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Special Nikon F3 (Pic: Lyndon Snapper)
The specially modified F3 built for the US Navy (All pics: Lyndon Snapper)

Nikon’s F3 SLR is one of the Japanese camera company’s classic designs.

The manual focus F3 was first released in 1980, and kept in production until at least the year 2000.

It’s hard to get a handle on just how many F3s were made during the camera’s 20+ production schedule, but we do know it was very, very popular.

It was a proper professional system camera, produced with a dizzying array of accessories, from alternative prism finders to high-capacity film backs to titanium shutters to high-speed motor drives. The F3 even went into space with Nasa.

Kosmo Foto has now learned of another version, made in a production batch of fewer than 200 cameras; built for the US Navy to be used on the periscopes of its Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Australian camera collector Lyndon Snapper told Kosmo Foto that he recently found one for sale online.

“I found the camera on eBay from a Japanese seller… who didn’t realise what he had, and had photographed it so badly, he had mostly hidden its important features.

“The actual modifications were not extensive but included the US Navy ownership placards, a deleted multiple exposure lever, and an “action finder” with a simple mirror and no prism (and a round eyepiece).

“The most important item was  a special adaptor was made so that the F3 could be mounted directly to the periscope column, however this was not included in this eBay sale (and I haven’t been able to source a picture for you, but it is a large plate that joins the F3 lens mount directly to the periscope, with no lens in between).

Camera prism (Pic: Lyndon Snapper)
The camera’s unconventional prism (Pic: Lyndon Snapper)

“I believe that the US Navy commissioned them, and produced the complete kits at the start of the 1990’s. I’ve found a document showing the Navy ordered about 170 full kits (internally known as KS-158a), and a further 23 camera/drives/finders with adaptors but excluding the full kits (known as KS-149a) for a total of nearly 200, all over a period of time between 1990 and 1995. However there may be additional units. Who knows?

“This time period aligns with the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines being the primary intended use for the cameras.” The Los Angeles-class submarines were designed to hunt and destroy enemy submarines, and 32 of them remain in service with the US Navy.

“I think it’s safe to assume that most, if not all, cameras were dispatched for use, and then later sold on when they became technically redundant.

“There is a long history of still cameras being attached to periscopes by various Navy’s.  Kodak and Topcon have produced versions back in history, and I’m sure many other countries would have had their own versions,” Lyndon told Kosmo Foto.

The camera is obviously a huge find, especially for collectors of Nikon cameras, but there’s one drawback, Lyndon said. “I won’t actually be using this camera…. the finder makes it impossible!”

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Stephen Dowling
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