Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

The Nikon S2 Upstart Rival to the Leica M3 – By Steven Bleistein

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. 

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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.

You can see more of my work at www.bleisteinphoto.com and on Instagram @sbleistein.

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22 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    StephenJ
    January 5, 2019 at 9:04 am

    Hi Steven, I reckon that the bokeh in your fourth picture is rather good, and it is my experience of that lens, which I have in ltm and use on my M4.

    I have also owned a Mandler 50 Summicron, the latest version, and I currently own the ten bladed version of the Summitar. I am a bit of a 50 nut, as in addition for a short while I had the S2 but with the f1.4 Nikkor. I did some tests of the two Nikkors and the Summicron on my M4, I used an M converter for the f1.4 Nikkor, I shot a roll of FP4, and I liked the Nikkors better, but didn’t like the M converter, so I sold the S2 with f1.4, the converter and the Summicron, later I bought the Summitar which is collapsible.

    Not really gone mad with the Summitar yet, since I have also recently acquired a 40mm Summicron, which I love, even though it is really a Minolta lens.

    The S2 is great and very much under appreciated, but I used to get frustrated by the fact that the film winds on the wrong way round and then becomes difficult to load onto the developing spool.

    Even though I sometimes regret selling the Summicron, since it handles colour so gloriously, the Nikkor is overall a nicer lens and it fits onto LTM cameras too, as does the Summitar., and I like the character of the older lenses (including the uncomplicated bokeh).

    Oh and the M4 is my favourite M camera, it is the best built of the proper M cameras, has the best compromise regarding frame lines, and the whole thing is what they call buttery smooth.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jon campo
      January 8, 2019 at 1:38 am

      I agree, my M4 is the smoothest camera I have ever used, and Iv;e used a lot.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    stevenbleistein
    January 5, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Thanks for your comments. I did not know about the other 50mm lenses you mentioned. The difference between the S2 and the M4 in my view is like the difference between a Toyota and a BMW. Both are fine cars that will get you from A to B, and the Toyota is lower-cost and probably lower maintenance, but which would you prefer to drive? I enjoy shooting with the S2, but when I go back to my Leica M3, I only appreciate it that much more.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry B
    January 5, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Steven, an interesting overview of the Nikon S2. I’m always fascinated reading a modern take on an old camera by anyone who is new to film photography because, as you show here, the things that bug you wouldn’t have been that much of an issue back when these cameras were new.
    It isn’t easy today to fully comprehend just what an impact the M3 had when it was launched. And I’m sorry to disagree with you regarding the S2 as a worthy competitor as apart from its 1:1 viewfinder it is, and already was very much outdated at the time of its release. No v/f frame lines, no parallax correction, rotating twin co-axial shutter speed dials for slow and fast speed ranges which weren’t even on the Contax IIa on which the S2 takes its design clues; this type of shutter speed setting, separate dials, was last seen on the last screw Leicas, or their clones.
    Film loading utilising removable backs or removable base plate is very much a personal thing. As for myself, although I love my Contaxes, II/III/IIa/IIIa, very much, I did find loading them slightly more of a chore than my M3 or even my IIIf. What a removable back does permit, I agree though, is no need for a specially trimmed film leader and which ideally is needed to more easily load an older Leica. An advantage of the S2 is the permanently attached take-up spool, so loading should be less troublesome than with my Contaxes. Incidentally, regarding loading an M3, I did read of one respected Fleet Street photographer who went on assignment with his films already attached to M take up spools so reloading could be carried out quite quickly and under the circumstances I’m sure much faster than coping with a removable back and I’m guessing much quicker than conventional cameras with hinged backs and fixed take up spools. A press photographers trick of the trade, I gather.
    As for other cameras with a 1:1 v/f, in addition to Nikon’s own S3 and S4, there are two of which I am aware. The Canon P and the Cosina/Voigtlander Bessa R3A, which I’ve read has the best v/f ever fitted to an M-mount camera.
    One final comment concerns the lens mount used on the Nikon. It should correctly be described as Contax rangefinder, and not C-mount. True C-mount lenses are the standard for 16mm cine cameras; the amateur home cine version being the smaller D-mount.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jeremy north
      January 5, 2019 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks Terry for putting this review (thanks for the review Steven) into a bit of context. I’m surprised that he didn’t mention Contax when discussing the S2. Perhaps he doesn’t know about the Zeiss background.

      I’m curious about which of all of the Contax mount lenses are compatible with which cameras. I’ve asked the Classic Lenses Podcast to do a piece on it. I’ve yet to come across a definitive answer. Pre and post war Contax’s are different as are the clones including the Nikons.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Terry B
        January 5, 2019 at 2:35 pm

        Thanks, Jeremy. 50mm Nikon Contax mount lenses can be mounted on a Contax, and vice-versa, I assume, but there are focusing errors due to the different register distance of the Zeiss and Nikon lenses. This is the best site I’ve come across detailing the various cameras and explains how the register issue arose and why it can be a problem.
        https://www.cameraquest.com/NRF-Contax.htm
        The problem I’ve encountered with my Contaxes is with the Russian Jupiter 12 f2.8/35mm lens made for the Kiev Contax clone. I got the lens for the IIa and was disappointed to discover it wouldn’t fit. Despite this I decided to keep the lens and discovered some six years ago when I got my 1942 Contax III that the the Jupiter fitted a treat. Now this makes sense as we know that the Kiev is a direct clone of the Contax of the II and III, but it does suggest that the outer bayonet of the later IIa and IIIa mounts have been modified slightly. This also explains why the original Zeiss Biogon on which the Jupiter is based, won’t fit the IIa/IIIa. This supports your assertion that the pre- and post-war mounts are different, but I don’t have a Zeiss lens, other than inner bayonet 50mm’s, to test this. The issue seems to be related to lenses using the outer bayonet.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Brian
        January 5, 2019 at 9:24 pm

        The pre-war 3.5cm F2.8 Biogon cannot be used on the Contax IIa and Contax IIIa. The Jupiter-12 is based on the Biogon, cannot be used on the IIa and IIIa. Both of these may be mounted on any of the Nikon S-Mount cameras, but the shim must be adjusted for best focus.

