers on your shutter speed dial, plus ALL the numbers in between. Which is just amazing, and also why I love the shots out of this camera. They always feel brilliantly exposed.

Flash

I don’t shoot a lot of flash on my SLRs so can’t claim to know enough about it, but just wanted to note the the FM3a has TTL OTF flash exposure control incorporated into it along with flash exposure compensation. This is apparently a big deal.

Nikon Fm3a

With my favourite 50mm 1.2 lens on it, this is a substantial piece of kit.

In use

Right – the important bit. What’s it like to work with?

Firstly, the Nikon FM3a body weighs 570 grammes. Not super light, but then I like a camera with a bit of heft to it. It’s a two- hander, not a one- hander like the Pentax ME super. And when I think of all the wonderful work that’s gone into it, I want it to feel substantial. When I whack on my Nikkor 50mm 1.2 ais, it takes the weight up to 940g. A solid, reassuring piece of camera. (speaking of lenses by the way, the Nikon FM3a uses Nikon’s F-mount- which gives you access to decades and decades of superb Nikon glass from the 50’s onwards. So you won’t be short of decent glass)

Feel

The Nikon FM3a feels very intuitive. Everything is where is should be. It feels surprisingly simple to look at, which is part of its appeal. There has been no attempt to show off from a design point of view- simply to allow form to follow function. The sexy bits are inside and that makes the camera exciting to me. It has no need to impress anybody, it’s the culmination of all of Nikon’s manufacturing knowledge. And it WORKS BEAUTIFULLY. The shutter wind lever is solid and smooth, all the switches and dials are chunky and have a satisfying click. I feel safe with this camera. Safe that I am using a good piece of kit and safe in the knowledge that I could smash through a brick wall with it if I was imprisoned.

Feedback

I shoot lots of street portraits and the FM3a allows me to feel confidently in control of the the 30-40 second time window I have with my subjects on the street. Whenever I’m out with the Leica M7, I always feel ever so slightly unsure of my ability to nail perfect focus because of the rangefinder , despite it always delivering the goods. But the FM3a’s split screen focus and heftier lenses that I can grab and turn as opposed to making micro adjustments on a leica thumb tab gives me a more satisfying tactile feedback. And confidence is everything in those short moments.

Nikon Fm3a

Flip the back door open (note the useful window to see what film you’ve loaded ) and slap another roll in. Off you go.

Loading

Loading a Leica M7 is a ballache. Stop. Sit down. Undo the bottom plate. Tap the film out. Open the flap. Feed new film in. Ensure it’s engaged. Tap it down. Close flap. Close bottem plate.

Loading an FM3a is easy. Carry on walking. Flip up the back door. Yank old film out. Put new film in and feed, wind on a couple of turns. Close back door. Done. Note that I haven’t stopped or sat down.

I’m not Leica bashing

I ADORE my M7 , But the NIkon FM3a forces to make honest comparison between the two different ways of shooting. They are both aperture priority cameras, and when it comes to the crunch I’d get MORE from a day with the Nikon than a day with the Leica. With less faff, less worry about misloading film, and with more flexibility (M7’s top shutter speed is 1/1000th second. My Nikon’s is 1/4000th, allowing me to shoot with a much shallower depth of field in brighter light. Very useful for street portraits. Yes, the rangefinder shows me a world beyond my frame, but I don’t really need that for my portraits. The Leica does have a better shutter sound though- a low dull thud unlike the Nikon’s more pronounced mechanical click. But I can live with that.

They real, simply, honestly do not make them like this anymore.

Conclusion.

The Nikon FM3a feels like it will last forever. There is nothing flimsy about its construction, but it is elegant with it. Carrying it around, I always get as many appreciative looks as I do with the Leica, and most Nikon owners always regard it with jealous eyes. I read somewhere that it was tested at -40 Celsius and worked perfectly. I can’t leave the house at -4 without longjohns and half a bottle of single malt in me so I’ll never know. But I can blather on about it to anyone who’ll listen.

And Finally…

I have an admission to make. The camera is not actually mine- it’s technically my wife’s –  a Christmas present I bought for her 12 years ago in a highly drunken state, that slowly and silently made its way back into my hands. Whenever I take it out, she looks at it and gives me that “It’s still mine- you do know that don’t you?” look. And I pretend not to see it. I just focus on the feel of the camera in my hands and the wonderful shots it will get for me by the end of the day. And I pray that Jane doesn’t take up photography.

Anil Mistry is a creative director and photographer.

You can find and connect with him in the following places:

Instagram: @Anilmistryphoto

Website: http://www.anilmistryphoto.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/Anilmistryphotography/

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Guy Wheater
    March 10, 2018 at 8:41 am

    Great article Anil. I also vacillate between M6 and OM4Ti, often wishing I had the other in my hand when out and about (how lucky we are, with the luxury of these choices!). In my mind, the Nikons are tougher than OMs (FM3a being the modern ultimate – the analogue shutter speed dial is very appealing). I would have gone that route apart from the fact my father had an OM2 (lens availability). By the way, I used an FM2 extensively during my PhD (technical photography). A colleague tested the maximum shutter speed to only 1/3200 (should be 1/4000); he sent a report to Nikon and they sent us a new body and a very nice letter back! It was super reliable and a pleasure to use – I’ve been a fan ever since.

