dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

Nikkor 50-135mm Lenses for Leica


Above, 10.5cm f/2.5 P.C. Nikkor (mine)

50mm f/1.4 S.C. Nikkor
50mm f/2 H.C. Nikkor
85mm f/2 P.C. Nikkor
105mm f/2.5 P.C. Nikkor
135mm f/3.5 P.C. Nikkor

As the story goes, Nippon Kogaku was making lenses and cameras out of a garage when they were discovered by some Life magazine photographers. While the Life photographers were not blown away by the Nikkor wide-angles, they really loved the 50, 85 and 135mm lenses and shot the Korean War with them. The optical performance was such that those pictures made Nikon's reputation.

Zeiss fans tell a different story, one that begins in 1927 with the perfection of the f/1.5 Sonnar. The crucial limitation in high-speed lenses had been the number of air-glass interfaces. In an era of uncoated lenses, each uncoated surface could cost 15% of the light passing through it. When Zeiss and Leica brought out competing rangefinder lines, something of a speed war broke out. Zeiss released the 50/1.5 Sonnar, which was a 7-element modified triple with only 6 air-glass surfaces (the 50/2 Sonnar was six elements in three groups). Leica obtained the right to make the Xenon, which was a Planar-derivative with 10 such surfaces. Leica's lens had more even correction; Zeiss's lens had phenomenal contrast. Just before the war, Smakula invented vacuum fluorocoating, and the wartime Sonnar T was born.

After the war, Leica began drip-coating the Xenon (essentially creating the Summarit). Coatings made Leica's design choice more practical, but Zeiss was still the undisputed leader in high-speed lenses (and a favorite of photojournalists) until the early 1960s.

— Zeiss brought out its Opton-Sonnar, which benefitted little from the addition of coatings, since it had so much contrast already.

— The Soviets, who inherited the wartime Sonnar tooling, began making the lenses first from Zeiss parts and then started making their own. The optical design of the 50/2 and 50/1.5 Jupiters went back to the prewar era, despite the fact that they were first coated and later multicoated.

— The Japanese, who were beneficiaries of the German patents, made two versions of the 50/1.5 Sonnar. The first was the 50/1.5 Nikkor (1950), and the second was the 50/1.5 Canon (1951). Less than a year later, Nikon had recomputed the 50/1.5 into the 50/1.4 (using an army of women with abacuses) — and so before Canon even had their first high-speed, Nikon was on its second-generation. The new Nikon 50/1.4 lens was designed for all-out performance at full aperture and close range, signalling a departure from the traditional Leica thinking, which was optimization for moderate aperture, moderate distance. Notably, being made of brass, it was much heavier than the competing Sonnars, which were aluminum.

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Here you can see the Nikkor's optimization for close-up, wide-open (1m). On the left is the 1951 Canon 50/1.5 (optimized for mid apeture, mid distance); on the right is the 1951 50/1.4 Nikkor. Both have identical basic formulae. You also will notice another design choice: although the Canon has more contrast, the Nikon has greater ability to resolve small details (40x).

When our friends at Life, such as David Douglas Duncan, came back with their pictures ("This is War!") and their lenses, some people ran some tests and found the Nikon lenses to be better than the originals. The 50/1.5 Nikkor was a favorite lens of David Douglas Duncan (link to shot taken by DDD with this lens - which my dad always titled "The two thousand yard stare"). "Retreat, Hell!" was dominated by the newer 50/1.4 Nikkor. Dan Weiner did his USSR series with one.

Zeiss people complained that the tests were rigged, but the damage was done. Canon attempted to best Nikon with their 50/1.2 in 1956 and 50/1.4 in 1957, but could not dethrone the Nikon 50/1.4. Leica finally beat it with the second-generation Summilux in 1961.

Editorial - The Nikon LTM era ended in the early 1960s, but today, the Nikkor LTM lenses, especially the 50/1.4, are a good alternative for discerning photographers, especially those who do close-in work. They offer great performance, even compared to modern lenses. They also deliver a classic look to your photos — I think that "discerning photographer" in this context means that you are looking for a lens that actually adds something to the picture or contributes to your artistic vision. Total optical transparency and freedom from aberration has its place — in a laboratory. Photographing people requires different aesthetics, techniques and equipment, and this is where the Nikkors shine. The key question in selecting a lens is not whether the lens is "good enough," but rather whether you are good enough to know exactly what you want. Some people like the old Nikkors, some people want the new Leica lenses. Suum cuique, as the Romans said.


