Nikon F3 – The Mechanical Bull

Ragin’ Bull – The Nikon F3HP Flagship

We’re talking about the Nikon F3HP flagship camera here. Probably the best camera I’ve ever owned, and Nikon has ever made. While I mostly use a Nikon F4s with a manual focus Nikon 50mm f/1.2, it is only because of the variable diopter. If my eyesight wasn’t such a moving target these days, I would have stuck with the F3. What I find weird is when I do drag it out, (because my eyesight has “settled down” that particular month), is how often I’m approached by strangers lamenting the digital age strictly because they “miss their F3”. I would have thought more nostalgia would be attributed to an FM2 or F5. But it appears as film cameras go, both the Nikon F3 and Nikon F3HP inspire an almost visceral love.


Nikon F3HP Flagship


F3 vs F3HP

Let’s start off by getting one question I still have to answer quite often. The HP viewfinder, known as the DE-3, is the only thing that turns a normal F3 into an F3 HP. Otherwise, they are totally equivilent cameras. As you can see by Nikon’s ad campaign, it was the most “thoughtful camera of all time”. I believe that. The build quality was beyond exquisite. It was a tank, by which all other tanks would be measured. Nothing about this camera states other than, “I’m ready for war.” Or art.

The Nikon F3 is a classic camera of super hero proportions. Probably reaching the status of an SLR version of a Leica M3. I would venture to guess more images of consequence in the 35mm realm were taken by this camera. While Olympus, Canon and Minolta were plowing ahead with “new” technology at the time, this camera screamed,…”No!”. No to program modes, no to autofocus, and no to idiot proofing. Not that Nikon wasn’t testing those waters with other Nikons. But those other Nikons are not still lauded as the best manual focus SLR ever made. This ended up being the Nikon F3HP flagship camera of it’s day.


Nikon F3HP Flagship


Nikon F3HP Flagship

When originally released in 1980, you could pick up a bare bones F3 with 50mm f/1.4 lens for $1175. Actually, quite a bit of money in the 80’s. Quite a bit for a camera with no new gimmicks to market. However, when it came to quality, function and beauty, I doubt there was a photojournalist and any other kind of 35mm photographer, not married to rangefinders, who didn’t covet the Nikon F3HP flagship.

Almost 40 years later, the plethora of plastic and design atrophy has made one appreciate the true aesthetic of “cameras as art”. Designed by an Italian usually associated with automobile design, it was Giugiaro that first introduced the red stripe that lingers on Nikon SLR’s to this day. And ergonomically, as boxy as the 80’s were, it fits the hand like a glove. OK,…it’s a formidable looking creature with an added motor drives MD-4 and MD-4H. (a high speed MD-4)


Nikon F3HP Flagship


F3 & F3HP

First, let’s go through the various iterations. F3, F3HP, F3/T, F3P, F3H and last, the stupid, (in my opinion), F3AF. I told you the difference between the F3 and F3HP above. DE-2 = Standard equipment on the regular Nikon F3. A 0.8X magnification. DE-3 = Standard equipment with a Nikon F3 High-Eyepoint camera. Also available as an accessory for the regular F3. The entire frame visible with the eye 1 inch away from the eyepiece.(glasses on) 0.75X magnification.


Nikon F3HP Flagship



The F3/T was titanium, and therefore weighed 20 grams less. It originally came out in natural colored “Titanium”, (never seen one), but eventually went to all black. Professionals tend to not like “bling”.


Nikon F3HP Flagship



The F3P, “P” standing for press. OK. It came out in 1983, and other than all the beefed up “O” rings and additional weathersealing, (and the questionable MF-6 Auto Film-Stop Back???), to me the big difference was the DE-5 finder. The only F3 viewfinder with a hotshoe on top! Like a normal camera. Otherwise the DE-5 was a DE-3. Actually, a DE-4, like on the ‘Titanium’ F3.



Nikon F3HP Flagship



The F3H was really an answer to Canon,…even though Nikon insists it’s not. When Canon came out the previous year with a 10fps camera, Nikon answered for the 1998 Olympics. This camera is very rare. Nikon only produced around 100! It featured a fixed pellicle semi-transparent mirror, (like the Canon), allowing the camera and new MD-4H motor drive to achieve up to 13 frames per second, when using MN-2 nicad battery. (not the normal alkaline batteries) While the F3H appeared like an F3P, just modified for high-speed photography, the insides were a bit more complicated to reach those speeds.


Finally, there’s the F3AF. Kind of an oxymoron, if you ask me. A special viewfinder, DX-1, was capable of autofocusing with only two AF Nikkor lenses. But, the focus motors were in the lens bodies! The lenses were the AF 80mm f/2.8 Nikkor and the AF 200mm f/3.5 Nikkor. It was produced by Nikon in 1983. But it was exactly that design of “motor in lens”, that eventually became Canon’s USM and Nikon’s SWM.


Nikon F3’s with MD-4 Motor Drives in 80’s Advertising. The ultimate?


The mirror lock-up and depth-of-field preview are in one knob, above the AE lock and mechanical shutter release. As shown, the top plate has a frame counter, shutter release, a self timer, the shutter lock and power switch, and a set shutter dial. The shutter dial shows speeds from 8 seconds to 1/2000th second, flash-sync, (1/80th), bulb, time, and an Aperture Priority mode. Unfortunately, the 1/80th sync caused many photographers, requiring higher flash sync speeds, to use Nikon’s semi-pro bodies. While it wasn’t a deal breaker for everyone, the FM, FE, FM2, FE2, with their higher syncs, looked more attractive. Opting for an electronically controlled, horizontally traveled metal curtain design, the new shutter proved to be as reliable as a mechanical shutter, while being more precise and requiring less maintenance intensive. But, the horizontal-travel design significantly limited its top flash sync speed. Hence, 1/80th sec. Fixed in the F4 with a 1/250th sync.


F3 Viewfinder display
F3 Viewfinder info – Simplicity Personified


Dumb Proprietary Flash But,…

The other thing to “hate” about the F3 is the dumb proprietary flash attachment. But this was something overlooked by many who; one, didn’t use flash, or two, were so impressed by the build quality, titanium honeycomb shutter, top and bottom plates almost as thick as ‘Texas Toast’, the buttery smooth film advance lever and probably most accurate meter Nikon ever made. In fact, the film advance is so smooth, it’s sometimes difficult to know if you have film loaded!

The Nikon F3HP flagship is the ultimate modular system camera. The range of accessories for a professional is almost too extensive. And the viewfinder is humongous and one of the brightest viewfinders I have ever seen. Of course, for eyeglass wearers, the HP viewfinder was a Godsend. And you’re always seeing 100% of the image. But the thing most impressive about this camera,…past all the war stories, is an intrinsic feeling felt only by photographers. You feel you’ve reached the pinnacle of “pure, unadulterated beauty”,…warts and all. Production didn’t cease until 2001. And for good reason. Paired with a 50mm f/1.2 AI-s lens, it’s pure heaven.


