Today we’re looking at a super-fast Nikon lens that no one really needs, yet many shooters covet. The Nikkor-N Auto 35mm F/1.4 from 1971 (along with its newer AI and AIs versions) is the fastest 35mm focal length lens that Nikon ever produced for their F mount cameras. Even today there’s no faster 35mm bearing the name Nikkor. This alone is enough to make photo geeks drool, and after shooting it for more than a month I can confidently affirm it’s a lens deserving of this lustful status.
At the same time, I have to admit that it’s entirely impractical. With today’s digital sensors churning out usable images at ISO 6400 and beyond, the need for super fast lenses has diminished (even if many of us are hesitant to admit it). With a fairly steep price and competition from its own range in the form of the very capable Nikkor 35mm F/2, does the F/1.4 deserve a spot in your camera bag? There are a few key factors that will make that determination. So let’s take a closer look at this luxuriant Nikkor and see what there is to see.
As mentioned, this lens was first produced in 1971 and was the final result of immense toil by the engineers at Nikon. As early as the mid-1960s, Nikon was prototyping a super-fast 35mm lens intended to be used with the successor to their SP rangefinder. When that camera’s development was aborted in favor of what would become Nikon’s new SLR, the legendary Nikon F, development of the rangefinder’s fast 35mm was halted, shifted, and resumed for the new machine. Five years of arduous development headed by Yoshiyuki Shimizu produced two prototypes, culminating in a masterpiece of a lens that would be the first to feature Nikon’s multi-layer coating treatment, and one of the first to implement Nikon’s Close-Range Correction system (more on both of these technologies later).
Optical sophistication followed in the form of a nine element in seven group composition. Earlier issues present in other lenses were examined and taken into consideration when designing the optical formula. Aberrations were carefully designed out of the lens, with an uncommon composition of two concave front elements and three converging elements in the rear, and groups of two cemented lenses arranged nearest the diaphragm corrected what aberrations would still be present. Additionally, Nikon stressed the standardization of filter thread diameter and made painstaking efforts to keep the lens as compact as possible. In this they succeeded – the 52mm standard filter thread was preserved.
All these advanced technologies and manufacturing techniques would combine with the sheer impressiveness of that massive maximum aperture to create one of the best Nikon lenses that, to that point in time, the world had ever seen.
But that’s the past. While this lens’ advanced technologies and astounding specs was top of the heap in 1971, time marches on. So what’s it like to shoot this Nikkor in 2017?
Get your hands on it and you’ll immediately understand half of what makes this lens so special. Unlike with today’s autofocus lenses and automated cameras, in which the deepest interaction you’re likely to have with your lens is the removal of its lens cap, this Nikkor hails from a time in which lenses were intended to be handled and manually manipulated. And it’s among the best of its era.
Build quality is beyond excellent. If you’ve never shot a legacy lens prepare to be awestruck, and if you’ve handled your fair share of manual-focus classics you’re still likely to be impressed. The stunningly machined metal focus ring of our pre-AI version is beautifully dampened throughout it’s entire (approximately) 180 degrees of rotation. The similarly machined aperture ring controls a diaphragm composed of nine (nine!) curved blades, and it clicks with a mechanical certainty that’s virtually absent in modern lenses. The lens is dense and weighty, and simply feels like an uncommon work of pure craftsmanship. It’s beautiful.
Compatibility is about as universal as a Nikkor can be. This lens was offered (with minor advancements and changes throughout it’s run) in every Nikon manual focus mount, including pre-AI, AI, and AIs. That means that there’s a version of this lens to mount natively onto every Nikon F mount camera made since the original F in 1959, including the most recent DSLRs. Additionally it can be adapted via common and inexpensive adapters to today’s various mirror-less cameras, such as the Sony A series and Fujifilm’s X series.
What sort of images can we expect to make with it? To put it bluntly, whatever we want. The 35mm focal length has, historically, been one of versatility and it’s no different here. Use it as an everyday shooter, a photojournalist or editorial tool. Use it for architecture, or landscapes. Use it as a street photography lens, for traveling, and for product photography. With a minimum focus distance of less than twelve inches, it can even be a useful close-up tool. And of course, with that enormously fast aperture you could very well shoot it as a portrait lens or make some lovely astrophotography. The lens’ usability is second to none, and more than any other lens I’ve used, this Nikkor presents a compelling argument for the “one and done” crowd.
Images made with the 35mm F/1.4 can be amazing, though there are areas in which the lens underperforms. The star of the show, unsurprisingly, is that stunningly fast maximum aperture, and shooting wide open shows the lion’s share of this lens’ assets, and its liabilities.
To start, low light performance is expectedly excellent. Exposing low-sensitivity film is manageable even when the sun starts to set, and with faster films we’re able to shoot on the streets in the dead of night. On digital sensors this isn’t as important an asset, as mentioned in the lead-in, but it’s still nice to get those snappier shutter speeds when the light begins to fall. And for shooters who really need shallow depth-of-field, the 35/1.4 is the best in this focal length.
Bokeh made by the 35/1.4 is simply astounding, and is among the best I’ve ever seen in a 35mm lens (or any lens, for that matter). Shots made wide open will be a bokeh lover’s dream, with massive bokeh balls and some of the creamiest blended backgrounds ever seen from a lens of this focal length. Astoundingly, even as we stop down to F/2 and F/2.8, backgrounds remain as well-blended as a subtle Japanese whisky. Highlight bokeh is similarly stunning, no doubt a result of the nine curved aperture blades (which also create gorgeous sunstars in the right conditions). I’m typically one to eschew bokeh in favor of greater depth-of-field, but even I can see that this lens will be a holy grail for those who love the blur.
However, wide open shooting does have its drawbacks. For one, nailing focus becomes incredibly difficult with this lens’ razor-thin depth-of-field. That’s forgivable, surely. What’s less easy to ignore is the general softness produced when shooting at maximum aperture. Even in the center of the frame, when shot wide open the lens tends to make dreamy, soft images. And that’s without scrutinizing the edges of the frame.
This softness resolves quickly when the aperture is stopped down just a single stop, to F/2. In fact, more so than any other lens I’ve used, this jump in clarity from wide open to a single stop down is stunning, and can be seen in the sample shots provided in which a 100% crop from the center of the frame has been displayed. When we stop the lens down to F/2.8 or F/4 it’s producing images that will surely impress the average eyeball for sharpness and clarity. This astounding sharpness continues to impress right up to F/11, where from we start to lose some fine detail as we continue down to F/22.
Inevitably the sharpness conversation will draw comparisons to other lenses, and in the case of the Nikkor 35mm these comparisons often take the form of the Nikkor 35mm F/2. While this slower lens is extremely sharp, I think the difference can be found in viewing sharpness at comparative F numbers. Yes, the 35mm F/2 is sharper than the F/1.4 when each lens is shot wide open and compared. But images made by the F/1.4 at F/2 are sharper than images made by the F/2 at F/2. At F/2.8 the F/1.4 version continues to have the edge on the F/2 lens. Whether this extra sharpness warrants the high price of the F/1.4 compared to the F/2 is up to the buyer.
Light fall-off, or vignetting, is fairly pronounced when shooting wide open. Like the previously mentioned softness, this clears up as we stop down the aperture, but it’s still quite prevalent even at F/4. This said, vignetting is one of the easiest ailments in photography to correct via the movement of a simple slider in Lightroom, Photoshop, and even Apple’s subpar Photos app (I miss Aperture), so don’t fret too much over the slightly darkened corners of your shots.
Aberrations, the elimination of which was so doggedly pursued over the five year development period, are checked but not eliminated. Nikon’s multi-coating does a great job of increasing contrast and stomping out the worst of the funny stuff, but shooting into bright light sources does still result in some pretty hefty flares. Ghosts and color bursts can populate the frame in similar shooting situations, and longitudinal chromatic aberration can be seen in high-contrast, out-of-focus areas surrounding the point of focus. This is commonly called bokeh-fringing, and it can be seen in the sample shot that shows text on a vinyl record. Notice the out-of-focus text above the point of focus shows a sort of yellow color while the text below shows more blue.
And for all the effort that went into correcting lens distortion through implementation of Nikon’s then-new CRC, it’s still here. We can see that in the GIF of the tile. It should be noted, however, that the worst of this distortion only occurs when we’re focusing on a very close subject. In normal shooting situations in which the subject is more than a foot away distortion will likely never be seen, and this is another optical trouble that can be easily solved in your photo editing app.
All told, the Nikkor 35mm F/1.4 is a precision tool crafted to make incredible photos. It does this with few drawbacks, and the compromises that it does demand from the shooter are ones that will likely impact only certain types of photographers. For the shooter who uses this lens within a sort of “normal” range of operation, it will do nothing but create amazing images. But of course, it comes at a price. The Nikkor 35mm F/1.4 is not cheap in any form. The pre-AI version is the most cost-effective (though only by a little), and later AI and AIs models will run a bit more. Still, it’s important to remember that a more modern, autofocus 35mm F/1.4 will easily cost triple, feel less heavenly in the hands, and be less usable on classic and adapted mirror-less cameras. And getting the fastest 35mm Nikkor for one-third the cost of a new model is pretty enticing. Food for thought.