Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

Not all of the master thoughts resulted in masterly strokes - at least as a user I find some of the controls were too delicately designed, simple, but frequently used controls like the power on/off switch and self timer lever, hardly can claim to be easy or comfortable to operate. Other weaker areas in its design such as the off-centre tripod socket could hardly be appreciated by those who frequently used tripods in the field.

Power ON/OFF.jpg (12k) Loading..

More ? Yeap, I am wondering how many of you feel about the tiny viewfinder illumination button, convenient to use, most of the time, you would have to keep your finger nail longer and sharper to enjoy using it. Other than the red stands out very well, and for cosmetic reason, it is not an entirely radical feature - at least one would prefer it to be like a lever/button where you can have the choice of continuous mode or momentarily lit up for checking exposure data or settings...

ON/OFF Switch.jpg F3H Close View.jpg

The F3P (+ F3H)'s have a more practical and easier to operate ON/OFF switch. They have raised the shutter speed dial higher, along with an extended depth of the DOF preview button (Self Timer lever has been omitted). The Illumination button has not been improved though..

More info on: Nikon F3 High Speed Motor Drive camera and Nikon F3 Press ).

I would not speculate whether such decisions were unanimously adopted or imposed, but it does reflect to a certain degree, a lack of product testing in the field. Was the competition considered a threat internally and thus some little things were ignored to speed the release, were user issues not fully addresses in lieu of maintaining the industrial design, or did these issues just slip by unintentionally. We'll probably never know for sure. Overall, I still think that the balance was good, blending conservatives with a practical oriental design and merging with a fore running style of western industrial design. Such a marriage was a clear departure from the earlier strong sense of traditional, precise, imaging tool, and leaving little trace from earlier uncharacteristic F and F2 body designs. As seen from the mockup model above, the differences can be classified as quite distinctive even when compared the two earlier F3 prototypes designed by the in-house Nikon design team. The mockup has a very similar artificial leatherette covering as used on the Porsche designed Contax RTS camera in 1975, after an initial technical collaboration between Kyocera Optical Co. in Japan and Zeiss Optic of Germany, which also coincidentally, started using quartz shutter speed timing control.

I remember quite well that the Nikon F3's launch was a little sudden in 1980 (I wasn't closely following all these camera developments during that time) and if I can recall correctly, many ads were published with the famous 'smoky filled and backlighted Nikon F3 mounted on a MD-4 with a 85mm f2.0 at the back cover of many photographic magazines. I think it was more like a calculated risk, where Nikon had probably predicated initial defensiveness of hard-core users who might feel negative toward the adoption of automation in a flagship professional camera body, in an all mechanical world of camera hardware. After all, Nikon has enjoyed such a clear dominance in the professional users market for so long, the Nikon F2AS represents the pinnacle of such supremacy. Everything seemed so easy for Nikon, then here came the electronic Nikon F3 with auto exposure to displace the years of experience gained by the professional photographer.

Errr.. I have great respect for Mr. TATENO, Yokoyuki on his positive remarks on the Nikon F3 but in real life, the initial stage of the launch of the new camera was not that well received (At least in my country and around South East Asian countries and Hong Kong Market). I remember quite clearly the mechanical Nikon F2AS was retailed higher than the new professional camera body. In a SEAsian regional sporting event, a year and a half after its debut, I hardly noticed any photojournalists holding a Nikon F3 but plenty with F2 motorized bodies. Frankly, neither was I (human nature ..). A few of my friends did, but at that time, in my country, government had imposed imports of cameras with duties and levies. Most of those friends bought their unit Tax free in Singapore. But eventually, the Malaysian Government lifted all import duties on camera and video equipment, good news for all and indeed a wise move which has resulted in Malaysia spring boarding as the WORLD's top ten importers of photo and video equipment. Truth be told, most countries that desired to export goods were forced to lower import duties by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was mounting a total revision of worldwide trade rules in the early 80'. I bought mine, a F3-T in Champaign finish around mid 1983 and added a MD-4 drive in '84.

