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Using and Identifying Nikon Rangefinders

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In practical terms, these four different models amount to minor variations of the same camera. The Nikon One and the M's are far too expensive to use. Serial #'s 6091 to 6094000.    The Nikon S is comparatively common, and not very popular.   As a result, the S is the lowest priced way to get into the Nikon Rangefinders.   All share the heavy duty construction of tanks in terms of their body casting and body covers -- they have the thickest most difficult to bend or scratch chrome covers of any Nikon Rangefinder. 

From a user standpoint,  these cameras are slower working with  knob wind and rewind.    They are relatively heavy, noticeably heavier than the cameras which followed.   Their combined Rangefinder / Viewfinders are small compared to the later Nikons or the Leica M, yet large and bright compared to their main competition -- the screw mount Leicas.    The combined Rangefinder and Viewfinder window is nice (50 mm view only).   Strangely enough, their RF image is probably the brightest of all the Nikon Rangefinders.  While flash synced, the S uses an obsolete a prong type sync cord which is very difficult to find today.  Nikon S serial numbers range from  6094001 to 6129600.    All four early Nikon cameras share the same layout and can easily be mistaken for each other at a quick glance.   See separate profiles:  Unsynced M, Synced MS.

The Nikon S2

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The Nikon S2 was introduced in 1955, a great advance over the S.    It showed  Nikon's innovative design.   See Separate Profile Much lighter than the S, its features included:

  • A much larger Rangefinder/Viewfinder   for the 50mm field of view. In fact, it has the largest 50mm finder of any Nikon RF, but it is not parallax corrected.  If you are going to shoot with only the 50, this makes an excellent choice.   This is a 1:1 finder which is a big plus, allowing easy use with both eyes open, without eye strain.   The S2 RF image is generally brighter and less flare than the later S3 and S4 finders.  Many shooters find the S2 their favorite NRF camera for 50 lenses.

  • Faster and easier Lever advance and rewind, compared to the S's knobs.

  • Standard PC sync terminal

  • Single latch back removal, instead of the twin latches on the S

  • A much smaller and lighter body

All of these features add up to make the S2 a very convenient user camera today. Many shooter consider the S2 Nikon's best user rangefinder, though personally I prefer the SP.  It is also the most numerous Nikon Rangefinder and sells for less than half the price of the SP, all other conditions being the same. The later S2's have a black shutter speed dial and a black focusing scale. These later cameras are known as "Black Dial S2" and command a premium over the more common "Chrome Dial S2." A limited number of S2's were made in Black, and these command high prices from collectors.  Serial # 613500 to 6197000 

The Nikon SP

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Legendary is the word for this camera.  For its time, the SP  was far more advanced than anything else available.  Many consider the Nikon SP the QUINTESSENTIAL Photojournalist's camera.    For the first time, Nikon had not only caught up, but had passed Leica.    It's  the overall best Nikon Rangefinder choice as a user as far as I am concerned, especially if you have the lenses to make use of its six frameline finder system.   Serial # 6200000 to 6232200.  SP's are my favorite cameras and I buy all I can. See Separate Profile

 Shown here are three original black paint Black SP's with the new Cosina Voigtlander 21/4, 25/4, and 35/2.5 lenses, the Voigtlander double accessory shoe mounting a Voigtlander VC silicon LED meter, with two S36 motor drives and the impossibly hard to find Jacobson SP cordless battery pack (the first and original cordless battery pack for Nikon cameras) made in good old Hollywood USA.  

  • Nikon Black SP 2005! To most dedicated Nikon collectors, there is no Nikon quite as desirable as the black Nikon SP.  On January 14th 2005 Nikon announced a new limited production run of 2500 SP's mounting the 35/1.8 Nikkor.  This is a dream come true to many long time Nikon collectors.  Discontinued after a single short production run, the Nikon SP 2005 is now a rare collectible INFO

 

The Nikon S3, S3M and S4

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Nikon S3/S4's were actually built on the SP chassis as an inexpensive alternative to the SP. The S3 has a large 1:1  Rangefinder/Viewfinder with three non parallax corrected lines always visible--the 35, the 50, and the 105. The S4 has the same finder, but is lacking the S3's self timer and motor drive connection. The years have not usually been kind to the S3/4 finders, and they usually show a lot of flare, often with a noticeably less contrasty rangefinder than any of the other NRF cameras.  If you wear glasses, the outside 35 frame is hard to see.   Personally I find all the other Nikon Rangefinders preferable to these. Some S3's were made in black and are now a rare collectible. High S4 prices reflect its rarity and value to collectors--not users. It was never officially imported to the US. S3 Serial #'s 6300000 to 6314500. S4 Serial #'s 6500000 to 6505900.       See Separate Profile 

Nikon S3 2000: Nikon amazed Nikon collectors in the year 2000 by introducing the chrome Nikon S3 2000 selling for an average of $4500, a near duplicate of the classic S3 first introduced in 1958.   Some collectors hoped for a new SP, but the complicated SP finder would have made the camera too expensive. Also introduced was a new formula black 50/1.4.  Unfortunately, no other Nikon made lenses or accessories followed.  The story that I was told is that Nikon originally intended to make only 2000 of the new S3's.   Nikon is said to have cut off orders at 8000, though it is unclear if all were delivered.   In 2002 Nikon introduced a new version, a black paint Nikon S3 2000, limited to 2000 units.  Personally I think the black S3 was  just what Nikon collectors were waiting for.  I predict a relatively quick sell out. 

