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Some love for the Nikon FM3a

In November of 2009 I decided to take a stab at photography. I had done some very basic photography in grad school, but it never really stuck. After doing some research, I selected the Nikon D90; I'm sure I'll write more about that camera in future posts. In the spring of 2010, in anticipation of taking a darkroom/film photography class, I started looking into manual operation film cameras (Nikons only, so that there could be some sharing of lenses with the D90). I was primarily interested in the FM2 and FE2, which were made in the 1980s through 1990s, but eventually settled on the the FM3a. The FM3a is essentially an updated hybrid of the FM2 and FE2; it's fully mechanical and can operate without batteries (sans meter), but does have an aperture priority mode. It's the last mechanical, manual, SLR that Nikon made (the Cosina-built FM10 notwithstanding), still being produced into the first few years of the 21st century.

I won't give the full laundry list of the features of the FM3a (there’s tons of great info about the FM3a here). And let's save the discussion of film vs. digital for later (I like both). I want to talk about the feel, handling, and ergonomics of the FM3a; the connection between machine and human user. I can sum it up by saying that “I LOVE IT!” It’s compact and rugged, with a minimum of plastic. The shutter fires with a deliberate and confident click, and I don’t even mind advancing the film with the lever. Setting the aperture with a ring on the lens and shutter speed with a knob is much more satisfying than spinning a couple of dials. It just makes the experience much more thoughtful. I enjoy manually focusing (yes, I know I can do this on the D90), and with a pancake lens like the Cosina/Voigtlander 20mm F/3.5 or 40mm F/2.0 SLII, or even a bigger lens like the Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 or CV 58mm F/1.4, the camera is small and unobtrusive. It can fit under a jacket easily and you don’t freak people out by sticking a huge hunk of plastic and glass in their faces when you are shooting on the street. I leave it in my bookbag at all times; the FM3a and iPad make perfect travel companions in a small shoulder bag. There are still plenty of times I need to opt for the D90 and a laptop, but together they feel collectively more cumbersome.

I should probably note the things I *don’t* like: while I do love the needle-match metering system, it is a pain to use when it’s dark (I guess that’s when aperture priority mode is useful). The center-weighted metering is fine, but it would be great if Nikon would have graced us with a spot meter. And I wouldn’t mind if the shutter was quieter. I also don’t like that I can’t decide if I like the chrome or black version better (mine is chrome, like the one in the stock photo here).

Please Nikon, give us a digital version of the FM3a! Even back in 2004 some bloggers speculated about it. I’m hoping that Fuji’s soon to be released X100 will start a trend, however I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. But I can always dream!

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