That was history. By 1982, most competing brands like Canon, Pentax and Olympus had already introduced their upgrades in 1983/4. Pentax produced the first surprise, one of the oldest brand names and equally respectable camera manufacturers in Japan, introduced a serious contender to Nikon's supremacy in the professional camera market with an all new Pentax LX system camera. It was a camera with hybrid shutter design, works and timed in automatic but structurally, it was mechanical - with a wide range of shutter speeds remaining operative even without any battery installed or if the power cells fail to function normally or completely depleted. It also packs some very exciting and original features, and has its own solution to metering woes. It was compact, much smaller than most other cameras of similar class such as the Nikon F3 featured here, or the New Canon F-1 (Perhaps rivalled in this area only by Olympus's OM models). It has the option to either couple with a high speed (5 fps) motor drive or a 3fps slower Power Winder, a titanium shutter design, TTL flash exposure control and an aperture priority AE with full manual control. However, the most exciting feature I can find in the LX was its unique metering system. Although the idea was not original, it was primarily based on the earlier concept developed by Olympus's IDM (Integrated Direct Metering) system, used in the Olympus OM-2n back in 1975. The OM-2n employed a revolutionary metering system, I suspect most of you know what TTL flash exposure control is, but for those that don't... A TTL flash capable camera will 'measure and regulate' the amount of light (which is enough for a theoretical good flash exposure) as it is reflected back from the subject that is being illuminated by the flash, and then instruct the flash unit to stop emitted more power when enough light has been absorbed for a correct exposure. This process requires photo sensor(s) to be incorporate inside the camera body (behind the main reflex mirror) facing the film and such exposure 'measurement' will take place DURING an ongoing exposure process when the shutter curtain is opened to received light through the lens. Thus, that is why sometimes it is called 'TTL OTF' which means, "Through the lens, off the film plane" exposure control.

That was by far the most accurate method available until it was refined and improved by modern high-end Auto Focus SLR's, namely 'Multi-zones TTL-OTF' flash exposure control. (Nikon has a very sexy name for it called "3D Multi-Sensor Balanced Fill Flash with Monitor Pre flash", write that on the blackboard 500 times and you'll still be scratching your head...).

Olympus OM-2n.jpg

Most of you would think that was good solution to flash exposure, but the OM-2n has this form of exposure control extended to non-flash metering for normal photography as well ! That has made the Olympus OM-2n arguably the most sensitive light measuring SLR on the market - in auto mode, the metering range is a generous - EV 5.5 to EV18 ! which translate into 60 sec (1 minutes to 1/1,000 second (ASA 100, F1.2) at the lower end scale, and it worked impressively well.

Hey, from Nikon F3 to Pentax LX and now diverted to an OM-2n, are all these relative ?  Absolutely !  The Pentax LX metering system is trying to imitate the superiority of the system Olympus pioneered with an ingenious design that has successfully evaded the patented idea from Olympus and also posted an equally impressive metering range down to a low - 6.5 EV (125 sec at f1.2) to EV 20 (1/2000 sec). How does the Canon New F-1 fare ? A conservative EV-1 to EV 20 with ISO 100 film, f/1.4 lens. Now, how about the host ? Well, most disappointing among all - an even more conservative range of EV1-EV18, Err... so now you see, as far as method of exposure control used is concerned, the Nikon F3 has little advantage over the competition. The F3 has a similar concept but the difference is the way it handles the metering, since the metering cell(s) have moved from the finder to body. Pentax's method is the closest to Olympus, which also has its metering cell in the mirror box facing the shutter curtain for that incredible metering range it provides, by means of direct TTL OTF metering for both flash and ambient light. The LX uses one cell instead of Olympus's two pairs.

Canon New F-1.jpg (12k) Loading..