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      March 10, 2018 at 10:41 am

      Thanks guy. I must say I’m tempted to get an f3hp now too!

  • Reply
    Terry B
    March 10, 2018 at 10:30 am

    I’ve always liked the Nikon designs from around this era and already owning a lovely all black F Photomic Ftn with f1.4/50, I once had a brief flirtation with an FE2. Sadly, it was all too brief and sold it to a work colleague for what I’d paid for it after only a few weeks. Since I’d purchased it it had gone up in price by about £40, and he wanted one. I suggested he borrow it to run some films through to make certain he was happy, as he knew the reason I wished to sell it. It had a quirk which I soon discovered was not to my liking – the film wind on lever incorporated the meter switch which meant it had to be in the stand-off position to switch on the meter. As I viewed using my left eye, the lever kept poking my eye out! Is this still an issue with the FM3a?

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      March 10, 2018 at 10:40 am

      Thanks for your comment- It is the case but it hasn’t bothered me so far….so far.

  • Reply
    Ashley Carr
    March 10, 2018 at 10:46 am

    A great article about a great camera.

    I too shoot a Nikon (F and F3) alongside a Leica M2. I use to fret about which one to pick up when heading out but after realising they can compliment each other nicely I just take them both. The M2 usually wears the Zeiss ZM 35/2 Biogon and the Nikon with the (absolutely amazing) Micro-Nikkor 55/2.8.

  • Reply
    Karl Valentin
    March 10, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    I think that the Nikon FM3a is Nikons most advanced and useful manual Camera ever build
    Sadly it is still very expensive so I never bought one
    If you not insist of mechanical shutter the Nikon F4 (which also works ver well with manual focus lenses)
    is a cheaper pick and a joy to use too

  • Reply
    Martin south of France
    March 10, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    One of the best articles I have read on 35mm camera reviews in a long long time. Sorely tempted…Currently run a Contax 139Q that I bought new in 1980 and cost me three months pay back then….came with the Planar. Great camera and has served me well….still use it today. Have an FE2 that I bought as a job lot…..planned on selling it on……but loved it too much!! Currently film is loaded in two cameras a New F1 Canon and a Nikon F2 with DP11…….Long may film live on……Thanks for the article!!!

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      March 10, 2018 at 4:06 pm

      Merci Martin- you should listen to that inner voice and buy a BLACK FM3a…!

  • Reply
    Alex Hakimi
    March 10, 2018 at 7:29 pm

    great. now i want one.

  • Reply
    ScottP
    March 10, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    Absolutely agree about the FM3a. The only Nikon that comes close is the F3, which does most of the same things and has (for me) a slightly more comfortable shape. When I go out shooting I have a little internal debate about which to take.
    .
    I notice that you use both Pan-F and Fuji Acros. How would you compare them? I think I like the Pan-F tones a little better, but that might be because I don’t have the Acros processing zeroed in yet.

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    March 11, 2018 at 9:19 am

    I took lots of wonderful photos with a FE that I sold to get a Leica M8 that I sold the other day together with a summicron.
    Leica click sound is one those things people use to admire, but for me it was never music really. I also keep an M7 and enjoy it, it’s a good machine.
    Rangefinders have their limitations that leica lovers simply avoid uderstanding. For instance plugging a telelens in them to use it for portraiture is nearly ridiculous compared to some other system, say slr, not to speak about digital tools like evf. Even so Leica launches an astonishing expensive 90 mm noctilux; probably it sounds like angels singing when turning aperture ring.

    • Reply
      Terry B
      March 13, 2018 at 10:09 am

      That’s quite an assumption to say that Leica users simply avoid understanding the limitations of their rangefinder camera. I’d say it is more true to say that experienced Leica shooters are very aware of the limitations (compared to an slr) but equally know that it is better under some shooting scenarios. Fact: the Leica is better for some shooting styles and not so good for others. So the simple fact is you don’t buy a Leica (or any rangefinder, for that matter) if it’s not going to meet your own requirements. I’d suggest that those who will be most disappointed with it will be those who buy one without fully realising this. And if I may be somewhat blunt, not being able to take a portrait with a 90mm lens on a Leica will say more about a photographer’s limitations than the lens/camera combination.

      • Reply
        Anil Mistry
        March 13, 2018 at 12:05 pm

        Hi- thanks for your comment- this is my personal view on my experience with the Leica (and rangefinders in general) versus a 35mm slr (specifically the FM3a). As I say earlier in the piece, it’s my view, based upon my uses for the camera. It’s not a Leica bashing piece. ALL CAMERAS MATTER!

  • Reply
    Des McSweeney
    March 11, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Hi Anil, thank you for these thoughtful ponderings, a very enjoyable Sunday morning read. I have just been given a rather more automated FA (or all least I think it is). I wonder if you have any thoughts about it ( or other readers too please). It has a 1.8 50mm. I just need to by a battery for it and off we go, this week I hope. All the best. Des

  • Reply
    Marius Voicu
    March 12, 2018 at 3:04 pm

    Hello Anil,
    Very good article about one of the legendary Nikons out there. I have the FM2N and I take it everywhere with me since it is so dependable and has great glass: 50mm f/1.4 and the 28mm f/3.5. BTW, I shot with mine at -20 deg C and it worked flawlessly, no issues. Some said that the oil inside the camera might freeze and when brought to normal temperature would start to drip on the aperture blades and insides of the camera. I had no issues and it just works. You did mentioned that the FM3A is fully mechanical, but I read that the FM2 was the last fully mechanical camera (uses a battery for the meter only), and starting from the FM3 the shutter is electronically controlled. Maybe the information is not accurate from where I read, don’t know. This was the thing that made me choose the FM2 and not the FM3. I wanted a fully mechanical beast, that didn’t needed batteries for the main operating functions. The meter is something that I can make do without if the battery fails.
    Anyway, it’s on the Legendary Nikons Hall of Fame for many reasons (most of them you mentioned in this article).

  • Reply
    Chris Pattison
    March 14, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    Unfortunately, my Spotmatic is not technically superior in brassing terms, as it isn’t black. 🙂
    Sweet camera and images Anil.

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      March 14, 2018 at 12:50 pm

      haha! All cameras matter Chris, and your Spotmatic is just as important as my FM3A! thanks for reading sir.

  • Reply
    Pedro
    March 18, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Hmmmm … this article brings me to comment on my own recent experience of falling in love with the FM3A’s spec sheet, shelling out for a mint black unit, only to regret it. Or, rather, learn a hard lesson about ergonomics. For me, at least, the FM3A feels dinky. All this talk of robust build quality is as true as the spec sheet implies, yet in my hands it feels like a toy. With a Nikkor 50/1.8 AIS pancake it’s acceptable, but whack a hunk of prime glass on it like my Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 ZF.2 (or Anil’s Nikkor 50/1.2 for that matter) and the weight distribution is ALL WRONG. How shocked I was, having never actually held much less owned a Nikon FM series body, to learn this! After 10 years of using ‘my tanks’ (i.e. Leica M6, Canon F-1, Mamiya C330F), the experience of the FM3A was disappointing. It does not feel robust at all. Hell, it might be (indeed, probably is), but doesn’t FEEL it. In response, I sold it and bought a mint F3 instead (for half the price). Of course, it can’t claim full mechanical shutter speeds, etc etc, but you know what? It’s a certifiable tank that feels ten times for substantial than the FM3A. The F3, paired with my Zeiss Planar, is insanely good. The FM3A was toy-like. One more thing: the final straw for me was the FM3As unforgivable sin of it’s ridiculous shutter lock on the lever. Having the rewind lever popped out in order to activate the shutter and meter is absurd. The damn things sticks right into my forehead when turning the body counter-clockwise to compose vertical format shots (the natural stance). The ergonomics on this little beauty are awful – at least for me. So like I said, sold my FM3A and with the cash bought a mint F3, a new strap, a couple of focusing screens and a Nikkor 24/2.8. Happy for someone else to enjoy the FM3A – really not for me.

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      March 18, 2018 at 12:15 pm

      Hi Pedro- some good observations there. The FM3A is solid, but i wouldn’t say it has that DENSE feel of my Leica M7. All cameras all do pretty much the same thing, and these small details start to become big, defining factors for us during use. Somebody else also mentioned the shutter lock on the lever. This has never been an issue for me but I can see how it could really piss someone off if it got in their way all the time. For me though, it’s been the best all round camera, to the point that I’ve started to let go of some others in my collection to spend more time using it. Now If only I could transfer the M7’s shutter sound to it…

  • Reply
    Scott Edwards
    April 27, 2018 at 2:06 am

    Found you via Pinterest of all things… 🙂 Thanks for the fine article and wonderful images. Is the last image used with flash?

    I primarily shoot digital but fell in love with film again at year’s end. Having fun with the F100 and my 50 1.4D, which is a really nice combo. 🙂 Peace, brother.

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      April 27, 2018 at 6:18 am

      Hi Scott thanks for reading- the last image was not shot with flash (I’ve never tried flash photography with the fm3a so far) – maybe I should have a go and see what results I get – anil

  • Reply
    Jacob Firsel
    June 14, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Anil,

    Excellant review with really enviable portraits. I picked up what seemed to be an unused one a few years ago.
    I’d like to know what soft shutter release you use.
    Cheers!

    • Reply
      Anil Mistry
      June 14, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      thank you! I bought the shutter release from a chinese vendor on ebay a while back- a pack of four different colours for around a fiver. nothing fancy!

  • Reply
    Mike Morgan
    September 27, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this and seeing the great images after having just acquired both an FE2 and FM2. I think Nikon should have called this the FE3m vs the FM3a. It’s an FE2 with a mechanical shutter. It seems much more akin to the FE2 given the aperture priority mode, low selectable shutter speeds, exposure comp and matchstick needle meter display. What a great camera nonetheless. Wish it was less expensive.

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