Type of camera: 35mm single-lens reflex
Picture format: 24mm x 36mm standard 35mm film format.
Lens mount: Nikon bayonet type.
Lenses: Lenses with Nikon F mount (with some limitations); AF lenses.
Shutter: Electromagnetically controlled, horizontal-travel, titanium foil focal-plane shutter.
Shutter release button: Switch meter on when depressed halfway (after shutter release lock is released), meter then remains on for 16 sec, after finger is taken off button; threaded in the center to accept standard cable release.
Automatic exposure control: Aperture-priority automatic exposure control; step less shutter speeds from 8 sec to 1/2000 sec.
Manual exposure control: Quartz digital control for 16 shutter speeds from 8 sec to 1/2000 sec, including X (1/80 sec); B and T also provided.
Backup mechanical release lever: Trips shutter at approx 1/60 sec, regardless of shutter speed dial setting (except T); used when batteries become weak or exhausted, or none are installed in the camera.
Exposure metering: TTL center-weighted (80/20) full-aperture metering; aperture stop-down metering possible; silicone photo diode (SPD) and metering circuits incorporated into camera body; meter works with all interchangeable viewfinders.
Metering range: EV 1 to 18 (ie f/1.4 at 1 sec to f/11 at 1/2000 sec with 50 mm f/1.4 lens and ISO 100 film).
Film speed setting: ISO 12 to 6400.
Exposure memory lock: Via button.
Exposure compensation: Via dial; +2 to -2 EV in 1/3 increments.
Film advance lever: Single stroke type; 30 degrees stand-off angle and 140 degrees winding angle; automatic film advance possible when motor drive MD-4 is used.
Self-timer: Quartz-controlled approx 10 sec delayed exposure; LED blinks at 2 Hz for first 8 sec, then at 8 Hz for last 2 sec; cancel setting.
ViewfinderNikon F3; Eyelevel finder DE-2 as standard; Nikon F3 High-Eyepoint; eyelevel High-Eyepoint finder DE-3 as standard; both equipped with eyepiece shutter; each interchangeable with 4 other types.
Viewfinder display: Liquid crystal display (LCD) shows shutter speed; on Auto, +2000 indicates overexposure, -8- underexposure; on Manual, M appears with + indicating overexposure, – underexposure, and -+ correct exposure; LED ready-light glows when Speedlight SB-16A and SB-17, plus SB-11 and SB-14 with TTL Sencor cord SC-12, is completely recycled; aperture in use also shows through aperture direct-readout (ADR) window.
Focusing screen: Split-image microprism Type K provided as standard; interchangeable with 21 other types.
Finder coverage: Virtually 100%.
Finder magnificationNikon F3: 0.8x Nikon F3HP: 0.75x (both with 500 mm lens set at infinity).
Viewfinder illuminator: Provided via button; illuminates both LCD and ADR f/number.
Multiple exposure control: Provided via lever.
Reflex mirror: Automatic instant-return type with lockup facility; incorporates air damper and brake mechanism for reduced vibration and noise.
Depth-of-field preview: Provided via lever.
Frame counter: Additive type; frame numbers from 0 to 40; automatically resets to S when camera back is opened.
Film rewind: By crank provided after film rewind button is pressed.
Flash synchronization: Possible at all speeds up to 1/80 sec with electronic flash; with SB-16A and SB-17, plus SB-11 and SB-14 with TTL sensor cord SC-12, sync speed is automatically set to 1/80 sec with dial at A or 1/125 sec an above; at 1/60 sec or slower, flash synchronizes with speed setting as set; threaded sync terminal provided for off camera or multiple-flash photography.
Accessory shoe: Provided; special Nikon F3 type located at base of rewind knob; accepts Speedlight SB-16A, SB-17 or TTL sensor cord SC-12 from SB-11 or SB-14 for TTL direct flash control; two types of flash couplers available for mounting ISO-type or F2-type direct mounting flash units.
Battery: Choice of one 3V lithium battery CR-1/3N type, two 1.55 V silver-oxide batteries SR-44 type, or two 1.5 V alkaline batteries LR-44 type; optional Anti-Cold Battery Holder DB-2 accepts two AA alkaline, Ni-Cd or manganese batteries. Note: for Nikon products using AA batteries, do not use lithiums unless specifically stated.
Motor drive coupling: Electrical contacts and mechanical couplers provided for operation with motor drive MD-4.
Camera back: Hinged; opened by pushing safety lock while pulling up rewind knob; memo holder provided; interchangeable with camera back MF-6, data back MF-14, or 250 exposure magazine back MF-4.
Body dimensions: (W x H x D) Nikon F3: approx 148.5 x 96.5 x 65.5 mm Nikon F3HP: approx 148.5 x 101.5 x 69 mm.
Body weightNikon F3: 715g approx Nikon F3HP: 760g approx.


According to Nikon;

The Nikon F3HP flagship, which was under commercialization in conjunction with the development of the NASA specifications-based cameras, was released in March 1980 as the flagship electronically controlled aperture-priority AE SLR camera. The body color was black only, and the suggested retail price was 175,000 yen (with 50 mm f/1.4).

The exterior of the integrated camera body and motor drive MD-4 was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The novel design aiming at a simple form with a concave section on the front of the body for gripping and the impressive red vertical line exerted a large influence on subsequent camera designs.

The 1.55V G13 silver oxide battery (currently known as SR44 silver battery) was not available for backup in some districts in those days. Then, in order to prevent a shooting block due to depleted batteries, the mechanical control shutter speed of 1/60 sec. remained available.

The flagship electronic SLR camera F3 introduced by our designer team based on the foresight and technical know-how was favorably received also by professional photographers from the very beginning of release and sold well. In March 1982, Nikon F3 High-Eyepoint furnished with the high-eyepoint finder DE-3 as standard was added to the lineup, and the total sales volume exceeded 751,000 (as of September 1992). In 2000, discontinuance of the production was announced.

F3 Manual





This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. A few years back, while looking for 70’s rangefinders, I passed up a super minty F3HP with 50mm, for $35. SLR’s weren’t on my Radar, as I was looking for smaller cameras. I still think about that one. Thanks for reminding me!

  2. WHA’???? 😮

  3. A bad pass……………….

  4. If you don’t require the use of a flash unit, the F3, truly is the best 35mm camera ever designed and made.

  5. As a Nikon guy myself,….I totally agree. But I would add ‘SLR’. Because otherwise Leicaphiles will put a hit out on me. 😳

  6. I still have my F3HP with motor drive from 1983. Bought when I was taking a Photo J class at Mizzou. I picked up a second slighty scruffy F3 with the DE-2 at a local consignment shop for $25. The tag said shutter bad. Nope, just dead batteries. And a missing rewind knob. Had a little trouble finding a knob so I watched eBay for a parts camera and bought one for $40 that claimed to be nonworking. Nope, dead batteries. It works just fine when powered by the AA batteries in my winder. So now I have three.

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