The Nikon S3M

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Left to right: S2 Black Dial, S3/S4, SP -- notice the different finder sizes

Voigtlander Bessa R2S: At Photokina 2002 Cosina introduced the Nikon Rangefinder mount Voigtlander R2S, the ONLY Nikon Rangefinder mount camera ever sold to the public with TTL metering, along with a new series of lenses: 12/5.6, 15/4.5, 21/4, 25/4, 28/3.5, 35/2.5, 50/3.5, 50/2.5, 50/1.5, 85/3.5.  After a lapse of only 4 decades, the venerable Nikon Rangefinder mount returns to the marketplace, complete with multi-coated lenses !


Best Classic User Lenses

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In Super Wides, the Nikon 21 and 25/4 are prohibitively expensive as users from an economic point of view. Yet you can use the superb  21/4 Zeiss Biogon made for the Contax with beautiful results, at a fraction of the cost.  This shows a 21 Biogon mounted on an SP.

In 28's, you have a few choices. The black 28 Nikkor is much lighter than the chrome version, and therefore a better user. For 1/3 to 1/4 the price of the 28 Nikkors, you might be able to find a 28/6 Russian Orion lens for the Kiev. Even though made for the Contax RF mount, it should work fine.  The new Voigtlander 28/3.5 is the sharpest of the lot.

In 35's, you have three to choose from: 35/3.5, 35/2.5, 35/1.8. The 3.5 and 2.5 were made in chrome or black, the 1.8 in black only. ALL are fine lenses. I prefer the black lenses since they are lighter to carry . The 2.5 is probably the sharpest, but the 1.8 is a fine performing fast 35. You could also use a Contax 35mm, such as the 35/2.8 Biogon or the Russian copy for the Kiev. I suggest you keep with the coated post war versions.  The new Voigtlander 35/2.5 is the sharpest, benefiting from decades of optical improvements.   

Be aware that for lenses 35mm and shorter, classic Nikon Rangefinder lenses and Zeiss Contax Rangefinder lenses are considered functionally interchangeable, even though there is a slight difference in back focus.  That difference shows up in 50mm and longer lenses, roughly f/4 and wider, 20 feet and closer unsharpness.  BUT if you take that same lens and camera shooting at infinity, you will be fine.

In 50's,  you can choose the  50/2 (black or chrome), the 50/1.4 (black or chrome), and the 50/1.1. The best user is the small compact black 50/1.4. The black 50/2 is also a nice lens. The chrome models are just as good, if the added weight is not a problem. The 50/1.1 is strictly a collector's lens. It is expensive and has relatively poor performance wide open. 

In 85's, there is the chrome or black 85/2's, and the black 85/1.5. The chrome 85/2 is relatively common and inexpensive. A fine performer, it is the best choice from a dollar to performance standpoint, although a bit heavy. The 85/2 Black lens is rare and hard to find, but compact and lightweight. It is the best choice as a user 85. The 85/1.5 is heavy and expensive and should be considered a collector's lens.

In 105's, in practical terms you can choose the 105/2.5 or the 105/2.5, or the 105/2.5, black or black versions.   The 105/4 is so difficult to find it's practically not there.  The 105/2.5 is a great  performer, and replaced the 85/2 as the most popular Nikon RF portrait lens.

In 135's, you can choose between chrome or black 135/3.5's. The chrome is so much heavier than the black, it makes the black a very easy best choice as a user.

The 180/250/350/500/1000 all require Nikon's reflex housing to essentially turn the SP into an awkward SLR. All are collector's lenses, and too clumsy and expensive to be considered users.

