The Underdog Nikkor-S 50mm F/1.4 F Mount Lens, and Why it’s Josh’s Favorite Lens Ever

The Underdog Nikkor-S 50mm F/1.4 F Mount Lens, and Why it’s Josh’s Favorite Lens Ever

2200 1238 Josh Solomon

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 MinoltaPentaxCanon, 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.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
27 comments
  • I inherited one of these from a relative. It’s attached to a Nikon F from 1972. Even though the lens is pretty beat up I really liked the results from the test roll I shot. The F has a Photomic prism with a broken light meter, so I used that as an excuse to buy a cheap Nikkormat FT2 on eBay. Once it arrives I’m going to give the lens another spin.

  • Nice article about a nice lens.

  • Maybe good to add that this lens is pre-AI and will damage post-AI camera’s if not converted.

    • Definitely! It’s worthy to note that not all post-AI cameras will be affected, namely the FM and the F3, whose metering tabs can be flipped up to accommodate for pre-AI lenses. AI conversions can also be done for not a lot of money; John White would be the guy for that job!

      • Yes! I’ve had john do some conversions for me and he does a great job! I intentionally seek out pre-ai glass to use on my more modern, ai-only bodies because I love the build quality and character of the old glass. Plus it’s usually cheaper to get a pre-ai version converted to ai than it is to buy and ai or ai-s lens

      • I have this lens too although the later S-C multi-coated version. Also works fine on FE and F4 which I use it on. Great review!

  • A valuable perspective. Older lenses often offer a look, despite their flaws, that modern lenses can’t. Modern lenses can be almost too perfect.

  • Personally I like the 50mm reviews. I’d like to see some…less desirable…lens looked at; 1:2’s, plastic construction, etc. You explanations of the technical measurements of this lens makes me not want one. I mean, when we start comparing specifics, there are other lenses that appear to be ‘better’. I have this lens and I love it as well. I don’t tend to care about the specs on 50’s as points of comparison – they are almost meaningless.

  • I got one with one of my first Nikon F2 bodies. It is my one of my most used 50s!

  • Looks like a great lens. To this day the best 50 I’ve used is the Rokkor x 50 1.4 by Minolta.

  • I liked mine so much I gave it away for free attached to my spare Nikkormat FT2. Ok, I gifted it to my nephew, but yeah for all the reasons you mention. I even had it CLA’d before turning it over, and the focus ring still felt a lot drier than it should. I’ve noticed that with all old Nikon/Nikkor lenses that I’ve used/owned, even a 50 1.2 AIS.
    My old Minolta glass still is super smooth in comparison.
    Outside Zenitars, nothing flares as badly as this Nikon. Problem is the flaring is an awful lot of that veiling stuff that kills any contrast, and any semblance of an acceptable result. It would be ok if it was that cool directional flaring.

    Either way, composition matters more than sharpness etc and those are some nice compositions Josh!

    • Talk about “cool directional flaring”- I got this on my new old Contax iia (50mm f2 Sonnar): https://flic.kr/p/2bdei5o

      I also have one these Nikkor-S Auto 50mm f1.4 lenses, and I need to either adapt it to my Fuji XT-2 or pick up a Nikon/Nikkormat body.

  • Randle P. McMurphy December 4, 2017 at 9:30 am

    There was always this big circus around the Nikkor H 2,0/50 and it´s sharpness which I definitly can´t confirm – the Nikkor P 3,5/55 is much sharper.
    Going for a beautiful Bokeh or rendering the Nikkor S 1,4/50 ist far superior too – but the best one I ever tested/used was the Nikkor S 1,2/55 !
    Another optical callange, another price level and with it´s DOF very hard to master the 1,2 is my personal favourite of all time when it comes to standard lenses.

  • I compared this lens to a Leitz 50mm Summilux-R (Leicaflex lens) in about 1973 (a single roll of Panaytomic-X was used, moved between cameras). No contest. The Summilux trounced the Nikkor, which had noticeably lower contrast. I would not promote this lens for anything but a paperweight!.

  • This lens design is from 1966. I wouldn’t call it a dog, but last night I saw several coyotes trying to mate with it.

    • Dear Enver,
      I was a “Leicaman” too for a while owning serveral M´s and R´s.
      Best 50mm lens I ever used was the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 1,4/50 made for Contax (in Japan).
      Actually I think that Zeiss still is the creator of the best lenses available !

      • I have not used that particular lens; reviews are mixed on its merits. I do know that both Leitz 50mm Summilux-R lenses are superior to this (1966) Nikkor. The first Summilux-R was designed in 1969. I tested it against the Nikkor and there was no contest. I can see why someone would want to use such a lens: it’s so fuzzy (especially wide open) that it flatters old wrinkled faces.

        • Haha that comment really made my day !

          But serious the clinical perfection can be boring sometimes
          so why not take advantage of a little imperfection ?

          • It depends on the nature of the imperfection. The 1969 Summilux-R is not perfect (a little vignetting can be seen in the extreme corners) but the overall impression is much ‘stronger’ than that of this Nikkor. I really dislike the 1966 Nikkor 1.4 lens. Later ones were far better. I own the 1997 Summilux-R and it is simply astonishingly good!

  • Well to bad it dosn´t mount on a Nikon then……haha !
    If it comes to a 50mm lens my first pick would be still
    the Nikkor 1,2 50 (or older 1,2 55).
    Thank god Nikon has it and even affordable compared
    to Leica stuff.

    The most impressive R lenses I own was the R 2,8 19mm
    and the Tele-Elmar 4,0/80-200 which was way more practicable
    then my R 1,4 80 (and less expensive) !
    I disliked the R 2,0 50 and 2,8 24 they were nothing special at all.

    Funny but true after all that expensive gear I owned I love to use
    one of the most budget lenses Nikon ever made as my favourite
    the Nikkor Q 3,5 135 !

  • Brandon Hopkins May 17, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    I picked up one of these to put on my F, just because I wanted an era specific lens to match. I didn’t think it’d be all that great when I got it based on price alone, but it turned out that I liked it for all the reasons in the article.

  • Great article. Think the comments on a Leica 50mm 1.4 being better is a bit out there. My Nikon S C 50 1.4 cost me $40, the old Leica 50mm 1.4 start at $700 used, the later model 50mm 1.4 Summilux R goes for around $3K. The fact that some lenses that cost 20 to 50 times as much are better doesn’t really enter into my thought process when trying out an old lens from the 60’s..

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon