Updated Nov. 3, 2021
In an earlier article, we looked at the differences between the Nikon F3 & F4 and how they might affect your purchase and/or usage of either body. Not being able to leave well enough alone, I thought, "seeing as you can purchase an excellent F2 Photomic or Photomic A or a plain F3 for $250 - $300 USD, what if we tried the same sort of comparison between the F2 and F3?" I mean, what could possibly go wrong in attempting a dispassionate, objective analysis of two excellent SLRs made by Nikon? Oh...right...we are dealing with two groups of people: 1) those that believe that the SLR reached perfection in 1971 and everything since is an abomination against the laws of nature, aka "Knights of the Order of F2" (referred to henceforth as KOTOOF2), and 2) everyone else.
...waits 5 seconds...
Okay...now that the pitchforks, torches, burning effigies, and other accoutrements to a rational discussion are at hand, let's wind the clock back to 1980 and the seismic shift that occurred in the Kingdom of F.
Actually, a comparison between the F2 & F3 as far as outright capability is concerned is going to be much more of a hair-splitting affair than with the F3 & F4, as there was less in the way of a technological jump from F2 to F3 than from F3 to F4. Your own photographic philosophy and ergonomic preferences will play a considerably larger role in choosing one over the other (unless, of course, you would lower yourself to allowing both to commiserate together in your camera bag ;-)). To reiterate: there is no wrong choice (in case any stray KOTOOF2 were masochistic enough to still be reading this far, that should get rid of 'em ;-)), but there just possibly could be a better choice for you personally :-). As with our previous comparison between the F3 and F4, we'll work from the largest points of disparity (real or perceived) to the smallest.
Shutters & Shooting Modes - Are you a mechanical or quartz movement type of person?
We may as well get this one out of the way first...seeing as it sits at the root of the great decades-old debate...mechanical (F2) versus electronically-controlled (F3) shutters. And this is the big hang-up for the KOTOOF2: the F3 requires two whole 1.55V batteries (combined weight 4.6 grams/0.16 oz) to power the meter and the shutter, whereas the F2 only uses them for the meter. So if your batteries die, (and somehow the extra 6 grams - with packaging - of a spare set of batteries is beyond your capability to bear ;-)) you still have the full range of shutter speeds available, whereas the F3 is stuck with a single mechanical back-up speed of 1/60 sec. and you have to fiddle with a lever (termed the "backup mechanical release" by Nikon) to activate it. How much that will impact your photography is for you to decide (See, I wasn't kidding about more decisions :-)).
Okay, with that out of the way, let's get a bit more nuanced. There are interesting features to be found in both shutters and some subtle, yet pertinent, differences:
Film Advance & Rewind - The F3 wins the power rankings, but manual is another story.
Both bodies give the option of manual or powered winding and rewinding, but the F2 exacts a heavier (literally :-)) toll in terms of bulk, weight, convenience, and power consumption when it comes to motor drives. Let's get the specs out of the way first and then get to the real-world differences. Age before beauty (or is it pearls before swine?) so the F2 is first up:
F2 (Photomic, Photomic S, SB, A, or AS finder) w/ MD-2 & MB-2
F2 (Photomic, Photomic S, SB, A, or AS finder) w/ MD-3 & MB-2
F3 (Standard DE-2 Eye Level finder) w/ MD-4 & MS-3 Holder
One of Nikon's major design objectives with the F3 was to reduce power consumption considerably, which is plainly borne out in the figures above. The F3 can maintain a 40% speed advantage over the F2/MD-2/MB-2 combo with 1/5 of the battery usage. One other trick the MD-4 has up its sleeve is that it powers the rest of the F3's electrical system, thereby conserving the F3's onboard 1.55V cells. The weight and power savings of the MD-4, along with its superior ergonomics to the MD-2 and MD-3, make it the clear winner when it comes to the Motor Drives. About the only advantage sported by the MD-2 is the ability to select between five speed settings in continuous drive, whereas the MD-4 has no such provision. The F3/MD-4 combination can even balance upright with a 200/4 Nikkor lens mounted. Verdict: Hands-down, the F3/MD-4 combo.