Above: Block diagrams for 50/2 Nikkor (left); 50/1.4 Nikkor (right) (source: Kingslake)


Above,5cm f/1.4 S.C. Nikkor (mine)

Nikkor S.C. 5cm/1.4 in LTM - a redesign of the Nikkor 5cm/1.5 rangefinder lens (again, the 7/3 Sonnar model), the 5cm/1.4 Nikkor has full click stops from f/1.4 to f/16 (annoyingly, the aperture dial turns the opposite the normal way - but who shoots this at smaller than f/2 anyway?!). Focus is from 16" (although coupling stops at 1m - there is a faint "bump" in the focusing action to tell you when you are about to lose RF coupling (note that this lens does not RF-couple below 1m, even if your M camera does). Infinity lock. 43mm filter size. Very heavy chrome-on-brass construction. This lens is optimized for one kind of shot - up close and wide-open - and it is unbelievable. Sharp all the way across the frame at close distance. The tradeoff is distance performance, which suffers a bit wide-open: you get a sort of veiling flare (it's actually uncontrolled field curvature). Don't gloat, Canon 50/1.2 users — your lens does the same thing. Optimum aperture is f/2; game is over at f/8. This is a great lens to use with the Leica M3, where you can focus very, very precisely. It's even more fun with a Hexar RF, where you get autoexposure and a high enough shutter speed to keep the lens wide-open.


50/1.4 Nikkor at full aperture and 1m

Nikkor H.C. 5cm f/2 - cheaper baby brother to the 1.4 (the f/2 has 6 elements in 3 groups like the prewar Sonnar 5cm f/2), it has remarkable and contrasty performance wide open. Same click stops, same construction, same minimum focus. Optimum aperture is f/2.8. This came with a lot of "off-brand" Japanese RFs (like the Tower and the Nicca). The original (uncoated) version of this lens goes back to 1939, when it was made for Canon.


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Top: (L) Nikkor 50/1.4 wide-open at infinity showing the veiling flare that comes with longer distance focusing (contrast this to the low-flare performance in the 1m photo above); (R) stopping down to f/2 eliminates the problem.

Bottom: (L) Nikkor 50/2 wide-open at infinity; at f/2.8 and infinity; (R) at f/2.8. Notice that both lenses have identical contrast gestalt at f/2. Very closely matched.

Nikkor P.C. 8.5cm f/2 - a once-cheap lens ($10 in Tokyo in 1948) that has rapidly climbed in price, the 85 Nikkor was another favorite of Duncan. This, the 50/1.4 and the 135/3.5 were the lenses that made Nikon's name. This heavy lens has 5 elements in three groups. Ten-blade aperture dials from f/2 to f/32 in full-click stops (thank goodness they're in the right direction this time. Phantom stop at f/45. Focuses to 1m. Lens is made of beautiful iridescent chrome-plated brass. Front barrel and aperture ring rotate when you focus (you'll live). Lens elements are monocoated with the first of the Nikon hard "supercoatings." In build, light-years ahead of the aluminum Jena 85/2 Sonnar and the Jupiter-9. Performance is good at f/2, great starting at f/2.8. Optimum is f/8. 48mm filter size.


Basic block diagram for 85/2 Nikkor, 105/2.5 Nikkor (source: Nikon)


Above: Zenji's Revenge: the 105. Check out the detail at 250 feet and f/2.5 (40x).

Nikkor P.C. 10.5cm f/2.5 - sweet mother of Zenji Wakimoto! This is the follow-on to the 85 and the lens that launched the 105mm revolution in 1954 (originally designed in 1949). When it was released, it was the fastest lens in the 100mm class. It was also the first Nikon lens to come exclusively in black. This optical design continued as an SLR lens until 1971. There are several versions: some with black tripod sockets (rare), some with alumnum; some with pegs for bayonet hoods, some without. Click stops from f/2.5 to f/32. Close focus is 3.5 feet. This lens, like the 85, is a long-focus lens (as opposed to a telephoto). Same basic long Sonnar construction as the 85/2. Sharp all the way across the frame at f/2. at distance; at closer distances wide-open exhibits typical focus falloff from center (very smooth and unbeatable for portraits). Optimum aperture is f/5.6, 52mm filter size. Various hoods (can take the current 105/2.5 hoods as well). Notably, the 105/2.5 has almost exactly the same clear aperture (42mm) that the 90/2 Summicron does (45mm)-- meaning that wide-open, both have nearly exactly the same depth of field.



Above: 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor at f/5.6 on TMX.


Above: 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor at f/2.5 and the minimum focusing distance, this time with a little help from the 1/4000 top speed of a Konica Hexar RF. Behind is a field of cattails.


Above: 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor at f/2.5 and about 1.5m
still with the Hexar. Note that the bokeh is smooth and not double-line.

Nikkor Q.C. 13.5cm f/3.5 - Something of a sleeper lens, essentially a faster version of the 135/4 Zeiss Sonnar. Same barrel construction and features as the 8.5 f/2 (with addition of tripod socket). Ten aperture blades, with click stops to f/32. Minimum focus is 4.5 feet. Nice, edge-to-edge sharpness at f/4; optimum f/8. Big (mainly long) and heavy, but a neat lens with a neat past (DDD again). Overall performance is similar to the Canon 135/3.5, which is to say great. Check this out:


Above: 135mm Nikkor, at f/4, full neg on Kodachrome. Below: detail shot at 3,600 dpi (50x).



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