Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

Nikon F.jpg (13k)I don't think anyone would challenge the fact that the Nikon F camera , first debuted in 1959, is a true classic camera of modern times. But most people who have become used to the convenience and handling ease that a modern SLR camera provides, find it almost impossible to go back to using a camera such as the Nikon F. The Nikon F, which requires removal of the film back to load a film cannister, is probably a feat only the die hard Leica M-Series fanatic will still endure and enjoy doing so.

But this is the first of a long series of successful Nikon SLR camera models, that were the fruitful thoughts in the Nippon Kokagu decision making room, that gave Contax and Leica a few decades of continual headaches during the '50 and '60. The last of the Nikon F camera models was marketed until 1974, and in fact, it was selling along with the Nikon F2, the second generation of the F series body, which has a much improved design and was a worthy upgrade of the original F. The Nikon F2 was first announced in September of 1971. Although many would have down-rated the Nikon F2 as just an upgrade model of the Nikon F, I would not agree entirely with such remarks because in many ways, the Nikon F2 is an entirely new system camera, which encompasses innovative thinking in its overall design. So, if the Nikon F was a legend in its own right, the Nikon F2 added a layer of practicality to it and spearheaded the F status to the next level of evolution the Professional SLR.


Personally, I would rate the seventies era of Nikon F2 'domination' of the professional market, as representing the best period of mechanical engineering in camera design. 

Nikon pushed the envelope of excellence to the absolute limit by testing and experimenting with various imaginable possibilities, while racing to the inevitable brick wall of limitation imposed by mechanical design.

With the Nikon F2, we have seen how a mechanical camera can be converted into a 'semi-automatic' shutter priority camera by just mounting an added on accessory, that can control aperture diaphragm via an aperture coupling. We have seen how a data back can be designed to permit hand written memos or notes, to be imprinting onto films. We have a marvellous mechanical shutter that can be made 'stepless' in its shutter speed settings, and how a mechanical camera could operate a precisely timed 10 second shutter speed control. We have witnessed how 14 frames per second is possible in a high speed motor drive, as well as how a gigantically oversize 750 exposure bulk film back could dwarf the industry standard 250 exposure film back !

You must be scratching your head at this point, because some of those innovations mentioned were not heard of on your top-of-the-line camera bodies until today, yah ? That was the Nikon F2 system philosophy, do it first, do it best. But after two generations of exploring every aspect of mechanical design, it was time to prepare the third generation of flagship camera model to ensure another decade of market supremacy amongst the most demanding users on this planet. Competitors such as Minolta, Canon, Olympus and Pentax were not sitting on their hands. Every player in the professional market place was heading to an inevitably destination, specifically automation. There were some great cameras introduced during that period. Other than the Nikon F2 bodies, I would single out the
Olympus OM-1, OM-2n of 1972 and 1975, Minolta's professional grade XK Series camera, Canon's all electronic Canon AE-1 of 1976, Pentax MX and ME of 1975 were the few most interesting (and proved to be most influential on future camera designs) models. Each had their respective strengths and features, which earned them the title of 'classic' on their own merit.

But if we take a bird's eye view and examine the development of all of these classic bodies, more than half were actually bodies with automatic exposure control. The Canon AE-1, with a cleverly stealth plastic molded injected body shell and a sole automated exposure control (Shutter priority AE), was a tremendous commercial success with well over 5 million units being sold worldwide ! I do not think Nikon lacked vision because, they did have their own automatic exposure camera as early as 1972, with the electronic
Nikkormat EL ( Even the revolutionary Olympus OM2 which brought us the TTL OTF flash exposure control technology was only marketed in early 1975 ! ). And in fact, you can even safely claim Nikon was one of the few pioneering front runners in the AE territory of camera design.

Personally, other than the Olympus OM2, which was a different a breed of SLR camera all together, I would think the top range camera model that posed the biggest threat to Nikon supremacy in the seventies was the Minolta XK, rather than the
original Canon F-1 camera. Canon's F-1 was the first serious effort by Canon to provide a professional system SLR camera to the market and was essentially a learning experience for Canon. The XK (Or called "XM", "X1-1 in US and Pacific Oceania) was a full fledged professional grade SLR system camera with its own system accessories that included many of the 'high-end' features one would expect from a top level professional SLR camera, such as interchangeable finders, focusing screens, motor drive(s) and flash system. But there was more, Minolta incorporated an auto exposure system using aperture priority AE couples, with full manual exposure control, into the XK, once thought of as an off the main stream, 'amateuristic' feature. The XK has an electronically controlled titanium focal-plane shutter and 2 mechanically controlled settings (Mechanical settings: X (1/100th sec.) and B). Electronic speeds: 1/2000th sec to 16 seconds in steps, 8 to 1/2000th second stepless.

