In the middle of the 20th century at possibly the height of rangefinder camera popularity, Nikon did something amazing, releasing 8 variants of their flagship Nikon rangefinder camera in just 12 years - a feat only matched by the fast paced disposable tech of the digital era. Some Nikon models saw upgrades and some saw simplifications, but regardless of whether the changes from one Nikon rangefinder to the next were grand enough, they did in fact churn them out at a blazing pace. Not only that but 40 years after the last model was released, Nikon gave the film world a surprise, doing something we only dream about from our favorite camera manufactures.
Nikon Rangefinder Cameras 1948-2005
So let’s take a look starting with the original Nikon camera, at a list of every Nikon rangefinder ever made.
Nikon Camera (Nikon 1), 1948
Nikon’s first compact-size rangefinder (RF), focal plane shutter 35mm (135) format camera
Unique 24 x 32mm picture format (‘Nikon-Ban’)
The Nikon 1 released in 1948 was the first Nikon-branded camera ever produced. The first Nikkor lens designed for the Nikon 1 was the Nikkor 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens, a specification likely made popular by the Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens first sold 14 years earlier in 1934. The Nikon 1 had a smaller picture format than what was standard for 135mm film, its picture size was 24mm x 32mm and produced up to 40 negatives from a single roll of 36 exposure film. The maximum shutter speed was 1/500th of a second, with B (bulb) and T (time) modes, with no flash sync on the Nikon’s cloth shutter usually labeled “MIOJ” (Made in Occupied Japan). The baseplate of the camera also had etched into it “Made in Occupied Japan”. Less than 1000 units ever produced, and all but a few were in Chrome with a a remaining small number in black.
Nikon M, 1950
The second RF camera with a 24 x 34mm picture format
Just two years later in 1950 Nikon released the second iteration of the Nikon rangefinder the Nikon M this time with a slight increase in picture size from 24mm x 32mm, to 24mm x 34mm. The maximum shutter speed was 1/500th of a second, with B (bulb) and T (time) modes, with no flash sync until later versions of the Nikon M. Total units produced of the Nikon M were 1,643 and again all but a few were in Chrome with, the few made in black were supposedly custom made for special clients.
Nikon S, 1951
RF camera, built-in flash synchronization (‘F’ and ‘S’ contacts)
The production units of the Nikon S increased an astonishing 2000% from the Nikon M from 1,643 units to 36,746. The main change in the 1951 Nikon S was the inclusion of a flash sync contact (see top right in image). The Nikon S still included the unusual 24mm x 34mm which was also adopted by a few other brands cameras of the era. The standard lens was upgraded from the Nikkor 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens to the new Nikkor 5cm f1.4 lens which was the fastest 50mm at the time. Two more lenses were introduced with the Nikon S, the W-Nikkor.C 25mm f/4 and Nikkor-S.C 85mm f/1.5. Towards the end of productions engraving reading "Made in Occupied Japan" were changed to "Made in Japan". Again a few were made in black for special customers like war photographers and other types of photojournalists.
Nikon S2, 1954
24 x 36mm picture format
Lightweight and strong aluminum die-cast body
1.0x magnification viewfinder
The first Japanese camera to incorporate a film advance lever and a rewind crank
S2E accepts the world’s first battery-powered motor drive
Just six years after their first name branded camera the Nikon 1, Nikon released the 4th variant of their rangefinder camera the smaller, lighter, more functional Nikon S2 in 1954. Picking up production again from 36,746 in the previous model to 56,715 on the S2, Nikon seemed to have finally found their groove. Dropping the [what today we call odd] picture formats of the Nikon 1, M, and S, the Nikon S2 moved to the more common 36 x 24mm picture format, also known as 135mm or more commonly 35mm. Additionally the fastest shutter speed was doubled from 1/500th of a second to 1/1000th. This was Nikon’s first rangefinder with the delightful 1:1 magnified viewfinder - giving photographers a real-world scale as they looked through the viewfinder, and also could of course shoot with both eyes open. This 1:1 magnification would later be adopted by all their future rangefinder models as well as Canon in 1959 with the Canon P rangefinder, and Cosina in 2004 with the Voigtländer R3 rangefinder.
The Nikon S2 also included a lot of “firsts” such the option to attach the world’s first battery powered motor drive. The S2 was also the first Japanese camera with both a film advance lever and a rewind crank. All three of these features enabled resulted in a faster shooting process, that is getting from one shot to the next as quickly as possible. Nikon rangefinders were popular among photojournalists, press, and war photographers and they needed to keep up with the technological developments of other camera makers in the industry. 1954 was also the same year the Leica M3 was released, Leica’s first M mount camera. With easy film loading from the open back of the Leica M3 and its large viewfinder magnification.
