Saturday, February 22, 2014

Nikon Rangefinder Lens Tests - 2.8cm f/3.5 and 50mm f/1.4 "Millenium" Nikkor

I recently purchased two new lenses for my Nikon SP and Bessa R2S - an old classic, the 2.8cm f/3.5 (black barrel), as well as the modern and improved 50mm f/1.4 "Millennium" lens, which itself was based on the "Olympic" redesign from the early '60s.

Backyard - Nikkor 2.8cm f/3.5, Kodak Gold 200
This 2.8cm lens is actually the second one I have owned. My first Nikon rangefinder, an S2 purchased on eBay, came with a 2.8cm lens along with the standard 5cm and 13.5cm telephoto. While most folks bought 3.5cm lenses for their wide-angle, the intrepid photographer who bought that kit must've liked wide-angles! For a while the 2.8cm was actually the widest lens in the line-up, before the 2.5cm and 2.1cm lenses came about. Anyway, back then I pretty much had no idea what I was doing and ended up thinking that lens was not very good - but mostly it was due to my inexperience with developing my own film and scanning.
Apalachicola Cemetery - Nikkor 2.8cm f/3.5, Kodak Tri-X 400 - 2011
 I ended up selling that lens but regretted it. Finally this January I jumped on the chance to get a newer "black barrel" version at a steal. The older Nikon lenses were made in chrome and were much heavier than the newer lenses, when they started making the barrels out of different materials and painted black. Reviewing some of the negatives from my first lens and this new lens, I see now that it is a pretty fantastic lens! I love the 28mm perspective and the lens is very sharp from f/5.6 or so on.

Two Shadows - Nikkor 2.8cm f/3.5, Kodak Gold 200 
The perspective is noticeably wider than a 35mm lens. I think a lot of people (me included) choose one or the other to carry - I like the 28mm view usually, though sometimes it can be "too wide" when it comes to candids, in my eyes. This lens has some vignetting from the wide-angle design but not much, especially compared to the 2.5cm. Really all things considered, the 2.8cm is quite an excellent lens without much weakness. I think sharpness-wise, the 3.5cm f/1.8 or f/2.5 might beat it slightly. Other than that the worst thing about this lens is the slow aperture. At f/3.5, you aren't going to be shooting in extremely dark environments - but in typical outdoor light, it's no problem. Another excellent point is the weight - it's practically weightless, especially the black barrel version. I forget it's even in my pocket most times!

Architecture Studies - Nikkor 2.8cm f/3.5, Kodak Portra/Tri-X - 2011
Also, don't forget that other than the Nikon SP, you need an external finder for this lens. That is one big negative for this lens, as I can't shoot it on my Bessa R2S accurately, since it only has 3.5cm framelines. I actually don't own a 2.8cm finder anymore (I sold the one I had with my first copy). But with the SP, you have the built-in auxiliary finder with 2.8cm and 3.5cm lenses - quite handy! Overall I would say this lens should be a must-have if you like the 28mm perspective, and don't mind having an external finder if you don't have an SP. If you have an S3 or the Bessa, a 3.5cm lens might make more sense, and has less wide-angle perspective distortion.

The other lens is one I've wanted since first reading about it - the 50mm f/1.4 "Millenium" Nikkor. This special lens was released with the reissue Nikon S3 cameras in 2000 and is supposedly a copy of the 1962 Olympic model, itself an improvement from the venerable 5cm f/1.4. It is a bit larger than the older 5cm but still compact, especially for such a fast optic.

Smooth Tree - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium, Kodak Plus-X

The older lens was never my favorite. It's renowned for being corrected for up-close shooting. While it definitely seemed to work well up close, it was definitely lacking at other distances. In contrast, the Millenium is fantastically sharp at pretty much every aperture and distance. I have seen a direct comparison to the Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH, a $4,000 lens, and it pretty much matches its performance. That's quite good! I shot the lens with a variety of apertures and it performed superbly in all the photos. Being a big fan of 50mm lenses, I love this lens!

Orange in Green - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium (wide-open), Fuji Superia 200
Along with a huge increase in sharpness, this lens has a lot more contrast than the older design as well. This may be a plus or a minus, depending on how you like your lenses. Personally I don't like a huge amount of contrast, but neither do a like a flat image. I guess it's a trade-off that doesn't matter in most situations.

Vine - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium, Fuji Superia 200
There isn't a whole lot to say negative about this lens. It performs almost flawlessly, in terms of performance. It's small and light, couples well with any Nikon rangefinder, and is beautifully made. The only downside is the price - though as mentioned above, it's a bargain compared to the Leica! I paid about $1,000 for this lens, which is a little lower than the going rate, which for a standard 50mm is pretty expensive for Nikon (the autofocus 50mm f/1.4G is about half of that). About the only downside to this lens in my eyes is the filter ring. Due to the design of the lens and the helical being in the camera body, the whole lens rotates while focusing. This means the filter also rotates, which can be a pain when using a polarizing filter.

Kitchen Window - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium, Fuji Superia 200
So I guess if  I pick one 50mm lens to shoot with on a trip, this is the one. It's got speed, performance, and size going for it, with only one small nitpick about the filter. It certainly makes the older 5cm lens look terrible in comparison. On the other hand, the Voigtlander 50mm f/3.5 Heliar is about as sharp and has stupendous bokeh - but is almost 3 stops slower. However it is even smaller and lighter. I like having different tools in the toolbox so I love each of these lenses for their own characteristics, but for sure the Millenium is a special lens, and if you want a no-compromises 50mm, it's the one!

Japanese Magnolias - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium, Fuji Velvia 50
With that I think I will wrap this up. These two lenses have quickly become my favorite lenses in the Nikon rangefinder system, along with the 10.5cm f/2.5 lens, as I like the 28-50-105 setup. They are both excellent optics that perform well. I don't think I'll be getting rid of either any time soon!

Backyard Fence - Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Millenium, Fuji Velvia 50

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