The Nikon S2 is a classic rangefinder from the mid 1950s. It is known for its quirky operation, striking looks, and a bright viewfinder. Sporting just 50mm framelines, it is often compared to the legendary Leica M3. However, despite being extremely capable and undeniably beautiful, these cameras are not especially well known, at least relative to their Leica and Canon counterparts.
I don’t have a huge amount of experience or knowledge of Nikon cameras or lenses, be they digital or film. However, as a fan of unusual cameras, when I came across this oddball beauty, I knew that I would have to try it out for myself. I have a particular penchant for rangefinders as (thanks to my terrible vision) I find them much easier to focus than SLRs or TLRs.
I ended up getting a Nikon S2 from the US of A, complete with a Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens for what I saw as a decent price, especially as it appeared to be in rather nice condition. As you may expect from a Nikon mechanical camera, it has an extremely solid build, and it really is quite spectacular to look at. I especially like the older Nikon logo on the front.
Quirks and Oddities
There are a bunch of strange features of the Nikon, and in some ways I am fairly pleased about that. After all, if the operation was exactly the same as my other rangefinders, there really wouldn’t be much point in having the S2. Here’s some of the idiosyncracies that I noticed right off the bat:
- Shutter button position: The placement of the shutter button is weird, in that it sits a bit further back than feels natural. You get used to it, but it is still odd. There is no shutter button ‘lock’ either, which is a shame, but it is recessed a bit to avoid accidental triggering. Oh, and there’s also no screw hole for a soft shutter release, if you’re into that kind of thing.
- Infinity lock: There is an infinity lock on the lens, which is baked into the camera mechanism. You can unlock it either by a lever which pops up on the finger-wheel, or from the front of the camera, but it isn’t especially intuitive if you are focussing using the lens barrel itself. I am constantly forgetting about this and having to faff about to unlock it.
- Finger focussing: As well as twisting the focus ring, you can focus using a small metal dial on the top of the camera, near the shutter button. This is a pretty cool feature in theory, as it could help with finer focus control… but it takes a bit of getting used to, and the gnurled metal of the dial can chew your finger up pretty quickly. The major bonus of the finger focus knob is that you can disengage the aforementioned infinity lock without having to reach down onto the front of the camera body, which is rather handy.
- Whole lens rotation: When focussing, the whole lens rotates, meaning that the aperture selection ring moves around with it. This is a bit weird, and can cause problems if you use a circular polarisation filter, but I suspect it also means that the lens can be a bit smaller.
- Reverse focussing: I’m not sure if this is particular to this particular camera, or is common for Nikons generally, but the camera focusses the opposite way to most others. As in, you turn the lens to the left to focus near, and right to focus further away. Again, this is something that you will probably get used to pretty quickly if you are just using a single camera, but it does make it tough to jump between different manual focus cameras in one shoot.
- Slower shutter speed dial: Switching the shutter speed to 1/30s and beyond requires you to engage a second shutter dial – similar to the old screwmount Leica cameras. This adds an extra, fiddly step to the process, and could slow you down a bit when shooting.
- Loud shutter: This camera may be a distant relative of the Leica M rangefinders, but boy oh boy does it not sound like one. The shutter is loud. I’m not really sure how that makes much sense, but here we are. It is not a particularly subtle camera for street photography. That’s all I’m saying.
- Rear access: When loading or unloading film, the entire back slides off, rather than there being a hinged door, or bottom plate. This theoretically means that it is less likely to suffer leaks – but it is a bit of an interesting quirk. It reminds me of the Rollei 35S in that regard.
- Squeaky Helicoid: One common ‘issue’ with these cameras is that the focussing helicoid can be squeaky. This can be adjusted with a CLA, but you need to make sure and have it done to taste, because if you add too much grease, you can effectively render the finger focus dial inoperable.
You can apparently use Contax lenses like the Jupiter series on the Nikon S mount, though they will not focus precisely. This is less of an issue if you are shooting with a wide angle lens such as the Jupiter 12 35mm, and if you shoot at an aperture smaller than f4, but it will still be imperfect. At the time of writing, I haven’t given this a bash… as I’m fairly happy with the Nikkor 50mm f1.4.
Why the S2?
The Nikon S2 is part of a series of S-mount cameras from Nikon that began with the Nikon I, and culminated in the ‘professional quality’ SP. The S2 was the second in the ‘S’ series, and also apparently the first Japanese camera to have both a film advance lever, and a rewind crank (instead of knobs), which is pretty cool. It is limited to 50mm frame lines, which means that the use of other focal lengths requires an external viewfinder. Subsequent variations of the camera added additional frame lines and other features like a self-timer and all that kind of thing.
