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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sic Transit Nikon FM3A

Nikon's retreat from the film camera market will have no direct impact on me—I sold my Nikon 35mm gear years ago, when it became clear that Nikkor glass and I did not get along. Still, I can't help noting the passing of one Nikon product in particular, the FM3A. A seemingly unremarkable camera on its face—a manual-focus SLR with exposure modes limited to aperture-priority AE along with full manual metering—the FM3A is distinguished by one truly unique feature: a remarkable switch-hitting shutter that provides a full range of speeds from 1 second to 1/4000 even if the batteries die.

Thirty-odd years ago, when I was getting started in photography, AE SLRs were a relatively new development. Those cameras that offered aperture-priority AE, in particular, did so at the price of dependency on electronically-governed shutters, in contrast to the purely mechanical devices that were still prevalent at the time. The battery-dependence of these shutters was widely considered a weakness, especially in cameras intended for professional use: what would happen if the batteries failed in the field, in the middle of a shooting session? "Change the batteries" was a reasonable response, just as "change the film" would be to reaching the end of the roll. But still, fumbling with those little button batteries and screw caps on the fly was at the very least a nuisance, especially if things were hopping.

Pentax was the first to address this problem directly in its LX professional system camera of 1980—still my favorite SLR of all time. Although it included an aperture-priority AE mode, the LX delivered it through a hybrid electro-mechanical shutter in which the manual speeds B and 1/75 through 1/2000 were governed mechanically, while manual speeds from 4s through 1/60 were governed electronically. Thus, if the batteries died, under most conditions the photographer could just keep on working without missing a beat, until conditions were congenial to start fiddling with the batteries. The Canon New F-1, which reached the market shortly after the LX, offered a hybrid shutter as well, this time with a mechanical range of B and 1/90 through 1/2000. Unlike with the LX, to activate the mechanical speeds on the New F-1 you had to open the battery compartment and pry out the battery, defeating at least part of the advantage. Nevertheless, it was still a backstop worth having.

And there the matter rested. Evidently the market did not find these partial hybrids compelling, because nobody else followed suit. It wasn't until twenty-odd years later, after the entire Canon FD line had been discontinued in favor of the EOS AF line, and as the Pentax LX was nearing the end of its long run, that Nikon introduced the FM3A.

In terms of its feature set and general body design, the FM3A is essentially a cross between the earlier FM and FE series cameras, offering the mechanical shutter of the FM cameras along with the electronically-governed aperture-priority AE feature of the FE cameras. The trick to combining these was the introduction of a new, fully-hybrid shutter, which for the first time offered a complete range of mechanical speeds from 1s through 1/4000 in addition to the electronically-controlled AE speed range.

The FM3A represents the fulfillment of the hybrid shutter concept. It should have been a landmark camera, but it probably reached the market ten years past its time, and its introduction made only a modest splash. By 2000, professionals had long since made their peace with electronic shutters, in part due to the success of Nikon's own F3 camera in the 1980s and in part due to the acceptance of autofocus in the 1990s—and the market as a whole was on the brink of the digital revolution, which would render the whole notion of a battery-independent professional camera nonsensical.

But if I were a dedicated Nikon film camera user, I'd own one for sure. And if I hadn't gotten around to buying one yet, I'd do it now, before it's too late. With its lean, all-the-essentials-but-none-of-the-frills feature set packed into a compact, lightweight metal body, and a relatively attractive price in today's market, the FM3A is a robust, effective and cost-effective tool for the serious amateur or professional photographer. And we'll never see the likes of its fabulous but underappreciated hybrid shutter again.

Posted by: OREN GRAD


Blogger Steve said...

I like most people have a few more cameras than I really need but the FM3a is by far my favourite user. The problem is that I have never been all that impressed with the normal-wide lensese from Nikon so I am eargerly awaiting the new Zeiss ZF lenses. Just have to figure out a way to afford them.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i shoot primarily with pentax gear, having a k10d, mz-s and also a vivitar 3800n, however, the fm3a is one camera i made it a point to purchase and keep, as i simply found it to be irresitable. It probably is in my opinion, the nikon version of a pentax lx, the one camera i would still like to have....

4:51 AM  
Blogger kshapero said...

The FM3a still lives, at least in my camera bag. I use it all the time. Reliable, always ready to perform.

11:23 PM  

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