Nikon SP, 1957
Dual viewfinders (50, 85, 105, or 135mm and 35 + 28mm)
The later model features titanium shutter curtains
Coupled to Selen Nikon Meter
Accepts battery-powered motor drive (3 fps)
Another 3 years later and another new rangefinder from Nikon, this time the Nikon SP released in 1957, where “P” is said to stand for “Professional”. The Nikon SP provided the most notable aesthetic changes since the Nikon 1, which would be quickly abandoned a year later into a more traditional regression of the next Nikon rangefinder. Those unfamiliar with the Nikon SP may have a hard time pinpointing its era as it looks futuristic, high-tech, almost sinister even. Non-cosmetic upgrades from the Nikon S2 included Titanium shutters - which may be best known for their use in Nikon’s own FM2 SLR which would come a few decades later.
More technologically advanced features appeared in the Nikon SP including a Bright Line Illuminator. With some AA battery power the Nikon SP would illuminate the viewfinder frame lines for assured visibility in dark conditions (remember this is 1957 - WOW!). The Nikon SP was the worlds first rangefinder to include built-in frame lines for 6 different focal lengths, beautifully designed non-distracting way only showing one at a time in in all but one case. The Nikon SP adopted the dual viewfinder design of screw mount Leica cameras, but each with their own frame lines instead of one dedicated to focus with the other for framing.
The Nikon SP had a normal finder which showed the rangefinder focusing patch, and 50mm lines at a 1:1 magnification, with a top dial to change from 50mm to 85, 105, or 135mm showing only one at a time. Immediately to the left was a secondary viewfinder at a lower magnification enabling a display of a constant 28 and 35mm frame line. The Nikon SP also included a self-timer for the first time and had a smaller run than the previous versions at a respectable 22,348 units produced.
Nikon S3, 1958
A basic model of the Nikon SP (1957)
Three viewfinder frames (3.5, 5.0 and 10.5cm)
One year after the release of the Nikon SP Nikon yet again released a new iteration, this time the Nikon S3, a stripped down version of the Nikon SP. With a lower price and less features it was better suited for those who considered themselves non-professional shooters. The Nikon S3 saw its design revert and conform to that of earlier and later Nikon rangefinder cameras, including a single view finder and unchanging constant frame lines, this time 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm.
Nikon S4, 1959
Simplified version of the Nikon S3 (1958)
Two viewfinder frames (5.0 and 10.5cm)
Simplified or refined further still was the Nikon S4, removing the self timer and 35mm frame lines, the Nikon S4 only slightly differs from the Nikon S3. The S4 showed constant 50mm and 105mm frame lines in the single 1:1 magnification viewfinder. Some sources say the telephoto frame lines were 135mm but Nikon’s own product history database notes it as 105mm. Essentially the same camera as the Nikon S3, the Nikon S4 was a less costly camera and for those shooting 50mm and 105mm, likely a better value.
Nikon S3M, 1960
The first 17.5 x 24mm frame RF camera
Accepts the motor drive for continuous shooting up to 6 fps
Released yet another year later after the S4, the Nikon S3M is a highly collectible half-frame Nikon rangefinder camera, the first and last they ever produced and at a production run of just 195 units. This half-frame variant of the Nikon S3 shot 18mm x 24mm size images with a modified viewfinder to match and a frame counter that went up to 72 exposures.
Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition, 2000
A reproduction model of the vintage RF camera, Nikon S3 (1958)
In 2000, sixty years after the last Nikon rangefinder was released, something magical happened, a bit of Nikon heritage came back to from the grave with a surprise reissue of the 1958 Nikon S3. Manufactured from drawings of the original Nikon S3, the new Nikon S3 had an improved chrome finishing as well as a redesigned RF-Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens with modern coatings. With a high price and low production run of under 8000 units, it was an instant collectors item and sells for big bucks these days. It might not be worth the high price that it costs today - but this is the price demanded by collectors posting them for sale. Officially it is called the “Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition” but is more commonly referred to as the Nikon S3 Y2K Edition.
Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition in Chrome/Black Paint, 2000
Later that year  Nikon released the Nikon S3 Y2k Edition in a black chrome finish, all other aspects remained the same. In 2002 Cosina released the Nikon rangefinder mount Voigtländer Bessa R2S. At that time the costly collectors edition Nikon S3 Y2K was no longer the only option for a modern film camera with a Nikon S-mount (exciting!).
Limited Edition Black Nikon SP, 2005
Again another surprise from Nikon in 2005, the remake, re-release, or recreation of the 1957 Nikon SP with a reissued multicoated, W-Nikkor 3.5cm f1.8 lens. At just 2,500 units produced and in only black chrome, it was again a camera only to be had by the most dedicated of collectors.
Today in 2019 this is where the legend ends. Let’s hope for another reissue in the future, and next time in a higher quantity and thus a lower price - these beauties don’t belong on the shelf unless their owners are sleeping.
Some variants not included such as the Nikon SPX, SP2, SP Olympic, and other obscure, non-mass-produced, and/or prototyped cameras [like Nikon Thread Mount].
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