In 2015 when I decided I wanted to give film photography a try, it was the Leica M3 rangefinder that intrigued me the most. However, at the time I did not feel I was ready to plunk down the cash to invest in a Leica just to indulge a curiosity. After doing some reading around, I ended up deciding on buying a Nikon S2 of the same era, found a reasonable deal on eBay and made the purchase. The body came with the outstanding S-mount Nikkor H 50mm f/2 lens.
In the early 1950s, Nikon had made a name for itself as a reasonable alternative to Leica for photojournalists. American photojournalists covering the Korean War would pass through Tokyo, where they could purchase a workhorse Nikon kit on their way to Korea. Nikon lenses were viewed as exceedingly sharp and could give Leica a run for its money at a fraction the cost. Nikon cameras were also viewed as more durable and less finicky about maintenance than their Leica rivals, particularly important if you happen to be shooting in the midst of combat.
The Nikon S2 did not come out until after the Korean War in 1954, but by then, Nikon had already sealed its cred with professionals. Just before the launch of what was ostensibly to be the Nikon S2, Leica came out with its revolutionary M3. Nikon product designers quickly realized that their S2 was already obsolete before leaving the gate. So it was back to drawing board for Nikon to rapidly rethink the S2 and offer a compelling rival to Leica’s M3.
And so they did. The Nikon S2 mimics many of the features of the M3, and even improves upon some of them. Like the Leica, the S2 is a rangefinder. The viewfinder is beautifully clear and uncluttered with a 50mm frame whose magnification is 1x, compared to the M3’s .91x. The S2 is the only rangefinder I know of with a real-world magnification. You can look through the viewfinder with one eye and the real world with the other for a seamless view. Unlike the M3, the S2’s rangefinder patch has no clear border and can be difficult to discern, much like Canons of the day.
You have two means of focusing on the S2. You can twist the the focus ring on the lens or alternatively there is a spiffy little gear-like dial on the top-plate that that you rotate with your finger that also adjusts the focus. No such innovation on the M3, so eat your heard out, Leica!
Bizarrely, the aperture ring rotates with the focus ring, just like on the Leica Elmar 50mm f/2.8 collapsible lens, complicating changing and keeping track of aperture.
Film loading is a breeze. Like the Leica, you remove the bottom plate. However, the bottom plate is connected to the back, which slides off easily exposing the entire interior back of the camera. There’s no annoying door flap like on the Leica. Pop the film in, insert the film lead into a slot on the winding axle, and Bob’s your uncle, as they say! No fiddly M3 spool to load.
Imagine being in a war zone during a firefight having to deal with an M3 spool. What happens if you clumsily drop the thing in the mud and lose it?
Despite its merits, the S2 is no Leica. You are stuck with a fifty millimeter frame, and the frame does not correct for parallax as you focus like on the Leica. There are no additional frame lines for different lenses like with the Leica M3, even though Nikon offered a variety of S-mount focal length lens options. You had to buy an external finder for the flash mount. Nikon later introduced multiple finder frames in subsequent S series models, such as the much sought-after Nikon SP.
You set the shutter speed by lifting and rotating a spring loaded dial on the top of the camera, akin to the technology used in pre-rangefinder Leicas, like the IIIg for example. The shutter speed dial rotates as you advance the film, and then snaps back when you release the shutter. The shutter speed indicators don’t line up exactly with the indicating arrow, so you are always not quite sure you set the speed the way you wanted.
There is no sleek automatic frame counter reset like on the M3, and instead a counter dial that you adjust manually akin to the one the Leica M2, which Leica used as a cost-cutting measure. Effective but primitive.
The S2 also sports a film advance thumb lever like on the Leica, as opposed to the winding nob on previous Nikon models. It is single stroke, not double.
The S2 is substantially lighter than the Leica because it is made of some kind of aluminum alloy as compared to the brass of the M3. It feels good and light in the hand while still having just enough heft, and puts less strain on my neck.
And then there is the shutter. Releasing the shutter on the Nikon is loud. It bellows a deep-throated, chunky ka-clunk. It is audible to people around you even shooting on the street. It is loud enough to scare up water fowl in a marsh if you happen to be shooting landscape, and there is also the risk of shutter shake. The shutter is nothing like silky smooth soupçon of a click of the Leica M3.
And what about the Nikkor H C 50mm f/2 lens? It is no Summicron, but frankly, I can’t tell the difference in sharpness on film, and I don’t think anyone else could either, hence the reputation of Nikon as a Leica alternative among pros of the era. The bokeh is no better or worse than that of the Summicron 50mm in my opinion, but in any case, you don’t buy an f/2 lens for the bokeh.
So the Nikon S2 is a workhorse rangefinder. It was good enough for most pros at a fraction of the cost of the rival Leica M3 while incorporating most of the Leica features, and adding a few features Leica did not offer. Nikon just did OK with the S2, selling about 56,000, an order of magnitude less than the Leica M3. So Leica clearly came out on top. That is until Nikon introduced is Nikon F SLR, making all rangefinders seem quaint and passé, relegating Leica to niche status among pros and consumers alike.
I have posted a few shots taken with the Nikon S2 in Asakusa, Tokyo. If you are curious, the film used is Kodak T-MAX 100.