Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

Many photographers may ask this question, why would someone always think a pro-level camera is the best ? Hard to answer, usually they are the most expensive, with the most extensive comes compatibility with system components and accessories - usually used the best materials to ensure it breezes through trouble-free operations for a product cycle of 8-10 years. They have service maintenance, continual parts supply 10 years after discontinuation, used or resale value is higher and buyers are still a plenty for easy disposal. Although economists may disagree, most of these units can fetch even one time to two higher in resale price than original sum that you have paid for them, depends on conditions and how scarce the numbers being produced.

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From mechanical to simple application of electronic, this has evolved into a high tech war among manufacturers... cameras are not the same anymore.

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What the heck are these ? It is an inside view of a typical high end AF SLR of modern times. The left is the mirror box, picture below is the mother board of the Nikon's current flagship model, Nikon F5.

One of the many convincing factors older Nikon cameras can be a better investment is its reliability. Unlike an all mechanical camera body - How to define reliability in an automatic camera ? During assembly, each component of a Nikon F3 is tested before and after it's installed.


To insure the durability of the Nikon F3 under actual operating conditions, cameras are subjected to a battery of tests as they come off the assembly line. An F3 passes the brutal vibration test, so you don't have to worry about mounting screws or assemblies coming loose when it's used normally. It survives the jarring shock test, with a 90 G impact acceleration, so it will survive in any camera bag When it passes the performance test, simulating more than 150,000 shutter firings, you know it will perform for years. These tests, along with many other vigorous tests including a 20000 lux light box for light-leak test, simulated high humidity test and extreme temperature test, to ensure F3 can withstand heavy duty daily use and abuse given to it by all types of professionals.

Most of all, most manufacturers would put "protect the 'brain' first" on their priority list.

The backbone of a Nikon F3 is a two-piece, die-cast chassis made of a special, lightweight but high strength metal alloy. For greater protection from impact related malfunctions, the microelectronic circuitry is encased within the chassis.


Data processing is handled by a staggering array of micro electronic components, including six ICs and LSIs, a Nikon-designed functional resistance element (FRE), one silicon photodiode (SPD), a quartz oscillator, plus the LCD. All these electronic components have been integrated onto a single flexible printed circuit (FPC) board to provide correct exposure in wide range of picture-taking situation. To enhance further with reliability, the FPC which made of two copper foil sheets separated by three layers of resin and has a thickness of 0.2mm. Essential elements such as those in FRE were even gold plated for maximum conductivity, stability and performance.

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Interesting sequence of the assembling process for Nikon F3.

Other than the clever use of LCD which has excellent power saving properties, the use of three hybrid Integrated Circuits (auto, quartz and LCD control IC modules) not only reduces electrical consumption, but also saves space and contributes greatly to reliable performance. In fact, Ultra-Micro Nikkor lenses are used to expose the intricate patterns found in the IC chips for the highest resolution obtainable. These chips are then mounted on a substrate and encased in epoxy to totally seal them against the elements. And they are soldered together with infrared technology developed for NASA.


NASA ? Yes. Nikon was commissioned by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to produce a more user friendly automatic camera to be used by heavily geared and gloved astronauts and the development of a Nikon F3 for NASA was underway at the same time as the development for the F3.

| Compared the special NASA-spec Nikon F3 at left with a rare view of NASA-spec Nikon F Photomic FTn, 1971 that went orbiting with Apollo 15 Space Mission |

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All these essential electrical components form the backbone of Nikon F3 and are protected in the M-1 or T-72 Russian battle tank-liked all metal structure (Copper Selenium Aluminum Alloy - which has properties of very high tensile strength approx. 33.5 kg/m (475.5 Ib/in) plus corrosive resistant - this has been Nikon's choice of material for cameras since the F series began, but I remember those days, it wasn't mentioned as aluminium alloy, just Copper Selenium...).



Comparing the FM2: The two-pieces FM2(n) chassis is made out of an exceptionally strong and corrosion resistant Copper Selenium aluminium alloy which has a tensile strength of fm2chassis (33.5kg/mm2).

Note: I am not an engineer, my MCLau is one. However, he commented: "... Tensile strength of tensile strength seems low to me, Steel has a tensile strength of 40,000 lb/in2....". IS there anyone out there who can comment further ? The first input:

Subject: Tensile strength of FM2
From: "Ho, Wai-Ming" <>
To: <>
Cc: <>

hi, i m not a materials engineer but my other engineering training teaches me that 475lbs/in2 alone doesn't say a lot about an alloy. some aluminium alloys of 457lbs/in2 are used in master brake cylinders and engine valves. just remember that pure strength is useless if it rust...and too heavy. it only needs enough of it to protect from occasional accidental abuse. it is not suppose to be drop from the top of KLCC :o) btw, good engineering is about designing for equivalent failure limits for all existing constraints. after all, it's the weakest link that breaks first. the rest is irrelevant. just like having the best shark fin cooked in a soap that's too salty. best regards, wai ming

ps: 475 lb/in2 = 0.335 kg/mm2, not 33.5 kg/mm2 on the web. perhaps you meant 33.5 kg/cm2 ?
pps: interesting way of presenting your web. effective psychological filtering.


