The Nikon FM3a
is the last of the 35mm totally manual SLRs, (of course you had Leica,…another digital holdout), and one of the last film cameras released in the 21st century,… other than the F6. (F3a-2001, F6-2004). However, it was totally manual. Why did Nikon do that at the start of the digital era? Of course, the D1, Nikon’s foray into digital, was $5500 and 2.75MP. Kind of a joke by today’s standards. And not a serious contender to film yet. Nevertheless, Nikon thought it prudent to keep a toe in the waters of film in the 21st century.
But all manual? Well, kudos to Nikon. Maybe it was just a matter of Japanese pride. Without a true manual camera in the stable, Hari Kari was the only alternative! ( I made up that part )
Nikon FM3a – Precision, Beauty
Until the introduction of the Nikkormat EL in 1972, knowing what you were doing,…or at least carrying around a light meter,…was how a “real man” took photographs. (or so I’m told) But of course, the new auto cameras required a circuit board. Which required a battery. In the days of manually selecting the aperture and shutter speed to take a photograph, it somehow was imagined as more appealing on a base, he-man level. Those were the days of doing a wedding, and getting lots of respect, and no stinking cell phones in your face. Or so I’m told, since I was never a wedding photographer.
In fact, Nikon’s SLR cameras had a core philosophy of being manual exposure cameras until 1972 and later. but the true love of “all manual” never really left the true Nikon aficionados. While Minolta went whole hearted into the eye control thingie, and Canon actually changed lens mounts, Nikon only got on board when they thought it was a truly necessary endeavor. Hence, die hard Nikon fanboys never left the stable. When temperatures dropped or you couldn’t easily find a battery, (as opposed to today), manual controlled cameras were the pinnacle of getting the job done.
The Writing On the Wall
But users did want, and clamor for, aperture-priority modes with a mechanically controlled shutter. (and no battery) Although some cameras could still operate with a depleted battery. But only at 1/90 of a second shutter speed.
The FM3A used such a system. In essence, it had the first hybrid shutter system, and also maintained its’ original exposure needle in the viewfinder. It was about $850-$900 at the time. Compared to the Nikon F5, about $2000 – $2100,….or the new digital D1, at $5500,…I guess it was relatively cheap. Actually, they’ve gone up in price,…so I guess they were a good investment. (it may just be the changing exchange rate or inflation) Either way, they are still coveted.
Remember that the digitization of all that was photographic was in full gear. Camera companies were frothing at the mouth to get in on the action. In fact, some weren’t even camera companies! Though most pros at the time still considered digital cameras to be “toys”. The Nikon D1 was released in 1999 for “professional” use. By 2001, Nikon had the D1X and D1H, so was doubling down on digital. Although for the first time in history, they were lagging behind Canon cameras,…at least in the megapixel race. So to release the Nikon FM3A, a manual SLR camera, took very big Japanese balls. Between an onslaught of digital and autofocus cameras, surprisingly, the market for a totally manual camera held strong.
If It Ain’t Broke,…
Like the Samurai of legend, Nikon took a stand in a battle they knew they would lose. But,like Helmut Newton said before his death when asked about digital; “Why would I do that?” Why indeed. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Nikon FM3a was sold out before it was even released. The FM2 was still selling strongly. But Nikon committed 7 and then 12 people, and years, to this project. A very complicated design that incorporated the new hybrid shutter and a seemingly impossible goal of a 1/4000 second shutter speed! Many thought this impossible to reach in a manual camera.
One of the most difficult parts to produce was an accurate meter. (which is actually a precision ammeter) While producing precision ammeters was doable, it ended up being a mostly hand made item when making them that small. Adjustment was critical.
A Sad, But Expected Demise
Many consider the Nikon FM3a the best Nikon ever made! And for good reason. Sadly, in January of 2006 Nikon formally announced the discontinuance of the FM3A, and the dedicated production line was informed by email. The staff of engineers who designed this wondrous machine proudly keep and cherish that email. Maybe the last of the Nikon cameras to elicit that level of pride by employees. Find Nikon FM3A