This is a beautiful little jewel of a mechanical camera with just the
right amount of automation. The Nikon FM3A can function perfectly
without batteries, mechanically timing shutter speeds right out to its
maximum of 1/4000th of a second, and its all-metal body is engineered
to last a lifetime.
What makes the FM3A better than the handful of other high-grade
mostly-manual 35mm SLRs still in production is that it taps into the
extremely popular Nikon autofocus lens system. Thus you can indulge
your Luddite tendencies while still being able to purchase the most
modern lens designs at mass-market prices.
The FM3A offers aperture-priority autoexposure and through-the-lens
flash exposure control. Film speed can be set via the DX codes on the
film canisters. That's pretty much it for automation. Controls are a
very traditional "two-dial" classic manual camera setup. You turn the
lens aperture ring (Dial 1) to adjust aperture. You turn the shutter
speed dial (Dial 2) on the top deck to adjust shutter speed. You turn
the lens focus ring to focus (this doesn't rate a dial number in the
The viewfinder shows you aperture, shutter speed, camera exposure
recommendation, and flash ready. In metered-manual you use a classic
match-needle method: one needle shows the shutter speed you've set and
the other the camera's recommendation. This makes it very easy to
intentionally overexpose or underexpose by a fraction of an f-stop.
You don't have to think, you can just look at the relative needle
positions on the analog scale.
Viewfinder coverage is 93 percent and
eye relief is poor. This is a small and light body with a small and
light pentaprism. With my eyeglasses on I had trouble seeing the entire
frame and the aperture/shutter speed displays. If you do wear
eyeglasses, before buying the FM3A, make sure to check out
"high-eyepoint" Nikon bodies such as
the F-3HP, the F4, the F5,
and the N100.
Despite its manual look, the FM3A includes modern through-the-lens
flash metering and control of Nikon flashes. The camera does not take
into account focussed distance when figuring flash exposure, i.e., it
does not use the Nikon "D" system incorporated into the newest AF
bodies. Flash duration is determined by a sensor reading the amount
of light reflected by the film during exposure. When that light has
become sufficient, the flash is shut down by a pin in the hot shoe.
Sync speed is a thoroughly modern 1/250th of a second.
The slickest flash feature on the FM3A is a clever little button next
to the lens mount. This reduces flash output by 1 f-stop for fill
flash in sunlight.
Depth of field preview is ideally-placed to fall underneath the middle
finger when your index finger is on the shutter release.
Nikon figured out how to provide maximum utility with a minimum of
controls. For example, the FM3A has no on-off switch. As with
earlier Nikon bodies, you pull the film advance lever out to turn on
the meter and unlock the shutter release.
The mirror is a modern vibration-reduced design but it does not lock
up. You might be better off with an F4 or F5 if you want to take
pictures through a telescope or microscope.
Nikon does not include a strap with this camera.
The 45/2.8P lens
We tested the FM3A with the 45/2.8P lens that Nikon introduced along
with this camera. This lens is designed for maximum compactness and
for cosmetic appeal when mounted on a traditional-style body like the
FM3A. The great things about this lens:
- the lens cap clicks onto either the raw lens, the filter, or the
included lens hood(!)
- Nikon includes a silver-finished lens protection filter (to match
your silver-finished FM3a to match your silver-finished lens cap,
- the 45/2.8 focusses down to 1.7 feet, close enough to create a
- the 45/2.8P is about half the length of the Nikon 50/1.8 AF
The compactness of the lens works against usability at times. It
takes an extra split second to find the focusing ring. And if you
have clumsy fingers it is easy to nudge the aperture dial out of
position as you're focusing.
The Nikon FM3A is a great camera that you could use very happily for
the rest of your life and then hand down to your children. Until that
day when you turn the camera over to your kids, you can throw it into
a tote bag or backpack with the 45/2.8P lens and always be ready to
capture the moment.
We think that the aperture-priority autoexposure feature is essential
for anyone using negative film, where fine-tuning exposure is usually
a waste of time. But if you don't need it or don't want it, you can
save some money by purchasing a Nikon FM2.