The Leica Experience Without the Leica

Nikon S3 2000 Limited Edition

If Leica announced they were going to offer a brand new M2, built to the original specs, coupled with a state-of-the-art Summilux 50mm f1.4 and original lens hood- and offer it as a kit for $1600, I suspect you’d happily sell your grandmother into white slavery for 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 $5195, with free shipping; for the 50mm Summilux add an extra $4395. That’s $9590. (Given you’re buying it from B&H in New York, add $870 in local sales tax: total price door to door $10,540). 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 MA with Summilux, for $1600 or thereabout on eBay ( hell, I’d argue that the S3 is better built than the MA). And few people seem to want them. That’s crazy.


Nikon S3 Millennial with 35mm W-Nikkor

Millenial Nikon S3 with W-Nikkor 35mm 1.8

In 1957 a LEICA M2 and 50mm f/1.4 lens sold for about $3800 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.

Black Paint Nikon S3
Black Paint S3 Millennial With 50mm 1.4 Nikkor-S

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.   Nikon produced 8000 cameras by hand assembly, 300 per month. In 2002 Nikon released the black paint S3 2000 with a production of 2000 units. Nikon’s cost was more than the selling price of the camera, over $6,000 each. 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 M2/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 M2/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).


Nikon S3 Millennial
Nikon S3 Millennial
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. It’s 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 $10,540 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, $2700. I’ve got a chrome version, which I actually prefer to the black paint version. For me, old Nikon rangefinders should be chrome). And, given Voigtlander offers many of their excellent and reasonably priced rangefinder lenses in Nikon S mount (21mm f4, 25mm f4, 28mm 3.5, 35mm 2.5, 50mm 2.5, 50mm 1.5, 85mm 3.5) you can assemble a nice system of new, modern optics for your new S3 without the problems that come along with 50-year-old lenses. 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?

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7 thoughts on “The Leica Experience Without the Leica

  1. Rob Campbell

    Two problems for the Nikon : firstly, the perceived value in Leica film cameras is not a logical conclusion driven by a consensus opinion of working photographers; today, they are just cult objects of great interest to collectors, who may or may not also be photographers; secondly, film photography is undeniably a lot more of a hassle than is digital photography, so as a practising snapper, why would you seek out more hurdles for yourself, especially chasing a brand with less glamour, a glamour that might have offered a compensation of sorts?

    As Nikon doesn’t have the mystique, its value as a marque is less. In the real, non-collector world, when I went solo and could afford to exchange my Exaktas for a Nikon F, that’s the road I took. My last employer had an M3 along with Nikon F and other stuff; it never crossed my mind to go for an M3. Even he preferred Nikon except for one thing: the 21mm wide that we used for shooting BBC TV room sets. I still have a pristine F3 that I never use: my lenses, except for two af ones, still fit it. It lives locked away… It’s difficult enough finding something worthwhile to do with digital cameras.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      secondly, film photography is undeniably a lot more of a hassle than is digital photography, so as a practising snapper, why would you seek out more hurdles for yourself, especially chasing a brand with less glamour, a glamour that might have offered a compensation of sorts?

      Not the point Rob. My premise is this: ASSUMING you want to buy a really nice NEW film rangefinder that you intend to actually use as opposed to being placed on a shelf and trotted out to take snaps at a July 4th parade once a year, it makes absolutely no sense to spend $10,5 on a new Leica – or worse yet, a used Leica and lens that is probably beat to shit and needs a CLA – when you can buy a Millenial Nikon S3 with a new Nikkor 1.4. It’s what the kids call a ‘no-brainer.” So why can’t collectors give them away for pennies on the dollar? Either the general buying public is irrational and stupid (my vote) or really no-one seriously shoots film anymore in spite of what they say.

      1. Gavin Lowe

        It is irrational, but don’t mind about it – keeps prices down for the sensible folk. Since (i) film cameras fell dramatically in price, and (ii) the advent of eBay, those of us who could not afford stuff when we were young have been able go mad buying whatever we want. In my case Nikon FM3A – because I always wanted a Nikon F but didn’t have the money for one in the 1980s, and Leicas (iiif, M3, MP) and Rolleiflex, and then a large format wood field camera. Same goes for cars…once I had the money I got an oil cooled 911 because that is what was what I wanted when I was 12 years old. Those now cost insane amounts of money. Doubtless there are better contemporary cars or newer ones but those ‘new in box’ ones don’t have the steering feel or the throttle response or noise of the old ones. I haven’t tried a Nikon S3 but I have got over the excitement of being able to buy anything that I like and am happy with the Leicas for 35mm…..haven’t bought anything new since 2003.

  2. Rob Campbell

    Yes, I get your point Tim; it’s just that I don’t see the assumption of buying-to-use (for any brand) as being very wide-spread, in which case, if I’m right, it means, the appeal of Nikon or others to supplant or even to match Leica within the narrow band of wealthy collectors or collector-users, is an uphilll struggle within a tiny market. I guess what I’m suggesting is that the appeal is not really a general one about “rangefinder cameras” as such, but specifically about Leica rangefinder cameras, which explains the mathematics.

