Every photo geek has their Holy Grail. We all dream of having the perfect machine, and more than most of us spend lots of time and cash actively seeking it out, even though we know such a search is futile. Does the perfect camera exist? Not really. But that didn’t stop me from trying to find it.
I took chance after chance on every camera the shooting public calls “perfect” hoping that I’d find my own ideal camera. And in some instances, I got pretty close. But there was always something that got in the way, some awful flaw that became impossible to ignore with each so-called perfect camera. I began to wonder if the problem resided not in the camera, but in me. Have these machines failed me, or have I failed these machines?
But just a few weeks ago I decided to take one more chance at finding the perfect camera. This latest camera would see me return to the brand that started my mad photographic journey so many years ago. In my long period of restless wandering from camera to camera, I’d come to love the style of shooting afforded by classic rangefinders. The only brand I hadn’t tried was Nikon, so I sprang for an old S2. The price was low and the lens was good, so if this experiment went wrong I could just sell it on and continue my frustrating exploration of imperfect cameras.
When the camera arrived, I rushed to unpack it. I popped open the box, unfurled the bubble wrap, and what revealed itself was, in a word, surprising. I’d heard that Nikon rangefinders are peculiar beings, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the oddity that is the S2. The first thing I noticed was the sheer prominence of the two giant windows – one for the rangefinder and one for the viewfinder. Similarly off-putting was a menacing, serrated wheel. Under this sat an absolutely stunning Nikkor-S.C. 5cm f/1.4 lens surrounded by the strangest lens mount this side of the Pacific. The top plate was less shocking, but it’s still a step out of the ordinary. The advance lever looked normal enough, but it housed a manually set frame counter that, in true Nikon fashion, goes backward. The shutter speed dial was a lift-and-set affair reminiscent of the screw-mount Leica cameras, but it also has a separate dial set directly underneath for slow shutter speeds.
Though it looks a little out of the ordinary at first blush, the S2’s overall aesthetic is timeless and gorgeous. This may be one of the best looking rangefinders ever made. Nikon took cues from the Contax III and pared this down with the succinct Japanese design philosophy of the era. Its chunky angles and business-like proportions help the S2 cut the sharp figure of a serious photographic machine.
But spending just a few minutes with the camera reveals something uncanny, something strangely familiar. It doesn’t take long to remember that the S2 was a forebear of that hugely influential (and some would say greatest) SLR of all time, the Nikon F. Many of the F’s signature qualities stem from the S2 and its predecessors. The F and the S2 both share the same loading mechanism, which finds the entire back and bottom plate of the camera come off in one piece with spooling of the film occurring in a fixed, slotted spool. Users experienced with loading an F will feel completely at home with the S2, and rangefinder aficionados will find this method to be a huge upgrade from removable spools and the cumbersome bottom-loading methods of other vintage rangefinders. The S2 also shares the F’s boxy body type, the same style advance lever, and the same overall solid feel of an F.
Perhaps most remarkably, the S2 and the F both share the indestructibility and low-maintenance design which became Nikon’s calling card in the decades following. The S2 accomplishes what many rangefinders of this vintage cannot, in that it does not need a CLA (clean, lube, adjust) every six months. More accurately, the Nikon rarely needs one every six years. One can easily find S2s that are completely accurate after forty years of use, which is more than can be said of other, more expensive, rangefinders. With the S2’s F-like reliability, we’ve got a camera that’s essentially worry-free, almost unheard of in the CLA-happy world of vintage rangefinders.
All this might make it seem like the S2 should’ve killed off and buried its more fragile competition, but there was a reason the S2 played second-fiddle to Leica and Contax; its awkward controls and comparative eccentricity. Nikon adopted Contax-style controls, which many consider to be overly complex and over-engineered, a sentiment I’m inclined to agree with. For example, the lens mount contains not one, but two mounts. The outer mount is for any lens other than the 50mm lens, and the inner mount contains the actual focusing helical for the 50mm lens. This enables focusing to be controlled by lens barrel or through a serrated wheel located in front of the shutter dial. While this does enable one-handed shooting (a method which proves surprisingly useful in some situations), it means that the entire lens barrel along with the aperture ring rotates in turn with the internal helical, making aperture adjustments post-focus a finicky business.
Mounting lenses is similarly complicated. Whereas most lenses will mount directly onto a camera without fuss, Nikon RF bodies must have their focusing helical set to infinity before mounting is possible. Bayonet mounts are supposed to be the faster, slicker alternative to screwing in a lens, and it’s a shame that the S2 shoots itself in the foot with Contax’s over-engineered mount. Lamentable also is the shutter button’s position which is found towards the back of the camera instead of the front. The nonsensical shutter button position induces arthritis for almost everybody used to more ergonomic layouts. This is one of the bigger criticisms of the S2 and the F itself, but we can immediately see why Nikon insisted on this placement, at least on the S2. If the middle finger is placed on the focus wheel, the index finger falls straight onto the shutter release button. It feels natural, but not quite as natural the normal grip one would use on a more modern camera.
