Classic Cameras: The Nikon FM3a

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Is it possible that one of the greatest mechanical film cameras of all time was born in the Digital Age? Yep. The year was 2001, and the photography world was in the semi-early throes of the digital revolution. The Nikon D1 was released in 1999 and the D1X was already in the stores when a manual focus mechanical film camera appeared on the shelf next to it in camera shops around the world. The Nikon FM3a looked like an antique on the store shelves next to the monstrous D1X digital flagship, fully battery powered autofocus film cameras like the F5 and F100, as well as dozens of digital point-and-shoot cameras, with their garish look-at-me-I-am-a-4MP-camera stickers.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

The Nikon FM3a

What was this olden-looking new camera? Did Nikon discover the retro design trend years before the rest of the world? Was it digital? Was this camera built to stop the digital wave rocking the photo world?

The Nikon FM3a is the final edition of the incredibly successful semi-professional family of Nikon film cameras that lived beneath the fully-pro F models. The Nikon FM, FM2, FM2N, FA, and FE2 had been around for decades and had developed a reputation for their ruggedness and reliability. With the size and complexity of the Nikon F cameras, especially the F4 and F5, the small and reliable cameras of the semi-pro line were the favorites of many working pros as both primary and back-up cameras. For proof of this, look no further than Steve McCurry’s über-famous “Afghan Girl” photograph—captured on Kodachrome 64 slide film traveling through a Nikon FM2.

Meanwhile, the new electronic-dependent film cameras of that era were packing some very interesting technology that we now take completely for granted—autofocus, automatic exposure, matrix metering, etc. As revolutionary as these electronic assists were, the cameras sporting this infant technology were not generally known for their reliability. Because of this, pros were dabbling in the electronic camera world, but there was still a market for mechanical cameras right up to the moment that the waters began to change on the digital tide. The FM3a was, basically, a combination of the very best features of the FM2/FM2N and FE2 cameras. Nikon’s idea, from the outset, was to make the ultimate mechanical film camera while sprinkling in some very nice-to-have electronic features—all the while maintaining its pedigree of serious mechanical reliability and ruggedness. Today, the FM3a gets internet kudos like: “A perfect film SLR,” “My Desert Island Camera,” “The Last Great Mechanical SLR,” and “A Nearly Perfect SLR.” Remember, there wasn’t much of an Internet when this camera came out.

Mechanically, the FM3a represents the pinnacle of manual camera technology that Nikon had to offer. I won’t bore you with the details, but this camera is at least as reliable as its workhorse FM2 predecessor. A full range of shutter speeds is available, up to 1/4000 of a second—all controlled mechanically. That shutter speed is firmly in rarified air when it comes to mechanical cameras. This camera does not need electricity to operate. It is fully manual and mechanical. If you are going out into the bush for years and you need to come back with photos taken on the last day of a two-year adventure, all you need to bring is your FM3a and enough rolls of film. Don’t worry about packing a charger and extra batteries.

But wait. There is a little round cover on the bottom for a compartment that accepts two LR44 batteries. Didn’t we just say that you don’t need batteries? You don’t. The camera works without batteries, but, if you put two small watch batteries inside, you not only get a built-in light meter, you also get an electronically controlled shutter that allows for aperture priority shooting (you set the aperture and the camera’s electronic brain automatically selects the correct shutter speed for a balanced exposure), exposure lock, through-the-lens (TTL) flash compensation, and DX film coding for automatic ISO/ASA selection.

These electronic functions might seem trivial in today’s digital world and, even in 2001, they were not cutting edge at all, but they should not be taken for granted when discussed in conjunction with the FM3a—especially in reference to its hybrid shutter system, which remains a technological marvel.

The FM3a looks classic, but the modern version of the Nikon logo indicates that there is some tech inside: aperture priority shooting, DX coding, flash compensation, and more.

As detailed above, the camera does not need batteries to operate but, when powered, it has an electronically controlled shutter that allows for aperture priority shooting. The shutter system is, I believe, the only one of its kind that allows both this electronic operation, as well as mechanical operation through the entire range of the camera’s shutter speeds. This is rare, if not unique, in the world of manual cameras. The Leica M7 is a mechanical masterpiece of a camera that has aperture priority capabilities, but if you remove the batteries, you only have two shutter speeds available to use—not the full range. Shooting at 1/4000 of a second when your FM3a batteries die? You can keep on shooting at 1/4000 of a second until you exhaust the world of 35mm film. (Try using your digital camera without batteries!)

Shooting with the FM3a

The FM3a experience is no different than that of another mechanical camera with a built-in light meter. Load the film, cock the film advance, focus using the split prism focus screen, set your aperture, set your shutter speed while looking at the exposure meter in the left side of the viewfinder, and release the shutter. Rinse and repeat.

When shooting digitally, I generally use aperture priority, so it is a very nice luxury to have an aperture-priority option on an otherwise mechanical film camera like the FM3a. However, I don’t have the fall-back of the camera switching to electronic shutter and going up to 1/32,000 of a second when it is bright out and my lens is wide open! You still must mind the camera’s ancient-like limitations and keep an eye on the meter while shooting, to avoid overexposures.

The exposure lock function is another great battery-powered feature that I use frequently when shooting “modern” cameras. Again, it is more than a nicety to be able to meter manually for the shadows by pointing the camera at a dark area of the frame, lock exposure, recompose, and then shoot.

One of the magic parts of the FM3a experience is that the electronic benefits bestowed upon the camera do not, in any way, detract from the manual photography experience. The camera looks, feels, and operates just like its older sibling, the FM2—it just has a few well-hidden bells and whistles at your disposal, if you want them.

