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Best Nikon Rangefinder Camera: A Legacy of Quality and Innovation

In the middle of the 20th century, at the height of popularity for rangefinder cameras, Nikon did something incredible: they released eight variants of their flagship Nikon rangefinder camera in 12 years. This achievement is only rivaled by the rapid pace at which disposable digital technology has developed in recent decades.

Some Nikon models received improvements, while others received simplifications; yet, regardless of whether the modifications made from one Nikon rangefinder to the next were significant enough, the company did produce them at a breakneck rate. Not only that, but forty years after the company had launched its last model, Nikon managed to shock the film industry by achieving something that we can only hope our favorite camera manufacturers would one day accomplish.

1

Nikon 1

1948

Sensor: 10.1 Megapixel CX-format CMOS Image Sensor | Lens Mount: Nikon 1 Lens Mount | Video: Full 1080p HD Cinematic Video at 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 720/60p video resolutions (16:9 aspect ratio) | Slowmotion: at 400fps / 640×240 resolution and 1200fps / 320×120 resolution | Autofocus: Hybrid phase-detection / contrast-detect Autofocus | Max ISO: ISO sensitivity 100-3200, expandable to ISO 6400 equivalent | Shutter: Mechanical shutter up to 1/4,000 sec, electronic shutter up to 1/16,000 sec; up to 30 seconds slow shutter for both | Flash: Flash Sync Speed 1/60 (electronic shutter) and 1/250 (mechanical shutter) | Dimensions: 4.4″ x 3.0″ x 1.7″ / 113mm x 76mm x 43.5mm | Weight: 10.4oz (294g)

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Limited ISO range (25-200)
    No light meter

The first camera to ever bear the Nikon brand name was the Nikon 1, which was introduced in 1948. The Nikkor 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens was the first Nikkor lens to be created for the Nikon 1. This Lens had a specification that was likely made famous by the Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens, which was initially offered in 1934, 14 years earlier than the Nikkor lens.

The Nikon 1 featured a picture format smaller than what was typical for 135mm film; the camera’s image size was 24 millimeters by 32 millimeters, and it could create up to 40 negatives from a single roll of Film with 36 exposures.

There was no flash sync capability on the Nikon’s fabric shutter, which is often branded “MIOJ,” and the maximum shutter speed was 1/500th of a second. Other modes were B (bulb) and T (time) (Made in Occupied Japan). In addition, the inscription “Made in Occupied Japan” was carved into the camera’s baseplate. However, only a few hundred units were ever manufactured, and almost all of them were finished in chrome, with only a few being made in black as an option.

2

Nikon M

1950

Film Type: 135 (35mm) | Lens: 5cm f/2 Nikkor-H coated 6-elements | Lens Mount: Nikon S bayonet | Focus: 3 feet to Infinity | Viewfinder: Coincident Image Coupled Rangefinder | Shutter: Cloth Focal Plane | Speeds: T, B, 1 – 1/500 seconds | Exposure Meter: None | Battery: None | Flush Mount: Accessory Shoe only | Weight: 820 grams

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Limited ISO range (25-200)
    No light meter
    No automatic exposure modes

Just two years later, in 1950, Nikon launched the second edition of the Nikon rangefinder camera known as the Nikon M. This time around, the image size was slightly increased from 24mm x 32mm to 24mm x 34mm. Nikon also made several other improvements to the camera.

The fastest shutter speed was 1/500 of a second, and the modes available were B (bulb) and T (time). However, the Nikon M did not include a flash sync feature until subsequent camera models. The total number of Nikon M cameras produced was 1,643, almost all chrome, save for a handful of built-in black. These few black cameras were ostensibly made to order for VIP customers.

3

Nikon S

1951

RF camera, built-in flash synchronization (‘F’ and ‘S’ contacts)

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Limited ISO range (25-200)
    No light meter
    No automatic exposure modes

Compared to the Nikon M, the production units of the Nikon S jumped by an astounding 2,000%, going from 1,643 units to 36,746 units. The most significant improvement made to the Nikon S in 1951 was the addition of a flash sync contact (see top right in the image). However, the Nikon S retained the odd 24mm x 34mm film format, utilized by several other camera brands produced during the same period.

The standard Lens was updated from the collapsible Nikkor 50mm f3.5 Lens to the new Nikkor 5cm f1.4 lens, which at the time was the Lens with the fastest aperture for a 50mm lens. The W-Nikkor. C 25mm f/4 and the Nikkor-S.C 85mm f/1.5 is the two additional lenses made available alongside the Nikon S. In the latter stages of manufacture, the engravings that said “Made in Occupied Japan” were replaced with new ones that read “Made in Japan.” But, again, only a select handful was manufactured in black for clients with particular needs, such as photojournalists and war photographers.

