Completely surprised by an antiquity. I'm thinking the only things that have improved with lenses in the last 50 years is our ability to focus them better.

There is a reason for this self portrait. It was made so I could see how a lens that hit the market a couple of years after the introduction of the original Nikon F (film camera) actually performs when used at the wide open aperture of 1.4. I have been misled. Perhaps we have been misled.

I renewed my subscription to Reid's Reviews this week because I became aware that he's covering many of the photo-tools in which I'm currently interested. He's been testing the few "professional" mirrorless cameras on the market: The Leica SLs, the Leica Ms, and the Panasonic S1 series cameras. And, as a complement to that, he's also doing deep, deep dives into camera lenses. Mostly he concentrates on lenses from Leica, Sigma, Zeiss and Panasonic. 

But I found myself a bit "out of shape" to receive huge doses of in-depth reviews of the lenses Reid considers some of the "best in the world". After reading a comparison review of 50mm lenses, including the Leica SL 50mm f2.0 App-Summicron, the Leica SL 50mm Summilux, the Sigma 50mm Art Series lens and the Panasonic/Lumix 50mm f1.4 S-Pro lens I had to come up for air and a bit of reality grounding. When reading reviews written for an audience of The True Believers of the High End one must occasionally anchor one's self in reality. 

And reality, as I see it, means understanding that what is meant by The Best generally means that a product is marginally better in some regards than similar products. Think 2 to 5 % better, not "twice as good." As an antidote for the frothy enthusiasm surrounding elite, 50mm lenses for full frame cameras in the $1,000-$6,000 range I thought to dig around in the old filing cabinets and perhaps find the most hoary and ancient, adaptable lens I own and try that out on one of the hallowed Leica cameras for comparison. After all, I can switch back and forth between the Lumix S-Pro (which is one of the finer 50mms; even if it does need to go on a prolonged diet....) and a weathered and primitive candidate. Right? 

I went to the bottom drawer of one of the big, legal file cabinets that lounge in the studio and I dug through old, potential portfolio material, tossing aside brochures I never wanted to look at again-- but felt duty bound to save, through stacks of medium format black and white negatives I promised myself I would print one day, until I got to the bottom strata and unearthed a Nikon F camera complete with its companion lens, a 50mm f1.4 Nikkor S from Nippon Kogaku. The camera and the lens are still pristine. 

This is a lens that was introduced as the second generation 50mm f1.4 made for the Nikon F camera. It was an improved version which arrived on the market in 1966 and was made and sold until 1974. Most of the lenses were single coated but late in the production run Nikon added multi-coating to the lens. Within the same year they refined the optical formula and introduced a new version that had a rubber focusing ring and the aforementioned improvement in coatings. 

The lens I have is the 1966-1974, single coated, metal focusing ring version. It is dense, extremely well built, and even now, some 45+ years after its manufacture, the focusing ring betters any of the AF lenses for buttery smoothness and lack of....glitchyness. The lens also has hard stops at both ends of the focusing range and features wonderful stuff like: engraved distance markings on the lens barrel, engraved apertures on the external aperture ring, hyperfocal/dof markings and a metal filter ring for 52mm filters. The lens focuses down to a bit under 2 feet.

Now, I have been told time and time again that all these old, seven element (no exotic glass elements anywhere) five group lenses were complete garbage compared to the new 12, 15 and 18 element, miracle 50mm lenses which are now being constructed with aspheric elements, special low refraction elements, and ultra-tech-y nano lens coatings. I've been led to believe by almost anyone writing for the web that if I were to use this "simple" lens on a modern digital camera I should expect: 1. very poor performance when used wide open or close to wide open. With lots and lots of flare and extremely low contrast across the frame. Any inkling of sharpness I might find would be relegated to a tiny portion of the center of the frame and the sharpness would be negatively offset by a "glowy" effect and lack of contrast. 2. Furthermore, because the lens lacks floating lens elements I should expect that any photograph I tried to take at a distance closer than about five feet would return nothing but mushy and unusable images. 3. I should expect reflections of light to bounce off the back element, reflect back off the sensor and cause lots of artifacts like red dots and internal flare. 4. finally, since the lens is not coated with the latest multi-coatings I must never expose it to any direct light, glancing light, interesting light, or dramatic light lest the whole system flare vigorously; totally overwhelming any image I might have the temerity to take. All in all these older lenses are made out to be so marginal in performance that no rational photographer would touch them with a ten foot selfie stick.

