Yesterday, my Nikon F3 died.
It was an honest mistake. I was practicing bass for an upcoming gig, whipped around, and knocked it off the table. It landed square on the HP prism, shattering the nameplate and destroying the penta-prism inside. The film door popped open too, ruining the film inside.
My chest tightened as I heard the crash. My heart sank as I picked the F3’s pieces off the ground. My eyes welled with tears in a strange reflex that I couldn’t quite understand as I surveyed the damage. The film door wouldn’t close, the prism was completely totaled, and the advance lever lost a vital piece that I simply couldn’t find, all problems beyond my own power to fix. I couldn’t stand to see my F3, my constant companion of the last eight years, like this. Maybe other cameras, yes, but not this one.
This one’s different.
Real Casual Photophile heads (probably only James, who am I kidding) might remember that this very Nikon F3 was the subject of the first article that I ever wrote. It wasn’t my first camera (that would be the Nikon FG), nor was it my dream camera (that would be the Leica M2), nor even my favorite camera (that would be the Olympus Pen FT, the subject of what I consider to be my favorite thing I’ve written here). But the Nikon F3 was the one that started it all, the first camera I fell in love with.
What did I love about it? My 2016 review tells me that I loved the way it felt, how luxurious yet workmanlike it was, how damn pretty it looked. “I mean look at it,” was a real sentence I wrote about it. And it’s still true. Look at an F3 if you have one lying around. It’s gorgeous.
I also loved the story behind it. I love that Giugiaro was brought in when Nikon needed help keeping aesthetic pace with the other manufacturers, and ended up designing maybe the most beautiful SLR ever made, not to mention adding the red stripe that Nikon uses as a signature to this day. Its production lifespan of nearly twenty years is remarkable, and it still lives long in the memory of photographers all over the world.
But even more than all that, I loved how it shot. It was just so easy to make a great photo with it, provided I was being intentional about framing and metering. To this day, the combination of AE lock, 80/20 center-weighted meter, and aperture priority is the easiest way to tailor the exposure to my exact needs. The HP finder let my bespectacled eyes see a perfectly sized frame without issue, and the exposure information (while a bit dim) wasn’t intrusive. It is still the one of the only cameras that can disappear from my hands completely, and the one that lets me do whatever I wish within the frame.
It was my initial love for this elegant yet workmanlike machine which informed the way I’ve reviewed every camera for this site. The F3 changed the way I think about cameras themselves. Since that first article, I’ve seemingly looked for the F3 in every camera I’ve shot, or at least looked for other cameras that could offer the F3’s balance of utility and design.
For example, I loved the Pentax K1000 because it was, as a camera, so forgettable that it made me just take pictures. I also championed the Nikon EM simply because of how eminently usable it is by pretty much anybody looking to learn film photography on a budget. This F3 starting point also accounts for the cameras that I didn’t like – I was disappointed with the Leica M2 because so much of its appeal was tied to status rather than its raw technical ability, a criticism I’ve also leveled at cameras like the Yashica T4, the Olympus Mju-ii/Stylus Epic, etc. I also don’t really care for weird offbeat cameras unless they have something going for them – I didn’t care at all for the Diax IIa when I reviewed it but was smitten by its Schenider-Krueznach 45mm f/2.8, and the same arguably could be said about the Leica III.
But that’s not to say my love for the F3 is rooted in pure utilitarianism – if that was the case I wouldn’t be shooting it at all. We’ve published articles on how the numerous autofocus SLRs from the 1990s are far better than hyped older cameras, yet I still haven’t felt compelled to part with the forty or so dollars it would cost for the privilege of shooting a plastic blob, no matter how well-equipped. And let’s be real – if I was really utilitarian, I’d just shoot a Fuji XT-4 or some such digital workhorse and abandon film completely.
Loving the Nikon F3 showed me that there was something more interesting beyond the aestheticism vs utilitarianism debate. Generational designs like the F3 (and most, if not all, great tools of art) subsume their aesthetic into their utility and vice versa, becoming total, singular experiences in and of themselves. The really great ones express some set of values and ideas, and it’s the F3’s values and ideas I love most of all.
Every line, curve, dial, and knob has a beautiful, singular, clearly defined purpose, every bit as practical as it is elegant. It’s simple to shoot, helps when you need it to, but always leaves you in control. Its design makes taking photos not only easy, but pleasurable, and engages you enough to let you focus not only on your composition, but on the moment itself. More than any other camera, the F3 is representative of everything I love about the act of shooting vintage cameras.
But it’s not these things that made me tear up about losing my F3. If that were the case I’d have no problem replacing it with another, better one. I didn’t just lose any F3 – I lost my F3.
For eight years of my life, my F3 has been there for me. The countless nights I spent playing my first shows across the city. The first time I ever went on tour. The trips back to my family’s old neighborhood in the Philippines and my first trip to Japan. Those times I saw my heroes onstage or on the field, or all those nights I spent out with my friends and family. So much of the joy, the sadness, and the beauty of eight years passed through its lens and viewfinder. It helped me see it and process it, and in its way, the F3 became a part of the way I lived my life.
And that’s the thing about cameras, isn’t it? They’re witnesses to our lives the way nothing else is. No matter how well or badly designed, no matter how storied or overlooked or hyped or not hyped or whatever, they’re all capable of accompanying us through life, if we let them. My F3 just happened to be the one I let in.
One of the many beautiful things about film cameras is that when they break, the vast majority of them can be fixed. Part of the enduring power of film cameras in our times is that they, along with other examples of older physical media, represent an alternative to the mainstream contemporary tech philosophy of non-repairability, glorified pump-and-dump corporate investment schemes, and rapidly accelerating planned obsolescence. We only need to point to the F3’s twenty-year production lifespan and repair support to show us that this was not just a camera made for its time; it was a camera meant to last for the times to come. If there is any camera for me that is worth the trouble, it would easily be this one.
But even still, throughout the years I’ve heard repeatedly that a full repair of a camera is only worth it if the camera carries sentimental value. Looking at my F3, remembering its heritage and meaning to the film camera canon, what it means to me as a photographer and writer, what it means to still shoot film, and everything this camera means to me — it’s worth much more than that. It’s worth all that I can give back to it, for all it has given to me.
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