4

Nikon S2

1954

Image: 24 x 36mm picture format | Body: Lightweight and strong aluminum die-cast body | Viewfinder: 1.0x magnification viewfinder | Battery: S2E accepts the world’s first battery-powered motor drive

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Limited ISO range (25-200)
    No light meter
    No automatic exposure modes

In 1954, only six years after the debut of their first camera with their company’s name on it, the Nikon 1, Nikon introduced the fourth variation of their Nikon rangefinder camera, which was smaller, lighter, and included more functionality.

Production at Nikon seems to have picked back up, going from 36,746 units for the previous model to 56,715 units for the S2, indicating that the company may have finally rediscovered its stride. In addition, the Nikon 1, M, and S used image formats that are now considered unusual. Beginning with the Nikon S2, however, Nikon switched to the more standard 36 x 24mm picture size, which is often referred to as 135mm or, more popularly, 35mm.

In addition, the quickest possible shutter speed has been increased from 1/500 of a second to 1/1000 of a second. It was Nikon’s first rangefinder camera to have the fantastic 1:1 magnified viewfinder, which gave photographers a real-world size when they stared through the viewfinder. Of course, they could also shoot with both eyes open with this model.

This 1:1 magnification would eventually be adopted by all of their following rangefinder models, in addition to those produced by Canon in 1959 with the Canon P rangefinder and by Cosina in 2004 with the Voigtlander R3 rangefinder.

5

Nikon SP

1957

Viewfinders: Dual viewfinders (50, 85, 105, or 135mm and 35 + 28mm) | Timer: Built-in self-timer | Shutter: The later model features titanium shutter curtains | Exposure Meter: Coupled with Selen Nikon Meter | Battery: Accepts battery-powered motor drive (3 fps)

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder with a base length of 52.5mm
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Limited ISO range (25-1600)
    No light meter

After another three years had passed, Nikon introduced yet another new rangefinder. This time, it was the Nikon SP, which was made available in 1957. The “P” in Nikon SP is claimed to stand for “Professional.” Since the Nikon 1, the Nikon SP introduced the most significant visual alterations; nevertheless, these improvements were immediately abandoned for a more classic design in the following Nikon rangefinder, which was released a year later.

People unfamiliar with the Nikon SP may have difficulty dating it because it has a futuristic, high-tech, and even slightly menacing appearance. Titanium shutters, which may be best remembered for their usage in Nikon’s FM2 SLR, which would come a few decades later, were one of the non-cosmetic modifications available for the Nikon S2.

6

Nikon S3

1958

Film Type: 35 mm | Lens Mount: Nikon S mount (Bayonet mount) | Focus: Marked in meters (∞ to 0.9) | Viewfinder: right figure type life-size viewfinder, 35 mm, 50 mm, 105 mm with light figure frame | Shutter: Horizontal-travel rubberized silk cloth focal-plane shutter | Speeds: T, B, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, and 1/1000 sec. equally spaced marks | Battery: None | Weight: 175 g

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • No light meter
    No automatic exposure modes

Nikon introduced the Nikon S3, a scaled-down version of the Nikon SP, precisely one year after the first launch of the Nikon SP. This new model is a more affordable alternative to the Nikon SP. People who did not consider themselves professional shooters were the target market for this product because of its lower price and fewer features.

The design of the Nikon S3 rangefinder camera reverted to that of previous and later Nikon rangefinder cameras, having a single viewfinder and unchangeable constant frame lines, with focal lengths of 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm, respectively.

7

Nikon S4

1959

Full model name: Nikon Coolpix S4 | Resolution: 6.00 Megapixels | Sensor size: 1/2.5 inch(5.8mm x 4.3mm) | Lens: 10.00x zoom(38-380mm eq.) | Viewfinder: LCD | Extended ISO: 50 – 400 | Shutter: 1/1000 – 2 sec | Max Aperture: 3.5 | Dimensions: 4.4 x 2.7 x 1.5 in. (112 x 69 x 37 mm) | Weight: 7.2 oz (205 g)

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Film advance and rewind are manual
    No flash synchronization

The Nikon S4, which eliminated the self-timer and the frame lines for 35mm film, was another step toward simplification or refinement. It changes very little from the Nikon S3, though. In addition, the viewfinder of the S4 had a single magnification of 1:1, displaying frame lines at a constant 50mm and 105mm.

