This year will go down in history for a lot of negative reasons, but here’s one positive: 2020 marks the 40th birthday of the release of the Nikon F3, a flagship 35mm film SLR that was indeed as tough and bulletproof as the Royal Navy’s finest.

The Nikon museum in Japan is holding an exhibition to celebrate this iconic film SLR, which appealed to pros and serious amateurs alike, and was produced for an impressive 21 years before being discontinued. The F3 launched in the UK for about £600 with a 50 mm f/1.4 lens, and there were several versions including one for the press (famous Vietnam war photographer Eddie Adams advertised it with the very clever strapline, ‘going to war with any other camera would be taking a risk.’)

The F3 as captured by Tony Hurst

The F3 looked great too, being designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro who also worked on the Lotus Esprit and Seiko Speedmaster Speedmaster Chronograph watch. Shop around and you can pick up one in reasonable condition for a few hundred pounds, much more if it’s mint, or a special edition. To find out more about the F3’s enduring appeal, we caught up with Gray Levett, owner of used Nikon specialist, Grays of Westminster.

Why was this such an important film SLR for Nikon?
The F3 was probably Nikon’s longest-running flagship model. It was quietly discontinued at one point, then for some reason a lot of young people in Japan started acquiring manual focus cameras, so they went back and made a further 5000. But to answer your question, it was very easy to use, with everything falling to hand, while also being very rugged, with a great metering system. The fact that NASA had enough confidence in the F3 to request a special variation for the first space shuttle in 1981 shows how well it was regarded.

What is the most desirable used model?
Two models were released in UK, the straight F3 and the F3 High Eyepoint, which is the most desirable one. Nikon also released lots of accessories, with something like 12 different focusing screens, multiple exposure backs and so on. They went to a lot of trouble to build a real system around the F3. People actively seek out the F3, as it rarely goes wrong. For us, getting one in the right condition is the challenge, as we are quite fussy about our grading description.

So would you recommend one as a quality used film SLR?
To go back to the reliability, I’d definitely recommend the F3 to anyone seeking their first manual focus film SLR. They very rarely go wrong, and it’s so easy to get parts for them. The F3 was one of the pillars of Nikon 35mm film cameras and played a big part in the company’s continued success. Not that I would recommend it, but you could hammer in nails with one!