Category Archives: Nikon Rangefinder

How a Rangefinder Works

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A rangefinder camera has a viewfinder window built into its front and a second rangefinder window off to its side.  This optical system, separate from the imaging lens, is what you use to focus the camera. This is what differentiates a rangefinder camera from a ‘single lens reflex’ camera, which uses the imaging lens itself as the optical system for viewing the scene to be photographed.

The rangefinder camera’s viewfinder window generates the view you see when looking through the viewfinder itself. To the right of the viewfinder window (when using the camera) is located a second smaller window, the rangefinder window, which itself sits in front of a moveable mirror that reflects a second image to the viewfinder. This mirror moves as the lens focus ring is adjusted.The reflection from the mirror passes to a small lens before reaching a half-silvered, beam splitter mirror located in the main viewfinder.

This reflected second image is referred to as the rangefinder patch. It is projected into the center portion of the viewfinder image. The twin images of the subject in the viewfinder are superimposed via the focus ring of the lens. On a coupled-rangefinder the focus ring moves a small sensor arm in the camera body that pivots the movable mirror as the focus is set.  When you adjust the focus ring on the lens the small image projected from the the rangefinder window will appear to shift sideways in relation to main viewfinder image. Once you see these two images coincide to form a single clear image, your lens is properly focused.

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Do They Actually Sprinkle Magic Dust on Leica Lenses?

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This lens sells for $10,995 

Funny how the perception of a brand changes over time.  Leica became an iconic brand by being the first manufacturer to offer a 35mm system camera. Small and discreet, the perfect carry-around in your pocket camera. Zeiss, which was generally considered to make better optics, came onto the scene only shortly after Leica but produced the unreliable Contax I body (whose design had to jump through hoops to circumvent Leitz patents) as the means to use their excellent optics. As such, Leicas remained the camera of choice for professionals through the 50’s. But there’s more to it than just that. After the war, while the Zeiss factory was carted off to the Soviet Union by victorious eastern bloc troops, Leitz, by virtue of their location in the western bloc, remained to produce cameras. Due to such serendipity, Leitz kept the burgeoning post war photojournalist market to itself until the advent of the Nikon F.

As for the idea that Leitz has always produced the best optics, a quick review of the historical facts on the ground prove otherwise. Already in the 50’s, many working photographers sought out Nikkor optics in preference to what was available from Leitz. During Korea, David Douglas Duncan used a pair of Leica IIIc’s, one with a Nikkor 5cm F1.5 and the other with a Nikkor 13.5cm F4. 

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While a whole generation of gearheads now swear, retroactively, by the traditional superiority of Leitz glass, there was nothing intrinsically superior about Leitz optics through the 50’s, although the Summicron 50mm f2, introduced in 1953 with the M3, is a fine lens, but early versions suffered from the same problems as many other post-war Leitz lenses, namely soft coatings and badly formulated lubricant which caused gassing, haze and mold. The best LTM lenses that you can still find these days tend to be Canon or Nikkor optics built in the 50’s, or, of course, the excellent modern LTM Voigtlander optics produced by Cosina since the late 90’s.

By the 60’s Leitz optics prevailed in the rangefinder market because Leitz was the only manufacturer still committed to building and marketing rangefinder cameras, which, by the mid 60’s had been eclipsed as professional tools by the rise of the SLR in the form of the Nikon F. Most other manufacturers, including Nikon and Canon, were now creating SLR optics, leaving Leitz as the only player in rangefinder optics.

In the 70’s, when I came of age photographically, people were just beginning to perceive Leitz lenses as superior to Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses. But if you compare older examples – the vintage lenses collectors and enthusiasts clammer for today – , for example, 35mm lenses (Biogon versus Elmar) , 50mm (Sonnar versus Summar), or 180/200mm (f2.8 “Olympia” Sonnar versus f4.5 Telyt), it’s hard to understand this, except as an example of the success of subsequent Leitz marketing and retroactive causation. The 50mm Summicron Rigid didn’t hurt either.

