Nikon S2

Text and photos by Jarle Aasland

Having collected many of the early digital SLR bodies from Nikon and Kodak, I was thrilled to find a very nice and fully functional S2 in September 2005. And no - I'm not talking about Fujifilm's S2 Pro 6.17 megapixel DSLR from 2002 or Nikon's own Coolpix S2 announced in May 2005.

This is the real thing: A Nikon S2 rangefinder camera from 1955!

I've always wanted one of the early Nikon rangefinders. When a local seller offered me this pretty camera with a pristine 5cm f/1.4 Nikkor lens, I just had to get it.

The S2 was the first Nikon camera to use a standard 24x36mm film format. Earlier models used a slightly smaller 24x32mm (Nikon I) and 24x34mm (Nikon M and S) format. The S2 included many great features, like:

  • A bright, life-size 1:1 viewfinder
  • Lever film advance (earlier Nikon models used an awkward knob)
  • Lever rewind (again, earlier models used a rewind knob)
  • 1/1000 second top shutter speed (compared to 1/500 on previous models)
  • Improved flare baffling in film chamber
  • A single bottom opening key, making it easier to change film

..and more. Undoubtedly, the S2 was a big step forward compared to previous Nikon models. The camera is still considered a favourite among many Nikon rangefinder users (yes, there are still people using these things - myself included). It has the best 50mm viewfinder of any Nikon rangefinder, and is less expensive than the later SP, S3 and S4 models. More than 56.000 units were made, making it the most common Nikon rangefinder ever.

You'll find nice S2's (including a 50mm lens) costing anywhere from $500 to $1000, or so. As always, the price depends on several factors. For example, later "black dial" versions sell for more than those with a chrome dial. Black S2 bodies sell for a LOT more than chrome bodies (including those with a black dial). And so on.

S2's are relatively easy to find on eBay and elsewhere, so do your homework and check the current prices if you plan to buy one.

European readers should also know that most of these cameras were originally sold in Japan (obviously) and in the United States, meaning that Nikon rangefinders are less common on this side of the pond. Needless to say, they're also more expensive. No surprises there. You'll probably save a few euros by buying one from a seller in North America.

50 years apart: The vintage S2 with Nikon's latest and greatest: The mighty D2X. Both with 50mm Nikkor lenses. Completely different cameras with one thing in common: They're both among Nikon's finest. © 2005 Jarle Aasland/NikonWeb.com

The camera arrived in the mail a few days later, and was just as nice as I had hoped for (I had seen some photos, but it's hardly the same thing as holding the camera yourself). Not quite "mint", but close enough. A real beauty.

Eager to test the new camera, I called a few local photo stores. But the world isn't what it used to be: I couldn't find any Tri-X anywhere! According to one dealer, it's difficult to get anything from Kodak these days. Sad.

For those unfamiliar with Kodak Tri-X, it's a classic 400 ASA (by some people called ISO these days) black and white film, first introduced in 1954. I practically grew up with this film, and figured it would be a perfect match for my 1955 rangefinder.

I finally ordered a batch of Tri-X on the Internet and dusted off my old developer tank. But I couldn't wait any longer, so I temporarily loaded the camera with some old color negative film and went shooting.

The S2 (like most of the older rangefinders) is a completely mechanical and manual camera. There's no battery and no light meter. I've since bought an old Gossen Lunasix (a handheld light meter), but for my first trip I simply brought my trusted FE2 (a 1983 Nikon SLR body).

Shooting color negative film, exposure isn't as critical as with a modern digital camera, and I actually found that I could guestimate most exposures just fine (if you've ever been a serious film photographer, you should be familiar with the "sunny f16 rule").

Needless to say, the S2 is completely different from the digital cameras I've used since 1999. In fact, it's different from any camera I've ever used (mostly Nikon SLR's). Using a rangefinder, the entire process is different. Including the way you think, compose and shoot. Unlike a fast, modern DSLR, this is a brain camera. I realize and appreciate that it's the photographer - not the equipment - that makes great photos. Still, I found myself in a completely different "mode" than if I had brought my D2X. It was actually very refreshing. You should try it some time.

Having processed my first S2 film at a local minilab, I was thrilled to examine the negatives. Using a 50 year old camera I didn't know what to expect, but I was simply blown away! The shots were extremely sharp. Just as good as any negative I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot!). This is what it's all about. Excellent camera. Excellent optics. Excellent results. Pure joy.

Finally, I could put my Coolscan IV-ED film scanner back into action. The sample photos on this page are all taken from the very first 24 exposure film I ran through the camera.

I strongly believe that good cameras should be used, not "collected", so I soon found an original S2 leather "ever-ready" case that I bought for $15 (from a forum member right here on Nikonweb.com). I don't normally worry about minor scratches and stuff, but I'll take extra good care of this classic. Hopefully, it will last at least another 50 years. Perhaps my grandchildren will use it some day. Wouldn't that be something? Just remind me to put some Tri-X in the freezer.


Further reading
2005-2013 Jarle Aasland - webmaster @ nikonweb . com (remove spaces)