dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll, uh, well, you'll say hello to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you, and he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say do you know that if is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you – I mean I'm no, I can't – I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's, he's a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas –I mean – Hey, uh, don't go – don't go without me, OK? I want to get a picture. He can be terrible, he can be mean, he can be right. He's fighting the war. He's a great man. I mean... I wish I had words. I can tell you the other day he wanted to kill me – Because I took his picture. He said if I take his picture again – I'm gonna kill you. And he meant it ! So you just lay it cool, lay back, dig it... He gets friendly again, really does. But you don't judge him like an ordinary man.
Nikon F3 vs. Nikon FA

The Divide

It has not been a very well-guarded secret that Nikon has always made professional cameras and non professional cameras. In the heady days of Nikomats and Nikkormats, it was easier to tell. The Nikkormats had metal shutters, a shutter speed dial very uncharacteristic of Nikon (who actually built them?), and didn't have as many cool toys to go with them. Later, Nikon would introduce a rank amateur line to create three marketing segments: the top-line professional models, the high-grade semipro models, and the toys for the rest of us. Some examples of the pro/semipro pairings:

Nikon F/F2 - Nikkormat

Nikon F2 - Nikon FE/FM

Nikon F3 - Nikon FE2/FM2

Nikon F3 - Nikon FA

Nikon F4s - Nikon N8008s

Nikon F5 - Nikon N90s

Nikon F5 - Nikon F100

It has been my observation that the semipro models always had slightly more advanced skill sets and different shutter architectures (at least up to the F4s).

The Pro/Consumer Shutter Divide — The Nikon F, F2 and F3 all have basically the same shutter as the Leica M and Nikon rangefinders: a cloth (or titanium foil) horizontally-traveling focal-plane shutter that synchs below 1/125 second. The pro model shutter was a dated design when the first Nikon Fs rolled out, but it is just too simple to fail, so it lasted a long, long time. The first three pro models also had minimal automation.

By stark contrast, every one of the prosumer models had a metal, vertically-traveling shutter capable of attaining a minimum of a 1/125 synch speed. In the early days this was a licensing issue; Mamiya built the Nikkorex F and had access to the Copal Square shutter. Later, Nikon obtained the licensing and got wrapped up in a technology war that led it to go faster and faster with metal FP shutters, until its shutters hit 1/8000 sec.

– The F3 was the first auto-exposure pro model, and it had aperture-priority as its only automation mode when other manufacturers (including Nikon itself) were dallying in programmed automation. Its shutter goes to 1/2000, with a 1/60 synch speed and a 1/90 dead-battery speed.

– The FA, the prosumer model that is one subject of this review, has a vertically-running honeycombed titanium shutter that hits 1/4000 sec with a backup of 1/250 and a max synch of 1/250.

In terms of comparisons, neither type of shutter is particularly quiet.

Architecture The F3 is largely defined by two systems: the massive side-to-side shutter and the viewfinder system. The effect of the shutter design is to make the camera wider; the effect of the finder system is to put more electronics (such as the metering system) in the body. The high-eyepoint, 100% coverage finder is huge by comparison to the one on the FA. The F3 is also dominated by the motor drive concept; more on this later. The FA, on the other hand, is somewhat smaller, not having interchangeable finders and having a vertical shutter.

Automation When people used to using F5s and EOS-1Ns see the F3, they probably scratch their heads. Where is the autobracketing? Where is the autofocus? Where is the program mode? The longtime F3 user asks, "I must have forgotten to look for that stuff when they were shooting at me." The F3 has very little automation: one automatic mode and manual, both modes activated by turning the shutter speed dial.

The FA has four: Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual. These are activated by a collar around the shutter speed dial, and you can tell which one you are using by looking at the viewfinder display.

Cybernetic Override — Interestingly, the FA puts everything on electronic control in all modes; in S, if you pick a shutter speed that outside the correct exposure range, the camera will either slow it down to make the shot expose with the widest aperture or speed it up to correspond with the smallest aperture. In all modes (including manual), hooking up and turning on a Nikon-dedicated flash will lock out the 1/500-1/4000 second speeds. This makes it impossible to set a shutter speed too high for flash. Nikon calls this "cybernetic override," and it operates much the same way that the P mode does on the Konica Hexar.

Exposure Metering and control — there is a huge difference here. The F3 has its exposure metering equipment inside the body, meaning that it makes no difference what finder and what focusing screen you attach. Light gets to this system via a semisilvered center section in the reflex mirror. The F3 metering system is centerweighted, and it has a somewhat inconvenient exposure lock button on the front. Lens aperture info gets to the camera via the AI tab (which flips up for use with older lenses).

