Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

By Rob Youngson

I’ve never struggled to choose the right camera for my day job. I work as a motion picture stills photographer. That once meant using sound blimps with SLR’s, I now use mirrorless cameras in silent mode and the corresponding glass. Simple. The pursuit for the perfect analogue compliment to that equipment, the camera to take with me at all times and to shoot my own projects on has always felt more of a challenge.

‘Why shoot film?’ A question often posed then answered on the pages of 35mmc.

For me, it is an antidote to shooting for work, a necessary salve to the stresses of having turned my love into a profession. I might shoot five hundred images in a day, six days a week, then need to edit all of those in front of a screen. In a twist of aesthetic irony I often spend time making my digital images look less digital, less clean. When I shoot film, I have to work less hard to get to an end result the client and I are both pleased with. If scanned well, the most I usually need to do is adjust the contrast.

On occasion I find myself on film sets where the motion picture camera is shooting film (Panavision 65mm or 35mm) and so I can shoot the same stock (Kodak Vision 3 250D, 500T and 5222 BW), to get a closer match to the look of the final film. Creating a reference library for editing my digital files as well as being useable marketing stills themselves.

Actor Photographed in Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder on Kodak Vision3 5222 exposed and developed at 500ASA
A supporting actor photographed in Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder, Kodak Vision3 5222 exposed and developed at 500ASA
Developed & scanned by Kodak/Digital Orchard.

In the last decade, if asked what my dream setup would be, I would have said a Leica M6 with 28mm F2, 50mm F1.4 and 75mmF2 lenses, an xpan and a the latest digital Leica M. But the current pricing of all of these cameras led me down other avenues, surprising ones.

Most days I now carry a Nikon S4 rangefinder with 5cm F2 lens. Made in 1959, it is a beautiful piece of history and I have captured priceless memories on it. My Daughter meeting her Great Grandma for the first time, and the first time we took her to a festival. With a Voigtlander Vcii meter (terrible battery door, always carry tape) on the cold shoe, and a bright 100% magnification viewfinder, it is a joy to use. It doesn’t allow me to use the range of Leica glass or modern Zeiss and Voigtlander alternatives, but that’s okay, I don’t need an entire system. One camera, one lens, one less decision to make.

My Daughter on FP4 - Developed & Scanned by Jack's Lab
My Daughter on FP4 – Developed & Scanned by Jack’s Lab – Zone focussed and just sharp enough.

My model has a dinged filter thread and a number scratched in to the baseplate by a previous owner. But the glass is free of fungus or separation, the lens and rangefinder window are scratch free and the rangefinder aligned! So I am very happy with my rough and ready model.

I acquired my S4 through a trade, knowing very little about them until a week before the deal was done. Usually I buy a a camera after months of thinking. This time I didn’t, and looking back that was a good thing.  In my minds eye, this camera had not grown to mythic status, had not become the panacea to all of my artistic and technical shortcomings. I entered into this partnership, between myself and the camera, excited to see what it would bring out of me, and even how it might frustrate me.

I’m not an expert on Nikon Rangefinders, definitely look to other corners of the internet for a comprehensive guide. I do know that the S4 is essentially an S3 without the self timer lever, motor drive lugs or 35mm frame-lines. Less than four thousand were made and they were mainly sold in Japan as they were never pushed to the US and European markets, possibly because of the influx of Leica M3’s at that point in time and because Nikon were throwing all of their attention at the Nikon F. The camera that followed shortly after the S4 and made rangefinders seem antiquated. A Nikon SP or S3 can be seen on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 revisited. This fact definitely added to the magic for me. I mainly shoot Kodak 5222 (Double X) and Ilford HP5 in it.

The 5cm F2 lens is low in contrast compared to more modern lenses, so I prefer HP5 in it over FP4, and I find that Double X works well too. However that lower contrast can work to my advantage when darkroom printing and wanting to make contrast choices at that stage.

Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder, Kodak Vision3 250D exposed and developed at 250ASA
Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder, Kodak Vision3 250D exposed and developed at 250ASA. Developed & scanned by Kodak/Digital Orchard
Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder, Kodak Vision3 5222 exposed and developed at 500ASA by Kodak.
Venice on the Nikon S4 Rangefinder, Kodak Vision3 5222 exposed and developed at 500ASA by Kodak. Developed & scanned by Kodak/Digital Orchard.

The manual focus, metering, and film rewind are the antithesis of my Nikon Z7’s. Perfect.

Below are a couple of images taken on the S4 that I did a bit more post work on. I brought more contrast back into them with quite a heavy curve, but I am really pleased with the rendering.

Bewildered Festival - Portra 400 - Exposure compensated two thirds over.Developed and Scanned by Jack's Lab Bristol. Contrast curve added in Post.
Bewildered Festival – Portra 400 – Exposure compensated two thirds over.
Developed & scanned by Jack’s Lab Bristol. Contrast curve added in Post.
Bewildered Festival - Portra 400 - Exposure compensated two thirds over.Developed and Scanned by Jack's Lab Bristol. Contrast curve added in Post.
‘5am Friends’ – Bewildered Festival – Portra 400 – Exposure compensated two thirds over.
Developed & scanned by Jack’s Lab Bristol. Contrast curve added in Post.