Thickness of body walls is minimum 1.4 mm and portion near the lens mount is a generous 2mm thick ! Further, the F-bayonet mount section is made of specially hardened stainless steel, as a flagship model, you have to imagine what need to support all those famed Nikkor Lenses super-teles or tele-zooms.

Major seals and dials have moisture resistant gaskets to prevent possible leakage in high humidity environment - the finder has an additional improved rubber sealing beginning with the High Eyepoint finder that was introduced a year and a half later after the official debut.

Further, a thin insulation epoxy material was coated on major circuits board. Extensive drop/shock test driven in the lab to test its stability and resistant to such harsh treatments.


f3 worn
One of the few versions available for Nikon F3 is a discontinued F3-T, which uses one of the best known and strongest metal for many high grade industrial applications such as jet engines, missiles etc. with 99.6 % pure Titanium for its top, bottom plate, viewfinder housing and even the film back.

Note: Titanium, one of the strongest known metal on earth yet it weighs less than steel, ranks high on the list of the most effective elements for industrial purposes. Certainly few other metals stand up so well to such extremes of stress, corrosion and heat. But since shaping of this metal is difficult and expensive, usually the most meticulous manufacturers deem the effort worthwhile. Shown above was the highly sought after early version of the Nikon F3T in raw titanium finish as coating on exterior. It was replaced by a black paint coated version in 1984.

Other than the exterior, other requirements such as long lasting trouble-free shutter mechanism and protection against environmental hazards, are the backbone of an electronic camera, including protection against heat, cold, humidity and even electrical noise or magnetic interference.


<<<--- Nikon F3's FRE (Functional Resistance Element) (CLICK HERE for a section enlarged view). That is how Binary code are fed, it converts the values of ISO film speed, aperture, exposure compensation into single input..

It is a silicon sealed metallic film resistor. Gold plated alloy conductive tabs and noise brushes were used to ensure maximum accuracy in conductivity. It is housed under the film rewind knob, providing the input of essential data, like film speed, aperture, shutter speed in use etc. A cracked FRE is one of the most common causes of erroneous metering or exposure. These sensitive electronics must have proper shielding from external changes in temperature and humidity. Important components inside the F3 have been made extra durable by the use of gold alloy and other precious metals in its connecting tapes and noise-free brushes to enhance its reliability.

Note: Maximum aperture compensation system for Nikon F3 is the same as that of Nikon FE and FM. The resistance value of FRE remains unchanged between F/1.4 and maximum aperture compensating position (F/1.6). The value changes immediately when the aperture ring is rotated from F/1.6 toward the minimum aperture.

Last and not least, Nikon has even designed the F3 so that it can still function (However, there is only one mechanical speed of approx. 1/60 sec available) even if the camera battery has been depleted or fails to provide power to the camera, in the extremes of temperature changes. During the last twenty years, I have not seen a heavily deformed body of a Nikon F3, but rather the viewfinder could be the weakest link among the many components.


A friend of mine, who used to be the head of the servicing unit in Nikon's, local distributor acknowledged once to me, that during his first 6 years at the centre, other than mishandling or accidental damages, he has not seen any F3 came back to service which arose from internal circuitry problem. Well, at least not the case of a recent visit, I have seen a total disassembly process for a newly introduced high tech AF body...

<<< -- Quality materials for its components are used throughout.

During those days, every introduction of a new camera body from a major camera manufacturer such as Nikon could be regarded as a big event. Most of the time, features found in those bodies were carefully selected, tested and usually quite time tested or proved. The camera shutter - easily the most delicate and important component in a SLR camera was typically given the most attention. ALL Nikon midrange camera bodies such as Nikkormat, FM, FM2, FM-2n, FE, FE-2, FA (with the exception of EM, FG, FG-20, F301, FM-10 and FE-10 which I am not sure what is the factory-set standard at Nikon for reliability) have a factory set standard minimum of 50,000 exposure cycles. The original FM-2, FE2 and FA with Titanium Honeycomb Pattern shutter unit has an ambitious target even higher than 100,000 !

