Tag Archives: Nikon S3

The Five Best 35mm Rangefinder Values (That Aren’t Leicas)

Occasionally, I’ll have someone contact me to ask about what rangefinder camera I would recommend they buy. Usually it’s someone new to film and or rangefinder use, and they’re looking to dip their toes in the water without spending the kind of money a Leica is going to cost.

Having had lived through the original rangefinder renaissance in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and being an incorrigable gearhead, I’ve probably owned or tried every variation of non-Leica rangefinder along the way, other than most of the 60’s and 70’s era fixed lens rangefnders from Japan, pedestrian cameras like the Canon Canonet or the Minolta Hi-Matic, which really weren’t meant to appeal to people who might consider a Leica, but rather were that era’s glorified point and shoots. So, with the criteria that it not be a Leica but a reasonable alternative to one; and that it be “affordable” (an admittedly subjection criterion), here are my (admittedly idiosyncratic) choices if you’re looking for the rangefinder experience without all the humbug, and costs, that comes along with owning a Leica. By “rangefinder experience” I mean this: 1) its got the be a rangefinder, obviously;  2) it’s small and compact; 3) it allows manual use i.e. you control shutter speed and aperture if you prefer; 4) it allows you to change lenses.

So, moving from better to best, here’s my favorite five best non-Leica values:

hexar af

5) The Konica Hexar AF ($400 with lens): yes, I know, its got a fixed lens, which should immediately disqualify it, as it doesn’t meet the criteria I myself set. But….the 35mm f2 Hexanon that comes with it is an excellent lens, the equal of that $2000 Summicron you’re lusting over, and the camera itself such a perfect little jewel, incredibly inexpensive for what it is, that its made the list anyway. And yes, its AF, but the AF is pretty much bullet-proof, maybe even to this day the fastest, most accurate AF you’ll find. As for those who claim a camera with AF “really isn’t” a classic rangefinder because, well, it just makes things too easy – just remember, you get no points for difficulty. The point is to get the shot, and for that, the Hexar AF is brilliant, especially when working indoors. Plus, it’s got a stealth mode that’s super quiet, quieter than any Leica. Really, the only downside of the camera, other than the fixed lens, is that its highest shutter speed is 1/250th, which makes shooting pictures of fence rails at f2 in bright sunlight for the amazing bokeh problematic. Then again, you can’t always have everything.

s3-year-2000-limited-50-f1-4

4) The Nikon S3 Millenium w/ 50mm f1.4 Nikkor ($1500-1800 LINB on Ebay): yes, I know it’s pushing the affordability criterion, but hear me out. Imagine if in 2000, celebrating some corporate milestone, Leica had made the decision to remake the iconic M3 from the ground up, the exact same camera offered in 1954, hand made to the same exact specifications as the original – no cost-cutting- and coupled it with a new, modern coated Summilux 50mm f1.4. Imagine as well that these were eagerly snapped-up by collectors and speculators for about $6000 a kit, and were usually put aside, still in the box, to await the massive value appreciation you assumed they’d someday command. Suppose as well that now, 15 years later, for some bizarre reason, collectors and speculators, usually from Japan, would now sell you the full kit, basically new, for somewhere between $1500-$1800. Would you want one? Of course you would. You’d sell your children into slavery to get a kit like that at that price.

Well, that’s what Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) did in 2000 when they decided to re-offer a brand new Nikon S3 rangefinder coupled with a modern version of the venerable 50mm f1.4 Nikkor. And you can easily find one now, like new in box, between $1500-$1800, which is crazy, given that the lens itself is every bit the equal of the best 50 Leica is offering now. And the S3 itself is an amazing camera, possessing a solidity and quality feel equal, but different in its own way, to the best Leica M’s. Those who are familiar with the Nikon F will feel at home with the S3, given the F shares the same body architecture – essentially, Nikon created the F by taking an S3 and putting a mirror box in it – the detachable back, the wind on, the funky position of the shutter button. Like the M3, it’s unmetered, and like the M3 the viewfinder best accommodates a 50mm FOV, although there is a native frame for 35mm. At $1500 for body and lens, it’s a killer deal.

