Tag Archives: Nikkor LTM

Leica Celebrates The Man Responsible For The Rise of Nikon

Leica-M3D-5-David-Douglas-Duncan-limited-edition-camera-2

On November 28, 2014, 98 year-old David Douglas Duncan spent the evening regaling guests at the Leitz Park Wetzlar with accounts of his fascinating life as a photographer. Wine was imbibed, anecdotes exchanged. A wonderful time was had by all, according to all extant accounts. His visit marked the introduction of a new exclusive Leica M special edition: the M3D ‘David Douglas Duncan’,  the aim to honor the former Life photographer as one of a distinguished group of Leica photographers well as to celebrate 60 Years of M Photography.

The special edition Leica M3D is limited to 16 units.  It is an exact replica of the four M3D’s Leitz created for Duncan in 1959. The original M3D was an M3 designed to use a Leicavit winder. The original M3D became the basis for the Leica MP, which Leitz manufactured in small production runs from 1956, and was specifically aimed at  professional photojournalists.

Leica M3 D

During his career as a Life photographer, Duncan became closely associated with Leica – to the point that they manufactured the original M3D for him. Ironically, Duncan, who used a IIIc throughout his coverage of the Korean War, mounted Nikkor lenses on his Leica, most notably a Nikkor-S.C. 50mm 1.5. Duncan had been introduced to the Nikkor optics on a visit to Tokyo in 1950. His use of the then little-known Japanese optics helped set in motion the wider acceptance of Nikon products and Nikon’s rise to prominence in the 1960’s in conjunction with the slow transformation of the Leica M from a pro’s working tool to what is now a luxury boutique item.

Ducan IIIc

David Douglas Duncan’s Leica IIIc with Nikkor-S.C. 5cm 1.5

*************

In 1950 Duncan visited Japan to take pictures of traditional Japanese arts. While there his assistant, a young Japanese photographer working as a Life stringer, Mr. Jun Miki, took his photograph with an 85mm f2 Nikkor on a Leica IIIf. This candid shot of Duncan by Miki turned out to be one of the most important photographs in the history of Nikon and  Japanese camera makers. Shown the enlarged 8 x 10 photograph, Duncan was astonished at the sharpness and the image quality of the Nikkor and sought to meet with its manufacturer. A meeting was arranged between Duncan and Life photographer Horace Bristol, with the president of Nippon Kogaku, Dr. Masao Nagaoka.  After Nagaoka loaned various Nikkors to Duncan and Bristol for testing, both ended up replacing their personal lenses with Nikkors.

Shortly after, The Korean War commenced, and Duncan shot his iconic war reportage with a Leica…and Nikkors. Duncan used two Leica IIIc, both fitted with Tewe Polyfocus finders and the Nikkor 5cm.  The effect was immediate.  Life cabled Duncan after receiving his first Korean photographs, quizzically inquiring, “Why are you using a plate camera???”  The difference the Nikkors produced was easily seen. The slightly higher contrast range of the Nikkors translated better for newsprint output than the lower contrast of the Leitz optics, yielding better prints for newsprint’s resolution of around 80/120 lines. Within weeks every Life staff photographer passing through Tokyo had bought a set of Nikkor lenses.

Carl Mydans and Hank Walker, two photojournalists covering the Korean War, also purchased Nikkors on Duncan’s advice.  Walker also purchased a Nikon S body. The Korean War took place during a bitter Korean winter, with temperatures routinely below -30 C. While many cameras froze and wouldn’t work, Walker’s new Nikon S worked perfectly throughout and produced the photographs that won the U.S. Camera Prize in 1950. Mydans’ photographs, also using Nikkor optics,  subsequently won the prize as well. On December 10th, 1950 the New York Times featured a full article on the emergence of Nikon’s use in the ranks of professional photojournalists, and Popular Photography soon followed with articles of its own.

