Friday, 7 December 2012

Sophie F3

I decided to take my old Nikon F3 for a spin, and use up some of the Kodak Portra 160 I have lying around. So I popped off to Brompton Cemetery again with the lovely Sophie Rose Jones, and a warm coat.

Ms Jones had a vintage Biba dress from the 1960s, my F3 was made in 1986, judging by the serial number, the Portra 160 and Epson V500 that I scanned it with are new. Sophie herself was born in the 1990s. Brompton Cemetery itself has been around for donkey's years.

Lens-wise I used a Samyang 85mm f/1.4, which is an anachronism. It's a recent design that was launched a couple of years ago and is still available new, under a plethora of brand names - Rokinon seems to be the most popular in the UK. The light was fading and most of these were shot wide open at 1/30th, 1/60th, but the F3 is stout, especially with the MD-4 motor drive which - as you can see - is cleverly designed so that the camera doesn't tip forwards when it has a heavy lens. Without the MD-4 the F3 is surprisingly petite.

For full-on Nikon F3 effect I should have had a 105mm f/2.5 or the mid-80s 80-200mm f/4. Also, Sophie would be wearing leather trousers and she would have huge poofy hair. The F3 was an aggressively 80s camera, with a body styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro that introduced Nikon's famous red stripe. In fact it was the first professional Nikon to be styled rather than simply built, and was launched at a time when Nikon was starting to embrace the consumer market. In their contemporary product line-up it was referred to internally as "Super Nikon", versus "Simple Nikon" (the FE), "Compact Nikon" (the FM), and "Little Nikon" (the EM).

Portra 160 is very flattering and appears to have been designed to photograph white people standing in foliage. I exposed these images at ISO 100, but Photoshop has since done its magic as well.

The F3 was an oddity in Nikon's pro line. The F2 had been an evolution of the original F, but the F3 was a clean break, with a new and more compact body style, an electronically-timed shutter, Olympus OM-esque TTL flash, new motor drive etc. It remained in production for over twenty years, and actually outlasted the F4 and almost the F5. Although Nikon boasted of its space-age technology, it had a basic, minimalist specification; centre-weighted metering and that's it, top shutter speed 1/2000, flash sync 1/80, neither of which advanced on the F2. Spot, matrix, multi-spot, 3d automatic multi-pattern colour matrix, the F3 knows not these things. It has a very basic LCD readout in the viewfinder, with a simple backlight that doesn't work very well. In 1980 LCDs were still very novel - commercial LCD calculators and wristwatches had only been around since the early 1970s - and Nikon erred on the side of caution, suggesting that the display would need replacement every six-seven years. In practice I find the LCD almost completely useless - it's small, a bit out of the way, dim. LEDs were the way forward.

The F3's heyday spanned the 1980s. It was launched in 1980 and was still a front-line press camera after the launch of the F4, in 1988, and so it was present for the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the other events that took place at the very end of the decade. It also had the odd distinction of being the top press camera at a time when photojournalism was being pushed aside by live television news. The rise of electronic news gathering and portable video cameras during the 1980s meant that news became a television thing. Challenger exploded on television; the SAS stormed Prince's Gate on television. The crowd at Hillsborough died on television, the Berlin Wall fell on television, the Gulf War was television. News stories were no longer broken with photographs, unless they were too remote for video, in which case no-one in the West cared much about them. Instead, the photographs were there to accompany the video, as a kind of permanent record for archival purposes.

Kodak Tri-X

The F3 was the first colour Nikon, too. Newspapers adopted colour printing in the 1980s, so that they would look like television. The World Press Photo Awards dropped its Color Picture Stories category for 1981 because all news was in colour now. In the 1960s and 1970s news was in black and white; in the 1980s the real world that we saw on television was colour, and it moved. Purely as a means of recording reality, photography was made obsolete by television, just as photography had made painting obsolete in the late 1800s.

As fate would have it, two of the most iconic photographs of the 1980s were taken with Nikon's semi-pro models, not the F3. For his famous June 1985 National Geographic cover shot of the Afghan Girl, linked above, Steve McCurry used a Nikon FM2, which was the F3's compact, hand-powered counterpart, and a few years later Charlie Cole used an FM2n to take one of the most widely-circulated images of Tiananmen Square's Tank Man. Cole was one of several photographers who captured the event - Jeff Widener, who won the Pulitzer Price for his take, used a Nikon FE2. He had brought an F3 with him, but in the preceding hours "a stray rock had struck my face while photographing a burning armored car during the Tiananmen uprising. The Nikon F3 Titanium camera had absorbed the shock and thus saved my life." Thus making the F3 the second Nikon to die in the line of duty.

As of 2012 the F3 is a bit of a plastic antique, and it's available very cheaply on the used market. It doesn't have the romantic appeal of the F and F2, it's not as advanced as the F5, and it's less flexible than the F4. And it's not cute, it's too aggressive for that. There's a perception that it's too large and heavy for civilian use, but - again - without the MD4 it's no larger than a Pentax K1000 (for example) and smaller than most digital SLRs. On the positive side it's compatible with old pre-AI lenses and has a clear, usable split-image focus screen. It uses a pair of commonly-available LR44 batteries, which last for ages. The MD-4 takes eight AAs - plain old alkalines if you want - and when the MD-4 is fitted it powers the whole camera, so you can leave the LR44s in as a backup.

The F3 was the first pro Nikon that absolutely had to have batteries in order to function properly. The F and F2 had battery-driven lightmeters but were otherwise powered mechanically by the advance lever. In contrast, the F3 had an electronically-timed shutter that didn't fire without batteries. There is a manual shutter trip switch on the front, but it's awkward. The electronic shutter was supposedly a bone of contention with professional photographers at the time, although I'm skeptical of this myself; professionals had been using battery-powered F2 motor drives with belt-mounted power packs for years before the F3 came out. How hard can it have been to take along some LR44s? My guess is that wafflers were worried, actual professionals didn't care. Once the F3's frugal power consumption became widespread knowledge the controversy presumably evaporated. As of 2012 the battery issue seems especially feeble, given that later Nikons - the F5 in particular - were even more power-hungry. And nowadays everything is battery-powered. The modern mobile journalist is a walking power station.

The F3 remained in limited production until 2001. During its long life there were several variations. Mine is a standard F3. There was a popular F3HP, which had a larger prism with greater eye relief, and an F3/T with a titanium top plate, base, and back. There were also several limited editions, including a weatherproof, simplified F3/P. The F3 was also popular as a kind of test hack. Kodak used a F3 chassis to build the Kodak DCS, the very first digital SLR. NASA had their own specially-modified version of the F3, and Nikon itself tested the waters of autofocus with the F3AF, which had a bulky autofocus prism and a pair of special autofocus lenses, an 80mm and a 200mm.

The last variation of the F3 built in quantity was the F3H, a high-speed model that was launched in time for the 1998 Winter Olympics. It had a fixed pellicle mirror and a special motor drive that could speed through thirteen and a half frames a second, which is still impressive nowadays.

And that's the F3. Why did I buy one? "Girls on Film", that's why. The Duran Duran song. I always wanted a camera with a clattery motor drive, because I have fond memories of that video. Apparently the band recorded a Nikon, but I can't be sure they used an F3. Looking at the waveform, it's firing at just under four frames a second, but I can't tell if they shifted the tempo, so it could be a slow MD-4 or a fast MD-2. Perhaps we will never know.