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Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review

A test of the last of the great mechanical film cameras from Nikon - the FM-3A

| Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR in Film SLRs

In this world that is increasingly relying on all things digital, the Nikon FM3A provides some (much needed - some might say) relief. This latest offering from Nikon replaces the hugely successful FM2N and revisits the old FE2.

I already own a Nikon FM so finding my way around the FM3A is extremely easy. This SLR takes photography right back to basics, loosing unnecessary buttons sometimes found on other cameras, but it's still very user friendly.

This metal bodied and robust camera inherits the same body styling and features of the FM2N, but adds aperture-priority auto and the company's first hybrid shutter control system.

It has a definite quality feel, with a durable die cast body and chunky buttons and levers - you feel that you are using a real camera, something that can be lacking from some of today's cameras. The shutter has a very smooth action and metering is centre weighted with approximately 60% of the meter's sensitivity concentrated on a 12mm diameter circle. The viewfinder gives approximately 93% coverage and is bright, making it easy to compose and focus your image. It is here that the meter readings can be found.

Aperture-priority is activated by selecting the A mode on the shutter speed dial. It is now down to the user to select the aperture most suited to their photographic conditions and point & shoot allowing the camera to select the necessary shutter speed. A needle indicates the shutter speed the camera is going to use. In manual mode, as with the older FM and FM2, the needle needs to be matched with the blue indicator, which shows the selected shutter speed, this is done by adjusting the aperture and/ or shutter speed.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR
The shutter speed dial rotates with firm click stop steps.

The hybrid shutter control system is a first for Nikon. In the A mode, shutter speeds are controlled electronically and dependent on batteries. They range from 8 seconds through to 1/4000s. In manual mode the shutter speeds range is reduced to 1 second through to 1/4000s, but the shutter does not require battery power, allowing the camera to be used in all weather conditions and extreme cold without the worry of battery failure. The downside of this is that should the battery fail, the metering system will not work, and lacking a handheld meter, guesswork is the only option but this is better than having no camera at all.

You can keep the camera on auto and manually adjust the readings using the exposure compensation, which is quite fiddly to set, but can't accidentally be moved. You have to press down the button to the right of the dial and adjust the dial with the button depressed. Lifting up a ring on this dial allows the film speed to be selected although this is set automatically when DX film is used.

As with its predecessor the FM2N, flash sync is 1/250s and TTL is a standard feature. Another welcome addition for users is the addition of TTL flash compensation. On the lens plinth there is a small black button that shows an illustration of a minus sign and a flash. When using dedicated Nikon flashguns, the SB-28 and SB-50X, if this button is depressed, the sensor monitors the degree of flash illumination exposed on the film surface during exposure. When the sensor detects enough flashlight has reached the film, the Nikon Speedlight is automatically switched off resulting in automatic correct flash exposure.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR
Flash users can either mount a hot shoe flash on the FM3A's accessory shoe or connect via the standard pc sync terminal making it also great for studio photographers.

For perfectionists there's a marking on the top plate that shows the position of the film plane so you can measure exact film to subject distance. This is useful for close up photography.
Another standard feature is interchangeable focusing screens. A split screen is supplied as standard with three options available, the plain screen may be preferred for macro work. There's a multiple exposure facility too that allows the shutter to be cocked without the film being advanced.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR
Press this lever clockwise, while using the wind on lever to uncouple the film advance so the shutter can be cocked for a multiple exposure.

The one major drawback to this wonderful piece of engineering is the cost. With a body price of approximately 600 and around 330 for the lens, currently a limited edition 45mm f/2.8P standard, it's a hefty investment and that's before you add accessories such as a camera strap (not provided), camera bag or flashgun. You could save 180 by buying the 50mm f/1.8 at 150. It's a bit bulkier and heavier, but has a speed advantage making it better to use in low light.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR
The 45mm lens could be seen as a collectable item. But it doesn't match the black body! It has a slim design and comes with a screw in front silver trim plus filter and classy lens cap.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR
You can use the lens with or without the trim

When looking at the competition, the FM3A is fairly unique and cannot easily be pitched against others in the market. At the extremes, there are two possible contenders - the Minolta X370 and Olympus OM3-Ti The X370 is a manual focus 35mm SLR that also aperture-priority. It is substantially less than the Nikon, with a price tag of just 230, but it is battery dependent and does not have the same build.

The Olympus OM3Ti is more likely, competition. Priced around 1850, it's a fully mechanical 35mm SLR camera. It is aimed at the professional or serious amateur who wants full control over their photography and has a dampened mirror, making it quiet for nature photography. Otherwise there's little to choose between this and the FM3A. So given the 1000 price tag for the FM3A & 45mm f/2.8, it makes the Nikon a good option.

If you prefer to stick with Nikon but just can't justify the FM3A you could consider a second hand model. The FM2 is virtually the same camera with the exception of the aperture-priority and hybrid shutter. The FE2 is the nearest, specification wise, with the inclusion of aperture priority.

Sample images

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Sample Images

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Sample Images
These two images demonstrate the effect of the FM3A's exposure compensation feature. The top image was taken using the normal meter reading. This explains why the snow has a blue tint to it. The bottom image was compensated by +2 stops allowing more exposure and producing a more realistic white snow.

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Sample Images

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Sample Images

Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR Film SLR Review: Sample images
The picture of the close up of a car light shows the FM3A's ability to meter well in any situation. The image shows how it copes well with difficult contrast lighting. The other two images, the fence railing and the plant covered in frost are further proof of its excellent metering capabilities and the 45mm lens' ability to record fine details.


This camera is not for those who like the easy life - auto focus, automatic film loading and advance are not options. It is, however, ideal for those new to photography, who want to learn the basics, but want a camera that will last a lifetime. Other target areas might be those who just want a good quality fully manual Nikon camera.

The Nikon FM3A is an excellent camera, and one you should consider if you are serious about your photography. The price tag is a little hefty with the 45mm f/2.8 and consideration should be given to the 50mm f1.8. If you want the features, but this is way out of your price range, a secondhand FM2 is the best.

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Photographs taken using the Nikon FM-3A Manual SLR

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