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Long-winded opinion on FM3A

Life fotog

Montreal, CA
3 posts

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Life fotog Registered since 09th Apr 2002
Tue 09-Apr-02 05:47 AM

Let me tell you quickly and simply why the Nikon FM3A is one of the two best manual 35mm cameras ever made for ‘life’ photography. (Life photography as in light, daily, unhampered, spontaneous, fun, informative... I just don’t like the term ‘street’ photography). The other camera is a black M3.

I’d been reading about the FM3A and considering its purchase for three months, during which time my friend, pro photographer JL Laporte (www.interzonephoto.com), lent me two Nikon FMs. I tried to purchase one of his, but he doesn't want to sell them. I basically pondered buying every mechanical Nikon SLR since January, including a Photomic F.

I’ve owned a few wonderful Nikons in the past, a black Nikkormat FT2, an F, and an F2 Photomic. I’ve also owned a Leica M4-2 (1980) and an M-3 from the 60’s. I must also mention that I worked in a serious photo store during the late 80’s. One of the reasons I was considering the older models was a lower price point (so I could buy two bodies) and in some cases a 100% viewing screen. I gave up on that last one. The Fs are too big and cumbersome. I’m working the 7% difference in my framing. I’ll survive.

Why the FM3A?

In shopping the used cameras in the F to FM lineage, I was concerned by inaccurate shutters, tired meters, dusty viewing screens. Just getting my friend’s trusty FM’s meter calibrated, the door tightened and foam replaced for light leaks was about $200 CAN, around half the price of an FM in decent condition. For $910 CAN I can pick up a spanking new FM3A. A no-brainer if you ask me.

Was I attracted to Leica again? Of course. You still can’t beat a black Leica for discretion, speed and quietness. But... I need to see through the lens more than ever, unless I restrict myself to 35mm and 50mm lenses. Going to 24, or 20mm, and 85mm makes me need to see through the lens to really experience the perspective, magnifying and distancing according to the focal length. I need the thrill of feeling through the lens. It somehow helps me concentrate on the picture. Another important point here is that as a hardcore black and white user, I can somewhat deduce what the filters will be doing to a shot when I see through them. I reluctantly have to admit that rangefinder myth and glory stops here for me. The FM3A is now my tool.

I can make better photographs with a black FM3A, as long as I improve my reflexes and focus on the moment. That’s the interesting thing about living photography, you have to pay attention. You have to be where you are. Most moments I miss are because I’m not ‘there’. In that context, I just wish the FM3A was quieter, and I’m sure if Nikon tried, they could pad down the decibels. And finally, a Leica around my neck is just to darn outrageous. Sorry. I can buy a new Subaru for the price of a Leica kit.

Weight: The FM3A is light. Almost 1/3 lighter than a Nikkormat and F3, 20 grams lighter than an FM, quite lighter than an F and almost 1/2 the weight of an F2 Photomic with DP-1 prism.

Ergonomically, this camera has improved controls over the FM: larger shutter speed dial, AE lock button that falls under the right hand thumb, shutter lock integrated to the film advance, silky smooth shutter release button that will be friendly to slow speeds. All that’s missing is multi-stroke film advance for when you’ve got the perfect framing and even moving your thumb so far will displace you. But, I can live without that luxury.

As far as I’m concerned, magnificent optical quality for 35mm cameras of any make is NOT run of the mill. I tried four or five Summicrons on my M3 before I got one that was killer. The 35mm f2 on my M4-2 was soft. When I worked at European Camera, the way I would get a good lens was by trying some until I found one that hit the mark. Of course each make has its classics. Nikon has enough of these to keep me happy, and hopefully the ones I acquired will satisfy... Otherwise I will change them until satisfied. With so many photographers going digital, the used market is ripe with quality manual focus optics.

I didn't worry or have to think twice about the build quality of the FM3A. I knew Nikon and was never disappointed. I had also read the specs, and felt comfortable with the FMs I was loaned. When I opened the box I was pleasantly surprised: smooth contours, amazing finish, precision tooling. Upon closer examination I honestly believe this camera is much better built than the Canadian-made M4-2 I had in 1980. Maybe it’s not quite a tank like the F2 or an M3, but it feels like it’s in the same league.

As a manual photographer who’s getting back into photography with no interest whatsoever for computer-controled or digital photography, having an aperture-priority automatic mode is already a stretch. I was excited by the FM3A’s meter needles because they give gradual and complete information, contrary to lights that simply shut on or off. In use, the aperture-priority automatic mode is like a manual mode where the camera turns the shutter speed dial for you, making things faster, yet leaving you in full control as the selected speed is always indicated. Want another shutter speed? just change aperture! Want to lock a setting, squeeze you thumb! Sweet. You can also use the exposure lock in rare cases where extreme low light inhibits seeing the needle. By locking the meter, you just have to place the meter needle over a contrasting object in the viewfinder to monitor you shutter speed, and reframe once informed.

I guess you can see I’m quite happy after a week-end with my lovely FM3A. I do love the vintage Nikons and almost succumbed to a clean F... I’m glad I didn't, because the FM3A rolls in a whole lot of classic Nikon heritage to make it a perfect tool for me. Thanks to it’s engineers!

Now I’ve got to give my friend back his FM, which has become my second body... Hum, I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep it. I’m afraid when he wants it back I might have a difficult time controlling the urge to get a another FM3A...

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