Shooting With a Classic Rangefinder: The Nikon S3

I’ve always been interested in rangefinder cameras – thus my post about the Kodak 1A Autographic Special from a few weeks ago. That Kodak was one of the first cameras to utilize a rangefinder. I think the whole concept of triangulation to determine distances was always interesting to me since I loved geometry.

I remember, working in a camera store during college, when I first picked up a rangefinder camera (probably a Canonet QL17 or something similar) the first thing I said was, “How does it work?”

I was intrigued about how surveyors first determined the elevation of Mt. Everest by starting from the coast of India, and using surveying instruments to move inland, from hill to hill, and finally to a point when they could see the summit of the mountain, and thus determine it’s elevation above sea level. So the idea of how a rangefinder works has always been a source of amazement for me.

So, up until the 1950’s, rangefinder cameras, like the Leica M2 and M3 were the go to cameras, especially for photojournalists. With the advent of the Nikon F, the rangefinder’s popularity began to decrease. But for me, the rangefinder is still interesting.

I recently had the opportunity to buy a Nikon S3 Limited 2000 Edition – which, as I understand, was only sold in Japan, and people had to enter a lottery to buy one. There were only 8000 silver body’s made – all by hand. And there were about 2000 black bodies made a couple years later. Mine is silver – decent black bodies are a bit more difficult to get.

So, how well does this camera work? First, you need to realize that this is a very basic, no frills, camera. There is no meter. You can find lenses, but these cameras use the Nikon S mount – so your SLR lenses won’t work. The S mount is Nikon’s own , so you may not have as much choice as with Leica screw on lenses, but that’s not a problem for me.

Why did the SLR make the rangefinder obsolete? Well, the idea of what you see, is what you get is a big part of it. Remember, these kinds of cameras were commonly used by journalists, sports photographers and the like. These kinds of photographers needed to shoot fast, and change lenses quickly for their job. Rangefinders are a bit handicapped in this area (much the same as twin lens reflex cameras are) because your photograph is captured through a separate lens than you look through. At least 2 problems can come about because of this.

First, your lens’ focal length will cause your photograph to be different than what you see through the rangefinder’s viewfinder. There are some markings in the viewfinder that help you see approximately where the borders will be when using various lenses – but that only allows me to use my standard lens, and maybe a 35mm or 105mm. To really see what your subject will look like, you need to have a second lens to look through, to focus, etc. (like with a twin lens reflex camera) that’s the same focal length as your main lens, or you need to look through the same lens you’re taking the photograph with (like an SLR). There’s also an option with rangefinders to have a second, external, viewfinder that comes with some lenses. For example, I saw a 21mm lens that had it’s own viewfinder – which mounts on the flash shoe atop the camera. This separate viewfinder would show you what you would capture with the 21mm lens.

Second, we have the problem caused by the lens and viewfinder being separated by a small distance. A subject looks differnet from different angles, from different vantage points. If I’m standing in one spot, looking at my lovely tree, and I move a few feet to the left, the tree looks different – and specifically, if you look the exact same direction, and move a few feet to the left, you may not see the tree exactly the same. Well, for very distant objects this difference is minimized. The farther away from your subject you are, the less of a problem it is. But, as you get closer to your subject, and especially if you do macro work, the distance between lens and viewfinder, although it may only be a few centimeters, can make a big difference in how your image is framed. The SLR/dSLR (and obviously mirrorless cameras) solve this problem by allowing the photographer to see precisely what they were photographing by viewing the image through the same lens that is used to actually capture the image.

So, those are 2 of the major issues that the advent of the SLR solved. The ability to change lenses to virtually any focal length and see exactly what you will capture was a huge thing. Fortunately for me, I’m not interesting in doing most of that with my S3, but I am interested in using it, and getting a feel for how it works, and how well it works.

By solving these problems, the SRL/dSLR added another problem. The lens, because of the mirror, couldn’t be too close to the film plane. This caused lens designers to make lenses more complex to compensate for distortion that could occur if you lens is too far from the focal plane/film plane. Lens design is simpler when you can place the rear element of the lens at any distance from the film plane that you like. If you have a minimum distance of 4-5 cm then that adds an extra factor that complicates lens design. This problem has actually been solved in our digital age with the advent of mirrorless cameras, and now lenses can actually be simpler to design, and produce better images because the rear lens element can be any distance needed from the image sensor, like it was with rangefinder cameras.

The next thing I should mention is that cameras pre 1960 didn’t have built in light meters – and when rangefinders did have meters (like the Canon 7) they were not TTL, or through the lens metering. Topcon and Pentax were the first to utilize TTL metering. Pentax showed it at Photokina in 1960, and Topcon actually started selling the RE Super in 1963. So rangefinders, like the Nikon S3 (1958 design) didn’t have TTL metering. You could attach a meter, or use a handheld meter – or you could just guess. The sunny-16 rule was (is) a good guideline. You can set your shutter speed to your ASA (ISO) and set the f-stop to 16, on a sunny day. If it’s not too sunny, or if it’s very overcast, you compensate. I like to use a handheld meter to get an idea of where my starting point should be. My favorite meter is the Sekonic Studio Deluxe. I like simple, and I don’t shoot enough without a meter to feel comfortable just guessing. Maybe someday. I should also mention, without TTL metering, anything that requires exposure compensation, like using a filter, is a bit more difficult. SLR cameras with TTL metering simplified life with filters quite drastically – or maybe I just lack confidence.

So how is it to use this camera? Well, let me say that when I try to focus with my poor eyesight, I can understand some of the appeal of SLR. I have trouble focusing. Here’s a few shots I took with my S3.

After shooting some around the house, I decided to take a walk in town and take a few shots of the buildings there – plus a selfie.

All in all, I like this camera for an easy carry around camera. Most of the images here (except the indoor ones) were shot using sunny-16 – so I left my camera set at 1/500th and left the aperture at between f/11 and f/16. Seems to have worked well. I think I’ll shoot mainly negative film, both color and black and white with this camera. I’ll probably shoot slide film when I’m using a meter more, or with a camera that has a built in meter – since slide film is generally a bit less forgiving.

Have you tried shooting with a rangefinder? I like trying older cameras, but doing so generally makes me realize why they changed designs as technology changed. Newer cameras, in general, make shooting easier, metering easier, and focusing easier, but not always – and sometimes I don’t mind doing things the old way, just for fun.