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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.

Mechanical/electronic/physical check

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.

Key accessories

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.

I want to... I need a ...
..use a viewfinder for an 8mm or 21mm mirror lockup Nikkor.

Nikon AS-4 adapter (F3 shoe to ISO shoe) + Nikon AS-2 adapter (ISO shoe to Nikon F/F2 shoe). 

You cannot use the AS-3 (F3 body to F/F2 flash mount) for a viewfinder because the AS-3 does not have any spring clip to keep the finder from sliding off.

..use a hot-shoe or dedicated Nikon flash. AS-4 - locks onto the F3 flash shoe.  Does not allow access to the rewind knob or back release.
...get the flash mount off my rewind knob and back release. AS-7 offset flash shoe adapter.  Lets you use the rewind knob without detaching the flash or flash connector.  Leaves you with an F3 hot shoe and an ISO-type hot shoe (dedicated but not TTL).  This screws onto the PC terminal.
...use my TTL flash for my later Nikon. AS-17 TTL flash adapter.  The F3 uses a different system for TTL than did later Nikons.  The F3's flash contains the electronics and uses the camera as a light sensor. On all other Nikons, all electronics are in the camera - and it merely signals the flash to stop. The AS-17 contains electronics equivalent to newer Nikons and "translates" to Nikon-compatible TTL flashes.  This can be stacked onto an AS-7.
...kick out the frames

MD-4 motor drive and 8xAA batteries.  The MD-4 is a tank.  You can get an

MC-12 (remote electronic cable release)

MR-3 (threaded secondary shutter button for vertical use)

MK-1 (variable firing rate adapter; centers tripod socket; provides vertical release).  If you need this, you should buy an F4s instead of an F3, since MK-1s can cost $300 or more.

AH-3 (tripod socket centering adapter).

...shoot pictures wearing my space helmet.

DA-2 Action Finder. 

The U.S. Navy  variation appears to simply substitute a mirror for the pentaprism.  It results in an image reversed left-to-right.

...shoot from a copy stand. DW-3 Waist-Level Finder.  Image is reversed left-to-right.  If you are thinking of it to pretend you are shooting a Rolleiflex, think again.  It's not very useful for general photography.
...focus really, really accurately DW-4 Magnifying Finder.  Has a big rubber eyecup and built-in eyesight adjustment.
...focus a super-telephoto lens

Focusing screen D (plain matte) or U (plain matte with Fresnel). 

The D screen is now very difficult to find because some worthies decided its best and highest use was in making a "Depth of Field Adapter" where SLR lenses would project onto that screen and then be filmed by a small-sensor video camera to simulate depth of field. 

The D screen is excellent with the 28/1.4, 105/2 DC, 135/2, and 17-35/2.8.  It vignettes terribly on most other lenses. That's the tradeoff for an accurate prediction of on-film DOF.

The U is just like a B, only set up for longer lenses.  Both of these screens have Fresnel brighteners that reduce vignetting in the viewfinder.

...focus in ultra-low light. The standard K screen tends to get hard to focus in really low light and with smaller-aperture lenses (starting at f/4.5, you get prism blackout).  Consider a G, which has a toally clear field with a big fat microprism spot in the center or an H, which is all microprisms across the entire field.
...focus with small-aperture lenses.

An R screen has split prisms that are optimized for slower lenses (smaller than f/3.5).  It also has a handy grid.

Note that the normal K screen that comes with the camera has split-prism blackout with lenses slower than f/3.5.

...keep my eye centered. The P screen is like a K - but with a huge "crosshair" running up and down, left and right.  Likely useful with the DA-2.
...focus a super-wide lens The E screen has a grid to keep verticals vertical and the horizon straight.  It has a very fine-ground center that is excellent for manual focusing.  Use a diopter to focus your eye on the center of the grid and voilà.
...party like it's 1959. The A screen is just like the one that came with the ancient Nikon F.

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...