Not long ago, I reviewed the fastest 35mm Nikkor that Nikon has ever made, the 35mm F/1,4. While incredibly luxurious in the hands and a stellar performer in low-light situations, this lens let down in terms of wide-open sharpness. What’s more, its massive maximum aperture of F/1.4 and the razor-thin depth of field it produced, while exciting and exotic on paper, proved to be an impractical nuisance in everyday shooting. It was a stunning lens, but the high price and wide-open hassles meant I could only recommend it to shooters who value bokeh above all else, or for collectors who need the “best” and “first” of everything.
Recently I’ve had the chance to shoot that lens’ slower, older brother, Nikon’s Nikkor O 35mm F/2, and it’s proven to be a surprisingly superior tool. Offering much of what makes the 35mm F/1.4 great, it manages to avoid the faster lens’ failings and improve on its strengths. With a lower price, fantastic optics, and excellent ergonomics, this 35mm may just be the one to own.
Build quality is what vintage Nikon fans will have come to expect – excellent. With an all-metal body, metal aperture and focus rings, metal lens mount and filter threads (52mm diameter), metal focusing helicoid, and metal aperture blades, this lens is about as robust as certain other treasures from the Land of the Rising Sun. The complicated optical design (unchanged until the mid-1980s) employs quite a lot of glass (8 elements in 6 groups), and this combined with the just-mentioned metallic build results in a weighty lens, at 280 grams (10 oz.). Its outer dimensions of 64mm x 61mm puts it squarely in line with most standard focal length lenses – not too big, not too small.
Practical use and feel are intuitive and stunning, as we’ve come to expect from Nikkors made in this lens’ era. Focus throw is well-damped and precise, allowing confident fine adjustments, and the close-focusing distance of just twelve inches makes close-up shooting a real pleasure. The aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical precision in full-stop increments, and the seven curved aperture blades do well to keep highlight bokeh looking pleasant. There’s the usual Nikon color-coded focus and depth of field scales, an infrared index, and the classic rabbit ear prong that allows the lens to index with classic Nikon SLRs.
Compatibility of our review lens is about as universal as a pre-Ai Nikkor can be, though later 35mm F/2s brought changes to the mount that allow it to fit to more varied machines. The important part is the optical formula, which was offered in every Nikon manual focus mount, including pre-AI seen here, 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, any version 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. Most importantly, whatever camera you’ve attached it to, this lens will make wonderful shots.
Unlike its faster, newer brother, the Nikkor 35mm F/2 is incredibly sharp when shot wide open. Center frame sharpness at F/2 is stunning, detailed, and impressive. While edge sharpness at fast apertures is understandably less impressive, compared with the F/1.4 this Nikkor is a marvel. Stopped down, the lens becomes remarkably sharp across the frame. There’s very little to complain about here, or even to note. At all apertures the Nikkor O is a very sharp lens.
At F/2, depth of field is very thin, though not so thin as to be the limiting factor experienced with the faster F/1.4. This more reasonable fast aperture and the lens’ short minimum focus distance allows us to play with shallow depth of field to really emphasize small, up-close subjects, and mid-ground subjects can be nicely isolated, allowing for contextual portraiture.
Bokeh is very well-blended, especially when we consider that this is a wide-standard lens, and when shot wide open there’s little to distract from our chosen subject. Sure, some out of focus elements can look a bit harsh, but this isn’t a portrait lens, and for the focal length it’s one of the best performers around. Stopped down a bit, bokeh becomes just a bit harsher, with some slightly distracting demarkations surrounding “bokeh balls” and highlights. The seven-bladed diaphragm tries to keep things round, and it does so for the most part, but highlight bokeh does inevitably become polygonal. The nine-bladed diaphragm of the F/1.4 will be more covetous to those who prize bokeh over everything, but for most users, the blur produced by this F/2 lens will be nearly perfect.
But as with all lenses, there are objective imperfections. Like its faster counterpart, the 35mm F/2 suffers from light falloff at wide-open aperture. This resolves incrementally from F/2 down to F/4, at and after which the vignetting is all but gone. As mentioned in every lens review I’ve written, vignetting is easily handled in post-processing by simply sliding a slider, but it’s worth noting for those who aren’t going to edit their photos. Shooting wide open, expect slightly darkened corners.
Again mimicking the faster Nikkor, this 35mm lens similarly distorts a bit when close-focusing. This can most easily be seen when shooting close objects with straight lines, and presents as barrel distortion. As with the vignetting mentioned, this can be solved in post-processing very simply, and when shooting objects at a distance of more than, say, three feet, the distortion doesn’t show.
Due in part to its early pedigree, the lens’ optical coatings aren’t the best you can find today. The result can be images that show greater optical artifacts than those made by a more modern Ai, Ai-S, or autofocus era lens. Chromatic aberration shows as color fringing, purple or green outlines around high contrast areas of a frame (examples can be seen in the sample shot of the lobster – check the antennae). Flares and ghosts can pop up when the front element is exposed to direct sunlight. Eliminate this with a lens hood, shade the lens with your hand, or better still, just don’t worry about it. For me, lens flares and similar aberrations are far from displeasing, and instead imbue a frame with a bit of refreshing imperfection that’s difficult to find in today’s era of clinically clean imagery.
And this reference to clinical versus characterful images brings us to the Nikkor’s greatest selling point. This lens, first designed and produced in the 1960s, provides us with a way of capturing shots today that’s impossible to replicate with a new lens. The images it makes, while gorgeous and precise, aren’t perfect. There’s a uniqueness to the depth of field, the color rendition, the contrast and resolution, that sets it apart from a modern Nikkor (or any modern lens for that matter). Even when shot on today’s mirror-less cameras, the lens allows us to make images that are unpredictable, with a bit more character and feeling.
Part of this comes from the fact that it’s a manual-focus lens – you’re not going to nail every shot, and these slightly out of focus images are often the most magical. And part of it also comes from the fact that it’s not a multi-coated lens produced by robots. Rather, it’s a piece of glass designed by humans to bend light in a pleasing way. And still more of its uniqueness comes from its simple quality. This lens feels amazing, which encourages us to use it, to experiment and grow, and to shoot in ways that we may not think of or care to try with a modern lens.
Many of these things can be said about most legacy lenses, but not all that we’ve said about this Nikkor can be said about every legacy lens. The Nikkor O 35mm F/2 is a special creation, and whether you’re shooting a classic Nikon film camera or today’s DSLRs and mirror-less machines, it’s a lens worth shooting.