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The Nikon F3 is Nikon's third professional single lens reflex camera body, preceded by the F and F2. Introduced in 1980, it had manual and semi-automatic exposure control whereby the camera would select the correct shutter speed (aperture priority automation). The Nikon F3 series cameras had the most model variations of any Nikon F camera.
The F2AS was a current model when the F3 was introduced, and for a while both were sold concurrently. The earlier Nikons had developed such a sterling reputation for extreme ruggedness and durability that many Nikon F and F2 owners were initially reluctant to transition to the new F3 from the F2 series. Not surprisingly, this phenomenon would reappear when the F3 was superseded by the F4 in 1988.
Initially, the F3 model with the DE-2 eye-level finder was introduced, soon followed by the popular F3HP, or High Point camera, with the DE-3 High Eyepoint prism/finder. The major advantage of this finder was that the entire viewfinder image could be seen from a distance of 2.5cm from the viewfinder. This made the F3 more usable by those who wear glasses when shooting, or were forced to shoot in high glare situations while wearing sunglasses. The only down-side to this was a smaller image through the viewfinder compared to the standard prism. With the exception of the "P" spec camera - all viewfinders are completely interchangeable. The F3 and F3HP unfortunately retained the somewhat awkward flash mount on the rewind dial, which (with flash mounted) obstructed that area of the camera.
A luxurious titanium version of the F3HP was also offered, initially in "Champagne" coloring, and later in Black. The "Champagne" offering was introduced in 1982 and discontinued around 1985, making it the rarer (and costlier used) of the two Titanium models.
The F3H, a high speed camera, was introduced for action and sports photography. It featured a fixed pellicule semi-transparent mirror, allowing the camera and MD-4H motor drive to achieve up to 13 frames per second. Production was short, official reports from Nikon claiming only around 100 such cameras made, while F3 collectors claim that number could be as high as 500.
Next to be introduced was the F3P. Built primarily for use by photojournalists, the F3P included additional weathersealing, O-ring gaskets, Type-B Matte focusing screen, a modified Titanium DE-5 pentaprism with ISO-type accessory shoe, rubber-covered waterproof shutter release and an extended shutter speed operating knob for easier operation in cold or wet environments. A variant of the F3P called the F3 Limited was also sold in Japan.
Finally there was the rarely seen F3AF, an experimental hybrid model which included an autofocus pentaprism finder capable of autofocusing with two special AF Nikkor lenses, the first of their kind. Bulky, clumsy, and slow to autofocus, like most early autofocus designs the F3AF did not sell well.
Nikon abandoned the earlier mechanically-operated shutter of the F2 for a modern, electronically-controlled, horizontally-traveled metal curtain design. The new shutter proved to be equally reliable and less maintenance-intensive overall, though the decision to retain the horizontal-travel design significantly limited its top flash sync speed (1/80 sec.) compared to later Nikons, some of which used the Copal shutter.
The F3 continued the high-quality of its predecessors, in some ways surpassing it. Tolerances were exacting, and typically Nikon - just enough for operation of the camera (with a small allowance for debris), yet not enough to inhibit cold-weather operation at temperatures where lubricants begin to gel. Only the finest quality mechanical and electronic parts were selected, and Nikon insisted that all electronic components be sourced with a guarantee of 20 years of continued supply. Not only did the F3 utilize ball-bearings to mount its shutter and film transport mechanisms, but additional clusters of bearings were added to the film advance to make one of the smoothest operating cameras ever built. Indeed, resistance is so low when operating the film advance that it is difficult to tell if there is film in the camera.
For the first time, shutter information was displayed via an internal liquid crystal display (LCD) inside the viewfinder. Aperture information was relayed through something Nikon called 'ADR' or "Aperture Direct Readout" which was a window at the top center of the viewfinder that got it's information from a micro-prism that read small numbers at the top of the mounted lens, of which type 'AI' (Aperture Indexing) or 'AIS' (Aperture Indexing Shutter Priority) lenses had printed behind the normal aperture numbers. Though widely used today, LCD displays were very hi-tech at the time. They proved somewhat difficult to see at night, so Nikon installed a button-operated light for use at night. The LCD display is one of the few problem areas of the F3 design, since with age, LCD displays lose contrast, blur, and become inoperative after a number of years. Fortunately, unlike modern autofocus cameras with LCD 'Command Center' panels, malfunction of the F3's LCD viewfinder display does not prevent full operation of the camera, since this is accomplished with manual dials and indicators. It should also be noted that many F3 cameras built in the 1980s were never used professionally, and therefore are still in perfect working order including the LCD display.
The Nikon F3 was the last in the Nikon series of manual-focus, professional level 35mm SLR cameras. Its production cycle is generally accepted to be from 1980 to 2000 or 2002, close to a record for a high-volume professional camera. Its successor - the F4 - along with operating the two F3AF lens, featured auto-focus and new optional metering and modes, but retained the ability to mount older manual-focus lenses. The F3 was also the last F-Series camera to be offered without an integrated motor drive, making the camera smaller overall than its successors in the F- series. The lasting appeal of the F3 remains the same as it was at its inception - a precision tool for those who prefer a simpler, extremely well-made camera for continual use in extreme environments.