Once the production of Nikon F2 (1971) was put on track, the designer team got down to product concept for the next-generation flagship model, later known Nikon F3.
The Nikon F2 adopted the electronic circuits for exposure control and other mechanisms, though the shutter was the mechanically controlled, which had gained the absolute trust of professional photographers.
However, based on the concept that “without introduction of electronic technologies, only so much can be accomplished in terms of developing multifunctional cameras and at the same time further enhancing reliability”, we cast aside the then prevailing concept that high-end single-lens reflex cameras should be manual (for exposure control), and decided to develop an electronically controlled shutter for the next-generation flagship model by applying the electronic technologies which had been demonstrated to be sufficiently reliable in the development of Nikomat EL, to the mechanical design of Nikon F2 as possible.
This was backed up by our confidence that even the professional photographers who had been distrustful of electronically controlled cameras, would favorably receive any highly reliable, multifunctional flagship model, if we could implement it successfully.
In addition, one of the key features of the Nikon F3 included the motor drive, which had been designed based on the concept that it was not an accessory but rather it was considered an integral part of the camera. The motor drive speed increased to 6 frames/sec. from 4 frames/sec. in the Nikon F2, to satisfy the requests by professional photographers.
This enhancement was implemented free from any voltage increase with the adoption of a coreless motor, and thanks to the increased efficiency of the gear train for the film winding system and the resultant reduced load on the motor. An additional provision was also made for noise reduction.
The development of electronic Nikon F3 was started , using only analog circuits. However, the information volume to be processed was too large for handling by the analog ICs (integrated circuits) of the existing level.
Then, the direction was reversed and the display circuit was to be digitized. We planned to adopt the liquid crystal (display element) for reduced power consumption than the LED (light emission diode) which was commonly used for cameras in those days. The liquid crystal (LC) had been put into practical application only for a few years for watches and other some articles, though we decided to adopt the LC after due consideration to durability.
It was in March 1977 when the design was started formally after the product conception and organization of the prototype through integration of trial-manufactured parts.
The design philosophy consisted of implementing three objectives, 1) high quality and high reliability, 2) ease of operation and versatility, and 3) automatic operation, on the basis of the inherited philosophy of F2. In addition, electronically control capabilities and energy saving facilities were included.
For the F3 shutter, a modular design of our original horizontal-travel titanium foil shutter was selected. In the first year, a thorough analysis was carried out on the accuracy and durability of the shutter to ensure adequate mechanical reliability. During the process, a governor was developed that automatically allows precise adjustment of shutter operation electrically for improved efficiency of assembling operation.
For F3, the VE (value engineering) methodology was applied to reduce the weight and the number of component parts used, and a prototype was completed in November 1978.
Nikon F3 “Big” Camera
In the fall of 1978 when the development of F3 reached the completion of prototype, we were asked by NASA to supply the cameras for the first space shuttle (Space Transportation System: STS) to be launched in 1981. This request came based on our track record of supplying Nikon Photomic FTN for Apollo Program and Skylab Program in 1970s.
NASA provided the exacting specifications that the automatic exposure control cameras should be supplied in one year and a half and that the camera should be able to take a total of 250 pictures and allow film changing even during photography.
However, we accepted the order believing that we could fulfill the requirements by applying the technical know-how for F3 under development and drawing on the experience at the Apollo Program. We succeeded as scheduled and developed a “Big” camera for the long 250-exposure film, and a “Small” camera for 72-exposure “thin film”, and delivered the two models “Big” and “Small” in May 1980.
The cameras successfully passed the tests carried out at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The small camera was loaded in the space shuttle Columbia launched in April 1981, and accomplished the mission satisfying the expectations for 100% reliability without preparation of any backup camera.
The Nikon F3, which was under commercialization in conjunction with the development of the NASA specifications-based cameras, was released in March 1980 as the flagship electronically controlled aperture-priority AE SLR camera. The body color was black only, and the suggested retail price was 175,000 yen (with 50 mm f/1.4).
The exterior of the integrated camera body and motor drive MD-4 was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The novel design aiming at a simple form with a concave section on the front of the body for gripping and the impressive red vertical line exerted a large influence on subsequent camera designs.
The flagship electronic SLR camera F3 introduced by our designer team based on the foresight and technical know-how was favorably received also by professional photographers from the very beginning of release and sold well. In March 1982, Nikon F3 High-Eyepoint furnished with the high-eyepoint finder DE-3 as standard was added to the lineup, and the total sales volume exceeded 751,000 (as of September 1992).
In 2000, discontinuance of the production was announced.
For the Nikon F2 Series, the production was discontinued in June 1980, with a total production of the 816,000 units.
Nikon F3 came with many more functions, surpassing the F2 series. It was designed with a higher-precision exposure control, and the TTL metering through viewfinder was replaced by the TTL through-body metering.
The reflex mirror was a newly developed “pinhole mirror” which contained about 50,000 pinholes (20 μm x 30 μm (micrometer) elliptical non-deposit section) on the mirror surface to form the translucent central part.
The TTL through-body metering system was adopted because of the following advantageous features.
First of all, the TTL automatic flash exposure control was able to detect the light rays reflected from the film surface at the same light sensor as used for exposure measurement, using the dedicated Speedlight SB-12.
Also, there was no need for exposure compensation even after changing viewfinders or focusing screens.
Thus, a cameras compatible with this system could be used with up to 4 types of viewfinders (5 types when the High-Eyepoint finder DE-3 was included) and up to 20 types of focusing screens.
The shutter release button was the electromagnetic release type, which eliminated the junction (engagement) with any mechanical parts of the shutter and made possible the electrical interlock with the motor drive.
Nikon F3 with motor drive MD-4
In addition, the use with the motor drive MD-4 allowed using the power supply (size AA battery x 8 or NiCd battery MN-2) for MD-4 to power the F3 body, which helped save the consumption of the two 1.55V SR44 (former known as G13) silver batteries installed for the camera unit. In this way, the increased efficiency of the driving system and power-saving design with the use of the LCD contributed to the achievement of the energy-efficient camera.
In 1982, the titanium body Nikon F3/T was released.
The first use of titanium for the camera body was in 1979, when titanium materials were used for the pentaprism cover, top cover and bottom cover of the Nikon F2 to increase their strength and corrosion resistance.
In 2001, it was announced that production of the Nikon F3 series was discontinued.