    I suppose that if I wanted to shoot film again, and via a rangefinder body, then I, too, would be more inclined to try to go the Leica route if only because it would add something to my status within the overall “game” which using film today repesents. I don’t think it can seriously be considerd more than that. Without insider knowledge, looking at a monitor and not a print, I don’t believe I could accurately and infallibly identify which of my own black and white shots were film or digitally originated. (Perhaps some early digitally worked ones, but as I learned more about how to use PShop, they evened out in terms of appearance.)

    Nikon has even stoped production of its last film camera.

    “Either the general buying public is irrational and stupid (my vote) or really no-one seriously shoots film anymore in spite of what they say.”

    You probably got it right on both counts! And as recent evidence shows, that first part extends into what people buy in politics too.


  3. Huss

    Disclosure – I shoot with Nikon RF as well as Leica RF.

    The Nikon S series cameras are really nice to use but the reason they are pennies on the dollar now is the same reason as why Nikon stopped making them back in the day. Leica dominated the market, way outselling the Nikon S models and so Nikon ceased production. They, wisely, moved on to SLRs. The original Nikon F happened to be an S3 with a pentaprism attached.
    It’s the same now. People want Leicas not Nikons so you can get the Nikon RFs for cheap. Leica had definite advantages with usability – the VF is much clearer and the RF patch for focusing is far better on Leicas. Also Leicas have automatic parallax correction – the Nikon SP was the only Nikon RF to match that. Leicas also have automatic frame line indexing. The SP was the only Nikon to offer changeable frame lines, and that was done manually with two viewfinders and a dial! The S3 has all three frame lines showing at once, which makes for a very cluttered view.
    Interestingly the S3 2000 shipped with the 50mm 1.4, while the SP 2005 shipped with the 35mm lens. I prefer the S3 with the 35mm, and the SP with the 50mm as both have optimal frame lines for those lenses.
    Another downside is that Nikon went with the Contax style mount. The Leica mount lens catalogue is absolutely huge, and not just in current M mount lenses but due to the fact that there are so many L39 mount lenses that can be adapted perfectly, in any budget. Nikon’s is a fraction of that and there are a few hard to find lenses from Voigtlander. The Contax style mount does not make it compatible with Contax mount lenses as the dimensions are slightly different rendering focus issues. This is a real shame as there are lots of really good Russian Contax mount lenses that are available for pennies. Also the geared focus mechanism, which is really nice for fine focus, has mechanics that should be used ‘considerately’.
    By that I mean if you choose to focus the regular way by turning the lens barrel, you need to do so smoothly and slowly as you are driving against gears that are not meant to be spun quickly.
    Which leads to another issue with Nikon choosing the Contax style mount. When you focus the aperture rings rotates with the lens, as the entire lens rotates. With normal lens mounts, the aperture ring stays put, with the index mark showing what aperture has been set permanently at the 12 o clock position. Leicas stay put, Nikon RFs aperture index moves.
    As for imagining what would happen if Leica made an M2 now – well, why? Leica doesn’t need to because it stayed in continuous production with evolutionary changes to its models. Some people argue that the M4 was the high water mark for Leica, and that is what the current M-A is!

    While this may all seem a bit harsh on Nikon RFs, I’m just giving the view as someone who uses them as well as Leicas. And the great thing about all these differences is that, as you mention, it enables someone to get a really really nice RF camera for much less money than a Leica. It is fun to buck the trend and shoot with a Nikon as it goes against the status quo. One lens you have to try is the Voigtlander 50mm 3.5. Funky looking but an absolute gem optically.

    p.s. any Nikon RF is much nicer built than the Voigtlander Bessa R2/3/4 RF cameras, or the Zeiss Ikon ZM. And cheaper too!

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      p.s. any Nikon RF is much nicer built than the Voigtlander Bessa R2/3/4 RF cameras, or the Zeiss Ikon ZM. And cheaper too!

      I agree. The Bessa’s are nice, but obviously built to a price point. They feel, not ‘cheap’, but not very robust. Same with the Zeiss Ikon, built by Cosina as well. Nice, but just doesn’t give a sense od innate quality. The Nikon S3 is a mechanical jewel. Rock solid, beautifully machined, precise. It’s maybe a high-water mark for Nikon.

  4. phil

    When shopping for my first RF, many voices recommended the Nikon S2 as the optimal price/user intersection. Big advantages over the S3 were given as a brighter viewfinder and price. And, I’ve been very pleased with my S2 and its 5cm f/1.4, I use that more than any other camera on my shelf. But, it’s not as enjoyable with the 35mm f/2.5, because by the time I attach the auxilliary 35mm finder, why not just carry the F pentaprism with a wide angle lens. To echo Huss, the S3 seems to be the best choice body for use with the 35mm.

    I’d like to find a non-collector grade Millenium S3 body for just that purpose. keep me in mind if you see one from a reputable source.

    BTW @ Gavin: also as an owner of an oil-cooled 911 (bought years ago when they were still “affordable”), and an MG TC…..the oil cooled 911 is more like the Nikon F3; groovy, optimally responsive and versatile, vintage without being old, but in some ways strangely complicated. Probably the best travel companion for long trips. The F might be the 356 (which I don’t have), a near-modern step forward from the predecessor but still a simple machine, and the Nikon RFs parallel the TC … the core concept, basic, simple, very enjoyable and every bit as much fun as the 911 as long as one accepts it on its own terms. I have no idea about Leicas. Never even held one.

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