 In the 70s Leitz made some fine cameras but also some very bad business decisions; German Leitz would have stopped rangefinder production had it not been for the management at Leica Midland in Canada. Thereafter some of the best Leica M optics (and R) came not from Germany but from Walter Mandler and his team. Mandlar had joined Leitz at Wetzlar in 1946, and, having moved thereafter to Leitz Midland, took advantage of Leitz’s new glass research lab to create some of Leitz’s finest optics.  On Mandler’s retirement the subsequent dismantling of Leitz Canada lens design shifted back to Wetzlar under Wolfgang Vollrath, who crafted improvements to Mandler’s designs. These post Midland lenses are great optics, but they are evolutionary, not revolutionary, dependant upon glass technology advances, well programmed computer optimisation and decreased manufacturing tolerances available to all manufacturers.  

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Of course, current Leica lenses are uniformly excellent, the product of 60 years of developmental know-how since the first Summicron was produced. And, in the last 40 years, Leica has slowly, consciously morphed from a maker of exquisitely hand-crafted mechanical cameras to a producer of exceptional optics, with prices to match. And that’s ultimately the difference between a Leitz optic and a Nikkor or a Canon – the price, and what goes into that price. At the prices they sell their lenses, Leica can afford to make them exceptional. Nikon and Canon and Zeiss and Voigtlander and Ricoh could do the same but choose not to; it’s not as if Leica possesses some esoteric lens making skill that can’t be duplicated elsewhere at the right price point. A case in point is the Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 offered by Nikon with the Millennium Nikon S3 in 2000. It is the same optical formula as the Olympic Nikkor of 1964, a Double-Gauss 7 elements in 5 groups except now made with modern coatings and the decreased tolerances offered by computerized production. Ultimately assembled by hand, checked and rechecked, it was an element of Nikon’s quixotic statement that it could produce cameras and optics every bit as good as any other manufacturer in the world…and it’s every bit as good as the Leica current Summicron ASPH, regardless of what any hardcore Leicaphile wants to tell you. These days you can buy one on Ebay from Japan, still in the box (with a brand new Millennium S3 attached for good measure), at about a 1/4th of the price of a Leica Summilux ASPH.

Leitz, Zeiss, Nikon and The Genesis of High-Speed 35mm Photography

8476219959_7d57c359e5_bWhen Oskar Barnack built the first 35mm film camera, the “Ur-Leica” in 1923, he fitted it with a 5cm f/3.5 Elmax Anastigmat. When the Leica I went into full production a two years later, Leitz fitted it with the same lens but modified it with two as opposed to three cemented elements, and renamed it the “Elmar.”  The f/3.5 Elmar is a very sharp lens, even opened up, and helped establish Leica’s reputation for fine optics. There are claims that Leitz had the capabilities to produce an f/2 50mm at this time, but chose not to to insure they offered the finest quality optics for their fledgling 35mm camera system.

For years Leica trailed Zeiss, the acknowledged leader in optical design, in producing high-speed lenses. Already in 1928,  Zeiss had released the 50/1.5 Sonnar, a 7-element modified triple with only 6 air-glass surfaces (in an era of uncoated lenses, each uncoated surface reduced light transmission by about 15%, which was why fast lenses were so difficult to produce before the advent of lens coating). In the late 30’s Zeiss introduced vacuum fluoro-coating to the Sonnar, creating the Sonnar T. Starting in 1930, Leitz offered as an alternative to the Elmar it’s first “high-speed” 50, a 5cm f/2.5 Hektor. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, Leitz introduced a 5cm f/2 Summar, a modified Zeiss Planar design which they subsequently improved upon and reintroduced in 1939 as the Summitar. Max Berek, who designed most of the lenses for Leica in the 1930’s, explained that the reason Leitz had not used their own design for their original high-speed 50 was they had wanted to be certain their original offerings met a high standard so as to insure the success of the Leica 35mm camera, and they did not then have the optical expertise to design a clean sheet high speed lens and so chose to borrow Zeiss’s proven Planar design.

