Nikkor-N 50mm f1.1 S Mount Nippon Kogaku Japan – Love at First Sight
Nikkor-N 50mm f1.1 S Mount Nippon Kogaku Japan
Love at First Sight
Nikkor-N 50mm f1.1 S Mount Nippon Kogaku Japan – Love at First Sight
Nikkor 50mm f1.1 S mount lens, an ultra-fast lens that was designed for Nikon rangefinder cameras. I heard about this lens 10 years ago on a forum. At that point, I was hunting for an ultra-fast lens and bokeh of Noctilux was the holy grail but I saw some people using this Nikkor on rangefinder Leica M cameras and the depth of field of this lens was unforgettable. The portraits taken by a Hong Kong photographer were still vivid in my mind that planted the seed in my head. There are some drawbacks regarding lens separation but I believe I will come back. Nearly a decade later, my friend lent me this lens for a test and sparked a desire. I spent the entire time searching for sample photos, unfortunately there wasn’t too much information, only a handful of photos until I came across Nathan’s photo and they are impressive! At first I thought this lens was only a collectors’ item but I spent more than 9 months shooting with it so I think it is time to share with you all about this gorgeous lens!
Second fastest Japanese lens in history
This f1.1 lens was introduced by Nippon Kogaku Tokyo (later renamed to Nikon) in 1956, after Zunow 50mm f1.1, it became the second fastest lens than f1.2 in the world. Many companies in that era tried to develop fast lenses and competition began to develop the fastest or the world first ever. Nikkor 5cm f1.1 was designed by Murakami Saburo, manager of Nikon’s 3rd Mathematics Section and he was the right hand man who designed the signature 35mm f1.8 Nikkor lens (I always wanted to own a copy), it was a totally new type of design in his time.
A Lens used by Che Guevara
Another fact was Che Guevara used this lens as a photo reporter. If you happen to visit Cuba, you can check out the actual camera in his museum. Photo credit: Dani Irwan
Nikkor RF camera / S mount
But before we jump into the lens design and characters. I would like to give you a brief background of the Nikon S cameras. At that time, the photography world was mainly dominated by two big names, Leica and Contax. In order to join the game, Nikon had to come up with a camera capable of competing in the rangefinder world without replicating their cameras. So they came up with the Nikon S, later released an improved version Nikon S2 and Nikon SP camera for professionals. Nikon designed its rangefinder camera taking all S mount lenses featuring focusing wheel and helical on the camera body. Later they released the famous Nikon F based on the Nikon S. Titanium shutter curtain is the signature of this camera which is more superior than a Leica M3 that is only equipped with cloth shutter.
If you are interested to know more about the history of Nikon S cameras you can check out here.
Three Nikkor 5cm f1.1 versions
Three versions were ever made and were optically exactly the same in different barrel constructs.
- Internal mount (1547 units made)
- External mount (835 units made)
- Leica thread mount (LTM) (211 units made)
Difference between external and internal mount version
They first introduced a version with the internal mount but the front loading (heavy front end) and narrow rear part could cause damage to its focusing helical and the focus wheel mechanism cannot operate due to its weight. Nikkor improved with the second version which is the external mount. Judging by their outlooks the difference was that the external mount is surrounded by a focusing unit to focus without turning the entire lens, whereas the internal mount version you focus by turning the whole lens. This extra layer gives protection to its fragile rear element.
Peculiar but spectacular lens design
I don’t usually go into too many technical details. Instead, let me include some technical details I found for your reference. It applied a Gaussian design and was produced with rare-earth element lanthanum in three convex lenses. It is also built in symmetric design, allowing the lens to achieve lower distortion and small lateral chromatic aberration. Given its incredible lens design but when it comes to an ultra fast lens, coma is also an issue if you are picky about photo results when you shoot at night wide open. The look of the internal mount version caught my attention at the time because it looks like a funnel plugged on a Nikon S camera and I think the design is one of its kind.
