Updated May 2, 2023
Three decades...Six (and-a-half ;-)) models...ONE platform. Approximately 4.5 million bodies sold. That makes the compact enthusiast/semi-professional manual focus line of Nikon SLRs the longest-lived chassis in the history of the marque, and arguably, the most successful. Spurred on somewhat by the success of the Olympus OM bodies but mostly by the groundbreaking Canon AE-1, Nikon's foray into the world of compact SLRs first bore fruit in 1977 with the FM, and ended up with an "old vines" distillation of body and flavor with the FM3A in 2001. But there was a lot of ground covered between those bookends. So which one will be right for you? Let's dig in :-)
A Rundown of Features by Model
The FM (introduced in May 1977) was designed to replace the mechanical-shutter Nikkormat (Nikomat in Japan) FT series with a smaller, lighter-weight body that also was more efficient to manufacture. The influence of the Canon AE-1 in these areas was unmistakable: identical weight, and dimensions within 1.5mm at the most. But, in then-classic Nikon form, the FM was built more solidly, utilizing Nikon's proprietary "copper silumin aluminum" alloy for the chassis, which would be used for all succeeding models along with the professional-level F3. Needless to say, this material has stood the test of time and contributes to the feeling of solidity these cameras are known for. The FM featured the Copal Compact Shutter (CCS-M), basically a smaller, modernized version of the rugged Copal Square shutter used in the Nikkormat FTs. The film winding mechanism was engineered with 5 ball bearings for longevity and reduced winding torque (almost 50% less; both absolute and over the course of an entire roll of film). Seeing as it debuted right at the time Nikon was adopting their AI (Automatic Aperture Indexing) lens system, the FM also came with the added feature of a flip-up AI lever, which, when retracted, allowed the mounting of pre-AI Nikkor lenses (the contemporary full-size Nikkormat FT3 & Nikon EL2 also had this feature). This feature would be retained with the following FE, but all subsequent enthusiast Nikon film bodies would be AI-only. It can be very useful if you are into using pre-AI lenses. Here is the specification list:
The FE came out the year following the FM (April 1978). You could be forgiven for thinking that the only difference between the two was the "E"lectronically-controlled shutter and the "M"echanical shutter ;-). And while that was the major differentiator, there were some important refinements to the FE that would carry through to their progeny. Like the FM, the FE was intended to replace an existing full-size Nikon, the EL2, with which it shared its internal circuitry. As a clean-sheet design, the FM did suffer from a few teething issues. The FE had most of them ironed out from day one. Differences from the FM were:
Many professionals adopted the FM as a backup body for their F2s, with its weight savings on the order of 30%. They also appreciated the improved 1/125 flash sync. speed over the F2's 1/80 sec.; with the smaller, more powerful flash units then appearing, daylight fill flash was becoming more popular. This led to requests for faster flash sync. speeds and thus led to the next evolution of the FM/FE family. Nikon started development in 1977 of an improved shutter, which would also have, as a byproduct, a faster top shutter speed. It took them 5 years before the FM2 appeared in March 1982. Lightness and strength were the two key ingredients and so the famed "titanium honeycomb" shutter blades were born. They were chemically-etched in a honeycomb pattern to remove the last milligrams of weight to achieve the two-step gain in top speed. The titanium honeycomb blades would carry over into the next two (and a half) models introduced, until Copal (Nikon's design partner and the actual manufacturer of the shutter assemblies) was able to improve the strength of their duralumin technology to provide the same level of performance and actually improve stability in cold weather. Nikon proudly badged the FM2 in F3 fashion, with a large logo below the shutter release on the front of the body. It's fine, but a smidgen of the understated class of the FM was lost ;-). Along with the shutter, the FM2 received all of the FE improvements over the FM:
Added improvements over both the FM and FE consisted of:
Deletions from the FM included:
Following their pattern of having a year's separation between the FM and FE, Nikon brought the upgraded FE2 to market in March of 1983. And, as with the original pair, the FE2 offered some further refinements over the FM2, while likewise making a bit bigger deal as to its identity with the prominent "FE2" below the shutter release:
1983 also brought forth the most technologically-sophisticated member of the family, with the entry of the FA in March of that year. Originally intended to be the FE2, the FA's technical requirements pushed its cost above the market slot intended by Nikon for the FE cameras. Thus the decision was made to bring out an entirely new model while maintaining the FE-line. Billed by Nikon as "the Technocamera", the FA packed as much capability into the chassis as could be managed by the technology of the day. Here are its points of difference from the FE2:
In March 1984, Nikon brought us our 1/2 model update ;-). The New FM2 (or as it came to be designated FM2N), received the mechanical version of the FE2's improved shutter (1/250 sec. sync speed and reduced vibration). It also now came standard with the K2 focusing screen. The FM2N can be easily differentiated from the FM2 by the red x250 marking on the shutter speed dial (versus x200) and the "N" preceding the serial # on the back of the camera. The FM2N would see the longest production life of any model in the family, being discontinued in 2000. 1989 brought the internal change of the shutter blade material to smooth duralumin from titanium, being easily distinguished by the lack of honeycomb etching. The FM2N became the backup body of choice for many a Nikon F3, F4, or F5-wielding pro during its lifespan.