Huh ? You must be thinking I am joking. No, I am not - Do you want more ? The XK even has a built-in Auto "Senswitch'' to keep finder power on while the camera is held in usual operation (alternate switch located on Auto Electro Finder - both will activate the finder exposure meter by just gripping it harder. Other noteworthy features are mirror lockup, battery checker, double exposures etc..

But what have all these matters to do with Nikon ? Just compare the basic specification sheet of the Nikon F2 with the XK and the potential of an auto exposure camera becomes apparent. The route to automation was inevitable. The only real question was whether Nikon would actually make the leap or wait for the competition to step out on the bleeding edge. The Olympus OM-2n in 1975, the AE-1 in 1976, the multiple-exposure modes Minolta XD-7 and the Canon A-1 in 1977, all forced their respective companies down a clear path of evolution for future SLR camera designs.

Did Nikon wait ? Luckily, No. The first prototype for the Nikon F3 was already in its infancy as early as 1974, barely three years after the debut of the Nikon F2. The F3 couldn't cast off the strong resemblance to the Nikon F2.

F3 prototype.jpg

But the interesting aspect of the prototype model was the shutter speed dial near the Photomic finder, which has an aperture-priority auto exposure function and shutter settings from 1/2000 sec to 8 sec as with the current Nikon F3, indicated on the shutter speed dial. Its shutter speed dial has an "A" mode.

See HIURA Shinsaku's Rare Nikon Bodies site.

While other parts were similar to the Nikon F2. Basically, we see little innovation in the early prototype and it looked more like a F2XXX rather than a new system camera design.

Obviously, with the data shown on the prototype, the camera must have been developed with an electronically controlled (Or hybrid) shutter, it has an interchangeable finder system as with the earlier F and F2, with a possible AE finder and a hybrid design like those found on the New Canon F-1 or the Pentax LX that can still work even without batteries installed or power has been depleted.

F3protodial.jpg (8k)

The original concept of the proposed F3 design was still retaining the "Meter-in-finder" concept, where the finder remains as the command centre for exposure control. (After all, Nikon has enough experience with their EE aperture control Unit (DS-1, 2, 11 and DS-12) which can transform the mechanical F2 bodies into shutter priority models). Anyway, development of this design was halted and stopped halfway as the Nikon designers were looking for a better solution, such as incorporating a built-in meter housed within the camera body as opposed to metered prism design (Probably the Olympus OM-2 has inspired them to do so..).

Olympus OM-2 uses four photo cells, one pair each for ambient light metering near the eyepiece for exposure data display and another pair housed within the mirror box dedicated for both TTL-OTF (through the lens, off the film plane) ambient and also for flash exposure metering. This may sound simple, but until now, Olympus pioneered metering systems, were roughly copied by many in their flash exposure control technology, while NONE (Only Pentax LX of 1980 came close to imitate) had matched the ability of Olympus's vastly superior OTF metering, even until today (Probably to avoid patent claims, but I can not be sure how Nikon and Pentax could get away from Olympus's patented technologies, but, to be fair, I am not familiar with the Olympus patents... ).

Would the possible "F2 or F3 w/AE Photomic Finder" body have a hybrid shutter design ? Quite possible. If Nikon stays on that course, the new camera would have been deigned with interchangeable finders, screens and probably an aperture priority type auto exposure on the camera body with precise regulated timing at lower shutter speed settings. Operative at higher shutter speeds, even without any battery installed, and maybe with an improved EE coupling device that enabled the new camera to perform both shutter and aperture priority automation with an all mechanical body structure. Sounds familiar ? Yeap, that is what you can find in a
New Canon F-1, their second professional system SLR camera. The possible Nikon F2/3 with AE finder could be in big trouble as the Canon camera has more to offer in its metering options (Three patterns, spot, partial and centre-weighted average). But there is a distinctive advantage in the Canon FD mount, as it may excel in shutter priority AE as compared with the limitation imposed on the Nikkor F-mount, which has shown some sign of age with its physical limitation in an automated world of camera hardware.