Gradually more Korean War era photojournalists shifted to Nikkors, with some using Nikon S bodies in preference to the Leica. Nikon capitalized on its professional popularity by establishing repair support and cleaning services for those with the assignments in Korea, benefiting from the input of those using the Nikon S and lenses in the harsh Korean environment. Not many companies have the luxury of such extensive in-field testing, and Nikon ultimately used these experiences to develop the iconic Nikon F.

Nikon has always been a curious mix of tradition and innovation. Unlike Leitz, they early on recognized the future potential of SLR cameras. Based partly on input from photographers like Duncan using their cameras in the Korean War, Nikon realized that SLR cameras provided advantages not available with rangefinder cameras. In 1955 Nikon  launched a program for the development of SLR cameras in conjunction with the development of SP and S3 as the successors to Nikon S2 (1954). Nikon adopted the same body mechanism as in the SP/S3 to produce the F, employing the layout and geometry of the shutter button, film wind-up lever and other components except for the viewfinder and other parts essential for SLR cameras, with the intent to produce the Nikon F in parallel production with SP and the S3. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Leica M5 Selfie

aaaa--59

 

I love the M5. I have two of them, black and chrome. It’s the camera I cut my teeth on, photographically, all those years ago. Most leicaphiles dismiss it as a stylistic wrong turn. I disagree. The M5 has a beauty all its own. Personally, I prefer the look of the chrome M5, as the chrome compliments the “boxy” styling.

I also love this photo because of its unmistakable film aesthetic: the grain, the tonality, the character. (Tri-X and HC110 and a Nikkor HC 50mm). Film responds differently to light than does a digital sensor. Sensors have a flat linear response to light.  Film has a curved response, typically in a S curve, whereby both ends of the curve, the shadows and highlights, tend to be richer in tonal value than digital. Its these differences that give the unique look to both.

With the maturation of digital capture, the question of film vs digital resolution really doesn’t make sense anymore. Film and digital are two completely different media. Each has it’s strengths and limitations. Digital files can’t be made to look like this, even with extensive tweaking in Silver Efex or other programs that attempt to replicate the film look.

And certainly, no digital camera has the feel of a mechanical Leica. There’s a tactile quality to mechanical film cameras that simply has not, and cannot, be duplicated with digital.

Call me a Luddite.

 

The Leica IIIg: Pleasure of Use As An Aesthetic Experience

aaaa-08413

Above is the camera I probably use more than any other camera I own, and I own a bunch of them. It’s a Leica IIIg 35mm film camera with a Leicavit trigger winder and an external viewfinder to allow the use of the 3.5cm Nikkor lens mounted on it (the native viewfinder only accommodates a 50mm perspective). It needs no batteries because it has no electronics. It is purely mechanical; not even a light meter to suggest proper exposure. Of course, being completely mechanical, it has no automation. You set shutter speed and f-stop, you wind and rewind the film by hand with a knurled knob. To focus you look through one window (the rangefinder) to gain focus and then move your eye to a second window (the viewfinder) to frame your shot.

The question I often ask myself is why? Why do I use this camera so often to the exclusion of newer, “better” cameras (leaving aside the whole issue of why film in a digital age)? Sitting next to it on my shelf is a Nikon F5, the best and most technologically advanced 35mm film camera ever made, or, if it’s a question of preference for a rangefinder camera, a Hexar RF, a metered rangefinder built by Konica in 1999 with auto exposure, auto film wind on and the ability to mount Leica bayonet mount lenses. Yet I rarely use either when I have the choice of picking up the IIIg. And you’ll never find me staring lovingly at the F5 or the Hexar as you will when the IIIg is within my view.

The answer, I presume, is simple, and speaks a lot to part of why I suspect all photographers are drawn to our craft: it is the aesthetic beauty of the photographic instrument itself, and its tactile pleasure in use that I’m drawn to. As a documentary photographer of 40+ years, my mantra has always been that the equipment is irrelevant, simply the means to the end of good photographs. Any camera in the right hands can produce stunning images; the best, most expensive, most technologically advanced camera in the hands of someone without a vision to see will produce inferior photos. But, if I’m honest with myself, that’s really not the full truth. Some cameras CAN make us better at seeing things, and it has nothing to do with what technology they offer. It has to do with how they inspire us to be mindful of what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to do. The IIIg, primitive as it is, is a camera whose very use gives pleasure and is itself aesthetic in nature.

