400TX

Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition

The past 7 years have witnessed a rangefinder renaissance. Cosina acquired the Voigtländer name and started producing a variety of cute, relatively inexpensive, retro rangefinder cameras that can use Leica, Voigtländer, Contax, and Nikon RF lenses. Konica released a rangefinder in the Leica M mount. Rollei marketed a new rangefinder (very similar to the Voigtländer). Zeiss Ikon released a very impressive rangefinder in two versions. Epson and Leica both released digital rangefinder cameras. Bronica released a medium format rangefinder camera. And Leica released perhaps their finest rangefinder of them all, the Leica MP. But during the past 7 years, most of these rangefinder cameras were quickly discontinued, along with some other rangefinder cameras that existed before the rangefinder renaissance (Hasselblad, Fuji, Mamiya).

The rangefinder camera I haven’t mentioned is the Nikon S3. This camera seemed to make the least sense, at least to me. It is a close reproduction of a meterless rangefinder camera released back in 1958. The S3 wasn’t the most popular Nikon rangefinders, nor was it what many felt was Nikon’s best rangefinder. Producing it obviously required all new tooling at Nikon. And with this new S3 came a revised 50/1.4 Nikkor lens. Dubbed the Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition, it retailed for a bundle and nobody thought one of them would actually be used to take photos. The idea was apparently that the Japanese market would buy it as a collector’s item and that it would never see action. Early reports said that, even at the large price, Nikon lost money on every camera sold. Worse yet, nobody seemed interested in buying them. Why would a collector with a pristine Nikon S3 from 1958 buy a replica made over 40 years later? The lure of collecting is to be able to show off a 50-year-old camera that looks brand new, not a brand new camera that resembles one made 50 years ago. The rangefinder world ignored the new, meterless Nikon S3 and they sat on dealer shelves for several years.

Today, I found one on the Internet with a $5,183.84 price tag on it. Other stores on the web are offering it for $3,999. One Ebay seller just dropped his asking price from $3,000 to $2,500. No nibbles so far. And they continue to gather dust. Two really big stores in New York, Adorama and B&H, apparently decided to cut their losses and dropped their prices apparently below what dealers would pay for the cameras wholesale. When Nikon is losing money on them and the two powerhouse camera stores are losing money on them, it’s hard to convince me that buying one isn’t a bargain, but I wouldn’t want to make that pitch to my wife. I wanted to know if it was eye candy or a good camera. Nowhere could I find a soul who had one and could tell me. The silence was deafening.

Then Leica did something that really tipped the balance. They raised their prices for an MP and an M7 astronomically. Now one would have to shell out nearly $3,500 for just a body. And then they released the 50/1.4 Summilux aspheric lens for an earth-shattering $2,800. Squeak!!! That's $6,300 for a camera and fast 50mm lens. Suddenly Nikon’s original asking price for the Nikon S3 was getting palatable. I found one that Adorama was unloading for less than $3,000 on Ebay. That did it. I buckled and got it. It even came with a leather ever-ready case (does anyone really use those’).

I have a couple of old Nikon S2 cameras that I like very much. Had I not had good experiences with the 50-year-old S2s, I wouldn’t have plunged into an S3. Okay, what are my impressions of the S3?’

Plusses

  • It’s a very handsome camera, like the original Nikon rangefinders. Although it is barely larger than a Contax IIa, it feels larger.
  • It’s much easier to load than a Leica of any vintage. But then what’s harder to load than a Leica’
  • The lens is exceptional. Why make a lens this good for a collector? Why not make thousands of them in M mount for Leica users? My 50/1.4 Nikkor from the 1950’s in LTM mount makes my knees buckle. Everyone should be so fortunate to have one.
  • It’s lighter than Leica’s MP.
  • With a cloth shutter, it’s relatively quiet, quieter than either of my S2 bodies (but perhaps not as quiet as a Leica M).
  • It isn’t a cheap-feeling reproduction. It really does look and feel like a 1950’s vintage Nikon rangefinder.
  • It’s a pleasure to use.

Minuses

  • No meter. But we’re used to that. Anyone who uses a pre-M5 Leica or a medium to large format camera is accustomed to using a handheld light meter.
  • Vague rangefinder patch. Anyone who has used a Leica M3, Zeiss Ikon, or modern Voigtländer is spoiled by a bright rangefinder patch. The Nikon patch is not as easy to see.
  • Build quality is good, but it does look stamped instead of milled. My Leica MP body looks and feels like it was machined from a massive billet of solid brass. You could beat someone to death with a Leica MP, but only maim them with a Nikon S3.
  • The entire lens rotates when you focus it. It also rotates (unintentionally) when you try to change the aperture. If Nikon decided to come out with a new-millennium rangefinder, they hope they would fix this design shortcoming.
  • It has an infinity lock. What the hell is with the infinity lock’! Early Leicas had them too. I think this comes from a manual transmission mentality. Nobody in the 1940’s would leave their car out of gear when parking. You have to put the car in gear so it won’t roll. So let’s put an infinity lock on lenses so they won’t move from infinity. I hate them.
  • Very few lenses available. The only modern lenses for Nikon RF mount are the 50/1.4 Nikkor, a [now discontinued] set of fine optics from Voigtländer, and a 35mm lens that ships with yet another Nikon commemorative rangefinder, the SP.

Fortunately, I use a 50mm lens most of the time and the 50/1.4 Nikkor is a wonderful lens. Do I recommend the reissue of the Nikon S3? If you can get one at a reasonable price, by all means yes. And you had best snap up the remaining Nikon mount rangefinder lenses from www.cameraquest.com before they are gone.

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