Saturday, November 11, 2023

Appreciating a Classic Lens - Nikon’s 50mm f/2 Nikkor-H

My Nikon FE with a factory AI'd Nikkor-H

Over the years, I have had lenses come and go in my “toolkit” and some lenses become favorites for a time, to be replaced by another another focal length that fits my photographic practice.  Early on, it was always a 50mm lens of some sort on whatever camera body  you can imagine, and I have used an awful lot of different “normal” lenses.  In the Nikon ecosystem, there have been 50mm f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses.  While I love the 50mm f/1.4 for a lot of things, the old, old, Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 has been around for the Nikon SLR since day 1, and it’s a lens that I know will always render a scene very well. Sure, it’s not the fastest of the bunch, but as a do-it-all 50, it’s at the top. Why?  

Above - the front and rear of an early non-AI 50mm Nikkor-H. This one lacks the 
rear of the lens held in place by 5 screws, meaning that it cannot be factory-
adapted to the more modern AI mount.

For one, it’s one of those lenses that has had many iterations as technology and camera bodies improved.  The original 5 cm Nikkor-S  came out in 1959, and it was a 7 element lens with 4 groups.   In 1964, the lens was changed to a 6 element lens with 4 groups, and renamed the 50mm Nikkor-H.  That lens became the sort of de-facto normal lens for many years, until 1974, when Nikon replaced the silver and black barrel with the 50mm f/2, an all-black barreled lens with a rubberized focus ring.  In 1977, the AI (auto-indexing) 50mm f/2 came out to be included with the Nikon FE, FM, Nikkormat EL2 and FT3, all of which were no longer required to use the old non-AI f/5.6 “double twist” to set the maximum aperture for the metering system.  The Nikon 50mm f/2 was dropped in 1979, and replaced in the lineup with the 50mm f/1.8, which has also had a number of iterations, but I won’t delve into them.

Above - The last iteration of the 50mm f/2 with an AI-mount.

Second, the 50mm f/2 has a very flat field with little distortion.  Perhaps that’s partly due to the f/2 maximum aperture, but in my experience, it’s sharp at all apertures, but especially so at f/5.6-f/16.  I’ve used it to copy documents on a copy stand, as a macro-lens with a bellows, and of course, general photography.  The lens was briefly given the H.C designation in 1972, to indicate improved coating surfaces.  For more information, see this account on the Nikon site

Real-world tests, not the sharpness of brick walls, indicate how a lens performs.  Lately, I have been using a 50mm Nikkor-H that was Nikon modified to be an AI-mount.  I don’t exactly remember when I started using it - probably last fall, but I have come to appreciate its performance with my Nikon FE, F3HP, and FM3A bodies.  In the past few months, I have been using the lens on my Nikon FE with various color films, and am really pleased with the results.  Is it any different than the last AI version of the 50mm f/2?  Probably not, but I love the classic look of the lens, and the knurled focus ring feels right.

Last and earlier versions of the 50mm f/2. The lens on the right was 
factory modified to be an AI lens.

Today, 50mm seems to be out in favor of expensive zooms, or, wide-aperture prime lenses.  I’ve certainly used  the 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor, and it has a special use for low-light or really shallow depth of field situations.  Overall though, as an all-purpose normal lens, the 50mm f/2 is one of the best lenses you can own.  The Leitz and Zeiss fanboys will probably disagree, but price-wise, you’ll not find a better 50mm lens.  It’s an SLR  lens that’s been around for over 60 years, and untold thousands have been used by photographers in all sorts of situations.  On a full-frame body such as my Nikon Df, or on a Nikon F or FM3a, the results will be excellent.  The AF equivalent would be the 50mm f/1.8 AF-D Nikkor, which is a pretty common lens and often overlooked in favor of the faster f/1.4.  However, with higher ISO settings on a DSLR, the f/1.8 aperture is not limiting.  

Old with the new 

The lenses one decides to use should be based on how they perform in the types of photography that you do.  Some times a prime lens or a set of them will be all one needs for a majority of his/her photography, and other times a zoom lens in a certain range fulfills one’s requirements.  While I have my share of zoom lenses in manual and auto-focus versions, I find myself using prime lenses most of the time.  There’s a lot to be said for using a single lens for many situations, and one photographer’s choice of say, a 24mm lens for many situations will result in quite different compositions than another photographer’s choice of 50mm, or 85mm.  You can “zoom” with your feet, if necessary, like many did when all you could afford was a single lens — the one that came with your camera, and it was most likely a 50mm prime lens.  

The Nikkormat FTN and 50mm f/2 Nikkor-H
A perfect match!

As I posted previously, I find that a 35mm lens is perfect for when I am on the street or traveling.  Often, I find myself packing one Nikon body with the 35mm f/2 and black and white film, and another Nikon body with color film and the 50mm f/2, and a 24mm and 85mm in the bag.  Those pretty much cover my needs for a lot of what I shoot, and that many decades old 50mm Nikkor-H f/2 has never disappointed me.

The more modern 50mm f/1.8 is a tad faster than the f/2, and is capable of slightly
closer focus. It's also an excellent normal lens.

My factory AI'd Nikkor-H has slotted screws on the back, vs the
Phillips screws on later versions. Those knurled sections are very
satisfying to the touch.

A few very recent results from that 50mm f/2 Nikkor-H with the Nikon FE and various color films.

Wassaic, NY. FPP Color 125

Amenia, NY FPP Color 125

Millbrook, NY Reflx Lab Pro 100

Amenia, NY Reflx Lab Pro 100

Kent, CT, Fuji Superia 400 at 200.


JR Smith said...

Great write up on one of my favorite lenses! said...

One of these 50s and a Nikkormat FTn served me well all through the 1970s. When I scan some of my old Kodachromes and negatives, they look as good as a scan of a frame taken with a contemporary lens.