But, what if you are like the majority of vintage SLR users today, and a motor drive is the last thing you need? Aha, here is where the plot thickens ;-). The design strategies that Nikon implemented to reduce friction, the torque required for film advance, and thus power draw, also impacted manual winding effort, efficiency, durability, and feel on the F3. Earlier, we saw that Nikon upgraded the F3's shutter assembly with four ball bearings over the single one used in the F2. Well, when it came to the completely redesigned film advance of the F3, Nikon saw fit to use seven ball bearings in the winding assembly versus the single bearing in the F2's. So that makes the F3 better, right? Well, it definitely makes for very smooth and easy winding (too easy for some...who say that they can't tell by feel if the film is winding properly in an F3 because it feels the same whether empty or loaded :-)). But just as with fishing reels, it's not solely the amount of ball bearings used, but how they are deployed that matters most. I have had reels with three bearings that felt smoother than ones with double that amount, because the other components were better balanced and integrated. The F2 may only have one ball bearing in its winding assembly, but it also uses Teflon bushings and so its simpler film advance is nothing to be sneered at (effort is only slightly, and I mean slightly higher). It also has a very snappy short throw (120 degrees with a 20-degree standout for the lever) versus the noticeably-longer (140 degrees with 30 degrees of standout) throw of the F3. Together with that short throw, the F2 advance lever snaps back with more authority than the F3's (at least with my two samples, anyways :-)) making it feel more responsive. The analogy that keeps popping into my head is a luxury sedan versus a sports sedan. The more-polished performance of the F3 just takes a bit of the edge off, whereas the F2 gives the impression of a more direct connection (which there actually is, as the F3 made use of off-center shafts using multiple gear-trains to reduce winding effort, while the F2 was direct-drive, so to speak). That was the biggest discernible difference in practical use I could find between the two when it comes to film advance. Verdict: You are looking at two of the most reliable manual film advances ever built, and you will not go wrong with either one, you might just prefer the feel of one more than the other (the shorter-stroke F2 is calling to me, but YMMV ;-)).
Metering, Finders, and Focusing - No fancy-shmancy Matrix metering here...
The F3 marked a major change in Nikon's approach to metering with the F-series in more ways than one. First, the complete metering system (including the silicon photo diode metering cell) was now located in the body of the SLR (a la the Topcon RE Super) instead of in selected finders, as had been the practice with the F and F2. This accomplished a couple of things: 1) the interchangeable finders could be reduced further in size, weight and complexity, and 2) every F3 finder was now TTL (Through-The-Lens) -metered, whereas previously, only the Photomic heads offered this. The second big development was that, for the first time in nearly a decade-and-a-half, Nikon changed their centerweighted metering pattern ratio. Their long-standing 60/40 [used from the F Photomic Tn finder (1965) and Nikkormat FTn (1967) onward] ratio with 60% of the meter's sensitivity confined to a 12mm diameter circle in the middle of the focusing screen and the remaining 40% covering the rest of the screen, was intensified in the F3 to 80/20 with 80% sensitivity within the 12mm circle, and the remaining 20% rapidly falling off with virtually no sensitivity at the edges of the frame. This heavier centerweighting was adopted at the request of professionals that wanted more precision while not going all the way to full spotmetering (that would have to wait until the F4 came along :-)). Nikon retained 60/40 in all of its non-professional bodies until the F-801 (N8008) came along in 1988 and adopted a 75/25 ratio, much closer to the F3's. Strangely enough, with the F4, Nikon reverted back to 60/40 centerweighted to go along with the 5% spotmeter and Matrix metering options.
So which is better? Well...it depends ;-). If you are used to the 60/40 ratio used in the original F Photomic Tn & FTn, all of the Nikkor/Nikomats, the FM/FE/FA family, the EM/FG/FG-20, the F-301 & -501 (N2000 & N2020), the F2 (with any of the DP-1, DP-2, DP-3, DP-11, or DP-12 Photomic finders) will feel completely natural to you. It is simply a matter of knowing when it will be fooled (strongly backlit/frontlit or very light/dark overall scenes) and compensating accordingly. Once you are familiar with its limitations (which are relatively few), it is very easy and consistent to use. If you view the F3's meter like a fat spotmeter (using the 12mm circle to take readings of the highlights and shadows in the scene or simply placing the circle over the part of the scene you want at middle grey) you will be set. Verdict: I have been more than happy with the results from both metering patterns over the years, but I do like the 80/20 ratio of the F3...I like it a lot :-).
As far as the finders themselves go, the meterless DE-1 Eye Level and all of the Photomic F2 finders (DP-1, DP-2, DP-3, DP-11, and DP-12) as well as the standard F3 (DE-2 Eye Level) offer virtually 100% coverage @ 0.8x magnification with 15 - 18mm of eye relief on the F2 finders and about 20mm on the F3's DE-2. The F3HP (DE-3 High EyePoint) bumped eye relief to 25mm with a reduction in magnification to 0.75x and added 60 grams of weight to the standard F3. Unless you really need (or prefer :-)) the extra eye relief of the DE-3, the greater magnification of the DE-2 or any of the F2 finders makes for easier focusing and saves weight, to boot.
