jueves, 31 de julio de 2014


Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Nikon S with Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 featuring a nice blue tonality single coating. This was the camera with which the Tokyo based great Japanese photographic firm started in 1951 its meteoric international progression with remarkable selling figures.

After the appearance of the 24 x 32 mm format Nikon I in 1948 and the 24 x 34 mm Nikon M and M Synchro in 1949 and 1950, Nippon Kogaku (a concern founded in 1919 through the merging of the three most important optical manufacturers in Japan) launched into market a new camera in 1951: the Nikon S, with which it was able to compete for the first time with both the 24 x 36 mm rangefinder screwmount Leica cameras and the Contax II and IIa, through the following basic parameters:

- To attain with very limited financial resources (only six years had elapsed since the end of the II World War in 1945 in which most Japanese industrial facilities and factories had been razed, so the country was still in a reconstruction stage) the maximum feasible building level, superior to Nikon I, Nikon M and Nikon M Sync, even under the harshest climatic conditions.

- Horizontal travelling focal-plane shutter manufactured in cloth, inspired by the ones sported by the LTM39 screwmount Leicas and also generating an exceedingly low sound intensity, almost imperceptible, on pressing its release button. Though evidently the external appearance of the Nikon S greatly resembles the Contax II, its inner mechanical components are in a very high percentage fruit of the ingenuity and perseverance of the Nippon Kogaku Japanese engineers, who chose to include a horizontal travelling focal-plane shutter following the track of the classic screwmount Leicas, whose working reliability and duration over time were far superior to the much more complex metallic focal-plane vertical travelling shutter of the Contax II.

- Preservation of the 24 x 34 mm format (also sported by the Nikon M and M Synchro and 2 mm larger than the Nikon I).

- Utmost possible reduction of production cost without lowering quality, through the involvement of a not very big number of highly qualified specialists featuring a lot of years of experience and able to accomplish different tasks in the optical and mechanical domains alike.

- Flash sync contacts with the shape of four sockets (two for fast speeds between 1/30 seg and 1/500 seg and other two ones for slow speeds between 1 sec and 1/8 sec) located on the upper left border of the camera.

- Highly luminous Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 as a standard lens instead of the Nikkor 50 mm f/3.5 and Nikkor H.C 5 cm f/2 which had been sported by Nikon I, Nikon M and Nikon M Red Sync.

- As competitive as possible quality/price ratio.

- A viewfinder featuring 0.6x magnification (the same as the Konica Hexar RF launched into market forty-eight years later, in 1999) and combined with the rangefinder - simple but getting good accuracy - in an only window, in the same way as in the Zeiss Ikon Contax II and IIa. Obviously, both the viewfinder magnification and the RF effective base length were far from the ones in the Zeiss Ikon Contax II and IIa by which the Nikon S is strongly inspired, but no other thing could be done in that regard to implement cost savings. Besides, the aim was to create a camera optimized for use with 35 and 50 mm lenses, although it could also be used through special auxiliary finders with the excellent Nikkor P.C 8,5 cm f/2, Nikkor S.C 8,5 cm f/1.5 and Nikkor-Q.C 13,5 cm f/3.5, which were together with the Nikkor S.C 5 cm f/1.4 the lenses that really catapulted Nikon to international fame after being used by the photographers Jun Miki (in LTM39 thread mount on Leica IIIf), David Douglas Duncan (in LTM39 thread mount on Leica IIIc) and Horace Bristol (with Contax bayonet on his Zeiss Ikon Contax II) during the Korean War from 1950 on.

The beauty of lines of the Nikon S is certainly remarkable, showing an appearance evoking the Contax II (1936) and Contax IIa (1950) created by Hubert Nerwin, Zeiss Ikon Chief of Design of Photographic Cameras between thirties and fifties.

Nevertheless, it features many more differences regarding them than could seem, since its begetter Masahiko Fuketa, Nippon Kogaku Chief Designer, opted for creating a rangefinder camera devised for joining traits of the Contax II (octogonal profile enabling a very good grab by the photographer, angled corners, detachable back, toothed focusing wheel on the right front area for use with wideangle and standard lenses, shutter speeds dials located on the upper area and bayonet mount) and screwmount Leicas (horizontal travelling focal-plane shutter also made in rubberized cloth, specifically Habutae silk, in the Nikon S) on both sides, adding a lot of internal components, driving gears systems and springs of his own.

On the other hand, after thoroughly studying the flange distances of the lenses backs with respect to the film plane of the Contax II and the LTM39 screwmount Leicas (34,85 mm and 28,80 mm respectively) the first one was chosen.

And regarding the focusing helicoid, its pitch is identical to the one sported by the Contax II and IIa.

The top panel of the Nikon S mirrorless rangefinder camera stands out in its minimalism and unutterable elegance, with a really laudable level of mechanizing of the metallic surfaces and of the grooved dials and control knobs, since it is a practically a 100% handmade product subjected to a number of highly exhaustive quality controls unit by unit.

On left half of that upper panel you can see the very sturdy metallic ring for the transport strap lug, the letters F and S indicating the position of the four small sockets for the insertion of flash cable plugs for its synchronization (F is placed above both sockets for the fast synch between 1/20 sec and 1/500 sec, while S is located just above the two sockets for slow synch speeds between 1 sec and 1/8 sec), the rewind knob, the hot shoe to attach different auxiliary finders and the mythical Nippon Kogaku Tokyo logo handcraftedly chiselled with outstanding precision.

Detail of the rewinding knob and the letters F and S respectively adjacent to the contacts for flash synchronization at fast and slow speeds, separated by the robust ring for the strap lug. On its turn, on the lower right area of the image can be seen the 0.60x viewfinder integrated with the coincidence rangefinder.

Just above the letter R can be seen the toothed focusing wheel inherited from the Contax II and IIa.

At the same time, in the right half are the fluted dial of fast shutter speeds between 1/30 sec and 1/500 sec (under which is the smooth and wider dial of slow speeds between 1/20 sec and 1 sec + B), the shutter release button with thread for attaching cable release, the reversing lever located just in front of the shutter release button (and sporting two usage modes: with the arrow in ´ A ´ position the 24 x 36 mm film advances and with the arrow in ´ R ´ position the film is reversed), the counting dial automatically recording the number of exposures made, and concentric to it is the grooved big winding knob simultaneously winding shutter and advancing film.

To choose the high shutter speed (between 1/30 sec and 1/500 sec) we wish, we must firstly cock the shutter turning on the right the big winding knob. While doing this, we´ll see that the upper fluted dial of high speeds (placed on the left of the shutter release button) spins anticlockwise, in the same way as the classical LTM39 screwmount Leicas.

Following it, you must slightly lift the upper grooved dial - same method as with screwmount Leicas – of fast speeds (located on the left of the shutter release button) and turn it until making the selected value coincide with the tip of the black arrow placed on the left.

To select a specific slow speed (between 1/20 sec and 1 sec + B), the first thing to do is putting the fast speeds top dial in the position of 20-I red mark, after which the tiny lever integrated in the larger dial ( located under the fast speeds one ) must be turned grabbing it with left hand finger and thumb until it coincides with the quoted arrow.

It´s noteworthy that on pressing the shutter release button (whether we are using a fast or slow speed), the top dial of fast speeds turns right, exactly as in the classic screwmount Leicas, because the Nikon S (as happens in the rest of 24 x 36 mm format Nippon Kogaku rangefinder cameras) features a horizontal travelling focal-plane shutter manufactured with cloth and strongly inspired by the mythical utterly mechanic shutter sporting rubberized cloth curtains and designed by Dr. Ludwig Leitz during thirties, an authentic prodigy of gear trains, springs and integral miniaturization of components (which had been painstakingly studied by Nippon Kogaku Japanese engineers since mid thirties), in such a way that the working reliability and the ability to endure a hard professional use through many decades are optimized.

Notwithstanding, unlike the screwmount Leicas (from the Leica III of 1933 until the Leica IIIg made between 1956 and 1960) which have the dial for slow shutter speeds in the upper right area of the camera body front, just under the letter R of the small rewind lever, in the Nikon S 

Masahiko Fuketa decided to locate the dial of slow shutter speeds (1/20 sec, 1/8 sec, ¼ sec, ½ sec, 1 sec and T for long exposures) under the dial for fast speeds, to achieve a greater using convenience and access ease for photographers.

Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 featuring 7 elements in 3 groups, 12 diaphragm blades and a minimum focusing distance of 90 cm.

Manufactured between 1950 and 1962 and weighing 152 g (chromed version) or 143 g (black colour version), it was the first lens for 24 x 36 mm format in the world boasting a maximum luminosity of f/1.4 and features Nikon S bayonet, albeit it was also manufactured in screwmount Leica, Contax bayonet and Exakta mount.

It´s much smaller than the 50 mm f/1.4 lenses that would appear during sixties with the 35 mm reflex cameras, because on being a rangefinder camera, the non retrofocus optical design of the lenses for the Nikon S was much purer and could be built with fewer elements and groups, no mirror has to be avoided, the back of the lens is much nearer the film plane and generally they offer a superior optical performance.

Back of the rangefinder Nikon S camera, on whose upper left area appears the 0.6x viewfinder eyepiece integrated with the coincidence RF. More on the left can be seen the two sockets “ S “ for slow speeds flash synchronizations between 1 sec-1/8 sec through the insertion of the two flash gun plugs. Just in front, out of image and adjacent to the metallic ring for the transport strap lug, there are two further " F " sockets for the flash synchronization at fast speeds between 1/20 sec and 1/500 sec, likewise using two specific flash gun plugs.

Windows of the rangefinder (on the left of the image) and viewfinder (on the right of the image) of the Nikon S.

The 0.60x VF magnification and an effective rangefinder base length not very big but enough thanks to the wide separation between both windows (inherited from the Contax II and IIa) would be improved in the Nikon rangefinders manufactured from the 1954 Nikon S2 with its brilliant viewfinder featuring 1.0x magnification, until reaching the formidable Nikon SP from 1957 with its 1.0x VF magnification and an effective rangefinder base length of 58 mm.

Lower cover of the Nikon S seen with the camera upside down. The tripod thread is located in the center, while at both ends are the semicircular metal strips through which the photographer can remove the back cover by turning them until the engraved arrows point to “ 0 “.

Then, the photographer must hold the camera with that back oriented towards him, introducing the 35 mm film spool on the left chamber and stretching part of emulsion until it fits in the take-up reel on the right.

Once the film has been loaded, the metallic back of the camera has to be replaced and secured by turning the semicircular metal strips until the arrows point to “ S “.

And to verify that the film is being wound properly, the big winding knob (located on the upper right area of the camera, by its border, and simultaneously making the film advance and cocking the shutter) must be slightly turned right and check at the same time that the rewind knob (placed on the upper left area of the camera, just beside the letters S and F) moves in the opposite direction to the one indicated by the black colour arrow engraved on its surface, id est, anticlockwise).

The original ever ready leather case includes a plastic depth of field scale indicating the focused area corresponding to each of the f stops of the Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 between widest aperture and f/16, 

along with a further also plastic scale with number guides for flash exposures.

In the top right area you can read A.S.A 40-64, which indicates that in 1951 black and white photographic emulsions like Agfa Isopan and Kodak Plus-X Panchromatic had still a very low sensitivity which ranged between those values (with the only exception of the Kodak Super-XX monochrome film featuring a sensitivity of ISO 100 and often pushed to ASA 200), while the 24 x 36 mm colour films like Kodachrome, Agfa Colour Negative Film Type T and Agfa Colour Negative Film Type K had a sensitivity between 10 and 12 ASA.

Therefore, to possess the most luminous lenses available to be able to shoot handheld without trepidation became a necessity for the photojournalists of that time who worked with 35 mm rangefinder cameras.

Metallic cap of the Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 with the mythical logo Nippon Kogaku.

Nikon S with Nikkor-Q.C 13,5 cm f/3.5 featuring 4 elements in 3 groups, introduced in 1950 and a very good lens for its time (though at full aperture its performance was a bit soft compared to f/5.6, f/8 and f/11, diaphragms in which its image quality improved significantly), delivering moderate saturation of colours but with a very nice and characteristic vintage image and based on the Carl Zeiss Jena 13,5 cm f/4 slightly increasing its widest aperture.

Because of the 0.60x magnification of the VF of the Nikon S which gets better synergy with wideangle and standard objectives, this lens required the use of an auxiliary specific finder or the highly versatile Nikon RF Varifocal Type I auxiliary finder.

It is considered one of the most beautiful lenses for 35 mm format cameras ever made and was extensively used by David Douglas Duncan during the Korean War, getting with it to name only an example the portrait of the Chinese soldier opening his famous reportage ´ Retreat, Hell ´.

                                 © Life Magazine Time Inc.

David Douglas Duncan, Life photographer, appears in this image made in 1950, in the beginning of the Korean War, with his Leica IIIc coupled to a Nikkor-Q.C 13,5 cm f/3.5 manufactured by Nippon Kogaku in LTM39 thread mount.

 Nikon S with Nikkor-S.C 5 cm f/1.4 inside its ever ready leather case

© Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

The author wishes to express his gratitude to Mariano Pozo Ruiz, who kindly lent his Nikon S camera for the making of the pictures illustrating this article.

Nikon S: The Beginning of Success ( I I )