The Nikon SP Limited Edition from the year 2005 is a really special camera. All things considered, it may be the brand’s best film camera. It’s the most capable rangefinder that Nikon ever built, handcrafted with modern materials and manufacturing processes. It’s also rare, limited to just 2,500 production units, and it’s paired to a world-class image-maker in the form of the exceptional W. Nikkor-C 35mm f/1.8 lens. As of last week, I’m lucky enough to own one.
About two months ago I started looking for a camera that I could keep and use forever, what I call an heirloom camera. Similar to a wristwatch, I define heirloom cameras as treasured objects that can be owned, used, and finally passed on to another person when our time is up. In my case this machine would presumably go to an interested child or (if I live long enough) grandchild. The camera I was searching for had to be entirely mechanical, highly capable and compact, but also rare and intrinsically valuable. I chose the Nikon SP 2005 after a days-long chat with the rest of the CP writing team.
Now it’s here, and the Nikon SP Limited Edition is easily the most interesting and exciting camera I’ve ever owned. A full review will be hitting the site soon. Until then, I thought it’d be useful and fun to talk about what makes this camera so special.
Where did it come from?
In 1998, digital photography was the future and film as the dominant image capture media was clearly entering its twilight. Nikon was hard at work developing their first professional DSLR, the D1. It debuted in 1999, officially ushering in the era of practical digital photography.
But at the same time, Nikon wasn’t quite ready to give up film cameras entirely (in fact, Nikon is one of only two major manufacturers still producing film cameras in 2018; Nikon’s F6 is joined by Leica’s M-A and MP). The first in this final surge of remarkable Nikon film cameras took the shape of the FM3a. A small team of engineers and designers at Mito Nikon (a Nikon production facility that had originally created the Nikomat of the 1960s and later the F3, FM2n, F4, and more) set out to make something unusual for its time; a manual-focus 35mm film SLR. The resulting FM3a sold well and became a legend among true film photography nerds both past and present.
Okay, so a camera company that had been making film cameras for its entire life made another film camera. Big deal, right? We could say that, but we’d be missing the point. Nikon wasn’t just producing more of the same and following a business plan. The brand was also acting on a feeling that many of us feel during transitional periods – nostalgia. Lucky thing for us photo geeks, they embraced that feeling.
Seeing the continued sales success of Leica M series film cameras throughout the 1990s, Mito Nikon believed an opportunity existed to produce a similarly classed Nikon rangefinder camera. It was soon decided that of the major rangefinders the brand had created (Nikon’s S, S2, SP, and S3) a recreation of the Nikon S3 of 1958 would provide the best product, and though development began quickly, an economic downturn soon halted progress. Three years later, in 1998, the project was relaunched.
When it finally released in the year 2000, the Nikon S3 Year 2000 Millennium camera was worth the wait. The result of years of arduous research and reverse-engineering, and a true labor of love, it was the pride and joy of many Nikon engineers.
Countless obstacles arose during development and manufacturing. Incredible attention was paid to make an exact and faithful reproduction of the original S3. Every component part was obsessed over (no small feat – the S3’s component parts list totals more than 800 individual parts). Every machine screw was remade, every die was recast, even the artificial leather grain pattern of the S3 was sourced from the original contractor and reproduced. The cameras were hand-assembled by trained workers, a fact that lead to an assembly rate of only one camera per day in the early days of production (this eventually climbed to 300 then later 500 units per month as efficiency improved).
Production of the S3 Millennium was limited to 8,000 units (chrome), and 2,000 units (black) were later added. At the time of its release, it was reported that Nikon’s cost per camera was higher than the camera’s selling price, a fact that likely influenced the announcement that there would be no further development or production of any Nikon rangefinder.
But as Sean Connery might remind us, never say “never again.”
What’s an original Nikon SP?
Forty-odd years earlier, the original Nikon SP of 1957 was arguably the most advanced rangefinder camera in the world. Nikon wasn’t obtuse about its direct competition – the company openly sought to unseat Leica’s M3 as the premier rangefinder camera. Though they didn’t accomplish that lofty goal, in many ways the SP was the better machine.