The Canon challenge was considered a little off the mainstream - but possessed its own uniqueness and could be very useful for some - it was mainly derived from technology of their older cameras such as Pellix and the original Canon F-1, whereby the metering cell is also in the camera body, just next to the focusing screen and used a deflected half split condenser lens built into each screen which diverted some percentage of the light from the focusing screen for metering. It's actually an elegant solution, but means a higher cost of manufacture for the focusing screen, and they all had to have it. 

This method has made the Canon the only pro-level camera that has three separate metering options in either Spot (3%), Partial (12%) or conventional centre-weighted average metering.

Canon Screen Info.jpg

Canon New F-1 uses its focusing screen to control the metering pattern of the camera. It can either be "A" (Centre-weighted Average), "P" (Partial 12% at centre) or "S" (Spot 3% at centre). A total of 32 types of screens are available. Some of the screen types are called "Laser Matte Screen" which are extraordinary bright, making the Nikon F3 a little inferior in this department with its heavily centre-weighted average metering system in the ratio of 80:20, which is a far cry from the conventional 60-40 that Nikon used on many of their earlier SLR bodies.

Great huh ? Unfortunately, a big drawback of such system employed in the New Canon F-1 is at the expense of TTL OTF metering which has slowly developed into a mainstream flash method used in virtually all midrange and high end cameras. Canon argued that the dropping of this feature was mainly due to the inaccuracy the technology provided during that era, anyway, they ate their words when their awesome Canon T-90 (designed by a German industrial designer, Luigi Colani) was introduced in 1986, incorporating all possible technologies one could possibly imagine and acquire during the mid-eighties. Naturally, it also has TTL flash exposure control when used with their first ever TTL flash, the Canon 300TL. The next setback is the focusing screen-controlled metering system, the Leica has a convenient lever that can easily activate changes from centre-weighted metering to spot with just a push of a finger tip, the Canon's metering system - although widely regarded as original and innovative, but to enjoy the real practical use of tri-metering patterns would require one to change the prism, lift the focusing screen and replace it with the metering system of choice, you desired - it would be too costly to maintain a series of screens of different functions and inconvenient to do so for any photographer in the field.

How do I find the metering system employed in Nikon F3 ? well.. I can live with it, the distribution from conventional 60-40 to a heavier weighing of 80-20 can even let you determine more precisely to which area you are giving the preference. I don't intend to be a slave to technology, but neither do I want to ignore the conveniences it provides - personally, I am very comfortable

F3-T w/SPC cell.jpg (8k) Loading..

Similar with the system used by Pentax LX's, Nikon F3 has only a sole SPD cell, laying at the base of the mirror box, facing backward to the shutter curtain - measuring light in TTL OTF mode for flash photography, but it is not designed as direct metering as with the Pentax LX sole sensor or the Olympus' to handle metering in ambient light.

<<--- A large Silicon Photo Diode (SPD) cell at the base of the mirror box.

Remember we mentioned Olympus OM-2n as having 4 metering cells and why would it require so many photocells ? Actually, the two pairs, one made out of Cds cells, positioned near the viewfinder eyepiece, is used for metering and provides constant changes of information in the viewfinder while another pair, 2 blue cells, reside one at each side at the top mirror box, facing backward to the shutter curtain for Direct metering once the shutter curtain is opened. Light is reflected from the exposed, shinny surface of the film onto the blue cells, and when a sufficient amount of light is received for a theoretical good exposure, the camera closes its shutter curtain.


Nikon F3's EXTRA-LARGE SPD cell is designed to handle two tasks. While the camera is not on TTL Flash operation, the cell measures the continuous inflowing light through the lens and provide camera the necessary info for its viewfinder display and store in the memory to instruct the camera uses the setting when you trip the shutter release button for an exposure.

<<--- Silicon Photo Diode (SPD) cell used by the Nikon FE2, FA and FG is rectangular shape and very much smaller (& cheap looking...) by comparison.

But since the SPD cell is facing backward, how the hell can the F3 measure the light source continuously ? Here is one area which all of us must give credit to the designers, the trick is the secondary mirror that lays at the back of the main reflex mirror.

