Our Favorite Fanboys Swap Camera Systems – Nikon F3 Versus Canon F-1

Our Favorite Fanboys Swap Camera Systems – Nikon F3 Versus Canon F-1

2400 1350 Chris Cushing

As objective as we are when reviewing unfamiliar cameras, our biases show when it comes to the cameras that remain with us permanently. My FD mount Canons have always been my benchmark, the cameras I keep coming back to. For Josh, it’s different; his forever system is Nikon’s F3 and their Nikkor lenses. Neither of us has spent much time with the opposite system. And so the swap was born. 

The idea was that we’d each grab our favorite camera from our favorite brand and shove it into the hands of the other. I would ship my favorite Canon, the original F-1, and a handful of lenses to Josh in Los Angeles, and he would send his Nikon F3 and some lovely Nikkor glass to me in New York. We’d shoot one another’s camera for a month or so, see what happens, and write about our experiences. For added fun, we’d not share our thoughts with each other until the article posts.

Believe me, we’re as in the dark about what’s coming as you are. 

Josh Shoots the Canon

I’ll be frank – Canon is my least favorite camera brand. I generally avoid writing about their cameras, and when I do it’s often in less-than-glowing terms. Readers of the site might chalk this up to my well-documented Nikon fanboyism. But I’m not so sure that’s the answer. Nikonian tribalism notwithstanding, I’ve found myself enjoying all sorts of machines from Rollei, Pentax, Minolta, and even Leica. I’ve just never truly enjoyed shooting a Canon. They work fine, but they’re just so dull. 

That said, there was always one Canon camera which threatened to put my foolish prejudices to shame, and that was the professional-grade F-1. The F-1 always seemed to be the ace-in-the-hole for Canon fans, the one camera from the brand that could hang with the Nikon F-series and Leica M-series as a one-and-done pro-spec manual focus camera. So when Chris sent me his Canon F-1 with an incredible collection of FD lenses and accessories in exchange for my Nikon F3 setup, I was ready to be converted.

Out of the box the F-1 looked promising. The overall design is clean, and it feels just as solid in the hand as other all-mechanical pro bodies of the day. It’s got a meter built into the body (as opposed to the prism head a la the Nikon F) and a sliding interchangeable prism system, a configuration that seems to have been inspired by another great mechanical camera that I happen to love, the Topcon RE Super. Having used both, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to say that the Canon F-1 is a lot like an updated version of the RE Super, which isn’t a bad thing at all.

As a shooter, the F-1 performs admirably. Its light meter is accurate, its shutter is reliable (and free of the spectra of that annoying Canon squeal), and its controls are intuitive and placed well enough to be comfortable for experienced shooters. Apart from the slightly stiff shutter dial characteristic of Chris’ F-1, I have absolutely no complaints about the camera’s ergonomics. So far, so good.

The F-1 also boasts a good range of lenses, all of which perform well. Chris curated a stellar array of lenses for me to use, which included Canon’s FD SSC 50mm f/1.4, the Canon FD 24-35mm f/3.5L, and the Canon FD 200mm f/2.8. a kit of lenses that could conceivably handle any and all shooting scenarios. And for my purposes these lenses performed well, the FD 200m f/2.8 in particular being a real pleasure to use. As a big a fan of Nikon optics, I have to admit that these Canon lenses made the grade.

All in all, the Canon F-1 is a perfectly good camera. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But that’s precisely where I start to have issues with the F-1 and vintage Canon in general; there’s nothing wrong with the camera, sure, but there’s nothing amazing about it either.

Canon’s brand of unsparing utilitarianism is both the F-1’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Its focus on functionality came at the cost of build quality and attention to detail. The black enamel finish is just okay, the viewfinder is mind-numbingly functional, and the shutter stroke and film advance lever feel painfully lackluster. It just seems like a by-the-book SLR camera. But where’s the stylish red-stripe? Where’s the design quirks born from the mind of an Italian? Where’s the soul? 