Its massive and bright viewfinder (1.0x magnification) featured parallax compensation and the greatest number of frame lines of any rangefinder in its class, with a total of six focal lengths represented (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, and 135mm). Its horizontally-traveling cloth focal-plane shutter was capable of speeds from one second to 1/1000th of a second with flash sync at 1/60th of a second. It featured in-body focus control (which some people dislike), and could mount a motor drive, had easy film loading through a removable back, and boasted a vast lineup of world-class interchangeable lenses. It was also beautifully made, an exceptional and reliable machine that cost about 25% less than the M3 when new.
In 1959, Nikon released the Nikon F (an SLR camera developed on the bones of the S series rangefinders), and the rest is history. SLRs quickly became the dominant camera for professionals and photojournalists, and as the brand focused on becoming a world-class producer of SLRs, Nikon rangefinder development was halted.
What’s a Nikon SP Limited Edition?
Reversing the announcement that had followed completion of the S3 Millennium project, in 2005 Nikon announced plans to revisit their classic lineup of rangefinders with the goal of producing another reproduction. This time they would focus on the absolute best rangefinder the brand had ever made, the mechanically sophisticated, professional-grade Nikon SP.
Using the experience gained through the completion of the S3 Millennium, the team at Mito Nikon began reverse-engineering the original SP in pursuit of developing the Nikon SP Limited Edition. Soon it became clear that the SP was a far more complicated machine than the previously-produced S3, with the viewfinder assembly alone demanding 50% more man-hours to assemble compared with the earlier reproduction camera’s simpler VF (it’s comprised of an astounding 28 lens elements).
This viewfinder assembly, being the heart and soul of the camera and the thing that most strongly separated the SP from other cameras, became a point of pride. The engineers and designers at Mito Nikon slaved over this tiny assembly of prisms and mirrors and metal, and the result is the best viewfinder ever fitted into a rangefinder camera.
The Nikon SP Limited Edition’s viewfinder is massive, unbelievably bright, and the frame lines are beautiful in both execution and design. It surpasses the original SP’s viewfinder in every way (brightness and clarity) due to its implementation of modern lens elements. It’s also a more accurate viewfinder, as Mito Nikon used a collimator and lasers to dial in performance during individual unit assembly, something that was impossible in the days of the original SP.
Assembly of the camera was once again performed by hand on production lines running parallel to those constructing the FM3a SLR (incidentally, completing one SP required ten times the man-hours needed to complete an FM3a). Cameras were slowly assembled at individual work stations, and when one task was completed the camera was sealed in a box and carried (by hand) to the next work station on the assembly line.
The Nikon SP Limited Edition was fitted with a faithful reproduction of a (rather rare) Nippon Kogaku W-Nikkor, a 35mm f/1.8 lens. It improves on the original, however, by being multi-coated. This multi-coating effectively improves color rendition and eliminates ghosting and flares to a degree that the older Nikkor could hardly realize.
The Nikon SP Limited Edition from 2005 was allotted to the Japanese market only, and was sold directly to Japanese customers through a lottery system (with remaining stock sold through Nikon dealers). The original MSRP was 690,000 Japanese Yen, which when converted to United States dollars was approximately $6,250 (adjusted for inflation, this camera would cost around $8,000 in 2018 cash). To buy one today will not cost as much as that, but it is an expensive camera.
Only 2,500 Nikon SP Limited Editions were ever made (all in black), making it one of the rarest rangefinders Nikon produced (certainly rarer than the earlier S3 Millennium). The cameras feature sequential serial numbers from SP 0001 (this first unit is in a Japanese camera museum) up to SP 2500, and these numbers carry over to each camera’s accompanying lens.
Most Nikon SP Limited Edition cameras were gobbled up by collectors, stashed away in closets or safes or put on display shelves. I’ve never seen one out in the real world and I’ve never seen one being used. That’s not the fate of my camera. The Nikon SP Limited Edition is the most intriguing camera I’ve ever owned, and I’m genuinely thankful for the opportunity to own and shoot one. This weekend will be spent burning through film in the lead up to our full review, and I can’t wait.