Where things begin to get more subjective with viewfinders is when it comes to the information displays, which come in three basic varieties: 1) analog needle in the DP-1 and DP-11 finders for the F2, 2) LEDs in the DP-2, DP-3, and DP-12 finders for the F2, and 3) LCDs in the F3. All have their advantages and disadvantages, so it comes down to which offers the least amount of compromise for you personally. Let's take them one at a time:
Next, what about viewfinder brightness? For the brightest image possible with factory Nikon screens, go for a red dot on the far right side of the letter + Nikon Japan engraving on the screen frame of an F3 (I will say that the standard red-script F2 and F3 finders & screens are plenty bright for me, but it all depends on your eyesight needs). Because of differences in the screen frames between F/F2-type and F3-type, you cannot just drop one of the F3 red dot screens into an F2 without encountering focus errors. However, a solution I have heard of being used by others (though I haven't needed to try it myself, yet) is to remove a red dot screen from the F3 frame and install it into an F/F2 frame.
**NOTE** Focusing screens are very susceptible to scratches and must be handled extremely carefully when making such a switchover. You must also be very careful to keep the screen orientation the same...if you somehow flip the screen over in the frame, it will be a no-go on focus.
Speaking of focusing screens, it's a draw as far as selection is concerned. All screen types from "A - T" are identical in layout between them. F2 screens are a bit less expensive on average than their F3 equivalents, so a small advantage accrues to the F2 there. One difference is that because light from the lens passes through the focusing screen before reaching the metering cells on an F2, you will have to apply exposure compensation for certain specialty screens. Nikon published compensation charts in various manuals for this purpose. On the other hand, because the F3's metering cell is in the base of the camera and light from the lens is diverted to it by means of a secondary mirror, there is no need for any exposure compensation to be applied for different focusing screens. A small victory for the F3 :-).
Okay, so after all of that, is there a clear winner when it comes to viewfinders and metering? Nope. It depends on you, and most importantly, your eyesight (how's that for a cop-out? ;-)). Both offer screw-in eyepiece correction from -5D to +3D (Diopters) in full diopter steps (-1D is the standard supplied with all finders from the factory). If you plan to use auxiliary finders frequently (waist-level, action, and 6x-magnified are available for both) and you want TTL metering with them, you will have to be satisfied with the F3. If you want the full vintage needle metering experience, it's going to be an F2 Photomic or F2A. Here again comes a decision, if your metering goes south on an F2, you are looking at repairing or replacing the finder itself; on an F3 it will be the body needing repair or replacement. Costs for the two are actually going to be similar for repair, but can vary more when it comes to replacement. Verdict: Let your eyes do the talking when choosing between the two, and remember that you can customize the focusing experience for either to the same degree.
Ergonomics - By definition, a personal decision :-).
This may be the actual greatest difference between these two noble Nikons. You have the smaller, lighter F3 (700 grams/24.7 oz) & F3HP (760 grams/26.8 oz) with their small fingergrip (the first for any Nikon SLR), and the more-orthodox-looking F2 (Eye-Level 730 grams/25.7 oz) & F2 Photomic/F2A/F2SB/F2AS (830 - 840 grams/29.3 - 29.6 oz) with no fingergrip, but a very comfortable feel for many people, nonetheless. The relationship between the film wind lever, shutter speed dial, and shutter release is also very different between the F2 and F3. The drop down from any of the F2 Photomic heads' shutter speed dial to the shutter release requires a different grip and manipulation of the controls than on the more compact F3 (this can be modified somewhat with the AR-1 shutter release extender on the F2, which reduces the amount of movement of your index finger needs to make between the dial and the release). Verdict: Try both before you buy, if you can. But it is possible to adapt back and forth without too much mental re-programming for some of us. (WARNING: KOTOOF2 apoplexy imminent ;-)).
Flash Capabilities - Can both lose at the same time?