Denouement and Rebirth
With the advent of practical AF SLRs from 1985 onward, the manual focus SLR market went into a steep decline in the late-'80s and even cameras as dependable, useful, and classy as the FM/FE/FA family were not immune. The first to succumb to market pressures were the FE2 and FA, both discontinued in 1987 and supplanted by the AF N8008/F-801 in the enthusiast slot by 1988. The FM2N soldiered on with the inheritance of the shutter blades from the N8008/F-801 in 1989, as noted earlier. The limited-production FM2/T with titanium top and bottom plates (but otherwise identical to the FM2N) debuted in 1993. The FM2N & T would endure as the lone representatives of the family until they too were discontinued in 2000 with the advent of the digital era.
Nikon had introduced the brace of the FM10 & FE10 in the mid-'90s, but these Cosina-built impostors were nothing like their namesakes. They were built off of a generic chassis that Cosina used for a plethora of other cheap badge-engineered manual focus SLRs during that time period. They work, but they are not even close to the quality of the genuine articles. Nikon did themselves no favors schlepping them alongside the last of the F3s and FM2s. But there would be one more shining moment for the FM/FE family in the 21st century...
The Ultimate FM (or Should it be FE?)
Nikon launched development of the FM3A in December 1998, almost two-and-a-half years in advance of their target date to bring it to market. It was to be their most ambitious FM model yet, marrying the best of the FM2 and the FE2. The shutter was to be a complete hybrid, offering stepless electronic control from 8 - 1/4000 sec. in A mode along with fully mechanical manual speeds from 1 - 1/4000 sec. in Manual. It would use the FE2-style viewfinder with match-needle meter. It would also have TTL flash capability, but boosted to a range of ISO 12 -1000 from the FE2's & FA's ISO 25 - 400. The exposure compensation and flash ready LEDs would be moved to the top left corner of the viewfinder, which was slightly reduced in magnification to 0.83x. Along with the FM2's ISO range from 12 - 6400, the FM3A would also include an automatic DX setting covering ISO 25 - 5000 for those users so-inclined. A window was now incorporated into the film back to display the film data on the film canister when loaded. A new set of improved K3, B3, and E3 focus screens was introduced with backwards compatibility using the same exposure compensation or ISO adjustments with the FE and original FM2 as with the K2, B2, or E2 screens. The 2-series and 3-series screens are fully interchangeable with each other with no compensation required.
The engineering challenges associated with fitting the mechanical and electronic controls all within the form factor of the FM2 pushed the engineers to the limit. The release of the FM3A was delayed by three months due to the extra time it took to iron out these issues. A considerable amount of hand-fitting and adjustment was required on the production line, and far more than required by the extant AF models in Nikon's lineup or even its ancestors. This made the FM3A likely the most heavily-scrutinized Nikon 35mm body as far as quality control in their history. Production concluded in January 2006 along with the F100 and F80 AF models as digital was truly taking over the industry. An estimated 125,000 were produced, making the FM3A the "rarest" (relatively speaking ;-)) of the family. For comparison here are the approximate production numbers of the rest of the line courtesy of KniPPsen virtual camera and photo museum:
Nikon also made a few flourishes with the cosmetics of the FM3A. Most noticeable was the modern Nikon logo on the prism housing, with the housing itself being subtly re-styled to echo the shape of the original Nikon F's housing. The shutter speed dial grip was also finished in chrome on the chrome models rather than black as on all the previous versions. And the film wind lever and shutter release button were given turned metal finishes, making the FM3A the blingiest (stop me if I'm getting too technical ;-)) of all the FMs.
An Embarrassment of Choices
So which of this magnificent seven will it be for you? While the FM3A is most desirable for most 35mm buffs, it has one major drawback for many...cost. With current prices ranging from $500 to $1500 USD for excellent to NIB examples, the FM3A is anywhere from 2 to 10 times the cost of other models in the lineup in equivalent condition. If you can afford one, by all means, go for it...you are very unlikely to be disappointed. But for many of us, that will just be too steep, so how do the rest break down?
First off, you need to analyze what you need/want out of these bodies:
Caveats for the FM/FE/FA - Series Bodies
There aren't any major flaws and only a few minor ones for most people when dealing with these cameras:
Hopefully, you have found this blathering mess to be of some assistance in choosing among the FM/FE/FA family. For my money, the original FE is hard to beat as far as value per dollar goes. It gives you 80% of the speed capability of its impressive descendants (FE2, FA, FM3A) at a minimum of half the cost. You can upgrade the focusing screen to FM3A levels for $30 USD. And you can still use pre-AI lenses (with stop-down metering) if that floats your boat.
If you are more mechanically-inclined, the 1989-and-newer FM2N, with its less-sexy, but just as capable (and better in cold-weather :-)) shutter gives you all of the post-FM improvements, with only the pre-AI lens compatibility lost. But even the original FM, with its fixed screen, mushy DOF preview lever, and fiddly multiple exposure mechanism, is capable of superb results and a lifetime of enjoyment. Happy hunting!
Various Nikon Instruction Manuals @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/nikon.htm
Various Nikon Brochures @ https://www.pacificrimcamera.com/rl/rlNikon.htm
Various Nikon Articles @https://imaging.nikon.com/history/chronicle/
Popular Photography Lab Reports for the Nikon FM2 (12/82) & FA (05/84)
Nikon FM, FE, & FA Pages @ http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/photography.
Nikon SLR production #s @ http://knippsen.blogspot.com
Nikon Compendium: Handbook of the Nikon System
- Rudolf Hillebrand & Hans-Joachim Hauschild
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.