The Nikon F3HP – My New “Go To” Film Body

As I recently began a new job, I still managed to cram in 2 weeks of vacation with my son this summer. In the States, those of us still working struggle to take 2 weeks a year, leaving Europeans rightfully laughing at us, and American industry, or what is left of it. Anyways, long story short, that is why I have not blogged much in the past week. Nice to be back.

Another reason for not blogging- I fired up an old friend, the Nikon F3HP. The F3 was introduced in 1980. This incredibly well-built tank of a 35mm SLR was one of the most advanced cameras of its era, boasting Aperture Priority, a 150,000 cycle MTBF titanium shutter, and a LCD light meter. It is the best built camera I have ever used, maybe even more rugged than my Hasselblad 500 CM. The tried and true center weighted metering, which heavily favors the center, almost works like averaging metering. It is usually spot on, and won’t get fooled in heavily backlit situations. It is also a beautiful looking camera. When seen with this camera slung over your shoulder, people know you mean business when it comes to 35mm film.

Nikon F3HP, Mounted With MD-4 Motor Drive, 28-50 Ai-S Nikkor, And SB-16 Speedlight

Nikon F3HP, Mounted With MD-4 Motor Drive, 28-50 Ai-S Nikkor, And SB-16 Speedlight

This camera should weigh a ton. However, the body ergonomics are so advanced, especially for its day, that it feels light and balanced. The MD-4 motor drive fits onto the body like a glove.

Still, though, the camera is not without its quirks and faults. They are more annoyances than anything else, and for the most part, one can live with them:

  • Top shutter speed is “only” 1/2000th of a second. Compare this to the next model down in the lineup, the FE-2, which boasted a lightning 1/4000th/sec shutter.  Heck, my Hasselblad has a top speed of 1/500th/sec., and the Argus, 1/300th. OK, not so bad.
  • The flash sync speed of 1/80th/sec, well, sucks. No fill flash capability, really, Compare this to the FE-2’s 1/250th/sec.
  • Speaking of flash, was the mount designed ny a mad engineer out to play a cruel joke on the Nikon consumer? It fits over the left-hand manual rewind/ exposure comp knob, so you have to remove the flash before removing the film. Sure, the interchangeable prisms are amazing, the HP one looking almost like an LCD display. But, really, a shoe on top of it would not have been that bad.
  • OK, LCD’s- somehow, the F3 LCD’s seem to last forever, and beat Nikon’s original expectations of 7 to 8 years or so before having to be replaced. Mine is original, and still works perfectly. But, that crazed red button for illuminating the LCD display is pathetic.

The HP (high eyepoint) finder makes for a great eyepiece that you can actually hold away from your eyes, making using the camera with eyeglasses a breeze. I also have the standard finder, which boasts a little more magnification, and takes the F3HP down to a stock F3, if one chooses.

What is the best feature of this camera? Well, it isn’t really in the camera itself, and is an optional accessory- that’s the MD-4 motor drive. Nikon really took motor drives to a new level with this one. It feels perfect to grip, balances the camera so nicely, and can shoot up to 6 FPS with optional rechargeables. And, it has a built-in motor rewind. The camera feels empty without this drive attached. It fits the camera like a glove.

MD-4, with SB-16

MD-4, with SB-16

One caveat- never load film, and then attach the MD-4, unless you are doing it in a darkroom. The F3 has a little removable button door on the bottom of the body, which mates to the MD-4. If you do this, and film is loaded, and you put the drive on in the field, you will fog the first frame of film. Same holds true, of course, if you remove the drive mid roll. I bought the camera, the drive, the Speedlight, and 135mm f/2.8 Ai, for a steal at Hunt’s in Manchester, NH. When I brought it home, and dismounted the drive, I was nervous that the button seemed to be missing. Until I found it safely stored in the special compartment inside the battery rack. Nikon thought of everything in this design.

Don't Lose This- Button That Covers The F3's Motor Drive Coupling- Stores Away Into The MD-4's Battery Rack

Don't Lose This- Button That Covers The F3's Motor Drive Coupling- Stores Away Into The MD-4's Battery Rack

I still believe this is one of the finest manual focus 35mm SLR’s ever built. Nikon was still making them into 2001, well after the F5 was introduced. Compare that to the 6 month lifespans of today’s digital SLR’s. And, believe it or not, Nikon USA still offers parts for the camera, and does indeed do replacements of the LCD panels, if you ever do need to replace it. The display will do crazy things in cold weather, and last winter, I thought I’d need to send it into Nikon. This summer, it has worked perfectly, and the panels are bright and legible.

This is one fantastic film camera.

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