Lenses For Nikon RF Mount
Evaluations By Bjørn Rørslett
The rangefinder lenses for the S-type Nikons are decent performers, but clearly most cannot compete with today's most advanced designs. They have good colour rendition, but saturation is lower than with modern lenses and so is their contrast. Still, pleasing images can easily be obtained with these vintage lenses. I own just a few of them, so my test compilation is rather short. Better short than none, though.
Typically these lenses are labelled with their focal length in cm, not the current 'mm' designation. To enable the reader to compare them with modern lenses, however, I have taken the liberty of reporting the focal length using the modern nomenclature (the original designation is provided, though).
For rating criteria, please see the Lens Survey Page
|Voigtländer 12 mm f/5.6 Heliar Super-wide Aspherical||
|This is the
same optics as the 12 mm Heliar "L" mount lens
for the Bessa rangefinders. However, the external
appearance differs significantly, since this lens was
made in "F" mount. The mechanical construction
is excellent and the workmanship first class.
With the Voigtländer F-S adapter it can be mounted to any "S" camera, but there is no rangefinder coupling of course. Neither is this much needed given the tremendous depth-of-field of the 12 mm. It has scale focusing click-marks for 2m, 1m, and 0.5m, so using this lens for unnoticed street photography is very simple and easy.
Unfortunately, despite the aspherical design you do get very strong light fall-off into the corners and this vignetting is accompanied by a substantial decline in image quality as well.
|Voigtländer 15 mm f/4.5 Super-wide Aspherical||
for the 12 mm lens applies to the 15 mm Heliar, except
that its image quality is much higher. Even set wide
open, vignetting is nothing like that of the 12 mm, and
by stopping down just a little more, you are rewarded
with very sharp images all over the frame. It lakcs
rangefinder coupling, but stops down to 0.3m and has
click-stops at 0.5m, 1m, and 2m, making it a breeze to
operate without looking on the lens.
The 15 mm finder is very bright and clear, however it lacks the etched lines of the 21 mm model so placing the exact coverage of the image captured by the 15 mm lens is a little trial and error.
|21 mm f/4
(2.1 cm f/4)
sought after collectible, the 21 mm f/4 broke the 90°
angle-of-view barrier back in 1959. Its perfectly
symmetric optical design extends deep into the camera
throat to end just a few mm away from the film gate. The
21 mm lens was designed for the S-series cameras and
launched towards the end of the rangewfinder era.
Accordingly, only a few hundreds of these lenses were
produced and today they command steeply elevated prices,
if you are lucky enough to locate one of these rare gems.
The optical design of the RF lens is identical to that of the F-mount lens which soon followed. However, the RF lens is much slimmer because of its different mounting system. It needs a separate viewfinder which is equipped with a shoe to be slid into the camera's hot shoe (on the F and F2, the corresponding viewfinder mounts onto the rewind crank of the camera).
The 21 mm offers superb qualities for shooting into the sun thanks to its symmetric design, and produces images that are quite sharp and having a very pleasant "roundness" of detail - in other words, giving excellent 'bokeh'. For shooting into the sun, the minimum aperture setting f/16 is preferable, but maximum sharpness otherwise is in the f/8-f/11 range.
I used to love my 21 mm and had it permanently "married" to my black Nikon S3, making a perfect setup for unnoticed, discreet photography. However times they are a'changing and another, modern, 21 mm alternative is my current favourite (see below)
|Voigtländer Skopar SC 21 mm f/4||
21 mm non-retrofocus design, one of the many short-lived
surprises to emerge from the Cosina works in Japan, is
beautifully made, has a native "S" bayonet
mount coupling to the rangefinder of any
"S"-series camera, and delivers really
outstanding performance. Even set wide open it is capable
of snappy pictures with good contrast and stopping it
down improves the image quality even further.
The original "S"-mount 21 mm Nikkor never had a 21 mm finder remotely up to the quality of the Skopar's.
What a pity the 21 mm Skopar was discontinued so quickly after a production run of less than 1.000 units. However, you can probably get hold of it for some time yet while the stock lasts (I purchased my sampe brand new in 2006). Go to Stephen Gandy's site for more details on this and other exotic lenses.
|35 mm f/1.8
(3.5 cm f/1.8)
|Preliminary tests show this fast design from the late 1950's to have remarkably good image quality. I will give more details later.|
|35 mm f/2.5
moderately wide-angle lens has survived to current days
as the "normal" lens for the Nikonos cameras.
In common with most rangefinder lenses, it is quite small
and difficult to operate by today's standards due to the
inconvenient size of the lens in conjunction with the
obscure placement of the aperture control within the lens
barrel. It attaches to the camera through the external,
wide bayonet mount, and can be focused either directly by
the lens collar, or from the camera using the focusing
Quite sharp images are delivered in the f/5.6 to f/11 range. Flare is well controlled considered the simple coating, but ghosting might cause some problems under adverse shooting conditions.
|35 mm f/3.5
(3.5 cm f/3.5)
(5 cm f/1.4)
(4 is typical)
several versions of this famous normal lens for the
"S" cameras, and they are capable performers
even by current standards. I've seen quite a bit of
variation in their optical performance, and this in no
way correlates with their production age. Perhaps the
variability reflects the use a lens has seen, because the
rear lens group can become unscrewed quite easily. A good
sample of the 50/1.4 is quite soft wide open, but its
rendition improves when being stopped down and by f/5.6 -
f/8 excellent quality images can be obtained. The central
sharpness is noticeably better than the corners even in
the optimum range, though, so the optical design
certainly shows its age. Flare is quite low considering
only a single-layer coating is used, but ghosting
sometimes can serious interfere with image quality.
