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- Against all odds - the Nikon FM3A   -

Review Versioning:

  • Initial upload: 1.4.2008

  • Links fixed: 2.4.2008


    One of the effects of the conversion of the photography market towards digital sensors is the quick and unbelievable fast succession of new Digital SLRs (DSLRs) and digital compact cameras that are surfacing. The main reason is the potential of the CCD/CMOS industry and the image data processing chain development to increases resolution, signal to noise ratio and ISO performance regularly. With digital SLR systems the quality already surpassed 35 mm film cameras with the 8 -10 megapixel systems and new DSLRs will continue this trend with unbelievable ISO performance beyond ISO1600. Some DSLRs are already in the resolution space of medium format cameras. Medium format however hasn't yet played the last card concerning resolution and ISO performance. As cameras now behave (and are designed) more like computers also value of a camera body decreases with time in a fashion only known from Personal Computers these days (good to know that this doesn't apply to lenses).  However there are some cameras that actually behave against this common trend. One camera body that belongs to this category is the Nikon FM3A. Its the last mechanical film camera of the Nikon FMx Series that was developed and its interesting to see how this little wonderful camera manages to keep up its value on the second hand market. Prices are still in a range similar to buying this camera "new in a box". This is not a usual behaviour of analogue cameras although we see comparable price trends (or the absence of a trend) with some cameras from Leica. But the Nikon F5 e.g. lost dramatically in value and can be ebayed for 300-400€. That's a ridiculous price for a full professional SLR and prices are obviously still descending for these cameras. In fact comparable loss of value happens with old digital heroes like the D1x or the D1h. The megapixel and ISO (I-dont-want-noise) -race is also about to kill the prices for the last full "D" series cameras: the D2x and the D2h. Prices for these bodys are in a "freefall" state (second hand value: from about 4000$ towards 1300$ now at the time of writing this text) since the announcement of the D3 and D300 and we will see the same happening with the digit-3 series pro-cameras in the next years when new full frame FX digital cameras appear from Nikon.



    There are some interesting reasons why the FM3A is a good example for a camera that kept its value:

    1. The FM3A wasn't manufactured in high numbers therefore the camera didn't make it into everybody's camera bag. Production only started in 2001 and ended 1.2006.

    2. It also wasn't brought to market in a time for analogue or manual "metal" cameras. Most people saved their money for a D70 or 20D at that time.

    3. The Nikon FM2 was at the time of the FM3A a very affordable second hand alternative for the FM3A with lots of FM versions floating around in the used market. Lots of interested buyers did put their cash on the desk for an FM2.

    These are some of the reasons why the camera has become a collector item by now and prices for "like new" FM3A body's are in the range of the cost of the camera new from 2003. The FM3A however should not sit on a board. There are still some applications where digital photography cannot compete with analogue technology and the ability to happily shoot without any battery can also be handy occasionally especially under extreme cold conditions or for long distance travels to very remote places (it should be noted that solar energy can be used to refill the batteries of a digital camera - some interesting solutions are on the market already). One area that also still is film territory (and might stay the last film domain for a while) is the extreme long exposure domain. Shots made from shutter speeds ranging from minutes towards hours are not on the application list of digital SLRs mainly because of power drain and noise accumulation. There do exist some techniques to overcome the problems with digital in this area (stacking of hundreds of exposures to one final image f.e. in special star trail software) but analogue film cameras are doing very well here creating wonderful star trail shots.


    The viewfinder is a fresh experience if you come from a DSLR. The needle type of shutter speed display is however something that has caused some debates. I believe it gives very good control but this is a very subjective impression.

    The shutter speed dial is the most important dial of the camera in manual mode. Unfortunately it is not rotating very smoothly. The operation is kind of too tight.

    The other advantage with manual, mechanical cameras is simple - if you stay in the wild for some weeks things usually can turn uncomfortable. A mechanical camera is a wonderful fallback system that can even be used in the absence  of battery power provided all lenses are backwards compatible (still possible with the Nikon lens system though its getting more a problem since all new lens designs seem to be of G-Type unfortunately and do not have an aperture ring anymore - btw. you can use these lenses wide open if you manage to keep the aperture from closing down mechanically).

    Besides being a good tool for special applications the FM3A is always wonderful to handle. It has the old fashioned precision manufacturing feeling and handling that is based on brass, aluminium and iron and feels just very reliable and indestructible. Its size is also a reason for being a good companion  for all circumstances where the package should be small. Its shutter is based on a hybrid technology using power if used in A-Mode and being fully mechanically driven using the manual shutter selections.

    A very good and detailed explanation of the FM3A and its forerunner the FM2 can be found at www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/classics/nikonfmseries/fm3a/htmls/index.htm.

    B.t.w.: http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography  is one of the most impressive technical Nikon references available online!

    Nikon FM3A, Nikkor 16 mm 2.8 (2 hrs. exposure), the room in the house was lit with candles. This shot is where the FM3A shines. You can leave it outside in the cold for hours and it will nicely keep the shutter open without battery drain - just use a mechanical cable release - thats just how it used to be.




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