I don't educate too good with web stuff. So I had to try it all out for myself. I bought an adapter to go from the Nikon F lens to the L-mount cameras for about $15 and mounted it and the lens on the a Leica SL. Then I went out this morning and shot a few photographs to see if the lens was a dreadful and flawed as advertised. To see if it was a complete waste of my extremely valuable time

Um. I was a bit shocked. The lens is anything but crap. I posted the image up above because it represented a sort of worst case. Unsightly subject matter, very low light requiring a high ISO, a wide open f-stop, a handheld camera with no I.S. and handled poorly by a ancient photographer who came to the test pre-loaded with a caffeine laden, large latte from Intelligentsia Coffee (which has re-opened !!!!!!). And the capper is that I was shooting into a Mirror. It's a wonder I didn't drop the whole thing on the tile floor and bemoan our mutual incompetence...

To be serious for a moment, this lens is magnificent. While newer lenses will out perform it under perfect conditions when all of them are used at their maximum apertures this old Nikkor holds up quite well and delivers very satisfying results. Getting a lens in focus is really critical. I think many were put off manual focus lenses in the dark ages of digital (pre-EVF) because they just weren't competent to execute decent manual focusing. That meant legions of older lenses (pre-AF) were painted as tragic failures when in fact it's mostly down to operator error in many cases. A Dunning-Krueger level of understanding focusing with moving fingers and critical eyes versus undereducated, one button dependence. Skill versus expectation. 

But rather than talk it to death I thought I'd share some of the images I was able to make with a lens you can still buy, in good shape, for under $100 on the used market...

So here goes: 

I first got an inkling about the potential of the lens when I randomly 
photographed the floor of my office from the vantage point of my desk...
The coating on the lens seems a perfect match for B&W. 

All small children are beautiful. 
All lenses are sharp at f5.6.

No. Those old lenses don't vignette like the new ones. 
They are better designed for some stuff....like 
distortion and vignetting. They had to be; there was no 
computer correction to use as a lens design crutch. 

Golly Jeepers! The corners aren't an unholy mess! 
Who could have known?

I hope you'll click on this one to make it larger.
Then you'll see just how beautiful the tonality is. 
And it is.

The version at the top of the post was shot at f1.4. 
This one was shot at f2.8-4.0
The sharpness on the engraved ring surrounding the front element is perfect.
At ISO 10,000

Yeah. I know you hate mannequin shots, but click on it and look closely at the chain/strap.
That's sharp and detailed. And handheld and non-stabilized. 

One of the nice things about being "more mature" is that younger people
look at older men, with funny hats and old fashioned cameras 
and they do that patronizing smile and then the either ignore you or cut you more slack.
Either way, it's good. 

But...But...what about tomorrow?

I love a company that brags about their ability to utterly destroy things...

OMG. Sharp, sharp, sharp. 



No LOCA. No fringing. No vignetting. No corner blur. 

This is a super tight crop from the image just below.
Tell me again how ultra-crappy old, legacy lenses are when 
you use them at their closest focusing range....

And near the end of the walk I default to black and white because I've heard the Nikkor S was designed to be a stellar black and white lens for film. Pretty cool for digital too.

These incredibly sharp leaves are part of a crop from the full image just below.
Bet you can barely match with this with any zoom lens you might be toting; 
no matter how many elements is has...

And then, just like that the walk was over and my whole conception about modern lenses and progress and art and science and gravity and coatings and the art of lens design got turned upside down. Jeez. It's an amazing lesson for me in just how much the quality of manufacturing and the attention to detail make a difference. 50 years in lens design is equal to about a week of anything else. Not much really happened, unless you love ultra-wide angle zooms. And I'm not a member of that cult...

So, ancient lens from filing cabinet. Six year old digital camera. Man with bifocals. Too much caffeine. And the images still came out as well as I could want. Go figure. And then go look in your equipment cabinet and find a treasure for yourself. 



SW Rick said...

There is a film-like look to thee images. Perhaps the lens? Certainly at least some credit to the pusher-of-the-button!

Anonymous said...

But... but... the bokeh is hexagonal. You'll have to toss it immediately.

And Cooper's with a huge QR code? Someone must have died in Llano. Or maybe it's just a concession to doing business in Austin. Is there a QR Code signage requirement in Austin?

I was given a the second version Nikkor 105/2.5 (early 80's) and I paid to have it cleaned of some internal fungus. Some lenses are not cost effectively replicable. What would a new reproduction copy cost?

And I intentionally waited to buy digital cameras until I could use my Leica R lenses with adapters, and I now use my LTM and M mount lenses on mirrorless as well. I didn't want or need to purchase new glass that wasn't an improvement. (I was no longer working professionally when digital came in, and still had decent labs.)

I mentioned sending in samples images from Leica R lenses from the 70's to one of the developers of a raw editing program to use for profiling corrections in the software. He basically said, "OK, but it's probably not worth the effort" for those lenses. It's the same with your 50/1.4 Nikkor and a large percentage of decent brand older glass.

Lee in Kerrville

Rich said...

Kirk. I read Roger C review of 35mm lenses. He found the Tam f1.4 to be (by far) the best. Even when he updated w/ the Sig f1.2, he said they were a wash. So i bought it ($670 new), adapted w/ MC21 to my S5. Good news is SAF is decent w/ eye capture.
But honestly, though a brilliant (&BIG!) lens, in side-by-side Hi-rez (pixel-shift) vs. my sigmaf2 at same f-stop - i see no diff.
So (like you) ... my conclusion is that there are many great lenses out there, and chasing perfection yields ... diminishing returns!

Gary said...

The old lenses are obviously crap, Kirk. Thanks for this.

John Beynon said...

well.... you used to be able to buy it for under $100

Dogman said...

What I find most interesting is that the colors here don't slam you in the face with their contrast and vibrance. They're realistic. Something no one wants anymore. The B&W tones are superb.

Nikon has always made great lenses. A few dogs, a few outstanding ones and a lot of really great useful lenses. I mentioned a couple of the first edition AF Nikkor zooms I was trying out on a photo forum and universally got responses that were negative. But they're really sweet lenses. More than sharp enough with a better presentation of colors and tones than what I normally see in "modern" lenses. Too much perfection is bad for you.

The 50mm S was my first Nikon lens. Came with an FTn body. Someone stole them both decades ago. Today I have two of these lenses and I'm very happy with them. Now if I could only focus them better. But that would mean I would have to be able to see better.

Anonymous said...

With your experience you could pretty much create masterpieces with the glass from the bottom of a coke bottle.

Grant said...

It's not the "funny hat" or the "old fashioned camera" the younger folks are snickering at...it's that Domke bag. Because, as one younger camera-owner told me a while back, "NO ONE uses Domke any more!"

Anton Wilhelm Stolzing said...

This is one of the greatest pieces of myth-busting I ever saw. Congratulations!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Grant. While I love Domke bags I can't keep them in stock here in the studio because my son's millennial and Gen Z friends keep borrowing them to hold their film cameras. And, be advised that I never, ever take a camera bag with me on a walk in downtown Austin. Strict rule: One camera. One lens. Only amateurs take bags when going out for a casual photo walk....

amolitor said...

In the late 1980s/early 1990s I spent a little time attempting to seriously test lenses.

The ugly reality is that anyone testing lens sharpness by jamming it on a contemporary DSLR is fooling himself (I would say "themself" except I have literally never run across a woman who engages in this silliness). Even in 1990 people sort of snickered at people (like me) who were trying to measure lenses on camera. Aerial test benches are where the action is.

With a film camera you can jam a roll of Tech Pan in there, and anyways resolving power rolls off decorously into mush. With digital you bang into about 100 lp/mm and that's all she wrote. 100 lp/mm is pretty much table stakes for a decent prime lens, and has been for decades. With the $X,000 lenses you're getting stuff for your money, I guess, but it ain't usable resolving power. There may be a lot more there, but you can't use it.

I guess you could produce ever more crisp moire if you've got one of them cameras with no anti-aliasing filter?

More recently (a few years ago) a blogger with a technical bent was showing off a photo he took with some astronomically expensive 4 pound 50mm lens and cooing about how you could resolve craters on the moon. I snapped my Nikkor 50/1.8 on my D3100 body, cranked the lens to the infinity stop, guessed at the exposure, and produced a photo of the moon that was better than his (largely because I didn't oversharpen it into oblivion). I mean, it's a good lens? But you can buy 'em for under $100.

I am not convinced that you're getting anything from a four pound 50 that you can't get from an 30 year old lens, that you can't put back with a touch of sharpening and other contrast control in Lightroom. I mean, maybe? But I can't quite figure out where it would be, and what that would look like.

Unknown said...

I believe that 40mm to 80mm lenses are easier to design due to the laws of optics. Also small telephotos are relatively easy hence the old 135mm lenses with relatively simple construction.
Where things have improved a bit are wide angle lenses and improved significantly are zoom lenses.
I read that in the early 1970s it used to take 6 months to do the optical calculations for something like a 3x zoom lens.
If you were to compare the early zoom lens and wider fixed focal length lenses (which you did mention) the differences would be pretty large.

kodachromeguy@bellsouth.net said...

Oh oh Kirk. You missed a huge factor. This 1960s Nikon lens is not stabilized. Therefore, the "experts" and Dpreview crowd know that its impossible to use it for "sharp" pictures.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

And the lens refuses to process its own raw files internally. Deal killer.