Overall, the F-1 just feels good enough, which frankly isn’t good enough when your competition includes cameras like the Nikon F2, with its professional robustness, and the Minolta XK, with its personality and unique control system.

Images in the samples gallery were made with Ilford HP5 and Kodak Ultramax 400

The F-1’s unglamorous and rather modern functionality means that it doesn’t have the charm that vintage mechanical cameras often possess; the special something that’s essential to the experience of shooting obsolete cameras in the digital age. This charm is present in just about every other mechanical camera I’ve ever shot, from the ratcheting of the ball-bearing shutter in the Nikon FM to the elegant density of the Pentax SV or the incredible compactness of Maitani’s masterpiece the OM1. Even many later electronic cameras offer some kind of magic or eccentricity, including my F3, which I began to miss more potently the longer I shot the F-1.

But is it just blind fanboyism that makes me so averse to the F-1 and Canon cameras at large? Is it the snobbishness that comes with shooting and reviewing cameras every week, for years? Or is vintage Canon really just that boring? I don’t know. All I know is that Canon and I still don’t mix. And I think i’ll leave it at that.

Chris shoots the Nikon

Perhaps fanboy is too strong a word. More accurately, I’m Casual Photophile’s resident Canon apologist. The staid and capable cameras of Canon are easy to overlook in the face of more evocative machines from Olympus, Pentax and Nikon, and if left to their own devices I suspect most of the Casual Photophile staff would place a model from one of these brands at or near the top of their list of perfect day to day cameras. Few Canons, if any, are likely to be in contention. 

For decades Nikon has made capable, rugged cameras that quickly became the choice of professionals almost as soon as the modern SLR era dawned in the late 1950s. Nikon’s optics have appeared in the hands of countless professional photographers, in the massive rangefinders of the battleships Yamato and Musashi, and virtually anywhere else precision optics are required. Personal experience says it might be best to stay away from their eyeglasses, however. 

Canon even owes some thanks to Nikon. One of the first Canon cameras, a rangefinder known as the Hansa Canon, was made in conjunction with Nippon Kogaku Kogyo (the brand that would come to be known as Nikon). Nippon Kogaku Kogyo made the 50mm f/3.5 lens that originally shipped with the Hansa Canon. Without Nikon, it’s likely that Canon as we know it would not exist.

I have no reason to knock the F3. I haven’t avoided Nikons out of contempt, just out of convenience. And who am I to bash the F3? This is one of the most beloved film SLRs. Knocking it too harshly would be like trying to tear down Goodfellas or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You may have some valid criticism, but flying too brazenly in the face of critical consensus more likely suggests that you missed the point.

That said, I really wanted to hate the F3. I desperately wanted to put a roll through the F3, and text Josh completely self-assured in my own superiority. “Josh, how in god’s name do you shoot this thing? This 100% coverage viewfinder makes accurate framing completely impossible. The controls are made for people with tentacles for fingers. What is the deal?”

When I took it out of the box in the kitchen of my apartment, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. Giugiaro’s angular design has aged as well as the Lotus Esprit or the Volkswagen Scirocco he penned earlier in the 1970s. In hand the camera feels substantial and elegant in a way that the Canon New F-1 simply does not. 

In use, the F3 does precisely what I ask of it. Setting exposure is swift. In most lighting conditions the small windows at the top of the viewfinder work beautifully, achieving the same thing as the A-1’s red LED readouts without spoiling your vision in the dark. The exposure compensation controls made me wish that the Canon was nearly as well laid out. The F3 gets out of the way and lets you work, which is all I really ask of a camera.

Josh sent me three lenses; a 50mm 1.8, a 35mm 2.8 and a pre-AI 105mm. I can’t find any serious faults with any of them, and the 35mm in particular I found especially enjoyable. I’ve never really bonded with FD mount 35mm primes (I don’t even own one at the moment), and this Nikkor was a treat. Vintage Canon 35s have always felt a bit harsh to me, and this Nikkor was the exact opposite. It was a buttery smooth treat to shoot with.