Leica produced their first high-speed 50mm in 1936 with the introduction of the Leitz Xenon, an uncoated seven element double Gauss type with ten surfaces  (the rear element was split in two). While there is some evidence to support Leica’s claim that the Xenon was a Leitz creation, for patent reasons Leitz sublicensed the design from Schneider, who had themselves licensed the patent design from Taylor, Taylor Hobson (TTH) in Great Britain, agreeing to use Zeiss’s “Xenon” designation for the lens. In the 1949, Leitz began fluoro-coating the Xenon and renamed it the Summarit (however the US Patent still had a few years to run, so you’ll find some early Summarits still carrying the US Patent number). Lens coating, developed in Germany during the war, made a tremendous improvement on the uncoated Xenon, increasing contrast and reducing flare.  After the war, Leitz also offered a service to coat existing pre-war lenses, but would not coat the front element because their coating was not sufficiently robust to resist damage with normal cleaning.

While some claim that it was the introduction of fluoro-coating that revolutionized Leitz optics, in reality it was Leitz’s post-war decision to open their own glass research facility in order to reduce their dependence on third parties. But Zeiss remained the leader in high-speed lens design and production into the 60s. While Leitz was busy playing catch-up to Zeiss’s recognized high-speed technical dominance, Japanese camera makers – Nikon and Canon – each started offering versions of the 50/1.5 Sonnar, the 50/1.5 Nikkor, and the 50/1.5 Canon. In 1951 Nikon recomputed the 50/1.5 into the 50/1.4 and set in motion the beginnings of a tectonic shift in public perception and professional acceptance of Japanese optics, a design and manufacturing contest between the German and Japanese producers that continues to this day.

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David Douglas Duncan introduced the world to high quality Japanese lenses. Duncan used a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 and Nikkor-QC 13.5cm F4 on his Leica IIIc for most of his photographs taken in Korea. Other photographers took note of the quality of Duncan’s images and word spread about the quality of the Nikkor lenses.

In their December 10, 1950 edition, the New York Times noted the emergence of Nikkor optics amongst professional photographers: “The first postwar camera to attract serious attention in America has caused a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life magazine photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proven superior to the German cameras they had been using. The lenses, which include a full range of focal lengths, give a higher accuracy rating than lenses available for German miniatures.” The article quoted “camera expert” Mitch Bogdanovitch  that the Nikkor lenses “are of excellent color correction and perform better at full apertures than do Zeiss lenses.” The President of Carl Zeiss, Inc. USA, subsequently threatened to stop advertising in The Times. The Times ultimately allowed Zeiss to run a statement that the “Zeiss lenses being tested were not true Zeiss lenses.”  This was most likely accurate. After World War II, much of the Zeiss machinery that was used to produce precision optics was shipped back to Russia as war reparations. Wholesale lots of optics, optical glass, lens parts, and fixtures were shipped to Russia where they were completed at the KMZ factory. ZK used Zeiss parts for their 5cm F1.5 Sonnars and 5cm F1.5 Jupiter-3’s through the early 1950s.

The iconic Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 remains one of the most obscure of the vintage Nikkors. Nikon originally developed the 5cm F1.5 for use on the Hansa Canon. Two batches of lenses were produced, the “905” batch in May 1949 and the “907” batch in July 1949. After the war, when Nikon needed a super-speed lens to compete with Zeiss and Leitz, Nikon used the 5cm F1.5 as the basis for their now venerable 50mm f1,4. Fewer than 800 1.5 Nikkors were made, about 300 in Leica mount and 500 in S-Mount, before Nikon replaced the F1.5 with the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.4 the following year.

5cm 1.5

The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 is a Sonnar with seven elements in three groups, although a unique formulation. The Nikkor is made to the Leica 51.6mm focal length standard, and is constructed using different optical glass than the Zeiss optic. The focus mount is an all-brass rigid mount, finished in chrome, and has a close-focus of 18”. It is the first Nikkor lens to feature the close-focus capability, followed by the 5cm F1.4 and rigid-mount 5cm F2. The optical surfaces are all hard-coated. The aperture mechanism does not employ click-stops, while the subsequent F1.4  and rigid F2 lenses of 1950 feature click-stops.

“True” Zeiss lenses in Leica mount were manufactured during the war in small numbers. The 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” made during the war used a “recomputed” optical formula that improved performance compared with the pre-war lenses. The wartime Leica mount Zeiss lenses are not as well made as the Nikkor lenses used by Duncan in Korea. The choice of available materials for the fixtures and focus mount was poor, with lighter, less robust metal alloys used. The design of the Zeiss focus mount for the Leica camera was not well thought out; as an example a set screw through the focus ring serves as the focus stop. Zeiss lenses of the period that saw heavy use often fell out of RF calibration, with the sleeves and helical loosening-up,  making the lens unusable.

In post WW2 Germany, Zeiss produced their lenses with what remained behind. Post-war Leica mount “Carl Zeiss Jena” Sonnars can be found that are not in the “official records”, and often have a “one-off” quality about them. These lenses were probably machined using mostly hand-made tools, sometimes were missing parts, and had sub-standard finish on the optics and mechanical fixtures. These lenses were used with many post-war Leica cameras, many bought by serviceman in Occupied Germany. A post-war era Zeiss lens in perfect condition would probably not have withstood the combat conditions faced by Korean era war photographers.

Nikon optimized their post-war rangefinder optics for wide-open use, and the 5cm F1.5 is no exception. Zeiss optimized their lenses for stopped down use and perform best at F2.8. Leitz optimized their lenses for mid-aperture usage, as does Leica even today. Zeiss did not start optimizing their Sonnars for wide-open use until recently.

 

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The 50 f1.4 Nikkor S is the lens most responsible for making Nikon’s reputation in the early 1950s. It was a leap ahead of Zeiss, and certainly, Leitz, in high-speed lens quality. Nikon introduced the Nikkor S-C 5cm f/1.4 in 1951 at a List price of approximately  $1,700 in today’s money. First versions were marked “NIKKOR-S C” to denote that the lens was coated. The “C” was dropped in 1957.  In 1962, Nikon introduced a longer version with different optics, engraved “50mm” instead of “5cm”, referred to as the Olympic version. Nikon again re-made the larger 50mm lens in 2000 as part of the S3 Millennial set.

Ive always been impressed by the old Nikkor LTM lenses. The 50 f2 and the 35 f1.8 are particularly good vintage users. The 50 has a beautiful classic look, sharp and contrary even wide open. They are plentiful today because so many of them were made for use with amateur cameras (Tower, Nicca). And they are inexpensive – excellent examples can be found for between 200-300$. The 35mm 1.8 LTM is another story, carrying prices of 1700-2500$ depending on the condition. Both of these vintage Nikkors have aged better than similar offerings from Leitz given their harder front coatings.

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There also exist a number of Nikkors in Nikon S mount, that heretofore were limited in use to the Nikon S rangefinder series. A beautiful camera, no doubt, but it has its limitations – specifically a rangefinder patch that’s very hard to read except with high contrast edges. The Nikkor S lenses themselves are uniformly excellent.

In 2000, Nikon made the decision to reproduce the S3 with an updated version of the Nikkor 50 1.4 (the “Millennial”).  In 2005, they reproduced the SP coupled with an updated Nikkor 35 1.8. Almost all were snapped up by collectors assuming that the prices would appreciate with time. For whatever reason, prices of new, unused kits have currently depreciated by 75%, with early speculators selling S3 kits they bought for $6000 for less than $2000. I recently bought a brand new chrome S3 kit from Japan for $1550.

Throw into the mix the 50 Millennial and the 35 SP remakes with modern multi-coating and the rangefinder Nikkors make an excellent alternative to the uber-expensive Leica offerings.

The irony of the S3 Millenial is that its starting to become popular again because of the lens, not the camera. You can chalk that up to the Amedeo Adaptor. Now, thanks to an enterprising gentleman in Argentina who produces a Nikon S to Leica M adaptor as a labor of love, you can use your S mount lenses on your Leica M, rangefinder coupled, with his Amedeo adaptor. And the adaptor is nothing like the plethora of cheap Chinese adaptors recently appeared on the market allowing use of various lens mounts on mirrorless cameras. The first thing you notice about the Amedeo adaptor is how well-made and tightly toleranced it is. It looks and feels like something that should have the Leica name attached to it. Its focus throw is smooth and firm, and it locks into the M mount with a pronounced click. Extremely nice.

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Which leaves us Leicaphiles with wonderful new options for the use of Nikkor S lenses on our M’s. For less than 2k you can buy an unused S3 body with 50 1.4 attached, buy an Amedeo adaptor for $275 and have a 50 1.4 prime lens for your M every bit as sharp and well built as the $5000 Summilux Aspherical. You’ll also have a new Nikon S3 body you can slap a new VC 50 2.5 S on (approx $250-300) and use as a second rig. The S3, itself a worthy competitor to the M3, is, in my opinion, worth the $2000 price alone, as you’re getting the functional equivalent of a brand new M3 throw in “free of charge” when you buy the set for the Millennial Nikkor 50 1.4. And, having not had to spread for the $5000 Summilux, you’ll have almost $3000 in change left over.

amedeoAmedeo Adaptor

 

 

The ‘Leica Experience’ Without the Leica

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If Leica announced they were going to offer an brand new M3, built to the original specs, coupled with an updated non- aspherical Summilux 50mm f1.4 and original lens hood- and offer it as a kit for $1600, I suspect you’d stand in line to get a chance to buy as many as possible. The lens alone would be worth the price. Why then can’t people give away the brand new in box Nikon S3 2000 editions stowed away fifteen years ago when Nikon released the S3 Millennial edition? Think of this. A New Leica M-A, the current iteration of Leica’s mechanical film M, sells new for $4750, with free shipping ( for the 50mm Summilux add an extra $3750). Yet today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 Millennial, with 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor that is every bit the equal of the Summilux, for $1600 or thereabout on EBay. That’s crazy.

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S3 2

In 1957 a LEICA M3 and 50mm f/1.4 lens sold for about $4,000 in today’s money, while the pro Nikon, the Nikon SP went for $3,000 with a 50mm Nikkor f/1.4. Released in 1958, Nikon designed the S3 as the lower-cost alternative to the SP, sort of the equivalent of the Leica M2 in relation to the M3. The only real difference between the SP and the S3 was the viewfinder. While the SP employed two separate viewfinders that covered the 28/35/50/85/105 and 135 fields of view, the S3 employed a single viewfinder with fixed 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm framelines and no parallax correction or frame switching. Frankly, if you confined your needs to a 50 or 35, the S3 was as good as the SP, certainly as robust and well- built. In 1958, the S3 with 50mm f/1.4 cost ¥86,000 (about $2600 in today’s money) compared to the SP which was ¥98,000.

S3 and SP
Nikon SP, above, with S3 Millennial below

In 2000 Nikon reproduced the original S3 and offered it as the S3 2000 (“S3 Millennial”), an exact duplicate of their classic 1958 S3 in chrome finish.   In 2002 Nikon released the black paint S3 2000 with a production of 2000 units. The initial retail price for both the chrome and black paint the kit was around $6000, and most were bought up by collectors and put on the shelf with an eye to appreciation. The rise of digital photography, however, knocked the legs out from under the S3 as an investment, and many collectors are selling their new, unused, still in the box Millennial S3’s for pennies on the dollar. Today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 with f/1.4 Nikkor for $1600 on eBay.

With the M3 in 1955,  Leica came up with an enduring design that made the camera a natural extension of the photographer’s hand. The M3 embodied minimalist functionality at its best, radically simple, both in design and function, everything accessible with minimum fuss.  Of course, the M3 was the inspiration for Nikon’s first pro rangefinder, but the SP included some of its own innovations. For example, with its forward focusing wheel and shutter release to the rear of the top plate, it was designed to allow your index finger at the shutter trigger while using your middle finger to focus with the focusing wheel.  One hand operation. (This is how the Nikon F, built on the rangefinder platform, inherited its unwieldy shutter position  – the recessed shutter position had been designed to accommodate the focus wheel of the rangefinder series, but, of course, made no sense on the F which didn’t have a focusing wheel. Nikon moved the shutter trigger forward on the bottom up designed F2).

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Nikon S3 Millennial with 50mm Nikkor f/1.4 and Leica M2-R with DR Summicron

The S3 has the same minimalist ethos as the Leica, simple to use and very reliable. It’s also made to the same incredible high manufacturing standards, hand built in the same manner as the M. And the Millennial Nikkor 50 is an exceptional lens, every bit the equal of the current Leica optics. While Nikon claims it’s a faithful recreation of the 50 era Nikkor 50, it does use modern coatings  and tighter tolerances, and its output is markedly superior to the original Nikkor of which it is a recreation. Its a testament to Nikon’s optical expertise that a 50 year old optical design can match the best modern Leica optics.

So, if you want a new fully mechanical precision film rangefinder built by one of history’s iconic manufacturers, you can spend $8500 on a Leica M-A with ASPH Summilux 50 – or you can buy a chrome S3 Millennial kit on eBay for $1600-$1800 (or if you want the black paint version, $2400). If you choose the S3 Millennial, you can have the “Leica Experience” without the price premium, the snobbery and buffoonery, the condescending elitism, the ignorant comments from the hoi polloi, the envious looks from the guy with the x100; just the simple joy of using a superbly made mechanical rangefinder with a wide choice of excellent optics. And the camera is new-nobody else’s problems to deal with.

What’s not to like about that?

 

The Genesis of the Black Paint Rangefinder

Nikon S2 black paint

The camera that started the trend of black finish was not the Leica MP, but the Nikon S2. The black paint Nikon S2 was introduced in October 1955. The black S2 is plated with black nickel and then painted.

The Nikon rangefinders possessed a fit and finish the equal of the Leica, although some folks mistake the inherent play in the fit of the detachable back for a lack of bodily solidity. It is not. In terms of finish, the Nikons sometimes bested the Leica. Unlike Leitz, the white markings are engraved – on the M3, M2 and M4 only the serial number is engraved – on the Nikon S2, all the white numerals, lettering and indications are engraved by hand.

The first of black M Leicas was a run of 5 black paint M3’s followed shortly by the famous black MP’s. Leitz made 150 of the black MPs.  The paint on these cameras is very dull and thin.

Black Paint M3 earliest

Black Paint MP 28

In 1958 Leitz introduced the M2 that was also made in black, the same finish and paint type that was used on the MP: dull and thin. Leitz produced 500 of the M2’s in this run of black paint production.

Black Paint M2 earliest

Towards the early seventies Leitz offered a service for those who were not happy with the flaking and bubbling paint on their early black M2’s. All the black parts were replaced by new ones and the original number was engraved, but slightly higher than the old ones from the fifties. The type of paint was the same of that of the black paint M4 and Leicaflex SL.

Black Paint M2 restored

For some reason lost to time, Leitz did not have a restoration service for the M3 as they did for the M2. However, owners could have their chrome M3’s transformed to black paint. These transformed cameras are very rare, due to the high cost. They were often made to match the Noctilux 50mm f/1.2, a black finished lens.

Black Paint M3 restored

The style of the engraved number will date the camera a bit. This one does not have any spaces in it’s number, so it can date from the M5 era when the numbers were engraved into the accessory-shoe without spaces. Note the position of the engraved serial number, just a bit lower than the M3 engraving.

*Thanks to Eric van Straten for the photos and expertise. This is essentially a verbatim reprint of a fascinating tutorial posted by Mr. van Straten elsewhere. Mr. van Straten is an amazing source of information for all things Leica film rangefinder related.