The Nikon NIKKOR-S Auto 5cm f/2 Nippon Kogaku Non-AI Lens (Part 1 — I think I'm going to like this...)

*Note: This is a first impression and I’ve had the lens in my possession for less than a day.

As a general rule, modern lenses are really great. Even the third party ones these days are super sharp, coated well, and well corrected from an optical standpoint. Just look at the numerous reviews every time a new lens is released and you’ll see manufacturers constantly smashing previous expectations with ever increasing sharpness, resolution, and overall image quality. Once in a while, however, some of us want a break from all of it. We have all sorts of reasons. Some people will talk about build quality of old lenses, others will talk about the soulfulness of the imperfections, and still others will talk about other things like the infamous “3D Pop”. While vintage lenses certainly tend to render images differently from most modern lenses, I am generally hesitant to wax poetic about them because I think that it’s far too easy for it to become a crutch.

Truth be told, though, sometimes a crutch is exactly what we need. I don’t mean a crutch in the sense of a gimmick that you rely on to replace creativity, but rather a crutch to help you rekindle your passion when you get knocked down. That’s exactly the place I found myself in after my surgery. While I’ve certainly had my moments of reaching for more “exotic” vintage lenses such as some of the venerable lenses from the Former Soviet Union, I really wanted to “rediscover” photography rather than seek out novelty. This is one of the reasons that I opted for a trio of Non-AI Nikon lenses from, the first of which I’ll discuss here.

The NIKKOR-S Auto 5cm f/2 Nippon Kogaku (NPK) was released in 1959 with the original Nikon F SLR camera—arguably the camera that sparked the age of 35mm SLR photography on a wide scale. The original version of the lens had 9 aperture blades, but those are super expensive and mine has a 6-bladed aperture (although there is a “Patent Pend.” mark on the barrel which seems to suggest that it might be a somewhat early model regardless. Overall, the lens had a 5-year run before it was replaced with the NIKKOR-H which had a different optical design (and from what I read, sharper). In short, this lens is one of the OG Nikon F-mount lenses from way back in the day. The popularity of the original Nikon F among photographers of the period means that while the lens produces results that are very familiar for anyone who has seen old photos from the era.

Since I had to sell off my film equipment to help fund the surgery, I am adapting it to my Nikon Z7. While John White of AI Coversions (www.aiconversions.com) notes that these older Non-AI lenses will generally work with Nikon’s FTZ Adapter without issue, I do think that it’s important to note that Nikon specifically states that they are incompatible and they even go so far as to specifically list the NIKKOR-S 5cm f/2 as one of the lenses that will not work. I personally do not see why this would be the case since it doesn’t look like it would damage anything on the adapter, but seeing as I have no desire to risk a $250 adapter to mount a lens that requires zero electronics, I am using a K&F Concept Nikon F to Nikon Z Adapter just to be safe.

The build quality is unsurprisingly top notch. They really didn’t fuck around with the lenses they produced back then. The lens is a hunk of metal and glass with a focus ring that turns very smoothly. My sample came from KEH Camera (www.keh.com) and was rated in EX condition. If you’re ever in the market for a used lens, they are a great resource. Anyway, moving on, the lens is pretty compact as you might expect from an f/2 and has a 52mm filter thread, which is pretty much standard for most of Nikon’s older lenses.

I haven’t had the lens more than a day so I have not been able to take many photos with it yet. I will post a Part 2 when I’ve had more time to thoroughly test the lens, but I’m really liking it so far. Maybe I’m just used to more janky vintage Russian optics, but I’m finding this lens to be surprisingly sharp. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not going to be lighting test charts on fire, but even the wide open shots are serviceable which is a pleasant surprise. Stop down to f/8 and I really can’t bitch about the results—particularly for a ~$100 lens. The colors are nicely saturated as long as you’re not pointing the lens toward a bright light source (like the Sun). Given the lack of modern coatings, you end up with predictable veiling, flare, and loss of contrast when there’s a bright light source. Personally, I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing as it’s just part of the vintage lens experience. This is a tool designed in the late 1950’s and it’s going to have limitations. If you’re going to use a lens like this, you come to understand the limitations and either work around them or work with them.

And now for some obligatory example shots.

©2019 Michael Jin. f/2 and 1/80 at ISO 250.

The above image was cropped slightly (apparently I can’t fucking hold a camera level), has a bit of general exposure correction (+.56), and some standard sharpening for web done in Lightroom. No color correction or curves were applied. The photo was taken using Camera Neutral profile.

©2019 Michael Jin. f/8 and 1/5000 @ ISO 200.

The above image has a bit of general exposure correction (-.35), and some standard sharpening for web done in Lightroom. No color correction or curves were applied. The photo was taken using Camera Neutral profile.

Before one of you looks at the settings and decides to be a dick, I am well aware that I could have lowered my ISO and shutter speed for more dynamic range (not that it actually mattered for this shot) and less noise. I was actually taking photos of my kid in the shaded area when I turned around and decided to snap this real quick so I just kept the ISO where I had it since I was feeling lazy.

©2019 Michael Jin. f/2 and 1/8000 @ ISO 64

So this one had a preset slapped on it (Mastin Labs Portra 160) and had some edits done on top of that. I’m showing this mainly because it’s my favorite shot from the 20-minutes that I’ve used this lens so far and it’s the shot that makes me feel like I’m going to enjoy using it.

From a purely technical standpoint, it’s nothing to write home about. The focus is on one of the traffic cones and the sun directly in the frame is wreaking all sorts of havoc on the image, but I think it’s wreaking havoc in a pleasant way. The transition into the out-of-focus area and the actual rendering of the blur (AKA: bokeh) has a really old school vibe to it which I’m liking.

On a side note, if you’re into film emulation, Mastin Labs makes some really great presets. They don’t offer a billion presets with each bundle like some other companies, but I’ve found that the few presets that you get are really high quality and they do a great job at emulating the overall look of the film stock that the purport to be copying. I’ll have a piece on presets later, but while they get a bad rap with a lot of photographers, I do think that they have their place.

On a bit of a side note, I am going back and forth on sending these lenses in to get AI’d (and maybe even add a CPU). On the one hand, it seems to make sense to make them compatible with more cameras, but on the other, these are little bits of history that I have in my possession. Sure, nobody will likely flip out if I did get them chopped up to fit on AI camera bodies, but deep down inside it feels somewhat wrong to take this thing that has survived for the past 50-60 years and cut away a piece of it regardless of how insignificant they are as historical artifacts.