GEAR REVIEW - NIPPON KOGAKU NIKKOR-S Auto 5.8cm f/1.4
If you're reading the name of this lens and scratching your head, it's because you've most likely never heard of it before. The reason being is because it is old. Very old in fact by Nikon standards. It was first launched in 1959 and discontinued in 1962, replaced by the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4. Only around 40'000 of these beauties were made and far fewer survive today. As such they command quite a high price from collectors. It is also somewhat of a cult lens for reasons you'll discover as you read on.
Due to the fact this lens is 55 years old, it cannot be mounted onto modern Nikon DSLRs without potentially damaging camera bodies - unless you AI convert them. This is what I did with my 1961 copy and after a couple of hours finely shaving the aperture ring, the lens was useable once more.
Some of you may ask, "why bother"? The reason is the character a lot of these old lenses posess. Differing optical formulas alter the way the lens renders an image, offer something quite unique nowadays. Modern lenses tend to be quite clinical, concentrating on sharpness or creamy bokeh, looking to avoid "defects". However, there has been somewhat of a revival of old glass in recent years, with Lomography launching the Petzval 85mm and 58mm lenses. The old Russian KMZ Helios 40-2 also saw a relaunch and soon a remake of the famed Meyer-Optik 100mm f/2.8 Trioplan will be available (for an insanely high price, I might add). All of these lenses place emphasis on quirkiness of their bokeh, over image sharpness and abberations.
The 5.8cm is a superbly engineered lens, with all metal construction throughout. The focus is well dampened and precise and the scalloped barrel provides a comfortable and firm grip. Being such a robustly built lens you'd be forgiven for thinking it would significantly outweigh its modern counterparts. Surprisingly, the new Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G beats it by about 30g at a touch over 380g!
This is obviously a manual focus and manual aperture lens, the latter of which must be stopped own prior to taking the image, the same as an "ai" or "ai-s" Nikkor. As it's an f/1.4 lens, the Nippon Kogaku is a great for low light situations. Wide open it has some of softness and lacks contrast when compared to newer glass but, stopped down you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and a modern lens. Very impressive considering how long in the tooth it is!
Due to the age, the lens coating is nowhere near as advanced as current technology, so it can ghost a bit with bright light sources like the Sun, being ine frame. Coma can also be an issue when shooting at maximum aperture. However, these "defects" often add to that dream-like quality that many of us like in portraits or still life. The quick portrait of my niece above, shows one of the quirks of this lens. I was able to produce the above flare, as well as two lens caustics in another photograph. Again, by modern standards this lens would be panned but, these attributes definitely add to the retro feel of an image.
As I aluded to earlier, one of the unique characteristics of this lens, is the bokeh. Under the right conditions, it produces a slightly swirling background, which gives very pleasing results - if you like that sort of thing of course. I do enjoy interesting bokeh, so I like this lens very much. Given that it's manual focus, it really isn't ideal for subjects that move, like my ants-in-the-pants niece, who only sits still if distracted by the iPad or TV. When you have time to compose your shots and really nail focus, then Nippon Kogaku can be used to its full potential.
If you're interested in owning one of these beauties, be prepared to wait a while or pay top dollar at a camera specialist retailer. They seldom appear on sites like eBay so you will have to keep looking for one to turn up.