        The Nikon S-Mount wide-angle lenses can be used on the Contax cameras, the shim must be adjusted for best focus.

        The Nikon S-Mount is physically similar to the Contax RF mount, but the Nikon is built to the Leica 51.6mm standard rather than the Contax 52.4mm standard. I modified one Nikon S2 to work properly with Contax mount lenses- I like the 1x finder and keep a Zeiss Opton 50/1.5 on it.

        The S2 is a fine camera. Use a half-case with it to greatly reduce the sound of the shutter. It’s mostly the shutter-brake that you hear, this was changed when the SP came out.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          stevenbleistein
          January 6, 2019 at 10:59 am

          Good tip on using a half-case to reduce the shutter noise. Actually, I have kind of grown to like the shutter noise. There is something very satisfying about it–maybe like firing a bazooka or something.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Zachary Archer
        March 3, 2019 at 10:30 pm

        Generally the wide angles are compatible between the two systems. Issues arise with normals and especially telephotos.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      January 5, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      While I write about features and functions of an old camera I love, it is not so much these that make me love it. Rather, it is how a camera makes me feel when I am using it. How an old camera makes me feel rarely has anything to do with its technical features. My father is a lifelong photographer and shot with a Leica M3 in his twenties. He grew up in New York, and I still remember a street photo of his hanging on our living room wall that must have been taken in Chinatown in the early 1960s. I wanted to experience what my father experienced as closely as possible, which is why I shoot mostly with a Leica M3. The Leica M3 makes me feel the way I do when I use it because it is the model of camera that my father used in his youth. There is no technical feature of any camera that can rival or replace that. Had my father shot with a Nikon S2, I probably would have felt the same way about that camera, technically inferior to the M3 or not.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Enrico Pietro
    January 5, 2019 at 11:42 am

    Leica M3 >1000000 Is one of the best cameras EVER made.
    Reliable, precise, compact and full of modern features. Can’t wait to buy back one.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Mike Hinkleman
    January 5, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    Nice review. I have this camera as well as a Contax II. The Nikon rangefinders copied Zeiss. They are interesting cameras and very showy like in crowds of people holding massive 7# black DSLRs. You will normally get questioned by someone as to what is the thing you’re holding.

    I don’t like the focusing tied to the thumb wheel which takes pressure force and can be a pain to the finger. The 50mm viewfinder clear and bright. Film loading better than a Leica screw mount but not much. Changing lenses quicker than ltm.

    Hard to beat the M3 finder except of course no 35mm frame. M2 solves that.

    You might in the future consider the Canon 7/7s. Nice right finder, metal curtains, swing back film loading. Light meter on board. A black Canon 7 is a thing of beauty !

    Winner: M3/M2. You’ll want both.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    January 5, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    Nice job. I love to see these classic cameras in use. If you like this Contax-Nikon-Kiev type of rangefinder, you can buy the 2000 re-release of the Nikon S3, made by hand and absolutely gorgeous craftsmanship. And in 2005, Nikon re-released the SP, along with a new 35mms lens. Cameraquest has an article:

    https://www.cameraquest.com/NRFS3%202000.htmFantasies

    A few years ago, the prices for these new Nikons were surprisingly reasonable, but I am not sure now. Most of the analog film machinery is climbing in price as of 2018 2019.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David Smith
    January 5, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    I had a similar experience a few years ago, choosing instead to initially buy a Canon P with a Canon 50mm/1.8 (with the Leica thread mount). Soon after I had the chance to buy a Leica IIIc with the Summar 5cm/1.2 (from the nephew of the original owner) and finally indulged in an M3 (precious close to the magical mythical million-count S/N). It came with a Summitar 5cm/1.2, and I then broke down and got a Summicron 5cm/1.2. Each body/lens combination has it’s charms and idiosyncrasys and any would be more than satisfying. In many ways the IIIc delights me most to carry.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    eric
    January 6, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Simply : M3 !
    It has 3 major “problems”:
    – no wide angle frame lines
    – way of loading film
    – the most important, the weight because it is build like a tank !
    But one of the finest machine on earth like some famous swiss watch and with a Leica lense or a few magic Ltm lense in 50 mm this the best photographic tool because : silent, keep film very well film stay precisely but not too much press and straight which improve the sharpness and magic pleasure to use.
    The best camera on earth

  • Avatar
    Reply
    paradroid
    January 6, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Great article and in particular the way you added historical information to it about who used the camera and when. By coincidence, am sat reading “The Great LIFE photographers” book which is full of wartime photos so very on topic.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      January 6, 2019 at 10:50 am

      Thanks for the comment and for the tip on the The Great LIFE photographers.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Zachary Archer
    March 3, 2019 at 10:28 pm

    No mention of the Contax rangefinders is a pretty glaring omission here. The design, mount, and back were heavily influenced by the Contax rangefinders of the time.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      March 5, 2019 at 12:12 am

      You are absulutely right! You ought to write an article on the Contax and submit it to 35mmc.

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