The FA, by contrast, has the metering electronics in the finder, and it is sensitive to the use of bright focusing screens like the Beattie. It may also be sensitive to the use of the K3/B3/G3 screens used on the FM3a. The FA has both the centerweighted system and AMPS (Automatic Multi-Pattern System), selectable by a small switch on the front. AMPS (now "Matrix Metering") is a five-segment metering pattern. The FA allegedly reads the five areas, figures out what kind of picture it is seeing, and then sets the exposure based on its library of 30,000 plus image types. This was a revolutionary system when it came out, and they are still using it today. The only weakness of the FA system is that it has relatively few vertical shot patterns in its repertoire. For this type of work (often facial portraits), centerweighted is typically fine.

Viewfinder Display — the major difference between the viewfinder display of the F3 and the FA is the physical arrangement. The viewfinder components are:

Viewfinder data F3 FA
Shooting aperture ADR

ADR in M mode
ADR in A mode
LCD in S mode

Shutter speed LCD

LCD in M mode
LCD in A mode
Masking display in S mode

Over/under warning LCD +/- LCD +/-
Exposure compensation None Separate LED on right side
Flash ready Blinking red LED Steady Red LED
TTL flash underexposure None? Blinking Red LED

Viewfinder Coverage — this is quite simple; the F3 and F3HP show 100% of the 35mm neg; the FA shows about 92%, or the portion visible in a slide mount or a typical minilab print.

Focusing Screens — the FA has a limited capability for interchanging focusing screens. The choices are B (plain groundglass); K (split-screen with microprism donut, standard); and E (plain groundglass with grid). The FA's screens are quite bright; they are interchangeable with even brighter B3, K3 and E3 screens that came out with the FM3a (the FM, FE, FM2, FE2, FA and FM3a share the same shape and size focusing screen). From what I understand, there is no meter adjustment for the new "3" series for the FA. The same is not true of using these newer screens in the FM and FE.

above: focusing screens for the FA: B2 screen, K2 screen, E2 screen

The F3 has a notoriously large selection of focusing screens (20+), with basically anything you could imagine. Some types are so specialized that your choice of an H1, H2 H3 or H4 for example will depend on the aperture and viewing angle of the lenses you use. The safe choices are (no surprise) the B, K (standard), and E screens, which work with all lenses. Here are some of my favorite F3 screens:

– The E - This is described as being a groundglass on a fresnel with a grid. My E screen (for F4, more on this below) doesn't look like it has a fresnel, and it has focusing brackets too. Regardless, this is a very easy screen to focus on - from corner to corner. Not only that, it doesn't black out when you press the stopdown lever.

– The G - This is a funky screen. The center is an ultrabright microprism spot. The rest is basically clear. Probably good if you are on an acid trip, this is for those ultra low-light applications. You cannot observe depth of field with this screen, just what is in focus, and you can only focus on things in the center. Good for those last-ditch attempts to focus in poor light. Moderately sensitive to the length and maximum aperture of the lens. Comes in four variations.

– The H - this is a screen that is completely covered in microprisms. You can focus anywhere on the frame quickly. Very bright, but again, you are SOL when it comes to judging DOF. VERY sensitive to the length and maximum aperture of the lens. Comes in four variations.

Notes on focusing screens

Nomenclature: screens that fit the FA use the (e.g.) K K2 K3 nomenclature. This refers to the generation of the focusing screen and its relative brightness. This has to do with metering. F3 uses a similar nomenclature, but by stark contrast it refers to optimization for a particular lens.

Construction: FA screens are relatively delicate acrilan plastic with no frame; F3 screens are glass, are fitted in frames and incorporate built-in condenser lenses (which is part of the prism assembly on the FA).

Compatibility: The F3 can use three types of focusing screens:

– F3 screens - give the name of the screen, F3 and Nikon

– F3 red dot screens - same as above, but with a red dot indicating a second, brighter generation

– F4 screens - same as the red dot, but have the letter for the screen in a colored box.  Some people report problems using these screens in F3s.  I didn't notice much if any of a problem.

In my experience, the K screen for the Nikon F works as well, but it doesn't have the handy lip for popping the screen out with your fingernail.

The FA can use three types of focusing screens:

— FE/FM screens - with these you need to set the EV dial into the (-) range because they are dimmer than the standard screens.

— FA/FE2/FM2 screens (B2/E2/K2) - these are the standard screens

— FM3a screens(B3/E3/K3) - these are the newer, improved versions of the above, allegedly requiring no exposure compensation.

