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How to hack around the Nikon F3’s stupid, stupid manual meter

Nikon's F3 is almost perfect, let down by a laughably-bad exposure-meter display. This hack will let you dial in super-fast exposure compensation, using the aperture ring.

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Nikon’s F3 could have been the greatest 35mm film camera of all time, but they screwed up one big, big thing. The F3’s light meter, hyper-accurate though it may be, is almost impossible to use. Today, we’ll learn an incredible workaround that all but fixes it.

The F3’s problem comes when you use manual metering to set the exposure. Take a look at the viewfinder display.

You can see the aperture, relayed direct from the lens by a reflecting prism, and also the current shutter speed. In manual, you will also see the letter m, and tiny + and – symbols. These tell you if your current settings will over- or under-expose the scene.

The trouble is, the camera will display the same + sign whether you are a half-stop overexposed, or eight stops over. The only way to know is to click the shutter or the aperture, one click at a time, and see if the tiny + changes to +, or -+ (indicating correct exposure). Much better is the match needle system of Nikon’s contemporary FE2, which looks like this:

The FE2’s match-needle may be the best manual exposure system ever devised.
The FE2’s match-needle may be the best manual exposure system ever devised.

On the left side is a scale showing all possible shutter speeds. The green needle shows the speed you have set. The black needle shows the camera’s recommended speed. You can always see how far out you are, and quickly spin the shutter dial or aperture ring to fix it. It’s probably the best manual metering display ever conceived.

How to game the F3’s meter

While the F3’s manual meter is just terrible, its aperture-priority-auto meter is great. It tells you the aperture you have set, and the shutter speed that the camera has chosen to match. If you don’t believe the meter (and you shouldn’t), then you are supposed to turn the exposure-compensation dial to adjust it. But this requires two hands, in addition to the one needed to hold the camera. You also have to remove the camera from your eye.

One workaround, then, is to meter in auto, take a note of the shutter speed, then set the shutter speed to that value, manually. That’s as awkward as it sounds, because you have to press a lock button to unlock the shutter speed dial from auto, but it’s still better than using manual the intended way.

The F3 AE lock manual exposure hack

Instead, we’re going to stay in auto, and use the auto-exposure lock (AE lock) button. This button locks the auto-reading, so you can recompose your shot without the exposure changing. But we don’t care about that today. We’re going to exploit a neat feature of the AE lock button: it only locks the shutter speed. If you hold it down, then change the aperture, you can add or subtract exposure. Here’s an example to explain it:

In auto, point your F3 at a scene and take an exposure reading. Let’s say it recommends 1/125th sec at ƒ8.

Then, hold down the AE lock button. This locks the shutter speed to 1/125th sec. Now, keep the button held down (this is easy, as it is very well-placed), and twist the aperture ring. You’ll see that the shutter speed stays at 1/125th, but the aperture changes.

Do you want an extra two stops of exposure? Open the aperture up to ƒ4. One stop less? ƒ11. It’s easy. And if you decide you want to keep shooting at this setting, then you can just dial those same settings in manually.

The maximum/minimum problem

You probably already spotted the problem here. What if the lens is already open to its maximum aperture, and you want to open it even more, to add an extra stop?

No problem. In this case, you just release the AE lock button, close the aperture one stop, press the AE-lock again, and click back to the widest aperture. Another example:

Say you’re shooting a portrait. You meter off your subject’s face. The reading is, say, 1/250th sec at ƒ1.4, and you want to open up one stop. But ƒ1.4 is already the lens’ widest aperture. What do you do?

Just change to ƒ2, press the AE-lock, and then open back up to ƒ1.4. With a little practice, this becomes automatic.

This trick gives you the best of all worlds. You can use automatic, but you can easily step in and take control, without having to resort to the hard-to-use exposure-compensation dial. Also, you’re not limited to the +/- 2 stop compensation of that dial. Never will you have to deal with the F3’s terrible manual-metering display. And if you do decide to switch to manual to proceed, you can just transfer the current shutter speed readout to the dial.

Once I learned this trick, and worked out how to easily use it at the extremes of the aperture ring, it turned the F3 from a “sell-it-on” dud to a flawed gem. I couldn’t be happier, because almost everything else about the camera is amazing.

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