If you want to experience manual film SLR magic, the FM3a is a great way to do it. There are less expensive and more traditional options—this camera has the modern italicized Nikon logo on the prism to let you know it is not an antique. But, if you want the latest and greatest from a lineage of great cameras, and a camera built to last a lifetime—not just until the next good sensor arrives—the FM3a is just the ticket.

A Short Life

The FM3a was only in production for 5 years; ending in 2006. Compared to the lifespan of other manual cameras, the FM3a’s production run is relatively short and its arrival into a decidedly digital market makes the FM3a a bit of an anachronism. However, none of that diminishes the capabilities or mechanical perfection of the camera.

For more information on the FM3a’s development and technology, please head to Nikon’s FM3a page.

Images: Downtown Brooklyn

The New York City borough of Brooklyn is home to more than 2.6 million people and, if it was its own city, it would be the fourth largest city in the country, by population. As it stands, it is just one part of New York City.

In the 1990s, there was a building boom across the Hudson River, in New Jersey. Watching more than 50,000 jobs and $150 million in revenue (2003 numbers) leave New York City by ferry, train, and automobile, to places like Jersey City, the city of New York has been trying to draw professionals and residents back to the boroughs of New York through vertical growth and expansion.

Downtown Brooklyn is one of those places that is exploding with development to lure people back into the city. A couple of rolls of film through the Nikon FM3a gives you just a tiny glimpse of the growth of the Downtown Brooklyn area that is expanding with 4.5 million square feet of office space, 700,000 square feet of new retail space, nearly 20,000 new jobs, 60,000 square feet of public spaces, and thousands of new residents. Downtown Brooklyn is hot!

13 Comments

Hi Todd,

Great article!!  I have been eyeing an FM3a for quite some time.  Over the last couple of years I have been shooting with a Leica MP (Mechanical Perfection), which is similar to the FM3a in that the battery is only used for exposure metering; without the battery it just becomes a Leica M-A.  A couple of years ago I was shooting a sunset in San Diego with Ektar 100.  Even at f/22, I needed faster than 1/1,000 of a second shutter speed (I didn't have any ND filters with me on this trip).  I could have definitely used the 1/4,000 of a second of the FM3a!!

Thanks to your article, my next challenges are where to get an FM3a and color: black vs chrome...

Hi Gerald,

Thanks for the compliment on the article! I am glad you enjoyed it! Hold on to that MP! Great camera!

I read somewhere that the black version is more valuable than the silver, but I haven't really noticed that on the second-hand market.

I have a silver Fujifilm X-T3 that I like, but I kind of wish it was black to match my other cameras.

#firstworldproblems...#decisionsdecisions :)

Hi Todd,

You are correct; the black camera grows on you.  Also regarding the X-T3, aging eyes (such as mine) have an easier time reading the small white text on a black background (for example on the metering dial and drive dial) easier than black text on a silver background. Yes, first world problems...

Yep, I guess my X-T4 will be black...and then the X-T3 will sit on the shelf as a backup and I will wish the X-T4 was silver, too. Ugh.

Maybe Fujifilm should embrace the color palette of the Ford Model T.

Interesting that you mention the markings. Even though you can see the settings on the screen or EVF, I like seeing them, especially at night, without looking at a bright glowing screen. I actually bought some glow-in-the-dark paint and painted the markings on an old broken film camera as a test. It was semi-successful, but I didn't end up painting my Fujifilm cameras.

Great article, and I love this camera.

However, I have to question calling this a "classic". As you stated in the article, this camera was released in 2001. I would hardly consider a camera with computer controlled matrix metering and a hybrid shutter that was release < 20 years ago, "classic".

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the kind words on the article.

We may be premature—don't most states require cars to be at least 20 years old before you get "classic" tags?

I think it might be safe to say that any camera that shoot's film these days is eligible for the "classic" designation. Maybe?

I am happy to open this up to debate! Hopefully others will chime in!

Thanks for reading Explora! I am glad you enjoyed the article!

I have a lot of cameras but the FM3A is by far my favorite and I use it often. I have no build or quality issues but I do have two engineering gripes. One is the camera eats up the small battery power. When the battery power falls just a little low it won't work in aperture auto. The shutter will open and stay open; to close it you have to move the knob off A to a manual setting. I have two of these and they both act the same. I now loosen the battery holder when putting the camera away.

The other annoying thing is (especially indoors or in low light) you want to load and advance to frame one in a manual shutter speed so the auto mode don't hold the shutter open. No big deal as long as you REMEMBER to put it back to A when intending to shoot in auto. Dopey me has messed up the occasional poll because I did not realize the camera was at 1/4000 because I forgot to put it back on A. This did not happen on the Nikon F3 because that camera would fire at 1/90 second when loading until the counter reached 1, (yes I said 1/90 of a second). So you did not have to worry about putting the knob back to A.

But this is as close to perfect as a camera gets and good clean used ones sell at high prices. 

Thanks for your tips, Carlo! Good stuff!

Interesting quirks you have discovered. Do you find that a lens cap over the lens helps with battery life?

Thanks for stopping by!

Nice writeup on one of my favorite cameras! BTW, I think you meant to use the word "throes"

Hi William,

Thanks for the kind words and the correction! If you saw my high school and college English grades, you would be surprised any of what I write is legible. Thankfully we have a Copy Editor!

Thanks for reading Explora!

As the person who processes an estimated 1.8 million words of copy here per year--solo--I thank you for catching this. In fact, if we were hiring, I'd ask you to come to B&H and be my assistant! 

Love that camera especially for it's compactness and ease of use. Build quality is somewhat wanting though. Nice photos btw but you definitely need to get out of Brooklyn for some exploration though.

Thanks for the props on the images, Jonathan!

Have you had issues with the build quality? I got my used and it has some dents in it, but works great.

More Brooklyn photos (from other neighborhoods) coming to a B&H blog near you soon!

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