6.11.2021

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. 

5.6

1.4

No LOCA. No fringing. No vignetting. No corner blur. 
WTF?



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.