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|Buying a used Nikon F3|
One of the salutory byproducts of the mass abandonment of film cameras is that the Nikon F3 — probably the best film SLR ever made — is now trading at insanely low prices. As of this writing (10/2009), the low end is about $150 and the high end is around $400 (this is a non-titanium model). Here is a brief guide to buying a used F3. It's a very reliable camera, but there are some things to examine and some basic outfitting advice.
Why an F3?
The F3 is the most reliable Nikon ever made - and because it has true mirror-lockup and a flip-up AI coupling, it can mount any Nikkor ever made. It has the widest variety of focusing screens for any Nikon, and it has many screens that are well-suited for super-telephoto and architerural use. It is also a relatively small and light camera. The viewfinder picture is simple: focusing screen, LCD showing the shutter speed, and a direct view of the aperture set on the lens. It is also able to be run without a motor drive, allowing a much smaller package.
Buy it for looks, buy it for life.
An F3 has all brass covers - top covers, prism cover, and botton cover. The black enamel paint wears off over time. With each of the covers costing upward of $40 as a part, there is no economically viable way to refinish or recover an F3. So go by the visuals.
Prism dents and distortions are almost a given. F3s and F3HPs have flat-top prism assemblies. Since all pentaprisms inside those flat-top housings have points on the top, you can surely understand that much of the prism housing is full of emptiness (or air). The brass covers are soft. What do you think will happen over time? Fortunately, though, the prism contains zero electronics. As long as it stays on the camera, and as long as the glass is not cracked, it is functional.
The small double-exposure lever (to the front of the winding axis) will lose its finish. It is aluminum.
The beauty is that you can mix and match finders and bodies until you assemble a camera with the cosmetics you want.
Finding your finder
The original Nikon F3 had a normal finder (DE-2). This prism has 100% frame coverage, 0.80x magnification, and takes the same eyepieces as the Nikon F and F2. The basic size eyepiece and accessories can also be exchanged with the Nikon FE, FE2, FA, FM, FM2 and FM3A - as well as the Fuji GL690, GM670, GS645, and GA645. Replacement (plain glass) eyepieces for the F3 have fat rubber rings on them. They are available but expensive. You want the DE-2 if your eyesight is good (or well corrected with contact lenses), if you do a lot of focusing on a plan screen, or if you want a more compact camera. You can mount a viewfinder magnifier directly. This finder only comes in black.
The Nikon F3HP is just an F3 with a DE-3 High Eyepoint Viewfinder. The High-Eyepoint finder lets you see the whole viewfinder picture from further back, for example, when you are wearing eyeglasses. It has a lower magnification and a much larger (and less expensive) rubberized eyepiece (interchangeable with the N8008/F801, F4, F5, F6, D1, D1x, D2H, D2x, and basically any digital body with a round eyepiece).
The DA-2 Action Finder is a huge viewfinder with a huge eyepiece that drops the magnification down to about 0.6x but allows you to see the whole frame almost 2 inches from the viewfinder window. It's great if you are wearing a helmet or goggles. Without those, the eyepiece ends up too close, and it becomes a headache machine (having used the DA-20 and DA-30 on the F4 and F5, I have concluded that these later finders have vastly improved optics). Oddly, the DA-2 moves the ADR (aperture direct readout) and shutter-speed LCD image to the bottom of the viewfinder picture. No dioptric adjustment is possible, and this is not a great finder for critical manual focusing. This kind of finder is really not a lot of fun unless, as my wife says, you want to shoot an F3 as if it were a soccer -mom camera. Note also that the DA-2 is all cemented together optically - so there is no simple operation for removing internal dust.
The waist-level (DW-3) and magnifying finders (DW-4) are good for a copy stand. You can ignore them for everyday use. The left-right view is reversed, and they are not a lot of fun for most purposes.
There are many things to check on an F3. Most of them can be checked without shooting film.
1. Autoexposure. The meters on these cameras rarely seem to go out of adjustment. Check it on a white wall against a handheld meter.
2. Shutter speeds. The lithium niobate shutter regulator has an extremely long accuracy life, and the shutter is too simple to fail easily (it's a variant of the ancient Leica flexible-curtain design). That said, you can sometimes (rarely) get shutter bounce. This will lead to pictures with bright or dark segments. This must be tested on film. It is not common.
3. Winding smoothness. The F3 has the smoothest manual film advance every put into a 35mm camera (sorry, Leica). It you feel anything rough, pass on the camera.
4. Film counter. It is rare that the counter itself fails, but one aspect of the counter can. When the camera is at any frame before 1, and if the shutter speed is on A, the camera should be at 1/80 sec. This is intended to prevent accidental 30-second exposures when startinga roll of film. This feature often fails, and the camera can end up on 1/80 when it is at frames above 1.
5. Light seals. There are seals around the perimeter of the back. There is also a foam mirror bumper. The rear seals can be in an incredible state of failure before the condition affects light-tightness. In fact, I have used a couple of F3s where there were no light seals at all. Learn to replace the light seals yourself using the Interslice kits available on Ebay.
6. Motor terminal cap. If you see a hole on the bottom of the camera showing multiple gold pins, the camera is missing its motor terminal cap. This is symptomatic of the camera's having been connected to an MD-4. You should be able to find the cap in a little slot of the battery tray of the motor drive. If not, you will have to buy a new one for about $20. Knockoffs are less. Without this cap, the camera will not be light-tight.
7. Prism release. Make sure that the prism actually comes off when you slide the two levers on either side. Difficulty in releasing the prism can be an indicator of general stickiness or impact damage.
8. Eyepiece/threads. If the camera is missing the screw-in eyepiece on the back, you can still use it - but at least make sure that the threads for installing a new eyepiece have not been stripped or broken off.
9. Blacked-out Nikon nameplate. Be aware that if the nameplate was blacked out with a magic marker, there is no economical way to remove the ink. The nameplate is plastic, it reacts badly to acetone, and it is both complicated and expensive to replace.
10. LCD. A couple of things can go wrong with the LCD. There can be leakage, which looks like black fluid. The LCD cover window can get dirty. And the LCD can get fainter. All of that said, the F3's LCD - despite popular accounts - is not very likely to fail. The LCD is illuminated by a small red button on the right side of the DE-2 or DE-3. The button is hard to press, and the illumination is weak. Use the Force instead.
This will not cover every exotic accessory but will discuss some of the more useful ones. Rather than put it down to alphabet soup, this will be organized by task.
F4 or F3?
You might actually be in the market for an F4, which has all of the same features of the F3 - but has an ISO-type TTL hot shoe, a built-in motor drive with variable continuous speeds, matrix metering with all Nikon lenses. It is a bit bigger and a bit rounder. It is also amazingly inexpensive right now. It, however, is not the mechanical masterpiece that is the F3.
Good luck and have fun putting your F3 together. Even if you fail, it won't be an expensive failure...