I must say I enjoy using this lens very much. With it I can achieve very nice creamy bokeh and some glow in the highlights. The best part was the transition is extremely natural, it is decent for me to take photos at night because it renders extra emotions at its extremely thin depth of field. Other than Leica Noctilux, I have tried other ultra-fast lenses but only this steals my heart. It has rich colour and adequate contrast at wide open to f/8 that Canon 50/0.95 couldn’t offer where Canon has relatively lower contrast and paler colours.
Colour reversal film for best rendering
Slide film is my preference to go with this lens to bring out the essence and atmosphere.
Surprisingly sharp at f/1.1 wide open
Shooting with this lens at wide open is pleasurable, especially when it is not difficult to nail the focus on this Nikkor lens, I think it is much easier than my Noctilux 50mm f1.0. When the focus hits, overall sharpness is amazing. I am totally stunned by this level of sharpness that Nikon is able to achieve with it.
Yes it has swirly bokeh just like what an oil painting looks like. The bokeh has an interesting shape like a rugby ball or I would describe it as an olive. It is not like the cat-eye bokeh that we normally see on Noctilux lenses. One drawback would be the bokeh can be messy if it gets into too repeated texture or pattern in the background but it gradually merges with the subject so it is very pleasant to shoot at f/1.1. If you shoot at wide open around 2 metres far from the subject the out of focus area will spin like a vintage petzval lens (brass lens).
Filter size and gigantic lens hood
It takes a 62mm filter but using a normal Nikon filter would kiss the first element so I have tried using a spacer to make it higher and then apply a 58mm but turns out 62mm is better with the vignette and it takes a vented hood in 62mm too. It is extremely hard to find a good copy, the original hood is now very expensive. I was fortunate to get a remake from Nikon Historical Society through Fotopia. The lens hood is enormous and probably the biggest lens hood for a 50mm lens but I found the design was quite similar to the Canon 50mm f1.2 LTM lens hood and matches with those produced in that era. Despite the size of it I love how they designed the vented hood so that it is effective but not blocking the viewfinder.
Adapter to use on Leica rangefinder M cameras
You need an Amedeo adapter to be able to use on a Leica M and there are two types. You will need a professional repair guy to modify the adapter to work with the rangefinder coupling on Leica M and it doesn’t affect if you want to use it on a S mount camera after the modification.
There are 2 types of m mount adaptors out there, one can focus down to 0.65m which is now attached on my internal mount and my external mount nikkor lens is using an amedeo adaptor with minimum focus at 1 metre. Both mounts require some modification because they are handmade and not standardised, they focus up to infinity without any problem.
1. Aperture blades
Only turn the aperture blades SLOWLY, you don’t want to turn them quickly otherwise they will be damaged, collapsed together and difficult to repair. Those 12 diaphragm blades are extremely fragile so if you happen to get one to test, please handle it carefully! I have seen images with smashed aperture blades.
2. Lens elements separation
It is very common to see Nikkor 50mm f1.1 lens with balsam separation and even mine has it too. If you use it carefully the image is perfectly fine. So if you are interested in this lens and found there is separation between lens elements which is very common.
3. Fragile original lens hood
The lens hood is gigantic and disproportionate to its size.There are two versions majority in plastic than the metal hood. It is extremely expensive to find a plastic hood in original condition and most of them are broken. Nikon Historical Society (NHS) offers this nice remake but the cost of a metal hood is still expensive.
Comparable with the Noctilux F1.0
Indeed, this is very subjective but based on my time using Noctilux F1.0 for more than a decade.the picture quality is absolutely stunning. When I carry this Nikkor 50/1.1, it is only 355g-400g depending on the version you got. Compared with Canon 50mm f0.95, Canon offers much softer tone, lack of sharpness and the colour is often much paler and lower contrast than Nikkor and Noctilux. When comparing with Zunow 50mm f1.1 both lenses have a glow but Zunow has more coma and glow than Nikkor 50mm f1.1 almost unusable. But with this Nikkor it gives out the best depth of field and 3D pop.
Looking at the prices in 2022, other fast lenses such as Zunow, Fujinon and Hexanon are all so expensive but this rare piece of gem is relatively less expensive given its impressive quality at wide open and rarity. If you are a bokeh person like me, you don’t want to miss this!
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