But the most surprising of the S2’s quirks comes when we press that oddly-placed shutter release. There’s no getting around it; this shutter is loud. I’ve read differing reports on the shutter sound of an S2, some saying that it’s whisper quiet and others saying that you may as well have brought a cap gun to your photoshoot. I’m inclined to agree with the latter camp. But though the S2’s bark is distracting at times, I can’t help but like it. It’s a convincing, mechanical sound that’s much more satisfying than the whispered suggestions of, say, leaf-shuttered rangefinders.
But if there’s one facet of the S2 that perfectly exemplifies its contradictory nature, it must surely be the viewfinder. The S2’s VF is both the camera’s greatest pleasure and its worst agony, and it’ll make or break this machine for many shooters. The good? It sports a massive 1:1 life-size magnification, enabling scenes to be shot with both eyes completely open. The method might seem odd at first, but in time it serves to help the shooter stay aware of his surroundings and follow what’s going on outside of the frame. No camera does this as well as the S2. Unfortunately, this comes at a price. The S2 only offers framelines for the 50mm focal length. For lenses of any other focal length, external viewfinders are needed. Shooters indulging in the pleasures of Nikon’s 3.5cm f/2.5 or the legendary Nikon RF mount 10.5cm f/2.5 will be forced to wield a truly clumsy assemblage of a camera. Making matter worse, Nikon varifocal viewfinders can cost up to three-hundred dollars, pushing the price of the ostensibly cheaper Nikon into the realm of certain German manufacturers. That said, if you’re a 50mm die-hard, the S2 might be the best rangefinder money can buy.
Overall, the S2 is a camera that completely owns its strengths and its faults. Dials and knobs move affirmatively and and stop solidly. Nothing slips and nothing comes loose, and it’s extremely difficult to knock any control out of place. We get the overwhelming sense that the S2 is a camera that will do its job, but will do it in its own way and will make no apologies.
It’s in the S2’s self-assurance that we finally come to understand its essence as a camera. After all its quirks and oddities, the S2 is… practical. Vintage rangefinders are a cumbersome bunch, but the S2 breaks that stereotype by outstripping its competitors in usability. Quick advance levers and rewind cranks replace the slow knobs of olden days, removable film spools and bottom loading plates disappear in favor of more convenient removable backs and fixed film spools, and the viewfinder is gloriously simple compared to the cluttered multiple frameline layouts of other cameras. It’s a vintage rangefinder that, against all odds, actually works.
But Nikon didn’t make their name off of their camera bodies – at least not at first. Back in the day, it was their lenses that made them the brand for professionals. War photographer extraordinaire David Douglas Duncan famously switched to Nikon’s rangefinder glass after being dazzled by photos shot with their lenses, and these old lenses continue to impress today. The 5cm f/1.4 lens that came with my S2 is nothing short of outstanding. Though its sharpness doesn’t match the later Nikkor 50mm lenses, it offers image quality and rendition that are unique in today’s photo circles. It’s much the same with the S2’s other available lenses, such as the forbears of Nikon’s 35mm f/2.8 (3.5cm f/2.5) and 105mm f/2.5 (10.5cm f/2.5). What’s more, Nikon RF lenses almost never suffer from hazing, oily aperture, balsam separation, or even front element scratch marks. They were all hard-coated from the very beginning, making them much more durable than their uncoated and soft-coated contemporaries.
So who will love this camera? To start, the S2 is for the vintage rangefinder enthusiast who wants to shoot pictures with there camera, rather than pictures of their camera. Although the S2 is certainly pretty enough to be a shelf queen, these cameras should be exercised. Beyond that, the S2 is likely best suited to patient shooters who enjoy mechanical objects of functional sophistication. Who should avoid it? Well, important for new shooters, the S2 lacks a light meter, so anyone who’s not comfortable with learning Sunny-16 or using an external meter might be frustrated by bad exposures. Its controls are slower to operate than more modern cameras, and not even as fast as some other vintage rangefinders, so run-and-gun shooters will more than likely be disappointed by the S2’s slow flow.
Thankfully for frugal shooters, the S2 offers the most affordable way to experience the same magic Duncan experienced. My personal S2 with the legendary 5cm f/1.4 cost me about the same as a single, unspectacular M-Mount or LTM lens. The more common Nikon RF lenses have a lower average cost than both competing genuine Leica or Contax lenses, making the system one of the most affordable in the vintage rangefinder world. But as always, vintage rangefinder lenses normally run for about twice the cost of vintage SLR lenses, so prospective shooters should check their budget before taking the plunge.
The S2 occupies a unique position among vintage rangefinders. It’s an idiosyncratic machine, but also one that’s very familiar. For me, the S2 is like a childhood friend. Its quirks and faults irk me sometimes, but I don’t mind it because it understands my shooting style in ways no other camera does. I love the S2, faults and all. It may not be the Holy Grail I was looking for, but I’d rather shoot an imperfect camera that I love than pretend to love a camera that’s supposed to be perfect.