I initially wanted to pick up a black paint SP, but quickly abandoned that idea when I realised the cost of them. Why are black paint cameras so expensive? Scratch that. We all know the answer. After my initial disappointment, I hummed and hawwed between getting an S2 or an SP, as the latter seemed to be a more capable camera (the multiple framelines for different focal lengths in particular), but in the end, I went for the S2 as they were a bit cheaper, and much easier to come by. The decision was also made a lot easier by the lack of lenses compatible with the Nikon rangefinder system. It seemed like the choice was pretty limited, and so the lack of 35mm framelines wasn’t likely to be a big issue. At the end of the day, if I desperately wanted to shoot 35mm, then eh… I’d use another camera.
I really like the Nikon S2. It is quirky, mechanically beautiful, and feels like you are using a part of photographic history. The various idiosyncracies of the S2 do make it tricky to pick up and immediately shoot with after I’ve been using a Leica or Canon rangefinder for a while, but that is part of the charm of shooting with an older camera, and in reality it’s not a big deal to get used to.
I wondered if I would regret picking the S2 specifically due to the lack of 35mm frame lines, but I have to say that I was pleased to find that in practice, having the full viewfinder dedicated to the 50mm perspective gave the illusion that there was more room in the frame than when I shot 50mm on my other rangefinders which had options for multiple framelines. This might sound blindingly obvious, but as someone who has always opted for the ‘more options’ approach (getting an M2 rather than an M3 for example), this was a pleasant surprise. In some ways, having a camera where I was limited to a particular lens meant that there was less decision paralysis about what gear to take or use, and it felt like a really nice, self-contained unit.
The squeakiness of the helicoid in mine definitely needs sorted out at some point to get it all smooth and in tip top condition, but right now I don’t really want to pay for the servicing, so I guess I’ll just be forced to deal with it until it becomes insufferable.
Shooting with the S2 in practice was generally a good experience; the solidity and stature of the camera providing a real pleasure of ownership. The picture quality and sharpness from that 50mm f1.4 Nikkor was also excellent. However, whilst I quickly adapted to most of the camera’s individual quirks, there were a few which drove me bonkers when I was trying to shoot quickly out and about on the street. I simply could not get used to the reversed focus direction; constantly turning the lens in the opposite way from where it needed to go. I didn’t bother with pre-focussing (or at least, found it more difficult), as the lens markings are only in feet (not metres), and it seemed like I found myself hitting that damn infinity lock every other shot, losing the opportunity I had spotted.
I don’t mean this to all sound like doom and gloom though. I love the S2, largely for its unique character. Sometimes you need to have some of your ingrained habits challenged to make things exciting and interesting again, and at least with this particular camera the differences are down to design choice and alternative workflows rather than just straight up flaws.
Cost and Availability
Despite the relative rarity of the Nikon rangefinders’ appearance on blogs and other such things, there are actually still quite a healthy number of them kicking about – especially the S2 model. However, the major caveat is that there aren’t too many of them to be found outside of Japan. If you do find one in good nick on eBay within Europe, you can expect to pay at least double what you would if you were to import one from Tokyo. This differential is of course slightly reduced once you take into account potential import fees and taxes, but it is still a significant cost.
Getting the camera body and lens separately can be tempting, but unlike in many other cases, buying them together is usually far cheaper in the case of the Nikon rangefinders – for whatever reason. I personally wound up getting a package deal from the US, which had the S2 and a 50mm f1.4 included. If I had bought them separately from Japan, I’d have been looking at about double the price I paid in total.
As mentioned earlier, the choice of lenses for the Nikons isn’t great – and so you will probably be looking at the 50mm f2, or the 50mm f1.4. The latter is slightly more expensive, and slightly rarer – especially if you want one in good condition – and if you want to get one in a particular colour.
At the time of writing, a Nikon S2 with a 50mm f2 in good condition was about £400-500 (excluding import tax) – however – a couple of years on, this has (like many other things) increased by a fair margin.
To be honest, whilst I like the S2 a lot, i’m not sure it really warrants the high price tag that they often seem to go for. While the camera is capable, confident, and you can imagine it striding into a cocktail bar wearing a suit, it’s also seemingly oblivious to its own shortcomings. If I was buying my first (or second… or maybe even third) rangefinder, I’m not sure the Nikon would make the cut – as there are far better options with far more possibilities out there for a similar price. If you are trying to decide between an S2 and a Leica M2, the M2 would get my vote.