Best Modern User Nikon Rangefinder Lenses

The new Cosina Voigtlander lens lineup of 12/5.6, 15/4.5, 21/4, 25/4, 28/3.5, 35/2.5,  50/2.5, 50/1.5, and 85/3.5 are almost your only modern lens choice for Nikon Rangefinders, and fine sharp modern lenses they are indeed.   All are sharp, modern multi-coated optics, all are generally sharper than Nikon's classic lens offerings from a half a century ago.   The 50/1.4 Nikkor 2000  is also a great lens, but unfortunately it was sold only with the S3 2000 camera body.   Ditto for the new version 35/1.8 Nikkor 2005 sold only with the Nikon SP 2005.    The 35/1.8 2005 Nikkor is the best fast 35 in Nikon Rangefinder mount, but the original was excellent for its time   

The SC 21/4, 25/4 and 28/3.5 lenses are far better performers than their vintage counterparts.  The 28/3.5 has attained legendary status in Leica Screw Mount, and the SC is just as good.   Predictably the SC 35/2.5 also wins the sharpness game except against possibly the 35/1.8 2005.   The Voigtlander SC 50/1.5 is the only aspherical lens sold to the public in Nikon Rangefinder Mount.  It is exceptionally sharp, better than any classic Nikkor 50, and almost as good as the phenomenal 50/1.5 2000 Nikkor recomputation.   As good the 50/1.4 2000 and SC 50/1.5 are,  the Voigtlander 50/3.5 Heliar is the sharpest.   The S 85/4 APO Lanthar is likewise probably the sharpest short tele ever made in Nikon Rangefinder Mount.


Caps/Shades/Cases/Filters/Tips

From a user's standpoint, lens caps are sometimes hard to find. The plastic rear caps which replaced the metal rear caps have a tendency to shear off. Alternatives are metal Contax RF caps, Russian Kiev rear caps, or Contarex rear caps if you can find them.  CameraQuest sells body caps and lens caps.

Nikon's front snap on caps eventually break. Use non Nikon caps if possible, since this also prevents the originals from getting lost on a shoot.

Nikon camera cases eventually break where the front flap attached to the bottom case. Fix them at your local shoe repair.

I like the 28/3.5, 35/2.5, 50/1.4,135/3.5 vintage Nikkor combination because they use the same 43mm size. . Nikon filters are hard to find, but used Waltz filters are also around. New BW filters can also be ordered. The 85/2 uses a 48 filter. The 105 uses Nikon's standard 52mm mount which makes it easy to install a cap and shade from Nikon's later 105/2.5 SLR lenses.

The best shade for the 50/1.4 is not the Nikon shade, but rather the larger vented Japanese Waltz shade made specifically for the 50/1.4. .

Meter: Some people like the SP's original clip on selenium meter, but it's usually inaccurate by now, and difficult to repair.  A far better user choice is the silicon Cosina Voigtlander VCII  meter with LED readout.  Use the double accessory shoe to mount the meter at the same time as an accessory finder.

Even today, it's not difficult to have Nikon Rangefinders repaired, because they are MECHANICAL cameras--     just find an expert experienced repairman.  They are simple cameras to work on--but don't try it yourself or you will probably be sorry.   It really does take an expert!   The funny thing is that 50 years from now, craftsmen will still be able to repair mechanical cameras, while our modern super doper electronic cameras will be useless and unrepairable -- without their unobtainable discontinued special electronic innards!!! 


Nikon Rangefinder Repairs from CameraQuest

Nikon Rangefinders:  CLA general cleaning, lubrication and adjustment of shutter, rangefinder  $195.     CLA with shutter overhaul and replace shutter curtains with F Titanium curtains  on the S3, S4, SP  $375.      SP Motor repairs: Minimum fee $500 if fixable, $200  fee even if unfixable -- they are a you know what to work on and they eat up hours of the best repairmen.   Most common lenses cleaned $75    Exotic lens repairs quoted after we see the problem.     We repair the 50/1.1.

Nikon Rangefinders should be shipped insured.  I am not responsible for loss or damage in shipment, you will have to deal with the insurer.  All repair prices plus insured return shipping.  I will take no responsibility for damaged or lost international repaired cameras and accessories. 


The Romance of Photojournalism?

Nikon Rangefinders are relics of an age of Giants: Eugene Smith, Capa, and Swartz to name a few. 

With its unique six position finder and electric motor drive, many consider the Nikon SP the quintessential 1950's Photojournalist's camera.  

So, if you are out there shooting with your SP and feel the presence of Gene Smith, tell him I said "Hi."  


Voigtlander Nikon/Contax Rangefinder Cameras and Lenses

Voigtlander Bessa R2S R2C Rangefinders in Classic Nikon or Contax Rangefinder Mounts

Voigtlander Bessa R2S 50/3.5 Heliar S NHS Commemorative in Classic Nikon Rangefinder Mount  

Voigtlander SL 12/5.6 and 15/4.5 Aspherical  widest EVER for NRF

Voigtlander Nikon Rangefinder SC Mount Lens Intro 21/4, 25/4, 35/2.5 intro

Voigtlander Nikon Rangefinder SC Lenses: SC 21/4, SC 25/4, SC 28/3.5, SC 35/2.5, SC 35/1.2 Prototype, S 50/1.5, S 50/2.5, S 50/3.5, S 85/3.5

Voigtlander VC Meter II small compact silicon meter with LED readout for Nikon Rangefinders


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Revised: September 15, 2017 Copyright  1998-2011  Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.