The 50 mm mounts into the inner bayonet of the RF cameras and can be conveniently focused with the thumbwheel on the camera itself.
(Millenium model, an "Olympic" replica)
two improved versions of their standard 50 mm design. The
first nicknamed "Olympic" accompanied a special
series of S3 cameras made for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo,
Japan, and was built bigger than the ordinary 50/1.4. The
next series was found on the Millenium celebration series
of S3 camera released in 2000. The "2000" model
differs from the "Olympic" by being
multi-coated and the engraved focal length reads
"mm". Other differences may exist.
In use, the Millenium 50/1.4 delivers very sharp images with high contrast even at f/1.4, and image quality holds up well to f/11 or so. Set the lens to f/4 and enjoy the best quality of any 50 mm normal lens Nikon made for their rangefinder line.
|Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.5 Aspherical||
|Testing in progress|
(5 cm f/2)
|Testing in progress|
(8.5 cm f/2)
|This is the
lens of Korean War fame that made Nikon known to a
word-wide audience, and lay the foundation to the fast
growth of the company and their product lines. It mounts
by the external bayonet and should be focused by rotating
the lens not the thumbwheel on the "S" cameras.
Even compared to today's standards, the 85/2 is a very good performer. Wide open some softness is evident, not surprising, but only a few stops down the lens delivers very sharp and crisp images. Colour fringing is mostly not noticed, so if you want the delicate smooth quality attainable from one of the best lenses of the 1950's, this is your candidate.
(10.5 cm f/2.5)
design incepted in 1953 is the forerunner to the highly
regarded 105 mm f/2.5 for the F-mount Nikons. It is a
very heavy lens thanks to thick lens elements and the
massive focussing helix made of thick brass. The
Sonnar-type design renders convincingly sharp images at
f/4 or smaller apertures, and yields optimum quality for
quite distant scenes. As usual for the bigger RF lenses
it mounts though the external bayonet on the camera and
should be focused directly on the lens, because the
thumbwheel of the camera isn't up to the task of moving
such a massive helicoid.
For such an old lens design, the image quality still is quite remarkable. Flare is easily detrimental to image quality when the lens is used for against-the-light shooting, and ghosting adds to the issue, so some care should be taken under these situations.
(13.5 cm f/3.5)
telephoto design harking back to the late 1940's, the 135
mm can be expected to show its age and certainly is a
little long in the teeth. The image is quite soft with
the lens set wide open, and sometimes strong blue-yellow
fringing is seen. By stopping down to f/8, the image
sharpens up remarkably and the fringing is virtually
gone. Colour saturation is much lower than by today's
standards, so the final impression is of a well-rounded
almost 3-D image with a slightly pastel-like look to it.
Quite attractive in fact, if you find the appropriate
subject to fit the image characteristics of the 135 mm
The 135 mm lens was the longest lens to couple with the rangefinder of the "S"-mount cameras. Most cameras needed a separate viewfinder, either a dedicated 135mm finder or the VariFocal zoom finder (my preference), only the Nikon SP offered a parallax-corrected built-in finder for this lens (the Nikon S4 had a etched frame for this lens, but no parallax correction).
this vintage construction (from 1951) is an
"enlarged" variation over the basic design of
the 135mm lens. It shares the basic properties of that
forerunner, down to the hood which does double service by
holding a Series filter in position.
It must be attached via a mirror box to the rangefinder cameras, making the entire setup incredibly bulky by our standards, plus very slow to operate. On its own the 250 mm lens focuses very smoothly all the way down to 3 m. Together with an "N-F" adapter it can be used on any "F" mount Nikons, including the members of the DSLR generation. Putting this 50 years + optic on a modern camera makes for a spectacular view and provides some food for thought as well. Thus, with the factory-delivered hood attached to it, the 250 mm lens makes a beatiful and pleasing contrast to modern plastic-based lenses.
Enough of external features, can this vintage design deliver any useful results?
Wide open, the image centre is quite sharp with a loss of sharpness towards the corners. On high-contrast motifs you'll notice substantial blue-yellow fringing, too. However, when it is stopped down to f/8 - f/11, the image is very sharp corner to corner and the colour fringing disappears. Again, in common with the 135 mm optic, the image contrast is not very high and colour rendition is gracefully smooth and delicate, making this lens a most viable alternative to modern high-contrast telephotos. That is, if you can locate one of these old-timers, as they were quite scarce even in their own time.
The potential issue with colour fringing at wide apertures, and the less than perfect tripod mount, go together to lower my rating a trifle below the "4" mark.
Last Update 21 January, 2008