Love at First Sight,
Or, Back to the Future

by Bjørn Rørslett 

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Is it possible to fall in love with a purely mechanical device? Granted this doesn't happen me often, but meeting my first Nikon rangefinder was one of those rare occasions. Read on to learn a true love story to its end.

Back to the Future

"Back to the Future"

© Bjørn Rørslett/NN

Many, many moons ago, I strolled along the streets of London and found a small junkshop which looked promising. Inside, tucked away on one of the precariously overloaded shelves, I found a beauty, a glistening black Nikon S3 rangefinder camera. I've heard of them, I had seen pictures of them, but I was unprepared for the sheer impact of just taking it into my hands - literally, love at first sight. No way I could leave without purchasing the S3, but the shop-keeper wasn't keen on selling it at all, claiming he hold it on order for a client. This being the great age of street demonstrations, I declared an immediate sit-down in his shop unless I could purchase the camera. He just shrugged shoulders and continued doing whatever he was doing before, which amounted to nothing. A stale-mate resulted.

After several hours of idle sit-down on my part, the shop-keeper realised I was indeed serious and wouldn't leave the premises voluntarily. He yielded with a deep sigh and we sat down to negotiate the price. Obviously, having declared my intention so openly, I had a weak position in the ensuing haggling and he knew that I knew that he knew this fact. So, we quickly ended at his asking price of 150 $ for the camera. Not very cheap, but entirely acceptable.

With my pockets emptied of said amount, I stepped outside to begin scouring the photo shops in the city for lenses to my newly-found treasure. This was easier said than done, but within a few days in this metropol I had acquired some German 50 mm lenses for the Contax which fitted the S3, and a Russian 85 mm f/2 Jupiter lens of dubious quality. A few months later, in Copenhagen, I got hold of a Nikkor-S 5 cm f/1.4 lens in just workable condition, and added another normal f/1.4 Nikkor, in far better shape as it were, a few years afterwards. A trip to Japan in 1990 resulted in my purchasing a fine 105 mm f/2.5 Nikkor-S together with a 35 mm f/2.5 Nikkor-W lens, and by a stroke of luck I later found a 21 mm f/4 Nikkor-O as well. Some years ago I availed myself of the opportunity to buy a Nikon SP rangefinder to complement my S3, however, although this camera functions very well, it never elicited the feelings I experienced with my S3. Perhaps you only encounter true love once in a liftetime?

Nikon S3 with 5 cm f/1.4 Nikkor-S
My black vintage Nikon S3 fitted with the appropriate period Nikkor-S 5 cm f/1.4 lens. This is how the camera is supposed to look, however, only in my most puristic moments do I use my S3 set up like this.

I then got hold of Robert Rotoloni's classic book "Nikon Rangefinder Camera" (Hove Foto Books, 1981, 1983) and learned that my S3 was a rare specimen, being a black body with cloth curtains (most black S3 cameras had metal-foil shutters). Indeed, I have it on good authority the camera is "worth a small fortune". However, as I bought the camera for shooting pictures, not for standing it on a shelf as a collectible, I could not care less about this. I'm not a collector per se, but the rarity of my S3 did make me be slightly more careful when using the camera, though.

I now have used my S3 for several decades (3, in fact), and it still operates as perfectly as it did the first time I tripped its shutter. Mechanical workmanship and functional design like this are rare indeed. Film advance continues to feel silky smooth and the shutter speeds are as accurate as the mechanical shutter design allows, tested with a shutter analyzer of being well within 1/2 of a stop at all settings up to the top speed of 1/1000 sec. The body with its satin black finish has aged gracefully, obviously showing some brassing and wear marks now but this only proves the camera has been used for its intended purpose. However, the rangefinder is less clear now than before due to some cloudiness within the internal optics. As the bright-line frames still are visible in the finder this does not matter much to me. The tripod socket is the weakest point of the S3 design and I have replaced it once with spare parts lifted off a wrecked Nikon F body.

Love at First Sight, Or, Back to the Future

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Last Update 1 October, 2002