The professional F series models, being the flagship carrier - has an even higher target minimum of 150,000 exposure cycles. All the manual focus F series models are using titanium as the primary choice of material for the shutter curtain. As I said, if we divide 150,000 by an average of 36 exposures/roll, it is an astonishing figure of 3,300 + film rolls before the shutter should call for a servicing.

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| Canon EOS-1, 1989 - 50,000 exposure cycles |

If you don't think that was great, let us compared how a major competition such as Canon SLR bodies go - The New Canon F-1 has a factory aimed target of maintaining 100,000 exposure cycles without breaking down, the original EOS-1 in 1989 has a poor 50,000 cycles target, the much improved EOS-1n in 1994 has sprung back to the respectable figure of 100,000 exposure cycles and the new EOS-1v finally matches the 150,000 exposures cycles. The 150,000 exposure cycles is the target that all Nikon F series models have been designed - a clear marked superiority of Nikon made bodies over many of its competing models and explains why they usually fetch a premium over others.

The Nikon F3 could possibly be the last F-series model that uses titanium made horizontally travelled focal plane shutter curtain (Unless there are breakthroughs in the future, which I don't totally write off after seeing the FP sync flash was given a rebirth that permits SLR to go 1/4000 sec with flash !). Thus, this section should also be given some attention. The F3 uses a 'conventional 'double-roller focal plane shutter, whose curtains are made of titanium. Shutter-speed control is set electronically at the automatic/manual setting from Bulb to 1/2000 sec. But it is purely mechanical at the manual setting of 1/2000 sec. and 'T' (stands for "Time" which means extra-long time exposure) operation. Additionally, the second shutter release button is provided for the mechanical release at a speed of 1/55 sec. or at 1/60 sec closest to the setting when the battery's power is exhausted. Although considered more superior in reliability and performs extremely stable under wide range of environmental changes, there is one setback in such design: Since it is a horizontal travelled curtain which has a longer travelling time than vertical across a 24mm x 36mm film format and thus limiting its maximum synchronization speed. The F3 has a below average speed of merely 1/80 sec maximum achievable sync speed - slight improvement over the 1/60 sec of the Nikon F, but stays at par with the F2. So you can say other than electro-magnetic shutter release system, this department has not been improved upon much.

Anyway, this is not a proprietary problem solely faced by Nikon, but rather a physical designing handicap facing by all camera manufacturers. Just for a comparison, among four top rated professional camera models available during the '80, Pentax LX's has a slightly slower 1/75 sec maximum sync speed, Canon's New F-1 was marginally higher at 1/90 sec and Contax RTS II's 1/60 sec versus Nikon F3's 1/80 sec. - ALL these four top models share similarity in which tough horizontal travelled titanium foil was used for the shutter curtain design, but none of them have a breakthrough in cracking the highest sync speed of 1/125 sec.
- a common sync speed even achievable by a Nikkormat FTn which uses vertical traveled Copal Square curtain design. However, Nikon F3 has one area that is still considered inferior on its spec sheet in comparison. Although no one would expect the Nikon F3 will go electronic in such a direct form from earlier successes of mechanical F2s, competitors all concluded the best approach would be a hybrid shutter design, thus, both Pentax and Canon New F-1 have adopted such a direction and these are the only two pro-level system SLRs that have a wider range of mechanical shutter speeds that also work without any power installed in the camera as opposed to Nikon F3's sole mechanical speed of 1/60 sec. The Pentax LX will operate at 1/75 sec and above while the Canon New F-1 will remain operative from 1/125 sec to 1/2000 sec. in addition to 1/90 sec and in "B" bulb mode mechanically. This has made the Nikon F3 pale in comparison. But Nikon seems undisturbed and quite confident with accompanying MD-4 that can power up the camera, power efficiency will not be an issue, well, I have to admit they are right. Anyway, no one seemed to be concerned and that could be the main reason why the next generation F series model, Nikon F4, that followed, omitted that feature.

Well, back to the F3 shutter mechanism. To enhance reliability and facilitate easy installation or replacement, all parts of the shutter mechanism are installed into a complete sub assembly. The unit can be removed alone from the camera body and directly brought under repairs and adjustments.

The performance of the mechanism has been designed to enhance its reliability by the following characters:

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1) Cocking the shutter by the incomplete gear separates the shutter mechanism from the film-advance mechanism at the completion of shutter cocking cycle. Thus, the shutter curtain's travel does not shock the film-advance mechanism. 2) The time of the shutter curtains travel across the aperture is decelerated to approx. 12ms (the F2 is specified as approx. 10ms). It has the advantage of stabilizing the travel at higher shutter-speed release, improving the durability of curtains and reducing the torque of film-advance. 3) The shutter control mechanism provides a stable start-timing of shutter curtains travel at the setting of 1/2000 sec.

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Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

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