Nikon F - Still purdy... and so can you!

This ad comes to us from a 1966 ad in LIFE magazine. That was a special "photography issue", with a story on human vision, and how the photographic process works (or worked), and a big section in the middle with a load of photos from around the world. So, it made perfect sense for Nikon to buy a full page ad in that issue.

Nikon had nothing to prove, so they went for the soft sell, all confident and "Check us out. We're Nikon, man." And why not? They were, and are, pretty much the top of the heap.

Image pulled from KenRockwell.com
Hey, that lens looks familiar. Why, that's my 1966 Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 stuck on the front of that beautiful, formerly great, unfortuante, obsolete camera, in its native habitat, as it were. Back in October when we did the "Three Fast Fifties" comparison, I really blew it for the Nikon, by using it on the amazingly shitty Fotodiox fuzzbox "corrective adapter". Yes, we ran an update to that post when I realized that all the mush was coming from the adapter and not the lens itself, but that post only had one little demonstration image to show how the Fotodiox adapter ruined all images that passed through it. The lens never really got a fair shake. So, on this, the day of the Nikon ad, why not let the '66 Nikon show off a little? Poor thing. Its gigantic f/1.4 aperture lets in lots of light, which makes it really nice for low light situations, and the hefty build quality feels mighty nice in your hand. Mine is almost fifty years old and everything still feels like butter.


Old lenses aren't necessarily worse than new ones. In the last fifty years, we haven't goteen better at grinding glass. We've just gotten better at making electronics. So, a current lens will have auto focus and image stabilization and things like that. But, if you don't mind focusing and aperturing for yourself - or, weirder still, if you LIKE doing those things manually - vintage lenses are a very cheap way to get some very high quality glass in your collection. Plus, an old lens like this one will be made from aluminum and chrome plated brass, while only some modern premium lenses are built this way. Lastly, using manual lenses give you a firmer grounding in the fundamentals of photography, so at the very least they're a worthy exercise.


You can pick up a copy of this Nikon for yourself on Ebay for maybe as low as fifty or sixty dollars if you're quick with the bid button. If you do an Ebay search on "Nikkor 50mm 1.4", you'll cast a wide net that will drag back lots of lenses that aren't the exact model in this ad, or nearly as old. Look for the big, scalloped focus ring and the matte silver trim ring on the end, and you can be confident you have an example from somewhere in The Sixties.

Nikon hasn't changed their "F" lens mount since it was introduced in 1959, so if you have a Nikon DSLR, this lens will fit directly to your camera. Everybody else will need some kind of adapter.


You can either get an inexpensive adapter that just converts one lens mount to another, or go the more exciting / expensive route and get an "active" adapter that has corrective optics in it to make sure the image is the right size when it hits your sensor. Here's a brief explanation. For more detail, please see The Rest Of The Internet.

Different camera types can have different size sensors, with "full frame" cameras having a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Other non-full-frame cameras usually have sensors smaller than that, but some (really nice, really expensive) ones have sensors larger than 35mm film, called "medium format". The cameras with smaller-then-full-frame sensors are called "crop sensors", and there are many different sizes. If you have an Interchangable Lens Camera, you probably know whiat size your sensor is.

Imagine the camera's sensor being like a movie screen in a theater, and the projected movie is the image coming in through the camera's lens. If the lens was meant for a larger sensor (screen), the image will go off the sides of the sensor, and you'll be photographing through just the center of the lens. If the lens was meant for a sensor smaller than yours, your image will be like a circular window in a rectangle of black.

A simple adapter only concerns itself with mounting the foreign lens onto your camera body, and at the proper distance from the sensor. These are about $20. A "speed booster / focal reducer" will not only do that, but will also "refocus" the incoming image so that it falls on the sensor at a size equivalent to the way it worked on the camera it was made for. These range from $100 for a Chinese unit bought on Ebay (with which I've had good luck. I have one that's way better than the Fotodiox), all the way up to roughly $400 for a Metabones Speed Booster, which, I believe, is the company that invented them.

They're called "speed boosters" because, when the full image is matched to the size of your sensor, it's recieving more light. This is like getting an additional f stop of aperture out of the lens. So, if the maximum aperture on the lens is f/1.4, that's really 1.2, or very close to it. At f/5.6, you're probably getting f/4 or something. This means you can use faster shutter speeds, which means you get less motion blur, and better pictures in low light without resorting to using a flash. I hate flash, so this is great news.


And, now, with apologies to the NIkon 50mm 1.4, here are the photos it deserved three months ago. All were taken with an expensive-but-worth-it Metabones Canon FD to Micro Four Thirds Speed Booster and an inexpensive Nikon to Canon FD adpater, to get it on the Metabones. Believe it or not, you can stack adapters and they'll work just fine. Also, these shots were all taken without a tripod, which is one of those things you can do with a lens this fast. Hand held shots in low light aren't too much of a problem. Just hold your breath and keep your elbows against your ribs and you should be fine.

None of these had any post-processing to speak of. A few were cropped for different framing, but that's about it.Click any one for a bigger version.

With the aperture wide open at 1.4, it's still very sharp, as long as you keep Fotodiox's adapter far away from your camera. This would have been a fine opportunity to throw the thing into the river, but it was in a box at home.

This is a larger-than-100% crop of one of those lights in the above photo. I think it's pretty sharp for a night shot at that distance.

Will it bokeh? Sure will. These are some Pointy Tree Day lights in a dark room. Bokeh balls are creamy and round at the center, and orbital almond shapes toward the edges.

This picture was taken using a Polaroid 10x close-up adapter screwed on the end of the Nikon. With that in place, focus distance is about three inches.

Tea complete. Level finish!

Nixie tubes beg for a macro shot, with their many layers of electrodes.

A nixie tube light lying on the face of a spart phone. 10x close-up adapter in place. Nice colors.

The native minmum focusing distance of the Nikon is 7.5 inches. Colors are realistic and not at all muted. It's still a 50mm, so depth of field is very shallow at max aperture. That might be a problem if I didn't like the effect so much. Or, just stop down to F5 and adjust exposure compensation, blah blah blah.

This is the "separation of subject matter from background" that makes people love the 50mm focal length.


Jim D. said...

Nice! Makes me want to get new light seals in my Minolta SR-7, which also has a wonderful f 1.4 lens. Almost as good as a Nikon, as so many Minolta and Canon and Olympus owners used to say.

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