The main components inside the mirror box are:

1) Mirror-box (Mirror-actuator and Mirror holder)
2) AI meter coupling
3) Electromagnetic-release
4) Lens manual stop-down and Mirror lockup
5) Mechanical shutter-release
6) Switches (Shutter SW, Safety SW and Memory SW)
7) Viewfinder
8) Electrical control system

We will just discuss where it relates and sections where it is easier to understand.


The main reflex mirror section is comprised of 50,000 tiny pinholes half mirror to allow light come in through the lens and divert them (around 8%) to the sub-mirror which is angled when the main reflex mirror is at downward position.

The The sub-mirror will in turn, condense and expand incoming light to a condenser lens, again before reaching the metering sensor. In the case of flash photography, the metering process is a DIRECT process - reading reflected light from the exposed film surface when the shutter curtain opens (In such case, both the main mirror and sub-mirror will flip upward* during a flash exposure - illus. in pink ). An air dampening system was also developed and incorporated in the mirror actuating unit to decrease mirror shock and muffle the sounds.


Nikon F3 has a semi-transparent section in its main reflex mirror - It has been designed and carefully altering the placement of these pinholes without affecting viewfinder brightness or causing split image darkening in the viewfinder for maximum comfort in focusing and picture composing.

* Note: Metering sub-mirror moves in strict accordance with the movement of the reflex-mirror and sticks to the mirror-holder at up position. Thus, image cutoff by smaller metering mirror will not occur.


Number of pinholes =

Shade area: Pinholes Half Mirror; Transmission =87; pinhole shape = oval

To avoid the metering cell for giving long time exposure when set in AUTO mode in dark surrounding or flash mode, the camera internal circuit will override the setting and set the camera to 1/80 sec sync mode when a dedicated TTL flash is turned on or used.

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Thus, when operating in flash mode, the sub-mirror remains only as a visual aid for the photographer to focus and for picture composing until you have turned the flash off.

<< ----
It has taken me a few frames to capture the sub-mirror by rotating the mirror lock up lever slowly, with the reflex mirror moving upwards, so does the metering mirror.

So, the catch is, Nikon F3 is not affected by any form of exterior attachments, such as any of the seven types of interchangeable viewfinders (Other than the Nikon F3 AF in 1983 which uses AF sensors inside its big and odd looking DX-1 Finder for autofocus detection) and deployment of TTL flash control was there to control and regulate the right amount of light when a TTL equipped speedlight or multiple units of TTL speedlights is/are used. Theoretically, as with ambient light metering, you can also safely claim, any form of finder attachment can be attached, and still be able to maintain good control of exposures with the camera's built-in metering for flash photography.

It may sound so common of a technology used in many of today's SLR cameras, but Nikon F3 was the first to employ such a system and proved to be revolutionary because it also resolved a big technological problem for the future generation of autofocus cameras, whereby autofocus CCD sensor(s) can be located at the same position for precise autofocus detection (Well, other than AF, it usually does spot metering as well and the rest of other metering methods such as centre weighted, multi-segments have shifted back to the finder section...).

Nikon F3H.jpg (11k) Loading.. newspdf

With an exception of the Nikon F3 High Speed Motor Drive camera, which uses a semi-silvered/transparent Pellicle Mirror which is fixed. The employment of such mirror design eliminates the necessity of the secondary mirror on normal F3 and thus, it can only use stopped down AE for exposure measurement ( MORE...)

The most significant advantage of shifting the SPD cell back to the camera body is, regardless of any mounting between camera, lens attachments, types of screens used, interchangeable viewfinders e.g. Waist-level finder, Action finder, etc., can be mounted and used irrespective of the exposure meter. The body and some of those system accessories can be down sized to enable them to be made smaller, lighter and possibly cheaper to produce as well. Metering will never be affected since TTL metering and the AE circuit have been relocated in the body and not affected by such attachments (they even designed an eyepiece shutter on the common viewfinders to block stray light entering from the viewfinder that may cause an exposure reading error).

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Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

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