Specific Subjective Comparisons

Operation F3 FA
Viewing / focusing / exposure-setting

It is very hard to argue with the F3HP's brightness, clarity, long eye relief, full coverage, and full-frame focusability. It is easy to argue with the F3HP's huge prism, relatively low magnification, relatively small LCD display, and terrible LCD illuminator.


The FA has a viewfinder more consistent with late manual-focus SLRs: bright, lower magnification, lower coverage. Its LCD, illuminated by ambient light, is fairly easy to see. Be this as it may, the information displays in the FA do not fit in precisely the same plane as the focusing plane, which means a little bit of refocusing for your eyes. Is it diopter time?



(see Fill Flash for Amnesiacs)

I know that the rewind-crank-mounted flash connector is designed to let you change prisms easily, but even with the power-rewind MD-4, you still have to take the flash off to open the camera. Poor design for making the camera open by pulling up the rewind crank.

Separately, the 1/60 flash synch is a little tough for fill flash in daylihgt unless you are at close range or using a monster Metz 45CL-4.


The FA thankfully has a normally-placed standard hot shoe. TTL capability is the same as the F3 — centerweighted. The 1/250 max synch speed helps with daylight fill by getting the shooting aperture open to something appropriate for a smaller flash.
Manual Winding

The F3 has an incredibly smooth film advance. You can't feel any gears or anything. It is so fluid and easy, Leica could take some lessons from Nikon.


The FA has a very smooth, well-damped wind similar to that on a Leica M3. Definitely top-flight.

Primitive. Date/time/sequence no.


Primitive. Date/time/sequence no.
Motor drive operation.

The MD-4 (4.5 fps with alkaline) is a marvelous motor drive - it does wind and rewind, taking 8 alkalines and going about 140 rolls. It has so much torque, though, that it has a countdown counter to stop the motor drive from ripping the film off the cartridge when it hits the end of the roll. Capable of powering the camera.

The MD-4 is a tremendous stability aid when using longer or heavier lenses.

The sole drawback is that you cannot detach the motor-drive mid-roll without fogging the film.


The FA can take the MD-11 (3.5 fps), MD-12 (3.5 fps) and MD-15 (3.2fps). The former two also fit the FM, FE, FE2, FM2 and FM3a.

The MD-15 is dedicated to the FA and can supply the FA's meter and shutter with power if the main silver cells in the camera conk out.

The FA motor drives help stability, but they are relatively lightweight.

None of the FA's motor drives have power-rewind capability.


The F3 series (excluding the Titanium models) has an aluminum chassis and brass covers, like an old-school rangefinder camera. These covers dent and brass famously, but they do not break.

The F3 is a reputation for being a good substitute for a hammer and as a class it has been carried into most modern war zones.

The FA has an aluminum chassis, a brass bottom plate and a plastic top plate, typical for SLRs built in the mid-1980s. Plastic top plates do not dent, but if hit really hard, will crack.

If you are an advanced amateur or non-war-correspondent professional, the FA should more than tough enough for the job. Many FAs have been pressed into professional service.


Idiot design features

Eyepiece ring held on by a single thread and costing $20?! This was such a great moneymaker for Nikon that it repeated the design on the N90s, the F4, F5 and F100.

MD-15 requires you to remove the finger grip from the camera. It's easily lost, and missing from about a third of the cameras you see for sale.

Same dummy eyepiece, just smaller. Fuji caught onto this size and used the same thing on its 6x9 rangefinders and the GA645.


My Not-So-Objective Bottom Line

The F3 and the FA are not really competitive cameras. My uses give a slight edge to the F3.

The FA is a small, full-featured compact camera for taking fun pictures. It is probably the most sophisticated manual-focus SLR ever made and lets you do a lot of things that later models do not — like matrix metering and program mode with AI-s lenses. It doesn't need a motor drive, it's light and its dead-battery speed of 1/250 means that you can take pictures on a sunny day, even if the MS76s have given up the ghost. It has a good selection of accessories for general photography.

The F3 is... whatever you make it. I see the MD-4 as an integral part of the camera, one that gives it heft and transparency in shooting. It certainly improves the ergonomics, since the body is tiny and hard to grip without it. The F3 is a great, basic bulletproof camera that can be made to do almost anything. It is a must-have for prolonged, wide-open shooting with fast telephoto lenses, due to the virtues of its viewing system (especially if you have glasses). The downside is that even by mid-1980s standards, the F3 was a relatively primitive camera. But primitive works sometimes...