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Camera Reviews

Nikon F3 - The never failing old friend

Mike Graham (Merlin)

Keywords: older, nikon, f3, bodies, camera, film, merlin

This article was orginally written by late member Mike Graham (Merlin) and we on the team keep it online for us all to enjoy and have as a reference. Enjoy!

There have been so many rave reviews of this superb camera that my adding one here would be pointless. It's enough to say I've used them heavily since 1984, I have one of my own, and if it ever broke I'd replace it with another without a second thought.


Click to see a F3HP enlarged

Very few folks would argue with me if I said that this is the finest manual Nikon ever built, bar none! 

This is the Mercedes Benz S-Class of manual cameras, and I've used them for recording about five hundred forensic autopsies. Our elderly Nikon F3s have probably sent more murderers, rapists and child abusers to jail than any other cameras! Gunshot wounds, stab wounds, strangulation lesions, nothing escaped the F3's on-the-money metering system. I've even testified in court on the accuracy of this camera! 

Minor wish list: I wish it would synchronize with flash at a faster speed, like the FM2. I wish Nikon had either left off the tiny illuminator button, or made it work properly. I also wish I could have another one for Christmas... 


This is the least pretty of the two F3s we have at work. Our oldest F3, serial number 1625513, has been used continuously since 1983 by US Army photographers. 

Now, soldiers don't actually perform rifle drill with our Nikons and slam the butts down onto the parade ground when they come to attention, but to judge by the number of scrapes and the bare patches of metal showing through the paint you'd think this one had done a season as a hockey puck!

The light seals are still good, the mirror pad is undamaged, and needless to say everything works like new - all shutter speeds are accurate, the meter is still on the money and the automatic is still reliable. 

Most of its life was spent attached to the motor drive, and the little drive cap's missing, covered with black tape. One clown even went to power rewind a film, put it down to answer the phone, and left the room forgetting the camera which continued rewinding the film until the NiCad on the motor expired some time during the night! (You see what I'm up against here?)

When I started here back in 1984, we still had an F with a few non-AI lenses. They can be used in stop-down mode on the F3, but the little metering connector around the bayonet has to be flipped out of the way first to avoid squashing it between the lens and the body. If I got a dollar for every time a soldier did that, or another for every time it's been dropped...

After an autopsy or before going in to surgery, camera equipment gets cleaned off with alcohol, and scrubbed hard. The leatherette is still firmly in place. 

Today we have no more military photographers, and most photography gets done with a D1. But this F3 sits proudly and patiently on my desk, a 55mm Micro Nikkor in place, with a roll of Ektachrome loaded, ready to rock-n-roll at a second's notice, just like the old days. 

It could tell you some horror stories of all the sights it's seen, of the murder victims it's recorded. Of nights in the operating theater, of grueling, sweaty battles on a copy stand, of thousands of Kodalith slides. Of the icy mud of field training exercises in bitter German winters, of the blistering heat of the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm. Of sand and rain, sweat and dirt. Of the spine-jarring vibration of a UH60 MEDEVAC helicopter. No car I've ever owned has been as reliable. In my hands, it feels as comfortable as an old pair of gloves, and I can reload it in the dark purely by feel. It has never failed me, and like an old friend, never will.

It really is the finest 35mm manual SLR ever built.






The F3 HP

The Nikon F3 HP


Discuss the F3

We discuss the F3 and other manual focus cameras in the Nikon Manual Focus forum.


(6 Votes )

Originally written on September 10, 2002

Last updated on January 25, 2021


Ozzy Li (Ozzy2) on March 25, 2023

Your article was a wonderful reminder to me of the times when I would use my treasured Nikon F3 camera. I used to take pictures of everything from landscapes to portraits, and it consistently delivered amazing results. I still have it at home and use it sometimes. I'm also thinking of buying a lens for my Nikon F3, I found a list of several lenses on this site so I'll think about which one is the best. In my opinion, the Nikon F3 is one of the most beautiful film cameras ever made - I especially love its iconic design and that striking red stripe. Thanks for the amazing trip down memory lane!

Charles Wade Arvey (Tibikehauler1) on February 1, 2021

Thanks for leaving this up. The F3 is my favorite Nikon camera. I shoot a good bit of film, however no where close to the use described by Merlin.

Michael Tupps (mjt73106) on October 9, 2014

I believe that I have read this review several time since it was posted. Yet it is always relevant to understand how well this generation of equipment was designed, produced, and used. It did not just happen. These things were built to last, no matter what they were up against. Thanks for the review.

Robert Lovelace (smallshot) on February 4, 2014

Still a favorite of mine. Build quality is great and there is just something special about shooting film. Thanks

Lee R. Palmer (OldNavy609) on August 14, 2013

I have two of these wonderful cameras. A HP and a standard prism. The HP is my "walk around", since I don't have an extra MD-4. I love it's compact, yet solid feel. The only issue with this one is that the exposure lock button is missing, but since I mostly shoot in fully manual mode, no problem. The other body has a MD-4 attached, and I use it if I am shooting people in action. Love them both. I just purchased an F2AS, which is having new seals and mirror bumper installed. I can hardly wait to get it out in the field. Thanks for your blog on your "forensic" F3's. Lee

Emory Hall (ehall) on January 28, 2013

Hi Again Mike Thanks for the article. Emory