Images in the samples gallery were made with Eastman Double X and Kodak Portra 160

While I liked the lenses, the lens mount proved to be a cause of confusion with the F3. I’ve long admired Nikon for their adherence to effectively one lens mount since the 1950s, but I never appreciated how functionally clunky some of the middle steps in the mount’s evolution were.

For instance, why is the ring that reads the aperture value on the outside of the camera? Canon FD, especially in its early form, was not a functional masterpiece, but at least all the moving parts were inside the mount. This system clearly worked, and worked for a long time, but it’s a more cumbersome solution to  communicating the aperture value to the camera than I’d prefer. 

Most of my other quibbles with the F3 were ergonomic in nature. I’m pretty well-adjusted to my Canon F-1, which has fewer features than the F3 and as a result has a simpler control layout. The F3 felt quite busy by comparison, with three large buttons on the front face of the camera, and several nested and concentric controls that I didn’t particularly care for. Even the A-1, which functionally does more than the F3, has simpler controls. The rear door release lock was particularly annoying, and the lens release was unusually poorly placed. The oversized lens release is both in the way of your fingers and (in the case of Josh’s F3, which has a broken lens locking post) is little more than dead weight.

Despite all that, I did enjoy the F3 and I’m grateful that Josh sent me his. I don’t think I’ll be jumping ship to Nikon. Having a shot an extended test-drive didn’t so much confirm my biases as affirm that I’m not losing anything by staying with my current system. 

Editor’s note

James here. While our writers have clearly learned nothing and their fanboyism continues unchecked, I want to reiterate our commitment to unbiased and fair editorial content. And if you’d like to read about the best cameras ever made in the history of the universe, you can find all of our articles on Minolta here. 

Get a Nikon F3 here

Get a Canon F-1 here

Or get either from our own F Stop Cameras

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
  • Stephen Hoffman June 6, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    A more apt comparison would be between the Canon New F-1 and the Nikon F3. After all, they are truly contemporaries and both electro mechanical cameras. I have both. The F3 is more refined (especially the film advance) but not as capable nor as rugged as the Canon. Ironically, I find the F3 boring when compared to its mechanical forebears. The New F 1 is quirky and unique—and, owing to the perhaps unjustified concerns of the day, works without batteries!

    • Stephen – Thank you for reading!

      We really wanted to swap brands and systems, not make a direct comparison. Josh is a Nikon guy, and I’m a very long time Canon user. We chose the cameras featured because we felt they best conveyed what the brands were about, not that they competed with one another directly. I wanted Josh to have a camera that(to me) reflected the best of the Canon FD system. Josh did the same for me with the F3.

  • Very much enjoyed the comparison, gentlemen. I owned the original F-1 for a few years and was seriously enamoured by its simplicity, no nonsense look and build quality, and its match needle light meter display. Having had a pretty good line up of FD lenses I inherited from my father, I thought I was set as far as 35mm SLR systems are concerned. However, after a while my eye wandered and ended up selling my entire FD kit for a F3, F2AS and Zeiss 50/1.4 and CV 40/2. That glass blows any FD out of the water, and for me that’s one of the huge advantage of the F system, that you can use vintage bodies but with modern optics. So now I use the F3 when I just want to sit on aperture priority and rattle off shots of my son, and the F2 for more thoughtful, composed and ‘serious’ stuff! Both are a pleasure to use but … but … I sure miss that F-1 body!

  • This is absolutely great – hope to see more of these fanboy swaps in the future.

    I’m a huge Canon fan, but must admit I’ve never been able to bond with any of the FD bodies, and much rather shoot my Minolta XD. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re just. so. clinical. The only FD body that I still own is a beautifully restored T90, just so I have something to put my FD glass onto, but it leaves me cold every time I use it. The photos, however, always come out beautifully. A very conflicting camera.