Hoo-boy, here we go. Right off the bat, I'll say that I am not a fan of the F to F3 flash system as a whole and that's where both of these bodies lose for me. If I am going to be using flash (which is very rare, BTW) with F-series Nikons, I don't pick up any pre-F4 body. There...I said it...got it out of my system...now let's get to the comparisons:
One thing to bear in mind when it comes to the F2 and F3 and flash was that neither were really intended to be used with a flash mounted directly to the body. It was more of a last resort. Back in the day, photojournalists, and wedding photographers commonly used rigs with separate mounts for flash and camera, which accomplished a few things:
Verdict: Knock yourself out if you want to go with camera-mounted flash for either one...but I wouldn't recommend it, especially for the F3. So I guess it does have more to lose than the F2, in this case ;-).
Lens Compatibility - This is a dead heat.
It's pretty simple with the F2 and F3 and F-mount lenses: if it has an aperture-ring, it will mount. If it has rabbit-ears it will meter on a pre-AI F2 Photomic head (DP-1, DP-2, DP-3). Both have MLU (Mirror Lock-Up) for use with the few rare Nikkors that protrude into the mirror box. Both can use non-AI or AI lenses, although metering techniques will differ based on whether you use a pre-AI finder on an F2 or not...or a pre-AI lens on an F3 or not. If you are a heavy pre-AI Nikkor user, you will find a DP-1, DP-2, or DP-3-equipped F2 a bit easier for metering (automatic full-aperture) than an F2A, F2AS, or F3 (manual stop-down using the DOF preview button), although you give some of that convenience back when it comes to aperture-indexing when changing lenses. If you are an AI-lens user, the later F2A/F2AS models or F3 are going to definitely be more convenient. Verdict: For use with manual focus lenses, you would be hard-pressed to find two more suitable Nikon bodies. AI or Pre-AI? That is the question you have to answer :-).
Living With the F2 and/or F3 - Tips for buying & maintenance and repairs
Life with any vintage SLR is going to entail some form of maintenance or repair at some point. It is no different with an F2 or F3, despite the fact that they were two of the most reliable SLRs ever produced. Aside from a few NOS parts that pop up from time to time online, your sources for repair parts are going to be other bodies (cannibalization). Repair manuals are available for both models for the bold and adventurous DIY-er. The F3 will obviously require more expertise in the electronics realm than the F2 if repairs are required. Let's review a few of the more common maladies affecting both models:
Now for some specifics with the F2. By far, the most common issues with F2s arise with the metered finders. Let's review them:
Next with the F2 comes the condition of the shutter. Being mechanically timed, periodic adjustments are required to ensure accuracy. Nikon's factory specifications required speeds to be within a 1/2 stop. Most camera services will use that as their standard for adjusting an F2 shutter, however some techs will go for 1/4-stop accuracy, which will make for longer intervals between adjustments. Again, it would be wise to be prepared for dishing out for a CLA on an F2 that has been purchased online, unless you can somehow verify before purchase that the shutter speeds are accurate. Purchasing from a reputable seller that will stand behind their assessment of an SLRs condition cannot be overemphasized. Yeah, you will always hear of the person who fluked out on a $100 or $150 USD steal on an F2 that didn't need a CLA, but those are going to be few and far between.
Moving on to the F3, what should you be on the lookout for?
Keeping Your F2 or F3 Running Smoothly
The best thing you can do for either of these cameras is...use them. Even if you can't get out shooting with them, just exercising them every couple of months or so goes a long way. Run through the shutter speeds from high to low and back again. On the F3, make sure to use the backup mechanical release from time to time to keep it moving freely. If you are going to store the camera for a longer period of time, remove the batteries. Above all, make sure the shutter is NOT COCKED when you are done with the camera for the day (if using a motor drive, remember that it will leave the camera cocked unless you first turn it off and then release the shutter) and especially when you are storing it for a longer period. Store it in a cool, dry place, not a dark, warm, humid one.
To Sum Up
As far as sheer photographic capability goes, there is very little separation between the F2 and F3 in the real world. It might come down to a slight convenience here or there (Aperture-priority on the F3, for example) which may or may not have appeal for you. I favor the F2A for its needle metering, unequalled manual mode, and snappy film advance, while the F3's smooth advance and shutter, MD-4 (on those rare occasions when I need a motor drive) and 80/20 metering always put a smile on my face. Now, you may very well find that one of these mean machines checks more boxes for you than the other, and that's fine. You really cannot go wrong with one or the other...or both ;-).
Photography In Malaysia - Nikon F2 & Nikon F3
Nikon Manuals @ www.butkus.org
Nikon F2 Sales Manual @ www.pacificrimcamera.com
Nikon F3 Technical Manual @ www.pacificrimcamera.com
Leicaflex SL & SL2 User Manuals @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/
Sover Wong's website @ https://soverf2repair.webs.com/
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.