Hexar_rf-1-weba

3) The Konica Hexar RF ($500 body only): The best AE M-mount camera ever made, including the M7. I prefer it to the M7 if you’re looking for an AE rangefinder because 1) it’s a 1/4th of the price of an M7; 2) it has a built in motor (an expensive add-on the M7; 3) it’s got a viewfinder magnification that allows use of a 28mm without external viewfinder, 4) it’s got a normal, swing-out back that allows trouble-free loading; and 5) it’s built like a tank. It takes any M-mount Leica lens you want to put on it. It’s the first camera I put in my bag when I’m shooting film, usually with the excellent 28mm M-Hexanon, or the equally superb 50mm M-Hexanon.

contax g1

2) The Contax G1 w/ 45mm f2 Planar ($450 body and lens): You either love this camera, or you hate it. I love it, as in love it. You can buy a G1 body for $125. It’s got a titanium outer shell (you’ll pay $25,000 for a titanium M7),  a built in motor (expensive add-on on an M7), AE, and AF. It’s the AF that seems to drive some people crazy, although the folks it drives crazy tend to be, in 2016 US presidential political terminology, “low information” photographers. Any “defects” of the AF system have more to do with the photographer than the camera; if you treat it like a point and shoot, you’ll have problems. To properly focus it, do this: point that little rectangular box in the middle the viewfinder at what you want to focus on; half cock the shutter; hold the shutter half-cocked while you recompose any which way you like. Voila, a perfectly focused photo. It really isn’t rocket science. Plus, you get to use the best trio of 35mm lenses ever made for a rangefinder system – the Zeiss 45mm Planar, the 28mm Biogon, and the 90mm Sonnar (the 35mm Planar, while the least awesome of the bunch, is no slouch either). Four incredible optics, the 45mm as good or better than anything you’ll ever find elsewhere, which you can pick up used for $300-$400, the 28mm Biogon easily procured for $300. A titanium body to support them, $125. Seriously?

M5

1) The Leica M5 ($800-$1200 body only): Yes, I know it’s a Leica…but it really isn’t, at least if you listen to the internet hive mind, most denizens of which have never seen one, let alone used one. The M5 is, in my mind, Leitz’s great, misunderstood masterpiece, the high-water mark of Leitz’s hand-assembled, cost is no object rangefinders.  The M5 made its debut in 1971, the first M with an exposure meter – in this case, a TTL spot meter still the best meter ever put in a film Leica. Big, bright .72 viewfinder, .68 base rangefinder, well-thought through ergonomics unbeholden to the “iconic” M design.

Unfortunately, it flopped in the marketplace, no fault of its own, rather a function of broader industry trends (the move of professionals to SLR systems), boneheaded decisions by Leitz ( introducing the CL simultaneously at 1/5th the price), and, most importantly, rejection by Leicaphiles because it didn’t conform to the iconic M2/3/4 design. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a brilliant camera – it was, and still is, even today, a better camera than the M6 that proceeded it. However, all but the most discriminating Leicaphiles continue to simply ignore the M5, as if it didn’t exist, usually because they’ve bought into the common view that it’s too big and too ugly, “not a real Leica M.” Bullshit. It’s the best metered Leica M ever made.

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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nikon_nikkor_f1.4_50mm_2

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.

aaaaaa-5029

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.

amedeo adaptor 2

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

s3-year-2000-limited-50-f1-4

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).

S3 M2Paris 2004-74

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?

 

Deconstructing the ‘Leica Mystique’

Guys with Leicas

You’ve all seen him: the guy with the Leica M with the serious expression on his face, taking pictures of people drinking coffee downtown. The M9 with the Summilux Aspherical and the black gaffer tape…..suburban drone by day, on weekends a dogged photojournalist out on the prowl, looking for a scoop, or at least a “Decisive Moment” of some sort. You’ll find the same guy on camera forums, buying and selling and trading and debating Leicas with a seriousness usually reserved for theological debates. Central to his mythos is The Leica Glow, an undefined yet undeniable characteristic of Leica “glass.” This photographer, almost never a working pro (except for self-proclaimed Leica “expert” Thorsteen Overgaard), often as not a dentist in the throes of mid-life mania, is suffering  a communal photographic delusion referred to as The Leica Mystique.

I suppose that some of the so-called Leica Mystique rests on Leica being the grand-daddy of 35mm photography (somebody had to be first), and a leader in the quality end of the market for several decades. And, while Leicas aren’t possessed of magical qualities, they are, at least to the extent we’re talking about Leica Film cameras, very finely made cameras. After using a Nikon F to cut my photographic teeth, I purchased a new M5 in the late 70’s, specifically because I wanted my photographic experience to be “better.” Alas, there were no heavenly choirs, and my photographs didn’t suddenly become any more compelling by virtue of the Leica Glow.  What it did offer me was a rather nuanced experience- a bit quirky and different to modern equipment, but an excellent tactile experience due to the fit, finish, and superb build quality. It was the Nikon F without the rough edges and the “clunk.” It pleased me that something so simple could feel so good in the hand and could be so smooth and unobtrusive. It didn’t hurt that I felt  like I was using something rare and valuable that had its place in photographic history. Over the next 30 years I kept the M5 and added an M2, M4, M6 and M7, my experience each time matching that of the M5.

So, it was in looking for that same experience that I bought a Nikon S3 Millennial a while back. Its a beautiful camera, reputed to have cost Nikon much more to produce than the $6000 price tag. Nikon as a corporation is to be commended for taking the time and effort to resurrect such a beautiful piece of 35mm history. But its no Leica. The S3 finder is cluttered, the rangefinder patch is dull and fuzzy, the restriction to a 50mm field of view is inconvenient, lens changes are slow. It does, however, come with a killer lens, the Nikkor 50 1.4 which is every bit as good as the $5000 Summilux 50 (ironic, huh?).

nikons3

It’s hard not to compare the S3 Millennial to a garden variety Leica M2 of the same vintage (both being manufactured in the late 50s). The M2 sports a great finder with 35 FOV capability, and a rangefinder patch you don’t have to go searching for. Build quality every bit the match to the S3 Millennial, rebuilt just 14 years ago. Classic, supremely functional design, and much easier to use given the bright viewfinder/rangefinder, the  rounded corners and perfectly placed shutter release. Aside from being easier to use, what I like about the M2 is it still feels relevant, new almost, in spite of the fact that its pushing 50 years old. Unlike the S3, the M2 doesn’t have that feel of using a piece of history. Of the dozen or so cameras that I own (film and digital), I use the M2 probably as much or more than any other. It lives with a Voigtlander 35 2.5 attached to it, which to me is the ultimate expression of a simplified 35mm film camera.

L2000-4406

So, if there is any validity to The Leica Mystique, it’s a simple fact born of use, not some abstract concept derived from magical thinking and wish fulfillment . Between the S3 and the M2, it’s the Leica that puts a smile on my face – it’s the form factor and ease of use. The M2 is what I would call the more serious picture taking machine – very fast and intuitive, and more transparent as a tool. The S3 is a beautiful mechanical device, but in relation to the M2 it lacks the true ‘form follows function’ tradition embodied by the M2.

Most of the so-called Leica Mystique is a result of a certain admiration for the work of famous Leica users over the years and a not so subtle desire to justify the price tag. But some of it surely stems from its quality as an instrument – anyone who uses hand tools, of any sort, can appreciate tools that are very well made. There is also a certain pleasure in using tools that embody the simplest, most functional technology – and in knowing that there is no upgrade path. In the digital age, where manufacturers try to convince us to chase our tails in an elusive search for the newest and best, this is a wonderfully liberating feeling. In this sense, the Nikon (or the Canon or the Hexar or the Contax) is simply not in the same league as the M2. Of course, Leica’s photographic history certainly doesn’t hurt.  Somebody had to be first, somebody had to be better than anyone else, and that just happened to be Leica.