    • Brent- I have a few funky pieces for my F-1 that both help utility and up the novelty factor a bit. My favorite is the Canon Speed Finder, which is a swiveling larger-format viewfinder. It replaces the regular pentaprism, and as a person who wears glasses it’s pretty awesome because it works from up to 6″ or so away. It isn’t featured in this listing, but I believe it is pictured in the F-1 and FTb piece we posted a while ago.

  • Canon today is to cameras what Toyota is to cars. Their cameras are reliable and produce good results but are kind of boring. However, I think that was less true with the old FD system than with the EOS system and their digital offerings. I am a former Canon FD system user and found their cameras to be fun and enjoyable to use back in the day.

    • I think the vintage camera community feels there is a sort of malaise affecting most modern SLRs. It seems that most DSLRs can be hit by that “Toyota-like” description, while brands like Olympus, Fuji and Sony stand out more because they hit all the functional bases and feel a bit special.

  • Well writtrn indeed. But it is not the ‘political correctness’ of the writing which is well done. It’s a meaning of being a ‘fan’ explained so thoroughly. A fan (unlike a fanatic) is a person who tried a lot of various items and purposely picked one due to objective and subjective reasons. Just like Josh and Nikon, or Chris and Canon. Or me and OM system. I know there are better machines, but I’m comfortable with my choice and the rest is irrelevant.

  • My first SLR was a Canon AE-1 back in 1984 and was an absolute joy on which to cut my teeth. I still have a handful of Canon bodies and lenses to this day. But as I made the transition from curious onlooker to apprentice of light and form, I noticed that the work which inspired me the most was made with Nikon glass. So I moved “up” to a Nikon FM and embarked on a 30-year-long voyage on the HIJMS Nippon Kōgaku. I never looked back – over 80% of my work throughout those 30 years was produced with Nikon bodies and Nikkor optics. The one nit-noid that has bothered me throughout those years, however, was the inconsistent feel of Nikon glass. Unlike my Pentax-M/A, Olympus OM-Zuiko, and Minolta MD lenses, my Nikkors simply don’t have any signature kinetic characteristics (unless inconsistency is a signature). I could assume that dampening varies over the years as the grease on the helical breaks down, but the Grand Canyon-wide tactile variances indicates to me that that doesn’t seem to be the case. Besides, I’ve purchased new AI-s lenses on many occasions and they are markedly different right out of the box. Incidentally, my observations concern similarly-sized primes… I am not comparing nor referring to the difference between, say, a 28/2.8 AI-s and an 80-200/2.8 zoom, nor am I counting in any Series E lenses. By contrast, the Pentax, Olympus and Minolta lenses I mentioned previously are so perfectly and consistently damped and are such a pleasure to use that I have to restrain myself from adopting a puppy every time I use one. But while my Nikons don’t make me want to run out and save the world every time I release the shutter, their exceptional and intuitive design is simply empowering and is intrinsic to my creative process – a connection that other systems have failed to achieve with me.

  • It would be cool if you had pics comparing the view through the VFs.

    Fun article! I’ve never owned a Canon SLR, but I did watch my nephew’s A1 break..

    • The A-1 and AE-1 is the camera that’s most strongly represented on the shops shelf of broken cameras.

      • I have an AE1, 2 X A1’s and an AE1 Program. I purchased the A1 and the AE1 Program in about 1982 and they’re both still going strong. Sure, they’re a little dinged, brassed and dented but still shoot fine. Recently when I stumbled upon mint condition and fully functional A1 and AE1 I couldn’t resist buying them. I also converted to Nikon years ago and still shoot with their DSLR’S and a Fujifilm mirrorless to which I adapt all the classic glass.

        Great article and like all your articles, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

  • The most important feature of any camera is the 12 or so inches behind the viewfinder- Uncle Ansel

  • Hey guys, I am looking at the F5 vs. F100. Can you all weigh (apt term as the F5 is a beast) in on this one?

