Nikon S3 Limited Edition

The Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition rangefinder is something I have been coveting since I first began film photography. I read on several websites that it was a fair contender to the Leica line-up with some going as far to say it was a superior camera. Now that I've been on Leica a few years, I felt it was time to give this some attention to see where the truth lies with the Nikon S3 in terms of build quality and image quality. I didn't do any head to head with the Nikon S3 & Leica M2 for this review, as I want to keep the focus on this camera. But, I do reference the Leica in terms of build quality and lens options.

Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition
Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition

Review of the Nikon S3 2000

The original Nikon S3 was released in 1958 to compete mono y mono with Leica. The model I have is a re-release of the iconic 1958 camera with a few minor updates which you can see on their website. The lens that shipped with this model is the multi-coated Nikkor 1.4/50, identical to the one shipped with the Olympic model. The Nikon S3 2000 I picked up was unused from Japan (these were only made for the Japanese market at $6000 US a pop) - meaning all the instructions were in Japanese as well. Learning from my mistakes with the Plaubel-Makina 670 Review, I decided to Google how to use this before I took it out, as there were some nifty tricks to it.

This (1958 S3) was the first 35mm camera with a 1:1 viewfinder - which is just awesome and bright. This version has bright lines for 35mm, 50mm and 105mm which are always visible, which frankly clutters the finder a bit. Much prefer the single auto-select frame in the Leica.  Here's some of the technical stats on the camera body and lens:

Nikon S3 2000 Body:

Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition
  • Type: 35 mm coupled rangefinder focal-plane shutter camera
  • Weight: 590 g (body), 765 g (with 50 mm f/1.4)
  • Lens mount: Nikon S mount (Bayonet mount - meaning Contax lenses will work)
  • Shutter: Horizontal-travel rubberized silk cloth focal-plane shutter (Whispering Shutter)
  • Film: 35mm

Nikkor S 50 mm F1.4

  • Lens configuration: 7 elements in 5 groups
  • Focal length: 50mm
  • F-number: F1.4
  • Aperture scales: F1.4 to F16
  • Angle of view: 46° diagonal
  • Shortest object distance: 0.9m
  • Dimensions: 51 mm (Diameter) × 49 mm (Length)
  • Weight (Approx.): 175 g
Nikon S3 1.4/50 Wide Open

I have to say, the Nikon S3 is nice and pretty solid, but it just doesn't feel as amazing as a Leica film camera in your hands. (It does, however, feel a hell of a lot more solid than the plastic toys Nikon puts out today in their DSLR range.) When removing the back plate to load the film, the material just feels a little thin and flimsy compared to the hunk of brass you remove from the bottom of a Leica or the hunk of plate-armor off the Plaubel-Makina. I find loading film in this easier than the M2/M3 but not as easy as the Leica M-A (and other Leica's with the quick-load). When the back plate is locked into place, I end up double checking it as it just doesn't feel like it's light tight, though it clearly is.

Performance of the Nikon S3 2000

Using the Nikon S3 is a joy, as all rangefinders tend to be for a rangefinder nerd like me. Focusing takes a bit getting used to - when you go to infinity, the lens locks (annoying).  The focus wheel is actually on the body, just in front of the shutter release, and it has a little lever for unlocking the lens. The little lever is still a pain in the ass for me when trying to focus something "just off" infinity. Without fail, I turn too far and it locks. But the wheel is a neat idea. At first I thought this was plain stupid, focusing on the body with my middle finger, index on the trigger, thumb on the advance.  But after a while, I found myself using this camera completely one handed which can be nice (like when dangling from a bridge to get a shot). Yes, you can focus with the lens barrel as well but once you get used to the wheel (and flipping lock) it becomes second nature.

Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition

The shutter is super quiet and the crank advances very, very smooth. I'd argue it's better than Leica in that regard. The read outs on top are colorful, bright and clear. You have speeds of Bulb, Timer and 1 second to 1/1000th second. The added button on top for advancing or rewinding film for double-exposures is a great feature and really simple to use. Scroll down a bit to see my first go at it.

Also, that coated, neutral color, 1:1 finder. That's an amazing thing to behold and something I really wish my Leica's had. With this huge, bright finder, it is much easier to shoot with both eyes open as they are on the same scale. The rangefinder patch on the Leica M3 (and M2 and Zeiss Ikon for that matter) is far superior to the one on the Nikon S3, though. It's a very small patch (frankly it sucks) on the Nikon S3 and in some light, a little difficult to make out due to lack of contrast and no defined edges. With that, also to note, is there is no parallax correction.

Lens Performance of the Nikkor 1.4/50

The lens that came with the Nikon S3 2000 was also a limited edition production of the amazing all metal Nikkor 1.4/50 and is designed off the 1964 9-blade Olympic version. The lens is engraved and painted with all markings and the aperture and focus rings are grooved nicely. The lens is sharp throughout all f-stops which is a nice treat and looks to be free of distortion.

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The lens stops from f/1.4 thru f/16 with clicks. You can focus as close as 0.9m (which I attempted below, wide open) which gives a pleasant bokeh.

This lens is really wonderful, and I like it much more than all the other Nikon 50's I've used on the digital side. Like the body, it's a hunk of metal rather than the cheap plastic crap Nikon opts for these days, It doesn't have the zang-pop as the Carl Zeiss or Leica 50's, but it's still damned nice. As I said above, you can focus with either the little wheel by the shutter, or on the lens it self.

Markings on the top and bottom of the lens give a clear reading of f-stop no matter what position you have the lens rotated. I like that this is the only thing that rotates on the lens - clean and simple.

In the Box with the Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition

As I said, this was only released in Japan in 2000 (go figure) and only 8,000 silver, 2,000 black editions made (including the lenses). The going price was $6000 US equivalent and the Japanese collectors bought them up like wild fire. What did that six grand get you?

  • Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition body
  • Nikkor 1.4/50 Limited Edition lens
  • Body cap & Lens cap
  • Lens hood (metal cone shaped)
  • Leather strap
  • Leather carry case for camera and lens
  • All Japanese instruction manual ;)

Luckily, the collector I got mine from never took it out of the box. I think he was hoping for the prices to go up, which they did not.  I got this for a song at $1100 US.

And now, time to let the photos speak for themselves.  These were taken in a park in Lowell, MA with my good friend, Mikeal.

Photos taken with Nikon S3 2000 using Portra 400 with all development by Richard Photo Lab.

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