Stay tuned for future posts on my thoughts of the Nikon F100 and my first steps into 4×5.

Many thanks to Hamish and every contributor to date for creating this online community and all the hard work that goes into maintaining it. I feel like the 35mmc blog has the same care put into it as a beautiful fibre print in the darkroom.

I have a fortnightly newsletter all about photography and creativity. Subscribe at https://www.robyoungsonphoto.education/

You can follow my work on Instagram @rob_youngson_photography

Or go direct to my website robyoungsonphotography.com

Occasionally my photobook from the film Belfast comes up on Ebay. Unfortunately there is no stock left from the original print run and no plans for a second run at present.

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About The Author

By Rob Youngson
Oxford based unit stills photographer, working on film sets around the world. My young daughter keeps my zone focussing skills sharp(ish). I believe Images deserve to be printed: bound into books, made into LP covers, turned into zines, added to clothing or projected for friends.
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Comments

Kai Lietz on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 31/01/2024

Great article Rob! Thank you for sharing your experiences with your Nikon S4. I like to use my Kiev 3 quite a lot, which, as your Nikon, bases on the Contax RF. So they're like siblings, in a way. Thinking about my Kiev, I totally feel your excitement about this camera. Just as a hint: The Nikon S series uses the Contax bayonet but with a slightly different flange focal distance. If I remember right, it should be possible to use Zeiss glass of that era with some adaptions within the lens. Not sure if that is an option or gives any benefit, though. At least I love my 50 1.5 Sonnar. :)
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Ibraar Hussain on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

Thank you for the excellent article Rob Your reasons for shooting Film are similar to mine. I photograph because I love doing it - the whole process and the satisfaction one gets when looking at the finished piece of work. I couldn’t work as a Pro as no one would employ me - I’d be useless lazy and would soon give up - for the same reason I hated college and university - I like doing what I want to do - not at the request or to a time constraint devised and implemented and Forced upon me. And your photographs are brilliant - I absolutely can look at them again and again. They’ve a timeless look and also a movie like look about them.and Kodak Double X is my favorite BW film!! Look forward to more of your stuff brother!
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Daniel Castelli on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

The dented lens gives you street cred! I’ve toyed with getting a Kodak 3C. The lure of a camera that you essentially can’t interchange lenses and presents a complete self contained unit has great appeal to me. Wishing you continued good luck w/the Nikon.
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Apelles on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

Wonderful article, l think you'll enjoy 4x5 with uncoated lenses, over the years at the flea market in NYC and the used equipment counter l've heard stories about Nikon rangefinders and their reputation being made by the Korean War,Googled it for this comment and on www.mynikkor.com found -2. Towards a Global Nikon." After the Second World War, Nippon Kogaku began to manufacture consumer cameras, and in 1946 decided to name their 35mm camera "Nikon". Nikon and Nikkor became household names around the world in 1950 thanks to an article in The New York Times that reported that the Nikon camera and Nikkor lenses used by cameramen from Life Magazine during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) were superior to the German cameras and lenses of the time. The Nikkor Club was founded in 1952 by then Nippon Kogaku president Masao Nagaoka, Ihei Kimura, Ken Domon , Yusaku Kamekura, and Margaret Bourke-White with the intent of giving lens-lovers a means of mutual friendship and international exchange. "
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Ted Edwards on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

Hi my name is Ted Edwards. I have a Nikon S3 year 2000 model. People usually collect them and keep them in a box. What a waste, I use mine with FP4 or HP5. and a Nikon 2.5cm f4 or Nikon 3.5cm f1.8 lenses. I love the pace of rangefinders. Take a meter reading, set the exposure, check focus.....click
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Rob Youngson replied:

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

Hi Ted, that year 2000 model looks beautiful. I’m so pleased to hear you are using it to take photos!

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Julian Tanase on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

Rob, interesting writing and approaching those emulsions, really captivating. I am not shooting much Kodak film, but if I were, I would choose to try that Vision3 5222 thing, I like that a lot. Rangefinders are a joy to use, and Nikon made a dew legendary ones. Enjoy your journey, thank you for your article!
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Rob Youngson replied:

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

Thanks Julian, It’s exciting to shoot the same film stock as what was used on Raging Bull and Memento etc. I really like the way 5222 renders mid tones when well exposed. Enjoy your journey as well!

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Philippe on Nikon S4 Rangefinder – The Antithesis to Digital Drudgery.

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

I've been a Nikon user for decades, and it's still my favorite brand. The S range is interesting and I find the optics extraordinary, if you like the somewhat "vintage" results they offer (you always have to place the equipment in its era to fully appreciate it). The S are barely less discreet than the Leica M, but that doesn't really matter, even on a film set. I am also a repairer and the Nikon S are astonishingly reliable and simple. Always loaded with ISO 400, the "old-fashioned" shooting method, the Nikon S cameras that you can have with you at all times.
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Rob Youngson replied:

Comment posted: 29/01/2024

I’ve always had Nikons because my dad had them and he used them because his dad used their medical range of optics and cameras in his dentistry practice in the 50/60s. It’s not so much brand loyalty as brand familiarity and back when I started out being able to borrow their lenses on occasion made it a no brainer. I still shoot Nikons for all my digital work, (except when on medium format digital). Thanks for your response Philippe.

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