A User Review of the Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) Nikkor-S 55mm f/1.2
Photographers these days are spoiled by the current capabilities of today’s digital SLR cameras. Even the lowest end model can capture clean sharp images at high ISO such as 1600. Nikon’s D3s pushed the high ISO envelope with a standard upper level of 12,800, expandable to ISO 102,400. A short ten years ago the best a color film shooter could do was Fuji Press 800 ISO 35mm film and still maintain decent image quality. In the 1960s and 1970s if one wanted color, you shot Kodachrome 25 or 64, IOS 25 and 64 respectively as their names suggest. To capture images under low available light on color film of the day, a fast aperture lens was a must. Leica, Canon, and Nikon manufactured standard focal length lenses with high-speed apertures of f/1.0, f/1.2. One of these lenses is the subject of this user review: the Nippon Kogaku Nikkor-S 55mm f/1.2. Nippon Kogaku was Nikon’s corporate name until 1988 when they changed it to match the camera brand name, Nikon.
The 55/1.2 was first introduced in in 1965, eventually replaced by the 50mm f/1.2 in 1978. During it’s lifespan there were different versions with updated cosmetics and optical coatings. My particular sample was manufactured between November 1968 and July 1971 according to the lens database at photosynthesis. It has a factory AI conversion permitting metering on cameras such as the D200, D300, D700, D7000, D3.
Specs: constructed of 7 elements in 5 groups, producing a 82.5mm equivalent focal length on Nikon’s DX DSLRs; aperture goes from 1.2~16 in full stops utilizing 7 straight blades; minimum focus of just under 24-inches providing a magnification of about 1:9 with a very good focus throw of 190°; economical standard 52mm filter size; overall size of 58.5mm x 73.5mm including the metal lens mount; weighs a dense 420 grams. Later models after 1974 had a minimum focus of just under 20-inches providing a magnification of about 1:7.3 with an excellent focus throw of 230°.
Build: Typical all metal and glass construction. Even the focus ring on this early sample is metal – no rubber insert. All lettering and markings are engraved onto the lens. No silk screening here to rub or scratch off like modern lenses. These lesnes are made to last a lifetime of constant use. As evident in the sample images below this lens still delivers 40 years later. It’s hefty feel balances well on larger bodies such as the D300, D700, and D3.
Optics: At wide open f/1.2 the lens is very sharp considering it’s speed and age. Common for conventional (non-aspherical and/or non-ED glass used) fast lenses, it does exhibit a lot of veiling haze when used wide open. This is very apparent when using the lens as such in bright outdoor conditions. You can see this effect in the samples below. In practice it is unlikely to use such a fast aperture in bright sunlight. An f/1.2 opening is best utilized when shooting under low light conditions. Additionally, the shutter speed might not be fast enough to use f/1.2 at the typical low ISOs of 100 or 200 on current digital cameras. Over exposure will result which will intensify the veiling effect or totally blow out the highlights. Stopping down just to f/2 eliminates almost all of this haze, by f/2.8 the haze is gone and the lens is very sharp from that setting forward. This haze could be used creatively in portraits giving the subject a certain glow while still having a sharp image. Another characteristic of fast lenses is vignetting – light fall off towards the edges. There is very strong darkening of the periphery wide open at f/1.2 as shown in the sample images below. Most of it is negated stopping down to f/2.8. By f/5.6 the illumination is even across the frame.
Focusing: The long focus throw (amount of turn from infinity to minimum focus) helps with accurate deliberate focusing. Modern autofocus lenses have short focus throws to help provide fast AF. Consequently they are poor when it comes to manually focus. The older manual focus AI lenses are much better for this, as they should be. The manual focus action might not be fast, but it is accurate. And accuracy is needed to get the most sharpness when shooting at f/1.2. This is a lens that requires the photographer to develop proper focusing skills. Practice. Practice. Practice. Users sometimes dismiss a lens as being soft when in actuality it might be them not learning to focus the lens properly.
Value: Current prices for this lens range from $300-$400 depending on condition, etc. As a practical day-to-day standard prime lens, one might be better served by the 50mm f/1.4 AFS for the about the same money, or the new 50mm f/1.8 AF-S for almost half as much. But for its unique optical signature wide open and superb manual focusing handling, it might be a worthwhile addition to one’s optical bag of tricks, if you can find it at a good price.