We are back again at reviewing some of the lens classics and this time we have the Nikon NIKKOR-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 (Ai modified), which was first manufactured way back in 1962. One of our readers, Joe Ridley, was kind enough to send a number of Nikkor classics, and this lens is the second one that we are reviewing. Nikon has made so many different 50mm lenses its in 80 years of optical history, that the list of just 50mm lenses can get quite overwhelming. Many of us look at the modern 50mm primes without realizing that among all manufacturers, Nikon has the longest history of making these lenses. In fact, the very first Nikkor 5cm lens was made in 1937 specifically for Canon rangefinder cameras! And it is also worth pointing out that Nikon invented the very first 50mm f/1.4 lens after the World War II. This particular NIKKOR-S classic was designed for Nikon’s rangefinder cameras. Today, it is hard to find a converted version that works on modern DSLRs (mostly non-Ai versions), but you can snatch one for about $50 and get it converted for another $20-30. Or if you bought the new Nikon Df, you will be able to use this lens without having to convert it!
1) Overview and Specifications
The NIKKOR-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 is one of the early, Pre-Ai Nikkor manual focus wide angle lenses for the F mount. With its standard focal length of 50mm, the lens was designed as a general-purpose lens on early manual focus rangefinder cameras like Nikon S2 and S3, although its fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 also made it very suitable for low-light situations (especially on B/W film). With 7 optical elements in 5 groups, the NIKKOR-H 50mm f/1.4 has a simpler optical design than the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. However, similar to some of the old Nikkor classics, this lens is not about top notch sharpness and rich features. Its corner vignetting, beautiful bokeh and a boatload of optical imperfections is what gives the lens a certain “character” that is so hard to find on modern lenses. As one of our readers pointed out, it is interesting that some people try to imitate such imperfections in post-processing today, because their lenses are so sharp and corrected. Still, despite all its flaws, the lens can produce excellent sharpness results even on some of the best DSLRs like Nikon D800E, once stopped down to f/2.8 and smaller, as demonstrated further down in the review.
2) Handling and Build Quality
Despite its age, the lens handles very well. The focus ring is quite smooth and comes to a hard stop at the minimum focus distance and the infinity focus marks. When focusing, the lens barrel slightly moves forward by about 4-5mm, but it is barely unnoticeable. Changing aperture through the ring on the lens is easy – not too loose or too stuff, with noticeable “clicks” between apertures. The sample I tested was moderately used, with some marks on the lens body. Glass elements appeared to be in good shape, although there was some visible micro dust between lens elements (which is normal). And considering that the lens was made before I was even born, it still performs great, which shows just how good the Japanese craftsmanship was back in the days. These lenses are literally built to last a lifetime, even with plenty of abuse – something that I unfortunately cannot really say about the modern plastic Nikkor lenses. With an all-metal barrel, the lens surely feels heavier compared to the modern 50mm f/1.4G version. It also feels much better made, similar to modern Zeiss lenses. Just like the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S, the rear element is huge and almost takes up the whole available space.
3) MTF Performance
Here is how the lens performed according to Imatest:
Due to very strong spherical aberration issues, The NIKKOR-S 50mm f/1.4 shows weak performance at the maximum aperture. On top of that, the lens suffers from noticeable field curvature, which results in blurry mid-frame and corners at large apertures. And even worse, there is a very noticeable focus shift when going past f/2. In order to produce the above numbers, I had to reacquire focus at each aperture all the way to f/5.6. If you own this lens or planning to purchase a used copy, it is very important to understand how to work around the focus shift issue. Simply put, try not to focus at one aperture and take pictures at another – you might get pretty disappointing results. Instead, set the lens aperture to a desired value, focus and shoot, then re-acquire focus again when you need to change aperture. For most people, this is not going to be an issue (since you will be moving around and constantly reacquiring focus anyway), but for other types of photography such as product photography when shooting with the camera set on a tripod, it is best that you understand this limitation.
Stopping down to f/2 improves sharpness in the center quite a bit, but the rest of the frame stays very weak until f/2.8. At f/4, the effect of spherical aberration and field curvature is significantly reduced, resulting in much better overall performance. Center sharpness is very impressive at f/4 and peaks at f/5.6, where the lens produces exceptionally sharp images across the frame. Best corner performance is reached at f/8.
Here is how the lens compares to the modern Nikon 50mm f/1.4G:
There is a little bit of visible barrel distortion, but it is not too noticeable – better than on the NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S. Imatest measured barrel distortion at -1.10. Unfortunately, since neither Lightroom nor Camera RAW have built-in lens profiles for this classic, all distortion corrections have to be carried out manually.
5) Chromatic Aberrations
Chromatic aberration levels are fairly low when compared to other classic 50mm lenses. Imatest measured CA at under 1 pixel on average, as shown below:
Vignetting is extremely strong wide open, reaching as many as 3 full stops of difference in the corners. As the lens is stopped down, vignetting is reduced considerably – by f/4, it is almost completely gone:
Here is an illustration of the worst case scenario, shot at f/1.4:
Definitely one of the strengths of the NIKKOR-S 50mm f/1.4 is its subject isolation capabilities at large apertures. Bokeh is nice and creamy as demonstrated in some of the images in this review. And coupled with very strong vignetting, the lens can render beautiful images.
8) Ghosting and Flare
Nikon’s early Nikkor designs did not include superb coating technologies that we are spoiled with today. As a result, the lens is far from being a good candidate to shoot against bright light sources. I would advise against using the lens when shooting against the sun, since it will impact the overall image pretty severely. It is especially bad when stopped down to small apertures. Take a look at the worst-case scenario, shot at f/16:
Yikes, almost can’t tell what’s in the frame. It is not as bad at large apertures, but the bright white spot close to the light source is pretty clearly seen. And thanks to the 7 blade aperture, you will see plenty of aperture blade reflections / ghosts in the image. You will see flares and ghosts even when the sun is not directly in the frame, so I would either use a hood (a metal screw-on lens hood can be bought for it), or avoid sun rays from reaching the front element.
Despite its optical flaws demonstrated above, the Nikon NIKKOR-S Auto 50mm f/1.4 is a solid lens with impressive characteristics. It renders beautiful bokeh, which, along with very strong vignetting can create dreamy, three dimensional images. Sharpness-wise, it is not a very strong performer at wide apertures, but once stopped down to f/2.8 and smaller, it can challenge even some of the modern 50mm lenses. As explained above, understand the limitations of the lens and try to work around them to get the best results. Since these old classics can be bought so cheap, I would encourage you try them out – these lenses will push you to be more creative with your photography and make you think beyond taking tack sharp images of brick walls…
P.S. As some of you have probably realized, this review is a preface to the upcoming Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G lens review. In short, I am enjoying the 58mm f/1.4G immensely – it is not stellar optically, but it has the same 3D dreamy feel to it, similar to some of the old Nikkor classics. More to come!