Nikon SP – Before the ‘F’

Nikon SP

Weirdly, even Nikon themselves consider the Nikon SP as a historical “masterpiece”. Considering the Nikon F, Nikon F3HP and Nikon F5, I’m actually surprised. Yes, the precision of the construction is amazing. Yes, there was a lot of innovation in this camera for the 1950’s. Some say “better than Leica. Some say worse.” I guess it was like the Nikon/Canon ongoing “feud” of today. But, this is not a contest. The Nikon SP, (the “P” stood for professional), had an elaborate tight tolerance construction that surpassed any other Nikon camera.


Nikon SP

Nikon SP with S36 MotorDrive


The SP even had a motor drive available! The very rare, and sought after, Nikon S36 Motor Drive. Along with the S3 and S4, these were the Nikon rangefinder stable “sisters”. The functionality and ease of use probably started with the S2, released in 1954, and winning high praise for its lens performance and overall superior build quality. Over 60,000 S2’s were sold, making it a best seller at that time. The downside; the S2 viewfinder was only compatible with a 50mm normal lens. Building a viewfinder compatible with the growing Nikon focal lengths was Nippon Kogaku’s main impetus. That, and they were aware of the Leica M3, which at the time was considered the world’s top 35mm camera.

Their goal was to produce a camera that would make the Leica M3 a footnote in history. Lofty dreams. However, they knew their technology had come so far as to make this a very real possibility. Nikon engineers attitude changed from a catch up persona to a more aggressive mindset of overtaking the king. (Leica) While the Canon rangefinders were nice, I don’t think the Canon of yore wanted to go head to head with Leica. (in rangefinders)


Leica M3 and Nikon SP


The SP had a selector on the right side of the eyepiece that enabled the bright type frames of 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and 135mm to be dialed in manually. The wideangle viewfinder on the left side of the eyepiece was a real image viewfinder, and a 35mm frame. The objective was to achieve “a field of vision that was compatible with interchangeable lenses of every different focal length”.

The operational ease of the Nikon S2’s life-size 1x viewfinder was reconfirmed. This full-size finder was also employed with the SP, and the bright frame for each lens was replaced within the field of vision.The term “full-size” represents the effect of looking through a piece of glass with no angles to refract light. But the SP had a complicated structure which incorporates a coincidence type rangefinder and “adds” frames which are compatible with a variety of lenses. The parallax was automatically fixed by a linkage with the rangefinder at every focal length.


Nikon SP

Nikon SP Top Deck


Next in design importance was the shutter. In its development, attention was paid mainly to two areas. Nikon managed to reduce the mass of the mechanical portion of the shutter while increasing the speed of the focal-plane shutter curtain. This increased sync speed to 1/60th sec., and improve the accuracy of the top end. (1/1000 sec.) I guess in the 50’s that was pretty awesome. Plus, the movement of the shutter brake that stops the shutter curtain had become quieter than the previous models.


Nikon SP

Nikon SP Bottom


Despite all these innovations, and although the professional community loved the camera, it was released to mixed reviews. Released in 1957, critics claimed that the viewfinder was slightly dark. Despite that one complaint, the SP was acknowledged worldwide as a “small, light camera that offers superior performance.” Another issue that is seldom mentioned? The Leica M3 was cheaper than both the Contax rangefinder and Nikon SP rangefinder. So, if you wanted a “cheap” camera, you bought a Leica! It’s a bit hard for me to wrap my head around that.


Nikon SP

Nikon SP Rear


Consumers almost preferred the S3, which was released the following year. Its popularity exceeded that of the SP for several reasons. Direct focus setting was possible when the 35mm lens was attached. And,…this is probably the big one,…increased viewfinder brightness and a simplified rewind operation. However, with the S3, to make full use of the 35mm frame, you had to look at the viewfinder with both eyes open.

In 1959, the first Nikon F SLR was released. Besides an expansion of all the changeable lenses, viewfinders, backs,…etc.,…it was cheaper! The popularity of Nikon’s first SLR probably even surprised them. All that said, if a rangefinder is in your future, and a Leica and lens is out of your range, the SP is still a treasured camera. While not cheap, a mint Nikon SP with 50mm f/1.4 lens is a lot cheaper than a good condition Leica M3 with 50mm f/1.4 lens. And the Nikon lenses are every bit as good. In the end, there is no wrong choice. Just how much you’re willing to suffer financially for your “art”.

SP Manual





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