    • The F100 is a leaner F5. It’s probably closer to being an ergonomically improved N90s. The F5 has more frames per second (if that’s a thing that matters in film anymore) and its 1005-element matrix meter is going to be a little more advanced than the F100’s 10-sensor matrix meter. The F100 uses half the batteries of the F5 and the grip detaches. I think if you were looking for an F5 at a cheaper price point and lower weight, the F100 would be your body. The F5 is that beast of beasts that was built like a brick punching bag. I have the F100 and really love it. But I admit I still want the F5 too.

      • Thanks! Here is the background. I am not using my DSLR gear very much anymore. When I am in a situation where I would like to shoot digital, I usually have my RX100 MK1 with me and have never been let down by it. When/ if it dies, I will just buy another one. The rest of the time, I find myself with a film camera. That being said, I am thinking about ditching the DSLR all together and getting a more modern film camera capable of everything (my MX is great but lacks speed and quickness of use). I am looking in the Canikon world for the first time as Pentax really never made a great, modern and reliable AF body. The F100 and F5 come up as solid contenders being able to handle just about any, including newer, Nikon lenses.

        If you were to have one film body to do everything, would it be the F100 or the F5? Anything from a 3 year old running around to car show/ race to landscapes. Which would it be?

      • I own a couple of older bodies, but picked up a real clean F100 a while back, lovely tool. Then came across a shop selling some ‘new’ bodies. Had both a F5 and F6. The F5 is a beast, but so heavy, the F6 is beautiful and had to be purchased. Only get the F5 if you need the ‘speed’ and can cope with the considerable extra weight…

    • The f100 is much more portable and convenient, easier to shoot even, but if you really want a better camera, the f5 is it. Jeb nailed it, the f100 is a learner f5 – facebook.com/groups/thenikongroup

  • I bought a Canon F1n (1976-80) in 1990. It had belonged to a local newspaper. I got a 50mm F1.8 with it and acquired a 28mm F2.8 and 135mm F3.5, all FD breechlock. This is a useful system for changing lenses quickly. You turn the chrome mounting ring to the locked position before you put it in your bag. When you offer the lens to the body, red dot to red dot, push the lens against the lens mount and the ring turns itself.
    At that point, you can use the camera as the internal levers are lined up. If you have the time you can turn the chrome ring to tighten it up. In a fast moving situation, this auto turning might mean you not missing a shot. The Canon F1 and F1n are extremely reliable cameras. I cannot speak about the F1N as I have no experience of this third model. Shortly after getting my Canon, I took it and its three lenses to Yugo when the fighting started. Got shots that sold around the world (and many they did not want to publish, long destroyed by me). Camera just kept going, battery held up although I took two spares. Now, the battery is an issue for the first two F1 models. It’s our old bugbear the mercury 1.35v PX625. I use the PX675 hearing aid battery that’s 1.4v and buy in packs of 6. Tested with a Gossen Multisix the reading is very close. I still have my F1n and 6 lenses and still use it regularly. I’ve taken up painting now I’ve retired and use the Canon and my favourite lens, the 35mm to record scenes to paint later. That’s why it lives in the boot of my car with three lenses and an old Billingham bag.

  • Hello, I’m from Indonesia, I have a Canon F1 with a light meter that is still alive. sometimes I’m confused about the use of light meters because there is no more information in the view finder so I don’t know if my photo is over how many stops. I hope there is someone who can provide information on how to use the light meter right on my camera. thank you

  • I had a good laugh. I own several Canon F-1 and New F-1, as well as Nikon F, F2 and F3. The correct comparison should have been Canon New F-1 versus Nikon F3, since both are contemporary competitors.

    I also had a laugh at the Nikonista feeling the old F-1 having inferior build quality. My 1971 Canon F-1 (original model) is my best-fit-and-finished camera of all, better than the F2 and F3 in this regard, feeling more precised and solid as well. The Nikonista is simply blind.

