When Oskar Barnack built the first 35mm film camera, the “Ur-Leica” in 1923, he fitted it with a 5cm f/3.5 Elmax Anastigmat. When the Leica I went into full production a two years later, Leitz fitted it with the same lens but modified it with two as opposed to three cemented elements, and renamed it the “Elmar.” The f/3.5 Elmar is a very sharp lens, even opened up, and helped establish Leica’s reputation for fine optics. There are claims that Leitz had the capabilities to produce an f/2 50mm at this time, but chose not to to insure they offered the finest quality optics for their fledgling 35mm camera system.
For years Leica trailed Zeiss, the acknowledged leader in optical design, in producing high-speed lenses. Already in 1928, Zeiss had released the 50/1.5 Sonnar, a 7-element modified triple with only 6 air-glass surfaces (in an era of uncoated lenses, each uncoated surface reduced light transmission by about 15%, which was why fast lenses were so difficult to produce before the advent of lens coating). In the late 30’s Zeiss introduced vacuum fluoro-coating to the Sonnar, creating the Sonnar T. Starting in 1930, Leitz offered as an alternative to the Elmar it’s first “high-speed” 50, a 5cm f/2.5 Hektor. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, Leitz introduced a 5cm f/2 Summar, a modified Zeiss Planar design which they subsequently improved upon and reintroduced in 1939 as the Summitar. Max Berek, who designed most of the lenses for Leica in the 1930’s, explained that the reason Leitz had not used their own design for their original high-speed 50 was they had wanted to be certain their original offerings met a high standard so as to insure the success of the Leica 35mm camera, and they did not then have the optical expertise to design a clean sheet high speed lens and so chose to borrow Zeiss’s proven Planar design.
Leica produced their first high-speed 50mm in 1936 with the introduction of the Leitz Xenon, an uncoated seven element double Gauss type with ten surfaces (the rear element was split in two). While there is some evidence to support Leica’s claim that the Xenon was a Leitz creation, for patent reasons Leitz sublicensed the design from Schneider, who had themselves licensed the patent design from Taylor, Taylor Hobson (TTH) in Great Britain, agreeing to use Zeiss’s “Xenon” designation for the lens. In the 1949, Leitz began fluoro-coating the Xenon and renamed it the Summarit (however the US Patent still had a few years to run, so you’ll find some early Summarits still carrying the US Patent number). Lens coating, developed in Germany during the war, made a tremendous improvement on the uncoated Xenon, increasing contrast and reducing flare. After the war, Leitz also offered a service to coat existing pre-war lenses, but would not coat the front element because their coating was not sufficiently robust to resist damage with normal cleaning.
While some claim that it was the introduction of fluoro-coating that revolutionized Leitz optics, in reality it was Leitz’s post-war decision to open their own glass research facility in order to reduce their dependence on third parties. But Zeiss remained the leader in high-speed lens design and production into the 60s. While Leitz was busy playing catch-up to Zeiss’s recognized high-speed technical dominance, Japanese camera makers – Nikon and Canon – each started offering versions of the 50/1.5 Sonnar, the 50/1.5 Nikkor, and the 50/1.5 Canon. In 1951 Nikon recomputed the 50/1.5 into the 50/1.4 and set in motion the beginnings of a tectonic shift in public perception and professional acceptance of Japanese optics, a design and manufacturing contest between the German and Japanese producers that continues to this day.
David Douglas Duncan introduced the world to high quality Japanese lenses. Duncan used a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 and Nikkor-QC 13.5cm F4 on his Leica IIIc for most of his photographs taken in Korea. Other photographers took note of the quality of Duncan’s images and word spread about the quality of the Nikkor lenses.
In their December 10, 1950 edition, the New York Times noted the emergence of Nikkor optics amongst professional photographers: “The first postwar camera to attract serious attention in America has caused a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life magazine photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proven superior to the German cameras they had been using. The lenses, which include a full range of focal lengths, give a higher accuracy rating than lenses available for German miniatures.” The article quoted “camera expert” Mitch Bogdanovitch that the Nikkor lenses “are of excellent color correction and perform better at full apertures than do Zeiss lenses.” The President of Carl Zeiss, Inc. USA, subsequently threatened to stop advertising in The Times. The Times ultimately allowed Zeiss to run a statement that the “Zeiss lenses being tested were not true Zeiss lenses.” This was most likely accurate. After World War II, much of the Zeiss machinery that was used to produce precision optics was shipped back to Russia as war reparations. Wholesale lots of optics, optical glass, lens parts, and fixtures were shipped to Russia where they were completed at the KMZ factory. ZK used Zeiss parts for their 5cm F1.5 Sonnars and 5cm F1.5 Jupiter-3’s through the early 1950s.
The iconic Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 remains one of the most obscure of the vintage Nikkors. Nikon originally developed the 5cm F1.5 for use on the Hansa Canon. Two batches of lenses were produced, the “905” batch in May 1949 and the “907” batch in July 1949. After the war, when Nikon needed a super-speed lens to compete with Zeiss and Leitz, Nikon used the 5cm F1.5 as the basis for their now venerable 50mm f1,4. Fewer than 800 1.5 Nikkors were made, about 300 in Leica mount and 500 in S-Mount, before Nikon replaced the F1.5 with the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.4 the following year.
The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 is a Sonnar with seven elements in three groups, although a unique formulation. The Nikkor is made to the Leica 51.6mm focal length standard, and is constructed using different optical glass than the Zeiss optic. The focus mount is an all-brass rigid mount, finished in chrome, and has a close-focus of 18”. It is the first Nikkor lens to feature the close-focus capability, followed by the 5cm F1.4 and rigid-mount 5cm F2. The optical surfaces are all hard-coated. The aperture mechanism does not employ click-stops, while the subsequent F1.4 and rigid F2 lenses of 1950 feature click-stops.
“True” Zeiss lenses in Leica mount were manufactured during the war in small numbers. The 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” made during the war used a “recomputed” optical formula that improved performance compared with the pre-war lenses. The wartime Leica mount Zeiss lenses are not as well made as the Nikkor lenses used by Duncan in Korea. The choice of available materials for the fixtures and focus mount was poor, with lighter, less robust metal alloys used. The design of the Zeiss focus mount for the Leica camera was not well thought out; as an example a set screw through the focus ring serves as the focus stop. Zeiss lenses of the period that saw heavy use often fell out of RF calibration, with the sleeves and helical loosening-up, making the lens unusable.
In post WW2 Germany, Zeiss produced their lenses with what remained behind. Post-war Leica mount “Carl Zeiss Jena” Sonnars can be found that are not in the “official records”, and often have a “one-off” quality about them. These lenses were probably machined using mostly hand-made tools, sometimes were missing parts, and had sub-standard finish on the optics and mechanical fixtures. These lenses were used with many post-war Leica cameras, many bought by serviceman in Occupied Germany. A post-war era Zeiss lens in perfect condition would probably not have withstood the combat conditions faced by Korean era war photographers.
Nikon optimized their post-war rangefinder optics for wide-open use, and the 5cm F1.5 is no exception. Zeiss optimized their lenses for stopped down use and perform best at F2.8. Leitz optimized their lenses for mid-aperture usage, as does Leica even today. Zeiss did not start optimizing their Sonnars for wide-open use until recently.
The 50 f1.4 Nikkor S is the lens most responsible for making Nikon’s reputation in the early 1950s. It was a leap ahead of Zeiss, and certainly, Leitz, in high-speed lens quality. Nikon introduced the Nikkor S-C 5cm f/1.4 in 1951 at a List price of approximately $1,700 in today’s money. First versions were marked “NIKKOR-S C” to denote that the lens was coated. The “C” was dropped in 1957. In 1962, Nikon introduced a longer version with different optics, engraved “50mm” instead of “5cm”, referred to as the Olympic version. Nikon again re-made the larger 50mm lens in 2000 as part of the S3 Millennial set.
Ive always been impressed by the old Nikkor LTM lenses. The 50 f2 and the 35 f1.8 are particularly good vintage users. The 50 has a beautiful classic look, sharp and contrary even wide open. They are plentiful today because so many of them were made for use with amateur cameras (Tower, Nicca). And they are inexpensive – excellent examples can be found for between 200-300$. The 35mm 1.8 LTM is another story, carrying prices of 1700-2500$ depending on the condition. Both of these vintage Nikkors have aged better than similar offerings from Leitz given their harder front coatings.
There also exist a number of Nikkors in Nikon S mount, that heretofore were limited in use to the Nikon S rangefinder series. A beautiful camera, no doubt, but it has its limitations – specifically a rangefinder patch that’s very hard to read except with high contrast edges. The Nikkor S lenses themselves are uniformly excellent.
In 2000, Nikon made the decision to reproduce the S3 with an updated version of the Nikkor 50 1.4 (the “Millennial”). In 2005, they reproduced the SP coupled with an updated Nikkor 35 1.8. Almost all were snapped up by collectors assuming that the prices would appreciate with time. For whatever reason, prices of new, unused kits have currently depreciated by 75%, with early speculators selling S3 kits they bought for $6000 for less than $2000. I recently bought a brand new chrome S3 kit from Japan for $1550.
Throw into the mix the 50 Millennial and the 35 SP remakes with modern multi-coating and the rangefinder Nikkors make an excellent alternative to the uber-expensive Leica offerings.
The irony of the S3 Millenial is that its starting to become popular again because of the lens, not the camera. You can chalk that up to the Amedeo Adaptor. Now, thanks to an enterprising gentleman in Argentina who produces a Nikon S to Leica M adaptor as a labor of love, you can use your S mount lenses on your Leica M, rangefinder coupled, with his Amedeo adaptor. And the adaptor is nothing like the plethora of cheap Chinese adaptors recently appeared on the market allowing use of various lens mounts on mirrorless cameras. The first thing you notice about the Amedeo adaptor is how well-made and tightly toleranced it is. It looks and feels like something that should have the Leica name attached to it. Its focus throw is smooth and firm, and it locks into the M mount with a pronounced click. Extremely nice.
Which leaves us Leicaphiles with wonderful new options for the use of Nikkor S lenses on our M’s. For less than 2k you can buy an unused S3 body with 50 1.4 attached, buy an Amedeo adaptor for $275 and have a 50 1.4 prime lens for your M every bit as sharp and well built as the $5000 Summilux Aspherical. You’ll also have a new Nikon S3 body you can slap a new VC 50 2.5 S on (approx $250-300) and use as a second rig. The S3, itself a worthy competitor to the M3, is, in my opinion, worth the $2000 price alone, as you’re getting the functional equivalent of a brand new M3 throw in “free of charge” when you buy the set for the Millennial Nikkor 50 1.4. And, having not had to spread for the $5000 Summilux, you’ll have almost $3000 in change left over.