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Mike Graham
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Nikkormat FT3

The professional's second choice

This was the latest and greatest of all the Nikkormat models, aimed at those serious amateurs and professionals not wanting to spend the money  on a second F2. 

It's 1977. Nikon's flagship is still the F2A, not long ago the new generation of AI-Nikkor lenses made the previous claw-type obsolete but still useable.  If you were looking for a second Nikon body, you had a  choice between two cameras - an expensive F2, or the Nikkormat. That was it! The FM, FE, FG, EM and company were still on the drawing board, and  why change a winning design? They sold like hot cakes, and there are plenty of good ones around today.

What do you get with this back-to-basics SLR? Assuming you're a fan of heavy metal shooting irons - and I guess if you weren't, you wouldn't be here - the Nikkormat FT3 offers a pleasant mixture of professional features in a rock-solid and beautifully finished body, with just a few, forgivable quirks!

You get a simple matched needle meter that, oddly, works upside down... more light sends the needle down, not up! The shutter speed is visible in your clear and uncluttered viewfinder, and a split-image K screen does a handy job of helping you focus on sharp lines.  Nikon, for reasons better known to themselves, retained their strange shutter speed ring around the lens throat from the previous Nikkormats - a mixed blessing. Unlike the Olympus OM models of the era, the Nikkormat's shutter ring is an awkward affair with only a single lever to operate it. With the ring over the 1/15th position, you won't be able to remove the lens because the lever blocks the lens release button. Changing the ASA setting is a bit of a fiddle, involving pulling up on the speed ring lever and sliding a scale around. Check for broken fingernails when you're done...

On the plus side, the Nikkormat gives you that built-for-ever feeling when you use it. Unlike its pricier stablemate, the F2, the shutter travels vertically, giving you a flash synch speed of a full 1/125th - a boon for outdoor fill situations. As you squeeze the shot off slowly, you actually feel two little clicks before the shutter releases. In spite of the satisfying clunk, there's very little vibration. If you're working on a tripod, you'll appreciate the extra meter readout on the top panel. For close up work, and other technical applications, the mirror can be locked up to eliminate vibration.

The quality of finish - mine is a chrome model - is exemplary. The Nikkormat goes back to the days - long gone - before robots took over camera production, and counts in my book as a hand built camera . About twenty skilled technicians  assembled each Nikkormat a stage at a time, and the quality control people actually held the finished cameras in their hands and fired off test shots as well as fitting lenses and manually checking focus, shutter speeds and so on.  Nothing left the Nikon factory unless it was truly worthy of the name. This fanatical attention to detail, and the superb construction quality explains why so many Nikkormats are still in regular use today. The bayonet is stainless steel, and you'll find a tiny button at the top which will let you disengage the AI-metering key, letting you use your older Nikon lenses in stopped-down mode. 

As a learner's camera, this final version of the FT-series Nikkormat is unbeatable. The meter is center-weighted, about 60-40 towards the middle, and very accurate and easy to work with. Moving the wind lever to its stand-off position turns the meter on. With practice, you can operate the Nikkormat by feel alone, two fingers on your left hand driving the shutter speed, aperture and focusing rings leaving your right hand free to wind film and shoot. The depth of field preview - an immensely valuable feature disappearing rapidly on modern cameras - is right next to the shutter button in a position that's painless to operate without inducing carpal tunnel syndrome.

In spite of its odd ergonomics, the Nikkormat FT3 is a very enjoyable camera to use.  Virtually unbreakable even under heavy use,  it'll last you forever unless you actually throw it around or use it to drive tent pegs in. A bonus - the meter takes a 1.5volt button battery, available everywhere, unlike the previous models that needed the outlawed 1.3 volt mercury cells. As with all older cameras, keep an eye on the foam rubber mirror pad and the light seals on the back - if you see any signs of deterioration replace them sooner rather than later. 

Bottom line? This is a classic, hand built  Nikon mechanical camera. Phrases like "planned obsolescence" hadn't reached the dictionaries back then, this camera was planned to last a lifetime. If you buy one, don't keep it in a  glass cabinet - it was meant to be used!

Copyright 2001 by Mike Graham. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11 Oct 2001 .


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