    The New F-1 is a more versatile camera than the F3 and more rugged. I have seen SEVERAL Nikon F3 with dead meters and/or missing AE lock buttons. I had an F3 whose meter died on me, no repair possible.

    All in all i’d say the F3 is a better camera for AE shooting, with the convenient memory lock, while the F-1 New is better for manual shooting. The New F-1 has:

    – much better viewfinder clarity. The New F-1 has the best viewfinder of any camera i’ve used including Leicaflexes.

    – vastly more readable and complete viewfinder info

    – vastly better meter needle for manual shooting (the F3 on manual mode is a SICK JOKE.)

    – true manual operation (speeds from 2000 to 90 plus B are mechanical)

    – has switchable metering pattern

    – a viewfinder illuminator that is easy that activate and doesn’t fail, unlike 90% of the F3s out there.

    On the opposite hand the F3:

    – feels more ergonomic

    – feels lighter

    – has the important AE lock (on AE mode it works much better than the F-1N, thanks to this.)

    The F3’s viewfinder, sadly, is inferior to the F2. And I have done this comparison by fitting exactly the same f3 screens into my f2 (i have several screens.)

    The F3 manual mode, restricted to 1/80 and requiring a separate lever, is a joke.

    That being said, I love my F3, because I love its shutter sound and ergonomics.

  • Randle P. McMurphy October 10, 2019 at 5:04 am

    In the time I got into photography the almost religious fight between Nikon and Canon
    Fanboys was at its climax.
    Well for me it was primarily a question of money and nothing else – so Canon was the choice
    of my wallet (but not my heart).
    Compared Nikon felt always build a little better when I had the change to grab one and as I had
    the money first thing I did was buying a Nikon F3 which I never regretted.
    What a joy and almost intuitive to use camera and system !
    A decade later when I started analog film again Nikon had still all I wanted.
    Am I just another Fanboy then ? Well NO as I found out myself after I got infected with GAS.
    There was a try out with the amazing Pentax M42 system – the best mechanical build SLR ever
    the Leicaflex SL2 and on accident with (for me) the most beautiful looking and clever designed
    analog Canon the Canon EF and a bunch of wonderful Canon FD S.S.C lenses.
    Specially the Canon F.D S.S.C 2:5/135 and FD S.S.C 4,0/80-200 are a dream and best example
    how to make something that lasts a lifetime – Canon never again reached this level of mechanical
    perfection again.

    Just my 50 cents

  • Pentax LX: the best manual focus camera ever made, superior to the Nikon F3 and Canon F-1n. Period!

  • You have compared a very fine camera made by Nikon, to a toy made by a photocopier manufacturer. My first toy camera was a canon, then my dad gave me my first camera, an FT. The Nikon Group.

    • So, do you own both cameras, so you can compare with your very own hands and eyes?

      I do. I own both of them, the F-1, and the F3. Also the F2, the New F-1, and various other Nikons and Canons. And lenses from 19-200 for Canon and 20-300 for Nikon systems.

      The original F-1 is better finished, better built than the F3. I’ve found several F3s with broken meter, while every F-1 i’ve found was operating fine, even one with an absurdly kinked shutter curtain. The early F3 cameras have electronics that are a bit delicate…

      The F3 is a nice machine, it would be the ultimate camera if it had a better viewfinder. A nikon F2SB or F2AS has a much better viewfinder in every sense.

  • Lawrence Lee Huber June 7, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    Interesting comparison.
    I use Canon starting with an FTb in the early 70’s. Went EOS when it came out and kept my FD/FL/R lenses. So glad I did as I am looking to get the R5 which should bring new life back to these superb old lenses.
    As to F-1 or F3 I personally loved the simplicity of the F-1 and the quality. I do have the motor drive MF, Booster T and EE finders for the F-1. It still gets used.
    I also have a Nikon F and FE and several lenses. But I do not like the F or FE so adapt the Nikon glass to my Canon F-1 or 7D.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing