I know what you’re thinking; “Do we really need another 50mm lens review?” I don’t blame you. A quick glance through our archive shows write-ups on fifties from Minolta, Pentax, Canon, a shootout between Zeiss’ two best fifties, and a spotlight on Leica’s worst (but still pretty damn good) 50mm. It seems unnecessary to cover yet another, but here we are. To cut to the chase, I’ll probably say something nuanced about this lens, that it has some flaws, but that it’s actually one of the best lenses in whatever category we put it in, and ultimately, we’ll probably agree that it’s worth shooting.
Is there any reason to keep going? Actually, yes. I’d ask that we trudge on, and that’s because today’s lens isn’t just another 50mm lens. It’s the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4, and it happens to be my favorite lens. Ever. Hear me out.
From its inception, the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 seemed destined for greatness. Nikon’s previous lenses for its rangefinder system, the 5cm f/2 and 5cm f/1.4, put the brand on the map as a first-class lens manufacturer, setting the stage for the unveiling of their first pro-spec SLR and one of the world’s greatest cameras, the Nikon F. This new SLR was meant to be no less than the best system camera ever made, and Nikon needed a lens that could definitively prove their point. The Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 was created to do just that.
If the Nikon F is the NES of 35mm photography, the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 is its Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt combo pack. This pairing was an immediate go-to for those who wanted a purely pro-spec SLR camera in the 1960s 35mm segment, and together they became the symbols of 35mm photography for that decade. Need proof that these two were nearly inseparable? Google “Nikon F” and the entire first page of results is filled almost exclusively with shots of the F wearing this glass.
But despite the lofty origins of the Nikkor-S, the lens has fallen out of favor with modern film and legacy lens shooters. Even though it was one of the most historically important, widely produced, and popular fifties ever, its name almost never comes up in any “greatest fifty ever” discussion. So why is such an important lens so consistently looked over? Let’s take a closer look.
The first immediately noticeable quality of the Nikkor-S is its , well, quality. When we find an example that hasn’t been trashed through hard usage, this lens stands with the sturdiest lenses in the world. Its massive glass elements are encased in chunky layers of thick, well-machined metal, which finds its greatest expression in the lens’ scalloped, all-metal focusing and aperture rings. The focusing ring spins with a fluidity and weightiness that even Nikon’s later AI-S lenses can’t match, and the aperture ring clicks with an authority that makes other lenses feel comparatively rickety. This all-metal-everything construction is simply luxurious, and when compared with its modern day equivalent, well, there’s really no contest.
But beyond its stellar build quality, the Nikkor-S fails to boast of much else to make it stand out from the crowd. It’s optically constructed just like every other quick fifty, with the same-old 7/5 Double-Gauss based lens formula. And the rest of the spec sheet doesn’t exactly impress. There are only six aperture blades, a single coating on the front element, and Nikon’s pre-AI “rabbit ear” meter coupler. While these features may have been commendable in the ‘60s, fifty years later they’re sub standard. And if we’re being honest, when compared even to its contemporaries such as Pentax’s eight element Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4, the Nikkor isn’t doing anything very special.
If this language seems strangely contrary to my earlier claims of greatness, this next section will seem downright bizarre. Image quality from the Nikkor-S is a divisive topic among Nikonians and fifty aficionados alike. For as many strengths as this lens has, it has an equal (if not greater) number of weaknesses.
Let’s lead with strength. Like the S series and LTM lenses of the 1950s, Nikon’s Nikkor-S debuted with remarkable resolving power. From f/11 to f/2.8 everything from shirt stitches to fine strands of hair are resolved clearly and accurately. The lens also features a smoothed-out type of sharpness, which when combined with the lens’s high resolution makes it particularly adept at portraiture and less formal people photos. Emphasis on resolution and sharpness often comes at the cost of contrast, but the Nikkor-S doesn’t suffer from this. Though it’s not the most contrasty lens out there, it treats its contrast with care and precision. Shadow and light grade ever so smoothly into each other, which makes that already finely resolved detail pop that much more to life.
But while the Nikkor-S executes the fundamentals well, some of its secondary characteristics just aren’t up to snuff. The lens is only single coated, which means there’s essentially no flare resistance, and when shot without a hood near any sort of bright light source the lens loses contrast to an incredible degree. The relatively primitive single coating also renders images slightly cooler and gives color images a decidedly vintage flavor which may or may not serve every shooter’s needs or tastes, especially if that shooter is used to the clinical precision and accurate color rendition of modern lens coatings.
The Nikkor’s bokeh is also a particularly contentious subject, with fans and detractors saying with equal frequency that it’s either nice and creamy, or busy and annoying. Bokeh is the calling card of 50/1.4 lenses, and while the Nikkor-S does create really shallow depth-of-field, it’s by no means a bokeh-master. Shooting up close and wide open, I really enjoy the way it blurs. But outside of minimum focus distance I could understand why some shooters call it distracting.
But perhaps the most controversial subject regarding the Nikkor-S is its performance wide-open. Many criticize this lens for being unbearably soft and flat when shot wide open. We also find plenty of complaints over lack of contrast, heavy vignetting, focus shift, and field curvature. Some even call it absolutely unusable wide open, and end up ditching the lens in favor of more modern Nikkors. While I don’t think one should ditch the lens entirely for these issues, they are undeniably valid concerns. The lens loses quite a bit of contrast and softens up considerably at f/1.4, which can make low-light scenes look underwhelming. There’s certainly a focus shift problem, and field curvature softens up our edges and corners, without question. Though images do sharpen up and reclaim their contrast when we stop down to f/2.8 and beyond, this only begs the question – why not just shoot the Nikkor 50mm F/2?
It’s surely this long list of wide-open issues that keeps the Nikkor-S off of everybody’s 50mm wishlists. Factor this with the lackluster flare resistance, so-so bokeh, and weird color rendition, and it makes sense that shooters would prefer its technically superior contemporaries and the many 50mm lenses that came after.
All that said, I don’t think any of these flaws matter in the slightest.
To harp on the lens’ technical faults is to miss the point of this lens entirely. The essence of the Nikkor-S doesn’t lie in its MTF chart performance, but in the unmistakable way it renders a scene. I’ve heard the look described as creamy, milky, and rich which, aside from being good descriptors for a bar of chocolate, is completely accurate. This creamy look showcases itself in up-close and wide-open portraits. Through this lens, subjects seem to become idealized versions of themselves, their features being rendered sharp enough to be realistic but smooth enough to look painterly.
The signature look is also strangely familiar, which might have to do with the lens’ popularity among photojournalists working for LIFE magazine, National Geographic, and any number of leading publications of the era. The images made with this lens populated the pages of these magazines as well as the portfolios of many of the professional photographers who worked for them. There had to be a reason why so many of them trusted this allegedly troublesome lens, and I suspect that it had to do with the beautiful way the Nikkor-S rendered every scene.
A lens this beautiful, well-made, and historically important should come with an appropriately inflated price tag, but this isn’t the case. Nikon made these lenses by the hundreds of thousands back in the sixties and one can procure a copy today for not much more than $80 dollars, and you’re likely to score a bonus Nikkormat or F for only a few dollars more. The low price combined with its pedigree and simply beautiful imaging characteristics make this lens a no-brainer for every level of shooter.
So far, this review has played out exactly as I predicted, but I’ve not clearly mentioned why this lens is my favorite lens in all of photography. What makes me choose this admittedly flawed and near-ancient Nikkor over all the other amazing fifties, past and present? Simple. No other lens more clearly reminds me of why I shoot vintage glass in the first place.
There’s no denying that the Nikkor-S is a deeply flawed lens that’s completely inferior to its modern counterparts (and even inferior to a handful of its contemporaries). But to dismiss the lens on those grounds misses the point of not only the Nikkor-S, but of shooting vintage glass in general. Vintage lenses aren’t supposed to be perfect. They’re soft wide-open, they vignette, they flare like crazy, and yet we love them. We love them because they give us something much more valuable than perfection – they give us something beautiful. And for my money, the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 is the most beautiful fifty of them all.