Nikon introduced a new series of SLR bodies with an updated open aperture metering in 1977 which are commonly referred as "AI" that stands for "Automatic Maximum Aperture Indexing". The two non-AI Nikon F2 bodies, the F2S and F2SB, were being introduced with the new DP-11 and DP-12 finders as F2 A and F2AS. There were three other mid range compact Nikons, two were the Nikkormat, the FT-3 and an electronic Nikon EL-2 (The EL-2 was the first Nikkormat that used the universal name "Nikon"). The compact Nikon FM which was to replaced the bulkier Nikkormat was also among the first batch of AI-Nikon bodies.

F3 prototype.jpg (12k)

During the same year, and could have been gone through many debates, arguments, numerous meetings and so forth, the second prototype of the F3 camera was realized. The concept and design still came with a heavy "Nikon" feel, blending mid way between the professional oriented F2 and the more compact sized FM. Main technical highlights were exposure control and metering system used.

See HIURA Shinsaku's Rare Nikon Bodies site.

The design of incorporating the metering cell into the camera body has established a revolutionary concept of enabling a light transmitting pin-hole-reflex mirror, to handle exposure and metering, all in a single package. Earlier specifications drawn on the extended shutter speed range was retained.


Based on this picture extracted from Hiura's site, the working prototype model shown signs of heavy use, perhaps it went through some demanding reliability tests conducted by Nikon. The shutter release button has the familiar centred cable release socket as with the eventual F3 model in 1980.

Also note the frame counter is a Nikkormat FT series type, with a large circular window and magnification in the centre. The multiple exposure lever just beside the film advance lever is also quite large as compared with the final release version of the F3. The Orange button beneath the Mirror Lock up button/lever was a mysterious one and I am not certain what that was. The proprietary accessory hot shoe design has two flash contacts in the front portion which may indicate there was still uncertainty as to whether TTL flash exposure metering should be incorporated into the camera at that stage.

I didn't realise earlier, that there is a new site for Nikon, Japan, which has an excellent article portraying some fine historical background written by Mr Tateno, Yokoyuri relating to the development of Nikon cameras. I have not been to the Nikon official site for quite a while (most recent surf was to download the twenty year's late AS-17 image and I was happy to notice Nikon is putting some real content within the site.

F3mockups.jpg (11k) Loading...

One of the early mockup design of the Nikon F3 scanned by: Ted Wengelaar

With the Nikon F3 shaping up there was a probability that even the most devoted users might feel defencive to the drastic change, from mechanical to automation, in a flagship model from the brand that was synonymous with mechanical excellence, a rich tradition of colourful culture and eventful background . If one wishes to label automation as the future, certainly the traditional appearance displayed by the Nikon prototype model(s) didn't portray the hi-tech forerunner message well, with its relatively conservative look, but very functional camera design. Basically, Nikon lacked a creative industrial design for the new camera, probably after two decades of Nikon F and F2, it was hard to breakout from traditions. Further, AE cameras such as the Canon A-1 were making waves in the photographic world with advanced and modern exterior appearances, yet packed with so many incredible functional features. Nikon may have realized the handicap their internal design team was facing, and that could explain why they turned to Industrial designers such as Giorgetto Giugiaro of Giugiaro Design, Italy.

I am not sure how much Giorgetto Giugiaro's design impacted the technical design specifications of the proposed F3, but the Italian industrial designer has helped to remould Nikon's image and given a few lessons to Japanese designers in the process as well as some reasons to think about how to handle and package a world class product. Good industrial design teaches us that it is possible to achieve a balance between style, quality, practicality and performance. The Nikon F3 has a strong modern outline in its styling, the masterly stroke of adding a red line found originally on the F3, has evolved into many forms over the subsequent decades and has become a trademark of Nikon SLR cameras. The best view of the Nikon F3 is when it is mounted on the MD-4, almost like a classic sculpture that originated from a single piece of solid steel. It portrays elegance, high fashion, and a raw look of ruggedness, longevity and absolute confidence.

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Modern Classic SLRs Series :
Nikon F3 - History & Background

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