Leonardo Da Vinci called simplicity “the ultimate sophistication.” Certain environments, modes of life, rules of conduct and designs are more conducive to harmony than others. Simplicity of a tool’s design and function, not to be confused with its automation, fosters creativity by allowing a flow to the creative process. And its non-automated operation encourages engagement, thoughtfulness, mindfulness. An automated camera encourages a lazy eye. And, of course, there is the pure aesthetic pleasure of using a thing well built. The old Barnack screw mount Leicas are mechanical jewels, built to last for generations. The IIIg is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Leica screw mount design, and hence the best Leica ever built.

My IIIg was made in 1956. I’m sure I’ll be using it till the day I draw my last breath. By contrast, in 2011 I threw away as junk my first DSLR, a Nikon D100 I bought new in 2003. The D100, like almost all cameras produced today, is a consumer item, used and ultimately used up. The IIIg remains a mechanical jewel, a serious tool built for serious use. Even today.

 

 

Nikon’s W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 – Is This The Best 35mm Wide Angle Ever Made For A Leica?

W Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8

 

In 1956, two years after the introduction of the Nikon S2, Nikon delivered a stunning new 35mm (3.5cm) lens of 7 element 5 group design with a maximum aperture of 1:1.8.  It employed rare earth Lanthanum glass to improve spherical aberration and curvature of field, enhancing both sharpness and image flatness. This Nikon mount lens used a convex shaped rear lens element larger than the front, which minimized the spherical aberration and coma problems usually associated with fast wide angle optics. It was one in a series of excellent fast optics produced by Nikon for their rangefinders, following the 8.5cm 1;1.5 in 1953 and the 5.0cm 1:1.1 in 1956. The 3.5cm 1.8 was Nikon’s shot across Leica’s bow, given Leitz’s preeminence in wide angle design, incorporating the highest technology of the period to produce optics as good, or better than, the Leitz offerings.

The W Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 was met with rapturous reviews by Nikon photographers; almost all rated it superior to the Leitz offerings at the time, and most claimed it better than the f2 Summicron and the 2.8 Summaron both introduced by Leitz 2 years later in 1958.

Given the reception of the Nikon Mount 3.5cm, in 1957 Nikon briefly decided to offer the lens in thread mount for Leica rangefinders. While optically the same as the Nikon mount, the design of the Leica mount model is slightly different. The front element is flat, and the focusing ring is also flat without the scalloped-design on the Nikon S-Mount version. While all LTM copies are coated, Nikon omitted the “C” designation on a few hundred of the latter produced lenses. These non-designated C lenses command premium prices.

W Nikkor35mmf18 LTM

 

While Nikon produced 6500 of the Nikon S mount 3.5cm lens, it produced a very limited run of approximately 1500 of the Leica mount. The LTM W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 exhibits extremely high resolution and high contrast in a lens faster than ƒ2. The actual resolution of this 60 year old lens is nothing short of astonishing. Even more astonishing is, that in contrast to other lenses from that era the W-Nikkor retains this kind of performance over the whole frame.The Nikon lens is so impressively good it took Leica 40 years to match its optical excellence with the $5000 Aspherical Summilux.

The W-Nikkor3.5cm 1.8 Leica mount lens was then, and remains, a rare and much sought after lens, and comes up for sale rather infrequently. If you want to try one on your Leica, if you can find one, you can expect to pay $1600-$2000 for a BGN grade copy, with prices escalating significantly for exceptional copies.

W Nikkor 35

Ironic, then, that maybe the best 35mm focal length lens ever produced for the venerable Leica was made by Nikon.