Death of a Nikon F3

Death of a Nikon F3

2000 1125 Josh Solomon

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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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Hiiii. Nice to see you again Josh.
    The F3 is one of the best Nikon.
    The only one I keep is my EM, I feel it enough for what I am doing. I pair it with Contax, Leica, Zeiss Ikon, Canon Cannonet, …
    Today in France is starting a big strike against the President and the Government, against EU, against NATO, against WARS, I will probably with my Nikon EM or my Leica M3. Which one will you choose, Josh ?

  • That’s a real shame but as you say it’s repairable, something that it very rare in this day and age of throwaway consumerism.

    Please keep us updated on its progress.

    The Japanese very much embrace the wear and tear on items. With wabi sabi and kintsugi (

    The picture you showed of the damage reminds me a bit of the famous one of Don McCullins Nikon F that took a bullet and saved his life.

  • I patted my F3 about 10 times while reading the article. Beautiful text.

  • Great article. I have a Leica M3 that I’ve been using as a daily shooter for the last few years, and occasionally I get great results. But in general the camera is pretty unforgiving and has serious limitations.
    On the other hand, I have a Nikon F2 which thrills me every time I use it. Mechanically, it seems every bit the equal of or superior to the Leica. And optically, ergonomically, and, dare I say, spiritually, there is little comparison. Yes, it’s bigger, less discreet, and heavier to haul around. But the photos it produces are something akin to magic!
    I believe I would be more upset if anything unfortunate was to befall it, than if something similar happened to the Leica — not that I want to test out my theory.
    Suffice to say: I’m sorry for your loss.

    • I was considering picking up an F2 briefly before deciding to go for F3 repair! Definitely know what you mean about the magic of the F2 — one of the very few cameras that have truly inspired awe in me. Thank you so much, and hopefully we’ll be back in fighting shape soon.

  • Hi Josh,

    That’s rock ‘n’ roll for you. I’m sorry, and wish you all the best with the repairs. You may end up retaining only part of the original, but regardless of the final percentage, the F3 will be back, for all the right reasons.

  • I’ve had 100s of film cameras come across my desk. Buying, repairing, selling. The F3, my F3. That’s the one that has stayed. I’ve never thought of selling it. It’s beat up, there is a small hole in the film door and the paint is rubbing off the edges. But I love it. I haven’t put film in it, in over a year, but I still just hold it and work the film advance. Listening to the shutter fire stirs my soul. Hopefully your repair goes well and you can have your camera back in working order. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hi, Josh – getting a replacement prism and film door on the auction site might take care of 90% of the repairs needed. Good luck and hope your baby is back in action asap!

  • Yeah man, sh*t happens. Just get it fixed and it’s good for another century.

  • Joe from The Resurrected Camera February 3, 2023 at 3:54 pm

    Ugh, always bad when a camera takes a hit! I don’t know if it sustained any other damage from what you mentioned, but it could be something as simple as getting a new prism, couldn’t it? That’s one of the beautiful things about having so many detachable parts! But if you like a camera and intend to use it, it really does pay to take it in for regular maintenance as well as repairs.

  • I hope the lens that was attached to your F3 wasn’t also destroyed when it hit the floor.

  • Really a sad story 🙁 I never quite bonded with my F3 (when I had it) like you did, but have other cameras that trigger that feeling you describe very well. Those trusty workhorses that just fit your hand and get out of your way the way you want them to.

    One thing I wonder about….given the build quality of the F3…. how big was the damage to the floor?

  • As others have commented, perhaps another finder and back door will restore your F3. At one time I had three on the go for work. I’d graduated from an F then a pair of F2, one of which had the WLF to save weight when travelling. The F3 was the first Nikon I had with a working meter. Ah….the luxury of onboard metering!

    I became curious about the Leicaflex around eight years ago and bought an original one for £60. Non-working meter. Paired it with the Schneider P.A. Curtagon 35mm f4. Just a curio to keep in my old Merc along the lines of ‘always have a camera with you’.

    Well I discovered that people with DSLRs were snapping up the Leica R glass as it wasn’t outrageously expensive then, to use with Chinese-made adapters on their digital bodies.
    So…..I started snapping up a lens here and a lens there until I had 28-250mm plus the shift and two zooms.

    Then I became interested in the R8 and last year acquired three.

    I like the Program mode and Matrix metering. These turn the R8 into a rather sophisticated point-and-shoot.

    The drawback of the R8, and it’s a very big drawback, is that it’s not serviceable or repairable.
    If a body packs up, it’s a paperweight. Unlike the ae Nikons and the R3 to R7 and R-E Leica bodies before it, the R8 (and R9) have no mechanical speed. The Canon A series were the same. The Nikon FE, FA and F3 all had a mechanical speed in case of battery failure.

    My boyfriend sold my Nikon stuff to fund the purchase of the R8 bodies but I’m still tempted to buy a F3 plus a 35mm f2.8 AI.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon