Holding the holy grail. A Nikon S2. By Daniel Schaefer

The grail

Holding the holy grail. A Nikon S2. By Daniel Schaefer

Hello Steve

Growing up in LA, there was a camera shop two blocks from my house, I would pass it and it’s blinking flashbulb sign day after day, for years I would duck in every now and then with my father or uncle, both avid photographers to pick up a chip, or a filter or some small accessory, but for years I just tapped my fingers on the counter and waited patiently to be lead to the toy store two doors down.

Everything changed when I was twelve years old. Sitting there one day twiddling my thumbs waiting for my father as he compared one UV filter after another, my eyes wandered around the shop, and finally came to rest on a leather case sitting quietly at the used counter, next to an elderly gentleman who had just sold his equipment and with a satisfied but solemn look, folded his money and waked away, leaving his well worn gear glistening on the counter.

I wandered over and started staring at the glisten of the old silver gear, I had only ever seen my fathers black plastic behemoths with heavy lenses and six point harness straps. I had never before seen the shined chrome of an old camera, used hard, but loved well. My eyes flitted across a few old F bodies, and a well brassed black rangefinder of some unknown origin, but something made me freeze, my eyes widening. Sitting behind the rest of the pile, it’s leather case peeling, it’s rangefinder sporting a sharp scratch, and a deep gouge in it’s steel face, right across the word Nikon, sat an S2. I reached out and picked it up, it was heavy, it felt solid in my hands, I could see where the hands of the old man had worn the leather and steel over time, patina marks where his fingers had gripped the black lens, and rolled the razor toothed focus wheel.

I was in love. I had never held something in my hands that felt like it, it felt solid, it felt like it was meant to be used. At that point my father walked over, I showed him the camera, I begged him for an early birthday gift, I honestly didn’t care if this was every gift for the next three christmahanukwanzika’s combined, I wanted that camera, but when the salesman told my father it was all mine for just barely over a thousand dollars, he took the camera out of my hand, said thank you to the salesman, and walked me over to the toy store and bought me whatever the latest lego was.

I remembered the number, I remembered the name, the Nikon S2 was the first object I ever fell in love with, and i wouldn’t forget it. I did somehow forget about photography for a while though. I would pick up my fathers camera on vacation, task some snapshots of friends, or some selfless in photo booth, but it wasn’t until eleventh grade I picked up a camera with any seriousness again.


Fast forward to two weeks ago, I’m a part-time student in my sophomore year at parsons in the photography program, working for three different commercial photographers in NYC as an assistant and second camera, repairing and restoring vintage equipment in my free time for a little extra cash. I take a break from color correcting some shots for one of my finals and slide on to Facebook for a while, I check on my friends, make sure my fifteen year old brother hasn’t triggered the apocalypse yet, and make sure my farmville crops aren’t running dry. I suddenly notice a post by my aunt Julie, I recognize the telltale leather case of an old camera, and curiously click the link that declares, Pop Pop’s camera!

The image loads, and my jaw drops, an S2, sitting on my aunt’s kitchen table after being dug out of her closet after who know’s how long. I comment “you have NO idea how beautiful that is” and she replies, “well our resident photographer would be the one to know!”

I suddenly see a message in my inbox, and a few minutes of chatting with aunt Julie, she says “the camera deserves a good home! what’s your address?” my heart is practically beating out of my chest at this point, memories click back to the now abandoned camera shop and the feeling of that steel wheel rolling under my forefinger, watching the twin images line up, back then I had no idea what was in my hands, but now that steel and leather sculpture had gone from a pleasant memory to a Holy grail that I hunted for in every thrift shop and camera store I had ever walked past, and now, it was on its way to my doorstep in a priority mail box straight from Minneapolis.

When the camera arrived, opening the box felt as if i was opening the suitcase from pulp fiction, gold rays of light emanating from the silver machine surrounded by packing peanuts with its 50mm 1.4 eye staring back at me.

I wasted no time, I went to load the camera, only to find the rewind rolled when I took a shot, it was still loaded! I developed the roll the next day, only to find a picture of a pudgy little baby, later identified by my aunt, as my uncle! With the camera now empty, I locked a roll of Tri-X in, and stepped out into the big apple with my holy grail hanging around my neck.


I spent the next three days shooting anything I could, I always have a camera around my neck, it’s been a long time since I left the house without a lens around my neck, and the S2 with the 50mm 1.4 in all its hefty glory felt like the right kind of weight.

I’m a night owl, so I rode the 2 train down to canal street, and spent the night walking from the south street seaport, all the way home to ninety seventh street, zig zagging 14.5 miles across new york, shooting slowly and carefully, feeling the solid click of the release, the hollow thunk of the shutter,and feeling the smooth roll of the advance as I spent the roll carefully as I could.

I shot the roll both as a technical test, and as a photographer, I wanted to push the cameras limits but also take pictures that meant something to me. The camera was smooth, the rangefinder bright, the settings were accurate across the range, and aside from some slight blooming in the highlights at 1.4 the lens was so sharp it spit razors. It’s a rare privilege to hold something in your hand that you are truly in love with, to have a camera that truly feels like it’s simply a spare set of eyes, to be able to raise it to your eye and not have to think about anything aside from what to place in your frame.

For me, the Nikon S2 is my perfect camera, it is that extension that we all hunt for, it falls into my palm and I see everything i walk past during the day in frame lines. If you’re ever lucky enough to find your holy grail, I hoe you’re lucky enough to be able to sling it at your side and take it for a long, productive walk.


-Daniel Sawyer Schaefer.


1- Mug

2- Plot

3- Rub

4- Sizzle

5- heavy

6- hush

7- woof

My uncle!

Self portrait


  1. I just came across this story and enjoyed reading it very much. Congratulations on your acquisition. I read it as my S2 stared down on me from a shelf in its place of honor. It is not the same one I used in high school in the 70s that I — regrettably — traded toward a Nikkormat FTn, the heartthrob de jour, but is set up the same way: 50/f2 Nikkor and Sekonic meter in the accessory shoe. It still feels wonderful when I heft it for its regular exercise. And the sound of its shutter remains amazing after all the years. Unfortunately, my film days are over but it remains a prized possession and wonderful reminder of when photography was “pure,” if you know what I mean.

  2. I don’t know if you could point me in the right direction, but someone out there has the camera that my husband bought as a young man in the late 1960’s. It was a Nikon S2, and it was stolen (along with our pickup truck) in 1994 when we were on a weekend anniversary getaway to Canada to look up his ancestry. I have been searching but haven’t found (although I know we have it somewhere) for the serial number because that would make this camera so much easier to identify should we find it. He had to fabricate and sew with an awl part of the case which had needed repair. I look on Ebay periodically in hopes that someday I will find it and I can buy it back for him from whomever ended up with it. The sentimental value is priceless, not to mention the amazing photos that he took with that camera. If you know of any sites where I can make my plea, please let me know. It was stolen in Sherbrooke, Canada in November of 1994.

    • I did find an nikon s2 when my girlfriendsister father passed away from that time period, but I have no idea where he bought it,maybe you can find the serial number and I can check it for you

  3. That’s a great story, and some lovely images as well! I’ve yet to buy my ‘Holy Grail’, which I discovered whilst in hospital god knows how many decades ago, and was due to a 3-4 part review in the British Journaal of Photography (yes, I was in hospital that long) on what was to be Zeiss’s monumentally expensive swansong, the Contarex Electronic. Nowadays they cost a fortune to service, and few repairers want to go near them because they are so complex.As a result of that, I’m just happy that in the past I had the pleasure of using one for a couple of days, but as a result of that, I’d not want to own one, because they were so heavy and wouldn’t buy one just to plonk on a shelf to look at.

  4. A well used S2 sporting an absolutely pristine f1.4 Nikkor S.C landed on my desk today, a gift from someone who knows I like old cameras! My love affair with Nikons started back in !973 with an F2 Photomic and a Nikkormat, and has steadily progressed through almost every enthusiast level film and digital SLR made by Nikon during the ensuing 40 years! But I never had a rangefinder Nikon before, only Canons, Yashicas and my beloved Leicas. I’ve downloaded the PDFmanual for the S2, available online from at least 3 sources, and rewound the film that allegedly had been stuck in the camera for some time – 10 years! Of course it wasn’t stuck at all, the owner had inherited it from his deceased father, and had no idea how to operate it and didn’t seem interested in learning how. His loss is my great good fortune! I dug out a vintage electronic flash from the 70’s and it worked well with the S2 – but I haven’t had time to see any results yet. Only thing worth mentioning is the focus ring which needs far too much force to move the lens – so I’ve been grabbing the lens barrel and using that to focus. I am amazed just how bright the viewfinder still is and how cleanly the split image rangefinder works. But more than likely I will go back to the old days of estimating distance and exposure. As someone said earlier if you did that for ten years or more you never forget and it is surprising how accurate one can become. Great article, and lovely B&W’s which I only got to see because I was searching out S2 stuff online!

  5. I grew up learning to shoot with rangefinders, I started with a yashica electro 35 from junior high school until college. During college I switched to a Nikon f2.i started working professionally using Nikon and canon dslr’s and eventually bought into Leicas. I started with a Leica m9 and Leica 35summicron. I have since sold my digital gear and went back to film. Now shooting a Leica m2 and 35 cron, Nikon S2 and 50 f/2.
    I haven’t fell this alive and creative since junior high school. Think I will keep shooting film for a long as it’s produced. I have kept one digital, fuji xe1 and 18mm 2.0.

  6. Proof, perhaps, that there is a God and she is a photographer?
    …or that good things come to those who wait. Your uncle would have wanted you to have that camera. I’m sure of it. Now, go out there and make him proud!

  7. Thank you for the inspiration. today I purchased a Nikon s2. Just yesterday I was cursing your name you writing that addicting peice about this camera. Ifound one, negotiated and settled on a price that both the seller and I could live with and now serial number 6181384 is on it’s way home to daddy!

  8. Dammit ! I hate you. Now I want one…..badly. And if you know anything about me(you dont’t) I am obsessive compulsive. started searching ebay last week. Now have made my way thru the rank, KEH, Adorama…….craigslist. I will find this Holy Grail to add to my collection. My wife may put a hit out on you, so beware.

  9. Love these photos! Thanks for sharing your Holy Grail. Digital really does miss a human quality that real film possesses. Makes me want to unpack the old F3 and start shooting!

  10. Rangefinderforum classified ads, and Photorama shows are my best sources for S-Mount lenses. The F2.5 lens is much more common, and less than 1/2 the price of the 1.8. The F2.5 lens is the same optical formula as the Leica Summaron.

  11. Black and white film. Something about them really makes every photo romantic. Digital doesn’t come close. Grain is just different.

  12. Does anyone know where I can get a good price on any of the Nikon S rangefinder lenses?

    I’ve been trying to find a 3.5cm but have had little to no luck

  13. Great write up Daniel! That photo of the baby looks like a really really young Bruce Willis!
    I’ve had a similar experience, but apparently like some others here, it was a Leica M3. And like some others, my Dad had one from when I was a baby. It somehow went missing but I rediscovered the model recently and now cannot put it down. These old cameras – your S2, Leicas, Nikon Fs etc just have that something.
    Question – the S2 does not have a built in meter – so how do you judge your exposures? Sunny/F16 rule (which is great when you are outdoors..)? smart phone app? hand held meter?

    • Heya Huss

      when it comes to exposure, i’ve shot enough to eyeball just about any setting, and know some situations by heart anyhow

      I know when I leave for the day, roll of Portra 400 in the S2, I know that on the subway my settings are F/1.4 1/250, and I tend to keep 1/250 as a default and modify my aperture accordingly.

      Otherwise I carry a Sekonic L308s in my breast pocket, I swear by this thing, it is a lifesaver, i’ve literally used it every dday since I bought it two years ago

  14. Hi Daniel,
    You have a lovely and eloquent writing style….your story reminded me of my same lust for a Leica M4….
    realized its possession and more than pleased with the images.
    I am very fond of your picture of the couple on the subway with their eyes closed.

  15. Daniel, great Blog you have… and what a wonderful story. Have had similar experience with an M3 my dad gave me on my graduation – he had bought it to record my birth/life on day I was born. I still have it and not so often use it, but your story and images inspire me to get it out and use it more often. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Keep that finger on the trigger
    Jorge Rubia

  16. I always look at the pictures 1st and then read the articles last. This is the 1st time I read the story 1st, and while I was reading, I couldn’t wait to look at your pictures.

    It was great to wait till the end. Good story and excellent pictures.

    Thanks for sharing.

        • Yep, a full-frame, modern digital Nikon S rangefinder (mirrorless) camera could be a Leica M / Fuji X-Pro killer — if done properly.

          Not sure if Nikon is ready or willing to enter such a market yet, though.

          But if they do, look out everybody…

          • I wouldn’t mind a digital, full frame, D600 sensored FM2n either… 😉

  17. Oh my, your story was just so thrilling and heart warming to read. In a time when the world is talking about chemical weapons, bombs, and plastic guns, I was just lost in reverie reading your story. Simply beautfiul.

  18. Leica who?

    I had a chance to examine a minty Nikon SP (circa 1957) while at Grays of Westminster in London in December 2011. I was struck by how heavy it was (much more substantial in feel than the Leica M3); how well-made it felt; and the remarkable ingenuity that went into the easily selectable 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and 135mm framelines (again, besting Leica).

    These early Nikon rangefinders are great cameras.

  19. P.s.: I just realized I forgot to mention I really like these images as well, if only because this is how I look at the world as well.

  20. A simple, well made mechanical 35mm film camera (I’m consciously though not maliciously ignoring other formats here. 😉 ), be it rangefinder or slr, loaded with a roll of Tri-X, a 50 or 35 latched on to it, is probably the most simple and most enjoyable form of photography. Just look at the light, the shapes, the evolving situations, expressions.

  21. Great story about your passion and that wonderful piece of technology from Nikon!

    All Things must pass…so this S2 was meant to be in your hands one day, with a roll already in with a message from the Past.

    I like this kind of experiences!

  22. In the last few months, I have been looking for something to replace my Nikon DSLRs and heavy fast zooms and primes with something lightweight. I have long admired the Nikon rangefinders (especially the S2) and have reached a point that my DSLRs may go on the auction block. Since I am too old for anyone to want to hire me anymore, I am looking to do more personal projects and using rangefinder (or rangefinder-style like the X100S I just got) equipment seems the best way to go. I envy you your good fortune in getting an S2 in such beautiful condition (I got a Yashica Electro35 GS from my dad in the same manner and condition). Once the DSLR equipment is no longer needed (may be SOON!), I may have to look into the S2 again. But the new Zeiss Ikon has a larger, brighter viewfinder I am told…..

    Anyway, enjoy your new prize and keep putting in the Tri-X!!!

    P.S. Almost forgot to mention I love the images. Great contrast and excellent resolution from the 1.4/50mm!!!

    • There is an advantage to a Nikon Rangefinder- S-Mount lenses are about 1/2 to 1/4 the price of the same lens in Leica mount. So if you wan to try a 3.5cm F1.8 and others: much cheaper on the S2 than the ZI.

    • “Since I am too old for anyone to want to hire me anymore”… Oh my! Intervention, please. I don’t know who you are or even what your first name is but when I read this line my heart sank. Life is precious. Life is beautiful. Your fire still burns. Don’t ever give up and whether you are religious or not, keep the faith. The faith that something out there somewhere is bigger than we will ever know. Your time has not passed. Your time is now. It is today.

    • I really need help,I just found a Nikon s2 in a leather case with a lot of accessories in small leather cases,can someone please tell me how I find out how much it’s worth ,by the way it looks very old,has the owners manual also

  23. Wonderfull story – wonderfull camera!

    I have that ‘holy grail’-relation You speak of with my camera as well – and, yes; I consider this somewhat ‘magical’, actually;o))… Normally they are, at best, ‘just’ extensions of the eye/hand and sometimes simply tools but somehow with my Monochrom this all changed. Very strange experience/feeling indeed.


  24. Great story, and so lucky. Last year I met a guy on a plane. He had no interest in photography but had just inherited a major Leica body and lens collection from an uncle. He was planning on giving it all to charity.

  25. What a great story Daniel! Great website as well; I’ve known it for some time. I recognize the emotion. I’ve got an FM2n, bought new in 89, used it today with the 28, an FE2, a NOS FM3a, an F2 (what a machine), and an F3. They’re all an absolute joy to use. Not always easy, but always rewarding. B&W only of course. There are actually some NOS S3 2000 on the bay. Big money but still tempting. I love and Dmire the way in which Nikon, at the end of the previous century, brought out two new old models. Craftsmen long gone, tooling gone, dies gone, materials changed. But they did it!

  26. This is really spooky, I was in my local Camera Dealer on Saturday, I had just bought the Fuji X20 to go with my 2 X-Pro1s, then I was looking in their window and saw a Nikon S2 + 50mm 1.4 for sale (used obviously) at £599, I nearly bought it it was so nice but I already have a Canon F1n if I ever wanted to use film (unlikley) so I passed it up. I must say though it was a near thing it looked so gorgeous I could have bought it just to have it but it ought to go to someone who will use it. Congrats on your good fortue I hope you put it to good use. See it here, http://www.lcegroup.co.uk/Used/Nikon-S2-+-5cm-F1.4_71124.html , they are also carrying the 135 f3.5 probably from the same source.

  27. Congratulations on the Nikon S2- it is a wonderful camera. Nikon RF’s tend to just keep on working. The 5cm F1.4 is fast and sharp, if you like wide-angle lenses: the 3.5cm F2.5 is a good match as well. If you are on a tight budget, a Jupiter-12 35/2.8 can be used, but sometimes requires some modifications (Shim adjustment, file down the mount trim).

    • Hello Brian! I was looking after you for a long time, could you help me with modifying for me a Jupiter-3 and a Jupiter-12 LTM lenses to focus properly on Leica M bodies? I havent find your email or other contact details anywhere, please contact me at fenil at citromail dot hu.
      Thank you very much in advance!

      • Jason Howe, who posts on Steve’s site here, is kind enough to host my DIY instructions for the Jupiter-3 here:


        The Jupiter-12: I need to photograph that one up. I use a 1952 KMZ J-12 with Zeiss serial numbers on my M8 and M9. Need to try it out on the M Monochrom. I also modified a J-12 for the Nikon. Rear element unscrews, then front module comes out to reveal a shim. The shim is the Exact same diameter as used on the J-8.

        • Thank you for the info, but I already found this pages. My problem is that I dont have the skills to do this by myself, and I also dont know anybody who could do it for me. Could you advise me to someone who could do this modifications on my lenses?
          Thank you very much for your kind help!

  28. Very nice post Daniel. Many photographers see cameras just as a means to an end, never seeing that some classics, like the Nikon and Leica RFs of the 50s, are functional art in themselves. Some appreciate only the beauty of the photograph, while some also appreciate the beauty of the mechanical works of art that create them.

  29. Wonderful story, Daniel! Very touching. I can completely relate to this feeling of holding the holy grail in your hands. I have it every time I have the Leica M5 in my hands which I inherited from my father and which dates back from the same year as I was born. Also very nice pictures, especially the one with the couples.

  30. Best post Daniel! Inspiring and exceptional work. It took me back to my days of first exploring the camera. Thank you, and keep up the great work. You have a gift for writing and capturing the world around you.

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