However, Nikon’s product history database indicates that the distance between the telephoto frame lines was 105mm. Some sources state that the telephoto frame lines measured 135mm. Furthermore, the Nikon S4 was cheaper than its predecessor, the Nikon S3. Therefore, it offered a probable better value to photographers who frequently use lenses with focal lengths of 50mm and 105mm.

8

Nikon S3M

1960

Viewfinder: Rangefinder focusing system | Shutter: Shutter speeds of 1/1000 to 1/8 second | Lens: f/1.4 50mm lens (other lenses available) | Flash: Flash synchronization at all speeds | Meter: Built-in light meter | Film: Film advance lever and rewind crank | Exposure Modes: Aperture-priority automatic exposure and manual exposure modes

Good For
  • Compact and lightweight design
    Built-in coupled rangefinder
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Film advance and rewind are manual
    No flash synchronization

The Nikon S3M is a very collectible half-frame rangefinder camera released yet another year after the S4 and is considered one of Nikon’s most important models. It was the company’s first and final rangefinder camera model, and only 195 were made.

This half-frame version of the Nikon S3 took photographs with a resolution of 18 millimeters by 24 millimeters and had an updated viewfinder and a frame counter with a maximum of 72 exposures.

9

Black Nikon SP

Limited Edition 2005

Shutter: speeds of 1 – 1/1000 sec, plus Bulb | Viewfinder: coupled rangefinder with a base length of 52.5mm | Lens: interchangeable lenses with a Nikon S-mount | Aperture: aperture-priority autoexposure | Exposure: a manual exposure mode | Film: manual film advance and rewind | Dimensions: 141 x 87 x 66mm | Weight: 745g.

Good For
  • Classic, retro design that is highly sought-after by collectors and enthusiasts
    High-quality construction and build
    Interchangeable lenses (Nikon S-mount)
Need Improvements
  • Film advance and rewind are manual
    No flash synchronization

Another of Nikon’s surprises from 2005 was the reissue, remake, or restoration of the 1957 Nikon SP with a reissued multicoated, W-Nikkor 3.5cm f1.8 lens. This was yet another one of Nikon’s surprises. Unfortunately, this was a camera that the most devoted collectors could only obtain since it was only made in black chrome, and there were only 2,500 units available.

As of right now, in the year 2019, this is the conclusion of the legend. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that there will be another reissue at some point in the future and that, this time, there will be a more significant amount available, which will result in a reduced price. These gorgeous items shouldn’t be on the shelf unless their owners are asleep.

2

Buying Guide

To find the best Nikon rangefinder camera, consider the following steps:

  1. Research the available models, such as the Nikon SP, Nikon S3, and Nikon S4, and compare their features and specifications.
  2. Read reviews from professional photographers and other users to get an idea of the camera’s performance in different settings and scenarios.
  3. Decide on the most critical features, such as aperture-priority autoexposure, manual exposure mode, and interchangeable lenses.
  4. Consider your budget and the cost of lenses and accessories.
  5. Look for the best deals and prices from authorized retailers or trusted sellers.
  6. Test the camera before purchasing to ensure it is the right fit.
  7. Remember that buying a vintage camera may require maintenance, so factor that into your decision.
3

FAQs

FAQs for best Nikon rangefinder camera

Does a beginner need a rangefinder?

A rangefinder camera may not be necessary for a beginner, as it can be more complex to operate and require more manual adjustments. Instead, a beginner may be better served with a more modern camera that offers automatic settings and more user-friendly controls.

Why are range finders allowed at PGA?

Rangefinders are allowed in PGA tournaments because they provide golfers with accurate measurements of distances on the course, which can help them make the more informed club and shot selections. They are considered valuable tools for professional golfers to improve their performance.

Where do you aim a rangefinder?

A rangefinder should be aimed at the target to which you want to measure the distance. For golfers, this is typically the flagstick on the green. Some rangefinders also have a feature that allows you to aim at a nearby object to measure the distance to your target accurately.

Do most golfers use rangefinders?

Most professional golfers use rangefinders during tournaments, as they provide accurate measurements of distances on the course and can help with club and shot selections. However, while rangefinders are becoming increasingly popular among amateur golfers, not all amateurs use them. Instead, some prefer to rely on yardage markers on the course or their own experience.

Are rangefinder cameras worth it?

Rangefinder cameras can be worth it for photographers who value manual control and the ability to see the subject and focus in the same viewfinder. They also tend to be smaller, lighter, and more discreet than SLR cameras. However, they may not be the best option for those who prioritize autofocus, video capabilities, or advanced features.

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